BMC alum Michael Korie is the recipient of this year’s Marc Blitzstein Award given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Writing for musical theater, he created the lyrics to composer Scott Frankel’s music for Grey Gardens, Far From Heaven, Doll, Happiness, Meet Mister Future, and War Paint. Their scores have been nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards, received The Outer Critics Circle Award, and have been produced on Broadway, Playwrights Horizons, Lincoln Center Theater, throughout the USA, in Europe and South America.His librettos to operas composed by Stewart Wallace include Where’s Dick?, Kabbalah, Hopper’s Wife, Harvey Milk, and SuperMax set to premiere in 2018. Other work staged this year includes Grapes of Wrath. He teaches lyric writing at Yale. Michael can be found on Wikipedia and the Yale School of Drama website.
He is interviewed here byBMC alum Timothy Huang, the composer/lyricist/librettist of the musicals Costs of Living, A Relative Relationship, The View from Here, and the song cycle LINES. Costs of Living, the story of two immigrant cab drivers, won a Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater this year. His website is timothyhuang.net. This interview is reposted from the blog contemporary musical theatre.com.
My friend and mentor Michael Korie is killing it these days. He was awarded the Marc Blitzstein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has three new shows in the pipeline or staged—and now, thanks to me, he has a diverse assortment of French pastries to complement his coffee.
I’m sitting in his living room, looking for a story because like MK himself, Marc Blitzstein was a hero of mine and that each is now linked to the other for all time is something of a Fanboy Geekout Mitzvah to me. No, you did not misread that. Yes, I made that up. No, you can’t use it.
If you’re not already familiar, Marc Blitzstein was an American composer and librettist who is best known for his pro-union “labor opera” The Cradle Will Rock. It was kind of an opera, but also kind of a musical, and though at the time it defied categorization, today it would definitely have fallen under the term New Music Theater. (Thanks in large part to works like Korie’s own Grey Gardens, not coincidentally.) MK cuts a pastry into equal portions, pours me coffee and we’re off.
Korie on discovering Blitzstein:
“I discovered Marc Blitzstein when I was a kid. There was an English translation of the Threepenny Opera he did that was very mordent and very funny. I didn’t want to listen to it in German, and as a lyricist Blitzstein knew how to honor the spirit of the music, so I loved it. That isn’t always the highest priority to some translators even though it should be. At least when it comes to my stuff. Don’t get it literal, honor the spirit of the music. Later on I learned about Cradle Will Rock, which is highly political, and I like writing political work too.”
On winning the Marc Blitzstein Award:
“Blitzstein was very diverse. He wrote opera, and he wrote musicals, and he wrote political plays. I was kind of bowled over when I got the news, because that’s what I do too!”
On the revival of his and Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath:
“It’s a wonderful, well regarded company that hasn’t announced yet, so I can’t reveal. I had to take out a lot of Steinbeck in the original because the piece was already too huge. But I missed it because it’s a lot of the political stuff. This time around I took out a lot of the subsidiary characters, and found that when writing for this opera that I didn’t need the kind of lyric structure you need in musicals, like AABA. ABA is enough! Or even AB!”
On writing opera versus musical theater:
“The simplest definition is to say that opera is sung by opera singers in an opera house. It’s an opera cause you call it an opera. But it can also be about playing with bigger toys and telling stories with bigger scope. I’ve always thought Porgy and Bess was an opera. When it was on Broadway it became a different animal. For a long time I maintained that my show Hopper’s Wife was a crossover work. It employed techniques from both. But now I think it’s totally an opera.”
On the genesis of Hopper’s Wife, which received its East Coast premiere this year at the New York City Opera/Harlem Stage:
“Josephine Hopper, Edward’s wife, was the actual model in most of his famous works. The finished paintings were later changed of course, to disguise her but the vacant look, the hats, the nudes: that was her. An old professor of mine who knew the Hoppers when they lived in New York told me once that after Edward died, Josephine took out a trove of unknown sketches and drawings and studies and a couple of paintings and burned them. No one knows why. There were simply pictures and possibly masterpieces that she decided the world would never see. Meanwhile another Hopper, Hedda is a tool of the political right wing of the 1950s masquerading as a gossip columnist. She too wore a parade of hats and disguises. Stewart [Wallace, the composer] and I looked at each other and said ‘Wait a minute!’ And we both had it at once. Let’s combine Josephine with Hedda, make one morph into the other. If she becomes the arbiter of American morality suddenly there’s a reason for her destroying those paintings. And from this absurd premise, we wrote a fantasia on how popular entertainment in America consumes high culture.”
The pastries are gone, and the coffee is stale, which means it’s time for me to pack up. But though my mug is empty, my cup still runneth over. Ten years ago the Academy of Arts and Letters awarded Michael a Richard Rodgers grant for his work on Grey Gardens, the very same honor I received this year for Costs of Living, which means I get to watch him receive the Blitzstein while simultaneously following in his footsteps. Like I said. Fanboy Geekout Mitzvah. And no, you still can’t use it.