Sheesh. That Howard Barnes, what an average guy. It’s no joke, people. Howard Barnes is so average, he’d turn unami vanilla. Howard Barnes is so average, he’d turn chartreuse beige. You know who’d sponsor the life story of Howard Barnes? Xanax. Ba-dum-bum. Oh, and here’s one: you know that no one in their right mind would ever look at Howard Barnes, the archbishop of average, and think that his life could be a musical. No one. Well, unless you’re composer Michael Kooman and lyricist and book writer Christopher Dimond. Their tuner, The Noteworthy Howard Barnes, was mounted last year at Seattle’s Village Theater and has now been released on a world-premiere CD recording. Here’s a capsule synopsis of the show:
Howard Barnes is a perfectly average American guy: he likes baseball, grilling, and his daily routine. That is, until the day he wakes up to discover his life has become a musical. Desperate to return things to normal, Howard embarks on a fantastical quest through the realm of musical theatre.
There’s quite a bit of Kooman/Dimond material on line — more on that in a moment — but I would conjecture that you can get a pretty good sense of them from a quote that I located in the press release for the CD, which was released for sale on Sept. 13:
“We’re thrilled to share the recording of this zany, joyous musical comedy with the world, and we can’t wait to receive $.006 per play on Spotify,” said Kooman and Dimond. “It’s a rare opportunity for writers to get the chance to bring a completely original, 16-actor, 10-musician musical to life, and we’re honored to release this album on iTunes, Amazon and whatever new app people use to steal music.”
Recently, I chatted with the collaborators about The Noteworthy Howard Barnes and other decidedly not-so-average projects. Which brings me back to how you may know their work — if you’re a fan of the animated Disney Junior series Vampirina, they have written more than 150 songs for it. (As this is a written medium, I will not sing them all in this space.) Their other musical theater projects include Orphie and The Book of Heroes, The Enlightenment of Percival von Schmootz, Judge Jackie: Disorder in the Court, Dani Girl, Golden Gate, Homemade Fusion, Junior Claus and, most recently, Romantics Anonymous.
What’s the genesis of The Noteworthy Howard Barnes? What a wonderful idea to have a central character who, by definition, isn’t very noteworthy.
Christopher Dimond: Michael and I started working on it about 10 years ago. We’d written a couple of musicals that were relatively dark and not necessarily the most commercially viable. I think it was Michael who came up with the idea: What would happen if someone woke up one day and suddenly their life was a musical? For it to have real conflict, though, we realized we needed a protagonist who knows nothing about musical theater and hates what he does know. So when Howard, to his horror, wakes up to his life as a musical, he immediately sets out on a quest to get his life back. As we dug a bit more, the heart of the piece became what music means in his life — what the idea of musicality is, what musical theater represents to those of us who love it.
Michael Kooman: We were also inspired by the opportunities for comedy. To sustain the story, we had to create a character arc and a journey — in other words, more than just comment on musical theater. Figuring out the why — what does Howard earn? why was he chosen? — let us have our cake and eat it, too. Howard’s a cipher for the average man.
CD: Not to give away the ending, but a lot has to do with emotion and repression; Howard has cut himself off dealing with his feelings. The basic idea is he’s bottled everything up so much that it has no choice but to burst forth into a celebration of musical theater. Howard had traumatic experiences in his past that now leads him to rediscover and to open himself up, to become vulnerable to everything wonderful in the world.
To what degree does this trade on the stereotype — if you consider it one — that most heterosexual men (assuming Howard is heterosexual) have an aversion to musical theater. In fact, let’s ask the question: Is that a stereotype? Is Howard the poster child for it?
CD: I’m not sure that I have a real answer for that, but I think it’s something that’s worth exploring. As creators of theater, it’s always good to step back and think about who might be initially resistant to an art form — to musicals, specifically. One of the things we’ve had fun with is that because Howard is that guy, it allows the audience to enjoy the experience through his eyes. I’d love to see a study about perceptions of musical theater.
MK: Musicals are inherently emotional things, and songs are an emotional lift-off. The best place to start a song is at the point of highest emotion, and here you have the concept of toxic masculinity, where the range of acceptable emotions for a straight man to show is, or sometimes is, kind of limited: you can be angry or cool or kind of neutral, but you can’t be grieving or mourning. Which means you also can’t adore someone or be in love.
CD: I agree.
How do you make a character who doesn’t metaphorically sing sing?
MK: We leaned into the specifics of Howard’s character. In the sense of, say, Howard’s a hockey fan, so how do you make him sing? The show starts with a scene in Howard’s actual world, so the first song is incredibly contrasting, and it gives us an idea of where he comes from. We put him in a bit of a vise, boxing him in this world of emotionality and musical theater-ness, and then, when the vise gets pressed too hard, the emotions have no choice or possibility but to break into song, and he sings. But he doesn’t sing for about 25 minutes into the show, until his world collapses and he pushes into this other world completely.
CD: That was a fun challenge: a main character reluctant to sing. His first song gave us the opportunity to make him aware that he’s singing — the show forces him to. It heightens the moments, then, when he chooses to sing — when he starts to open up and his arc can progress. It’s really impactful and cathartic because it’s not something that comes easily to him.
I guess we do live in the age of irony.
CD: Sometimes I think I could be Howard in my next life. I also think it would be difficult to write any character that I somehow didn’t understand. I’ve been accused of sharing some qualities with him. I also think, on some level, that everyone understands him — we’ve all been hurt and we all know the impulse to protect ourselves by not opening up and putting up walls and boundaries that keep us safe.
MK: What’s interesting is that even as both Chris and I embarked on this idea, we didn’t realize how much it reflected our own lives. We got into writing because we needed an outlet, emotionally, from our lives, so Howard really resonated. I didn’t even realize how much I needed to write this show until I was watching it, that I was putting my emotions into my music. I had a childhood where I felt I couldn’t talk about my emotions.
Talk about your writing process? Especially for a show like this one…
CD: We tend to, just the two of us, spend a lot of time sitting, talking and spitballing what if this happened, what if that happened. We tend to focus on the book first, to create a draft, or at least a general structure. From there we start to work through for the best musical moments.
MK: We say that we’ve been writing this show for 10 years because we got sidetracked by this job on the Disney Channel, Vampirina, producing 150 songs for them. Finally we got this Howard Barnes to Seattle, where it was produced at the scale at which it needs to be. It was just amazing that the Village Theater took a chance and really put resources into it. In this world in which the music industry has changed over the last 20 years, what we want to do is get this show into the hands of those who may not seen it in the theater. It’s our passion project.
Is there a future for The Noteworthy Howard Barnes — say, a production in NYC?
CD: The path for an original musical is so unwritten; there are so many different ways that shows find their way out into the world. We felt that the best way to do that in this case is to reach a broader audience [with the CD] and see what opportunities remain for the show going forward.
MK: We have all these children songs out, and we have a show in development going on an American tour, so we wanted to add to that a palette a good, splashy musical comedy.