What's New on the Rialto
An Interview with David Rossmer
By Ed Feldman
Most certainly, diversity of talent would be an advantage in the world of theatre. Yet, sometimes, being an actor and singer isn't enough. Mix in the roles of composer, musician and author and there is definite potential. It might be a bit naïve to think that these talents alone would be a litmus test for success but David Rossmer has passed. David celebrated his 22nd birthday with the cast and crew of Broadway's Titanic and later did the tour. He is the original singer, songwriter and keyboardist for the band Catfish Soup and his new group The Great White Lies will be recording an album this fall.
" ... to celebrate the imagination, diversity, and joy unique to musical theatre. To provide a selection of musicals that is diverse in ethnicity, subject matter, style and concept."
This, in part, describes the goals of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) and the Festival of New Musicals. Dave Rossmer and collaborator Dan Lipton presented part of their new show JOE! at this prestigious festival. In February 1998 an exploratory presentation of JOE! was held at the offices of Cameron Mackintosh/Alan Wasser Associates. Three months later JOE! was presented at the Lamb's Theatre Downstairs, starring Brian d'Arcy James as Joe with Michael Cerveris and Melissa Hart. In March 1999 JOE! had its industry premiere at the Lamb's Theatre Upstairs, featuring Anthony Rapp as Joe, Jeremy Kushnier, Emily Loesser and music direction by Kevin Stites. A small production of JOE! ran outside of St. Louis in November 1999. It has since attracted producing organizations in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
David Rossmer and Dan Lipton have been collaborating for three years. Along with JOE!, they are expanding David's album Notes to MariAnne into a full-length contemporary rock musical. They recently began work on a modern movie musical for Paul Gerard at Twentieth Century Fox.
I sat down with David for a bit to discuss his successes and the work that goes into creating a new musical.
EF: Let's go back in time. When did your interest in theater begin?
DR: When I was in high school. I remember my mother received this brochure from an acting school or studio. They were recruiting kids for a movie. I ended up going. They weren't filming a movie at all but a musical. They were doing Oliver. I didn't have a great day but my mother convinced me to go back for another week. I went back and saw this girl who I developed a crush on. She didn't give me the time of day but I ended up going back week after week just to see her. By doing so, I wound up enjoying the experience of acting.
EF: How was your interest in the arts cultivated over the years? Did your family visit the theater a lot?
DR: Well, my family is from the New York area. We would go to the theater often. I've always enjoyed it. I went to sports camp growing up. Later, I was involved with an improv group that traveled from camp to camp. One of the camps we went to was a camp I had attended. When I was a camper there we used to make fun of the group, throw stuff and heckle them. Here I was on the other side and the irony was not lost on me at all. People were screaming and yelling at us.
EF: You are involved with acting, singing and writing. Does your passion lie in one area?
DR: It depends on the day. I remember sitting at the piano ever since I could fit on the stool. My mother would show me a thing or two. She would also teach me Beatles songs on the guitar. I remember doing it for the specific purpose of writing. I wanted to write ideas down I had in my head. I would come home and play at the piano for a couple of hours. I really taught myself.
EF: So, even today, your interest isn't devoted to one area or another?
DR: It really depends on the hour. It's like what do I want to do now. Let's write a song, no let's perform. I don't have a preference. Well, I do have a preference but it just depends on the day and what is inspiring me at the time.
EF: What is your long term career goal?
DR: All areas and new ones. I'd love to be a zoologist.
EF: A zoologist?
DR: Yeah. If this doesn't work out I'd be happy taking care of animals. Zoology or politics or both would be options.
EF: What is the creation process like when you are developing a lyric, a show?
DR: It is when you just want to express something so much that it isn't good enough to just tell it as a story. You want to preserve it for a longer period of time. There is a melody to it. Last night I was with a friend and we decided to write a song. We were sort of itching to do it. We wrote a song about a story that happened at a party a couple of years ago. I was at this party and met this girl named Baby. I thought it was the most unique name. So all night long I'd say "how are you doing Baby"? "Can I get you a drink Baby"? She was very cold to me. I asked my friend what was wrong with her and he said who, Amy? (laughing). It was a total disaster. The entire evening she must have thought I was the biggest jerk. We thought it was a funny story so we sort of wrote a pop song about it.
Dan Lipton (collaborator) and I sit down . The story can come out of anywhere. We are revolutionary and very original. For us, part of the enjoyment of writing is to come up with a story and ideas. When we started JOE!, we want to create something different than the typical musical and be different.
EF: Is there anything that inspires you?
DR: Bad stuff. When I see bad stuff I can come home and write for hours till it is daylight outside. Ideas that are not fully developed give me ideas. So, if I see a bad movie, it makes me think. The more bad stuff I see the better I write.
EF: Was there a person who inspired you, was a mentor or motivated you in some way?
DR: Woody Allen was an enormous influence me. I've always loved Sondheim. I love Andrew Lloyd Webber too. I know people say there is less validity in his music but I love it. It sounds so beautiful.
EF: How did the concept for JOE! arise?
