Spotlight On NYMF: Chip Zien & THE HISTORY OF WAR

In a career that has consisted of everything from voicing Howard the Duck to originating the roles of The Baker in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical INTO THE WOODS and Marvin (and Dr. Mendel) in the FALSETTOS trilogy by William Finn, as well as some DePalma and numerous stage roles in between, Chip Zien is a character actor extraordinaire who now is trying out a new role - that of book writer - in the New York Musical Theater Festival's new musical THE HISTORY OF WAR. Last week we spoke to one of the stars of the show, Max Von Essen, and today we shine some light on the process of bringing the show to the stage as well as a look back at many of the notable film and theatre appearances that Zien has made over his nearly four decades in show business. Working with Stephen Sondheim, William Finn, Dustin Hoffman and Nicolas Cage is just the tip of the iceberg, as Zien also opens up about his unusual career and the many friendships he has built along the way. All that, and what it was like to be at the birth of a brand new Sondheim song written just for him in the form of "No More" from INTO THE WOODS. Marvin to Mendel, Baker to book writer, Chip Zien is an authority of all the glitters and the gold of having a true collaborative breakthrough as he has had on FALSETTOS, INTO THE WOODS and, now, THE HISTORY OF WAR. Tickets are on sale at the link below! Only three performances left, tonight and tomorrow only!

PC: Now that it was twenty years ago, what do you think of being known to many as the voice of Howard the Duck?

CZ: I didn't put it on my resume for awhile. I used to keep it a secret. But, actually, I've grown to be fond of it because it's sort of a curiosity. It's sort of interesting.

PC: To people my age it was very memorable.

CZ: It's not me in the duck suit, though! A lot of people think that, but I just looped it.

PC: How did you get that gig?

CZ: It was George Lucas actually. They had a guy with a bit of an English accent but they felt the voice wasn't what they wanted ultimately. So, they actually hired Robin Williams to do it.

PC: No way!

CZ: Yeah! Then, about three days later, he quit because you had to actually sync up with the duck bill flapping so he couldn't commit to the discipline of that.

PC: What were you doing when they came to you?

CZ: I was doing MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at La Jolla with Sondheim and Lapine when they first started reworking it.

PC: That's when it first worked though, right?

CZ: Umm... (Pause.) Well... (Pause.) No comment. (Laughs.)

PC: So what did you say when they offered the movie to you?

CZ: The casting director of Universal said she enjoyed my performance. She said, "I think you sound like a duck. Do you have any interest in reading for HOWARD THE DUCK?" I was offended at first because she said I sounded like a duck! I thought, "Whoa, wait a minute, what about this important Sondheim show I'm doing?" But, it was a huge casting deal at the time but I'm glad I eventually ended up doing it.

PC: What was recording it like?

CZ: After I left Lucasland... they had me in this like cave to loop it. They got this limousine for me... I mean, we were recording eighteen-hour days in the recording studio... but, I felt really terrific at first, but, then, I thought, "What if they offer me HAMLET at the Delocorte?" Or something like that. Paranoid. I was terrified that I wouldn't be available.

PC: Tell me about doing BOYS FROM SYRACUSE.

CZ: Nicky Silver is a dear friend - as a matter of fact, I keep meaning to call him so he can come and see our show at NYMF - but, yeah, working with Scott Ellis and those guys... it was a great thing. My pal Lee Wilkoff and I were, oddly, playing twins so that was hilarious. Tom Hewitt and Jonathan played the handsome guys, the princes.

PC: He's a great guy, Tom.

CZ: Right. He is. Tom is in THE GREAT UNKNOWN at NYMF. He's a dear friend. I have to see his show, too. I wouldn't miss it.

PC: Tell me about your NYMF show, THE HISTORY OF WAR and working as a book writer instead of acting.

CZ: It's been really peculiar to sit on this side of the table. I've never done it. I've actually been texting everybody today, the last day before the show opens.

PC: Is this the first time you've written a musical?

CZ: I had written a one-man show years ago called DEATH & ASHTABEULA that I worked on with Bill Finn.

PC: ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES is my favorite score of the 80s.

CZ: Me, too! That is one of the great scores. I actually wrote a really nasty letter to Frank Rich - who has, on occasion, been helpful to my career - and at that time I wasn't even in Bill's show but Frank Rich had written a review that said that the composer who had started the decade with such great promise with FALSETTOS was ending it with a show that wasn't very good. I was just incensed and I wrote Frank Rich a letter telling him that he obviously doesn't know what music is. Those of us that do know, know that he just completely missed the point. It's a great score and a talent like that should not be eviscerated just because it's something he didn't understand at that point in his life.

