Interview with Noel Katz

Noel Katz New York City

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WHEN: May 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21 at 8 PM
May 8, 15, 22 at 2 PM
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Interview with Noel Katz
by Corine Cohen

Corine Cohen: What inspired your love of musical theater?

Noel Katz: Who can remember that long ago? I've blocked out much of my childhood, for it involved torrents of tears at every turn. And you know how little boys are told "Big boys don't cry" - that was the message I got. And then I went to the theatre. I saw Mame on Broadway when I was around 8. And I got the idea that, attending a musical, it's O.K. to cry. Nobody looks at you funny. Even if you're a big boy.

CC: Who inspired you? What composers? What was it like going to school with Jeanine Tesori?

NK: My biggest inspirations growing up were probably the film & TV writers who were my parents' closest friends, and constantly sharing our family dinners. They were all very funny people, although what they wrote ran the gamut from comedy (one wrote for The Smothers Brothers) to serious historical drama. They gave me the idea that writing for an audience was a fun and plausible thing to do.

Of composers - Well, like everybody else, I'd watch Leonard Bernstein's wonderful explanations of music on television. I was more inspired by Richard Rodgers' career, impressed the way he kept innovating, refining and changing the form for so many years. And I was very amused by the pranks pulled by my favorite, Frank . He once found an old desk somebody was throwing away; he took a saw and cut off the corner of the desk and sent it to a friend with a note that read "From the desk of Frank Loesser."

In Jeanine, I finally found a kindred spirit, someone who was interested in writing musicals and had a taste for little-known musical theatre songs. I was very impressed with a ballad she sang, "Whatever Happened to the New York That I Knew" written by her husband. Jeanine played it off a lead sheet and I'd not met many at Columbia who could do that. When it came time to do my revue, The New U., she was the first and only choice for musical director, and her professionalism and proficiency helped ease my mind during the birth pangs of that musical

CC: Tell me about Columbia.

NK: It upholds a fine tradition: having a core curriculum, which is a set of courses that all students take and books that everyone reads. We'd have little discussion groups with a professor to discuss Plato, Aristotle, and Shakespeare, of course. Edward Tayler would lecture about observing the details in Shakespeare, and you felt that if you overlooked a single participle you risked missing the whole thing. Just as the Columbia professors could shed a light on Shakespeare that suddenly gave you clarity and understanding of something that once seemed murky, Mike play, Couplets, presents the sonnets in a way that we comprehend them immediately. They're not obtuse or mysterious, in Couplets, they're the dialogue for emotional situations we're all familiar with. So, for me, watching it is, in a way, reminiscent of my college education.

CC: What theaters are your favorites?

NK: I don't really pick favorites, I just enjoy. And I like to be surprised. Playwrights have a responsibility to go beyond the expected, so I'm happiest when I can't predict what will happen next. And this goes beyond plot. I like rhymes I didn't see coming in lyrics, harmonic progressions that are out of left field, and a show I know will be set in England, starting in Finland.

CC: Your top 10 favorite shows now?

NK: I couldn't possibly list ten favorites. I like so much, and, in assembling the arbitrary figure of ten, I'd leave out too many. The last show I saw was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and I was thoroughly amused.

CC: Your top 10 favorite shows ever?

NK: If I can't narrow down the current shows to ten, how could I narrow down all the ones I've ever seen? I thought A Chorus Line was good. I loved seeing Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Of new American plays, nothing knocked me out more than Angels In America, by an author whom I'd worked with many years earlier. I guess Tom Stoppard might be my favorite living playwright, but it's just too hard to pick.

CC: Tell me about "Couplets."

NK: What is it about? Couplets is a completely original play by Mike Bencivenga, with original plot and characters, that just happens to have all its dialogue taken from the poetry of some guy named William Shakespeare. The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon has also provided some lyrics for incidental songs, but, like many a bad collaborator, when I want to make changes, he won't return my calls.

At least Mike is easy to work with, showing boundless enthusiasm for my music, and for the wonderful interpretations the fine cast of seven is coming up with. There's so much feeling in every look they give each other, you could follow this story if you didn't speak English. But what English you hear! It's the finest poetry our language has produced and it takes life in a fresh way, because Mike's given it a new context that resonates with everyone who sees it.

CC: What do you love about Manhattan?

NK: I was born here and lived all but ten years of my life here, and what continues to strike me is how many different types of people come in contact with each other every day. I love to eavesdrop on conversations between old and young, religious and un-, Asians and West Indians; you know what I'm talking about. It's all around us, and it's my belief that this juxtaposition creates a certain energy, a stew that's spiced in unusual ways, creating the sense of spontaneity and surprise that's so essential to good theatre. Not just on Broadway, or in Tribeca, either. There's good theatre in a real conversation on a subway platform.

Corine Dana Cohen, Associate Producer of the Drama Desk Awards, works as a freelance writer.

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