Stephen Cole, Musical Theatre Writer-Session 2-Episode #298

Jun 4, 2024 | 0 comments

“You could write the most academic piece of lyric. And if the music is absolutely emotional, it will tell us that something else is going on, and it gives something for the actor to act. Why is that so beautiful? How do you fall in love at first sight? How does West Side Story work? I mean, it’s crazy when you think about how fast that happens in that show, but the music tells us how they’re in love, and you can just let the reality go.” ~Stephen Cole

Stephen Cole is back on StoryBeat for the second time. An award-winning writer of musical theatre, non-fiction books, short stories, and novels, Stephen’s work has been recorded, published, and produced worldwide, from New York City to London to the Middle East and Australia.

With Matthew Ward he wrote the musicals After The Fair, Merlin’s Apprentice, Rock Odyssey, and Casper (which originally starred Chita Rivera), The Night of the Hunter and Saturday Night at Grossinger’s (with music by Claibe Richardson), and Dodsworth and Time After Time (with music by Jeff Saver), which has recently been revived at the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati.

In 2005 Stephen and composer David Krane were commissioned to write the first American musical to premiere in the Middle East. The result was Aspire, which was produced in Qatar. Their hilarious cross-cultural experiences resulted in another show titled The Road To Qatar! which has been produced in Dallas, New York and the Edinburgh International Festival (where it was nominated for Best Musical).  His most recent musical, Goin’ Hollywood, was produced in 2023 to rave reviews and sold-out audiences in Dallas.

Stephen has written continuity, narration, and special material for fifteen different Drama League Shows including all-star tributes to Kander and Ebb, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Liz Smith, Peter Stone, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald and Neil Patrick Harris.

As an author, Stephen has published That Book About That GirlI Could Have Sung All Night: the Marni Nixon story (which is currently in development as a feature film), Noel Coward: A Bio-Bilbliography, and the Charles Strouse memoir Put On a Happy Face.

A prolific short story writer, Stephen’s first novel Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who? was published in January 2024.  I’ve read Mary & Ethel…and Mikey Who? It’s what’s you call a real hoot, especially for lovers of old broads on old Broadway. It’s the most entertaining time-slipping story I’ve read since Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Stephen is a recipient of a Gilman-Gonzales Falla Commendation for musical theatre as well as the prestigious Edward Kleban Award.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat:

Stephen Cole: You could write the most academic piece of lyric. And if the music is absolutely emotional, it will tell us that something else is going on, and it gives something for the actor to act. Why is that so beautiful? How do you fall in love at first sight? How does West Side Story work? I mean, it’s crazy when you think about how fast that happens in that show, but the music tells us how they’re in love, and you can just let the reality go. And so that’s why I love musical theater now you convinced me to actually write another musical.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden. A podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, Stephen Cole, is back on StoryBeat for the second time. An award winning writer of musical theater, nonfiction, books, short stories and novels, Steven’s work has been recorded, published and produced worldwide from New York City to London to the Middle east and Australia. With Matthew Ward, he wrote the musicals after the Fair, Merlin’s Apprentice, Rock Odyssey, and Casper, which originally starred Cheetah Rivera, the Night of the Hunter and Saturday Night at Grossinger’s, with music by Claib Richardson and Dodsworth, and Time after Time with music by Jeff Saver, which has recently been revived at the Children’s Theater of Cincinnati. In 2005, Stephen and composer David Crane were commissioned to write the first american musical to premiere in the Middle east. The result was Aspire, which was produced in Qatar. Their hilarious cross cultural experiences resulted in another show titled the Road to Cutter, which has been produced in Dallas, New York and the Edinburgh International Festival, where it was nominated for best musical. His most recent musical, Going Hollywood, was produced in 2023 to rave reviews and sold out audiences in Dallas. Stephen has written continuity, narration and special material for 15 different drama league shows, including all Star tributes to Candor and Ebb, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Liz Smith, Peter Stone, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Kristen Chenoweth, Audra McDonald and Neil Patrick Harris. As an author, Stephen has published that book about that girl I could have sung All Night, the Marnie Nixon Story, which is currently in development as a feature film Noel a bio bibliography and the Charles Strauss memoir put on a Happy Face. A prolific short story writer, Stevens first novel Mary and Ethel and Mikey, who was published in January 2024. I’ve read Marianethell and Mikey, who? It’s what you call a real hoot, especially for lovers of old broads on old Broadway. It’s the most entertaining, time slipping story I’ve read since Kurt Vonnegut’s slaughterhouse five. Stephen is a recipient of a Gilman Gonzalez Fowla commendation for musical theatre as well as the prestigious Edward Kleeban award. So for all those reasons and many more, it’s a great pleasure for me to welcome back to StoryBeat for the second time the brilliant writer Stephen Cole. Stephen great to have you back on the show again.

Stephen Cole: Oh, it’s great to be here. did I really do all those things?

Steve Cuden: I don’t know. You’d have to tell me.

Stephen Cole: I think the only thing that was wrong there was that Matthew Ward did not write Rock odyssey. Oh. In fact, it’s the only one of my shows that I did not write the lyrics for. I only wrote the book, and the score was by a real rock guy, Billy Strauss, a wonderful Emmy award winning songwriter. And it was the only time I did not write the lyrics.

Steve Cuden: And so was that a weird experience for you then?

Stephen Cole: It was. It was kind of weird, because I kept wanting to write the songs for that. It was commissioned by Walden Media, and they had a little theater in, Denver called Walden family playhouse. And this was the first one commissioned. And for some reason, I was going to write lyrics for the second one, which was Merlin’s apprentice, which I did write with Matthew Ward and book for this one. And so I didn’t do book for Merlin’s apprentice, and I didn’t do lyrics for Rock Odyssey. But, Billy did a great job. I would give him my thoughts, my ideas, my titles, even certain lines, and then he would come up with the songs.

Steve Cuden: So I’m going to tell you something you’re going to find very strange. I was up to write the Merlin show.

Stephen Cole: Oh, yeah? Really? Wow.

