Interview with Lisa Gutkin, 8/2/17
Karen Miller and I saw *Indecent* on Broadway in May 2017. It’s a play by Paula Vogel about the play *God of Vengeance.* *Indecent* had a circuitous route to Broadway: it was premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in October 2015, then moved to the La Jolla Playhouse later that year, then played off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre from April to June 2016, then opened on Broadway in April 2017. It was one of the most inventive things I’ve ever seen, I was blown away by it.
I contacted Lisa and we set up an interview in her dressing room on a night when her understudy was doing the show. It was a few days before the show closed. We started with a toast.
Diva Mensch: Cheers, what is this?
Lisa Gutkin: It’s called Amaro, it’s a digestif from Italy. It’s a little bitter, a little sweet.
DM: Mm, I like that, thank you!
LG: My pleasure.
DM: How does it feel to be ending the run?
LG: On a creative level, I’m ready to start writing again, because I haven’t been writing this whole time.
DM: It’s been around two years, right?
LG: Well, we had quite a bit off in between, and I did a little work, but certainly the last four months in this run, I can’t do anything but this. So I’m ready on that level. But I’m sad.
DM: Has it been really rewarding for you?
LG: Yeah. It’s amazing. It’s so rich, so deep.
DM: The thing that struck me, and I’d never seen a show that did this to this degree, is it felt that the writing and the music and the staging were all working together in such a fascinating and meaningful way. They were all working at the service of the story. Every single moment felt like it was intensely thought out. It’s genius.
LG: And that’s what it felt like all along, we were all trying to find that nugget of truth in what we were telling. Nobody was going to overdo it, no one was going to push anything too far or exaggerate. We all kinda had that same aesthetic, which I think is why it worked. It was an incredible collaboration.
DM: Were you in the show from the beginning?
DM: The other composer is named Aaron Halva?
LG: So Aaron - - it was February of 2015. It was six months before the Yale production. I had been talking to Rebecca and Paula for several years about doing the project. And we just kinda felt like I didn’t want to music direct at first, I certainly didn’t want to be the only music director, and be the composer, and be in the play, it was too much. And I didn’t have that much theatre experience. Rebecca had heard of this guy, Aaron Halva, and why don’t we see if we would get along and do a co-composer thing. So it was February of that year, Yale set us up with a day, they brought us both out to Connecticut, they gave us a room, instruments to play with, whatever we needed. And they gave us a third musician, who wasn’t necessarily going to be tied to the project. We had him for that day, for the workshop. And Rebecca sent me some of Aaron’s pieces beforehand, and I thought, “OK, this guy is a nice writer! Maybe this could work.” And we went to Yale and we hit it off incredibly, and we thought, “Yeah, we could do this.” He was not experienced in klezmer, and my expertise is in the klezmer end, and his expertise is more theatre, just general theatre. But he’s a folk musician. He plays Cuban music, he can play a little of several different styles, like I would. And so there’s a certain head that people who play folk music have.
DM: You can adapt to different kinds of folk music.
LG: That’s right. There’s just a certain way of thinking that is very open, and not everything has to be exactly scripted. In the end we scripted everything, so that it can be passed on. We just had a similar style of working things, and also a similar delicateness of fitting under a scene. Sometimes you see a scene, and music, and they’re very separate things, and we have this way of squeezing ourselves in between…
DM: Supporting the scene as opposed to taking it over.
LG: Yeah, and sometimes being par in par with what’s going on, the music and the words are sort of swimming around together, and sometimes being really underneath it and letting them pop out. I can’t even remember a time when we said, “Oh no, that doesn’t work. Do it this way.” It just worked. Pretty amazing.
DM: Did the two of you work with Paula to decide when you wanted music and what kind of music?
LG: Yeah. The four of us [the two composers, playwright Paula Vogel, and director Rebecca Taichman] got together a few times at Yale, we would sit after we'd been in the room with the actors then we would have a meeting, the four of us, and we would say, "OK, now, what are we feeling?" And thinking about certain themes that would return and why. Why would they return. There are several themes in the piece - - there's love, there's freedom, there's anger, several things that come back. We almost made a chart.
DM: You had the same cast from Vineyard to Broadway. Was it a lot of the same people at Yale?
