In this generation of young creatives, musical theater has only a few points of separation
Forget about Kevin Bacon in the movies.
In the new generation of tuner creatives, everyone is less than six degrees away from everyone else.
A small nucleus of young lyricists, composers and book writers are on the verge of taking over musical theater. And unlike generations past, they are all working together in an intense, interlocking network of collaboration the likes of which the theater has never seen. Let’s call it the daisy chain of tuners.
Things kicked off three years ago when Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis won Tonys for their score and book to “Urinetown.” Their follow-up, with Austin Pendleton, is the musical version of “The Man in the White Suit.” Hollmann, in turn, has paired up with Lindsay-Abaire to bring “My Man Godfrey” to the stage.
Then there is the new “Betty Boop” show, which has Lindsay-Abaire teaming with Andrew Lippa, who has finished a first draft of his score for “Jerry Christmas,” which features an original book by Daniel Goldfarb.
Meanwhile, Goldfarb and David Kirshenbaum are writing “Party Come Here” on those days that Kirschenbaum and his “Summer of ’42” collaborator Hunter Foster aren’t fiddling on their “Fearless,” which complicates the situation because Foster has yet to finish a “Bonnie and Clyde” musical with his other co-writer, Rick Crom.
Foster and Crom headlined the original cast of “Urinetown,” and while they’re not onboard to write anything with Hollmann and Kotis, there’s always the possibility they’ll wind up in the as-yet untitled prequel to “Urinetown,” which looks to workshop this summer at the O’Neill Conference.
Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe. It used to be so simple to write a musical.
“Now it’s very incestuous,” admits Kirshenbaum.
“I only get jealous when Andrew Lippa works with Daniel Goldfarb,” cracks Lindsay-Abaire, who is awaiting a composer-lyricist to be named to his “Shrek” project. “Avenue Q” director Jason Moore will helm the green-ogre musical and is already onboard to perform those duties on “Party Come Here,” Goldfarb and Kirshenbaum’s tuner about a honeymoon gone bad in Rio.
Helmers can also really disrupt the careful symmetry of the daisy chain.
“Writers’ schedules are busy, but it is nothing compared to the directors’,” Goldfarb says. “When one says yes, you may have to wait six months.”
Much more than plays, which usually have one author, musicals need a director to pull their many pieces together and shape the structure.
“We’ll meet Jason for lunch on April 8,” says Goldfarb. “We’re thrilled to be one of his six projects, but we are only one of his six.”
Producers sponsor the daisy-chain scribes by putting up developmental money, which means, among other things, they get to pick the director. For the new generation of writing talent, the producers’ helmer lists aren’t known for their great variety. The same names get repeated: Moore, James Lapine, Joe Mantello, John Rando and one or two others.
Creating a musical isn’t all work. There is also an inordinate amount of waiting, and directors are only a small part of the problem.
Hollmann, for example, agreed to write “Soapdish” with Robert Harling, in April 2002. He delivered a song on spec in August 2002. They just signed the contract. The lyricist-composer now waits for paperwork to be completed on “My Man Godfrey,” his project with Lindsay-Abaire.
Hollmann says, “I read that Sunday New York Times profile on David, and I thought, ‘Wow! He is busy.'”
Aside from the composer calling his book writer overbooked, Hollmann and Lindsay-Abaire are sometimes busy looking at their watch as agents handle the arduous task of securing the underlying rights. While they wait, Lindsay-Abaire continues to write plays and Hollmann has two original tuners in the works: the “Urinetown” prequel, with Kotis, and the long-gestating Greek sendup “Wild Goat,” with Jack Helbig.
Tuner meeting grounds
Over the years, many writers have met up and joined forces at the O’Neill Conference or the Sundance Institute. Newer to the tuner-incubator scene is Palo Alto’s TheaterWorks, which for three years has hosted 15 scribes each January.
Unlike O’Neill or Sundance, however, the TheaterWorks retreat is devoted exclusively to creating musicals, and appears to be fertile ground for the 2005 daisy chain.
“Jerry Christmas” and “Party Come Here” were worked on there. This winter, Lippa and Kirshenbaum attended to write separate projects ( “Betty Boop” and “Sing Me a Happy Song,” respectively), neither of which involve Goldfarb.
“I felt my musicals were there, but I wasn’t,” says Goldfarb.
If the simpler Rodgers & Hammerstein approach no longer works, the new generation looks to its own more recent iconic template.
“Cy Coleman was the master collaborator,” says Lippa. “John Kander and Fred Ebb worked with a variety of book writers. So has Stephen Sondheim.”
David Zippel was one of many lyricists with whom Coleman collaborated over the years. The legendary composer gave the tyro lyricist his first big break, with the Larry Gelbart-penned “City of Angels,” in 1989.
“Cy’s method, which I’ve adopted, is to work at several projects at the same time,” says Zippel. “Cy said that you never know what project is going to heat up. You think one musical is the next out of the box, then suddenly a star becomes available for a back-burner project. Or one of your collaborators gets called away to do a movie. You hope all your projects don’t cut together on the same weekend. So far, I’ve been able not to disappointment my collaborators.”
They will be tested in the coming months, however. A generation (or two) ahead of the 2005 daisy chain, Zippel’s many co-workers constitute their own multicollaborator universe, and run the gamut from Coleman and Wendy Wasserstein on “Pamela’s First Musical” (TheaterWorks, spring 2006), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charlotte Jones on “The Woman in White” (Broadway, spring 2006) and Matthew Wilder and Bill and Cheri Steinkellner on “Princesses” (Broadway, fall 2005). Further out into the legit ether are Zippel’s other collaborators: Robert Jess Roth on the Busby Berkley bio-tuner “Buzz!!” and Alan Menken on “Lysistrata: Sex and the City States.” In a rare instance of collaborator consistency for Zippel, Gelbart is book writer on both “Buzz!!” and “Sex.”
“Actually, having many collaborators recharges the batteries,” says Zippel. “And above all, it gives you a chance to miss each other.”