Steve Cuden: It didn’t work out. I never even started down that road. It just never worked out. But I was up for it. They had contacted me to do it way back in the day.

Stephen Cole: Susan Kim was writing the book.

Steve Cuden: This is before anybody was involved.

Stephen Cole: Anybody. Okay, great. Well, I enjoyed writing that one a lot, and that one was very good, but it was rock odyssey that had this enormous life after Walden family playhouse, when, we were contacted by the arch center in Miami, and they took a ten year license. Wow. An exclusive license, which meant, you know, we made a few bucks upfront and they did it for ten years. For every school kid who was studying the odyssey. And they came to see their first musical. And it was mine. So it was kind of wonderful. The only reason it stopped was the pandemic.

Steve Cuden: That’s really impressive.

Stephen Cole: Yeah, that was fun.

Steve Cuden: I mean, to get a show to be locked in for that long at a place is amazing.

Stephen Cole: Exactly. And then they wound up because of the pandemic. Videoing, it. And now they’re showing it in schools. So that’s kind of wonderful.

Steve Cuden: Interesting. So let’s talk about this book that you’ve written and published. Marianethel and Mikey, who, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I thought it was a terrific read. Very unique and original. I was very impressed by what you did. But let’s talk about the book itself. What’s the story about before we talk about the depth of the characters in it?

Stephen Cole: Well, as you mentioned, it is a time travel piece. Although it’s also, you could say it’s an Alice in wonderland kind of thing. Because, there’s this guy named Mikey. Marvin Minkus, that’s the Mikey who. And he is the super fan of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. The two greatest stars that ever graced the Broadway musical. And, of course, I said it back in 1983. When they were both still alive. And he could be the superfan. And not be just somebody who was remembering it. And he finds out that his favorite of the two, Ethel is ill, with a brain tumor. And he decides to leave his basement apartment. Where he lives underneath his mother’s house. And go on the subway to Manhattan. He lives in Brooklyn and just go save her life in some way. And he winds up getting into the apartment under some pretense. Mary Martin happens to be there visiting Ethel Merman. While she’s in seeing Merman in another room. He wanders into Ethel Merman’s walk in closet. And sees all these amazing things in there. There are spotlights on all these amazing things. On her awards, on her costumes. And as he walks further and further. Into the darkened closet. He pushes through at the other end. And comes out in 1939. In Sophie Tucker’s dressing room at the imperial theater.

Steve Cuden: As people do.

Stephen Cole: As people do. And, not knowing really why or how. And we’re not inventing a time machine here. As I said, it’s some kind of portal. Some people also compare it to Narnia, going into the wardrobe. But he does come out, and people know him there. He’s Sophie Tucker’s nephew. And it’s a special night because this is the last night that Mary Martin would be in her show. Leave it to me, where she introduced my heart belongs to daddy and became an overnight star. And it’s also the night that she meets Ethel Merman. Cole Porter himself brings Merman to see Mary Martin, just to give her a little dig because, you know, to keep her from being just the queen of Broadway. Here’s the second queen. But Mary’s about to go out to Hollywood, so she’s, a little relieved. And then the story goes on and he keeps tripping through time to each of the time periods that their two lives cross. And so she. 40, 219 40, 219 50, 319 60, all the way up to 1970. And along the way he changes their lives and they change his. And that’s basically the story of this book.

Steve Cuden: So, okay, you knew Ethel Merman, correct?

Stephen Cole: I was friends with Ethel Merman. I know it makes me seem a little old, but, it was in the last two years of her life. She was 76 and I was maybe 20. And I used to have her come over to my apartment on 9th Avenue in Chelsea and Manhattan. and we would have these wonderful parties where I showed all of her videos. And she brought all her friends to watch her and she would make wonderful remarks. Like, she’d point at the screen and say, you see me there? That’s 1966. And I wasn’t wearing a bra. If I did that now, they’d hit the floor. And so, ah, we just had these incredible nights doing that. And she kind of thought of me as the kid who knew more about her career than she did. So she’d call me up and ask me, did I make any money in 1944? And I’d just go, I don’t know. But I figured it out, you know.

Steve Cuden: So you have marvelous detail about her apartment. Yes, in the book, was this a real thing?

Stephen Cole: Oh, yeah. She lived at the Surrey hotel in a big huge apartment because people did that, you know, you could live in an apartment in a hotel. She liked the, the idea that, there was a doorman and, and there were two different kinds of phones, but it was a big, huge apartment. She, she invited me up there the first time when I was invited to go in a limo with her to a banquet honoring her at Bloomingdale’s and White Plains. I remember when we got there, she said, what are we doing at a banquet in Bloomingdale’s? She said, what are we going to have the Tony at Corvettes? But we bonded that evening really well. And when we came back she said, I know you want to see my apartment? And of course I did. And so we went up, and the first thing she did was show me a closet where she kept the ashes of her parents and her daughter.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Stephen Cole: And she showed me the Christmas tree that she kept up year round and a crib full of muppets. And she loved the Muppets, and that was one of her best tv appearances. So I did know the apartment well, and I got to go back a couple more times. She also really did take out the stove in the kitchen. She had them take out the whole stove. There was a hole in the wall, because she said, I don’t cook. What do I need that for?

Steve Cuden: I’m surprised she didn’t fill the hole or something.

Stephen Cole: No, there was just a hole there.

Steve Cuden: All right, so I’m going to assume for a moment that a number of listeners are sitting here right now going, who the heck was Ethel Merman and who was Mary Martin? So take us through that a little bit. Give us a little of the history of both of these two great stars.

Stephen Cole: Yeah, these were. This was the time when Broadway was really Broadway. Ethel started out in 1930 at, 22 years old on the stage of the Alvin Theater, which is now the Neil Simon in a show called Girl Crazy by George and Ira Gershwin. And she had three songs in the show, and not the least of those three songs was a little song called I Got Rhythm.

Steve Cuden: Oh, really?

