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The American Musical, Part 1
Mr. Wattenberg: From Showboat to The Lion King, from Oklahoma to Chorus Line, the lights of Broadway burn brightly in the imaginations of millions of people around the world. The Broadway Musical is a unique 20th century art form, combining comedy and romance, music and dance. With mega-hits like Phantom of the Opera passing 8,000 performances, are we seeing a new golden age of the musical? Who will join the ranks of Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein and Sondheim? What do the themes of musicals tell us about the story of America? To find out Think Tank is joined by Wiley Hausam, The executive Director of the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, Associate Producer on the Tony Award winning Broadway show Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk and Editor of The New American Musical: An Anthology from the End of the Century. And by Judy Kaye a long time performer in musical theater. Among her many roles she has appeared in The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Sweeny Todd. She won a Tony for her performance in The Phantom of the Opera. The topic before the house; The American Musical, This Week on Think Tank!
Mr. Wattenberg: Judy Kaye, Wiley Hausam, welcome to Think Tank.
Both: Thank you.
Mr. Wattenberg: We’re all on a very first name basis, and let me begin by asking you first, Judy. Tell me something about where you grew up and who you are, and then you, Wiley.
Ms. Kaye: I grew born in Phoenix, Arizona back in the ‘40s when the entire metropolitan area of Phoenix -– Tempe, Mesa, all of that stuff, was about 250,000 people.
Mr. Wattenberg: And today it’s...
Ms. Kaye: Almost 7 million.
Mr. Wattenberg: Wow.
Ms. Kaye: Yeah, and...
Mr. Wattenberg: It’s bigger than Washington.
Ms. Kaye: Yeah. It’s huge, and growing. And I was, as a kid, an athlete. I played golf and I loved to sing and dance and tell stories. I would sort of do that. I’d see a movie and the next day I’d be out in my backyard acting it out.
Mr. Wattenberg: What’s your favorite song?
Ms. Kaye: My favorite song. Oh...
Mr. Wattenberg: You get to pick one.
Ms. Kaye: I was thinking about that the other day and for years I’ve been saying I think the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard is “All the Things You Are”, Jerome Kern.
Mr. Wattenberg: Can you sing a few bars?
Ms. Kaye: (Singing)...”You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes a lonely winter seem long. You are the breathless hush of evening that trembles on the brink of a lovely song...” and I could go on but we’d be here for...it’s a long song (giggling).
Mr. Wattenberg: That’s real poetry.
Ms. Kaye: Isn’t it?
Mr. Wattenberg: It’s common language, not all gussied up and it’s so beautiful. Wiley, you are both a producer and a teacher.
Mr. Hausam: I am.
Mr. Wattenberg: Tell me about your background.
Mr. Hausam: I grew up in a little town in Missouri; it’s called Sedalia, Missouri, 20,000 people.
Mr. Wattenberg: Is that near Rallah (ph.)?
Mr. Hausam: Not so close. It’s kind of in the middle of the state. Twenty thousand people. State fair is there. Scott Joplin composed a lot of his ragtime songs there. I’m the son of a traveling salesman and a nurse who happens to be from Bolivia so she’s kind of a classic immigrant story. And we had a good music department. I loved to sing and my dad loved to sing and...
Mr. Wattenberg: What’s your favorite song?
Mr. Hausam: I think it’s probably an Irving Berlin song.
Mr. Wattenberg: Could you sing just a few bars? Come on.
Mr. Hausam: Oh, you don’t want me to sing. I...
Mr. Wattenberg: Listen, I’m close to tone deaf, but I sing in the shower, so...
Mr. Hausam: You know, I went to music school at Northwestern -– I was originally a voice major -– and it was such a kind of a brutal environment that by the time I finished the first two years, I would not sing anymore. I wouldn’t sing.
Ms. Kaye: Oh, that’s terrible. That’s a terrible story.
Mr. Hausam: Yeah, it was really...
Ms. Kaye: Oh, I don’t like hearing...
Mr. Hausam: And you know what? I did not sing in public again until we had a Christmas party this year at (unintelligible) and we had karaoke and just for the fun of it I actually got up on stage and sang a couple songs and it was great, but I couldn’t sing on TV.
Mr. Wattenberg: What’d you sing?
Mr. Hausam: I sang a Beatles sing. “When I’m 64.”
Mr. Wattenberg: Let me hear a few bars.
Mr. Hausam: I can’t -– I’m –- I have to be drunk.
