Thursday, June 5, 2014

2014 Interview with Composer Michael Patrick Walker

Musician/composer/lyricist Michael Patrick Walker is world premiering a new musical Dog and Pony at the Old Globe in San Diego. Walker is best known as one of the composers of the hit musical Altar Boyz. He was nominated for a 2005 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and for two 2005 Drama Desk Awards for Best Music and for Best Lyrics for Altar Boyz. The show also won the 2005 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. In our chat he talks in depth about Dog and Pony and working with the cast and creative team at the Old Globe.

What an interesting title! What is Dog and Pony about?

Dog and Pony is the story of Mags and Andy and their work/spouse relationship. They write movies together and have been very successful at it - largely because they click on almost every level - they finish each others' sentences, they are excited and inspired by each other and they know each other - heart and mind - better than anyone else in their lives. It is a musical comedy to be sure and a lot of fun, but it is also about a complicated, real relationship between these two characters and how that relationship affects them and the other people in their lives. As the show begins, we know Mags and Andy no longer work together but as we see the last year in their relationship play out in flashbacks, we see the how, the why and the missed opportunities and then deal with the question of whether they can or will or should work together, be friends again or neither.  

     What kind of music have you composed for it? 

My main goal is always to write music and lyrics that fit the story, the characters and the moment. For me, all those elements are married to one another - and since the lyrics and music often come at the same time, whatever moment I'm composing for in the show dictates what I write.  Dog and Pony has 9 main characters (played by a cast of 5) and I've gotten to know them very well over the few years of writing the show. The style of the score is roughly in the "contemporary musical theatre" category - vague though that term is. There are elements of pop, rock, traditional musical theatre and more in the score but it's not pastiche in that I think the score sounds "of a piece".  As for the lyrics, it is very much an extension of the speaking rhythms and cadences of the characters and the dialogue. I think it all comes together nicely to do what a musical should (and must) do - tell the story and entertain while being both challenging enough and accessible enough to the audience. 
Has it required challenges greater than those you've experienced before?
I wouldn't say "greater than", but there are always challenges. Writing a musical - especially one not based on any source material - is a major challenge. You always have those moments where you have to cut or change something you really, really liked, but it's not right for the show. And as a show evolves over time, things that were exactly right are suddenly in that "cut or change" category a year later.  Beyond that, the small size of the cast is both part of what makes the show unique and fun and a challenge when it comes to writing the score.  Both in terms of structuring the show so there is variety for the audience and in finding things that these characters would all sing about together. There is no "bring on the ensemble and do a big 'Shipoopi'-esque dance number" - even if we wanted to and could, that's not our show.

How has it been working with Rick Elice? Have you found your collaborations fruitful? 
Rick has been a fantastic collaborator and I've enjoyed writing the show with him immensely. What's been especially rewarding and beneficial is that, while we each have our own elements to write (Rick, the book and me, the music and lyrics), we're both the kind of writers who insist on getting together and talking out new or changing moments and working them out together first. From a tiny beat to the entire arc of the show's story, we'll talk it through, bounce ideas off each other and come up with something we're both on board with and excited by. That is key to creating and writing a show where the lyrical voices and the speaking voices of the characters are in line with each other. There's also a lot that Rick and I have in common that makes us click in that personal/professional way that makes a collaboration spark. We're different ages, we grew up in very different situations (him in New York City, I in rural Pennsylvania) and many other differences, but somehow we ended up as pretty similar people in the ways that matter and make us strong collaborators.
 Talk a little about the cast and creative team.
The cast and creative team for our premiere production is fantastic and it's been a tremendous bit of luck (and a lot of planning!) to have them all on board and bringing the show to life.  Our director, Roger Rees, brings a sensibility and creativity that is crucial to the show - especially as the Globe staging is in the round which, for a musical comedy, is a particularly difficult challenge.  Thankfully, Roger and the designers have met it beautifully and I'm thrilled how well the show works in this setting.  

The cast - Nicole Parker, Jon Patrick Walker, Heidi Blickenstaff, Beth Leavel and Eric William Morris - are all creative, hard-working, thinking actors which is exactly what you want and need putting a brand new musical on its feet for the first time. There is no frame of reference or "in the past we've done it this way" guideline. It's the kind of things that is very exciting to work on and to do, but you need the right actors who are ready and willing and able to take on that kind of challenge - thankfully, we have that in spades!  I can't say enough good things about what they brought to the table and how much that work is paying off and I'm extremely proud of and pleased with all of them.  

