Ryan Scott Oliver is one of the most visionary and promising up-and-coming musical theater composers. At 26, songwriter and lyricist RSO already has a lifetime’s worth of achievements. Earning an MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from NYU-Tisch, RSO has been the recipient of countless prestigious and highly sought after musical theater awards. Recently, Pace University (where he serves as an adjunct professor) performed his show Darling, a re-imagining of the classic “Peter Pan” tale. Other credentials include the critically acclaimed Mrs. Sharp, the song cycles Out Of My Head and Quit India, the music for Angus Oblong’s The Debbies, and many more. Currently, he is working on a mixed multimedia piece entitled 35mm with photographer Matt Murphy, in which the duo explores the relationship between music and images. I sat down with RSO at a quaint little frozen yogurt shop on the corner of 10th and University Place to discuss his opinions on contemporary musical theater, his upcoming projects, art theory, and the lovely Jane Krakowski.
AN: A retrospective of your work entitled Rated RSO was recently performed in Los Angeles and then again in January at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Given your vast resume, how do you decide what to incorporate into this kind of revue? Do you just pick your personal favorites or do you try and construct some sort of narrative compiling random aspects of all of your work?
RSO: On this particular show I collaborated with a director, Travis Greisler, and we decided to break it into four different sections, each section focusing on a different musical. Then within those musicals, we picked the songs we felt would sort of tell the story. And then there was a random section, which would just sort of be my favorite songs, but also the ones that I felt represented me the best because I like to choose songs based on painting a picture of what I’m capable of.
AN: A lot of contemporary theater is currently coming out of previous works of art, such as books, film, pop music, and even television shows. Why do you believe Broadway and the rest of the theater world are currently so fixated on bringing these pieces to the stage?
RSO: Commercial viability. Those products sell better than original products. I view myself as an educated theater go-er, but even I’m most inclined to go to the thing that is best reviewed. But then again, I’m also inclined to go see a title that I’m more familiar with. For instance, I have interest in going to see The Addams Family, and even though I’ve heard that it’s struggling a little bit, I’d like to go see it because of the name that’s attached to it.
AN: There have been countless interpretations of Peter Pan – ranging from the Mary Martin musical version to the Disney version to the film Finding Neverland. How does “Darling” differ and stand out from these other pieces?
RSO: its way darker than all those. It’s a little sick, a little twisted. Just an example: the Lost Boys of Peter Pan are 8 – 11 year old boys who are running around with wooden swords, etc., but the Lost Boys of Darling are all between 16 and 22 and are basically prostitutes, selling themselves on the street. And then it’s suggested that fairy dust is a drug, some sort of hallucinogenic, and it just goes on from there. It gets very grim and very serious in its own way.
AN: Did you feel these past interpretations of Peter Pan were missing something? In other words, what precisely is it about this story that made you want to re-adapt it for the stage for new audiences?
RSO: The idea came to me from the book writer, B.T. Ryback. It was two things: it was the idea of a young girl who abandons her family for this feudal love affair with a boy, whose affections for her are sort of doomed. That was interesting to me on face value, but then understanding that that would be the basis for an adaptation of Peter Pan made it even more appealing. I’m really into story structure and storytelling, and I’m a firm believer that you need to have a solid story to write a musical, because writing a story is hard enough. So even though it was an original idea, founding it in Peter Pan made it more exciting. Peter Pan is a timeless story, as proven by the fact that it’s been around for over a hundred years, and I think it still really matters and applies to the world’s youth today. We set Darling in 1929 because we wanted to give it some distance, but also keeping it completely relevant to today.
AN: Musical theater has been making quite a triumphant comeback in the past few years. Between films such as Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Mamma Mia, and the television program “Glee,” musicals are becoming much more culturally embraced than they have been in the recent past. In your opinion, why do you believe musicals faced such a slump before, and what is it about them that is causing them to be in such high demand in the mainstream again?
