Q&A: David Shire, Composer of Big, Closer Than Ever

Q&A: David Shire, Composer of Big, Closer Than Ever Iron Mountain Stage Company in Ringwood, N.J. Is reviving the 1989 revue Closer Than Ever, which showcases the songs of composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr.

Iron Mountain Stage Company in Ringwood, N.J. Is reviving the 1989 revue Closer Than Ever, which showcases the songs of composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr.

The production runs Aug. 23-25, and offers a new chance to listen to the funny, bittersweet short-story-like songs by the team that wrote the current Broadway hit, Big, based on the 1988 Tom Hanks film about a 12-year-old magically transformed into a 30-year-old.

Maltyby & Shire also wrote the 1983 musical Baby and the 1977 revue, Starting Here, Starting Now which featured songs from lesser known musicals in the early part of their career.

Tickets to the Iron Mountain production can be purchased by calling (201) 962-9007.

Shire agreed to talk about Closer Than Ever and Big in a Q&A with Playbill On-Line. PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Will you be adding any new material to Iron Mountain's Closer Than Ever? SHIRE: We liked it the way it was in New York, so we haven't worked on it at all. Some productions switch things around, owing to the idiomatic abilities of the cast, but that will be up to the director.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Was "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole" song the first written for this revue?
SHIRE: No. It was originally in Baby. Its about how females in nature don't usually need a mate [for life]. They use males to conceive, then get rid of them. In an early version of Baby we had a character who wanted a child, but not a husband. "Who needs him?" The revue is like 25 short stories, like an anthology.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: How were the songs chosen for Closer Than Ever?
SHIRE: A friend of Richard's [Maltby], somebody who was working as an assistant at one point, Stephen Scott Smith, asked if he could put together an evening of our stuff -- stuff cut from shows, or in lesser known things. It would be like Starting Here, Starting Now, Part II. It was done at [New York nightclub] Eighty-Eights and got a rave review from [New York Times cabaret critic] Stephen Holden. It ran 55 minutes, with 15 songs. There was immediately interest in expanding it, especially knowing the New York Times was on our side. We got an opportunity to try it out at Williamstown [theater festival in Massachusetts]. We then wrote some more songs for it, and added some songs from Urban Blight [a revue] done at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Terrence McNally and Wendy Wasserstein each contributed a scene or two, then there were six or seven songs we wrote, including "Aerobic Cantata," "Miss Byrd," "Life Story" and "One of the Good Guys." That was the kernel of Closer Than Ever. We expanded the evening at Eighty-Eights with a couple more original songs, the we wrote more at Williamstown, including "March of Time." "Doors" was added afterward. Richard had the title "Closer Than Ever" in mind, so we wrote the song to go with it.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Which of your shows gets done most frequently?
SHIRE: I'd say Closer Than Ever is starting to compare with Starting Here, Starting Now, which has had five or six hundred productions. All our shows seem to have that pattern: They don't have huge runs in New York, but then become stock and amateur production classics. I suppose that's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But it would be nice to have a long run in New York, too. Baby had a huge subsequent production list. Starting Here, Starting Now has four cast albums -- in Swedish, South African, and British [as well as American].

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Did the success of Staring Here, Starting Now stimulate any interest in your early unsuccessful shows, from which many of the songs were drawn?
SHIRE: Those are dead issues. I never wanted to do those again. We skimmed the cream off the top. Why go back to all those book problems?

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Given the success of your revues and the problems with your big traditional Broadway musicals, what attracted you to adapt Big?
SHIRE: We always wanted to have a big book musical. We weren't attracted to Big at first because we worried it would cost $10 million and need a lot of sets and costumes. But we realized it was, in a way, an extension of Baby. So we started out writing a smaller, more spare show. But when Mike [Ockrent, director] and Susan [Stroman, choreographer] came on board, it just, like Topsy, grew. It think that turned out to be both a plus and a minus. Some critics hated it for that [being splashy instead of intimate]. The audience seems to love it.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: What were the major changes you made in Big during its tryout in Detroit, and then during rewrites in New York.
SHIRE: Most of the changes were made in the first act. Most pointed to making [leading character] Josh's story more central. We found out the hard way in Detroit that when we were not talking about Josh or letting him drive the action in some way, the audience wasn't that interested.
"Stars, Stars, Stars" was the fifth song we wrote for that scene [where Susan comes to visit Josh's apartment]. Before that, the songs were driven by Susan: "What is Susan's strategy up here? How to engineer this scene? In the earlier versions, Josh was a reactor, more passive. But "Stars..." is Josh's song. It's his effort to find something to interest her. She thought he was coming on to her but suddenly realizes he just wants a pal.

