Friday, September 06, 2013

Q&A with Michael Mitnick

If you don't know the name Michael Mitnick yet, you probably will soon. His musical Fly by Night (co-written with Will Connolly and Kim Rosenstock) will get its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons in May, 2014. He's writing the book for Broadway-bound Animal House (with music and lyrics by David Yazbek), and he wrote the screenplay for a little movie called The Giver. And this Monday, September 9, he is having his "first public concert in 30 years" at Joe's Pub in honor of his 30th birthday. The concert will include performances from Santino Fontana, Will Connolly, Austin Durant, Peter Friedman, Jessica Grove, and more. Somehow he found some time to talk to me. So read on if you want to know more about the concert, his upcoming projects, or just want to see my failed attempts to not fangirl over David Yazbek too hard.

Q: So tell me a little about this concert of yours.
A: It's my first concert in 30 years. First public concert. It's a collection of songs that I wrote on my own or in collaboration with friends on different projects. Ones where I wrote both music and lyrics with friends. And then I think the only song that fits outside of it is from the musical King Kong [ed note: yes, that King Kong musical] where I did the lyrics and the band Massive Attack did the music.

Q: Are most of the songs stand-alone or from a musical?
A: Almost every song is from a musical. I think there are four different musicals represented and then there are three stand-alone songs.

Q: Are you performing?
A: Thankfully it will mostly be the professionals. I'm going to do two or three songs at the piano but it's best to hand these things off to the professionals. Also I have tremendous stage fright, so it would be ugly.

Q: Are the people that are involved friends of yours?
A: Almost everyone I knew from various projects. Daniel Jenkins, who was in Big River and Big and really any musical that has "big" in the title except Big Fish was in a play of mine at Second Stage called Sex Life of Our Parents. That was a straight play, but I grew up listening to him on records and he and I have a shared affinity for almost the same pop culture touchstones so we bonded over that. Peter Friedman is going to be in a workshop of Fly by Night that we're about to do at Playwrights and so I seized that opportunity to poach him a few days early and asked if he would do a song that he's going to do in the workshop at the concert. He also happened to be in the first Broadway show that I saw which was Ragtime.

Q: So what are those pop culture touchstones that you have an affinity for as you mentioned?
A: Most of all, Back to the Future. [ed note: internal monologue at this point, "Don't spend the rest of the interview talking about Back to the Future."] The trilogy. Even the third one isn't that bad. Danny and I both love those. We have a similar sense of humor and I think I make him rather uncomfortable asking him what it was like being an enormous child star on Broadway because I have fantasies of what my childhood would have been like had I not grown up doing close-up magic in front of a mirror in Pittsburgh but instead was in the hit musical.

Q: Actually, your sense of humor is something I noticed on your website and the blurbs for the concert. Very self-deprecating. Do you see yourself that way?
A: I think with any writer, self-deprecation is necessary otherwise you just come across as hugely arrogant. Which of course I'm not. But I find it amusing. One of the reasons I wanted to do the concert was that I hadn't done one and a lot of my friends who are younger writers of the theater seem to do one every week. And consequently it got to the point where people didn't realize until Fly by Night that I wrote songs. And songwriting is where I started. It's what I did most of my classes in in undergrad. I thought I wanted to do film scoring. And at the same time trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my 30th. But I think at the same time, asking people to show up and listen to songs I wrote requires a certain amount of chutzpah, so I'm going to try to make it fun and people will see that in the introductions to the songs and also in the way that I'm marketing it.

Q: Is there one moment that you consider your big break?
A: I went to graduate school at Yale Drama and studied playwriting and while I was there I kept writing songs, but what I did is I used that time to write a lot, so I graduated with three or four plays and I was able to hit the ground running. My big break was through Chris Burney at Second Stage for taking one of those plays, Sex Lives of Our Parents, and giving me my first New York production. At the same time, my path had a couple of times crossed with Adam Guettel through various master classes and he recommended me to write lyrics on this spectacle of King Kong that's currently playing in Australia and that allowed me to keep a roof over my head for my first two years in New York. And I got an agent in grad school and I did a song called "Darryl is a Boy (and he Lives in My Closet)" that'll be in my concert and I played that song and a song from Fly by Night at a showcase night put together by my agency and through a weird course of events Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards heard the songs and liked my sense of humor and asked if I wanted to audition to write a musical version of Animal House and I politely said no. I don't think you can take a hit movie and then make it into a musical. And then my agent said, "Are you fucking crazy? You have no money and this is a Broadway show." And so it became about trying to find what I could do that a) wouldn't cause damage but b) would actually make the material more exciting to see onstage.

Q: Every time I see an announcement about a musical in development, I think, "I'll believe it when I see it." So for Animal House, how close is it to being a reality?
A: I think we're about two seasons away. We really want to make sure that we get it right and not throw it up before it's ready. But we have a significant portion of it written. We're constantly writing and rewriting.

Q: David Yazbek is one of my favorite musical theater composers. What's it been like working with him?
A: We're very like-minded. We're two cranky Jewish people. We just have a lot of fun together. He's someone who's so skilled at comedy and comic situations that there really is what you would hope for in a collaboration. It isn't I do book and he does music and lyrics. He absolutely writes all the songs himself, but he knows also because I'm a songwriter that I throw out ideas and we talk about the songs. And similarly we reconfigured the opening of the show based on an idea that he had. We mostly just have a lot of fun hanging out and playing with his dog and then eventually getting down to work.

Q: What do you listen to when you're writing?
A: I used to be able to listen to music with lyrics when I wrote. I'd listen to a lot of Beatles or Belle and Sebastian or Elbow. Now it's harder for me for some reason in the last year. I get distracted by lyrics. So I listen to Tchaikovsky or Ravel or Prokofiev or nothing. More often than not it's silence.

Q: What shows or artists have inspired you?
A: I never wanted to copy the sound but more the ambition. Writers that are touchstones for me are Tennessee Williams and Kaufman and Hart. Chris Durang. David Lindsay-Abaire. Paula Vogel. Lynn Nottage. Songwriters: Frank Loesser, Kander and Ebb, Steve Sondheim, and for three or four summers I was Ahrens and Flaherty's assistant. So they were really responsible, whether they'd like to be or not, for my early education in songwriting.

Q: You said Ragtime was your first show, so is that a coincidence that you ended up working with them?
A: Stephen Flaherty is from Pittsburgh where I'm from and when Ragtime came out it happened to be the first show that I saw. And I also loved it. I thought it was hugely ambitious. I thought it was intensely melodic and I thought the lyrics were very carefully constructed. And when I was in high school and I saw Ragtime at the same time I started to write musicals with friends, I got out the white pages and I looked up Stephen Flaherty's parents in the phonebook and as a brash annoying kid I called them up on the phone and I said I'm a huge fan of your son. They were lovely people and they said, "Steve can't come, but we'll come see the show." And so they came and saw my high school show and I gave them a copy of my demo score and they sent it to Flaherty and he wrote back with a very carefully-worded critical six-page single-spaced letter which I still have, taking me through my show and giving me a couple of years education in an afternoon. And we stayed in touch. And when it came time for them to do A Man of No Importance at Lincoln Center I was hired as their assistant to fetch coffee and update the music score and make sure that all the lyric updates went to everyone in the cast and they were wonderful people to work for and very supportive.

Q: I always like to ask this question because I really like themed drinks, so if you had a themed drink for your Joe's Pub show, what would it be called and what would be in it?
A: It would be something highly alcoholic because I'd want people to enjoy the show more. It would be called the Michael Mitnick and it just be a cup of Hendrick's Gin. Not exciting but it gets the job done.

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