Stephen Cole: She held a note in I got rhythm for 16 bars and really became a star on opening night. Remember, there were no microphones then. She had a big, booming, fabulous, loud voice. and in those days, it was also pretty. She was funny. She was urbane. She was urban. She was bawdy. She was not like other ingenues and Broadway musicals. And so she really kind of changed the course of how women were perceived in Broadway shows then. She just kept getting hit after hit. She did anything goes. She did red hot and blue. She did Dubarry, was a lady, panama Hattie something for the boys, Annie gets your gun, the original cast. She starred in that for three years, never missing a performance. Call me madam. And then finally capping it all off, with gypsy, one of the greatest musicals that keeps getting revived, which was written for her. And then she did, as an afterthought, she did hello, Dolly. She closed that in 1970, and that’s a big part of the book. So she really kind of was ruled Broadway musicals until Mary Martin came along in 1938 and was a completely different type, kind of. She was from Weatherford, Texas. She was young, and kittenish and a little sexy. And she sang a very sexy, dirty song called Porter wrote for her called my heart belongs to Daddy. And that changed her career. And even though she loved being on Broadway, she was immediately whisked out to Hollywood, where she made twelve movies that no one ever sees anymore. And she was in the movies, and she was in movies with Bing Crosby and Dick Powell and Betty Hutton, but she never liked making movies. She missed that thing of an audience and the stage. And so she and her second husband, Richard Halliday, came back to New York and established her as a Broadway star. And she did one touch of Venus. she did the tour of Annie Getchigan, which figures in the novel.

Steve Cuden: Right.

Stephen Cole: She saw Ethel Merman and thought, this is a better part for me than for her. I’m from Texas. And she did the national tour, and then she got South Pacific. And that changed the course of everything, too, because that was the biggest hit of the late forties. And, of course, Peter Pan. We all that we can see on YouTube anytime.

Steve Cuden: And people of a certain era really know Peter Pan because it was a big tv celebration that aired almost every year for many years.

Stephen Cole: Exactly. She did it on Broadway, then they did it on television live two years in a row because they couldn’t tape things then. And then it was taped in 1960, so it was on all the time. And now it’s out on DVD, if such a thing still exists. And then the sound of music, she was Maria von Trapp, you know?

Steve Cuden: Sure. Sound of music was huge.

Stephen Cole: Totally. People remember Julie Andrews, but she created it.

Steve Cuden: And I think of Ethel Merman as pure brass, and I think of Mary Martin more as violins. They’re very different styles, just very different styles.

Stephen Cole: That’s very, very true. And yet they crossed roles like Annie, get your gun, because Mary could do the brass when she needed to be, but Mary could also be a soprano. you weren’t going to see Ethel Merman as Maria von Trapp or Peter Pan, but you could see Mary crossing over into Ethel’s roles, which was they both did Dolly and hello, Dolly. Mary did the original London cast, and Ethel closed it on Broadway, so they did cross over.

Steve Cuden: I think the closest thing we have to Mary Martin today is Kelly O’Hare.

Stephen Cole: Yeah. Because she also did South Pacific. Kelly is even more of a legitimate soprano because she can do opera. Mary, you know, could touch on that for a while, but because she did things like Annie Kitchen, she kind of stripped her voice and lost some of those beautiful highs that she had. But it was for the best, because that was the kind of role she played, the best, and Peter Pan was her favorite, there’s no doubt.

Steve Cuden: So you, having known Ethel Merman, is that why you are fascinated and focused on that era? I noticed that you tend to look back to older celebrities to write your books and so on. Are you fascinated by the past in that way?

Stephen Cole: Yeah, and I don’t even think of it as the past. I think of it as the golden age of Broadway musicals, when music was the kind of music I love the best today, the, you know, Richard Rogers and Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and those people, to me, created the Broadway musical. I still listen to all those shows because they are classics, and many of them get recreated now. So I am very much like, I want to go back in time only to see if I’m wrong or right about, liking these shows. I have Mikey, of course, going back in time and going to actual Broadway shows that he never would have possibly seen, like Rogers and Hearts by Jupiter starring Ray Bulger. So it was a great fantasy. I also knew Mary a bit, as well, because she used to write me letters from Palm Springs and we would talk on the phone. I just wouldn’t say that we had as many close encounters as with Ethel, but she was completely opposite, whereas Ethel was very forthright, regular dame from Queens who walked the streets of Manhattan. Mary was kind of softer and nigh, you know, with that little. That little drawl. And also she used it to her advantage. She. It’s always said that, with her husband, who got a lot of blame when anybody got fired from a show, they said, well, Mary loaded the gun, but he shot it. So in other words, it was, she had someone to take care of and Ethel did not. So I think they’re very different in that way.

Steve Cuden: Did Ethel need anybody to take care of things?

Stephen Cole: Probably not. She took care of herself very well.

Steve Cuden: I think if audiences, you know, don’t know who Ethel Merman is today, certainly if the listeners today don’t know who Ethel Merman was, because she was a very unique character. Mary Martin was unique, too, but I think she was more conventional. Ethel Merman was very unique. And if you want to see how brassy she was without her singing, check out a movie called it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad World.

Stephen Cole: Absolutely.

Steve Cuden: And she is full on brassy and.

Stephen Cole: Hilariously funny and hilarious. What she was really. And Sondheim said this, too. She was a low comedian. She was exactly like those burlesque comedians, like Burt Lahr would be. She knew how to do that. And that helped a lot in roles like Gypsy. Gypsy. You know, Rose and Gypsy could be thought of as kind of a monster mother. But when Ethel played it and she told me this, she said, well, why would I be a monster? I was just doing it for my kids. She really believed that. And that came through as a charming, funny, oh, my God, she’ll do anything for those kids. And that was the original interpretation of it.

Steve Cuden: All right, so I’m really curious. Where did you come up with the angle of slipping through time and going into a closet and winding up years later and then forward? Where’d that come from?

