From as young as I can remember, I just loved it. Simple as that. This motivated me to try to replicate on the piano songs that I heard on the radio. I started playing piano when I was eight. I really liked Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Journey, Queen, Styx– very melodic rock. I still love these groups. I was always very motivated with piano lessons. My parents wouldn’t have to crack the whip to get me to practice. They would have to tell me to stop practicing. I think I react to things more than most people. When I watch musicals and people are chuckling, I’m usually howling and laughing. If other people are whimpering, I’m sobbing. Things just hit me a little harder.
How did you start working on Calvin Berger?
I wrote to Stephen Sondheim my senior year of college and asked, “So what do I do to become a theatre composer?” He said get a Masters in classical music, so I got a Masters from Queens College in music composition. But I had no idea how to connect to the real theatre world you read about in The New York Times. So I joined the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, which is a fantastic training ground for musical theatre writers. So many successful Broadway writers have gone through this workshop, so it has a great pedigree. It gave me feedback and a sense of community. In the first year, you complete individual song assignments, but in the second year you need to write songs all for one show. So the summer of 2004, going into my second year, I was traveling in Africa and started looking at Cyrano de Bergerac [the play Calvin Berger is based on], which had always been one of my favorites. It is so romantic but also has so much humor. When I got back, I began writing songs for Calvin Berger, and they were always well received, so I just kept going.
Who was Calvin Berger written for?
I was just thinking personally. Around that time, my hair started thinning, and I was very insecure about it. You have that paranoid feeling that people are always looking and fixating on it, like it’s an elephant in the room. And of course, they’re not, but it all feels so magnified in your own head. And then I just thought, “Oh Cyrano, well he’s insecure about his nose, same way I’m feeling now.” And so I just wrote it from a personal place. I thought high school made sense because when you’re at that age you’re all the more insecure about your physicality. It felt like such a natural setting for this story. I never once thought of it as a show primarily for a young audience, and still do not. It has been a lucky accident that teens love it, and I’m very grateful for that. But my hope is that it is universal and everyone sees some of themselves in the characters. Everyone has a big nose, so to speak.
Have there been a lot of changes made since you started working on Calvin Berger?
Tons and tons and tons of changes. Sometimes I tell people who know the present version about how things were in older versions, and they’re like, “Really?!!?” But I always knew and trusted the adage that great musicals are not written, they are RE-written. And then there’s the horrible expression that writers must be willing to “kill their babies.” If you fall in love with everything you write and stubbornly defend it, the work can’t evolve and you shoot yourself in the foot. Each time this show has had a workshop or production, including this one, there’s been a whole round of major re-writes. Since I wrote the book, music, and lyrics, jobs usually done by 3 different people, I have to be careful not to think in a bubble. I have to compensate for not having that team of opinions by being extra open to outside opinions from friends, collaborators, audience members, ushers…anyone.
Are there any themes that you consistently write about in your work?
No, not really. In the years after college I thought I had to write things that were dark and serious. And then I just realized, I’m a comedy guy. There will always be people who do dark much better than I do. I’m much better crafting a joke. I remember I said that to [Broadway composer/lyricist] Bill Finn, and he said “don’t worry, you’ll find your darkness.” Well, that’s something to look forward to. (laughs) I can’t rule anything out though. Woody Allen’s first jobs were TV joke writer and stand up comic. I bet he never imagined he’d make something like Crimes and Misdemeanors.
No one would say that this isn’t a tough business. Where do you draw your motivation?
I mostly just focus on the work itself. If you focus too much on the externals, the work will suffer. I’m not as savvy as many other writers about self-promotion. Recognition is nice, and puts fuel in your tank, but it’s really about the work. I just passionately love this art form. Songs in a dramatic context are so much more meaningful to me. I love the idea of trying to set life to music and capture its magical moments in a chord or a melody. Drama is like a heightened form of life, whereas music is the most abstract of the arts. Something about marrying these two elements continues to fascinate and excite me.
Which musical do you wish you had written?
Falsettos and Rent are probably the most special to me. The writers that I admire most are the ones that can embrace tradition yet still be incredibly unique. From the older generation, Frank Loesser and Jerry Bock come to mind. Sondheim is, of course, the ultimate iconoclast and someone I revere. It’s not that I could have written either of those shows. Only Jonathan Larson could have written Rent and only Bill Finn could have written Falsettos. These are all incredibly colorful people who manage to get their individual, outsize personalities across in their writing. They inspire me to have a “voice” in my writing as unique as theirs, and as reflective of my own personality and life experience.
Are there any inspiring words you’d like to leave to other emerging artists?
I once asked that question to Billy Joel, and he said: “First thing, hire a lawyer. Then hire a second lawyer to watch the first lawyer.” I’m going to try real hard to avoid the cliché answers, too. For aspiring writers, I would say make sure you really love the art itself, because if you are just after recognition, there are probably better ways, or at least faster ones. Musicals are inevitably a tortoise industry—they average at least 5 years in development, and usually many more. So it can be 5 years of hard and often solitary labor for 5 weeks of recognition. Not a great ratio. That said, there is no feeling more thrilling than having actors bring your writing to life. They teach you things you didn’t even know were there. That makes it all pay off. I would encourage writers to study convention before trying to break from it. You have to understand the “rules” before you break them. You can chart that evolution in the work of almost all artistic giants, whether it’s Beethoven or Sondheim or The Beatles. The last thing I’d say is be judicious whose advice you follow. Some people are smart and really want to help you, while some just want to hear themselves talk. If you have a strong instinct, trust it.