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InDepth InterView: Michael Mott - Part 2: Inside Look at THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW At 54 Below & MOB WIFE, FAUSTUS, Etc.

One of the most idiosyncratic and undeniably gifted composers and lyricists to emerge this century, Michael Mott has taken the theatre world by storm with his absolutely spectacular collection of compositions titled WHERE THE SKY ENDS: THE SONGS OF MICHAEL MOTT and now Mott discusses the finer points of his newest concert event occurring at 54 Below this week featuring an all-star cast, THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW, as well as highlights some of the new material being presented in the exciting evening. In addition to some spectacular selections from WHERE THE SKY ENDS, Mott and company will also be premiering several fresh songs from Mott's new musicals currently in development, including the 70s-era mafia-themed musical comedy MOB WIFE and the epic and imaginatively conceived new mythical musical FAUSTUS. Besides the songs from new musicals, Mott will also be showcasing a few new pop compositions that he has recently completed including "Minefield Of Love" which had its debut last month in the 54 Below show ITHACA COLLEGE AT 54 BELOW. Plus, Mott shares details of a new song specifically commissioned for young rising musical theatre star Emma Howard of MATILDA fame, "Fly High", as well as what he boasts may be his most challenging and impressive showstopper to date, which is set to be performed by no less than musical theatre superstar Jeremy Jordan, "Rise Or Fall" from FAUSTUS. All of that, an inside look at his songwriting process, the importance of background vocals and much, much more in this expansive continuing conversation with one of Broadway's brightest creative forces.

More information on Michael Mott's THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW at 54 Below on April 7 is available at the official site here. More information on Michael Mott is available at the Broadway Records official site here and at his official site here. Additionally, check out Part 1 of this interview series here.

Fly High

PC: New York will be hearing some of MOB WIFE for the first time given that several selections from the show are in THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW. What can we look forward to hearing?

MM: Well, we are doing a few songs from MOB WIFE and a couple have been performed before, but I think this will be the most that we have done in one show up until now. Jacqueline Petroccia just did a song from MOB WIFE at her 54 Below show SOMETIMES... PATSY CLINE last week with me, actually.

PC: How did the idea for MOB WIFE first come about?

MM: I first started working on MOB WIFE when I was 16 years old, back in 2002. I attended the New York State Summer School Of The Arts that year and I was required to write a 10-minute play, so I decided to write a 10-minute musical. I was very inspired by THE SOPRANOS and my Italian heritage and I wanted to write a musical about the life of a mob wife. So, I wrote the very first 10-minute musical version of it and we did it there - it was just a 10-minute show.

PC: Did any elements of that version end up in the final version of the show now?

MM: No - it was a completely different show, pretty much. But, it was still about a woman who was upset with her husband because she felt like their marriage had become lackluster and it has continued to diminish the longer they stay together. So, she complains about that in the original opening number, titled "It's A Bitch", and, then, they both sang a song called "I Think I Fell Out Of Love With You" and that was it.

PC: A bit of a downer!

MM: That was it! [Laughs.]

PC: Was MOB WIFE the first musical you embarked on writing?

MM: Yeah, it was. At that point I had no idea what I was doing, really. I just sat at the piano and played the most basic 1950s chords - [Sings.] "It's a bitch how I dress like a dirty slob / And my guido husband is in the mob." [Laughs.]

PC: THE SOPRANOS was at its height during that time.

MM: Right, right - it was; 2002.

PC: That was the main influence.

MM: Yeah, it was all about THE SOPRANOS.

PC: It's shocking that there never has really been a mainstage musical about the mafia given the rich source material and all the famous movies and TV shows about it. GUYS & DOLLS isn't the same thing by a long shot.

MM: I know! It's this great untapped thing, I think - nothing like that has ever really been on Broadway.

PC: So, has the show been in development on and off since 2002, then?

MM: No, no, no - back then, I got some feedback like, you know, "Oh, it's a cool idea. Keep working on it," and so I went home that summer and worked on it for another month or so and then I was like, "I got it!" and of course it was nowhere near where it needed to be, but I didn't know that. I pitched it to my high school principal, Mr. Condro and I'm not sure if it was the material or because he had a vowel on the end of his name, but he produced it at my high school in 2003 when I was a senior. We actually made a cast recording and sold it at the performance. I still have it - it's so funny to listen to now! [Laughs.]

PC: And you just put finishing touches on an incredible studio demo, as well, bring it all full-circle.

MM: Right - we did. The new version of the show! [Laughs]. I am really proud of it. I am so glad you liked it.

PC: So, what happened to the show post-2003?

MM: Well, in 2011 Ed Sayles, the artistic director of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, NY, came to a reading of another musical of mine, FAUSTUS and loved it. In 2012 he offered to help develop any of my new shows at his theatre.