Stephen Cole: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, I started out writing this as purely a book about Ethel and Mary and the times their paths crossed and how they had a public rivalry, but a private friendship. And that was my original goal. And I wrote a version of that, and I gave it to a couple of people to read, especially one agent said, well, why aren’t you just making this nonfiction? Why is it fiction? And I realized it was too. It seemed too real. It was just a story about them. And even though I was creating a, conversation and letters, because they’re all made up, I realized I needed a device. And another really good friend, Rita Lakin, a novelist, she said to me, just, why don’t you put yourself into this? And I created Mikey, Marvin Minkus, who lived in Brooklyn, New York. And I was able to use then some of my own experiences with Ethel and with Mary. And it just started to happen. I don’t know what other, writers do, but I knew I would somehow get, once I got in that closet and went back in time, that it would just keep going that way. It was the real thing that changed everything was when I realized that, oh, my God, if he gets to 1970, he could meet himself. That became something else. So the book really became about a guy who could help his younger self live through some traumatic experiences. And so it’s more than just, I met Ethel and Mary, and I went through a portal. It goes to that point. And that’s why, after 1970, he has to come back home.

Steve Cuden: Well, this is the trouble with time travel stories, is they have a tendency to have a tail that wants to wrap itself in its mouth like a caduceus. And so, you know, you can look at the Terminator, and you can come up with all kind of, well, how does that get from here to there to here to there with the time travel? Yours is a little more straightforward. It’s not really about somebody coming back and changing the world or anything like that. It’s just sort of going back and seeing things from a different perspective.

Stephen Cole: right. And he changes as he goes along. My goodness. He gets to be a press agent. He gets to write the 1960 Tonys.

Steve Cuden: He’s like Zellig.

Stephen Cole: Yes, exactly. He’s like Zellig. And I like that a lot. And he morphs and he doesn’t know why. There’s an extra character in there that we haven’t mentioned at all is one of my favorites. And that’s Mary, too. And Mary, too kind of helps that magic along. She seems to know everything and what’s going to happen. She pushes him through another portal. There’s a real reason he’s gone on this journey, and I think it’s to help himself. And eventually he has, he gets out of the mother’s basement. That’s a big deal.

Steve Cuden: So I’m curious about your process in this. Once you started down that road, are you just going, or did you spend a lot of time thinking and planning it out?

Stephen Cole: I’m just going. I really am. this happens sometimes when I write musicals, too. You plot and plan, and it’s in your head. I prefer to just, like, dive in. And sometimes, especially, I find, and I’ve written a second novel now, which has not been published, and that was a wonderful experience, too. I would find I’d get to a chap, end of a chapter, and go, what if I don’t go through that door? And I go through that door? What would happen then? And then I’ll go to bed and wake up. And I did that. In this case, where would I. Where am I going to wind up? I knew I was going to wind up in certain time eras. I knew I wanted to stop where I stopped, but what exactly happened there and what happens in between? It just started to happen out of my fingers. And that was fun.

Steve Cuden: So that’s one of those cases where the characters are just speaking through you.

Stephen Cole: Yes, I think that’s exactly true. And the situations and so at the story. But also, I’m lucky enough it’s a historical novel, too. So I think, as I say, everything in it is real, except what isn’t. So I knew I had to have the rainbow Room be real. I knew I had to have these theaters be real, including the fact that there’s a tunnel underneath the. The Broadhurst that leads to the Plymouth. And, I knew these facts, and the facts were fun to find out. How are they going to figure in my story? And being a lifelong theater goer. It wasn’t hard to know all these things and to be a historian, I am. Anyway, so people said, well, did you have to research really hard to see what was on stage? by Jupiter? And I went, no, I kind of.

Steve Cuden: You already knew it because you are a devotee of that era and Broadway and those people.

Stephen Cole: Exactly. I have a ridiculous knowledge of all that. And I knew how Ethel or Mary would react to any of these situations. And of course, some of it, obviously, there’s some invention going on. I knew that Effel did not get the 1960 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for Gypsy, and Mary Martin did. And then when I watched that Tony awards, it was very clear to me that nobody was surprised when they won a Tony Award in 1960. They were told the day before, and they. And that’s why Ethel wasn’t even there and she knew she wasn’t going to win, so why go to the Astor Hotel?

Steve Cuden: so does the book reflect their actual relationship?

Stephen Cole: I think so. I think so. I took it to another level because the idea that I had was that there was, the public perception was that they were rivals. And Ethel would say things like, oh, Mary Martin’s okay, if you like talent, that kind of thing, and would get in the press. And there was a rivalry that was going on. But in real life, I saw, I was there when Mary came to visit Ethel with her brain tumor and how sweet she was to her and how she knitted her little caps and was just really distraught over it. So I thought, well, there really is a friendship, if not a close, close friendship. Enough of the fact that they had both shared stages together and both were on the same seasons, that they liked each other. I do think so.

Steve Cuden: Well, they obviously were rivals, but at the same time were not because they werent really in the same category with each other, even though they played parts that were the same.

Stephen Cole: Exactly. I think that all came to a head in 1960 at that Tony awards because Gypsy, and Sound of music were up against each other. And she and Ethel really did say, you know, when Mary won, well, you can’t buck a nun. She just said she won. What are you going to do? But to this day, it’s an interesting thing. Rose and gypsy, in every single revival, the woman who has played the role has won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical, except for Ethel Merton.

Steve Cuden: isn’t that interesting?

Stephen Cole: Yeah, it’s such a great role that I think if you just tackle it in the right season, you’re going to win. No matter what, if they do what.

Steve Cuden: They’Re supposed to do with the closing song of act one, they’re going to win.

Stephen Cole: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: I mean, everything’s coming up. Roses is gigantic.

