Fynsworth Alley: Craig Carnelia

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.


Craig Carnelia

Craig Carnelia

Craig Carnelia is a composer/lyricist who has been working on and off-Broadway for over twenty-five years. His work has appeared in such revues as Working and Diamonds, and his shows include Is There Life After High School, Three Postcards, and the forthcoming Sweet Smell of Success, for which he’s writing lyrics to Marvin Hamlisch’s music and John Guare’s book. His songs appear on Lost in Boston IV, Jason Graae’s Evening of Self-Indulgence, and of course, our forthcoming reissue of the original Broadway cast album of Working.

DL: Let’s start by talking about how you got your start as a writer. What made you decide to become a songwriter, and how did you go about doing that?

CC: Four things happened at the same time: I started to perform in musicals in junior high and high school. I started going to the theatre around the same time, when I was about 14. I was in a folk singing group, where I performed mostly known songs, either traditional songs or the kind of things Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio were doing in the sixties. There was a member of the group who wrote songs, and seeing that a person could just do that, I decided to try it myself. And I did. I wrote my first songs on the guitar, and soon thereafter I wanted to branch out from writing folk songs to theater songs. I taught myself to play the piano when I was a junior in high school, and I started writing what I call my “schoolwork shows” – the shows that taught me how to do it.
DL: Did you pursue an education in music?

CC: No, I did not. I was going to be an actor, and I went to Hofstra University for two years with the idea of becoming an actor. I quit school in my sophomore year when I was cast off-Broadway in The Fantasticks as The Boy in 1969, and I worked as an actor for about a year until I just stopped to concentrate on writing, which was more interesting to me.

DL: What was your first produced piece of writing?

CC: The first thing I ever did that was produced commercially was Working, in 1978. Before that, I mounted two small evenings of my work, one of them very, very early in 1970 when I was twenty years old. When I stopped acting and decided to concentrate on writing, I decided to put together an evening of my best songs at the time and staged it in the basement of an Italian restaurant using four actors. That was the first time anything of mine had ever been sung on a stage. Six years later, in 1976, I did a similar thing, but this time at the cabaret at the Manhattan Theatre Club. That was where Steve Schwartz saw my work, and that’s how I came to be a part of Working.

DL: When Working was being developed, how did the songwriters fit into the workshop process?

CC: It was all coordinated by Steve. He had a very clear idea as director and conceiver of the show of what he was trying to accomplish by having different songwriters. I think one of his first motives might have been that because he was going to direct, he may not have wanted to write the whole score. But very quickly, he started to see that the different voices of the composers could be very useful in expressing this wide variety of voices of the characters. Steve worked in two ways with the songwriters: he gave us assignments, he asked us to look at specific chapters [of Studs Terkel’s book Working] to see what we could make of them, but he also encouraged us to choose chapters that interested us and see if they could be musicalized. Or, he asked me in one case to fill a particular spot in the show, and he gave me a couple of things it had to do: It had to use guitars on stage, it had to be positive about work, and it had to be sung by a particular actor, David Patrick Kelly. That’s how I wrote “The Mason”.

DL: So when you were being assigned songs, were different songwriters ever assigned the same chapter for comparison?

CC: Never.

DL: After the show moved through the workshop stage on its way to Broadway, did the songwriters’ involvement change?

CC: Different songwriters were involved to different degrees. Steve kept us all involved in terms of overseeing our own material, having approval of the way things were being done, and adding and subtracting songs. James, Micki and I all had songs in the show in New York that were written between Chicago and New York, when we were asked by Steve either to replace songs of our own or add songs to the show that weren’t there, colors that he needed or characters he needed covered. We stayed involved until opening night in New York.

DL: Tell us a little bit about the song “Hots Michael at the Piano,” which appears on Lost in Boston IV (sung by Rupert Holmes), and which you sang in a version that will appear as an additional track on our forthcoming release of Working.

