SOUND OFF Special Interview: Michael Patrick Walker
Today we are talking to the songwriter responsible for the new collection of songs culled from his many musical theatre ventures, both new and old - oh-so-appropriately titled OUT OF CONTEXT - who perhaps is best known to Broadway babies as the composer/lyricist of the mid-00s Off-Broadway smash boy-band spoof musical ALTAR BOYZ - the versatile and fiercely committed Michael Patrick Walker. Talking all aspects of OUT OF CONTEXT - including working with the tremendous talent featured on the multi-faceted and highly entertaining album (many of whom are also InDepth InterView participants themselves), such as Cheyenne Jackson, Kelli O'Hara, Lisa Howard and many more - as well as describing the shows from whence these songs derived (such as THE DISTANT BELLS, which recently was workshopped starring Chita Rivera and Ana Gasteyer, among others), Walker and I attempt to paint a picture of the career of a rising star composer such as himself and what we can look forward to from him in the future, near and far - and, of course, what is in the ether for the release party performance concert at Birdland on Monday night featuring Ann Harada, Lauren Kennedy, Peter Friedman, Kenita Miller, John Tartaglia, Julie Foldesi, Noah Galvin, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Andy Mientus, Jim Stanek and Betsy Wolfe. Additionally, he shares his experiences working on screen-to-stage adaptations of KINKY BOOTS and SOAPDISH, as well as shares news of his upcoming musical with Rick Ellis of JERSEY BOYS fame and elaborates on his Rockettes musical number that will be premiering this season at the annual Radio City Music Hall Christmas spectacular. Plus, we also discuss his compositional and lyrical inspirations, favorite scores and composers, thoughts on GLEE and an ALTAR BOYZ homage - and much, much more!
Michael Patrick Walker's OUT OF CONTEXT release party concert takes place on Monday at 7PM at Birdland. More information is available here. You can visit Michael's official site here.
PC: You have three or four shows currently in development, correct?
MPW: Yeah, there are a couple of things - and they are all at different stages; some on the front burner, some on the back burner.
PC: Is KINKY BOOTS still a show of yours? I really enjoyed the song on the website.
MPW: No. KINKY BOOTS is not something I am still writing - KINKY BOOTS is something that I wrote a spec song for, but they eventually ended up going with Cyndi Lauper for the score.
PC: It's a great song, in any event.
MPW: Well, of course, that song that you liked from the KINKY BOOTS musical is actually on the album, too - it's really one of those songs that I thought, "Even though I'm no longer writing the show, I can definitely still use it on the album!" You know, why let a good song go to waste? So, the song lives on.
PC: There are a lot of spec demos from some big names out there that many people may not be aware were ever commissioned.
MPW: Yeah, I think that these days it comes down to that a lot of producers don't want to take a chance until they've heard three, four or five songs for the project, you know?
PC: What can you tell me about your musical adaptation of SOAPDISH?
MPW: That's a project which has been kicking around for a while, from what I understand - that's not one where I know what ever ended up happening with it. I know that Mark Hollmann was working on it before, and, then, they decided going in a different direction and I became involved and wrote some things with my ALTAR BOYZ creator. And, then, they went in a different direction again. But, I haven't heard much about it so I don't know if it is happening or not.
PC: Did you write some fun material for the Sally Field character? She is so deliciously over-the-top in the film.
MPW: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! You know, my feeling with adaptations of things is that anything can be a musical if it makes sense for it to be a musical. It's like: SOAPDISH? Of course it can be a musical! It's just so over-the-top.
PC: Indeed. How far along did you get with it?
MPW: We wrote about three or four songs for that - one was when she goes to the mall; one was an opening sequence number and one was for the daughter character when she comes in and tries to get cast on the soap opera, initially.
PC: Sounds like you picked the right moments to musicalize, to be sure!
MPW: Thanks! Yeah, I honestly do hope it eventually succeeds as a musical - it's so over-the-top; it's so larger-than-life; it should be hugely successful somewhere! Even if I'm not the one writing it, I'd still like to see it done onstage. [Laughs.]
PC: Speaking of spec songs, RAGTIME had some big names who wrote songs for it - Kander & Ebb included; who didn't get the gig, ultimately.
