Celebrating New York, In Your Face. An interview with Martin Sage and Adam Gopnik
Live from the Merkin Hall stage there is a show that celebrates our big, loving, complicated, sometimes infuriating, and perfect city: In Your Face – New York. It’s an extravaganza of stories, sketches, and songs that features artists of extremely different disciplines that at first you might not think to pair together – like a best selling author and a fashion designer, sharing the stage with a Broadway star – yet it all works. Creator Martin Sage (MS) and host New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (AG) spoke to New York Phoenix News about how they got here, what makes the event so special, and how writers can survive the age of click-bait.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
AG: I don’t know when I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I was born writing. I do recall around the age of ten writing my parents a ten-page note – a sort of midget J’accuse! – decrying something or other they’d done to me. They apologized (!) and I realized the power of marks on paper to change human minds.
MS: When my freshman English teacher told me my essays were first rate and my pre-med chemistry teacher said I would be doing the world a favor by not becoming a doctor.
How did you get into music?
MS: The Beatles became a phenomenon during my freshman year in college. That summer I bought a guitar and learned as many Beatle songs as existed in 1964.
What is your approach when writing lyrics and librettos? How does the process compare to your other writing?
AG: This is a good question. Of course, lyrics for the musical theater demand a certain largely conservative decorum – neat, ‘true’ rhymes, regular ABA stanzas all that. The challenge of rhyme in English, with its extremely limited range of final sounds, is never ending, or failing: after writing lyrics for enough time, you hear a single “dance” on stage and your mind instantly supplies a list of all the other places –trance, chance, glance, romance – that we are about to travel. The delight of lyric writing is to fulfill those neat strophic requirements while still getting a story told and a feeling expressed. I’ve never enjoyed anything more than writing words for David Shire’s music. A good lyric is disciplined emotion, and how else can you define all art?
MS: It’s critical to know about the character who is singing the song. I can’t write lyrics without a sense of the story of the person who is singing. That’s really not so different than writing a script for TV or a short story. In all forms there is a balance between character and story. It doesn’t have to be 50-50. But if one aspect gets more attention, it has to be for a valid and successful reason.
You’ve lived in Philadelphia, Montreal, and Paris, but chose to raise your family and grow roots in New York City. What keeps you here?
AG: Updike said famously that everyone who lives in New York basically believes that anyone who lives elsewhere is just kidding. New York, for all that I worry about her ongoing variety, her continuing welcome to pilgrims like me, the perpetuation of her place as the one city for the young to come to still, not merely the one capital for the rich to live in, provides for me a sense of possibility and, yes, warmth every time I step outside. I said once that the crucial New York trinity is verticality, possibility, plurality. I think so now. I take pleasure in the aspects of New York life that you’re supposed to hate – riding the Six train, say – and ecstatic joy in the parts you’re allowed to like: I never enter Bloomingdales without a rush of pleasure. What can I say? It’s my home.
A testament to your love for the city is “In Your Face – New York”. What can you tell us about it?
AG: I love performing – authors are either semi-repressed hams or truly inhibited hermits, and I am entirely of the first kind – and love a chance to make a big crowd laugh. Having hosted MOTH shows for the past decade or so, as well as doing a series of my own at Lincoln Center, I love the idea of joining something so gaily satiric, so robustly old-fashioned and revue-like in form and spirit. It’s the kind of energetic and topical live show that was once a mainstay of New York life – the kind of thing that Max Gordon and Julius Monk used to put on – and I’m immensely pleased that I’ve been asked to help perpetuate that jazzy tradition. And with the band “Betty” and Melissa Errico alongside, what gormless host could complain?
MG: New York, it goes without saying, is the capital of the world. Most artistic creations happen in one of two ways. Either they start in New York and spread out to other places or they start in other places with a need, an urgency to ultimately get to New York.
What made you decide to collaborate with the band BETTY? What makes them boundary-pushing?
MG: My wife met two of the members at the iconic Feminist Seder and thought they would be a wonderful addition to the show. They are sensational. Extravagantly musical, smart, funny and uncompromising about their music and their politics. It’s an honor to know and work with them. Because they are so enlightened it’s easy for them to take their audience along and with love and good humor make all of us celebrate each other.
You always have some impressive guests be part of “In Your Face – New York”. I see that Tony-nominee Melissa Errico and New York Times’ best-selling author Dr. Josh Bazell are part of next week’s line-up. How do you curate the show?
MG: The show reflects our desire to bring the creative and artistic disciplines of New York together. So we try to have script writers, novelists, journalists, and artists as well as actors and singers on our stage. We like to think of In Your Face–New York as a head on collision of The Ed Sullivan Show and the New York Review of Books.
What piece of advice can you share with an aspiring writer in today’s click-bait climate?
AG: It’s never been easier to be a writer; never been harder to be a professional writer. All you can do is what we’ve always done – say yes to every opportunity to be heard, write as often as you can on as many subjects as you can sing about, and recognize that real writing comes from the inside out, and manifests itself as sentences and structure. Everything else is just opinions.
MG: The only thing a writer should consider at the outset is the writing. Write to develop your voice and see where in the publishing or theatrical world that voice wants to be heard. Then learn about that world and make the adjustments you need to fit that market. But only the adjustments. Don’t adopt a voice simply because you think it’s more saleable.