On January 20, 2010, McCarter Theatre Producing Director Mara Isaacs interviewed the Take Flight collaborators: book writer John Weidman, composer David Shire, and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr.
ISAACS: Where did the idea for a musical about these pioneers of aviation come from?
MALTBY: Our first impulse was to write about people who leave the ground—people who aspire, people who invent, people who create something. Pilots—flyers—seem to be a sort of metaphor for that. That was our first impulse. But as we went further and further into the story, we discovered that that was not really what was interesting about them. What was really interesting was that they were obsessed people who, if they weren’t doing what they were doing, might have been put in an institution. They were so determined to do what they did that they sacrificed almost anything to get there. That obsession seemed fascinating and unlocked all sorts of discoveries. Writing the show was really a learning experience about people who invent things.
ISAACS: So how did you end up picking these three stories (the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart)?
MALTBY: We originally started out with more, with a range of people, ordinary as well as famous. But the icons kept taking center stage. I mean, they are the icons. The interesting thing about them is that they are so startlingly different and so startlingly the same. It was fascinating that people from completely different backgrounds with completely different histories experienced the same exact trajectory in doing something extraordinary that made history.
WEIDMAN: What I found particularly interesting was that, when you put the three stories together, you get a much more intriguing and revealing picture than you’d get if you’d looked at any one of them individually. They were all wrestling with demons of one kind or another. In one case, the struggle was primarily a social one, in another case the struggle was primarily internal, with internal voices, and in the third case the struggles were internal, but they were externalized in a very unusual, unique relationship. So there seemed to be a dramatic balance among the three that was fascinating, and, taken together, they had something in common that justified—that almost required—that they all be on the same stage at the same time.
ISAACS: It seems to me that creating a musical based on historical characters presents some challenges. How does research and historical fact inform your writing of the book, music, and lyrics?
WEIDMAN: What you have to do, I think, is a certain amount of research, absorb a significant amount of essential factual material, both about the lives of the characters and the context in which they operated, and also about other people’s opinions about who they were and what motivated them. But at a certain point you stop. A musical is not a documentary. That’s not what people go to the theater for or why people write for the theater. So at a certain point you stop and then, having absorbed this information, you invent the characters as if you were creating them afresh—you know, characters who happen to be Charles Lindbergh or happen to be Amelia Earhart or happen to be Wilbur and Orville Wright, but who represent a truth about those characters that ultimately has emerged from a combination of the information that you absorbed and what you’ve brought to that information as an artist.
MALTBY: Our first agent, the great Flora Roberts, always said that “There’s real truth and there’s stage truth and they’re not necessarily the same thing.” The thing about history books is that they’re based upon external evidence – a person did something therefore we document it; or a person who did something wrote about it and so we have that document. But that’s not really what was going on inside of them. To know that is an act of invention and an act of fiction. So we didn’t hesitate to invent the people inside the events. Sometimes that may not be factually accurate, but it is possibly more truthful. For example, Lindbergh’s first book did not mention that he experienced hallucinations during his flight to Paris. Only in a later book did he refer to it, and even then he was vague about what the hallucinations were. We felt this gave us permission to imagine what was in his mind.
SHIRE: The Wright Brothers are another interesting example of how the historical record can be frustrating. All of the standard biographies mention that these two famously serious, dour men had a playful side, with references to humorous remarks that they would make to each other, or practical jokes that they would play on each other, but there was never an example of it—
MALTBY: —Not anywhere, not a single example of a funny thing they did or said.
WEIDMAN: A “Wright Brothers Joke Book” doesn’t exist? You can’t buy it on the counter of a gift shop at Christmas time?
SHIRE: Also, in one of the famous pictures of the inside of their shack at Kitty Hawk, which showed all of their supplies neatly arranged, in the very corner Richard spotted that there was a mandolin hanging there—
WEIDMAN: —and a whoopee cushion.
SHIRE: Now, we knew that the brothers were adamant about only bringing along things that they needed, that were practical, but if they brought a mandolin, somebody must’ve played the mandolin, and there is no mention in any of the biographies that either of them was musical. So if somebody played the mandolin then we had license to write a number accompanied by a mandolin, which is why “The Funniest Thing” is in there, full of things that they might have said to each other but for which there is no historical record.
WEIDMAN: It’s possible, of course, that the Wright Brothers’ first plan was to put wings on a mandolin—that they thought that’s how you became airborne.
