The name Joe Iconis holds significant weight in the New York City musical theatre scene. Iconis, who first established himself with the 2008 workshop of The Black Suits and received a boost from Smash when the Broadway-centric TV series picked up his song ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’, is one of the most beloved songwriters in the business. Iconis is adored by fans for his quirky, unique pop-rock songs, actors are always eager to collaborate with him whether it be on a new musical or a high-energy concert, and high-profile journalists laud his talents and liken his cabaret style to a circus.
With three Drama Desk Nominations to his name for his 2010 off-Broadway musical Bloodsong of Love, including Best Music and Best Book of a Musical – the third nomination recognized Jeremy Morse for Best Featured Actor – and two new musicals in the works, Iconis lives up to his reputation as one of the most prolific songwriters in the business.
Never one to sit idle, Iconis thrives under writing deadlines and enjoys working on many projects at once so before heading out to Barrington Stage Company for the summer with his new musical Broadway Bounty Hunter, starring Screen Actors Guild Award winner Annie Golden, Iconis kicked off a series of Joe Iconis & Family cabarets on April 3. The final wacky, unforgettable performance is set for Monday, May 9 at 9:30pm.
Featuring Broadway sweetheart Krysta Rodriguez, Waitress stars Molly Hager and Jeremy Morse, and Iconis’ wife Lauren Marcus, the 90-minute concert features some of the scene-stealers from Iconis’ previous work (including George Salazar singing Be More Chill‘s “Michael In The Bathroom”) and introduces his upcoming work, including a handful of powerful songs from Broadway Bounty Hunter and The Untitled Hunter S. Thompson Musical.
Despite his busy schedule, Iconis sat down with Stage Door Dish to catch up on his current projects, his thoughts about the current climate for songwriters on Broadway, and his newest concerts at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
I read the New York Times review that came out about Joe Iconis & Family. Tell me about that. I talked to Kerry [Butler] this morning and she said, ‘I did not know that anybody was there.’ She didn’t even know there was a review until I told her the review was great!
I didn’t tell anybody that they were coming to the show. It was really cool. I’m not someone who puts a lot of weight in reviews. I don’t need reviews to tell me if something that I’ve done is good or bad. It’s frustrating to me that we live in this theatrical world where reviews are so important. Where I am in my career, having a good review from the New York Times is really helpful to me. It’s exciting to me in that way, it will actually make people pay attention to myself and the family and my shows in a way that they might not have before. It legitimatizes you in a way that’s kind of silly, but it just is. I thought it was a fun review, I liked him talking about us ‘joining the circus’. It was great. I have a strange relationship with theatre reviews. As much as it annoys me that the theatre community puts so much weight on reviews, separate from that, I actually really love theatre criticism. Growing up, there was part of me that felt like I could have been a theatre critic. I was obsessed with Frank Rich and I read all of Frank Rich’s reviews. There’s something that I really love about well-written theatre criticism, even if I don’t agree with their opinion of the show. I love writing analytically about theatre.
I want to talk about the way you collaborate with people. It’s so uniquely you.
I love the collaborative aspect of theatre. For me, as someone who writes music and lyrics to shows, that’s a very solitary thing. I’m always itching to start working with other people on the material. People ask me, ‘Isn’t it lonely to write music and lyrics by yourself?’ I don’t think of that because I always want to finish something so I can get in the room with an actor or a director or a musical director. I just want to be done with the thing so I can get with another artist and start working on it. For me, especially with my concerts and all of the family stuff, I love actors. I got into the theatre through a number of ways. One of the things that made me really want to do theatre was movie directors, specifically Robert Altman. Robert Altman had these big ensemble movies. A lot of times, he used the same actors again and again. He had this rep company. That idea is so appealing to me – the idea of having this stable of actors, who you love and inspire you as an artist. It feels like everyone is working together, doing the same thing. For me, that’s such an appealing, important part of my process. Obviously, I do the stuff where I’m writing songs specifically for people. Even in theatre pieces that I’ve worked on, I’ve found a certain way that I like to work. Whether it’s an actor I’ve worked with for years or someone I’m just meeting, I like the collaborative back and forth. I like feeling that everyone has a seat at the table and anyone can comment on anything. It’s a nice way to make theatre.
