Entrevista a Steve Cuden, célebre autor de Broadway y Hollywood (versión original)

Steve Cuden-Headshot B

After taking part in the creation of one of the most succesful musicals of all time, writing the lyrics for some worlwide known songs and collaborating on the scriptwriting of some TV series -both for Warner and Disney-, Steve Cuden is no doubt one of the most prolific and accomplished audiovisual authors from nowadays. In this interview done by Guillermo Názara Reverter, Cuden tells us about his start in showbussiness, as well as his astonishing contribution to the theatre, cinema and television.

How did you discover your passion for the theatre? Did you always want to be a writer or were you also curious about other showbiz jobs (producer, actor, etc.)?

I grew up watching movies and a lot of TV, reading comic books and science fiction, and dreaming. I started working in the theater when I was just a little kid at camp, and become even more heavily involved in theater during my high school days. I was part of a small, long-defunct theater company called Kid-A-Lot Productions in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We wrote and performed children’s theater around town. I did everything from writing and acting to designing sets and lights. I loved every second of it and couldn’t get enough.  So, I got hooked on the theater early. It infected me. And once it was in my blood that was it.  I’ve been writing for more than forty years, but I have varied interests. I designed the lighting for a lot of different live shows in Los Angeles and a little bit of TV in the 1980s, I’ve directed a feature film, and continue to write, of course.

When you graduated from college, you started working as a Master Electrician. How did you start to collaborate on the creation of new musicals?

It’s because I was a Master Electrician at the University of Southern California that I met Frank Wildhorn. He was a student at the time majoring in history I think it was, when he presented a musical called Christopher that he had written by himself to John Houseman, who was the Artistic Director of the Drama School at the time. Houseman liked it an agreed to produce it using USC students. I was the Master Electrician and lighting board operator for the show. Out of that show came Chuck Wagner, who has had great success on Broadway and elsewhere. Chuck also became the original voice of Jekyll and Hyde in our demo recordings of the show in 1980 and 1986. Also appearing in Christopher was a fabulous actress named Madolyn Smith, who eventually starred in a lot of movies and TV. Frank would watch performances of Christopher in the lighting booth as I operated the lights for show. We would chat about theater and art and musicals, and when he discovered I had written a play in rhymed verse that was based on seven of Aesop’s Fables he asked to read it. He declared me a lyricist, which was a surprise to me, and asked me to collaborate with him. That was in 1979. We spent much of the next nine years, thousands of hours locked in a room together, writing musicals and songs.

Jekyll and Hyde is no doubt one of your biggest achievements, but it really took a while until it got to Broadway.  Can you tell us about the origins of the show? How did you come up with the idea?  What about the first version of the musical?

Well, the idea was mine to start with. Frank and were both very taken with a fairly new show at the time, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Frank and I had already written two shows, one called The High and Mighty Caesar, the other called, The Last Tsar (neither of which is likely to ever be heard from again), and we were looking for our next project. We wanted to do something gothic and horror-filled in the vein of Sweeney. We looked at Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, even Phantom of the Operasome six or seven years before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s now historic version of that story appeared. Then I said that we could really do something with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially the notion of two women, one upper class, one lower, creating a love triangle with the same man that has split into two. Frank loved that idea and we immediately set out to write the show. We knocked out a version of it fairly quickly in 1980. We recorded it with Frank at the piano and four voices, including the aforementioned Chuck Wagner. We even had a producer interested in it. But if the truth be told it was not very good and it went nowhere. We continued working on other shows for the next five years while always talking about Jekyll. Then in 1986 we decided to give it another try. We threw out everything from the 1980 version except for one song, “Murder Murder,” which remains a major part of the show to this day, thirty-five years later. We spent more than eight months working on it six days a week. This second version from 1986 interested Milt Okun, who owned Cherry Lane Music Publishing, and he started the ball rolling toward Broadway. That version from 1986 is what the show that everyone knows is based upon.

The second version of the show almost made it to Broadway, but in the end it couldn’t be produced. Can you tell us something about what happened? 

Yes, we cast the show in New York at the end of 1987 intending it to open on Broadway in 1988. Terry Mann was set to star in it. All of the financial backing came out of a single company from New Zealand, but when the U.S. stock market crashed in October 1987 the financing became shaky and eventually fell apart at the beginning of 1988. And so did the show. Because the production did not go forward some powerful people lost confidence in the material. Frank’s manager at the time, a well-known manager/producer named Hilly Elkins, enlisted Leslie Bricusse’s involvement, and he replaced me as book writer/lyricist in 1988. I’m pleased to note that they did not throw my baby out with the bath water. The show is structurally essentially what Frank and I wrote, mostly the same characters, the same character and story arcs, and as you know I retain lyrics credits on a number of the songs that remained in the show including, “Transformation,” “Alive,” “His Work and Nothing More,” “Murder Murder,” and “Once Upon a Dream.”