MPW: Yeah, I remember RAGTIME was one of the first producer-driven shows recently where they were doing that sort of stuff. I'd love to hear some of that stuff they wrote - you know, I wonder what Kander & Ebb's RAGTIME sounds like?!
PC: Are there any lost opportunities or lost children among your many projects?
MPW: Well, one of them was one of those things where, when I first signed with my agent, they asked, "What would you like to adapt?" And, I said, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY - for the same reason as SOAPDISH. And, my agent inquired about it and he said somebody else was already working on it - and, that was six or seven years ago and I haven't heard anything about a musical of it since. So, who knows? I never actually began work on that because the rights were already spoken for. So, yeah, that is a lost child in a way - in that I would love to get a hold of that story and musicalize it because it so compelling to me.
PC: What was it like working with Hal Prince on 3HREE?
MPW: Well, the interesting thing about what I did when I got involved with 3HREE is that we did an eight-week-run at the Ahmanson - which, you know, was intended to be - or the theory was - that this was the pre-Broadway. But, you know, everything is pre-Broadway until it gets to Broadway. [Laughs.]
PC: Exactly - especially these days with copious announcements that never pan out.
MPW: But, because they had done it at the Prince Theater in Philadelphia, it was an abbreviated process. Like, out of the nine cast members, seven had done it at the Prince. So, we only did two weeks of rehearsal out in LA - to sort of get it back and get the new people in - but, he was there and absolutely a part of it every step. And, it was a fascinating thing to experience - because he is such a legend. Certainly, as a teenager and as a kid I would sit and watch shows he directed, so to be in the room while he is tech-ing something and getting something together is fascinating to watch.
PC: What were your impressions of him?
MPW: In my experience, he seemed very sharp, very quick - like, he definitely doesn't lollygag in tech!
PC: Definitely not.
MPW: He is just moving it through and getting things going. He is very, "Let's move it. Let's do it. Let's make it happen."
PC: It's so awesome to see the greats at work, isn't it?
MPW: Well, I'll tell you, we just did a reading of this new musical, THE DISTANT BELLS, that I am working on - we just did a reading last March. And, in my side life, I am Chita Rivera's piano player…
PC: She has done this column, as well. She is so fabulous.
MPW: Oh, I know she did - and, you know from talking to her, she is just the nicest and the most fun person - like, I go when she goes to Birdland and does other concerts and so forth - and, I am telling you, I have more fun sometimes doing that - which is not my normal material at all - than I do with other stuff. She is just so much fun and has so much energy. To have her do this reading of my show and have her there - and, I have known her for a couple of years at this point, but, still, you have that moment and you say, "This is Chita Rivera!"
PC: The original Anita in WEST SIDE STORY.
MPW: Yeah! "This is CHICAGO! This is KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN! This is BYE BYE BIRDIE!" It's all of those things.
PC: What a thrill as a composer - and fan.
MPW: To hear her sing those songs - both the songs she is famous for, and, in a rehearsal studio, learning one of my songs - it really does floor me now and again. I mean, I remember seeing KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN when I had taken a day trip to New York to see the show and I ended up seeing it the day after the Tony Awards that year.
PC: What luck!
MPW: You know, that was the year she won and it had tied with TOMMY for Best Score. It was surreal to do this after seeing that all those years ago. To sit at the piano while she is doing this reading - she is one of those icons you are talking about and she is just a really wonderful person to have any sort of time with, too.
PC: Do you perform songs from THE VISIT when you work together? "You, You, You", perhaps?
MPW: Yes. Usually in her show we do "Love And Love Alone".
PC: A great Kander & Ebb song.
MPW: Exactly. That's one of her favorite ones to do and she is a huge advocate for that show. I have never seen the show myself, so I don't know the show intimately - but, I definitely will be seeing it when they do it at the Vineyard.
PC: With John Cullum. I hope it comes to Broadway.
MPW: It's gonna be great. She is a master class - not to get off completely onto the subject of Chita, but, she is a master class in how to perform. I always tell actors and singers, "Come see her show because you will see her - uptempo, a ballad, whatever - the sheer performance caliber is something you don't often see anymore."
