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Meet the Writer ... David Javerbaum

By Rob Lester

How's this for a good year: you win a prestigious award for your lyrics (which comes with $100,000), you're at work on a new score for a major Broadway musical, and you and your wife have your first baby. Meanwhile, you have a whole other career as head writer for one of TV's top shows. Not bad. No wonder David Javerbaum smiles a lot. An affable, modest guy, he was a pleasure to talk with in June at his favorite breakfast spot on his way to work to write top topical humor for television's The Daily Show Starring John Stewart.

We met about a week before a reception for winners of the 15th annual Kleban Awards at the BMI offices. The award is given in the name of the late Ed Kleban who wanted to encourage his fellow writers. His will provided for that. The awards, given to lyricists and playwrights, are part of his legacy, in addition to his words for the landmark A Chorus Line and songs collected in Broadway's A Class Act.

David Javerbaum is a class act himself, graciously giving credit to his collaborators and to those who encouraged his work, and showing a healthy aversion to gossip or saying a bad word about anyone. He's grateful for the recognition and to be one of the recipients of this year's honor. David has also been chosen by producers as the lyricist for the upcoming Broadway adaptation of the John Waters movie Cry-Baby. What else would you expect to happen after the smash success stage version of Waters' Hairspray? Both are quirky takes on teen life in Baltimore and both movies co-starred Ricki Lake. The 1990 Cry-Baby, also starring Johnny Depp, was released this summer on DVD, just as David was in the midst of writing the all-new songs with composer Adam Schlesinger (of the pop group Fountains of Wayne). The two had submitted their work separately and were matched up later.

Since his work has not yet been commercially recorded, I asked if I could include some lyrics so readers could see why the powers that be were attracted to them. I was already familiar with his work from a favorite off-Broadway show from a few years ago, Suburb, which had a run in 2001 at The York Theatre and was nominated for the Drama League, Outer Critics' Circle, and Lortel Awards. There have also been numerous productions of the show around the country and one overseas. David wrote lyrics and co-wrote the book with composer Robert S. Cohen. (Although there is no cast album sold in stores, you can hear the songs on the web, and learn more about this charming show, at www.suburbthemusical.com.)

"It's satirical, but not mean-spirited. Hopefully, it's honest," said the writer about the tone of his writing for Suburb. In the show's title song, a loving but open-eyed ode to suburban living, he wrote:

And even if there's no guarantee
Life will be worry-free,
When Armageddon comes its merry way,
Ev'rybody here will gladly stay,
Happy to be facing Judgment Day in Suburb.

David examined life choices beyond simple surburban living, making the show about much more than just houses. His characters have drive, not just a driveway. They confront not only the mortgage, but also mortality. Alix Korey was an audience favorite in the New York City production, hilariously giving life and loud voice to an aggressive realtor who finds herself attracted to a man who is considering selling his home after his wife's death. David gave them some genuine emotional depth in lyrics confronting loneliness and fears. But he also knows how to take the time to rhyme with clever and precise lyrics. For example, in an ode to the joys of mowing one's own lawn:

The mower clips
The tender tips
Row by row
In even strips.
Its sharpened lips
Behead the foe.
And as it flies
You civilize
The earth below.

Asked about this lyric and its careful, skillful construction, he commented, "Each song is a small puzzle - a feat of engineering."

I wondered who his songwriting role models are and what musicals he might have always emulated. "I'm not one of those people who has seen all the shows and has 100,000 cast albums," he freely admitted. So how did he prepare to write a full-length show about living in the suburbs? He shrugged and grinned, "I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey."

Despite being free of the addiction to musical comedy, he is no babe in the woods nor is he a snob who thinks he doesn't have to have exposure to others' work. About the writers he admires and was impacted by, he says flatly, "Well, not mentioning Sondheim would be like a playwright not mentioning Shakespeare." Of contemporary composers, he has high praise for the work of Adam Guettel. However, as a teenager and younger man, he mostly listened to rock and roll. He went to Harvard and because of his natural bent for humor, he ended up writing the university's traditional annual Hasty Pudding shows. Later, he studied musical theater at NYU.

It's been comedy writing that has happily been his bread and butter. With a stint as a staff writer for David Letterman's late night TV show and what he calls "three great years" writing mock news stories for the parody newspaper The Onion, he's done well. Now very happy at The Daily Show, winning Emmy Awards and bringing nightly laughs to TV audiences, he likes his life and work. He was a contributing writer to the show's hit comic companion publication, America: The Book.

David has a way of looking at a character's behavior and then letting an audience understand it by getting into the mindset of the character. For another show, he once wrote a song for a farmer whose life achievement was making the biggest ball of twine ever seen. It took 30 years to create (the twine, not the song - David is just over 30 years old). The farmer explains:

Now I was always thrifty.
Some people say
That I'm strange...that way.
But there's nothing I hate more than waste.
Something still useful ought not be replaced.

Later in the song, he gazes admirably at his achievement. Rather than see him as a fool who wasted his time, David finds his humanity and an audience therefore can find sympathy:

That's thirty years
Of sweat and tears
Eight tons and eleven feet tall.
Twelve hundred miles' worth of ball.
The neighbors bring twine but the labors are mine.
I give this spherical
Modern-day miracle
Three hours a day,
Rain or shine.

David's memory of finding out he'd been chosen for the Kleban Award is sweetened by the fact that his wife told him, since she heard the message on their answering machine first. "Having someone you love tell you - what could be better?" he sighed between bites of a bagel. He'd submitted "eight or nine lyrics from various projects." One, written with songwriter Jenny Giering, was performed live at the reception for the Award recipients. It was a number (actually, more of a musical scene) from their show My Gay Best Friend. The set-up is this: the friendship of a heterosexual woman and her gay male friend is tested when he wants to legally marry a guy she doesn't feel is right. They go to Vermont, which at the time of the play's writing appeared to be the new mecca for such legalized male bonding. I loved the way he made an internal rhyme with the name of a city:

In the city hall of Burlington, Vermont
My head and heart were swirling
'Til I almost started hurling.

The song goes back and forth between amusing lines and heartbreak. It's another skill this writer seems to have down pat. His work process "... invariably includes procrastination." He's realistic and patient about the long gestation period a musical often has nowadays. His solution is to keep writing and rewriting and keep waiting.

I can't wait to see what David will do with the "white trash" and juvenile delinquent characters in Cry-Baby. The show is still being written, and though he has a good chunk of work done, at least as a first draft, it's too early for a preview of those lyrics. The show is a year or so away. This time, David is not collaborating on the book, as it was already assigned to Tom Meehan and Mark O'Donnell (both of whom also worked on the book for Hairspray). David and Adam work back and forth on songs, "sometimes online." Hooray for computers.

As a brand new father, David Javerbaum is getting better at being patient and changing (or at least changing diapers, which he says he's been doing a lot this summer). He got Cry-Baby three years ago, well before his own crying baby and he seems fascinated to see how they'll both grow and develop. Broadway fans will be watching, too.



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