Sunday, January 9, 2011

Drawn to You: An Interview with Timothy Huang

Timothy Huang wears many hats, writing as a composer, lyricist, and librettist in addition to having some acting/singing experience under his belt. He's a graduate of NYU's Tisch (twice!) and received the audience award in 2004 for the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of his musical And the Earth Moved. Yesterday, his work was showcased at Don't Tell Mama as a part of We Go to 11, an evening of five 11 minute musicals written by BMI Musical Theatre Workshop writers. We Go to 11 has another show on Wednesday, but for now, I have the privilege of posting this Q&A where Timothy talks about Joss Whedon, the writing process, and being the self-proclaimed mayor of 15 minute musical town:

"Drawn to You" performed by Jared Gertner, Kendal Sparks, Jen Blood, Sarah Corey, Piper Goodeve, and Andrew Kober

from song cycle Lines as part of Timothy Huang: Chinese or Crazy at NYTB

Me: How did you get started in musical theatre?

Timothy Huang: I had Asian parents. So I grew up playing piano, saxomaphone and drumming and other foolishness. I started singing at an early age too and my school was like, the artsy one, so there were a lot of opportunities to perform. When it came time to pick a college I knew I wanted to act in theater and NYU turned out to be where I landed. One of the other theater people at my high school (the girl whom I always played opposite in school shows) had very supportive parents and they sort of knew my parents were unfamiliar with the whole "study of art as a profession" thing so they made themselves available to me whenever I needed advice.

About halfway through college I started wondering why all my classmates seemed so content to do other people's choreography, sing songs that other people had made famous and do shows that had been already done. The answer, obvious to me now but not back then, was because they were real actors and I was really a writer. Eventually I figured that out and when the opportunity came to go to grad school, I ended up back at NYU because I didn't want to leave the city and lose touch with my agents, etc.

Me: How would you describe your musical style? Who are your biggest influences?

Timothy: I would probably call my style "contemporary American theater" which is of absolutely no use to you... But critically I have been likened to a lot of different people. Bill Finn, Jonathan Larson, George Gershwin (??). I think that people tend to want to put artists in a box, critics especially, because they have an obligation to make the art accessible to the lay person. I mean, that one time someone likened me to Gershwin, it was a different show than when they likened me Bill Finn. Each show tends to have it's own voice and it just happens that in The View From Here I wrote a song that aped the jazz standards of the 20s/30s and used that as my backbone, and in And the Earth Moved I wanted a very "New Yorkey pre-9/11 hopeful" feel. And that translated to one reviewer as William Finn-ish. He's not wrong, I studied under Bill at NYU and I grew up loooving the Falsettos score.

As for my influences, I'd have to say that most of my writing influences are literary/dramatic, not musical. The nature of the drama always dictates the nature of the music (which may account for why there is such a disparity between the writers I have been so generously compared to). I'm a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. Have been since A Few Good Men. The economy with which he conveys depth of character is really unparalleled, I think. And in a musical theater setting economy is key. You can't really write a twelve page scene and then have someone sing about it. Well... I suppose you could, but it wouldn't be the least bit engaging... I loved Sports Night, and feel like Studio 60 got unfairly judged. I thought the opening scene to Social Network was so brilliant. Conveying as much in what they do say as in what is implied or left unsaid.

I'm also an enormous Joss Whedon fan. Discovered Firefly during the legendary "million amazon five star rating age" and subsequently bought all the Buffy/Angel sets. I feel just a few steps removed from him because I went to college with Sean Maher, who played Simon Tam in Firefly, and in the summer of 2000 right before grad school I did an indie film with a then unknown Amy Acker who would go on to play Fred in Angel the following year. I feel like he and I have similar tastes in actors. We maybe look for the same things.

Beyond that I can say I've been really fortunate in my career. Studied under William Finn and Michael John LaChiusa at NYU, and by way of my former life as an actor, I got to work with and for Jason Robert Brown, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, all of whom are so generous with their time and talents. But just having access to that brain trust is like -- kind of a huge deal. They're successful, and they care about passing the torch. They aren't so wrapped up in their own ambition that they won't sit down and tell you what they think of your work. That's very rare, especially in this landscape where genuine musical theater writers are struggling to compete in the mainstream with aging rock stars searching for cultural relevance and musical adaptations of movies that existed in the 80s and 90s. Which isn't to slam adaptations, or rock stars (We're all artists right?) but just to say that when your goal, like mine is, is to create new and original work, it's that much harder to get the attention of a producer who for better or worse thinks a "known" property is more likely to return his investment than an unknown one.

"Never Knew" performed by Piper Goodeve from song cycle Lines as part of Timothy Huang: Chinese or Crazy at NYTB

Me: How has your acting experience shaped your perspective as a writer?

Timothy: Gosh, Alix Korey taught the most amazing vocal performance class at CAP21 back in the day. Totally changed my perspective on what constitutes a great song. First and foremost now I think I value actability in a song over anything else. If the intention isn't baked in there, if there isn't a very specific need written into the lyric, songs tend to leave me cold. Obviously not every song in a show will serve this end, but from an actors perspective, I learned very early on that if you give them enough to get play, but be open and trust their interpretation, everyone has a good time. Having the writer in the room can sometimes be really intimidating, so when I'm in rehearsal I try to make sure my actors know that they're really free to experiment, and I understand that if they're comfortable, then they'll perform really well and I will, by extension, come off smelling like a rose. So it's like "anything I can do to make this clearer for you, or alleviate the burden of having to 'act' lemme know and I'll do it."

