A View for Two
Songwriting partners Will Van Dyke and Jeff Talbott talk with Michael Raver
BECAUSE THE WRITING of a song or a scene is often such a solitary thing, it is a constant challenge to keep a sense of objectivity about the piece as a whole. ‘I’m alone in a room with only my thoughts and keyboard,” is the order of the day. Once the piece in question is put before an audience, it takes on a new dimension and becomes subject to outward perspective and scrutiny. It all comes back to the author to hold court for this process. For most writers, its par for the course to shoulder the responsibility of their work.
However, when there are two artists working in disparate mediums coming together to make something, it can give both parties a new perspective on what they’re both capable of. And any given differences between them can often yield cohesive results.
Musical theater has long been a breeding ground for these kinds of collaborations. A composer will saddle up with a playwright, letting thoughts and toil lead to experimentation. Songwriter Will Van Dyke and playwright Jeff Talbott have found themselves in such a partnership. It has caused a seismic shift for both men, resulting in a new musical, Imagine Harry. In short, it is the story of a wayward young man who reunites with the imaginary friend he had when he was a child, who has since gone on to become a husband and a father. Both are dragging their feet through hopelessly downtrodden lives, that is, until their reconnection. A heartwarmingly beautiful narrative and catchy songs have landed Van Dyke and Talbott in an artistic collaboration that is yielding buoyant results. In addition, the two just released an EP of standalone tunes called A View of the River, featuring the likes of Jonathan Groff (HBO’s "Looking," Hamilton) and Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow).
Songwriter Will Van Dyke
MICHAEL RAVER: How did your collaboration come about?
JEFF TALBOTT: I was on a car trip with some friends and they played a song of Will’s and I became obsessed with it. A couple days later, I wrote him an email.
WILL VAN DYKE: We were both looking for collaborators. We met, had chicken and waffles at Delta Grill and the rest is history.
JT: In that meal, I brought in a launching off point for a story. A one-sentence pitch. I was very curious about the idea of a kid who had an imaginary friend who reconnects with that friend as a grown-up. It’s hard to separate strains of who does what. I do sit and write the book and he does sit and write the music, but there is a lot of crossover.
MR: What about was appealing about the shift from writing plays to writing a musical?
JT: I’m aware that there has to be a lot more economy in musical theater. There’s much less real estate for dialog in a musical because you need room for the songs. I didn’t have a destination, but we found that together. We let the story tell us what it wanted to be. My father had Alzheimer's and its a topic that’s very interesting to me. We went back and forth about how that might be part of the musical. And one of the first songs we wrote is about that, where I said “it would be really interesting if this was part of this story, dot dot dot.” We always knew where we headed and wrote to that. That song is still very much in the musical and will always be. It was very organic.I wrote a scene that would lead us from one point to the next. The story starts as one thing and ends up as something else, so in that regard, its not different at all from when I write a play. I really like a piece of writing to start as something and become something else.
Playwright Jeff Talbott
MR: How aware of Jeff’s storytelling are you when you’re writing a song?
WV: We always talk about what the song is going to be. Usually, I know what needs to happen in terms of storytelling. I’ll write until I get stuck and then I send it to Jeff. Then he writes until he gets stuck. We go back and forth. I’m very much a pop songwriter in a lot of ways and what I really enjoy doing is taking this form that we all know and relate to and really setting ‘story’ to that. So that you can relate to it and don’t feel separated from it.
MR: Do you discuss whether the song will be an uptempo or a ballad beforehand?
JT: I’ll present a scenario or even a scene with a monologue and say there’s a song in there somewhere. Then what Will does is often so different from what I thought it was. Often it completely upends the initial idea and really does let the story tell us what it wants to be. It’s really exciting. Will is a very uncynical writer, while I have a darker sensibility. So there’s a tension in those two world views that makes things blossom when we write a song. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of that we do together.
WV: There are so many rules in writing musicals. We do break some of them, but if your main character doesn’t sing a song about who they are and what they want and if its not the second or third song in the musical, people are going to be confused. If you look at any great musical, from Showboat to Hamilton, the second or third song is that song.
