As the former Senior Vice President of cast recordings and film soundtracks for the RCA Victor record label, playwright Bill Rosenfield knows a thing or two about musicals. In part one of our two-part interview, we talked to Bill about his recent critically-acclaimed adaptation of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” for New York City Center’s Encores! musicals in concert. Since the New York City theater awards season is upon us, we also discussed his recurring role as scriptwriter for the Drama Desk Awards.
What was your process in adapting the script for “The Most Happy Fella”?
Because Encores! is about the music, the orchestrations, and doing it full-out, anything that was fat in the script, like the farm boy and farm girl talking in the barn saying, “And this is Tony’s barn…”–you don’t need that, so, out it goes. It was about making sure that the story gets told in a coherent fashion without putting a strain on the book scenes, which may or may not be good or bad–you just want to tell the story.
The first thing I did was go through the script without Casey [Nicholaw, director and choreographer], and got rid of everything I felt was extraneous to the story, and that cut out a lot. It cut out a lot of actors because a lot of the lead-ins and cross-overs were there to cover set changes. Once I had done that, Casey and I went through it, and some stuff got put back, and some other stuff went out. And then you start looking at things that musically are extraneous, and that’s where you have to be very, very careful. And that’s where [music director] Rob Berman came in. For instance, “The Most Happy Fella” is in three acts, and the opening of the third act is the “Abbondanza” reprise, with the three delightful bakers. But once you make a decision to make it into two acts, there’s no need for that anymore–that was only there as a warm up to get people back into the third act, so that’s gone.
There are a lot of things–like the postman who arrives who sings, “I seen her at the station…special delivery, one bride”–which I’ve always kind of hated, and when I gently suggested that we cut it, everyone in the room said, “Yes by all means.” It’s like everyone has always not liked that, except for the guy who got to sing it. So that went away. But you do that very gingerly because you have to preserve the Encores! mantra–the integrity of the show.
Was Jo Sullivan Loesser [wife of deceased Frank Loesser] OK with all of this?
She’s amazing in that she knows that it’s a living, breathing thing, and that if you can justify getting rid of those things, she’s fine with it. If it’s arbitrary, she’s not fine with it, and she makes that known. Happily, she loves Casey, and she and I had worked together a number of times over the years, and she simply trusted us.
Had anyone else done an adaptation, or is this the first time it’s being tweaked?
Just this past year at Goodspeed Musicals they tweaked quite a bit… They eliminated the “I made a fist” Herman-and-Cleo thing that comes at the end of the show, and so there wasn’t really a resolution for Herman and Cleo. And I understand why they made that cut because the dramatic momentum is so fierce and heartbreaking, and then suddenly there’s this musical comedy number that stops the action dead in its tracks to resolve that subplot, and then we go back to the hard stuff. On the other hand, you need to resolve Herman and Cleo, and they’re delightful. When it comes up, it’s kind of surrealistic, but up at Goodspeed they got rid of it, and I guess they had permission to do so. And I think the 1992 revival that Gerry Gutierrez did up at Goodspeed, the two piano one, also had a lot of little tweaks in it.
What about the RCA Victor recording–was that straight-up original?
We did the  Goodspeed one that became Lincoln Center Theater. And in fact when we recorded it, we didn’t do standard sessions. Mike Berniker the album producer and I decided that we just would have the show performed three times. It was the way he did the original “Nine” album, and then he edited from there. So it’s not a complete recording. I think the only actual complete, complete recording is the John Yap [JAY Records] one from 2000, and that’s three discs, and it has exit music, and this music, and that music…
It’s very John Yap.
It’s a John Yap Special. God love him. He does extremely complete recordings.
Moving on to scriptwriting the Drama Desks. What is that like, and you can’t really do much until right up to the moment?
You can’t do anything. The way Encores! is 10 days Broadway boot camp–we’re puttin’ on a show, no time for attitude, have no fear, we’re all here to support each other–writing an awards ceremony, you can’t do anything until you know the nominees. I’ve done it now two years in a row, and each time I’ve had kind of a scenario of–well, these are the possible nominees, and we’ll get this one to do this, and this one to do this–and then they read out the nominees and the people that I thought were going be nominated weren’t, and you have to throw your hands up and go, “OK, what have we got to work with here?” And that’s what you work with.
