Far Is Near
A chat with Gary Schocker, whose musical Far From the Madding Crowd will be presented as part of the NYMF.
When Gary was 12, his father -- a piano teacher who was also a harpist -- got a gig playing a community theater production of The Fantasticks. Gary kept on hearing that score and spent his time writing a flute part for it. By then, he'd been playing the flute for two years, which happened at his father's urging. "Dad had played flute in the United States Military Academy Band at West Point," says Schocker, "and considering that I was growing up in the era of the Vietnam war, he figured I could avoid the draft by playing the always-needed flute for the band, too." What dad couldn't have predicted is that he inadvertently set his son off on a career. (We should all be so lucky with our fathers!)
While Gary was matriculating at Juilliard, he played substitute flute for the Broadway revival of The Pirates of Penzance. "They were hard parts," he says, "and I was called in three or four times a week for the entire two-year run." When he wasn't playing, he spent a good deal of time composing a revue titled Looking for Love, which was produced in the East Village in 1984. Richard Norton, who'd later co-produce such musicals as Eating Raoul and such plays as the 1988 Tony-nominated revival of Ah, Wilderness!, came to see Looking for Love -- and literally found it. He and Schocker have now been a couple for 18 years. Norton -- one of the great musical theater collectors of our era, with artwork from such shows as Mary Martin's out-of-town closer Dancing in the Streets adorning the couple's apartment wall -- certainly enhanced Schocker's knowledge of musicals. "Living with Richard means that you hear everything," Schocker says with nothing close to a smile on his face. "Every time we'd drive anywhere, he'd bring something like Texas, L'il Darlin' to listen to in the car, and he'd get so mad when I'd fall asleep."
Actually, Schocker does have an affinity for show music written in the Texas, L'il Darlin' era, meaning the first part of the 20th century rather than the second. "I prefer the older composers," he says: "Jerome Kern, Burton Lane, and Gershwin, of course. I'm not into non-melodic or through-composed scores. I prefer songs with forms rather than musical scenes. As a classically trained musician, I want to hear a melody and I want the chords to add up -- not pitter-patter music, but music that makes sense." So when Schocker joined the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, he wanted to find a property that would be enhanced by his sensibilities. Bookwriter-lyricist Barbara Campbell suggested Thomas Hardy's novel Far From the Madding Crowd. Says Schocker, "I took a short cut and watched the movie." Actually, that isn't so short a cut, for the film is 168 minutes long -- but the novel has 480 pages. Anway, the film inspired Schocker to read the book, which sent him to the piano to write a melody for a supporting character and then keep going. "Hardy's title is an ironic allusion to the supposed simplicity of country people," he remarks. "They're hardly simple! They lead very complicated lives. Still, this is the only Thomas Hardy novel with a happy ending."
It takes a while to get to that ending in this mid-19th century tale. Bathsheba Everdene is a young headstrong woman who inherits a country estate before she's emotionally ready for the responsibilities. Gabriel Oak must come and work for her after all his sheep die from disease, and he's none too happy at the thought of having a female boss; he won't stop speaking his mind to her, especially after he discovers that she's sent a Valentine to her older neighbor William Boldwood. Bathsheba responds to his criticism by canning him. As is the case in so many musicals, there's a secondary couple: Frank Troy, an arrogant soldier, and Fanny Robin, who works for Bathsheba. On the day that Frank and Fanny are to be married, she doesn't get to the church on time because she goes to the wrong one. When she finally reaches the right one, Frank is furious with her and won't marry her. Later, he feels guilty and shows up at Bathsheba's place to forgive his fiancée.-- but when he and the mistress of the manor take one look at each other, they immediately fall in love, though Frank is also smitten with Bathsheba's fortune.
There's lots of drama and big feelings in the book, so it does seem like the stuff of which great musicals are made. Yet, aside from a college production in New Zealand, the show hasn't been able to find a producer. Schocker and Campbell responded the way so many teams do under those circumstances -- by writing another show. The Awakening, based on the Kate Chopin novel, won a slot in the Global Search for New Musicals in Cardiff, Wales and was produced there as part of their International Festival of Musical Theatre in 2002. Says Schocker, with awe tingeing his voice: "Anna Francolini, who was in the London Merrily We Roll Along [she played Gussie in the 2000 Donmar Warehouse production], was just sensational in the lead." But he has equal affection for his Bathsheba in the NAMT production of Far From the Madding Crowd, saying, "I couldn't think of any star I'd rather have than Kate Fisher."
The show will be presented at 8pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, September 20, 22, and 25; at 4:30 and 8pm on Tuesday, Sept. 28; and at 4:30pm on Sunday, October 3. The performance location is the 47th Street Theatre (304 West 47th Street). "We keep being selected by contests but not by producers," Schocker says ruefully. Here's hoping that this situation will be rectified soon.