Let’s start with Tim Sutton. In July 1996, just hours after the first reading of the first act of The Wild Party in NYC, Tim Sutton suggested I read a sweet children’s novel by Jules Feiffer titled The Man in the Ceiling so that I might consider writing it into a musical. I’m not certain what it was about The Wild Party in all its raunchiness, its blatant bad behavior and brine, that suggested I would be suited to write a delicate and joyful family story about a boy who wanted to be a cartoonist, but I’ll always be grateful to Tim for suggesting it and, more, for sending me a copy of the book.
I read the book and, spoiler alert, that final page (not unlike the final pages of A Prayer for Owen Meany, thank you, John Irving) ripped me open. I cried, dare I say, cartoon tears. You know, those tears that you expel so forcefully, they go upward, sideways and every way but down your cheeks. Yes, cartoon tears for a book about a boy cartoonist seems to illustrate my feelings adroitly. Pun intended. It was all well and good to have such a reaction but, facing reality (something I do as infrequently as possible), I had to make a living, finish The Wild Party, and, most of all, believe myself to be worthy of Jules Feiffer’s attention.
Cut to March of 2000. The Wild Party was now running at the Manhattan Theater Club and, if not exactly a sensation, it had the whiff of something worthwhile (if not worth transferring to Broadway...). Emboldened by my good fortune, I got in touch with Jules Feiffer (sidebar: Imagine that. A pisher like me simply calling up Jules Feiffer and inviting him to my little downtown-y show that somehow made it to midtown) and Jules Feiffer actually came to see it. I suggested drinks after the show. He agreed. Now, I have since learned that “drinks after the show” is a bad, bad idea when trying to woo talent. What if he hated the show? What if he, because he hated the show, hated me? What if both? Clueless as I was to the ways of show business, drinks were scheduled. We sat. I praised him. He praised me (that was nice). We drank. We schmoozed. (Another sidebar: Keep in mind, sitting with a titan of American arts and letters, especially after said titan has just seen your show for which you wrote book, music and lyrics, has great potential to raise one’s blood pressure. I kept my cool—on the outside. But, boy, was I ever flying on the inside. Me? Sitting with Jules Feiffer? In a swanky NYC bar? After he just saw my show? Come on...) Finally, I leaned in with the question he already knew I was going to ask: “Can I have the rights to turn The Man in the Ceiling into a musical?” Quickly, kindly, simply, the answer was: “No.”
Just like that. “No.” Turns out Jules had other plans for The Man In The Ceiling and those plans didn’t include me. He was kind. He offered me his entire artistic output—I mean that: his entire output—as source material for a different musical. Any other musical. Said he, “You can turn anything of mine into a musical but I’m working with someone else on The Man In The Ceiling.” Someone else? Who is this someone else? Is “someone else” a euphemism for Stephen Sondheim? Or Philip Glass? Or was Jules now himself turning to music composition? I mean, he did everything else at the very top. Why not music? The bill came, the check paid (by me, obvs), and we parted as, what, friends? He even went so far as to send me a box of other books and plays he had written and illustrated as if to say, “See? I’m good for my word. Make a musical out of these...” But, much as I loved his other work, my heart was set on one title in particular.
So the years ticked by and I called him about once a year to see if he would relent or allow or if Stephen Sondheim had grown bored. I figured, what could be the worst that might happen? Jules Feiffer hates me? I’d call. We’d chat. I’d ask. He’d demur. I’d go back to my life. This went on for five years. Then somewhere around 2005, I asked him if I could pitch the title as an animated film. He said “Sure.” (What had changed?) So I pitched it a couple times and then I met Tom Schumacher, of Disney Theatrical fame. And Tom asked me if there any Disney titles inspired me and I said I didn’t have one immediately in mind but there’s this book by Jules Feiffer...
Cut to two years of development with Tom and his wonderful group at Disney as we tried to make a musical that pleased us all and, well, sometimes that just doesn’t happen. Though we parted, we parted as friends. That was 2008. Then the contract lapsed in 2012. Then in 2013 (Are you keeping track of the timeline? I read the book in 1996, remember), I approached my lifelong friend Jeffrey Seller—who happens to be a sort of successful Broadway producer (his most recent “we’ll see how it goes” show is called Hamilton)—and asked him to read/listen to our show and tell us what he thought. What did he think? He thought: “I want to develop and direct this show with you guys.” He not only thought it, he actually said it. To us. Over lunch. And I thought (and said), “Well, then I’ll keep writing the score and play Uncle Lester.” And Jules said, “Pass the salad dressing.” And that was that.
One more jump forward, this time to 2017, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York. That was our first full production of the show, now helmed by Jeffrey, featuring me in the cast, and Jules drew all the artwork to inspire the gorgeous set by David Korins. Will Van Dyke orchestrated and supervised the music, Ryan Fielding Garrett music directed and played piano, and we had a swell time in the Hamptons for a month. Still, the show never made friends with that NYC-based theatre with a subscriber base and six available weeks in their schedule so, after a year and a half went by, I said to Jeffrey, “Let’s give Jules a 90th birthday present and record, publish, and license this show.” He agreed. Jules graciously accepted. (For you calendar hounds, this is now about 19 years from that first drink with Jules.) Then I, along with the aforementioned Will and Ryan, and a wonderful cast led by Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel, set to work.
Oh, one final thing. The writer Anne Lamott, writing about her recent wedding—her first, at age 65—urged “Don’t quit before the miracle.” The story of our show itself, principally, is about not giving up before the miracle happens. In Jimmy’s case it’s the miracle of drawing a hand. In Uncle Lester’s case, it’s the miracle of his family truly supporting him through his extended series of creative failures. In Father’s case it’s the miracle of learning how to love the son he has rather than the son he wants. I’m still waiting for the miracle to happen for this musical but, perhaps, like those who wait for the Second Coming (or, like my people, the First), I think the miracle may have already occurred: I got to write a musical based on a book I deeply treasure. I got to write it with the man who wrote that book. I got to put it on with my lifelong friend who happens to be a wonderful person in addition to being a great man of the theater. And now, that musical is a recording for you to listen to; it’s available for you to put on at your theatre; and, soon, it will be a published vocal selections folio so you can sing along if you’d like to. And, 23 years since that chat with Tim Sutton, here it is.
I’d say that’s all pretty darn miraculous.