Songwriter Joe Iconis talks about writing ‘Broadway, Here I Come!’, his involvement with ‘Smash’, and collaborating with the ‘Family’

Joe Iconis

Joe Iconis

Award-winning musical theatre writer Joe Iconis’s songs have been heard all over New York City, in performances across the nation and now on the silver screen in NBC’s Smash. The writer of Smash favorites “Broadway, Here I Come!” and “The Goodbye Song” caught up with Stage Door Dish to share his experiences with the series, his creative process and the meaning of family.

SDD: How did your collaboration with Smash begin? 

JI: It began because Josh Safran, who’s the showrunner, had been a fan of mine, sort of unbeknownst to me, and he came to see a concert that I did in June of last year. I didn’t know he was coming, I had never met him before, and after the show I was helping my friend load some drums into his car, and Josh went up to me and was like, “Hey, I’m Josh Safran, I’m working on Smash this season, I have a bunch of writers here with me and I want to know if you want to have some songs on the show.” So that’s how it all started. When I originally was talking to him, the idea was that I was to be the sole writer for the Hit List show. The initial idea was that [Marc] Shaiman and [Scott] Wittman would write all of the Marilyn Monroe musical stuff and they would just bring on one other writer to do the other musical, which is Hit List. And then through talks with them, it ended up being the kind of thing where they didn’t necessarily want to do that. And the people involved – Josh Safran is amazing and the actual writers are great – but you’ve got all of these high-ups at NBC and it goes all the way up to Steven Spielberg, so these people understandably don’t agree on a lot of stuff. So it turned into this thing where they have multiple writers whose songs end up on the show now and all the Hit List songs are written by one of a very large group of writers. At any rate, Josh, at our first meeting, talked about “Broadway, Here I Come!” He said that he kind of had that song in mind for the first episode and when he was trying to get the job of taking over for the show, he would use that song as his pitch, so it was his idea that that song would be this kind of recurring theme throughout the season. But he didn’t think that the fancy people at the network would ever let that be the song because we thought that they wanted something more upbeat and then I tried to write a song that was like a fake version of “Broadway, Here I Come!” that was a little more general and sort of happier. Then nobody liked that, and it was really the kind of thing where it was coming down to the last minute where they were going to film this episode in a matter of days and nobody could agree on the song so they just ended up using “Broadway, Here I Come!” which was great. And that’s how that ended up on the show. And then the other song I have on the show is “The Goodbye Song,” and that was just something where Josh really loved the song and wanted to specifically use that one on the show. So that’s been my experience with the whole thing.

SDD: What inspired “Broadway, Here I Come!” when you were writing it?

JI: I do concerts and I perform pretty frequently so “Broadway, Here I Come!” was a was a standalone song. I didn’t write it as a part of anything else, it was written to exist unto itself. When I first wrote it, it was kind of at a time in my own life when I was not the happiest, and I had a lot of conflicting thoughts about the theatre business in general. I had just done a show that opened and didn’t get the greatest reviews, and I felt a lot of momentum go away from what I was doing in that one moment. I knew I wanted to write a song about theatre and also struggling with theatre and about feeling stuck in a certain place, but also being afraid of getting to a certain place, and just the whole messiness about this idea of making it on Broadway, and what it means to make it. I started writing it, and I stumbled on this idea that making it on Broadway is kind of similar to jumping off a building. That sort of solidified the whole thing. The song just became about how I wanted every line to work so that someone could listen to the song and just think its about someone coming to the big city and trying to make it on Broadway but it also literally is about someone committing suicide and jumping off a building and then hurtling towards the street of Broadway. So then, the idea of the song became “could we make it work for both of those things?” So that’s kind of how the whole thing came about. It’s funny, the first time I ever sang that, I sang it at a concert – I had written it the morning of the show and it was a different version than what it is now – but the first 30 seconds of the song were the same, and when I sang it, it got a huge amount of laughs. People thought it was really, really funny. So I sang it, and then I put the song away and I never returned to it until a while later. I ended up rewriting it and Krysta Rodriguez is the first person who sang the song as it is now. It was really her interpretation of it that turned it from a song that when I first did it felt sort of darkly comic, to the thing that it is now. I still do I think it’s kind of funny but I feel like it has a dignity to it that it didn’t necessarily have when I first wrote it.

