Hi Everyone! Welcome to “I’ve Got Company!” I’m thrilled to introduce my dear friend, Frayne McCarthy. Singer, Actor, Director, Set Designer, Painter, Writer, and the list goes on…
LF: First of all, welcome Frayne. I’m so happy you’re here. You’ve just finished a run at the Theatre St. Denis in Montreal, working on Le Petit Roy. You can be seen performing in many places around Canada but where are you from originally?
FM: Ah-ha! I was born in Ottawa, but I was raised in Hull, Quebec (now Gatineau).
I point out to folks we were the only English family on our block…
LF: Oh really…tell us a little about it.
FM: The darned 70s were not such a lovely time to be an Anglo in a Francophone community in Quebec. I hated growing up where we lived, but I’m also thankful for the experience perhaps making me a little more resilient in the face of adversity… make that bullying. I went to French school, spoke French, was as good or better in language arts as any other kid in my class, and I got used to the teasing and shoving. School, at least had teachers whose job it was to keep some kind of school-yard peace, but the real challenge was to get along in our actual neighborhood. I know, dramatic fellow that I am, I’m making it sound like I grew up in an inner-city ghetto instead of the quiet “burbs” of Hull… but it was a very hateful time. It sometimes surprises me my most important and enjoyable work as a performer has almost all been in French or bilingual productions. I love to work in French.
LF: Some wise person once said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” We take these experiences from our youth and learn from them, or we hope to—you obviously did. As a child, what did you want hope to be when you grew up?
FM: Well, at one point I wanted to be a sailor because the idea of traveling was very romantic to me, and I liked the idea of a whole world being contained on a single vessel. But then I wanted to be an artist because I found satisfaction in my drawings. Then I wanted to be an actor because I loved Walt Disney movies. Then the Love Boat came to prime time and I wanted to work on a boat again! As I grew older, I knew I needed to consider something “practical”… and I really had ability in art back then. I have a good eye, decent draftsmanship, a fairly good sense of design… so I took art electives in High School, and then studied Studio Fine Arts in College and University. I was a mediocre painter for most of my school career. It took a long time for me to figure out what I really wanted to be. Being a performer never seemed possible, until I realized I had to make it possible for myself. So I changed focus, changed cities (moved to Toronto), and went after my crazy dreams!
LF: And the creative world is better for it! Your many fans are grateful you took the leap. So now writing musicals…what inspired you to pen your first and when did this happen?
FM: That’s the agent story. Susan Glenn, who was repping me at the time, appreciated that I felt frustrated, as I was not getting much work. I was stuck in the casting cracks, you might say. I didn’t look my age for the longest time. I was “boyish” on camera. So, in my thirties, I couldn’t get cast as a young husband or father to save my soul! And while I didn’t look my actual age, casting directors were scared to try to pass me off as younger. So, just physically, I was in an actor’s no-man’s land. Plus, I think I’ve also had to fight the stigma that I’m a “singer”, which presumably precludes or even excludes me from being a real actor. Anyway, I’m not bitter! Back to Susan, we were talking about how so many people make their own work when they can’t get the work they want… so she suggested I write a play. The “singer” wanted to write a musical. I wrote “AutoPortrait”.
LF: And how did you come up with the subjects of your works? Their titles?
FM: Well, Lisa, I’ve written several shows for young people, and those have usually been tailored to my performers, but I think you’re asking about my two “serious” musicals.
LF: Yes, I am. Why don’t you start with “AutoPortrait”
FM: It’s based on the life and art of Tamara de Lempicka, who rose to prominence in the art world during the Deco Period of the mid-twenties. I was always interested in her because she was so rudely dismissed by a very pompous art history teacher I had at the University of Ottawa. The teacher grudgingly had to recognize the period (loved especially for its design innovations), and so she showed Tamara’s most famous painting a self-portrait in which the subject sits in a green Bugatti automobile. It was her Auto Portrait... yes, a pun.
LF: We all appreciate a good pun…
FM: Well, the teacher dismissed the work as merely being that of a rich socialite, a baroness who painted portraits of her lovers, both men and women. She was deemed unimportant and visually uninteresting. Needless to say, I was immediately enthralled!
