Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
David Shire is composer of Starting Here, Starting Now, Closer Than Ever, Baby, and Big, as well as an Emmy and Oscar-winning film composer whose work includes Saturday Night Fever, Return To Oz and the recent television film These Old Broads. He is currently working with longtime collaborator Richard Maltby, Jr. on a new Broadway-bound show called Take Flight.
DL: Let’s start out talking about your days at Yale, and how you began working with Richard Maltby.
DS: When I went there, I knew I wanted to write shows, and so did he. He came from a prep school in one place, and I came from a prep school in another place. We were looking for collaborators to write what in those days were called Varsity Shows, to be produced by the Yale Dramat. A mutual friend introduced us in the freshman dining hall one day. He thought I was a hick from Buffalo, and I thought he was a theatre snob. We were both kind of right. We started writing together, and 40-plus years later, we still are. We wrote two shows at Yale which were produced by the Yale Dramat in rather elaborate productions. One of them was later done at Williamstown. And that’s how we met.
DL: Those shows at Yale helped launch your career and brought you some professional notice…
DS: A little bit. They didn’t really affect anything. We were trying to get further productions of the shows. Theatre people came up, and though they thought we were talented and promising, neither one of those shows went any further. Curiously enough, the people in the shows who we worked with at Yale were more valuable in terms of future work, even in films. The stage manager of one of the shows was John Badham, who I later scored a lot of TV movies for, and finally Saturday Night Fever, which was my biggest financial windfall. There were people like Dick Cavett in the show, and Austin Pendelton and Peter Hunt, who I’ve either worked with or stayed pretty close with through the years.
We pretty much had to get to New York. After we got the National Guard out of the way – the six month reserve program – we moved to New York and started writing an Off-Broadway show there which was produced about a year after we got there. That attracted professional notice. It was like a calling card, even though the show didn’t run that long.
DL: Once you started writing, you were also doing other theatre-related things…
DS: I was making a living. I was playing the piano, working as a musical director, a vocal coach, an accompanist for auditions, a pianist for dance classes, even a few club dates and bar mitzvahs, anything I could get my fingers on, so to speak, to make a buck. It took a long time before we were getting any kind of appreciable income from our writing. Richard was working at the Columbia Record Club writing blurbs for their catalog. And we were working together as much as we could.
DL: Did you have a moment you consider your big break?
DS: There were two big breaks. The two first professional things of any profile were when Barbra Streisand recorded “Autumn” on her third album. We had gotten to her just as she was coming up and attracting a lot of attention as the hot young singer at the Bon Soir. Curiously enough, “Autumn” was from the first show we wrote at Yale. It’s probably the only song from a college show that’s ever been recorded by Barbra Streisand. The other thing, through a publishing contact, we wrote a song for a very forgettable romantic comedy film called I’d Rather Be Rich, which starred Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, and Sandra Dee. We wrote a title song, so we thought we were pretty hot shit writing a title song for a Hollywood movie, but the film lasted all of ten minutes. Pearl Bailey did a record of it. At least we thought we were in the big time. The show stuff was the main stuff. We next wrote a revue for a club which was very popular at the time, called Upstairs at the Downstairs, which produced original revues with songs from various sources. We contributed five or six songs to one of those about a year after our first show, The Sap Of Life, opened. The two Yale shows were released recently – we recorded them both there, and they were remastered and put on CD by Bruce Yeko. Sap of Life is only available on a bootleg record some guy in Florida did off an audition tape we had for it. As far as I know, it’s never made it to a bootleg CD. Some of that score wound up in later shows, both Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever. We took the songs that we wanted to have a future.
DL: It’s interesting that two of your biggest successes on stage were made up of songs from shows that weren’t so successful. Why do you think the material had such success the second time around?
DS: Well, it’s because they weren’t attached to a book that wasn’t working. When songs don’t work in shows, it’s not always because they’re bad songs, it’s because people don’t care about the characters singing them. When we took them out of context and did them as one act plays, or one-act short stories, so to speak, instead of a chapter in a novel… and Richard knew how to direct them to get the most out of them, they had much more impact.
DL: Now, it was during that period of writing and doing other work that you ended up writing the dance arrangement for the “Tick Tock” number in Company. How did that happen?
