Q&A with Composers & Lyricists Joe Drymala and Eric Svejcar

By: Apr. 23, 2006
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Joe Drymala and Eric Svejcar aren't a songwriting team, but they have a few things in common besides the fact that they both write musicals. For one, the songs of both men will be sung by performers such as Euan Morton, Robert Cuccioli, Tyler Maynard, Kate Wetherhead and Amanda Watkins on April 26th for their Stuck in the Zipper concert at the Zipper Theatre.

It's also safe to say that both Drymala and Svejcar like to take risks with their shows. Drymala (who happens to be the former head speechwriter for presidential candidate Howard Dean) is the writer of the upcoming The Golden City, a musical about the theatre's power to inspire in very hard times. Svejcar's Caligula welded ancient Roman history to glam rock, his recent The Murder of Isaac is based on a play about the assassination of a former Israeli Prime Minister, and his Prince Hal of SoHo is a modern-day musical loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Henry IV. Then there's White Noise. With book, lyrics and music by Drymala and additional music and lyrics by Svejcar (among others), this upcoming show is a pop musical with a chilling, cautionary twist--it's about a band whose lead singers are fresh-faced young racists.

These two rising composer/lyricists recently shared insights on their shows, their process and their approach to writing musical theatre.

MC: Let's start off with some questions for you both. Stuck in the Zipper, on April 26th, is going to be a big night for you guys. How did the idea for the concert come about?

ES: The concert is the brainchild of Ryan Davis, who will be directing White Noise and Prince Hal of SoHo. I met Ryan Davis when I was musical directing Slut off-Broadway, and he was the Assistant Director. We hit it off instantly, and knew we were obviously going to work together on a new show. At some point, Ryan told me that I should write a show with a role for a cute young blonde boy and then we could sit back and enjoy the casting process. I told him that I actually already had. It was Prince Hal of SoHo and from that moment on, it was just presumed that Ryan would direct it. (I believe White Noise came about in a similar fashion.)

JD: It did. Ryan and I go back a bit further -- we met on the Howard Dean campaign in 2003; I was a speechwriter, he was a videographer and grassroots organizer. We both have a strong streak of social concience in common, and when h talked to me about his idea for White Noise, I knew I had to be involved in any way I could. So I got cracking on the book, we got a few more songwriters involved, and we're currently planning for a summer production.

ES: So with both White Noise and Prince Hal in serious development (and inter-connected in that odd incestuous way so much of the theatre world is), we thought it would be fun to preview some of the scores for both and also play some songs from other shows Joe and I have been working on.

MC: What can audiences expect to hear at the concert?

JD: From me, you'll be hearing three of the White Noise songs I wrote (you can preview two of them at whitenoisethemusical.com), and four songs from another, very contrasting show called The Golden City. White Noise is of course pure pop, while The Golden City is a more complex, more ambitious show musically, which fits the subject matter.

ES: On my end, we'll be doing several songs from my show Caligula, including two sung by Euan Morton, who played the title role at the NYMF where the show premiered. Caligula is a '70s glam-rock take on the life of the Roman emperor, so the score for that is a very David Bowie-and-company-inspired rock-and-roll show with lots of loud guitars. We'll be previewing two songs from Prince Hal of SoHo, the new piece I'm working on, which is a bit more ambitious musically.

It's still based in a pop-rock style, but a bit more contemporary and a bit more unconventional. We're also doing a song from a show I recently wrote called The Murder of Isaac, which is an aria for an operatic soprano and not rock-and-roll in the slightest.

MC: How did each of you get started, and who do you cite as your biggest musical influences?

ES: I studied piano from an early age, and performed in countless musicals as a kid and all through High School. After college (where I studied classical voice with a double minor in Playwriting and German), I eventually found my way to musical directing, and after a few years playing piano bars in Chicago I came to New York to seek my fortune as a composer and musical director.

Despite the heavy rock feel of a lot of what I write, I listened to virtually nothing but cast albums until sometime around my sophomore year of college when The Who started finding their way into my CD player and I was corrupted by the rock-and-roll devil. I'd say that Rodgers and Bernstein were always my favorites on the theatre side and had a pretty profound influence on what I write. I also love the music of Galt MacDermot, who is best known for Hair, but has an amazingly wide and eclectic body of work. I've gotten to know and work with Galt a bit since moving here, and I think his music sounds like no one else's I've ever heard. On the rock-and-roll side, I'd put Pete Townshend and Jim Steinman close to the top of the list of guys who wrote a lot of songs I wish I had. And Lennon/McCartney, of course.

JD: Definitely Leonard Bernstein for me too; like him, I'm excited by layered rhythms and big melodies. There's no escaping Sondheim, of course (not that anyone would want to). A lot of rock has influenced me too, even though I'm not really a rock composer like Eric is; I love pretty much anything Radiohead has ever done, and draw on them harmonically in a big way. Also, the repetitive, driving ostinatos of mid-career U2 (Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree era). On the classical front, Beethoven first, and for more modern voices, John Adams and Steve Reich are really fantastic.

