Exclusive InDepth InterView: Glenn Slater Discusses LOVE NEVER DIES, LEAP OF FAITH, SISTER ACT, TANGLED, New Musicals & More
Today we are talking to one of the busiest lyricists in show business, Glenn Slater. In the first part of our extensive discussion, besides discussing all aspects of the writing of LOVE NEVER DIES with Andrew Lloyd Webber and its West End debut, Slater also elaborated on the rewriting of the show and how this new Australian production and unprecedented in-theater presentation of it across the US is the ultimate realization of Lloyd Webber's dream vision for the musical drama - something the Lord shared with me himself when he recently did this column. In addition to all about LOVE NEVER DIES, in this second half of our recent chat Slater and I also trace his career trajectory to date, with a focus on his recent collaborations with composer Alan Menken on the smash hit Disney animated film, TANGLED, along with the currently-running Broadway hit, SISTER ACT, and, the upcoming Spring opening of their new musical, LEAP OF FAITH, starring Raul Esparza, as well as their previous theatre venture, THE LITTLE MERMAID. Plus, Slater shines some light on his upcoming projects, which include a Dreamworks animated musical with Menken, as well as a stage collaboration with his wife, Wendy Leigh Wilf, titled BEATSVILLE - all of that and much, much more!
You can purchase tickets to the encore cinema screening of LOVE NEVER DIES in Fathom-equipped theaters across the US on March 7 here.
The first half of this interview, in which we discuss Slater's work on LOVE NEVER DIES, is available here.
Dear Old Friends
PC: Moving from the film of LOVE NEVER DIES to your current Broadway project: I have heard LEAP OF FAITH has been significantly revised since LA.
GS: Yes, it is drastically different from the Los Angeles production, which is so exciting.
PC: And the former Brooke Shields role is a whole new character now, correct?
GS: There have been characters cut; there have been characters added; it's a very different book; the concept of it is different; the feel of it is different - it's just a different animal. It moves faster and it feels sharper. The cast is very excited. A lot of the castmembers were in the Los Angeles production as well and there is communal feeling that we have solved it - amongst everybody. It's very infectious and it is making rehearsals such a joy to be in. Everybody feels the pieces falling into place.
PC: Raul finally gets a new original musical to show his stuff - with a great team like you and Alan backing him up.
GS: It's a real tour de force for Raul. I think he finds depths in this character that are as deep as anything he has ever done before and he gets to be a showman in a way that I don't think he has ever really gotten to be before. He basically gets to hit every box on the list of what you could possibly want out of a musical theatre performance and he does it in a brilliant style. So, I think audiences are really in for a treat with LEAP OF FAITH.
PC: Were you and Alan ever considering interpolating the most famous song used in the film, "Paradise By The Dashboard Light"? It's the most classic scene from the property.
GS: No, no - you know, usually when Alan and I come onto these projects we try to make it our own as opposed to importing other songs since we are always competing with people's memories of the old thing, as well.
PC: You had an uphill battle with the SISTER ACT film score being so well-known, as well.
GS: Yeah. Yeah.
PC: So, you are right now in rehearsals for LEAP OF FAITH already, then?
GS: Yes, we are already in rehearsals for LEAP OF FAITH, but today is my day off.
PC: Raul Esparza is such a brilliant performer - he did one of the most popular InDepth InterViews I've ever done.
GS: Yeah, he is pretty phenomenal.
PC: He is so intuitive as an actor and involved with his character.
GS: He really is. He just dives right into character. He's a really, really smart actor. He has lots of questions, but they are all right on point. And, so, he opens up facets that we didn't necessarily see in the writing. He makes everything richer and fuller and deeper and it's just such a pleasure working with him.
PC: Did you ever consider Raul for LOVE NEVER DIES?
GS: You know, he never came up. But, the process on that was a little unusual: we brought Ramin Karimloo on very early in the process because Andrew knew that we were going to have a lot of big, classical arias, and, also, several rock-based moments.
PC: Ramin was involved from the beginning.
GS: Yes. And, Ramin has the ability to do both styles, and, of course, Andrew knew him from the London version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. So, we brought him into the very, very first workshops. And, once we heard him in the role and how the role would play with his voice doing it, it became almost impossible for us to imagine anybody else doing it.
PC: He's a truly unique talent.
GS: He has such a versatile voice and it is such an unusual combination. So, he became the immediate favorite to play the role in the West End.
PC: Have you seen him in PHANTOM 25 yet?
GS: I haven't, but I have heard the he is just astonishing.
PC: You truly have crafted one of best musical comedies and one of musical dramas in recent memory, all in a short amount of time, between SISTER ACT and LOVE NEVER DIES. LEAP OF FAITH will be the crown.
PC: Thank you, Pat. I really appreciate that.
PC: Congratulations on your newly-minted Grammy for TANGLED's "I See The Light", by the way, as well.
GS: Thank you! Thank you. It's so thrilling to have won that.
