"Did you know that I grew up with a crank phone in my home?" asks composer Marvin Laird.
"That's right. I'm robbing the retirement home," quips his fiancé, writer and lyricist Joel Paley. And so begins the witty banter rehearsed to perfection over a period of almost 39 years. You can't help but picture them as a vintage comedy act: Laird at the piano (as he often is as Bernadette Peters' long-time musical director) and Paley leaning on the frame, microphone in hand, as they weave together tales of their showbiz life with songs like "I Hate Musicals" from their campy-cult musical send-up Ruthless!, which is currently playing in its latest incarnation, Off-Broadway, at St. Luke's Theater.
The pair have been working on The Bad Seed spinoff ever since they met, when Paley was a 20-year-old member of the Ballet Trockaderos, and Laird was a 36-year-old composer working on a CBS special with Shirley MacLaine. Having originally debuted Off-Broadway in 1992, the musical, about a dangerously ambitious child actress, launched the careers of Britney Spears, Natalie Portman and Laura Bell Bundy, but to Paley and Laird it never felt finished — until now, complete with a new Samuel French stamp of approval. With their "child" — as they refer to the show — leaving the nest, and gay marriage becoming legal in all 50 states, the couple decided it was finally time to tie the knot. At Ruthless' opening night, on July 13, surrounded by the current cast and the show's long-time producers, Paley got down on one knee and proposed to his lover and collaborator, just as Laird was about to ask him the very same question. After all these years — filled with many ups and downs — these two could not be more in sync. For the latest installment of A Fine Showmance, the couple talks about the joys of codependency, serving lunch in drag and their upcoming nuptials, which, of course, will include a performance by Ms. Peters herself. Life is far from dull at the Paley/Laird household.
Marvin, you really had a crank phone?
ML: I did. When I lived on Minnie Street in Kansas City, Kansas. Then we got our first regular phone and it was a four-party line. At one point you pick up your phone and somebody else would be talking on it. You'd have to be like, "Sorry Elaine. We'll wait until you're finished." It was a little primitivé, but I survived and I'm here to tell the tale. And now you're about to be a blushing bride!
ML: Oh my God. November 1. We're getting married at one of our producer's houses in Greenwich, Connecticut. On November 18 we'll have been together for 39 years, so don't you think it's about time I made an honest man out of him?
JP: But it's funny, because now's the time. It's not just a formality. In the last three or four years we've really come to be partners.
Why just in that time?
JP: Because I met Marvin when I was just turning 21 years old, and he was 36.
ML: There's a 16-year age difference.
JP: We've been through every possible relationship human beings can go through. I went from Marvin being my parent, I was a kid [when we met]. It was almost like you have to become free of your parents. You had to leave them, but I realized that I had to grow up in the relationship, and that he wasn't my parent. I've also struggled with addiction, and he was the best codependent on the planet.
ML: Yay! Codependence!
JP: Talk about someone who didn't want to look at their own life! When you wake up with me you never have to think about yourself! And this all happened with a mutual and a joint exploration of our own spirituality. When I got sober — ten years ago — I really began my spiritual journey.
ML: I was raised in a fundamentalist Baptist home in the Midwest — practically farm territory — so that was my overarching ground for ethics and morality. I started my own spiritual journey when I left home at 20, and when Joel and I met we had both dabbled in all kinds of individual spirituality, but it wasn't until about five years ago that we got involved in some deeper stuff: Buddhism and miracles. We have pounded out our own kind of compilation of a lot of spiritual influences. Now we're reading Rumi and just having a wonderful time exploring how this spirituality affects the rest of our lives.
JP: It's become more about becoming equals, becoming partners and learning how to take care of each other; finding the balance of a relationship. I see a lot of people who hit difficult times, and in this day and age it's very easy to separate. Especially if you're a gay couple, when you don't even have the option of getting married. But even with getting married, people hit the inevitable point where you realize you didn't marry the perfect person or that the person you married isn't going to change your insides. But how do you go from loving to absolutely hating someone? If you do than you never loved them, and it's really in the last five years that we have come to understand what love is, and that we can be nothing else. That's what we are when we let go of all the ego and all the other bullsh*t. In realizing that together, we realize that we are truly together.
ML: It's become a holy relationship instead of a sexual relationship, which is a bit of terminology that we've learned during these spiritual studies that we've been following.
