The parody of film noir types and clichés has a book and lyrics by Christopher Durang and music by Peter Melnick. Durang's lesser-known collaborator happens to be the grandson of Richard Rodgers (the first generation of the composing family), son of Linda Rodgers Melnick, nephew of Mary Rodgers (members of the second generation) and cousin of Adam Guettel (the third generation). This is Melnick's first major theatrical credit; he spent much of his early career in Hollywood penning scores for films such as "L.A. Story" and "Lily Dale." He spoke to Playbill.com about his heritage and his personal drift from movie to stage composing.
Playbill.com: How did you come to collaborate with Christopher Durang on Adrift in Macao?
Peter Melnick: I was working on an evening of one-acts. I had written one by myself and had begun to collaborate on one with Bill Russell called "Simple Arithmetic," and I realized a one-act is a pretty hard thing to place. I contacted Steve Martin, who I knew from having scored "L.A. Story." I sent him "Simple Arithmetic" and said, "Would you give this a look-see and see if you have an interest in writing something else?" He ended up giving me one of his straight one-acts, "Patter for the Floating Lady," and said "Go with God. Do what you like with this." I knew I needed a third piece. I made a kind of cold call to Chris. We had a friend in common. He was gracious enough to take the call and we talked. He invited me to send some music and one of the pieces I sent to him suggested an idea that he had in the back of his head, which was to do a parody of film noir. He sent me an idea and we began to fool with it. The first time we performed it, it was with one of the other one-acts as a concert reading at the York Theatre. It became clear that the two didn't belong in the same program. They were just too different. It also became clear that our little one-act was almost an hour long. The next thing we knew we were at New York Stage & Film doing a full production.
Playbill.com: That was in 2002. For a while, the show was slated for a commercial Off-Broadway production. It's taken a long time for it to get to New York. Was it hard to be patient?
PM: Not really. There's a huge learning curve writing for musical theatre, and I've got a couple shows under my belt that, please God, will never see the light of day. I learned before I started working with Chris something about process. It takes a great deal of time and process to grow a show. Basically it's been a kind of wonderful ride. We lost a year at one point doing deals with our producers between their lawyers and our lawyers. That was frustrating because that was not fertile time. That was just dumb time. But it had to happen, I guess.
Playbill.com: Did you study a lot of music from the period when film noir flourished when writing the score?
PM: Not really. I've got a very eclectic ear. I listen to everything. I love that period. I didn't study it, but I'm really quite at home there.
Playbill.com: Would you call some of the numbers in this score pastiche?
PM: I would so contort myself to avoid using the word pastiche. I never sat down to say, "Now I want to do this kind of a song." The only song where I said to myself, "I want to write in a particular idiom" was a place in the score where we needed a torch song. I sat down consciously to write that. But most of the time it was responding to the dramatic situation and, in some cases where the lyrics came first, Chris' words. I really wasn't thinking idiom and pastiche. Playbill.com: How often did Durang's words come first?
PM: Maybe two-thirds of the time. Some songs or certain sections of songs we knew the music should come first. It was a matter of choosing the write tool for the job.
Playbill.com: What was the first song you wrote?
PM: It was the first song in the show, "Slinky Dress."
Playbill.com: The show was done in Philadelphia in 2005. Is this production similar that that one?
PM: We've made a few significant changes. After Philadelphia, which went quite well, we looked hard at what we didn't feel was as strong as it needed to be. We made a couple of major changes.
Playbill.com: Tell me about your upbringing. Did you take piano lessons as a child?
PM: Yeah, but I was a miserable piano student. I studied with this wonderful guy in New York who was really patient with me. I was one of those kids who needed three bathroom breaks during the hour because I couldn't sit still. I was never a great pianist. I'd never hire me in a session. I studied four or five years. Then I became a self-taught guitarist. I went back to piano when I went to Berkley College because I realized as a composer you really need to get around a piano.
Playbill.com: When did you realize you had a knack for composing?
PM: I wrote my first piece when I was six. I went to the Dalton School in New York and the end of their school year is graduation day, and I wrote a fetching little ditty called "Goodbye, First Grade," which in retrospect told me I was going to be a better composer than lyricist.
Playbill.com: Was your grandfather involved in your life as your grew and learned?
PM: Not really, in terms of music. I knew him as a sweet grandfather, and I was 20 or 21 when he died, so he was in my life for a lot of my life. He continues to be a huge influence. I love his music. I was raised on it. My mom [Linda Rodgers Melnick] plays his music and is, I'm told, quite like him in touch. She's got a great touch.
Playbill.com: She's a good pianist?
PM: She's a wonderful pianist. I think she's probably the best musician, certainly the best player in the family. I think as a kid they realized she had the potential [to be a concert pianist]. What she's told me is that her parents decided that it's a brutal life, that of a concertizing pianist. Whether that was a good call or not, I don't know. I wasn't around. She did pursue composing for a while and wrote a couple charming pieces. She did something with Mary Martin, and her sister Mary [Rodgers] wrote the lyrics for it, called "Three to Make Music." And then she did something with Bob Keeshan of "Captain Kangaroo" called "The Child's Introduction to Jazz."
Playbill.com: Were the two sisters' families close?
PM: Somewhat. We saw each other at family events. I'm fond of all my cousins. I'm in touch with a couple of them more than the others. I'm in pretty regular touch with Adam [Guettel] and also with Alec, his next oldest brother.
Playbill.com: Has Adam come to see some of your work?
PM: He came to an early reading of Macao and I know he'll be coming to see this production. He's been very supportive.
Playbill.com: I know of one other work of yours, The Last Smoker in America. What's happening with that?
PM: We had a couple of developmental readings, one out in California at the Rubicon Theatre and one in November at the York. By the time we finished the York reading, we felt it's strong enough that we're ready to look for a regional production. It's very funny. Musically, it's a very different bag from Adrift in Macao. It's more contemporary; it's broader primary colors; it's quite accessible; it's a book musical.
Playbill.com: Are you devoting yourself completely to theatre music at this point?
PM: My attention is pretty strongly in the theatre now. There are people I love working with in film. I love having my hands on an orchestra, which occasionally happens. Now that I've had a taste of heroin—which is how I think of the musical theatre—it's so much fun. In musical theatre, the author is so highly regarded, it's kind of a heady thing. In film, you're kind of a janitor plus.
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)