Jun 5, 2008

A Little Light Music

I had the pleasure recently to sit and chat with Charles Strouse, the composer of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, who turns 80 this year (there are a number of events to commemorate the milestone: a memoir titled Put On a Happy Face, an Annie-versary cast album re-release and much more). I wrote up the interview for TDF, but I also want to share our free-ranging conversation here in full--not least because Charles was gracious enough to include me in the conversation. We sat in his poster-lined office, facing the piano where all the magic happens. We started talking about his next Broadway show, Minksy's, and an hour later had touched on adoption, Aaron Copland, Star Wars, Berlioz, Billy Corgan, Spiderman, and Spring Awakening. Enjoy!

Rob Kendt: Tell me about Minsky’s--it wasn’t quite a musical film, but you and Lee Adams did the songs for it. Now it’s going to be a full-on Broadway musical. How did this come about?

Charles Strouse: It has a long and winding history. First there was a book, and then Norman Lear made a movie out of it, and in the movie, Lee Adams and I did the songs, and I did the background score. And then a director--an English director, of all things, by the name of Mike Ockrent--came across the book, not the movie, and in a roundabout way asked me to do the music for it. Actually, it was Richard Maltby whom he asked first to do the lyrics, and Richard asked me. Though Lee would be the obvious choice, Richard offered me the job. But then Richard Maltby quit because he said he couldn’t write that kind of humor. And Mike Ockrent asked Susan Birkenhead, with whom I’d never worked, on his own. I felt very strange about it, because I’d never worked with Susan, but Mike, being English, decided this. Lee was mild on the idea in any case, and so that’s how it happened.

Rob: Since then Mike Ockrent died, and Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone) is now directing. But Lee Adams is still your default collaborator.

Charles: Well, he’s my best friend. We’ve been through everything together. I do more than he does. He’s the hardest worker in the world, but he likes to rest, and he’s kind of had it with the theatre.

Rob: I’ve read you’re also working on An American Tragedy with Lee.

Charles: I did a lot of the lyrics; I would say almost more than half.

Rob: I have two personal connections to your work that I wanted to mention: I played Mr. Macafee in Bye Bye Birdie in high school--Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., in about 1985. Of course, I had wanted to play Albert Peterson…

Charles: Yeah, you’re more of a Peterson type.

Rob: The other connection is that I’m adopted--happily adopted, in fact, but still, that song “Maybe,” from Annie, where she imagines her parents, always got me when I was a kid.

Charles: Really? How interesting. My sister was adopted.

Rob: I recently met my birth mother, in fact. I was happily adopted, but I had some curiosity about it.

Charles: Is it as profound a thing as some people make it out to be?

Rob: It can be--and it was, to meet the woman who bore me.

Charles: Do you mind talking about it?

Rob: No, not at all.

Charles: I mean, who was she, as far as you’re concerned?

Rob: Adoption was sort of a little box in my life that I wanted to check off--it wasn’t a big, gaping empty hole. She’s a nice lady, and I’ve got a couple of half-brothers. And my birth father, whom she barely knew, played piano.

Charles: My sister was not at all curious at a point. We even had the opportunity to meet her birth father--in fact, we passed him in the street, and she didn’t want to see him.

Rob: My adoptive mother died about 7 years ago, so I wanted to do it before I or my birth mother got too old. Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so off topic.

Charles: No, it’s something that, because of my sister, I have a lot of feeling for.

Rob: You studied classically with Nadia Boulanger and Aaron Copland. At what point did you decide you wanted to write for the stage?

Charles: There was a very neat turning-off point. One dreary summer I won a fellowship to the McDowall Colony, where I was going to work on a big piece I'd started, and at the same time I was playing for dance classes. One of the members of the class asked me to be choreographic pianist at a summer resort called Green Mansions in the Adirondacks. It was like a fantasy--all those beautiful girls--and it was a switch from living alone in a room, so I said yes.

If anything was a turning point in my life, that was. We did new revues every week. We had to write new songs, sketches. We would do a Spanish ballet one week, then a hillbilly thing the next--it was awful work, but I loved the atmosphere. My whole life turned around on that.

Rob: Did you feel you had to overcome a perceived barrier between classical concert music and music for the theatre?

