Interview Herringbone Creators Tom Cone, Skip Kennon, and Ellen Fitzhugh

Playwright Tom Cone

The idea for Herringbone is such an original story.  Can you talk a little bit about how you got the idea?

I’m embarrassed to say it was simply I was sitting in my bathtub and I thought of the first line of the play and that was it. 

And from there it just flowed?

I wrote the play in about a week.  It then had a history before it evolved into what you’re producing at McCarter.  It premiered as a one-act play in 1975 in Vancouver, BC and went on to represent British Columbia at the cultural Olympics in Montreal, even though it was a play about America.  It had had a television special with the CBC TV; it went on a national tour as a one-act play and it ended up at the Olympics.  When it was there I realized that I didn’t want a one-man play, I really felt I could get more out of what I was trying to say. 

I really wanted to write a play as a kind of a gift to the United States from my vantage point, having been a draft dodger and having lived here [in Canada] for the first eight years before amnesty.  The vantage point of being here gave me the feel of a terrible compromise, almost like a tragic compromise that I think that we all have to deal with either personally or politically.   So I wrote this tragedy for this kid.  I have my own background: I was a child actor in Miami, Florida, going to theater school and being in plays for about 12 years and really being under the thumb of some demonic directors. 

I really felt that it was best to write it as one person performing 10 roles. Then when I decided, after it had had this tour and been performed at the Olympics, to make it into a full length piece, I wanted it through composed as opposed to just inserting anecdotal music of some period.  Some people like to couch the play in a kind of vaudeville context, but I disagree with that. I think that even though its history is attached to vaudeville, you would never see the kind of act [that Herringbone is performing] in vaudeville.  Ironically, the closest thing [to our play] that occurred I didn’t know about until, I think, the production at Playwrights Horizon. The actor David Rounds was doing research and found--it was so bizarre--a little article on Ethel Barrymore having performed multiple roles on vaudeville circuits as a nine year old.  So she was performing little 10 and 15 minute plays and that seemed to work for me historically. But the idea that Herringbone was just cheap jokes and it was based on certain rhythms or physical comedy, I wasn’t interested in that, so I played against the genre. 

The original producer was the great actress Colleen Dewhurst, and she and her partner Ken Marsolais brought me to New York and suggested that I meet Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh, with my idea that I wanted to have it through composed and taken to another level, and drive the actor even more crazy.  So we slowly worked very carefully to transform the play. 

I was blessed by Ellen Fitzhugh and Skip Kennon.  We had this idea right from the beginning that we wanted to do this as if it was written by one person.  We wanted to have a kind of seamless quality and we didn’t want to do stop-go.  We wanted the music to push the narrative as well as the book pushing the narrative.  And we had our issues, because I had never written a book before. All the compromises that you have to make are extremely difficult, but Ellen Fitzhugh translated scenes that I had created, and maybe either finished or started, or I was the bookends of the scene, and she was the middle, but it seemed like we were of the same voice.  We both were Southerners—she’s from Arkansas and I’m from Miami, FL, and my family is from Nashville, TN, and we really click like mad, and that was really helpful to me. 

How did audiences respond to the piece?

[The early production in] Chicago was the most wild draft that we had and they were ecstatic.  One night we had 200 psychiatrists in – you can well imagine what the talkback was like. 

I really wanted to write a different type of a musical. I wanted to put it within the scope of the psychology of a character and have him have to deal with all of those issues.  From my point of view, the drama that takes place is really in the narrator’s hands.  The other thing was that—and I don’t care if anyone does this, this is just me—I felt that [the narrator] had to do this every night, he has to tell that nightmare otherwise he’d be a dead person. He has to do that to stay above water.  And I think we all have issues [like that], whatever they are. 

Composer Skip Kennon

How did you get involved in this project?

Many years ago Ken Marsolais and Colleen Dewhurst held an option on a small musical of mine. They also held an option on Tom Cone's one-act play Herringbone and proposed to Tom that he make a musical of it.  When Tom said let's pursue the idea, Ken and Colleen approached me and asked me if I was interested in doing the score. After I read it, I said I'm crazy enough to do the music but I'm not crazy enough to do the lyrics - but I know someone who is.  I proposed the lyric writer Ellen Fitzhugh and we auditioned for Tom and the rest is history.  By the way, Tom's play only got us to the Hollywood segment, the rest of the story was arrived at through collaboration and of course Tom's approval - with a few of the older characters and scenes dropped along the way.

What makes the story of Herringbone good material for a musical?

Characters who have big wants and great needs and big obstacles to achieving them and getting them met. Also lots of events and ups and downs. One arc plays, movies, or stories usually don't make good musicals because you need twists and turns to create new situations to write a varied score.

Can you talk about the challenges and rewards of orchestrating a piece for only three instruments?

