The Man in the Ceiling made its world premiere in 2017 at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York but it took nearly two years for a studio cast album to drop. Released April 18, fans can now hear show in its entirety performed by Hello, Dolly! Tony nominees Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, upcoming Grand Horizons star Ashley Park (Mean Girls), Grady Miranda (Elf), and John-Michael Lyles (Off-Broadway's Sweeney Todd).
The work, based on Jules Feiffer's novel of the same name, tells the story of 12-year-old aspiring cartoonist Jimmy Jibbett who is forced to find inspiration and hope in unusual places when his family is less than supportive of his drawings.
And what of the stories behind the songs themselves? The Man in the Ceiling’s music and lyrics writer Andrew Lippa breaks down the cast recording track by track below. And order the cast album from Ghostlight records here.
The opening number we presented at Bay Street Theater was not this one. That opening number was called “Getting It Right” and focused on Jimmy’s anxious desire to draw and write well. This opening number, which had been in the version of our show that immediately preceded the production, is about Jimmy’s imagination and the world he creates. It’s about his idealized dad in the form of a character named Toledo Jackson. It’s about the belief that he can conquer any foe (Inca Binca!) with the right amount of smarts and imagination. It welcomes us to Jimmy’s world in a joyful and upbeat way, though in truth, everything and everyone in Jimmy’s life is not exactly fine.
Father is exasperated by his son—he loves baseball and wants Jimmy to love it, too. I didn’t love baseball as a boy, despite the Forces of Suburbia telling me I must (or else, there must be something wrong with you...), but my own dad didn’t give a shit about baseball so I dodged that bullet. Father, however, almost played for the Mets. He was really good at baseball to the exclusion of most other things. Jimmy feels like an “almost” to Father: an almost son. That’s sad. But that’s the sadness Father carries around. I wrote this song in about five hours during a development step at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for their New Works Festival, which we were fortunate to be part of. The song got cut from the show at Bay Street. But we put it back. I think it really illuminates exactly who Father is and what he wants. And, in Gavin Creel’s beautiful hands and heart, this character is fully alive.
We meet the entire family in this one. We learn what they each want: Uncle Lester wants to write a hit song so he can have a hit musical; Jimmy wants a more supportive father; Father wants Jimmy to get his homework done; Mother wants Jimmy to do his chores; Lisi, Jimmy’s bossy sister, wants to be bossy. They all look to Jimmy—either to give him more to do or to tell him to do something other than what he’s currently doing. It’s a crazy mess of a family, often told in musical counterpoint to underscore just how much overlapping of conversation and desire is really going on in that house.
Outside of Jimmy’s desire to have the dad he wants, herein lies Jimmy’s greatest problem: He can’t draw hands. And, worst of all, Charley Beemer, the boy next door whom Jimmy idolizes, wants Jimmy to draw a comic for him: The Hand of Doom! An evil, severed hand, dripping blood and running around town doing dastardly deeds. Not exactly Jimmy’s speed. However, Charley has left this task at Jimmy’s willing doorstep, even though Jimmy hasn’t yet copped to the truth of his deep inability to draw a convincing hand. In this song, he imagines how, with a battalion of assistants, he might accomplish this odious task.
Well, this one was a song that was in and then out and then in and then out and finally, with a new lyric, in. I’m very pleased since it’s a song that has gotten a very strong, positive reaction from some people (my mother, my agent, my one friend…). Musicals are odd beasts of creativity—they have multiple heads, do many things at once, and demand constant revision. Sometimes beautiful songs don’t make the cut. I’m glad this one did as it represents the grownup side of The Man in the Ceiling.
Originally, this was a song only for Jimmy’s sister. We came to realize, later in the process of writing and rewriting, that Jimmy’s characters were really the ones who needed to demand they stay alive through his art. In fact, without Jimmy and, in particular, without Jimmy drawing these characters, they would cease to exist. Therefore, this is a song about characters fighting for survival and the 12-year-old boy who, with Caesar-like powers, decides thumbs up or down. Jimmy’s comics world is the only place he wields such substantial power.
MAYBE HE LIKES ME
This was one of the first songs I wrote for the show and it has remained unchanged through all the years. “Maybe he likes me just as much as what I do” always kills me because it was how I felt as a child with conspicuous talents. My mother would encourage me to sing at parties, at restaurants that had a lounge pianist, at holiday dinners, and so on. It was difficult for me to feel that I was loved simply for being myself, rather than for being myself who could do these entertaining things. In my case, singing and playing piano. In Jimmy’s case, it’s drawing. Jimmy would do anything to impress Charley Beemer—even pervert his own nature, his own talents. That’s a shitty bargain for friendship and, in the end, that’s a friendship built on sand. But friendship, in all its facets, is one of our themes. So this song, about a boy so desperate for a friend he’d try to be someone else, really hurts.
WHERE IS MY LOVE SONG
I love musical counterpoint. Listen to “Poor Child” from The Wild Party and you’ll see just how much (BTW, that one’s inspired by the 4th Act quartet from Rigoletto called “Bella Figlia Dell’amore”). I wrote a piece for The Addams Family called “At Seven” that never made it past our out-of-town tryout in Chicago. It was a 4-part homage to Cosi Fan Tutti—ask me to show it to you sometime. “Where Is My Love Song,“ filled with Uncle Lester’s angst, Father’s fury, Mother’s immobility, and Charley Beemer’s confidence allowed me to collide them into one whole while still isolating them dramatically. They never interact, not until Father says “No more” to Jimmy near the very end, but they interact musically which, to my mind, helps tell this thorny part of the story. I love this kind of musical device, learned from masterpieces like “Tonight (Quintet)” or “One Day More.” I’m always on the lookout for more chances to write these kinds of songs. And, even more, always hope they actually work!
