Fynsworth Alley: 10 Questions with Doug Cohen

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Doug Cohen

How did you get involved in writing for theatre?

The first theater song I ever wrote was in the fifth grade. We were doing Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel and I was cast as The Sandman. Essentially, he gets one solo and you never see him again. I had a really nice voice, so I was crushed that I didn’t get Hansel. But instead of bemoaning my fate, I invented the role of a Narrator/Troubador and wrote a song for him to sing which “opened” the show. And my teacher actually let me perform it!

I also used to write lyrics for mock court cases in the sixth grade. I remember having to present a case opposing abortion and writing (to the tune of “Over The Rainbow”), “Somewhere deep in her stomach small and sweet…there’s an innocent baby someday I’d like to meet.” It may not have been up there with the lyrics of Larry Hart, but I never lost a case!

I turned to more serious writing at Amherst College when I decided to write book, music, and lyrics to a contemporary musical fantasy loosely based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I also produced, directed, and performed in it. (It was either that or writing a senior thesis devoid of internal rhymes!) I loved the experience and decided to move to New York after graduating where I joined the BMI and ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshops.

How did No Way To Treat A Lady develop? There were ten years between the NY premiere and the York production that eventually got recorded. Did the show change in that time?

I came upon the movie No Way To Treat A Lady while doing my laundry one Sunday afternoon in 1985. Somewhere between the wash and spin cycle I just knew that I had to write a musical based on this property, and in fact I wrote five compositions while watching the film on my small black and white TV (“So Far So Good” was one of them.) When I discovered William Goldman had written the novel on which the movie was based I felt it was a sign from the Gods of Musical Theatre: I had met Bill two years earlier when I had a revue in the Village (This Week In The Suburbs), as he was friends with a cast member. Bill had been complimentary of my work and eventually was able to see his book would be viable as a musical. (But that’s a story in itself!)

I was accepted into the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop with this new show I had retitled Moe Brummell (I guess I was tired of people saying “Oh, so you’re musicalizing the Helen Reddy Story?!”) That night the panel consisted of Charles Strouse, Burton Lane, Stephen Schwartz, and the leading theater critic for the New York Times at that time, Frank Rich! Unbeknownst to them, Bill Goldman was in the audience — so you might say I had a lot on the line! My performers were Mary Testa, Michael Byers (who later did movies like Postcards From The Edge) and Jason Alexander as Moe, the detective. Jason was a huge fan of the movie and was incredibly supportive of my adaptation. We performed two songs that night — “Still” (a song for the killer and his intended victim) and “Five More Minutes”, Moe’s first number which was later cut during previews at the Hudson Guild Theatre. Both numbers really landed, and the panel was unanimous in their praise. Frank Rich made a special point of saying, “Bill Goldman should give you these rights.” And then Charles kindly added, “Tell him you got a good review from Frank Rich!” Well, needless to say, I didn’t have to “tell” Bill — and the next day the impossible became possible.

I wrote the show in about a year’s time…or so I thought. It was only a first-draft, and a very rough one at that. But it got me an agent at William Morris (George Lane) and a world premiere at the Hudson Guild Theatre off-Broadway. I was also awarded a Richard Rodgers Development Grant (Michael John LaChuisa and Steve Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens were co-winners that year) which enabled me to see the show performed as a workshop — all three hours of it! It was kind of a mess, although we had a sensational cast: Stephen Bogardus, Peter Slutsker (now Peter Marx), June Gable, and Liz Callaway with direction by Jack Hofsiss (who had won a Tony for The Elephant Man only to become a quadriplegic after a tragic accident). I kept writing all these songs for Liz who finally said, “I don’t care if my part is supporting, as long as what I do really contributes to the piece.” That showed such perception and humility.

We had about two months from the workshop to our opening night and a lot of material was thrown out. Most of the changes were for the good, but the show clearly boasted the killer as its leading character, much as the film did. I hadn’t found a way yet to make the detective as interesting (it’s hard competing with a brilliant psycho who dons eight different disguises), so the show seemed a bit imbalanced and morally off-center.

Most people work on shows regionally and eventually, after much refinement, bring them to New York. I did things a bit backwards in retrospect. After the Hudson Guild production (which garnered many good reviews but failed to get a rave in The Times), the show was optioned for a production outside of London to be directed by Vivian Matalon. David Kernan, Tony nominee for Side By Side By Sondheim, was one of the producers, and he kept urging me to write a song for the moment when the girlfriend, Sarah, meets Moe’s mother, Flora (in my version only Moe sang while the women had dialogue.) Vivian finally said, “Better do it to keep David happy.” So one day I rented a practice room in London and the song “So Much In Common” was born. I have to say that it is easily the most successful song in the show — it never fails to get a huge hand.

During subsequent productions, I rewrote the book and score extensively, giving Moe a real emotional arc. I discarded nine numbers and wrote six new numbers plus four new reprises. The show was finally “about” something: Moe learns that success does not come from headlines or parental approval but from self-acceptance and the unconditional love of another person. And when ten years later the show was revived by the York Theatre directed by Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen Schwartz, my original ASCAP panelist), it seemed to have come full circle.

For No Way To Treat A Lady, you wrote book, music, and lyrics – dear God, why? Do you always write all three by yourself?

For three musicals, No Way To Treat A Lady, The Gig, and a lesser-known show, God’s Hands, I’ve written book, music, and lyrics. I guess when you’re working alone it’s like that lyric from Gypsy, “no fits, no fights, no feuds, and no egos.” But it also can be exasperating. Fortunately with the case of the first two shows, I was adapting works for the stage, and the original authors were not only living but very accessible and actually made significant contributions. Bill Goldman came to see Lady twice at the Hudson Guild and invited me back to his apartment following a preview to work on the opening and ending. Pulitzer Prize winner Frank D. Gilroy had not only written the screenplay to The Gig but also directed the movie starring Wayne Rogers and Cleavon Little. I had numerous visits to his home, and we exchanged letters and phone calls. Frank also attended workshops at the O’Neill and Manhattan Theatre Club (which presented the Richard Rodgers Grant reading) and productions at Goodspeed and the American Stage Co.