Stephen Cole: Gigantic. Ethel would come off stage, she told me. She said she’d come off, you know, sweating and go. It’s like she said to Julie Stein, it’s a goddamn aria. But I’ll tell you, one of the parties, she invited several of her friends that were intros with her, and one time, Maria Carnilla, who played the original Tessie Chora, and she was golden fiddler on the roof. She was a ballerina. She and Ethel were at my house with a bunch of other people and they were just talking about being a gypsy together. I thought I was a real fly on the wall then. And Maria said to her, oh, ethel, I used to cry when you did roses turn. I’d stand in the wings. And Ethel said, well, I used to stand in the wings and laugh when you did your script. So there was a mutual admiration society. And so, of course, I put her in the book. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Were you able to speak with anyone from back then who’s still alive?

Stephen Cole: Well, only the ones I knew when they were still alive, like Maria, Karnilova, b’nate Menuda, Ethel’s best friend. She brought her to my house, but otherwise, no. And I wasn’t really looking to who is still alive? You know who was alive? Anita Gillette and did the audiobook of this. I asked her to do that. She was in the original gypsy and she had wonderful stories to tell. And I met her because she was in my show, Merman’s apprentice, which, is about Ethel and a little girl. And she played Ethel’s mother. And she told me that, you know, a lot of people had sour stories about Ethel and how tough she was. But with, Anita. Anita was going to be fired from gypsy because she was 20. She was understudying dainty June, and she got pregnant. She was married, but she got pregnant. And David Merrick said, well, that’s it, goodbye. And Merman said, she’s not going until she can’t do the splits. So she stayed for six more months in the show. And every night Ethel would say, come here, kid. And she’d feel her stomach, said, you’re going on tonight. So, wow. She kept the job because Ethel said she’s not going.

Steve Cuden: I wonder if anybody could get away with that today.

Stephen Cole: I don’t know, but Ethel had power. Ethel’s one of the few people had power over David Merrick, the most notorious Broadway producer there, was.

Steve Cuden: Sure. Absolutely the most notorious. What do you think? Or have you given any thought to what Mary and Ethel would say if they were to read your book?

Stephen Cole: Ah, it’s hard to think about. I think Ethel could be touchy. She might say, what the hell is this? How dare you? You know, I don’t know. Mary probably would have someone else read it for her and then report back. But I don’t know if they would like it, hate it. That always scares me when I write about real people. And when I did inventing Mary Martin, which was a tribute to her hundredth birthday off Broadway at the York theater, it was a love letter, and it was a review of her life. So it used all her songs. And I was nervous because her daughter was coming, and her grandchildren were coming, Larry Hagman’s children were coming, and great grandchildren. And they all came, and they loved it. And so. But it was nerve wracking. I thought, oh, God, what if they don’t like what I did about grandma? A lot of the great grandchildren didn’t even know who grandma was. They didn’t know Peter, really. That was interesting. And I introduced them. But Hell or, her daughter, who was in Annie get your gun with her and many other shows all the way up to, Peter Pan. She was Liza and Peter Pan. She was thrilled. It was such a. It was so thrilling. And then to hear stories from her that I think I may have even used a couple in here, about her going to London while her mother was doing a show that Noel Coward wrote and sitting on Noel Coward’s lap. I mean, it was fascinating to me.

Steve Cuden: For the listeners who don’t know, because you mentioned it, and many will not know this, that Larry Hagman, who most famously was Jr. Ewing in Dallas, was Mary Martin’s son.

Stephen Cole: Exactly. She had him when she was 17 years old. And she used to say, oh, it’s so Hill Billy. And their relationship was more of brother and sister for a while. And then when she married her second husband, that Larry didn’t like him, and he didn’t like him. And so Larry went back to live with his father in Texas and stayed quite texan. And until later life, they really weren’t close, but then they really were in the last years. And Larry would say things to her like, you know, ma, I’m a bigger star than you. And she’d say, yeah, but I’m a legend.

Steve Cuden: I would say, hagman has become a bit of a legend himself.

Stephen Cole: Yeah. Oh, yeah, they’re both. Both legends in many, many ways.

Steve Cuden: Do you have designs on turning it into a musical?

Stephen Cole: No.

Steve Cuden: No.

Stephen Cole: I only say no. People, ask this. First of all, I think what makes it really good is using all these real life people in there that were part of their lives, from Rogers and Hammerstein to Irving Berlin to people who most people do not know, like Leland Hayward, a producer, and Jerome Robbins, the great Jerome Robinson. I don’t think you could put all that on the stage, nor would you want to. I think it would make a great tv movie. It would be great, if it was part of the feud franchise that just did Truman Capote and the Swan. Or even more realistically, we’re thinking about doing it as a radio series, like an old fashioned BBC radio series where you only have to hear the voices. And that would be.

Steve Cuden: I think it would make a pretty good mini series.

Stephen Cole: Yeah, I do. I really do. And the whole time travel thing, I think, adds another element to it. It’s not just, oh, here’s two old broads who had a feud. It’s something else.

Steve Cuden: So do you think of yourself more as you’re obviously a writer, but do you think of yourself more as a librettist or a novelist or biographer? Do you think of yourself as one of those things?

Stephen Cole: I try not to, divide it. No, it depends on the day. I’m still writing musicals, going Hollywood, which you mentioned, whichever, with David Crane, was a big success in Texas. And now we are talking, about bringing it to London, which would be fantastic. It’s a big, fat Broadway musical. I call it a brand new classic musical because it’s got that kind of score. It also has time travel in it. Oddly enough. If you said to me, are, you a time travel fan? I go, nah, who cares? But I also wrote time after time. And it’s so strange that it’s something I do enjoy writing. But am I a big fan of it? Well, sometimes. When I grew up, we had a tv show called the Time Tunnel. Do you remember that one?

Steve Cuden: I certainly do.

Stephen Cole: And that was always about not changing history. You can’t really save Lincoln. Sorry. Can’t make it happen. So I back to that question. I would say it just depends what day it is and who’s paying me, who’s, who’s, you know. But I love writing musicals. I’m, a little nervous about musicals in this day and age.

Steve Cuden: Why are you nervous?

Stephen Cole: I think these are hard times for theater in general. And maybe my taste in musicals is not the taste that is happening on Broadway right now. And maybe that’s why I’m going to London. My taste is more traditional, classical, and as a lyricist, and I love being a lyricist, I demand perfect rhymes of myself. I demand wit. I demand all that. And you’re seeing less and less of that in theater now, unfortunately, when we.