PC: Did you and Alan Menken accept it in person?
GS: No, we weren't there because we had just started rehearsals here for LEAP OF FAITH and we both wanted to be here - both Alan and I - so, we weren't there to accept the award.
PC: What a shame.
GS: For Alan, it's no big deal because it's eleventh Grammy or something crazy like that. [Laughs.] But, it was my first, so I do kind of wish I could have been there. Since it was during the technical part that wasn't on the telecast, we thought it would be OK for us to not be there - and, we weren't really expecting to win, either.
PC: You're too humble! TANGLED had a great score.
GS: Well, we had lost to the Diane Warren song at the Golden Globes, so we just assumed we would be also-rans.
PC: Donna Murphy did this column and we spoke a lot about TANGLED. What a star she is.
GS: She is one of our great Broadway stars. She was so wonderful in the film.
PC: The directors, Byron and Nathan, also have done this column and they are so innovative with what they are doing with 3D film.
GS: I mean, what's fantastic about them is that they are extremely rooted in traditional animation, but they are also extremely young and very forward-thinking - so, you have the best of both worlds.
PC: You really do.
GS: You've got people who are extremely experienced and very respectful of where the genre is coming from, but with a very clear vision of where they want to take it to, too. It was one of those experiences of, "You tell us what you want and we are more than happy to give it to you because you are so clear about where this is going."
PC: A real collaboration.
GS: It was extremely collaborative, but, ultimately, it paid off because the film we ended up with was pretty much the film they told us about at the meeting we first had with them. I was so pleased with how it ended up turning out.
PC: Kristin Chenoweth was considered for Rapunzel in one version, I know.
GS: Yeah, I think that was when Glen Keane was directing. To see all the art that they have done - it's like a twelve-year process - it's just all fantastic art. Any one of the directions they could have gone in would have been breathtaking. What they did was taking a little bit of the best of all those approaches and melding it with their own voice and their own vision. It really is the start of a new page for Disney, I think.
PC: Could you elaborate?
GS: I think there's a classic quality to what they do that makes it feel like what everyone considers a Disney film to be, and, there is such a freshness to it - and such wit and smartness. [Pause.] It really does feel like a new chapter.
PC: TANGLED was Walt Disney's idea more than fifty years ago in an earlier iteration. There's a mini-sequel before BEAUTY & THE BEAST 3D, correct?
GS: Yes, there is. As far as I know, those are going to be non-musical - there will be background music, but no songs.
PC: I have to also compliment you on your work for SISTER ACT - I think that is one of the strongest Broadway scores in recent memory. Your lyrics are so true to the era - I can hear so many influences of the late-70s Philly soul, funk and disco.
GS: We spent so much time listening to the music of that period. We were really trying to be as accurate as possible in nailing the styles. I mean, one of the nuns sings a rap section. So, Alan and I looked at each other and said, "So, if it's 1978, we are basically talking about The Sugar Hill Gang if we are talking about rap music - the earliest possible rap music." Which was basically taking existing funk baselines and just coasting over that. So, when we spoke to Doug Besterman, our orchestrator, we said, "We need something that sounds like GOOD TIMES." We needed something that sounded exactly like that very 1978 sound.
PC: What about your specific lyrical influences?
GS: Lyrically, it was listening to Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel and those very early rappers and trying to get those cadences right. You know, what are the four or five phrases that are particularly of that period? Just trying to get that 1978 style in all the songs, we paid them that level of musical detail. I think that, for most people, it just goes past them, but I think it creates a musical tapestry that has an overall effect. It sounds much less like Broadway music and much more like the real thing - which is what we wanted it to do.
PC: I think the disco use in the score is so idiosyncratic and enjoyable. TABOO is the only other score I can think of to integrate dance and techno elements as well into the score - did you happen to see that show?
GS: I did. I think it was a great score with some fantastic performances - Raul, in particular, was wonderful. It was a little bit of a mess of a production, I thought.
PC: Sadly, that's true.
GS: You know, musicals are just so difficult to get right. I really don't think people in the audience have any idea how one decision can get an entire production back. There is just one step off the line that separates the sublime from the ridiculous - that one step can make it tumble all down.
PC: It's so complex to bring all the elements together into a satisfying whole.
GS: From my understanding, TABOO benefited from the smallness and the intimacy and lack of grandeur, so, maybe something as simple as putting it in a bigger room ruined that delicate balance.
PC: What a great insight. Do you feel particularly privileged to have such a huge shining star-on-the-rise as you do in Patina Miller leading SISTER ACT?