How did you get your piece to finally open on the Great White Way?

 As mentioned above, the show made it to Broadway without me being part of that process. After being replaced it was up to Frank and Leslie to get it there. It only took them a mere nine more years. I spent eight years; they spent nine. Seventeen years from my coming up with the idea to adapt it to the show finally making it to Broadway. Just another show biz overnight success.

When you were writing the show, did you know by any chance it was going to achieve this kind of success?

Oh, no, not at all. Certainly, you want that happen. You dream of that happening. You imagine it happening. As already stated, we almost go there once, but then didn’t. These things are really, really hard to make come true. I always held out hope, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the show would have the kind of international success that it has enjoyed. It has been translated into something like twenty-five or thirty languages. It plays all over the world all the time. People write fan fiction of the characters. There is a devoted group of fans called Jekkies who follow the show. No, how could I ever imagine that? I am, of course, thrilled that it worked out so well.

Have you ever attended any of the international production of Jekyll and Hyde? If so, could you name a favourite?

No. I’ve seen many U.S. productions, but have not had the good fortune to see any international ones.  Maybe one of these days I’ll get that chance. I would certainly love it. I have listened to pretty much all of the international CD recordings of the show and I’ve seen video clips of various international productions. So much imagination and fantastic production value has gone in to some of those productions. I love what I’ve seen from the long-running production in Bremen, Germany about ten years or so ago. That was a beautifully mounted show. And so many incredible singers out there, too!

Let’s move on to television. You’ve participated in the scriptwriting of some of the most popular animated series. How did you get into that world? Is there any episode you’ve written you particularly feel fond of?

A friend of mine, Steve Sustarsic, was working at Disney TV Animation in the early 1990s. He knew of a story editor that was working on the animated Beetlejuicewho was looking for a writer at the time. Steve recommended me, and I got the job. Shortly after that, Steve also recommended me for a staff spot at Disney TV Animation, and I was hired there. I spent two great years at Disney, but most of my career has been as a freelance writer. Among my ninety teleplay credits or so, I would say my absolute favorite episode is from a little seen Disney show called Bonkers. The episode is called “The Day the Toon Stood Still.” The animation on that one exceeded all my expectations. I am also very fond of most of the episodes I wrote for a Warner Bros. show called Xiaolin Showdown. Very imaginative stuff and beautifully animated. I also got a big kick out of writing for The Batman in which Batman has to fight Superman who has fallen under a Kryptonite spell laid on him by Lex Luthor and Poison Ivy. Other favorites were writing for Goofy on Goof Troop, and also writing for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and other Warner Bros. animated stars in the short-lived series calledLoonatics Unleashed.

You’ve recently published an amazing book on the creation of new musicals. Tells us a bit about it. How did you come up with the idea for your book?

Thanks for asking. Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations came about after many years of thinking about the structure of drama, plays, movies, TV shows, musicals, etc. I have been teaching screenwriting for the past four years in the Cinema Department at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, and the repetition of teaching structure over and over got me to thinking about how to offer that to others. I looked around and realized there were next to no books on how to create stories for musicals. I thought that was an important niche that needed filling and so wrote the book. I hope you find it helpful in your writing. I am currently finishing my follow up to Beating Broadway, which I hope will be out later this year. This one is for screenwriting, and it’s called Beating Hollywood: How to Create Unforgettable Stories for the Screen.

Do you feel new musicals are not as good as they used to be years ago?

I do think musicals are every bit as good today as they’ve ever been. But they are written a bit differently than in the old days.  Musicals today are so expensive to produce that producers generally look for shows that can make a lot of money. More often than not that means spectacle. When that is the major criterion leading the search for new Broadway works then writers often feel forced to write within the confines of a certain kind of commercial box. Further, there have been so many musicals produced over the last hundred years or more that finding ways to create such works of art is now ever more challenging, especially to keep it fresh. The good news is that there are many opportunities for unique, less than commercial musical stories to have a life well off-Broadway throughout the U.S. and especially around the world. The international markets are hungry for new shows, so how about great artists like you and your friends giving it to them? I’d love to see some of those kinds of shows. Create for us something that is new and grand and cool that presses the envelope a little.

Can you tell us about any future project you are or will be working on?

I have a number of things lined up. I am rewriting a feature film screenplay that a producer is interested in shooting. I am involved in a group of local writers, directors, producers, and performers here in Pittsburgh called MTAP—Musical Theatre Artists of Pittsburgh. We are about to mount a showcase of new musical theatre songs written by local writers and I am directing the production. We will be presenting some really fantastic new songs of which I’m very excited. And, of course, as I mentioned, I’m working to finish Beating Hollywood. I hope you will check that out when it appears in the world.

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