I started a whole thing two years ago of trying to have presenters who are colleagues in that category, so it would mean something more for a lighting designer to receive an award from Jules Fisher, than receiving it from a Broadway chorine who is lovely and talented, but she’s just a presenter, or he’s just a presenter. Just as it means more for a playwright to receive an award from a fellow playwright than Lizzie Glutz. So I have a list of those people that I want to ask to do things.
There’s writing the presenting of the awards…
There’s a host, there are presenters…it’s been my thing to try to figure out a way to make the entertainment more interesting, rather than–we’re going to do scenes from the five nominated musicals–do nominated performances. So that way, you can have Katie Thompson singing from “Giant,” or somebody who wouldn’t otherwise have been featured. Jessie Mueller sang from “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” because she was nominated, not because “On a Clear Day” was nominated–because it wasn’t.
And in that spring awards season, where every dinner or awards show is all competing for the same six shows…I figured out a way to have something different. So for the press agents and producers involved, we’re still not competing for those six shows–we’re looking at the other shows, so that the people who are attending the Drama Desks don’t say, “Ugh, not this number again.” They’re saying, “Oh, wasn’t that nice, that’s a treat, OK.”
Are you scripting banter?
Yes. My mantra is, if you notice the writing of the ceremony, then I failed. It should look like everybody who comes out is comfortable saying what they’re saying, and they’re saying it because they mean it and they want to say it. I try to get everybody there a week before, five or six days before, get them the material, so that if they want to make changes, or they’re not comfortable, there’s time to do it in.
Do you run a dress rehearsal?
We do, but we don’t demand that they be there, because nobody’s being paid–we ask people to come. If they can, they can and they do–and if they can’t, they don’t, and that’s that.
How insane does the night-of get? It must be bedlam.
It’s almost bedlam, but because there’s less pressure in that it’s live streaming but it isn’t a telecast, whatever happens, happens. The hardest thing is making the decision to cut somebody off when they’re going on too long.
I saw a photo last year where you were you pulling Tom Hanks off stage.
I kicked Tom Hanks off the stage, yes.
Because he was going too long?
No, no. Actually, Tom Hanks came to Broadway [in Nora Ephron’s play “Lucky Guy“], and threw himself five thousand percent into the community, and was extraordinary. The hosts last year were the Old Jews Telling Jokes. And the gimmick of the ceremony, was, “Where’s the host? We need a host. Why are we out here? We’re supposed to be just telling the rules about accepting awards, and now we seem to be hosting.” And we found out that Tom Hanks actually was going to attend the ceremony. And so I wrote a thing saying, “You know something, they’re talking to Tom Hanks’ people, and somebody said, ‘Why talk to Tom Hanks’ people? He’s right there, why don’t we just ask him.'” And then there was a thing of, “Oh we couldn’t ask Tom Hanks, he’s too big of a star.” And then we’d move on.
And about two hours before the show, it occurred to me that because he’s been throwing himself into everything, and being very generous with his time, that if they said, “Do you want to come up and host?”–that he might come up and host. Or at least might come up on stage to join in. And while that would have been great, it also wouldn’t have been fair to him. So we had to find a way to get him off the stage, in case he did. And so when he jumped up on stage and said, “Sure, what do you want me to do?”, I had a card prepared for him to read, which says, “Tom, get off the stage, we have a show to do, thank you, goodbye.” And that’s what he did. He came up on stage, and I came out with the card and handed it to one of the Old Jews, who looked at me, and I said, “OK, I’ll hand him the card,” because there was kind of panic. And he read the thing, and I pushed him off the stage, to my utter regret, because he was just a great sport.
Yeah, that was great. And if we had gone through the producers, or the management, or the publicist, it would have been, “No, absolutely not, he doesn’t do that.” So we took a chance, and that worked out. Thank God.
The 2014 Drama Desk Awards ceremony is June 1st at Town Hall in New York City.
In the forthcoming part two of our interview, we’ll discuss Bill’s playwriting career.