Monday, March 07, 2011

Q & A With Joe Iconis

You may recognize the characters in Things To Ruin, a collection of songs by Joe Iconis (Bloodsong of Love, ReWrite, The Black Suits). They may remind you of yourself, your friends, an ex, or someone you grew up with. Iconis took some time out to answer questions about why he likes to write about real people, where he goes for inspiration, what jobs he may have to fall back on, and more. You can catch Things To Ruin at Le Poisson Rouge through March 28.

Q: Were all the songs in the show written specifically for Things To Ruin? I know it's been around for a few years, but can you tell me a little bit about the origins of the show?
A: Things To Ruin started life as just an evening of my songs--stand alones and songs from musicals. It was the first thing I ever really did in New York--the first time my songs were heard on a stage. We did it at Ars Nova in the summer of 2006 and it marked my first collaboration with director John Simpkins, a collaboration that has changed my life. When we first started, it really was just a very theatrical concert. We did it two more times in the subsequent years at Joe’s Pub, and dropped a couple of songs and added some more. Every time we did it, it began to take on more and more of a shape and feel more and more like a piece of theater. In the fall of 2008, we completely revamped the show and did it at the now defunct Zipper Theater. This is the version of the show that is reflected on the cast album and the version that is now playing at Le Poisson Rouge. A lot of the songs were written as stand alone pieces, but many of them deal with the same themes/types of characters, so putting them together felt kind of natural and then anything I rewrote was informed by the rest of the songs in the piece. A few were written specifically for Things To Ruin. "Never Heard Nothing" was a song I couldn't have written had I not been specifically trying to write something to wrap up Things To Ruin and serve as a bookend for "Born This Morning." "Mamma, Cut Me Deeper!" was the last song I wrote for the show. I wrote it during a very crazy and stressful week of my life, and the experience of writing it was fairly wrought--which I think you kind of hear in the song itself. I didn't finish until hours before the first show. Eric William Morris was learning bits of it as I was writing them, and everyone involved in the show contributed to it in some way.

Q: Congrats on the album! How did that come about? Where you approached by Sh-K-Boom Records?
A: Thanks! I'm very proud of the album and can't take any credit for it sounding as good as it does. I've had the good sense to surround myself with people who are far more talented than I and the album is a product of that. As far as how it came to be, I had vaguely known the folks at Sh-K-Boom for a while and they were familiar with my work. They came to see Things To Ruin at The Zipper and asked if I wanted to make an album of it and we did.

Q: A lot of the songs in Things To Ruin seem to be about, for lack of a better word, losers, or people who are down on their luck. Is that a conscious theme?
A: Not sure if it's a conscious theme, but I definitely gravitate towards writing about people who don't usually get songs written about them--at least not theater songs. I like to write about everyday, normal folks--unremarkable people. It's very interesting to me to see how seemingly tiny, insignificant events can feel huge to people. That's something I return to time and again. I love people who are "losers," because I think everyone's a loser, or, at the very least, everyone has felt like a loser at some point in their lives. That's what is relatable to me. I like people who are scrappy, who have to fight for what they need to survive.

Q: Is there a song in Things To Ruin that has the most significance to you or that you're proudest to have written?
A: I try to be honest when I'm writing--honesty is the thing that is most important to me. And I feel like "Never Heard Nothing" is a very honest song. I'm proud to have written that one because I think it's a song where I allowed myself to write 100% from the gut, without thinking about structure or rules or being too sappy or being too clean. I like that it's a big fucking mess of a song--it's too long and it's all over the place. But I think it's exactly the type of song that I wanted to write and I think I was being completely true to myself when I wrote it.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration from typically?
A: I get my inspiration from actors I love, from things I overhear at Dunkin Donuts. I frequently write in Dunkin' Donuts and it breeds creativity in a way that Starbucks never could. From bartenders. From the autumn. I'm very inspired by movies or songs or plays that I love. Nothing revs me up like seeing a really incredible work of art.

Q: Who are some of your biggest influences?
A: Robert Altman, Dolly Parton, Kander and Ebb, The Carousel of Progress, The Country Bear Jamboree, Harry Nilsson, Elton John, The Muppets, Alfred Hitchcock, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, horror movies, Sondheim, John Waters, Times Square from 1940-1987, and Jack Daniels.

