InDepth InterView: William Finn Talks Encores! A NEW BRAIN, SPELLING BEE Reunion, ROYAL FAMILY Update & More

By: Jun. 15, 2015
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Today we are talking to a Tony Award-winning composer and lyricist celebrated for his uniquely designed mainstage musicals showcasing a fiercely idiosyncratic style and flair all their own, the one and only William Finn. Outlining the new version of A NEW BRAIN set to be presented later this month at City Center as part of the Encores! Off-Center series, Finn discusses his original intentions behind many moments in the show as well as shares his inspiration for many musical moments in the melodic and moving score, as well. Additionally, Finn shares fresh news of his long in developtment musical adaptation of George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber's THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY and provides preliminary details on the forthcoming revival of his groundbreaking Tony Award-winning musical FALSETTOS set to premiere later this season, as well. Plus, Finn imparts his enthusiasm for the upcoming 10th anniversary cast reunion of his popular musical THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, touches upon his favorite songs to date and expresses his desire to revisit Depression-era musical ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES in the future and much, much more.

More information on Encores! Off-Center's A NEW BRAIN, running June 24-27 at City Center, is available at the official site here.

Heart & Music

PC: Is it true The Beatles were a big influence on your first full score, IN TROUSERS?

WF: Oh, huge! Yeah, yeah.

PC: So, you wrote it more or less as a reaction to The Beatles?

WF: Well, everything more or less is a reaction to The Beatles!

PC: Is there one album in particular of theirs that spoke most to you growing up?

WF: I think it was probably the white album.

PC: Was there a particular moment that they really first connected with you that you remember?

WF: Well, I remember seeing them on ED SULLIVAN when they were singing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" - it was a phenomenon then, but what they turned into was what was really great.

PC: Did you set out to crossover and have pop hits emerge from your musicals?

WF: Oh, sure! Always.

PC: Something like "Sailing" or "Set Those Sails" could even be popular right now with the right performer - Mariah Carey or Jennifer Hudson, perhaps?

WF: Well, I'm waiting! I'd love it! Mariah Carey, are you kidding?! Of course!

PC: Or Lady Gaga?

WF: Lady Gaga? Oh, yeah - I'd like that a lot.

PC: A NEW BRAIN's very own Jonathan Groff has had some chart hits thanks to his appearances on GLEE, as you may know.

WF: Oh, that's right - I didn't know he had any hits on the charts from that, too, though.

PC: Jim Steinman's "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" is one of many, actually.

WF: Jim Steinman was at Amherst College which is in the same area as Williams College where I went and I remember he graduated a few years before me, so he is a little older but he is obviously so talented. I'm a great fan of his.

PC: I've heard that you and James Lapine have been refining and making changes to A NEW BRAIN for this new concert, yes?

WF: Yes, I have been working with James a little bit, but he is actually directing a movie at the moment. But, yeah - I am rewriting a few sections; just a few sections, so it isn't a lot of rewriting.

PC: One of my favorite quotes of all time is from A NEW BRAIN - "Things don't get better, they just seem to and then they don't."

WF: [Big Laugh.]

PC: Do you remember writing that line or how it came to you?

WF: No, not really, but, you know, it's true! That's the way of the world - it's just one of those things.

PC: Did somebody say it to you?

WF: No, no - I just made it up.

PC: Is your life philosophy summed up in any specific song or line such as that one? I mean, are you more "I Have Found" or "Infinite Joy" or "Stupid Things I Won't Do"?

WF: Well... [Pause.] no, I don't think any of those are really my philosophy at all if I am being honest. I think more than any of them it is "Infinite Joy", though, if I had to pick one.

PC: Was there a codifying moment for A NEW BRAIN for you as far as you remember or did it just arise organically as a result of your own health crisis and subsequent brain surgery?

WF: Well, brain surgery helps - you know, it makes things very clear! [Laughs.]

