Composer Michael Roberts on life as an artist, family legends and the power of a good story

Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts is one talented writer. The composer of musicals like Golf: The MusicalThe FartisteMy American Family and, most recently, Greed: The Musical and The Goldstein Variations took time out of his fast-paced schedule to talk with SDD about life as an artist in the modern world, the universal impact of a powerful story, and his latest great works.

I would love to hear a bit about the Goldstein Variations.

It has light moments in it, but it is a musical drama. It’s a musical, not a musical comedy. It’s actually the story of three generations of an American immigrant family and the impetus of the whole narrative of the thing is that the show begins in the current day with an adult author who’s written a book called The Goldstein Variations. His book really tells that story – the story of his family over the three generations they’ve been in America. The book is slightly – like a lot of these memoirs, remember A Million Little Pieces, that James Frey thing that Oprah exposed – the book is like that but a little bit more literary. Anyway, so, for whatever reason, whether to sell books or just to make the narrative interesting or because it’s even true, he exposes some less-than-flattering moments in the family’s history. The rub of it is that his great aunt, who’s from that generation, is still alive and she disputes almost everything he says. So that’s how the show starts, and then we go back and we see these stories. We see the family history unfold very quickly over about 100 years…so we go back and we see the story, sometimes from her perspective, sometimes from his perspective, but we see these stories and then we come to a realization that family history – your family history, my family history – we take them as truths, but they’re really legends. They define us, which is one reason  we hold onto those legends. So when we did the show at American University, what we found is that the students and the people who came to see it in the audience started telling us all the  stories about family secrets and “well, supposedly this happened and that happened.” They have the experience that the characters have to deal with in the show – that there’s truth and then there’s facts – so it’s heady but it’s mostly an emotional journey. Mostly what you get out of it is emotion, you get your relationships to your extended family, to your immediate family, to regrets, to all those kinds of things.

That doesn’t seem to be something that we talk about a lot as a society. It’s something that’s so prevalent in our lives too, so it’s funny that we don’t talk about it more.

I think we’re afraid to talk about it in a way, because it’s been legend for so long it’s defined who we are – you know, your family, my family and us as individuals has informed so much of who we are. If we really peeled back the layers and tried to get at the truth, it might entirely change who we are and that’s an upsetting thing for a lot of people.

Is that what sparked you to want to write about this topic?

That’s what inspired Charlie Schulman, who wrote the book, to do it. He told me when he asked me if I wanted to write it with him that he was driving one night, and there was one of those FM call-in shows and the topic was “call in with your family secrets.” So Charlie said he was listening and people were calling in and saying “‘my father is really brother” and all these kinds of things and it made Charlie think about his family and all the buried or fabricated kind of thoughts that they had in their family. So he and I discussed it and we abstracted the story from a combination of this kind of family secret thing and his family history as an immigrant family. But yeah, as writers always say, it’s a composite.

Awesome.

Yeah, it’s deep. And the amazing thing was this family in the show happens to be Jewish, but the people who were in the cast at American University were of every ethnic stripe, so their families would come up to us and Asian, Indian families would say “oh my God, this happened just like this” and black families and Spanish families, you know? Everybody has the same experiences.

Is the rehearsal process a very emotional one? Do you find it makes you think about your own history when you’re there?

Yes. Much more so than any other show I’ve ever worked on. Well, largely because I’m usually hired to write comedies and they don’t get that emotional but with this show, we did find that the actors say “oh, I know what you’re talking about because in my family blah blah blah…” and I feel like they connect to the material in a different way than if they were doing My Fair Lady or something. Not to diss My Fair Lady. I love My Fair Lady, but you know what I’m saying? It goes a little deeper, it’s a little closer to drama than some musicals.

Was it hard to shift from writing mostly comedy to something more heavy?

No, not really. I was looking for that. I was very happy when Charlie asked me if I wanted to work on it, because what basically had happened is I had written Golf: the Musical and that actually did really well, it was kind of like a hit. So the most logical thing for me to do after that was to write another comedy, and so Charlie and I had the same agent at the time and he wanted to write a show called The Fartiste, a true story about this guy Joseph Pujol who lived in France, who made quite a great living by having amazing control over his flatulence. So, obviously, that’s going to be a comedy. So, we did that, it was produced off-Broadway and then we went to London where it’s in limbo, we don’t know if it’s going to continue. But anyway, so then I said to him, I said “look, if I write one more comedy, nobody’s going to want to listen to me when I write something that’s not comedy.”