When you write a song for someone, do you consider their voice or their personality more? You are such a big personality that I just imagine you doing it that way.
You’re spot on. It’s always personality. I always write for the actor, and the singer is the means of that; it’s the step two of that. Usually, if I’m writing for an actor, I know their voice really well. I inherently write something that they can sing because I’m hearing their voice in my head. For this string of concerts, I wrote a song for Eric William Morris and Katrina Rose Dideriksen. It’s a brand new song. It’s a duet for the two of them. I definitely wrote it thinking about them as actors. I loved the idea of the combination of the two of them singing a song. Once I had the idea for these characters that they play in the song, I got excited about. After I wrote it, I sent it to them and was like, ‘I have no idea if either of you can sing this because of the key that it’s in. But who cares about that? We’ll worry about that later.’ That’s always the way that I do it. It’s always about the person. The nuts and bolts of singing the song come later and we figure it out.
Has there been a song or a partnership between person and song that’s your favorite?
So many. There’s a song I wrote called ‘The Protector’ that Jason Williams sings. That’s a song that I wrote with him in mind. It’s a song that’s very mysterious. It’s a song where the hook is, ‘I want to protect you from all of the bad things that happen in Florida.’ It’s a song that is really open to interpretation. People hear it and they have very different opinions about what it is. In my mind, I knew what it was as I was writing it, but I wanted to leave it open to interpretation. When I sang it, it felt a little unspecific. But it was intentionally unspecific because I wanted it to be a mysterious song. As soon as Jason sang it, he made it super specific in a way that made it all the more mysterious. As a listener, you weren’t confused at all but you were able to draw your own conclusions about what the song was about, which is different than being like, ‘What the hell is going on in this song?’ That was something that he immediately brought to it as an amazing actor. That experience was a great lesson for me as a writer in the difference between being intentionally vague and confusing. Because I write for specific people so much, it’s always fun when someone who I didn’t write a song for ends up because it switches it up so much. Seeing the different colors they bring to it. ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’ is great example. When I sang it, everyone thought it was really funny, and it got a million laughs. Then Krysta Rodriguez sang it and did it as if she was insane and then it became a very chilling song. Then Molly Hager sang it, and it was somewhere in between. That gave it this whole other color. That’s a song where the song itself was changed, even though the words haven’t changed, depending on these different interpretations. That’s always such a cool thing to see a song take on a new life because of the actor who’s singing it.
Did you ever expect for Joe Iconis & Friends to grow to include so many people?
No, it’s very surreal. I started doing these shows for the love of the game. I started doing them because I was writing a lot of songs and no one was hearing them. When I first started doing the shows, I had one musical that was in development hell for a long time. I just wanted an outlet to do my songs. It was an artistic expression of where I was at the time. It was very much a ‘let’s put on a show’ thing, which it’s remained. The shows that I do, I don’t think of them as auditions to get a job. I never think of them as a showcase of my work. I think of them as their own entity because they are. It’s like a rock band doing concerts and touring. That’s what we’re doing. When I first started, I dreamed that we’d immediately be discovered and go on Letterman and be this strange crossover act that was one of the most popular bands in America. That was the top dream. It’s so amazing to me that it’s sustained for so long and that there keeps being new people who have never heard of it before who are coming and loving it. I was such a theatre kid growing up. So many of these people were so unattainable to me. I didn’t come from a showbiz family and I wasn’t in this world at all. It’s funny being in the business ten years, knowing the people that I know and hearing people say that they like my stuff or they like me as a person. So many people in the business know me now. It’s just bizarre. I have to stop and think if someone were to tell me ten or fifteen years ago that Kerry Butler would be saying nice things about me I wouldn’t know how to process it. It’s really cool. It’s great. I love it. I like the idea of being a well-liked person in the industry, especially among actors. That’s even more appealing to be than being rich and famous. I love the idea of being an actor’s writer.
How do you describe your style?
