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Regional Reviews: Seattle

An Interview with Andrew Lippa

Andrew Lippa (2nd from right) and The Wild Party cast members
Andrew Lippa is best known as a composer and lyricist, having written three songs for the recent Broadway revival of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, the book, music and lyrics for the Outer Critics Circle Award winning Off-Broadway The Wild Party, and the composer and co-author of the musical john & jen. He is also a performer, having sung at Carnegie Hall and The Rainbow Room, as well as in the animated feature The Prince Of Egypt, for which he also provided vocal arrangements. I was lucky enough to visit with Andrew on a recent Seattle visit, which culminated in a performance/lecture for Music Theatre Inc.

Jonathan Frank: What brings you to Seattle?

Andrew Lippa: In 1997 I got cast in a play called 2 Pianos, 4 Hands that was a hit in Canada. I was one of the understudies when it came to New York and took over the part when the Canadian guys in it, who were also the writers, left. It was the greatest performing challenge I've ever had as it's a two-person comedy show with sketches, lots of physical comedy, tons of difficult piano playing, all happening at the same time! I went to Vancouver to learn the part and the rehearsals happened to be during the High Holy Days. I met this Rabbi and his wife and ended up going to their small synagogue which didn't have a Cantor, just an amateur choir. They found out I sang and asked me to sing in the choir. Now singing was my instrument before I started playing piano; I was a voice major at the University of Michigan. So I went, and they gave me a solo to sing at the beginning of the service, which went over extremely well. After the service one of the members mentioned that if I wanted to come back the following year as the Hazzan he would pay for it, so I've been doing it ever since. I've become a member of the community there and love it. And since my friend Joel Fram is conducting A Little Night music here, I came down to see it, which worked out great because I've been asked to do a couple of performance/lectures while I'm here.

JF:  That's great! I'm looking forward to hearing and seeing you on Monday. I know that you've done some cabaret work in the past. Is there any performing in your future?

AL:  I do concerts from time to time under the auspices of TDI, a group sales company that sells Broadway shows, to promote school groups and the like to come to Broadway. And every once in a while I'll sing at a benefit. I have no plans to put my own show together right now though I was asked to do an evening at Joe's Pub and may do that.

JF:  You recorded one number on the Fynsworth Alley Sondheim CD. Ever consider recording a solo album?

AL:  I have thought about a solo CD. I've also thought about a solo show that I'd write for myself but nothing has really inspired me to do it. Maybe one day ... I'm just too busy writing and having a good time I guess!

JF:   Speaking of writing ... I hear the piano/vocal score of The Wild Party is finally going to be released ...

AL:   Yeah! Supposedly it's going to be published this month. Although who knows how the war is going to affect things. The word I got was that it was supposed to be in stores by the end of the month.

JF:  It's taken quite a while ... the show opened and closed over a year ago, after all ...

AL:   Yeah, it took a while, and I'm not exactly sure why. The show closed in April of 2000 and the recording came out in July, which is what made all the difference; the album has been a very significant calling card in my life this past year. My lawyer sent it over to publishers Hal Leonard in order to pitch the idea of doing a folio of about twelve songs from The Wild Party and by August/September the songbook was already in the works. That was when they published "My New Philosophy" as well. They didn't realize I wrote it until we started talking about The Wild Party! They asked what else I wrote, and I mentioned that I wrote some songs for the revival of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, and they leapt at that going, "Did you write 'My New Philosophy?' We've been trying to find out who wrote that!" And I'm going, "It's not that hard! There's a cast recording which has my name all over it!"

JF:  You produced the recording, right?

AL:   Correct ... and was nominated for a Grammy for it. The folks at Hal Leonard were very nice and asked if they could publish "My New Philosophy" as a single sheet, which they rarely do anymore, so I was really thrilled at that. They also included the song in two vocal anthologies and now they are going to be including some of The Wild Party's songs in some future anthologies as well. The best selling books at Hal Leonard are the musical theater anthologies since they are used by voice teachers and students all over the country, so it's great to be a part of that.