PC: Since you have passed the 20-year mark now, are you in the clear as far as you know?

WF: I have absolutely no idea, but I guess that is true - I got diagnosed right after I won the Tony, which was 1992.

PC: Given that it was recently Tony season, do you ever go back and re-watch clips from your own shows?

WF: No - and I have never seen my speech from when I won either. Ever.

PC: Is there any reason for that?

WF: Well, first of all, I pride myself on being a little bit articulate and that was just horrifying - horrifying! It was a real out-of-body experience... but, now I know, I was sick! You know, I had the brain thing at the time. So, just the simple fact that I didn't collapse onstage, looking back, I am grateful for. But, I wish I had been a little bit more articulate. So, to answer your question: no, I have never seen it and I will never see it.

PC: What are your thoughts on YouTube in general and bootlegs of your productions existing there?

WF: If they are the originals... the Lewis Cleale/Norm Lewis A NEW BRAIN, if it exists, I would love to see myself, actually.

PC: Going through the script and score now nearly 20 years later, what was your immediate reaction to the material?

WF: Ugh - don't even ask! Don't even ask.

PC: Why so?

WF: Well, it was such a difficult time in my life - and everything I went though at the time - but I think it's a good piece so I would like it see it have some kind of life. I am going through it again now to see what needs changing.

PC: Will "Anytime" have a permanent place in the score now or will it remain a cut curiosity re-purposed for ELEGIES?

WF: I don't think so... [Pause.] I don't think so. It's in ELEGIES now, as you know, and I love ELEGIES, I really do - I love it a lot. So, I don't want to compromise that. But, yes, when it was in the show it was very emotional, too.

PC: Will you allow it for this concert?

WF: I haven't decided, but I think it really belongs in ELEGIES now so I think that's where it will live.

PC: With Aaron Lazar in the show it could be quite a moment, nevertheless.

WF: Oh, he was in THE LAST SHIP - I loved that show; I absolutely loved it.

PC: What have been some of your favorite recent scores?

WF: Well, FUN HOME I thought was just great. And, I loved AN AMERICAN IN PARIS - of course the score is all old Gershwin songs, but I thought the show was just great. FUN HOME is equally thrilling, I think, but in a completely different way. I thought SOMETHING ROTTEN! had some performances in it that I liked very much - and I absolutely loved the opening number, too.

PC: Would you like to see Sam Gold stage FALSETTOS after seeing his Tony-winning work on FUN HOME? It seems an unusually good fit - as does Circle In The Square, as a matter of fact.

WF: Oh, yes - he's welcome to it!

PC: Is it true FALSETTOS will be revived on Broadway next season?

WF: Yes. It is going to be coming back.

PC: Will you be revising it? Will it remain period-set?

WF: There will not be a lot of revising to that at all. And, yes, we will absolutely keep it set in the original time.

PC: Have you allowed IN TROUSERS and both acts of FALSETTOS to be done all together in one evening?

WF: Yes - actually, it's been done a few times.

PC: How do you think it works?

WF: Well... [Pause.] IN TROUSERS sort of feels like a fish out of water there with the other two. You have to remember, IN TROUSERS was written as a calling card - you know, sort of a, "Hello, this is the stuff I write. I hope you like it."

PC: An introduction to your work for the uninitiated.

WF: Yeah, exactly. You know, I teach down at NYU now and I feel it is very important that my students leave my class with little calling cards like that - you know, so they can introduce themselves to the world. So, that's what I was trying to do myself with IN TROUSERS originally. Of course, I was doing it with Mary Testa and Alison Fraser, so it was a whole different thing, obviously.

PC: JOCKS was a musical you had toyed with before that, correct? Has any of that material found its way out at any point?

WF: Actually, there is a tiny section in FALSETTOS where I used a section of a song that I originally wrote for JOCKS - it's a classical-sounding moment, [Sings Section.]. But, that's the only time I ever pulled something like that from another show or anything and put it into something new I was working on.

