Friday, August 23, 2013

The Bluest Drink: Q&A with Max Friedman and Charlie Rosen

If you're reading this blog, you're probably a Sondheim fan. (If not, why are you reading a theater blog? Did you think it was a science blog? If so, I apologize). Anyway, this Monday, August 26, at 10 p.m. at (le) poisson rouge, there is going to be a multimedia revue of Stephen Sondheim called The Bluest Ink. Everyone involved in the show is under 25 years old (way to make me feel like an underachiever). It stars Kasie Gasparini, Will Roland, Ariella Serur, and Keith White and there will be projections with animation by Ilana Schwartz. The show was conceived and directed by Max Friedman, who is also a director and producer of Charlie Rosen's Broadway Big Band, which frequently plays at 54 Below. The Charlie Rosen of the big band is also the arranger for The Bluest Ink. You might remember him from The Craze, the band in One Man Two Guvnors. I sat down with Friedman and Rosen to learn more about the show.

Q: How did you get the idea for the show?
Friedman: Well, in high school, many of us did love Sondheim and in exploring some of his lesser known material I discovered the show Saturday Night and loved that it was a show about young people in their early 20s in New York City even though it was set in the 1920s, I loved the energy of that show and I loved the song "What More Do I Need." I realized that a lot of Sondheim material deals with young people problems. And also a lot of them could be really contemporized to tell today's stories, millennial stories, and as I got into my 20s, it became clearer and clearer to me that there was a show there and a couple of new stories to tell using that material.

Q: Can you talk about any of the songs that you're going to use in the show?
Friedman: Kind of. Without giving too much away, there are songs in the show from Merrily We Roll Along and Company, both of which deal with like we said New York City and somewhat young people and things that they face. There's also songs that are a little bit of a blank canvas like unproduced films, songs from Evening Primrose which people don't know as well what the meaning of them is even if the songs are really well known as is the case with "I Remember," which lends the show its title.

Q: What do you think gives millennials a unique perspective?
Friedman: I think people who have come of age in this time period, we've been inundated with a crazy amount of technology. I don't remember ever not having a cell phone or Facebook. That's really unique and that's something we explore a little bit in the show. Not so much Facebook, but cell phones and instant gratification and instant communication are really millennial ideas and almost values in a way that we're exploring in this show. Digital misconception--how easy it is to take a text out of context.
Rosen: Music-wise we're using contemporary jazz. I personally think that jazz is a very New York and metropolitan genre in general. But what it's become by being played also by kids in there 20s that study it and how that's different than more traditional sounding jazz. You can use complex Sondheim harmony in that genre but still be modern with it.
Friedman: When I heard jazz, I thought it might sound stuffy, but I'm dazzled with how contemporary and dynamic Charlie's arrangements are.

Q: Are there other musical theater composers that you think would benefit from this kind of presentation?
Rosen: Cole Porter.
Friedman: I mean we haven't given a ton of thought to doing a show like this with other composers, but we do do a lot of contemporizing of Broadway in our other long-term project which Charlie can talk a little bit more about.
Rosen: It's called Charlie Rosen's Broadway Big Band. It's a 17-piece jazz orchestra. It's had kind of a residency of 54 Below. We take old and we turn it to new and we have a rotating line-up of Broadway stars. Or sometimes we take new and we make it sound traditional in a cool way as well.
Friedman: Yeah, we love playing with the classic Broadway sound and how it relates to modern sounds that you hear on the radio and just playing the two back and forth. I think there is something really genius about the way Charlie is able to navigate classic and modern and bridge them together and make them feel like you can't tell the difference.

Q: What do you attribute your success at such a young age to?
Rosen: A combination of enthusiasm, professionalism, and hours of practice and trial-and-error.
Friedman: And not being afraid to take on big projects at a young age. We really are self-starters on every project we've done together. We just felt like we really had a show here and really had something to say with it and so we booked a date and just did it. That's the biggest thing that got our foot in the door.
Rosen: Just do it.
Friedman: Just do it. And also not being told that you're too young to do anything. I certainly have not been told that and if somebody did tell me that, I really wouldn't listen because I know that we're not.
Rosen: Don't half-ass it.
Friedman: Absolutely and don't be afraid to make a big mistake if you're also not going to be afraid to capitalize on the opportunity that comes with every mistake.

Q: How did the animator get involved?
Rosen: The animator is a friend of mine from a performing arts camp that I went to... I've been writing film scores to her animations for the past three years.
Friedman: When I pitched the show to Charlie, I mentioned that my dream was to have it be integrated with animations of New York City that felt really new and not Hirschfeld-y at all. Not that I don't love Hirschfeld. I just wanted something that's a unique voice. The new headline on this article is "Bluest Ink Director Hates Al Hirschfeld." I love Al Hirschfeld. I almost got the Ethel Merman tattooed on my body. But I didn't.

Q: Do you have a favorite Sondheim song and/or show?
Friedman: My favorite Sondheim show is Merrily We Roll Along. Although that's largely because I feel like it applies to my life on such a crazy daily basis. My favorite Sondheim song is... I love "Finishing the Hat" a lot. I love "Opening Doors" a lot. I think "So Many People" is a really undervalued Sondheim ballad. I love Sondheim at his most economic as much as I love him at his most grandiose. And my favorite Sondheim book is "Night Music." Wabam [editor's note: I don't know how to spell this] Hugh Wheeler.
Rosen: I don't have anywhere close to that detailed of an answer. Nor do I have an answer at all maybe. I agree with you on Merrily because of right now what we're doing, I'd have to go with Merrily.
Friedman: There's a little Frank and Charley in both of us. And a lot of Gussie in me.

Q: So I really like themed drinks at shows. If your show had a themed drink, what would it be called and what would be in it?
Rosen: The Bluest Drink.
Friedman: The Bluest Drink Isn't Really Sky. But I would say that it would be The Bluest Ink Manhattan. That it would be Maker's Mark Bourbon with blue curacao instead of sweet vermouth and I think it would just turn either the most beautiful shade of blue you've ever seen in your life or it would be really muddy and gross. I'm actually rethinking this. But I'm thinking The Bluest Ink Manhattan would be right. Definitely a lot of bourbon. A lot of bourbon has gone into the creation of The Bluest Ink.

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