InDepth InterView: Amanda Green Talks Birdland Show, HANDS ON A HARDBODY, BRING IT ON!, Broadway Memories & More
Today we are talking to uniquely compelling composer and lyricist known for her urbane wit and contemporary sensibility, having contributed music and/or lyrics to the recent Broadway musicals HIGH FIDELITY, BRING IT ON! and HANDS ON A HARDBODY as well as penning many other original musicals and unique standalone songs over the course of her career, Amanda Green. Discussing her famous musical theatre lineage - her father was legendary theatrical icon Adolph Green and her mother is famous actress Phyllis Newman - and sharing stories from her youth, Green sheds some light on her familial profession of choice and details the finer points of her own songwriting process, particularly insofar as it pertains to her two recent major musicals seen in New York. On that note, Green offers the 411 on the creative process in composing both the rap/pop-infused, youth-oriented BRING IT ON! alongside collaborators Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda as well as her work with Phish's Trey Anastasio on the down-home country sounds of HANDS ON A HARDBODY. Additionally, Green previews what we can expect from her upcoming Birdland concert, Amanda Green & FRIENDS, and illuminates some of her sparkling previous work which may make its way into the live show. Plus, Green looks back on her experiences with the screen-to-stage adaptation of HIGH FIDELITY, imparts hilarious anecdotes about writing for Playboy Magazine, reveals her involvement in the currently on-hold DEBBIE DOES DALLAS movie musical, reflects on her first musical revue and album, PUT A LITTLE LOVE IN YOUR MOUTH!, as well as drops hints on her next musical project and much, much more!
More information on Amanda Green & FRIENDS at Birdland on September 29 is available at the official site here.
PC: IN THE HEIGHTS is the first and only rap musical so far to connect with a commercial audience. Where do you see rap's place in theatre?
AG: Well, I really love hip hop and I think I managed to throw in a few lines in BRING IT ON! that were cool, I think - you know, Eva: "Raisen' hell an' I'm a felon / In a four-foot frame!"
PC: Internal rhyming, even! Eminem would be proud.
AG: [Laughs.] Yeah. It was really fun. Actually, we always wanted to do a big rap for her, so it was fun getting into that mindset to write it.
PC: Any other rap lines of yours in the score that you particularly enjoy?
AG: Oh, what's another one... "I've got ninety-nine problems but Campbell ain't one," is one I liked, too. [Laughs.]
PC: Another good one - a Jay Z shout out, even! So, did you enjoy working in a modern milieu?
AG: Yeah, I was really glad that I got to do a show for young people like BRING IT ON! and, with the lyrics, I was so excited to be able to use the language of today and use words that specifically caught my ear, too - you know, things like "unedumacated" or "breasteses." Whenever I hear something like that I always feel like, "God! I need to find a place for this!" And, then, there I was working with Lin [Manuel Miranda], who is a genius at that - blending hip hop with theatre. And, of course, Tom really has his finger on the pulse of what is happening musically. So, it was a really great collaboration.
PC: As a master of patter songs, what did your dad think of rap as far as you remember from your childhood?
AG: Oh, God! [Laughs.] I don't think he had much of an opinion! He was not a snob, though - definitely not. I could never see him saying, "That's not songwriting!" or anything. I can only surmise that he was very open-minded, so anything that was funny was fair game to him - I actually think he probably would have liked Eminem.
PC: Adolph Green and Eminem - what a collabo that could have been!
AG: I know! I know! [Laughs.] Just imagine!
PC: Tell me about where you think the place for contemporary music is in the theatre these days and if there is a sustainable audience big enough to support it? BRING IT ON! did not exceed expectations in New York - but, then again, young people can't afford to go to the theatre very often these days.
