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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Local songwriter Scott Warrender
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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Local songwriter Scott Warrender

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Do you hate opera? Think it's boring and you can't even understand it? What if someone said you'd laugh and you'd love it? I didn't think so. But if an opera were written in English, turned into a musical, shortened and transplanted to Texas, maybe you'd give it a try. ACT Theatre is presenting Das Barbecu, which is based on a series of operas that all together make The Ring Cycle. All the "sturm und drang" (that's German for storm and & drang, or loud noises) in the operas, all the gods and goddesses, the whole family catastrophe, is in there.

Scott Warrender, the composer and a local songwriting wizard with national "cred," in an exclusive interview with SGN, says that he was careful not to create a parody. "Parody is a word folks love to throw around. We don't make fun of opera, Wagner, or most of the tired clich├ęs. We consider it a re-telling of aspects of the Ring story." He and book and lyric writing partner, Jim Luigs, have been writing together for a long time. Actually Das Barbecu was commissioned by Seattle Opera Company in 1991. "They requested a 90-minute show with five actors, focusing on story lines from the Ring that were not featured in the opera. In other words, fabricating funny situations. The opera concludes with a giant conflagration, thus the 'Barbecue.'"

Warrender tells an almost too-strange-to-be-true story about how Speight Jenkins, artistic director of the opera, came to commission this. "I met Speight Jenkins while walking my dog at a dog park with, what seemed at the time, 10,000 dogs. We began talking about the state of the arts and I was complaining about the price of opera tickets, etc. When he finally identified himself, I became so flustered that I started calling him by his dog's name, Murray. I had a show in production at the time and since Murray, I mean Speight, was looking for someone to create a companion piece for the upcoming production of Seattle's Ring, he attended my show and the rest is history."

Since that initial production at Seattle Opera, the musical has gone on to many productions. "The show was produced Off-Broadway in 1994. I know the show is produced many times every year, from high schools to professional theaters. A few years back, it was translated and produced in Austria." But the productions have to have real, opera level singers. "It's quite a vocal workout for the singers. It is also physically demanding. The actors play close to 20 roles in the show. When they're not onstage, they are frantically changing costumes and wigs. We've always joked that theater should really put some seats backstage and sell tickets. During the curtain call, when only five actors show up onstage, many theatergoers seem surprised, which always surprised me until I needed reading glasses and couldn't read the program."

What was it like having the production Off-Broadway? "I think the best time for a composer is when the show is being created and re-tooled. But, when you make it to NYC, [the] experience [is] more about the business and much of the joy is extracted from the process - especially if you're the writer. That was my experience."

Asked about how he became a writer of musicals and his musical history, Warrender describes his formative years and introduction to music. "I grew up on Cougar Mountain. My uncle performed Chopin and Beethoven on the piano, and my grandmother played honky-tonk style. The first piece I learned to play was 'Please Release Me, Let Me Go,' made famous by Engelbert Humperdinck. I liked musicals as a child, but I would always go in the kitchen and grab snacks during the songs & I started piano when I was 12. I studied for a year without a piano. When my parents were sure I was going to stick with it, they bought a cheap little spinet.

"In 1984, I attended a musical revue and thought, 'I can do this.' So, I sat by my piano for about a month and wrote my first musical revue - The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist [script, composition, lyrics]. I produced it myself in the corner of a small restaurant in Seattle. We used a shelving unit, turned on its side for the small stage and the actors would lie on the floor underneath the grand piano to change costumes. The Seattle Rep picked it up for a short run and, the next year, it was produced in New York City - starring Faith Prince, directed by Susan Stroman! [Note: They changed the name to Living Color.] It's how I met Jim Luigs."

Warrender was already out by then. "I came out when I was 22. One of my very first and favorite jobs was playing piano at the Golden Crown Bar, which was in a little Chinese restaurant. It's not there anymore. The nights I played, the place was usually filled with drag queens. So I'd sit there at the piano, play the theme to Ice Castles, and watch men in drag dance with each other. I was in heaven. After that, I joined the Seattle Men's Chorus (back when there were 60 of us). I remember my first night, scanning the ranks for my 'new' boyfriend. He became my first partner of five years. He was a wonderful artist. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor back in 1990."

Warrender has written many other musicals, some of which have been produced locally. The January Book was produced at Seattle Public Theater. Blankity-Blank, written with a little help in lyrics from Tom Orr, is a "Mad Libs" musical. The audience fills in the blanks at every performance, so no performance is ever the same as another. Happypants! was produced at ACT Theatre. The Plexiglas Slipper, a retelling of Cinderella, was another collaboration with Jim Luigs, and premiered in Dallas in 2002. It won the Leon Rabin Award for Best New Musical. And his song, "My Lullaby," was one of five featured in Disney's The Lion King II: Simba's Pride.

He currently teaches music at John Hay Elementary, and is, by all accounts, a wonderful teacher. He also directs a women's ensemble, Cambialaria.

His newest musical project, also with Jim Luigs, just had a spectacular invitation-only private "reading" in New York, where Seattle transplant and Broadway darling, Cheyenne Jackson, along with Faith Prince, Jane Krakowski, and Marin Mazzie performed. Watch for news of Busload of Blonds, probably heading toward Broadway, we bet. In the meantime, Das Barbecu will run at ACT from July 31 through September 6. More information is available at www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676. Come on down and give it the ol' Texas try.

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Local songwriter Scott Warrender
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