Jersey Arts Culture Vultures’ blogger Brent Johnson spoke with Brian Hargrove — who wrote the book and lyrics to Barbara Anselmi’s music — about the musical’s secrets, surprises and TV connections. (Hargrove, who is married to Pierce, wrote for ’90s sitcom “Caroline In The City” and co-created 2000s sitcom “Titus.”)
Brent Johnson for Culture Vultures: The show is advertised as a ‘musical comedy for anyone with parents.’ That’s quite an audience, isn’t it?
Brian Hargrove: The other night, we got talking to people who seemed to love the show very much, and one said, ‘I can’t wait for my daughter to come see this. She’s getting married in six months, and she’s just gonna love it.’ And I thought, ‘Yes!’ Because anyone that’s ever been to a wedding or been part of a wedding is going to relate very much to this musical. It’s not about the wedding, per se. It’s about the relationships. And any good show is about the relationships.
CV: In six words or less, what’s the most exciting thing for the audience about this show?
BH: Nothing is what it seems.
CV: How so?
BH: Well, if I told you, then you would know. [laughs] There are a lot of surprises in the show. It’s been a little bit difficult to talk about. But nothing is what it seems.
CV: I understand this is a less a musical with a few lines and more a play with music, correct?
BH: It’s definitely a book musical. It’s a play with songs. It’s much more like — and I’m not comparing this to either one of these, believe me — Gypsy than Les Miserables. Gypsy is a real book musical, and Les Mis is sung through with little snippets of dialogue.
CV: So someone who’s not a fan of musicals will enjoy themselves?
BH: Absolutely. No question. You will love the story. I promise you that you will have a good time.
CV: What’s the scariest thing about opening a new musical?
BH: I would have to say making the changes. There are so many different departments involved — designers and people involved. The hardest thing is making changes and having to wait a few days for them to be implemented. In TV, you make a change, you see it that day. That’s just what happens. Sometimes, we’d write a whole script one night, then in the afternoon they’d rehearse it, we would change it from there, and the next day we’d see what we had written. That’s the only thing that’s a little bit more difficult about this — being patient and going, ‘I know we’re gonna fix that. I think we have the right fix on that. But I won’t know it until I see it.’
CV: Did you set out to make this a Frasier reunion?
BH: It just happened to work that way. David said he liked the piece and he was interested in directing it. Both David Saint [the artistic director of the George Street Playhouse] and the New York producers loved that idea. And I think every director that David Hyde Pierce has ever worked with has said he ought to direct. Because he’s got that eye and that insight and that vision to see the whole of a piece as well as individual characters.
Actually, the part of Georgette, the mother of the groom, I wrote with Harriet in mind. I’ve worked with her as an actor in 1986 at the Guthrie [Theatre in Minneapolis]. I’ve just loved Harriet’s work. And then the part of the wedding planner, played by Edward Hibbert — I also kind of had him in mind when I wrote it. I’ve known Edward for a long time, too. We were lucky to get them.
Then, we got Tyne. And I swear it seems like I wrote it for her. She is so perfect in the part. I told her after the first week that she’s just channeling this woman.
CV: This is your first musical, and it’s directed by your husband. Do you recommend that other writers have their work directed by their significant other?
BH: Well, in this case, yes. David and I have worked together for a long time. So it’s never a surprise. We’ve very much on the same wavelength. But I would say I highly recommend it.
CV: You have noted actors and directors and writers putting on a major play an hour from Broadway. How exciting is it that people can still see strong theater in a place like New Brunswick, N.J.?
BH: It’s great. The people at George Street — David Saint, who’s been valuable in his guidance and the mentoring of David [Hyde Pierce] through his first directorial experience, and just the staff and the crew — have been amazing. It also allows the actors who live in New York to live in their homes, have their cats and their dogs and come and work in a great environment.
CV: How did the idea for the play come about?
BH: My composer, Barbara Anselmi, is actually from New Jersey — about 20 minutes from here. Her mom still lives here. She was in the BMI Workshop, which is a school for people who want to do musical theatre — kind of like the Julliard of musical theater. In the second year, they have to pick a project to work on. They just have to write a musical, not thinking it’s going to go anywhere. It’s just part of their assignment.
She had been to three weddings that summer — none of which she was the bride in. She said the thing that’s interesting with these weddings is all the things that are happening around the bride and groom — like what’s happening in the bathroom over there, what’s happening at this table, different conversations — are almost as interesting or more interesting as the people getting married. So she had this idea that her project would be about a wedding. It was actually called ‘The Wedding Project.’
What she did was she picked different lyricists in class, and they chose a person at a wedding — ‘I want you to write a song for a groom, I want you to write a song for the bride.’ None of these were story-connected in any way. They were songs about individual moments at a wedding. She did about 17-20 songs. She was thinking it’d be some kind of revue if it ever got done. Then, the song ‘It Shoulda Been You’ got written. It went over like gangbusters in class, and somebody said, ‘What happens? I want to find out what happens.’
Then, she went to find a book writer. I heard her music, and I said, ‘I love your music. What’s happening with it?’ She said, ‘Not much right now.’ I said, ‘I want to write a musical with you sometime.’ A few months later, she called me and said, ‘Do you want to do this musical about the wedding?’ I said, ‘Weddings kind of bore me. But if I can think of a story that interests me, I would do it.’
CV: So is now the goal to write another musical that rest of the cast of Frasier can be in?
BH: [laughs] I’ll have to think about that. That’s a very good question.
CV: There does seem to be a lot of TV power in this play.
BH: Remember, all of these people — including myself — come from the theater. [Tyne Daly and David Hyde Pierce have both won Tony awards.] I was an actor for 10 years. David started in New York off-Broadway and then regionally and then Broadway. Harriet and Edward Hibbert, the same thing. They do have names, but they’re roots are in the theater. That’s what so exciting about it. It’s sort of everybody getting back to their roots.