Avant garde playwright and composer Michael Penny shares his inspirations and the story behind his unusual and intriguing works, including his musical version of Ed Wood’s cult film Glen or Glenda.
Teresa: Tell us who you are and about your beginnings as a playwright.
Michael: I’m originally from Durham, NC. I lived in New Orleans for a good while and still consider it my second home. Then I lived in New York for a few years,mostly in Montauk at the tip of Long Island, and until the end of 2010 I lived half the year in Bel Air, MD. and half the year in Durham.
All that I am creatively, composer, lyricist and librettist arose within me at the same time, there never has really been one without the other. I think I was around 12 years old. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, but my mother had acquired a piano for my sister to learn on. She didn’t think, for whatever reason, that it was appropriate for a boy to learn to play, so I simply taught myself using my sister’s piano books. My first act of rebellion. Soon, I was writing my own songs and since there was no one else to do it, I began writing my own lyrics. And except for two or three exceptions, never wrote a song that was independent of a story that I was writing. And, I’ve never written a play that was independent of music. Only once have I written music that wasn’t part of a play. It’s all one thing and they come from the same place.
I also had some formal training in composition at The North Carolina School of the Arts under Robert Ward, the Pulitzer prize winning composer of the opera The Crucible, and who also was a student of Aaron Copland, for persons who are interested in those sort of things.
Your concept and original format for Glen or Glenda: A New Musical is intriguing and is what initially prompted me to want to interview you. Please explain this project and how you allow “the film to dictate the form.”
A: I first encountered Glen or Glenda – the movie – one afternoon at a video store. Having exhausted everything else worth watching there, it seemed like it might be an entertaining bit of camp. And besides, how could one not be intrigued by what is generally regarded as the worst film ever made…so bad it’s good. Well, of course, it was a train wreck…but a spectacular one. It certainly had its moments of unintentional hilarity, but it was also such a rare document that opens a window to attitudes in the past towards a secret world of sexuality…a sort of Reefer Madness of transvestism. There was no Ed Wood cult at the time, I thought I was alone in my appreciation of the film that I began to think would be delicious material for a musical comedy. Little did I know that within a few months that the world of Ed Wood would explode into the popular culture with that wonderful movie. By the time this happened, however, I was well at work on Glen or Glenda: A New Musical. I probably had written about six songs or so.
Strangely, instead of being encouraged by the world suddenly sharing my appreciation for the material, I felt like my thunder had been stolen. This and a frustration with trying to mold this impossible narrative into the form of a traditional musical theatre book – and the ultimate catastrophe of having lost all my work for the project contained within a single notebook – led me to abandon the idea. Still, I was pleased with the songs I had written for the project, remembered mostly in just the form of fragments, and I always had a sense of regret about not having finished the piece.
Flash forward a dozen years, and I had learned about a ragtag troupe of musicians in Oregon who were accompanying live new scores to generally schlocky sci-fi films. This seemed to me to be a rather appealing concept and at once I thought Glen or Glenda, having really no film score of any significance, would be a good candidate for this sort of a treatment. I already had these little remembered fragments of songs that would serve as themes with which to begin constructing the score. And as it begin to evolve in my mind and as I looked closely at the film, it was structured (if one can use this word in the same breath with this doodle of a film) in such a way that seemed to naturally permit the actual insertion of songs themselves. So, it began to evolve into something not only of a film score but also into a hybrid of musical/film score/oratorio and theatre piece – and thus it felt to me that I was at last on the right track with this project. Instead of trying to impose upon it what felt like were, at least in this instance, the tiresome conventions of musical theatre, I was permitting content to naturally dictate the form of the piece and not the other way around. And because of this, the one thing that was most attractive, not just to me but to everyone it seems that despite themselves enjoy about the film, the irreproducible incompetence coupled with the audacious honest courage that one feels went into the making of it…well, it’s all there.
Not just the camp we enjoy, though it’s very much part of the experience…even somewhat enhanced by the songs that are peppered throughout. It’s just that now, thanks to the magical transport of music, the unbearable stretches of tedium could be transformed into something artistically engaging or connected. Then, it occurred me that to set up this version of Glen or Glenda, a little one act prologue might serve to engage and prepare the audience into having a stake in seeing this crazy presentation succeed, a sort of dark black comedy, a Faustian episode between Satan and a fictional composer of the piece.