PC: So, you never reused any of the other material in JOCKS or re-purposed the songs for other things?

WF: No... [Pause.] no, I didn't.

PC: On that note, you wrote almost an entirely new score for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Off-Broadway after the out-of-town production a few years ago, did you not?

WF: Yes. There were four completely different scores for that show, actually. So, there are a lot - a lot - of songs.

PC: Are you hoping to have a finalized version of the score at some point so the show can be licensed out?

WF: One day, yes - one day.

PC: ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES is another show that you rewrote extensively between productions - is there a version of that show that you have ready or hope to license out sometime soon?

WF: Yes. ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES was done at Barrington Stage last summer and we are working to get a production in New York now. I have a version now that I am much happier with than any of the others.

PC: "You Cannot Let Romance Die" is one of your best songs - has anyone ever covered it?

WF: No, no one ever has - not yet.

PC: Do you foresee the show being on Broadway someday?

WF: Yes, I would love to see ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES on Broadway - it's a good show; a really good show. I love it - I love it a lot.

PC: Lillias White recently told me she is dying to do it, so would you be open to that?

WF: Well, as you know, it is about a woman having a baby and Lillias and I have agreed that she is too old to play the role onstage in a production now, but Lillias is the greatest - the greatest.

PC: Have you ever written anything for her?

WF: I love to work with Lillias and I think she is great but I have never written anything specifically for her.

PC: Have you ever written something for a specific performer?

WF: Hmm... I don't think I have. [Pause.] Well, I wrote the Chip Zien part for Chip Zien in A NEW BRAIN - that was written for specifically for him.

PC: Mr. Bungee.

WF: Right, Mr. Bungee. And, now, Dan Fogler from SPELLING BEE is playing it in the new NEW BRAIN we are doing.

PC: Was "Change" perhaps written for Mary Testa? It fits her voice and style so well.

WF: No, it wasn't.

PC: What do you think of the homeless in Giuliani's New York then versus now with the homeless in Bloomberg's New York?

WF: I am a big fan of Bloomberg's New York in general, I can tell you that - I am a big fan.

PC: From the man who wrote the excoriating "Republicans", how are you viewing the 2016 election coming up?

WF: To be perfectly honest, it is hard for me to talk about politics because I really don't find any of it funny anymore - none of it.

PC: Do you find it disgusting?

WF: Yes. Disgusting.

PC: Having written the groundbreaking FALSETTOS, did you ever think you would see gay marriage legalized in your lifetime?

WF: Never! Never, ever. And, when people used to bring it up I used to say that they were just saying it to try to get the republicans to win! I mean, I was so wrong about it - I had no idea. None! I am totally shocked by everything that is happening - shocked, and, of course, delighted. It is an enormous, enormous victory and I never thought anything like this would happen anywhere near my lifetime. Never.

PC: Considering the many medical advances that have been made since the early 1980s, HIV and AIDS is no longer necessarily the death sentence that it was when FALSETTOLAND and FALSETTOS itself debuted, so I was curious to know your thoughts on that?

WF: Well, obviously, anything like that is really good - it's great; just great.

PC: Jonathan Groff recently led an HBO series about modern gay life called LOOKING - do you feel the many gay-themed properties that exist now in the media is a positive thing?

WF: Well, of course I do! [Laughs.]

PC: Acknowledging that gay themes were more or less verboten when MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS premiered - especially as far as musicals are concerned - do you feel you had a part in the advancements that have been made since?

WF: [Pause.] No - none.

PC: The quintessential Bill Finn answer! Always underplaying your impact.

WF: [Laughs.]

PC: As if A NEW BRAIN and FALSETTOS being back were not enough, THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE will be returning for a special 10th anniversary reunion soon. Will you be attending?

WF: Oh, yes - I will be going to that. And, of course, we are doing it because our great stage manager, Spook [Andrea Testani Gordon], just died, so we are doing it in her honor and her memory. We are trying to raise some money for the family that she left behind. So, that's more or less why we are doing the show.

