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High Above the Ground: A Conversation With David Shire

Interview by Stephen B. Armstrong

Excerpted from FSM Vol. 9, No.4

Every February in Tallahassee, Florida State University hosts "Seven Days of Opening Nights," a weeklong series of shows performed by world-class entertainers and artists. This year, David Shire and his creative partner Richard Maltby, Jr., came to the college to preview a concert version of Take Flight, their newest musical.

Shire and Maltby have worked together for almost 50 years, and their oeuvre includes such well-known productions as Starting Here, Starting Now (1977), Baby (1983), Closer than Ever (1989) and Big (1996). Film music aficionados, of course, know Shire for his great scores, which include The Conversation (1974), All the President's Men (1976), Norma Rae (1979) and Return to Oz (1985).
During his visit to Tallahassee, Shire spent most of his time preparing for the concert with students in FSU's School of Music. Despite the busy schedule, however, he took a moment to chat with us about Take Flight and his long career as a composer for both the stage and the screen.

FSM: Playbill has described Take Flight as "a conceptual show linking ideas about man's quest for flight and the glory that comes with it." Is this accurate? Is the show a musical narrative, a revue, a bit of both?  

David Shire: Well, "conceptual show" is one of those terms that gets bandied about a lot these days. For me, a conceptual show, basically, is one with a novel concept behind it. Structurally, it tends to be different in some way from what used to be the standard, the linear show -- like Oklahoma or South Pacific -- that has songs interspersed along a single narrative line. A conceptual show is generally non-linear, and it often introduces different groups of people with different story arcs, like, say, A Chorus Line. Take Flight is conceptual in that sense because we have three groups of main characters, the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart and her husband George Putnam, and Charles Lindberg; and their stories intertwine, even though many of these people didn't know one another for the most part and they existed in different time periods.

FSM: How do you get these different stories to hold together?

DS: They are related to each other metaphorically. The show's characters were basically all ordinary people. They had no great distinction in their pre-fame lives. Some of them even floundered about a bit, trying to find what they were best at and what they wanted to do with their lives. They all wound up obsessed with a certain thing they felt they could do and did it with different end results and became legendary figures. We are all ordinary in a sense. But some of us are driven. Artists. Athletes. The ballet dancer who wants to leap higher and higher. The composer who wants to attain higher flights, so to speak, in his or her own work. They're all taking flight at considerable risk. Risk is an aspect of this concept, too. Amelia Earhart took risks, greater and greater risks, and died. Charles Lindbergh took many of the same risks and triumphed. The Wright brothers almost killed themselves several times, but finally prevailed and flew, while others tried to do what they did and wound up in the drink.

FSM: How did you get started on this?

DS: With an idea Richard had. Somebody had approached him about doing a show about Amelia Earhart, a non-conceptual musical. But in investigating her story, he felt there wasn't enough there. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the metaphorical possibilities of flight and risk. He expanded from that. That is, why not write about several people who were involved in flight and invention and risk? After Big opened and closed, we were hungry to do something new, and Richard talked me into working with him on it.

FSM: So you've been developing the show for a while.

DS: We started working on it about six years ago.

FSM: You've been previewing Take Flight outside of New York. There were readings in North Carolina, right?

DS: We were planning to do a full production at the Charlotte Rep last summer. Then because of financial problems we lost that production. It was moved to the following spring, but we lost it again because of a political shakeup at the theater. So now we're looking for another regional home.

FSM: How many of these readings and previews have you done?

DS: Four or five. One in Russia with music school students and American performers mixed together. One at the O'Neill Theater Center, where we worked on the show for a couple of weeks three summers ago. Two in New York. Unfortunately, this long, pre-Broadway journey for a show, assuming it eventually even gets to Broadway, has become the norm rather than the exception. Especially with a conceptual show, where you can't explain to people what it looks like. You just can't say, "Oh, this is like Oklahoma, only it's set in Idaho." After all, a conceptual show, in the best sense, means something no one's seen before.

FSM: How would you describe the material you've written for Take Flight?

DS: American, early Twentieth-century, with contemporary influences. It's not going to be a rock score, but my music tends to have a kind of rhythmic pulse that will hopefully make it fresh. I'm not trying to be totally authentic, in other words. It's good theater music with a nod to the period.

FSM: What kind of instruments?

DS: As close as budget will allow us to get a standard pit orchestral sound.

FSM: You and Richard Maltby have been working together since the 1950s.

DS: Since 1956.

FSM: Describe the history of your partnership.

DS: Have we got all night? We met at Yale. We both went there wanting to write shows for the undergraduate dramatic program, which put on big, full-scale musicals. Real ones, not hairy leg shows, but real book shows. A mutual friend put us together and we immediately started on a musical. In both our junior year and our senior year, we wrote the shows that the Yale Dramat put on. We tried to make them as much like real Broadway shows as we were technically and financially capable of. The song "Autumn," which Barbra Streisand eventually recorded, came out of our first college show, a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac.