Ms. Kaye: (Laughing) Get the margaritas out.
Mr. Hausam: Someone once told me -– one of my friends said to me, “You need to have a little whiskey before you go on this show; you’ll be a lot funnier.”
I said, “Not at 11 in the morning. No thank you.” (Laughing.)
Mr. Wattenberg: Okay, so you grew up in the Phoenix area...
Ms. Kaye: Right. My father was a pediatrician, my mother a housewife and I -- and they would take me to whatever theater there was that came through Arizona and took me to the symphony and we were very involved and I had to be an actor.
Mr. Hausam: And you knew from a young age.
Ms. Kaye: I guess I did. I thought I would teach, but it became apparent that I was too much of a ham. A kosher ham, but...
Mr. Kaye: Exactly. And I was also in the music department there and doing –- there was a -– somehow I backed into the opera department there -– oh, I’m stuttering -– I had sung some classical music in high school as well and I auditioned for the opera workshop at UCLA and I was accepted and a portion of the opera workshop was the musical comedy workshop which met on Saturday mornings and I thought, well, I have to do that. And one day I was working with a wonderful gentleman named (unintelligible) who was an Italian opera coach and he said, “Judy, Judy, you are sad today. You are not happy.”
Mr. Wattenberg: Right.
Ms. Kaye: And I said, “Oh, it’s okay.” He said, “No, no, no. This is not making you happy. You go to the musical comedy workshop. You do what you love.” So I did, and years later I wound up doing some opera again. It sort of came back; it got me. But from that moment on I was -– I pretty much made the commitment that I would pretty much try to have a life in the theater. I would make my living mainly doing musical theater.
Mr. Wattenberg: Can you give me a few bars of your favorite opera.
Ms. Kaye: Oh, well...(laughing).
Mr. Wattenberg: Or not even your favorite. Just something.
Ms. Kaye: I have done opera properly and this last year I did a wonderful play with music on Broadway called “Souvenir”.
Mr. Wattenberg: Right.
Ms. Kaye: A play called -– that was written by Stephen Temperley, directed by Vivian Matalon and I played a woman who lived in the early part of the 20th century in New York named Florence Foster Jenkins who thought herself a great opera singer and was very wealthy and even hired at Carnegie Hall to put on a concert where 2,000 people were turned away. But she couldn’t sing a lick. So I spent the evening in this play singing bits and pieces of arias, singing quite badly because I -– because Florence couldn’t carry a tune. But hopefully when I did (unintelligible name), (singing). And I can’t remember the rest of it. (Singing.) Like that there (giggling).
Mr. Wattenberg: Now, what do you think makes the musical comedy and the sort of folk poetry sort of a uniquely American invention? Any thoughts on that?
Mr. Hausam: You know, there’s –- Leonard Bernstein was a great teacher and I use one of his television episodes at the program that I teach at.
Mr. Hausam: I might give a little spoken word, as they say. And he did a television program in the ‘50s that I use. It’s a graduate musical theater writing at NYU that talks about what made the musical be what it is and what made the evolution of the musical. And one of the things that he says is that it’s in the vernacular; it’s the way Americans talk with American speech rhythms; it has elements of jazz and those kinds of rhythms and that it somehow combines these, and when you’re talking about the actual musical itself it combines variety and unity, so its like got elements of Vaudeville and Burlesque, and the variety that came in those kind of episodic shows that creates interest and entertainment, but that also somehow it all hangs together.
Mr. Wattenberg: I just wonder, you know, you’ve had drama since forever, (unintelligible), all that kind of stuff; but how is it that it took Americans to sort of go to this folk poetry in music? I don’t think that ever really occurred before.
Ms. Kaye: There was operetta, of course there’s that tradition, and some of the musicals grew out of that. The Kern that I was doing sort of grew out of that.
Mr. Wattenberg: And of course you had Gilbert and Sullivan which was wonderful stuff, but the American [dream?] is sort of very different.
Ms. Kaye: It’s different. It started to reflect who we are.
Mr. Hausam: And the rise of popular music started to happen about that time, too. And the rise of jazz.
Mr. Wattenberg: And it all is sort of seamless. We were talking before, the opening ensemble of Guys and Dolls is based on a Bach fugue “I got the horse right here” -- I won’t sing – “I got the horse right here”, but that’s a model of Bach.