CC: It was written early. The first song I wrote was “Joe,” and the second was “Hots Michael.” It was an idea of mine. We cut the song after Chicago because it did not work at all. What attracted me, first of all, was here we had this musical about people doing work, and the people who are singing don’t, in real life, sing. So I thought it would add a level of theatricality that here’s a person whose job is music. Specifically, the character is an older man who plays piano in the lounge of a hotel, and the hotel is being torn down so he’s about to lose his job. There were two facets to the chapter and the idea that I liked very much: one, that he made his living making music, and two, he was about to lose his job – two things that were not dealt with elsewhere in the show. What happened was, I chose to tell the story in very much the musical and lyrical language of the kind of songs he would sing in the lounge. It had an authenticity about it, and because of that authenticity, it was exactly the kind of song you don’t listen to when you hear it in the lounge of a hotel. It really did its job, it was wallpaper. I’m very proud of the song, I actually think I did it really well, but it was totally untheatrical. It didn’t have an extra level of theatricality – it had no theatricality. It failed, so we cut it.

DL: What were some of the other songs that were in the show at various points but didn’t make it to the end?

CC: That was the only song that I wrote that didn’t make it into the show. There used to be a plot line to do with a family where the man was quitting his job and packing his family into a mobile home or a van or something, and they were going to drive across the country and find adventure. There were two songs written for that family. One was by James Taylor, called “American Dreaming,” and the other was written by Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers for the wife, and when that plotline got cut, the songs got cut. There were a lot of songs added – James added the trucker song between Chicago and Broadway, and I added “The Mason” and “Just A Housewife” between those two productions. Micki wrote “Cleaning Women,” I think, between the two productions.

DL: When the show opened on Broadway and had such a short run, did that surprise you? Obviously no one expects a quick closure, but what was your reaction to the show’s demise?

CC: Well, I’ve had all sorts of different experiences in the theatre, and I’ve had a lot of experience with shows that were almost good enough to succeed but came at the wrong time. With Working, we really got close. Steve and I have talked about it often, and when we look at why we think it failed on Broadway, we come up with the fact that it was too long. It’s basically a revue format, and since there’s no through-line, it really can’t be that long. There’s a version of the show that’s done around the country now – hundreds of productions in colleges and summer stock any given year – that’s been shortened to about two hours and ten minutes. When it opened on Broadway, it was two hours and forty-five minutes. There was also about a half an hour of material in the show that didn’t work at all. There was a particular character given over to a big dance number that didn’t function that well, there were some book pieces that didn’t work, and there were some songs that were in the wrong spots. Those two problems could have gone happily together, I think, the fact that we were a half an hour long and there was a half an hour of material that didn’t work. It would seem quite natural what to do, but we never got to finish it. The other reason is we opened the same week as Runaways and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Ain’t Misbehavin’ was a huge hit, and Runaways was similar in tone to our show, and quite respected artistically. I think for those reasons we weren’t a hit, and we might have been. We got pretty close, I think. I was very proud of the show, and I think Steve did a gorgeous job in directing and overseeing the whole thing. I thought we almost made it. Was I surprised? No. Even then, even though it was my first commercial show, I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed, God knows, but I wasn’t surprised.

DL: After Working closed, and you had an actual Broadway show under your belt, did that help you get your next show on?

CC: It certainly helped me get my next show on. My next show was Is There Life After High School, and I was in fact working on it at the time I did Working. I had just begun it, and I had to put it aside for a year to work on Working. There was an unfortunate piece of timing that I didn’t see at the time, but I now see in hindsight. Because I was very single-mindedly working on this one show, Is There Life After High School, there were a lot of things that came my way after Working that I wasn’t able to clear my desk and my time and my head enough to do. If I had it to do over, I would have found a way to say yes to some of the things that came my way.

DL: I mostly know Is There Life After High School from the cast album. What did that show look like on stage? Was it also a revue structure?

