BWW Interview - Lyricist Glenn Slater Talks SCHOOL OF ROCK, TANGLED & Possible GALAVANT Stage Show
Glenn Slater is the lyricist for the current Broadway hit musical SCHOOL OF ROCK for which he recently received a 2016 Tony nomination for Best Score. He also co-created Disney's 2010 worldwide smash TANGLED (2011 Grammy Winner, 2010 Oscar and Golden Globe nominee), as well as the Broadway and international hit musicals SISTER ACT (2011 Tony nominee - Best Score) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (2008 Tony nominee - Best Score, Grammy nominee - Best Cast Album). With longtime collaborator Alan Menken, he is executive producer and lyricist for the ABC-TV musical comedy series GALAVANT, and has also written songs for the Disney animated film Home On The Range (2004), and Broadway musical LEAP OF FAITH (Tony nominee - Best Musical, 2012). In the West End, Slater provided lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber's LOVE NEVER DIES (2010 Olivier nominee - Best Musical), the sequel to Phantom of the Opera.
His upcoming projects include Seth Rogen's R-rated animated feature "Sausage Party", the Broadway-bound musical A BRONX TALE (Fall 2016), the beatnik jazz musical BEATSVILLE (Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre, 2017), and the Disney Channel's animated TV series "Tangled: Before Ever After. "
Today Slater speaks exclusively with BWW about his remarkable career and shares details on the possibility of GALAVANT and TANGLED making it to the Great White Way!
First things first - congratulations to you on your Tony nomination. It is so well deserved!
Thank you so much.
I was fortunate enough to see both the workshop for SCHOOL OF ROCK last June and then more recently the Broadway production, and I found it so interesting to see the changes that were made in order to adapt the show to the larger venue.
Yes, that workshop version was so much fun to do in such a small space. I think it was a very unusual producing decision Andrew [Lloyd Webber] made, instead of going out of town to do that, and just the energy of that room was so helpful to us as writers to get a sense of what we had. And it was so much fun to see how the audience responded to that. You know the Winter Garden is a barn compared to the Gramercy Theater, but I think that the creative team has done an amazing job of trying to replicate that energy.
Through the years we've seen so many unsuccessful attempts at adapting movies to the stage. What is it about SCHOOL OF ROCK that made the transfer so successful?
Well, I think it's a couple of things. First, music is an integral part of the story, so this is not a straightforward story where people suddenly burst into song, this is a story about music, about the power of music, about music as self-expression. And so the moments where the songs come feel so natural and built into the characters that the audience is ready, willing and excited for the singing to happen.
I think also, the original film is brilliantly funny and perfectly constructed, but it's very much dominated by Jack Black. And what we've discovered in casting Alex Brightman, who is doing an unbelievable job on stage, is that he has all that energy and all that excitement that Jack Black brought to the role, but he also brings compassion that puts the spotlight as much on the kids as on him. And that enabled us to find a lot of emotional moments, a lot of relationship building which the film didn't take the time to do. It really enabled us to dig deeper into the emotional bedrock of the story and its characters, which I think makes for a richer and different experience, just as satisfying as the film, but different. And so the audience is getting the property that they know and love, but they're also getting something that's bigger in some ways and creates a different feeling when they leave the theater.
On that same note, one of my favorite songs from the show is "If Only You Would Listen" because, just as you're saying, it really gives us the backstory of the kids and helps us better understand what drives them. Was it difficult to get into the mind of a teenager in order to write those lyrics?
You know, when Andrew approached me to write that piece, one of the reasons he did so was because he knew that my older son, who is actually in a School of Rock program here in New York City, and my other son are sort of in that overprivileged, over-educated school system that we have here. So this idea of kids getting a lot of pressure from parents, privileged kids who seem to have no problems but who are crying out with the weight of expectations put on them and then turn to music as a way of expression, was a world I knew very well. And it was very easy to dig into my own experiences to write those lyrics. That world, those parents and that experience is something I see everyday, and I watch my son get excited about music and figuring out songs together, and the energy that they generate and the sense of relief they have when they can just yell out their own lyrics over those chords. It's just a part of my life that I know very well.
As I was reading up on your early career I was surprised to learn that you actually started out as a composer. I was wondering why you decided to switch gears.
Well my musical theater career began when I was still in high school. My high school drama teacher at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey was putting together a show about the lives of high school kids and he was looking for high school kids to write the music, to sort of set their poems and their words to music. And I was playing in a rock band at the time and was sort of desperate to have my music heard, so I volunteered. And the show actually ended up running off Broadway a year later, which was an unexpected development, so I was bitten by the theater bug because of it. I kept writing music for theater all through college, and graduated with the intent of coming to New York and trying to become a composer. But almost immediately I met real composers and realized that I was so unqualified and untrained for that job. I realized, there was no way I was going to keep up with these guys, and if I actually wanted to have a career in the theater, I needed to switch gears. And so I re-thought of myself as a lyricist. I had never really written lyrics before, but I applied to the BMI workshop here in New York City and got accepted and went through the process of being taught how to write theater songs, how to construct a song that has a narrative structure, how to play songs within the context of a story and how to build the excitement in a dramatic situation.