A lot of times I say my stuff is rock influenced, which I think it is. I don’t write only rock music. I guess I’m a pop music influenced persnickety writer. I have a lot of disparate influences and references that come together to make my stuff. I definitely have a sound that I immediately gravitate towards, which is definitely rock influence. If I just sit at a piano and write something, it’s either classic rock or indie rock influenced. I write so much depending on the character who is singing. You can tell it’s me but it sounds really different. A song like ‘If You Like It’ sounds totally different than ‘Adore’ from the Hunter S. Thompson musical or ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’ which I love. I love my stuff feeling really different and all over the place but still having a singular voice. That’s a thing that defines me. It’s my voice, which I don’t know how to describe. I know that it’s just me, which is what I always wanted to do. I want to sound like myself. People always ask if there’s anyone whose career I could see myself having. My honest answer is always no. People have successes that I am jealous of and wish that I had but I don’t do it to be the next someone- I want to be the first me.
Did you ever expect ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’ to still be so popular? What continues to be your relationship with the song?
I wrote that song when I was having a bad, terrible time in my life. I was frustrated by personal things and career things in a way that the majority of people are at some point in their lives whether you are doing theatre or something else. I wanted to write a song about my relationship to the big time and making it big and what that means and how close but far away it felt to me and how conflicted I was about the whole thing. The song was constructed to be about two things: the classic making it on Broadway and someone throwing themselves off a building onto the street of Broadway, killing themselves.
I had that initial idea and I thought it perfectly conveyed what I was feeling about the whole thing at the time. I also thought it was funny; something called ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’ that’s literally about somebody jumping off a building onto the street and being like, ‘Broadway, here I come.’ I think there’s something funny about that. I wanted to write the song so that someone could listen to it, and if they wanted to, they could only get the ‘Broadway, I’m gonna make it’ in a fresh off the bus optimistic way but that someone else could listen to it and only get it in the ‘I’m going to kill myself’ way. Someone else could listen to it and get both things simultaneously. It was a song that I always liked a lot, but I never that it would be the song of mine that would take off. I’ve written so many other songs that feel more accessible and obvious, it’s a magical thing that song just took on a life of it’s own and the fact that it got picked up and put on Smash. I love that it’s so popular. My favorite thing is when people sing it or talk about it and they don’t get the other meaning. The subversive person in me thinks it’s hilarious that it’s a song that kids sing all the time. It’s a school recital song that people are doing. It makes me laugh. If they don’t know it’s about suicide, then fine, good for them. It’s all cool. If I were a fifth grader singing this song, I would have been the kid who would have been like, ‘I think this song is about jumping off a building.’ I would have loved that kid. Anyone who is perceptive enough to get that will have their experience of the song enriched.
When it appeared on Smash, I was really determined to not change the words of it, which is always a thing; anytime you do something where there are lots of producers and fancy people around, they always want to change things because that’s the nature of the business. I really held tight to not changing the words of the song. I’m glad that I did. A lot of people clearly responded to the song on the show. I’m proud of how it entered into the world. It’s still the song. On Smash, when Jeremy Jordan sang it, they did a cut of it. But it’s still the song, it’s my words. If anyone looks up the song, there isn’t a TV version and a real version. It’s the real version out there in the world. Because so many people know it from the Jeremy Jordan version, I love doing concerts with Molly singing it or Krysta singing it because it’s such a different take on it. There’s something inherently feminine about the song. To me, it lives in its most perfect place when it’s a woman singing it. Invariably, people come in to concerts who know me just from that song, and then they hear Molly or Krysta sing it and it’s a whole new experience for them.
Be More Chill has its own cult following now. Why are you so attached to it?