There are many other people on the team who are huge part of the show, but I'd be remiss if I didn't give special mention to the brilliant Larry Hochman, my orchestrator for the show.  The value and importance of how he takes the time to understand the entire show and what I'm going for with the score before expanding and making it come alive in three musical dimensions is huge!  
What is your favorite musical of all time? Why is it your favorite? 
It's really hard to pick one - especially with so many shows, from the classics to the brand new, being so amazing. The best I can do is telling you about my favorite TWO musicals of all time in terms of the shows that had the most personal and creative influence on me. In no particular order, they are Sondheim's Into the Woods and Bill Finn's Falsettos. Both of these writers and shows, in different ways, are the epitome of what I strive for in terms of story-telling through music and lyrics. My style is different from both of them, but I was and am deeply influenced by their work.  So many wonderful melodies and turns of lyrical phrase - plus the story and themes of these specific shows speak to me and resonate with me very deeply.

 What is a favorite of the ones you've penned?  

Well, now we really are dealing with a Sophie's Choice situation!  I love each of "my children" equally of course - and each in different ways.  Right now I'm particularly focused on Dog and Pony as we premiere and hone it so it's definitely foremost in my mind, but if I picked one over the others, I'm afraid I'd have nightmares where characters from my shows did unspeakable things to me!

I understand you have a new CD Out of Context. Tell us about it.
 Like every composer, I have a my trunk songs (songs that have been cut from shows during the writing process), and I've wanted to do an album of them for a while now, but I wasn't sure how to present songs from different shows when my lyrics tend to be very specific to the situation.  When I finally had some time to devote to really making it happen, I pitched the idea to Michael Croiter at Yellow Sound Label and he literally said "let's do it" immediately.  So I began to sift through my trunk, my stand-alone songs and other random tidbits that, for the most part, have never been recorded while trying to figure out how to present them out of context from the shows and moments for which they were originally written.  Once I embraced the phrase  and idea of "out of context", the album really started to come together - but not without a lot of help from many of my friends and colleagues - actors and musicians who jumped on board as readily and with as much excitement as the Label.  

The final product is a CD I'm immensely proud of and has amazing performance of 13 songs by Kelli O'Hara, Andy Karl, Telly Leung and Michael Arden, Lisa Howard, Anne L. Nathan, Cheyenne Jackson, Rachel York, Andy Mientus, Noah Galvin, Kate Wetherhead, Peter Friedman, Jim Stanek, Kerry O'Malley and Natalie Venetia Belcon.  Twelve of the thirteen tracks have never been recorded before, but I couldn't resist ending the CD with a re-imagined version of "I Believe" from Altar Boyz.  That show and that song meant and mean so much to it and to have Cheyenne Jackson record it - well, the chance was too good to pass up.  It's a completely different take on the song so while it's still true to the original meaning, it is still "out of context". The CD is available on Amazon and on iTunes!
Anything else you care to mention?
All I'd add is that, if you're looking for a new, original musical that's funny, moving and being performed by a fantastic group of actors, then please head over to The Old Globe and catch Dog and Pony - playing until at least June 29th...and possibly beyond!

Dog and Pony plays at the Sheryl & Harvey White Theatre of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego through June 29. 

and for more on Michael Patrick Walker, visit:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

2014 Interview - French Stewart

Actor French Stewart will repeat his role as Buster Keaton in Stoneface, written by his wife Vanessa Claire Stewart, at the Pasadena Playhouse beginning June 3. The play will costar Daisy Eagan. Stewart, best known to TV audiences for 3rd Rock from the Sun, the middle and other sitcoms is a wonderful dramatic actor, and as Buster Keaton in Stoneface, which sold out houses for months at Sacred Fools Theatre in 2012, he just shines.

Tell us about Stoneface, what it tells about Buster Keaton's life and what this role means to you.

The main thing that we wanted to do was to show him, the best and the worst, just bumps and all, his actual life. We spent a lot of time with his family. They were worried that it would just be another version of...just Buster Keaton.

Who does his family consist of at this point?

Grandchildren; it's sort of an extended bunch...they're very protective and we've gotten to be very close with them. We didn't move away from any of the hard parts about his life, but we were fair about them. That's all they (family) really wanted. I had always wanted to play Buster Keaton, and my wife (Vanessa Claire Stewart) is a wonderful playwright.

And she also plays a wonderful Keely Smith (in her Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara) too.

And she's the shyest person you've ever met. She just bangs out a great work of art. (we laugh) I was worried that I was just too old to do the tricks, and she said "Well, play the drum's metal part" and then she just wrote it for me. It's been a wonderful thing and taking it from the Sacred Fools, which is our sort of little home theatre...

It was brilliant there. I loved the whole execution of the play. Watching it was like watching a silent movie; it was so beautifully done.

