What's New on the Rialto
Stephen Cole: Lyricist, Bookwriter, Juggler
Part OneBy Rob Lester
Lyricist-bookwriter Stephen Cole's musical The Night of the Hunter, with music by the late Claibe Richardson, returns to New York City as one of the fully staged "Invited Works" in the New York Musicals Festival (NYMF) beginning September 26 at 37 Arts. The musical thriller is based on the novel of the same name, which was also filmed twice. It was previously seen in the city at The Willows Theatre in San Francisco.
--from The Night of the Hunter
Theater fans who admire carefully crafted words know Stephen Cole for his lyrics and books for a wide variety of musicals. Not surprisingly, he's also in the club of theater fans who love a well-turned phrase. In fact, when he had to change his last name, he chose "Cole" in honor of a hero, Cole Porter. (When he joined AFTRA as an actor, someone already was using his real name, Stephen Mitchell, so he had to pick a new professional name.)
Stephen Cole has many irons in the fire, jumping from project to project. One may cool and another becomes reactivated. "If you only have one show, you'll want to kill yourself!" he laughs. "I have all these shows I'm juggling and some are really back burner." Rewriting is also a way of life. "I don't think I've ever done a show where I haven't done rewrites [even] after it closed! I'm always looking for the next better step." He laughs and says, "I never stop rewriting."
The book features stories about many stars with whom Marni rubbed shoulders or larynxes: she toured with Liberace, worked on Ethel Waters' TV show, and has had a varied career, visible and not so visible. Beyond the better-known jobs where she dubbed for the somewhat vocally challenged stars of the films West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The King and I, there are tales about her helping out Margaret O'Brien and even, for a couple of challenging lines, Marilyn Monroe. Stephen would like to write a dual biography next: Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, because their careers had many parallels.
Stephen's theater work is quite eclectic. He has dipped into different styles and eras, using appropriate language for everyone from well-educated, formal speech for a musical set in the 1895 in England (After the Fair) to slangy, casual, shoot-from-the-hip vaudevillians (Saturday Night at Grossinger's). "Content dictates style," he says, in a way that sounds like a beloved mantra. But I wondered if he actively sought out projects that forced him to employ different kinds of speech patterns and characters. "No," he replied simply, explaining that it has just worked out that way. He prefers not to do musicals using very similar kinds of characters "unless the story is so fabulous - and that's really what I look for in something to adapt, a fabulous story. I want to know what's going to happen next, and I've been very lucky in those. It's very hard to find. You can find great character pieces, but to actually find a story that makes you go, 'Turn the page!!' - that's what you want in the theater, too."
Dodsworth, he explains, doesn't fall into that category, but he and his collaborator, composer Jeffrey Saver, wanted to musicalize it anyway. "The plot isn't compelling, and so it's about what happens to these people and their relationships, and that's interesting, but I find that it's more difficult to do a show without a very, very strong plot - for me. But, as far as the different styles, it's just what came my way."
"I love it all. I really do," he smiles. He emphasizes that since he does both book and lyrics, he's all the more "in that world of the characters" while at work. He dove into the challenge of writing for the more articulate folks in After the Fair "because everyone is so erudite. And it's so much fun to write for someone like Edith who is so brilliant and smart, and you get to really rhyme. "
To read what you say.
Though words can-
Not capture what I feel today.
The moment we shared
Was exquisite and sublime
A moment in space, a moment in time.
"But then there's The Night of the Hunter and those people are simple and Appalachian and I enjoy working them out, also. I have to hold back on those kinds of things."
Now what is to be, Lord?
And then there is the reality of shows taking years to get on. "Yes, of course I'm frustrated like everyone else," he tells me, "I'm very lucky that my shows get on the stage. I know many people who write a show and they're lucky to get a reading these days. My only solution is to have as many irons in the fire as possible." At times, he likes going back and forth between projects, like one summer when he was working on both Grossinger's and The Night of the Hunter with the same composer, Claibe Richardson. "It made him crazy, but I kind of enjoyed it. My brain was going all over the place." He has great respect and affection for the late composer, saying about his style, "It's unique. Nobody sounds like that. No composer sounds like Claibe." And he wants his work to live on as written. He instructs all musical directors, "Don't touch those chords!!"
