Call Redialed: NEW Andrew Lippa Interview: "The Man In The Ceiling", "Unbreakable", and "John & Jen"
Four years after our first interview together, I’m thrilled to be able to catch up with Emmy winner and Tony/Grammy nominee Andrew Lippa to discuss the release of his recent cast recordings from Ghostlight Records, The Man In The Ceiling (based upon Jules Feiffer’s novel, premiered at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre in 2017) and Unbreakable (an epic choral work exploring the gay experience in America) as well as reflecting on one of my favorite shows of his (and Tom Greenwald), John & Jen.
The Man In The Ceiling, which features Kate Baldwin, Gavin Creel, Grady Miranda, John-Michael Lyles, Ashley Park, and Andrew Lippa, tells the story of twelve year-old Jimmy Jibbett (Grady Miranda) who would rather be a successful cartoonist than in 7th grade. His father (Gavin Creel) disapproves. His mother (Kate Baldwin) is busy. His Uncle Lester (Andrew Lippa) tries to understand but is too wrapped up trying to write a love song for his next flop musical. Where can Jimmy turn to for inspiration and hope? Maybe The Man in the Ceiling can lead him to his true destiny. If only Jimmy would look up! Click here to purchase/download!
Unbreakable is an epic choral work exploring the gay experience in America through the words and music of Andrew Lippa. It was recorded live at its world premiere featuring The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus with soloists Britney Coleman, Marcus J. Paige, Lisa Vroman,and Andrew Lippa at Nourse Theater in San Francisco, CA in June 2018. Unbreakable will be presented by ten more choruses across the country in the 2019-2020 season. Focusing on a curated selection of stories throughout American LGBTQ history from 1900 through the present day – inspired by the African American playwright August Wilson, who wrote a collection of 10 plays chronicling the black experience in the 20th century – Unbreakable is a heartrending and ultimately triumphant look at where we’ve been, what we’ve come through, and who we are today. Most of all, Unbreakable is a tribute to the perseverance and power of a people who would not be defeated and could not be broken. Click here to purchase/download!
1. The last time we spoke, the 20th Anniversary of John & Jen was getting ready to premiere at Keen Theatre Company. I can't believe it's been four years already! It's really great to catch up with you! What do you remember about that production that makes you still smile with pride today? First, hello! Second, it took me a while to realize (see what I did there?) that 20 years had gone by. What a wonderful thing it is to make musicals people not only want to do but want to revive! So much about the Keen production stays with me: Jonathan Silverstein from Keen; the audience response; our incredible cast of Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan; our music director Lily Ling who I pulled out of Penn State and her master’s program so she could do the run. It was joy from start to finish.
2. The cast recording of The Man In The Ceiling, which premiered at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre in 2017, was just released, which you wrote the music/lyrics for. Why did you wait almost two years to release this recording? Well, the real question is, why did it take 19 years to get this show from the first time I pitched it to Jules Feiffer to the completion of the cast recording?
After Bay Street we fiddled around with trying to figure out next steps and, as we did, Jules’ 90th birthday was approaching. Jeffrey Seller and I decided the best gift we could give him would be a license, recording and published version of our show. So, we did it!
3. Going back a moment, how did you come to work with Jules Feiffer on this project? I stalked him. Seriously. I read the novel The Man In The Ceiling in 1996. I was a nobody. But then, in 2000, I became a produced nobody when The Wild Party happened at the Manhattan Theater Club and made a moderate noise. I invited Jules to see it. He liked it. He had drinks with me. I asked him if I could turn his book into a musical. He said “No.” I said “Please.” He said “No.” I said “Please.” He said “No.” Until, in 2005, he said “Maybe.” That “maybe” turned into a “yes” turned into a “I wanna write the book” and blammo! A musical!
4. What was the easiest song to write? I find the solos are easier just by virtue of the fact that you’re only thinking about one character and one storyline/point to get across in song. That said, the “easiest” – meaning “take the least amount of time” – are all the solos. “Almost There” was written in about 5 hours.
5. Which one gave you the most trouble and why? Probably the opening sequence. The first one – not on this recording – was called “Don’t Hit It Here” and it started the show with Jimmy in centerfield of a baseball game, wishing the game and ball would go away. It graduated into Jimmy’s imagination but, by that point, the anxiety was so high it was hard to go with him.
The opening we used at Bay Street was, we later realized, equally anxious and was called “Getting It Right.” We didn’t. But THIS one, “Doin’ Fine,” had preceded the production by about a year and it welcomed us to Jimmy’s world with joy right away. It turns out it’s the right opening for this show.
