Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Gamechanger: A Conversation with Tony-Nominated Composer and Master Teacher, Craig Carnelia

Could you share a little bit about why and how you began making music?

I was 14 and in a folksinging group. One of the other members of the group wrote songs, and it occurred to me that that was something I wanted to do — so I went home and started writing songs.

They weren't very good at the start.  It took quite some time before I wrote a good song.  It wasn't really until my early 20s that I got good at what I do — I started to write in my teens because I had two parents who had no interest in who I actually was, and I had this big secret.  The secret was my true nature.  I didn't know that's why I was starting to write, but that's why I started. Just to have a place to fully experience who I was.

So while, as I said, the songs weren't all that good, they were expressive of something, and the something they were expressive of is who I actually am, as opposed to "the role I would play for my parents," which was a less vivid, less passionate, version of myself.

Can you put into words the person that you really were?


I always had a vision that turned deeply inward, so I was extremely introspective, but I also had (though I didn't know it at the time) a vision that pointed outward.  I was interested in everything and in other people.

My father's pathology was that of depression and the things that depression fosters — a glumness, brooding and an occasional outburst.  As for my mother, she never said what she meant. So everything meant something other than the words. And I became interested in subtext before I even knew what it was, because it was the very first thing I was trained to do —which was to understand — or try to intuit — what the person actually means.

You say you had an introspective vision as well as an outward one. Is that outward vision most keenly in place as an observer or as a participant?

Neither. As an empathizer — because it's observing, of course, but then feeling for the other person's situation — which is one of the ways we make writing and acting, for that matter. There's imagination and intuition  (and spookier things, like just being able to do it), but empathy's a huge tool. I didn't even know that that's what it was, but it is feeling for the other person.

Were you always able to delineate between your own feelings and those of another person?  Or do they overlap, like maybe you walk into a space and felt sadness and later realized it's somebody else's and not your own?

No. I've always been peculiar, but it's not to the point where I can't tell the difference between what someone else is experiencing and what I'm experiencing. No, I've always had a clear idea of what that delineation was.

There were certain touchstones or mile markers where you said your writing got good. Were there particular events that precipitated that?

There were some natural jumps that I made. One when I was 22 and just started writing better. There were two others that I can actually see the cause of.

One was earlier, when I was 20, 21. I wrote four musicals before I got good, and I had occasion to play one of them for Hal Prince. We've since come to know each other very well. He doesn't actually remember this event, but it was huge for me —  to play him this score — it was 1971, I think. That would make me 21. And he listened to the whole thing very respectfully, and then he tore it apart in terms of the craft. It was sloppy. It was sloppy and full of good ideas and he told me to work harder, so I did. And that was a huge leap. It's the first time I'd ever talked to anyone about my work. The world today is full of musical theatre writing programs and mentorships, people being taught and people being guided. Back then, there was much less of that and I was feeling my way by myself. It was a very important moment.

The next thing that happened that signaled a huge move forward is that, from the age of 22 to 25, I worked on a musical that was the best of my early shows, but it was about something that didn't mean anything to me. It had been suggested by a friend who wrote the book, and we toiled at that for three years. We actually got optioned for Broadway twice, and I'm really glad it never happened. But during that period, I didn't realize it, but working on that thing that meant so little to me, my craft had gotten better. 

The minute I was done with that, I started applying the craft I had acquired to things that actually interested me and I wrote a bunch of really good songs in the space of a year, and it was actually those songs that got me Working in the late 70s. And my work has been generally good since then. There are things I like better than other things, but I've been a good writer since I got done with that show and started writing songs because I wanted to say what I wanted to say.

So one leap was in 1972 for no good reason, and the others were hearing a valuable piece of advice from Hal Prince and getting out of an artistic prison, but finding out I had been building muscle while I was in prison.

That moment with Hal, what was your response to that kind of criticism?  Did you love it because someone actually saw you and wanted to be frank?

I didn't love it, I was actually shocked because I didn't know the work was amateurish. I really had a voice, but I didn't know how much I didn't know, so I was surprised by his criticism. Once I then started doing what he said, which was just working harder, it made a world of difference. No — it didn't feel good — and I'm so grateful for it. No one had ever had the courage or vision to do that. So, it was most welcome.

As a writer or composer, or both, who spoke for you as you found your own voice? Also, was there anyone you read and felt — wow, he or she know what I feel?