Charles: I think so, and maybe in a way it's still a problem, but it's not one that haunts me anymore. I have a talent for light music. Every once in a while, particularly when I was doing films, when I got a chance work with orchestras, it did seem like a thing that was going to split my life. But I’ve written piano concertos, quartets, song cycles and things. Many of them are left over from my serious music days, which followed my studies at Eastman. So I would say there’s a conflict, but right now, I’ve been lucky and managed to fit it all in.

Rob: You’ve made space for it.

Charles: I have made space for it. It doesn’t haunt me. But when I’m working on a pop show, I still have a tendency to do a three-against-two rhythm, or a counterpoint that interests me almost as much as the melody, and directors sometimes think, “What is that?”

Rob: They want you to simplify it. And when you have a gift for melody, as you do, why fight it?

Charles: I guess I do. I thought for years it was luck.

Rob: Well, I’m a big fan of Sondheim, but I think he’s wrong about melody--he’s said that music is all about harmonic structures, and it doesn’t matter so much what notes you stick on top, and that melodies only stick with us through repetition. But I think there’s something innate and inviolable about a good melody, don’t you?

Charles: I do, and I didn’t know Stephen felt that way. We’re old friends, and I knew that he had--and as far as I know still has--a preoccupation with stretching limits and being different. I think every composer has that to a certain degree. I just saw the other night, for the second time, Sunday in the Park With George, which I think has some great music in it, and some not so great. He studied with Milton Babbitt, a mutual friend of ours.

Rob: You studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who taught everyone from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass, and what I’ve heard about her is that she encouraged each composer to find his authentic voice.

Charles: She did indeed. She was like a psychiatrist; she insisted on hearing everything I’d ever written. I said, “Well, I think I’ve played you all of it.” And she said, “No, go back--go back further.” She made me go back until I was seven or eight years old, when I used to dawdle at the piano, and actually wrote a song when my brother got out of the Navy, called, “Welcome Home, Able-Bodied Seaman Strouse.” She said, “Play that.” And she made me find other things; I liked a girl in the neighborhood, and I wrote a song called “Moon Over 83rd Street.” She listened to the whole thing. She did get a sense, and told me about it, that I had a gift for light music. It was something I was ashamed of at Eastman, because everybody there was ultra-serious.

Rob: I don’t know if you’ve read The Rest Is Noise, about the history of 20th century music.

Charles: No, I read a review and it interested me very much. Tell me more about it.

Rob: It’s by Alex Ross, the music writer for The New Yorker. It starts with the premiere of Salome up to John Adams and Philip Glass, and covers the conflicts over serialism and totalitarianism.

Charles: There’s too much written about art in general, and music in particular. I just finished writing a book, and it is so tempting to write one’s inner thoughts about what music should do and be, and even here we are discussing about Steve Sondheim--I touch on that. But composers and critics just talk and talk about music.

Rob: Is it all hot air?

Charles: To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer. I heard for maybe the third or fourth time in my life a piece that is greatly admired by everyone, and I thought I knew it--the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz. I heard it again in a live performance, and I said, “This is magnificent. What a piece this is.” And I happened to have a book of criticism, and Schumann, who was a critic of his day as well as a composer, wrote a treatise on Symphonie Fantastique that analyzed every chord. But even Schumann admitted that until you heard it, it was hard to say what the analysis was really about.

Rob: What is music about, indeed?

Charles: When you’re learning music, it’s about a great deal, because you see, “Wow, that note can flatten and become diminished and go somewhere else.” But the profundity and the length of music criticism, even in the local papers--it’s shattering.

Rob: You auditioned to get the job of writing Bye Bye Birdie, right?

Charles: Not so much, because the producer, Ed Padula--a new producer, he was a non-producer at the time--heard some of our stuff in The Shoestring Revue and liked it. I was playing rehearsal piano for a show called Saratoga, and he was the stage manager, and--everyone used to call me Buddy--he leaned over the pit one day and said, “Buddy, somebody tells me you’re a composer, too.” I said, “Oh, yeah,” and he said he had an idea for a musical. We had lunch, and it stemmed from that.

Rob: Like a lot of writers for musical theatre, you've adapted shows from films, comic strips, books, etc., but your first big hit, Birdie, was an original musical.

Charles: Yeah, there are very few originals. Well, that’s to the credit of Mike Stewart, who wrote the book. I mean, the idea of doing a teenage musical, which was kind of radical in a sense, was Ed Padula’s, but the idea of a rock singer was Lee’s and Mike’s and mine, in a sense--we’d been writing special material for a guy by the name of Dick Shawn, and Dick did an Elvis impersonation, so we kind of fit that in.

