About the author:
A few years ago, Tony-winning composer John Kander (Cabaret, Chicago) asked Greg Pierce, an up-and-coming young playwright and short story author, to collaborate on a small-scale musical. Pierce, whose plays include Kick Stop, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Slowgirl, is Kander's first songwriting partner since the passing of lyricist Fred Ebb in 2004. The Landing, a new three-part chamber musical about love, life and loss, marks the fruits of Pierce and Kander's labor. With a cast led by Tony and Emmy winner (and Greg's uncle) David Hyde Pierce and Julia Murney in multiple roles, The Landing opened at the Vineyard Theatre on October 23. Below, Pierce describes his work process with a Broadway master and explains why partnering with Kander is one of the most extraordinary experiences in his career.
John Kander and I wrote a chunk of our musical The Landing in the Rainbow Diner up near the Catskills. It has since burned down. We had nothing to do with that. I’d get a tuna melt and John would get waffles and we’d talk about what might happen in “Andra,” the first of The Landing’s three one-acts. What if the kid hid the...? What if the mom found the...? It was clear when we hit on an idea we both loved because it would propel us into four new ideas. Inevitably, there’d be a moment of frustration as the Rainbow Diner had no piano, just a jukebox (R.I.P.).
Music is constantly flowing through John’s head, so as soon as a story idea clicks for him, he starts hearing it. It’s astonishing. We’d hurry back to his studio, John would put his fingers on the keyboard, and a new and extraordinary melody would come out, as though it had always belonged to the moment we just invented. Anyone who has worked with John describes him as joyful, childlike, passionate, exuberant. Agreed. When he creates, he glows. He’s like a boy in a sandbox. And then we marvel at his sandcastles.
We had no method. That’s partly because I’d never written a musical so I didn’t know how. I guess our method was, if we were excited about an idea, we’d write it. If we wrote it and it sounded weird, we’d change it. That was as methodical as we got. We ignored the story’s chronology and just plunged in wherever it seemed fun. John has a philosophy that “work” should never feel like “homework,” so if we weren’t excited about something, it didn’t get written. I think the show benefitted from that, but who knows?
Sometimes we’d write fragments. John would play me two bars, and I’d record them on my iPhone and then listen a few times, and then I’d come up with lyrics that seemed to fit, and then I’d give him four more lines in a different rhyme scheme which would inspire a new section. Sometimes I’d write a scene and we’d turn it into a song. If we hit a roadblock, we’d take a walk around his pond. See what the tadpoles were up to.
Backing up...when John first called and asked if I wanted to write something with him, he said he wanted to play around with musical form. He wasn’t specific, he just said he wanted to feel free to experiment outside a traditional scene-song-scene structure. I didn’t know what he meant until we started working. What happened pretty quickly with “Andra” was, if something felt like it should be musicalized, we’d do it. Sometimes that meant two words. Sometimes a rhymed couplet. Sometimes a full-on three-section tune. Sometimes heavy underscoring under a long scene in which characters flip back and forth between song and dialogue. I grew to love the fluidity of this form, and I’m glad I don’t have to perform it.
We never sat back and analyzed the musical “rules” of our show. I think we had faith that if we both thought, “Yup, Noah needs to sing that,” it was meant to be. When we finished a solid draft of “Andra”, it was kind of a shock. I think that’s because of how we went about writing it—it seemed less like a finished thing than a lack of unfinished things. We wrote the other two one-acts, “The Landing,” and “The Brick,” in much the same way, though musically they are all very different. Then we did a bunch of workshops at our beloved Vineyard Theatre and then, strangely, we had a show. And now it’s happening. And we are proud of it.
John and I are writing a new musical, Kid Victory, and there’s a third on the horizon. Thankfully, there is a new Catskill diner to sustain us. Certain characters in The Landing become painfully aware of how quickly time passes. I can’t see my future but I know that collaborating with John Kander is one of the few truly extraordinary things that will have happened to me. It’s not because he’s legendary (a word he doesn’t like), it’s because working with him is a constant reminder that making up stories—regardless of how many people will hear them—is an act of joy.