In Conversation: Callaway, Maltby, and Shire
In anticipation of the February 15 show The Story Goes On: Liz Callaway Sings Maltby & Shire, Broadway legends Liz Callaway, Richard Maltby, and David Shire recently sat down with Kristy Geslain to talk about auditions, collaborations, and what makes a song stand the test of time.
Liz Callaway: I was just in the neighborhood and I thought, I want to talk to my friends, Richard Maltby and David Shire. Two men who discovered me and I owe my career to and my marriage and my entire life to.
Richard Maltby: And I'm totally responsible for everything that Liz just gave me credit for.
David Shire: Liz is our muse.
Kristy Geslain: Tell us a little bit about where your friendship began.
DS: Richard saw her first.
RM: We were having auditions for a show called Gallery that was going to be done at the Public Theater. What were you, 19 years old?
LC: I think I was 19 or 20.
RM: This young girl came in and she had been in rehearsal so she wasn't dressed up for an audition. She was, in fact, dressed down for an audition.
LC: I was a rebel back then.
RM: And she said, “I'm going to sing ‘Be a Lion,’" which is a song that just keeps going up and going up and just keeps going. And as the song went up, her voice went up, no break. Perfect, perfect, perfect intonation, perfect storytelling. I was sitting next to our musical director, Bill Elliot. I grabbed his knee. I sort of went, “Oh, my God” as this voice just opened up. At that time, we were writing a show called Baby and we didn't have our young girl, Lizzie, and I said, "There she is." She basically had the part that minute. I don't think she knew that. We didn't tell her that for a while, but she had the part right at that moment.
LC: You did tell me actually. You came up to me and said something about how “You are just right for this show I'm writing with my partner about a pregnant teenager.” And I kind of filed that away: “That's nice.” I've always said it's good to go to any audition you can because you never know who you're going to meet.
RM: What was your perception of that day?
LC: Actually, I talk about this in the show I'm doing for Songbook. I was in rehearsal for Merrily We Roll Along and I went to this audition just because I thought it would be good experience, but I already had a job. And so I didn't really think anything of it. I don't remember what I wore but I do remember that I was a late bloomer when I was starting out.
RM: I think you had coveralls and sneakers.
LC: Coveralls! Like overalls? I guess I did have a pair of overalls once.
“Be a Lion” was my big audition song. It was the only song I would sing. And then I actually got cast in Gallery, and I had to decide what to do. Hal Prince said he would put me in the chorus and I could understudy the female lead if I stayed, and I had to make this big decision whether to do Gallery or Merrily and I ultimately decided to do Merrily. I thought you were going to be so mad at me but obviously you got over it, and then I did a show at the King Cole Room at the St. Regis of Frank Loesser.
DS: That's when I first saw you. Richard had been raving about this girl so much so that I thought she couldn't exist and be that good, and he took me.
LC: And I knew who you were because I was a huge fan of Starting Here, Starting Now so I was like, “Oh, my God, Maltby and Shire.” And I went up to you and we talked and that's when I offered if you needed someone to sing your songs, like, just wanted to hear a female voice with your songs, I just offered to help. Sincerely trying to be helpful.
DS: You had no idea how helpful you were going to be.
LC: So I started coming over to your apartment and we would work. I remember doing “Story Goes On” and “Ladies Singing Their Song.”
"When David says she's our muse, she's our muse. No one interprets the material the way that she does and nobody gets inside the songs."
RM: We should probably say that it wasn't just that a nice, talented person came in and we liked her. This extraordinary voice, this extraordinary kind of lyric limpidness of a voice, the complete clarity of words on top of this glorious sound—and she's a kid. We wanted somebody who believably was in college and you usually cast 26-year-olds, you know, but she was the right age. As we worked, the astonishment at how completely natural and right she was just grew and grew and grew.
When David says she's our muse, she's our muse. No one interprets the material the way that she does and nobody gets inside the songs. We write character songs. We write songs that are about people talking in real life and that's what she does. She has this brilliant voice that separates the verbal part from the singing part. The voice is always supported but the words are as clear as if there was simply dialogue going on. And she plays the dialogue. So for a lyricist, it's from heaven, this gift.
DS: Ain't bad for a composer, either.
LC: But also from an actor's point of view, you have this rich material. I always say a good song is not hard to sing. It's just not. And I loved doing Baby. I have to say that it spoiled me because when the show closed—I do feel like it was the perfect part for me because I wasn't an ingénue, I just was me, and so was the character Lizzie and so was the way you wrote for her. I loved doing it then.
Now years later, looking at your songs and looking at them as someone—this is how many years later? Thirty some years later. I've had a life and I've lived and there's so much there in the songs, both music and lyrics.
It's so rich, and very different from any kind of concert I've done before. I've done a lot of solo shows and cabarets and concerts; this, to me, straddles a theater piece. It's a hybrid of a concert, but there's something theatrical about it and it's because of the kinds of songs that you write.
DS: The amazing thing is that even when you were 19, hadn't been married, hadn't had a child, you did the part completely believably when you had lived none of that. And then 25, 30 years later when you sang “A Story Goes On” at some benefit, after marriage and a child you said either to Richard or me, “You know, now I know what that song is about.”
LC: I still sing “Story Goes On.” I've sung it for a lot of different reasons and different events and it's a universal song. It's not just about what it was when we did Baby. That also is something—if a song has legs like that and can be sung. I'm always going to sing “Story Goes On.” Of course I sing it a half step lower now, but it is a very special song.
DS: It's become our signature song.
RM: But I must say what you did with the whole evening [as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook 2016], and what you did with that song, is you related it to your own life, and when I say that Liz is our muse—we've written everything for Liz. What she did that was so eye opening, for me at any rate, was she took the songs out of the context of the shows that they came from and suddenly these songs took on a completely different life. It was as if, in many cases, I had never heard them before. I was hearing lines coming alive that I had sort of taken for granted or even forgot were there.
