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A Conversation With Craig Carnelia

Over dinner, Filichia chats with composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia. logo
Craig Carnelia
Had dinner with Craig Carnelia, the talented composer-lyricist who will be doing his cabaret show at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Saturday, January 10. Some may be surprised to hear that Carnelia will perform for they may only know him as the composer-lyricist of some of the songs in Working (1978) and all of the songs in Is There Life after High School? (1982), Three Postcards (1987), and Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief (2002), and/or as the lyricist who set words to Marvin Hamlisch's music in Sweet Smell of Success and Imaginary Friends (both 2002). I've long admired Carnelia, so I relished the chance to ask, "How did you get there from here, Mr. Carnelia?" Well, I didn't actually ask that question -- but this is how the conversation went.


PETER FILICHIA: Do you remember the first Broadway show you ever saw?

CRAIG CARNELIA: Sure. No Strings.

PF: Good! John Cheever always said that he could tell everything about a man from the way he dove into a swimming pool. I can always tell whether or not I'm going to connect with a person based on whether he remembers his first Broadway show.

CC: I feel exactly the same way. Something like that should be important to a person.

PF: What made you choose No Strings?

CC: I didn't; my older brother Jimmy did. We were living on Long Island and he was a Broadway fan already, so when his friend was suddenly unable to go, he took me. I was 14 and I was tremendously impressed. We both were, and I think some of that comes from the fact that we each had an unhappy childhood.

PF: So many people fell in love with musicals through a Richard Rodgers show but almost always one he wrote with Hammerstein. Considering the atypical work you do, it's fitting that you fell in love with an atypical Rodgers show.

CC: Yes, I found it sexy and fascinating. I loved the impressionism and the way the orchestra was used on stage and interacted with actors.

PF: I can also tell something about a man if he can remember his second Broadway show.

CC: Here's Love. And even at 14, while I couldn't express my opinions in a very cohesive way, I knew it wasn't good. Part of it was that I knew Miracle on 34th Street [the show's source material] and part was that I expected something wonderful because I knew it was written by the same guy who wrote The Music Man, which I'd been in in school when I was 12.

PF: So you already knew about Broadway musicals before you saw No Strings?

CC: Yes, but I thought of them as school plays. I was also in the chorus of Guys and Dolls at 13. But those school plays didn't prepare me for the Broadway experience.

PF: What happened next?

CC: By the time I saw my next one -- How to Succeed, the first smash hit -- I was really hooked. Of course, 1963-64 was such a great season. Funny Girl, High Spirits, 110 in the Shade, Hello, Dolly!...It was a heyday, though many people didn't know it then. Maybe it wasn't a classic time à la Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, but Jerry Herman was doing great work, and Sondheim was beginning to find his new voice with Anyone Can Whistle.

PF: And you were starting to find yours?

CC: Well, I had been playing guitar and was with a folksinging group, and because a guy in the group was writing songs, I started to, too. During junior year, I taught myself piano because I wanted to write theater songs. Jimmy and I wrote a bad musical called The Weekend. He's since destroyed all copies of it. But what I'd really decided to do was become an actor. You're drawn to what you see, and what you first see is the people on stage, so that's what I thought I wanted. When I saw The Fantasticks, I was determined to play The Boy. I called the theater and asked if I could do it. They told me to send in my picture and resume, which was the first time I heard about doing that. I did and, a year later, they called me in -- and rejected me. But, a year after that, they called me in again and they accepted me.

Brian D'Arcy James and John Lithgow in
Sweet Smell of Success
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
PF: How much of the 41-and-a-half-year-run did you do?

CC: Six months. I was going to Hofstra and I wasn't much interested in school, so I quit halfway through sophomore year to take the job. I also did a musical by Wally Harper called Encounters.

PF: Was that the one that became Sensations (in 1970), based on Romeo and Juliet?

CC: Yes! In fact, I was Romeo. Well, the speaking and singing Romeo; there was a dance Romeo, too, and that was Lar Lubovitch! But, about three months into The Fantasticks, I knew I wasn't going to continue with acting. By the time I was 19, I'd written five shows. One was based on Grimms' Fairy Tales.