LG: All! The only one that changed is we had three clarinet players. Everyone else is exactly the same.
DM: That's fascinating. It's a real sense of ensemble, I'm sure.
LG: It's so amazing, we know each other's movements, we know each other so well. It's quite a treat. And for all the actors, they say the same thing, it's very rare that they've been in a situation with the same company for so many productions, four productions. It's extraordinary.
DM: I bet you guys are going to miss each other a lot.
LG: [pause] Yeah...
DM: [laughs] Yes and no! I'm sure it'll be nice to see some different people.
LG: I've done other shows where I think, "Oh my God, I'm gonna miss these [people]," and then you kind of slip into your next world, and it's wonderful to see them, but... I think the thing about this crew, and really artists in general, is that we're very present. Very where we are. Being in an atmosphere where you are so present and dedicated to what you're doing, every single moment, it's very rare. I play on tour, around with my band, and there's always a million things to be doing, and we're very dedicated, I mean, it's great. But it's a different kind of head.
DM: Was this show always headed for Broadway?
LG: No. Everybody hopes, I suppose.
DM: It didn't feel like that kind of show?
LG: This is a very pragmatic group of people. We're doing our art. If it's in the back of everyone's mind, we hope it gets bigger and bigger... I think, although - - if it was, I didn't know. Let's put it that way. There were people who were very early in the Vineyard and were also working with [Broadway producer] Daryl Roth.
DM: So maybe they knew that was the destination.
LG: I don't know, but they don't tell you a lot.
DM: Were you in on the casting?
LG: No. For the musicians, yes.
DM: But not for the actors?
LG: No, we just kind of trusted them. We were in a little bit. Rebecca did run a couple of thoughts by us, but we weren't at the auditions.
DM: Do all of the actors read music?
LG: They're all good musicians. I don't know if they all read music.
DM: Did you notate all of the music?
LG: We notated everything. But I can't remember, did they learn it by notation, or did we record it for them? We might have recorded - - we did both.
DM: Is the music embedded in the script?
LG: The songs, the lyrics to the songs are. But the music is not. And actually there are going to be other versions of the play done without our music. The songs are chosen by Paula.
DM: They existed before you came in?
LG: Those were all pre-existing songs.
DM: You said that there was going to be a production in Minneapolis.
LG: Yes. I'm not sure if they're going to use our music or not.
DM: Would you go with the show?
LG: No, I don't think they would ask us to go with the show, although if they use our music I would go out as composer and help implement it.
DM: Just to get it rolling. Is it the Guthrie?
LG: Yes. I hope they use our music.
DM: You obviously have a lot of experience onstage with the Klezmatics. Were you onstage in *The Last Ship*?
DM: So what's it like being onstage in a Broadway show?
LG: I'm trying to think of what other onstage I've done... I've done a little bit of other theatre onstage, much more minimal. We musicians would go stand under a tree, in Shakespeare. The musicians would stand under that tree and do our thing. And in another scene maybe we'd be sitting on a bench over there, but it was nothing like this. The other thing was, in a Renaissance festival I did, we were in character. We were the character that we chose, and we stayed in character all day. So if we interacted with people, we stayed in our pseudo...
DM: Your Renaissance persona.
LG: Whatever that persona was. My name was Liza Doolotte.
DM: [laughs] Pretty good.
LG: My homage to Eliza Doolittle. So I'm very comfortable, I probably should have gone into acting years ago. I'm very comfortable onstage. I live onstage, I create my little things around me by my seat, make it really my own. I really love it, I'm kinda thinking about maybe getting an acting agent.
DM: Wow, great! You mean acting, apart from the music.
LG: Because I really love it.
DM: That would be exciting, it would be an adventure.
LG: I don't know, the thought of going on auditions is very unappealing. I don't know how actors do that. To get rejected all the time. I'm not used to that. I get recommended for a gig and they want me, and they take me. And I do my gig and move on to the next one. I've learned so much about acting from these actors. It’s at the point where the actors tell me that there's no difference now between us and them, in the way they feel us onstage. Whereas in the beginning there was, there was more of a separation. We've just gotten more and more integrated, in the most subtle ways. There are a lot of little tiny things that Rebecca didn't tell us to do that just sort of happened. And it's wonderful. Even an offstage thing. Every night, I don't know when we started doing it, when Adina picks up the cymbal to bring to Aaron, she smiles at me. And I love it. I've gotten so accustomed to it that every time I stop and I look at her so she can smile at me.
