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|A CurtainUp Feature
A Chat With Rusty Magee
Composer-Lyricist of the New Off-Broadway Musical The Green Heart
It takes great care to nurture the green heart
While it's important to let nature do her part
It still needs a loving touch to plant it and water it
Then it can start!
The above lines from the title song of the new new Off-Broadway musical The Green Heart, sum up the show's emotional essence--and also what its composer and lyricist, Rusty Magee is all about.
He has nurtured his love of music, like the green leaf invented and nurtured by the botanist heroine of the show. As Henrietta's forté is science, so Rusty's is the piano, which he's played all his life. And, as Henrietta's love story in The Green Heart is not the stuff of an overnight happy ending, Magee's career has not been an overnight somersault to fame either. Instead the road leading towards the current, Manhattan Theatre Club backed show was paved brick by solid brick.
Unlike many of the old songwriters who honed their skills in the Tin Pan Alley School of Hard Knocks, Magee studied composition and harmony at Brown University. He also has an honorary M.F.A. From the Yale Drama School where he spent three years as a musical consultant. But while he's classically trained he is very much a man of the musical theater which in his case means not only a love of the musical theater form, but the willingness--eagerness, is probably a better word--to develop the versatility that's needed to write both lyrics and music.
"I have a computer," he told me during our recent telephone interview, "and I use it to develop my writing, as well as the time I spend as a stand-up performer who amuses from the piano." The piano, per se, is his musical self-extension. It is where he does all his "musical thinking." To answer the question inevitably asked of song writers about which comes first, the music or the lyrics, Magee, like most, has no set rules. "I might get an idea for a title and song and go to the piano, or the idea might come while I'm there."
As in my interviews during the open press rehearsals for Steel Pier and Titanic I asked Rusty Magee to define his sound. He has a clear musical self-image: "The music is clever and witty, and very much in the tradition of musical comedy. . . and, there are a certain amount of words, so it needs to be listened to". This last brought us to The Green Heart. It gave me the perfect opportunity to express this expansive traditional musical style, to write songs that reflected its humorous and ironic flavor."
The announcements that tag the play as a "musical black comedy, romantic thriller"" also reflect Magee's mission of "putting the fun back into musical comedy with a 90's twist." When I asked if the above quoted title song was the big number with lots of reprises, he laughed and said this wan't "that kind of musical" adding: "Several people at previews have told me how they loved the title song and wanted to hear it over and over again so, we do reprise it a couple of times."
Here's Magee's answer as to whether the play' title is to be taken literally or as a metaphor? "Both. he story is about a man's redemption. . .the journey towards it after he's squandered away his fortune and and this botany teacher who teaches at a local college and is a little eccentric becomes the object of his affection because she also is worth $250million dollars.""
In case this story line rings a tad familiar to some of you late-night movie watchers, there was a 1971 movie, called The New Leaf starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May. It wasn't an original screenplay but based on a short story by a prolific magazine fiction writer named Jack Ritchie. Rusty's wife Alion Fraser always thought this story would make a great musical so five years ago the couple decided to put her idea into action. Alison is still very much in the picture. She plays the part of what her husband describes as "one of the three comic villains." Villainess, or not, Fraser and Magee, seem the epitome of a couple who have taken care "to nurture" their green heart as well as the one being staged at the Variety Arts.
Since the theater is fraught with risk, the fate of The Green Heart, at this point (the official opening is April 1), is as up in the air as the fate of its heroine when she marries a man who's more interested in her money than her heart. Still, it has many assets in its favor. In addition to Rusty's musical score, here are a few:
The show's book is by Charles Busch who, like Magee is both a performer and writer. While Busch has written and starred in many other Off-Broadway shows, these have centered around drag queens. And so, as Henrietta the heroine of The Green Heart invents a new leaf, Busch has thus reinvented himself as a mainstream writer.
A cast that seems sized just right to call this a big-little musical-- 5 principles and an 8-member ensemble.
Sets by James Noone who has contributed mightily to many other shows--in Full Gallop, to give just one example from a currently running show, he transformed Diana Vreeland's dictum that "Red is a great clarifier--it makes everything else look good" into a set that set the Westside Theatre's stage ablaze with bright red floral chintzes.
Interestingly this is the second Off-Broadway musical based on a short story. Here's hoping that as Violet, (based on a short story by Doris Betts), seems to have blossomed into success, that the public and critics will also water The Green Heart with praise. After talking to Rusty Magee, and hearing snatches of the title song, I feel hopeful that I can burst into positive adjectives when I review it. Stay tuned.