PC: Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera are two great examples of people performing songs as well if not better than they ever did - and they compensate for any vocal deficiency with such compelling acting.
MPW: Absolutely. That's the thing that makes them great. Like, I always tell people - actors or singers - "I want you to approach it from an acting perspective first. Yeah, I want that high belted note - but, only if it's for a reason." I want acting to be behind it. I will change a vocal line in a second if it makes more sense for the acting perspective for the performer who is doing it. It really has to come across that way. [Pause.] Act the song. Tell the story.
PC: Ana Gasteyer is a great modern-day example of a performer who does that today - who also happens to have done this column - and her "Irene" is incredible. Isn't that song from THE DISTANT BELLS?
MPW: Yes. That comes from Act 2. The funny thing is that the version you hear on my website is a demo recording - which makes it even more impressive about how well she does it. It's one of those things that we basically just worked on in the studio and got it down on the album. As you know, Ana is doing SUBURGATORY - the TV show - so she has been away for the most part. So, on the album Lisa Howard sings the song.
PC: Lisa Howard has done this column, as well! Her version is very impressive in its own unique way - they are quite different, though.
MPW: Oh, I love her and I love her voice. They are both so wonderful and I love both of their performances and Lisa's is really something special. The song itself takes place sort of midway through Act Two - so, it is one of those big, turning point moments for the character, who is the older daughter of the Chita Rivera character in the show.
PC: Sounds dramatically rife.
MPW: Yeah, it's a bit of an epic song to perform! I'm not easy on my female singers, I've found - and, I promise, it's not intentional! [Laughs.]
PC: It's worth it, either way, given the results.
MPW: I guess I'm not easy on my male singers, either, come to think of it! [Laughs.] But, there is a lot - as you heard - there is a lot going on in that song.
PC: So often you hear such disposable pop these days in theatre scores.
MPW: Yeah, and that's the thing - and that's fine for what it is - but, since I am known for ALTAR BOYZ - which, while I am very proud of it, those songs were meant to be something very particular and specific to that show, you know?
PC: You don't want to be pigeonholed.
MPW: Yeah, and, what I think I was trying to show with this album in particular - just like an actor who gets typecast; it's like, "That's not all that I do!" It just so happens that the first show I wrote that was met with some success was that sort of thing.
PC: ALTAR BOYZ lives on, still - to this day. All around the country and the world. It's constantly produced.
MPW: Yeah, I am fortunate to say that the show has been done all over the place - and, it's been licensed by R&H for years, too. I am very lucky.
PC: And many of the original cast members and replacements have gone on to much success.
MPW: Oh, yeah - our friend, original cast member, Scott Porter, did FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and he has his new show, HEART OF DIXIE.
PC: Theatre and TV are very intertwined these days, thankfully.
MPW: Oh, yeah - it goes both ways. You know, people who have never done theatre, do theatre; and, people who have never done TV, do TV - I guess I sort of say about it, "Just keep the talented people doing stuff!" [Laughs.]
PC: It seems like some sort of destiny that an ALTAR BOYZ homage would eventually appear on GLEE sometime soon - would you be open to that?
MPW: Oh, yeah! That's the thing - it does seem like it would make sense. You know, the specifics of all that goes through our licensing people, but, I am sure we would all be thrilled for them to do an homage. You know, they have done WICKED and all that stuff - and, they are in the right age range with the characters on there to do it, too. I'd love for them to tackle it.
PC: A whole new generation is being exposed to the great theatrical songwriters thanks to GLEE - Kander & Ebb, Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc..
MPW: Yeah - and sometimes they don't even know it! They might hear a song and say, "Hey, I like that song!" And, later, find out, you know, "Hey, that's John Kander!"
PC: What do you think of the hip-hop sound in musical theatre? You integrated many contemporary elements into ALTAR BOYZ and, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda succeeded with his IN THE HEIGHTS, but there are few other examples.
MPW: I'm all for it as long as it's telling a good story. You know, popular music in theatre it is not new and neither are concept albums - it's a case of everything old is new again. You know, TOMMY was an album first - so was EVITA.
PC: And now we have AMERICAN IDIOT and album adaptations onstage.