PC: Would you like to see SPELLING BEE come back to New York soon, perhaps Off-Broadway?

WF: I would love to see SPELLING BEE come back, but not Off-Broadway, on Broadway.

PC: Have you seen new takes on the show that you particularly enjoyed since the original production? It is very popular regionally, of course.

WF: Oh, I've seen quite a few and I have seen some that were very well-done, I thought - yeah.

PC: When you were writing it, did you have an inkling that it would be a show that would be done a lot?

WF: Well, I was writing it primarily for non-singers, so I knew that any high school could do it. At the time, I was writing mostly for non-singers except for a few songs where I chose very carefully who would be singing them out of the original cast we had. You don't have to have a great voice to do the show.

PC: Your shows have often featured actors with very unique and memorable voices singing material seemingly tailor-made to them - Chip Zien, Mary Testa, Alison Fraser and some others, as well.

WF: Yes, but they all have great voices in addition to that - they can hit the notes beautifully. With SPELLING BEE, those aren't the voices I am talking about specifically - I am talking about people who really aren't singers, but they can sing that score very well.

PC: Tony-winner Dan Fogler being a prime example.

WF: Absolutely.

PC: And, of course, original SPELLING BEE cast member Lisa Howard recently got a lot of attention as a result of IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU and her spectacular showstopper in that.

WF: Well, she has one of the great voices in theatre - and she always has.

PC: I'm assuming you have heard her tribute album to you, SONGS OF INNOCENCE & EXPERIENCE.

WF: Oh, sure, sure - she's great with anything she sings.

PC: Mary Testa revisits "Change" on her new studio album HAVE FAITH, as well.

WF: That is a brilliant album - just brilliant. I actually produced the first concerts that Mary and Michael Starobin did together up at the Barrington Stage - I am head of the musical theatre lab there. So, we did that material with Michael and Mary up there first.

PC: When Mary did this column recently (available here) she spoke of a lost song of yours that was in one of those concerts, so is there perhaps another potential revue of your material utilizing those great lost songs? Maybe MISTER, MAKE ME ANOTHER SONG?

WF: No - I don't think so. I mean, they are kicking around and if people want to do them they can do them, but I myself don't have much interest in them.

PC: THE ROYAL FAMILY has some of your best material to date, so what about all of those songs?

WF: THE ROYAL FAMILY I am back working on now - we got the rights back.

PC: No way!

WF: Yes, we did - and yes, we are very excited about that.

PC: Is Richard Greenberg still involved as book writer?

WF: I don't know, actually - I am not sure. I think Rachel Sheinkin is writing the book now.

PC: Who do you envision as the director?

WF: I have no idea who is going to direct it - none.

PC: Did Elaine Stritch actually ever sing "Stupid Things I Won't Do"? I know you wrote it and the role in the show itself with her in mind.

WF: Yes, she did - once. She sang it at a Dramatist's Guild benefit and it brought the house down like nothing I have ever heard - ever! It was unbelievable - just unbelievable. And, no, I don't have a recording of it.

PC: What a shame.

WF: It was unbelievable - totally unbelievable. I will never forget it.

PC: Do you have anybody in mind who you would like to see do that part now?

WF: Yes, I do, but I am not going to tell you, Pat! [Laughs.]

PC: "Listen To The Beat" is one of your best songs, as well.

WF: Yes, that's at the end of the first act that they do that.

PC: "I Have Found" is another standout. Was that written specifically for THE ROYAL FAMILY?

WF: Yes - absolutely.

PC: Do you have a particular fondness for any songs in that score yourself?

WF: I love the end of "I Have Found" where she says "I have lived in the clouds for so long / I like it more on the ground / I was lost / Pretty near it / Now my spirit / I have found." You know, "I Have Found" was sort of a throwaway before that and when I added that ending I was very pleased with how it landed.