Thank you so much. Taking it to Pasadena, we want to...

Let's talk about that later. First, I want you to tell me more about the challenges of creating Buster Keaton., his personal life as well as his career.
The challenge for me is that...we wanted the show to be full of...(pause) There's a lot of physical danger in it; we do a lot of physical stuff. When we drop the house, you know, if I'm not in the right spot...I actually get pounded into the ground. It's an actual threat, and we're going to drop a much bigger house at Pasadena. We wanted to take physical chances and emotional chances and just lay it all out there. It's very physically demanding, and this is the first time I'll have to be doing two of them in a day.

OK, how will it translate to the bigger venue of the Pasadena Playhouse stage?  

The theatre is so dramatically different, and so much larger, so it's got to change. We want to keep the handmade charm of the smaller show and just blow it up for a larger venue.

Has Vanessa made any changes to the script?

Yeah. There were certain things we wanted to tighten up, We've got a new cast member, Daisy Eagan; she's just wonderful. We're just trying to do a better version of it. Clean up some things in the script that weren't working, and we'll have a chance to clean up certain acting things that weren't working...

Can you mention any changes without giving too much away?

A lot of it has been in language nuance. We've also added another scene where you get to see a younger Buster Keaton act his best. We felt like we leaned pretty heavy on his hardest, and we really wanted to be able to see him at his best. We've also added a little bit more Chaplin stuff. But, most of it's nuance.

Is this your greatest role to date?

I feel like it is. I feel like it's the one that's most important to me. On TV, I'm mostly going to be just a goofball. That's fine...but on stage people know me differently. I'm able to do anything. The role is a good use of me and my physicality, and I get to show some emotional range.

How do you feel about Voice Lessons?

It might be my favorite. It's such a weird little punk song. (laughs) An hour and fifteen minutes of just mayhem. I think it's Laurie Metcalf at her best. It's so great to play straight man to Laurie Metcalf.

Your reactions to her were priceless.

(laughs) I'm really proud of it. It's one of those things we've never quite figured out what to do with. You can't really take it to Broadway. Off-Broadway, maybe.

It would work Off-Broadway!

Nobody's ever complained about a show being too short. I sure haven't. I like to go in, sit down and have an hour fifteen of just craziness and then go have some drinks. It says what it says; it's not King Lear. Every now and then we pull it out. We tried to do it a couple of months ago, but because of schedules...Laurie's doing Broadway... anyway, I just love that show. It's my friends' favorite.

I saw you do The Nerd a few years back at the Colony. But that's closer to the schtic you've done on television, don't you think?

It was clearly kind of a big house commercial thing. That play is what it is. I remember seeing it when I was young and thinking it was delightful. But then the first thing you realize about doing it, is that it's really dated.
And you have to embrace that. If you don't embrace the fact that you're showing a snapshot of time in the theatre, then you're going to kill yourself, because you're going to try to make something relevant that might not be. It was really just a matter of recreating a snapshot, big dopey fun.

Talk a little about 3rd Rock.

I have a lot of gratitude for having had that in my life. It was really joyous from beginning to end. A lot of theatre people getting together and cranking out a one-act play every week. Just like smart/stupid. You do plays and then you get this show and suddenly you're going on Oprah! and meeting the President and going on The Tonight Show. It changes your life's given me everything.

You worked with some great people. John Lithgow!

The main thing was that Lithgow is such a gentleman.I only saw him get angry maybe once; the rest of the time it was just steady, steady, steady. If your leader is steady, you're fine. It's the same thing in Mom. 

Anna Faris is a nice person and she leads by just doing her job well. She and Allison Janney got along great; no girl on girl violence! (we laugh) It's been very joyful and it's going to be nice to come back again. If you ever get the chance to work with someone like Chuck Lorre (producer), he understands the venue; he knows how to do it. He's very efficient. It's been  like going back to college in  a way; you learn somebody else's way of doing things and you grow by it. It's fun. It's been nice. I've got a ten-month old baby and I want to be in town. I've always found what I want in the theatre and occasionally I can find it on TV. I've always made my living doing that and I'm very grateful.

Stoneface. What are the plans? To take it on the road?

Yeah. My wife and I are invested in it. We're building it. We'll own the set; we'll own the design. Our plan is to move it maybe off-Broadway and then Broadway. Just build it and make it as big as possible. I'm usually pretty honest with myself...what I'm in, whether it's pretty good or not. This one I just feel it. I'm very proud of it. The sharper and finer we can get it, the better it will be.

Catch the very talented French Stewart in the performance of his career as Buster Keaton in Stoneface at the Pasadena Playhouse June 3 - 29!