Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
Carol Hall is the composer/lyricist of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, for which she received two Drama Desk Awards, a Grammy nomination, and an ASCAP “Most Performed Country Song” award. She’s also written music and lyrics for Sesame Street, Free To Be You And Me and its follow-up, Free To Be A Family, as well as for off-Broadway shows including A… My Name Is Alice, Good Sports, and To Whom It May Concern. Her songs have been performed by Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, Tony Bennett, Lena Horn, Barbara Cook, Michael Feinstein, RuPaul, Frederica von Stade, and Big Bird.
DL: How did this production of Whorehouse come about?
CH: That actually may not be that interesting for you. Because it really all has to do with [producer] Manny [Kladitis]. Manny specializes in road trips, road tours. He had gotten the rights from us and I believe Ann-Margret’s people called him looking for a project for her, so it’s not that zippy.
DL: So the idea wasn’t to do the tour for her initially when he got the rights?
CH: No. He wanted to tour it; he thought it was time for it to go out. She called him, which is kind of unusual, I guess, when you think about it. Or her people called his people.
DL: You ended up being pretty involved in this production. Is that usual for the original authors to take part when a tour goes out?
CH: I don’t think that is usual, and I’ve been having a really good time with it. In fact, in a lot of ways I’ve been more involved then the first time. I think part of that is the request Ann-Margret came up with for a new song. Just for her. It was interesting to me because there is nothing better than improving something you’ve written. I love rewrites; rewrites are actually my favorite part of writing. So, the idea that I can actually add something and improve it and make it better was actually very exciting to me. The hard part, the dark side of that particular moon, is that if a show has been out for twenty years, and if you have crafted it as carefully as you can, it probably doesn’t need a song. So I had to find the path of truth between those two things: the excitement to do something new, with not wanting to knock down the first domino that would make everything else crumble. Luckily for us there had always been a song that had moved around, “The Bus From Amarillo”. We put it in one place when the show opened. It had not ever worked really as well as we thought it should, so in London Tommy Tune had moved it to the end of the show – without telling me, I might add. Well, actually he did tell me; he told me in my ear on opening night right before they sang it in an unfamiliar place. He leaned over and said, “You’ll be real surprised at this.”
And so we’d gone back to see the show in Texas last year, we being Pete Masterson, Carlin Glynn, Larry King and I since we’re all from Texas and we all happened to be in Texas last summer and it was at Casa Mañana, a big musical theatre down there. We all went to see it and that production had put the song back into the pre-London spot which is actually where it is now. And we said to each other, “You know what? That will work with a new song at the end. Let’s put it back in the original spot.” It was a funny little juggling thing, but that song always had been juggle-able, so… But to answer your question, that was the beginning of more involvement for me this time. And then I was really interested in updating the arrangements, because twenty years ago when this show went up, no one had seen a six-piece country band on a Broadway stage before. That was wildly innovative, and as a matter of fact, I think Ain’t Misbehavin’ stole the idea of having the band on the stage from us. No one had ever seen clog dancing on a Broadway stage before. We couldn’t get by now with a six-piece country band, so [music director] Keith Levinson and I had some fun updating the arrangements. Arrangements are something that no one knows how to talk about. You never hear anyone describe arrangements because people, I think, are terrified to discuss music. I think it’s really easy for everyone to critique lyrics, but no one knows if they’re supposed to be saying, “You know the diminished seventh is really the wrong choice there.” So they just don’t say anything about music. But you know the fullness or the thinness or the quality of the arrangements is the bones of the whole thing, so we were interested, for instance, using synthesizers this time around, which we never used [in the original production]. So in that sense I was more involved. And then I don’t really quite know how it really happened. Except in the process of working with Ann-Margret, we had fun so we did a little bit more than usual.
DL: I don’t know how many people realize that there are more changes to the text of the show than just that one new song. The opening number is now sung by a character instead of the bandleader, things like that. How did those changes develop? In rehearsal?
CH: That change had been used before because in the original Broadway production the band leader of our six-piece band was a guy from Nashville, who had come up from Nashville with his band and he sang; that’s what he did for a living. As the years went on, he left and went home to live on his farm, have children and retire. People would come in who could very often really play good, good guitar. But they couldn’t sing, or they couldn’t act; it’s a different talent. So we knew we could always use as our safety, the fact that the editor of the newspaper could act as the narrator. The reason we knew that was that when we began to write the show, the narrator was the editor of the newspaper. But as the show had developed, and we got the idea of using this band, it was a natural thing for the bandleader to do it. But it’s always been a moveable feast that way.