CC: Yes, less so but similar to Working in that there were no continuing characters and there was no traditional story. The theme of the show that tied it together was less far ranging than Working, which covers all of life in what people do for a living. It had a very specific concern: here I am in my adult life, and I’m still thinking about high school – I wonder why. That’s a very specific slant, so it had the potential for having an even greater glue than Working had. We didn’t have as good a production or as good a time. My collaborator, Jeff Kindley (whom I think the world of as a writer and a person), and I made a number of fatal mistakes. Fatal mistakes being fatal, you only really need to make one, and we probably made three. One of them had to do with choosing that shape. I think if we had it to do over, we would have given the show a story. The book on which it’s based, by Ralph Keyes, is a piece of nonfiction, and it’s organized as a piece of nonfiction. It needed to be adapted. It was my idea to do Ralph’s book as a show, and we should have gone a step further and invented a story that used what Ralph’s book was about instead of sticking more or less with Ralph’s shape, which didn’t really serve us. That was our first fatal mistake. It probably shouldn’t have been on Broadway. We probably should have kept it a little smaller and done it off-Broadway, in terms of its tone, which was gentle, and its quality, which is kind of funky. We did it up at the Hartford Stage Company before we did it in New York. It was so wonderful up there, it had a great, kind of loose, fun setting up there. When we did it in New York, in a more formal setting at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, it looked kind of underfed, rather than funky and downtown. We also made a mistake in terms of choosing who to work with and how to put it on the stage. We made a lot of mistakes, and we deserved to fail. It did not work, and that failure did not surprise me. We could see it coming.

DL: I think what’s really interesting is that after two shows that didn’t do so well, you still managed to produce a whole lot of songs that got picked up independently in the cabaret world and beyond. Have you ever written with that specifically in mind?

CC: I’ve never written for cabaret. At various points I’ve performed in cabaret. Back in the mid-seventies, before I did the show at the Manhattan Theatre Club, I did a lot of performing at a club called Reno Sweeney, which used to be on West 13th Street. That was the beginning of a cabaret renaissance back in the seventies. As an offshoot of the show I did at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the late seventies, I did a little performing. The activity you’re speaking of, the fact that so many of my songs are performed in cabarets, came right after a show I did called Three Postcards, which I wrote with Craig Lucas. It was sort of an odd-ball hybrid musical theatre piece, which was a play with continuous underscoring and about eight songs in it. We did it with five characters at Playwrights’ Horizon, and then a few years later at Circle Rep. After that, I decided to do what I’d always done that had made things happen for me, which was in the simplest form possible just put my songs out there and let them be heard. I did that in 1990, I mounted a cabaret show with my ex-wife, Maureen Silliman, at 88’s, and it was a compilation of all the things I’d done to date, with songs from Working, songs from High School, songs from Three Postcards, and songs I had just written for their own sake. I love writing for theatre and I think of it as my profession. It’s what I do: I write for theatre. But I’ve always had ideas that I wanted to do that had nothing to do with a show, so I just write them. Those are the kinds of songs you’re speaking of, although a lot of my best-known songs that are performed in cabaret are from shows, like “The Kid Inside” or “Just A Housewife.” Those songs are widely heard, and they’re from musicals.

DL: With Three Postcards, was that the first time you wrote something with a more traditionally narrative book?

CC: Yes, it was. It was the first time since I had gotten good at what I do. Something happened around ’76. There was a real shift in my writing. I had been bogged down on a musical that I wrote from 1972 to 1975, which was the last musical I wrote that I consider my schoolwork. It was about immigrants on Ellis Island. I didn’t know anything about immigrants on Ellis Island. I didn’t care anything at the time about immigrants on Ellis Island. But I spent three years of my time writing this thing, and what was interesting about it was it was totally fraudulent, the work – I didn’t mean a word I was saying, and yet my technique was getting better and better from doing this exercise. I didn’t know that was what I was doing; I thought I was writing a musical. But I declared my independence from that project. I said I cannot give anything more to that thing. I put it aside, and even when someone might call and show some interest in it, I said I cannot pursue that. It was a no-win proposition; it was something that was not going to happen. As soon as I got out of that, I started writing songs about whatever I felt. I found that my technique had gotten so much better, and I was learning how to express what I really felt, maybe in part because I had spent three years doing the opposite, which was merely imitating the way somebody else might have written a show about immigrants. So to answer your question, I had written shows that were traditional book shows – that was the last of them, the immigrant show. Now I’m working on something that’s very much a book musical, but since my work started to get really good, I hadn’t written a book musical with a story. Three Postcards was the closest to them, but it’s such an oddball kind of piece that it sort of cancels out the traditional mix of book and song.