So there you have it, one of the most mongrel and misshapen theatrical compositions imaginable, yet having traveled so many roads, all of them, to get there, it seems to me the only inevitable, honest and exciting way to shape the material. And of course, absolutely no one gets it…but what the hell, I’m very proud of it just the same. I have the sort of pride in it that one has when one knows deep down somewhere that you’ve found the right way with something. I take that back, actually it apparently has one rabid fan somewhere in Uruguay who listens to it just about every day!
You have written a symphonic score for Glen or Glenda: A New Musical of 2196 measures, or 67 minutes. Tell us about writing music. Does it sometimes fill in the desired emotion or convey an idea where words fail? Or do you generally use it to compliment dialogue?
Music, despite how much one might learn about it, is to me such a mysterious presence. One can apply one’s craft to it, shape it, mold it, combine it, yet it’s origins seem to come from some unsettled place. Like flailing about to reach something transparent. Sometimes you are able to grasp it out of this fog…and then sometimes it just comes to you like a spirit. Then, now and then when you actually have this thing in your hands, you discover that it’s doing things that seem so rational despite you’re not always consciously having applied or endowed it with this capacity. It’s as though it is something of its own making or formed somewhere deep in your subconscious. I used to compose at the piano…something I never do anymore.
At the piano something of what makes music happen is just the chance of striking a note, a note that might probably not have occurred to you otherwise…for good or ill. When one composes in one’s mind, this doesn’t happen and it seems to me that this is a purer way to find your music. Also, you’re not limited by your technique. I almost always find my music in something that I’m writing or toying with dramatically…a situation, a character. Generally, a few words or a title is all I need to summon music from wherever it lives. There have been some occasions where it just pops up out of nowhere…fully formed. I might be watching a movie…or reading a magazine and all of a sudden I’m aware that it’s coming to me. When that happens I just have to suddenly give it my full attention…listen to it over and over again…hum it, sometimes write it down at once. I have learned that if I don’t do this it can sometimes only visit me once and then disappear forever.
Musically, Glen or Glenda: A New Musical was a unique experience for me as a composer. With it I gave myself the challenge of composing a continuous symphonic score for every square inch of the film – essentially a symphony or perhaps an oratorio, but with the additional challenge of having music that aside from fitting the changing moods and action in the film had to also adapt itself to the technical requirements of timing and yet be something of an aesthetically coherent composition…and project a certain sensibility upon the piece as a whole. I had a head start, of course, by having already composed those little fragments of songs which began to serve as themes, themes that I could now begin to present within the composition progressively one at a time – and then throughout the course of the piece they began to combine sometimes quite mysteriously to me into all sorts of counterpoints, fugues and combinations. Sometimes it really seemed to be composing itself. It was so massive but still, knowing that I was on a fool’s errand, I used whatever forces of orchestration I felt I needed to get the effect I wanted. So, it is so gigantic in this form that only a symphony orchestra could perform it, and what symphony orchestra would play or take seriously a new score to Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda! So, I suppose it was something of a case of artistic self-abuse, but I couldn’t resist. After I finished it, I did go back and write a more practical orchestration for about 12 players – but I suppose that even this is something of a fantasy in the diminished musical world that we now inhabit.
And what a strange little misfit of an orphan I have created…at least theoretically. How to convince anyone of its possibilities? Persons entrenched in musical theatre regard its form as an affront to their rigid theorizing on construction and what’s stageable. Symphony orchestras are hardly known for having a sense of humor or taking these sort of artistic risks. Ed Wood fans are generally the sorts who go in for some serious metal or garage bands. There’s not enough choral music in it to appeal to a Gay Chorus and it’s a bit too queer for anyone else. Theatre people are very suspicious and put off by incorporating film into a production. On and on. Still, I have every confidence in how it would actually play to an audience, how it would surprise them, how exciting it would be.
Oh well, sometimes as an artist, I suppose on occasion, you just have to create one for yourself.
I could see it playing at a type of Visionary Arts Museum that incorporates theater! Let’s build one. What instrument (s) do you play?