DL: Now I know that Larry King wrote a book about the making of the show called The Whorehouse Chronicles, but I haven’t read it. Was it strange to read about the process after the fact?
CH: It was a hard book for me. Let me start by saying that Larry has actually apologized to Pete and me for that book. He wrote it at a time when he was drinking heavily, and he was angry with everybody all the time. I mean, Larry was in jail twice while we were just getting the first workshop together, once for beating up policemen. Larry is not a placid personality. But I think Pete Masterson had the best retort, when Larry asked how he liked the book. Pete said he liked the fiction part the best, which is funny and wonderful. I of course went home and lay in a dark room with a dark cloth on my head and cried for two weeks, but um… everybody seems to have weathered that particular storm, and now we are all good friends, and loving friends. Am I sorry he wrote it? Yes. Do I hate it a lot? Yes. Once about five years ago I decided to read it again, just to see if I cared that much. And I did find myself laughing, because Larry’s funny; he’s a funny writer. The funny parts, whether they were true or not, were still funny. I wish he hadn’t written it.
DL: Do you want to talk about the sequel, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public? Who convinced you all to get back together?
CH: You know, Moss Hart said this really neat thing: he said he didn’t know the reason for any of his successes, but he knew the reason for all of his failures, which was he said yes when he meant no. And I really always think about that, because what happened was Stevie Phillips, who was the women who produced the first show – and by producing, I mean she had come to see our first show when we were doing it at Actors Studio for free with actors who weren’t getting paid and were bringing their own costumes from home, and she had signed us up and produced it first off-Broadway and then on Broadway. She wasn’t really the creative influence, but she was a terrific money person. She put her money where her mouth was. So keeping that in mind, she then had an idea years later, which came from her watching The Today Show and seeing a woman who was a bankruptcy trustee, a plain, simple woman in a Peter Pan collar with her hair pulled back. What bankruptcy trustees do is when things go out of business they go and, for example, if you run a pizza parlor and you declare bankruptcy, this lady would come in and sell the pizza pans and help you plan how you would deal with the residue of going bankrupt. In real life this woman was called in when a bordello in Reno declared bankruptcy, and she went over to the house to examine the books. The man who ran it had skipped town, this is all true. And it was then that she realized how much money this place could make, was making, had been making until the man had absconded with all this money. And as the bankruptcy trustee, she made the decision to run it. So that was true, and at one point they had actually gone public and sold stock in it, because in Nevada, as you know, there are portions of Nevada where prostitution is legal. So Stevie saw this woman being interviewed on the today show and thought it was interesting. She had always wanted to do a sequel, which is really movie thing. I don’t think they even thought they wanted to do anything in the theatre – they being Universal – I think they just wanted to do Home Alone 2 but with hookers. So she came to all of us and asked us if this interested us, and this is the Moss Hart part, we all said no it didn’t. But she’s from Hollywood, and she’s really good at this sort of thing. And she said, “Well, would you be willing at least to watch the tape of The Today Show?” And we all said, “We are really not interested in this.” So I don’t know how it happened, but we not only watched the tape of The Today Show, but we found ourselves in Reno talking to the woman in the Peter Pan collar. I’m still trying to figure out that part, cause we all said yes when we meant no. And the woman in the Peter Pan collar was a wonderful storyteller. She had some great stories, and when you’re in Reno and the devil is offering you a lot of money to try this out… And in the meantime I had a musical that I loved better then anything, that’s the best work of anything I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t give it away.
DL: What’s that called?
CH: Are We There Yet? It’s a musical version of The Odyssey, and it had been done at the Williamstown Musical Festival two years in a row and was very very successful. And you know George Clooney just did The Coen Brothers’ version, in Oh, Brother, Where Are Thou, but no one was going to let me do it anywhere. I had one of those “night of the soul” moments when you say to yourself, “I have 27 turndowns on my musical of The Odyssey, and the devil is offering me money to go write this sequel. It must mean that I’m supposed to go write this sequel.” And that’s how it happened.
DL: So for both of the Whorehouse musicals, you actually got to meet the people the shows were based on. Did that make fictionalizing their stories more difficult?
