Drabinsky is down and out and the Mirvishes are screaming Money, Money, Money. What's happened to the musical? Just ask John Briggs and Allen Cole. The two composer/lyricists face off this week with musical offerings -- and ideas -- that couldn't be more
First musical theatre memory?
John Briggs: Watching Fantasia on a black-and-white TV in 1954. And then being in a high-school production of South Pacific. I was hooked.
Allen Cole: Listening to my parents’ recording of Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. I was seven. It seemed like kids’ music to me.
What made you want to write musicals?
Briggs: Pure coincidence. I was running summer stock theatre, and the producer had secured the theatre rights to the film Cat Ballou. We wanted to turn it into a musical and began hammering out songs.
Cole: I was music director of a production of The Threepenny Opera at the Bathurst Theatre and thought, “This is a cool thing to do.” Brecht and Weill were my inspiration. If the show had been Oklahoma, I probably wouldn’t be writing musicals now.
How do you learn to write musicals?
Briggs: By doing ’em. I was involved with them throughout high school, college and summer stock. I learned the basic structure of musicals. That all changed, though, in the 1970s with shows like Hair.
Cole: Listen to them, study the masters, and kick around ideas with your friends.
What’s your new show about — in one sentence?
Briggs: A musical version of The Taming Of The Shrew.
Cole: A clarinet player and a princess overcome the ill will of their parents and the machinations of the evil faeries on the road to love.
Where’d you get the idea?
Briggs: I had directed Shrew about seven times, and one year I added a bunch of Gershwin songs to it. I couldn’t get the rights to the songs, because of Crazy For You, but I had the structure. So co-writer Dennis West and I started putting original songs together.
Cole: I was walking along an 80-acre farm in the Okanagan Valley with co-writer Glen Cairns, and we began fantasizing about faeries, deer and serpents.
Why the resurgence of interest in musicals?
Briggs: Too many gloomy musicals have created an audience for old-fashioned shows that are less serious.
Cole: Lloyd Webber was a pioneer of the really bad mega-musical, but he also created a commercial interest in the genre. Now people are starting to write better shows.
Sondheim or Lloyd Webber?
Briggs: Neither. I appreciate Sondheim. I like Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Give me Lerner, Loewe and Berlin.
Cole: Weill and Bernstein.
Most underrated musical?
Briggs: The Robber Bridegroom. It had a tough opening night, with a blizzard outside and the leading man, Barry Bostwick, breaking his leg. The understudy had to finish the second act.
Cole: Candide. There are problems with the book, but the songwriting is equal to or even stronger than West Side Story.
Briggs: The Phantom Of The Opera. I don’t understand its success. If I’d written something like “Duhhh, duh-duh-duh-duh duhhh” (mimics Phantom organ chords), I’d be asked to leave the room.
Cole: Les Miserables. It’s sentimental, emotionally manipulative, overblown and filled with self-importance.
What song from a musical do you wish you had written?
Briggs: Irving Berlin’s Count Your Blessings. An easy second would be Sunrise, Sunset from Fiddler On The Roof. Simple, active sentences that are so attached to the melody line and so brilliant in what they do in the context of the story.
Cole: The Bilbao Song, from Happy End.
Any Garth Drabinsky theories?
Briggs: If the greed is more important than the fun of doing what you do, it’s likely there will be some hanky-panky in the back room.
Cole: I don’t know, and I don’t care.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Briggs: I’d be a cabinetmaker.
Cole: I’d be a jazz piano player.
What pisses you off about musical theatre?
Briggs: The pretension that people bring to the genre. There’s this feeling out there that Les Miz is substantial and The Fantasticks isn’t, or that Hamlet is a real play and The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers isn’t.
Cole: The preponderance of musical comedies, and the dearth of musical tragedies.
What else pisses you off?
Briggs: Pissed off is strong. I’m disturbed by the trend toward shows like Mamma Mia! and Beauty And The Beast, where the music’s already written. In our show, we put up money and roll the dice. What dice did Disney roll?
Cole: The condescending attitude people have toward musical theatre. I’ve worked in both, and they have equal integrity. But it’s brutally hard to get a musical produced.