Fynsworth Alley: 10 Questions with Stephen Cole

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

10 Questions with Stephen Cole

How did you get involved in writing for theatre?

I always wanted to be a performer and I began doing summer stock when I was 14. During that summer I became friends with another apprentice, who had written this huge script, which was the book of a musical. But it had no songs yet. So I said, “why don’t I write the songs?” And I wrote my first lyric (tune too!). It was called “The Pleasure’s Mine.” I don’t know what ever happened to that show, but the author was Charles Busch. So I guess I have to thank Chuck for making me a librettist/lyricist. I enventually used that song in my first musical, which I wrote when I was 15 and had produced at Brooklyn College at 16. After that I retired to concentrate on my acting career, which ended when I was no longer a child star. It was at that time that I started to concentrate my efforts on writing for the theatre.

The craft of writing books for musicals is often under-appreciated. Do you have any bookwriting idols or role models?

I have dozens of idols and role models, beginning with Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner. I think the book writers who did their own lyrics influence me the most, since that is what I do. The singular voice. Gypsy is perhaps my favorite musical, so Laurents has to be in the group. I can quote every line from that show. A very big influence would also be James Lapine. All you have to do is mention Sunday in the Park with George and I cry. He hit me right where I live. I don’t think he is given enough credit as a librettist, but two of Sondheim’s best shows have book and direction by him. While on that subject, there is the grace and elegance of Hugh Wheeler, who really makes A Little Night Music sing between and sometimes during the songs. There are many more. I once wrote a song called “The History Of The Librettist,” with Jeff Saver. It basically said that “if the show if good no one will know your name and if it’s bad, you get the blame!”  

You’ve worked with several different collaborators. How do you decide which collaborator is right for which project?

I am blessed with wonderfully talented composers. Sometimes I bring them the project and sometimes they bring it to me. It really depends on who is passionate for what. It was Claibe’s passion for The Night Of The Hunter that made me fall in love with the piece. I had always wanted to write Dodsworth and almost did it with Matthew Ward, but we were busy with After The Fair. So when I met Jeff Saver and he reacted as passionately to the characters as I did, then I knew he was the one to write it. Both parties have to adore the subject enough to endure years of writing and waiting and writing some more.

What can a writer do to keep a show like After The Fair alive after its initial run?

After The Fair is the Lazurus of musicals! I have had more readings, workshops, options etc. for that show than any other. And when we finally had it produced in Dallas, I kept selling it as if life depended on it. That production won lots of awards, but I knew that if we didn’t follow it up, that could be that. So I interested another director who brought it to Chicago, where it got great notices and then to Seattle and then to the York Theatre. Off Broadway! The most important thing that happened there was to do the recording. Having a cast album not only gives you a souvenir of the production, it becomes a calling card to other theatres. The show is being mounted right now in Seattle and I am in hopes that that will spur on other productions. It’s a constant battle to get your shows done and keep them alive. I find myself competing with myself sometimes.

What’s happening with Night of the Hunter?

We are in negotiations with several prominent regional theatres right now for a co-production that would give us the chance to mount the work as a pre-Broadway tryout. We did a fabulously successful workshop at the Goodman Theatre last year, so we know how well the material works on its feet. The reception to the CD has been so great and it’s like having the most perfect demo in the world. There is about 20 minutes more of the score now (Volume II anyone?) Now we want to see it full out. Keep your fingers crossed for some news very soon.

How did you become the “Broadway Theatre Archivist”?

One day I got a call from my friend Jane Klain, who is very important at the Museum of Radio and Television. She said she had been offered this job by the newly formed Broadway Theatre Archive. They wanted someone to answer questions about the theatre. She was too busy and recommended me! Well, all I was doing was getting After The Fair opened at the York and planning the CD with Bruce, so of course I said yes! And the rest is history. I answer lots of silly questions and lots of very interesting ones too. I get to look things up if I need to, but it is kind of fun to be kept on my toes. I consider myself a musical theatre historian (at least in my mind) so it’s a kick to help other people out and also to be part of the organization that is releasing so many gems on video.

You are producing the “Mermania” series of CDs featuring rarely heard private recordings by Merman. How did those recordings end up in your hands?