I play the piano. At one time was fairly competent as a pianist…even played professionally and have even written a piano concerto, but as I played primarily to compose I hardly ever touch it anymore as this is now done almost entirely away from the piano. Still, I would hardly be able to do this if I did not have this background, this foundation as a musician.
You also have something about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford?
I do. It’s title is Bette & Joan, though perhaps a better title would be What Happened Between Bette and Joan? This is a musical comedy that I finished last spring about the infamous blood feud between you know who and you know who during the time when they were co-starred in the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and their aborted “sequel” Hush…Hush, Sweet Chartlotte.
With this material, I had the seemingly subversive idea to create something of a classic musical comedy. I wanted something of the freedom that writers for musical comedy like Rodgers and Hart or Cole Porter took for granted in the 30s and 40s to occasionally write some really fun somewhat irrelevant but big a*s show tunes, yet incorporating whatever advances in the art of story and narrative that I felt would benefit the project. I actually didn’t take a camp approach, I can’t help but see these character as very real, two middle aged women facing some frivolous, though also some very serious and deeply human challenges in their lives and careers.
Apparently, I ended up with a very strong book…that rarest of assets, perhaps because I had in this a very strong and interesting story. I say apparently because it has been very well received and praised on this feature by those who have actually bothered to have an earnest look at it. Still…no cigar. I guess I’m not such a great peddler. Yet, I think one of my challenges with this piece is a diminishment in the capacity of those persons who consider these sorts of things to recognize what a score to a musical might be, how it functions in its role as an element in the telling of a story on stage in a performance. Not how it functions as music on a ipod, or how it might sound to dance to, accompany a toothpaste commercial or any of the other functions we might want to assign to all music. I know as a musician that I have written a first rate theatrical score, the very best that’s in me for this show. But a composer like myself sometimes runs up against a tyranny, a tyranny that masquerades as freedom, but is really an insistence that one can only write or listen to, dare I say it, the music of adolescent boys?! It sometimes seems to me that we live in a world where Beethoven…where Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern or Cole Porter never existed. An age that worships the amateur. Well, not me. These things, this tradition, is much too good, too fine to not continue to build upon. .
What is it about old Hollywood that inspires you?
A: I’m inspired by a lot of things…I have lots of heroes. But I do love film and have a adoring appreciation for some great art that is preserved there. As a musician in particular I am blown away by composers like Korngold, Steiner, Waxman…the list goes on and on. I love Bogart, Davis, etc. Great directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, George Stevens, Orson Wells. It seems to me that during this time there was an intersection of tradition, innovation and culture that met to create a certain aesthetic, a high water mark that is very appealing to me. But of course, I also appreciate and have respect for film beyond this “golden age”.
Where else do you get ideas? What drives you to create?
Of all the elements a grand idea is the hardest one to come by. A good idea has to be strong enough to sustain me throughout the long period of planning, the writing, the composing. It has to be exciting to me and hopefully appealing to others as well. Plus, it has to be appropriate for my particular talents. Generally, when they’ve come to me it has been like a flash. Perhaps two unrelated ideas that come together and…pow. But it is the rarest of all things. Luckily, I have come to a place where I now have a backlog and for a while I won’t have to go searching. When I’ve finished my current project, I know exactly what I’m doing next. The most realistic depiction I’ve ever seen of coming up, really being struck with an idea was in the movie Topsy-Turvy, the Gilbert and Sullivan bi-op. Gilbert has been struggling to come up with an idea, but really more like being on the alert for an idea. One night in his study a Japanese Sword falls from the wall…startled he goes to pick it up from the floor and then all of sudden, he’s frozen in place…you can see that moment as the camera lingers on his face. That scene really rang true with me in this respect. I had felt that same superhuman electrical moment…of being touched by God.