DS: Steve Sondheim had been an early mentor of ours, almost from the time we were in New York. He came to Sap of Life and thought we were very promising. He said he would meet with us, so we played him some stuff, and he gave us some first-class criticism. He’s always been very generous that way with younger writers. So, I had a contact with him, and I was even a rehearsal pianist for his disaster, Anyone Can Whistle. I knew him well, and Hal Prince was another champion of our work. And Steve always remarked that our styles were very similar, our approach to things. In fact, there’s a song in Anyone Can Whistle called “A Parade In Town.” When he wrote it, he called me up and said, “I love that song in Sap of Life, ‘Watching the Big Parade,’ and I want to make sure you don’t think I stole it.” So he played me the song, and I said, “Thanks for the compliment, but it’s a completely different song.” Anyway, that’s the kind of relationship we had. So, when they were out of town with Company, I had moved out to LA by then and was mainly doing film scoring. I got married to Talia and the day before our wedding, Hal called out of the blue and said, “Listen, we’re in Boston with Company, and the big dance number has music we don’t like for it. It doesn’t sound like Steve wrote it. Would you come to Boston? We’ll fly you here to work on a piece of dance music.” I said, “We’re getting married in less than twenty-four hours!” “That’s great,” he said, “Get married, and you and your wife will get a honeymoon in Boston!” So we got married and got on the plane, and it was hardly a honeymoon because Talia got bronchitis. So she was in the hotel room, and I was working 8, 10, 12 hours a day, locked in a rehearsal room with Donna McKechnie and Michael Bennett working on Tick Tock. Another little side line is that socially, I was very friendly with Hal and his wife Judy. They were always trying to fix me up, and I was one of the models for Bobby! So it kind of threw them when they were out of town with this show and suddenly I show up married!
DL: When you wrote that piece of music, how much input, if any, did Steve have on it?
DS: It was all based on Steve’s themes, which is standard in Broadway shows. Often a composer just doesn’t have time or the interest in doing the dance music, because it involves sitting and working with the choreographer for long periods of time. The rule is just to base as much of it as possible on the composer’s work so it sounds as though it’s cut from the same fabric. So it’s all material from other songs in Company put together and arranged by me. It’s more of an arranging job than a composing job.
DL: You mentioned you were already in LA by that point. What inspired the move to the film world?
DS: It was as much of a being pushed there as it was being pulled. We finally got hired to doctor a Broadway show called Love Match which had a producer and all the money raised, but they didn’t like the score. So they asked if we’d write two numbers for it to replace two they had, so we wrote them. It was a show about the romantic relationship between Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, hardly a topic we would have picked, but they were offering us a thousand dollars per song, which was big money for us, plus the chance to work on a Broadway show! We jumped at that, so we wrote the songs. They loved what we wrote, so they asked us to write the whole score. We thought, we don’t know if we like the subject matter, but here’s a complete Broadway show, with a director and Patricia Routeledge was set to star, and they had all the money and opening dates, so we thought we’d better do this. So we wrote a whole score for this, and we wound up out of town in California, in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre which had recently opened. The show was a bomb! It didn’t work at all, and Hal and Steve were too far away to come and help us with it. The show’s two directors – the director and a director/choreographer – were fighting with each other. It was a big mess, and the show finally closed there. It was supposed to go on to Detroit, but that was cancelled and it never did. So there I was in California in about 1970, having tried to get a Broadway show on for almost ten years, now finally with a Broadway show that had closed without going to Broadway… My friend Billy Goldenberg who was a fellow New York struggling composer, making his living as a pianist, as I was, had gone out to L.A. a few years before and was writing one television score after another. So, when the show closed and I didn’t know what I was going to do, Billy said, “Come on over to Universal, I’ll introduce you to the head of music there.” I had written a couple of tv scores while I was in New York, so I had just enough material to show him I was really good at it. And within a couple weeks, I was writing The Virginian, and that led to other things. Then I met Talia, and I woke up one morning a year later, and there I was living in L.A. and writing for television and later for films! Soon after that I did a couple of nameless pictures and then I got The Conversation.