Speaking of being included ... this is really cool! RCA Victor is celebrating the 100th anniversary of their company by putting out a compilation album in every department and they put out a record out this summer called Broadway Divas. It contains singers like Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Jennifer Holliday, Patty Lupone, and some more contemporary people like Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie ... and the only person you look at the album and go "huh???" over is Julia Murney singing "Raise the Roof" from The Wild Party!

JF:   I thought you were going to mention "My New Philosophy," since Kristin Chenoweth did win a Tony ... which should put her in Diva category ...

AL:   No, they didn't include it. Partly, I think, because it has a boy on it, and they just wanted solo songs by women. Billy Rosenfield, who's the A&R director for the Broadway recording division of RCA Victor [Rosenfield left RCA Victor since this interview], just put it together and didn't ask me ... not that they have to, except to get a formal licensing agreement ... but I got the agreement after the recording came out. He knew I wasn't going to say "NO!" (laughs) And that was really cool!

JF:   While doing some research on you I read that a production of The Wild Party is being mounted in Germany ...

AL:   That's been on the radar screen for a while. It's still a possibility. Everything was going well, and then in the summertime everything stopped; I guess nobody works in Germany over the summer ... or at least nobody in the theater business! So we were waiting for the fall, but then of course the events of September 11th happened, which has affected everything and everybody. When I get home I'm going to look into it and see where we stand. The way things work in Germany is that the show isn't licensed through a particular producer. Instead, a licensing organization takes on the show with the promise of finding producers with whom to connect it who will want to produce the show either as a consortium or in separate cities. They will then translate it into German. I have some approvals, such as the translation, and I get to go supervise the productions if I want to.

JF:   So, how's your German then?

AL:   Terrible! I have no German skills! (laughs)

JF:   Does The Wild Party represent the first time you wrote lyrics?

AL:   Yes. I had written lyrics for parody things or for a song here and there. When I found the poem in 1995 at Barnes and Noble and opened it up and saw those incredible pictures by Art Spiegelman and read the first page ... it grabbed me by the throat and insisted that I write it. I was originally going to set the poem to music ... make it my Cats as it were ... and I started doing that. But early on I realized that it was all third person narrative and it contained no first person or 'how do I feel right now' moments. And, unlike Cats, it was too linear a story to lend itself to that kind of a treatment. I didn't know anybody to ask about writing the lyrics, so I decided to write it myself. I started writing songs and playing them for friends or over the phone to my mom, and people would ask me "Who wrote the words," to which I would reply, "I did." And they were, like, "Those are good! You should keep going!" And thank God for that encouragement, because we all need a nudge here and there! So I kept going and it became what it became.

JF:  I heard one of the songs about four years ago when Alix Korey performed "An Old-Fashioned Love Story" at the San Francisco Cabaret Convention and brought down the house.

AL:  I wrote it for her in 1996. At the time, I knew that I was going to write a song for that character but I didn't know what it was. I sang at a benefit at the Triad and Alix was also on the program and she was so funny. So I thought, "What do I have to lose?" and went up to her and I said, "I hope you don't mind me bothering you, but I have written a new show which is going to have a reading at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It has a really funny lesbian character who has a really funny song and I would love for you to do it." And she said, [doing a perfect Alix Korey impression] "It's funny?" And I said, "Yes, and you would make it funnier." And she said, "OK, I'll do it." So I went home and wrote that song ... I literally wrote it in one or two days. She didn't see it until we did the reading in August of '96 and from then on it was forever hers. It changed a little bit by the time we went to the O'Neill the following year as she had made some good suggestions on changing things to make it pay off better.

JF:  How many workshops did you do of The Wild Party?

