Gary Kupper is an actor, singer, composer, lyricist, writer, musician and teacher. As an actor he worked with Al Pacino and Vincent Gardenia at the Charles Playhouse in Boston. He has had featured roles in many plays and musicals regionally. He was in the off-Broadway and national tours of "Diamond Studs." He played "L.M." in "Pump Boys and Dinettes" at the Downtown Cabaret Theater in Bridgeport Conn. He toured the U.S. as piano playing "Chico Marx" in "Groucho" with "Welcome Back Kotter’s" Gabe Kaplan.
As a songwriter/singer Gary recorded an album of his original songs, "Shoot For The Moon," for Polydor Records backed by Van Morrison’s band. He co-wrote a song with Anton Fig, David Letterman’s drummer, for Anton’s solo album, "Figments," on which he also played keyboard. His songs have also been featured in soap operas and movies. He recently recorded and released an album of children’s songs entitled "Songman and the Songland Travelling Band." He has toured all over the world as the musical director for many legendary vocal groups and solo artists.
As a performer Gary has appeared with everyone from Elton John and Jay Leno to James Brown, Minnie Pearl and Tanya Tucker, Levon Helm, The Band and many others. He has played keyboard with many Rock and Blues legends most notably Chuck Berry, with whom he has played extensively over the last 20 years, touring all over the world, most recently in Rome and on tour in Russia. He wrote the music and lyrics for "Consumer Behavior," and co-wrote the book with playwright Lynda Crawford. It played at the International Fringe Festival in NYC to sold out crowds and critical acclaim. His musical "Timmy The Great," for which he wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics and book with Pulitzer nominated poet Sandra Hochman, appeared at the first Tribeca Theater Festival produced by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal. It was directed and choreographed by tap dance legend Savion Glover. A new version of the show is in the works for a Broadway Production starring screen legend Ann Margaret.
Currently, Gary's talent can be seen and heard in the Off-Broadway family musical "Freckleface The Musical," based upon the children's book "Freckleface Strawberry" by Julianne Moore as he wrote the music and lyrics as well as co-book writer, arrangements and keyboards on musical tracks. "Freckleface The Musical" plays at MMAC Theater at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center in NYC every Saturday and Sunday at 1pm and 3pm. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become an actor/singer/composer/lyricist/writer/musician? I began performing for relatives when I was a wee lad. I liked their laughter and applause. I also began writing songs at an early age when I pretended to be or actually was sick and stayed home from school. My mother was a lover of music and we had great 78 records and albums and sheet music of the great songwriters and their shows. I took piano and guitar lessons and listened to every kind of music. I loved folk and classical and swing and went nuts for early rock and roll. My guitar teacher was a family friend who was best friends, it turned out, with Bob Dylan and turned me on to the great folk and traditional artists in the early sixties.
I adored musicals from the first one my sister took me to, Mary Martin in "Peter Pan." Then I saw Ethel Merman in "Gypsy" which was a mind altering experience. (I also had my first innocent fling with the original balloon girl on the beach in Long Beach, Long Island where our families were summering. That was inspiring for other reasons). I also saw Sammy Davis Jr. in "Mr. Wonderful" and "Golden Boy" and many other shows. I got every original cast album that came out and at the same time, every Elvis and R&R single I could get my hands on. I discovered jazz and continued my various musical loves.
I also took singing lessons and tap dance lessons when I was seven. In high school I co-wrote the senior show at Bronx Science High, writing songs and parodies and the script. The big hit of that show was a tender love song called "(She Gave Me) Mononucleosis." I then gave up science to attend Boston University where I was an acting major. I got to meet Faye Dunaway and worked with some amazing actors and directors. It gave me a real love for theater and the craft of acting. Also gave me an opportunity to do Shakespeare, Shaw, Brecht, and many classical comedies and musicals. I did a summer of starring roles in musicals in Connecticut in my sophomore year. I got to act in a company with Al Pacino and Vincent Gardenia in Boston when I got out of school. Seeing them work in repertory up close and getting to know them inspired me to go further and stretch myself. Vincent in particular was very encouraging to me as an actor. I was torn between acting, singing and performing and being a singer/songwriter as it was the 60's and I ended up in Woodstock N.Y., rubbing elbows with some of the great pop/rock musical giants of the our time. Ironically it was an original show I co-wrote and performed in at an Avant Garde Theater Festival at Brandeis University produced by Ellen Stewart of LaMama, and Tom O'Horgan who had just directed "Hair" on B'way, that got me to Woodstock for the first time. I soon moved there and began writing songs and recorded my first album of original songs for Polydor Records called "Shoot For The Moon."