LC: I have to give a lot of credit to David Loud who did the arrangements and played piano for this. The instrumentation is piano, cello, and percussion. I'd never done that before so it was a very different sound. I met David before he became a musical director and arranger and conductor. He was in Merrily with me and he was in the chorus. He understudied Lonnie Price and I understudied Annie Morrison, so we've known each other for years. He is a real theater person, and we would get together and sometimes we'd just talk through the lyrics. So it came from that—finding a personal connection and finding not everything is about me, so sometimes you break the wall and other times you don't. It was incredibly gratifying to do. It was 18 songs, and I had never run through the show completely until I did it. I lived very dangerously. It worked. It came together.
RM: What you said was exactly right. It took on the quality of a play. So while it was a cabaret evening with a singer at a mic and a few musicians, somewhere about 20 minutes into it you realize that you had changed, that you weren't in the presence of that. Something magical was happening.
I've been to a lot of cabaret evenings and I've put a lot of them together, but that particular kind of magic trick doesn't happen very often and it became something bigger than just a collection of songs. David and I write about life, and putting those songs together with a personal connection brought them alive in a theatrical way. This event, I can tell you, is not like any other concerts that I know of. Something magical happens in it, and it sure as hell thrilled me.
We would've been very happy with an evening of one song after another performed very nicely by a really nice performer. That would've been great. We would've been thrilled. We would've given her big kisses at the end and we would have genuinely been delighted. That's not what happened.
LC: It's funny. I think it surprised all of us because when it was all over, I was like, “Oh, wow.”
RM: You know what, it was a universal reaction in the room, too. The audience went through exactly that same process. They were having a good time, perfectly happy to be there and then by the time it was over, it was sort of, “Oh, my God, I've had an experience.” You go to these never knowing what you're going to get, and every now and then something extraordinary happens, and this was one. And everybody felt that. You could tell by the way people came up. It wasn't just congratulations. It was, “Oh, my God. Congratulations.”
LC: I really feel like in a funny way, my motive for doing this was partly for you guys. I just kind of wanted to thank you, and also just for fun. So I didn't go, “I'm going to do a show and I'm going to make this important thing.” It wasn't about that.
DS: After we saw it we thought, “Why didn't we invite half the world?” We started thinking of all the people who weren't there to see it who we would've wanted to, both just personally and for business reasons, too. We thought we should've invited record producers, we should've invited Off-Broadway producers.
LC: It's fun. I'm so looking forward to getting to do it again. There's so much more I can explore and get into with these songs, because they're like little plays, a lot of them. So I'm thrilled to get to do it again. I want the world to hear your songs. I mean, the world does know your music but there's also a whole other generation. I think it's really important for people to discover songs they don't know about because as I'm learning now, music is more important than ever. Right now. It is.
RM: It really is. Music holds the world together.
DS: And disrupts it. You often say that the first sign of a revolution starts with music.
RM: Music is the most dangerous thing in the whole world. All of the great revolutions were signaled by a big major change in music before that. Plato said that music should be banned because it's the most incendiary thing and it gets the young riled up.
KG: You've had such a long and storied career, when you look at it now and when you go to a show like Liz's, what would you say is your place within the American songbook?
RM: Well, I know mine. I'm a footnote in Steve Sondheim’s autobiography.
DS: I feel the same way.
LC: There are a lot of people who would like to be a footnote.
RM: The nature of the American songbook is it would be unthinkable to have had an American songbook in the ’30s or even in the ’40s because that was popular music and there was no sense of retrospective. Those extraordinary things that were written, we can now spot as sort of eras. We can suddenly see the entirety of Jerome Kern's work.
We can see the entirety of the songs that came out in the ’60s. One brilliant new structured hit every week. We can now begin to see things over time. So the songbook is exactly that. You suddenly look at the history of American song, which is absolutely astonishing, and see the component parts of it. There's this songbook and that songbook. It's a necessary and extraordinary way of holding onto what was and is a central part of America's cultural development.
DS: And we couldn't be prouder, I should add, to be part of that. That's really thrilling.
LC: That's one of the reasons I wanted to do my show of their music. Most theater lovers—music lovers—know your music or know some of it, but there's a lot of your music they don't know. That's where I feel like you deserve to be there and it's really nice that Lincoln Center's American Songbook recognizes that. I think they really respect all three of us, but I am representing your music.
KG: So what's next on the agenda for all three of you?
RM: We have a new musical called Sousatzka. It's an adaptation of a movie called Madame Sousatzka that starred Shirley MacLaine in the mid-90s and a novel that preceded it. It stars Vicky Clark and Montego Glover and Judy Kaye. And David is doing a musical at the Long Wharf.
DS: With Adam Gopnik.
RM: And we're going to do a reading of a show that we've been talking about for a long time called The Country Wife, which is an adaptation of the Restoration comedy. Meanwhile, we're still tinkering with a show called Waterfall that we did in California last year. So we are busy little boys.
DS: I wish we were boys. We are really busy senior citizens.
LC: I have a lot of concertizing around the country. I really hope to do this show around. I've been talking to a few people about doing it in London and doing it in Australia and perhaps around the country, too. I think this needs to be an album. And I've got a few other things up my sleeve as well.
I love my freelance life and I love doing concerts and cabaret and various things. I really miss doing theater. And I really want to do a play or a musical. So when you're done with all those shows, maybe you can write something for me, a play to do. A play with music.
DS: Told you, we write everything for you.
LC: I would like that.
Kristy Geslain is Producer, Lincoln Center Media Productions.