BWW Interview: Lance Horne On His Current Residency at Joe's Pub, His Iconic Collaborators and Trying to Recruit Neve Campbell
Lance Horne is developing new music based on acclaimed author Neil Gaiman's love poems to his wife, Amanda Palmer, is working on a top-secret project with Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears and continues to work with his "musical husband," Alan Cumming.
And, if all of that weren't enough, the Emmy-winning composer (ONE LIFE TO LIVE), lyricist and performer has also returned to Joe's Pub for the 2016-2017 season. Having performed at the venue since it first opened its doors in 1998, Horne is currently undertaking a four-part residency of new material---aptly titled NEW WORK, NEW WORK---for which he's been joined by many of his famous friends.
Ahead of the residency's penultimate installment, NEW WORK NEW WORK 3, on April 12 at 7pm, we spoke with Horne by phone about his innumerable collaborators, his history with Joe's and the stars he's still working on teaming up with.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
TF: I wanted to start by talking about the concept for the residency and how it all came about.
LH: I first started performing at Joe's Pub in its inaugural year. There was a great person at Public Theater by the name of Wiley Hausam, and he was one of my first champions and asked me to develop work there. When I wanted to come back from the last several years of touring and work outside of New York City, I knew that Joe's Pub would be the right place to celebrate a year and a residence inspired by a lot of my favorite artists who have been developing their work there as well over the last several years.
TF: The title [NEW WORK NEW WORK] is perfect. Was that something that you knew instinctively or did that take time to come up with?
LH: No, I'm good with titles and bad with emails. (Laughs) I'm made for for the stage and not necessarily for office work. The title came as soon as I started talking with everybody at Joe's and pulled Sam Buntrock, the director of the whole thing, on. The title was one of the first things.
TF: Developing the show with Sam, how did things move after you brought him into the fold?
LH: Well, as soon as we knew we were going to spend this year making these new things, I knew that I needed a collaborator. Sam and I had been wanting to work on things together since before we met and happened to have met at the perfect time, when both of us could carve out a little bit of space and make new things. And it's continuing on into the future past this, which I really appreciate, and it's a testament to what can happen at Joe's Pub in a safe and beautiful environment with great connections to the audience and the ability to try things out--- that it makes great collaborations happen.
TF: The residency is a year long, and it was announced far in advance. Obviously, you have so many projects in the works that you're constantly generating new stuff. But does having those deadlines force you to get things done? Like, "Oh, show number two's coming up!"
LH: Absolutely. I had a whole bunch of correspondence yesterday, and what it does is it puts the rest of life in a lens, where everything becomes a potential song. In the middle of the night last night---I'm in a hotel in Miami--- a woman woke me by screaming and banging on the door, "Is she in here? Is this where she is?" And her boyfriend or husband trailing after her in the hallway, going, "No, baby. No, baby, no." And then the woman banging on the next door. "Is this where she is?" If I weren't making new theater and new work, that might be annoying to me (laughs).
But it created an entire narrative. And I thought, "Wow. 'Is this where she is?' is such a great, loud, rocking kind of number." So what the year has done is given my brain something to focus all of these inspirations towards. And we've stacked them throughout the year at decent intervals, where, at this point, everyone knows how to get things done and have deadlines. But most of the work you get to do in New York is a one-off.
Getting to do something that has a continual relation with the audience and with a pool of collaborators is rare. So this year has been allowing, "Well, if this person can't do something in this one, maybe we could put her in collaboration with someone in this one," and Sam's been really helpful with that as well, thinking throughout how to pattern the year. And I'd love to do more of this. I think it was also an experiment to see how it works, and now that I understand how it works better, I can do it better. Like anything.
TF: What I think is really cool about your residency, too, is how it's structured, and how each show is its own specific thing. I think that makes each one really special, even though it's part of this grander thing. Was that always the intention? To focus on Neil Gaiman's poetry for Amanda Palmer in one and then focus on rock in another?
LH: Yes. It comes from the notion that I work in so many styles that I'm often criticized for not having one focal point. So Sam and I thought that it would be great to make the focal point Joe's Pub, and then all the pieces could be all the styles and all the genres that I do get to work in. The great thing is all of those styles and genres are showcased at Joe's Pub regularly. Hammerstein says, "Content dictates form." It feels like a perfect marriage. I'm an eclectic artist; Joe's Pub is an eclectic space. It's the perfect place to do a series that goes across the spectrum of what I'm working on.
