Peter Melnick: Drifting from Macao to Off-Broadway
A blonde femme fatale with no possessions other than her slinky purple gown. A Chinese henchman named Tempura who complains that he has been battered by life. And a man with a past, in search of a stranger named Mr. McGuffin.
The characters and conventions of film noir get flamboyantly comical facelifts in Adrift in Macao, a new musical by Peter Melnick and Christopher Durang that, as presented by Primary Stages, is currently in previews and will open at 59E59 Theaters on February 13th. Melnick has previously written musicals and has scored many films and TV shows, and Adrift in Macao is his most high-profile project to date.
Starring Alan Campbell, Orville Mendoza, Will Swenson, and Barrymore Award-winners Rachel de Benedet and Michele Ragusa, with Elisa Van Duyne and Jonathan Rayson, Adrift in Macao is set amid the smoky nightclubs in 1952 Macao, in China. The show, which features music by Melnick and book and lyrics by Durang (Betty's Summer Vacation, Laughing Wild, The Marriage of Bette and Boo), zips merrily from Macao to Bangkok to New York as Mitch (played by Campbell) attempts to find the elusive McGuffin, who has framed him for a murder. Durang and Melnick (who is the son of a film producer) have penned a musical filled with the hard-boiled detectives and soft-hearted dames of classic '40s and '50s noir and packed with considerably more laughs.
The show premiered at Vassar's New York Stage and Film in 2002 and received a critically acclaimed run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company last year prior to its current Off-Broadway engagement. Melnick finds that the evolution of the shows has provided him and Durang with "a great, ongoing lesson in the value of process. We have learned really important lessons about the show at every developmental stage. Among the biggest changes: we tossed out my favorite song from the NY Stage and Film production (which I'm told is the musical theater composer's equivalent of losing one's virginity), and replaced it with with a very torchy ballad that we all feel serves the show much better, 'So Long.'" One scene involving the feud between the sultry nightclub singer Lureena (deBenedet) and her Carmen Miranda-esque opium-addicted rival Corinna (Ragusa) was rewritten musically: "Lureena's nightclub song, 'Pretty Moon Over Macao,' and Corinna's 'Mambo Malaysian' turn into a highly competitive duet, in effect a musical catfight."
The writing process of Adrift in Macao's score was also an adaptable affair, with Melnick and Durang writing music first depending on the needs of the song. Melnick found that "the back-and-forth was a very satisfying process Deciding which part should come first is akin to a carpenter selecting the right tool for the job. And then again, some songs happen in no particular order. I wouldn't want to give the impression that it's actually a rational, quantifiable process." Yet in writing the score, Melnick was equipped with "a very eclectic ear" and was able to shuffle through a mental deck of different idioms and periods; his choices were driven mostly by the needs of the story. The composer, who wrote everything from comic uptempo numbers to torch songs for the show, says, "The one place where I consciously did a little homework was in preparing to write 'So Long,' the torchy ballad. Apart from that, I tried to let the story line (and the specifics of Chris's lyrics when they came first) inform the music. Also, I would often ask Chris to tell me if he had any sense of what the music should feel like." He says that "When Loves Goes Wrong" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - a song with an "easy, mid-tempo feel" recommended to him by Durang helped set the right direction for Adrift in Macao's title song.
Melnick reports that his collaboration with Durang one of the theatre's most distinctively hilarious comic voices was both pleasurable and informative. "Chris definitely knows how to put Durangian quirkiness into his lyrics. And certainly that impacts on the music, but not in any way that could be tidily summed up, because in any good song, the music and the lyric needs to feel organically of a piece. I have been privileged to work with a number of very funny writers, and the one thing that seems to be true more often than not is that it's not about writing funny music. I don't really know what that would be, apart from penny-whistles for banana-peel slips."
As is common in parodies, Adrift in Macao is steeped in references to the genre it spoofs. A Casablanca reference comes in the form of Swenson's nightclub owner character Rick Shaw, who sings, center stage, about not having his own big solo number. The show also winks at a number of classic musicals although at only one by Richard Rodgers, who happens to have been Melnick's grandfather. "The allusions to The King and I are just in the choreography. As much fun as it might be to have an 'in joke' reference - a scene transition from night to morning, for example, when the director asked me to write something that conveys a sense of early morning, and my musical director immediately plunked out the famous musical phrase for the lyric, 'O what a beautiful morning' - I can't go there. As a composer whose work is not yet established in theater, I feel I need to tread a line. I love my grandfather's music, and have been greatly influenced by it - which puts me in the company of about a thousand other living composers. But I don't want to do anything that might be perceived as trading on his name."
Melnick's musical gifts certainly speak for themselves, although his heritage lends support to the theory that talent is genetic. Songs from Adrift in Macao suggest that Rodgers' melodious versatility is strongly present in Melnick's DNA. His father Daniel Melnick has won acclaim as a producer of such films and shows as All That Jazz, Footloose and "Get Smart," and his mother is composer Linda Rodgers Emory. His aunt Mary Rodgers penned the music for the enduring hit Once Upon a Mattress. Cousin Adam Guettel wrote Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza, and Melnick says that his son Daniel (he has two children with wife Laini) has also "got the bug" of musicality. Melnick admires his grandfather's "emotionally honest writing," with its "special sense of melody and harmony that took songs to places you wouldn't expect them to go." Rodgers is at the top of Melnick's list of influences, although he's quick to state that Lennon and McCartney, MiLes Davis, Beethoven, the Dixie Dregs, Kurt Weill and Philip Glass have given him inspiration as a composer.
