A Beautiful Thing with Douglas McGrath

From Saturday Night Live to winning an Academy Award, the effervescent Douglas McGrath shares his story as the writer of Beautiful

Douglas McGrath is effervescent, in the way Americans often are, and is a superb storyteller. It’s a talent he’s utilised as a playwright, screenwriter, film director and actor. In the early 1980s, and right out of college, he landed smack in the heartland of American satire, Saturday Night Live. Presumably this is where he sharpened his wit and honed his political jabs which now feature on the pages of some of the United States most respected publications including The New Yorker, The New Republic, Vanity Fair and The New York Times.

McGrath and his collaborator Woody Allen were nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway, he also wrote and directed the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. In lots of ways he was the perfect choice when producers wanted someone to write the book for the musical about legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. Story had some fleeting moments with him.

MUSICAL THEATRE IS A KIND OF MADNESS…

Can I tell you a story about my son? I grew up in Texas, bleak west Texas, which is one colour, brown. It’s just dirt. So when I saw The Sound of Music, which is lush and green and Julie Andrews and her blue eyes and the pink lips and everything gorgeous, I was just…wow. It’s a wonderful musical. So when Henry our son was three or four, I thought he was ready to see The Sound of Music. It’s a little early, but when you’re a parent there are certain things you can’t wait to share with your kids.

I put him in the chair and we got it going. I put it on the big TV screen and you know that wonderful opening with the aerial shots all over the city and then it finally ends up on the mountain and it’s beautiful and clear? Then over the mountain comes one of the great musical stars of all time, beautiful Julie Andrews. She flings out her arms and she drops her jaw and out comes that peerless voice of hers.

I was so excited. I thought I can’t believe it, I’ve now got a son and I’m showing him this wonderful movie. I’m a creative person, so I’m also needy. I wanted to make sure that by this point he was sufficiently enraptured. I stole a glance over at him and this is what I saw. Just like this (facial expression of boredom). He felt me looking at him so he turned to me and said, “Well, she’s weird”. I was just horrified. “What do you meeeean?”.

Then I realised he’d never seen a musical before. So he had no idea that if you have a feeling, instead of telling someone your feeling, you sing it. I thought, “Okay, you need to get with the program here Henry because this is a great art form”. He stuck with it and about 15 minutes later, early in the story still, he turned to me, this time not taking his eyes off the screen and he whispered, “I think she likes the captain”. Then I thought, “OK we’re in!”.

A musical itself is a form of madness because if madness is the rejection of rationality or reality or what we know, there’s nothing madder than a musical!

THE CREATIVE PROCESS…

This was such a wonderful experience, Beautiful, but it was the first musical I’d written and so I was very, very lucky it was fantastic.

When you’re writing for print, like my political satire, you’re essentially writing by yourself. Your editor might make a suggestion or two but it’s really up to you.

When you’re making a film, even if you’re the director, you’re working with scores of people and although in the end they have to do what you want, you like the idea of building not just consensus but you want people to see things the same way.

In anything that works, I think it’s because everybody working on it signed on to the same vision. The things that don’t work are always the ones where you feel like – in the case of a musical for instance the composer wanted one show, the book writer wanted another show, the actress playing the part wanted another show. They weren’t all on the same page.

We were very lucky in our show in that Paul Blake, one of our producers (our two producers are Paul and Mike Buzner), they loved how I saw the show. Early on Paul asked me, “What do you think the tone for this show is?”. You have to figure that out early. I said, “To me it’s Comdon and Green”. (Betty Comdon and Adolph Green wrote Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon). They always wrote these shows that had a love story in them but that were essentially about friendship. They had a wonderful warmth to them.

In creating Beautiful, one of the things I learned in talking to Carole and Gerry (Goffin) and Barry (Mann) and Cynthia (Wiel), our four characters, four real people, is what came through was this warmth from the four of them. Warmth between Carole and Gerry, who had divorced after a contentious unhappy marriage. They still had this great feeling of warmth with each other. And they were great competitors with Barry and Cynthia, who were on the other side of a wall in their New York office building.
They were great competitors and yet they loved each other. I loved that! I thought warmth had to be our guiding point and as a producer Paul loved that. Whenever anyone else came aboard the project who had a different approach, he would always say, “No, no. We’re doing it this way”.

We had someone come in early on who had an idea that the musical should be done like an old-fashioned musical where people sing the songs to each other as their feelings, but I had written it in a different way. For want of a better term, or at least to use a less exciting term, it’s a more realistic musical in that nobody is pretending, they’re not on the top of an alp singing about the sound of music or anything. They come into an office and they say, “I wrote a song last night. Do you want to hear it?”. So the audience never has to make that leap of, “Why are they singing like that?”.

COMPETITION, AMBITION AND DRIVE

Carole told me this and I found this so interesting… they were genuine artists, the four of them and they really wanted to write something great but they also wanted whatever they wrote to be popular. They always studied the charts. I think it was Wednesday when the Billboard charts would come out. They’d immediately go right downstairs to the newsstand and grab it - remember newsstands? Then they would see whatever was number one. If it wasn’t them, they’d think, “Why is that song number one?”, and they would study and try to analyse why the song was number one.

Neil Sedaka did this a lot. He would analyse it right down to what are the chords in that song, or that sound. In Carole and Gerry’s case they did it and sometimes turned out something great. It didn’t just feel like a copy. If dance songs were a craze, they wrote dance songs. They wrote The Locomotion. They wrote Blame it on the Bossa Nova. They just did whatever was of the moment.