MALTBY: Then they decided against it. They realized, you don’t fly it, you pluck it.
ISAACS: You were fortunate enough to have an earlier production of Take Flight a couple years ago at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Can you talk about how it’s changed since that first production?
WEIDMAN: Seeing the show on stage in London was enormously helpful because we could see where the story was not being told, the story elements that were missing. The production was directed by Sam Buntrock (who is doing it here), and Sam was very artful in compensating for some of what was lacking. But now we’ve gone back and hopefully put that stuff back in the writing, where it belongs.
SHIRE: The changes are quite basic. London (and really I should say the McCarter too, with the opportunities the McCarter gave us, including an artist retreat and the subsequent workshops) led us to the discovery that what united the characters in our three stories was their obsession. These are people who had displayed no distinction at all before they did what made them famous, but they were all determined to get what they wanted, even at the risk of death.
MALTBY: The London production in fact opened the door to a great deal more to be mined in these stories and so having a new production, a second production, is hugely important. It’s a profoundly different show now although it’s made up of a lot of the same elements.
ISAACS: What does your collaboration look like, as you work together?
MALTBY: Well—obsession and madness. No surprise that obsession and madness drew us to these characters.
ISAACS: How does it start?
SHIRE: Well, it’s this one handsome composer surrounded by these two nerdy…[laughter]. That isn’t true.
WEIDMAN: Are you kidding? Absolutely. My experience in the musical theater is that collaborations work when people talk things almost to death, until you arrive at a point where there’s a genuine shared vision of what you’re writing about. If you stop short of that you get in trouble. And people do stop short, often, and for a variety of reasons: one, they get tired; two, they don’t want to fight; or three, they’re simply confused about what it is they’re individually trying to do and the more they talk the more that confusion becomes apparent. And so, you sort of stop and go off and do whatever you do. But particularly after the production in London, we tried to be quite hard on ourselves—talking things through to the point where we really felt, “Oh, okay, we did it that way before, that’s why that was wrong and this is what it ought to be now.” Then we’d separate and each of us would do his own piece.
MALTBY: It really comes down to whether you are willing to listen to someone else. When you’re creating something, you form a unique vision in your head. Then you say it out loud and it confronts other people’s opinions—and you have to hear them. I think what I love about this team is that we talk a lot and we listen. I’d say there’s hardly anything in the show that is one single person’s idea. It’s all a shaped vision coming from constant, and I mean constant, talking.
SHIRE: At the root of that is that we basically—although John will immediately make a sarcastic joke about this—we all basically like—dare I use the word, love—each other and respect each other’s work and track records.
ISAACS: So, after you talk something through to the nth degree, do you split up to go do your work individually? Do you do your work together?
WEIDMAN: No, he said quickly. No, almost never. Although Richard has the ability, as does David, to sit and create on the spot. I take a lot of notes, but I don’t think I could write my name in a room with two other people in it.
MALTBY: Once you have all of the ideas in the air, as it were—there’s a certain of kind of shaping necessary. The inner life of a musical is made up of music and lyrics and dialogue which all come together in one single musical entity. The dialogue is part of the “music” of the show. And so you hone and edit and cut and everything else separately, but each with an eye on shaping the forged center vision. And we get tremendous help from a director, too, which makes it a four-part collaboration.
SHIRE: And Richard and I have our own individual collaboration within the larger collaboration. We sometimes get together and talk endlessly about how the ideas we have arrived at are going to be turned into a number. And then Richard and I work separately, me on the music and Richard on the lyrics. After they are put together, there’s an endless amount of back and forth, him criticizing the music, me criticizing the lyrics, editing each other—
WEIDMAN: I’d like to reinforce something Richard said, which is that when we arrived in London and attended the first reading of the show on the first day of rehearsal, I immediately ran back to my hotel room and threw up. It was clear the book needed work—although I should say that it’s almost always clear on the first day of rehearsal that the book needs work. But from that moment on, Sam [Buntrock]’s participated in all of the decisions we made—where the show needed to be reconsidered what was missing, what was superfluous, that was really crucial. So since then it’s really been a four-way collaboration.
MALTBY: It really is a process, through Socratic dialogue, of forging a single vision made out of four different visions and, basically, the hallmark of that is you can’t love what you’ve done all that much. That is to say, if something you’ve done bothers somebody and you understand why, you throw it out and do something else. You find a different way of expressing it. If you’re willing to do that, the collaboration works. If you get terribly possessive about something you’ve done, it’s never going to work.
