"DON'T CALL SOMETHING A FAILURE JUST BECAUSE IT DOESN'T GET DONE RIGHT AWAY"
A couple of interviews with Paul Williams were posted today, centered around a new stage version of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Williams has written four new songs for the musical, adding to the songs he'd written for the original TV movie in 1977.
Now a new stage adaptation mixing live actors and puppets—with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, who also directs—is arriving at New Victory Theatre in New York City for a holiday run (Dec. 10-Jan. 2, 2022), after a 2009 staging at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House. I’ll be there with jingle bells on, of course. In the meantime, I had a chance to speak to Williams, who started out in show business as a child actor, and whose arrival as a writer for the theatre seems long overdue (but not for lack of trying).
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I should know this, but I don’t: Have you had stage work produced in New York before?
PAUL WILLIAMS: Not really. I’ve got an unproduced musical I’m working on with Gustavo Santaolalla of Pan’s Labyrinth, with Guillermo del Toro, but everything came to a sliding halt in the last couple of years, of course. But the theatrical experience of mine that has had the greatest success has to be Bugsy Malone, and that’s been more in the United Kingdom. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that…
Oh, yeah. I’m the ideal age for your work; I grew up on this stuff.
Well, it keeps going, you know, with new generations. What’s wonderful is that the things I did in the 1970s or early ’80s that were not successful seemed to create fans that over the years would show up and say, “Let’s do something together,” whether it’s Edgar Wright with Baby Driver or Daft Punk, who saw Phantom of the Paradise in Paris 20 times. I never call something a failure; it’s on a back burner, and all of a sudden, eventually something wonderful will happen.
I have a very Jiminy Cricket philosophy about life, especially with anything involving Jim Henson. It was just a magical relationship with the whole family through so much of my life. It started out with just Jim going, “Hey, you want to do this?” It’s kind of an Americana story, a sweet little book that became a one-hour special. I met with Jim and said, “It’s interesting, I keep getting hired to write things I know nothing about.” Have you ever seen Emmet Otter?
It’s one of my favorite things. Can you talk a bit about why you think it’s special?
The fact is that in anything I did with with Jim, and hopefully anything that I really connect with, the songs come out of the story and the characters. The major mistake I’ve seen many pop songwriters who try to work in theatre make is they try to write a hit song. I seem to be able, not only in theatre, to have a spell where I won’t write a hit song but I’ll write something like Emmet Otter or The Muppet Movie or Bugsy Malone, where I just fall in love with the characters.
From an interview article by David Gordon at TheaterMania:
How was the original Emmet Otter film project pitched to you?
Jim sent me the original book [by Russell and Lillian Hoban] and Jerry Juhl's script. The songs and even the underscoring happened very quickly. I was on the road in Vegas and I went into the studio with my road band and I was singing and even playing lines of underscoring. It was very organic and it was so enjoyable — there was an enthusiasm that I felt that was bounced back at me. It's interesting; there's something about the Muppets that unleashes kinds of music in me that I had never written before.
Did the stage musical happen the same way?
One of the really amazing things was that we had had a conversation with Tim McDonald about a couple of things, and we talked about Emmet Otter, which we all thought was just a natural. Right after that, he reached out to Chris Gattelli, and out of the blue, Chris said he wanted to do Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas as a musical. All of a sudden, it was like we were getting a nudge from Jim Henson's ghost or memory. We did it at Goodspeed two years in a row, and now it'll be nice to see Emmet after all these years again.
Tell me about the musical material that you added for the stage show.
I wrote four new songs, but it doesn't feel like a major change from what I wrote originally and what I added. The spirit of Emmet and Ma and all the characters pretty much lives on. There's a visit from Pa Otter who reassures Ma that she's not an old dreamer. It becomes this song "Alice, keep dreaming/I'm right here beside you/I'm close as the sun/when it's warm on your fur." Everybody always asks me about "Born in a Trunk," which was cut from the film and why there isn't a full version of it, so I wrote a full version of it. "I was born in a trunk in the great oak tree that was used to build the stage of the Palace." When I can have that much fun writing, it just isn't work.
What's your takeaway from the 2021 reappearance of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas after all these years?
One of my favorite things to remind myself is "don't call something a failure just because it doesn't get done right away." You know, Phantom of the Paradise, which was a Brian De Palma movie I did in 1974 had the world's tiniest audience. And now, Daft Punk and Edgar Wright and all these people have showed up saying "I love that movie." It's not too late.
The quality of acting and that mixture of Muppets and live actors in Emmet Otter on stage is a really interesting combination. I think that it has the sentimentality, but Tim and Chris maintain the level of edgy humor that is just so important in everything Jim Henson ever did. I think you will be really, really pleased.