Having just recently seen the Rude Mechanicals' unfortunate Lipstick Traces, which bludgeons the memory of the Sex Pistols (and a fine book by Greil Marcus) with good intentions, and recalling the outright travesty of Smokey Joe's Café on Broadway (what was I thinking? Lieber and Stoller, that's what I was thinking), to say nothing of The Who's Tommy, I shuddered at the prospect of Newman's work, which is some of my very favorite in the world, being despoiled by musical theater.
But interviewing the man himself, in one of ACT's cavernous rehearsal rooms, I was assured that the show would be at least worth a look, as it extrapolates a narrative from the various personas and stories of his songs, charting his evolution from Southern boy to California legend. At the very least, the show has Newman excited, which, if you're familiar with his notorious deadpan tone, is reason enough to be interested.
Is the narrative of the show suggested by the songs themselves?
Suggested. You know, "Dixie Flyer," I get born and go to New Orleans. That was true. "Four Eyes," a song about going to school, wasn't true when I wrote it. It didn't happen that way, but psychologically, there's some truth to it, as I recall. So, yes, it's a construct, and I've written things to pull things together. But it's entirely comprehensible. You know where you are at all times.
It brings up the question of whether songs not written for the theater—rock songs in particular—are ever served well by theater. It seems like a dangerous proposition.
Yeah, but when you see it... When you see "Miami," and the guys are in Miami and it's kind of sleazy and slowed down and decadent, it doesn't hurt it. It helps it. It makes my stuff easier to understand. Songs like "A Real Emotional Girl," it clarifies it a bit. There's "Louisiana," you can show the flood. "Kingfish," you can show Huey Long. These songs are good material for doing something visually, and it's entirely legit, I think. I haven't seen anything that's jarred me. I mean, I wouldn't tell you if I had, but I haven't.
You've done things with at least loose narratives before. Good Old Boys was a concept record.
As long as I could keep it going, it was. I wrote "Rednecks" and felt I had to explain the guy more, so I wrote "Marie," and even "Rollin'." So that's what that was.
With an album like that, though, the story is implied and people have to make their own leap to fill in the gaps.
And they do, you know. But there are millions of people out there who didn't make the leap. It's not what people have used this form for, usually. I've chosen a funny way to work in pop music. Not a very effective way. I mean, I've felt fine about it, but if you want to reach millions of people--the only time I've done it is through Disney, or like, someone doing "You Can Leave Your Hat On" sort of the wrong way, rocking it real hard and making it about sex and not that sort of furtive, weakling guy I had in my song.
Do you think there's something intrinsic about humor in songs that makes it hard for people to embrace them?
It's a very strange thing. Everyone's smiling when they listen to rock 'n' roll, but until rap, it wasn't set up for a lot of laughs. It has less humor than any other form. It's funny, people who do comedy—Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Sandler, Bill Murray—they always eventually wanna be the leading man. Comedy is never enough. I write other kinds of stuff, so I have an outlet, but comedy would be good enough for me. I mean, if I could make people laugh all the time, I believe that would satisfy me.