DL: Now, The Conversation was certainly an interesting score, because it was all done on piano…
DS: …which was Francis [Ford Coppola]’s idea. He offered me the picture… you know, he was my brother-in-law, but he claimed it wasn’t nepotism because he thought I was the right one to do it. I thought, “Oh boy, a big Paramount Picture with Francis Coppola, now I’ll get eighty players and suddenly I’ll be Michel Legrand.” And Francis said, “Listen, there are two things I don’t want. I don’t want an electronic score, because that’s too obvious. I want the score to be about what’s going on in Harry Caul’s soul and heart and mind, and not about the electronics. Walter Murch will take care of that. I think it should be a small, intimate score with maybe a jazz flavor, because Harry’s hobby is playing jazz records in his apartment. I think you should consider a solo piano score. I think it would be very nice, very stark, very intimate, very Harry. Kind of black and white, instead of a lot of sentimental colors.” And he was right.
DL: How did you develop the theme that score is based on?
DS: Francis said, “I don’t want you to work on this picture like you’ve been working on your big Hollywood stuff. I’d like to give you an approach. I’m going to give you five titles. They relate to Harry, but they’re not specifically scenes from the movie.” They were things like “Harry Goes to His Class Reunion,” “Harry Visits His Grandmother…” I wish I had kept the titles, they were kind of interesting, but I’ve long forgotten them. He said, “Go back to LA,” because he was in San Francisco, “and write me little piano pieces for each of these titles.” I thought he was crazy, but I went back to L. A. and wrote these pieces and went up about a week or two later and played them for him, and one of them was pretty much the prototype for the “Theme from The Conversation”. And when he heard it, he said, “That’s really getting Harry’s insides. Go and finish that, make that a polished piece of music.” And I did, and that became the “Theme from the Conversation”. By the way, that’s in production right now… Intrada is releasing [the soundtrack] as soon as we get it together. We finally got the tapes after all these years from Paramount. There’s never been an album before.
DL: And who was the pianist for that?
DS: Me. I developed the score pretty much while they were making the movie. I would develop piano pieces and record them on an old Wollensack – a real primitive piece of technology. I’d take them up to San Francisco, and they’d lay them against the picture and we’d see what worked and what didn’t, then I’d go write some more. In fact, Francis loved the sound of the primitive Wollensacks so much, we actually used some of the stuff in the picture – things that were recorded in my apartment about as low-fi as you can get! I did go in and rerecord everything, but he said some of it was too clean. And then when we did the mix, we brought an Arp into the studio and an Arpist. Are you too young to know what an Arp is?
DL: I am.
DS: It’s kind of the first synthesizer being widely used in the studios. You had to plug patch cords into it, and you could only get one voice at a time, but it was pretty hot stuff. So we plugged it into the mixing board and processed the piano tracks as we did the mix, right there in the studio, which was the most efficient way to do it at the time.
DL: Now that you’ve had both a long television and film career as well as a long theatre career, do you have a preference for one over the other?
DS: Yes, and I’m pretty much doing that now. The musicals have always been my primary love. It’s the difference between foreground music and background music. In a musical, it’s about the music, the music is in the foreground, telling the story. And it’s vocal music, which I’ve always gravitated to. In a film, you’re like the set designer or the costumer designer, you’re a handmaiden to help someone else realize their vision. It’s exciting and I’ve loved it, and the musical theatre composing has fertilized the screen composing and vice versa. The screen composing made me write styles of music that reached farther than I ever would have if I just stayed writing theatre music, and a lot of the techniques I’ve become competent with in film, I’ve been able to employ in theatre. And I think what’s made my film music strong is my melodic and dramatic sense I’ve developed working in theatre.
But more and more over the last decade, first my film career and now my television career have fallen off to practically zero. I suspect it has to do with age – the directors get younger and the producers get younger and the composers get older… And a lot of my contacts, my regular clients, so to speak, are making fewer films. Some of them have even retired. So I’m pretty much not doing any screen work or television work, even though I just got my sixth Emmy nomination for my last score, Rear Window. The work has pretty much fallen down to… I can’t remember my last score. We did a big production number for These Old Broads, which was on tv a couple of weeks ago, but that wasn’t background music. That’s like cross-fertilization. Richard and I have been writing another big Broadway show for the last two years, called Take Flight. I’ve loved working on it, and if it weren’t for the money, it’s been kind of pleasant to work full time on a show, without other projects. It’s like the old days, it’s kind of come full-cycle. I suspect I haven’t done my last screen score, but I haven’t been pushing to run out to L.A. My wife [actress Didi Conn] and I moved back to New York right before Big went into rehearsal five or six years ago. That’s hurt my screen prospects. Although I’d fly out there at a moment’s notice if something came up, people sense the distance.