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? I'd love to play or write a show with Paul McCartney. I would have loved to work with John Lennon in any capacity, who I found out from a mutual friend, really liked my music and asked to meet me. Never happened unfortunately. In theater specifically, I would like to work with Steven Shwartz, Susan Stroman, Joe Mantello, the creative team from Book Of Mormon, which is a genius show. It would be great to collaborate with Maury Yeston who I've met and whose talented daughter appeared in one of my shows. I'd also love to work with Douglas CarterBeane who I am a fan of and who came to see "Freckleface" and supposedly enjoyed it. I'd also like to work with Marcia Milgrom Dodge again. She directed a reading for one of my shows and I loved working with her. I'm working on a musical now that Ann Margaret has expressed interest in starring in. She is still a vibrant and wonderful performer and actress. I hope the show gets the financing and will see the lights of Broadway with Ann Margaret above the title. I'm working with legendary casting director Jay Binder, who is a great collaborator, re structuring the show. He will be co-directing/staging with Julie Arenal, the original choreographer of the first "Hair." It's called "Timmy The Great" and is based on the classic children's book "Matt the First" by the great martyred Polish child advocate Janusz Korshak.
3. What made you see "Freckleface Strawberry" as a musical and then what attracted you to co-writing the book and writing all the music/lyrics for "Freckleface Strawberry"? I met Rose Caiola through a mutual friend who knew I wanted to bring my acting program for Kids and Teens to her school. We had a meeting and she agreed to have me teach at her school which is Manhattan Movement and Art Center or MMAC where "Freckleface" is now playing. At the end of the meeting she handed me the book by Julianne Moore and asked if I might like to work on making it into a musical. She said she thought she could get the rights for it and I was intrigued. I said I would look it over and get back to her. Well, I read it and found it charming, if somewhat light on plot being it was a simplistic story beautifully illustrated but aimed at very young children. I was sufficiently taken with it however and I wrote 4 songs in a couple of days. I met with Rose and we talked about going further. She said she was thinking of asking her friend Gail Pennington who ran a tap school and was a Broadway Dancer whose husband, Buddy Crutchfeld, was a Broadway actor and singer and had directed industrials and corporate events. So we all met and hit it off and I went off to write a first draft of a script and after staring at the book for several weeks more I wrote 10 more songs while I was away in Florida on a music tour with the Temptations. I had a lot of down time and came up with the first script and the songs that ended up in the show except for one. I subsequently wrote more tunes as we all met and bounced ideas back and forth to expand the book into a musical that would appeal to kids and their families. We set up an audition of the material for Julianne. She had some comments that helped us focus the show more to what her vision had been. She ended up loving the music and the idea of the expansion of the story. But she didn't like what Rose and I thought she was going to flip over, a ballad called "Lonely Girl." She said "Strawberry" was not lonely and the song didn't belong in the show. It really hurt. But Rose and I came up with the character of the "Ballet Girl" who could be the one to sing the song growing out of her feeling lonely being so dedicated to her dance. I went off and wrote the scene and fit the song into it. I improvised both roles into my recorder while sitting in Central Park on a sunny day. It's almost verbatim as it appears in the show. Anyway, the rest of the show got written for the first workshop with young kids at MMAC and then a longer version for the Off Broadway show at New World Stages. I wrote "Creative Minds" for the teacher as a rap and finally the I wrote the song "Basketball" for the character of "Danny" and the show was complete. We had originally had a tight 45 minutes with as Buddy likes to say, "as many songs as a full Broadway musical." The expanded show now runs 1 hour and 10 minutes.