PC: Such a magnificent score. So rich. Sextets and complex ballads, duets and trios...

CZ: It's awesome stuff. The song "All Fall Down" is from that show.

PC: "You Cannot Let Romance Die" is my favorite song from that show.

CZ: Oh, that's a great one, too! Totally. Actually, Max Von Essen is in our show, THE HISTORY OF WAR, and he sings this gorgeous, gorgeous song that is just breathtaking.

PC: What's it called?

CZ: "I Will Conquer You".

PC: How provocative!

CZ: It literally just takes your breath away. I was saying to him after rehearsal, "You know, in my career I've been lucky to be around for a lot of interesting moments..." Alix Korey was the original person who sang it in AMERICA KICKS UP ITS HEELS and then ROMANCE IN HARD TIMES when she sang "All Fall Down". When Max sang this song in rehearsal just the other day, I just fell apart. I started to cry. It was one of the most gorgeous things I've ever heard. Just like with "All Fall Down".

PC: The birth of a musical.

CZ: I've had three or four moments like that. One was Alix Korey singing the Bill Finn song "All Fall Down". Another was listening to Steve Sondheim sing "No More" from INTO THE WOODS for us for the first time. He spread the sheet music out on the piano... he brought in the sheet music and played it and sang it. Paul Gemignani even started crying! We all just looked at each other and it was one of those scary, breathtaking moments you can't believe you are a part of. That was one of them.

PC: What a great memory!

CZ: I actually had that experience with Max two days ago listening to him for the first time stand with the blocking of this one particular scene and do this song. It's just as magnificent as anything I've seen in my entire life.

PC: How do you know Max?

CZ: Max was Enjorlas in the revival of LES MIZ and I ended up replacing Thenardier for a few weeks.

PC: What was that experience like?

CZ: It was so much fun. I don't want to sound too upbeat or anything because that goes against my very nature.... (Laughs.) But, I would have stayed forever because that one of my favorite experiences, doing that part.

PC: What do you think of the show?

CZ: I was doing INTO THE WOODS when LES MIZ was around so, at the beginning of it, I was suspicious of those big musicals from England. But, doing the revival, I loved being in it and I would have done it forever.

PC: Who else is in the cast of HISTORY OF WAR?

CZ: Paul Kandel, you just can't take your eyes off him. He's a Tony nominee from TOMMY. He's like a downtown New York guy, he's very interesting. Jason Kravitz is playing Napoleon and he's a great performer, too. Everyone is good.

PC: What's the show about?

CZ: Well, I have to sort of work on my blurb, but THE HISTORY OF WAR is about one young boy's path to becoming a warrior. But, I've been saying it's a funny show if you are a depressed person. But, it's also very dark. It's a very large show, too. It's potentially fairly unpleasant. It's in the vein of SWEENEY TODD... dark musicals, complicated musicals. We have seven of the greatest warriors of all time who exist in the head of a twelve year old boy and we follow the boy on his journey to becoming a warrior. That is, essentially, our story. A lot of it has to do with narcissism and why we fight.

PC: Provocative topics. What was your inspiration?

CZ: I read an article on MSNBC.com or something that said boys have a warrior gene. That sort of became the kernel of the idea for a show. I've been joking lately that those of us in musical comedy seem to be lacking that gene a little bit! (Laughs.)

PC: Perhaps!

CZ: At any rate, it's about why we fight. It's essentially a big anti-war statement but hopefully it's larger and more interesting that just that.

PC: A lot of those themes seem reminiscent of Greek theatre.

CZ: I would say it's... the biggest influence is Pinter. There's weird scenes where people are waiting. There are two lonely soldiers throughout the whole piece who are in a bunker some place in wars throughout history. I don't know, can you combine Mel Brooks with Pinter? Then, I think you come closer to what it is.

PC: So MOTHER COURAGE-esque.

CZ: Yes! That's sort of the genre. I've also been saying it was my goal to write the most pretentious show in the NYMF. (Laughs.)

PC: I hope Baz Luhrmann (the honorary chair of this year's NYMF) likes it!

CZ: I love his movies. I really do. I actually love them because they are so large.

PC: What do you think of the score of THE HISTORY OF WAR?

CZ: We're really lucky in our show to have this magnificent score. It really is magnificent. I will be shocked if people don't think this score is one of the greatest they have heard in long time. Deborah and Amanda... their work is just exceptional. I can't believe they're not hugely famous already.

PC: Interesting to have a female composing team writing a show with an all-male cast. Cool twist.

