Walt Stepp is writer/composer who writes thought-provoking and humorous shows and music. He once wrote a musical in which a Congressman's South American Songbird flings herself into the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., and unravels the whole knotty problem of a Watergate-like scenario. That was Dominoes: A Watergate Musical (1998). He had three plays produced at Altered Stages on 29th Street: Why We Shot Jack (2006), which re-tells the assassination from the point of view of Congressional conspirators; The View from K-Street Steakhouse (2007), which empathized with D.C. lobbyists who know that no amount of charm or cash alone can convince a Congressman, since ultimately, the party decides for its own mysterious reasons & Mark Twain's Blues, a play of Twainsongs (2008), wherein the author feels guilty about the ending of his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because it was such a betrayal of his main characters. "Huck" & "Jim" come back to help him rewrite it. Last year, Only Love Will Do, a gay/straight romantic comedy, had an extended run at Theater For The New City. All the men in that show, straight or gay, circled around "Liz," played by Louisa Bradshaw. Siren's Heart was inspired by my friend Richard Geha's, As Marilyn Lay Dying. He soon found himself in the same paranoid narrative America has been reciting since her death in 1962 and went looking for another, more uplifting story about her. That's when Norma Jean as a "woman of a certain age" came to him. Not as the pretty teenager we all know, but as the more fulfilled person she always wanted to be.
Walt grew up on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest; Gallup, New Mexico was the "Big Town" out there. Every Saturday, the BIA kids (Bureau of Indian Affairs) would go to town and see the new movies. Apart from Roy & Trigger, there were only two kinds: the Westerns (but horses and I didn't care for each other) and the Manhattan movie, which always opened with that Art Deco Skyline. It depicted a place far away where all the gleaming autos wore white-wall tires and everyone lived in gleaming white-wall apartments. It all said "Go East, Young man" and he did.
Walt has two shows running simultaneously, Siren's Heart: Norma Jean and Marilyn in Purgatory playing at The Actor's Temple (339 West 47th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenue) and Skybox playing at the Theater for the New City (155 1st Avenue, between 9th & 10th Streets). Click here for tickets to Siren's Heart and click here for tickets to Skybox.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a writer/composer? I'm first of all a songwriter, started in college when I discovered I could put any of the poems I was studying to music with just three chords. Actually, I'm a good singer - or a good imitator of Bing, Frank, Elvis, Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald. And the music is already in the poetry. "If you can say it, you can sing it," I discovered early on, and I still think my freshman version of Shakespeare's With a Hey and a Ho and a Hey Nonny O is a real contender.
When it came time to write SIREN'S HEART: Norma Jean & Marilyn in Purgatory, I realized I had a whole catalogue of songs that seemed made for the "Marilyn Who Might Have Been" story I wanted to write. The songs seemed to write the book. Three are by Yeats - "The Mask" is the sexiest ("It was the mask that first engaged your mind"), "Love is Blonde" (re-titled by Lissa Moira, our director) has been turned into a mean, gutsy blues by our star, Louisa Bradshaw, and our musical director, Gregory Nissen. Louisa also does a winning French version of Yeats's "Brown Penny" when talking about her affair with Yves Montand during the making of Let's Make Love. ("We used each other terribly - gloriously. I used him to seal my divorce from Arthur.")
Gerard Manley Hopkins' classic "Margaret are you grieving/over Goldengrove Unleaving" is the basis for a touching lullaby Marilyn sings for "the child I lost that September." Our new opener, "Looking at Her" is based on a story Truman Capote tells in Music for Chameleons about walking around Manhattan with Marilyn. Later, in his apartment, he notices she's been very quiet in his bedroom. "What are you doing in there?" he calls, and then he sees her gazing into the mirror. "Looking at her," she says.
A related song is "Norma Jean's Lament," beautifully choreographed by Don Garverick ("Oh God, I gotta be this goddess to them all (but I'm just this chunky chick from East L. A."). My own best song is a very torchy ballad she sings to Arthur Miller, "If You Could See Me As I Am." ("Once we were America's dream couple. And then we weren't," is the lead-in).