Steve Cuden: Last spoke, which was in 2019, you talked about going Hollywood and that you were writing it at that time. It had not been produced yet. So I’m curious, how long, overall from inception to where you finally got it on stage, did it take? Was it more than five years?

Stephen Cole: It might have been more than five years, but it was supposed to get on in 19, and then. And then it got postponed to 20, and then we know what happened in 2020.

Steve Cuden: Yes.

Stephen Cole: so everything stopped until this year. The great thing was, I didn’t stop writing, and neither did David. So in those extra years, we did a ton of rewriting, and then as soon as we knew we were really getting the show on and we had a director, we, did even more. And then we did even more as we were in rehearsal. I believe in that. I’m the kind of guy who will rewrite up till opening night and beyond if I can, if I’m allowed. So, because you don’t know anything until an audience sees your show, you really.

Steve Cuden: Don’T know anything until the audience comes in. Have you worked with dramaturgs?

Stephen Cole: Well, I would say that our director, who was Gabriel Barry, a wonderful director. He was a brilliant dramaturg. He didn’t call himself that, but every note that he gave from the minute he started working on the show was a good one. Or questions. More questions than notes, you know, was like, why this, and why do we need that? And where. Where is that going? And sometimes, you know, you’re really tired, and you go, just leave me alone already. And then I’ll go to bed, and I’ll think about it, and I’ll find what I love is getting questions that I have to find answers, and they’re my answers. So, I haven’t really worked with a dramaturg except for really great directors.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think that the great dramaturgs that have existed, and, like, great teachers, they ask questions that they probably have their own thoughts about, the really gifted ones do exactly what you’re talking about, which is to make you think it’s your idea, even if they brought it out.

Stephen Cole: Of course. Of course. And he did a great job doing that all the way through rehearsals. And then I would think of new things because of that, and I’d go, well, I’d ask myself the questions, which I’ve always done anyway. I have a high bullshit meter. I can’t bullshit myself. I know deep down inside if I’m, if I’m just faking it and I don’t want to fake. I want it to be right.

Steve Cuden: Can you tell when you’re writing? I know you need the audience to really tell you, but can you tell in some way that, yeah, this is going to work, or that is a big question mark, that kind of thing?

Stephen Cole: No, you have to think it’s going to work. You have to get to the point of, of being certain even though you’re uncertain. I guess that’s with collaborators. You have to know, okay, this song is great. This is going to really land. And then later on you may go, oops, sorry, that was not it. And then you find out why. When I did Dodsworth, my first musical back in 95, and Dee Hody was playing one of the lead roles, fabulous performer, many Tony nominations. And she had a song in act one. This was in Texas again, in Fort Worth. And it was, I thought, one of my wittiest lyrics and a really good swinging, too. And as soon as she did it, it died. I could tell this was not going for it. So what did I do? I thought I was young then. I’ll just, I’ll write it better. I kept writing that lyric every night. There was a better lyric and it was funnier and it was. And it died every time. And it took a long time to realize no one wanted to hear from that character at that point in the show. And she became a character that was more important in act two. In act one, she didn’t get a solo. We cut that song, and that was the best thing we ever did.

Steve Cuden: How important is it for you to be present at rehearsals of a musical that’s premiering?

Stephen Cole: Oh, I think for me it’s very super important. And I’ve learned my lesson. Even when it’s not premiering. I really, I’m a little bit of a control person. I want to be there. I want to help them as much as I can. I did a show recently where I made a bunch of changes from another production, and then I didn’t show up till opening night, and I realized, oh, gosh, you should have been there. You would have known right away that those changes weren’t going to work in rehearsals. So. And then it was too late. It was a short run, didn’t matter. But I love being there and I sit there and I watch everything in every rehearsal. And actors can bring so many new colors that make you make the changes or make you. And I’ll collaborate with actors all the time. You know, it’s always if they do a better joke than mine, it’s my joke, you know? Okay, it’s. But, it happened here where I would talk to one actor. I said, well, what’s wrong with this line? Why isn’t that landing? And he said, take out that one word. He was so funny that he knew how to deal with it. You’re right. You’re right.

Steve Cuden: Because they’re actually speaking it and they can feel it.

Stephen Cole: Yeah. And I do that, too. I will never put anything on the stage that I haven’t done readings in my living room for or, you know, as I’m writing, I’m constantly acting it. And certainly the singing, you know, I get together with the composer, and I have to know that I can sing these songs to know that somebody else can sing these songs, that they can be acted, that there’s a subtext there’s room for subtext, which is very which.

Steve Cuden: Of these or anything else? What are the biggest challenges that you faced when you were working out any new musical and going Hollywood, as an example? What are the challenges?

Stephen Cole: The challenge is time, always it’s always not having enough time to really get everything done you want to get done. And finally having to finally having to get into tech and not be able to make the changes anymore. So that’s a challenge for me a lot. When we first started doing shows in the nineties, still, we were very careful not to have big orchestras. When I did Dodsworth, we had, like, a five piece band so that we can make changes really fast, even after the opening. And we treated the whole thing as a big, fat workshop. Nowadays, the unions don’t allow that as much. People. You wind up with a bigger band. When I did Casper with Chita Rivera, we had a 24 piece orchestra, and she was going to tour the country, all these big summer theaters. And once we opened in Pittsburgh at the CLo the very first night, I knew I would really like to write a new opening number. You know, it was good, but it could be better. And there was no way to do it because there was no money to re orchestrate the show. That’s expensive.

Steve Cuden: This was in the era of van Kaplan. Yes.