CZ: Yeah, Amanda has a great blog on BroadwayWorld where she describes our interactions. We've gone into combat for like four years now writing the show. I think we are all extremely proud of where we are now. I think our show is big and it's about big ideas. I am really going to be curious how people react to it.

PC: Is this the first production?

CZ: This has never been performed before. It has never been seen before.

PC: That's so exciting.

CZ: Exciting and terrifying! I mean, the tone shifts... some of it is ugly and scary and some of it is sparse. It is going to be really interesting if the audience goes on the ride with us or if they want to stone me at the end of the show.

PC: The book writer is always the sacrificial lamb.

CZ: It's a really difficult position to be in. I consider myself a real neophyte in this area but... for example, INTO THE WOODS is talked about as "A Sondheim musical," not a Sondheim/Lapine musical. I mean Sondheim's body of works may never be matched again ever, but... I was there when two pages of it were written on Lapine's computer. I'm always amazed that people don't look at it as a Sondheim/Lapine musical because Lapine structured the show, wrote the show and suggested where the songs should go. I know they talked about it a lot, but Lapine's influence is all over that show. I think Sondheim would be the first to point that out.

PC: Sondheim always gives credit to the book writers.

CZ: Of course. It doesn't in any way take away from the once-in-a-lifetime genius of Sondheim but there is something weird about the book writers and how people respond to us. I've actually enjoyed doing it, though. I've enjoyed sitting in my apartment all by myself and fantasizing about what it could be. To me, it's really shocking to walk into a rehearsal hall now and see the scope of it. And, it's kind of cool because so many of the elements - war scenes with guys in bunkers holding guns - is just like I pictured it would be. But, I'm sure if the show has issues they will fall squarely in my lap as opposed to the music department's lap because I don't think anyone will be able to quibble with what a sensational score we have.

PC: What do you think of Broadway today compared to twenty years ago?

CZ: For the last year or so I've been really distracted... but, I feel really lucky to have worked with Lapine and Bill Finn early because I did IN TROUSERS back in the 70s.

PC: What a score. So Beatles-esque. That was his main influence there, right?

CZ: Right. But, also the fact that he was such a wildly original voice - and kind of cocky - coming out of Williams. I was thinking of moving to Los Angeles and my agents called me and said they just heard this tape for this show called IN TROUSERS. So, I turned the cab around and went home. That was the life-altering moment. I listened to the tape and thought, "This is nuts! This guy is either crazy or great!" He's so unusual... especially at the time.

PC: An anomaly.

CZ: I went in an auditioned and, surprisingly, Bill said to me, "Stop waving your hands around and stand on the piano!" Literally, he wanted me to stand on the piano. (Laughs.)

PC: It's Bill Finn.

CZ: Yeah, he said, "Get up there!"

PC: And you did!

CZ: I did! So, it was that great moment. We also had Mary Testa and Alison Fraser and JoAnna Green. But, Bill had played Marvin in the workshops. So, I was replacing Bill who is like 6'4' and I'm like 3'7' so they called us Big Bill and Little Bill. (Laughs.)

PC: Tell me about the different versions of the show.


CZ: I was furious! Billy and I stopped talking for awhile. The first revival of it was at Second Stage that Jay O. Sanders did. I thought I was going to get to do it again. The critic in the New York Times at the time was Richard Eder and he just eviscerated the show and said it was about syphilitic sailors.

PC: That's how he summarized it? Oy!

CZ: It was this amazingly vicious review. I will obviously never forget it.

PC: What an agenda!

CZ: Yeah! I think if Frank Rich was at the Times three years earlier and had reviewed IN TROUSERS, I think it would have received a good review.

PC: He loved FALSETTOS.

CZ: A few years later when they were doing IN TROUSERS at Second Stage and I found out I wasn't doing it and I was just furious.

PC: It deserves a revival. It's the strongest score of the three Marvin musicals.

CZ: Billy has issues with it. He feels he never got it to quite work. My position on it is that the abstract structure is what makes it fun and every time he tries to clarify it it makes it worse! (Laughs.) But, he doesn't agree.

PC: IN TROUSERS is sort of the dumbshow to the FALSETTOS two-act play proper.

CZ: Yeah, exactly. I happen to love the music of IN TROUSERS. I think it's brilliant and refreshing and new. But, Billy would say that it sounds like he wrote it when he was very young and doesn't think it's his best work. But, I think its youthfulness is what makes it so exciting.

PC: So, how did Finn lead to Lapine and Sondheim?

CZ: Well, I met Billy by accident and he brought me to Lapine who started working with him and Sondheim.