LF: Naturally! How did she affect you?
FM: Tamara de Lempicka instantly became one of my favourite painters, and over the years I discovered a brilliant, complex woman at the centre of domestic and diplomatic and global chaos. Her love life was turbulent and sad, but also beautiful. Tamara was a musical theatre heroine if ever there was one! I took a friend’s advice though, and fictionalized liberally.
LF: Why was that?
FM: Real-life, I was warned, can be very boring… and if we love our subject matter too much, we can find the boring bits much more interesting than an audience ever will.
LF: Yes, I understand. It happens in novels, too! LOL! So what happened next?
FM: The show was commissioned by the National Arts Centre of Canada, and its workshop was partly funded by a good friend of mine in the States, Andrew Burroughs. I was delighted to be able to help cast some of the finest musical theatre performers in the country for a solid two weeks of bringing the show to its feet. Danny Boulerice, the show’s composer, and I hardly slept at night, as we madly made daily changes… and I was determined to take all the advice I could from my actors who were breathing life into my dialogue and lyrics.
LF: I’ve heard that actors can sometimes have good ideas... :)
FM: (ha-ha!) Yes and in the end, the show was incredibly exciting to watch, alive at last on stage. It worked! People understood and appreciated the intimate family tragedy I was purposely setting against the sweeping backdrop of the Russian Revolution and two World Wars!
LF: What a thrill!
FM: But, I was told I had written an “American Musical”… that my show, which requited a cast of seventeen actors, was just too big to be considered for production; I was informed that a single gown for a party scene, would cost $2000.00 (why? I asked, I could costume the show myself at a Goodwill store!); and that a car on stage was ridiculous to dream of in a Canadian show. Could I cut it way back, maybe? Would I consider broadening a sliver of the story and cutting the cast down to six, max eight actors?
LF: Oh no…it always comes down to money. What was your reaction?
FM: At the time, I was just crushed. I spent four years writing the show, witnessed what I thought was its birth on stage… and it was shelved. I didn’t want to put myself through that kind of heartache again, so I just didn’t bother trying to take another kick at the can.
LF: Ah, but you did. Can you tell us how you went from disheartened, to motivated enough to write “The Virgin Courtesan”?
FM: I met Blair Thomson when I was cast in a workshop production of a show called “Is Paris Burning?” for which he was the musical director. One day I made a flip remark about a particularly badly-written lyric… I think I said “why didn’t he just find a rhyme?” and Blair laughed out loud, pointed to me and said “one day, I’m going to work with you!”
Years passed. Seriously, it was years, Lisa… and then Blair phoned me, out the blue to remind me about the statement he made that day. He wanted to write an original musical… what ideas did I have?
LF: I guess the stars where aligned, it was time for you two to join forces. How did things go?
FM: We had a few creative meetings during which I basically pitched concepts for shows I’d like to see. Some of these ideas were based on movies or classic books. One of the stories was about a Renaissance poetess and courtesan… but we discovered that a musical about her life was already in the works, so we decided to steer clear of that subject matter.
LF: Argh, yes subject matter seems to rise in waves sometimes, and then everyone’s riding them! So what did you do?
FM: Blair and I had moved on to another show idea, already writing songs for a children’s play I’d written some years earlier, when Blair admitted he pined for the visions I’d proposed of Venetian Courtesans singing and dancing through a provocative tale of treachery and romance.
“I want to go back to Venice,” Blair said. I was only too happy to oblige.
LF: Treachery and romance, delicious!
FM: Well, the real-life story of Veronica Franco was off-limits, but I went in a slightly different direction with a new entirely fictional heroine for our new story—and the oxymoron nature of the show’s title is pivotal to the story line—but I don’t want to give it away!
LF: No, no, don’t. We’ll flock to see the story unfold when the show’s finally mounted in its splendor! Frayne, your works are collaborations. You write the lyrics, others write the music. What comes first?
FM: Story comes before everything. Then the lyrics must inform the music. The words inspire the composers and help them to find the right musical setting for the scene. Then there can be a bit of a dance between collaborators as we go back and forth adjusting both words and music until we find the right song to serve the drama.