Me: You're a songwriter, a book writer and, in some cases, both. How is the writing process different collaborating vs. working by yourself?

Timothy: The most obvious difference is time. When I write alone I don't have to worry about scheduling and accountability. Many of my colleagues from grad school who were fantastic writers, truly gifted, have not done nearly as much with their time as I have and it's because their collaborator is too busy. I've never suffered that problem. When you write alone, you don't have to deal with communicating an abstract idea to someone else (like "okay, so the earthquake is a metaphor for a cultural schism that all second generation immigrants suffer through...") Hilarious...ish...

I'm working on a full length right now with a collaborator who has authored the book but is a self-professed non-lyricist non-composer. It's been sooo much fun. She's super. After we set up a common language between us, and agreed to certain standards (I lobbied against allowing imperfect rhymes, she agreed etc.) We set to work with her on book and lyrics and me on music and, if needed, additional lyrics. And it was so cool because as a "non-writer," by which I mean she is primarily a director and choreographer, she isn't at all bogged down by the things we already know work. Meaning she'll give me a rhyme scheme that is just way out there (consistent, but out there) and I'll set to work on a tune, and start composing in a way I don't ordinarily compose. She's also just a dear friend now and someone in whom I have confided many things of a personal non-writery nature. Which is like, bonus!

Me: And the Earth Moved is a really cool, rather absurd exploration of family and identity, specifically from the perspective of an Asian American. How do you go about tackling subject matter that is representative of your heritage/community?

Timothy: Well, for my money, when people talk about "Asian American Theater" they're usually talking about the first generation immigrant story. They're usually talking about plays/musicals that chronicle the sacrifices outsiders make to come here to provide a better life for their future generations. And how maybe that works and maybe it ends horribly. I actually have a big problem with this. Not the stories themselves but the way the phrase "Asian American Theater" doesn't embrace a larger spectrum. I feel like there are sooo many other stories and experiences that can be gathered in the lexicon, but none of the theater companies who would or should take notice of them are really doing it. And they continue to thrive because there will always be an audience for those immigrant stories. There's always someone who didn't know he or she could be represented on stage, have their story told.

It only becomes a problem when that same person who once felt so much pride seeing their history on stage ceases to be moved by that and seeks to see their future on stage but no one's doing it. Suddenly we lose that demographic and by extension, lose the ground we gained. That person looks elsewhere to get his or her fix. Asian stories become a revolving door audience and as a result, the way we're represented in the mainstream takes that much longer to change.

So for me, my mandate has always been to find those things which once moved me as a noob, but put a contemporary spin on them so that even someone as jaded as myself will still find it thrilling. Make them something new and appealing and, fuck yeah, I'll be subversive.

In the more recent iteration of And the Earth Moved, I deliberately positioned my actors so that, in addition to using the pigeon English accent we are all so frequently called upon to use, they also had to use German, Irish, "urban," Italian, etc. I made them sing limerick, jazz standards, rap (poorly, but with conviction) traditional theatre belty, gospel...etc. And suddenly we have an audience who might not be aware of it, but are slowly coming to accept that the notions they normally associate with yellow people are only half the story. That as Americans we allow for so many different cultural influences. And oh yeah, maybe they start to remember that unless their uncle works in a casino in Arizona, they probably came from somewhere else too. And what does that say about everything else they've considered?

My piece in We Go To 11 is called A Relative Relationship and is, essentially about a Korean American kid who is stuck in detention with his non-Asian step sister. Ultimately the piece is about absolution, and the way we often blame ourselves for things entirely out of our control, but I did have some fun playing with the audiences' perception of who these two kids are before we really get to know them. We assume they're classmates and since they are different "colors" we assume they aren't related. Then one calls the other "sister" and suddenly our perception is challenged. Eventually it's reconciled but for a split second I take you out of your comfort zone. And hopefully it's enough to make you go back later and ask, "Why did I just assume that?"

Me: I know you have the "We Go to 11" show coming up, and you've also participated in The York's 4@15. What do you like about writing musicals in short format? What are the challenges?

Timothy: I am the self-professed mayor of 15 minute musical town. Last year I wrote three of them! And to a degree, they were all really successful. It took a lot of writing bad fifteen minute musicals though to finally understand the structure. I'm actually really proud of myself for finally figuring that out. I love it now. I think people tend to fall back on flash forwards. Cut here, fade out, lights up and were elsewhere. But I find that in such a short form, trying to accomplish more than the simplest of things only results in magnifying how the narrative has been truncated. I prefer limiting myself to anything that can happen in real time.

For my money, it's as simple as introducing an unstoppable force to an immovable object and letting things just sort of happen after that. Then you go back and figure out where your show resonates and maybe help beef up those themes at every opportunity.

Actually, people have traditionally responded more favorably to the short form pieces than the long form ones. I feel like if there's one nut I'd like to crack this year, it's figuring out the rate of speed at which people process the long form narrative. I tend to have a facility for juggling narrative threads (as an audience member) and what I've discovered about myself is the things which I find most satisfying, long twists and turns, a slow narrative burn, are sometimes frustrating to others. So using my own aesthetic as a gage hasn't always yielded the most successful result. At least in my full lengths.

"I Imagined" performed by Jen Blood and Sarah Corey from musical Death and Lucky

as part of Timothy Huang: Chinese or Crazy at NYTB

Find out more about Timothy Huang at his website here, and spend an afternoon watching some videos at his Youtube channel here!

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