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Volume 1, Issue #6
"Stand By For Mars!"
June 2006

The Thunder Child Interviews
The Creators of Area 51: The Musical
March 2-25, 2000
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[Area 51: The Musical ] [Noel Katz: The Music] [Tom Carrozza: The Book ]

An Interview With Noel Katz
by Caroline Miniscule

Noel Katz has written 14 musicals. Twelve of these have been produced...eleven in his native New York. He wrote one of these, "Our Wedding: The Musical" to run for only one performance � it was for his own wedding, and he and his bride were married on stage during the performance.

Mr. Katz was born and has spent all but ten years of his life in Manhattan. He fell in love with musical theater at the age of eight and has made it his career. He is an award-winning composer-lyricist, and teaches at Second City, Circle-in-the-Square and Fairleigh Dickenson University.

You've written 14 musicals. Did any of them have science fiction themes? No. I try to make sure every musical I write is as different as possible from all my others. So, science fiction is not a genre I ever plan to return to.

I hate to disappoint your readers, but I�m not a science fiction fan. I�ve never enjoyed anything that involves fantasy, or magic, or anything behaving differently than it does in the real, scientifically-provable world I know.

Tom Carrozza showed me how science fiction could be hysterically funny, if handled a certain way. And it was Tom�s outrageous sense of humor that attracted me to the project.

Please describe the genesis of Area 51. Tom and I had done a number of cabaret acts in which he played something of a spoof of a typical cabaret performer. In these, he did a number of songs I wrote or collaborated with him on. These went so well, the audience laughing so heartily, that writing a whole musical was the obvious next step.

Did you go to Mr. Carrozza or vice versa? I think he came to me with a three-page sketch, describing it as the kind of thing you�d see on the Carol Burnett show. It involved a Martian with a headache needing an aspirin. Made me laugh. Seemed a good start.

How long did it take to create the piece? Nearly two years. We had no deadline, nothing hurrying us to finish it. So the process � which was great fun � went on and on.

How did the plot develop? You could say I assisted Tom, sort of like assisting a house-builder might involve standing beneath a ladder, handing up some nails. But of course, we discussed how songs might be used to convey the story. And pitched ideas back and forth about what might go on in the show.

When writing a musical, does the book come first, or is the book written to fit the music? Oh God, no. When a book is written to fit to existing music, it�s a sure sign the result will be awful. The librettist and the songwriter must work together, side by side. There will be times when I think I understand what needs to happen in a song, where the characters are, what their emotions should be at the start and finish of a song: then I can go ahead and take a stab at the song. More often, I look at a songless draft of a scene and say �I think I can replace these three pages with a short song here.� This is what is meant by compression. Musical writers usually choose to tell their tales in the most economic form possible. If a song goes on and on, past when the audience has already gotten the point, that can be boring. It�s a mistake to think that a librettist goes first, then the songwriter steps in, because, in essence, it�s two people working simultaneously to tell the same story.

How did you write the music and lyrics for the show? (Do you compose the music first and then think of the lyrics, or vice versa, or is each song created all of a piece?) Most often, I like to write music and lyrics simultaneously. Next most often, lyrics come first; but I�ve also been known to start with a melody. But what comes first is not nearly as important as what comes next. Each component is going to be written a thousand times before the song�s doing all it should. And, at that point, who remembers which went first?

What's your creative process?