Stephen Cole: Yes, it was. It was. And Van I know the reason I got there was what? Van was originally from Fort Worth, Texas, where he did two of my shows there. Gross singers and Dodsworth. So he took me along and we did Casper, and it was. It was a great experience, but it’s still a, fast. That was a fast, fast turnaround to do a brand new musical in and with a big star. And we wound up, rehearsing before we came to Pittsburgh with Cheetah herself, because she. When she heard there were, like. I think there were three weeks rehearsal in Pittsburgh, and she said, three weeks for a new musical? Are you crazy? I have to learn all these dances. She was really dancing. So we went into a studio in New York, and she did all her numbers first, and that worked out really well. Luckily, she had the clout.

Steve Cuden: How old was she at that time?

Stephen Cole: Let’s see, she just died at 90 years old. So this was back in, I don’t know. She was probably in her early sixties and still dancing like a dream. Still kicking that leg up. Hilarious. The most delightful person to ever work with as a star. The hardest working star I ever worked with. I worked with a few great stars, Hal Linden and Gavin McLeod, who I adored, but she was the hardest working. She never took a break. She kept working and learning her dances and her lines, and she was as open as could be if you came up with something new. And she was the type who, if I came up with something new during the run, we can make the change, you know, new joke, put it right in. She would do it, and we would tell everybody, of course, but she was just open and game and told me how that was the way it was in the golden age. Said when I had put in a show stopping number and bye bye, Birdie, she said, we did that the day before the first matinee in New York. We put it in overnight. So I thought, wow, great.

Steve Cuden: She was what you would call a trooper.

Stephen Cole: Totally. And so devoted to whatever she was doing. And we had a blast. Our relationship stayed, and I got to write some special material for her when she went to Australia. I didn’t think she’d die at 90. I thought, oh, no, this woman will last 120 at least. She had such vitality.

Steve Cuden: She was a dynamo.

Stephen Cole: Totally. She was performing a month before her death, and I was in touch with her. I was trying to get her to read the book, and I thought she would love it, because one of her first shows was, call me madam with Ethel Berman. You know, she had done the tour. So, yeah.

Steve Cuden: Do you have any thoughts about how one can conceive a show and pitch it to sell it?

Stephen Cole: Oh, boy, that’s a hard one, you know, now you have to just write what you write. I always use Danny, Thomas’s advice to his daughter, marlo Thomas, which is put on your blinders and run your race. So you write it, you do your living room readings, you get it as good as you can. You get it in front of an audience in a reading. You just keep pushing it out there and inviting people. But sometimes that doesn’t even work, and it’s really who you know and what, relationships you have in the theater, and hopefully you’ll develop some. I feel very lucky that I started out when I did my first show in 95, because, like we just said, van Kaplan, would I have come to Pittsburgh? Nope. I did two hit shows for him in Texas, so he trusted me, and he commissioned Casper, and. And we did it. And I. And I was the person to get Cheetah, because I had done a drama league benefit with her, and I just sort of said to her brother, who was her manager, do you think she’d be interested in doing a new show? And that was really how it happened. So I think you have to just be out there and use your relationships as you can. You never know. The producer who produced, go in Hollywood in, Texas, Shane Peterman, was an actor in two of my shows in New York. Then he suddenly became the artistic director of a really good theater in Texas. And so he came back to me and said, I love your shows. Let’s do one. Okay.

Steve Cuden: Well, I have been having an absolutely fascinating conversation about Broadway and musicals and writing shows and books, with the great Stephen Cole. And I’m just curious, in all of these experiences you’ve had, can you share with us a story that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or just plain funny more than the ones you’ve already told us?

Stephen Cole: Well, the weirdest and quirkiest and funniest story of my whole career is having been commissioned to write the first american musical to premiere in the Middle east. And you called it Qatar because you’re a modern guy. But when we went there, it was still called Qatar.

Steve Cuden: Qatar.

Stephen Cole: And our show is called the Road to Qatar. And people said, why do you say Qatar? And I said, it rhymes better. It’s just a better rhyming word. But it’s true that everyone there called it Qatar, and the British, certainly, and the airline was Qatar air. But I got an email one day out of the blue that said, we want you write musical. How much? and that started this insane journey, a nine month journey, where I not only was, I was taken to Dubai, to Qatar, to the orchestra, a 60 piece orchestra, was pre recorded in Bratislava. We went to London two days after the tube and bus bombing happened. So in that 2005 era, which is only four years after 911, you know, here I was, a nice jewish boy from Brooklyn going to the Middle east, and it put me together out of the blue with David Crane, another nice jewish boy from Brooklyn, and we had never written before. Together, they put us together, and we wound up writing this great show that opened the largest domed soccer stadium in the world. Wow. The Aspire stadium in Doha, Qatar. And we were the opening act, and they had every ambassador from around the world, the emir, his wife, and we had no idea, really, what was going on. It had, like, 400 people in the show. It had 20 camels. And what do camels do? They poop all over, you know, so it was an amazing show to write. And then after the whole thing was over, we had this amazing story. So we wrote a show about writing the show called the Rhodes Guitar, and that was off Broadway at New York Theater, and it went to Edinburgh festival. So I think that that story, I’m writing a book about that. Okay. It’s called the road to the road to guitar. And. And even though I have done the musical and I do stand up routines that include this whole story where I play all the characters, I thought it’s time to write the actual true story, because what I’ve discovered over the years is that what was true becomes what is funnier. And sometimes I’ll write what’s funnier for the show or for my stand up stuff, and I want to go back to what was true and compare them, because there’s an interesting theme. How do you take a true story, turn it into something else? And when do you forget? Because you do forget what really happened. So I contacted some of the people who were involved. We had a great west end cast that are still starring in shows in the West End, and, a lot of them had some. Some stories even I didn’t know about what went on there. So that’s what I’m doing.

Steve Cuden: I think you have found a new way to milk a product as far as you can take it.

Stephen Cole: Yes, I’ve milked Ethel Merman and Mary Martin as far as I can take them. So now I’m going to milk, the Middle east, and I think it’ll also double as my memoirs, you know? And as Ogden Nash wrote, oh, what memoirs them was, because I start to tell stories about that, and then suddenly I go, oh, but this happened with Cheetah or that happened with Hal Lyndon. And I figure I may not get another chance to write another memoir.

