Joal Paley and Marvin Laird
by Nancy Rosati
Nancy Rosati: Marvin, why don’t we start with you - you’re conducting Gypsy on Broadway now. I understand you usually work with Bernadette Peters.
Marvin Laird: This is kind of full circle because we started working together in 1961 doing the second national company of Gypsy when she was 13 and I was 21. I was Assistant Conductor and she played one of the Hollywood Blondes. Since then, we’ve done a lot of work in television and theater. I’ve conducted her solo concert act ever since it’s been in existence - over 30 years. We have a nice long history together. She’s a delicious lady as well as a wonderful artist. It’s been a privilege to have that much of a career associated with one person who’s not only extremely gifted, but also extremely generous.
Nancy: You’ve also worked on some classic TV shows.
Marvin: I lived in California for about 20 years after having gone out there to do a show. I got a case of hepatitis and had to stay on in California when the company came back to open on Broadway. It just happened that it was in that golden time of variety television. I’ve worked with every variety artist known to man from Bing Crosby to Bob Hope to Fred Astaire. It was when they were all doing variety TV. Then I started writing underscore music for episodic television like Dynasty, Love Boat and Quincy.
Nancy: Joal, you have said you were "asked" to stop attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Joal Paley: You’ve got it wrong. I was “cordially invited” to stop attending. Basically I found that just by being in New York City on my own, I was learning a lot more than I was learning from several frustrated actors who couldn’t make it as actors themselves, so they had to teach.
Nancy: And you taught yourself how to write?
Joal: Actually, let me start at the beginning. I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatella, Idaho.
Nancy: I think I’ve heard this story before...
Joal: I wasn’t setting out to write. I just did it to amuse myself. I like making things up and I started writing them down so I didn’t have to remember them and I could look at them again later.
Nancy: How many years have you two worked together?
Marvin: It will be 28 this fall. We enjoy each other’s company. Joal makes me laugh an awful lot. Once in awhile I think I amuse him. It’s been a joy. Certainly there’s a discipline to any kind of collaborative work, but we also have a good time doing it.
Joal: We both work with other people, which serves to make our collaboration feel like coming home.
Nancy: You never get into an argument at work and bring it home?
Marvin: Oh yes!
Joal: When we’re both arguing for the greater cause.... we just call them “creative discussions” and realize that we’re not allowing each other to settle.
Marvin: Any time a collaboration begins, you first work out the basic kinks of “Do we work together mechanically well enough?” After that, there’s a respect that goes into forging a relationship in the first place. You’re obviously not going to work with someone you don’t respect, either as a human being or from a standpoint of the quality of their talent. When we get into a discussion, we know there’s a reason for each person taking his point of view. It’s not a matter of winning, but of seeing the other person’s idea as more likely to give the show its right perspective.
Joal: If I believe something at one point, and I’m challenged to let it go and come up with something else, I’m confident that I’ll come up with something better. Although it may be an ego issue, ultimately by letting go, I’m fairly confident that it will be better, so I stopped taking it personally. I like to work with people who know more than I do, or with people I trust enough to let them question my work.
Nancy: You’ve been working on Ruthless! a long time. Can you give me some of the background on that?
Joal: It started as a Saturday Night Live-esque skit that I wrote when I was a member of “Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.” A group of my friends used to write skits for whoever had a birthday coming up. Rather than buy them a present, since we didn’t have money, we presented a personalized show about them on their birthday. I loved the movie The Bad Seed and the person we were writing for loved it too. I played a television critic reviewing the fictional musical version of The Bad Seed on Broadway called Seedy. It was a two-page review. I read through a script that was typed poorly on looseleaf paper, which is now framed and hanging in Marvin’s bathroom.
When I met Marvin a year after I wrote it - he was the Musical Director and I was one of the dancers in a Shirley MacLaine show - we were hanging out and I read him the review. When actors and performers get together, they tend to play “show and tell” as opposed to talking politics. That’s our nature. He laughed and said it would be funny if it really was a musical. It made perfect sense to me. I continued on with “The Trockadero” and in order to occupy my time while on tour, I started to imagine how it would look as a musical. After six years total of writing it, I “suddenly” had the book and lyrics for a musical version of The Bad Seed. Marvin will tell you the rest.
Marvin: As Joal would write things while he was on tour, he would send me bits and pieces of the book ideas and lyrics. I would send him back tapes of the musical ideas that they suggested to me. When we finally had the chance to sit down in the same place for more than a weekend together, we started a genuine collaboration. You can only collaborate long distance for a certain amount of time. Then you finally have to sit at a piano in the same room. We started in earnest...
Joal: Was that Earnest, Pennsylvania?
Marvin: No, it was Earnest, Maine. We started for a good many years to get the rights from the Maxwell Anderson estate to do this musical version. He was long dead but his widow was still alive. She was having none of it. She did not want to think of her husband’s work as something that would be the material for parody, which of course is what this whole thing was. Although we assured her that we did love the original piece... I think it was a generational thing as well because she was well into her 90s by then. She could not see that there was fodder for something amusing from her husband’s original work.