DL: How did you connect with Craig Lucas for that?

CC: My ex-wife was performing, and she had done two plays with Craig Lucas. They were in Shenandoah together; she had played one of the daughters, and he was in the chorus. When he became a playwright, he was involved in a company called The Production Company that he had founded with Norman Rene, who was a great director who has since died. Craig did a play there, I think Reckless was his first one. It was rewritten later and produced at the Circle Rep, but my ex-wife was in the original production. Then they did another one called Blue Window, again at The Production Company. They needed some help with music, so I wrote some underscoring for them just as a favor. Craig and I became very friendly so he said “Let’s do something,” and we got together with Norman, and decided to do this particular piece about three women in a restaurant. We actually developed it for specific actors at The Production Company. The company went bankrupt before we finished the piece, but we stayed with the actors, went to Playwrights’ Horizons and did it.

DL: In the last ten years, between Pictures in the Hall and teaming up with Marvin Hamlisch for Sweet Smell of Success, what have you been doing?

CC: Actually, it’s not that big a gap because I’ve been working with Marvin now for about four years. It’s part of that ten years, and it’s been the best ten years of my life. I wrote a wonderful musical that is going to be produced next season at the Chester Theatre at Goodspeed. It’s called Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, and it’s a beautiful musical. It’s the last thing I wrote before I met Marvin. I’ve also written a lot of stand-alone songs since Pictures in the Hall. Then Marvin and I met, and we began work on Sweet Smell of Success with John Guare. God, it was a long time ago now. It was August of 1997.

DL: How did that collaboration start?

CC: It started because the company Livent, headed by Garth Drabinsky before it went bankrupt, in their heyday was initiating a lot of great projects like Ragtime, Fosse, and Parade. Sweet Smell was among them. They had optioned the film and the original short story on which it was based. They assigned John Guare the book, and he wrote the first draft of it. After they had the first draft, they went looking for a composer and lyricist, and they went to Marvin. He didn’t have a lyricist attached, so Marty Bell, Garth’s second in command who actually was the artistic heart of the company, knew my work and thought of teaming me up with Marvin. Livent asked Marvin and me to get together and write four songs to see if it would work. We liked each other instantly. We wrote the opening number first – Marvin likes to work in sequence, meaning he likes to work beginning to end – and once we’d written that, we knew we wanted to work together. We showed them to Garth and Marty and John, and they said yes, and we’ve been working together ever since.

DL: Is this the first time you’ve been just a lyricist?

CC: I’ve had a number of smaller experiences, but nothing that’s ever come to fruition. I’ve had a number of experiences where I’ve written just music, and a couple where I’ve written just words, but nothing that’s ever been produced. Most of my lyric writing work has been for prospective movie projects with film-composer friends that for one reason or another didn’t happen. I have a little experience with it, but not really very much. One of the happy occurrences of my first meeting with Marvin was he said he liked to work music first, meaning we get an idea for a song or why somebody should sing, or a line or a title, and Marvin will write music, and then I will write lyrics to that music. Then we refine as we go, back and forth changing both music and lyrics based on what we both find. What was thrilling about that for me is that’s the way I work with myself. The idea comes first, then comes the music, and then comes the words. So the task of writing lyrics for Marvin’s music is very, very similar to what I do for myself, except that his tone and my tone are so vastly different that we’re bringing out wonderful things in each other. His tone is so theatrical, and such a blast of sound, and I never write like that as a composer. The combination of what I then bring to the song lyrically, and what Marvin provides with this outpouring of music makes for an interesting mix.

DL: How does working with John Guare fit into this?

CC: It’s been great! He’s such an artist. He’s written a gorgeous book, and we’ve had a great time working together. Something I’ve always enjoyed is adapting my tone as a lyricist to the tone of the book-writer, and in this case, both John and I had the awesome task of following Clifford Odet’s and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, which just crackles with brilliant language, some of which John and I have made use of, and some of which we have jumped off from and riffed on our own. It’s been great fun doing that with John. He has an amazing gift for language. We have fun together.