Steve Cuden: And you’ve got a great memory to pull all this stuff up from.

Stephen Cole: Yeah. And I kept notes. I did. I really did. And I feel like that story, no one else has that story. Just David Crane and me, you know, and the fact that it put us together, and we wound up writing two more shows and are still doing it. You have to thank, those guys from Dubai. You really do.

Steve Cuden: That’s a, form of kismet.

Stephen Cole: Yes, totally.

Steve Cuden: So, last question for you today, Stephen You’ve already told us lots of stuff that’s really useful to think about and use for anyone trying to be in this business. But I’m wondering if you have a solid piece of advice or a tip that you can lend to those who are just starting out. Or maybe they’re on their way up a little and bit, trying to get to the next level.

Stephen Cole: Yeah, I bit mean, if you’re writing musicals, my advice is to absolutely study all the history of musical theater. I think if you were a doctor, you would know everything about how everything works. And I find that some people just write what they love today, which is fine, but I think you need to steep yourself in this incredible history of what happened and how the greats did it. You don’t have to write a show. The waiver, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a show, but you should know how and why those work or worked then, so that you can have the rules to break the rules. And I believe in rules, and I feel the same way about lyric writing. I think if you can emulate Cole Porter and be as good as he is, or try to be, then when you do your own work, you’re aspiring to a higher category of things. And I think that’s a really good thing, because no matter what, it’s going to be your own. But I really believe you should know. You should know everything that happened in the twenties and thirties and forties and fifties and sixties and seventies, all the way to the end of the. The 20th century is the first big century of that kind of musical theater, where it really started to come together from show boat on, where storytelling and music. It’s a weird form. It’s just weird. It’s artificial. And yet it can be so edifying and so much more emotional. Because you can tell more in a three minute song than you could in a ten page scene. I find that all the time.

Steve Cuden: Well, sure, because you can actually go inside of someone’s thinking and their emotions totally.

Stephen Cole: And music does more than words do in those senses. You could write the most academic piece of lyric. And if the music is absolutely emotional, it will tell us that else is going on. And it gives something for the actor to act. Why is that so beautiful? You know, when you listen, you mentioned Kismet, which has this incredible music. You know, that was borridin. That was. That was classical music from Russia. But you listen to those melodies, and some of the lyrics are singing about, strangers in paradise. But you hear that music and you know the depths of the passion of those people and that it wouldn’t happen otherwise. And how do you fall in love at first sight? How does west side Story work? I mean, it’s crazy when you think about how fast that happens in that show. But the music does it. The music tells us how they’re in love. And you can just let it go, let the reality go. And so that’s why I love musical theater now. You convinced me to actually write another musical. oh.

Steve Cuden: Do I get a cut?

Stephen Cole: Yes, of course. But I really. I guess so. It’s knowing what’s going on now, obviously, that’s the easy part. Seeing shows, but also wearing your blinders and learning your history of everything. If you’re a musical theater writer. And that’s what I believe, I think.

Steve Cuden: That that’s a tremendous tip for pretty much anybody in the business of writing that you need to know the history of what it is that you’re writing about, and especially in the theater, because the theater has a very long tale going back 2700 years. Though musicals are a little more, recent of a phenomenon. But even then, musicals have a long history at this point of, well, more than 100 years. And I guess basically you can go back into vaudeville. And prior to that, sure.

Stephen Cole: And that’s important to know. I mean, could Kander and ebb have ever written Chicago if they didn’t know everything about vaudeville?

Steve Cuden: Never.

Stephen Cole: It was all about vaudeville. If you know the research that went into doing something like cabaret, which comes back every couple of years, but knowing the Weimar Republic, knowing all that. So it’s also history in general, I think. And that’s something that comes up in today’s world with denying history and burning books. You should know everything.

Steve Cuden: I completely agree with you that the more that you know, the better your facility at trying to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing is. And it is true that if you don’t know what you’re doing, one of the things I discovered as a teacher is that if a young student who is maybe slightly more than inexperienced, thinks that they have something unique and original to say at the age of 17 or 18. Usually they do not. Usually they’re saying something that has been done a hundred other times in different ways. And so knowing the history is very helpful, so that you don’t repeat something, but that you honor it. Homage it, use it, enhance, enhance it. A springboard off of it.

Stephen Cole: But everything’s been done, you know, it really has. And we’ve had experimental theater forever. It’s just finding the way to do it in your way that doesn’t. Certainly doesn’t copy it. but before, listen, before Chicago with its, vaudeville, there was a little show called Love Life that no one knows by Kurt Weil and Alan Jay Lerner, which was the music of vaudeville. And you know, people, you know that they saw it. You know that people who wrote Sondheim saw it when he was doing follies, but they did their shows in their own ways and in their own voices. You’ll always have your own voice if you can develop it. So. But knowing, knowing how to go there, you know, how to develop, that’s.

Steve Cuden: A big one, is developing your own voice. It can take a long time, but once it’s there, it’s there.

Stephen Cole: True. Very true. My own voice is Ethel Merman’s own voice.

Steve Cuden: Big and brassy and bold.

Stephen Cole: That’s what I love. That’s what I like the best. And funny. You know what else? Be funny. Funny. Funny saves the day. And many, in many respects, in a musical, in a novel. I mean, didn’t you laugh in my book?

Steve Cuden: You laughed. I absolutely laughed. There’s a lot of funny stuff in it. But, you know, I’ve always said funny is money.

Stephen Cole: Yep.

Steve Cuden: And that is really true.

Stephen Cole: Absolutely true. I agree with you, Stephen Cole.

Steve Cuden: This has been a lot of fun today, and I can’t thank you enough for spending time with me, for a second time on StoryBeat And everybody should go out and get marionethyl and Mikey who? The book by Stephen Cole. Thank you so much for spending time with me today. I really appreciate it.

Stephen Cole: Thank you so much. And, yeah, you can send it to me and I’ll autograph it.

Steve Cuden: Oh, outstanding. And so we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat If you liked this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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