Rob: I knew there was an Elvis parody intended with Conrad Birdie, as well as a joke on Conway Twitty’s name. But in real life, of course, Elvis had much better manners than Conrad Birdie.

Charles: Oh, yeah, it was a total takeoff on the way adults look at rock stars being morons.

Rob: Speaking of Birdie, I heard a story that Carol Haney was originally going to play the part of Rosie, later played by Chita Rivera, and that her character was originally Polish. So was there a song called “Polish Rose” that you had to change to “Spanish Rose”?

Charles: It was more than a song. Originally, when the story was written by Lee and Mike and me, the girl, Rosie, was Polish, and every joke that the mother made was about Poles, which actually was kind of fashionably unfashionable then--there were all kinds of dumb Polish jokes. And Carol got sick; she was kind of a bad luck girl--a wonderful performer who had a certain lack of stability in her life. The first day that Lee and Gower Champion and Mike came down to her apartment to hear her sing--I had taught her about four songs--she suddenly lost her voice. And we all sat around for about a half hour, until it became embarrassing, because everybody knew there was a problem we couldn’t possibly touch at that moment. I remember Gower saying, “We’ll talk later,” and we all knew that wasn’t going to happen.

We were all good friends, me particularly, with Chita, because she was in Shoestring Revue, and she could do everything, and somebody--I can’t remember who, I like to think it was me, but it could have been Mike--somebody said, “What about Chita, and what about making Rosie Spanish?” Luckily, we turned to an ethnic group that was much more in the news, and we found out that by changing every line that said “Polish” to “Spanish,” we were much hipper.

Rob: Do you get very involved in revivals, or in rewriting shows when they’re revived?

Charles: No. I would say there’s an exception, and that’s a show called Rags that I wrote with Stephen Schwartz and Joe Stein. It’s a show that we’ve always admired, and always thought we were about to beat it. We didn’t beat it with the New York critics, but there’s still a flame burning in us to get it into another shape.

Rob: It’s a lovely show.

Charles: Thank you. It’s one of our favorite scores. I think Stephen wrote the best lyrics, and Joe a magnificent book.

Rob: I saw it in L.A. years ago in a small theatre, the Colony, so I think of it as a small show. I suppose it could work on a bigger scale.

Charles: It was bigger initially, but somehow it works better as a little show. I’ll tell you something--you’re not a composer, are you?

Rob: I am, actually. I’m the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop.

Charles: Oh, well, don’t read my book--I take a knock at the workshop, but nothing serious. Well, being a composer, if you’ve never had anything done in New York, when you do, you’ll find out, it’s terribly unforgiving. You write a success, you’re like a success the rest of your life; you gain a wonderful reputation and fame and money. And the reverse is true if you fail--generally.

Rob: Well, you’ve had extraordinary successes, and you’ve had shows that didn’t make it past opening night. After so many years and shows, can you tell what makes something work, and what makes something falter?

Charles: Are you single?

Rob: Engaged.

Charles: Not that it has anything to do with what I’m going to say, but the best way to explain the success or failure of a show is in terms of marriage. People always say, what comes first, the words or the music? It’s the same thing with a relationship. It took me and my wife years to really carve out a loving relationship. With Lee Adams, we were able to--because of his personality, I’m very forceful in some ways, he’s very yielding in other ways; I’m very guilt-stricken in some ways, and he has no sense of guilt—so we were able to hammer out a relationship which worked for us.

It’s the same thing with the songs. Why a certain show fails has to do with egos and intelligence, of course, and love. Maybe it sounds pretentious, but sometimes you’re all loving the same thing and loving each other, and so when you do and you give to the other person, you get the best work out of them. That’s what I’ve found in the things that have worked for me. And with the ones that didn’t work, I take blame, too, but it was usually that the relationship wasn’t right.

Rob: Obviously, you couldn’t make the generalization that comic books would never work onstage after your Superman show flopped, because then you had a success with Annie.

Charles: Well, it’s a different kind of comic, and at a different time. And I’ve always thought, as good as Annie is, in my opinion we also came at a very good time in our country’s history. Carter had just taken over from Nixon, and very importantly, Mike Nichols, who is always considered a bright diamond among theatre people, liked the show, so I insisted that it said, “Mike Nichols Presents”--he didn’t produce it, but it gave us a great intellectual base. Superman didn’t have that when we did it in 1966, and then Batman went on television and kind of cheapened the whole superhero thing.

