Wednesday, July 28, 2010

If I Wrote A Song: An Interview With Daniel Maté

So this blog post is a special one, if I do say so myself. A few weeks ago, the roster for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre was announced for the 2010 Festival of New Musicals. The festival itself is an event where writers and composers are able to show their works to members of the theatre industry in the form of 45 minute readings. Every year, 8 musicals are presented, and this year's selection boasts a slew of great writers and diverse subject matters. Please check out the full list of musicals here, and read about the writers as well.

I wanted to do something special to really highlight some of the talent that will be presenting their stuff at this year's festival, especially since it's an industry-only event. So in the weeks leading to the October 21-22 dates of the event, I'll try to highlight a show or a writer who has a show in the festival every few days in the coming weeks. To really get things going, however, I had the pleasure of sitting down with composer/writer
Daniel Maté (who wrote lyrics and co-wrote the book with composer Will Aronson for the show The Trouble With Doug) in Prospect Park for an interview. Daniel was a 2010 recipient of the Jonathan Larson grant, is a two-time finalist for the New York City Hip Hop Karaoke Championship, and has his own custom songwriting business. Together, we discussed NAMT, being a slug, hip hop, and existentialism. Intrigued? Confused? Here is the transcript from our interview (and after the jump, check out more interview and youtube videos of his music):


(Daniel Maté singing "If I Wrote A Song")


Me: So I think I read somewhere that you said that you didn’t grow up with musical theatre necessarily. How did you get into it?

Daniel Maté: I definitely said that somewhere. What I meant is, I guess, I didn’t grow up all that aware of the history of American musicals, or surrounded by it as a general part of my cultural experience. Part of that was knee-jerk resistance to anything my parents thought I would enjoy – I remember deliberately not watching the movie of West Side Story for that reason.

If I actually look back, I was surrounded by certain particular musicals, certain soundtracks that I loved. So
Fiddler on the Roof was a record that... this dates me a little bit... but an LP that my parents had. And growing up Jewish, I actually thought “Fiddler” was a sort of blueprint for what Jewish culture was supposed to sound like. I didn’t realize it was a Broadway show for not only for Jewish audiences. Little Shop of Horrors...the movie came out when I was 9 or 10. I loved it. And I went to a summer camp where we did a lot of singing and songs based on popular songs. Lot of theatre. And I acted most of my childhood and I played music most of my childhood and often I would do the two things together. So me saying I didn’t grow up around musicals, or didn’t like them, is a case of “the lady doth protest too much.”

I did develop an attitude about musicals though. That somehow there was a culture of musical theatre I wasn’t somehow a part of, so I had to have a chip on my shoulder about it. And that’s partly that I just wasn’t that familiar with it, and partly that I had a lot of assumptions, and partly that I didn’t want to open myself up to a form that takes time to get to know. I was, and am, an opinionated person, and unfortunately sometimes my opinions precede my knowledge.
(Smiles.) That said, I probably still have an attitude about musicals.

I spent most of my 20s working odd jobs and doing music and theatre on the side. Acting, directing, collaborating on shows in my hometown in Vancouver. And also at the same time being a singer/songwriter. Ani DiFranco was sort of my idol; Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.

It was really when it came time to ask myself what do I want to do with my life, I had to face what do I really love, what do I care about? I realized pretty quickly it was music and theatre and I didn’t want to choose between them. And once I got over the idea that grad school wasn’t for me, I opened myself to the possibility, and a friend who was from New York said, “You need to check out NYU.” So I looked and saw there was a musical theatre writing program, and I was like,
I love New York, but that’s not for me. And fortunately I have people in my life who kicked my ass and were like, “You’re a very theatrical and musical person and all of your songs tell stories and have a lot of character to them. Why don’t you take a leap into something you don’t quite know about?” And luckily I listened to them.

