Interview: Broadway/Disney Lyricist Glenn Slater Talks ‘School of Rock,’ ‘Galavant’ & More – Pt. 1

Glenn Slater at the Tony nominee press junket in May | Melanie Votaw Photo
Glenn Slater at the Tony nominee 2016 press junket in May | Melanie Votaw Photo

You’ve probably heard Glenn Slater‘s songs without knowing who was behind the words. A lyricist for Broadway musicals, film, and television, he frequently collaborates with composers Alan Menken and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He wrote the lyrics for the Disney blockbuster, “Tangled,” as well as the recent irreverent television series, “Galavant.”

On the Broadway front, he’s a 2016 Tony nominee for the current show, “School of Rock,” which he wrote with Webber. He also collaborated with Webber on “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to “Phantom of the Opera.” With Menken, he wrote new lyrics for the Broadway version of “The Little Mermaid,” and they collaborated on the scores for the Broadway versions of “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith.” Recently, they worked on a new musical based on Chazz Palminteri’s film, “A Bronx Tale,” which was produced at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

“School of Rock” marks Glenn’s third Tony Award nomination, and he won a Grammy with Menken for the song, “I See the Light,” from “Tangled.” That song also earned him an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination, and he has an Emmy nomination under his belt as well.

And it all started when he signed up to help write music for a high school musical, which gave him the “bug.” That show won a drama competition, caught the eye of a producer, and wound up Off-Broadway. After writing the Hasty Pudding show at Harvard and a ballet choreographed by then fellow student Diane Paulus, who went on to become one of theater’s most celebrated director/choreographers, Glenn decided to try his hand at Broadway scores.

But get the rest of the story from the man himself. Glenn and I spent nearly an hour on the phone. It was such fun hearing his stories and learning about the inner workings of writing lyrics for stage, film, and TV. Below is part 1 of the highlights of our conversation.

So, after Harvard, you became a copywriter for a while, right?

I came to New York with the intention of being a composer, and immediately discovered that compared to actual, real composers, I was unbelievably unqualified to do the job. So, I got a job in advertising as a copywriter. I did my time figuring out what to do next. And I decided if I wanted to stay involved in theater, I needed to do something with the words.

So, I started teaching myself how to write lyrics. I applied to the BMI workshop as a lyricist and got accepted, and then spent several years having a double life where I would write commercials during the day and write songs at night. I don’t think I actually slept through those years!

But about five years later, I had enough material put together and enough experience in the theater to be able to leave that job. I won the Kleban Prize [a prestigious musical theater award] that year, which enabled me to pay my rent for several years to come, and I left that company and went into theater full throttle.

Glenn Slater at the 2016 Tony nominee press junket | Melanie Votaw Photo
Glenn Slater at the 2016 Tony nominee press junket | Melanie Votaw Photo

How did the Disney opportunity come?

So, during that period, I’d begun working on an adaptation of the film, “Lost in America,” the Albert Brooks film, with a composer named Steve Weiner. We were presenting that show at the ASCAP workshop, and somebody from Disney happened to be there and approached us afterwards and said, “Hey, you know, we have this program where we’re looking for theater writers to do songs for animated films. We’re trying to identify people who might be good prospects for us. Would you be interested in doing this program in which we’re going to put you on a film? That film probably will never get made, but you will get to experience what it’s like to work for us, and we’ll get to experience what it’s like to work with you” – to which we said “Yes!”

They gave us a script to work with, which was a Marco Polo story that happened to be written by a writer named Joss Whedon, who later became “Joss Whedon.” [At that time,] it was just a name on a page. As you can imagine, that script was just so funny and well-constructed and with so much heart. And we wrote five or six songs for that, that I think sort of wowed the Disney people, but there was nothing to do with it. Our score got put in a drawer.

But about a year later, I got a call from them, and they said, “Alan Menken is working on a film for us, and the lyricist isn’t working out. Your style is very similar to Howard Ashman [the late lyricist behind “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Little Shop of Horrors”]. How would you feel about meeting with Alan and seeing if maybe you could work together?” to which the only answer is “How would I feel? I mean, can I buy a lottery ticket now because clearly, something is going right!”

And we met, and we just had one of those instant clicks where we just understood each other’s language and each other’s way of working immediately, and we were off and running….

Wow! Did you ever dare to think that your trajectory would go in that direction? I’m sure you hoped.

Well, it never occurred to me that it would be quite exactly this trajectory. It was sort of a surprise. I had considered myself to be sort of a sharp, satirical, comedic writer in a Sondheim kind of a vein. Certainly, before I started working with Alan, that was the style that I was working in. Alan works in much more of a pop style, and obviously, when you’re writing for Disney, you have a much wider pop audience than you would have in theater.

So, certainly, my style changed a bit to accommodate that. I had seen “The Little Mermaid,” the original film, when I was in college, and it was an eye-opening experience because it was a textbook example of how to write songs that sounded like pop music but did everything that a theater song does – and not only does everything a theater song does, but does it brilliantly!

Howard Ashman was the master at that, and his influence on theater songwriting and, obviously, animated films is well-documented. So, coming to work with Alan, those were the shoes I was asked to fill, and they’re very big shoes to fill. I will say that when I started working with him, I was very consciously trying to be a Howard Ashman for him, while knowing that I could never be Howard Ashman for him.