DR: Dan's friend, Sam, had suggested the idea of a guy trapped in a musical. The story has changed a lot over the years. It started more as a concept. It was to be called Resolutions. The first act was going to be a play. As we continued to write, there was more we wanted to talk about. JOE! is a satire. I really don't know if I'll take on a satire again. It is a lot of work. It started as a parody and evolved into a story.
EF: How long ago did you start working on it?
DR: About 2 1/2 years ago.
EF: Without giving too much away, how would you explain the story to someone?
DR: JOE! is a musical about a guy who gets trapped in one. He is a very serious, dramatic actor who can't find work in New York. His agent and friends pressure him to audition for a show and he fails miserably. He later goes to bed and when he wakes up his alarm clock is singing and his parents are tapping. The whole city come alive in song and dance. It is a love story with singing and dancing but it really is unconventional.
EF: The two of you do all the lyrics and writing. Tell us about the collaboration between the two of you. Have you known Dan for a while?
Dan Lipton and David Rossmer
DR: We grew up a block away from each other. Dan was interested in theater way before I was. The minute we started writing together we knew we would be a good team. We are like ying and yang. We complement each other very well. We both like to have our fingers on everything and we are OK with that.
EF: Did one of you focus on the lyrics and the other on the melody or did you both just go at it?
DR: It is genuinely an equal relationship. We couldn't do it any other way.
EF: So, JOE! is a 2 1/2 year project. It started as this concept. Where is it now?
DR: Now it has been born and raised. I wouldn't call it a teenager, but it is a young adult. Right now the show has progressed to a more successful place. We just did JOE! at the National Alliance for Musical Theater (NAMT) and it was a huge success. We are now following up with all interested parties. We are hoping to stay on the track we are on now. We think the show is very visual. It has a lot of energy and color. Intellectually the show needs to be seen to be appreciated.
Anthony Rapp and Catherine Brunell performing in JOE!
After the initial premiere of JOE! where we had Anthony Rapp and Jeremy Kushnier and all these great people playing the roles, Dan and I said we would like to work the show in the midwest. We told our producer that we wanted to experiment with the show in the most bare bones way. We asked if she could ask a high school to do the show. She set up this production of JOE! at a high school outside of St. Louis where we would see it without the benefits of Broadway performers, without the New York sophistication, just to see if the show would work without all that. We went out to see the show and it was really exciting. The audience response was great. Because of that experience, we decided to continue with the show. I never got so much out of a high school performance before.
EF: What obstacles have you encountered when putting JOE! together?
DR: Well, it is an unconventional show. It starts as a play. It has all the elements of a musical that people love. It has the dance and the big sets. The biggest obstacle for us is to have people come and feel what the show is really like. It isn't a great read. It is much easier to see it. We are also young and it is hard for people to take it seriously.
EF: At the same time though you certainly have had milestones.
DR: Yeah, those obstacles haven't discouraged us.
EF: What is it about the show that will attract audiences?
DR: I think it is funny and people will enjoy it. JOE! can appeal to anyone who has seen a musical. Hopefully, JOE! will appeal to people because it has everything that everyone loves about musicals yet it dares to do something differently.
EF: Where is JOE! now in terms of readiness?
DR: It is ready for production. We've learned as much as we can. We need to see it in action now.
EF: Tell me about this new show you are working on.
DR: It is called Notes to MariAnne. It is a contemporary rock musical, fairy tale and ghost story. That is how I would describe it. It is about an abusive family in Brooklyn. A father who abuses his children, Johnny and MariAnne. Their mother, who is the only beautiful thing in their life, has slowly begun to go insane. They are not sure if the father led her to this or if he stood by and watched it. The worst part is he loves the family but his abuse is the only way he shows it. Johnny, the younger brother, runs away from home. The show starts 10 years later where Johnny is at a small college in a fictional town in Kansas. He finds out that his mother dies. He is shot like a bullet to the past and finally writes a letter to his sister MariAnne. She receives the letter and with renewed vigor she realizes that if she doesn't get out now she never will. She kills her father. It is a story of her journey across the country to find her brother. When she finds him, she is so overwhelmed by seeing him that she can't contain herself. Johnny doesn't know who she is and she doesn't tell him and they fall in love. It is a love story between a brother and sister. It is dark. There are ghosts that are all over the story.
EF: Is this show in the very beginning stages?
DR: We've laid a good groundwork with it. It has a good foundation. We have lots of music and lots of stuff written for it. It is very different from JOE! It is a rock musical but not like Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar but more of what we listen to like The Beatles and Meatloaf
EF: How would you define success in terms of being an actor, a writer?
DR: Not eating out of tuna cans (laughing). A writer for the New York Times once defined success as coming closest to one's own intentions. I sort of live by that. If you succeed at what you intended to do or come close then you feel good. I always wanted to be on Broadway. That was the most exciting thing I've ever done. I spent my 22nd birthday with the cast of Titanic.
EF: What words of advice would you give people entering the big theatrical world out there whether it be acting, singing or writing?
DR: Read books. I think that reading books is the best thing you can do. It keeps you in touch with a creative edge. That is my specific advice. My general advice is that you need to be prepared and that luck and chance will come your way eventually. You have to be ready for it.
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