You Can Always Count on Him
Lyricist David Zippel, never at a loss for words, chats with Jim Caruso about the new revue of his songs.
THEATERMANIA: Congratulations on the show. And what a cast you've assembled! John Barrowman, Judy Blazer, Marva Hicks and my old friend Sally Mayes -- a dazzling group, to say the least.
DAVID ZIPPEL: Our cast is as good as it gets. Joe Leonardo and I decided that the one criterion in casting was to find singers who gave us goose bumps. This group certainly fits that standard. In a word, it's thrilling to hear every one of them sing these songs.
TM: An earlier version of this show was done in 1983, right?
DZ: Yes. We started rehearsals back in 1982, so this production has been 20 years in the making. Back then, I had just moved to New York and was working with many different composers. The wonderful singer Nancy LaMott was a good friend and was lamenting the fact that she didn't get to perform a lot. I felt like I was really in the middle of things and could help make something happen for her, so Joe Leonardo and I decided to do the Mickey-and-Judy thing and put on a show. Erv Raible gave us Don't Tell Mama [to perform in]. The cast ended up including Nancy LaMott; Catherine Cox, who starred in Barnum; Jennifer Lewis, who had just done the Dreamgirls workshop; and Patrick Quinn, who's now the president of Actors' Equity. The show got great reviews and moved to the upstairs room at Sardi's. When Patrick ended up getting a "real" job, Scott Bakula replaced him, making his Off-Broadway debut. One of our understudies was future two-time Tony-winner Donna Murphy. Needless to say, it was a stellar, goose-bumpy crowd back then, too!
TM: How does the current production differ from the first one?
DZ: Well, the show at the Prince Theater is 70% new material. I hadn't written with Cy Coleman by 1983, and there was only one Alan Menken song in the show back then. The new version includes songs from shows that are in progress but have never been heard or performed. There are two songs from a show about Busby Berkley called Buzz that I'm writing with Larry Gelbart, Rob Roth, and Alan Menken for a Las Vegas run. There's material from an as-yet-untitled musical about Napoleon and Josephine that I'm working on with Cy and Larry. A few years ago, Wendy Wasserstein wrote a kid's book called Pamela's First Musical, and Cy and I are writing a musical based on that -- so you'll hear some of those songs, too. Joe Leonardo is still directing the piece; we've both come full circle. It's an eclectic group of composers and songs but I think we have fashioned a really fun, amusing journey that takes you from song to song, using the content of each piece and the personalities of the performers.
TM: You've worked with lots of composers. Is it challenging to deal with so many different styles and personalities?
DZ: Actually, that's all part of the fun. The job of a theater or film lyricist is to be the bridge between the book and the music. You have to create a style that makes the characters sing the same way they speak; that requires you to be a bit of a chameleon, anyway. Writing with different composers, aside from being energizing and fun, brings out different colors in me. It's like putting different chemicals together; it causes a different reaction. It gives me the chance to create a more varied collection of songs, and I value that so much.
TM: Here's a similar question: Because your work has included songs for Broadway and film, as well as pop music, do you feel that you have to put on different hats when you write for Barbara Cook as opposed to, say, Christina Aguilera?
DZ: Listen -- it all comes down to theater, ultimately. If you're writing songs for a singer, you're essentially taking the persona of the performer and writing for that character. When it's a pop song and you don't know who's going to sing it, it's about finding a point of view that can be communicated. In the past, some people were songwriters and some were singers; now, there are so many singer-songwriters. So when I write a pop song, it's not so much an opportunity to express myself as it is to create something that the singer will identify with and want to share with his or her audience.
TM: What is the process of writing like for you?
DZ: Depending on my collaborator, it changes constantly. Most frequently, we sit down together with a specific idea. We look at the outline of the show and spot the song -- meaning that we find out what the dramatic purpose of each song is and come up with a form and shape for it. Then I go home and flesh out a lyric. Sometimes, Cy will just say, "Here's a tune I was thinking of last night. What do you think?" Then I'll try to write a lyric to it right then. Sometimes, I'll bring in several chunks of a lyric and we'll work on it that way. It's rare for me to bring in an entire finished lyric -- although that has happened, too.
TM: What lyricists have inspired you?
DZ: The way Alan J. Lerner plays with words is remarkable. Stephen Sondheim, of course, is the master wordsmith; not knowing where his mind will go next is so exciting. I guess my favorite theater lyricist is Sheldon Harnick. He's completely egoless. His lyrics are clever and smart but they totally disappear into the character. They don't call attention to themselves, yet they're so detailed and flawless. He's a hero of mine.
TM: Will It's Better With A Band be coming to New York?