RSO: I just feel that everything in this world constantly goes in and out of fashion. I think that musicals came back into fashion when Chicago and the High School Musical movies really rocketed them into the mainstream, in the same way that Harry Potter rocketed reading back to kids and teenagers. They’ll probably go back out of style in the next five to ten years, we won’t see as many movie musicals being made, and then in twenty years they’ll probably come back. So I think it’s really just a pattern of time.
AN: Why do you believe that most new musicals tend to gear in a more pop/rock oriented direction as opposed to a more traditional musical theater songbook sound?
RSO: This is a question I often ask myself when I’m writing a score. I think every time period has its own sound. Every country has its sound in the same way that every country has its own way of speaking. And I think that in 2010, as it has been for the last twenty to thirty years, rock and roll is the music of our time. Amongst my peers I think there’s a pretty consistent sound that’s shifted from Sondheim to Jason Robert Brown in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Everyone started sounding like Jason Robert Brown because he became the musical theater voice of today. If you have a show about a twenty-something living in the city in the present day, that is the way they sing: they sing pop. Because if you had them singing like an opera singer or in a classical style, it would feel like you were writing a 1910 musical in 2010. At the same time, I’m working on a project right now which is set in the present and I’m working really hard not to completely confine myself within the sound of today. The musical I wrote, Mrs. Sharp, I was really excited about because it was mostly pop and rock, but also because it was about a crazy woman and so the musical world inside her head could be whatever I wanted it to be. I like projects like that. I don’t want to write a musical about four 20-somethings living in New York. That’s not my thing.
AN: I’m extremely interested in your piece 35mm. What is it about the relationship between visual arts and music that made you want to take on this project?
RSO: I would say one of my earliest and fondest memories is of this book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and it’s this whole book series by Chris Van Allsburg which were these beautiful images and on the other side of the page would be one line of text. I became so interested in how an image can create this humongous story. Obviously it was done brilliantly in Sunday In The Park With George, and I think to some extent, Matt (Murphy) and I are trying to doing something similar. We get to take these images that, on one hand, the eye sees and sees its own story the way it perceives it. And then there’s the story we’re creating ourselves that will ultimately compliment the person’s perception of the image, but also make them see something that wasn’t there. On top of that, it’s a really fun, great, exciting way of writing scores.
AN: Many art critics and theorists have argued that the context in which one experiences art changes the way one perceives it. Do you think that by looking at these photos while hearing your music, the audience will automatically assign your music’s narrative to the photos, or do you think there is still room for personal interpretation?
RSO: That’s a really good question. I think that after they see the show then they will assign the music’s story to those images, but on the other hand, I think that anybody who sees the images prior to hearing the songs is going to have a completely different story for them. In a lot of ways, I think just as many people will see the images without hearing the songs in the same way that there will be those who hear the songs without seeing the images.
AN: So how exactly does it work: do you write a song and he takes a picture and then vice versa? Is there a trade off order of some sort?
RSO: Yeah, I mean, it’s both. It started with me seeing the images and writing a song and then writing songs based on other images or music he would show me, to which he would create more corresponding images. We’re about half way done with the show and we’re continuing in the same way. There are images that are still inspiring songs and I’m still writing songs which will then inspire images.
AN: When you bring this to the public, are you planning on performing it on stage with a photo instillation as part of the set, or is it going to be within a gallery? Have you thought about in what medium this piece is going to be presented?
RSO: That’s a fabulous question. We’ve given a lot of thought to that. We’re right in the middle of working with a director, and she and we are trying to figure that out. We don’t really know yet, but it’s amazing how many are at our disposal. The other thing is we’re writing the show in such a way that it can be licensed to colleges or small regional theaters, and it’s both mine and Matt’s hope that the project can be directed in any way and there’ll be a thousand different interpretations of it by the time it’s done.
AN: A lot of postmodern art is getting the mixed multimedia treatment, but as far as I know, this is the first musical theater piece to involve itself so heavily within a project like this. What is it about your music (and musical theater in general) that you believe provides itself to be such an ideal candidate for this type of cross-genre art hybrid?