CH: It was just sort of research. It just happened that way. I mean, believe me, I think it’s probably easier to work with dead collaborators, Homer for example. I think it’s a little bit sticky, actually, because it’s hard to keep from being plebian and sticking to the truth. For example, when Ann-Margret first met me, she said to me, “I understand you met the real Miss Mona.” I said I did, and she asked what color her hair was, and I still regret not saying red. It’s easy to get caught up and just say, “Oh, it’s mousey brown,” and watching her disappointed face.
DL: When you did the movie of Whorehouse, was that the kind of thing where they just bought it and ran away and never spoke to you again?
CH: Yeah, and you know they bought it before [it was a hit], because of Stevie coming to The Actors’ Studio. That’s the part where we sold the cow for the beans because A Chorus Line was a hit, and they could get 10 million dollars or whatever people got in those days for a movie. But we were, I believe, one of the first musicals that a movie company ever produced, so we sold it ahead of time. And I don’t regret that, because they gave us a wonderful off-Broadway production with a very specific plan to move it. I remember people like Marty Charnin in those days told me this wouldn’t work, and there was no way we could open up a musical downtown. I mean Cheryl Crawford told me it wouldn’t work, and she produced Porgy and Bess. Nobody understood that movie companies had unending money and could do anything they wanted to. And we did open downtown, and no, you couldn’t pay off our investors opening downtown, but we didn’t have any investors. We had Universal, and we gave them a free movie. So they could then move uptown at their convenience, when the right theatre was available and all that. So yes, it started, and I’m the only person that quit. Everyone else got fired. And all that means is, I was able to see it sooner. I went for a walk with Ed Kleban [lyricist of A Chorus Line] and he had just sold A Chorus Line. And I remember saying to him, “You know, I don’t like what’s happening. I’m starting to write a lot of songs that sound like Dolly Parton so she won’t write her own.” And he said “Is this what you want to do?” And I said no. And he said, “Well, do you want to make her and Burt Reynolds look better then they’ve ever looked in their lives?” And I said “Umm, no.” They can smell that in a room; it’s like an animal musk. They can smell “Do you want to make them look better then they’ve every looked.” And I thought that was so interesting. So what Ed said was, and I’ll never forget it, he said, “You can’t sell something and own it.” So I went home and wrote a letter of resignation. And said to everybody good luck, and I was sad it wasn’t going to work out. Dolly was going to put all these songs in and it was going to be a big success and I wouldn’t be there. But in fact it was a big bomb, because it just wasn’t right, and I think it wasn’t right because they didn’t let us do it.
DL: But the soundtrack ended up being a success.
CH: Yeah, and I’m grateful for that. That warmed my heart. You know Burt didn’t want to sing “Good Old Girl” which is one of my favorite songs ever. I love “Good Old Girl”. Because that’s what my grandfather called my grandmother. They were married 67 years, and he never said anything other than “She’s a good old girl.” I just loved that, and the fact that he didn’t sing “I love her so.” He just said “She’s a good old girl,” and we knew he loved her. So Burt Reynolds didn’t want to sing that. He thought there should be a song for the sheriff about how attractive all the girls in the bordello found him. But he actually had a friend named Snuffy or Snoopy or something who wrote that song, or maybe Dolly did. But there was a song about that, where he got to pat the girls on the bottom. But the other thing Burt didn’t want was the line, “That old fart would screw up a two car funeral.” One of the townspeople says it about the sheriff. “That old fart would screw up a two car funeral.” So I’m thinking, he doesn’t want to sing “Good Old Girl,” and he doesn’t want anybody to describe him as “that old fart.” Now what is the connective tissue here? It sort of seemed to me it was that tiny little word “old.” That kind of set it off. That was the situation. But no, I was real grateful for the soundtrack album, and Dolly had a big hit that won a country music most played whatever award. And all that, all that’s nice.
DL: Let’s move on to one of your more successful screen projects, Free To Be You and Me.
CH: You know, I’m so proud, and when I die, that’s what I want in my obit. Even though I know the New York Times will quote all the bad reviews for Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. I know big darling lugs come up to me all the time and tell me that they are now grown men raised up on “It’s All Right to Cry” and “Parents Are People.” I love every minute of that project.
DL: So how did you get involved in it?