Rob: There’s a Spiderman musical in the works, you know…

Charles: Good luck!

Rob: I read somewhere that you and Lee worked on a Star Wars musical. Is that true?

Charles: We started one. We were asked to do it by the original producer, George Lucas. First of all, we were given a 90-page contract with his company, and my lawyer discovered a phrase in there which gave Lucas the right to say, “I don’t want to go on,” so we pulled out, but Lucas gave us extra money--I remember the sum, it was $10,000--to sign. And so we wrote around five songs, when indeed he did call the contract. He never heard the songs, as far as I know. He decided he was going to do the sequels instead.

Rob: Have any of those Star Wars songs ever resurfaced in any other shows?

Charles: We use one of the songs, “My Star,” in Marty. I tend to circulate music.

Rob: Just the music?

Charles: In this particular case, it’s the lyric and the music, because it’s about a faraway star, and Marty has this kind of dream memory of something his father used to say when he was younger, about a star that would watch over him. It’s a very effective song, and the meaning is different, but the song serves.

Rob: I know Marty had an out-of-town tryout in 2002. Is there still a plan to bring it to Broadway?

Charles: There is; they’re lacking money. It’s one of those age-old stories which I know you’ll face at one point with a show. It’s always been bad, but to round up the kind of money you need today, even for Off-Broadway, you need an angel, or a very rich, dumb uncle.

Rob: You started in what is now thought of as a Golden Age for musicals, the 1950s and early ’60s. Did it seem like that at the time, and has it felt like a decline since then?

Charles: I don’t know. I just wrote to a couple of friends of mind who are in the old age home in Jersey, the actors’ home, and I told them, I had a better feeling then. But you know, I’m going to be 80 in June—which seems crazy, I was 17 about a week ago, or so it seems. But it does seem like there’s a lot of shit around. I don’t know whether it’s me just getting impatient. I mean, I’m not a rock composer, though Birdie had rock in it. I wouldn’t mind writing a rock musical, but I don’t have those thoughts necessarily.

Rob: You mean it’s not what you get up in the morning and want to go the piano and play?

Charles: It’s that I don’t have that outlook on life--the kind when these people go to a rock concert, thousands of them, and it’s going (he imitates a thumping beat) before the band even comes out, and these kids start waving their hands. I wonder, what is that? Girls of my generation used to go to hear Sinatra at the Paramount, and it was just blind adoration, but there was a sexual thing--I guess they all wanted to fuck him, though he was a skinny guy.

Rob: I think a lot of that does come from the hormonal energy of the teens and 20s.

Charles: You think they really want to screw the Byrds or the Smashing Pumpkins or whatever?

Rob: It’s funny you should mention the Smashing Pumpkins, because I once read Billy Corgan say in an interview that when he passed 30, a lot of that rock ’n’ roll urgency kind of left him.

Charles: But a lot of them do keep going--the Stones.

Rob: I’m just not sure that youthful sexual energy has much to do with theatrical expression--at least, it’s hard to make a rock song work like a showtune.

Charles: Well, I loved Spring Awakening. It told a wonderful story. As soon as the rock hit me, I said, “Wait a second, this is the 19th century…” But then I gave up on that idea, and I liked it. So I don’t know. Certainly, the way you dance to rock, the way you make love to it--it’s a different thing. I've had a show, Annie, where all the kids flocked to it. Now I pass Spring Awakening, and even The Little Mermaid, which is not to me a terrific show, but kids love it. It's a wonderful audience to have.

Rob: You’ve tried on a lot different musical voices over the years. Do you feel that you’ve been sort of a chameleon as a composer, or is there an identifiable Charles Strouse sound?

Charles: Oh, I think I’ve been a chameleon. I also feel--though I read in the science section about a month ago that practically everybody feels this way--that I’m fooling the world. I feel very strongly that I’ve fooled everybody.

Rob: That you got away with something?

Charles: Right. Other people say it’s talent, and I don’t know, because the business of composing, as you know, is very difficult. So, between you and me, I ascribe it to luck.

Rob: Well, there’s luck, and then there’s taking advantage of it. It’s still a lot of hard work.