OLD IS NEW IS OLD

I had this preconception that I was so sure was right about her, about the four of them in fact, and about the place they worked. Do you know about the Brill Building? There were two buildings people mean when they talk about the Brill Building. The Brill Building is at 1619 Broadway, which is 49th or 50th St. They were at 1650 Broadway just up the street. It was in those two buildings that the sound, the Brill Building sound, was created. At 1619 there were wonderful writers like (Jerry) Leiber and (Mike) Stoller and Ellie Greenwich but at 1650 there was Carole and Gerry, Barry and Cynthia, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Darin. Both those buildings had been around since the teens and the 20s and they were the buildings where the songwriters of the earlier era went to sell their songs, the Tin Pan Alley writers, but some of the great writers, Irving Berlin and all those people would have passed through those buildings to first sell their songs.

But now it’s the late 50s and the old guard is changing. The public mood is changing and no-one really wanted to dance to Oh What a Beautiful Morning anymore and the big band sound had passed. So my idea was that the musical was going to be about these kids, these kind of ground-breaking revolutionaries who were going to overthrow the old guard and create the new sound of rock’n’roll. That made sense to me based on what I knew. So when I told Carole that idea and her face just lit up like a sunrise and she leaned across the table and took my hand to squeeze it, I thought, “I have so nailed this idea”. But she squeezed my hand and she said, “That is so wrong”. I almost fell out of my chair. She said, “We loved the old guard. We loved Cole Porter. We worshipped Irving Berlin and George Gershwin”.

That explains a lot. It explains the melodic complexity of their music. By ‘complexity’, it’s not overly complex but it’s not simple the way many pop songs are simple. Listen to Will You Still Love Me or to Natural Woman. These are songs that have a beautiful depth of feeling. They come into the ear easily but they’re not simple minded. And Gerry’s lyrics and Cynthia Weil’s lyrics are much richer than most, not all, but most of the lyrics of the period. I believe that’s because both Gerry and Cynthia wanted to be playwrights and so they wrote characters. Each song is the story of somebody. Maybe not The Locomotion but certainly Up on the Roof or Cynthia’s wonderful song Uptown. I think Will You Still Love Me could be a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, it’s so tender.

THE UNITED STATES AND POLITICAL SATIRE

We’re deep in madness at the moment. It’s all pre-satirised. I wrote four satirical pieces about the Trump administration for The New Yorker. The first piece is called We Have a Serious Problem. That one is Trump himself. It’s Trump and an aide and he’s trying to figure out how to get out of the running for President because he didn’t really want to run for President.

By that point he was running. By the time he was in, everybody, dead people were doing satire about Trump because he’s a big target. He refreshes the well every day. He is the gift that keeps on giving.

He is a disaster for the country and the world but he is a gift to satirists. What I found was that because so many people were doing him, everybody does imitations of him. Saturday Night Live has the very funny Alec Baldwin version, he’s everywhere. As I studied it, I just thought, I can’t keep doing Trump himself, it’s too worn out.

So the other three pieces I wrote, I came at him indirectly. The second piece was about Jeb Bush. It’s called Jeb Bush is Totally Committed but you see he’s in shell-shock. He is back home with George and Barbara and he’s totally in shock by the way he’s been treated by Trump. The whole piece is about Trump and yet it’s seen through the eyes of other players.

Then I did one called What the Obamas Like to Watch. Remember when Trump accused Obama of wiretapping? So I thought what if he did, that’s just too good. So the premise of the piece is that once Trump was elected, the CIA installed cameras in all parts of his universe. Then when the Obamas get home every night they watch the feed the CIA gave it to them as a parting gift. They come home every night and they can’t wait to watch. But I never use Trump. I use Ivanka and Jarrod getting dressed for dinner (he’s worried his pants make him look fat.) Of course, it’s almost always about Trump but coming from the side or different angle.

It takes a while, because you want each piece to be just so and you can get them to that point and then the night before you mail it in, your same idea could be on Jimmy Kimmel. Whereas they’re not really doing the other stuff the way I was doing it. I thought it was a way to cut through.

JOHN OLIVER AND CHARLES DICKENS

John Oliver, he is so brilliant, he is a person that has a really individual voice I mean, even though he has 18 writers helping him, he has an individual voice and a wonderful take on things. I think he’s doing something unique because he devotes essentially the whole show to one topic and although they dress it up with a lot of
comedy, what’s underneath is heartfelt. He picks things that he cares about.

Most late night people - and I know why, if you’re on five nights a week just have to make jokes. I know what it was like at Saturday Night Live. You’re scouring the news for anything. There’s a nursing home fire and you’re, like, “What’s the joke?” and then you feel sick about yourself. John will pick a topic that he can find a lot of humour in but that he can also make legitimate points about. It’s a kind of social critique.

The piece that got me hooked on the show was one he did early in the first season on these awful accidents General Motors was having. Their cars were exploding or something, some terrible thing. Of course they knew all about it, didn’t do anything for a long time, put the blame on somebody else. The way he approached it, he was like an outraged activist but with a superb sense of humour. And the sense of humour didn’t in any way minimise what he was trying to say, the punch was still there.

Dickens was very brilliant at balancing comedy and drama and what he knew and what I was lucky to learn from him, was that the comedy makes the drama all the more dramatic and the drama makes the comedy all the more relieving when it comes.

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