Joel & Leonard have a chat…

Joel:  Hey Len… for that's the way I first met you back in 1997, "Len" Moors the actor/singer.   We were working on a show together, Tea and Crumpets.  Remember that?

Leonard:  Len is short for Leonard, and that’s what my friends call me. And “Leonard” looks better in print, you know? Anyway,
Tea & Crumpets, how could I forget? After freshly graduating from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and launching myself into a series of operettas and musical theatre in the Bay Area, I still had a huge desire to be involved with new musicals, and there weren’t too many of those in the area. I was lucky enough to be introduced to you through a mutual friend, and got to audition for you. We performed your show Tea and Crumpets across the street from the Curran Theatre in downtown San Francisco. You were the composer at that time, working with another librettist. Little did you know that I was secretly setting my sites on one day putting my own composer hat back on someday, since writing is my first love. However, I had no idea that it would be with you. I was very inspired to work with you as an actor. I kept my composing side pretty quiet for quite awhile, didn’t I?

Joel:  Indeed, a man of many talents!  And now I'm completely spoiled.  For now as we work on projects, I have a readily available actor/singer/musician at my disposal! Not only that, but you add the versatility, depth, and frankly, a wonderful musical vocabulary that I felt I could not achieve as a composer.  Hence, my need for a collaborator, and my luck in finding all those skills rolled into one person—you!

I'd like to ask you on your thoughts about the 1990s versus today. Back in the '90s you were focused on your career as an actor/singer. Now you devote a good deal of your time to composing and writing.   What do you like about this new role? What do you miss about the old role? What do you not miss at all? Do you miss auditions? (LOL!)

Joel and Len work shots - 03

Leonard:  I actually fell back into acting after college. It wasn't my intention. I started off musical directing a couple of shows, and then was asked to musical direct God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, an obscure musical written by Ashman & Menken. I was ready to take a short break at that point and recommended a friend who lived closer to the theatre to take that gig. He in turn recommended me to the director to play Mr. Rosewater. I was cast in the role, and couldn't turn down the opportunity. From there, I got very lucky being cast in a series of great roles after that. I certainly don't regret it. It was an excellent experience and education for me. And I greatly enjoyed performing—still do on some level.

If I had the opportunity then to collaborate with someone on a musical, I probably would have taken them up on it. I did experience collaborating with a couple of other people before my lengthy acting career, but those relationships didn't pan out to anything lasting. You and I have worked so well together when I performed your material. When Emma came along, I was ready to make the switch back to writing with you, as much as I enjoyed performing the material. I wasn't concerned at the time if it would lead us to work together as a songwriting team. I just saw talent in you and wanted to nurture it when I became the arranger/orchestrator for that show. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I love writing because I have the opportunity not only to "play" each character in my head, but help shape their stories through song and connect to their emotions with my music. This way, I feel I get to do it all. The process is similar in some ways to exploring a new role as an actor in a show. You do the research, you build layers of your character, and you use parts of yourself in the character you portray. Composing for musicals isn't much different. It's the process of exploring a character that I like most about acting. And of course, the exhilarating feeling of actually performing is fantastic. Do I miss auditions? Not at all! (LOL!) I like being on "the other side of the table" as we say, conducting the auditions. I think every actor should experience that. It gives you a whole new perspective on how to audition.

So Joel, speaking of acting, you certainly write dialogue and develop characters on the page as if you have had first-hand experience as an actor, but you haven't performed in that way very much in your life, have you? How did you come to write musicals, both as a composer, and breaking in to writing lyrics and book?

Joel:   My acting "career" lasted for a total of two, and thankfully short, performances. My debut was in elementary school, when I was cast as a Revolutionary reenacting the Boston Tea Party uprising. I had one line, which was to be delivered when discovering that the tea we were dumping was tainted: "It's decaffeinated!" But to my dismay, my delivery was barely audible—even to me. Fortunately there were only doting parents as witnesses to the event, so I came out unscathed. But my second and thankfully final acting performance had a different outcome. This was a few years later at summer camp. I was cast as a  dove that would be consumed by a fox on Noah's Ark. (Hey, shit happens, even on Noah's Ark.) The trouble was that the actor playing the fox was more of a ham than a fox, and I was more of a hen than a dove. In fact, due to a costume malfunction, I looked and possibly behaved more like an ostrich. To seal the deal, the opening and closing night "critic," the head camp counselor, referred to me in his review as, "one of Noah's little chickens—did Noah have chickens?" Distraught in humiliation, I realized then and there that I was not cut out to be on the wicked stage. Thus ended my acting career. 

Joel and Len work shots - 05

But writing was always a part of me.  Music was always "on my mind" as it were. So I studied piano, and would later play in the pit for our shows musicals in school and for other community organizations. In college I studied music composition, and wrote a lot. At that time, I composed for numerous mediums, including film (this would later lead to a side career of writing and performing for silent films in the Bay area, venues including The Castro Theater and the Pacific Film Archive). I also wrote songs for a lot of different variety acts and shows. One show had the opportunity to move onto New York off-Broadway in the 1980s, called, Some Summer Night. That show also would later teach me the importance of collaboration—but I'm getting ahead.

I kept writing, and even received a few accolades along the way (e.g., Bay Area Theater Critics Award for musical score for Tea and Crumpets). But strangely enough, there was a level of irritation—yeah, that's the word, irritation—because I had to face the fact that I was also determined to write words to my music. And from that, dialog to lead into the songs. And from there, to write the stories that would lead into the dialogue that would lead into the songs. And the more I did of all three at once, the more I realized that I was not really allowing myself to grow. Most especially with music. I started to see a pattern in my compositions, and was not exploring as much as when I was writing text or lyrics.

My show Emma was the turning point. I was author of the book/libretto, music ,and lyrics at this time. The style of music that I had written was pastiche, in a very specific 19th century kind of way. But I knew it needed refinement, and that I needed an editor/arranger/handmaiden for the music I was writing. Someone to work through it, to help create the vocal and piano arrangements. And that's where you would later step in. And I'm so happy you did.

That was in 2007. And since then, although I've dabbled with a few things musically now and then, the real focus has been and continues to be the words; storytelling, lyrics. All that fun stuff. Since then, I have embarked on this frontier exploring plays. In fact, a short play I penned, about a middle-aged unemployed assembly line worker who tries to pull out of the "Great Recession", Petrified, was picked up for a festival. This very piece has now become the basis of our latest musical.

Okay, so I've babbled on and not answered your question regarding writing dialog without having first-hand experience as an actor. I suppose the same is true of writing a song and not being a singer. In both cases I "hear" the dialog much like I "hear" the music. And in both cases, I work with those who know how to act or sing to see how it lands, and then clean it up from there. So now the secrets out!

So Len, you have a lot of obligations in addition to the commitment to writing. What is a typical work day for you? And how do you like to work? And, doing all the things you do, how do you find the time to write?

Leonard:  Well, until I can fulfill my dream of making my primary living as a musical theatre composer, I've been fortunate enough to have interesting musical jobs alongside my path as a songwriter. I've done some vocal coaching and taught voice off and on throughout the years, as well as having a steady church job as a singer. I am also a freelance music engraver, Sibelius being my program of choice. Currently, I work as a music editor for a Humanities Institute archiving the works of Mozart and CPE Bach. In the past I worked in the dot-com industry for a company that began the trend of online music sampling. I listened to thousands of tracks of all genres of music and worked with record labels getting the newest catalogue of CDs (remember them?)  It turned out to be a great education in music. I have so much to draw from now.

Today, my typical day would be arriving at my music studio downtown, turning on my digital piano, and working on the latest song for the our latest project, whether it is writing, arranging, recording, or tweaking it. I reserve my mornings for my creative work when my mind is fresh. After lunch, I begin my "day" job working on Mozart archives into the early evening. I'll frequently go out for walks during the day, which is where I get my greatest musical or lyrical ideas.

Oh, I almost forgot our process of collaboration. How do Joel and Len work together in a given week? You and I will sit down in our studio or at a coffeehouse somewhere and hash out the general ideas of what we're working on. If it's a new song, you'll generally give me a first draft of lyrics and possibly a sketch of the musical rhythm you have in mind. Sometimes you will use a song you know as a model for the genre you are aiming for (ballad, up-tempo, etc.) but not tell me what it is. Then I take it, find the musical inspiration through the character's emotions or the situation, or sometimes even how a lyrical phrase sounds as the character would say it, and off I go. I will almost always write back and give you suggestions for different words to sing, or a different "hook" in the refrain, taking the lyrics you've given me and re-shaping them as I go. I'll email my changes to you, you'll fix a few lines and email it back to me. We've named this "pinging" each other, didn't we?

Joel and Len work shots - 09

Joel:  Yes. Call it "pinging it together." There have been a few exceptions, a song here and there where the ideas gelled faster that required less back and forth, but that has been the exception, not the rule. Also our weekly get-togethers keep us on our toes. Sometimes we have lots to share, other times, very little.  It doesn’t matter, we just keep the momentum going.

Leonard:  We always have lots to share, Joel! Our weekly get-togethers are invigorating for me. Even if we don't accomplish a task on a script or a song, we always come away inspired from our talks, don't we? You know, even from the very beginning when I was a performer interpreting your work as an actor, I felt a connection to your characters and your writing. From actor, to arranger, to composer, I've developed a creative symbiosis with you that continues to motivate me to write with you. It's been an exciting ride so far, and this is only the beginning.

Joel:  It is just a beginning. It's an exploration. It's a commitment. It's a journey. And I'm flattered (even in this online discussion) that it invigorates you. Your input, ideas, music, voice, character, interpretation and simply well-being invigorates me too.

I'll close with this: I don't know where my ideas come from, not really. There's just something about a situation, a story, an idea, that speaks to me to reinterpret it for the stage. I felt that way with Jane Austen's Emma, with E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, and more recently, the collective stories I overheard of those struggling with in today's economy for Petrified. But whatever generates the spark, if the idea has merit, meaning, if it's "speaks to me" for more than just a few days, then I have to do something about it. Because it just won't go away. And with that, the next step is to see how far the idea can go. That's where the fun begins: the commitment to bringing ideas to the page, then to the stage, and then—well, whatever lays beyond. And I look forward going on this journey with you!

February 2014