I would imagine your experience as a composer was still very helpful in writing lyrics.
You know it's certainly not necessary for a lyricist to have that musical background, but throughout musical theater history, most of the great lyricists have also been composers or piano players. Even the ones who just wrote lyrics professionally had a musical background and it really does help immensely just in terms of how a song can be structured, how a melody can be structured, what kind of vocal sounds you can make over different kinds of notes. It's incredibly helpful to be able to sit down with say Alan Menken at the keyboard and have him play a melody and for me to say to him, 'you know I need two extra notes, what about this instead' and having that musical sense so that I can get what I need emotionally for that moment, in a way that I couldn't do if I wasn't a composer at heart. So it does create a great shorthand with your composer and the closer the composer and the lyricist work together, the closer their minds are to being one mind and then the better the final product.
Speaking of collaborating with Alan Menken, what made the two of you decide to take on GALAVANT, a half-hour television comedy, and how did that process of
creating the music differ from a film or stage production?
Well Alan and I had worked with Dan Fogelman on the film TANGLED, on which Dan wrote the script. And unlike most Disney animated films, which up to that time could have taken three, four, fives years to make, TANGLED was on a much shorter time frame, we had basically two years to put the whole thing together in order to come in under budget. So we really got to work closely with Dan in terms of developing the entire piece together. And at first there was a lot of clashing as far as what's going to get sung, what's going to get spoken, you're ruining my jokes, you're ruining our emotional moment, but by the end of the project we developed a real understanding of each other and a real appreciation for what he could do and him for what we could do. He then went on to become the showrunner for a TV comedy called "The Neighbors" on ABC and at some point he wanted to do a musical episode and asked us if we would like to write the songs. I remember he called us the day before I was going off on my Christmas break in late December and he said 'here's the one caveat I think you need to know - we need to record this on January 3rd, so we've got basically a week and a half to write this entire episode!'
Was that a realistic proposition?
Well for Alan and I, that wasn't undoable. We put our nose to the grind and we had so much fun working in the television writer's room where ideas were just flying out of the room. And at the end of that week and a half, as we were recording the final songs, we were sitting there with some executives from ABC and we were saying, 'this was so much fun, and the final product was so much fun, why not come up with some ideas to do a half hour full musical comedy?' which had never really been done before. So I went off and began sending ideas to Dan and he being a television veteran kept saying 'well, they're never going to buy this for this reason, or that reason, audiences won't want to hear these kinds of characters singing.' And finally I said, 'you know the only place I can think of where characters sing and audiences buy into it without ever complaining are these animated fairytales. What about a live-action version of that?' And he said, 'you know, I just started writing a film with that kind of Princess Bride, Monty Python vibe, why don't you read the first ten pages and tell me what you think.' And he sent me what ended up being the first few pages of Galavant, and I said 'Oh my God, this is amazing, we have to do this!' So we were off and running. Alan and I wrote the first two songs to fill out that episode within a couple of weeks and we sort of moved through the process of ABC getting very excited about it.
How long did it take for the two of you to adjust to writing songs for television?
Once we got the greenlight, then we sort of realized what we had bought into because schedules for half hour TV shows were very different than the schedule for a film or for a Broadway show. You know a Broadway show can take six, seven, eight years to go from first meeting to opening on Broadway. Certainly with something like SISTER ACT, we had our first meetings in 2006 and it opened in 2011, and that's fairly typical. An animated movie can be a minimum of two years but three, four, five years is not unexpected. With a television show, the time frame is telescoped massively, and unlike say a movie where in that five years we're going to wind up with six or seven songs, if we wanted to have two to three songs per episode of our TV show, we were looking at a lot of songs to write. Up to that point, Alan and I were sort of on our song a week schedule, which was quick, but compared to what we know now, was a fairly leisurely process. And I think for a lot of writers, a song a week still sounds incredibly fast. But once we started on the TV show, what we realized was that we were going to have to do a song every other day and not only that, those songs were going to have to go through the network's Standards and Practices procedures, they were going to have to work within the 21-minute framework that we had per episode and they were going to have to get through various executive levels at ABC. So at any given point, that song could end up in the garbage and we'd have to make up a new song with even less time in order to keep on track.
It was. And there was no slowing down because as we were writing, they were filming over in England. But even though this sounds like a slightly hellish songwriting treadmill, what we found was that it was actually immensely rewarding because while we didn't have the luxury of having second thoughts about a song, we didn't have the luxury of second guessing ourselves, or trying to find 'what is the best possible line', we had to go with our first thought and spit it out as quickly as we could. And in the end, what we wound up with were songs that had all that spontaneity and all that freedom that we had given ourselves and it ended up being a virtue rather than a problem.
There's been reports recently of plans to adapt GALAVANT to the stage. Is there anything you can tell us on that front?