For these next few questions, let’s play with the title of some of the songs in the show.
6. “Disappear” – Have you ever felt like you wanted to just “Disappear”? If you mean “did I isolate for 20 years, get hyper-anxious at parties and public gatherings, and mostly feel like I’d rather not be seen?” then, yes.
7. “Being Grown-Up” – What's the best part about “Being Grown-Up” and what's the worst part?
Best part: Freedom to be and do whatever I want
Worst part: Freedom to be and do whatever I want
8. Another album that recently released was the live recording of Unbreakable, an epic choral work exploring the gay experience in America through the words and music written by you. There are so many LGBTQ events from 1900-today that could be discussed. How did you decide which events you wanted to write about? It’s a spiritual thing. Which stories cried out to me? Which people and which experiences were most infuriating or joyful? Which events compelled me to write music and lyrics and caused me to dig deep? It’s the same question/answer for why I write most things: Does it move me? Do I see myself in it?
9. What did you learn about yourself from writing this music/lyrics? I learned that I love being part of a community of “yes.” “Yes” to whoever and whatever you want to be, whenever you want to be it. “Yes” to the dress (no matter the gender you were born into). “Yes” to anyone and everyone who looks, thinks, talks, walks, eats, and feels different from all or any - or everything that I am or present as. I learned that I love writing large-scale epic ideas with large-scale epic musical forces. Hard to replicate – expensive as it is – but incredible to be part of.
10. What are some upcoming projects you can tell us about? I try to keep my projects close to the vest until they are near production. Musicals take so long that I think I could announce a new one today and, by the time it gets to NYC in 2024, it’s old news! So…working on book/music/lyrics for Broadway-built new musical with experienced producers (how’s THAT for vague?) and also co-creating a musical TV show that pitches to networks in June. If we sell it, I’ll have LOTS to talk about!
11. Rapid Fire Questions:
Twizzlers: Strawberry or Chocolate? Eww…no Twizzlers, please.
Favorite M&M Color? Wait a minute…they’re in colors?
Peanut Butter: Crunchy or Smooth? CRUNCHY!
Favorite go to Emoji when texting? Shame/embarrassed face. I feel shame even typing that…
More on Andrew:
Andrew Lippa premiered Unbreakable – an epic choral work exploring the gay experience in America – with The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus last year. It will be presented by ten more choruses across the country within the next season and the original cast album is available from Ghostlight Records. In addition, he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a new production of his musical A Little Princess in concert in London at the Royal Festival Hall in May 2018 to a sold-out crowd of nearly 3,000 people. His hit song “Evil Like Me” appears in Disney’s film Descendants. Written for Kristin Chenoweth, that soundtrack hit #1 on the “Billboard 200” album chart, #1 on the iTunes and Billboard soundtrack charts, has been viewed over 70 million times on YouTube, and “Evil Like Me” was certified gold in 2017. That same year, Andrew opened the new season of the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center with his sold-out concert of Andrew Lippa and Friends.
In 2016 he composed and conducted “Rising Tide,” a world premiere piece for the international piano virtuoso Lang Lang and the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra in China. His concept opera I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk had its world premiere at The Music Center at Strathmore in 2016 starring Kristin Chenoweth as Anne Hutchinson and Mr. Lippa as Harvey Milk. Summer 2016 saw the US premiere of Life of the Party – a musical compendium of Andrew’s career – produced by Theatreworks in Mountain View, CA and starring Mr. Lippa.
Andrew’s Broadway credits include: music and lyrics for Big Fish, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman; the Tony Award-nominated music and lyrics for The Addams Family, directed by Jerry Zaks; and music for Aaron Sorkin’s play The Farnsworth Invention, directed by Des McAnuff. Other musicals include the Drama Desk Award-winning The Wild Party (book/music/lyrics); A Little Princess (music); john & jen (music/book); Asphalt Beach (music/lyrics); and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown (additional music/lyrics and arrangements).
His oratorio for men’s chorus, orchestra and soloists, I Am Harvey Milk has seen over 30 productions including Disney Hall and Lincoln Center. His honors include: Tony and Grammy nominations; shared Emmy for Nickelodeon’s “The Wonder Pets”; SFGMC Vanguard Award; the Gilman/Gonzalez-Falla Theater Foundation Award; ASCAP’s Richard Rodgers/New Horizons Award; the Drama Desk Award; and the Outer Critics Circle Award. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Mr. Lippa serves as president of the board of The Dramatists Guild Foundation.