"I don't actually play myself--I'm just one of the performers," said composer Bill Solly of his seven-person musical revue "Solly's Follies" (opening Wednesday at Variety Arts). "It's not really an autobiographical show, because I'd find that embarrassing and unnecessary. Unwarranted, too."
At 54, the Canadian-born Solly may be intent on keeping his personal distance, but the structural connection is another matter.
"I love writing my own songs," he said. "Words and music. I think I'm equally good at both." Which makes it difficult when he divvies up the chores: "In the past, I've written with other composers, given them the lyrics and they haven't set it exactly as I felt they should. That can drive you mad."
So, mostly (except for a recent collaboration on a children's show, "Toby Tyler," opening in Seattle next month), Solly works by himself. And although he claims the musical theater as his first love, he's had extensive experience in other forms--notably during a 15-year stay in London, writing songs for other performers, for cabaret and television.
In 1973, finding no support for his musical "Boy Meets Boy" ("In London, if you don't have a star, you can't get your show on."), Solly returned to the United States and aligned himself with an Off Off Broadway theater. "Boy" bowed in 1974 and, in spite of its unconventional treatment of the gay theme, was a hit--first in New York, then in Los Angeles (1975).
Explains Solly: "We put the whole thing in the past, the '30s, like an Astaire-Rogers musical. The plot was really 'It Happened One Night,' with the given that men would get married to men in the '30s, that it was socially acceptable and respectable. It was all done with comedy exposition at the beginning: 'So-and-so's getting married.' 'Who's the lucky man?' "
"Follies" will feature songs from "Boy" and another local hit, "The Great American Backstage Musical," plus "some things I've done routines on over the years: one on 'Stardust,' a Stephen Sondheim-type number and a medley of really rare Rodgers and Hart songs."
Within his own work, Solly admits--albeit reluctantly--to a personal preference: "It's my ballads; I like them a lot. There's a number in the show called 'Safe Home,' that's one of my favorites. It has the sound I love more than anything--that '40s, dreamy quality, written to epitomize the separation of lovers in the war: the longing, the nostalgia, the coming home. Very tender and sweet."
(Beyond the melodic construction, Solly champions "witty lyrics, lines that are singable. I have no patience with clumsy lyric writing at all. I hate bad rhymes.")
His own method: "I compose as I'm walking down the street, riding a bike. I'll do the whole thing, music and lyrics, right there. For years, I didn't know how to write music, so I'd hum the songs to people and they'd write them down for me. Luckily, I have a massive memory; I remember everything."
Although the initial composition takes place in his head, Solly claimed that it's not the last step: "My technique has changed over the years, but lately I tend to write down every idea I have, then retype it, digest it, cross off the stuff that's not going to work, try to organize it, keep refining. You know what your big payoff's going to be, where your best jokes are. So that process takes a long while."
In between the rigors of writing, Solly is also enjoying a return to performing, revived during his writing/directing/understudy days in New York in the early '70s ("My name was all over the program, so I used an acting pseudonym: Sebastian Cindercroft"), followed by a one-man nightclub act and last year's appearance in Charles Strouse's "The Future of the American Musical Theatre." Recently, he embarked on another literary venture: his first novel (currently in draft form), called "Garden in the Rain."
"It's schmaltzy and trashy," he grinned. And anecdotal? "If you look at it baldly, nothing in the novel has anything to do with my life. But in fact, all the material's there (from my past), all the places I've been, the things I know."
The same, it appears, could be said for "Solly's Follies."