It was in our first phone call with the people at Joe's that we decided four [shows] sounds like an audience would retain interest. We can generate that, and that's about as many styles as I tend to get to work in, so let's look at those styles and the things that we really want to make.
TF: I was at the first show, and it felt to me like the perfect dinner party, with a great mix of people and the music. There's such a great variety. What goes into the alchemy of getting the perfect mix of people so everyone gets a chance to shine but it's all a little different?
LH: I think you hit on it perfectly, that it happens to be about the mix of people and not the material itself. If you focus on wanting to work with a person and then seeing what she/he/they bring best to the table, then you bring your work to them and then they shine. Then everything seems personable, rather than working from the top down and thinking, "I need to present this material, and who can I force into this spot?" And, if need be, make new material for them.
TF: So that's something you've done for the residency?
LH: Absolutely. In that first show, a third of [the songs] were written directly onto the artists because those are the artists we were wanting to work with. And this [third] one is going to be the same. There's a lot of material still to be generated between now and showtime, based on the people who are going to come play and whoever bangs on my door tomorrow night (laughs).
Something else that's great about this: Most work takes so long to develop that it's not about the time it's being presented in anymore. And this year at Joe's Pub is all about this year at Joe's Pub. I had no intention of making a series of political stances. I was going to show my work and engage with the audience. But in order to do that now in a world with a vice president who would like to electrocute me, I need to step up my game.
TF: Is that where the idea to donate the proceeds from the second show came from?
LH: Absolutely. We scheduled these shows last June, and it just so happened that the first show was scheduled for right after the election and the second show was scheduled for right after the inauguration. And I couldn't go out on the stage, put on some nice songs about the moon and June and girls falling in love with boys and how everything's wonderful and perfect in the world when it's not. Friends of mine are protesting pipelines and I'm getting punched on the street and called "f*ggot." Like, this is definitely something that is happening right now. So in order to come to terms with even what I can do as a creative, I've found that being able to raise money for the ACLU at least made it feel like I could participate in the national and global dialogue.
TF: I think Justin VivIan Bond said it best [during NEW WORK NEW WORK 1]. V said [something like], "I was scheduled to go on later, but I asked to go on early because I may have a train to catch soon." (Laughs) How did you start working with v?
LH: Well, it started around Joe's Pub, in another great series that Earl Dax put together called WEIMAR NEW YORK. It was the first big show that brought together Justin VivIan Bond, Meow Meow, Taylor Mac, Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger, the Pixie Harlots---a huge slew of downtown cavalcade---and brought them all together to make work about political resistance and the links between Weimar, Germany and current New York. We didn't know how ahead of our time we were (laughs).
But I performed with Vivian on several of those shows, the first of which involved me, terrified, trying to nail David Bowie. All I can remember is wanting to get all the arpeggios right. Vivian and I have gone on to perform together all around the world and have adventures. It really started a lot of the touring and collaborating.
TF: You said somewhere that Alan Cumming was your "musical husband."
LH: Yes, we often say that.
TF: How did that relationship develop?
LH: We began by musically dating. And that went really well. Then one of us musically proposed, and the other accepted. (Laughs) Honestly, we really are meant for each other. I had always admired his work. He had likewise seen and admired mine, and when he was asked to put an AMERICAN SONGBOOK SERIES together for Lincoln Center, he and I were sitting next to one another at a Liza Minnelli concert in Glasgow, as you do. He asked if I would be interested in putting that concert together with him, based, honestly, on a lot of the work I'd been able to do with Justin Vivian Bond and Meow Meow and Taylor. And we put that concert together, I think, eight years ago now, and took it immediately to Sydney Opera House to work with a woman named Virginia Hyam, who had programmed us there. From then on, we started to tour and develop and perform together, and now we host parties together. Club Cumming is in full force around the country, leaving revelers in its wake since 2015... Or, I guess, 2016. I don't plan anything without checking Alan's schedule, and if I can't do something, he's very gracious and works around mine as well. The work we do is really singular.
He says he doesn't like working with orchestras because it feels like karaoke. He's such a dynamic person, it takes a real focused group to swallow his artistry. I'm trying to come up with a better way of describing it, but he is so specific in the moment with the audience that it's never the same show twice. It's the reason that all of us onstage can work over and over and hear similar stories told differently and with such expertise in song and story form. This whole chat could just be a Valentine about Alan.