DL: Let’s talk about this new show a little bit. It’s about flight… is it a book show?
DS: Yes, and I hope a very interesting one, because it’s telling three major stories interwoven. They don’t even take place at the same time: the Wright Brothers, from the time they first go to Kitty Hawk to the time they make the first flight; Lindbergh from the time he realizes he knows how to fly across the Atlantic solo while nobody else does until he lands in Paris; and Amelia Earheart from the time she meets the publisher, George Putnam, who manages her career and helps make her a legend (and also marries her) until the time she’s lost at sea. And the musical ends with those three events happening almost simultaneously.
DL: And who wrote the book for this?
DS: Richard. We were going to do it with John Weidman, who did Big and whom we adore, but he’s been so busy with Sondheim on Wise Guys for the last few years, we didn’t want to wait. He said, “Go ahead and start writing numbers, and I’ll join you later.” After we wrote a whole act, he came to a reading and said, “Just keep going at it, I’m still too busy. You’re doing great.” Now we’re doing a reading of the second draft of our whole show in a couple of weeks, and hopefully after that we’ll go into a workshop production or a regional production, and we’ve pretty much done it ourselves. We’ve had a lot of great input from John, from Nick Hytner who we wanted to direct it, but he can’t. We’ve had a lot of good suggestions from James Lapine, who didn’t feel it was something he wanted to direct, but he’s given us some good input. I’ve got the feeling that we’ve got enough Godfathers, enough really classy Godfathers on this show that we might be able to pull it off ourselves.
DL: Let’s talk about Big a little bit. I have to say, it was one of my favorite shows that I’ve seen on Broadway, so I was shocked when it didn’t do as well as people thought it would.
DS: A lot of people felt the way you did, but a lot of the theatre community actively hated it. They were expecting a distinguished show from us that would be the natural follow-up to Baby, and this was a big, commercial show. We didn’t write it to look like that as much as it ended up looking like that. It was a much smaller show that got “Broadway-ized,” much like Seussical, recently. The authors have a certain vision, but for Broadway you get caught in this Juggernaut. I’m not saying it was done to us, but we just kind of went along with it, because it seemed like a logical thing to do. We could have our intimate show and still appeal to a Broadway audience. The decision to hire Mike Ockrent as the director and Susan Stroman as the choreographer, although we loved them both, and Mike has since died, so it’s difficult to gainsay him – he was a talented man, and Susan is obviously at the top of her profession – but it was the wrong aesthetic mix. It wasn’t that anyone was incompetent or did the wrong thing, but the show that Richard and John and I were in the process of writing, was not the kind of show in retrospect that Mike and Susan should have been doing. They did big Broadway shows, some of them with dead composers like Gershwin, where you can take the songs as jumping off points and make of them what you will. Whereas Richard and I write a very structured music and lyrics that has to be done the way that we write it, or it just doesn’t work. And Mike never really got that. A lot of songs were thrown away because he felt we should write other songs that he felt the show needed to work on Broadway. At each step we thought, well, he’s Mike Ockrent, and Stro is Stro, and we had the most congenial collaborations, so we just kept writing the songs they asked for and dumping the songs we had written before they even came into the show and that we loved. And we thought we were being very professional. And then we opened in Detroit and the show was a disaster! Not to everyone, you know, it pleased your average theatre-goer, but the first review we got from Variety was just scathing! It said we were just a piece of dreck, and it’s pretty hard to reverse that image once the theatre-vultures read that. We did a lot of rewriting, but none of it was in the right direction. To cut to the chase, a year after the show closed on Broadway, the show went out on the road for a national company, with a different director and different choreographer because Mike and Susan didn’t really want to do it, and we went back to the show we were writing before they came in. We put back six or seven numbers that had been cut, we cut a lot of the things we wrote in Detroit, and the show worked great. And the same reviewer who killed us in Detroit came back and saw us when we opened in Hartford, and we held our breath, but he wrote a review that I wish more people had seen. “Why didn’t you do this the first time? This is wonderful!” But by then, when a show has ignominiously died on Broadway – we ran eight or nine months, but we lost ten million dollars, which for a while held the record as the show that lost the most money in New York until something else overtook us, and we were glad to lose that title. Big is a real agony that we spent five or six years on, and what was good about it was never seen in New York, and what was bad about it was high visibility – we didn’t even get nominated for a Tony. The theatre community had an active hate of the show! Also, to make it even worse, it was the year that both Rent and Noise/Funk opened within a week of us, so all of a sudden everyone hated big shows and thought the future was these little shows that opened off-Broadway and got developed… and this is it, who wants these big, clunky dinosaurs any more? Now, a year or two later, it’s back to Aida and Andrew Lloyd Webber and everything big again, but for that one period, we were the designated whipping boy for what was wrong with Broadway.
