Now that the libretto for our musical “The Usual” has been published, I thought I’d tell you how it came to be. It happened because of the Raw Impressions Music Theatre. This was a wonderfully insane, low-budget project that would put together evenings of ten minute musicals written in 48 hours. Eight writers and eight composers who had never worked together before would show up on a Friday afternoon; ten performers would sing for a minute each; then eight musical-writing teams would form and be given the theme for that program. It was like, here’s your composer, these three performers will be yours, here’s your director, here’s your musical director, you have 48 hours, see you Sunday, GO!
One week later, they would put on a fully-staged, off-book evening of eight ten minute musicals. Our theme was “Love by Degrees.” “Math Anxiety,” with music by Michael Hunsaker, was my first publicly performed work. There were six performances, and I went to five of them and listened and watched as an audience of strangers laughed and cheered for our show. It was a blast.
I started thinking about what I would do if I could run one of these. I remembered seeing Paul Sills’ All-Star improv group when they came to NYC. [Can’t remember all of them, but Paul Dooley, Severn Darden, Gerrit Graham …] There was one format where they were given a first line and a last line, and had to improvise a scene that got from one to the other. [“Put down that chainsaw!” was the final one that night.] So, what if a group of random sentences were drawn from a hat and used to start musicals?
The phrase, “I knew you’d come back,” popped into my head. And within 90 seconds, I knew the characters, the entire plot, the songs, and that it had to be jazz-based. [Da DOO be do BOP!]
Well, fun idea, but I wasn’t in charge of anything. But I kept coming up with ideas for short musicals, and wondered what an evening of such would be like. Then I met the composer Mark Sutton-Smith. He had responded to a personal ad I had put up in a Yahoo newsgroup of musical theater writers [“Lonely lyricist seeks composer …”] We met by the Lincoln Center fountain [cue Gene Wilder screaming, “I’ll do it!” as the water erupts orgasmically.] At dinner, we each pitched an idea. Mine was for the program of one-act musicals; he then growled, “I want to write a show called, ‘Girl Detective.'” We ended up doing both.
The problem: We never quite finished the collection of one-acts, entitled, “This Happened To Someone I Know,” although writing it was a good learning process and way for us to get a sense of what each other could do. I wrote for an imaginary group of six performers I knew either through my BMI workshop or Raw Impressions: Jill Abramovitz, Karen Hyland, Kristin Maloney, Nick Cearley, Steve Routman, and my Raw Impressions collaborator, Michael Hunsaker. Of the one acts, only the one I initially thought of was completed: “Bad Reception,” which Kristin and Mike performed sensationally at the Emerging Artists Theater. [You can hear them singing “I Knew You’d Come Back” and “Enough” here. The latter is one of the most gorgeous melodies you’ll ever hear.] We got caught up in writing “Girl Detective,” but more importantly, the one-acts never quite connected with an overall theme. This particularly hit home when we put together a private reading, amazingly getting Kristin, Nick, Steve and Mike, two-thirds of the dream team, and added in Lauren Blackman and Russell Koplin in the other female roles. In the post-mortem, it was suggested that we’d be better off finding an overall through-line.
I thought about that, and actually came up with an idea for one — six characters, two side-by-side locations [a living room; a bar] — but the frustrations were creeping in, so we put the project aside.
In early autumn, 2010, Mark called me and said [this is verbatim], “Hey, my sister’s theater is looking for original musicals for two to three performers and one set. Let’s write one of those.” He proposed that we salvage what songs we could from the earlier project. I re-examined one of the one-acts, “Kaypro II,” in which a woman named Valerie rediscovers the clunky old computer from her teen years and plays a computer adventure game that she never finished. The demons she encounters in the game parallel the demons from her real life.
It seemed like a possible second act, albeit with much rewriting. I took my idea for the through-line and cut it in half. One set, a bar. A guy walks into the bar, starts talking to the bartender. Then Valerie enters. And stuff happens.