DM: That's sweet.
LG: It's our own thing, we have our rituals. I can't wait to see some of the filming. We were filmed this afternoon for Lincoln Center Archives. That's the second filming for Lincoln Center Archives. They filmed the Vineyard. It's very rare for them to do twice, but they came back a second time to do it and I'm so thrilled because one day I can just go there and watch both versions. And I don't even remember what the difference was.
DM: That was going to be one of my questions, how much the show has changed.
LG: Well, some aspects of the show have not changed but our feelings about the show has changed because of the political climate. Paula strengthened certain aspects of the play because of the political climate. For example, he used to say, "Because we're Jewish. Because we're Jewish on Broadway." Now it's, "Because we're Jewish. We're Polish kikes." Much more derogatory. What else... "Are you a pure Jewish daughter?" became now, "Are you a virgin?" Put it on the line, this is the question. "Are you a virgin?", and she says, "I don't know." It's just a certain pointedness that Paula put into it. The Silverman speech, the rabbi, when he's so happy he had it shut down [the play within the play, *God of Vengeance*], you get to understand him a lot better in this production. The language is stronger, his point of view is stronger. Whether you have sympathy for his point of view or not is your own thing, but the understanding of why he feels it's so important not to portray Jews in a bad way. He talks a lot more about immigration in this version than he did. He touched on it in the last version, but now it's richer, because it's so important. Everything that's in the play was already in there, but she just popped it out. In a very brilliant way. And some of the choreography changed.
DM: Just for the difference of the stage?
LG: Yeah, that, and I think that choreography is really tricky. Is it portraying what you're trying to say about the number? Is it too folky, is there enough joy, is it traditional looking? And to have all of those elements put together is very tricky. And David Dorfman. The choreographer.
DM: Was he with the project the whole time?
LG: All the time. We were all in the room together, trying this, trying that. David is so creative. Musically we would make some changes for the choreography, sometimes the choreography would change and the music stayed the same. DM: You have a background in Celtic music?
LG: I do.
DM: How did that transfer to klezmer?
LG: My background is mostly in Celtic and klezmer just because they're the two I've delved most heavily into. But I've also played Argentinian tango music, I've played Italian Renaissance music, French troubadour music, all kinds of folk styles. And they're all related to each other in odd ways. I’m not an ethnomusicologist, but I can tell you from the inside what is similar and what are differences. Actually, klezmer and Irish have a lot in common because they're downbeat oriented. [demonstrates] As opposed to, for example, bluegrass, which is: [demonstrates bluegrass, which is on the offbeat] Reggae. [demonstrates]
More focus is on the offbeat. That's one similarity. The other similarity is in some of the ornaments. You have mordents in classical music, and you have variations on mordents in many folk styles. How they're lined up with the notes changes from style to style. There's a certain kind of thing that happens in a lot of styles of music. You can compare how the mordents are, and the slides. They both use slides. Bluegrass uses slides in a different way. How you implement that on the instrument is like how the touch is. Not only on the right hand, but on the left hand also. Both hands, fill out a slide in different ways. And I'm fascinated by that, as you can see. I mean if you play a tarantella, what makes a tarantella different from a jig? They're both in 6/8, the melodies could be almost the same, in the same tempo. But what makes it Italian and what makes it Irish? I'm fascinated by that. It's how it's accented. It's how they're ornamented, or not ornamented.
DM: It's a different flavor.
LG: I'm fascinated by that. I think what happened is Matt Darriau, who was in my Irish band - - or Celtic band, we did Irish, English, it wasn't just Irish, it was called Whirligig. Matt was in that, he played flute. But we also knew he played klezmer, he played clarinet. So we brought the clarinet into the Irish thing, which is the Celtic band, which is very unusual. We had some clarinet, we had some saxophone... None of the bands I play in are purely traditional. They're all bringing in modern elements. The Klezmatics are not old style. We honor the old style.