Blair is wonderfully considerate of every word I write, while Danny was much more liberal and sometimes needed to be reminded that a text existed in the first place. Both composers told me in advance they wanted the words before they considered their musical phrases.
LF: So your words influence and inspire composers. Hmmm…how much of your own life influences your work?
FM: A great deal… Sometimes more than I expect. For example, one evening I had a very disappointing discussion with some people who are very close to me about their personal views on gay relationships. That night I wrote “Too Few People”, and it’s one of my favourite songs in our show. Blair wrote that beautiful music as a special gift… and whenever I hear it, I’m taken back to the source… and that source is my own life.
LF: In your experience, what is the hardest part of creating a musical?
FM: Struggling to have someone just read it; having to accept an Artistic Director saying something like “it’s just not for me”; fearing it will end up on the shelf. The hardest part of creating a musical is seeing to its ultimate creation on stage.
LF: Sounds familiar. The same thing goes for writing novels. Speaking of which, how does writing the book for a musical differ from writing a novel?
FM: I’ve never written a novel so I can’t really compare the experiences from a technical point of view with any great authority. I only imagine they are very similar. I research my period, I create character sketches, I sketch out a story line, I plot out each character’s through-line… and I pray it all comes together in a satisfying climax!
LF: I agree. It sounds mighty similar. And what, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
FM: The writer has to love his own story and characters. The writer should be swept up in the story himself. If the story isn’t ringing your own bells, chances are it’s not going to appeal to a broader audience. But if you can re-read a scene you’ve written, and you cry unexpectedly, or find yourself laughing out loud at a character’s saucy humour… then carry on. If you’re honestly enjoying those words on the page, so will others.
LF: Or we hope, anyway! LOL! Where is your favourite place to write?
FM: I tend to write at night. I just need a quiet place and a laptop. Distractions like television, dogs barking, the phone, etc, can take me out of the flow of my story. I need to get engrossed in what’s coming through those fingers. It’s actually like reading someone else’s book… except it’s your own, that you’re creating as you go. So my favourite place to write, then, would be a fave place for most people to read.
LF: And what kind of books do you love to read? Who is your favorite author?
FM: Oh boy. Honestly, I’m not the voracious reader I was in my youth! I used to read Ann Rice’s stuff. I was very faithful to her, hoping she’d somehow manage to take on the same kind of thrilling ride I enjoyed while reading “Interview with the Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat”. She never topped those, but I can appreciate why she’s a successful author.
LF: you and so many others…
FM: Stephen King was also a fave. One of my dreams is to musicalize one of his novels. I tried to get the rights to the book I want, but someone in England had the theatrical rights at the time! You don’t know him, do you Lisa?
LF: I wish I did. I’d be putting you both in touch! Any more?
FM: I don’t tend to read any one author any more. I pick up books almost randomly, attracted to their subject matter or the period they present, often depending on what I might be trying to write myself. While working on “The Virgin Courtesan”, I read several historical romantic thrillers set during the Renaissance and quite loved them. I always enjoy the ride of a good story, but honestly, I’m also very interested in soaking up the authors’ research!
LF: Authors everywhere would be happy to hear their research helps other creative folk! How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
FM: Yikes… formula?
LF: LOL! Nevermind…Who or what influenced your writing?
FM: Lisa, the influences are many! Every show I’ve ever been in has influenced me in some way, but as you know, dear friend, many of the shows on my resume are original works! Talk about amazing learning experiences! I’ve watched other writers and composers struggle to see their visions realized on stage... several with multi-million dollar budgets! I’ve witnessed these people’s brilliance, their arrogance, their compromises, their steadfastness, their victories and their failings. I’ve had incredible opportunities to see, first-hand, what works, what doesn’t, and as a performer working on someone else’s piece, I’ve often looked those individuals in the eye and thought to myself “this is not the stance I will take” or “I hope I have this conviction one day”. Every new author I’ve worked with has provided new revelations to the creative process. Especially now, in retrospect, I have great admiration for them all.
