Randy Newman’s foray into southwest Ohio this week, performing at Miami University’s Middletown campus Saturday, is a rare treat.
It’s not that he doesn’t like going on the road (“I enjoy doing that,” he says during a telephone interview), but he has so many competing interests, it’s often difficult to find the time. In addition to being a singer/songwriter (his first album came out in 1968) whose often-ironic, satirical and sometimes-character-driven compositions like “Short People,” “Sail Away” and “I Love L.A.” have become contemporary Pop classics, he’s also become a major composer for film.
His first breakthrough in film music came in 1981 with the Oscar-nominated song and score for Ragtime. That field has so blossomed for Newman over the decades, especially with his involvement with Disney/Pixar movies, that he’s received an Oscar (for Best Song from Monsters, Inc.) and been nominated 19 other times. His “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 is nominated for Best Song this year. He also had two Grammy nominations this year — for Toy Story and for “Down in New Orleans” from The Princess and the Frog. The film work makes it hard for Newman to craft his usual evocative and provocative Pop songs — some of them, like “God’s Song,” with deep philosophical dimensions — on a regular basis. His last album, Harps and Angels, came out in 2008; the previous one, Bad Love, came out in 1999.
Newman has also become the subject of a new musical revue that uses his songs, also called Harps and Angels. It recently premiered in a limited run at Los Angeles’ prestigious Mark Taper Forum, produced by L.A.’s Center Theatre Group. The ensemble cast (featuring Michael McKean, Katey Segal, Storm Large and others) performs highlights from the Newman songbook in the production, conceived by Jack Viertel, who also created Smokey Joe’s Café, a revue based on the early Rock and R&B hit songs of Leiber & Stoller (“Hound Dog,” “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “Jailhouse Rock’). The director, Jerry Zaks, like Viertel, is a Broadway veteran.
“They’re hoping to take it across the Mississippi at some point,” Newman says.
One person with a say — and much at stake — in Harps and Angels’ future is Cincinnatian Rick Steiner. Although based here, he’s become a major Broadway producer and investor.
Among shows he’s backed are Big River, Hairspray and Jersey Boys. Steiner is a producer/investor for Harps and Angels, and he attended the L.A. opening and hoversees the production’s merchandising.
“He’s a good guy,” Newman says of Steiner. “I know he’s very committed to musical theater and seemed happy with things. So we’ll see.”
Reached by phone at his Cincinnati office, Steiner was effusive speaking about Newman. He also explained that he has a long history of supporting Viertel’s projects.
“When Jack did Smokey Joe’s Café in 1993 or so, he said to me, ‘I’m thinking of doing a program of Leiber & Stoller,’ and I said, ‘Count me in.’ He said, ‘You don’t even know what I’m doing.’ I said, ‘I love Leiber & Stoller’s music and have since I was very young.’ ”
“This is much more of a highbrow endeavor,” Steiner explains, since Newman doesn’t have many big Top 40 hits to play off of, like Billy Joel or ABBA. “But it’s similar as a revue to what we did in Smokey Joe’s. Randy’s music is so magnificent, each song tells such a wonderful story. If we can pull it off it will be something we’re proud of.
“I’m very hopeful we can keep developing it and get it to where we want it, which is Broadway,” Steiner adds. He says the goal is to have another production, probably on the East Coast, premiere before a Broadway decision is made.
Newman has been the subject of musical theater revues before, but never on Broadway. In 1982, there was Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong, named after one of his wry early songs. (A production was staged at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park.) And The Education of Randy Newman was debuted by Cosa Mesa, Calif., company South Coast Repertory in 2000 and later had a Seattle run.
Newman says there were also earlier attempts.
“There was one called Somewhere in Middle of the Night or … Middle of Nowhere,” he recalls. “And there was one done in Cincinnati a long time ago. I don’t know what the name of it was.” (The Playhouse had no record of any Newman show other than Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.)
“I thought (Harps and Angels) was executed the best,” Newman says. “Singers have gotten better about singing with a backbeat, the type of stuff I do when it’s moving a little.”
Newman has tried his hand at composing for musical theater. His ambitious Randy Newman’s Faust, based on Goethe’s play about a man whose soul is the object of a struggle between God and the devil, debuted in 1995 at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse. Updated to modern times, Newman’s Faust was a Notre Dame University student. His work later was performed at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and, while it had fierce defenders, it was ultimately a commercial failure.
“I’m proud of it — I think it’s the best thing I ever did, all in all,” Newman says. “I put everything I knew in it.”
While he sometimes entertains notions of reviving it, Newman would rather work on a new idea he has for a musical (after completing songs for his next singer/songwriter album, that is).
“I’ve long had an idea I haven’t done anything about, but have talked it to death,” Newman says. “Jane Fonda. Think about it. She’s a kid in a cold kind of movie-star home, becomes a movie star walking down the street, and takes a walk on the wild side. Exercise video, Ted Turner, in Vietnam sitting on a gun.” (She was famously photographed during a 1972 visit to North Vietnam, as part of her opposition to the U.S.’s pro-South Vietnam involvement in the war, seated on an antiaircraft battery.)
“It’s kind of fantastic,” Newman says of her life story. “I’ve talked to her about it. I believe I have her permission. I admire her a great deal; she’s an unaffected kind of good person.”Who knows? If he’s serious, he might find an interested producer right here in Cincinnati.
RANDY NEWMAN performs Saturday at Dave Finkelman Auditorium on the campus of Miami University Middletown. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.