MPW: You know, I have to say that I'm not a big fan of reality shows and things - but, I every now and again when I hear that such and such is doing Broadway Week, I think, "What is that?" There are so many genres - anything can be part of a theatre piece."
PC: Broadway is really everything.
MPW: It can be Rodgers & Hammerstein and it can be hip-hop - and, it can be anywhere in between. If you are going to have Curley rap in OKLAHOMA? Eh, I don't know if that would work. But, if the story is about modern-day kids, it would sound weird if they were singing legit, 1940s-style songs.
PC: It either works or it doesn't for the particular piece.
MPW: I forget who said this, but I remember reading a review of ALTAR BOYZ that said, "The score is entertaining - it's not exactly Sondheim, but never mind." And, I thought that was so strange that they said that - if ALTAR BOYZ had Sondheim songs in it, it wouldn't really work. If INTO THE WOODS had ALTAR BOYZ songs in it, that wouldn't work. I love Sondheim, but you write for what the story demands. I think it just has to make sense in the story you are telling - if you are just doing it to, you know, get that 18-34 demographic, then I think you are going to hit a stumbling block.
PC: And Sondheim used the Witch's Rap in INTO THE WOODS as a way to get the story out in the most economical way.
MPW: Yeah! See - that's the thing: not-pitched, rhythmic speaking is not new in musical theatre; that is a good example. She raps, but she doesn't rap like Kanye West would rap - it's a different cadence. And, IN THE HEIGHTS is something completely different from that. And, then… I mean, in THE MUSIC MAN they rap!
PC: Indeed they do.
MPW: INTO THE WOODS is one of my all-time favorite shows, so I always use that as an example.
PC: "I Believe" sounds like a new song on OUT OF CONTEXT. Tell me about re-imagining it for Cheyenne Jackson.
MPW: Yes, it's from ALTAR BOYZ, but we did it in a completely different way. I wanted to say, "Look, ALTAR BOYZ was what it needed to be." It had near-rhymes in it because that's what pop music is - and, again, I don't know what theatre music really is; sometimes it's pop and sometimes it's not.
PC: What are some of your other favorite shows?
MPW: INTO THE WOODS is the big one - I remember watching it over and over again on video. And, FALSETTOS was another favorite, as well.
PC: What do you think of William Finn's work in general? Lisa Howard's new Finn album is absolutely fantastic, I thought.
MPW: Oh, yeah - I think it's a fantastic idea and she is the perfect performer for that type of material. It's all over the map - I think you can recognize the SPELLING BEE stuff as being by the guy who wrote FALSETTOS, but it's also very different in its own way.
PC: You can say that again!
MPW: You know, I did a FALSETTOS production in college, and, that was just a new sort of idea to me - the fact that you could do this top-to-bottom musical with almost no dialogue. I mean, I knew LES MIZ and things that were sung-through, but that felt different to me.
PC: More contemporary.
MPW: Yes. I also love the shows that I call the Transition Shows - I feel like there were shows like DAMN YANKEES and HOW TO SUCCEED where there is some snark going on; there's some edge.
PC: SWEET CHARITY, too.
MPW: Exactly. They still had traditional forms, but you start to get some sarcasm and some sophisticated humor going on. But, those are traditional musicals, but, they still feel like they were advancing the form in some way.
PC: IN TROUSERS is, of course the first part of FALSETTOS.
MPW: Oh, yeah. I have that recording, too! Of course.
PC: And I've heard it said that William Finn took The Beatles as his biggest influence for that score - speaking of the worlds of pop and theatre merging.
MPW: And, you know, that's what's interesting! You might not necessarily get that by listening to it - or, you might get that by listening to it; but, what goes on in the writer's head is so interesting. I'm sure he didn't realize that by starting with that that he would end up with the two Broadway parts, too, fifteen years later. It's fascinating. There's really no way to duplicate how someone gets from the beginning to the end of an idea.
PC: "Love Me For What I Am" is a perfect Beatles-esque ballad.
MPW: Yeah, it is. Now that you say that, I have to go back and read the liner notes.
PC: Do you consider the songs on OUT OF CONTEXT the full theatrical versions of the songs or pseudo-pop versions?