GS: Yes. You know, she's actually been with the show since the very beginning. We originally had Dawnn Lewis playing the lead role - who was fantastic and very funny - but, it gave a certain tone to the whole piece that wasn't quite feeling right to us. So, when we were looking for someone new to take over the role, our director kept saying, "What about Patina? What about Patina?" And, we said, "She's not gonna work! She's too young. She's too beautiful." And, after looking at everyone in New York and not finding anyone who felt quite right, we came back to Patina and we were like, "We know her. We like her. Let's give it a shot and see how it feels." And, a lot of ancillary details changed, but, we felt like, "Oh, my God! We have made a discovery here! Let's change whatever we need to change to make this work because she is electrifying."
PC: She has such expert delivery, as well - she can get out your tricky lyrics with ease.
GS: Oh, yeah - she handles it all fantastically. Like, even things like: at the end of "Fabulous, Baby", I gave her a very hard word to sing, "Me."
PC: The E.
GS: Yeah, the E sound is very hard to sing up there. But, somehow, she takes something that should be difficult and makes it exciting, every single night.
PC: She is such a star.
GS: She really is. We are really blessed that we have someone who can sort of do it all and not break a sweat.
PC: Are you looking forward to Raven Simone going in to the show soon? Does her affiliation with the Disney family have anything to do with her casting?
GS: To be honest, I actually wasn't involved with that casting decision, but I know that she was a name we were always bouncing around in talks about possible replacements. You know, what you are looking for in that role is someone who can sing but can also play the comedy - and she has a long history doing both. So, I am actually quite thrilled that we are going to have the opportunity to have her in the show.
PC: Is it true Beyonce has expressed interest in playing Deloris in a film version of SISTER ACT?
GS: I believe it is true, but, whether or not a film version is going to happen, I have no idea.
PC: She would be absolutely amazing in the part, I think.
GS: Oh, it would be phenomenal. Phenomenal.
PC: What can you tell me about BEATSVILLE?
GS: BEATSVILLE is coming up. I am working on that with my wife, who is a brilliant composer and a brilliant lyricist, so I am taking the backseat to her and just doing the book on this project.
PC: Only for Mrs. Slater, though, right?
GS: [Laughs.] Well, what's great is that I can honestly say that she is fantastic and has done things with the lyrics that I don't think I could actually pull off.
PC: What is the show about?
GS: It's set in the beatnik era. The score that she has written is a sort of bebop vocalise score - the best correlative would be Joni Mitchell's "Twisted"; that kind of a style. The way that the lyrics have to sit on the music is the way that a jazz solo sits on a jazz bed, as opposed to the way a traditional musical theatre lyric works. My wife is a trained jazz musician who has performed throughout the world in jazz clubs and she is also a trained musical theatre writer, so we wanted to find something to work on together and we found a property that seemed to have a lot of room for us to work in and just dived right in. That was 10 years ago, and, since then, we've had two kids, so we've been a little derailed by the whole, you know, having-a-family part of this. It's been an ongoing process, but we are back at work on it and I think it is going to start coming to light later this year.
PC: Are you going to be sitting in or involved on Alan's other musical this season, NEWSIES, in any way?
GS: No, I am not involved in NEWSIES at all - only as a fan. [Laughs.]
PC: It never hurts to ask! Also, I'd love to know: what's the one show you have worked on that never went further that you think had the most promise?
GS: I worked on a great, great adaptation of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY with a very talented composer, but we lost the rights. I think it's possibly the best work I've ever done as a lyricist and the score is just phenomenal. It's a huge show - a cast of 27. It was heartbreaking to lose it at the height of the financial crisis. So, we're now in limbo with the Coen Brothers. It's really just a fantastic show but it just hasn't had the chance to come to light yet.
PC: I know you successfully workshopped it, right?
GS: Yes, we had several workshops - Michael Arden did the lead in them. Hopefully he can go become a big television star and then come back and do it on Broadway.
PC: What about the film projects that you have coming up?
GS: I have started work on another film with Alan for Dreamworks, but I can't talk about the details. It's a musical and it's a musical sound that I don't think has been done - ever. Then, we are also in the very, very Early Stages of a stage musical which is going to be based on a book - which is a sort of unusual thing nowadays - and we are looking forward to getting back to work with it as soon as LEAP OF FAITH is up.
PC: On the subject of Dreamworks and Steven Spielberg: what do you think of SMASH?
GS: Oh, it's very interesting. I just love what Marc and Scott have done with the songs - they're just sensational. A lot of it doesn't correlate to reality, but a lot of it really does capture the feelings and the personalities, so, as an insider, it's a fun mix of perfect and absurd - which is the best thing you can ask for in a TV show.
PC: What is the future for THE LITTLE MERMAID?
GS: There is going to be a new production in Holland with some new songs, some cut songs put back in and a whole new design and direction. Everything I have seen so far of it is astonishing to see. It's going to tour around Europe and eventually, hopefully, come back to the States.
PC: No roller-skates, though, right?
GS: [Laughs.] No roller-skates. I can't go into too much detail, but aerial effects may be involved.
PC: I can't thank you enough for this today, Glenn. I can't wait for what you do next.
GS: This was fantastic, Pat. Good talking to you. Bye bye.