RSO: I think that musical theater – unlike pop, rock, folk, R&B, – by definition can be all of those genres in combination in any way it wants. In terms of images, yes, you can look at a David LaChapelle and you see a distinctly rock and roll image, but I think that what Matt does is so very diverse. I like to think of myself as a diverse composer. The fact that I can do rock and roll or more legitimate traditional stuff or four part choral stuff, allows the images to vary as much musically as they do visually.
AN: Your show Mrs. Sharp recently won the Richard Rogers Award. Last year, a reading of it that was directed by Michael Greif (Next To Normal, Rent, Grey Gardens) and starred Tony Award winning and “30 Rock” actress Jane Krakowski, receiving massive amounts of critical praise. Stephen Schwartz even selected it to receive a workshop at Carnegie Mellon University. What was the experience like having written a piece like this and then all of a sudden having such star power and huge interest backing it?
RSO: It was a big road. A really, really, really, really big road. It’s so funny because it’s never easy. In some ways, both Darling and Mrs. Sharp have had really easy roads because they’ve just gone and gotten lots of interest. But on the other side, they’ve hit roadblocks just as fast, and it’s so amazing because no matter how well or fast something goes, something else always gets in the way. You hear people saying “oh my show is going Broadway,” but I believe, and I think most people do too, that the show isn’t going to Broadway until it has actually booked a theater. In terms of Mrs. Sharp, we always thought of Jane Krakowski for the role. She’s such a delicate and sensitive character, but she is a murderer, and she’s also really funny. Therefore we knew it would be difficult to get people to like her and understand her and get what we were going for, but the moment we said Jane Krakowski, people said “oh yes, that makes sense, now I understand.” There’s just something very scary and dangerous behind those eyes, but at the same time, she’s also incredibly beautiful and hilarious. I’m represented by the Gersh Agency, who also represents her, so we were literally able to put it on her agent’s desk. She read it, she loved it, and the rest is history. I wrote this in the card I gave her the day of the reading, but it was really life changing. It’s amazing how associating yourself with someone like that makes other people take you more seriously. Sometimes there are people who have done an incredible amount of work that is so worthy of praise, but they’ve never had a name like Jane’s associated with them so the world doesn’t always give them that praise. Then on the other side, there are people who have not done all that much but have gotten themselves in with some amazing directors and/or performers and have therefore skyrocketed to the top. For me, I was fortunate enough to get to that and it’s absolutely incredible. Jane and I have worked together a couple of times since (the reading), and developing our relationship has truly been amazing, it really has.
AN: In 2009, you were the recipient of the Jonathan Larson Grant. Other awards you’ve acquired include being a 2007 Dramatist Guild Fellow, the first ever person to win the ASCAP Foundation Harold Adamson Award for Excellence in Lyric Writing, the Margo Lion Award for Excellence in Adaptation, the Looking Glass Theatre Favorite Production Award, and the John Denver New Composers Award. Do you find that having this accomplished of a resume motivates you creatively, or do you feel yourself more pressured to appeal to certain audiences who after having seen you get these awards expect you to stick to certain things?
RSO: It’s incredibly motivating. There was a two-three year period where, between Mrs. Sharp and the other shows I was writing, I was starting to feel really recognized and acknowledged. It really is a huge honor. Nothing motivates you more than a deadline. People just take you far more seriously when you have those awards. It’s hard because, you know; so many incredible writers never applied for these awards and never got them but still had amazing careers. But for some young musical theater writers, and there’s a good handful of us, we’re all trying in a friendly, competitive way to rise to the top, and awards and the opportunities they present are one way to do that.
AN: So what projects do you have lined up next?
RSO: Right now I’m working on finishing 35mm and my goal is to get that piece into some theater within this year and then record it. And then Mrs. Sharp and Darling are still being developed, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next for those pieces. Then I have two or three commissions that I’m beginning to get started on, which I’m really excited about because that’ll be the work for me for the next two to three years.
AN: Imagine this scenario: it’s the opening night of your big Broadway debut. Which show is it and what actors are starring in it?
RSO: That’s a really, really good question. I’m going to keep it simple and say its Mrs. Sharp starring Jane Krakowski … and others.