"Herringbone" is a musical in the form of an act.  Acts are usually performed with piano, bass and drums and sometimes small bands.  Colleen and Ken promised me that after the first production of "Herringbone" at the St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago I could have a trio.
At St. Nick's we only had piano - there was no room for anything else.  Too bad, because bass adds a bottom and a buoyancy and percussion adds groove and drive.  And all three together sound like a classy act like at the Algonquin or the Carlisle.  To me piano alone sounds like a rehearsal - not a performance - and it looks like the producers are cheap.  I didn't get my trio at the New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons. It was a tiny stage and again there was no room.  And I believe the lukewarm critical response to the score at Playwrights was reflected in that incompleteness.  The last three productions I've seen of the show have used the trio and the score really came alive.  "Orchestrating" is too high falutin' a word for what I did.  I just added the drums that were always in my head when I was writing the music and wrote out the bass part that is inherent in the piano score which doesn't change in either the solo or trio version.

You played "Thumbs Dubois" in Herringbone when it was a Playwrights Horizons.  Can you talk a little bit about that character-- how the accompanist is actually a part of the story.

Well, Tom, Ellen and the director Ben Levit didn't want me to play "Thumbs DuBois" at either St. Nicholas or Playwrights.  Tom and Ben wanted a middle-aged black pianist for the look of the show.  I was not black or at the time middle-aged.  Ellen's very good reason for me not playing was that she wanted me free to observe the show and do rewrites with her as they came up.  Like most composers I just wanted someone who could play the score spiritedly and accurately.  But fate and money played against us.  The score is tricky, technically difficult and quite specific - I really write out what I want.  The pianist hired to play at St. Nicholas, after not improving for weeks, tearfully came up to the director one day and said, "I'll never be able to play this.  I just don't understand why you don't have Skip do it."  Well, there was no time for a replacement, so I did.  At Playwrights, we auditioned black middle-aged pianists and there were two fabulous ones - but no way were they going to work for what Playwrights paid.  Then we went after any middle-aged pianists - those who could play it wouldn't work for the small money.  Finally, a very inebriated pianist came in to play a few bars of the piece we'd given everyone to audition with.  He messed up terribly and then looked angrily at me and bellowed, "Who do you f----- think you are, Leonard Bernstein?!"  That was enough for the director.  He turned to me and said, "You're playing the show!"

Now, to finally answer your question.  In my mind Thumbs and George Herringbone have been together for years performing.  Thumbs knows the act backwards and forwards and knows when something is different, special, on the verge of falling apart, a line faltering, the audience responding especially well to something, and the list goes on and on.  He may have even written or arranged the music for this autobiographical act that Herringbone wrote. He's there for George Herringbone to share things with: Didn't I play that scene really well tonight? Hey, the audience really got that, didn't they?  Vamp for me, will you; I'm a little emotional here. Oh-oh, I nearly screwed that one up. Thumbs truly cares about Herringbone and how he wends his way through this brutal psychological maze every night.  He knows why Herringbone needs to do it and supports him as best he can.

Lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh

How did you get involved with HERRINGBONE? 

I'd just moved to New York from Los Angeles and met up with Skip, whom I'd known from the L.A. BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.  He said he'd been offered a one-man play for musicalizing and asked if I'd be interested in reading it to see if I wanted to write the lyrics.

What were your first impressions of the piece?

As I was reading Tom's play, I recognized almost immediately that it was like nothing else in theater.  I'd stop reading intermittently and pace around, mumbling to myself, "Nobody else gets to do this... nobody... nobody but me gets to do this...."

As a lyricist, how do you collaborate with the book writer (and composer) on creating characters?

The Herringbone characters were already created, but to weave them through an adventure which would now be told in song as well as book has required innumerable hours... weeks... years?... of intense discussion, role-playing, insistence, compromise, faltering, discovery, moodiness, congratulations and just about every conceivable kind of creative interaction. 
Herringbone wasn't unique in being developed through this sort of collaborative heaven/hell, but it was unique in that each creative participant seemed "possessed" by the desire to come up with something even more theatrically outrageous than any of the rest of the crew could imagine. 
Initially, these sessions often involved not only Tom, Skip and me, but our original director and choreographer, Ben Levit and Ted Pappas, respectively. Soon, our actor, David Rounds, was a contributing force, as well. That's a lot of "Yeah, well wait'll ya hear THIS idea!" going on, and from quite diverse perspectives.

How does the "voice" that is speaking relate to the "voice" that is singing?

It's important to me to thread into lyric content all the mannerisms, vocabulary, speech rhythms, accents and verbal/emotional idiosyncracies which exist for that character in the libretto.  Fortunately, Herringbone characters gave me a lot of variety to work with.

How did you decide where there should be songs, and what they should be about? 

These weren't decisions, in the usual sense of that word. Very little was measured, considered, weighed and concretized by committee in advance of the writing.  (I don't like to have a lot of outside input into what the lyric content will be.) These choices were, in large part, "eruptions" of ideas which were then pretty immediately implemented into sung material.  If everybody later agreed that the resulting song served the piece well, it stayed.  If not, another approach would be taken, and maybe it would be sung in the same spot by the same character, or maybe wildly not.

Did you and Skip work together, or did he write music for lyrics or vice versa?

Mostly we worked in the same room; together, back and forth, we incrementally built the songs.