JT: We discussed that very solidly, and while our lead character’s self-defining song is delusional and the audience sees that, it still fits that form. It dictates plot. There’s a lot of plot in this particular musical.
WV: I write pretty chronologically, from beginning to end. That really helps me. If something is not fitting, I’ll fix it as I go. By the time I write the finale, I’m aware of what it is.
MR: Is that true for plays as well? Staying true to a form?
JT: You shouldn’t worry about those things while writing a play. We know that when we get to a scene, someone is going to sing something in it. Your job is to get your ego out of the way and listen to the piece. It will tell you what it needs. That’s true of a play, its true of a musical. With a play, the playwright is more godlike in that setting. But in a musical, everyone’s going to have an opinion. With all of those voices, its our job is to weed through everyone’s opinion and keep shaping it so that its still the thing we want it to be.
MR: How do you decide when something is stageworthy?
WV: When you finish a first draft of a musical, you’ve got 16-24 songs that tell a story. If you read it and it makes sense, you need to hear it.
JT: We knew we had a draft last summer. We got a group of people together, sat around a table and sang all of the songs.
MR: Once you’ve gotten the songs written, do you immediately want to hear them sung by an actor?
WV: God, I want to hear songs every day. When I finish a song, I get really excited and I would love to hear people sing it right away.
JT: With a play, you can call all of your friends over and hear it immediately. With this though, you’ve got to find someone and teach them the music. It isn’t as easy. We did a table read, we recorded demos, but that required teaching eight people the music. It wasn’t until we had the demos that I could sit and listen to them and read the book to really know what we had.
MR: You also just put out an EP on iTunes called A View of the River. Are these songs that you hope to fit into a future show?
JT: By the end of a couple of sessions, we had a song that didn’t belong in the musical. And it kept happening. We wrote about ten songs that way. But they’re not necessarily for any particular show, no. These songs became a sort of palate cleanser.
MR: And you’re already onto writing the next one.
WV: I wanted to write something bigger. Imagine Harry is the largest piece I’ve written and its got eight people in it. So I wanted to write something big.
JT: For years, I’ve wanted to write a musical that is very loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. And I wanted to write something took place in the pioneers in Nebraska, because I’m from that area. It fit the dictates of what Will was hoping to work on. It’s called Wintersong.
Imagine Harry was recently showcased at 54 Below in New York. A View of the River, which is now available on iTunes, features performances by Jonathan Groff (“Prayer”) and Kate Baldwin (“The Girl Who Ran Away”). For more information on Jeff Talbott and Will Van Dyke, check out www.willvandyke.com and www.jefftalbott.com.
Go here to see Kate Baldwin singing “The Girl Who Ran Away” at 54 Below.
5 Questions for Will and Jeff
Q: Rehearsal or Performance?
A: Both: Rehearsal
Q: Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill?
A: JT: Neither
A: WV: Tennessee Williams
Q: Essential first day of rehearsal accessory?
A: JT: My iPhone charger
A: WV: Bowtie
Q: Play that you’ve written that changed your approach to playwriting?
A: JT: Imagine Harry
A: WV: Magnificent Climb
Q: Project that you haven’t done yet that you’re champing at the bit to do?
A: JT: Wintersong, the new musical we’re working on together.
A: WV: I want to write something for a symphony.
Michael Raver is an actor and playwright. As an actor, he’s performed Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company, Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, regional theaters across the country and in film and on television. As a playwright, his work has been presented by The Martha Graham Dance Company, The Actors Company Theater, The Pearl Theatre Company, Bedlam, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Playhouse on Park, The Bridge Street Theater, and Sonnet Repertory Theatre. His play Fire On Babylon was nominated for the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Award and was a finalist at the 2015 O'Neill Playwrights Conference. He has served as a judge of the Ferro Grumley Award for LGBT fiction and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV. His new play is called Riptide.
For more about Michael Raver, go here.
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