I've always been self-taught, though I went to a music college in Boston for a year, and the experience was so worthless to my development that I decline to even name them. My first musical, Sky's End, was produced when I was 18 at Los Angeles' Blank Theater Co. and got some very kind reviews. I wrote and produced an experimental show after that, called To Catch Fire, and have been working on The Golden City since 2000, with of course a one-year hiatus to work for Dean.

MC: Let's talk about your "cautionary musical" White Noise, for which Joe wrote book, music and lyrics and for which Eric supplied additional music and lyrics (as did Rick Crom, Glen Kelly, Laurence O'Keefe and Stephen Sislen) . This seems to be a really ambitious, controversial new show, as it concerns a white supremacist teen band who infiltrate into the Top 40. Could you describe your intentions for this musical?

JD: We were obviously inspired by the real-life band Prussian Blue, which consists of a pair of blonde teenage twin girls singing about white power. Ryan had the idea for the show first, and I was immediately hooked when he told me about it. We're of the opinion that a whole lot of repugnant ideas have been put forth lately in the U.S. by some very slick, sophisticated messengers, and we wanted to push that idea further. Also, the combination just seemed right -- there's something sort of weird and oppressive and inescapable about top 40s pop; it's a natural soundtrack for a fascist movement. Our goal is to demonstrate how easily extremism can penetrate the mainstream, if the messenger is appealing enough.

ES: My intention was to write the most horribly vile and offensive song I could and make it as catchy as possible. The result can be seen in the show later this year.

MC: Next, here are a few questions for Joe! Could you please tell BroadwayWorld readers a little more about The Golden City, which was workshopped in 2002, as well as your future plans for it?

JD: The Golden City is a big, ambitious piece that I've been working on for some time. I touched on it earlier; it takes place in a theater in an unnamed city that's being bombed. The theater company, led by an Orson Welles-type director/lead actor, at first tries to use their little world as a place of refuge, where they can hide from all the awful things that are being done to their city. Eventually, that doesn't work -- the theater itself gets bombed, and their set is torn to pieces, during a final dress rehearsal. Unable to ignore the reality any longer, they decide to use theater to transform their reality. They put on a play-within-a-play that's sort of a fairy tale, which takes everything terrible from the outside world and transforms it into something beautiful within their show. So, it's about the power of theater, the importance of art, in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Ryan and I are planning for a summer 2007 production of the show, with a reading somewhere along the way. It's a big show, with lots of cast members, musicians, sound and visual effects, etc.

MC: You became Howard Dean's head speechwriter when you were only around 25. That's quite an accomplishment! Do you have any interesting stories about writing for Dean as the 2004 election began to heat up?

JD: It was pretty unforgettable. What sticks out in my mind most is Joe Trippi, the crazy genius campaign manager, who essentially came up with the grassroots internet strategy that launched Dean into the stratosphere by the summer of 2003. If anyone created a character like Trippi, no one would believe it: he's a guy who, every day, drinks 40 Diet Pepsis and dips an entire can of Cherry Skoal; one minute he's crumpling up your latest speech into a ball and ruthlessly pelting it at you, and the next minute he's on the verge of tears as he ruminates on the power and moral righteousness of Jeffersonian democracy. I was really lucky; I got there early enough to make my mark with people, and earn the trust of Trippi and Dean to the point where I was writing most of his speeches (not that he ever delivered them; Howard Dean felt about learning prepared speeches the way you or I feel about getting a root canal).

MC: Do you feel that musicals should have some sort of social message, or that they should somehow reach out and change their audiences' perspectives about the world?

JD: They should certainly do the latter. I used to shy away from social message; propaganda, after all, is inherently undramatic. But artists like Tony Kushner (and Arthur Miller before him) have shown that taking a moral stand in the theater can be thrilling and courageous and entertaining all at once, so I'm starting to be pulled more and more in the direction of theater that examines tough questions. Most of all, I think theater should be amazing. It sounds simplistic, but I don't think enough theater artists think in those terms. The theater artists I admire most, like Kushner and Hal Prince and Sam Mendes, understand how to truly "wow" people. So, that's my goal: Stephen Sondheim meets Steven Speilberg.

MC: Now, here are some questions for Eric! Let's talk about Caligula, which won the Audience Award at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. As you said, you set the decadent Roman emperor's story to the sounds of 70s glam rock. How did that idea come about?

ES: I wanted to do something as genuinely rock-and-roll as I could. For all the time I've spent going to the theatre, my single favorite thing I've ever seen was probably The Who playing "Quadrophenia" at Madison Square Garden. I really wanted to do something that would have a similar visceral rush and that same hard rock edge. I also knew that to do a story about Ancient Rome, it should be genuinely sexy, overly decadent, and have a real dangerous edge. It was the movie Velvet Goldmine that made me think that '70s glam really embodied all of those qualities - the androgyny and ambisexuality of "Ziggy Stardust", the overtones of blood and death in the songs of Lou Reed and Iggy and the Stooges, etc. - it just seemed like everything I associated with Ancient Rome was somewhere in the world of glam. And since I'm a musical theatre geek who secretly wishes he were cool enough to be a rock star but knows he probably isn't, I will take any excuse I can to pretend to be David Bowie for a little bit.