AG: I think that contemporary music definitely does have a place in theatre - there will always be room for that. That's always what it's been, really - Broadway started out as being the music of its day. So, I am really excited about being part of that with BRING IT ON! and HANDS ON A HARDBODY, but I do think that ticket prices are really prohibitive and I am always glad when there is a rush policy and student tickets and all of that. It's really hard, though - absolutely - especially when all the shows are so expensive. You really have to learn to pick and choose - you know, maybe one Broadway show a year if you can afford it; maybe. But, also, I want to say that, for BRING IT ON!, there were kids who came to see it like seven, eight, nine times - and these were not wealthy kids, either! [Laughs.]
PC: They found a way.
AG: Yeah! I mean, even for HANDS ON A HARDBODY there were people who came seven or eight times to that. So, I think that the people who really want to see something do find a way somehow - they find those cheap tickets or they do rush or whatever; there is a way. It's not easy, but there is usually a way.
PC: You actually first went into the music world and ended up in theatre, did you not?
AG: Yeah, that's true. You know, I didn't want to do exactly what my dad did! Growing up, I loved the Talking Heads and David Bowie and The Clash - and, also, I loved Lyle Lovett's music.
PC: Why Lyle Lovett in particular?
AG: He wrote funny things and I sort of saw myself as a funny songwriter. I didn't see that happening a lot in contemporary music - especially at the time - but he did it. I love the way he communicated through music. So, basically, Lyle Lovett was how I got interested in country music.
PC: Is HANDS ON A HARDBODY the ultimate expression of your comic country music leanings, then, would you say?
AG: Well, HANDS ON A HARDBODY was a labor of love, I have to say. It was a thrill to get to write real country songs that were also theatrical - it was a great melding to me of my two loves. I mean, just looking at my iTunes playlist from the past six years is all this Texas stuff... [Laughs.]
PC: What is actually currently on your iPod? It's always fascinating to hear what composers listen to for work/fun.
AG: Well, as I said, a lot of Texas music! Bob Willis to Lyle Lovett to this woman Mary Gouthier - who isn't from Texas, but writes this really gorgeous music. And, then, I have stuff I listened to for BRING IT ON! - I have some Jazmine Sullivan and "Bust Your Windows"; Tokyo Drift. I have show tunes, too - I've been listening to Jerry Springer: THE OPERA a lot recently because I am excited about getting to see ANNA NICOLE: THE OPERA soon. I am thrilled to see that. And, I have a lot of funk, too - I love funk! And some classical - Glenn Gould's "Goldberg Variations" I particularly love listening to.
PC: HANDS ON A HARDBODY and GIANT certainly both take on the Texas milieu in disparate ways - but with such emotion and effectiveness.
AG: I think that one thing that all those Texas songs have in common is the truth and simplicity of the lyrics...
PC: What do you think of Broadway versus Off-Broadway, in general - particularly these days?
AG: Well, with shows like GIANT and HANDS ON A HARDBODY, I think you need to show a lot of love. I think that there are places for shows like that on Broadway, but you have to treat them with kid gloves - they are not titles that sell and they are not the typical feel-good musical. But, I do feel that there is a place for those kinds of musicals on Broadway, they just need to be treated with kid gloves.
PC: Will serious shows like NEXT TO NORMAL continue to be an anomaly, then, do you feel?
AG: Well, I think people need to write what they feel they need to write - and that goes for Michael John LaChiusa and that goes for Tom Kitt and that goes for myself. God knows, NEXT TO NORMAL was certainly not a sure thing - I know for a fact that Tom and Brian [Yorkey] were working on that forever! But, luckily, it came to be the hit it deserved to be. So, I think things like that are heartening.
PC: What are your thoughts on productions being filmed and released in movie theaters? Did you consider it for BRING IT ON!?
AG: Wouldn't that be spectacular if that happened? I'd love to see that happen. I think it's fabulous - it's a great idea, especially if you have a visually exciting show.
PC: Is it true that you worked on a film adaptation of DEBBIE DOES DALLAS: THE MUSICAL with Tom Kitt?
AG: We did that years and years ago, yeah.
PC: Is there any future for that project?