PF: Was it at all like Into the Woods?

CC: Actually, it was much more like The Apple Tree. One musical got some interest from Dore Schary.

PF: And you knew who he was the way we all did, from the I Love Lucy episode where Mrs. Ricardo meets him in Hollywood?

CC: Yes, but also from Sunrise at Campobello [which Schary wrote and co-produced] and [The Unsinkable] Molly Brown [which Schary directed and co-produced]. Jimmy and I used to play a game where we'd quiz each other on the names on cast albums.

PF: So you became a collector?

CC: Actually, Jimmy did. I found that I'm interested in ideas more than in objects.

PF: Smart guy! Now, the first I heard of you was Working. How did that happen?

CC: I was doing my cabaret act. Craig Zadan came to see it; he knew that Stephen Schwartz was putting together this show based on the Studs Terkel book and that he might include some new writers. He got Stephen to come see me, and I think he was drawn to my work because we had very similar influences -- folk, mid '60s rock, the Beatles, Paul Simon, and James Taylor.

PF: So it must have been a thrill for you to work on Working with James Taylor.

CC: I met him once! I've found that when pop guys get involved with theater, they're always around or never around. He was one who wasn't there much.

PF: Did Stephen hand you the Terkel book and say, "See what strikes your fancy," or did he say "Here are the ones you're going to do"?

CC: Both. "Joe" and "Just a Housewife" were assigned. "The Mason" and "Something to Point To" were my ideas to musicalize.

PF: Did you think the show would be a hit?

CC: No, not really, because I have a very dark sensibility.

PF: From that unhappy childhood?

CC: Yes, but I also knew it was too long an evening. 2:40! After Broadway, we trimmed it to two hours, and it's since had hundreds of productions. Is There Life After High School? has had an afterlife, too. Originally, it worked so well at Hartford Stage, but even thinking that it was a Broadway show was a mistake. A small, casual venue was right, but the more formal grandeur -- and proscenium -- of the Ethel Barrymore wasn't.

PF: In the second act, all the former high-school classmates meet at a reunion. I've often wondered if you wanted to set the whole show there but didn't dare to because Follies had already used the reunion framing device.

CC: No, it was really that the theme of the book on which it's based [by Ralph Keyes] says that you're always thinking about high school even when there's no reason to. If you get a reunion announcement, of course you start thinking about high school.

PF: Two shows that ran at total of 36 performances. Were you getting discouraged?

CC: I never thought of doing something else. I've always followed my instincts.

PF: How did you get Sweet Smell of Success?

CC: Marty Bell, Garth Drabinsky's second-in-command, recommended me when Livent had the property.

PF: Everyone in this restaurant knows who Marvin Hamlisch is but -- no offense! -- probably nobody here has heard of you. Was it hard to come in and be introduced to a legend?

Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones in Imaginary Friends
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
CC: Not only with Marvin and John Guare there, but with Marvin and Nora Ephron on Imaginary Friends. While there's a difficulty in first entering those rooms, I do have a confidence in what I bring to the table. Marvin feels there's value in what I bring, and he brings out the "flashy" in me.

PF: You know the question I'm going to ask that's always asked of composers and lyricists...

CC: He gives me his music and I go home and work. Marvin believes he's a better composer when he goes first, and I believe he is, too. We did a few things with lyrics first and I saw that he wasn't as free. We're working on a new project now that I shouldn't really mention because the rights haven't been totally resolved.

PF: We all know what it is anyway! But I hear you're also working on The Good War [Studs Terkel's book of interviews with people who lived through World War II].

CC: Yes, with my good friend David Bell, with whom I wrote Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief. But I'm not writing songs for it; we're using vintage songs. We're conceiving, editing, and juxtaposing. I'm using my writer's head in how to use the songs.

PF: How fitting that you're coming full circle, having started your Broadway career with a Terkel adaptation and now turning to another. I'm rooting for you.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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