Mr. Hausam: Absolutely. And Frank Loesser who was a great pop songwriter before he became a theater writer, you know, eventually started going almost more towards an operatic quality like in “The Most Happy Fella”, so this is this thing in the middle of the century where popular musicians were kind of aspiring to this high art status and I guess, you know, Bernstein was the Sondheim, too, or the end point of that in kind of a way.
Ms. Kaye: See what happens next, right?
Mr. Hausam: Exactly.
Mr. Wattenberg: the movie is basically –- I mean, a lot of people obviously do it now -– it’s basically an American creation and all over the world, even in France, I guess everywhere except India people watch American movies. I think about 70% of box office tickets in Europe are for American movies,
Mr. Hausam: That’s true to a great extent with musicals, too. I think not as much as movies, but there are certain countries where they don’t respond to musicals, but for example in Japan it’s big; in Korea it’s big; in Australia it’s big, most of -– most of Europe.
Ms. Kaye: In China. It’s moving to China now.
Mr. Hausam: Is it?
Ms. Kaye: Yeah.
Mr. Wattenberg: The musical comedy?
Ms. Kaye: They’re exporting Broadway productions now. This was -– has just been in Variety and whatnot that they’re going to be taking Broadway musicals to China and they will be doing co-productions over there, too of -–with Chinese casts of American musicals.
Mr. Wattenberg: Are they paying royalties? Because...
Ms. Kaye: Oh, yeah.
Mr. Wattenberg: ...because they’ve been doing a lot of pirating on the technological side.
Ms. Kaye: This is actually done under the auspices I believe of live Broadway which is the branding -– they’re trying to brand Broadway as an entity which is a good idea because it’s not easy to keep this thing going, you know?
Mr. Wattenberg: Do you sense that this whole phenomenon of the internationalization of the American musical is -- I guess the best word is “pro American”. I mean, it teaches this idea that the hero shapes destiny, it shows the good and the bad about America, and in a very primal sense isn’t that really pro American?
Mr. Hausam: Very much so. Very much so. I mean, despite our recent conduct in Iraq and however people around the world feel about our government, they still like Americans; they still believe it’s the best country in the world. My mother’s been here for 50 years. She’s from one of the poorest countries in South America. She never stops saying, “It’s the best country in the world. I’m so glad I came here even though I left my family behind.”
Ms. Kaye: Yeah, I think it’s -- this whole project of taking musicals to China is going to be really interesting.
Mr. Hausam: Yeah.
Mr. Wattenberg: It’s the ultimate expression of freedom and human liberty isn’t it? If you have the ability to speak your mind everything flows from it.
Mr. Hausam: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, years ago I used to work at ICM and Arthur Miller the playwright was represented by ICM and during the ‘80s he went -– he took a production of “Death of a Salesman” to China. So this is the great play about the disappointment of -– some of the disappointments of the American dream...
Mr. Wattenberg: Willie Loman.
Mr. Hausam: ...in a communist country, and he said they got it. They got it. They understood.
Mr. Wattenberg: And people around the world are -- particularly in totalitarian societies, are astonished that we can be self-critical.
Ms. Kaye: Yes.
Mr. Wattenberg: And it’s so healthy.
Mr. Hausam: Um-hm.
Mr. Wattenberg: Who is your favorite actor, actress, singer, composer, just off the top of your head?
Ms. Kaye: Wow. Favorite actor. Whew. I love so many actors. I think actors actually are the best people on earth.
Mr. Hausam: Absolutely.
Mr. Wattenberg: I always thought –- I always thought it was generally writers.
Ms. Kaye: They’re pretty damn wonderful, too because frankly the actors couldn’t do squat without them and we know that. We know that. But, gee, my favorites. Meryl Streep.
Mr. Wattenberg: She’s great.
Ms. Kaye: Kevin Kline.
Mr. Hausam: Um-hm.
Ms. Kaye: Going back to -– we were talking about Fred Astaire in his milieu.
Mr. Wattenberg: And you’ve worked with most of these people?
Ms. Kaye: I’ve had a chance to at least know them. I’ve worked with Kevin Kline very closely. An incredibly generous artist. But I mean, I could go on and on. It’s really hard to narrow it down. How about you?
Mr. Hausam: Well, if I were going to name them, I suppose a musical theater actor who’s my favorite, I guess it’s probably Angela Lansbury.
Ms. Kaye: Ohhh...
Mr. Wattenberg: Oh, she’s great.
Mr. Hausam: And I only...