AG: You know, that was something that Tom and I worked on for a short while. He worked on the musical originally and then he and I worked on the movie musical and so we wrote a couple of songs together for that - and, I think one of those songs they added to the stage musical version, actually. But, unfortunately, no, I don't think the movie musical version is going to be happening anytime soon. I don't know why that keeps cropping up! People keep asking me about it.
PC: Too bad. What is next for BRING IT ON!? A tour, correct?
AG: Yes. BRING IT ON! goes out on tour starting in January.
PC: Has the show been revised at all? What can we expect?
AG: I think it is going to be a terrific version of the show. It is all supervised by the original choreographer and team, too. I don't think we are doing any major rewrites or anything. There is just so much exciting young talent out there that I am just looking forward to seeing who the cast is going to be myself.
PC: Will a school version be available soon?
AG: I can't say for sure yet, but I assume it will be - yeah.
PC: Will you be keeping the references contemporary as time goes on? Do you have a yearly reappraisal worked out yet?
AG: Well, I think we will just add them as we feel we should. But, yes - absolutely, we will be updating it.
PC: Have you ever considering licensing any of your revues or very first shows, as well?
AG: Not yet. Of course, I am performing at Birdland on September 29 and we'll do some of my solo stuff there, but that show is definitely going to be a little HANDS ON A HARD BODY-heavy.
PC: As expected given that the album is just coming out now.
AG: Yeah - we are going to have like eight of the original cast members and the original band from the show, too. So, I am really excited about that - getting to sing those songs again and getting to sing some songs with the cast, too.
PC: What can you tell me about the special guests?
AG: Well, I can tell you that Jenn Colella will be there and she will be doing a song from HIGH FIDELITY that she just tears the roof off of the place with - she's incredible. I am going to be singing a couple of new songs that I have, as well.
PC: Speaking of which, what projects do you have coming up?
AG: Well, I can't really talk about any of them because I don't have the rights to them yet! But, I am writing away - I have a couple of things I am working on and they are all at the pretty Early Stages right now. But, if you come to Birdland, you will hear a couple of the newest songs I've written.
PC: The majority of the last Tony-winning musicals from the last five years were adapted from movies - thoughts on the trend? Particularly considering you've done three yourself at this point.
AG: Well, I think that it is just such a big part of our industry that there it is! In the entertainment world, a lot of ideas seem to come from films, but I like adapting anything, really. What I think, though, is that if something is a great idea for a musical then something is a great idea for a musical! [Laughs.]
PC: If the shoe fits...
AG: Yeah, some things just seem like they were meant to be. Some ideas are more exciting than others, though.
PC: Do you have a dream project that you want to realize someday? Have you already, perhaps?
AG: Well, I do have to say that HIGH FIDELITY and HANDS ON A HARDBODY were two things I did that I was just totally in love with. I loved working on BRING IT ON!, too, but that wasn't my brainchild.
PC: Benajmin Millepied choreographed the tryout of HANDS ON A HARDBODY but was replaced for Broadway. What was the reason for his exit from what you recall?
AG: Oh, Benjamin did a wonderful job in La Jolla and came up with a lot of wonderful ideas, but he just didn't have the time to come back over here from Paris and work on it for Broadway - we wanted to really re-imagine the piece; we did pretty extensive rewrites between La Jolla and Broadway, especially in the book and the score and the way it moved. He just didn't have the time. Sergio [Trujillo] was wonderful, though, too.
PC: Looking ahead to Birdland, is there a song of yours you enjoy performing most live?
AG: Well, one is a song I wrote called "Used To Be" that I am particularly fond of because I was sitting at this piano as I wrote it just picturing Keith Carradine singing it. He did a musical of my dad's like twenty years before then and I had a crush on him as a kid...
PC: Because of NASHVILLE?
AG: Yes! Because of NASHVILLE - I love NASHVILLE and I love "I'm Easy"! So, to have him be in my musical singing the song was just such a thrill.