Noel Katz's Musicals
The Christmas Bride
Not a Lion
The Heavenly Theatre
Spilt Milk
Lunatics and Lovers
Through the Wardrobe
The New U.
The Pirate Captains
Murder at the Savoy
On the Brink
Our Wedding

For AREA 51, here were 18 songs, none of them humorless ballads:

Down There
Inks� Proposal
Requiem for Inks
Have We Got an Area For You!
You Feel Things
Up There
This Thing Fell Out of the Sky
Stay
Visualize
The Cave
Stay (reprise)
Inside of Me
You Bring Out the Mother In Me
Seeing Stars
A Girl Like That
A Girl Like That (reprise)
Work Your Wiles
The Greatest Lover
Dreamland
Stay (reprise)
I Can Never Get Enough
Finale

Before I start work on a show, I like to get a feel for the harmonic vocabulary I�ll be using. When Tom pointed out that Area 51 is supposed to be located not too far from Las Vegas, we both knew that this would be something we�d each make use of. Tom contrived a way to incorporate the sort of live entertainment associated with Vegas. And, for me, at an early point I knew that some of the sound of the score was going to have to do with the sort of brassy music one associates with Wayne Newton and Tom Jones. So, I studied the harmonic components that make that style of music what it is.

I make a lot of lists. When it seems as if a scene is going to need a song, I may start by coming up with a list of possible titles. Usually, I�ll list things the character needs to communicate in a song. As I make these lists, I may also start lists of possible rhymes I might use. Once I have a title, I�ll probably set it to music and then think about the rhyme scheme and formal structure the song might take. And the most important reference book on a lyricist�s shelf is not a rhyming dictionary: it�s the thesaurus. I�m going to need to come up with synonyms for just about everything that�s said. For instance, in a song called �Watch Your Back� I knew I�d need to say that more than once, and wanted to say it in more than one way. So, I thought of �Cover Your Ass.� Eventually I changed that to the more sing-able �cover your posterior� and, as it turns out, that�s a little funnier.

At some point, I composed an insinuating minor-key kind of tango. It had so few notes, I knew I�d be writing an entire lyric with very few syllables. This made sense for the character, who is slinking around stage, communicating more with her moves than her words. But, to add interest to her sparse words, I chose a very dense rhyme scheme. An audience, in my experience, can enjoy rhymes even while they�re more attuned to other aspects � the story, how it�s being sung, the beauty of the actress. So, I wrote:

Dangers
Await you
Strangers
May hate you
Bruno, a word to the wise:
Watch your back

Always
Dodge lightning
Hallways
Can be frightening
Snakes lie in every corner
(Bruno: Well, of course they do, we�re in a cave.)
Watch your back

In corridors and crannies even eerier
Make sure someone covers your posterior

Terrors
Are hidden
Errors
Forbidden
Move up your caution a notch
You better cover your crotch
Look both ways, Bruno and watch
Your back.

This was, I believe, director Gary Slavin�s favorite song in the score. Everybody loved it. And then we put it in front of an audience, and immediately knew that the audience could understand everything the character was saying in the song without her having to sing it. So, we cut the song. The final collaborator � the most important one, in fact � is the audience. Many fine numbers are cut from musicals because they�re not the most effective way of telling the show�s story.

What was the starting point for writing each song? I honestly don�t remember. "Dreamland" is somewhat similar to a jazz lullaby I wrote a few years earlier. It had the dreamy romantic quality I thought the song would need, kind of tinkly, incorporating augmented chords.

The show ran at the Sanford Meisner Theater from March 2-25, 2000. Was that the run it was originally scheduled for- or did it run longer or shorter than expected? The run was the maximum number of performances the actors� union would allow.

Was it a success? What were the audiences like? Mostly science fiction fans, or musical theater fans? It was a huge success, getting great reviews. James Marino of [BroadwayStars.com] doesn�t usually write reviews, himself, but HAD to write a paragraph about how wonderful Area 51 was. We sold out performances, and clearly had the sense that people who�d seen it were calling up friends to tell them that they must go.

I don�t know that we had many science fiction fans. It was mostly people who love comedy, not necessarily musical comedy. The New York improv community accounted for a major sector.

Thanks very much to Tom Carrozza and Noel Katz for agreeing to these interviews.
All photos on this page supplied by Noel Katz.
Alien illustration by Stephen Gardner

More links for Noel Katz on the web:

[Area 51: The Musical ] [Noel Katz: Music] [Tom Carrozza: Book ]
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