Singer/songwriter Steven Lutvak has been on the edge of my radar for years, ever since Time Magazine profiled him in their 'people to watch' column. He's one of those people I have known without knowing, as I have loved a number of his songs sung by a number of performers (all the while neglecting to connect the dots and realize the same person was responsible for them). This year I finally saw him perform at Joe's Pub (something everybody with even the barest scrap of interest in well-written songs performed exceptionally well should do) and made it my mission to interview him for Talkin' Broadway.
Steven: Yes. They commissioned a musical from me and my writing partner, Robert Freedman, who wrote the Judy Garland mini-series, Me and My Shadows, and also the Cinderella TV movie for Disney. He's written and had produced about 25 TV movies but has always wanted to write a musical for the stage and he approached me six years ago with a really wacky idea for a show.
JF: What is the project called?
SL: Campaign of the Century. It's based on a book by Greg Mitchell called The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, which is about Upton Sinclair's unsuccessful bid for Governor of California in 1934. Even though he was famous as a Socialist, Sinclair ran as a Democrat when he was in his 50s. He got on the ticket and won the primary by a landslide. Now this was during the height of the Depression. FDR had only been president for eighteen months, give or take, and the New Deal was very new. Sinclair won on a platform he called EPIC: End Poverty In California. One of his policies was called "Production For Use." Very simply, he said, "You have all these farms that have gone bankrupt and factories standing empty and all these people out of work and hungry. Put the people on the farms so they can grow food and feed themselves, and let them make things in the factories and start a barter system."
This was threatening, as you can imagine, to the capitalists in California, more specifically the movie industry. Louis B. Mayer said he would singlehandedly move the movie industry out of California if Upton Sinclair became governor. From the time of the primary to the election, which is the period our musical covers, he had Irving Thalberg create three fake newsreels, the last of which was such blatant propaganda that people left the theater and demanded their money back. The studios even required that all of their employees give one day's salary to the Republican candidate.
William Randolph Hearst wrote articles against Sinclair every day in every one of his twenty-eight newspapers in eighteen cities across the country. Shirley Temple, despite the 'no politics' clause in her contract, sang songs against Sinclair. There was very little written that was pro Frank Merriam, who was the incumbent; it was all anti-Sinclair. It's an unbelievable story! It was the first time the media was used in such a way in an election. Sinclair did lose, although, ironically, many of his policies were implemented in some form or another.
JF: This is sounding like something the creators of Urinetown would write as fiction.
SL: I know - I was telling Robert today that we need to call the show Campaign of the Century: A True Musical.
JF: What drew you into writing a musical on this topic?
SL: Well, Robert called me and said, "I think it's a musical, and if you don't want to do it, I'm still going to write it." His vision is to make it a kind of a vaudeville, so it's sort of Ragtime meets Chicago. It sings both in its ridiculousness and the empathy you have for the people involved, because Sinclair truly wanted to help people who were out of work and starving.
Of course, we created a fictional love story between the man who was hired by Thalberg to create the propaganda newsreels and a young migrant worker he meets and films for one of the films.
JF: Is there a projected timeline for Campaign of the Century?
SL: We are going to have a reading of the first act in December, then a reading of the whole show in April, May or June, followed a full workshop or two or three and take it from there.
JF: Are you writing music and lyrics for the show?
SL: I'm doing the music and Robert and I are co-writing the lyrics.
JF: Are you writing a part for yourself in the musical?
SL: Oh my God no! I'm not an actor! Musicals are so hard to get right that it's much more important to sit back and watch it.
It's funny ... I was always aiming to be a theater writer. The cabaret performances are really a happy/complicated accident that happened.
JF: ... as a showcase for your material.
JF: That's funny, since you are one of the best singer/songwriters I have ever seen. I was blown away by your performance at Joe's Pub this year. The freedom of your vocals and the comfort level you have while performing are ... envy inducing, to be honest!
SL: (Laughs) Well thank you! I do a lot of coaching and it became very clear to me who was the best voice teacher in town: Joan Lader. Joan came to the first show that I did and was very complimentary about my writing. When I asked her what she thought about my singing she said, "It's a nice natural instrument," thereby erasing, in my mind, everything she had said before (laughs).
I've been working with her for twelve years now. So this is a roundabout way of saying 'thank you' for your compliment, since I've been working really hard on it with a really great teacher.
One thing she did say to me at one point was that until I got some body work done we couldn't continue working.
JF: Meaning what? Massage, working out, chiropractic work, radical plastic surgery ...
SL: Deep tissue work, Pilates, yoga ... that kind of a thing. I was so blocked that she told me that unless I did something about it, I would never be a singer. Since I didn't want to give up my slot in her studio (laughs), I started doing body work on a regular basis ... insanely so, friends of mine will tell you! (laughs)
JF: Tell me more about some of the other shows you have written, starting with Esmeralda ...
SL: It premiered at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, which has done a lot of my shows. It's a retelling, obviously, of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but without Quasimodo. I'm currently working on a rewrite of it with David Berry [playwright and screenwriter of The Whales Of August].
JF: What is The Wayside Motor Inn?
SL: The Wayside Motor Inn is a musical based on a play by A. R. Gurney and has been optioned by Michael Leavitt, who is the lead producer for Thoroughly Modern Millie.
JF: Is there a projected time frame that it could be produced?