As our relationship has evolved, certainly I’ve become more of my own writer, which has been much more satisfying for me. But the idea that I get to work with an Alan Menken or with an Andrew Lloyd Webber was not even an inkling in the back of my head at that time.

I read that the way you work with Alan is usually, you talk about the emotional and thematic idea, you get a title and a few lines, Alan writes the music in like two seconds, and you go off and fill in the lyrics. As a writer, to me, that sounds like sitting down with a huge puzzle with tiny little pieces.

Yeah, there are so many stages to writing a song, and there’s a stage that’s the big inspiration stage. And there’s the sort of being clever and finding your jokes and piecing that together stage. And there’s a stage that’s like putting together a mosaic where you have a piece of music in front of you that you know if there’s a high note in the melody, you need an open vowel sound for the singer. If you have a bunch of bass clef notes, you need closed vowels and consonants that don’t clash so the words can be understandable.

There is a certain point where you’re dealing with it molecularly on a syllabic level and trying to make that work, while also trying to make it work on a line-by-line level. Is this a line the character would say? Is this the vocabulary the character would use? Is this the logic that gets us from point A to point B, while also trying to keep the entire song hitting within the logic of the piece as a whole? And making sure the themes of the song are echoing the themes of the piece, that whatever metaphors you’re using are the metaphors that inform the piece as a whole. Making sure that everything is correct to the period and correct to the truth of the characters.

So, it is sort of a puzzle of constantly moving pieces. When you’re in that process, it’s back-breaking work. There isn’t anybody who writes lyrics that thinks it comes easy, and there isn’t anybody who writes both music and lyrics who won’t tell you that writing the music is the fun part. The lyrics are like “ugh!” But when it all snaps together, there’s nothing more satisfying….

That whole process of dealing with all that stuff, when I first started writing songs, I would take a month to write a song and really polish it and get all the internal rhymes lined up. Once I started working with Alan – Alan, as you mentioned, writes songs lightning fast. He will sit down, put his fingers to the keyboard, play for 2-1/2 minutes, and the song is done. You don’t have to change a note after that. Then, if you say, “Well, that’s not quite right,” he’ll sit down and do it again with a completely different melody, which is just as good.

And because he works so fast, he would give me a piece of music, I would go off, and three days later, he’d say, “So, do you have anything yet?” [Laughter] “I’ll be needing weeks more on this!” So, I got in the habit of trying to turn it over within a week. By the time we started working on “Galavant” together, because of the way the deadlines work on television, we were writing a song every other day, sometimes even faster than that.

So, it’s still the same mechanism. You’re still thinking about syllables and notes and vowel sounds and consonants and big ideas and jokes that stretch over the course of the whole series, but you don’t have any time to think about it all. It’s just spontaneously what comes to mind, and let’s capture that spontaneity in a minute-and-a-half-long song.

It sounds like a brain workout. You’re really toning your brain to work that quickly.

Absolutely, and it’s the kind of thing where the more you do it, the more limber your brain gets at it. Certainly, at the end of these seasons writing “Galavant,” my songwriting engine is definitely keyed up at a higher speed right now where I don’t need a week to write a song. I can do it in a day if I need to. I can do it in a day over and over again because my engine is now running that fast.

Wow! That’s amazing to me. Is there a particular song that has been especially confounding that comes to mind?

On a micro level, writing line-by-line, syllable-by-syllable, not really. They’re all difficult in their own way. There are certainly songs that have been difficult on a macro level of finding the right song to fit into the score as a whole…. On “Leap of Faith,” the second song in the show, which ended up being a song called “Fox in the Hen House” – that was literally the 19th song we wrote for that slot. And it wasn’t the best song in that slot by a long shot.

There were numerous others that were probably better songs, but every time we re-looked at the script, the situation changed slightly, and we’d have to get rid of the song and come up with a new take. And again, for each new take in the script, sometimes we’d have to take several shots at getting it to fit. How do we keep the main character sympathetic? How do we have them seem attracted to each other, while also seeming angry with each other? How do we get all the information in there that we need to get in there? And how do we do it in an amount of time that feels organic?…

Often, there are spots where you just hammer and hammer and hammer away at it until you break through. And sometimes, you don’t ever quite break through, and you end up with something – the song that everybody says, “Oh, that’s the one song in the show!” [Laughter]

Well, it seems to me that a musical is kind of a miracle – every time somebody finishes one and actually produces it – all the pieces coming together.

Yeah, I don’t think anybody realizes how much effort it takes to create something that seems completely effortless. And for a musical to really work, it needs to feel effortless. It needs to feel like you’re hearing those characters spontaneously lifting their voices into song. Otherwise, the illusion is shattered.

If the audience is paying attention to how clever a lyric is, they’re out of the story and into the writing of the story. If the audience is paying too much attention to “how did the singer get up to that note?” then they’re out of the story. So, the trick is to create those thrills, to create that sense of something being well-written and well-put together and clever without it being so well-written and so put together and so clever that it feels written.

Wow – I hadn’t even thought of that, but it makes sense. It’s like spinning plates!

It really is!

Click here to read Part 2 of the interview.


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