MC: I'm also guessing that the musical wasn't anywhere near as out-there or salacious as the legendary film!

ES: I decided to write Caligula and had done all the research long before actually seeing the infamous Bob Guccione film, which was out-of-print for a long time and not easy to come by. Once I finally saw the film, I absolutely hated it and to this day have never been able to get through it in a single sitting. There have been several Caligulas - Albert Camus did a version, and the novel/miniseries "I, Claudius" covers the reign of Caligula pretty thoroughly. Both of those (and the biography by the ancient writer Suetonius, which is a fantastic read) were far more influential on my Caligula than the film was!

MC: Let's talk a little more about two of the upcoming musicals that you mentioned. The Murder of Isaac premiered at Baltimore's Centerstage earlier this year and Prince Hal of SoHo will premiere later this year.

ES: The Murder of Isaac is a play by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It's done in a similar style to Marat-Sade, in that it's a play-within-a-play put on by the patients in a PTSD wing of an Israeli government rehabilitation center, and the patients are all victims of various wars and terrorist bombings. It's a passionate, fascinating play so controversial it's never been performed in Israel. Centerstage, where I musical directed a fantastic production of Two Gentlemen of Verona last year, decided to mount the American premiere. Motti had included several songs in the play to be sung by the patients/actors, for which he had written lyrics in Hebrew and which were never set to any music. I was then given a more-or-less literal translation of Motti's Hebrew lyrics, and told to rewrite them as much as I needed to make them songs. Most of the actors had never sung onstage before, so I had to write music that both served the story and had the complexity and the depth necessary, but that could also be performed by mostly non-musicians. I did have one fantastic singer, Charlotte Cohn, who sang Musetta in La Boheme on Broadway, who played an opera singer who had been wounded in a suicide bombing. Charlotte will sing of her songs at the concert - a plea for peace entitled "Fire!" The show was a considerable success for Centerstage, and I'm very proud to have been a part of it.

Prince Hal of SoHo is a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, which I've been pitching as something akin to a Bret Easton Ellis novel. I've always loved Henry IV and thought there was something genuinely universal in the story of Prince Hal, the prodigal son dismissed by everyone as a disappointment but who knows he will eventually achieve greatness. (Gus Van Sant's movie My Own Private Idaho also uses the story as a jumping-off point). In this version, the Prince Hal character is an obscenely rich, bisexual, drug-taking party boy named Shane Callum who realizes it's time to move beyond the life he's made for himself or get stuck in it. It's about people around my own age and set in contemporary Manhattan and Brooklyn. We'll be doing the opening sequence at the concert on the 26th, which is the piece I'm most excited about. It spans twelve hours in the life of our protagonist - waking up at six in the evening, doing a lot of drugs, going out and hooking up with a boy, and generally contemplating the nature of it all. I feel like it's a chance to apply a lot of the lessons I learned working on Caligula, which was the most amazing crash course in theatre writing I could have ever hoped for.

You've worked extensively as a musical director, and recently did so for the Off-Broadway revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. What qualities in Brel's music do you think has kept it alive for decades?

ES: Brel's material, more so than any other songwriter I can think of, comes directly from the soul. He was a man who felt passionately about life and wanted to get to know as many people as he good, and managed to convey in his music a depth and honesty and understanding that I don't think anyone else has ever matched. He was able to find the universal i life, and wrote with so much heart and passion (and a uniquely ironic French sense of humor) that his songs land like a direct punch to the gut. The response that he generates from an audience - both in his own performances and via his music - is probably the most genuine and enthusiastic I've ever seen from an audience.

MC: What's next for you each of you after the Stuck in the Zipper concert?

JD: We're planning an Equity Reading of White Noise in late May, then comes the real production in late summer. After that, it's back to The Golden City for me. I also have a full-length play I've just finished, as well as a 1-hour television drama pilot and a screenplay (with two other screenplays in the works). On top of that, I've begun writing my next two musicals, both of which are radically different from one another and from everything else I've written so far. It's been an extremely prolific year for me.

ES: Caligula is back on track - we have new producers who have stepped forward, and I expect that a major announcement about the future of the show will be coming in the next few weeks. We've been doing workshops of it at the Actor's Studio, trying to fine-tune the show from the NYMF production, which we all felt was a bit long and unfocused. The show is in the best shape it's ever been in, we'll be doing a small reading next month, a big workshop later in the year, and then... Like I said - I expect an announcement will be coming soon.

In the meantime, I'm playing/conducting Jacques Brel eight times a week. We're gearing up to record the cast album, and it looks like we'll be running for the forseeable future. The Prince Hal premiere will most likely be later this year, and I have several musical directing/orchestrating projects to keep me from getting bored and lazy (and so I can pay my rent). It doesn't leave much time for sleep or a social life, but at the moment I'm loving all that I'm getting to do and the amazing people I'm getting to work with.

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