FSM: What are your creative strategies?

DS: Our basic work method is first to get the story clear in our heads and then look for the spots for the songs. This is a great oversimplification, of course. Sometimes the music comes first, sometimes the lyric. In our case, Richard likes to have the music first, so we both work on it until we get it expressing the emotion or the character of the scene. Then Richard writes the lyric, and then we edit each other endlessly and mercilessly. Sometimes when we get done it's hard to remember who contributed what. Basically the music's mine and the lyrics are his, with a lot of overlap.

FSM: Over the last five years or so, several movies have been adapted for the stage -- The Producers and Hairspray, for instance. You musical treatment of Big premiered in1996. Do you claim any credit for spearheading the current "theatrical adaptation" trend?

DS: God, no. If anything we should have discouraged it because Big was a commercial failure. Musicals have been adapted from movies going way, way back. It's much easier to do an adaptation of a story that exists. To create one from scratch is a much harder job.

FSM: But doesn't it seem as though Broadway has been producing a lot of adaptations lately? The Lion King, Sweet Smell of Success, The Graduate.

DS: There are more now, I think, because there have been more successes. But right up through Big, there was an axiom that one of the sure ways to have a flop musical was to adapt a movie. Then The Producers and Hairspray and The Full Monty came along within a couple seasons. All we can claim is that maybe we discouraged a couple of people for a while.

FSM: I remember that when Big came out, a lot of people were excited.

DS: We were supposed to be a shoe-in for a big commercial success. In fact, there's a book about the production which you might be interested in called Making It Big. The reason that the book's author was following us around was to get an inside look at what our producer was envisioning, an adaptation that would be commercially successful. The book turned out to be 250 pages of irony, however, because the writer interviewed us about our process and our process went on to create one of the most costly non-successes to that date. I will add this, though, Big played 10 months. And after it closed, we did considerable rewriting, putting back songs we mistakenly cut, correcting a lot of the things that we realized were wrong. Like all of our shows, this revised treatment got picked up for stock and amateur rights, and it's performed all over the world now. If we had opened with this version, we would have had a much more successful run in New York.

FSM: Any chance Big will ever return to Broadway?

DS: Who knows? I don't think it will be in our lifetime. But Baby, on the other hand --

FSM: Which you're rewriting now.

DS: Not rewriting, but we've made improvements over the years since it was on Broadway. It has had hundreds of productions all over the world, as well. A major one opens at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey this spring, which may lead to a Broadway revival.

FSM: In 1979, your song "It Goes Like It Goes" from Norma Rae won an Academy Award. How does writing a show tune for the stage differ from writing an original song for a film?

DS: Let me talk, for a moment, about the difference between pop songs and theater songs. Pop songs tend to take one emotional mood and character and sing about that for three-and-a-half minutes. There are different facets, of course, but there's usually no dramatic progression from the beginning of the song to the end. A pop song will start out with "my baby left me" and end with "my baby left me and I'm so sad." I don't mean this to sound derogatory, but that's what pop songs are mostly like, and that's fine. Theater songs, in contrast, tend to be more like little scenes in a play. They should take a character from A to C or A to E, or at least A to B. When theater songs don't do this, that's when you start reading your program. Film songs, for the most part, are more like pop songs. But if you're talking about a song that was written as a title song, it should do more. In "It Goes Like It Goes," Norman Gimble's wonderful lyric deals very concisely with aspects of Norma Rae's life. It gives you a little bit about her, the child of a workingman, a rural girl with a rich soul. Still, the song is basically in one mood from beginning to end.

FSM: So the difference between film songs and theater songs is, essentially, one of degree. For the film, you have a pop song that's set over the credits and it serves some purpose in terms of character revelation and theme, but it's not a central part of the drama.

DS: Well, it's supposed to be. I mean, a really good movie song should be there not because it's supposed to sell records or publicize the film. There's been a lot of talk in the Academy, in the music branch through the years, about whether or not songs that are just pasted onto a movie should be eligible for nomination. Certain songs were disqualified when I was on the board many years ago because we tried to make rules about what constitutes a real movie song. The definition we developed was something like: a song that makes an integral contribution to the dramatic texture or the action of a film. Our song for Norma Rae appears over a main title. It's not over an end title, when people are walking out of the theater and the credits are rolling. Our song gives you a sense of the movie's main characters, the place, the time. It sets up the movie. That was its job. It wasn't a big commercial song. It was there to be part of the dramatic structure of the movie. Songs that are just pasted on are promotional songs, and that's a different world. But there are so many distinctions in art. As soon as you make a generality about one thing you find an exception.

FSM: Sure. Quentin Tarantino uses scraps of songs in movies which --

DS: Source songs create a certain atmosphere and that's a whole other thing. They serve a dramatic purpose by creating a texture with existing songs.

For the full interview see FSM Vol. 9, No. 4, on sale now...

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