TF: I'm cool with that.
LH: I can't say enough about him. I feel so lucky to have met Alan in my life. What a great friend, what a great artist, how generous to his circle and how generous to the world, in terms of his philanthropy and activism and art. And how inspiring to all of us he is, I'm getting teary in a Miami hotel room, for different reasons than the lady who woke me up screaming, "Is she in there?" (Laughs) I was so tempted to open the door and say, "No, she's not!"
TF: Sometimes it's just better to ignore.
LH: Yeah, sometimes you just let it go away, like a bad revival.
TF: Does Alan also contribute to bringing people in for the show? I assume he had something to do with bringing [his CABARET co-star] Sienna Miller in for the first show?
LH: He threw the party where Sienna and I wore matching fur. And that's how we started to become friends. Matching fake fur! Yes, at the closing night of CABARET, Sienna and I danced and danced and danced---and laughed---and struck up a great friendship. I love collecting people who say that they cannot sing or that they don't feel that they're singers, and then eventually playing with them in private and then eventually in public and the introducing the public to see what great singers they are. And Sienna is exactly that way. I think she really has this ethereal quality with an amazing connection to lyrics, and that's the kind of singer that I always strive for.
TF: I think that's part of what we were saying about finding a good mix. You really had people performing from all walks. [Sienna]'s been performing for a great time but isn't maybe as well-known as a stage performer. But then you have someone like Mikaela Bennett, who's obviously very well-trained but is younger and doesn't have 25 years on a cabaret stage like Justin VivIan Bond does, and I think it really makes it something special.
LH: Well, I would hope that it would be a living social media group. If you were to take a snapshot of the people we all interact with online and actually gather them on a stage, that would be my hope---instead of the other way around---so that art truly imitates life and not vice versa.
I did love, after that concert, that Mikaela and Sienna were the ones who sought each other out upstairs at The Library. There was a moment where Sienna was cradling Mikaela's face in her arms and telling her what an artist she was. And I remember meeting people that I adored when I was starting out, like Mikaela is, at Joe's Pub in 1998, and those moments last and get you through times when you don't know what you're doing and feel like you don't have anything to contribute or you don't feel like your work has an edge or the audience that it would need. You think, "Well, that one time, Carol Channing sat down next to me the night before my Juilliard audition and said, 'You just walk right in there and say that you deserve to be there.'" That's just the universe at play.
TF: You're saying Sienna took a little convincing. Were there other performers that took a little bit of convincing, too?
LH: I'm still working on Neve Campbell, let's put it that way. She's amazing! She was in PHANTOM in Toronto, lest we forget. And her brother and I cohabitate on the Upper West Side, and we all know and love her.
TF: That would be truly incredible.
LH: Just you wait, Henry Higgins. You heard it here first, Neve (laughs).
I mean, it's not that the performers need convincing, it's just that I feel everyone feels vulnerable, especially right now. Everyone is questioning their artistry and ability to connect, so both of these last concerts, we've needed convincing to just be people and be present and be together. That's something Sam and I have been working towards---making a community---and then out of the community comes the work itself.
TF: Tell me a little about the third show that's coming up in April.
LH: It's so funny to describe a sandcastle before the wave comes in. But this one definitely has rock and pop and modern sounds at its core. The last time my rock band played together was the closing night at CBGBs, and a lot of people don't know that.
The drummer [Chris Jago] has gone on to do the national tours of WICKED and came over with TABOO and did HEDWIG in the UK and was Boy George's drummer, and now he performs with Alan and me whenever we can. We were in the small space, and Grace Jones was in the big space. We recorded a live album, which we never released, at Joe's Pub. That was another reason, when coming up with what it would feel like to come back to Joe's for the season, it felt good to honor the fact that some part of me is an internal rock star.
It might not be the part that did the vocal arrangements for LITTLE WOMEN or the part that wrote about high school chemistry for ONE LIFE TO LIVE. But somewhere in there is the rock genre, and I like bringing it out to play.
TF: What can you tell me about the final installment of the residency?
LH: Sam and I are making a new work, which is called NEW WORK NEW WORK. It is an original theatre piece and will have an original cast. We've been doing a song from it in each of the shows, and after this [third] show, then we will put our full force together. Sam's an amazing writer and, obviously, director and visual artist.
So we're combining as many forces as we can between the two of us to examine a series of characters that we have found compelling that all share the same common thread. Dun dun dun dun.
