Music to the ears My parents were not musicians, but they were theatre-goers and concert-goers, and they listened to a lot of records. So I had a lot of music around me growing up. I’m told that when I was a toddler I used to like a recording of a soprano singing arias. I used to call her the “high lady”.
Also, it so happened we lived next door to a composer, named George Kleinsinger, who had some success with what we would now call concept albums. My parents and I would occasionally go next door and he would play the newest song he was working on. I’m told I would go to the piano after the session was done and pick out the tune he had played. George suggested my parents got me piano lessons. Because of his influence, I became interested in musical theatre at a very young age – I wanted to write musicals.
When things went pop I decided to study drama at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. Today it’s the pre-eminent college for musical theatre in America, but there were no classes in that back then, it was purely classical theatre. But there was a student organisation, called Scotch ’n’ Soda, that put on a musical each year. I signed up, and told them I was a composer and would like to write for the show. It turned out they needed someone to write the music, and that’s how I got started.
It was the ’60s, a very freewheeling time. The fact that a large proportion of the university was arts – Andy Warhol had been a student there 10 years previously – meant there was a lot of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. I was a suburban kid, somewhat sheltered, I suppose, and it was very liberating and invigorating to be there. I am very much a child of that generation.
I had not been very interested in pop music up to that time, but became interested in singer-songwriters when I was there. That’s when my musical focus changed. By the time I went back to New York, I was much more into pop. I tried to bring some of it into musical theatre before a lot of people were doing that.
God, no I was a very confident kid, bordering on arrogant, although perhaps ambitious is a better word. I had made a deal with myself that if I was not supporting myself as a music writer by the time I was 25, I would do something else. But by the time I was 25 (in 1973), a lot had happened. I’d done Godspell (1971) and Pippin (1972) by then.
Talking about Godspell, I’m not going to discuss religious topics, as I never do that. I feel that if people know about your personal beliefs, they bring that to the work. I’d rather have them respond the way they respond, and not have that coloured by whether they share my particular belief system. That being said, Godspell is about the philosophy that Jesus preached in the New Testament. It deals little with the question of divinity, unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), which is entirely the passion story. That aspect of the story only comes into Godspell in the last 20 minutes. We are basically dealing with the teachings of Jesus, and I think these transcend any particular religious belief, or lack of thereof. If you look at the principles of secular humanism, and you look at the teachings of Jesus and take out the word “God” where it appears, they are practically the same.
Success story How did I deal with the success of Godspell? Not very successfully. It became a phenomenon. I’ve had other hits but, until Wicked (2003), I really didn’t have another show that transcended show business. It was a huge cultural phenomenon around the world and I found it quite difficult to cope with everything that was happening to me. I was very young, and I didn’t know the rules of the game yet, and there I was, winning the game before I knew how to play it. That was unsettling. It took me a long time to reconcile all that. It wasn’t until many years later that I managed to get a balanced view of that time.
Music on my mind Where does all the music come from? I’m not sure anyone has the answer to that. I just have music going through my head all the time, music in different styles, different rhythms. I am just writing things I would like to hear. If I’m starting to focus on a particular part in a show, I think, “What does this character sound like, what’s the rhythm of this character?” It’s musical theatre, so the music itself has to be able to tell the story. One of the mysterious things about music is that it exists in a preconscious, or subconscious, or even supra-conscious level somewhere within us, but it’s not in our brain.
Something wicked this way comes It was my idea to turn Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked (1995) into a musical. The politics of the book is what intrigued me and my collaborators. It’s quite a political show but, like the book, it’s metaphorical. Thematically, it told a story from the point of view of the villain of the piece, and that was an interesting idea. It examines the notion of what is wickedness and what is goodness, and says that things are more complicated and nuanced than we like to think. There are people who are really wicked in this world, but most things are actually more nuanced than that.
Like father ... My son, Scott, is a very successful theatre director. Oddly, like me, he knew that is what he wanted to do at the age of 12. He’s made a good career out of it. When he began working, he was very careful not to be associated with me, so he could establish his own career, which he did. Recently, we have been working together. We did an excellent production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is about to open in Tokyo, and we are now working on a stage presentation of the film The Prince of Egypt, which I wrote the music and lyrics for. He’s my favourite director to work with.
Wicked opens at the Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts on December 8. Tickets are available through HK Ticketing