There’s a book called Making It Big that details this horror story in it. It follows the show all the way through, because the woman who wrote it asked permission to follow us around a couple of years before we opened, so it includes two workshops, rehearsal in Detroit… And the reason she wanted to do this is she wanted to get in on the ground floor of the next A Chorus Line or whatever, and she felt with the team we had and the source material, it was an obvious shoe-in. So she was writing in that respect, and it turned out to be more interesting historically than she thought, because she got to see what happens to some shoe-ins. So the book, as I describe it, turned out to be 200-plus pages of pure irony.
DL: Do you think the show will ever get to play New York in the form you wanted it?
DS: Maybe after we’re dead. Baby’s about to be revived. We did a workshop at the Roundabout a couple of years ago; they adored it, and they’re trying to find a spot for it. There’s also talk of a Closer Than Ever revival. The interesting thing about our shows, the four of them, is that they’re always among the top four rented properties at Music Theatre International. Closer than Ever, Baby, Big, and Starting Here, Starting Now have had literally hundreds and hundreds of stock and amateur productions. People just love to do our shows everywhere except in New York. That just shows that despite their lack of commerciality in New York, they have become part of the repertoire, which is gratifying in one sense, and frustrating in another. What if Baby had been done Off-Broadway in a smaller production, or something with more names in it… Closer Than Ever, which got great reviews from everyone other than the New York Times, probably ran half as long as it should have because the Times killed it. And it was a reviewer who was only there for two weeks, a woman who was fired a couple of weeks after she reviewed us because she was writing nothing but negative reviews and people were writing letters about her to the paper. So that was another stroke of bad luck.
DL: So when Baby comes back, are you guys going to revise it at all?
DS: We’ve already revised it, that was the whole point of the workshop, to see if it was revisable and doable. Some were to update it. We just did another series of revisions for a production in Wichita that we saw a couple of weeks ago, where they used a black Danny. That youngest couple was a black and white couple, and that alone helped a lot to make the ethnic mix of the cast more interesting and much more contemporary. There are little updates all the way through to update some of the topical references. Katherine Hepburn becomes Katie Couric, you know? And the second act was never solved on Broadway. “Patterns” was taken out and then put back in soon after New York, which helped the show. Again, we made some panic changes for Broadway before we opened that were the wrong way to go. But through the years, we’ve made little changes, and some big ones all the way through. Arlene, the oldest woman, now loses the baby. That was originally the way it was written, but it was changed for New York because someone said it was too dark, and we couldn’t just have one couple having the baby. But it made the second act a little too superficial and hard to believe. So things like that, and some structural things, some arrangement things… “Fatherhood Blues” is now more of a funk number, so it can sound like Danny went off to join “Boyz R Us” – that’s the group title we invited for the group Danny joins, that’s more like all those boy bands rather than a bubblegum group of the 1980s. All of those things add up to a show now that I think has a decent shot for some kind of commercial success in New York, if the Roundabout ever schedules it.
DL: What have you seen lately that you think is interesting?