TF: You also perform at these shows. How different is that for you than writing as a creative outlet?
LH: I find they're sides of the same coin; one fuels the other. When I'm doing one, the other's easier. When I'm performing a song that I've written, it's easier for me to perform.
I've sung more notes this year at Joe's Pub than anywhere in public in my life, simply because I've been focusing on the apparatus of the writing itself. Likewise, knowing I need to perform something has honed my focus as a writer.
I was inspired on several tours with Amanda Palmer, and then in writing the last year with Jake Shears, about the rhythm of rock music and what theatre can bring to it, and that is the impetus behind this show.
TF: I also wanted to ask you about both of those projects. A lot of the second show, from what I read, were some of the selections from the music you were writing based on Neil Gaiman's love letters to Amanda Palmer. I was curious how you got your hands on those and what made you think, "These would make a great musical."
LH: I'm still playing with the genre. I think it may end up being a theatrical concert, the way Neil's novels end up being between genres and more about the sweeping arch.
I know Amanda from before Neil, and she and I had huge conversations about love at a point where one of relationships was ending and hers was just beginning. And it brought Neil and me together in a beautiful way, such that I've been to their wedding, and I was performing with Amanda the night that Neil proposed and I've had several Thanksgivings at their house. I feel a part of their family. So Neil, the way that he knows how to do, was the person who suggested that I look at these poems that he'd written for Amanda. And I've been looking at them under wraps for over a year and thought this would be really great place to start exploring how they feel in the world.
TF: And then your work with Jake Shears. Is that the project about P.T. Barnum?
LH: That has been absorbed into a solo project for Jake. But we wrote together in New Orleans over the last year, inspired by the sound and people there. We've been diligently working in the studio and have a lot of great music to share really, really soon. I've known Jake since we were both fledglings in the downtown performance and party scene and played with the Scissor Sisters. We've written together and played together over the years, but this is the first full project that we're doing together and it's really exciting. I'm really proud of the work that he's putting forward and really happy to be a part of it. It's calling on every aspect of what I can do. I leave each session the way that those people with ponytails leave a SoulCycle class.
The first song that I sang in the series of NEW WORK, NEW YORK was actually from the P.T. Barnum musical. It's the one that Jason [Shears's birth name] and I wrote ["The 1000 Colors"]. So Jason's given me the go-ahead to use any of the material---because we have extra material, as well---so it's very likely that some of that material will be part of the April show.
I can also say that when we started this, I never thought we'd be bringing on brass players and a strings section. I think it's an amazing sound and testament to Jason's creativity that it has taken on such an epic scale.
TF: Is there anyone you haven't been able to work with that you'd kill to work with? Aside from Neve Campbell, of course.
LH: Of course. Dolly... and we're so close. C'mon, people. Absolutely Dolly Parton. Kylie [Minogue] and I have gotten to work together once briefly, and I'd love to do something more.
Lily Tomlin. I suppose I just need to work with the whole cast of BIG BUSINESS. Bette Midler. (laughs). I will say, I'm watching, as part of my political resistance, movies that have been written with strong female characters, just to remind myself about how important it is right now to support anyone who isn't reading as a straight white male. So I started off with STEEL MAGNOLIAS and 9 TO 5 and THELMA AND LOUISE, and I'm going through the genres right now. It's great. I encourage anyone to join and, on social media, recommend to me what we should do next.
TF: You have so many collaborators, I can't even ask you about all of them. Why is that so pivotal to your work?
LH: I'm an only child (laughs). I like what Armistead Maupin calls "logical families." I feel like it's what Alan's tattoo says: "Always connect." I think those are two wise people saying the same thing, that we're here on Earth for a reason and it seems to be to interact. I went to the conservatory, and I believe in the notion of the singular artist and seeing what she/he/they/v can do. Then, at the same time, I know that it's most rewarding to me if I get to grow by working with someone in a room.
And I love vocal music. It's something that's just in my blood. In order to do that, you have to collaborate. The amount of people that you can collaborate with is directly in proportion to the amount of people I get to collaborate with. I can't imagine not working with all these awesome people. I don't watch TV, and I'm bad at answering emails. I'm busy collaborating!
Lance Horne's NEW WORK, NEW WORK runs through the rest of the 2016-2017 season at Joe's Pub. The next installment is April 12 at 7 PM. For tickets and information, go to www.publictheater.org.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.