PC: How did your collaboration with Trey Anastasio on HANDS ON A HARD BODY actually work, as far as nuts and bolts?
AG: Well, I wrote some of the songs and he wrote some of the songs and then we wrote some together. A few songs I wrote the lyrics for or parts of and he took them and just busted them out. There were some that I did music to, too. And, there are some that a real hybrid of my work and his work. It was a real collaboration.
PC: For example, who specifically penned my personal favorite song: "Born In Laredo"?
AG: For "Born In Laredo", I wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music.
PC: Did you feel the chosen cast was the ideal representation of the characters that they were playing?
AG: Oh, I loved the whole cast so much! I have to say, the first time the entire cast was together and they sang "I'm Gone" and the truck was turning and everything, I got chills! That was a pretty great moment. With HANDS ON A HARDBODY, it was the first show of mine to feature my music, too, so that was something special for me - you know, usually, like with "I'm Gone", it's me singing into a computer and plucking out the notes, so to see it on a Broadway stage as this big number that Trey really brought home and opened up like he did... just to see that seed grow up like that was completely thrilling. Then, to have all of the original people from the documentary come and bow with the cast onstage on opening night was just incredible.
PC: What songs did you write music for, specifically?
AG: Let's see: "Alone With Me", "Used To Be", "The Tryers" I wrote all the music to, but a bunch of them have heavily more my music and a bunch have heavily more Trey's music.
PC: How do you approach writing music versus writing lyrics? In your experience, did you find that they utilize different parts of the brain - and heart?
AG: Well, Trey and I had a natural, easy relationship - he was so generous. Obviously, I had worked with music before, but he was a far superior musician and I felt really comfortable with him taking over a song and bringing it to the next level. Actually, it was very freeing to be able to utilize both sides of my musical brain, I think.
PC: How does your process line up with that of your collaborators? Do you have a strict routine or are your more loose with how you work?
AG: Well, as you just said, I collaborate with all different kinds of people, so I write in all different kinds of ways. So, you know, I might bring Tom Kitt a scrap of a lyric and he'll write some music for it and then I write the rest of the lyrics and he finishes the music - it works in all different ways. Or, you know, I've presented composers a complete lyric - and, I've written music now with no lyrics and given it to Trey, working on HARDBODY.
PC: So, what new songs can we look forward to at Birdland?
AG: As far as new songs, one is called "Nowhere" for a potential project that I can't really talk about yet. Then, there's another song I'm doing called "I'm Still Waiting On My Thank You". I'm excited about performing both of those.
PC: Will Trey make an appearance at the Birdland show?
AG: No, I don't think he will be able to come - he's working on an album in Vermont right now with Phish, so I don't think he will be there.
PC: Did the Phish fans embrace HANDS ON A HARDBODY?
AG: I think they did. Trey performed a couple of our HANDS ON A HARDBODY songs at a few of his Phish concerts. We sang "Burn That Bridge" together and I got to hear him do "Burn That Bridge" at Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve, too - so that was pretty cool!
PC: Without a doubt. Do you enjoy performing your own material with other performers onstage?
AG: Oh, of course! I love it.
PC: Do you feel you have an impossibly high standard to meet given the legendary revues given by your dad and Betty Comden?
AG: It's very subdued, very low-energy... just kidding! [Laughs.] I mean, I loved what they did, of course, and I love doing it myself - I really do - and I get a lot of joy out of doing it. I'm sure I inherited that from him - I'm sure.
PC: Do you have memories of Betty, Adolph and Leonard Bernstein hosting impromptu revues growing up?
PC: Oh, of course! My parents used to throw lots of parties and they would often end with Lenny at the piano with the cigarette dangling out of his mouth and my dad and Betty singing along. Many, many times.
PC: What do you think of the renewed popularity of the performing arts ever since GLEE? It's plain to see in culture between the many music TV shows and movie musicals coming out.