This song came late to the party. Some do. I love the double-meaning in the title: One being “messing about” and one being “acting like a child.” Jimmy has been told by his Father at the end of Act One that he must stop drawing comics and, sadly, Jimmy has acquiesced. Here, at the top of Act Two, Jimmy “kicks the dog” in telling his comic characters that he’s through with them and, worse, they’ve got to get into a big green garbage bag and, presumably, be tossed in the garbage. Death has come for them at last! Clearly, the conflict in this scene is between Jimmy and his creations and aren’t they really the same thing? Dr. Freud? Jimmy feels he must kill off the “child” part of himself. But will he?
LIKE YOUR SON
Oh, there’s the glorious Kate Baldwin again, breaking hearts with another song. I was lucky enough she played Sandra Bloom in Big Fish and sang “I Don’t Need A Roof.” Then she did the 20th anniversary production of John & Jen. Now, she’s on this recording. Thank you, Kate. Most musicals I know of actually have only a few absolute solos (that is, solos with no one else singing). This is one such solo in The Man in the Ceiling. Kate makes a meal of it, as she always does, and really understands that this woman must step up and defend her son. Her husband just doesn’t “get” Jimmy, and worse: He doesn’t actually like him. This song, this powerful defense of Jimmy by his Mother, wakes up Jimmy’s Father not only to Jimmy but to Uncle Lester, too.
I DO WHAT I DO
Well, I’ll be accused of all sorts of things if I told you this was my favorite song in the show. But, while I never pick favorites, it is at the core of what this show aspires to be about: doing for doing’s sake, regardless of what they say or think or feel or tell you. I’ve gone through my entire adult life—and I’m 54 years old while I write this—and it took me until my late 40’s to truly stop worrying about, well, all of you. While I hope you do like my shows and songs, what I hope, even more, is that I like them. Uncle Lester, when forced to defend himself, chooses, well, himself. He realizes this, and tries to teach his niece and nephew, that despite the setbacks and suffering and self-flagellation there is a real reward at the end of a creative day: the fact of having made something new. He sings “I made some mistakes/But I made something new/And I love my life this way.” Substitute “Andrew Lippa” for “Uncle Lester" if you haven’t done so already and you’ll know what I mean.
YOU ARE THE FRIEND
Uncle Lester is convinced he must write a great love song for his musical to succeed. “You Are the Friend” is both Uncle Lester’s love song and a statement about how Mother and Father feel about each other. Being friends in a marriage really matters—sometimes, it’s the only thing that gets you through the tough patches. The opening lyric “I used to spend my nights alone/Told myself to go to movies anyway” is exactly what I did in my late 20’s. I remember, when I was a music director at a summer theater in Wisconsin, I had a day off and went to see Forrest Gump by myself (followed by an excellent personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut) and I realized it was the first time I’d ever—ever!—gone to see a movie alone. I preferred to spend time alone at home rather than be caught alone at a movie theater. As I saw it, going to movies was something one did with others and, if I had no others, it was better to stay home than to admit I saw a film alone. Of course, that Forrest Gump experience changed me and now, in many cases, I prefer to go to the movies by myself!
TO THE GODS
Father finally relents. He has seen Uncle Lester’s show and he believes it to be a work of genius. He wants to invest. He finally shares his family’s enthusiasm for Lester’s art and life. While Jimmy is the one who inspires the discussion, it is Father who brings it home. This old-school tribute to all things Broadway razzmatazz makes me giggle. I’m so happy I got the chance to write this kind of song that is truly rooted in something old but is still deeply connected to the characters singing it in the present.
Will Van Dyke and I decided to keep this on the recording as it shows a critical moment in the story: Uncle Lester giving up. This song, in its original incarnation, was once huge—kind of like “The American Dream” in Miss Saigon. It was, in its former state, a celebration of failure on a grand scale. We discovered that celebrating failure, especially for Lester to celebrate his failure, was no fun to watch. The song, then, was shrunk to this size, along with the interjections and passions of Jimmy, so desperate to show Uncle Lester what he has achieved at Lester’s urging.
DRAW YOUR OWN CONCLUSION
In addition to the double meaning (which pleases me to no end!), this song has some sort of magic chemistry in it. It helps the audience feel if presented honestly, and provides, in the best circumstances, a kind of cathartic sigh for all: Yes, Jimmy did it. Yes, Lester can keep going. Yes, Father will try to be a better man. Yes, Mother’s patience and persistence paid off. But, like my favorite plays and stories, the song itself says it’s about you. You decide just what you think about how this story ended. We present the facts. You provide the feelings.
BONUS: BEING GROWN-UP
I found this song in the digital equivalent of a warehouse in Secaucus, my iTunes folder. I had written it a while back, never having showed it to Jeffrey or Jules, and forgot about it until I unearthed it among the other bytes. It moved me right away and, though it found no home in the show, it found a home on this recording. I also sang it for Jules, his family, and his friends at his 90th birthday party in January. Jules, almost more than anyone else, has really taught me the way to grow up and not grow up. In that way, Jules has been my man in the ceiling for these past 19 years. Maybe that’s what being grown-up is all about. Find your thing, act like a child, and try not to get caught by your dad. Thanks, Jules.