MPW: You know, I'm not really sure how to classify them! One of the reasons I called this OUT OF CONTEXT is that when I sat down to pick the songs months and months and months ago, I just embraced the fact that I am going to be pulling things out of context - you are not going to know everything that led up to the moment when the character sings the song; but, I'm not going to pick songs with random references that the listener will get confused by, either.
PC: The best of everything.
MPW: Yeah, I tried to put together songs that I like and songs that had something for actors to bite into - but, I found with the final song list that all of these characters are dealing with being out of context in their lives. They are dealing with a breakup; they are dealing with a new relationship; they may not know what way they are going in life - and it can mean a million different things. But, I guess I sort of unintentionally put together thirteen songs that could, in theory, work as a song-cycle.
PC: Was that always the plan?
MPW: No! It was a bit of an accident. But, I realized that all of the songs are all from the same sector. All of the characters feel a little out of place or offset from where they feel they should be in their lives in some way.
PC: William Finn cut-outs from his abandoned and lesser-known projects make up some great revues - ELEGIES and MAKE ME A SONG.
MPW: That's exactly true. When you write a show, you just never know if it will have a future or if the show will end up ever having a production, but, that doesn't mean that the songs - the best of the best songs - can't be pulled out and put on a CD. And, if the shows that they come from end up happening, then people will regard this as like a quirky little concept recording, you know?
PC: The songs work either way.
MPW: And, if the shows don't end up happening, at least the songs will live on in some capacity. Like the song from KINKY BOOTS we were talking about earlier - it was always singled out as a popular song amongst people who heard it - so, it was, like, "let's make it live," on the CD. And, on the CD, I wisely stepped out and Telly Leung sings it with Michael Arden.
PC: And Telly Leung appeared as a Warbler with Darren Criss on GLEE, of course.
MPW: Yeah, I know he was one of the guys with a jacket! [Laughs.]
PC: What can we expect from the concert at Birdland on Monday?
MPW: The show at Birdland on Monday is part album release concert celebration and part just a show of my stuff. About half the people who did the album are doing the show. You know, schedules being what they are, I couldn't get every single person who did the album to come. We're going to do a whole bunch of songs from the CD and it will actually be the first time I hold the CD in my hands - I haven't even gotten a copy yet!
PC: So, we can certainly look forward to a great assortment of performers based on the list of people scheduled.
MPW: Oh, yeah! Ann Harada, Lauren Kennedy, Peter Friedman, Kenita Miller, John Tartaglia, Julie Foldesi, Noah Galvin, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Andy Mientus, Jim Stanek and Betsy Wolfe.
PC: Betsy Wolfe was so good in TALES OF THE CITY and she will be doing the upcoming Encores! MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG with Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well.
MPW: Absolutely. She is so great. She's actually doing THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE in DC that ends on Sunday and coming to New York on Monday to do this and then she goes right into MERRILY. She's sort of breezing through Birdland, singing a song and moving on to her next project.
PC: Did you see her in TALES OF THE CITY: THE MUSICAL?
MPW: No, I didn't, but many of my good friends were involved. The music director, and, of course, Jeff Whitty and I go way back - to the AVENUE Q days.
PC: How were you involved with AVENUE Q?
MPW: As early as the Vineyard, I came in and filled in when the conductor was out, and, even in the Broadway run I filled in. Sometimes for six months or a year at a time I was involved - I was there almost the entire run, in and out.
PC: Did you always assume it would be a hit?
MPW: Well, down at the Vineyard, it was fascinating - you knew this was going to be something. But, if I recall correctly, when they announced it, people were like, "Oh, it's never going to work." And, hello - it's still touring the country all these years later!
PC: Tell me about your upcoming show with Stafford Arima.
MPW: Yes, Stafford and I are working on an idea that is in the early development stages. I really wanted to do a dance musical where acting, dancing and singing are all fully-integrated.
PC: In what way?
MPW: Well, even these days, with something like MOVIN' OUT - obviously, it's a dance musical; but, the dancers don't sing. And, even in a dance-heavy show, the singer goes off and then comes back to finish it. I wanted to develop the idea for a show - with Stafford as director and Andrew Palermo as choreographer - and to do something where we are telling the story of these three characters through their lives, but they are dancing, singing and acting all at the same time; all aspects with equal levels of difficulty. Now, I might kill a couple actors in asking them to do all that - but, that's the plan right now. [Laughs.]