I also find directors to be very valuable “collaborators”, as are dramaturgs (Robert Jess Roth who later directed Beauty And The Beast was a terrific dramaturg for the original Lady production.) Actors will also give you great feedback, although they sometimes are speaking from a subjective perspective.

How do you decide which collaborator (if any) to approach with a project?

In the last five years, I’ve been in a truly collaborative mode: I wrote music (only) on Glimmerglass with book by Jonathan Bolt and lyrics by Ted Drachman (recently produced at Goodspeed-at-Chester); lyrics (only) on Children’s Letters To God based on Stuart Hample’s best-seller (over a million copies, not including the calendars!) with music by David Evans and book by Stuart (it will premiere at Florida Stage this September); and the book and lyrics to a brand-new musical based on the life of Rudolph Valentino which was conceived by director/choreographer Chet Walker (who conceived Fosse) with music by Howard Marren who wrote Portrait of Jennie, winner of the very first Richard Rodgers Award. We’re currently doing an informal reading, and I’m very excited with the results so far. This June, The Drama Dept. is producing The Big Time for which Douglas Carter Beane is supplying an incredibly funny book and I’ve written the music and lyrics. Mark Brokaw is slated to direct, and it’s an honest-to-God real musical comedy. I’m also working on a new show with Rob Roth as well. So I guess I’m making up for all those years working in “solitary confinement.”

I’m also lucky because all these projects were ones that were brought to me. I find one of the hardest things in life is finding a property to musicalize — it’s like looking for love. So if you can fall in love with something someone else initiated, you can automatically eliminate “musical theater personal ads” from your repertoire.

What’s the story behind The Big Time?

The Big Time is based on a screenplay Douglas Carter Beane wrote for Oliver Stone! (Apparently Stone asked for more violence, and Doug kept writing more scenes featuring musical numbers.) It deals with a group of entertainers and would-be performers who get on the wrong cruise ship, which is then taken over by terrorists. The only weapon the entertainers have is their talent, and since the terrorists have a weakness for “Western Ways”, good ultimately triumphs over evil. It’s an affectionately irreverent view of the world of show business and the transformational power of performing. Essentially, David can conquer Goliath as long as you’ve got a good eleven o’clock number!

What’s in your CD player right now?

Oh, probably the latest recording produced by Bruce Kimmel! Actually, it’s Andre Previn’s take on West Side Story. I’m a big jazz fan — I love Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday, Ella, Teddi King, plus instrumentalists like Bill Evans and Bobby Hacket. That’s why The Gig is probably my favorite show so far. It’s about regular 9-5 guys who have nothing in common except their love of jazz. They jam every Wednesday night until their unofficial “leader” decides they deserve to live their dream and books them their first “gig” in the Catskills. It’s about rediscovering our original passions after we’ve already made important choices in life. I remember I was only 32 when I started writing it, and Frank Gilroy said, “Why are you writing about men who are experiencing a mid-life crisis? You’re too young.” And I responded, “Because by the time this musical gets produced, I’ll be well into middle age!” I’m fortunate that it didn’t take that long to see my “dream” production at the Sacramento Music Circus in 1996. Bruce Kimmel flew out to see it too: it starred Bill Parry and Michele Pawk, and I’m just thrilled that Bruce has committed to producing a recording of this show with sensational orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla (who presented me with their prestigious award at Lincoln Center last year) are also helping to make this dream a reality.

What do you think are the major obstacles for someone who’s writing new musicals today?

I think the major obstacle today is many producers don’t have an artistic vision. They work with artists, yet they somehow are unable to make the necessary commitment so that a show is allowed to unfold. Garth Drabinsky may be a controversial figure but he had this idea called Ragtime which he brought to fruition. David Merrick may have had unorthodox methods but he did not abandon shows he felt had unrealized potential. Nowadays, many producers rely on regional theaters and non-profit theaters to take on the risk and only finance a commercial move if the reviews are glowing. There are some exceptions to that rule, but not enough.

I also feel we are in a strange place where we’re embracing revivals and anything deemed “edgy”, but shows that are well-crafted and highly entertaining have less support. I think it’s a little like our political system in Florida now — the people (audiences) are having a hard time casting their vote because other forces are presuming they know what they want.

Is there a Broadway show you wish you had written?

In 1983, I started writing music to a show based on The Visit but abandoned it when I heard an opera had already been written. So I guess that’s a show I wish I had written, only I’d probably be heartbroken now if I didn’t ultimately get the rights. To tell you the truth, I’m very happy with the choices I’ve made.

Does the ultimate goal for a musical-theatre writer today still remain Broadway? (And is this a good or bad thing?)

I honestly am not writing for Broadway, although I think many of my shows could be on Broadway, particularly a more intimate house. Given the right cast, No Way To Treat A Lady has performed beautifully in large theaters (the Coconut Grove production is a prime example.) Again, it comes down to producing. The Big Time would also fare well in a Booth, Helen Hayes, or Music Box. But really, as corny as this sounds, I’m writing ultimately for audiences who appreciate a well-constructed story, humor, melody, and heart.

How do you know when a show’s “finished”? When do you stop futzing and decide the show is in its final form?

I never know when a show is “finished”; I only know when it’s published. So when a licensing group like Samuel French decides to go to print, I pretty much say goodbye to future rewrites. I’m not even sure I know when this article is “finished” — I’m happy to let you be the judge of that!

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