4. What was the best part about working with Rose Caiola? She is very generous in many ways and gave me a great opportunity. She also gave me a lot of room to be creative. We worked really well together at least from my perspective. Don't know what she'll say. But she worked with me on honing and expanding the concept of the show to appeal to a larger demographic of kids and families. She is a great business woman, and is very intuitive in helping to shape the piece towards what children and families are looking for. She, as a mother of two adorable boys, and as an educator and creative artist in her own right was very supportive and objective about the structuring of the piece and added great ideas and suggestions as we went along. Buddy the director also helped shape the show with us and constantly brought us back to the core message of us all being different, "just like everyone else." Which is the central theme of the book and of the show. Gail gave the show swing and a great flow. She infused it with show biz pizazz and helped frame my songs with dances that remained true to the spirit of the writing.
5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing the show? I hope they are first of all entertained. Moved by the love of a mother for a daughter and the redemptive power of friendship to overcome differences. I hope audiences laugh as the show is really fun. And most of all I hope kids will take the subliminal and not so hidden message of realizing that everyone is different in some way and that it's wrong to bully or tease someone because they seem different physically or because of who they are inside or out. Also the other messages of being who you are and accepting the skin you're in and in the case of the ballet girl, sticking to what you love and living your dreams and following your heart.
6. What is your favorite part of the creative process in writing music/lyrics? Where is your favorite place to write? I love every aspect of the writing process. Even knowing how long it takes to bring an idea to fruition. I love getting lost in the process and seeing it through to completion. I especially love finding the song that fits a particular character and moves the story along. I love to find the emotions and humor in myself that will communicate the appropriate feeling for an audience to relate to. It's an intoxicating process from beginning to end.
As far as writing places, I've written in motel/hotel rooms, Starbucks, libraries, toilets, parks, subways, trains, planes, tour buses, and walking down the street. I particularly like to write at home on my computer and work out parts on Garage Band which is a great musical sketch pad. Also I like to work in rehearsal studios on real pianos, as pianos have a spirit that inspires me and suggests ideas and orchestral colors and feelings. I like to free associate while playing and seeing what comes out. I wrote a bunch of songs at MMAC in various studios for "Freckleface." I also wrote many of the songs in my motel room down in Florida forcing myself to keep on going to fight the boredom of being on the road and being far away from home. I wrote two musicals while I musical directed an oldies show in Las Vegas for 8 months. I used to improv in my room and then go down to the showroom at the Sahara Hotel after the show and work on the baby grand piano. I had the place to myself and I just sang and played for hours. I then sequenced the songs on my synth and went to a recording studio to record the songs with myself and several singers from the show in Vegas.
7. You've worked with many big names in the music industry, including Chuck Berry, for the past 20 years. How did you become his keyboardist? What has been the best part about working with him and what have you learned from him? Working with Chuck in particular I learned that fame is a weight that is both intoxicating and a real drag on just enjoying one's life. Chuck expressed to me that he just wants to be a regular guy sometimes. Go get a burger and a coke and not be bugged by fans. He drives himself to gigs and is extremely professional and unassuming. I learned about relating to an iconic figure and trying to see the human beneath the legend. Working with him around the world has been amazing. We played the Kremlin and St. Petersburg in Russia which was was truly a unique look at what an earth changing artist this man has been. We were treated like superstars and ambassadors of a true American art form led by one of the pioneers of Rock. We played a concert hall where grim faced Stalin era men in grey suits had sat listening to speeches denouncing the West. It was a strange and awesome experience. In Rome we played to half a million people in an outdoor state of the art production that was broadcast live on tv throughout Italy. Chuck was the headliner and was treated as a god who had been called the father of Rock and Roll by John Lennon, whose quote about Chuck was flashed on the huge multimedia screens that rose above the stage where we played. Once again a life altering event for me.