DM: But it's a hybrid.
LG: But it's a hybrid. Everything I do is like that. So Matt was in Whirligig and then they needed somebody in the Klezmatics. He knew I played tango music. I call myself a culture hopper. I also come from a hugely Jewish background. I grew up with Yiddish, surrounded by Yiddish. And I heard some klezmer as a kid, but I didn't really like it. It was my grandmother's music, I didn't really like it. And Yiddish songs. My grandmother used to drag me by the hair into these Yiddish song circles and I just couldn't stand it. What I really didn't like about it is everybody pinched my cheeks. Really, if they would have stopped pinching my cheeks I might have embraced it! But they just turned me off so bad. Oh God, I just wanted to run away. So I had a bad taste in my mouth with Jewish music! [laughs]
LG: And then the Klezmatics brought me - - I remember I was playing at an Irish bar up in the Bronx, and Dave Licht, the then drummer, came with a cassette of old Jewish klezmer violinists that knocked my socks off. It was so gorgeous, so beautiful, and still I use those tapes as references. I'm looking forward to going into another round of going back and going through the old tapes and really listening to the nuances, because I think I lose it after a while. I have my own style, which is great, you want your own style, but you want to feed your style with the music that imprints your information. So every once in a while when I have time I listen to the old recordings. I can listen to a 30-second lick over and over and over and over and over and over again until I try just the right nuance. Am I sliding like this, or like that? It makes a big difference.
DM: I saw that you got your degree at the Aaron Copland School of Music.
DM: As a classical violinist?
LG: Mm hm.
DM: Do you still play any classical music?
LG: No. The last gig I did was a long time ago. I was playing Mozart and I was doing my mordents like Irish. And I said, "Oh my God, I can't do this to Mozart." Not that I won't, for fun, play string quartets with friends, but I'm not going to put myself in a professional situation where I've gotta go back and relearn what my body is not naturally doing anymore. So I just don't do it.
DM: And you have the classical background, with the training and technique, to be able to apply that to everything else.
LG: Yeah, and the understanding of theory and chord structure. I think structurally, I still think classically, in some ways. Even in *Indecent,* there are themes that come back and they come back in slightly different forms. I think that comes from a classical background. The development.
DM: How did you evolve from being a performer to being a composer?
LG: I have no idea. I just started writing stuff. [laughs]
DM: That's a great answer!
LG: I wrote - - probably my first tune was a jig or something. Yeah, I wrote some Irish tunes. People liked them. I played one that almost gypsy-ish, well before I started playing with the Klezmatics. Everybody always told me that all my tunes sounded Jewish. My Irish tunes sound Jewish, everything sounds Jewish. And then about 2003 the Klezmatics were invited to do - - do you know about the Woody Guthrie project?
LG: We wrote music to lyrics of Woody Guthrie. Unpublished lyrics, that had never been set.
DM: What an incredible opportunity.
LG: It was amazing. That was my first foray into songwriting. That was an amazing project. That was 2003. And then we put out an album of that in 2006 and won a Grammy.
DM: Does it still make you happy, to think of that? Because there are very few people who can say that. It's very special.
LG: It's beautiful. And it was such a special project. When you do a special project, like this, and then the world says, "Oh my God, that's a special project. We'll give you a couple of Tonys. We'll put you on PBS." Lincoln Center will come back and archive it twice, which they said they'd never do, but they're doing. I think at first winning the Grammy was a little uncomfortable because you know how many people there are who do really special things. So there's something I don't like about awards to begin with. But on the other hand, it's an inspiration! And somebody has to have the attention drawn to them to bring the art level up. I'm very happy it was us! It was well deserved, because it's a very special album. And for the klezmer community - - what I didn't know it was going to do was, people would tell us, "We feel like we won it with you." We brought the whole klezmer community. And I'm getting the same reaction to this play. The Jewish community is like, "Oh my God, we've got a beautiful Jewish play on Broadway." They're so proud and so supportive. They're coming out of the woodwork, everybody is coming to this show, it's incredible. So I think awards can be nice, especially if you're embracing other people with it.
DM: And I can see your point. I think I read when someone won an Oscar or something, it was very disconcerting for them to think that there were four losers. It's sad to think of the people who did not win.