I applied and I got in. And in the program I spent 2 years facing how much I didn’t know and learning as much as I could. Also realizing I don’t have to know every lyric to every show to get the basic principles of what makes a good or bad musical and to figure out what it is that I want to write.

I had some big kind of epiphanies. Like realizing what Sondheim had to offer. I had him in a little box and that box didn’t include me. But the first Sondheim show I really encountered was
Sunday in the Park with George and although I don’t think it’s a perfect show, it blew me away, both in terms of ambition and execution. I just got excited and thought, Wow, this guy is doing amazing things with language. It reminded me of my excitement in discovering really great rappers who are able to take command of a verse and master the art of flow. Suddenly you’re on their wave length. It was a long process of opening my mind and it still is.

Me: Well I think a lot of people have that stigma about musical theatre. Talking to my friends, having to draw new connections to get them over the idea that it has to be this antiquated idea of what a musical is. And I think what is exciting is how new musical theatre writers are redefining those connections.

Daniel: Well let’s face it: musical theatre is not very hip. It’s pretty earnest and sincere most of the time. It’s pretty vulnerable. Irony only goes so far. So it can be threatening to someone who is used to more distance between themselves and what they’re listening to. Or for me where I grew up listening to very aggressive male forms of music like gloomy, heavy stuff – Metallica, Faith No More, Soundgarden – and also hip hop. And musical theatre is not a very macho form. The kinds of emotions that it tends to express are a bit more tender than that, and often much more upbeat. It’s also about me opening myself up to that too. Of course, It’s hard to say what the limits of musical theatre are anymore. You’ve got Green Day on Broadway. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Metallica musical in my lifetime.

Fundamentally, a story well told is a story well told. And if it has songs that goes with it and it feels natural, it’s just another added element. And I do think that all the stuff I grew up listening to had either a theatrical element or a storytelling element, and I’d love to keep expanding what musical theatre can sound like.

Me: And in your own musical style, I know you do a bunch of different sounds. But doing Hip Hop Karaoke and things like that, you bring a hip hop element to a lot of your music.

Daniel: Yeah, some of it. I do and I’m careful about it though because most of the time you bring hip hop into musical theatre, it’s not done with respect for hip hop. It’s in a campy kind of way. I think you really have to have some respect for the craft, and some knowledge of the form. And also then there’s the question on the flip side of that of what’s theatrical about it. Why do you have it on stage? How does the style serve the story?

So I think the ways I include it in my music is more subtle. I have on song in
Trouble With Doug for which I’m the lyricist, not the composer, where a character breaks into a rap.

Me: Oh I heard that one. I liked it a lot.

Daniel: So why did it work for you?

Me: When you were talking about lyrics and the way lyrics flow and why that works in rap, I definitely saw this train of thought that came together very organically and it worked in that song.

Daniel: Good. That was the intention. And we were taking a risk in that song. Not that hip hop is risky but because sometimes it can sound stupid. But in that case it’s a character whose boyfriend has been turned into a slug and she’s trying to be as accepting as she can, and the song is about how she was ready for anything but she can’t be expected to be great about it. And in the middle of this self-absorbed neurotic song, she breaks into this rap that’s kind of like, “how could you do this to me?” It’s a diatribe. And rap is great for diatribes. Momentum, the inner rhymes. Just trying to be conscious of the various tools and what it says about the character.

Often when I find myself with an intelligent, quick minded character, I’m looking for phrases and words that sound dope. You know, that just sound good together. Viscerally exciting. And often it’s not that the style I’m writing in is hip hop, or that the lyrics are rapped, but instead it’s that the flow is influenced by the innovations that hip hop has contributed to our use of language. I think that’s a generally underappreciated thing. A lot of theatre lyrics are still very square, neat, tidy – and to me that sounds dated. Nothing wrong with dated, but if you’re writing contemporary characters it’s sort of a problem.

Regardless of the style, what I always have to guard against is making sure that I’m not getting so entranced by the form that I lose the meaning. In musical theatre, you can’t sacrifice character for style for very long. That’s part of the discipline. I love to rhyme, I love playing with words, and at the end of the day it does have to be about the character, or at least the story.