DL: In the last year, you’ve had the opportunity to workshop this show, with Brian d’Arcy James and John Lithgow in the leads. How did the show evolve once you had it on a stage with live actors?

CC: Well, our director is Nicholas Hytner, and our choreographer is Christopher Wealdon, and they’re very, very creative. We do a lot of work while we’re in rehearsal and in workshop. We write whole new songs, we change things endlessly. We fashion things to suit the strengths of the actors. We sometimes do the opposite of what we thought we’re going to do. It’s an ongoing creative process, and we’re always working. There’s a lot of movement, and a lot of change.

DL: And while you’ve been working on this, has it been your sole project?

CC: Yes, except for some other things with Marvin. We’ve explored a couple of other musicals. In fact, there’s one we’re working on right now – we’ve just begun a project with Nora Ephron, which we’re going to be doing. There’s something else we’ve looked at with Woody Allen that’s on hold because of the rights, but we’re hopeful that’s going to happen.

DL: What is writing a new show like for Broadway 2001-2002, compared to writing a new show for Broadway 1978?

CC: Well, it’s hard to tell. Working was such a great experience because I had all the excitement and fun of writing a show for Broadway and none of the responsibility because it wasn’t mine. It was a great way to come in. I think a bunch of us felt that way. It was great to be part of. Also, Steve was so much in command. You know what? It’s not that different. Anything good that’s ever been done – it’s not like you’re thinking “what do people want to see today,” you’re thinking “how can I do a great version of this show?” And hopefully people will want to see that today. That aspiration stays the same. In terms of costs being six or seven times higher than they were in those days, it’s all relative. The rents on apartments are six or seven times higher than those days. I think shows are better publicized now, they’re sold better than they used to be. When a show opens today, you know it’s opening. Things were quieter then, so I suppose it was a simpler time. I think it’s all relative. The work itself is the work. You’re trying to do now what you were trying to do then, which is to do your best and express what you’re trying to express. As far as the money, it is all relative.

DL: What about as an audience member? How do you feel in general about what you’re seeing in the theatre these days?

CC: What is so bizarre to me is when I’m happy, I love going to the theatre. When I’m not happy in my life, going to the theatre is a chore. As far as what’s going on? There are good shows. There have always been good shows and I think there always will be. I think there are trends away from writing and into events, which doesn’t thrill me. Not only is writing what I do, but writing’s what interests me as an audience member, writing and acting. And feeling things, being moved by theatre. When I go and I actually am moved, that’s what I’ve gone for. When that happens, it’s good, when it doesn’t happen, I’m just watching the stagecraft.

DL: Do you consider yourself to have musical influences? What would those be?

CC: Yes, I do have musical influences. They’re peculiar, and they don’t show up in a tangible way, but I know they’re there. I think there’s a convergence of things that happened: becoming attracted to theatre music in the sixties, liking folk music, loving great popular songs, meaning standards – it’s the music I grew up with in my house, because my parents’ record collection was frozen after the war, so that’s the music I heard. Luckily, they had pretty good taste in singers, meaning folks like Sinatra and people of that ilk, singing great songs. So I was always attuned to and hearing really great songs. I’d say standards and theatre music, combined with folk music and rock music, beginning with the Beatles. It all happened at the same time, about 1964/65, all those things came together for me. If you listen to Steve Schwartz’s work, you can hear similar influences, particularly in his early work: a lot of folk, a lot of Beatles, and a lot of theatre. There’s some Jule Styne and some Beatles, and a lot of making it up as I go. Plus, I’m self-taught, so as a composer, a lot of my style comes from what are actually my limitations. It’s remarkable sitting with Marvin and watching him do his work and seeing how fluid it all is. I remember in the Sondheim book, he described what it was like working with Jule Styne, and this fountain of music would just come flowing out of him. Marvin is like that, there’s this flow of music that just keeps coming. With myself, being self-taught, it comes more slowly. Marvin’s work comes through his fingers, his writing. It’s quite amazing, there’s nothing in the way. When I sit at the piano, I’ll have an idea, and then I’ll have to figure out how I’ll do that idea. With Marvin, there’s a straight line from the impulse to the music, and with myself, it’s more methodical.