AL:   We did nine workshops and readings: August of '96 at MTC, August of '97 at O'Neill, November of '97 at MTC, spring of '98 at MTC ... we were supposed to do a more complete workshop that summer but that was when Corpus Christi happened and MTC got all 'faklewey' and stopped developing shows. We did another reading, I think, somewhere before that with new material. And this has nothing to do with the development of the show, but we got invited by the O'Neill Center to go to Russia and work with twenty Russian students in March of '99 ... they were to learn the show with eight American actors. It was in St. Petersburg and all these Russian kids, who didn't speak English, learned the show and did it as a concert. So that gave me another chance to see it. Then we did a six-week workshop in the spring of '99 with another reading in November of '99 after which Stephen Schwartz, who has been a great friend and mentor, came and gave us fantastic notes, like pointing out what was wrong with the second act. As much as I kvetched about doing all the readings, they really did help.

JF:   I didn't realize how long The Wild Party was on the radar ...

AL:  All together it was four years from inception to production. But it wasn't on the radar until we did it at the O'Neill in August of 1997.

JF:   How on earth did we get dueling Wild Parties then?

AL:   Well, the poem got republished and it was in public domain. There were other Wild Parties going on by other parties, if you'll excuse the expression (laughs). We had heard of a jazz version that was put on in Australia. Somebody was doing it in New York having people reciting the poem interspersed with old, existing songs. The material is unbelievably theatrical. You read it and it reads like a script, so of course theater people are going to be interested in it. I don't regret doing it. In January, I worked on a play with Arthur Laurents and Chita Rivera. In many ways, Arthur helped revive me after the whole Wild Party experience, after which I felt kind of beaten up. Arthur and I chatted in October of 2000 at his townhouse, and he goes, "I read that poem and I could have told you right away that it would make a terrible musical." And I said, "Well, you know what Arthur? Say what you will, but it inspired me, and made me a lyricist, and I'm sitting across from you because of it." And he sat there with this smile on his face, as if to say, "Good for you! I'm glad you can put the gloves on when needed!"

JF:   What was the play you were working on with him?

AL:   Venecia, which was done at the George Street Playhouse. It was based on an Argentinean play. During the show, everybody talks about this one song, which we finally hear at the end of the play. The last five minutes is like a mini-musical and I got to write it. So it was a great moment because I felt like The Wild Party got me into that room and allowed me to say things like that. Before that, if I felt those things, I wouldn't say them because I didn't have any proof ... people could say, "Who is he? What's he done?"

JF:   You've done a lot. You've been very busy since day one it seems ...

AL:   Since my birth?

JF:   Practically! It seems that I can't turn around without finding out you worked on some project in various capacities. I didn't know, for instance, that you did vocal arrangements for the film The Prince of Egypt.

AL:   I did the arrangements for the opening sequence. Stephen Schwartz asked me to sing on some demos in 1995. While we were doing the demos, Stephen was in the control room asking me to pass direction on to the other singers, which evolved into my music directing the demos. Then he asked me to do some vocal arranging for the demos, which led to him asking me to be the vocal director for the whole movie. That didn't pan out because they weren't sure from which coast they were primarily going to work. Since it ended up that it made more sense for them to work out of Los Angeles, they didn't want a lot of people traveling, so that job went away from me. But I did get to do the arrangements for the opening sequence and sang in it with sixteen other singers, which was incredible.

JF:  I remember it being very stirring ...

AL:   It was very cool and we recorded it in five hours! Actually, one and a half hours of that was taken up by technical problems where we were kicked out of the studio ... so it really didn't take us all that long. Stephen said that they added a 150 voice choir from England several years later, and in the mix the choir was used 10% at the most; they found that what we did was far more compelling! Which was like "Hurrah for Broadway!"

JF:  I also noticed your name on the credits when Cinderella toured here a few months ago ... you did the orchestrations, right?

AL:  The vocal/dance arrangements. I gave it a slightly contemporary sound. You'll have to tell me what you thought.

JF:   You can read the review! Actually, I liked the show ... it's got Eartha Kitt ... what's not to like?

AL:  That was my feeling. I was really surprised by Cinderella. It came at a very good time for me because I got very sad after The Wild Party and wasn't writing anything last summer. I think it would have been sad even if the show had been a big success ... I think that when you put your kishkas into something ...