DS: I like The Full Monty a lot. I think the guy who wrote the score, David Yazbeck, is really talented. I can’t remember when I’ve laughed out loud at lyrics! I think he’s kind of a diamond in the rough, a real natural with a contemporary sounding score without being a “rock musical.” It’s the natural voice of those characters. It’s what we were trying to do when we wrote Baby, to use contemporary music not to make it a rock show, but because that’s how people talk… in the 1980s. And he’s doing the same thing for the year 2000. The show is funny, well-produced and well-performed. Last night I saw Jane Eyre, which is on the opposite end of the scale. It’s not that it’s unintelligent or untalented, but it’s people singing at the top of their lungs for three hours. A score that all sounds cut from the same piece of cloth without a lot of variety in it. Again, not unmusical and not untalented in a general way, but a show that doesn’t exhilarate you, is a half an hour too long, and kind of gives you a headache. There were reviews that said it was the next Les Miz, and there were people in the audience who stood up and cheered, so what do I know? I’ve never written a big Broadway success. I have to say, whoever’s reading this, you might think I’m a pompous ass to say these things, but these are what I feel.
DL: In a more general sense, what do you think of the state of musical theatre today?
DS: Sometimes I think it’s a dinosaur. Somebody in Hollywood a few years ago referred to Broadway, the whole scene, as “the Outback of the entertainment industry.” You know, it’s been called the fabulous invalid for years. It used to be where the action was in the 30s, the people in the glamour pages were the Gershwins and the Harts, and even in the 40s, the Richard Rodgers… but now it’s about movies and rock and roll. And for those of us still working in the theatre? I don’t know what the future of it is, it seems like there’s always an appetite for musicals. But when musicals cover everything ranging from Jane Eyre and Aida to The Full Monty and Rent… Maltby and Shire may be somewhere in that spectrum. We’re very excited about Take Flight, but I could imagine the reaction being, “Wow, where did this come from? There’s hope for the Broadway musical again!” But I can also imagine, “What is this pretentious thing?” I can imagine everything in between. Another success d’estime like Baby that runs for eight or nine months and has some people coming back multiple times and other people you can’t drag into the theatre with a crane. It’s very hard to say. Richard was saying the other night, if you subtract from the last thirty years of musical theatre only the work that Hal Prince and Steve Sondheim were connected with, what would you have left? Not very much. You’d have A Chorus Line and a number of good shows, but with the subtraction of the work of just those two people, you wouldn’t have very much to justify the money and time and advertising spent on musical theatre. But you know, whenever I think there’s not much future for people who write like Richard and I, we go off to a place like Wichita where they’re doing one of our shows, and there’s all these young kids in their teens and twenties who adore musical theatre and produce shows like we wrote along with the other ones, and they don’t make any distinction between them. And then I start thinking, all we can do is write what we write. At the age of 63, you don’t suddenly change your style. The nice thing about Take Flight is that like on Baby, we feel that we’re writing the kind of show that we were meant to write, as corny as that sounds, it’s coming from our souls.
But music and theatre have gone together since the dawn of drama, and as long as there’s theater, there’ll be music-theatre and the particular sub-genre of it that we’ve been talking about. As far as what form it will take in the future, one thing is certain – it’s not anything we can predict. Who could have imagined Rent twenty years ago? Or A Chorus Line forty years ago? Of West Side Story fifty years ago? Or even Cats? One of the most exciting things about the form, like the English language, is that it is able to absorb and integrate so many and such various influences from all over the musical spectrum – pop, jazz, rock, world music, opera, concert music, you name it. It’s gloriously and endlessly hybrid and self-fertilizing, and for that reason, essentially unpredictable. But when I hear the work of, say, Adam Guettel or Jason Robert Brown, I know that the American musical will have a fertile future. And when I listen to, say, Floyd Collins or Saturn Returns, I realize that, to a certain extent, it’s already here.
DL: You mentioned that when you were starting out, and throughout your career, Stephen Sondheim was something of a mentor. Do you have that relationship with any young composers?