Well, certainly, we're all dying to adapt it to the stage and we have a sort of vision for what the two hour and fifteen minute version of our 20-hour, two seasons worth of television would look like, how we can pull that into as tight a ball as possible and keep as many of the songs as possible. We have some ideas on how to do that. There's still some issues with sorting out the rights and who at ABC and Disney would be in charge of doing this and at what level are we going to do it at, so there's still a lot to look at. But I think it's pretty safe to say that it will happen in some form at some point, and hopefully as quickly as possible.
Well that is exciting news!
It is. And there's also the hope that even though the show was cancelled after its second season, there's a huge fan campaign at the moment #MoreGalavant, trying to convince the ABC executives to keep the show alive, if not on ABC then perhaps at Hulu, perhaps at Netflix or some other cable option. We don't know whether or not that will be successful yet, but certainly we have unbelievably driven fans who have started a petition that, if you stack all the paper up, it's five, six feet of paper! It's unbelievable and hopefully we will get to do it again, fingers crossed.
I certainly hope so! Another report that been circulating is the possibility that TANGLED will make its way to Broadway. I know that Disney recently adapted it to the stage for its Magic Cruise line.
Well again, Alan and I would absolutely love to do it for Broadway. We wrote three new songs
for the cruise ship show, which feel just as good and just as organic to the story as the other songs do, and really start to develop an exciting way of telling that story which I think would translate to Broadway very well. And I'm fairly certain that Disney Theatricals has some thoughts about what they want to do at this point. I don't think that's a short time frame, I think they have their hands full with FROZEN at the moment, but certainly down the line I think everybody's hoping that that will be a possibility.
I also wanted to ask you about A BRONX TALE, which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Paper Mill Playhouse this winter. Was it fun for you to write music from that R&B doo-wop era?
Oh gosh, absolutely. One of the reasons that Alan and I collaborate so well is that we both have a voracious appetite for pop music of every era. We both delve so deeply into the existing musical literature and we both have a very good sense of how to re-create a style. And being able to go back to that genre, which Alan of course did so brilliantly in 'LITTLE SHOP', although I think this is slightly more doo-wop in feel, more in the JERSEY BOYS vein than
'LITTLE SHOP' was, but being able to get our hands on that genre and play with that was so much fun. And the other threads musically in BRONX TALE, we have a sort of Sinatra sound for some of the gangsters, again so much fun to play in that sandbox, and then for our African American characters, there's sort of the Motown, James Brown sound of the 60's that we get to play with a little bit. So three genres that are just a blast. And lyrically speaking, the trick is staying with the simplicity that those pop hits had, while still having the sophistication theatrically and dramaturgically that the story requires. So it's challenging but also a lot of fun.
What exciting projects are ahead for you?
Well after BRONX TALE, the next big one for me is called BEATSVILLE, which is a beatnik, bebop jazz musical that I'm actually writing with my wife, Wendy Leigh Wilf, whose doing the music and the lyrics, I'm just doing the book for that. We're taking it down to Asolo Rep in Sarasota in the spring of 2017 and from there it goes to the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle in the fall of 2017 and high hopes that we'll bring it here to New York afterwards. It's just so much fun. It features a musical language that hasn't really been heard on Broadway, and my wife is a brilliant, hilarious lyricist so the songs are extremely clever. And as a lyricist myself, it's such a relief for me to let her do the heavy lifting and I just get to sit back and I write in straight up prose, which is a nice change of pace for me.
So is this your first time out as a book writer?
Well I had done the book for a musical adaptation of the film HUDSUCKER PROXY by the Coen brothers, which was supposed to be produced in 2009 and unfortunately it was the height of the financial meltdown and our backing fell out and shortly thereafter we lost the rights. So it was very disappointing - it's one of the best things I've ever written, and has not seen the light of day, but hopefully will get to work out in the right situation at some point. So yes, I have had the experience of writing the book before, but this will be the first time my book will get produced, which is very exciting.
Well best of luck with that and have a wonderful time at the Tony Awards ceremony coming up in just a few weeks.
Thank you so much. You know, certainly on Broadway, I've had the sort of weird luck of writing shows that happen to debut in the shadow of these sort of genre-changing blockbusters. SISTER ACT opened the same season as BOOK OF MORMON, and obviously SCHOOL OF ROCK has opened in the shadow of HAMILTON. So we have these amazing casts doing fantastic things on stage and they just get slightly overshadowed by their neighbors at other theaters. But it's always nice to know that audiences are finding our show and enjoying it as much as they are. On the other hand, it will make for a very relaxing Tony ceremony - I don't have to worry about memorizing a speech! [laughing]
Well you never know - you never know!
Yes, it's true - you never know!
SCHOOL OF ROCK: Matthew Murphy
GALAVANT: ABC/Liam Daniel
SISTER ACT: Joan Marcus
TANGLED: THE MUSICAL/Disney Magic: Ryan Wendler
A BRONX TALE: Jerry Dalia