JF:   Andrew ... do you know how much fun I'm going to have transcribing all these Yiddish words? You're talking to a mega-WASP here, hon!

AL:   Kishka ... [spells it, exactly as I would have, thank you] Not that most people know what it means ... intestines is the actual translation ... so your 'gut.' As opposed to your 'soul,' which is nishomy ...

JF:   Yiddish lessons with Andrew ...

AL:   Yeah! (laughs) When you put your soul into something, you're going to feel weird when it's over. I think that even if it was a success and was still playing on Broadway as we speak I would still feel weird. Not right now, perhaps, but definitely last summer would have felt the same whether it were an enormous success or a heartbreak. It's so extreme. I always wonder how David Auburn [author of Proof] feels on a daily basis; how does it change you when your first time out of the gate you win the Pulitzer Prize? How do you feel the next time you have to write something with all these expectations piled on you? Or that you think people have? I think a lot of times we think people have expectations and they don't ... they just like what we do and want to hear more. They don't care if we top it. Part of it is that the press makes everything a competition ... whatever makes a good story.

Boy, we really meandered from the question! (laughs) Anyway ... back to Cinderella! Gabriel Barre asked me to do it and after I went through some approvals with the Rodgers and Hammerstein people, I ended up doing the arrangements for the show, which was great. I got to be so single-minded and see how to pull the show together, and not be a composer ... and make some money!

JF:   What's the status of the TV movie version of The Wiz? Have you finished writing the songs for it?

AL:  No. I don't know what the status of The Wiz is ... who knows what the status of any project is nowadays. As I understand it, the show had budget problems early on that forced it to stop last December. By that time I had written some stuff, but had to pause. It was supposed to pick up two or three times since, and nothing has happened ... or at least nothing that they've called me about. Maybe they decided not to put in new songs after all. If they call me I'll be glad to work on it, as I love the people involved.

JF:   I read something about you working on a show that is going to be produced in Australia. What is it?

AL:   It's going to be an adaptation of A Little Princess and is hopefully going to star Anthony Warlow. Heidi Ettinger and Susan Schulman are connected with a production company in Sydney that produced The Secret Garden and The Sound Of Music down there, which were very successful. They had a discussion about doing an original show that would originate in Australia and then go to London and New York. So they contacted Brian Crawley, who was the book writer and lyricist for Violet, and he was going to work on it with Jeannine Tesori, which didn't work out due to scheduling, I think. My lawyer pitched me to Heidi, but I wasn't sure if I was really interested in doing another family show ... not that I have a problem with family shows ... but I keep wanting to write about sturm and drang. But I do seem suited to writing fun things too, like the stuff for ... Charlie Brown or the funny stuff in The Wild Party. I also was only going to write the music and I wasn't sure I wanted to take on a project where I wasn't writing the lyrics.

They asked if I would be willing to give it a try, and I thought, "It's a guaranteed thing in Australia, it could be a great opportunity." Brian and I met, it worked out and we wrote two songs pretty quickly. When we presented them to Susan and Heidi they cried! They were weeping and just loved them! So they looked at me and said, "Let's do this! We would love you to do it." That was in March. In April I produced the Bat Boy cast album so it was May before we started writing A Little Princess. In August we went to Sydney and wrote like crazy. We did a reading, and the producers loved it. We're going to finish it this fall and in January we're doing a reading in New York. If all goes well, they are planning on running it for fifty weeks, give or take, in three cities in Australia. After we open in the first city we'll see what the response is and decide what to do in regards to London or New York.

JF:   What other shows are you working on?

AL:   I'm working on a new musical with AR Gurney and Jack O'Brien. I can't let you write anything about what it's based on as it hasn't been approved yet ...

JF:  Well that sounds like a good way to end the interview then, so you can tell me the rest off the record! Thanks a lot and I look forward to seeing you perform Monday.

AL:   Thanks!

- Jonathan Frank

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