To put it mildly (and Stephen doesn't: "It was insane!"), the show was no small thing to get together. Rehearsals and planning didn't go as expected: there was the language barrier, and the authors' involvement and expertise during rehearsals were not welcomed. "'We can help you!' we cried. 'Authors have to be involved'." That was a new concept to the producers who weren't interested in getting a reality check - or giving a final paycheck. (The writers are still waiting for a big part of their fee.)
Stephen describes the undertaking as being "like a Cecil B. de Mille movie." Besides the live animals, "There were Russian acrobats, Croatian dancers, fire-eaters, jugglers, a cast of 150 - and no stage manager!" There was also no machinery for changing the scenery, but this didn't stop the powers that be from having huge, complex sets. "Everything was realistic. You never saw bigger sphinxes!" When the scenery pieces had to be changed, there were hundreds of Middle Eastern stagehands pushing them. Opening night was a series of surprises for everyone, including the cast. "We had two dress rehearsals, but they never got past the third number." There were computer projections involved for an LED screen, involving 500 boxes shipped from China - they arrived the day before the opening.
At the gala premiere for an audience of 1000, including the Emir, his wife, his son and dignitaries from various countries, "entrances took forever" because of the space: this was in a domed sports arena where "it took ten minutes to cross" from one end to the other and "the stage was as big as Radio City." Stephen recalls, "It was insanity. So we sat there not knowing what we were going to see. We sat their with our mouths open." He recalls a "bizarre flying system" for aerial entrances and performances, and on opening night one poor fellow was left hanging over the arena for a very long time: "He never got unhooked." Stephen laughs, shakes his head, and then says quietly, "But the book and the score came through."
The extravaganza ran for one week, but was never shown on TV as promised. Upon returning to the U.S., Stephen told his friends about the misadventures and several people laughed and told him, "You could write a very funny play about this!" He decided they were right. He'd enjoyed collaborating with David Krane (their rush-rush work and surviving the "insanity" created a real bond), so they are teaming up again to write a musical about the whole experience. It will be a smaller-scale piece (!), just five characters. He played me the title song of the new piece, The Road to Qatar! and it captures the energy and madness. He looks forward to auditioning the actor who will play him, but admits it feels a little strange. The feel of the show is similar to the wild, flying-by-the-seat-of-your- pants energy of the Bob Hope/ Bing Crosby "Road" movies where a high-energy series of wacky things happen to two men traveling in exotic locales ... except it will all be true. "We're going as fast as we can, but there's no deadline this time."
Working with deadlines is fine, too. It reminds Stephen of his his first experience in summer stock as a kid. It all began with the "very, very first" lyrics he wrote when he was an apprentice at a summer stock theater at Lake Placid Playhouse at age fourteen. "We were doing one show a week. We were crazy." But a teenaged performer in the company said Stephen should try to write some lyrics and that they might be used. That young performer liked them and used them. He grew up to be the celebrated performer Charles Busch. A year later, the encouraged Stephen sat down at his electric typewriter and wrote his first musical. "It was called Everything's Fine and it was just like Anything Goes," he laughs. He co-wrote it with an older friend, who went off to Brooklyn College and got it put on there. "And I directed it, choreographed it, was in it, moved all the sets." He began a performing career and didn't get back to writing in any real way until years later.
Getting back to the present, he says, "To this day, I meet with new composers all the time - hoping they're going to have the best idea." He seems to be ready to juggle a few more things.
In Part Two, more about Stephen Cole's various projects, and his special friendship with Ethel Merman.
I Could Have Sung All Night by Marni Nixon with Stephen Cole, Foreword by Marilyn Horne, is available at Amazon.com. There will be appearances to promote the book, including The Drama Book Shop in Manhattan on September 10 and the Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble on September 18.
The Night of the Hunter will be presented September 26, 27, 29, 30 and October 1 at the 37 Arts Theatre, 450 W. 37th Street. For more information, visit www.nymf.org.
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