Live Out Loud :: Andrew Lippa Talks 'Little Princess'
The lives of those who make musicals, composers, lyricists and librettists, can be more dramatic than the lives of the characters they write of on stage. Years are invested in bringing a musical to life, and there's no guaranteeing the show will succeed. It takes a certain personality to gamble with such epic highs and lows. It's no wonder that so many musicals are about characters that believe in the unbelievable and triumph over incredible adversity. This was clear to me when I talked to Andrew Lippa, composer of "A Little Princess."
Fiddlehead Theatre Company is premiering the Boston area debut of "A Little Princess," their first production as a resident theater company at Boston's historic Strand Theatre (543 Columbia Road, Dorchester, MA), through Dec. 8, 2013.
This heart warming, imaginative show has all the ingredients of perennial holiday favorites like "Annie" and "A Christmas Carol." Based on the beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, "A Little Princess" follows the young protagonist Sara Crewe as she helps those around her to see that no matter how bad circumstances may be, if they live their lives with aplomb they will come out on top.
"Tell me about the song 'Live Out Loud,'" I said to Lippa about one of the most instantly gripping songs in the show.
"It's like the gayest anthem that isn't a gay anthem," he recalled from his Manhattan office recently.
"I wasn't going to say that but..."
Though he has been both Tony and Grammy nominated for "The Addams Family" (music/lyrics) and "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" (additional music/lyrics and arrangements) respectively, and won the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award for "The Wild Party" (book/music/lyrics), Lippa is completely down to earth and personable.
"'Live Out Loud' was one of the rare spots where Brian (Crawley, librettist and lyricist for "A Little Princess") wrote lyrics first, and then sent them to me," continued the composer. "Brian is not gay and the character, of course, is not gay, but the notion of a singing about 'I wanna live out loud' is such a gay idea."
The musician had told me a little bit about his process working with Crawley. After discussing the nature of a song, the composer would simply sit at the piano and come up with ideas while Crawley recorded them. When Crawley heard something he liked, Lippa would give it a beginning, middle and end. Then Crawley would go away and write lyrics and a scene around the music he'd heard.
"He would edit [the recordings of] the musical pieces that I wrote," said Lippa, "and put them in an order that matched the lyric, and send it all back to me. And suddenly, I'm listening to music that, frankly, most of the time, I don't remember having written. I'd hear myself singing, and I'd hear myself playing... but I would have no real memory that I wrote it. The creative process was so trance-like."
As he continued to think about the process of writing this particular song, Lippa sat down at his piano and started playing.
In addition to conducting and writing librettos and lyrics, Lippa is a consummate performer; he's played leading parts in a number of his musicals, and it's no wonder, he has a magnetic charisma.
After playing a few chords he said, "And I just immediately wrote that. It just sort of happened in my hands... From that point it got exciting.
"Don't want to go along with the crowd," he began singing. "Don't want to seem peculiar and proud. / I want to be as free as I know how to be. / I want to live out loud.'"
An anthem for anyone who's been trod-on by "the man" or told to sit down and shut-up, this is the kind of song that leaves people humming when they leave the theater.
"The song is actually one big crescendo," continued Lippa. "It starts small and then it gets bigger and bigger, and the character gets bolder and bolder as she expresses the idea. And so she never goes back emotionally; she always goes forward.
"Also, Brian and I talked about Beatles songs. Because many Beatles songs start with the chorus." He began to sing some familiar choruses, "'God, look at all the lonely people...' and then there's 'Help! I need somebody. Help!' It starts with the chorus and then it goes into the verse." Lippa recalled, "Brian had the idea--I think it was Brian's idea--'let's start out with the chorus and then move into the verse.' Theater songs don't usually start with the chorus and so we decided we would."
"It turned out to be a really successful thing for the character and the show, because she doesn't make observations. She doesn't say, 'I see this and I see the people doing this, and I wonder how I can do it.' She immediately says, "I wanna do this and I wanna do this, and I don't wanna do that.'"
"Live Out Loud" and a piece that Lippa wrote for the It Gets Better Campaign are available online-arranged for multiple different voice types-so that high schools, colleges, community choruses and anyone else can perform them. He says it's his way to promote not only tolerance but love for all different types of people.
"Gay-shmay," says Lippa, "Let's stop worrying about exactly who we love. Let's just love each other."
Even though the American musical theater has a long history of veiled gay aesthetics, Lippa is not a musical creator that dances around issues of homosexuality. When Timothy Seelig, the music director of the San Francisco Gay Mens' Chorus, emailed Lippa and asked if he would be gracious enough to write a 5-minute piece for their celebration concert of Harvey Milk's legacy, Lippa picked up the phone and called him back.
"I don't want to write a piece," he said. "I want to write the whole thing." Essentially he told Seelig, I'm your man for this project. "I believe this is the time in my gay life," Lippa said, "to write a piece about the gay experience as seen through the prism of Harvey Milk and the 70s... They just said, 'Whatever inspires you, go ahead and write it.'"
Not only did he write the original theatrical oratorio "I Am Harvey Milk," he played Harvey Milk in the world premiere.
The New York critics were not kind to Lippa's current show playing on Broadway, "Big Fish." Huge fans of puns, they almost delighted in the news that the show was closing at the end of the year after 98 regular performances so that they could use phrases like "flounder," "flop," "tank" and "beached whale." But Hilton Als comment in the New Yorker was more to the point when he used the word "pointless."
Still, like his little princess singing "Live Out Loud," Lippa is starting out with the chorus and never looking back. He's already enthusiastically engaged in his next project, a collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, screenwriter and playwright Jules Feiffer. (If you don't know Feiffer from his editorial cartoons in The Village Voice, surely you're aware of the Mike Nichols movie he penned, "Carnal Knowledge," starring Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret and Art Garfunkel. I actually named my dog after a character in his Academy Award winning animated short film, "Munro.") The musical they're working on is called "Man in the Ceiling."
"It's a small musical for 9 actors," Lippa said about the show. "And I'm particularly excited about it because I love the story." There will be an industry reading of "Man in the Ceiling" in February, and Lippa will, of course, be performing in it.
"It's about a little boy who wants to be a cartoonist and his uncle. That's the part that I'll play, the uncle; he writes musicals and he hasn't been successful at it. It's about how these two characters learn from each other, and how uh..."
The composer's voice trailed off. "Sorry, I was distracted by something," he said. Then he returned to the conversation with the same vibrant intensity he had all along as he continued, "...how they learn to fail.
"They learn to fail, actually, and through their willingness to fail, and still support each other, they're able to succeed."
Fiddlehead Theatre Company's production of the Andrew Lippa/Brian Crawley musical "A Little Princess," is based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett children's novel. Through Dec. 8. At the 1405-seat historic Strand Theatre, a few minutes off Rte 93 and on city bus lines, at 543 Columbia Rd.. For more info please phone 617-229-6494 or go on-line to www.fiddleheadtheatre.com.