PC: What was the INTO THE WOODS workshop like?

CZ: Well, the first INTO THE WOODS workshop was very interesting. I actually played Cinderella's Prince first.

PC: What was it like doing the San Diego version with Ellen Foley?

CZ: She was great. I really liked it in San Diego. See, we were supposed to bring the MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG revival to Broadway and for several reasons Lapine backed out and started working on INTO THE WOODS with Sondheim.

PC: Why did he back out of MERRILY?

CZ: I think it had to do with his wanting to do his own work. If he was going to continue to work on MERRILY he wanted more control over the book. I think there are issues there that I am not privy to.

PC: So, it was based on the Bettelheim fairy tale deconstruction of Grimms, right?

CZ: Right. He was fascinated by that. He loves all that stuff. Eventually, as I said, they did a workshop where I played Cinderella's Prince and I got enormous laughs because I wasn't the person you'd expect to play the Prince. But, I was getting huge laughs and I thought I was terrific. Lapine came up to me and said, "What do you think this is? A Monty Python sketch? It's completely wrong!"

PC: Then a few years passed.

CZ: I was in LA working on a TV series and Ira Weitzman called me. He was involved in all this stuff with Billy and at Playwrights' Horizons, all this stuff. He's at Lincoln Center, still. He called and said, "Lapine is going to call you. They're having real problems casting the Baker in INTO THE WOODS. They want Tom Hulce, but he's unavailable. Just tell them you want to do it. Say, ‘Great!' to everything." And that's exactly what happened. And, I did.

PC: Great decision.

CZ: Lapine called me and I got offered the role. It was life-altering.

PC: What changed for your character as the show progressed?

CZ: I didn't have much taken away. As a matter of fact, I was lucky... I mean, "No One Is Alone" came in late in San Diego. One thing that was taken away is a song where I explained to Joanna Gleason why I just couldn't stand Little Red Riding Hood. It was kind of funny because as it went along, you realized the Baker's Wife agreed with him!

PC: How funny!

CZ: There were all the "Boom, Crunch" variations for Bernadette and lots of "Second Midnights" but I got great new stuff.

PC: Tell me about doing SNAKE EYES with Brian DePalma. I love the opening twenty minutes that were shot live.

CZ: It was kind of an amazing experience, too. My film career has been various and that was a great part to get. He was a director of stature, but he's a strange guy. I was really excited to be in it. I remember my first day on set where he did a tracking shot where he shoots from the top of this coliseum with this camera on a huge crane and pans down with this huge hydraulic arm to a close-up on a guy's ear. I remember standing there and a line producer saying to me, "You're never going to see anything like this again! Look at this shot!" and it was just spectacular.

PC: Some great cinematography and camera work, as always with DePalma.

CZ: Did you know the first twenty minutes are advertised as being with no cuts but there are actually a few hidden in there? They're digital. The camera swoops to the floor. What's really cool about it, though, is that we did it live. We did it like it was not cutting away. The camera was rolling all the way through the building. So, at some points you are looking to the camera and pretending it's the actor which is actually very difficult to do. It's really peculiar.

PC: What a logistical nightmare!

CZ: Brian kept yelling at everybody, "Just right into the lens! I'm serious! I'm telling you, you are talking to me! Two eyes, full-on, into the camera!"

PC: So anti-voyeurism!

CZ: "The camera is me! Talk to me" It was really crazy. We did it over and over again, doing like twenty pages of script. And, the thing is, you didn't want to be the guy who screwed up. The pressure was enormous. You didn't want to screw up the take on page 15.

PC: Vilmos Zsigmond manning the camera!

CZ: Oh, yeah! It was so amazing. Plus, professional boxers. There were so many people on set. It was a very cool thing to be a part of.

PC: And they cut the ending!

CZ: I ran into Brian DePalma at The Farmer's market in LA after we shot the movie. He said, (Imitates DePalma deadpan.) "Chip, man, the studio is wrecking the film. They made me reshoot the whole ending. They're making me wreck my film." I actually never saw the original ending myself.

PC: They took out the boulder and the millions they spent on the shot of that. They changed it to a hurricane.

CZ: Yeah, he couldn't believe it! Then, he did a movie that didn't do too well about Mars...

PC: MISSION TO MARS.

CZ: He brought me in to play the part Don Cheadle ended up playing. I thought I was going to get the part, it was really weird. But, I didn't get it. It would have been fun to fly to Mars!

PC: You've certainly gone everywhere else in showbusiness! This has been so great, Chip! Thanks for giving me all this time this evening!

CZ: It's been great! Great questions! Talk to you later!


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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...)