CH: Scott Shukat [Carol’s agent]. Marlo Thomas wanted to do this, and she wanted to get a bunch of writers together. Scott represented quite a few of the people who wrote on that project. So we sat in rooms with folks like Gloria Steinem and Marlo, and people spoke out of their hearts about what had concerned them growing up, men and women. I don’t even remember how I thought of “Parents are People.” But I think that I was aware at that time that my children, who had no reason to think that women could not be doctors or anything of that nature, were reflecting that society. And Daniel, my Daniel who was six or seven at that time had a woman doctor. His pediatrician was a woman. And he came home one day, and I was working on “Parents Are People” and I made this little rule for myself that all of the professions listed had to be people that I knew. Just for fun I made that rule. And I said something about mommies are doctors and Daniel said to me, “Mommies cannot be the doctors, they are the nurses.” And he had a pediatrician who was a woman! Then [my daughter] Susannah came in; she was eight or something. She was listening to “Parents Are People” and “Mommies are women, women with children …” and she said, “Don’t sing women.” I said, “Why not?” She said, “Girls are ladies.” I just sat there horrified and put it aside. It was fun. It was wonderful.
And so was the second one, Free To Be A Family. By the time the second one was done, there was a lot of stuff out there. I mean Sesame Street used to have a song about a family and it’s bizarre to think about now, but there was a mommy puppet, a daddy puppet and a baby puppet and they sang of how they were a family. Here they were, literally aiming their program toward inner city children, none of whom had a mommy and a daddy and a baby type of family. It was really amazing. But I think in the end we didn’t know it would be such a landmark, but it was a thrill when that happened.
DL: When you started was it always supposed to be the book and the record and the TV program?
CH: No, it was going to be a record put out by Ms. and the response was really staggering. Then it quickly became the book and the television show.
DL: So, Free To Be A Family. Whose idea was that? Marlo again?
CH: Marlo got married, and she realized that there were some things that they hadn’t touched on the first album. For the first album, she was all full of “women don’t have to get married to be full complete human beings.” She had come to her senses by the time of Free To Be A Family. And not only did she have a husband, but she had stepchildren. She wanted to write about something that was always very dear to my heart, which is that there was absolutely nothing saying to children that stepmothers were good. I used to be embarrassed that I liked my stepmother, because I’ve never seen the word without wicked preceding it. So that was the beginning for her. And I wanted to write about the different forms of families that I was looking at by then. So that kids could not feel weird. Since I grew up in a divorce situation and it seemed to me that I was the only person in the world whose parents were divorced. I remember how that hurt. The thing about both of those projects was that they were, they really came out of everybody’s heart.
DL: Do you think that in the future they’ll ever be another installment?
CH: I don’t know, Marlo may want to do a Grandmother project, you know? Haven’t heard about it.
DL: Let’s talk a little bit about your pop career, because I don’t think a lot of our listeners realize that you had two albums, although a lot of people know the song “Jenny Rebecca”. Did you record that first, or was it already a hit for someone else?
CH: I recorded it after. It was one of the first things I ever wrote that got done by anybody. Mabel Mercer was actually the first person to do “Jenny Rebecca”. I’m pretty sure Barbra Streisand heard her do it and got it there. She called and asked for it. I don’t think of myself as having had a pop career. I think of myself as having had two failed albums that I really loved a lot. Like integrity just written over them. Integrity failures.
DL: How did they happen then?
CH: Carole King made Tapestry and if you were a girl and you wrote songs everyone was looking for you. Again, Scott. Scott was my agent. We had offers. It was amazing. We had more than one offer and Elektra was a wonderful label and I had fun, I went out. I opened for Don MacLean. It was really fun. I was awfully shy then, I’m better now at performing. We always got good reviews. The cult press always loved me. I still have my Rolling Stone interview on my wall. But, it didn’t sell. I’m not sure why that is, but it happens. In fact Jack Holman, who was president of Elektra, just wrote a book about a year and a half ago, where he describes me as still one of the great puzzlements of his life at Elektra. He never understood why that happened. I always had a fantasy that at my funeral there’s going to be a big wonderful concert of all my material whereupon people will say, “Oh My God!”
DL: I definitely had one of those moments. I never realized that the Carol Hall from Free To Be was the same Carol Hall who wrote Best Little Whorehouse. Most people don’t realize that. And what’s next from this same Carol Hall?
CH: It’s a new show called Technicolor: Ten Love Stories, and five of them are short plays and five of them are songs. The songs are not the musicalization of the plays. Sometimes they’re plays and sometimes they’re songs. And you sort of switch back and forth between them. They’re all performed by three people. One man and two women. I love it because I’ve never seen it done before. And if I could get the little sucker on, they’ll say I invented a new genre. But in the meantime, people seem to hold it a long time, various producers. I would really love to start it in a regional theatre. Everyone pleads and begs that they want a musical for three people, and piano, viola, and cello is how I see it, really a small thing.