PC: Sounds very Michael Bennett.
MPW: Yes, it is like that, but it is a bit more contemporary dance style.
PC: As I would imagine it would be.
MPW: Yes, but you're right - fully-integrated like those great shows were.
PC: What about your new show with Rick Ellis, the writer of JERSEY BOYS?
MPW: Rick Ellis - writer of JERSEY BOYS, and, also, PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS and ADDAMS FAMILY; all three are so very, very different. It's very early on right now so I can't tell you everything but I will tell you that it is an original musical - it's not based on a book or a movie or anything.
PC: Where did the idea for it arise in the first place?
MPW: It actually started as a really, really bad idea - and I won't even tell you the movie, because it is such a bad idea - but, we hadn't watched this movie for years and years and we watched it again and were light, "Ugh!" So, we just started talking about a show we could write and it sort of morphed into this. The first act is just about done and we are going to start doing some table reads. I think it's a pretty cool show and it's been pretty exciting working with him on it, too.
PC: Will there be a song from it premiered on Monday, perhaps?
MPW: Well, right now, I am a little uncertain about letting one out of the bag just quite yet - but, I still haven't finalized the running order, so it is still possible, I suppose.
PC: Were there any songs that didn't make the cut for the album that you will be doing at the concert?
MPW: Well, I think I will pretty much stick to what's on the album, but there might be a song that I didn't include. You know, I'd really love to do another show at Birdland in the Spring if this is successful and introduce some songs from upcoming projects - just because, you know, there is nothing better than getting something in front of an audience in a less stressful setting than previews! [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely. What is the future for THE DISTANT BELLS?
MPW: Well, we had something in the works at one point with the Roundabout, but I am not sure yet - we will have to see.
PC: Studio 54 is such a wonderful theater.
MPW: What a great space that is. I would love having a show of mine in there someday. I love it because you feel so close - even in the back of the orchestra.
PC: Sondheim told me ASSASSINS there was one of the most perfect productions of any of his shows ever. I agree. Did you see that production?
MPW: Wow. Yeah, I did. I really love what he did with that musical, too - I think it's a very cool thing. I am sort of a sucker for the time-overlapping, non-linear type thing - especially when it suits the story so well.
PC: ASSASSINS seems like one of those transitional musicals like we saw in the 60s that you were talking about - just that no one has picked up where it left off since, really.
MPW: Yeah, I know what you mean - you see something like that and nothing ever follows it. I thought VIOLET was another show like that, too. It's a great score, but it never went beyond the original production.
PC: What's next for you?
MPW: The CD launch and the Birdland concert is a tryout thing to see if I will do additional shows other places for the CD. I also just wrote a song for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular that premieres this year.
PC: How did you manage to get involved with that?
MPW: It's a weird thing - years ago, I used to music direct for them. They do productions all across the country - Detroit, Nashville and on and on - and I used to go out and put those shows together; usually in two weeks. I would teach them all the songs and music direct it and then we would tech it and I would go home. So, eventually, it just sort of worked out that they wanted to make changes to the show - they are going in and doing a whole bunch of new technical things this year. It's not really correct to call it a song - it's a Rockette dance number. There's no lyric, but it's a big, 5-minute extravaganza. I am also going to be doing a couple of gigs for Chita and then we are doing a private table read of the show with Rick Ellis sometime in December to get something going with that in 2012.
PC: Talk about putting it on the fast track!
MPW: Yeah! Well, we want to see it and have some actors sing it and say it and then we will finish Act Two and see what happens.
PC: ALTAR BOYZ until now - this might be your long-awaited Broadway debut!
MPW: Yeah, ALTAR BOYZ was 2005, so it's been six years now - I got lost to the TV world for a while with JOHNNY & THE SPRITES, so, now is the perfect time for this album. Now was definitely the time to go for it. I'm really excited.
PC: This was absolutely wonderful, Michael. Thank you so much.
MPW: I really appreciate it, Pat! I hope I didn't ramble too much! [Laughs.] Have a great day! Bye.