There are people whose work excited me, and who influenced my work early. And then there are people who did a level of work that was serious — in such a way that I wanted to emulate it if I possibly could.

Early on, I had lots of influences: The Beatles, Jule Styne, all theatre. And then I would say as a person who shows us the way — Lynn Ahrens said recently she believes we're all descended from Sondheim, all of us who write today — and indeed I think we are. And I think when he wrote Company, he invented the contemporary musical. We who strive to write serious, contemporary musical theatre are all descended from that.

That has changed, of course, from when I was young, partly because when you're 20 or 25, you're looking for an identity and I don't need to look for that anymore. I've actually always had one and yet didn't know that. There's a something unique we each have to bring to our writing, and I've actually been good at allowing that to be there since I became a good writer.

What is that thing for you?

It's not a particular feeling... 

I don't care for small talk in life, and I also have no talent for it. So I think I'm only interested in those things that interest me. And the things that don't interest me, I don't even seem to have an ability to do — which is sometimes unfortunate. Now I could make a virtue of it, or claim that it is one, but it's actually not — it's a deficiency. 

While I was working with Marvin Hamlisch, we often were called upon to write something — not for the two shows we had produced, but for the couple of other projects that we explored — that I wasn't excited about personally, and was able to do it with varying degrees of success. I was surprised in that period at how versatile I was, because I'd always had this belief that if it didn't interest me, I wouldn't even be able to function. And I was able to function doing things that didn't fascinate me.

But where I am now in my life, in my 60s, there isn't any chance I would give time to anything that didn't fascinate me. There isn't a chance of it — that I would go toward something that didn't actually excite me.

What is the nature of a successful collaboration?

For me, a successful collaboration is one that produces good work. If you're talking about happiness and compatibility, I think it's the same kind of magic that happens in one's personal life, when one finds a partner who you're just very happy to see every day. But those are two different things.

I've had a number of very good collaborations.  I'm having two good collaborations right now with book writers. It feels good if it feels like a friendship, but it doesn't need to. There needs to be a common respect for the other person's autonomy and the other person's distinctive vision, or voice, that then get melded by these two people into yet another distinctive vision.

I'm working on two shows right now. One was just produced last summer at Williamstown, called Poster Boy. I'm writing that with a young writer named Joe Tracz and enjoying that a great deal. I have another collaboration working on something with John Weidman and we are just having a blast being in the room with each other, it's just such fun. I'm enjoying both of those collaborations, though they're very different.

How did teaching come about?

I always felt I would be a good teacher and I always felt it would be something I'd like to do. And I had a very clear idea of what I would teach because, having been in production on a number of shows, I found myself always gravitating toward actors and interested in their process.

In the audition process, I was struck before I was a teacher, by how few people are acting and singing at the same time. Even, sometimes, ones who are doing work on a very high level would often just be vividly inhabiting an attitude. So I began teaching about 25 years ago; I started with one class and built to four (I still have four). And I came to it as something I always wanted to do. On one hand, it's a sideline, meaning it is part of my earnings. On the other hand, it's something that's quite symbiotic with the writing. The two really feed each other and feed off each other.

Have you ever seen performances that embodied that fusion of acting and singing onstage?

I see them all the time. 

Any single performance that changed your life?

No, I didn't have an epiphany in the theatre, but I've always known the difference when I see it, even when I was a kid. There were so many things I knew the essence of before I knew their names. Writing has been a lot like that. But acting — I've always known the difference from my earliest days of going to the theatre as a teenager. I've just always felt the difference... It's whether I am pulled toward the person or simply watching. It's a huge difference.

As teacher, you have a sort of shamanic quality about you, perhaps a psychic ability (obviously there are different words that one might use for that). But just as a good actor can be a shapeshifter, or "an empath-by-trade," I feel like you're able to "loan yourself" to the experience of a student so you don't shame them into transformation, but meet them and help uplift them. It doesn't also, seem, like there's a lot of noise in you when you teach.

The absence of noise has something to do with being focused and being present, which is simply something I do in everything I do. It's the way to live.

Something came to mind when you were asking about the degree to which anything psychic is involved. I was involved with a woman in my early 40s and she had a two year-old daughter from a marriage that was breaking up. The first time I met the daughter was in a sandbox — I went and met the woman and the daughter in the sandbox, and the woman introduced me to the child, the two year-old, and she looked at me and then she looked back at her mother, and said, "Does daddy know him?"