SHIRE: And John is a great sounding board for musical numbers because his reactions are so clear. We played one new number for him and he can’t stop talking about how much it helps the story. We’ve played other things for him where he just kind of sits there and says, “Well…” and you know right away it’s back to the drawing board.
WEIDMAN: Which is the same process that has worked with the book, but in reverse. Of course it’s nice, as Richard said, if you respect the people that are working with you, when you give them something that you like and you think is right, and they think so too. You really feel like you’re all on the same page and you’re getting where you need to go.
ISAACS: How do you feel Take Flight fits into your overall body of work—as individual artists?
WEIDMAN: Well, I’ve never really been interested in adaptations. I mean, most of the musical theater is adaptation, and I’m not saying, “original ideas are good, adaptations are bad.” But I believe there are vast areas of what the musical theater can do that have yet to be explored—and the tools that are available to playwrights who choose to use the musical theater form are so rich. And so, Take Flight fits with most of the other things I’ve worked on because it is an original piece. It’s not an attempt to do a musicalized version of some story that’s already been told, and often told very well, in another medium.
MALTBY: To that extent, I don’t think that David and I have changed impulses at all. Our goal has always been to find something that hasn’t been said before, that hasn’t been done before, and then find a new vocabulary, a new way of expressing it. That will always lead you into new ground. Basically, that’s all we’ve ever done, and sometimes it’s been successful and sometimes it hasn’t. But it is always the thrill of it—the excitement to do something that’s never been done and try to express something that’s never been expressed in the theater. When you do that, then you’re in the unknown. And that’s where the excitement is—
SHIRE: —Like a pilot. Really all the metaphors in the show—flying, gliding, flying and trying to break free from the clouds into the sky and take flight—
WEIDMAN: —Trying not to crash—
MALTBY: —Trying not to crash—they’re all descriptions of writing a musical as well.
ISAACS: Do you ever think about what you want audiences to walk away with after seeing a performance?
MALTBY: Sure. It’s the central question, isn’t it? (pause) Do you want the answer?
ISAACS: I do…If you don’t mind.
SHIRE: What do we want the audience to walk away with from the production?
ISAACS: Yes. After they’ve seen Take Flight, what do you hope an audience will carry with them when they leave the theater?
MALTBY: That’s what authors discuss, but I’m not sure that we want to tell the audience what they ought to see. Because you set them up and then they’ll be expecting it and not watch anything else. What you as an audience member get from a show, from a story, is complex; sometimes you take away a single thought, but many times you take away complexity. You take away: “Isn’t it interesting that life works that way.” These are people who changed history, were destroyed by history, achieved something and then never recovered from it. To do something extraordinary and unique and inventive is a burden sometimes. You have to live up to it or deal with it or cope with it. In a certain way it’s easier to aspire than it is to do or to have done. You’re kind of pure while you’re pursuing something.
SHIRE: In this particular show, the audience comes in knowing—or thinking they know—these characters because from third grade they’ve learned about the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. There have been endless biopics and television movies, like the recent Amelia, and documentaries like the ones about Lindbergh who was first an icon and lately, I guess, a de-con. People think they know these people. What one hopes is that seeing this musical, seeing these story arcs and how the people end up, that they will be surprised and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that about Lindbergh or Earhart, or the Wright Brothers.” I think if we can accomplish that, the whole show will work.
WEIDMAN: You know, at the risk of putting words in Richard’s mouth, I’m going to agree with him, or reduce what he said to—
MALTBY: —a clearer statement.
WEIDMAN: No, no—I thought you were quite articulate. But I do think that—
MALTBY: —That’s our collaboration. I say something, he improves it.
WEIDMAN: I think that, for the most part, shows should be left to speak for themselves. I think it’s a mistake to explain them in advance because every audience member brings something different into the theater, and so they react to the material in a different way. But I would hope that people would walk out with a feeling of exhilaration.
ISAACS: Anything I forgot to ask that you’re burning to share?
MALTBY: Only that there is something deeply, profoundly American about this story. These people did what they did, they existed where they existed, as part of the fabric of an extraordinary country that takes pride in invention, that encourages individual thinking no matter how demented, and that has led to an explosion of ideas and everything that follows.