I just love it a lot. I like writing about people who aren’t special, people who fall through the cracks, people who aren’t sparkly enough to be the ones who change the world, but also not the bottom of the barrel. I love people who are aren’t totally suicidal but are depressed. There’s a weird non-place for people who aren’t at one extreme or the other, and I love writing about that. Be More Chill is a show that’s populated by all of those people. It’s a show for high school kids who feel like misfits and can’t identify with one group or the other. It didn’t come from my own brain. It was an adaptation, so when I started working on it, it wasn’t as personal to me as other things I had done. Over time, I found where I fit into the world of the show, and then it became insanely personal to me. I was doing things in that show that I hadn’t done before, and I was experimenting with sounds in a way that was fun. When I think of that show, I think of the people who made it and the things we did, and I’m really proud of it. As I do with a few things I’ve written, I really believe that it has the potential to reach a larger audience than it has. It’s having this cool cult following now, which is really awesome. The cast recording helped with that. When we were doing this show last year, my dream for that was that it would transfer to a non-profit theatre in New York and then have a commercial production. Had it gotten an amazing New York Times review, it would have as much of a chance to reach a large audience as American Psycho or Bright Star or any of the shows that are on Broadway right now.
Why would you encourage people to check out the Be More Chill cast recording?
I think it’s a really good classic musical, it’s about ordinary people who are really incredible in extraordinary circumstances. It dramatizes and musicalizes moments that everyone experiences in their lives. There are a lot of tiny moments that feel huge to people, and the show uses music to express how huge these moments feel, like hiding in the bathroom at a party because you don’t want to talk to anyone, or playing video games with a friend and trying to have a real conversation but pretending you’re just playing the game. The show musicalizes these moments in a way that is fun and exciting. The album just sounds really badass. I was really influenced by scores from horror movies in the 50s and 80s, so we have a cool mishmash of sounds. The orchestration by Charlie Rosen is amazing, and it’s just sounds and styles that you don’t typically hear on a cast album, which gives it a sci-fi element. They’re songs you can sing along to in a car, but it’s not a rock record. It’s a real cast album with dialogue.
Do you think it’s eventually going to have another life here?
My most hopeful answer is yes but my realistic answer is no, because of the way the business works. I truly believe that, if given the chance, this show would have just as much right to be on Broadway as shows this season and in the past. For where I am in my career, no one really cares enough to make it happen, which is totally fine. The show will have a life in colleges and high schools, which is awesome. I just want it to reach as many people as possible. That’s where I think the show is going to live, until I become famous, and then it will have a larger life. If I have some sort of hit and everyone knows who I am, then I hope a lot of the shows I’ve written will have larger lives than they’ve had. I stand by them.
Which shows, specifically, would you like to see have another chance?
Be More Chill, Bloodsong of Love, and Black Suits could 100% have a larger commercial life than they’ve had. Black Suits had a production at Barrington and flashy production at CTG which were amazing. I love and value those experiences, but I want more. I want commercial New York runs of those shows and they would stand up to that. I’ve written other shows, like ReWrite, which I love so much, but it’s a strange little beast of a show and would never have a commercial run. I’m not someone who thinks everything I’ve ever touched deserves to have a long life, but I so believe in those three.
You’re such a composer for adolescents, so your partnership with Penn State makes perfect sense.
I love working with college students because I love working with anyone who’s passionate about what they do. College students tend to be excited and passionate, not jaded about theatre. The biggest reason is John Simpkins, who took over the theatre program at Penn State this year, is one of my greatest collaborators, is my favorite director, and I just really want to work with him. It’s a great opportunity to make a piece of theatre with John and excited people in a supportive environment. I’m so stoked. I’m going to go out there, meet the kids, and write something. I have no idea what I’m going to write so it’s a little bit daunting. I have to write it really fast. I have to finish it by the fall, which is insane. In the world of musical theatre, it’s unheard of to write something that fast. Everything takes two years. There’s something about it that feels punk rock to me. I just have to lock myself in a room and make it happen. I tend to write really well under crazy deadlines. It’s an old-fashioned thing to me. It’s a 50s B-movie thing, where they would make a poster first and then hire someone to make the movie in a few weeks. We could have waited another year to have it happen, but I’m so busy and my life is so crazy, who knows if I’ll be any less busy in a year.
You are doing a hundred things at once. How do you deal with that?
