Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010
WAGNER ABUZZ ABOUT ‘SPELLING BEE’ ON STATEN ISLAND
By MICHAEL J. FRESSOLA
STATEN ISLAND — Musical theater composer/lyricist William Finn, much-lauded for his “March of the Falsettos” franchise (1980-1991) and for his Tony-winning 2005 hit, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” tried to plead stupidity more than once last week during a talk/Q & A with Wagner College theater students.
No one bought it.
On most other issues, like the process of writing music, Finn — who is at work currently on a musical adaptation of the film “Little Miss Sunshine” — was far more believable.
The college is opening a run of “Spelling Bee” on Wednesday. Cast members sang numbers from the show, as the composer/lyricist looked on, beaming.
He is artistic producer of the Barrington Stage Company’s Music Theater Lab in Massachusetts. Charles Siedenburg, publicity director of the company, is a Wagner alumnus and he supervised the campus visit.
Finn answered questions, including one — what did he look for when an actor was auditioning for a part — that was probably uppermost in every student actor’s mind.
His answer: “Be genuine, just be yourself.”
Later, when pressed about where he finds material, he said, “Everything had better sound like it’s from life ... I think you have to be really specific to be universal.”
The longtime Upper West Side resident held forth on other categories:
His best work: “Elegies,” his post 9/11 song cycle. “I’ll never write this well again.”
A happy time: April 10, 1981, when New York Times theater critic Frank Rich raved about “March of the Falsettos.”
About “Spelling Bee”: “I live my life in a fog! But I had one moment of clarity. I knew how to make ‘Spelling Bee’ a hit.”
Don’t listen to: Everything doctors tell you. His “inoperable brain tumor” diagnosis years ago turned out to be wrong.
Writing music is: Torture. “I suffer, I sweat. I’m miserable. I hate writing. I love it when I’m finished.
The musical that inspired him at age 18: Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” (1970).
Influential singer/songwriter: Joni Mitchell.
Music theory classes: “I always had to drop them because I was failing.”
Music that matters greatly: “The Beatles’ ‘White Album,’ ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ ‘Revolver’ and ‘Abbey Road.’ Everything that’s happened in music in the past 40 years is there.”
His favorite song: “Make Our Garden Grow,” from “Candide” (Bernstein).
What he wants now: “Joy, I want joy. The older I get the more I want joy.”
What he wants from a night in the theater: “When it’s over, I want to feel better than when I walked in.”
Playwright Michael Finn visits WCT’s ‘Spelling Bee’December 16, 2010