Mr. Wattenberg: She played in “Sweeney Todd”, didn’t she?
Ms. Kaye: Um-hm.
Mr. Hausam: Yeah, and that’s where it kind of galvanized for me. I mean, I watched her do that part probably ten times and it’s amazing to me how similar the performances were and yet how fresh they always were. It’s like, how do you do that? How do you make it so almost precisely the same, and yet it’s like it never happened before. And then in, you know, nonmusical acting, gosh, I saw Vanessa Redgrave do “The Year of Magical Thinking” the other day, the other night. It’s pretty extraordinary. She’s pretty extraordinary. There are a lot of good actors.
Ms. Kaye: Yeah. We shouldn’t forget my good friend and colleague Len Cariou who played Sweeney Todd...
Mr. Hausam: Yes. Brilliantly.
Ms. Kaye: ...opposite Angela. Absolutely brilliant. I got to actually play Mrs. Lovett opposite him...
Mr. Hausam: Did you?
Ms. Kaye: ...for one -- one night in London. The 20th anniversary concert. Oh, my goodness...to share a stage with him.
Mr. Wattenberg: Who are the great directors, both film and Broadway?
Ms. Hausam: Well, you know, I’d like to really emphasize somebody in particular who’s been important to both of us. Harold Prince. You know, the musical after about 1957, he produced “West Side Story” and that was the year that is so shaped by how Prince and the people he has sponsored, given opportunities to, the work he shapes. Steven Sondheim’s career perhaps could not have happened without Hal Prince because the work is so challenging that you need a producer who will raise the money, make it happen, sell the tickets, and Hal was of course one of the great directors, too. He’s just absolutely an enormous force. And you know, because a director’s work in a sense evaporates, they often don’t get the credit they deserve, particularly if they’re actually shaping the material. Hal is a giant. He’s –- [there’s] nobody like him; nobody will be like him.
Ms. Kaye: And what he has done for people like us. I mean, and continues. If there’s a young talented person who wants to be part of the musical theater or the theater in general in this country, and they have it in their mind to contact Harold Prince or Steven Sondheim for that matter, you write them and they will write you back. They will. They want to keep this thing going.
Mr. Wattenberg: It’s so interesting; the basic narrative form, be it musical or drama or film is so [elemental?]. “Daddy, tell me a story
Ms. Kaye: When it’s right it sure is. It has inevitability, doesn’t it, when something -– when the piece of art, and I will go so far as to call the American musical “art”, it is to me that kind of expression. It has inevitability. It’s just –- it just works. It’s just right. It’s easy. A line that is well written is easy to learn. People say, “How do you learn all those lines?” Well, if they’re -– if it’s well written, it’s not a problem at all.
Mr. Wattenberg: You know, and they say that Helen Hayes used to throw up before every performance, she was so nervous. But as soon as she got on stage, boom! There she was. And they say that every performance is different, every audience is different.
Ms. Kaye: That’s the other character.
Mr. Wattenberg: That’s right.
Ms. Kaye: The audience.
Mr. Hausam: Absolutely. You know, we – I’m at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts...
Mr. Wattenberg: At NYU.
Mr. Hausam: At New York University. And we present plays and musicals and dance and music and all this stuff primarily for our students because were trying to develop young audiences. So we brought a production of “Waiting for Godot” to the Gate Theater this past fall, which is a very famous production. It’s traveled all over the world and we had large numbers of students in the audience, 30% to 50%. And what I noticed is they literally changed the show. They laughed in a whole different way, and this reciprocal relationship that happens between audiences and people on the stage is -- you can’t find it anyplace else.
Mr. Wattenberg: And the actor or actress really takes vitality from the way the –- if it’s a cold fish audience it’s very hard to perform, and if they’re laughing and smiling and giggling and humming the tune and tapping their feet, it’s like a shot of adrenaline.
Ms. Kaye: And yet, there are those days when you feel like, “Oh, boy; they don’t care. They don’t want to be here. You’re up there working and you’re not getting anything back and you think “ugh, this is for naught”, and then the end of the show comes and they’re up on their feet clapping. So you never, ever now. It’s very –- it’s such an odd, wonderful thing.
Mr. Wattenberg: And there’s something going on that I don’t think is terribly fine which is what are -- the prices for a Broadway musical are 100 bucks and up per seat?
Mr. Hausam: A hundred and ten.
