Take that, Bob Dylan. So there, Paul McCartney. Buzz off, Mick and Keith. And a big Bronx cheer to you, Billy Joel.
Randy Newman, the perennial pop-rock underdog who ranks among the greatest singer-songwriters not enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is about to join a much more exclusive pantheon: people whose lives are told in stage musicals.
"The Education of Randy Newman" opens Friday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, placing its hero in the company of Eva Peron, Annie Oakley, the Von Trapp family singers and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Newman has done it practically without breaking a sweat--if you don't count the 32 years it took to compile his catalog of poignant, hilarious and satirically cutting songs that make up the show.
Newman's humor, irony, Southern roots and genius for crafting lifelike characters make him the pop music figure most likely to be compared to Mark Twain. And like Twain's Tom Sawyer, who got his friends to whitewash a fence while he supervised, Newman has provided primarily the raw material, encouragement and consultation for the show.
The sweaty work is being done by a cast of seven singer-actor-dancers and seven musicians who will try to bring Newman's songs to life on stage. Newman himself is not in the show; Scott Waara, who won a Tony in 1992 for a supporting role in the Broadway musical "The Most Happy Fella," plays the title character.
The hands-on creative wrangling has been left mainly to Myron Johnson, a director-choreographer little known outside Minnesota, and conceptual partners Michael Roth and Jerry Patch. Together they have put together more than 40 of Newman's songs in an attempt to tell his story without benefit of a narrator and with minimal dialogue limited to a single scene.
The creators and producers think they're on to something innovative; they don't consider "The Education" a musical in the traditional sense. Roth, the musical director, calls it "postmodern music theater entertainment."
"I'm not trying to make him sound like musical theater," Roth said. "I'm trying to make musical theater sound like him."
The story of "The Education of Randy Newman" begins with Roth, a leading theatrical composer and sound designer. The 46-year-old was musical director and bandleader for "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong," a 1982 revue of Newman's songs launched in New York City with the songwriter's approval but no further involvement.
A friendship ensued, and the two became creative collaborators: Roth wrote orchestrations for "Randy Newman's Faust," the songwriter's 1995 less-than-successful musical theater bow at the La Jolla Playhouse, and has edited two Newman piano songbooks. Roth, who works frequently at SCR, planted the idea of building a musical around Newman's songs.
Roth and Patch, SCR's longtime dramaturge, didn't want another revue but a full-fledged story. Patch hit on "The Education of Henry Adams" as a model. Rated by the Modern Library as the 20th century's greatest nonfiction work in English, Adams' autobiography, published soon after his death in 1918, expressed his alienation and sense of inadequacy in the face of the late 19th century's onslaught of social, philosophical and technological changes.
"The Education of Randy Newman," Patch decided, would similarly place a distinctive artistic life and sensibility in the context of turbulent times. Newman has never been shy about skewering racism, rampant nationalism, materialism, arrogance and privilege in his songs.
Act I tells of Newman's childhood in New Orleans, focusing on the forces that shaped him.
Personal and career vicissitudes follow in Act II: "Fall in love, get married, act badly, get divorced, get married again and that's it" is how Newman summarized the plot. The big finale, "Days of Heaven," is an obscure catalog rarity, the one piece Newman substantially expanded and reworked for the show.
"The Education of Randy Newman" will be the most expensive production in the nonprofit theater's 36-year history, topping the $700,000 spent this year on Howard Korder's "The Hollow Lands," according to David Emmes, one of two artistic partners who run SCR.
The show won't go unnoticed: Broadway producers are interested, Emmes said, and will scout it. Theater leaders from across the country will see it when they gather for SCR's annual Pacific Playwrights Festival this month.
Involved in Project
Though others are doing most of the work, the subject of "The Education of Randy Newman" is not about to cover himself with plausible deniability should the production bomb. "I'm not going to be able to say I was just taking orders," he said in a phone interview from his home in Pacific Palisades.
Newman has met periodically with the show's co-conceivers (as Roth and Patch are billed) and attended some rehearsals and run-throughs. During one session in March, Newman's investment in the project was apparent.