DS: Not as intensely as we had with Steve, but I’ve been contacted through the years by young composers who’ve given me tapes, and I’ve given them off-the-cuff criticism. I’m a member of the Dramatists’ Guild council, and we’ve recently established a mentorship program, trying to formalize this kind of thing to some extent. Jonathan Larson, when he died, left an endowment to establish a fellowship program of some kind in the musical theatre under the auspices of the Dramatists’ Guild. I was on the education committee that figured out how to do this last year, and this is the first year that we have six musical theatre fellows, and two of them are under my tutelage. I’ve met with my composer mainly a couple of times, been over work that they’ve submitted, not in any intense way, but I’m available to this girl who’s very talented. Her name is Deborah Abramson, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing about her. [Deborah can be heard playing on After the Fair.] I’m available to go over her work, we trade e-mails. She’s a little shy, so she hasn’t used me as much as I’d like her to, but I think it’s valuable for both of us. I never turn anyone away who wants to talk with me or work with me.
DL: Now, a related but different question: What would you consider your musical influences?
DS: I’ve pretty much got very catholic tastes when sorting out the influences, because at least the direct, initial influences were the music my father played with his dance band and when he taught piano when I was growing up. For as long as I can remember, I could hear the strains of Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers drifting up from the downstairs music room. That’s the music he taught because in those days, theatre music was pop music. That’s where the hits came from. So my early pop music was theatre music, so that’s why I wanted to write theatre music.
Primordially, Gershwin, both the songs and the concert stuff. I listened to Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue endlessly as a kid, and have a vivid memory of my dad taking me to our local concert hall in Buffalo when I was an adolescent to hear Oscar Levant play them. Wow, that’s the kind of music I want to write, I thought. And whenever I hear Porgy and Bess I can only wonder how the course of American music would have been changed if Gershwin had had another twenty years.
And, of course, as I already mentioned, Sondheim, now, then and forever. Gershwin and Sondheim are kind of the two titans in the shadow of whose amazing bodies of work composers like myself are all doomed to labor. Frustratingly, they both founded their unique styles and at the same time have made it just about impossible for anyone else to work in them without seeming obviously and embarrassingly derivative. They’ve had both the first word as well as the last as far as their individual styles are concerned. Therefore their influence, at least on me, has been a mixed blessing. Their work always inspires me and reminds me of the mark one has to shoot for, but I’ve had to discard countless things I’ve written or have been trying to write because they sound too much like Steve or George in one way or another. Often the most useful influences are the less direct and less obvious ones – like both Mahler and Randy Newman in “It Goes Like It Goes,” fifties bop in The Conversation, 12-tone music in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, or the minimalists like Adams or Steve Reich in my scores for Bed and Breakfast or our new musical.
When I started my serious composition, I started being influenced by Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninoff – kind of “chestnut” composers that a lot of us gravitate toward. I think I wore out my record of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Leonard Bernstein, both the theatre and the concert works. Ravel, to a great extent, both early on and to the present day. And Mahler – I hated him early on, but started loving him around fifteen years ago. When I started in the film world, I started to go in that direction: Bernard Hermann, Johnny Williams, all the greats, the Steiners and the Waxmans.
In the pop realm, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, among many others, and in the jazz world, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Ellington, Basie, Kenton… the list goes on and on.
Along with the other theatre composers I mentioned, Frank Loesser and Jule Styne.
Recently, John Adams, some of whose approaches have inspired some of my more recent screen work as well as sections of our new musical Take Flight. Particularly his earlier pieces Harmonielehre and Shaker Loops.
DL: To end on a different note, what’s the story behind the Coprophiliac Jokebook?
DS: Well, about ten years ago, Didi and I were up at Sundance. She was an actress at the Sundance Theatre Playwrights’ Conclave. I went up to be a resource person. The crew up there included Kathy Bates, Johnny Philips… a whole bunch of salty tongued people. Richard and I started the jokebook, and I told them about it up there. So everyone started coming in with one liners day after day. When I got up to Los Angeles, I sat down at the computer, wrote as many of them down as I could remember, and sent them off to the various parties involved. Through the years, more and more of the lines have come up, although they’ve never been written down. I should try to remember them all. I have to search for the printed list…
DL: Can you give us some examples?
DS: Do you really want this? The first one was “Why are Coprophiliacs depressed people? Because they’re always down in the dumps.”