There is a cohesion to it in the end – you feel that there has been a theme. I would hesitate to say what I think people feel, but when I’ve done little bits and pieces of it, the response has been encouraging. I’ve done it in funny little spots – twice in Texas, at a very small theatre in a very small town. Cowboys came and laughed and cried at the same places that they laughed and cried on Christopher Street when I did it at a little club on Bleeker and Christopher. I’m encouraged to think that there is something there, but I sure wish I can get it on.
DL: Did you write it with anyone or by yourself?
CH: I did it all by myself. The plays are an unusual step for me, though I did do the book for my off-Broadway show, To Whom It May Concern. I have done a little of that and I’m doing more. We’re going to try Technicolor at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in October for three days in front of an audience of strangers so I’m pleased about that.
DL: Do you have anything else in the pipeline?
CH: You know I am absolutely dying to start a bigger show, but because I’m in the process of acquiring rights, I’d rather not say quite what. The funny thing is I did Whorehouse, and it was wonderful and it paid off. But because people haven’t heard of a lot of what I’ve done since then, they think I haven’t done anything since then, but in fact I‘ve never stopped working. There are some shows that didn’t get on, some shows that were workshops, there was one show that was work-shopped so often I always said if it did get on, people would think it was a revival. And so you look up one day and someone is asking, “Do you still write?” It’s very alarming, because I have never stopped, but I’m longing to get something else going.
DL: You’ve written in so many different worlds now, you’ve got album-oriented stuff, you’ve got theatre stuff, and you’ve got some film stuff. Do you still primarily consider yourself a theatre person, or a song writer or something else entirely?
CH: You know that’s a really good question, because I don’t know, I just don’t know what is going on with musical theatre right now. I just finished judging about twenty tapes that just came in for a prize that is given in the world of musical theatre, and I was so astonished by the darkness of all the tapes. They were obviously skillfully done in the sense of good arrangement, but all the stories were about incest and rape and one of them, honest to God, was about Hitler’s mother. I thought for a minute it was The Producers Revisited. But it was a really serious story about a woman who had a baby who was a little odd, and it was Hitler. I mean it was just.. AAAHHH!!!! and you would almost think that Rent was the Seussical of this bunch of tapes. And they were all by these really young people fresh out of college, and I finished listening and I thought I don’t know what any of this means. And none of them were tuneful.
I really would like to think of myself as a tunesmith and as a songwriter. I write songs. I don’t know anymore if there is a place for me and what I do in musical theatre. I can’t tell. But I’m getting simpler as I get older. When I write songs I want people to hear them. Pretty simple. In whatever medium I can figure out for them. And so when I do cabaret here in New York, you know I do that because my one choice these days if you write a song is “Is Disney producing anything of mine this week, or should I just go sing it in a little club where people will actually listen?” So it’s a tiny world, but it’s a place where people will listen to lyrics that are coherent and rhyme and have melodies. I guess I’m just an old fashioned girl.
DL: I’m curious about how you write. Can you describe your process, where do you get your idea for a song?
CH: I’ll give you two examples: I have a really young friend named David Campbell, the Australian singer. And we have one of those intergenerational friendships, and he had been talking to me about his love troubles. I was sympathetic, but I was very aware that I was older and wiser. And so I wanted to write a song that said to him “you are going to be all right.” But it said it to him in a funny way and in a “hey it’s all right because I’m older and wiser so I know it so let me tell you how it will be all right.” And it did come out funny, and it’s called “It’s Only a Broken Heart.” It was totally from my heart. At the same time I had been in a jazz class with Martin Murphy, for those who know jazz, he’s the most arcane of the most arcane, the white hot ambassador of cool. And I take this class whenever he’s in town, because it opens me up. I’m not very good at it – I’m kind of the worst one in the class. I’m the worst jazz singer, but the best writer in the class. And so it opens me up. At the same time I wanted to use a lot of the syncopated patterns that I was learning in David’s song. So that’s one process, which is almost like playing a game with myself.