So that’s when we decided to work on this and that’s when he said “well, it’s funny you mention because I have this idea,” and he told me about the call-in shows and all that and that was about five years ago and I just got sidetracked. I was commissioned to write a show called Greed, which just played at New World Stages and now it’s going someplace else but I don’t know where, and that’s a comedy too but it’s good theatre – New World Stages, and I was happy to write it. So I had to put The Goldstein Variations on hold, write the show that was at New World Stages, and then once that went up, Charlie and I went back to this and now we’re actually really doing this. That’s a long explanation, but you see how these paths cross and intertwine.

The cast of Greed by Michael Roberts

The cast of Greed

I feel like when we hear about actors we always hear about the pace of this industry and how it’s super fast and then all of a sudden there’s nothing happening for a while, and how they do different rituals to keep themselves where they want to be in between shows – but we never hear about that from a writer’s perspective in this business. Do you feel similarly?

It’s different because at least in theatre, or especially musical theatre,  it’s so involved and there’s so many departments involved and so much money involved that the gestation period for musicals is usually very, very long. The Goldstein Variations is five years, Fartiste was about the same, a little bit less. On the other hand, for Golf and Greed, the gestation period was about seven months because a producer came to me and said “I want to produce this show, I need you to write, here’s some money to write the show.” But that rarely happens in musical theatre. Usually what happens is someone like me will write a show because I want to write it, and I care about it deeply and will try very, very hard to get it produced, but commissions like Golf and Greed are rare. I’m lucky and happy to have had them. So what happens is you start all these projects, you have four of five shows going at once – every writer does, four or five shows, and some of them will never see the light of day, some of them will get produced, some of them will start, stop and then start again, and you can’t predict any of it. So sometimes, like over the past three or four months, I’ve been doing both of these shows at the same time and it’s been absolutely insane. But then, like you said, there will be a time when it’s nice and relaxed and you can contemplate new projects and push things forward gradually. It’s interesting we didn’t mention anything about the actors, you’re right. The way I always thought about it is the way soldiers talk about being at war. They say that if you’re a combat soldier, the vast majority of the time is you’re just waiting around then there’s a point – they say it’s boredom punctuated by short moments of absolute panic.

Wow, that makes total sense. I never thought of it like that!

Doesn’t it? This isn’t going to kill me but, you know – I don’t think it is – but that’s what soldiers say. Soldiers say that “99% of the time, I am waiting” and then when it happens, it’s an intense, intense experience. Not to say that anything I do is as important or as brave as what soldiers do, but the shape of that lifestyle is a little similar.

Did you always know that writing was what you wanted to do?

I always knew that composing was what I wanted to do, yeah. When I was six or so I started taking piano lessons, and right away when I had – you know you have that beginning piano book, or whatever – I would play something and then I would make up something that kind of sounded like it at the same time, which got me in trouble because my parents would think that I was practicing and I’d really just be making up my own stuff which was fine until my piano teacher came and I didn’t know the piece that they wanted me to learn. But I got disciplined and started actually really learning my Chopin and my Mozart.

In terms of writing lyrics, and I do write other things as well, I write plays, I just didn’t know anybody else who did it so I started doing it myself because if you want to write songs and nobody you know is a wordsmith, you just try to become one. That’s what happened by the time I got to music school, by the time I got to grad school. I just didn’t know anybody, so I said “well, if I’m going to do it I just have to start writing it.” Now I find I like writing lyrics at least as much as writing music, maybe even a little bit more.

Do you have a specific approach to writing a piece or does it come differently every time?

I have a general process that I can change up if I need to but it’s pretty simple, you know, they always ask whether the words of the music comes first, and there’s a million smart answers to that – “oh, the contract comes first,” or whatever. But for me, the words always come first. A full lyric is always written first. Because I feel it’s important to fit the music around the lyrics, not the other way around, and I usually start with a title, so I know what the lyrics are about. Say you’re a producer and you’re like, “Michael, I need a song and the song has to be about, you know, ‘my umbrella’s always breaking.’” Well I’ll write at the top of the page, “My Umbrella’s Always Breaking” so when I’m writing the lyric I always have a home to look at – a reference point so I don’t go astray of what the main subject of the song is about.

That makes sense, that’s awesome! When I think in terms of a person writing an essay, it feels the same way. It’s lost without an outline as a unifying theme.

Did you take any of those exams in school where you had a reading comprehension portion? You read the paragraph and at the bottom it said “the best title to this passage would be ___”? Do you remember that at all? That’s what it is in reverse! I was always good at that, like “of course I know what the title of this paragraph should be.” I just put it in reverse, I put the title and then I know what my song’s going to be about. Writing is all structure.

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About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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