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Interview with Librettist, Brian Crawley

Librettist and lyricist Brian Crawley talked with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about his experience in developing Violet.

Ted Sod: When and where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide to write for the musical theatre and why?

Brian Crawley: I was born in Iowa City in 1962. I was so little when I left Iowa that I remember nothing about it. I was raised for the most part in a suburb of Cincinnati, but for three years living in England, in the equivalent of the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. This was to be a very useful experience, in reading and explaining the Harry Potter series to my children.

I loved the rigor of the English school I attended and looked for something to match it in a college. I chose Yale over other possibilities for trivial reasons- the architecture reminded me of my grammar school in England- but instinct in this case served me well. A diverse group of talented theatre artists happened to choose the same school at about the same time. Most of us tried our hands at everything too; most of us acted; most of us directed; many of us wrote. I did five shows a year, played rugby in the fall and spring, and somehow kept my grades up. I wish I had that kind of energy now!

I wrote my first play at American Contemporary Theatre as part of the process of getting an MFA degree. Writing was agreeable. When I moved to New York, it was to be an actor, but the writing gradually took precedence. I had also always wanted to play guitar- so I found a teacher in the Village Voice, Dave Van Ronk, a remarkable man who has been in the news of late, as the inspiration for the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. I never became a great guitar player, but I was really hungry to write songs. Whenever I learned a new riff or picking pattern I'd write a new song with it. Eventually I put some songs into a play I was writing. I heard (from other Yalies) that BMI offered a musical theatre workshop, which was free, which was key at the time.

TS: How did you and Jeanine Tesori get involved with writing Violet? What inspired you to musicalize Doris Betts "The Ugliest Pilgrim"?

BC: Both Jeanine and I were in the first year of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, which was led by Skip Kennon. Through the year he would pair up composers with lyricists, so you never worked with the same person twice. It was very interesting to see how differently a dozen teams would approach the same song assignment. I was never assigned to work with Jeanine, but I liked her writing and always found her critical comments close in spirit to mine. When we were allowed to choose a partner for a final project, I asked Jeanine to write with me.

The ten-minute musical we wrote together had maybe four songs in it. We both found the process congenial. I liked how we started, which was always with: "What makes this person sing?" In a good musical the singing comes when the pressure of the moment lifts what a character needs to say above the humdrum exchanges that tend to fill our lives. A musical exists in a heightened reality; people don't really start singing their feelings when those feelings get intense, but writers have to find a way to make the theatrical transition into song feel both natural and necessary.

Interview with Librettist, Brian Crawley

Brian Crawly and Jeanine Tesori at the 'Violet' Sneak Peek Party. Photo by David Gordon.

After we wrote that piece, Jeanine mentioned she had found a story that could sing, she thought, and wondered if I would be interested. I read it and loved it. Every now and then a project will come along that feels tailor-made to an artist, and this was one for me. Not only was I captivated by the story, but I knew the musical milieu more than any musical theatre lyricist I knew. While I was in the BMI workshop Van Ronk had introduced me to Jack Hardy, who ran a folk music collective called Fast Folk. I was writing songs every week for a songwriter's circle Jack held at his apartment and recorded several songs for his Fast Folk CD/ magazine, whose catalogue is now held by the Smithsonian. So between the two workshops I was awash in both musical theatre songs, and folk and popular music songs. "The Ugliest Pilgrim" starts in the mountains of North Carolina, where a folk song tradition was kept very much alive through performers like Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, who were rediscovered by young men like Van Ronk in the '60s, which led directly to the folk revival and the careers of performers like Bob Dylan. The first song you hear in the piece is a song we based in that folk tradition. Violet's bus travels across the country, through Nashville and Memphis, two other national centers of very different kinds of music; it occurred to us early on that the piece could travel through these musical styles as it traversed the locations. Violet sings a country song in Nashville; there are both R&B and the blues featured in the Memphis sequence, as well as a simple country waltz. These were all music styles in the air in America circa 1964.

In Cincinnati, much more than New York, you have to drive to get places. You can't rely on public transport. No subway! We would drive 6 hours to Detroit to my grandmother's place every Thanksgiving. Another grandmother lived in Florida, a 15-hour drive. Even longer drives took us on vacation to a lake we loved in Minnesota, or to the mountains in Colorado. My first Greyhound trips were in high school, to Georgia, to go deer hunting with my uncle. And what passed the time, for my family? Conversation, and the radio. We'd take turns on who got to set the station. For me travel is intimately bound up with the musical tastes that shift through space.

TS: What kind of research did you have to do in order to write this musical? Will you give us some insight into your process?

BC: A wonderful book came out as we were beginning, Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy. In it the writer talks about the challenges she faced as a young woman coming to terms with her disfiguring bout with cancer of the jaw. A book like that relays an emotional experience, which gave us as writers insight into our character.

In the story Violet never gets to meet the Preacher (whom I believe Doris Betts modeled on Oral Roberts). For the first year we were writing, we did not plan to portray the Preacher. Once we decided we wanted to include him, we watched a lot of videos of different televangelists and went to see some modern healers. The most useful thing for me was an audio tape found by Jeanine's business partner, Buryl Red.

Reverend A.A. Allen was a lesser-known televangelist in the '60s. You can find video links on YouTube now, but that resource didn't exist when we were writing. All I had was the audio tape. Allen's preaching was closely bound up with a gospel choir. For him this music was scripturally justified; what was delicious for me was the model of using a choir to get a congregation worked up and ready for healing. He also, like several other but not all evangelists of his era, was ahead of the cultural curve in welcoming an integrated audience. African-Americans appeared on television in his choir and congregation, which was unusual for the time.

But many things in the piece come from our personal experience, too. Here are a few examples. One thing important to me was that the Preacher not be an outright fraud. He's a showman, but he believes. My mother's foster parents were part of an Ohio fundamentalist church, whose values are not mine, but which I knew to be sincere. The uncle I deer-hunted with had moved to Georgia years before to race Norton motorcycles professionally, so he deepened my understanding of Monty's character. When my father served, his drill sergeant was an African-American man who was battlefield promoted to captain in Korea and busted back to sergeant on his return to the US, because of the lack of a college education. My father was deeply impressed by this man, and that had a profound impact on his politics and beliefs.

Interview with Librettist, Brian Crawley

Joshua Henry (Flick) and Colin Donell (Monty) in rehearsal for 'Violet.' Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: What was the most challenging part of writing the book and lyrics for Violet? What part was the most fun?

BC: What is challenging is what is fun, so I'm not sure the two parts of the question are separate for me. The original story is a first-person narrative. When you read it, you have a very strong impression of who Violet is. All the other characters who appear onstage had to be filled out in the writing of the book; that was what I had to work on most. Some I made up as needed. Flick, Monty, the Father, the Preacher all feature in the story, but a lot of who they are now comes from work I had to do.

I'm always delighted by things that almost write themselves. There is a little scene-change number, "M&Ms," whose lyric wrote itself in my head while I was riding a stationary cycle at the gym. The challenge there was getting home in time to write it down before forgetting it. I had to shush my wife when I came in the door, which she wasn't pleased with, at the time, although she laughs about it now.

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Roundabout Theatre Company Roundabout Theatre Company is a not-for-profit theatre dedicated to providing a nurturing artistic home for theatre artists at all stages of their careers where the widest possible audience can experience their work at affordable prices. Roundabout fulfills its mission each season through the revival of classic plays and musicals; development and production of new works by established playwrights and emerging writers; educational initiatives that enrich the lives of children and adults; and a subscription model and audience outreach programs that cultivate loyal audiences.