What drives me to create? For me, you might as well ask me why I breathe? There are of course superficial reasons, a hunger for attention, a result of not fitting in when I was a teenager, a grandmother who was creativity itself and encouraged that quality within me, a desire for immortality! But fundamentally, it’s so natural a response to being alive. One thing that I have learned about creativity is that once you have found the way to open it within your life, to access it, to have faith in it, to be able to depend upon this resource within you, that it can be appropriated in all sorts of ways…for instance, when I needed some commercial art done for something, I was able to find a voice there as well and even felt something of the same satisfaction by creating in this way. The same is true with cooking or designing a space or whatever day to day things one encounters. I almost take it for granted, yet I’ve often seen around me persons who have never really tapped into their own creativity. I have come to the conclusion that they just don’t know how to or that it never occurred to them. The only thing unique about myself in this regard is that I am totally connected to this thing one calls creativity, but I am convinced that this exists just as strongly in everyone else. It’s just the confidence to go there, the purpose and the pathway to connecting that’s missing.
Tell us about other projects.
I am now working on a very ambitious piece. How do I describe it? It’s on one level about this dreadful drag pageant…one where the award is given to the most unladylike, most intentionally dreadful contestant of them all, each of them outdoing themselves for the honor…yet, it is all for a very good cause…to raise money for an AIDS hospice. This takes place in the late 90s during the weekend after Andrew Cunanan had murdered Gianni Versace and no one knows where he is. The nation has been warned that he could be anywhere…that he could be hiding in plain view…even in drag. I suppose it might be thought of as something of a Wizard of Oz construction, in which the fantasy is that Cunanan, this wicked witch, is indeed hiding among the contestants. With this device I am transforming this mundane drag show into the most spectacular fantasy, a tour de force with the opportunity to write an avalanche of the most fabulous and outrageous collection of turned out drag anthems you could imagine! Yet, the premise that I get to explore in this piece is creativity itself and the flip side of this coin…violent destruction as embodied in the character of Andrew Cunanan, the villain of the piece. Sounds good, huh? Speaking of creativity, here’s a bit of a lyric from a key song in the piece:
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING…
HOW COULD THIS EVER BE?
AND YET THIS MIRACLE IS WHAT YOU DO…
YOU ARE THAT DREAMER
WHO RISES FROM HIS DREAMS
INSPIRED TO MAKE THOSE DREAMS COME TRUE!
AND WITH A PENCIL UPON A PAGE
OR WITH A BRUSH STROKE UPON A CANVAS
OR MERELY NOTES PULLED OUT OF EMPTY AIR…!
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING…
AND WITH NO SLIGHT OF HAND,
OR SPELLS OF ALCHEMY YOU MAKE IT START…
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING…
HOW CAN THIS BE AND YET
THIS MAGIC LIVES WITHIN YOUR HEART…
THAT’S WHERE THE PAPER BECOMES A POEM,
THAT’S WHERE THE CANVAS BECOMES A PAINTING,
THAT’S WHERE A SONG TAKES WING UPON THE AIR!
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING…
YET OUT OF THIS NOTHING
BEHOLD A WORK OF ART!
BEHOLD A WORK OF ART!
Any onstage acting experience, directing?
Yes, I have acted, I enjoy it, though I don’t regard myself as a performer. It’s never been an ambition of mine.
I’ve also directed once, but this is not where my talents are, yet it was very much an invaluable experience as I feel it gave me something of a more heightened sense of how I might construct a scene with a director’s perspective and needs in mind.
What of your works, if any, have seen the stage thus far? Share what the experience was like.
In 2008, I composed, wrote, directed, produced, performed, costumed, you name it, a production of a little show I wrote entitled, Over the Rainbows with an emphasis on the word ‘Over.’ It was a musical comedy, an adaptation of the story of Pygmalion, in which this pretentious shallow queen attempts to transform a crude but terribly attractive straight mechanic into his metrosexual ideal…with disastrous consequences.
It was sort of a satire on the television show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It had a cast of only four persons. What was it like? Well, of course, I learned more from this experience than anything else I’ve ever done. What worked, what didn’t. Audiences laughed in all the right places, but the revelation was that at every performance, at the end, the audiences were in tears! I mean like sobbing! You can look through the script and try to figure out where the hell that was coming from…but I don’t think it was there…it wasn’t something I was reaching for…but there it was, consistent from night to night. I suppose it was because, horrible and foolish as the pretentious old queen was, they still sympathized with him and his vulnerably for falling for someone that could have no romantic interest in him in return. And…for me that worked. The take away, of course, is that sometimes an audience fills in the blanks for you. They get it…even if you don’t.
Michael’s Penny’s website.