DL: Do you always compose at the piano?

CC: No. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Very often, I’ll have a musical idea in my head and then go to the piano to implement it. Again, being self-taught, I’m not like a Cy Coleman who can sit at his desk and write music. Marvin can do that also, and it just amazes me. It’s not a skill I have.

DL: Do you ever compose with your guitar any more?

CC: Yes, I’m writing a song right now on my guitar.

DL: What about the music that you listen to now: is it the same as the music you listened to growing up?

CC: No, not at all. I don’t listen to much music. The reason being, I usually have music in my head. Working with Marvin, I always have a Marvin tune in my head – I have one right now that I’m writing a lyric for. And I’m always working, always thinking of the weight of the words and how they will fall on that particular line of music. In fact, if I go on the subway and someone’s playing the trumpet, I sometimes get pissed because the music in my head gets blown away by it. So there’s always that. Plus, in my classes, I’m teaching for sixteen hours so I probably hear eighty to a hundred songs per week in class. If I’m in auditions for something, I’m hearing hundreds of songs. The last thing I want to hear when I go home is music with lyrics to them. When I do listen, my favorite recordings right now are two albums of Brazilian jazz with the harmonica player Toots Thieleman, produced by a friend of mine who died recently, Miles Goodman. That’s the kind of thing I like to listen to, that will wash over me but there’s not a lyric that will pull me in and make me feel like I’m working. I don’t mean to say that listening to music is work, but for me, it becomes my profession.

DL: I know a lot of the composers and lyricists I’ve spoken to mention being part of a mentor relationship, either learning the craft from a composer before them or sharing their knowledge with newcomers. Have you ever been a part of this?

CC: I had a lot of friends who were more experienced and more successful songwriters and who were my friends, but in terms of mentoring, looking at my work and helping me make it better or guiding me? No, I’ve never done that. As far as being a mentor, I’ve done a lot of work on panels for the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop and at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center Musical Theatre Conference, but never one-on-one with a writer or a team of writers. There’s a new program at the Dramatists’ Guild – I’m very active at the Dramatists’ Guild, I’m a member of the council – there’s a new program there where there are mentors, and it’s something I will probably get into in the next couple of years. I’ve always been skeptical of it, and perhaps needlessly so. The greatest musical theatre writer of our time, Sondheim, had as close a mentor relationship as you could ever want with Hammerstein, and God knows it served him well. But I think it’s a rare writer who would be a good teacher and ask questions rather than make statements. Good teaching always has to do with asking questions, not with any kind of pronouncement. I’ve always wondered whether it can be taught or should be taught, and yet mentoring is not teaching… and yet I’m skeptical.

DL: What advice would you give to young people who want to write songs or shows for the theatre?

CC: Study what’s been written, and take from it how good things can be, and don’t try to write anything like anything that’s ever been written before. The thing you aim for is the quality of the show you’ve admired, not the style.

DL: You are yourself a teacher, but not of writing…

CC: Right, I teach acting classes. It’s my sideline, a very successful one, actually, I’ve built it over the last ten years. I teach acting classes for singers, I have four classes a week, and it’s on a very high level, meaning the people I’m working with are working professionals; half of them are in shows at the moment. It’s a good sideline. In fact, if I ever didn’t need to do it for money, I’d continue to do it, although not as much of it. I’d continue to do it because it’s great for my brain. It’s so stimulating. I’m constantly having to think fast and think conceptually about what I’m seeing in front of me, analyze the song that I’m hearing, what more they could get out of it, and how to say that in a way that would open a door without telling them what to do.

DL: How did you get involved with that?

CC: It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, so about ten years ago I just experimented with it. I started one class, and it created another and another and another to the point where I teach sixteen hours a week, which is just about as much as I could ever do. It’s quite demanding. I built it myself, and as I say, I’ll probably always keep it on some level.

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