The Tony Award-winning songwriter of Falsettos admitted his childhood show-tune turn to Playbill Radio's Robert Viagas in a 2003 interview. With a new project being developed in February at Barrington Stage Company Massachusetts, it seemed like a good time to eavesdrop on the interview (edited excerpts are below), in which Finn talked about his creative origins, his lesser-known shows (Romance in Hard Times) and the autobiographical details in his writing.
The Tony Award-winning songwriter's new collaboration, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is being workshopped Feb. 6-15 by BSC toward a full summer production in Sheffield, MA. The creative team also includes playwright Rachel Sheinkin and conceiver Rebecca Feldman.
Spelling Bee spoofs the contests that pit children against children to determine who has the best command of their voluminous vocabulary.
Finn's musical works Falsettos, A New Brain and Elegies: A Song Cycle, among other shows.
"Radio Playbill," a weekly news and entertainment magazine show of theatrical interviews, features and music, is broadcast multiple times each week on Sirius Satellite Radio's Our Time, Stream 131. PLAYBILL ON-LINE: A lot of people know about your life because in many cases your songs are almost like a diary: we learn a lot about you from listening to your songs. You're almost like a Spalding Gray in a way — writing about your life. But we know very little about your early life. Do you remember who introduced you to the theatre?
WF: I used to dance around the living room to Guys and Dolls which is a frightening, frightening thing. I was always interested in the theatre and just gravitated there.
PBOL: Were your parents at all interested in it?
WF: Not at all — but they were always very supportive. And I was always smart, so they figured I wasn't doing anything stupid. So they were always supportive and everyone was supportive. I must have been an obnoxious child: always singing and always — well, dancing is not the word. "Moving."
WF: I was conducting! …overtures were my favorite — conducting the overtures.
PBOL: Did your parents have cast albums?
WF: We got Guys and Dolls. And I asked for Bye Bye Birdie. I wanted the movie [album] of Bye Bye Birdie because I wanted the song that Ann-Margret sang: "Bye Bye Birdie." But my father brought home the Broadway cast with Chita Rivera and it's infinitely superior in every way. But I was so sad that I didn't have "Bye Bye Birdie" on it until I realized — you know — "This is better, all of these many songs make this show much better." I don't know what I was thinking. So that's when I knew. That was the start.
PBOL: Did you want to be a songwriter at the time?
WF: For my bar mitzvah I got a guitar and I taught myself to play the guitar. And then I went to Williams College. When I got to college I kind of transferred to the piano. I transferred what I knew on the guitar to the piano. But when I was playing the guitar I was always writing my own songs — and singing a few of — I only had one book of folk songs, a blue book, of these sad, sad folk songs. ...I would start them the way they were written and then I would change them to how I wanted them….I would just use the lyrics — re-musicalize the lyrics.
PBOL: Did you ever keep a diary?
WF: No never did it.
PBOL: Because your songs are, a lot of them, are so personal.
WF: Well, I made a decision to do that. In every other art form I feel things are very autobiographical and they're the things I enjoy reading the most or seeing the most. And in musicals for some reason, we lag behind, and nothing is ever... we're kind of the stepchild of the arts and I just feel its time to get us up there with the rest of the arts. It's hard because, you know, I always thought I'd like to make a documentary, a musical documentary of my life but it takes time to write the music, there's no way to make a musical documentary unless you're singing like a moron through your life.
PBOL: But wasn't A New Brain kind of a documentary?
WF: Well, it pretended to be, but it really wasn't — we made up a lot of the stuff, and um... so I keep on trying to get more and more autobiographical and just see where it leads and whether other people will follow it, or whether it's only of interest to me and the few people I know.
PBOL: A lot of theatre composers, they have trouble writing songs unless it's in the context of a story.
WF: Oh, God — I love it so much.
PBOL: Just writing the songs.
WF: It's the rest of it that's so hard for me — the context is what I find impossible. And the voice — it took me a long time to develop my voice, the voice of William Finn. The voice I use in all these songs in Elegies its a very distinct New York Jewish gay voice, and, sometimes it's hard for me to lose it for other songs, because I've so worked on these — trying to get this specific voice down.
PBOL: You have a song about Joe Papp [in Elegies, which is preserved on a cast album].
WF: I did Romance in Hard Times down there [at The Public]. Joe was totally great except for the times when he would go off [on] us. And he thought I was really talented and he would take me to his house and talk to me and really he, you know, he quoted Shakespeare all the time — I had no idea what he was talking about — and I didn't know whether I should say, "Wait — I — Joe — I'm really stupid — help me!" So I used to just shake my head all the time: I was exhausted. I didn't know what he was talking about. But he was an awfully good guy and I felt I was in the presence of something substantial. And so all the — everything I talk about in "Joe Papp" — they're all Biblical references — even Robert Moses, you know, so, I really did feel I was in the presence of some sort of God.
PBOL: Romance in Hard Times — most people don't know that except the people, like me, who have Alix Korey's solo album where she sings one of the great numbers from that. What became of Romance in Hard Times? Can you tell us a little about it?
WF: It's about a soup kitchen... I wrote a thing called America Kicks Up Its Heels with Patti LuPone and Dick Latessa and that was about a soup kitchen during the Depression and also a modern story and then I just decided I wanted to do the soup kitchen much more than the modern story and Wilford Leach —
PBOL: Who directed Pirates of Penzance —
WF: Pirates of Penzance and other wonderful things, was directing it and he said "you should make it black." Now, I love writing for black voices so this delighted me to no end, even though I had to rewrite everything, except for the white songs — like "All Fall Down" — so we wrote a show about a soup kitchen during the Depression where a lady refused to give up her baby until the world became a better place. It starred Lillias White and Alix Korey and Peggy Hewitt and... Peggy Hewitt was Eleanor Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt comes to the soup kitchen and stays, and everyone keeps saying, "That's Eleanor Roosevelt." It becomes a ridiculous kind of fairy tale.
PBOL: Does it ever get done? Are the rights available?
WF: No the rights are — everyone — I cannot tell you the amount of people who ask me to do it every year...
PBOL: And you just don't want to see it...
WF: It needs to be done, I just have to take another smack at it — crack at it.
PBOL: Another project of yours that people have been lusting after: What is happening with Royal Family? I know you had a big starry reading...
WF: It's really good. It's startlingly good.
PBOL: Is that project still alive?
WF: It's not dead.
PBOL: Are you working on any shows now?
WF: I'm working on the musical — the movie version of Falsettos. James Lapine and I are writing it.
PBOL: Has the success of the film, "Chicago," helped?
WF: Yes. Absolutely. I'm sure they're doing every show in the world. But this is a show that they've been speaking to us about for years and years.
PBOL: You have written movie scores before..."Tom Thumb and Thumbelina" was one of your films. Adapting one of your stage musicals to film, what are some of the challenges in that? What are some of the changes you have to make? Or are you just going to film the stage production?
WF: No — we're making changes, but you know I wrote [it] when I was 29, and I'm better now and so there are just things I want to fix and clarify: Change at the beginning so there will be more of a change at the end
PBOL: Your musicals are pretty much through written. Is the film going to be the same way?
WF: Mostly. Pretty much.