This is Part 4 of a multi-part series of posts. I suggest that you start with Part 1 if you have the time and really want to appreciate the full effulgence.
One afternoon about a year into my tenure as composer-in-residence at The Public Theater, Joe Papp called me into his office, sat me down and announced, “It’s time you did a work of your own – a musical. As part of your education, I’m going to give you the works of three playwrights. Read their plays and choose one that you think you can convert into a musical.”
He went on, “By doing this, you will have the opportunity to both study and work with the masters. Have it finished in six months.” Whew! A rather heady assignment for a 26-year old man-child who was already pretty busy with everybody else’s works as well.
The three playwrights he gave me were William Shakespeare, Aristophanes and Euripides. Fortunately, I had aced a terrific course in college on the works of Shakespeare, so I did not have to read all his plays, so I went back to my study notes and picked a few possibilities. The trouble, of course, with Shakespeare was the language. It would have to be a modernization of his language for a musical and who would want to mess with the master’s words. It would be like writing pop songs from the works of Beethoven.
So I turned to the Greeks. Long story short, after about a month of plowing through Aristophanes, I turned to Euripides who I had barely even heard of. There I found not only a master playwright, but one of the great creators of the art of the playwright and a weaver of tales that have fascinated me since.
Weeks later I returned to Joe’s office and announced that I had, at last, made my choice. It would be Euripides’ Iphigenia In Aulis, the classic story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and how, when King Agamemnon, mired with his army on the shores of Aulis because he had no wind to sail his ships to Troy to bring Helen back, decided to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods to get his necessary wind. He then plans a ruse and orders his queen, Clytemnestra, to Aulis with Iphigenia in tow for she is, he lies, to marry Achilles, his greatest of warriors. Settin’ her up to let her down and definitely a tragedy!
But musicals are rarely tragedies – usually they have happy endings – so it was my choice to write the show as an opera, and a rock opera to boot.
Joe loved the idea and yelled, “Perfect choice! Let’s get started!! Who do you want as a book-writer?” It was a funny moment. Here was Joseph Papp, probably, at the time, the most famous and knowledgeable producer in America in his great enthusiasm asking a totally dumb question. I explained to him that Operas do not have “books or dialogue”, that that was the point. It would all be sung.
I had found a wondrous translation from the Greek that absolutely sang and read him some of the verses – it was originally written in verse – and as I read, Joe wept in excitement and passion for the act of creativity.
It was a great start, but now I had to write it. And so I did.
It was one of the great and truly creative experiences of my life. The largess of the Euripidean drama provided a perfect backdrop for the power of rock music and somehow the two diverse time periods worked together like magic. The words were gorgeous to work with and I pretty much stuck to the translated text. It was really just a matter of editing it all down to a simple story that could be told musically. I worked for 3 months by myself and wrote song after song and whole scenes in operatic style. I was freed by the great play and the power of its structure.
As always, Joe was right. I learned so much about the theater from getting inside Euripides great classic work of art. I learned the profound act of great story telling and about the balances of drama, of tension and release, of build and plot. For the last 3 weeks of the work Joe told me not to come in to the theater – to stay home and live the experience totally. I followed his instructions to the T. I even ate only Greek food!
Then came the afternoon I was to play the music for Joe and some of his staff. He had brought into his big office David Rabe, John Ford Noonan and a host of America’s best playwrights of the time to listen to the work. It was all of them and me and my guitar. I was scared to death.
It took me two and a half hours to play all the music. I had seriously overwritten the work and I nearly lost my voice singing down the score. At the end of that first showing we all sat and applauded and trashed and changed and threw out and re-structured my work for the next 3 hours. It was quite a day. Joe brought in pizzas for all and we went on into the night. I was exhausted, but what a day!
It was basically agreed that at the core was something most exciting, but that now I needed a director and a conceptualist to come in and work with me on further structuring it as a workable piece of theater. I wholeheartedly agreed.
Looking back, at that point, Joe made a mistake. What was needed was a terrific and deeply experienced pro theater director to craft the opera into great theater. Instead, Joe brought in a wild and wacky avant-garde young director, Doug Dyer, whose experimental work had been the talk of the town. Doug was full of ideas and our collaboration was fascinating and exciting and certainly cutting edge, but he strayed too far from structure – in essence, he did not honor the original work of the master, Euripides, enough and so we often wasted great amounts of time going off on his latest pipe-dreams.
But we finally had a full libretto that Joe liked. He was not 100% on it, but he felt we could work out the snags and difficulties by work-shopping it. Joe was big on work-shopping, he had the theaters and the money to do so and he used his opportunities well.
It was time to find the cast.
… to be continued …
Even More Inspiration
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