For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed theater lyricist-writer Harvey Edelman, His works have appeared on stage throughout the country, and been part of the Macmillan Publishing Educational Series and the Headstart program. He is a member of ASCAP and the Dramatists Guild.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
I am currently completing a musical based on the 1933 landmark play Dead End, written by Sidney Kingsley. I began working on this project with my collaborators about 40 years ago … yes 40 years ago. We resumed work on it earlier this year after acquiring the rights to produce it as an audiobook musical, with the ultimate goal of getting it to Broadway. Assuming we complete it and it reaches an audience, the saga of the ups and downs and the making of Dead End could be a book, play, or musical in its own right.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
After one of our musicals, On The Air, reached Off-Broadway, my collaborators – composer Neil Fishman and book writer Peter Palame – and I looked for a project with Broadway potential that we could bring to the ASCAP musical theatre workshop for development. Peter, who had and has, spent his entire life in theater as a performer, writer, director, and producer, suggested Dead End. After reading the play and watching the movie adaptation of the same name, we all saw the possibilities for what we envision as epic, an American Oliver … maybe bigger. Apparently, others felt the same as our ASCAP project was then chosen for a special reading at the Dramatists Guild, where a jury of Broadway legends – Joseph Stein, Stephen Schwartz, Charles Strauss, among others – agreed that what we had written so far – about half the score – was Broadway worthy.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
In musical theater, Stephen Sondheim has always been the guiding light for me and my creative partners. His clever use of language and music to tell a compelling story, and his intellectual awareness of every element of dramatic development is pretty much the gold standard for us. When I first began to write during my college years, writers who saw the world through a different and perhaps somewhat outrageous lens, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, and Henry Miller, appealed to me the most.
I’ve also been influenced by singer songwriters such as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and of course, Lennon and McCartney. In recent years, I’ve become obsessed with comedians, who as an artistic group, most closely match the way I view and process the world. The best of them have unique takes on everyday life and cut to the bone on the insanity of the human experience. The comedians I’m listening to the most in recent years include John Oliver, Marc Maron, Woody Allen, and John Stewart, but there are so many more.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
Though I have nothing against praise and adulation, and even making a few bucks, the process of creation is ultimately the most fulfilling. The satisfaction of working with creative collaborators, even with the inevitable artistic disagreements, sometimes heated, combined with ultimately realizing a vision, is always worth the pain endured to get there. The icing on that cake, at least where musical theater is concerned, comes when the material is handed over to talented performers and directors who take what was on the page to another level and dimension.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
Our recent opportunity to complete Dead End the Musical came about due to the success of our two most recent works, audiobook musicals adapted from our earlier stage works. Spin, the Rumpelstiltskin Musical, published by Harper Collins, essentially created the category of audiobook musical. On the strength of our script, we were fortunate to cast the legendary performer, Jim Dale, as the narrator, to complement our cast of Broadway and audiobook performers. Released in 2017, Spin has won numerous awards including anAudie for Best Original Work and two SOVAS awards for Outstanding Production in Audiobook and Best Voice Over in Children’s Audiobook. Our latest audiobook musical, Puss In Boots a Musical, published by Harper Collins this year, features Jim Dale returning as narrator along with an even bigger cast. Puss has already been nominated for several awards.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
I think everyone has a story to tell but not everyone gets to tell it to an audience. Early in my writing career I got to express my thoughts and feelings to audiences via song and dramatic dialogue but often within a context or with limitations not of my own making. Still, I did live my vision on occasion. I’m reminded of a musical we wrote that was produced at the Passage Theatre in Trenton that dealt with bigotry and bullying. That musical afforded me the opportunity to express thoughts about bullying that my son, about ten years of age at the time, had been experiencing in school. It was the first thing he had ever seen that I had written and it was deeply satisfying for me to share that with him. Our recent projects have allowed me, or I have taken, more writing freedom, more satirical freedom, to comment on social and political issues in an entertaining way, and perhaps, in some small way, change hearts and minds. That is my vision.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
Once upon a time when my creative partners and I were told Dead End was heading to Broadway, I dreamt of a life waking each morning in my Italian Villa (hey, it’s my dream), and strolling over to my piano to write lyrics and plays while sipping grappa, and gazing out over the Mediterranean. Though I’ve pretty much given up on the Italian Villa, waking each day to write (alone) and collaborate (on musicals with other creative people), would be a nice way to spend most days. For now, I’ll have to gaze at the Hudson, and have a cup of coffee.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