AG: I was actually just talking to Tom about being at BMI together - back in like 1997 - and how musical theatre was sort of looked down on as the dirty stepchild or something! [Laughs.]
PC: It really was! Musicals were not popular in the '80s and '90s pop culture-wise, sadly.
AG: Yeah - it was not a very popular pursuit back then, I'll tell you! But, yeah, I am really happy about its resurgence since GLEE and everything. People love musicals. Musicals tell stories and there is a lot of drama and emotion, so they will always be a sort of different beast than whatever is cool or whatever is on the radio right now, but they are musicals and that's what makes them that - the stories.
PC: Have you been involved with developing any projects for TV or film yet yourself?
AG: I have not, but I'd be happy to publish my e-mail address if anyone would be interested in having me involved with one... [Laughs.]
PC: How do you view sung-through musicals? Would you be interested in attempting something in that vein?
AG: I'm not sure. I mean, for example, BRING IT ON! was the first dance-centric type of musical I ever worked on and Andy Blankenbuehler had a very specific idea of what he wanted - very, very fluid. I had never worked on something that was led by movement and you had to adapt to it before BRING IT ON!, so I never say never, but working on a spectacle or sung-through show is not really in my wheelhouse, I don't think. But, I probably would have said the same thing about a dance musical before BRING IT ON!...
PC: Having done a rock musical, a rap musical and a country musical between HIGH FIDELITY, BRING IT ON! and HANDS ON A HARDBODY, when will you finally fulfill your familial legacy and write a classic musical comedy?
AG: Definitely! Definitely. [Laughs.] I will do a musical comedy someday, I promise. I definitely want to work with Trey on something again soon, too.
PC: What about attempting a jukebox musical?
AG: That's really not my thing. I would actually really like to do a jukebox musical of my own stuff, though! That's really what I would like to do - put together a revue of my stuff. I have some really great, funny songs from a bunch of different projects, so I'd love to put them together into something. I had a CD that came out about ten years ago of a revue I did - PUT A LITTLE LOVE IN YOUR MOUTH!
PC: What a great cast that had!
AG: I know! Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jessica Molasky and Mario Cantone - that was really, really fun, so I would love to do something like that with a smaller group of singers.
PC: What about your FOR THE LOVE OF TIFFANY: A WIFETIME ORIGINAL MUSICAL?
AG: Oh, that's actually one of my favorite musicals of mine! We are always gunning for that. I wrote that with some friends and we did that at the Fringe Festival one year and Nancy Opel was the star. It was a take-off of Lifetime movies and I was a triple-amputee German housekeeper - so, it was type-casting, you know! [Big Laugh.]
PC: That's too funny!
AG: It was a blast, though, honestly! I loved doing that show. I'd love to do FOR THE LOVE OF TIFFANY again.
PC: Lastly, what's the story behind you writing for Playboy Magazine?
AG: Well, I wrote comic essays for them for a time a few years ago. So, for instance, my husband is a doctor and we were dating back then, so when Viagra came out I wrote an article of my account about him taking that for the weekend and Hef really liked it - he thought it was funny. So, after that, I wrote four or five other articles until I ran out of topics that I would either A, do; or B, write about. [Big Laugh.]
PC: Such as?!
AG: Like humorous accounts of sexy things we would do together! Things like that. Even if I did that, I wouldn't write about it! I mean, my dad was around back then and he would ask me to read him the articles...
PC: No way!
AG: He would! His eyesight was failing really badly and he'd say, "Oh, you have to come over and read me your articles!" And, nobody else would read them to him either because they knew what it was! It had to be me! [Laughs.] And, I did it! So, yes, I am proud to be able to say I've written for Playboy and THE WONDER PETS.
PC: You are a fascinating and fabulous continuation of the family tradition, Amanda. This was superb.
AG: Thank you so much for saying that - this year would have been my dad's centenary, actually; he would have been 100 years old! This was so much fun, Pat. Thanks again. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro