Sunday, September 23

Q&A: Tony-winning alumnus discusses musicals, writing process

Alumnus Robert Freedman's musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" will be performed at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles from March 22 to May 1. (Center Theatre Group)

Alumnus Robert Freedman's musical "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" will be performed at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles from March 22 to May 1. (Center Theatre Group)

Monty Navarro is a young, zealous heir who discovers he is ninth in line to inherit a large fortune. While concurrently manipulating his fiancee and mistress, Navarro is willing to do anything it takes to get himself first in line to the riches.

Running from March 22 to May 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” offers a humorous yet solemn take on the wide gap between social classes. The musical, written by UCLA alumnus Robert Freedman, won the 2014 Tony for best musical.

The Daily Bruin’s Sarah Ahern spoke with Freedman about the play’s fusion of music and narrative, his experience writing for different media and his astonishment in taking the stage to accept a Tony for best book of a musical as well.

Daily Bruin: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is based on the 1907 novel “Israel Rank” by Roy Horniman. When you were writing the lyrics, how did you keep in mind this classic origin while also appealing to a modern audience?

Robert Freedman: I wrote the lyrics with my collaborator, Steven Lutvak, who wrote the music for the show. We wanted to be faithful to the time period. We wanted the production to have some element of the era that the story takes place in, which is the Edwardian Era in London. (Horniman’s) work is biting and satirical and makes a comment about the hypocrisy of British society and the class system.

What is contemporary about that and fitting for audiences today is the fact that nothing has really changed. We like to think that in America we don’t have classes, but we really do. It certainly is something that gets talked about lately – the haves and the have-nots.

DB: How did you go about weaving together a book that fits in with the score of the play?

RF: As a musical book writer, I love writing lyrics, because I don’t want to stop telling the story just when it gets to the emotional height which would require the characters to sing. It’s really exciting and important for me to integrate those two creative elements. The songs were going to be the musical highlights of the show.

We found places in the story where we thought would be the most appropriate. In terms of actually writing the scenes, I sort of did it simultaneously with writing the score so that they would be easy to integrate. For the most part, the action does not stop when someone sings a song; every song pushes the action forward.

DB: Collaborating with Lutvak, did you encounter any disagreements while creating the play?

RF: We were pretty tough on each other in a good, helpful way. If either one of us was not satisfied with the lyrics or any moment in the show, we would push the other one to keep going until we got it better. … We both had an instinct for what the tone would be, and that’s really important for collaboration. Sometimes you’ll see musicals where the song and the book don’t have the same style of tone, and that can create a problem, but we both instinctively understood what we were writing about and how we wanted to write it.

DB: You have previously done some screenwriting for TV movies, what are some similarities and differences in writing for plays and for TV movies?

RF: It’s really advantageous for me to write in different media. I really like them both, but in terms of satisfaction, when you write for television, for the most part you’re not watching it with other people. So whatever reactions they may have, it’s not a shared public experience quite the same way as live theater is. When you’re watching the work performed in my theater, you can hear the laughter, you can feel the intake of breath and feeling of excitement and surprise from the audience. Part of that communal experience is so gratifying for me.

DB: As an alumnus from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, how do you look back on your experience as a student here?

RF: It was fantastic. One thing I loved about the theater department at UCLA was that at the time that I was going there, everybody had to build sets, paint sets, design lighting, do the sound, stage manage and write a play, whether you were good at it or not. Student plays were always produced, so it was a fantastic learning experience.

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