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  • Writer's pictureKrissy Dorn

Richard Maltby Jr. thanks Jewel Box Musical Theater

Updated: May 24, 2023

We are proud to say that the composers appreciate and acknowledge our production. Lyricist Richard Maltby was kind enough to write down some insightful thoughts and memories about how it all began. Read for yourself:

"Songs in musicals often don’t get fully appreciated until they find a life outside their shows. Even the great Stephen Sondheim wasn’t truly revered as a lyricist until 31 of his songs were put together, side by side, in Side By Side By Sondheim in 1977. Curiously, that was also the year the Starting Here Starting Now opened in New York.

By 1977, David Shire and I had been in New York for about fifteen years and we had produced a goodly amount of material, mostly from small musicals, or shows that had either failed to come into New York or were still on the drawing board. One musical, Love Match, about Queen Victoria and Albert had closed out of town; an original written with Michael Stewart (author of Hello Dolly) called How Do You Do, I Love You, (about computer dating and way ahead of its time), had a run in several “music tents” outside New York, but didn’t come in – although composer Burt Bacharach and producer David Merrick did steal our Music Director (Arthur Rubinstein) and our orchestrator (Jonathan Tunick), for Promises, Promises. Barbra Streisand had recorded six of our songs, we had written some songs for movies, and we had several shows in development, containing songs no one had ever heard."

"At about this time I was also stretching my wings to become a director as well as a lyricist -- since my real passion was creating the whole show, not just the songs. One impetus for this was the fact that Shire and I felt that our songs were often not taken care of by the directors we were working with, and we figured that if I were the director, at the very minimum, the songs would be performed as written. (More about this later.)

It happened that Lynne Meadow, the Artistic Director of the still new Manhattan Theatre Club, was trying to find shows to put on in an unused bar area she wanted to convert into a cabaret. Shire and I had first encountered Lynne when she was twelve years old. She was one of a group of schoolchildren appearing in one scene in a musical Shire and I wrote while undergraduates at Yale called Grand Tour. It had been a life-changing moment for a stage-struck pre-teenager and Lynne had never forgotten it. She had the idea that Shire and I should assemble our songs into a revue, for her cabaret -- and I, being eager to, for the first time, actually direct songs we had written, grabbed the chance.

The trouble was, we weren’t all that confident in the songs. Many were attached to shows that had failed, others were obscure, unknown or not tested in front of an audience. We actually had trouble locating all the songs. Going into rehearsal, we sometimes had to blow dust off the sheet music. Neither Shire nor I could find a copy of the song “Crossword Puzzle” anywhere. Luckily my sister had a copy, coffee-stained and taped together, but complete.

I also couldn’t imagine any performer would want to be in this weird event. Margery Cohen told me that when I called her, I said. “You don’t want to be in this show, do you?” I was astonished when all three performers I asked, said “Yes!” -- immediately and with great enthusiasm!

When we started rehearsing, surprise followed on surprise. It was shocking to realize that these songs were good. They were funny or touching, or sometimes both at the same time – and they were playable. They were character songs and, even though this was a cabaret revue, they gave the actors something to act. They were theatre songs.

A funny side note. I also discovered that these songs were deceptive. Being theatre songs, they had a subtext to them that was often easily overlooked or not noticed. I suddenly found myself forgiving directors who had misunderstood our songs. I made the same mistakes they did. Time and again I would find myself saying “Why isn’t this working?” only to realize that some subtle inner impulse wasn’t being realized. Maltby/Shire songs, it turns out, aren’t always what they appear to be.

After the songs were learned, in rehearsal there came the inevitable moment for the show to be staged. And I was petrified. I didn’t know how to stage a musical. Not only that but revues at that time were never just songs. They also had comedy sketches, or at least a narrator for introductions. I didn’t want spoken connectives, not because of some high artistic choice, but for the simple reason that I didn’t know what I would say. Still, without some kind of connectives, what would the show be? "

"Finally, I could not postpone staging the show any longer. I told the actors to stand up and sing the opening, which consisted of a prelude (“The Word is Love”) leading into the title song. I hoped that if they sang it, it would give me clue as to how to stage it. But no clue came. So I said “Sing it again.” Which they did. Again, lightning did not strike. I was beginning to panic. “Sing it again,’ I said. And they did. This repeated several more times. By now the actors knew full well that Richard had no idea what to do -- so, the next time they sang it through, just to be helpful, the young man in the cast, Michael Tucci, went to one of the women, Loni Ackerman, and sang the “Starting Here\” part to her.

And I thought: Why didn’t he go to the other one?

Suddenly, it hit me. I had cast a man and two women. That’s a triangle! A triangle is a story! I quickly assembled a sequence of seven songs that, without any connective dialogue, told the story of a man juggling two girlfriends. At first he thinks he has it made, then the women find out and both dump him. Then all three go off to the city to start looking for love on their own.

The cast went on to sing a variety of songs, but by now the audience knew who they were -- and by the end of the show there was a satisfying feeling of completion, the kind that comes with the resolution of a story. But there wasn’t a story. Inadvertently, I had invented a new form, something I came to call a “bookless book musical” – a show held together not by plot but by the inner emotional life of the songs. A year later I used the technique again in a cabaret evening of Fats Waller jazz songs, and created the musical AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ which instantly went to Broadway and won every award you can win. Two decades later, I did it again with the dance musical FOSSE, honoring the great Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse. AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ and FOSSE are the only two revues ever to win Tony Awards for Best Musical. (I also won a Tony Award for Best Director.) And it all started, accidentally, with STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW."

"Musicals are living things. They change and grow, and they speak to audiences in different ways as time goes by. One of the by-products of the “bookless book musical” is that it is held together by emotions not a narrative – and emotions are timeless. David Shire and I are so grateful to the Jewel Box Musical Theatre for producing this wonderful and heart-felt new production of STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW, and joining the companies around the world who are continuing to introduce these songs to new audiences. We can only say: “Thank you!” And also, “Enjoy!”

-- Richard Maltby Jr.

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