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The Other Mr. Karp

We've all heard of the Karp that tormented Diana Morales in acting class, but here's another you should know. logo
Jonathan Karp
(Photo © Jeffrey Holmes)
Jonathan Karp says that his favorite song in A Chorus Line is "Nothing," but not because his last name is prominently mentioned in the Hamlisch-Kleban classic. "It's a great story song," he says. "That line about how Morales tried to be an ice cream cone and melt is lyrical perfection [and] compressed comic description. That said," he adds, "I always thought that Morales was too unforgiving of Karp. It may have been appropriate for her to have felt nothing upon his death, but it seemed uncharitable of her. As a defender of all Karps, I was sorry to see him go."

He first heard the song while growing up in Short Hills, New Jersey, for the album was a particular favorite of his sister. "I heard the score through my bedroom wall for most of my puberty," he says. Now he's hoping that people will someday have the chance to listen to an original cast album of How to Save the World and Find True 90 Minutes. Karp wrote the book and lyrics to Seth Weinstein's music; under the direction of David H. Bell, the show gets five airings this week as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

Karp is definitely a Broadway Baby. When I noticed a copy of Jonathan Schwartz's book All in Good Time in his office, I reminisced that, back in 1965, I became a Schwartz fan after I heard him play on his radio show Sid Caesar's rendition of "Real Live Girl" from the cast album of Little Me. Karp immediately responded by singing Cy Coleman's melody and Carolyn Leigh's lyric.

Thank his parents, who, on each of his birthdays, treated him to a Broadway show. "I loved Pippin and the black revival of Guys and Dolls," says Karp, who's now 40; "but it was Dreamgirls that really floored me. Nothing would make me happier than to give people the feeling I felt that day. My Fair Lady is the greatest musical, and while I'm not anywhere close to it yet, that's what I'm aiming for: literate, ambitious storytelling that's both cerebral and emotional. Seth and I wanted to create a contemporary piece about love and paranoia -- they often accompany each other -- and relationships that are both global and personal. We hope it will appeal to audiences who are looking for a fresh generational take on musical storytelling, but mostly, we just want people to have 90 wonderful minutes at the theater. Our greatest hope is that we'll put folks in a romantic mood and help them get lucky afterward. That would be a valuable community service! Given the opportunity, musicals can be powerful aphrodisiacs." (Seems there's a little Marcus Lycus in Jonathan Karp.)

How to Save the World... is the story Miles Muldoon, a U.N. tour guide who lusts for Violet Zipper, a torrid diplomat who's too far above him. He's so taken with her that he doesn't notice that Julie Lemmon, who works in the U.N. bookstore, loves him. Two underachievers as main characters? "Ah," says Karp with a smile, "I long to be a slacker. Some of the happiest moments I've had have been sitting in my local coffee shop. When I go to Starbucks and see people just sitting there, I get dewy-eyed with longing."

But Slackerdom hasn't been been Karp's fate; he's no less than a vice-president and editorial director at Random House. The reason Jonathan Schwartz's book was in Karp's office is not because he's currently reading it; he was among the first to see it, before he acquired it for the publisher. After Karp graduated from Brown, he moved to New York, where he planned to work in publishing by day and theater by night. "The publishing career has exceeded my wildest dreams," he says. "I began by answering a classified ad and became an editorial assistant to one of the legends in the business, Kate Medina, who has edited John Irving, Anna Quindlen, and Tom Brokaw. My job was to answer her phone and take dictation -- and when you take dictation from a world-class editor, you hear the way she thinks and edits. I really learned my job from typing her editorial memos."

Seabiscuit, The Orchid Thief, and Shadow Divers are all titles that he acquired and edited for Random House. "I've never been to the track, have no interest in flowers, know nothing about scuba diving -- and that's what those three books are about," he says. "When a writer can make me interested in something I'm not interested in, I know I'm in the presence of somebody's who's got talent."

In musical theater, his heroes include Frank Loesser, William Finn, Maltby and Shire -- but he reserves his deepest admiration for Rupert Holmes. He sheepishly admits that he may very well be the reason why Holmes, who penned all of the Tony-winning The Mystery of Edwin Drood, hasn't written another musical. Explains Karp, "I courted Rupert for years. I said, 'Write whatever you want, Rupert' -- and, seven years later, he delivered a novel." (Karp published Where the Truth Lies last year.) "Then I said to him, 'Write whatever else you want, but we want it in a year." That book is Swing! and it's set in the big band era -- to which Holmes, the creator of the Remember WENN TV series, is no stranger. It's a mystery (no surprise, given that Holmes wrote Accomplice and Solitary Confinement) and the book will come with a CD of Holmes' songs, each of which holds a clue to solving the puzzle. "I think he's just as good a lyricist as Sondheim," says Karp with a definite nod of the head. To prove it, Karp has memorized virtually every lyric that Holmes has ever written.

Anika Larsen, Michael McEachran, and Nicole Ruth Snelson in
How to Save the World and Find True Love... in 90 Minutes
(Photo © Beth Kelly)
That may sound obsessive, but Karp has used his own obsessions in his musical -- "especially overcoming fears of urban life," he says. "That can be anything from being trapped in a car with someone annoying to the international fears we're all experiencing right now." Indeed, How to Save the World... has a character who's a terrorist. "I started writing this two years before 9/11," Karp notes. "I was worried about terrorism well before then. After 9/11, Seth and I thought about changing that; but we didn't, because the musical is about choosing love over fear. The terrorist is a detail and not the story."

Though How to Save the World... is an original, Karp had previously worked on a adaptation that turned out to have a great impact on his current show. In 1998, he wanted to do a musical version of Woody Allen's short story The Kugelmass Episode, in which a magician helps a professor who's in love with Madame Bovary to meet the legendary lady. Allen said that he could go ahead but that the show could only be presented for one performance, which he didn't deign to attend. If that seems to be too much work for very limited returns, Karp sure isn't sorry he did it, because actor Michael McEachran played the magician: "He got so much mileage out of that role that I decided to write a musical just for him." That musical is How to Save the World...

"Michael has a Danny Kaye quality," says Karp, who himself bears a resemblance to the entertainer, "so I wrote a patter song for him like 'Tschaikowsky' with the names of a lot of countries instead of composers. I want people to say, 'I didn't know anyone could do that' the way they did about Danny Kaye. I love Kaye in The Kid from Brooklyn, The Court Jester, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty -- "which," he points out with a smile, "is about a book editor. All of Kaye's characters were fearful and vulnerable, yet they found some courage within themselves. That's what happens to Miles. In my publishing career, I've had a pretty good track record for finding new talent," says the man who discovered Laura Hillebrand. "Michael was in the last Little Me revival and a tour of How to Succeed... but he hasn't had his breakthrough role yet. I hope this will do it for him."

Karp muses, "How to Save the World..." is a 90-minute show and I've been working on it for five years. That means 18 minutes worth of material per year," he says, shaking his head slowly at the thought. But, as Morales might say, that's better than nothing.


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

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