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Friday, May 2, 2014

Voices of BTM XVI: Richard Schotter and Phil Schroeder

Richard Schotter
Richard Schotter and Phil Schroeder (who collaborated on the music included in Richard’s The Sussman Variations at BPT in 2012) have joined forces once again, this time for the ten-minute musical The House of All Alone about a father and daughter dealing with ageing and illness. I had some questions…

KAM: I can only imagine the complications of writing a ten-minute musical (or any musical, for that matter). When I think about people writing songs together, I think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin faxing lyrics and music back and forth to one another. What’s your process like?

PS: At least me and Richard aren’t sharing a small flat in England somewhere like those guys were in the beginning. It’s a lot like passing notes back and forth, though. He writes a few pages, I score as much as I can. We actually did start in the same room together at the beginning, which was great. But that was in January and most everything after that has been shared electronically.

Probably the biggest challenge – although an enjoyable one – is that each of us is trying to tell the same story through a different voice. And writing the story as we go. So the text starts us out, and the music opens up other possibilities or maybe adds a depth to the character and we have to respond to that. It’s complicated,
Phil Schroeder
like you say, but it has less to do with the logistics than with hammering out a well-told tale.

RS: The process only works, in the same room or afar, if there is the right chemistry between the composer and lyricist. It's really a question of telepathy or two people being on the same wavelength, understanding and respecting each other's ideas and impulses and being willing to say, "Yeah, you're right, that doesn't work. Let's try it this way.”

This musical is different from the songs in The Sussman Variations which were, one, just independent songs and, two, written in the style of a fictional composer. This piece is written in our own voice, and our two voices have to work as one.

KAM: Were those voices always in harmony, or were there challenges along the way?

PS: I’ve never collaborated with someone who wanted to get to the truth of the story (or lyric, or what have you) in such a similar way. So it was completely harmonious. The challenges are normal and to be expected because you want so much from your characters. I would say that the hardest thing was getting to a satisfying end that both resolved the scene and left the door open for more to come. We had an ambitious idea of a big final song that was putting us way over time, as well as making too big a statement, perhaps. An interesting thing happened – we set the lyrics aside and wrote dialogue . . . and the dialog sang! It was really something sweet. 

RS: The idea of putting the big song idea aside and setting the dialogue instead is something that shows the difference between the way a word person--me--thinks and the way a composer does. Phil could see that the simpler, understated dialogue could work as well, or better, than a formal song because the music would sustain it. And he was right. For me, the more I work with gifted composers like Phil, the more I learn about the peculiar and thrilling chemistry that can exist between words and music if you remain open to all possibilities. Music has a power that totally transcends the power of words and that is why I love to work in this form and with a composer as sensitive and gifted as Phil. 

KAM: Here’s the big question: Why did this particular story need to be told as a musical [and not as a straight play]? What about it made it need to “sing”?

RS: The first, most practical, answer is that I wanted very much to work with Phil after our experience with The Sussman Variations. It just felt right. I was also interested in writing about aging (which I am) and the relationship between a daughter and an aging, but frisky, father. And also about mortality. There was something intimate about their relationship that I thought would lend itself to a kind of chamber musical. Then I thought of the idea of a funky blues number for the Dad and that was it. I couldn't wait to hear that song. The more we work on the piece, the more musical possibilities seems to present themselves and the challenge of squeezing all of it into ten minutes was exhilarating and showed us how much we could accomplish quickly. This could only be realized in musical form.

PS: Richard and I had lunch in early December and we said, “Okay, we've been talking about this for a year, it’s time to write a song.” And before I knew it, he’s sending me scripts with five or six songs and it looks terrific. He’s written great lines, great sensibility, some things that really “land” as they say. It obviously was really flowing from somewhere, which was, I think, a reaction both to aging (which we all are) but also to something about a sense of legacy. What will we leave as an imprint that gives hints to the experience of being alive in 2014? As for this story, and music – Richard once said in class, “If you’re gonna write a musical, there’d better be something to sing about!” and I think he’s absolutely right about that. We have a mini-musical with two characters who find themselves at a precipice, with more than a few misgivings, and it’s time to get to the bottom of it all. What more could you ask for!

Don't miss Boston Theater Marathon XVI on May 11! Tickets 

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