In fact, while growing up, Melnick was more likely to enjoy attending a Beatles concert than a Broadway show although he always held his grandfather in great esteem. Having learned that his grandson wanted to composer, Rodgers "was always nice about it, in a general way. But growing up, I was more of a rocker, and I don't think it occurred to him that I might one day find a passion for musical theater. Today, I wish I could go back and talk to him about music, his music, theater, composing, so many things. His music was a big part of my life growing up - seeing the Broadway revivals of his shows, listening as my mother played me songs from Cinderella on the piano when I was little, occasionally attending events in his honor - but my relationship with him was really more about a grandfather and a grandson than this other, huge part of his identity."
Although Melnick may not have always placed showtunes at the top of his favorite musical genres list, he wrote songs from an early age. His first was "Good Bye First Grade," which my first grade class at the Dalton School performed at the end-of-year graduation ceremony. I could sing it for you, but the lyrics really aren't up to snuff!" Writing music has always been his passion, although he acknowledges that during his first two years of college, "I tried to pretend that music wasn't it." Melnick, after his sophomore year, took some time off to work as a freelance journalist and part-time writer for the Navajo Times. "I loved it and think I could have made a go of it as a journalist, except I loved music more."
Melnick cultivated his composing skills at Harvard before dropping out one year shy of a degree in order to study at Berklee College of Music. Yet his first film scoring assignment caused him to withdraw from Berklee, as well. He values the importance of training, but finds that talent is sometimes best nurtured in other ways. Melnick explains, "I think about the fact that Jackson Pollock was a brilliant draftsman before becoming a brilliant dribbler. Musical training is extremely important for composers, although it is secondary to the ineffable things that can't be taught. Training is about developing technique, and a vocabulary But there's a balance between technique and musical instinct. As a student, and later as a young working composer, I feared becoming technique heavy, so I tilted pretty far in the other direction." He says that he found his way to mentor Jack Smalley, who helped him balance his own creative voice with what he calls "an expanding technical bag of tricks."
After college, Melnick went on score over 30 films and TV shows, including L.A. Story, with Steve Martin, The Only Thrill, starring Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard, and Horton Foote's Convicts, with Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones, as well as HBO's Emmy Award-winning "Indictment: The McMartin Trial," Showtime's "Lily Dale," and several PBS documentaries. His television credits include the Emmy-winning Indictment: The McMartin Trial (HBO), Grand Avenue (HBO), Lily Dale (Showtime), Mermaid (Showtime), and numerous PBS documentaries. He also worked on the soon-to-be released film Farce of the Penguins, written and directed by Bob Saget. While he admits that film scoring has its challenges, Melnick enjoys the process: "I really like scoring, especially when I get the chance to write orchestrally. And in a funny way, I like that in composing for film and television, I am there to service someone else's vision. There's pleasure in that."
He's certainly no novice to theatre either, having written music for such shows as Chinese Cabaret and Twyla Tharp's dance piece Sextet. He's also working on two upcoming musicals. The Last Smoker in America, billed as "a futuristic fantasy about a dysfunctional family in smoke-free America," is a show that Melnick is writing with lyricist/bookwriter Bill Russell (Side Show). He's also working with Bill and Cheryl Steinkellner (the musical Sister Act) on Esther Plays the Palace, a musical based on the biblical Purim story of Queen Esther, who delivered the Persian Jews from slaughter.
Melnick says that The Last Smoker in America originated as an evening of two one-act musicals (the other was based on Virginia Moriconi's dramatic short story "Simple Arithmetic.") "The Last Smoker in America was originally intended to be the laugh-out-loud big finish to the evening. I think Bill got the laugh-out-loud part just right - it is really funny - but when we did out first reading of the one-acts, it became clear that Smoker really wanted to be a full-length stand-alone musical." According to the composer, he and Russell are "shopping for a production" of The Last Smoker in America, which is ready to be staged (a workshop at the Rubicon Theatre Company in L.A. had starred Alice Ripley).
Esther Plays the Palace is now in earlier stages of writing and development. The idea for the show originated with Sherman Yellen," says Melnick "We were friends long before we became collaborators, and then one day he told me about Esther and asked if I was interested. It's a great story, and a great title, and I was very pleased to be asked. Eventually Sherman decided that he was done with the rough and tumble of musical theater, and that he did not want to continue with the show. Because he is a kind and gracious man - one of the world's true mensches - he gave me his permission to bring in new collaborators. I am now working on the show with Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, although at least one of the songs Sherman and I wrote, 'Speak Silent Stars,' may remain in the new version."
Raised as a secular Jew, Melnick received a bar mitzvah in his thirties and is now fervently involved in Judaism. Melnick says of Esther Plays the Palace that although "the Jewish connection adds an extra level of pleasure to the experience, Esther happens to be a great story, whatever one's faith." He has also penned a song cycle based on the "Song of Songs," and set Jewish prayers to music.
As for other future projects, Melnick - who resides with his family in Montecito, CA - will soon be starting work on "Exiles in Hollywood," a full-length documentary about "the generation of European filmmakers and composers who came to America when Hitler rose to power." The film is created by Karen Thomas, a frequent collaborator to Melnick. "Karen is the person who first put me in touch with Chris Durang, which brings it all full-circle," laughs Adrift in Macao's composer, whose foothold in musical theatre is becoming - happily for audiences - very secure.
Adrift in Macao photos by James Leynse 1) Rachel de Benedet, Michelle Ragusa, Alan Campbell and Orville Mendoza; 2) Clockwise from left: Peter Melnick, Michelle Ragusa, Elisa Van Duyne, Orville Mendoza, Jonathan Rayson, Christopher Durang, Rachelle de Benedet and Alan Campbell