Monday, September 12, 2011

Inspired: Party of Two, Part I

CNN recently announced a poll of America's Top Five Most-Hated Individuals. We can't be the only people to think this is a monumental waste of time. Please tell us someone didn't get paid to survey Americans on the subject.

So, to politely thumb our noses, we decided to do the exact opposite: we're each going to share five individuals that have had a significant impact on our work as creative artists.

There was no criteria for our list. It could be comprised of people we know, or those whom we admire (whether alive or deceased).  Here’s David's list - Tom's will soon follow.

Leonard Bernstein
I admire Bernstein because he did so many things, and did them all exceedingly well. From writing opera, musical theatre, classical works and film scores, to his work as a conductor, pianist and ardent educator, Bernstein's output was exhaustive. Anyone who can go from writing Chichester Psalms to On the Town is my kind of composer.  Bernstein taught a whole generation about music, from his Omnibus TV Broadcasts to the Norton Lectures at Harvard.  He had a brilliant mind, yet knew how to communicate the intricacies of theory and structure to the lay person.  He was also an activist, and used his talents to raise money for causes that were important to him, such as civil rights and world peace. Bernstein wasn't afraid to ask hard questions through his music (the Kaddish and Mass being two prime examples), however untidy the result. I respect people who challenge themselves, and Bernstein dared to reach out in more directions than one could have thought possible. That's the type of artist I want to be.

If you're not familiar with it, I highly recommend reading Meryle Secrest's enthralling biography on Bernstein.

Emily Dickinson
I’ve never had more respect for one of America’s greatest woman poets than when I tried to set some of her texts to music. Dickinson was a master in economy while creating intricate worlds for the reader to explore. She also wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subject matter, specifically death and immortality.  Her poems went largely unpublished during her lifetime. The less than a dozen that were published were greatly altered by editors to meet the tastes of the day. Imagine the perseverance she must have had to continue writing in spite of constant rejection.

Dickinson was a very reclusive person. There are several anecdotes of her vanishing from a party or declining a social engagement in favor of writing.  It underscores the notion that so often we are slaves to our work. As Sondheim wrote in Sunday in the Park with George:

Finishing the hat.
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world from a window
While you finish the hat.

Speaking of Sondheim...

Stephen Sondheim
This almost feels trite to mention, but I have to count Sondheim among my major influences. My first exposure to his work was Into the Woods, which we studied in my AP English class in high school.  In college, I bought and obsessively listened to Sweeney Todd, which is on my "stranded on a desert island" list.  Beyond the obviously high level of craft, the thing I appreciate most about Sondheim's work is his ability to create subtext in the music without ever being heavy-handed about it.  Making something feel fresh and at the same time inevitable sometimes seems impossible to do, but Sondheim has set before us some of the greatest theatrical examples.

The worlds of his many shows have taken him (and us) to amazingly disparate musical places, from opera to rap. The story and the characters dictate the trajectory of the score. Perhaps that seems an obvious statement, but too often in today's musical theatre, the specificity needed to create a world into which the audience is invited is either lacking or non-existent.  Sondheim is a master at this, and we learn more about the characters (and ourselves) as a result.

When I first moved to New York, I wrote to Sondheim for some comments on my musical Here I Am: A Musical Personal Ad.  His first letter was an apology for taking so long to get back to me.  He followed that with a lovely letter of thoughtful critiques of my work.  Now that's classy.

Please also consider Meryle Secrest's wonderful biography on Sondheim.

Audra McDonald
One of the theatrical highlights of my life was seeing Audra McDonald play Lizze in 110 in the Shade at a small community theatre in Orem, Utah.  She and her boyfriend Will Swenson returned to Swenson’s roots to do a fundraiser for his hometown theatre company.  Seeing her up close made me appreciate even more her ability to maintain her technical prowess while staying fully immersed in the character’s experience.  She’s an artist who serves the song. This means the tone doesn’t always have to be “pretty.”  It just has to be honest.  And her honesty is what brings to life the many characters she has played.  Her recent glowing New York Times review in relation to the Broadway-bound production of The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess only underscores this.

She has also been a tireless activist for marriage equality. Sometimes when I need a good cry, I watch this youtube video, which shows her performing at a marriage equality event hosted by Broadway Impact in May, 2009.  A month later, when receiving the Human Right Campaign's Ally for Equality Award, she said, "In my heart, I am not fighting with you or for you.  There is no me or you.  There's only us."  For me, her earnestness makes her a brilliant performer and beautiful human being.

Dr. Joseph Downing
Dr. Downing was, by far, my favorite professor during my undergraduate degree at Syracuse University. I actually met Dr. Downing my senior year in high school. I was paired with him for a mentorship program through my school. My friend Nancy, who was to be our valedictorian, got dropped off at a bio-chem lab of some sort, and I was taken to a castle on the hill, then known as Crouse College at SU.  Dr. D found ways to explain the boundaries of theory and counterpoint without ever crushing my creativity. One day he played me a piece he wrote for wind ensemble. It was one of those experiences that opened my ears to possibilities I had never known existed. Dr. Downing not only talked one of the SU choral directors into premiering a piece I wrote under his mentorship, he also made sure I applied to SU and received a scholarship.

My four years at SU were the happiest of my academic career. Some of my fondest memories include being one of Dr. Downing's teacher assistants for sight singing (I loved adjudicating my peer's midterm and final aural exams!), watching a phenomenal video of Tosca with our music history class on a Friday night (Dr. D brought snacks) and having him come see me play Whizzer in Falsettos (before I knew who I was, or the significance of his supporting me). Dr. Downing continues to inspire me as a musician, teacher and person. Having someone like Dr. Downing in my life secured my love of writing and music-making. I think of him often as I work with my students, trying to provide for them the same caring support and guidance.

Those are my five.  I could have chosen about thirty more.

I hope it goes without saying that my collaborator Tom and our director Laura Josepher inspire me.  Perhaps I don't say it often enough, so it's worth mentioning here. Tom and I are very blessed to have worked together for over six years.  Like any relationship, there have been growing pains and frustrations, but our writing styles and perspectives are so compatible, and we gain so much from each other's knowledge, that we see the tremendous gift we've been given.  And Laura - I don't know what we would do without her. She has been such an invaluable source of support and guidance. She's one of those directors who knows how to balance logistics while never losing her creative vision.

I hope this inspires you to think about who has had an impact on your life. Stay tuned for Tom's entry. And let's ignore CNN, shall we?