My wife, Judy and I, were taking an anniversary trip to Hawaii. I can never sleep on planes. I took a spiral notebook and started riffing an opening scene. It flowed [“like butter,” said Mark when he read it later].
We still needed songs. Lots of them, in fact, to fill up this full-length show. They started to come. Mark and I worked by sending things back and forth to each other. He described his composing process to me as “Walking around the house, muttering.” Three new songs happened. The Williamston Theatre liked the first draft. They even did the opening scene for a fund-raising gala. But there was much to be done. Eight more songs to go, and we wanted to put together a table read for August so that Tony Caselli, the director, could come to NYC and take a look at the completed show.
Then I stopped hearing from Mark. No e-mails with music attached, no calls, no picking up on his end. We had lined up three performers [Tara Novie and Gil Brady from “Girl Detective,” and Kristin Maloney, who had inspired the original Valerie]. I was getting increasingly frantic, wondering what was going on.
Then things got worse. Much worse.
It turned out that Mark had been diagnosed with lymphoma. He finally called me and filled me in. I was stunned, needless to say. Horrified for him, and wondering if we’d be able to finish what we started.
We postponed the reading. On the other end of the life event scale, Kristin had become pregnant, and the new date was past her due date. She recommended a woman she had recently worked with who she said could do everything she could do even better, and that’s how I first met Jillian Louis.
Mark started chemo, which laid him out. We went ahead with the reading, which was encouraging and pointed out what needed to be rewritten. Then I received the first piece of music from Mark. Then another. Then another.
He ended up writing eight new songs in between bouts of chemo. They were wonderful. It was one of the most incredible things I had ever seen. To create while that ill takes courage beyond anything I’ve ever had. We completed the show in time to get it to Williamston.
The Williamston Theatre is a small theater, with 99 seats surrounding a small square stage on three sides. It was founded by four people, including Tony Caselli, our director, and Emily Sutton-Smith, Mark’s sister and our leading lady. The theater is an Equity house that also draws on the nearby Michigan State theater students. Our leading man, Kip, was played by Joseph Zettelmaier, an award-winning playwright long associated with the theater. Sam, the bartender, was played by Emily Hull, a graduate student at the time. Tony also had the clever idea of incorporating the two student assistant stage managers, Brandon Piper and Carolyne Rex, as an onstage chorus when they weren’t changing scenery or operating demons. [When Mark heard about that, he said, “Five voices are going to sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in that space.”] The set, costumes, lighting and props were all beautifully done, and the musical director improvised cocktail piano for the underscoring that Mark couldn’t complete.
I was up for the last two weeks of rehearsal, rewriting in my hotel room by day. The layout of that room had the television mounted over the desk. The bottom of framework had padding on it. I remember thinking, “What kind of idiot is going to hit his head standing up from the desk?” The answer was me. Twice.
We had our first preview. The laughs were huge. So was the gasp of shock and dismay at the last twist of the final scene. [Joe came running up to me after, crowing, “Did you hear that?”]
And Mark made it to the premiere to hear his little sister sing his music for the first, and only, time in his life.
We got great reviews from the Michigan media, nominations for different awards. It was a blast, one of the great experiences of my life.
And the performance after the premiere would be the last time that I would see Mark in person.
He lived another year, composing to the end. We spoke on the phone. He gave me his blessing when the possibility arose for me to work with someone else, which we understood would be until he was well enough to work again on another musical. About a year after the premiere, we lost him.
A month or so after that, I received a call informing me that I had won the Kleban Prize for Most Promising Librettist for this little show. The ceremony was at the ASCAP building, and Mark’s music was played by Joy Son, my new collaborator, on Harold Arlen’s Steinway grand. She told me that she had never practiced so hard.
Oh, the title. The working title had been “These Two Walked Into A Bar.” Sometime in the rehearsal process, Tony suggested, “The Usual.” And we said, “Yeah. That’s it.”