It is truly, truly hard. In the past year and a half, it started to take a toll on me, but I haven’t stopped. The nature of my life is that I have to keep going. I’ve always said that I’m someone who does well working on multiple projects at the same time, and I am, but it’s now gotten to be a few too many things. Theatre just takes so long. I was commissioned to write this Hunter S. Thompson musical in 2007, and I’m still working on it. There’s no telling how long things will take. I never want to be stuck with nothing to do, so I’m not going to say no to something I believe in. I never know when my schedule is going to free up. The nuts and bolts of it are that I live a financially unstable life, and because I’m so busy, it becomes hard for me to take jobs that pay money. So much of my theatre writing is great but uncompensated, which a lot of people don’t realize. Even commissions, when you break it down to an hourly rate, aren’t a lot of money. I’m so grateful for all of it, but I end up with this bizarre life where I could not be busier and I’m rarely doing things where I make money. It’s a hard way to live, so I get busier looking for new ways to support myself as I’m doing these projects that will hopefully pay off one day. I just have to force the writing in. Sometimes it works and I’m able to get in a head-space where I’m able to generate material that I’m proud of, but sometimes I do get so overwhelmed that I can’t write anything. It’s so scary, because I have so many projects that are requiring so much of my time and material, when I can’t deliver, it’s really tricky. I try to keep structure, but I’m not a structured writer. Even when I’m writing well and it’s coming out of me, I’ll be at home then at a bar then at a coffee shop. I’m not one of those people who writes from 8 am to 12 pm. It’s not what works for me.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
I’ve gotten inspired by television lately, which feels like an eye-roll answer. I’ve never been a TV person. I missed all the TV shows that everyone is supposed to watch, like The Wire and Breaking Bad. I never got into it, but my friend Jen Tepper has been obsessed with Mad Men for years and always tried to get me to watch it. A year ago, I started watching it, and I fell in love with it. It’s one of my favorite pieces of art. It was my entree into some other sparkly TV things, so I’ve gotten really excited about that form. I don’t want to write for TV, but that form can be applied to theatre. I really loved the Fargo series with the one season arc. American Horror Story feels like what I like to do with a company of actors playing different parts, I love the short stories that are given time to breathe. They feel like movies to me. Rules can change from week to week. I love songs and shows that have twists in them, and you see that a lot on TV.
You’ve been married for a little over a year. How has the experience changed and what have you learned from it?
It’s great. I love being married. Lauren [Marcus] and I have been together for so long, and we not only share a life together personally, but also professionally. We work together all the time. We have such history that it’s really easy being around her. Neither of us were ever people who made a big deal about getting married. We both said we would get married if it felt like the right thing to do, and it did. The idea of it is fun. There’s something so official about the title. As far as our actual day to day lives, it’s the same. In the same way I don’t need a review as an artist, I don’t need a certificate to tell me that my relationship with the woman I love means something. It’s great to have a partner in crime, but it’s wonderful and terrible to have a partner in the arts. Everything I struggle with, Lauren also struggles with. In some respects, it’s helpful to have someone who understands why I have to be up all night inviting people to my 54 Below show, and she has someone who understands why she has to cancel a vacation for a job in Connecticut. My life is so crazy, I don’t know if I could have been with someone who wasn’t in the arts, because it’s so hard for civilians to understand the crazy lifestyle. On the flip side, it’s hard when neither person in a partnership has a stable job. We never know where money is coming from, and we both juggle jobs that pay money with jobs that are going to help our careers or fulfill us artistically. She’s going on auditions, which is soul crushing, and I’m writing spec songs for things. It’s a crazy household. When we’re both in good places, it’s amazing, and when we’re both in tricky places, it’s the worst. Right now, I’m in the middle of this run of shows, she’s in the show, she’s also working a job and putting together this EP, since she’s a singer-songwriter, and it’s tax time. Our home is insane. It looks like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse crossed with a serial killer’s house. There are props all over, everything is a mess, and the cat is running around. It’s a true madhouse, which is unsettling and funny. I’d much rather it this way than the alternative of one of us being a banker or something.
What have you learned about music or theatre from Lauren?