Still, sometimes form can influence content. Rhyme scheme in of itself can reveal something about character... like where the lines are falling can be as unique as the characters themselves. It’s not just rhyming for the sake of rhyming.


(Jason Tam singing "All I Want")

Me: So about The Trouble With Doug, it’s based off Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” What attracted you and Will Aronson to want to write this story?

Daniel: We had worked together on a 10 minute musical. We met at Tisch and were put together on a 10 minute musical assignment. We wrote a little musical based on a Buddhist parable about death, love, very kind of dark, and weird, and quirky.

Somehow together we tend to gravitate towards some combination of the mundane and the magical, the horrifying and the comic, and the ridiculous and the very moving, and that was what our little Tibetan Buddhist show was like.

So when it came time to think about what we wanted to do for a full length show, we batted around a bunch of ideas but one of our advisors said, “The two of you should read Kafka.” And when we read “The Metamorphosis,” we saw we were both very interested in life, death, and transformation of various kinds, and family, and we thought if we could situate this in the modern world, it could be a very interesting look into all those themes. The impermanence of things, change, and the body. We were a little nervous about it because it’s not inherently a very theatrical story. The story is very dominated by the tone, so we needed to make up our own modern story based on the premise. And it’s really been a test of us as dramatists. How do you tell a story that people will believe on its own terms and be able to overlook that this guy is a slug and to really engage with it on a universal level?

Me: Well the source material asks a lot of existential questions. How far can you go with that?

Daniel: Not very far. Here’s the thing: you can ask them. You just can’t spend very much time asking them, because it’s the most boring thing in the world. What we’ve tried to do is infuse the show with those existential questions but not ask them outright. We put these characters in an existential crisis and see how they respond. Our aim was also to just have a hilarious comedy that sneaks up on you, punches you in the gut, and then leaves you with an existential hangover.

Me: I love that. That’s weird to say but I love shows that are able to do that.

Daniel: It’s a tall order but when you can pull that off, it’s very satisfying. Because it’s like you’re on this ride and it’s very enjoyable and then the destination is somewhere you had no idea you were going. And that’s our aim, which is very tricky. We’re getting closer and we’re thankful for this NAMT opportunity because it gives us a chance to kind of take it out into the world. We feel the show is ready for that and we are ready for that.

Me: So why did you decide to make Doug a slug?

Daniel: Well, the answer is not because it rhymes. In fact, one of my proudest moments as a lyricist was only rhyming Doug with slug once. And it’s very indirect because I know how frickin annoying it would be to have that rhyme in your face the whole show. It’s distancing – it’d be almost campy, you know?

We didn’t choose a beetle or cockroach from the original story because there’s a lot of baggage attached to the story in terms of social commentary. Sort of a worker drone and personality-less creature, that Gregor was essentially becoming what he always was. A lot of critics have read it that way, and we didn’t want to go there not because we didn’t think social commentary was valid, but because it can be distracting. People think that’s what the point of the show is.

For me, I could just personally relate to the idea of becoming a slug. I think a lot of young people these days is not that they’re too busy but that a lot of us are too busy waiting for life to start. Now that’s not Doug’s problem. He has a brother who that’s much more the case for. And it’s an interesting question of why Doug becomes the slug and not his older brother Vince. We have dramatic reasons for that, I guess, but also we didn’t want such a straight causal link. The main theme of our show is the unknown and the unknowable, and what happens when calamity strikes and we can’t understand it. We didn’t want the audience to have an easy out or some lesson or moral.

Me: So how did you start “Start Spreading the Muse”?

Daniel: “Start Spreading the Muse” is one of my favorite things I do. I started it in 2005 or 2004, and I was taking a seminar on money. I’ve never been particularly fond of money so one of the components of the course was to invent a project around money that would actually inspire you. Like if money was a game that could be an expression of you, what would you create? And I thought, when I write songs for occasions, people love it. There’s something people get out of having their experiences or personalities honored in a song in the same way people experience value in having a portrait of themselves.