The whiny, petty part of me could say that we had more than our share of bad breaks along the way e.g. playwrights reneging on giving us adaption rights, producers developing amnesia during negotiations, theaters suddenly padlocked during the run of a show … you know the usual stuff. The truth is, not persevering, not committing, not working hard enough to get there … or get there sooner, has been the biggest obstacle. Though we had a share of early success, sometime along the way, the setbacks and time passing combined with a need for financial stability, detoured my creative partner and me. Instead of staying on the narrow, perilous path towards artistic success, we became business partners and turned our skills in audio production towards making a more reliable living. From that point, our creative interests took a Rip Van Winkle snooze, occasionally aroused to take on a project but with no real continuity or ongoing effort. We were shaken from our slumber a couple of years ago, when an associate, milling through our trunk of musical material, suggested resurrecting some of it in the not new, but evolving medium of audiobooks.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
When I’m not working to earn a living, I tend to try to make my free time have some link to creativity. Though I can while away the hours with the best of them, I’m the most content when I’m engaged with lively substantial conversation or reading/viewing books, movies, and the like that have something to say or some lesson to communicate. Though I read and view for entertainment, I tend to deconstruct the material to see how it might apply to my creative process and my vision.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
Procrastination. It’s amazing how often I need to water my plants (they’re very thirsty) or look out my window for approaching enemy ships.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
Though I appreciate “pieces of art” both modern and traditional, I tend to turn to the performing arts and film when I think of what has influenced and entertained me the most. The movie, Casablanca is one of my favorites as it tells a great human story against a backdrop of changing and significant historical events. Movies such as Dr. Zhivago, Reds, Schindler’s List, and Lawrence of Arabia, would fall into this category. These are great entertaining movies with the power to move and influence. My list would also include Groundhog Day, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, and Citizen Kane, although there are so many others. Of course, I’m influenced by live theater, musical or not, when it has something to say beyond exciting scenery and costumes.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
Though there are several people that would make my list, including Nikolai Tesla, Barack Obama, Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, and Leonardo da Vinci, I think I would settle on Ben Franklin. From everything I have read or seen about him, he was not only a Renaissance man of the first degree, but he was also clever, funny, and fair minded, and most importantly, learned from his mistakes and fought the status quo when necessary.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
If I could write a musical that truly reached a lot of people and brought them all together while making them laugh and cry, that would be it. I suppose I’m describing a musical theater god, which might be above my pay grade. You did ask though.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Not sure one word can describe any human being, but I’ll go with “inquisitive”. I like to know how things work and what makes people tick. In our current sociopolitical climate, I’m extremely challenged by the latter.
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Well, I have more than one, but I suppose that playing golf would be my prime guilty pleasure. Its allure is only understood by golfers, while the rest of humanity looks upon the game with disdain, which I oddly kind of get. The only negative I and my fellow golfers generally agree on is that it takes up too much time. Larry David, an avid golfer, has said that if he had used the time he spends playing golf towards other pursuits instead, he’d be first cellist with the NY Philharmonic and speak Mandarin fluently. Occasionally I’m able to rationalize my guilt, like when I recently met someone while playing golf who showed me his wonderful, whimsical watercolor cityscapes which gave me the idea to collaborate with him on a children’s book. So there’s that.
Another notable guilty pleasure is playing hooky from work or daily life and going to see a movie matinee. It’s tough to beat the joy of sharing a nearly empty theater with other hard core movie goers, draping my legs over the seat in front of me, while armed with a large soda and a jumbo box of Raisinets.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Overall, given my surroundings, and my life’s trajectory, I don’t know if I would have been compelled or successful in steering myself in any other significant direction. As John Lennon wrote (or perhaps paraphrased from someone else), “Life is what happens while you’re making plans.” Or as they say in Yiddish: “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht” ie. Man plans, and God laughs.” (Disclaimer: I Googled the Yiddish). The upshot of it is, I was where I was and was heading in a direction partly of my own making but it was based on choices I had made and the serendipity of life, and I was, and am, okay with the outcome. I probably would have said, keep on going, who knows what’s in store?
Q: Where would you most like to live?
That is a question I ask myself a lot these days as I’m getting to a point where I can probably choose to live almost anywhere I want. Truth is, no one place would suit me very long. If I lived in the country, I’d miss the activity and stimulation of the city. If I lived in the city, I’d need a break from the activity and stimulation before long. These days, I live in Jersey City, a 5 minute ferry ride from Manhattan, a 30 minute ride to the suburbs/country, and a 20 minute ride to the airport to parts unknown, so this works for now.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Purpose in life, friends and family you can count on, and getting a tee time at any golf course I choose.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
I think happiness and success go hand in hand, so purpose in life, friends and family you can count on, and getting a tee time at any golf course I choose.
Q: Final Thoughts?
The hardest thing in life, art, and filling out these interview questions, is being totally honest, with yourself, and with others. For me, it’s a work in progress, but I thank Joanne for the exercise.