Part I of The Broadway Warmup‘s conversation with writer and lyricist Sam Carner covered topics from Sam’s early days to navigating the art of collaboration with composer Derek Gregor, to the craft of lyric writing and more.
In Part II, we discuss:
* The qualities of the actors Sam wants to work with
* Writing theater for young audiences
* Favorite books, authors
* The role of inspiration in creativity
* “New Musical Theatre” v. Traditional Musical Theatre
What do you look for in the actors you collaborate with?
I look for the appearance of fearlessness. People who don’t seem concerned with how they look. One thing Danielle Wade said that I loved was, “I can’t be afraid to be ugly.” I think that is really important. I don’t think any of us can be afraid to be ugly. That kind of total commitment to being in the moment is something I always look for in performers. I look for emotional and vocal agility – being able to have a turn on a beat, you know, ideally emotional depth to play two different emotions at once. Willingness to look “bad” or be unembarrassed by doing something that might be embarrassing. A likability onstage. Who do I want to spend two and a half hours watching? I look for a sense that any moment is calibrated to the moments that have come before and after. Every dot in the performance is connected. Some people do that naturally, others have to learn it. What are you playing? How did you get there, how are you going to get out of it?
What are your pet peeves in performers?
For a lyricist it’s when someone just sings words. They don’t infuse them with meaning. Or swaps words out that don’t make any sense. I realize how easy that is to do but sometimes it just makes no sense. I will say my biggest pet peeve is when people say, “There’s so many words!” Maybe that betrays a certain insecurity on my part, but what I want to say is, “Okay, what words do you think don’t belong? What words aren’t necessary in telling this story?” I’ve made a lot of choices about that, finding the words.
How about a willingness to roll with the punches when you are developing a new piece?
Flexibility. If something changes it’s not a comment on you necessarily. Sometimes you showed us what we wrote is not the right thing.
Being able to detach from that as a personal thing and making it about the work instead.
If something’s done right that’s when you get to change it. Because when it’s not done right, you think, “Well, if it was just done right then maybe it would work.” When it is done right, it makes me realize, “That’s exactly what I wrote and I don’t like it”.
Actors who give their full commitment so you can see what’s working and what’s not.
Absolutely. And quickness. At this stage – the perverse thing about development is you don’t get as much time as something that’s been done a million times. When you’re doing a new show that could use five weeks, you get a week or 29 hours. We need actors who are quick.
You’ve worked on theater for young audiences as well. How is the process of writing a children’s musical different?
In a certain respect children are much less judgmental. They’re used to things that they don’t understand. They’ll hear words, and they’ll see things they don’t understand all the time going through life, and that’s part of the process. What they’re not tolerant of is not understanding the action. You have to be very clear on WHY someone is doing what they’re doing. What you can get away with is what they say about it. I also might make a little reference that’s more for the grownups than it is for the kids.
They’ll feel like they’re getting a little shoutout!
Writing for kids gives grownups a license to have fun. They wear a different critical hat than they would otherwise. There’s no need to be hip, or edgy…No one wants you to be edgy for kids. I don’t think people want you to be edgy normally, you just feel like you’re supposed to! Sometimes I don’t even know what edgy means, though I think it should be thought-provoking.
What are some of your favorite BOOKS? Favorite authors?
I’m a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s always entertaining. He basically writes farces. He is one of the fathers of Contemporary Music Theatre as we know it, as a lyricist and bookwriter. He wrote the early shows with Jerome Kern which were one of the major inspirations for Rodgers & Hart when they got started. He wrote the original book for Anything Goes. He also wrote some wonderful comic novels.
I also enjoy John Irving very much. Recently I’ve been getting into Robertson Davies. And I love Jane Austen. The thing that all of these have in common is a certain kind of comic sensibility.
What other things do you view as catalysts for your creativity?
It’s really, “What problem am I trying to solve?” It’s about asking better questions.
You don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike.
Inspiration won’t strike, it doesn’t strike. The only inspiration comes in what question you’re asking yourself.
So when you’re having writer’s block you say, “How can I ask a better question?”
What advice would you give if you could talk to yourself when you were 20?
Every deal has its up sides and down sides. The biggest one would be to trust your instincts, both about collaborators and associates. If something feels off, it probably is.
What excites you most about writing for the theatre today? On the flip side, what are the most significant challenges you feel that writers for the theatre face in 2016?
There’s so much development being done around the country, around the world. In colleges, there’s so much opportunity to do developmental work. With YouTube and things like that, it preserves the opportunity to observe and disseminate fragments of what you write. The challenges are economic. It’s so expensive to produce theater at any scale.
How do you define New Musical Theatre and how does it differ from traditional Musical Theatre?**
One of the definitions is economic. “New Musical Theatre” material can be done by one performer standing at a mic, which makes it independently produceable. With that comes a specific relationship with the drama and the audience, so I would say that the difference between a pop song and a theatre song is that a theatre song is happening NOW in real time, and the person I’m singing to is right in front of me. A pop song happened in the past or it happened in my mind. I’m now revisiting that feeling, and heightening it into art. There’s this sort of ambient, heightened quality to it. “New Musical Theatre” blends the two.
**For this last question, Sam referred me to a comprehensive blog post he did on this topic, defining the genre. It’s a wonderful read that provides specific examples from NMT mainstays like Jonathan Reid Gealt’s “Quiet,”Adam Gwon’s “I’ll Be Here,” Joe Iconis’s “Blue Hair” and Carner and Gregor’s very own “Make It Here.”
Check it out here: What is “New Musical Theatre”? by