JP: Ironically, it's about realizing that you don't need the other person, but that you are choosing to be with the other person that makes the relationship work.
Joel was this transformation especially big for you, because it sounds like Marvin was sort of the caretaker?
JP: Not sort of, totally. And yes. It's not like I was this slobbering horrible human being. I worked and everything, but I didn't have a sense of myself, so I was always looking to fix that empty feeling from the outside. Not only did I use Marvin, but I used drugs and all kinds of other things until I realized that it wasn't a hole that I could fill — there was no hole there. I was complete. Every morning — except when Marvin's on the road with Bernadette Peters — before we feed our faces, we feed our souls. We sit down. We do our morning check in. We light our candle. We do some kind of spiritual reading, and we meditate together. That has changed everything.
ML: And as far as taking care of Joel, I rarely had to see him in a straight jacket and slobbering or anything like that…
ML: [laughs] Just twice. I started my musical career when I was four years old. The first day I went to kindergarten and I saw my school teacher playing piano I knew that that's what I wanted. I learned to read music, before I learned to read words, so I always had this really strong identification factor. It didn't mean that that's who I really was, but I told myself that I was this strong person, who knew all about music and that gave me the basis to pretend that I knew all. I didn't really, but I used it as a front. The caretaking didn't feel codependent at the time, until I discovered [that it was] through 12-step programs.
JP: But I didn't feel like a crackhead at the time…
ML: Right! But we've come to terms with all of that. Now it really does feel like we are on equal footing, and it's time to share that through the bond of something that's formalized.
JP: We've been together; we've gone apart; come together; gone apart. We went through a lot of things, and people ask, "Why [get married] now?" Mostly because now we are partners for real and we can make that decision, but I also can't overlook the fact that our history has so recently allowed this in such a major way and we feel a sense of responsibility to be a part of that. We've always thought of ourselves as the gay couple that does great PR for gay people, because we are often the first gay couple that many people [in our lives] get to know, and they realize it's not that bad. We felt like we were the gay ambassadors, but we take that seriously.
Your engagement was so romantic — at the opening night of the latest production of your musical Ruthless!
JP: I didn't plan on doing it publicly — like renting a balloon or at Yankee stadium or something — but it had been brewing in my mind, and the day before opening night we were picking up our clothing for the party and I told Marvin to go pick up our suits because I had to go to the bathroom. I had just seen a Kay Jewelers and I ran in and I bought the ring. Then it occurred to me that night to do it at the party.
ML: The most ironic thing about it is that at the same time that he asked me to pick up his suit I passed a store with this fabulous frame in the window. It was a silver frame and it had "A Day to Remember" engraved on it. I thought, Joel had told me that he was going to make the only speech at the party, but that he wanted me up there with him when he thanked everybody. He said, "If you want to add a few words at the end, I'll pass the mic on to you." And I thought that would be the perfect time. We've become very close to this group of people who are doing the current production of Ruthless! It was like a family night, and I thought it was time that we declared our love, so I was going to ask him! And instead, after he thanked everyone, he dropped to his knees, took out this wonderful ring and said, "Will you marry me?"
That is so crazy. You must have been so surprised, but at the same time thinking the exact same thing.
ML: I was so shocked! It was extraordinary to have felt that we were so on the same wavelength. It was crazy. It turned out we were able to sort of ask each other, but, boy, did he catch me off guard. Happily though.
JP: Part of it too was that our baby Ruthless! was actually born professionally in ‘92 and we've never really been satisfied with it. We have tinkered with it in so many different ways. This particular production is not really a revival, but a reimagining. So now it's like, "Wow our child is finally here and healthy and living."
Do you really feel like Ruthless! is your child?
JP: That and our dogs. Yes.
ML: Joel and I met when I was conducting a special for Shirley MacLaine on CBS and she had just seen this group called Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo at Royce Hall in UCLA. She had decided we were all going to come to New York and meet the company. We went to their rehearsals and I zeroed in on this young guy who had the best subtext. That's what the Ballet Trockadero was always about. I thought, "This guy's the funniest one. I want to meet him," so I asked him to go have lunch with me. And one of the very first things that we talked about was…
JP: The Bad Seed, as a musical.