Joal: ... that would create a renewed interest in her husband’s original work. And yet, she allowed Blair Brown to remake it on TV, which was crap. She was just a greedy, old ...
Marvin: However, she’s now dead, so we don’t have to worry about those rights. A friend of ours finally said, “Stop trying to get the rights. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Saturday Night Live became a very popular show and that changed a lot of the rules. Suddenly it was okay to parody something else as long as you weren’t trying to pass the original material off as your own. You had to make it very clear that a) you were parodying something that already existed, and b) you were also parodying a number of other things as well. That’s what gave birth to the second act, which was written very quickly. I parody eight other favorite movies - including Gypsy, Marat/Sade, The Children’s Hour, Valley of the Dolls, All About Eve, and The Women.
When I wrote the first half about The Bad Seed, that was a labor of love and there was no time pressure. I didn’t know I was writing anything that would ever see the light of day. The second half had to be thrown together very quickly so I never felt that Act Two was as polished and as clean, and as ultimately meaningful as Act One. But now that we’re going to be doing it all these years later on the West End, and then back in New York, I’m working on it.
I’ve also become a better writer. If you do something for ten years, hopefully you’ll get better at it. I’ve been trying to find as much underlying reality in the second act as I could in order to hopefully top the first act. I’ve been able to go back and that’s the joy of writing for theater. It’s an ever-going process if you’re willing to keep working on it.
Joal: I asked them if they would try this newer version so I sent them my own personal copy. There were some things that for whatever reason their director chose to do the original way. I would say they made about 90% of the changes. Since they got the script, other changes have been made. I saw some of the changes once before in an East End London production and I’m thrilled to say that the newest stuff worked the best.
Nancy: Does it play differently in London than it does here?
Joal: The one and only production I saw in London wasn’t even greatly directed, but the English audience has a wonderful understanding of this kind of farce. In America, we kind of lump everything together as “campy,” which is really a generalization. In England, thanks to Benny Hill or Dame Edna, they really understand something can be very bawdy, but at the same time, be really clever. The two opposites can work well together, as opposed to here where we tend to do things in one bold stroke like The Three Stooges or The Three Sisters - either very clever or total slapstick. It is a farce, which is a very English concept.
Marvin: They gave birth to that form of theater, certainly the modern form as we understand it. We were originally afraid that because of a lot of American references, we would have to do some “Anglicization” of it, but they insisted that they wanted to play it as is. The English audiences have a greater understanding of where we’re going. Although they may not know some specific references, they understand the context so well because they’ve enjoyed farce for so many years.
Nancy: Is the show booked in the West End yet?
Joal: It’s going to open in the fall.
Marvin: No Joal, it’s the spring.
Joal: Ok, the spring. I was absent the day they taught seasons. I’ll go there in the summer and do pre-production. I’ll then go in mid-January to start rehearsal.
Nancy: Are you just talking about Broadway or is that definite?
Joal: We’re in the talking stages with the money people and the producer. A lot hinges on the West End production and theater availability.
Nancy: Tell me about your next show - Shofar, Sho Good.
Joal: That's pretty much done, although it’s going through another rewrite. We’re in the starting stages of a third musical. Shofar, Sho Good is something that was written and now we’re polishing it.
Nancy: Can you give me a two second synopsis of it?
Joal: It’s a “Jewsical.”
Marvin: Nunsense was to the Catholics an endearing look back at things from their past. This is the same thing for the Jewish people.
Nancy: I see. (laughing) I’m glad you called it that and not me!
Marvin: Well, you can also call it a “Chosen Musical.”
Nancy: What’s the one you’re working on now?
Marvin: It’s an idea we’ve had for about ten years. It’s a biography musical. We don’t talk about it a lot because it’s in the process of negotiations. It’s a brand new musical which we will probably do first in London, about an English woman. We’ll see where it goes. It could go to New York or it could go to Bangkok.
Nancy: Anything else we didn’t cover?
Joal: A lot!
Nancy: (laughing) Well, I think the point is to talk about Ruthless.
Joal: One thing I can add - I learned with the Boston production that you can approach it in different ways. Each director has his own ideas and Larry Coen has a very different approach to when I directed it. At first it took me aback, but when I went with it, I was thrilled to see that it could work on an entirely different level. It is a farce and a comedy. I’m not saying he made it tragic and people were crying their eyes out, but within comedy, there are many different styles and many different levels.
Nancy: Does that mean it’s very different from the original New York production?
Joal: It’s very different in the whole tone and the whole approach. People who saw it in New York also saw a very different script - SIGNIFICANTLY different, particularly in Act Two. It’s a great production.
Book & Lyrics by Joal Paley
Directed by Larry Coen
Ticket Prices: $20-$31
Ruthless! Photo: @2003 Craig Bailey/CBE Photo
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