Q&A with 'Five Course Love' Creator Gregg Coffin

"If music be the food of love, play on."
Over 400 years later, musicians and epicureans alike recite the opening line of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with a special reverence. If love is a symphony that we don't want to end, then the road to love is a collection of melodies. All over the world would be lovers separate themselves with a table and some flatware, the menu is presented, and the tune begins.

The new musical FIVE COURSE LOVE takes audiences on a journey to love through five hilarious dates in five different settings. Each course is set a different type of restaurant, with a cast of unforgettable characters leading the way. The show's book, music and lyrics are by Gregg Coffin, an up-and-coming composer who's first musical CONVENIENCE was chosen by the National Alliance of Musical Theatre to be presented at their 2000 Festival of New Musicals in New York City. Since then, CONVENIENCE has been published by Dramatists Play Service and seen regional productions all around the country.

FIVE COURSE LOVE opens at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre in October. Gregg Coffin gives BroadwayWorld.com a peek behind the scenes of the New York's newest musical.

Where did your original idea for the show come from?
An acquaintance of mine was talking about speed-dating. She went to a restaurant where she met a different guy every five minutes for the course of an hour or so. It made me think of disastrous encounters that might take place in restaurants. And then, where would the specific restaurants be? What food would they serve? What catastrophe might happen there? And I was off and rolling.

What were the inspirations behind the characters and their environments?
I wanted to look at all the different ways that love can elude us, and at the same time, I wanted the show to be a comedy. So I admit to dealing in very broad stereotypes at first. For instance, there's nothing like country & western music for a good ol' fashioned "you done me wrong" song. So the first restaurant is a rib joint filled with two-step texas swing and lots of that "high lonesome" sound. As I continued to think of the different ways that love could unravel, different cuisines started to make their presence known. I finally settled on Country & Western, Italian, German, Mexican, and a 50's Diner.

The musical styles in the scenes are quite different from each other, is there a particular type of music in the show that was a real departure for you?
The music in the Mexican cantina was particularly tough for me. It's the most re-written section of the show, and now it's very near and dear to my heart. When you research specifically Mexican melody and chord structure there are some wonderful opportunities to be had that reach beyond stereotype. When first composing this restaurant's music I was stuck in a very broad land. But after listening to some great source material I came up with 4 songs for that part of the show that really tell as rich a melodic story as the lyrics do. Each of the restaurants is a compilation of 3 or 4 songs that bring us from beginning to end of a highly volatile love-moment. But the cantina was narratively and musically the biggest challenge for me.

There are obviously five "courses" in this show, are there any additional styles or "flavors" that you would've liked to include but chose not to?
It really all came down to time. I wrote a different restaurant every two weeks in the fall of 2003, getting the show prepped for its first workshop at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, NY. I went with gut choices (food pun intended). Ever the franchise-conscious composer that I am, I went with my strongest five "hits" of where the stories should take place, and am in high hopes that (much like FOREVER PLAID, GREATER TUNA, and NUNSENSE) there will be more FIVE COURSE LOVE's coming in the future. It's an idea that's full of musical comedy potential.

As the show evolved what were your biggest challenges?
Keeping the energy of the show spinning at the right r.p.m., finding ways to make sure that we were still ahead of the audience (not the other way round), fine-tuning the supporting moments (how you lead up to a laugh, making sure that the characters' thoughts and actions are consistent and unique).

What aspect of this show are you most proud of?
I'm very proud of the structure of the show: that it's sung-through, that one or more characters need to leave the scene in order to quick-change into the start of the next restaurant while the stragglers wrap things up onstage, that the comedy works (we've had two regional productions to test the material), and that the melody supports the lyrical load of the show. It's easy when visiting five different cuisines/musical styles for the material to begin to sound like a term-paper on ethnomusicology. I like that the melodies and lyrics of this show support a unified story, rather than simply demonstrate that I did my research.

As the creator of the show, how involved are you in the casting and overall direction of the show once the director is onboard?
I was in the auditions when we cast the show originally. We were able to get the three actors from the original production for the off-B'way version (Heather Ayers, John Bolton, and Jeff Gurner). As far as being involved in the direction of the show, I'm simply not. The director (Emma Griffin) has her interpretation of what I've written and I steer very clear of that. I think it's the strongest way to learn if you've conveyed your thoughts clearly...by watching someone shape and detail them in the rehearsal room. Thankfully, Emma is very open to response once the shape of the show has been reached. It's important for collaborators to be open to feedback. It helps us all to see how much we're leaning in to a similar vision; and when we disagree it opens up the possibility for something exciting to come out of it.

When the audience leaves the show, what do you want them to take away?
The thrill of three incredible actors running you through a mine-field of love as quickly as they possibly can. And love would be good, it would be good if they took love away from it all. And maybe if they were humming something from the show as they went off into the night. That would be icing on the cake.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career to date?
As far as achievement, a commercial production of one of my shows is really rewarding. But continually when productions come and go the most rewarding part of the work for me is the collaborations that occur and the people I'm blessed to work with. For someone who sits at his keyboard for a living, it's always a great moment to work with the folk who drape the humanity on what you dream about all day.

What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on several things: a comedy that consists of a great deal of the sung incidental music I've composed for Shakespeare plays (in various settings), a more serious evening of set pieces for two actors with 16 interwoven plotlines, a book musical of a Stephen Crane novella, and my incidental music in the regional theatres that I work with (this year MEASURE FOR MEASURE and TWELFTH NIGHT are possibilities).

Directed by Emma Griffin, Five Course Love had its world premiere at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York in the summer of 2004. The Cast features Heather Ayers (Forbidden Broadway, City Center Encores!), John Bolton (Spamalot, Contact, Titanic), and Jeff Gurner (Lion King). Previews begin October 1, with an October 16th opening night. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC. (212) 420-8000.

(All Photos of Heather Ayers, John Bolton, and Jeff Gurner in the Geva Theatre Center production of Five Course Love by Ken A. Huth.)

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