I think we're all psychic and that we lose it. There's a lot of life, a lot of school, that teaches us to not be as attuned to what is very clear to us, so I do think I might be a little bit psychic. I suspect I am, but just noticing things can make us have an awareness like, "Does daddy know him?" She knew what I was doing there, that little girl. 

Do you think your diet has anything with your perception?

(Laughs) Are you talking about the fact that I've been a vegetarian since I was 22? 

Because in my vegan days, I certainly noticed a lot of valves opened up, in terms of compassion —

I think being a vegetarian is useful. I think in my mid-60s, it's especially useful, having not been eating meat all those years. I also never felt comfortable eating animals.


I didn't want to hurt them — ever. It always made me uncomfortable. I don't know that that creates a greater availability or understanding, I really don't. I think when I eat well, I feel better, but I can eat badly within my own vegetarianism... You know, there's a vending machine in our building and while my wife's been away for a couple months, I've been having a great intimacy with that vending machine!

You've seen a lot of students come, stay, go. Can you afford to care about students?

Yes, absolutely. I care a whole lot. What I find happens when I'm teaching is that I'm much more interested, or rather — I'm never drawn into what they're feeling, ever. I'm always interested in what they're doing and how I can possibly help them. But I'm never drawn into their feelings either in the scene or in something they're talking about. I'm able to keep a distance that will allow me to make use of what I've learned... Not to compare my job with things that have to do with life or death, because this isn't life and death, but I think anybody who does something they care a lot about would run the risk of taking their issues home, but I never take teaching issues home, ever.

When a student comes into class and presents, whether consciously or not, an "alias" version of themselves that they would like you or the class to receive, and you can see where they truly live inside, is the process of fusing those two things — of giving them a direct encounter with themselves, of who they really are — is that purely intuitive?

It is. It's intuition and experience, a combination of the two things, of how to help the student move towards something more genuine.

Anybody can watch a performance and think, "This is what I don't like about it." Some people can actually think, "This is how it can be better," but those of us who are good teachers and good directors, I think, find a way to speak to that particular person that will not limit, but that will actually open a door to, an experience that is more vivid.

How foolish it would be if you went to the doctor with a cough and the doctor said, "Stop coughing!", and yet very often you'll hear a director or a teacher say, "Well, you shouldn't move your arms like that." You know — that's not your job. Your job is to diagnose why they're doing the thing that is questionable. Your job is not to say, "Never sing that song." Your job is to help them to feel really good about themselves while guiding them to better work.

If you could say a couple of brief things toward young people who want to make their lives about singing in the theatre, what would you say?

Be yourself. Don't try to please. Forget people-pleasing and "niceness."  Kindness, warmth, interest in others, openness, readiness, these qualities and behaviors are on a long list that can serve you well.  "Niceness" is just a way of erasing yourself.

One thing I've taken away from you class is, every experience we've ever had, every pain, every wound and every glory as well, is useful if you choose to make art of it.


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CRAIG CARNELIA has had four shows produced on Broadway.  Working with composer Marvin Hamlisch, he wrote the lyrics for Sweet Smell of Success, with book by John Guare, and Imaginary Friends, with Nora Ephron.  Hamlisch and Carnelia received Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations for their score for Sweet Smell of Success, and Carnelia received a Drama Desk nomination for his lyrics in Imaginary Friends.  As both composer and lyricist, Craig wrote the score for Is There Life After High School, and contributed four songs to Studs Terkel's Working, for which he received his first Tony nomination.  Off-Broadway, he wrote the music and lyrics for Three Postcards at Playwrights Horizons, with book by Craig Lucas, and contributed to the review, Diamonds, directed by Hal Prince. Regional premieres include The Good War at Chicago's Northlight Theatre and Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre, both written with playwright-director David H. Bell.  Craig has won a number of major songwriting awards, including the Johnny Mercer Award, the first annual Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Musical Theatre Award and the prestigious Kleban Award.  His best known songs include "Flight," "What You'd Call a Dream," "Just a Housewife," and "The Kid Inside."  His new musical, Poster Boy (book by Joe Tracz), premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in July 2016, and is slated for a production at the Public Theatre in New York.  He also has another new project in development at Roundabout with bookwriter John Weidman.  Craig has been on the council of the Dramatists Guild since 1995 and is married to actress Lisa Brescia.