Krysta Rodriguez singing "Broadway, Here I Come" on Smash

Krysta Rodriguez singing “Broadway, Here I Come!” on Smash

SDD: Do you find that that happens a lot? When you collaborate with a performer, does the way they interpret the song change your view of it sometimes?

JI: Yeah, absolutely. The name of the show is Joe Iconis and Family so I have this collective of artists and musicians that I work with pretty frequently, and I love collaborating with actors. It’s a huge part of my writing process, I write a song and I just can’t wait to get it in front of an actor and to work with them. I love sort of wrapping songs and theatre and shows around the people who are performing them. So, for me it happens all the time, it’s my favorite thing. It’s the kind of thing where sometimes I’ll change a word because a word doesn’t sound correct out of somebody’s mouth or I’ll change the rhythm or the melody. To me it’s very much a collaboration between the song and the singer. I think that’s what happens, Krysta made me feel like “oh, this song is a little different than I originally thought that it was,” and that happens all the time, which is cool. I have this song called “The Protector” and when I first wrote it, I didn’t know if it was a song that I would sing in concert, or if my friend Jason “SweetTooth” Williams would sing it, but then when I first wrote it I was trying to make it intentionally vague. I think it’s a song about many things and I wanted it to feel like poetry as opposed to more like a scene song, which is something that I write quite a bit. But when I first wrote it and I sang it, I felt like “you know, this makes no sense. I tried to do something that’s vague and that’s open to interpretation, but in actuality I’ve just written a song that’s fucking baffling and nobody is going to understand it.” And then SweetTooth sang it, and from the first time he sang it, it was so clear what this song was about. Even though it can be about different things, the intention of the song was immediately clear in a way that it just wasn’t when I was singing it or when I was thinking about it. And now it’s a song that people hear and always talk about when it’s in a concert. People always enjoy the song and understand what it’s about without being able to articulate what it’s about, which is totally because of this actor who heard it and knew how to interpret it and made it more clear than it was originally without even changing a word or changing anything about it. It just was a matter of performance.

SDD: On that note, is there a reason you call the people you work with “the Family?”

JI: Yeah, I guess it’s a couple reasons. It sort of started organically and I like the idea of, as I said, collaborating with artists. I’ve always loved the idea of having this stable of artists and being like a repertory company or like a group of people who all chip in and do this thing, and make art together. It also stems from a “doing shows in your backyard” kind of feeling, with everyone pitching in and the boundaries being fuzzy between who sings and who plays instruments and who writes and who directs. So we first started using the word the “family” in kind of an off-the-cuff way and we used it in programs – instead of saying “the cast” it would say “the family” because it just felt more appropriate. Then people started calling us “the family.” Then for a while I was kind of weirded out by it because it felt so natural and nebulous, and I was afraid if I supported it and put it out into the world as “Joe Iconis and Family” as a thing, it would seem too precious, or it would seem like something where you get a membership card, or like “there’s auditions for the family.” But in retrospect, I’m really happy that it’s kind of out there in the world, because I think what we do, it’s just different. I think that it’s something that no other group of people is really doing because we do these concerts and yeah, everyone is singing my songs so it immediately feels like a musical theatre concert in a way that it’s like “oh, a night of songs by ___.” But everyone really does have a place at the table. So the feeling of it – I think someone who wouldn’t be familiar with the world of musical theatre would see a show like that and it would feel a lot more like a rock band or a lot more like some sort of cabaret. Not necessarily in a musical theatre cabaret sort of way, but I think it would feel different. It feels like a collective, so “family” just makes sense to me. And I also just really hate when people, especially in musical theatre, do shows where it’s like, “So-and-so and friends.” It seems so silly to me. Cause a lot of times you’ll look at it and think “I know you’re not friends.” So I felt good about saying “and family” because it feels correct, it feels bonafide.

SDD: Did you always know that writing is what you wanted to do? 