LG: But this is something I've been struggling with all my life. When I was kid, I got into All City Orchestra and my sister didn't, and I was gonna not go. And my mother said, "You're crazy, you have to go. you got accepted, it's what you want to do. You'll go. You can't not go because your sister didn't get it." There's always going to be somebody who didn't get it, no matter what you do, if it's an award, or a job, no matter what you do. You can't just not do it or hold yourself back. For the most part, when you do something that's really special, you bring everybody up. I mean, there will be people who are jealous or whatever, but for the most part, we're uplifted when people get awards. It lifts us.
DM: I see that you have tour dates coming up in Austria and Hungary and Australia and Mexico. Are you coming to New York?
LG: January 20th. Town Hall. Not too early to start publicizing it.
DM: I just have a couple more questions. What is your Anne Sexton story?
LG: Susan McKeown is this wonderful singer, and was a guest on *Wonder Wheel,* and also sang with us sometimes in Whirligig, a beautiful, beautiful musician - - she did an album that focused on mental illness. All of the poets were troubled people and it was a very dark album. She asked various people to write songs and she got the permission and I was very honored to write it. I love it, it's a great song, a beautiful song.
DM: What's it called?
LG: It's called "Her Kind."
DM: Oh, I love that poem.
LG: I can't believe I got to write it. We call the song, "A Woman Like That." [sings] I pulled some lines out to make a chorus. That's what I like to do, I did that with the Woody Guthrie stuff too, I changed it around. I pulled that out here, and repeated, I took liberties.
DM: You're changing it from a poem to a song.
LG: Yeah. And my other big composing, a huge commission that I had was for Mabou Mines. Right around the time when I wrote those songs, the Woody Guthrie songs, when they first premiered, the premiere got a nice write-up in the New York Times. Ruth Maleczech and Lee Breuer from Mabou Mines - - Ruth knew of me. And Johnny Cunningham, do you know him? He was this beautiful writer and fiddler and he was supposed to write music for this play and he died. At his memorial I played a song. And Ruth melted. And she'd also just seen my picture in the New York Times, with the Guthrie thing. That was an amazing production. It only has five performances, and we spent three years writing it. Which was heartbreaking. I might try and bring it back, a revival of it. Ruth has passed away, but I think we could do a beautiful revival. We'd change some things and record it properly.
DM: What was the show called?
LG: It was called *Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting.*
DM: What a great title.
LG: It was all women collaborators. It was five different poets, one for each borough. They weren't necessarily all poets. Do you know Migdalia Cruz, the playwright?
LG: Her quote "poem" was 52 pages long! And I'm supposed to set it to music. So I have a lot of experience taking poetry and taking prose and taking words and figuring out how to make it into songs. Crafting them. I love it.
DM: What is your next project?
LG: I’ll show you the book. *The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness.* The Klezmatics are making it into a musical. It's the story of a storyteller, it's autobiographical. Joel ben Izzy lives in California and he's a storyteller and he goes to the doctor for something unrelated and finds that he has thyroid cancer. A lump on his throat that they take out and they nicked his vocal cords and he couldn't speak for two years. A storyteller, couldn't speak. So he started writing, he went through huge transformations. It's a story of how he came at peace with it. He uses stories, he weaves in these stories - - you'll be in the desert with King Solomon and then whhsht! you'll be at his kitchen table. I think the visual is incredible. And musically, because they're stories from all over the world, it's perfect for us.
DM: So it's gonna be both his stories and the stories that he tells?
LG: Yes, they're woven in. He'll be sitting and talking, and he'll say, "Let me tell you a story." And then you're off to the story. And the next thing he tells you is something that you can relate it to the story that he just told. You can see why he's telling that, it's very smooth. The book is lovely.
DM: My last question. I want you to tell me about someone who inspired you.
LG: Hmm... The first person who pops in my head is Yehudi Menuhin. Because I loved his playing, I loved his books. His approach to playing, his yoga, his talking about being in the entire body, he plays with his entire body and made me aware of a lot of physicality that I never thought of with the violin and also he would try some jazz, he would try different things and experiment a little bit. He was a big influence on me. And I got to take a master class with him.