The same happened with the song "Fun" at FAO Schwarz. The version that went into Detroit was Macmillan's (the toy company executive's) song. Nobody in his company can have fun anymore. The song was about how there was no fun anymore. Now, Josh starts out saying 'I wish I were a kid again.' And Macmillan says 'Me too.' It's more natural.
We also wrote four or five numbers before we came up with [Act I finale, set at the company Christmas party] "Cross the Line." They were also more Macmillan-driven. He was saying 'Let's dance and party and get in the mood.' It was a stretch, but we had to find a way of letting it be Josh's number.
We also had to cut the song "Big," the song where he wakes up and finds he's big. It was a big rock 'n' roll number. What we wrote in its place, "This isn't me is lighter. I liked the other song better -- it was more exciting and had more fear in it -- but it just didn't work. Certainly the show that came into New York was much better than the one that opened in Detroit.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: So few shows nowadays take the traditional route and do an "out-of-town" tryout. What was it like?
SHIRE: We did all the rewriting in that traditional dreary hotel room . Detroit in February is not a garden spot. We were confined to our hotel and hotel room. The producers supplied us with electric pianos. We would trundle back and forth from the theatre at the Fisher complex and back to our hotel rooms. There was a whole period of four to five days where we didn't have to go outside, because it was snowing and cold.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Given the amount of rewriting you had to do, did you ever panic?
SHIRE: Not really. We were certainly concerned, but we were too tired and had too much to do to panic. Richard and John [Weidman, the librettist] and I tend to be pretty low key. There must have been panic on the inside. But if you're professional, all you can do is put one note in front of another, one word in front of another, one scene in front of another. We wound up writing 59 songs for this show over a period of 5 years. I don't know if I'm proud of that fact! PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Why did it take so much rewriting?
SHIRE: The show is very tricky dramatically -- much more than when we started out. It isn't a 'natural.' Josh , as in the movie, is a reactive character. You have all these wonderful closeups of Tom Hanks reacting to things, people assuming things he's meaning when he's meaning something else. That can be deadly for a musical. He wishes he was big, then get his wish immediately. Then he wishes he was small. He says "How can I get out of this [adulthood]?" Then at end of Act I, he says, "I like this, I think I'll stay." That's very offbeat for a musical. A lot of the work in Detroit was overcoming that. We did it as best we could.
Very few of the songs we cut were "bad songs." That's true of a lot of material cut from musicals: They're not bad songs, just tangential to the real line you should be fulfilling. Big, more than any other show we ever worked on, required a lot of rethinking.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Somebody's got to keep Bruce Kimmel [producer of the Lost in Boston recording series] in business.
SHIRE: We've been joking that we certainly have enough material for another revue [like Closer Than Ever]. We have 20 songs written just for Susan Lawrence [the leading female character]. We could do a one woman show based on Susan. We wrote five songs before "Here We Go Again" [Susan's first number]. It's very tricky, introducing a main character 40 minutes into the action. It has to tell you who she is and why she's going up to Josh's loft. It required a lot of tries to get right. Frankly, it's my least favorite song in the show. It gets the job done, but it isn't one of our great songs, as a song. Sometimes a song has so much to do, it's like writing a triple acrostic. It wasn't a place to sit down and write "Some Enchanted Evening."

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Are you working on a new show?
SHIRE:We're juuust starting to. We're getting ourselves back together after six months of nonstop and often grueling work. Richard and John and I have been having informal talks and an idea Richard had even before Big. It's an original story, a concept musical, God help us. I don't want to say any more.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Will it be a big musical like Big?
SHIRE: We loved working on a big show with Michael and Susan. Most of the experience was quite happy. But Richard and I feel we write certain kind of song and a certain kind of show. People who didn't like Big, expected a different kind of show from us, much more like Baby: an original idea, something that dug a little deeper emotionally -- although it was not our intention not to dig deeper. That's our strong suite. We have to go back to doing the kind of show we do best, with Richard directing it -- or not -- doing what comes naturally to us.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Can you define what that is?

SHIRE: Take Baby as the one example: It's an original idea, it's certainly not a standard linear Broadway form. It tells these interlocking stories -- and the songs tend to be quirkier than most you find. A song like "The Story Goes On" [sung by a pregnant woman, about feeling the chain of life from daughter to mother, going back into infinity] , that seems to be what we do best. Jerry Herman doesn't do it -- even Stephen Sondheim doesn't. They have their own stamp. I guess we're closer to the kind of song Sondheim does when he's working with Lapine or Hal Prince.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Have you ever considered working with those directors?
SHIRE: We've talked to Hal through the years. We've had a mutual admiration society. We were working on a musical about [journalist] John Reed before Reds [the film] came out. That's more our kind of show: Not an adaptation, and not necessarily geared to a mass Broadway audience -- though we'd rather have a mass audience than not! You have to do material you love, that feels natural to you; then write it the way it seems to come.

PLAYBILL ON-LINE: Where will your next show be done?
SHIRE: Our next show we'll maybe do Off-Broadway or start at La Jolla [Playhouse in California], or perhaps a whole different route. We're not thinking of it as a Broadway show, per se. Big started as something that had to be done as a Broadway show, and that colored the result, for better or worse.