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A Gorey Story

Composer Peter Matz gives us the details of a new "musicale" based on the delightfully bizarre work of Edward Gorey.

A sample of Edward Gorey's work
A sample of Edward Gorey’s work

Best known for his work in recordings, television, film, and concerts as musical director/arranger/orchestrator for such stars as Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, and Tony Bennett–and that’s only a partial list–Peter Matz is also a Broadway baby, with House of Flowers, Jamaica, and Grand Hotel to his credit. And though he’s earned lasting fame for his fabulous presentations of other people’s melodies, Matz himself is a composer of note. His current project is The Gorey Details, a “musicale” based on the deeply weird writings and illustrations of the recently deceased Edward Gorey, opening October 16 at the Century Center for the Performing Arts. I spoke with Matz for TheaterMania in late September, shortly after his arrival from his home in Los Angeles to work on the show here in New York.


TM: Gorey’s work sounds like a terrific basis for a musical. Have you written a full-length score for The Gorey Details?

PM: Yes, it’s a revue. Gorey drew these wonderful cartoons, and between them are these little fables and limericks and poems–just abstract things that he wrote. This show was the idea of Ken Hoyt, who’s the producer at the Provincetown Repertory Theatre. He got permission from Gorey last year, just a few months before Gorey died. We did the show for a few weeks in Provincetown this summer. There must have been good word of mouth, because the Boston papers came down and reviewed it. Though it did very well, we thought that was the end of it; but then we got a producer and a New York theater, so we’re doing it here. Have you been to the Century?

TM: Oh, yes. It’s a great space.

PM: It’s lovely.

TM: I see that no lyricist is credited for the show.

PM: Gorey is the lyricist. And the librettist, if there is one.

TM: Did you get to work with him directly?

PM: No, it was very strange. He was kind of a recluse–a hermit-like fellow. But he knew Ken Hoyt. Ken would ask him, “Can we change a word here?” or whatever, and he’d say, “Do whatever you want to do.” [laughs] So, to that extent, he was a collaborator.

TM: How would you describe the style of the score?

PM: It’s old-fashioned. Gorey drew these strange-looking people; his work gives you the feeling that you’re in an elegant, turn-of-the-century English manor. He did everything in pen and ink, and if a guy in one of his drawing is wearing a checked tweed jacket, Gorey would draw in every check. If there’s a Persian rug, he would draw every ornament in that rug. The score reflects that level of detail. You know, Gorey designed the sets for Dracula on Broadway [with Frank Langella, in the late ’70s], and that was amazingly detailed work–I mean, there was all this minute stuff that you couldn’t see at all from the audience. The interesting thing is that, in contrast to the meticulous style of the drawings, the content is really far out. There’s all this dark humor, with bizarre people doing bizarre things and strange animals wandering through. Same thing with the text; it’s off-the-wall, but it’s great. Since what’s in the text is so unexpected, I purposely wrote an old-fashioned score, very melodic. There are some “wrong notes” in it, but I avoided twelve-tone writing or anything like that. It’s very straightforward.

TM: What’s the orchestration?

PM: There’s just a trio: keyboards, percussion, and cello.

Peter Matz on the set of The Gorey Details(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Peter Matz on the set of The Gorey Details
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)

TM: I guess it’s fair to say that you’re more familiar as an arranger/orchestrator than as a composer.

PM: That’s true. Most people think, “Oh, yeah, the arranger guy.” I’ve had to battle that all my life. But my last project was a musical with a book and lyrics by Harry Shearer. Do you know him? He’s one of the voices on The Simpsons, he has a radio show on Sunday mornings, and he’s in a lot of movies. His writing partner is Tom Leopold, and the three of us wrote a musical based on the life of J. Edgar Hoover that is just hilarious. It’s on National Public Radio; they commissioned it, and they replay it constantly. It’s about Hoover’s life and his loves–basically his one love. Kelsey Grammer played J. Edgar for us, and John Goodman played his lover, Clyde. So, that’s something I composed. I’m very proud of it. And I have had some original songs out there. I wrote “Gotta Move,” which is on Barbra Streisand’s second album.

TM: What can people expect from The Gorey Details?

PM: We’ve tried to stick to what Gorey wrote. I found his stuff very easy to set to music, because he wrote in perfect meter. The poems and the limericks scan beautifully, so they make really good lyrics. I hope the audience will enjoy seeing the show as much as I enjoyed writing it. I think they’re going to laugh a lot, they’ll be surprised, and they’ll have a really good time.

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