Back for more deliciously brutal honesty with the bold writer who’s daring to tell musical stories others won’t (or can’t).
By Michael Ruby, Writer
We resume our conversation with Michael R. Jackson (Read Volume 1 here) and dive into what defines his voice (including his Facebook nickname), his unique perspective and the stories he wants to tell, and which Tony-winning Best Musical he adapted at the same time.
Gotta ask. When did the Michael “Living” Jackson thing start?
It was a couple days after Michael Jackson died or it might have even been the day! Within a day or two, and I wish I could say it was my idea. There was a Facebook comment thread like, “What do you have to say for yourself?” And Rob Hartmann, who is like a genius, he said “the living Michael Jackson” – and I has like, “Oh, shit, that’s awesome!” That was at the time when everyone on Facebook was changing their name to “Equality,” and I thought it would be a hoot to change my name to “Michael Living Jackson,” and it stuck. I was never a huge Michael Jackson fan. But, even though I’m mocking him, it sort of honors him because you can’t not think of him when you hear my Facebook name. But it wasn’t my idea. I wish it were.
What is your voice? How do you define, “This is an Michael song?”
I always say, “Honesty is my brand,” in advertising speak. I’m very honest. I’m not afraid to “go there."
What does “go there” mean?
It means there’s no subject matter I wont’ touch. And this me speaking specifically about my songwriting, though it could apply to my writing as a whole. I’m really obsessed with getting to the heart of the matter. Getting in the blood and guts of things. I like getting under people’s skins.
(Rebecca Naomi Jones sings "Bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel")
Why do you think that is?
Part of it, practically speaking, is my writing training – which started as fiction writing. My teacher pushed us to not be safe. Figure out what your obsessed with – ideas, words – just really dig in, to the point of obsession. I think that’s carried over, because there are so many people and experiences in the world that we don’t know about that deserve to be musicalized and heard. Not for nothing, I’m also black and gay, and I think the stories I have to tell are not being told by anyone else. So, part of my approach is from that perspective. And because I’m doing that, it requires me to strip things bare in a certain way. I also grew up very emo, so that just sits with me.
I would have never pegged you for an emo kid. How does that play in?
The angst of it all. The existential questions. I also have a wicked sense of humor, but I have more questions than answers. As a songwriter, because it’s such a compact form, I’m interested in taking those questions and putting them in that tiny form and seeing what happens.
Your song “New York Is The Worst” kind of feels like that. It’s this brilliant and heartbreaking perspective on New York.
Oddly, when Jen Tepper asked me to participate [in the “Once Upon a Time in New York City” series], I had to come up with a song. Just had to come up with something. The funny thing about it is, and it’s happened a million times, I set out to write something that was up and happy and peppy! I wanted to write against type. But, the more I tried to do that, the darker it became. And I knew who was going to be singing and wanted to write something they’d sound great singing.
(Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Molly Hager, Alyse Alan Louis and Lauren Marcus sing "New York Is The Worst")
There are so many “New York is so awesome, yay Central Park” songs. Not that that isn’t valid, but the experience that I know and that I know other people sometimes have is that New York can be a really hard place to realize your dream. And I related to that.
How do you pick your projects?
Normally, it’s whether I can find a way for the piece to be about a subject I think I can uniquely deal with or have a personal connection with. As long as I can find a way into a character or the dramatic situation, I can do it.
How did you pick Teeth?
Teeth tells the story of an evangelical Christian girl who discovers she has teeth in her vagina. That character, dealing with religious pressure was something that I related to. I grew up very Baptist. The idea of sexuality has crept into my writing since I was a teenager. Wild sexuality plus religion are two obsessions of mine. It was really clear I would be well suited to explore the subject matter.
(Benjamin Howes sings “Girls Like You” from Teeth)
Do you prefer writing adaptations or original musicals? Is your approach different to writing either?
It’s funny. The two shows I’ve worked on have been adaptations – Teeth and I did another adaptation of Spring Awakening for my thesis at NYU.
*I detect a the slightest of mischievous smiles.*
Was your Spring Awakening better?
I’m not going to get into it. It was different. We did a modern adaptation. I’m very proud of that show. I loved it. That being said, the adaptations I’ve done are so wild that they could be original. You can change everything [with an adaptation]. It’s a structure you’re working from, and I find that attractive because you have a built-in foundation to work from. Even if it changes, there are goal posts you can use. That said, I’m also working on an original piece alone – and it’s much harder because I have to find the structure myself.
How do you balance “topicality” with “timelessness?” Do you? Do you care?
I would say I’ve been burned by topicality many times, but I still would do it. It really just depends on the song. If the song needs it, then I just recognize that song one day may be dated. And, every song I write, especially a standalone song, may not be one for the ages.
When have you been burned by being topical?
Not burned, but listening to old songs of mine recently I’ve found that I have references that are dated. Like, a song I love has a reference for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He’s dead, but the way the lyric is constructed I could get away with it. I needed that reference. There was no one else I could use. But, then there was a song I wrote years ago that referenced the Orange Alert, ya know, part of the terror alert system. Now we’re not on Orange Alert anymore.
(Aaron Riesebeck and Jillian Gottlieb sing “Modest Is Hottest” from Teeth)
What is a great musical theater lyric or melody that always sticks out in your head?
Just one? I guess it’s from “Music In The Mirror” from A Chorus Line.
ALL I EVER NEEDED WAS THE MUSIC AND THE MIRROR
AND THE CHANCE TO DANCE
There’s a lot of driving need in it. A lot of desire. And, I just think the way the melody works is so at one with what’s happening and the character. That whole show is one of my top five fave shows. I think that song, like so many in it, what’s happening [in the narrative] and the melody and the orchestration are so intertwined.
Do you have any shows coming up you’d like to promote?
I am slowly but surely working on my album, “The Dirty Laundry Good Clean Music Album,” which I hope to have out into the world in the spring of 2015…fingers crossed!
Michael Ruby is a librettist, advertising creative director, pop culture geek, proud dad and Diet Dr. Pepper addict. He is currently writing a short musical film with Rob Rokicki and finishing his hyperbolic yet semi-autobiographical play LONG TIME NEUROTIC, FIRST TIME DAD. www.rubywriter.com
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