SL: Soon. That's all I can say! We did a reading with Chuck Cooper, Emily Skinner, Jose Llana and Frank Vlastnik. It's a wonderful little show. In the play, Gurney had five couples come to the hotel at various points in their lives. And by couples I mean a variety of relationships like a father and son, a divorcing couple, a salesman and a waitress, an older couple where the man is quite ill ... We sliced it down and combined it to three families: an older black couple, a gay couple, and a mother/father/son triad. The gimmick of the show is that it's while it's taking place in three different hotel rooms, it's all played on one set. It's a beautiful show.
JF: What era or style of music is it?
SL: It's contemporary and very much in the style of my cabaret songs.
JF: That hardly narrows it down, Steven ... your cabaret songs run quite the gamut of styles: Manhattan Transfer-esque jazz to Billy Joel pop/rock to power anthems to heartrending ballads ...
SL: Yeah ... that's funny; to me, they all encompass classic contemporary pop sounds.
JF: I have to take this moment to say how much I love your CD, The Time It Takes. I can't stop listening to it! I think I've listened to "Inside My Body Is a Dancer" about six times this week alone.
SL: Well thank you. I am so proud of my album. I worked on it for two years. My producer was wonderful and turned out an incredible album.
JF: I agree. I'm so upset that I didn't get it when it came out last year, or it would have been a shoe-in for my "Best of 2002" list.
SL: You can't shoe-horn it in this year? (Laughs)
JF: Nope; those are the rules!
You mentioned that you are a vocal coach, and, from what I hear, a highly sought after one at that.
SL: I'm really good about matching people with material; I have coaches in New York who send people to me just to do that. Most people don't know what they are casting-wise and although they may have a song that they love singing, it's for a part that they will never get cast as. And I also focus on acting values and keeping the material fresh. Leonard Bernstein used to say, when he was conducting he thought of each piece as if he were writing it; he was creating it anew rather than conducting it. Which I just love - and the same thing has to happen when you're singing a song.
JF: Sounds like you're a highly useful teacher. How can people contact you for more information or to see about setting up coaching sessions?
SL: They can e-mail me at email@example.com.
JF: I find it interesting that the imagery you use to describe how you coach is similar to what I think a director should bring out of someone. Is directing something you do as well?
SL: Nope. Not interested at all.
JF: So the only thing you don't want to do is direct, making you the opposite of every other writer/performer in the world ...
SL: Exactly. I've directed people's acts and I've directed my own act and people have said, "It's so beautifully staged! Who directed it?" and I think, "What are you talking about?" You just get up and do it! It seems logical to me. But I don't want to direct. I don't think I have a strong visual sense. I am all about sound.
JF: Let's get into your awards ... in addition to your various MAC, ASCAP and Bistro awards, you were the first recipient of the Johnny Mercer Foundation Emerging American Songwriters Award. I'm not familiar with that one.
SL: It's given by the Johnny Mercer Foundation, headed by Margaret Whiting. I got it in 1992 and there were two first time winners; Babbie Green and myself. In subsequent years, John Bucchino has won it, as has David Freedman and Michele Brourman, to name a few. It's a one-time cash award.
JF: You also won the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Grant in 1999?
SL: Yes, which was very exciting. What was great about that award is that it is based on need. If you made it to the finals, they wanted to see your tax returns, which I think is fantastic! It was a very easy application and they only wanted to hear three songs; I included two songs from Wayside and one from Esmeralda. I'm a reader for them now and I love doing it.
JF: You claim not to be a performer, but you did a workshop of Mancini ...
SL: What happened was I got a call from one of my clients, who was the associate choreographer for the show, asking if I would be interested in music directing it. I thanked her, but said that they would never hire me for the job ... that they would go with someone who actually does music direct shows professionally. Later on she called to say that I was right, that were going to hire somebody else. And then she asked me to come in and sing for them. And again I said, "You're never going to hire me, you're going to hire an actor." And she replied that the actors were too 'out' and the jazz people were too 'in' and felt with all my cabaret experience I would be just right (laughs).
It was a fantastic and fascinating experience. I walked in and could just feel that the job was going to be mine. The director took one look at me and said, "Great tie," and I thought, "If you like my tie, you like me and will hire me." They ended up changing the role and got a dancer who also plays the piano, which made sense since it's primarily a dance show. But it was so interesting to be an actor and be treated like oh-so much chattel. It was horrifying! "Lutvak; stand in the corner and be a waiter in this scene." And for this I got a Master's Degree??? It was fascinating, and I wouldn't give up the experience for anything.
JF: You also were in a workshop of Michel Legrand and Sheldon Harnick's L' Amour Fantome.
SL: Yes. The title translates into 'ghostly love.' We were a bunch of ghosts. Sheldon called me one day to ask me to do a recording for him. I immediately thought, "You're Sheldon Harnick, I'll do whatever you want!" I asked him what it was and he said that it was a translation of a Michel Legrand musical, and I instantly thought, "Oh, you don't want to hire me!"
JF: You say that a lot ...
SL: (Laughs). He said, "You're exactly right for this; trust me!" I played the ghost of an American GI who was parachuting into France and got impaled on a steeple.
JF: You were also music consultant for the film The Cradle Will Rock.
SL: What that meant is that I did some coaching for people. I had to show Hank Azaria, who played Blitzstein, how to look like he was playing piano. He watched me play on the keyboard and then would mimic me and I would give him notes, like "The arm needs to be more fluid there," that sort of thing. I vocally coached some of the people as well.
JF: What do you have coming up?
SL: Right now it's all about getting Campaign of the Century ready. But I'm also working on getting the rights to a project that I'm very excited about, but I can't officially talk about it now. And I'm scheduled to return to Joe's Pub in November.
JF: Great! I can't wait to see you perform again in November.
To read more information on Steven, as well as to hear samples from his CD, visit his website at www.stevenlutvak.com.