Mr. Wattenberg: I used to go to the theater and sit in the upper balcony. I think it was $1.20 and you could get student discount tickets I think for sixty cents and what a way to go to school. I mean...
Ms. Kaye: There was a time when I could actually flash my Actors Equity Card and gain admittance and stand in the back and watch things, but you can’t...
Mr. Hausam: For free?
Ms. Kaye: ...you can’t do that anymore. Yeah.
Mr. Hausam: Oh, what a shame that they’ve gotten rid of that.
Ms. Kaye: I guess it has been frightening me for twenty years. We’re pricing ourselves into a corner, but there are always discount seats. If it’s a hit people will pay the tab. They will want to come, but...
Mr. Hausam: But you know, you say that this is an American art form and it’s for the people and it’s of the people. If you’re only –- if you have to be in the upper ten, fifteen percent of the economic profile in American to afford a ticket, then it’s not of the people anymore, or for the people.
Ms. Kaye: Do you know about Wendy Wasserstein’s project?
Mr. Hausam: Oh, the...
Ms. Kaye: Bringing young audiences...
Mr. Hausam: Mentors.
Ms. Kaye: The mentors. This is fantastic. Wendy Wasserstein...
Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, how does that work? The mentors.
Ms. Kaye: There are theater companies around the country that participate and they have kids from high schools write essays why they would like to be part of the program and a certain number of kids from all these different schools all over the country are accepted into it and are taken to a huge rainbow of events from ballet to symphony to live theater to musicals to dramas and they have to respond. I mean, they have to write about it, they have to talk about it and I got to meet some of these young scholars who were part of this program and a lot of them were never exposed to any kind of artistic endeavor. Ever. They’d never been to a museum; they’d never looked at a painting and they are transformed human beings. So she did a great thing...
Mr. Hausam: Great thing.
Ms. Kaye: ...and I think that is helping a lot to build new audiences.
Mr. Hausam: It is, and you know, you think on a program like that “Oh, this must be helping disadvantaged children”, and I’m sure it is, but there are lots of middle class kids who have no exposure to the arts anymore because 25 years ago the public schools started getting rid of the arts in schools. You don’t just wake up –- I mean, there are some heads of foundations who said to me, “Oh, you know, don’t worry about it. When they get to be 30 they’ll start coming.” I don’t think so. Because you need -– and research has proven –- you need that experience as a young person that kind of ignites this passion in you. Usually it’s being in something.
Mr. Wattenberg: Of course it used to be that Broadway was the venue, but now you have this regional theater. It’s really all over the country.
Ms. Kaye: It cross-pollinates, too. You know, lot of new -– a lot of pieces are developed in the regional theater that eventually make their way to Broadway, and to off-Broadway, thank goodness, and of course then in turn we feed those theaters, too. And thank heaven for it. I mean, every year the Tony Awards, the theater wing, the American theater wing acknowledges one of these theater companies that are out there in the hinder lands developing new works.
Ms. Kaye: We were talking before we began this conversation and I was relating an experience that I had working in Anchorage, Alaska back in I guess it was the early ‘90s. I did a Leonard Bernstein Evening for the Anchorage Opera and it consisted of his one-act opera, “Trouble in Tahiti” and then we did like a little tab version of Candide and because that wasn’t enough we did a whole suite of his songs, too.
Mr. Wattenberg: Can you give me a few bars of that? I love it, it’s just...
Ms. Kaye: (Laughter, singing) “Oh, I can cook, too, on top of the rest, my seafood’s the best in the town. Yes, I can cook, too, my fish can’t be beat, my sugar’s the sweetest around. I’m a man’s ideal of a perfect meal, right down to the demitasse. I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy. Baby, I’m cooking with gas. So I’m a gumdrop, a sweet lollipop, a brook trout right out of the brook. And what’s more baby, I can cook...da-da-dum.” Anyway, the reason I brought this up was because...
Mr. Wattenberg: Because you’re a ham (laughter). Like all of us, you’re a hamette, or a hamarina.
Ms. Kaye: That’s it. But, this was -- in that time people in the oil industry had a lot of money and it was very cold and very dark all winter long and they had all of these, what were for them, state of the art entertainment systems in their homes and I was astonished at how many people showed up for this Bernstein evening in this theater because it was nasty out because they needed to get out of their houses and away from all that technology and back to live performance and contact with a live human being on the stage.
Mr. Wattenberg: On that note we will have to end it. Wiley Hausam, Judy Kaye thank you for joining us on think tank.
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