PC: And nobody sings that song like Carolee Carmello!

WF: She did a beautiful, beautiful job - yeah.

PC: Another standout song of yours she introduced is "Goodbye/Boom Boom" in ELEGIES. Is it true that song was written for an evening of music inspired by the 9/11 tragedy?

WF: Well, I was writing ELEGIES and then 9/11 happened and I thought at the time, "Well, I just can't ignore it, so I have to respond in some way." And, so, then, I wrote that.

PC: Have you seen it performed outside of the context of ELEGIES or does it basically work and live best in ELEGIES do you think?

WF: As far as I know, it's best in ELEGIES as part of that.

PC: "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" is obviously very autobiographical.

WF: Yes, and "14 Dwight Ave" I absolutely love.

PC: Are there any other songs in that score that you particularly admire?

WF: "Infinite Joy" is another song I love. I mean, ELEGIES is my favorite show that I have written.

PC: It's just hit after hit.

WF: Exactly.

PC: "Dear Reader" didn't make the cast recording, unfortunately.

WF: Well, "Dear Reader" is sort of a misfit of a song, but it is interesting.

PC: Is the reason it isn't on the recording because it has the word c*nt in it?

WF: No, I don't think so - I think the reason we didn't include it on the album is basically because we didn't have any more space and one of them had to go.

PC: "Joe Papp" is another standout - what is your Joe Papp story?

WF: Oh, my Joe Papp story?! Well, you know, he was just a force of nature! Sometimes... [Pause.] I mean, I never knew what he was talking about, really. As I say in the song, he was quoting Shakespeare and all these things I didn't know, so I had no idea what he was talking about most of the time. So, basically, I just tried to respond to him in a way that wasn't going to aggravate him!

PC: A true dynamo.

WF: He was. He was a great man and you felt like you were in the presence of a great man when you were with him.

PC: Are most of your memories of him during the time of AMERICA KICKS UP IT'S HEELS?

WF: Well, it was ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES by then, but yes.

PC: Speaking of Shakespeare, you wrote a WINTER'S TALE score once upon a time, did you not?

WF: Yes, with Michael Starobin I wrote a score for THE WINTER'S TALE. I also wrote another Shakespeare score - I think it was for AS YOU LIKE IT; "All the world's a stage," and all of that. With THE WINTER'S TALE, though, the best thing that I wrote for that was the main theme that was also played when she came back to life at the end - that was the most beautiful thing that I wrote for that.

PC: That's undoubtedly the standout moment of the entire story.

WF: Interestingly, I loved the actor who played the guy who sings most of the songs in that - the Shepherd, I think it was - and I would add extra things to the songs for him to do and it was enormously fun. I had a lot of fun working with him on that.

PC: Was it contemporary or more classical-sounding?

WF: It was pretty contemporary.

PC: THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG has a SCARLET PIMPERNEL musical parody moment - have you ever attempted to write an outright period piece or to evoke a specific period with an entire score of yours?

WF: No, I don't think so. Of course, some of the pieces in THE ROYAL FAMILY I tried to write to sound like music from the '20s and '30s.

PC: MUSCLE has a pretty pronounced 1980s sound to fit the era, as well.

WF: Yes, that's true - MUSCLE does, too.

PC: Is there a licensed version of MUSCLE? Would you like to see it done again?

WF: No, there is no future for MUSCLE - MUSCLE is done.

PC: You have no intention to pursue it any further?

WF: No.

PC: You don't think it works?

WF: No, I don't.

PC: So, ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES will be available to be done soon then, though?

WF: Yes, there is a new version of that that isn't finished quite yet but it is nearly finished and we are very happy with it. It is very good and I am very excited about it.

PC: Is there a plan to do THE ROYAL FAMILY sometime soon, too?

WF: Yes, in the next couple of years - yes.

PC: Have you been writing new material or revising it all along for the last 15 years or so?

WF: No, not really. Last summer was when I began working on it again.