Q: You tend to work with a lot of the same actors. Were you friends first and you started putting them in your shows? Or did you just like working with them so much you kept using them?
A: I love great actors and I love the idea of people sticking together. A lot of people say things to me like: “Oh, you are so loyal to YOUR actors” but to me it has nothing to do with loyalty and everything to do with community. I think theater is a community and it makes sense to me that artists should stick together and make art with like-minded people. To speak specifically to the actors I frequently collaborate with (and who are commonly referred to as The Family), I am just the world’s biggest fan of each and every one of them. They are all people who I’ve kind of stumbled upon at various stages in my life. I think there’s the impression that all these folks who perform with me are friends of mine from high school or college days--that’s definitely not the case. They are all actors who I was a fan of and started working with. It’s not like I’m choosing people--everyone who has stuck around has been someone who has clicked with me and the group. We found each other. I like to think that people find each other. I respond to actors who are human, period. There’s a sort of artificiality to a lot of musical theater performance that I really don’t like. It’s distancing to me. I like actors who have personality. I like actors who aren’t afraid to take chances. I long for the days where great fearless actors with huge personalities like Barbara Harris or Len Cariou or Dorothy Loudon could be the big Broadway stars. I feel like it's so hard for that to happen today. Who the hell would Len Cariou play in Mamma Mia!? Is there a Dorothy Loudon role in Spider-Man? I am less concerned with whether or not a particular girl can belt a high E, American Idol-style. If you can belt a high E, good for you, but unless there is a reason why you are belting that high E, I really don’t give a shit. I am proud that the actors I work with (and, for the record, they’ve all got wonderful voices and are deliriously sexy) are all real people, on stage and off. And it doesn’t matter if it’s someone who is freshly out of school or someone like Annie Golden, who is a Broadway legend. I work with people who care about the work and who have a passion to make some art. And have some fun doing it. And who like to go to the bar after rehearsal. That is a huge part of it all.

Q: As a composer, what do you think about the state of musical theater?
A: That's a tricky one. It's a scary time and it's an exciting time. There's lots of great stuff and lots of garbage being produced, and there's lots of great stuff and lots of garbage not being produced. I don't think it's as easy as: "Big Broadway musicals suck and little musicals that can't get out of development hell are all great." All I know is, I love musical theater. I think it's an important and miraculous art form that deserves to thrive and be nurtured. I think it's worthy of that. There are so many humongous musical enterprises that feel cynical to me and some original musicals that could very well be jukebox musicals. The ones that feel like they were written by committee or by exit polls or something. It seems like it's harder and harder to be a young writer with something new to say. Especially if the new thing you have to say isn’t based on a movie or a property with name recognition. There’s part of me that longs for the old days when a writer could open a weird, small musical on Broadway, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. When it seemed like the commercial theater was a little more open to certain kinds of projects. But there’s also part of me that thinks, “OK. What I am trying to do is different. It’s an uphill battle and everyone is telling me that I’m crazy for wanting to do this thing. But I’ve got an army of people who are fighting with me and we all believe in our hearts that what we are doing is worth damn. So we are gonna do everything in our power to make it happen. We are going to get to where we want to be and we are gonna do it by being true to ourselves.” Which is kind of what Things To Ruin, as a whole, is about. It all comes from a place of passion. A place of believing in something so much that you’ve got to try to make it happen with every ounce of your being.

Q: I loved Bloodsong of Love. Are there any plans for another production or a recording? Please tell me there is a future for this show.
A: That does my heart so good to hear. I couldn't be prouder of Bloodsong, and it is currently my life's mission to get another production of it. We learned so much from the world premiere at Ars Nova and I am itching to make some changes to the thing and unleash it on the world in an even bigger way. I don't want to record it until we get our next production because of the changes I want to make. We just need a producer or a theater who is willing to take a shot on the show and who believes in it as much as we do.

Q: If you could write a song for any actor/singer and have them perform it, who would it be?
A: Ah, there are so many. I'd love to have John Goodman sing one of my songs so much. That's kind of a dream. I'd love to write a duet for Shelly Duvall and Martha Plimpton. I've also been really into Laura Benanti lately--wouldn't be awesome to see her do something where she murdered people? I wanna write a murder song for Laura Benanti. I also want to write a very old-timey love song for Sasha Grey. Something you would have heard sung at Sardi's in 1952.

Q: What's coming up for you after Things To Ruin?
A: I'm poor these days, I need to find someone to pay me to do something. Maybe I'll become a milliner. Or a prostitute. Who knows?

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