LF: Conviction, dedication, passion…you have those qualities, in spades. You’re also patient—they say it’s a virtue—how long does it take you to write a musical?
FM: Years. I think it’s a Canadian thing, in part. I mean, in other countries, I know writers who’ve been produced within months of a first draft. Some writers are hired after the show has already found backers and been booked! I know a team that was brought together by a producer, told they had six months to write a show, were given funding… and they wrote a show which was immediately mounted!! But the Canadian scene is very cautious (well, musical theatre production is big risky business, so it’s a wise thing to be cautious!). We Canucks tend to tread very carefully, we write and re-write, workshop and workshop again. And we pray to be seen on a main stage some day!
LF: Writing, rewriting….what is your work schedule like when you're working?
FM: In my experience, I wrote the book and lyrics on my own over a period of several months, working mostly at night. I can’t say I had a set schedule when I was working on those first drafts.
LF: What was it like working with Danny?
FM: Once it was time to work on music, I basically moved into Danny’s tiny house in Laval, sleeping on his living room love-seat (I’m 6’1”… it was a sight to behold), waking up at 5:00 am to be on a downtown courier route by 7:00 am so we could be done by noon, and work on our show later in the day. The job schedule was tough, and those afternoon work sessions were often interrupted by other things… but it was how we were able to accomplish stuff.
LF: And with Blair?
FM: I am never involved when he’s composing. We get together much more sporadically because of his many commissions for new works and orchestral arrangements. Blair’s just in demand by everyone! But when we do find the time, it’s always very focused and exciting for me to hear the world of the show I’ve written take shape musically.
LF: What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing musicals?
FM: I have been part of wonderful groups of people who come together to share the most basic dream of seeing the show take shape. You, Lisa, have been part of a dream coming true. Your vocals are always so amazing, and your energy is always so nurturing. Thanks for that!
LF: Frayne, you’re very kind and sweet. Two of the many reasons why I love to work with you. Now, what was one of the most surprising things you learned about yourself in writing your works?
FM: As a painter I was always very impatient to get the work finished. But, in part because of the collaborative nature of writing a musical, I’ve had to be patient with myself and the process. I always feel if you’re going to put energy into doing anything, you should do it well, so I do try to go the extra mile with my part. For my work on “The Virgin Courtesan” especially, I have tried to be a real wordsmith in my lyric writing. I pay close attention to rhyming schemes and scan, I try for perfect rhymes, I try for internal rhymes… I try my best, and I don’t lose patience with the process. There is light at the end of the tunnel! And a few good tunes too!
LF: If you had to pick one favourite song from each of the musicals you’ve written, which ones would they be?
FM: From “AutoPortrait” I would probably have to say “Young Again”. Carmen Ferlan sang it so heartbreakingly in the National Arts Centre workshop… there was so much truth in that moment…
And from “The Virgin Courtesan”, I’ve already mentioned “Too Few People” and how it moves me. But maybe because it is very personal, I don’t listen to it as much as I listen to “The Measure of a Man”! Lisa… you amazing songstress you, that is the song I listen to the most.
LF: Did I mention you are also generous?? The lyrics and the music are beautiful. It’s one of my favourite musical theatre songs. Can you tell us what you’re working on right now?
FM: I am currently “between engagements”! But I’m actively working at getting production people to give “The Virgin Courtesan” a decent listen and their kind consideration.
LF: Well, we can help with spreading the word about the show and by encouraging everyone to take a listen to demo recordings of the new musical "The Virgin Courtesan" by Frayne McCarthy and Blair Thomson.
I’ve got this little thing going where create a tagline to sell my guests’ story. The exercise is to use 20 words but no matter how you and I tried we could only get it down to 25. So folks, here it is:
Frayne, it’s been such a wonderful visit. I loved having you drop by. I wish you good fortune with all your musical and theatrical endeavours, and may “The Virgin Courtesan” find her wings and soar on the sweet wind of success!
Thank you everyone for stopping by to meet my dear friend Frayne. Please join me next week when my guest will be Lea Schizas - Author and Publisher at MuseItUp Publishing.