In the case of Sesame Street we always had very specific curriculum questions. Big Bird is six years old, and he’s insecure, and he’s afraid to cross the street, and he’s not sure how to make a sandwich, and he needs help, but in a way to be respectful to him as a six year old. So the things he says are very specific to that age, whereas Cookie Monster is a whole different deal. Cookie Monster is a kid who grabs what he wants and gobbles it up, so he has a very specific language. Grover never used contractions, for example, so you had to be aware of that as you wrote the songs. In Whorehouse when the sheriff needs to sing a song and the task for a particular moment, I had several tasks. He wants to sing a love song about Mona, but he’s not a man who would ever, ever say that he loved her. I know these kinds of Texas people, as I said my grandfather was my prototype who never would have said, “I do love your grandmother very, very much.” He would say, “Well, she’s just a good old girl.” Now he also just adored her, and we knew that. So the idea was to write “Good Old Good” and to make the sheriff say things to make the audience knows he loves her, but he doesn’t. So he says, “Thank God she never was the clinging kind; we never did talk too much. And anyway, whatever I would have told her, that good old girl, she knows.” I mean I’m not quite remembering my exact lyrics, but that’s the gist of it. So the real gist of it is the audience gets to hear the song and say to themselves with a smile, “Oh, he’s crazy about her.” We knew that, and that’s much more like life because its really boring if you have a friend like David Campbell telling you how much he loves somebody, that’s not nearly as interesting as somebody denying that they like somebody when we say “Oh, yeah” to ourselves. So you are kind of exploring that dynamic and are very aware of that. The other thing was, I was very aware that Henderson Forsythe [the original actor who played the Sheriff] wasn’t a singer, I mean he could sing all right, but he was an actor with a nice voice. And so I had to make a song that was easy for him to sing.
“A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” also developed like that. Miss Edna, the woman upon whom Miss Mona was based, actually had her set of rules, some of which I used verbatim. “Don’t let your mouth overload your capabilities” came right off her refrigerator. She had very specific rules about hemlines and not saying hello to anybody if you saw them in town and all that. I wanted to put those specifics in.
I write a lot of songs out of my own experience, but I don’t necessarily say “I”. For example, it’s really a lot more interesting for The Beatles to say “She’s Leaving Home” rather than “I’m Leaving Home.” A lot of times I’ve translated it into someone else; that’s more interesting to me and less whiny.
DL: Do you tend to write music and lyrics apace with each other?
CH: It depends on the task. For a long time I’ve wanted to write with other people, and for the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of lyric writing to other people’s music. That is so much fun for me, because sometimes they will give me a melody in its entirety, which is very hard to set. Sometimes I give them a whole lyric. But what I would prefer to do in a collaboration is give someone a half a lyric, see if it does anything for them, and then sit in a room and say, “Now what shall we do?” When I’m doing both, if I don’t get a lyric and melody together, I’ll get the feeling of what the melody will feel like. You certainly know if it’s going to be a ballad or an up-tempo. You know that “I Dream In Technicolor” is not going to be a finger-snapper. Lately, I’ve been thinking that I would really like to mess around with some more sophisticated rhythms. Listening to World Music and the jazz work I’ve been doing, I realized there are more interesting rhythms out there than what I’ve been doing.
I usually have a point. One of the things I worked on yesterday is a fairly serious but funny piece. It’s about something serious, but I hope it’s funny. And that’s how the Technicolor plays seem to be hitting people. I decided that if I just wrote down every single thing that occurred to me about this topic, not in any form, just as raw information: “She went to the store. She bought a grapefruit. She came home.” One sentence after another and not editing myself, things would float to the surface – as they did. I could write three pages and then this line would float to the surface. I’m at the stage now where I’m thinking, “Is this a piece of music? Is this a play with music? Is this a ten-minute play? Is it a long song?” I don’t know yet, but I know if I keep writing down everything I’ve ever thought about this topic, I feel that something will click.
On the other hand, I have a little bitty thing that I do to turn myself on: I got to poems that I love and wonder if that can be said in a song. There’s a really neat poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called “What lips my lips have kissed,” in which she says she doesn’t remember any of her loves, but the last line is, “I cannot say what loves have come and gone; / I only know that summer sang in me / a little while, that in me sings no more.” I thought, “Ooh! Could I take ‘summer sang in me’ and do my version of that poem?” It was really an interesting project. I worked on it for about an hour, and it was all about summer and heat and grass and moon and honeysuckle, and I thought, “This is so boring!” Because it’s not really about summer, it’s about how she doesn’t remember any of her loves. What she misses is the passion, and that’s a lot more interesting. And of course, there’s always that part of me that says, “Why are you doing this? This is not exactly something you can send to Vanessa Williams.” But it’s not interesting for me to do unless I have a task.