I'm writing a musical about Alan Freed who was the DJ who actually coined the term Rock and Roll and who was instrumental in making Chuck a star playing his records and having him star in several low budget movies that were like early versions of MTV extended videos with bad scripts. It constantly blows my mind that I've gotten to play so extensively with such an earth changing artist, who not only was influential stylistically as a guitar player and performer, but wrote literate, great story telling songs that Bob Dylan lauded as pure poetry.
I was lucky enough to have been hooked up with an agent who booked Chuck and needed a band for a gig. Chuck used many bands with varying success picking up musicians everywhere he played. But Chuck liked me as a player and requested me and my fellow band mates whenever this agent booked him. I played all over the world with him and even played the millenium new year in 2000 in NY harbor at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on a yacht right off of Ellis Island where my mother had arrived as a baby with her mother almost a century earlier. It was a thrill. And a thrill to travel to and play in Russia where she had left to seek a better life in America. I owe Chuck a lot. As a musician, I learned to play rock and roll piano listening to his original piano player Johnny Johnson, who gave Chuck his start professionally and gave Chuck's songs that lilting rhythm that was pure blues swing.
8. What have you learned about yourself from all your various talents? I've learned that one need not be limited by other's ideas of who you are, but should be defined by the love and capacities one possesses for what gives your life meaning. I thought at one time that I had to choose between my love for theater, singing and dancing and musical theater and my love for popular music and songwriting. I've been lucky to have found a way to combine my various loves and express my love for theater and creating characters in song. My ability as an actor has informed my ability to create characters and write dialogue with my ability to improvise as an actor and my experience in being on stage as a performer.
9. What's the best advice you've ever received? An old great blues piano player and artist Roosevelt Sykes who I met up near Niagara Falls while I was rehearsing for the Off Broadway show "Diamond Studs," said to me "Play yourself man. Just be yourself." That happens to be the title of one of the songs in "Freckleface." It took me a while to figure out who I was before I could be that self. And I'm still learning more about who that person is inside my soul. But I've gotten closer as I've gotten older. And it's a process. Having many different interests and loves makes it a little harder than it was for Roosevelt, who was just a great and unique blues artist. For him it was just play and sing and write songs from the heart.
10. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? I once had a dream I was a pal of Bruce Springsteen and the two of us went over to Dylan's house to jam. When in walked Sir Noel Coward and we had a good old time. Can't remember the specifics, but I woke up smiling and feeling like I connected with parts of myself that were very clear. I've always held on to this unique group of dream artists as some weird combo of my artistic personality. I came up in the same generation with Springsteen and idolized Bob Dylan but always admired the sophisticated writers like Coward and Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin. So the unlikely trio in my dream makes so much sense. I'm not just a rock or pop writer but appreciate the more sophisticated theatrical writers as well. I'd love to have a dream about Gershwin or Berlin. The closest I've gotten is to become friends with Kitty Carlisle before she passed on a few years back. She hosted several readings and a workshop of one of my musicals. One reading was in her home where I played Fritz Lowe's piano which he had given her as a present. She told me stories of her friendships with Berlin and how Gershwin tried to get her into bed in his apartment wooing her with his latest songs and how he wanted to marry her, but her mother didn't think he was good enough for her. That was heaven for me. Listening to first hand experiences from the golden age of songwriting. I still dream about her. She was a lovely woman married to one of my heros Moss Hart.
11. Favorite way to spend your day off? Watch movies. Go to shows. Sleep. Dream of Key West which I love and where I'd love to live permanently. Home of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Shel Silverstein and many other of my cultural heros. Can't go on my day off. But I vacation there at least once a year.
12. Favorite website? I currently love Pandora and listening to Bossa Nova, especially the other worldly sounds of Joao Gilberto and the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and I also find songwriters I am not exposed to and love the Show Music category. I get to hear things I didn't know existed in a particular genres. Maybe that doesn't answer the website question, but it's my favorite app at the moment.