JI: Yeah, I kind of did. I saw Little Shop of Horrors for my seventh birthday. I started with Little Shop of Horrors, and I was very immediately hooked by musical theatre. I’m from close by and my family would go to see shows but there was no one who was really, really into theatre. I was, I loved it and for every birthday or holiday my family would take me to see shows. My aunt would take me all the time to see theatre and took me to a lot of adult shows. I saw Kiss of the Spiderwoman when I was a little kid and I saw Falsettos and I just loved it. And when I was little little, I would be in musicals and stuff and I knew I was bad, I was terrible at it. I was a really awful little performer and it made me nervous and I was scared to be in the show. But I still loved it and I loved being around the shows. So as soon as I was old enough to realize that there’s a person who writes the shows, that was immediately what I wanted to do. I was obsessed with Andrew Lloyd Webber and then Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb and I just always wanted to do it. And I went to NYU for music composition in undergrad and I also did the musical theatre writing program, and from middle school on I was very much obsessed with the idea of writing musicals.

SDD: Do you have a certain process when you’re writing a piece or does it come together differently every time?

JI: It’s kind of different every time, I’m not the best about having a writing schedule so every day it’s hard for me to say like “oh, from 12-4 I’m going to write.” So it’s kind of different every day but in general, I write all over the place. I don’t have one sacred spot, I like to write in public a lot, I like to write at Dunkin Donuts, I like to write outside if I can. A lot of times I’ll start a scene or a song somewhere and then I’ll take it to a different location and then I’ll come back and I’ll write around the piano and then I’ll write away from the piano so it kind of feels like a frantic sort of whirling nervous style of writing. But then it miraculously comes together most of the time.

Joe Iconis

Joe Iconis

SDD: Do you have a personal favorite song of yours that you’ve written?

JI: Yeah. It’s funny with the songs because some of my songs I like a lot – I just like them, I like playing them, some of my songs I totally hate. They bug me and I don’t enjoy listening to them or hearing people sing them. But, I would say my favorite of my songs is this song called “Starting to Forget,” which is a song that I wrote about my grandfather many, many years ago. It’s a very simple song and it kind of doesn’t sound like anything that I write today but it’s sort of the first time – I wrote it in undergrad – and it was the first time that I felt like something clicked as far as the writing went and it felt like I was starting a new type of writing for myself, so it was a song that I was very proud of at the time and still am. And even now, I think it’s very simple, and I think that as a song it works really well and does a lot of the stuff that I care about in songwriting, so I always feel like that’s as good or nice a song as I’m going to ever write. So that’s the long answer to that question. “Starting To Forget.”

SDD: What’s been your most gratifying moment so far as an artist?

JI: One moment doesn’t stick out to me yet. There have been a couple moments that I’ve been really excited by. I would say backstage before the opening night performance of Bloodsong of Love, which is this musical that I wrote that was at Ars Nova a couple of years ago, and that we’re recently kind of picking up again and are  going to do again hopefully very soon. But it was a show that I really, really was proud of and the rehearsal process was amazing and everything about it was just great right before we actually walked into that opening night performance. I was just so proud and happy and great and kind of filled with possibility. The performance was amazing and then we got a sort of annoying review in the Times, so that actual night dwindled a little bit for me, it kind of took it away from fairytale. But it still was kind of worth it for the moments right before when it sort of felt like that “anything is possible” sort of thing. So that was pretty gratifying in a certain way but I think in general, the moments when I feel like “oh yeah, this is the best” usually have to do with performance. When I’m doing a show, like the shows I’m doing at 54 [Below], it’s the actual hour and a half of doing those shows and participating in the music and being onstage with these people that I care about so much and experiencing my songs being performed by artists of such high caliber. Those are my favorite moments, so whatever the last one of those are would be the most gratifying moment that I ever have.

SDD: Stage or screen?

JI: Stage.

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which one would you choose?

JI: “Don’t Stop Believing.”

SDD: Do you have a favorite word?

JI: Family.

SDD: What is your current obsession?

JI: The first thing I’m thinking of is meat and cheese plates.

SDD: Karen Cartwright or Ivy Lynn?

JI: Ivy Lynn.

SDD: What is the last great show you saw onstage?

JI: The Flick by Annie Baker.

SDD: What is your life motto?

JI: Everybody has a place at the table.

SDD: Who is the last person who made you feel starstruck?

JI: Anjelica Huston

SDD: If you could trade places with anybody on Broadway, who would you choose?

JI: I would choose Danny Burstein.

SDD: Which Broadway star would you most like to get a drink with?

JI: The girls who play Matilda.

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.

JI: Hairy, specific, collaborative, passionate.

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About Claire H.

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

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