PC: Is there a significant amount of new material?

WF: Well, there are four new songs in the new version - about four.

PC: What is the most recent song you have written in general?

WF: Hmm. [Pause.] It's a new part of a new song for A NEW BRAIN, actually. It's just a little section of a song, really.

PC: So, there will be new songs in the Encores! A NEW BRAIN concert?

WF: There are lots of little, little changes - mostly, there are some parts of it that I have tried to make less silly.

PC: What, in particular - Mr. Bungee, perhaps?

WF: Mr. Bungee is exactly the same - that's not what I am changing. Mostly, it's the doctors' things that I am making less silly. The nurse's song is no longer in it, either.

PC: Do you have a specific memory of writing "I Feel So Much Spring"? Did it just come to you like it comes to Gordo in the show after being through all he has been through?

WF: Yes, "I Feel So Much Spring" did come to me like that - it really did. You see, when I got out of the hospital I had all of these feelings of gratitude and just things overflowing out of me and I couldn't sit at the piano without a song coming out. Usually, that is not the way it goes for me, but it was all just pouring out of me. And, so, with "I Feel So Much Spring" it just happened and it flowed out of me just like that - just like it does in the show, more or less.

PC: Did "Heart & Music" arise in a similar fashion?

WF: No, not really - that was a little harder! [Laughs.]

PC: What about "Sailing"? Was that written specifically for A NEW BRAIN?

WF: Yes, "Sailing" was written specifically for A NEW BRAIN.

PC: "Sailing" and "Set Those Sails" share a nautical theme - do you have a particular affinity for sailing yourself?

WF: No, but the guy I was living with when I wrote that loved sailing, so I just wanted to write him a song about it.

PC: Since you wrote so many songs for friends in ELEGIES and elsewhere, have you recently written a song about or dedicated to someone in particular like those are?

WF: Yes, I have, actually, but let's not talk about it. I mean, all the songs in ELEGIES were written for specific people like that - well, except for "Anytime". Otherwise, they were all written specifically for that show - I don't write songs for my friends normally.

PC: The songs in ELEGIES are memorials to the people you write about in the show.

WF: Yes - that's right.

PC: "When The Earth Stopped Turning" and "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" both deal with your mother's death - were they written concurrently or around the same time?

WF: Yes, they were written close together - all of ELEGIES was written pretty close together.

PC: Does one song in particular mean the most to you from that score?

WF: You see, the thing about ELEGIES was that I knew at the time I was writing way above my head and I couldn't believe it! I was just trying to capture the moment. And, I've never been able to re-capture writing that well and that easily ever again! [Big Laugh.]

PC: Thank goodness it happened once, though!

WF: Yeah, I agree. But, to answer your question - yes, when I finished writing "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" I was pretty thrilled; and, when I wrote "Infinite Joy", too.

PC: A NEW BRAIN and ELEGIES would make an intriguing double-bill given their various autobiographical connections.

WF: Yeah, I think they would. I have never seen it done. [Pause.] That would be a very long evening, though! [Laughs.]

PC: Do you insist on A NEW BRAIN being done as one act or do you think it allows for an intermission?

WF: Well, I would have to look at it again to tell you for sure - we have just started working on it again.

PC: Were you instrumental in choosing the cast of the Encores! A NEW BRAIN?

WF: Yes, we were very involved in approving all of the cast - James and I both were.

PC: So I take it you are a Jonathan Groff fan?

WF: Yes, I thought he was wonderful in SPRING AWAKENING - just wonderful.

PC: Would he be a good choice for FALSETTOS, too, do you think - as Whizzer, perhaps?

WF: I really don't know - I think he is wonderful, but I don't know for sure.

PC: This was a true dream come true today, Bill - I cannot thank you enough.

WF: Thank you, too, Pat - I really appreciate it and all of your thoughtful questions. This was fun to do. Bye.

Photo Credits: City Center, Stephen Sorokoff, etc.

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