PC: Why not FAUSTUS?

MM: He said that FAUSTUS was past the point where he could help me with it by doing it there.

PC: So, FAUSTUS was started and already was having readings in the interim, then.

MM: That's right. I had started FAUSTUS and MOB WIFE in high school but had put them both on the shelf while I attended college at Ithaca - it all just fell by the wayside because of school and performing and everything.

PC: You had a fabulous college experience at Ithaca College, did you not? Wasn't Jeremy Jordan actually your roommate?

MM: I did have a fabulous experience at Ithaca, but, believe it or not, Jeremy and I actually hated each other at first... [Laughs.]

PC: No way! Why so?

MM: Well, we just didn't like each other for the first couple months of school, but then we finally came around and got to like each other - I'm not going to say why, but we just didn't like each other at first. [Laughs.] Obviously, we're very good friends now and I am so unbelievably excited about the three songs of mine he is going to be performing in THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW.

PC: What can we expect from Jeremy's material in the show?

MM: Jeremy will be doing three songs total, but I can only tell you about one of them right now - we have to keep a few things a surprise! He is premiering a brand new song from FAUSTUS that I am so excited about and I can't wait to tell you about it...

PC: Please do.

MM: OK. Let me give you some backstory first. So, the very first version of FAUSTUS was way back in 2003 - I had no idea what I was doing and I wrote this song called "Another Day". People loved the song and it has been in every version of the show since - it's changed a bunch of times and I've rewritten it a lot; like seven times.

PC: The show was originally based on Christopher Marlowe's play, correct?

MM: The very first version was inspired by that, but once we saw it onstage we realized that it just didn't work, so we threw it all away and started again writing a show with our own original storyline, but still using several of those characters. So, FAUSTUS as it exists now is a completely original story using the main four characters from the original FAUSTUS by Marlowe. I was very inspired by Marlowe, but this is very much our own version of it all. Which is why we have gone through so many different revisions because this is essentially a completely original storyline and we're very set on making sure the book is perfect.

PC: Yet "Another Day" has survived in all the versions so far.

MM: Well, like I said, as our original storyline changes, lyrically it's gone through many different revisions. We've done three versions of the show - it's epic; it's huge - and we are trying to make it the best possible version of the show that it can be at this point. It's difficult to tie together all the plot-lines in a big show like this in a satisfying way and also make it all an emotional and memorable and enjoyable experience, but we are very happy where it is right now. So, this song, "Another Day", I took it after the last reading we did and I said, "You know what? I've lived with this for a long time and it's changed so many times and gone through so many incarnations, but I think that now I know what to do with it." So, I gutted it, kept elements of the old version and came up with a new chorus and hook and now it's entitled "Rise Or Fall".


PC: At what point in FAUSTUS does the song occur?

MM: It's the second song in Act Two. And, I have to say: Jeremy is going to absolutely slay it - he sounds ridiculous in rehearsal; ridiculous!

PC: In his first appearance post-MISCAST and that unbelievable "Don't Rain On My Parade", no less.

MM: I know! I know! Wasn't that incredible?! This is going to be right up there with that, I promise. I'm so excited.

PC: What an astounding cast you have rounded up for the show, as well.

MM: I am so lucky. Adrienne Warren will be doing a brand new pop song of mine at the show, too - very Mariah/Beyonce inspired; it's actually an R&B song. There's going to be a little bit of everything in this show.

PC: Back to MOB WIFE, how did the first production post-college come about, then?

MM: Well, I told Ed Sayles that I had this show about a mafia don's wife that I'd love to do there and he said he'd love to help develop it. So, I got a new bookwriter and we went up to the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse for a week and worked on it. From there, our director at the time hooked us up with a producer named Carolyn Miller who produced an Equity reading of the show in New York in 2014. We worked on a new draft since then. Now it's finished and we just recorded a studio demo for it. We are shopping it around to a bunch of different producers now.

PC: Ideally, would you want to aim towards Broadway or are you open to regional productions and school productions, too?

MM: We'll go anywhere with it! I think it would be perfect in Chicago or Buffalo or Rochester. It's a very intimate show, but it's got a lot of big, grand heart to it, too. The score is very big, but it is a very intimate show.

PC: The score has a pronounced Billy Joel influence, no doubt.

MM: Yes, it does. And, as you know, it's set in 1975 Staten Island, so it has a lot of the 1970s soundscape in there - Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springstreen; there's a lot of their musical influence filtered through me in this score.

PC: I am curious to know what your writing process is like. Do you compose primarily at the piano or do you also sing into a recorder? Does it depend on the specific project?

