The 3-D Imax of My Mind

Right after college, I had a ready-made job (almost) waiting for me. And like Mark does late in Rent, I pulled the plug on it before I even started.

I had been a music major at Harvard and had written five musicals by that point, all produced here or in Boston. My junior high drama teacher's husband worked at Maritz, and he got me a job interview with their Corporate Theatre department.

I remember going for the interview, taking a tour of the department, meeting everybody who worked there. On one level, it was pretty cool. They essentially wrote one-act musicals for corporate conventions, shareholder meetings, product launches, trade shows, etc., often starring people like Liza Minnelli and David Copperfield. Everybody was very cool and the atmosphere was very laid-back. They sent me home with three past scripts to look at, to understand the form, the house style, etc. And then the next time one of these came up, they'd ask me to write a script and lyrics to several songs on spec. If they liked my work, they'd keep hiring me, and after a few projects, they'd bring me on staff. The money was great.

So I went home and read these scripts. And I was horrified. These were musicals about how much Chrysler loves its employees, or how exciting the new line of Ford trucks is. (It was something I would later learn is called an "industrial musical.") I don't remember many specifics; my mind has blocked it all out. I finished reading the scripts and felt so depressed. That's not what I wanted to do. Not even close. I didn't want to write songs about products or employees. I didn't want to write someone else's ideas. But it would be good pay, and I'd be writing musicals for a living, right? Sort of...?

Just a few days later, the call came. They had a new project and they wanted me to come out, get the details, talk through the basics, etc.

I told them I was busy.

They never called again.

Which I expected.

My mother was furious. And I felt like I had dodged a bullet. I've got nothing against the people who write stuff like that. I'm sure they do it very well. But even then, several years before the birth of New Line, I knew how wrong that was for me. Like gravy on ice cream wrong.

And last night, watching Act II of Rent, I realized how close my experience was to Mark's experience with Alexi Darling and Buzzline. I wonder how many people watching Rent think Mark's an idiot for turning that opportunity down. I wonder how many people have been in a situation like that...?

I think Mark just saved his own life.

And I think all that's connected to Mark's amazing art song "Halloween," which has also always resonated so strongly with me, partly because it's just so beautiful and the lyric is so simple and insightful; and partly because I really felt like that in my 20s, back before I realized that it's okay not to know where your road is leading. You don't have to know. You don't have to have a plan. You don't have to choose money over happiness. You can just stay on your road and see where it takes you. That's what I did. Asking why shit happens won't keep shit from happening. I've always identified most strongly with Mark, but I never really thought about exactly why that was until now.

I'd love to check in with Mark today, twenty years after Rent, and see if he's still being pure to his art. I am. Maybe it's just my own bias, but I bet Mark does stay pure. I don't think money matters all that much to him, but his work really seems to.

It's never occurred to me before to think about where those characters would be today. Hopefully, Collins, Roger, and Mimi are still alive. If Mimi can kick her habit, she and Roger might still be together, but I wouldn't put money on it. Did Maureen ever grow up? Did she and Joanne stay together? What would a 45-year-old Maureen be like? How many in the support group would still be with us? Would Benny still be with Muffy... sorry, Alison...?

Just a peek into the things that swim around in my head while I'm working on a show...

Me and Mark. Poor but pure.

Long Live the Musical!

P. S.  There's a new book about industrial musicals called Everything's Coming Up Profits: the Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, co-authored by Steve Young, a guy who writes for Letterman. About ten years ago, I found an article he had written about this sub-genre, and I contacted him to ask him more details. I was writing my history book at the time, and I wanted to include a section on these shows, but ultimately I didn't have the room. (My first draft was almost twice my allotted length.) Still, Steve sent me ten CDs full of songs from these shows. Apparently, in the 50s and 60s, not only did they write and produce these shows, they also recorded cast albums that everyone got to take home with them. Which are all now collector's items, of course.