As Dolly Levi has said, “I Put My Hand in Here”. Gosh I do a lot of stuff! Well, I had the great privilidge of being friends with Ethel Merman in the last couple of years of her life. She would bring friends over to my house and we would watch all my videos of her brilliant performances. We would laugh and drink and then she would take us all out to dinner. We got to be close. Then she died. Right after her funeral, I was asked to help put together a radio tribute to Ethel and I called up her son, Bobby and asked if it was all right. He agreed and told me about a box of private recordings that he found in one of her closets. We played a couple of things on that radio show, but the bulk of it remained unheard. Recently I approached Bobby and he agreed to give me and Harbinger Records the rights to these private recordings. We have put out two CD’s so far and hope to do many more. It’s more of a labor of love than anything else (it’s certainly not making me rich) and I hope it introduces new fans to what I think is the quintessential musical theatre voice of the 20th century.

What music do you listen to? What’s on your CD player right now?

I listen to lots of cast albums, some cool jazz like Chet Baker, some classical, singers who are show related such as Barbara Cook and singers who are not show related like Teddi King, Sylvia Syms, Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson. And I am a Kurt Weill fanatic! I would listen to a recording of him gargling! On my CD player right now is Mermania Volume 2, which is fresh off the presses.

Sondheim put together a much-ballyhooed list of “Songs I Wish I’d Written.” What songs would be on your list?

I guess being a lyricist, they should be songs with lyrics I admire. I wish I wrote anything by Kurt Weill, but I don’t always admire the lyrics.

But…

  • “It Amazes Me” (Coleman/Leigh)
  • “On Second Thought” (Coleman/Leigh)
  • “Move On” (Sondheim)
  • “Children and Art” (Sondheim)
  • Push De Button (Arlen/Harbugh)
  • Napoleon (Arlen/Harburg)
  • What Would You Do? (Kander/Ebb)

There are just too many to even remotely mention.

You have a brand new song featured on Emily Skinner’s new CD, which you cowrote with Fynsworth Alley’s music director, Todd Ellison. How did you two meet and begin writing together?

I met Todd when he musical directed the concept CD of The Night Of The Hunter. We got along beautifully then and got together several times after that with Claibe and Dorothy Loudon and Bruce. Todd expressed interest in writing songs and I thought it might be fun for us to try. Time went by and one day this summer Todd called me us and said that he had seen Emily Skinner in The Full Monty (this was in tryout) and he went home and wrote a tune that would be perfect for her voice. He recorded the song (I mean from beginning to end…not a note has changed) and I loved it. I had no idea what the lyric should be about or even what the title was. There was no show in mind and no character. So I invented one. And little by little, the music suggested the words. There was this great long note that kept coming back and I hit on the title, THE LONG WAY. When Todd played the song for Emily, she immediately wanted to include it on her new CD and that was the ultimate thrill. To write it and hear it performed to perfection with a fabulous orchestration by David Siegal (who also did After The Fair) well, it’s a highlight for me! Then when Todd told me that Guy Haines (I have always adored his voice) was doing a CD I said let’s write a song for him! And Todd did the same thing again. Wrote this great tune and handed me two million notes to fill. This resulted in Gettin’ Nowhere Fast and I can’t wait to hear that one!

What are you working on now?

I am writing a completely original and new musical version of Casper – the Friendly Musical. It’s opening in June at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and touring the summer to Dallas, Kansas City, Atlanta and St. Louis. The show was originally done in London and I was asked to come in and do some rewriting. I said I wouldnt re-write it but would be interested in doing a whole new show. So I came up with a whole new plot and many new characters (Casper and his Uncles are in it as always) and it’s kind of a cross between Annie and 101 Dalmations. Lots of fun and very musical comedy. Matthew Ward is writing the music to the songs that I am writing and Henry Marsh (the original composer) and David Bell (original author and still the director/choreographer) are doing the other half of the score. So far we are thrilled. And it is wonderful to write a show knowing it is getting on. And getting on big! Pressure? Yes! But I welcome it. Better than writing that masterpiece that sits on the shelf.

I am also writing the Drama League’s tribute to Chita Rivera…The stars booked are Elaine Stritch, Rosemary Clooney, Alan Cumming, Tommy Tune, Ann Reinking and many others. I have written some special lyrics for Alan Cumming and for Chita’s backup dancers to sing to her. Should be fun!

Also, Dodsworth is under commercial option. It will be produced by Alan Gordon (Rent) and Elan McCallister.

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