Charles: It’s definitely working hard. I’ve had teachers pound into me to write 20 measures a week--just write the 20 measures, forget about how good it is. Aaron used to always say: “You’re a composer, not a critic. Write it; get it down.” What comes out of that can be shit, but it can also be you, and sometimes, if you capture that, people can recognize your spirit or talent or whatever. But it’s a tough road.

Rob: If you got up tomorrow and had no assignments or jobs, what would you sit down and play? What’s the music you love and gravitate toward?

Charles: Well, I started an opera about four years ago. I’ve done a couple of operas. One is called Nightingale. This new one is really weird. And then Minksy’s came along, and then my wife [Barbara Siman], who’s a director and a playwright and a choreographer, she’s doing a thing now and she asked me to write a couple of songs for it. And then there’s a musical that I started seven years ago, and it was done, oddly enough, by Oskar Eustis in Delaware, and I’ve always thought there’s a nub of an idea in there, but I can’t lick it. It’s about a musician--it’s very biographical, it’s not autobiographical.

Rob: Are you encouraged by the success of things like Drowsy Chaperone and Curtains, which are seen as sort of old-fashioned musicals?

Charles: Well, Drowsy Chaperone and Curtains are two different animals. Curtains didn’t move me in any direction that I wanted to go.

Rob: Apart from what you thought of those shows, I just mean in terms of the business--is it encouraging to see classic-style musicals succeed on Broadway?

Charles: I think I’d be lying if I said I was totally oblivious of what makes a success. There are certain critics, like Brantley and Isherwood, who make it perfectly clear that they want something on the “edge,” a word I’ve started to dread. I don’t know whether it’s me growing older, or me wanting to bask in somebody’s adulation. It’s very attractive to please an audience.

Rob: So if someone came up to you and asked you to write a hip-hop musical, what would you say?

Charles: I think I would try and get myself into that world, and in getting in the world, I think I would hear the characters’ heartbeat to an extent. I mean, I think it’s my business to do that. But I don’t think anybody would come to me for that; I haven’t written a big song for Whitney Houston or Jay-Z--well, I did write a big song for Jay-Z.

Rob: Inadvertently.

Charles: Inadvertently--that was weird. But now that you ask the question, if somebody came to me and said, “We have a story about a neighborhood in New York where everyone is Latino and a girl goes to college,” I would research it. I mean, I didn’t know anything about rock ’n’ roll when we wrote Birdie; I went to the music library and I listened to Fats Domino, and I listened to Presley a lot.

Rob: Galt McDermot told me he hadn’t much listened to rock, either, when he wrote Hair.

Charles: Yeah, he’s basically a jazz guy. So I’d like to think that somebody would say of me or you that we’re smart enough and sensitive enough that we’re not going to write a Viennese waltz for a kid who lost his brother in a razor fight--or if we did, it would have a meaning well beyond what the usual guy would think of.

Along those lines, a friend of mine asked me to work on a musical, and he was in love with the songs of a woman called Pink, do you know her?

Rob: Yes.

Charles: I’d never heard of her, but he gave me albums of hers, and I listened them. I certainly heard what she was getting at, but we never got it going, because I just couldn’t or didn’t want get myself to sound exactly like Pink. He didn’t like what I wrote. I don’t blame him, because I think I was trying to be somebody else.

I should ask you the same question: If you’re given a scene or a play that’s about creatures from another planet or something, what do you do? Do you go to the synthesizer?

Rob: A lot of it’s about what language the audience understands.

Charles: That, too. It’s a tough problem, because it’s the commercial theatre. You don’t get the luxury of writing for an erudite, select kind of audience that understands the technique. I mean, that’s what made Broadway--a lot of businessmen. I don’t get it.

Rob: You say you don’t get it, but you’ve done pretty well by it.

Charles: I’ve been fortunate, I really believe.


Travis Bedard said...

Rob, this is really wonderful. Thanks for sharing this.

Michael V. Ficocelli said...

I can see this interview was given many years ago but thanks both to Rob and Charles for the insight. I too am a composer who studied under Maury Yeston at the BMI workshop around that time. I have on my shelf a full length musical entitled, SO BIG, with music, lyrics and libretto written by me and Will Holt. Will, who has now passed was neighbor to and good friend to Charles. A matter of fact, Charles came to our first reading in Mount Kisco, NY. He was very complimentary of the score which made me very happy. I'm presently music directing Bye Bye Birdie for a community theatre and every time I 'revisit the score, I'm in awe of Charles' craft.- Michael V. Ficocelli