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With Friends Like These...

Lyricist Craig Carnelia on Imaginary Friends, the new ''play with music'' about the bitter feud between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. logo
Smile when you say that!
Swoosie Kurtz and Cherry Jones in Imaginary Friends
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
On December 12, Nora Ephron's Imaginary Friends opens on Broadway after a lengthy out-of-town tryout at director Jack O'Brien's Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The show marks the second collaboration between Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Craig Carnelia (lyrics), perhaps the oddest couple since Neil Simon's eponymous comedy.

"I'm meticulous and detail oriented, while Marvin works in bright splashes of color," says Carnelia. But the pair's five years together have been harmonious. "He's a bottomless fund of ideas and he explodes with music. He'll play something and say 'What do you think?' My own composer's ear is always present because I know it's more fun to write the music. Writing lyrics is like hauling bricks." Bricks or no, Carnelia's lyrics have earned him the prestigious Kleban Award along with several others. Last year, he received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his work on Sweet Smell of Success, the Hamlisch/Carnelia team's first show. Carnelia has also won both of cabaret's highest honors, the MAC and Bistro awards -- not bad for a self-schooled musician who taught himself to play piano when he began writing songs at the age of 14.

"I'd heard about Sweet Smell of Success as far back as '95 or '96, when I was up in Toronto visiting Peter [Friedman] during the early days of Ragtime," says Carnelia. (Friedman is his oldest friend from Hofstra University; in fact, this interview took place in Friedman's Upper West Side apartment, which Carnelia is currently subletting.) "At the time, no one knew who the composer for Sweet Smell was going to be, so I threw my hat in the ring, saying, 'You probably don't think of me as a lyricist.' They'd talked to everyone else. Finally, in '97, after Garth Drabinsky had heard some of my cabaret songs, I got a call saying that he wanted me to write four songs with Marvin as a kind of test run. Marvin and I are total opposites but we hit it off instantly." Between Drabinsky's fall from grace and the need to wait a year for John Lithgow to be available, the SSoS process stretched over four years before the actual taking of the show on the road even began.

Now, Carnelia is looking forward to the opening of Imaginary Friends, Nora Ephron's first play. "This has been an amazing year," he declares. "Hal Prince used to have a rule that he learned from George Abbott: The morning after one of his shows opened, he'd sit down and start on the next one. We were already working on Imaginary Friends before the Broadway rehearsals of Sweet Smell of Success began." The Ephron piece concerns the intersecting lives and careers of the acerbic playwright-memoirist Lillian Hellman (Swoosie Kurtz) and the vivacious novelist-critic Mary McCarthy (Cherry Jones), who differed both in terms of physical beauty (Hellman had none) and politics (Trotskyite vs. Stalinist), not to mention their individual views of the truth. On the Dick Cavett show in 1980, McCarthy insulted Hellman by saying, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman retaliated by launching a multimillion-dollar libel suit.

Imaginary Friends is billed as a play with music -- but what exactly is a play with music? According to Carnelia, "Nora sent the script to Marvin because she felt it wanted to sing. It's a very odd mix. The music in the play is integrated, not incidental. Each individual song has the same presence it would have in a musical but without an overall musical book. There are seven numbers in all, each in a different style. 'Fig Tree Rag' sets the scene for Lillian's idyllic version of her childhood and 'A Smoke, a Drink, and You' is a 15-minute, sophisticated, Cole Porterish beguine about both women in New York that also introduces the important men in their lives." Those men are Dashiell Hammett for Hellman and first husband Edmund Wilson for McCarthy, plus several others, all played by Harry Groener.

Craig Carnelia
The ubiquitous Groener gets a soft-shoe number titled "I Would, But I Can't." There's also a Brechtian political anthem about the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been...?" In the second act, the show boasts a title song -- a Shirley Temple-style number wherein the two women appear as children with giant doll versions of themselves. "Sometimes," says Carnelia, "the music is no more than a half-monologue or a few fragmentary lines. And there is no finale. Working with [director] Jack O'Brien has been so exciting. He's educated, eclectic, articulate, and witty, with incredible range. He saw very early that Marvin and I knew what we were doing, so he usually just planted a seed and let it grow. He's the only director I've worked with who ever handed me a song title: 'Smart Women.'" (O'Brien has said that Imaginary Friends is about "the dilemma of smart women in the latter part of the 20th century.")

Will Carnelia continue to observe the rule followed by George Abbott and Hal Prince? "I've been very happy working on Imaginary Friends, " he tells me, "but I do have some other projects on tap. One is my musical Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, which had a production last May at the Goodspeed Opera House." Carnelia wrote both the music and lyrics for that show, as he did for Is There Life After High School? and Three Postcards. He and Hamlisch have also been working on a musical version of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway. In addition to all of the above, Carnelia teaches acting to singers four times a week.

At age 19, Carnelia dropped out of Hofstra to play the boy in Lore Noto's Off-Broadway phenomenon, The Fantasticks. "I gave up acting to write, but maybe I shouldn't have," he jokes. "I made a good living as an actor. Instead, I became a musician!" Does he intend to perform again, as he has in cabaret evenings of his own songs and in ASCAP's Songwriter's Showcases? "Except for Working [the first show for which he was Tony nominated], nothing ever did as much for me as performing my songs in Pictures in the Hall," he says. "It's how I came to love cabaret; there's nothing there but the song and the singer. I'm definitely considering another evening of my own work -- perhaps something in a theater, like Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World or Maltby and Shire's Closer Than Ever. And I've been thinking about directing in cabaret, especially if it means guiding singers to more vibrant performances."

Not that Carnelia and Hamlisch need career advice, but they might want to consider tackling a musical version of The Odd Couple. That could be the show they were born to write -- if not to act in -- together.

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