ML: I said that happens to be one of my favorite shows too. He was using it as a kind of joke piece, but I was like, "We should get serious about this. This could happen. Our passion for this is clearly equal. Why don't we think about pursuing this together?" so that's what we started doing. He started writing the book and the lyrics, and he would send me bits and pieces while he was still on the road with the Trockadero. After being long distance for the first eight months of our relationship, Joel moved to California and we became full-time lovers, partners and collaborators. That was the beginning of Ruthless!. It was originally called The Bad Seed the Musical.
I was going to ask if it was Ruthless! or your love story that came first, but it sounds like they came at the exact same time.
ML: They were simultaneous.
Do you think that you fell in love because of the work as well?
JP: Yes. It wasn't just: "I want to have sex with this person," or, "I want to get married." It was the idea that it was two creative minds. We have our individual strengths. I'm lyrics; he's a composer. He likes to cook, and I like to eat. Everything just lines up. Creatively the possibility of being together and working together were as essential as the ideas of sharing our lives. It was about sharing our creativity.
ML: Many people who get together have individual strengths that they don't ever really get a chance to share. Both of us being creators allowed us to embrace the romantic aspect of our relationship, and not have to give up anything. Sometimes people don't have the support of their partner when they want to do something creative, but we've got it all.
Is it hard when you're not working together? Like when Marvin is on the road working with Bernadette?
ML: Joel happens to be very close with Bernadette himself. He's known her ever since we got together, because I've been conducting for her for over 40 years now, so he'll frequently come out and join us for a day or two on the road or come to an interesting place. It's just kind of a celebration of our friendship that we're able to share our own individual friends as well because most of them are in the creative field, so it's another fun aspect of our lives that we can share our individual creativeness with each other, without having to sit down and do the hard schlogging work of writing songs together.
It sounds like you're always creatively tangled up.
JP: It's interesting though. We live about about an hour and 20 minutes outside New York — without traffic — but sometimes it takes us two or two and a half hours to get home from New York after the show. I always find myself saying two things when we get in the car and we're sitting in traffic: I'm like, "You know what? Who cares? There's no one in the world I'd rather be just sitting with right now." When the show curtain comes down and all the socializing is over, it's like one step better than solitude. It's like being alone together and that's a rare thing when you can find someone that you can be alone together with, and I so appreciate that. And then no matter how long it takes us to schlep home — we live in the middle of a state forest — when we drive down that dirt road into our little A-frame casa, I'm like, "I don't care how long it takes to get here. It's always nice to come home." I love that image of the two of you at peace in the car.
JP: On the way in we're usually sharing ideas because we're always working on the show. Still directing it; always making it better. It wasn't until yesterday that the new version was rubberstamped by Samuel French, so we'd always be driving in full of ideas, excitement and tweaks. But then driving back it's always been a brilliant meditation and a chance to be alone together — which I love.
When you guys are at home are you always riffing on different musicals?
JP: We're riffing on life. It's not just specifically musicals. We have our definite takes on the news, or on the chores. We dance in the morning. We carry on like lunatics. We're always creating and doing funny things. I remember one time I was outside working and Marvin, who does most of the cooking, brought me lunch dressed as a waitress in full drag. We're always entertaining and enjoying each other.
Never a dull moment! Now that Ruthless! is done, are you worried about having Empty Nest Syndrome?
JP: Oh no.
ML: We've been putting so many other projects aside just to get to this point.
JP: We have a musical — two actually — that we're very anxious to focus on, and I'm working on a book that Marvin is involved with to a certain extent, and a two-man play I wrote a long time ago that really needs some attention, so if anything this has freed us to move forward together and as individuals.
You have a lot to look forward to! Including your wedding. What is that going to be like?
JP: We want our three puppies to be there, of course, and we've asked Bernadette to sing. It actually turns out that our three main producers of Ruthless! are all involved. Maxine Paul who's been our dear friend for many years is our matron of honor, the other producer Evan Sacks, is our best man and Ken Schur and his wife Janet our hosting the party because they've really been so much more than producers of Ruthless! Maxine and Marvin and I go back to the beginning. They really have been the Godparents of this show.
ML: And our writer Joel is going to be very instrumental in putting the wording down for the things we want to say as far as vows etc. It's going to be a very personally crafted wedding. There probably won't be anything of a traditional ceremony, except for the exchange of rings, but it's something that we know is a milestone in our individual lives, and hearts, so we want to share our individuality, and our coming together as individuals in a very personal way.