MM: Honestly, yes, I do compose a lot at the piano, but it definitely does depend on what the song is. For instance, I have been working on a lot of pop songs lately and those are very melody-based, so once I figure out what the melody is in my head, then I sing it into a recorder and sometimes I do that for my theatre stuff, too.

PC: What is your thought process when doing that?

MM: I think about, "Where is this character coming from? What are they trying to say?" Then, I come up with the sound and the feel of the melody and the lyrics and the hook. Then, I sit down at the piano and figure it all out.

PC: Take us through one of your recent songs and how you wrote it that we will be able to hear in THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW.

MM: One of the songs that I am most proud of - and I am debuting a ton of brand new songs at this concert - is "Fly High". I wrote the song for this young actress named Emma Howard who was in MATILDA on Broadway - she is 14 and her family commissioned me to write a song for her and so she will be debuting the song at the concert. I actually have a little one-minute preview up on SoundCloud right now (available here) and we actually got 700 views in just the first day - I was so happy. They basically approached me and asked me to write the song, saying, you know, "We'd love you to write a song for Emma." And, so, I said, "Well, what kind of song would you like?" and they said, "Whatever you want to do!" And I said, "All right!" and I wrote it. [Laughs.]

PC: Carte blanche!

MM: Exactly. She lives in LA, so I met with her over Skype and we talked - she was so cute! She talked about her aspirations - I mean, she's 14 and has already been in two major shows! And, she has an amazing competition dance background, too. Her message and her belief is so much about hope and positivity - she really, truly has a dream and she is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. She is very hard on herself and very realistic about the business - she knows it is not the easiest thing in the world to make it in theatre, but she has such a positive attitude and such a great outlook on life. She said, "If I don't take the first step, then I will never fulfill my dreams," so that's what I based the song on - and the song is called "Fly High".

PC: And then you recorded it.

MM: Yes. We recorded it with a full 24-piece orchestra - it sounds so amazing.

PC: How did another recent song you wrote come about, "Minefield Of Love" that Lindsay Rider recently premiered (available here)?

MM: "Minefield Of Love" came about because I was working with a producer in 2012 and we made a demo of a song I was working on - I was going for a Demi Lovato/Jordin Sparks sound; I was really going for Jordin Sparks, but then when I heard it, I realized that it would be perfect for Demi Lovato. I've been non-stop writing and recording pop songs recently - I have a full stash. Honestly, I could release another full album right now of just my pop stuff because I have so much, but I am kind of holding onto it all right now and sending songs out to record labels to see what the response will be to them.

PC: Lindsay Rider is a frequent collaborator, as are some of the other participants in THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW, correct?

MM: Yes, Lindsay, Shauna Goodgold and Isaac Matthews sing background vocals for me on everything I do. For me, it's very important to have great background vocals - that's a big part of my music, even if it's not the current trend on popular radio. I love the way my songs sound with background vocals - I treat them like an extra layer; like I would treat the band. We have a five-piece band in my 54 Below show, yeah, but you can do just as much with background vocalists - I love the color, texture and layering that background vocals add, especially in a live concert. I am very much all about that - I love layering; I try to do it in very interesting ways, especially on the new pop stuff I am working on. Vocal layering is really what helped me to learn how to write pop music in the first place - especially what Mariah Carey does with her background vocals and layering, all of which she writes and sings herself. It's so cleverly written and so intricate to the songs.

PC: It's all about the details for you.

MM: It is. It's like when I was listening back to playback with Kim Scharnberg when we were working on WHERE THE SKY ENDS. He would sit back and close his eyes and listen to the track and say, "This is needs flute here," or "This needs more this here," and then he would go home and write it and we would do it the next day. That's so fascinating to me and that's what I do with background vocals. What Kim does with instruments, I do with vocals. I am so inspired by that. So, now, when I sit back and listen to my stuff, I can tell when I need to hear, you know, Lindsay do a "Ah Ah" or Shauna to do a "Yeah" or whatever. I love the little vocal intricacies in the background that you just hear and you say, "Oh, that's interesting." That's what's fulfilling to me.

PC: MOB WIFE, FAUSTUS, pop songs, new material premieres - THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS HOW has it all.

MM: I couldn't be more excited. And, to be honest, 54 Below is a theatre venue and I don't want to do too much pop stuff there - we are really only doing two pop songs there - because I really, really, really want to showcase MOB WIFE and FAUSTUS and my standalone songs, along with my own story. Obviously, pop songs are part of who I am and what I love, so we will do a few, but it's really all about the theatre music and the original standalone songs I've written. It's going to be so much fun - like getting a bunch of friends together for a party.

PC: Thank you so much for this today, Michael - nobody has a brighter future writing for musical theatre than you.

MM: Aww, I can't thank you enough for all your support, Pat - it means so much to me. Thank you so, so much. Bye.


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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)