She’s such a great actor that I can’t help but want to be even more specific in my writing. That comes from being around her, and part of that is being the person who runs auditions sides with her. I get to see her do so much. She was one of my favorite actors before I even met her, and she remains one of my favorite actors. Even though I’m her husband, I’m also just a fan of hers, and that’s how I was first introduced to her. I happen to live with one of my favorite actors, and it’s inspiring. I get to see the choices she makes as an actor and how they’re informed by the choices she makes as a person. She’s so cool that sometimes she’ll do stuff on a stage, and people will mistake her acting as her personality. They’ll think she’s so loopy and quirky, and she is all those things, but in a different way, and she’s also smart. It’s cool to see someone who’s so natural on stage.
You and Jen Tepper are coming from different places in theatre, so your friendship is very interesting. What’s that collaboration like?
I met Tepper during my first string of shows at the Beechman in 2008. She was finishing up at NYU at the time, and she wrote this huge paper on one of my songs, ‘Helen’s in Skin Flicks’. She sent it to me, and it was brilliant, and we met at the concert. She was a person I vaguely knew, and then she got a job assisting our producer in Things to Ruin in 2009, and we’ve been friends ever since. She’s been a really amazing presence in my life. She has a different perspective on theatre, but we both love musical theatre so much and decided that we wanted to make our own paths. It’s even more extreme with her, but neither of us had anyone whose career we wanted to follow. I certainly did that with my approach to getting into the theatre business with concerts and such, and she bounced around and created this role for herself that didn’t exist before. I love people who introduce their own vocabulary into a community and then it gets adopted. Her self-applying the name ‘historian’ to herself is badass, and now people say they want to be a musical theatre historian. I’m sure people identified as musical theatre historians before, but no one like her. She’s great and so supportive and so smart. It’s really cool when someone you know who is so smart believes in you. We have the same references, we love the same musicals, and we both have the fan thing that not everyone in the business has. The new thing is ‘a musical for people who hate musicals,’ which I hate, and so does she. Tepper’s great.
The climate on Broadway is definitely changing. How do you view this season and the last few years?
It’s really cool. Like everything, there are great things and bad things that are happening. It’s very easy to only see the good or the bad, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The weird, edgy musicals that are coming to Broadway are really exciting. I don’t think that just being edgy makes something good, but it’s nice to have a climate where those shows are finding a home. Whether they’re successful financially or artistically, it shows that people will give money to a show to get it on Broadway. All of these strange musicals, like Fun Home or American Psycho, are popping up in the last few years, and they’re shows we haven’t seen before. Any time one of those shows is a hit, it’s helpful for the type of stuff I do. Fun Home being so well received and winning Best Musical is helpful for good things that wouldn’t normally have a chance. Fun Home would not have happened if it hadn’t gotten a great review off Broadway, but I’m so glad it did. People love that show, and on paper, it seems like something that wouldn’t be relatable to people, and it’s nice to see it be received with open arms.
In the last year, the push for diversity is amazing. It seems like a such a no-brainer, and because theatre people are so liberal, you forget that it’s something that needs to be advocated for and be rabble-rousers about, but it is. It’s annoying to see a show that’s all white for no reason. Theatre is theatre, and if there’s a reason for a show to be one race, then fine, but it is such a Broadway thing to have beautiful, sparkly white people for no reason. I love that we’re seeing some actual diversity. The only time something gets done is when people get upset about something and make a stand about it. The Hamilton stuff is great for theatre. The fact that a musical is relevant in pop culture is awesome. It is only helpful to other shows.
What do you think are the challenges of theatre right now?
It’s hard for me to know, because I’m so in it. I’m a musical theatre writer who is actively trying to get his work on a commercial stage in New York, which, in this day and age, means Broadway. If it was the 80s, I’d feel that my shows could live off-Broadway, but that’s not really possible these days, or at least producers don’t think it is. For me, having said all of this stuff about all the great things that are happening, it still feels a million miles away. Even the edgy, weird musicals tend to be written by famous people, which is a distressing trend to me, selfishly. I am not a famous person. As a writer, I see shows and start to think, ‘Can I now only get people interested in my shows if I’m famous?’ Then the fiery Italian in me thinks, ‘I’m so glad these rich and famous people are getting the opportunity to indulge their hobby and write a Broadway musical. Good for them.’ I’m not saying anything bad about the quality of their shows, but producers feel like they can get people to put money into their show more easily if it’s written by someone who’s famous. I totally get it, but it’s scary, because it starts small and then it becomes normal, and it’s notable when someone who’s not famous has a show that squeaks by.