And Louisa's own "Shiksa Strip" ("I know it wasn't your decision/but I just love your circumcision") always gets a big hand.
2. You currently have two shows running Off-Broadway. The first show is Siren's Heart...Norma Jean/Marilyn in Purgatory. What made you want to write this show? What is about Norma Jean/Marilyn's life that you identify most with? I didn't really want to write about Marilyn's real life on earth - too grim, too sad - and it's been done better by too many other writers. Then I came across an interesting story in Don Spoto's great biography of her - that the only time of Real Happiness in her life was during her only live performance before 17,000 GI's in Korea. "They treated me with a respect I'd never known. I was their 'girl next door.' " It 's a touching moment, but I couldn't find any other moment of unconditional happiness in her actual life. So I started looking in the next world, where I found her in purgatory - now a much happier, more fulfilled and less haunted woman - the person she always wanted to be. "It's like celestial rehab," she jokes. And now she wants to tell her worldwide fans how she's been faring. We always knew there was so much more to the beauty trapped beneath that golden mask.
3. The second show you have running is Skybox. How did you come up with the idea for this show? I was reading Nicholas Kristof's column about the inequality of wealth in America, and he spoke of "the skyboxification of America." Skybox! The idea came to me practically written: a plutocrat buys a baseball team and the accompanying luxury skybox - and immediately has an affair with his gorgeous personal assistant. After a while, I realized I was riffing on the flirty, father-daughter relationship Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa had on TV. I loved it; he'd always challenge her in some impossible way and she'd always rise to the challenge in some very witty way. Those two characters, played so well by Bill Tatum and Chelsey Clime, were inspired by Regis and Kelly. The trophy wife has turned out to be more than I was aware I'd written - such comic delivery - thanks to her being played by Rachel Daye Adams and directed by Lissa Moira. And the "staff" players Lissa cast - Maisha Azadi, Kenny Steven Fuentes and Steve Brustien - are wonderful too.
4. Siren's Heart started its life at Theater for the New City and Skybox currently plays there. What is it about Theater for the New City that you keep having your shows there? What does their venue offer that another one does not? The great thing about The Theater for the New City is that if you have a good script you can produce your own play - in the one place on earth that is flooded with great theatrical talent that is out of work. It's amazing how many excellent actors and designers we had to turn away on just this show.
5. You have worked with Louisa Bradshaw (current star of Siren's Heart) and Lissa Moira (current director/dramaturg on both Siren's Heart and Skybox) on several of your shows. What do you enjoy most about working with them? What have you learned from them? There was no such problem on Siren's Heart because, having worked with them before at TNC on Only Love Will Do - (a gay male couple have dinner with a straight couple; they're still talking bout sex), I knew (or hoped) they'd be the director and actress for my Marilyn play. Lissa's directed so many plays - theatre's her life - I knew she'd contribute greatly to the work, and Louisa's so drop-dead gorgeous - well, that shouldn't matter when one is doing a play about Marilyn Monroe, but it helps. And I knew from the previous play what a fine actress and singer she is. I've watched her get even better and better in countless performances of the play. She and Lissa are both consummate professionals.
6. What was it like to grow up on the Navajo Reservation? Do you feel growing up there influenced your artistic style at all? If so, how? For me, growing up on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico was nothing out of the ordinary. I've never thought of how it might have shaped my art. Perhaps it made me more observant because as the "billegona" (white boy) in town, I was a bit of an outsider. But it was never a big issue between me and my Navajo buddies.
7. What have you learned about yourself from being a writer/composer? I'm a composer who writes "words-first," usually the words of a character, and I'm often surprised how it often brings out a side of myself (and the character's) I wasn't quite aware of before. "Looking at Her" led to music I hadn't written before, but when I start a song with a musical lick, I tend to repeat the music I've already done. The music's in the words for me.
8. What's the best advice you've ever received? When I started to make my way to New York, my Okie dad said, "Son, don't eat the chili in West Little Rock."
9. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? One can dream about anyone one wants while conscious and awake. Why would anyone want dream about someone while asleep? Ah, for a much deeper experience with the full panorama of emotion? Well, I can't tell you that.