Oct 3, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 65: Sam Forman
Hometown: Brookline, Massachusetts
Current Town: New York City
Q: Tell me about your musical F#@KING UP EVERYTHING coming up in the NYMF.
A: The show's composer / lyricist, Eric Davis (who has been in a bunch of rock bands in the city for many years) had written a first draft of the book for the show as well -- but since Eric comes from a rock background and not so much a theatre background, he wanted a playwright to come onboard with the project and help him restructure the story. I got set up with Eric by our mutual friend -- the lovely and talented director Evan Cabnet -- and also the good folks over at Ars Nova -- and now we've been working together on the show for the last year and we're excited for people to see what we've come up with. It's a hard rocking, heartfelt comedy about young people in Wiliamsburg Brooklyn falling in and out of love with each other. We were shooting for a tone kind of like Say Anything and Pretty In Pink...but it's set in contemporary times and it's got a catchy indie-rock score. Like in most of my plays, this one features a neurotic / self deprecating Jewish protagonist, a gorgeous and amazing girl who he thinks is totally out of his league and a narcissistic, classically handsome Waspy male friend who deliberately attempts to destroy the main character's life...but this one has a much more upbeat conclusion than some of the my other stuff.
Q: You wrote the book for this but you often write lyrics as well. How is writing a straight play different than writing the book or the songs to a musical? Is it a completely different thing?
A: I think it really does feel different, yeah. The book for a musical actually has a lot more in common with writing a screenplay or a tv script than it does with writing a straight play. With straight plays -- particularly when I'm writing the first draft -- I feel like I have much more freedom to take the story in whatever direction I choose. My scenes are longer, there are more tangents, I don't really have to adhere to any kind of outline -- the whole thing just feels generally more indulgent and looser structurally. When I'm hired to write a book for a musical I think of myself more as a technician who is basically trying to quickly get from Point A to Point B in as truthful and funny a way as I possibly can. Book writing so far in my experience has mostly been about structure: Making sure to get to the next song every few pages, writing some laugh lines and getting in all the exposition and background stuff that the composer has left out. I think writing a straight play can be much more personal and much more about expressing your own thoughts and feelings about the world we live in. But they're both rewarding in different ways. Writing song lyrics (at least the kinds of lyrics that I usually write -- which are rhyming and often have to scan perfectly to instrumental music that has already been written by the composer) is a whole other thing as well. It can often take me twelve hours to write the lyrics for a three minute song...but once I get to the end, I don't usually go back and change much. I might make a couple little tweaks and change a word here and there...but usually the song that ends up in the show is pretty similar to the first draft -- because with lyrics, you're basically doing twenty drafts each time you sit down to write a song. I'll usually use up ten pages of a legal pad crossing out lines before I come up with the right one.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I wrote the lyrics for a show called Season Preview that I've been developing with Alex Timbers, Sean Cunningham and Eli Bolin -- it's about an insane, theatre loving, Finnish billionaire who decides to buy every Broadway theatre and produce every show as well. We get to see little snippets from all his bizarre ideas (Blinded By Love: The Tragedy of Gay Oedipus, The Who's Miracle Worker, Hello Dalai!, Hindenberg: The Musical, etc) We're doing a reading on October 16th at 3pm at Ars Nova. I'm also writing the lyrics for a musical adaptation of Rob Ackerman's terrific play Volleygirls, which is about a high school girl's volleyball team in Ohio.
Q: You studied theater at Northwestern for undergrad. How was that? Who else was there while you were there?
A: I really loved Northwestern -- maybe not the actual classes so much, although some of them were totally interesting -- but the general theatre culture there is very strong and it seems to attract some very talented, unique people. I guess we just had a really good time is what I'm trying to say. And I still work often with a bunch of actors, writers and directors that I met there -- Austin Lysy, Armando Riesco, Billy Eichner, Eli Bolin and Jamie Salka to name a few -- and I think we share a shorthand from having grown up together that makes the process of creating theatre so much easier. When I send one of my plays to Austin Lysy for example -- he just knows exactly how it should sound...and when he does a reading, it's exactly how I meant it to be. You can only really find that kind of connection I think with someone you've known for a long time.
Q: You and Beau Willimon cowrote a pilot which you sold to AMC a few years back. Can you talk about how that came about and developed and what that process was like?
A: I got the meeting with AMC through my agent Chris Till (who is now also Beau's agent) It was before they had done Mad Men, actually it was before they had done any original programming at all. And they told me over lunch that they wanted to develop a "period spy drama" --- so I contacted Beau, because he was the only person I knew at the time who I was sure would definitely have an idea for a period spy drama. And he came up with the basic premise of our pilot, HICKORY HILL, which is about a black factory worker in the North during the Civil War who is sent down to South Carolina to pose as a slave (and butler to the "Karl Rove of the Confederacy") and become a spy for the Union Army. We sold the premise to AMC and worked on the script for a year with the development people there and ultimately they decided not to shoot the pilot (mostly because they realized it was just too expensive)...but we got paid well for our time, we got in the WGA and it opened a lot of doors for both of us.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I think the most important thing is just finding a way to hear your stuff out loud in front of some kind of audience -- even if it's just about getting your friends together and reading the play around a
table. Apply to a writers group or start your own. I've been in Youngblood at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and Play Group at Ars Nova and many of the people I met there have become my best friends and most valued colleagues over the years. Encourage each other and find a community of people that inspire you. Even if you're doing readings in your living room -- just keep creating stuff -- because it doesn't ultimately matter where you do it. You just have to keep doing it.
Q: What kind of theatre excites you?
I'm a big cheerleader for my friends and I like to talk about their work and encourage people to seek it out: Annie Baker's new play Circle Mirror Transformation is fantastic...she also wrote one that I think is incredibly good called Nocturama and it's very confusing to me why it hasn't been produced yet. There was a reading of it a while ago at Playwrights Horizons that was one of the best things I've seen in years -- and this was just a reading. I just read Beau Willimon's new play Spirit Control the other day and I thought it was really excellent and totally different from anything I had read of his in the past. Anna Kerrigan's new play Paradigm From California is really superb, chilling and stayed with me for weeks after reading it. I think Amy Herzog and Carly Mensch are also going to be putting up smart, funny, moving plays for the next fifty years or so. Also Liz Meriwether's play Oliver is wonderful and I think it's being up this spring at this great company StageFarm. Some of the slightly older folks who I was inspired by when I first moved here -- Adam Rapp, Christopher Shinn, Lucy Thurber, Melissa James Gibson, Stephen Belber, Julia Jordan, Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown -- are still writing terrific plays and musicals and I'm excited to see what they've got coming up this season. Also that Adam Szymkowicz fella is pretty great too.