Exploring all things craft and crazy/cool with the new mad geniuses of musical theater.
By Michael Ruby (Writer)
Two years ago, songs Rob Rokicki and I wrote were featured in the first of an awesome and now ongoing cabaret series called People You May Know. People You May Know combines the songs of three featured writers, along with the familiar songs and composers that have been influential to their work. In the inaugural show, one writer was Rob, another was Adam Gwon (my Ethan Frome collaborator and the subject of my two recent posts available here and here). The third was the incredible composer, lyricist and performer Jonathan Reid Gealt.
Small world that it is, Jonathan was involved in one of our Frome readings a few years prior. So, he was indeed a person I may have known. And after the concert, I wanted to know even more about the fantastic writer whose moving songs captured my imagination that night – and have captured the hearts of nearly a million total viewers on YouTube! So, I reached out to him when I began this blog series.
Jonathan’s music has been sung all over the world, including: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Manila, Japan, Australia, and Canada. His widely popular album “Thirteen Stories Down” (available on Sh-k-Boom/Ghostlight Records) features the talents of several Broadway heavyweights. And Jonathan is currently composing the music for the highly anticipated Dust and Shadow, based on the novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye. After playing Starbucks bingo, bouncing from one location to the next to find each other among the four beaneries all located within the same city block, Jonathan and I claimed a corner to ourselves to thaw from the sub-zero temperatures outside and talk shop.
I don't actually think of it like that. I usually hate about 90% of what I'm writing, but I get to a point where I can “tolerate it.” And when I reach a point where I can deal with it being out there in the world, I've done my job. But, it could take eighteen drafts before it gets there. I want it to sound fresh.
That’s some tough scrutiny. What are your criteria?
If it starts to sound too much like something else, I scrap it. If it starts to drag, I scrap it. If it’s lyrically not rooted in an emotion that comes from reality, or if I feel like it’s hokey and stupid, I scrap it. A song’s got to be real, fresh, relatable and honest.
There’s that word again, “fresh.” What does “fresh” mean for you?
Fresh means it’s interesting and doesn't sound like anything else. For example, everything I've been doing for Dust and Shadow, I don't think it quite sounds like anything else. I think the sound is unique. It's contemporary, but has influences from Victorian era. It kind of has its own world.
How did you finally achieve that sound?
A lot of failures.
*Jonathan laughs hysterically, an outpouring of joy, relief and briefly relived anguish.*
It was a lot of sitting at the piano and striking chords until something struck me. I mean, it's a very intense show. It's Jack the Ripper through eyes of Doctor Watson. It's dark, twisted, gritty, messed up and real. It's epic.
(Rachel Potter sings "Let Yourself Fall" from Dust and Shadow)
You’ve said “real” a couple times as well. “Real” is a big deal to you.
I'm probably not the person to write a big campy show. It just doesn't feel like me.
So, what are some shows you like?
I’ll give you my top five. Sweeney [Todd]. West Side [Story]. Ragtime. A Light In Th Piazza. And The Secret Garden. Sweeney Todd… Sondheim was showing off when he wrote that show. Musically and lyrically he's just showing off.
Do you think you have a certain voice, or something that defines a “Jonathan Reid Gealt song?”
I don't know. The only thing coming to mind is maybe the honesty of them – the emotional honesty. Lyrically, they're all related to something that happened in reality. I draw from real experience, rather than thinking of what something might be like.
Can you give me an example?
“Quiet" was very honest.
And it’s a very popular song.
I don't know why it's so popular. When you write songs, you hope that people like them, but you never know what people are going to latch on to. It's not my favorite song I've that ever written. But, people seem to be able to relate to it.
Where did “Quiet” come from?
One day in 2007, I woke up in a really awesome mood. But, from the moment I left the house, one thing after the next kept getting worse and worse. By two in the afternoon, I was frustrated with everybody. I got shoved at the post office. I got something spilled on me. Of course, somehow it was all my fault. No one was taking any responsibility. And I never said anything. I was always like, “I’m sorry.” Never, “why are you pushing me out of the way, you asshole!”
(Natalie Weiss sings "Quiet)
You’ve had a lot of success online, specifically on YouTube.
I'm coming up on a million [total views]. I don't know how the fuck that happened. Like, a third of that is Natalie Weiss singing “Quiet.” I can look up the actual number.
*By miracle of wireless technology, Jonathan surfaces an answer.*
That video has 293,986 views, as of this minute. It was the first video I ever posted on YouTube. I never really thought about [what would happen]. I just thought, “Everyone's putting stuff online. I guess I should put something online.” I didn't do it in an attempt to achieve anything. I'm guess I’m just bad when it comes to thinking about that shit...stuff.
It’s cool, you can say “shit.” It’s not a PG post.
When I talked with Joe Iconis, he talked about how writing for YouTube has become a big focus for writers of our generation. What do you think is different about how people approach writing musicals today?
That's a really tough, multilayered question. Musical theater used to be the primary popular entertainment, and it's not anymore. Our generation needs to somehow appeal to the pop American Idol world. That’s really hard, because everyone in pop music will riff their freaking faces off. I love a good pop riff. It's fun and it sounds amazing, but it has nothing to do with the lyric. We need to tap into to a mass audience with that sound that is the pop, while still keeping [the work] story driven. Pop music and musical theater used to be one and the same, but they’re two mediums now. One certainly isn't easier than the other. Nothing about writing musical theater is easy.
The size of a show is also big factor. People are writing smaller and smaller shows to make them producible.
Oh, I know. What we are writing with Dust and Shadow is huge. We keep hearing to “cut it down and cut it down,” but you need these characters! I don’t understand why all of a sudden it seems you need a six-person show or it won’t be produced. If you have something that has a following, maybe you're more likely to find producers who believe it will make money back. We’ve got Sherlock Holmes and Jack The Ripper. It's not just one big franchise, it's two.
To be continued…
NEXT WEEK: Click or tap in as Jonathan and I discuss adaptation, inspiration and more really “real” musical moments
Michael Ruby is a librettist, creative director, pop culture geek, proud dad and Diet Dr. Pepper addict. His musicals and songs have been performed across the U.S. and in the UK. www.rubywriter.com
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