Even Lin-Manuel Miranda has become very legitimately famous.
Exactly. Of course, that happened because of Hamilton, but it’s tricky. It’s hard for a first timer because even Lin had a tremendous success before Hamilton, but people talk about him like he was a nobody, even though he could not have been more theatre-famous. The same thing with Fun Home: would it have been at the Public if it hadn’t been written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron? As someone who’s trying to do it, it’s hard. What is the thing that will get me to that level? I love the idea of pop writers or famous people writing musicals, but it just scares me when I see it start to become the norm. The trends in theatre are so on the surface. Jersey Boys happened and then there were a million musicals about a band using the band’s songs. Julia Roberts was in a play on Broadway, and it was a huge deal, and then every A-list star was in a play on Broadway. Star casting in shows got so crazy, and now there’s all these pieces saying stars aren’t drawing box office anymore. It became the norm. Every time audiences see a play, they expect to see someone famous, so now they don’t want to see them in a play that nobody likes. It scares me a little bit to think of a Broadway that is only famous people. But there is such cool stuff happening. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is happening. I saw Shuffle Along the other day, which I thought was so awesome.
What else are you doing that we haven’t talked about? You always have so much up your sleeve that I know we haven’t covered it all.
I have two new musicals at various places in their development. I’m writing this Hunter S. Thompson musical for La Jolla Playhouse. We did a reading of that a few weeks ago, and we’re doing another one in June, so I’m really excited about that. As of right now, it’s called The Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical.
This summer, I’m doing a show at Barrington Stage Company called Broadway Bounty Hunter. It’s an action musical I wrote for Annie Golden with Jason SweetTooth Williams and Lance Rubin. I’m super stoked. Annie Golden plays a character named Annie, who is a musical theatre actress of a certain age, and she’s really down on her luck. Her husband died, she can’t get a job, she doesn’t have any money, and through a series of events, she ends up in the world of bounty hunting. The show is this musical theatre actress’s journey to South America on a bounty hunting adventure, where she discovers what her purpose is. The whole thing is told in the style of exploitation films of the 70s, so it has a lot of blaxploitation and kung fu influences. It’s a soul funk score, so it sounds totally different from anything I’ve ever done before. It’s going to be crazy. I’m really excited. I feel like there hasn’t been a musical like it. I don’t know if it’s good, but it’s different. People will ask, ‘What is this?’ It’s happening in August, and we’re casting for it right now. It’s going to be the ultimate cast of people who don’t normally get to play the roles they’ll be playing in musicals. Annie is usually cast as the kooky neighbor or the best friend, and in this, she’s our leading lady and gets to be kickass and sexy. It’s about her, not about her relationship with her kid or suffering from an illness. It’s about her finding out who she is as a human being and she gets to have a romance. It’s a super diverse cast. The expression ‘non-whites’ is my new favorite thing because of the Hamilton controversy. We just had auditions, and it was all actors of color, and so many people came in and got to do character work. One dude said, ‘I always have to sing gospel songs and do a stupid dance, and it’s cool to get to really act.’ It’s the opposite of typecasting.
Those are my two projects, plus this run at 54 Below.
Why do you stay in musical theatre writing?
I just love it so much. It’s so hard, and then I have moments where I’m performing with artists who I respect so much and I’m such a fan of, and they’re interpreting my work. It’s the absolute greatest feeling in the world for me, and it’s what I was put on this earth to do. When I see someone sing a song of mine, it blows me away. There’s nothing else I want to be doing. The older I get, the harder it gets, but those moments where everything is working are so precious. I constantly have to remind myself to chase those moments and not get bogged down by all the other stuff. I care about it so much. I feel like there’s a place for me and the work I make and the people I want to make it with. I think there’s a place for all of us in this world, so I’m going to keep doing it.