So I thought I would do a custom song writing service, and I started it up and what happened was amazing. Within a month, I had a national radio interview in Canada and a song contest where people entered and I got to write a custom song for the winner. I actually wrote this song for her 3 year old daughter full of all the family history stories she liked to hear when she went to bed. So it was like a lullaby.

I just love doing it and people get such value out of it. I would love to turn this into a bigger business... I just need to figure out how do I let people know about it. It’s not the usual gift someone thinks of for someone. I just have to make a demand for it.

My dream is to have a studio dedicated just to that and bring in a bunch of other songwriters and other singers because I don’t have the greatest voice in the world. I’m imagining a real gift empire. And setting a new paradigm for what a gift can be. When I think about getting rich off it on its own, it doesn’t excite me. But when I think about getting rich off it making a huge difference in the world, I get excited about that. Because that has value and I’m willing to collect on that and do cool things with that money like writing new musicals.

Me: Or it expanding and it becoming even more of a community thing by bringing new people into it.

Daniel: Which is exactly when I think things are most satisfying: when it no longer belongs to just one person. I never really want to lose that individual sense of creation, but once that spark comes out, once the ideas come out, it only really lives if people can share it.

Me: What projects besides these two are you working on currently or have on the horizon?

Daniel: As a writer, I have a song cycle called The Longing and the Short of It which I wrote the lyrics and music for, that was up at Barrington last summer with William Finn directing it. He was my professor at NYU and a very important mentor. And then it was selected to be at the ASCAP Foundation Musical Theatre Workshop with Stephen Schwartz and a rotating panel of industry people this April and for that one I tried to write some book for it, and now i’m trying to figure out what to do with it. They’re songs about alienation or not fitting in, or awkwardness, and that’s about the only thing that ties them together. So I’m trying to figure out what to do with that.

Then, there’s this other thing I’m really excited about, speaking of community. I’ve started a production company for Tisch grad musical theatre alums called Blue Room Productions and we’re having our first event September 27th at Galapagos Art Space. We are going to be doing an event called
Brooklyn’s Got Character[s] with songs about real people from all over Brooklyn written by Tisch alums in cooperation with these people so we’re not just voyeurs. We’re actually interviewing them, working with them, kind of like custom songs about these people. I’m super excited about that. I’m writing for that, but I’m mainly excited to hear the diversity of writers. Because Brooklyn is such a diverse borough. We are all as writers very diverse. And we are much more diverse than what is represented in the mainstream musical theatre or industry. I wanted a space where we could express ourselves as artists and the community and doing a service for the community, as well.


(Donna Lynne Champlin singing "I Don't Think Of You")

Me: When it comes to self-promotion, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges of being a musical theatre writer and what is your strategy?

Daniel: I think for me the strategy is to be myself as much as possible. And my schtick is to put all of me out there. The challenge is knowing how you want to be seen publicly and then presenting yourself in a way where you are proud of the things you do and wanting to share them with people. I try to have a sense of humor about it. But I did find it really helpful to have my Youtube channel ‘danielmatemusic’. Because I’ve had a lot of people contact me after watching my videos who have gotten curious and contacted me to buy sheet music or see a show I’ve done. It’s great because it’s like the site is doing the work for me.

1 comment:

s. said...

Really compelling interview, dude. I particularly LOVE all the talk about innovative rap-inspired language and juggling content vs form, and it makes me look forward to seeing The Trouble with Doug!

And, of course, Jason Tam singing about taking me away on the Starship Enterprise? Be still my nerdy heart.

Oh, and neat! My mom will be super interested in Start Spreading the Muse. I'll share the link with her and tell her to spread the word amongst her friends and fellow musicians in the Twin Cities!