Today Shakespeare turns the big 4-5-0, and former fellows Daniel S. Acquisto and Sammy Buck know how to celebrate—with a concert of their musical Like You Like It at 54 Below. Set in a 1980s mall, Like You Like It combines As You Like It with 1980s John Hughes movies, and this concert version features the talents of Sam Underwood and Laura Osnes, along with original cast members. Sammy and Dan talk to The Dramatists Guild Fund about the origin and journey of Like You Like It, writing together, and what’s next for the show.
How did Like You Like It come to be at 54 Below on Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday?
Sammy and Dan: We thought it would be a great idea to celebrate the Bard’s birthday with a concert, and we had just been part of an event at 54 Below (Once Upon A Time in New York). We reached out to [54 Below Director of Programming Jennifer Ashley Tepper], and she graciously said yes.
When did you write this show and has it changed at all over the years?
Sammy and Dan: We began writing the show in May of 2000 and created the first act for about two years in the BMI and ASCAP workshops. Then, when we became Fellows, we had a great resource to finish the show, and most of what we brought into the room then was our second act material. David Shire and Richard Maltby. Jr. were our mentors and they encouraged us to dig deeper into the characters, and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were instrumental in guiding us through honing the storytelling. This show may not have gotten written if it weren’t for that year.
The show has changed quite a bit over the years. At the beginning, there were a lot more characters, as the book hewed pretty closely to Shakespeare. And for many years, we had a narrating convention with two characters.We dropped the narration and one of this characters and reshaped the other character to be more the intention we originally had—that Jacques, the disaffected philosopher in As You Like It, became Jackie West, an aging rocker who’s down on love. As for the score, we cut some songs that we loved but knew had to go. Two of them will be in the concert, though. One of them, an ode to Betty White, is on YouTube, and has become the most requested piece of sheet music from the show. With all those cuts, though, four of the first five songs we wrote are still in the show. One has undergone numerous lyric and structural rewrites (in fact, we just changed it for the concert), but the hook is still the same.
What inspired you to combine Shakespeare with the 1980s?
Sammy: When I was in high school, my drama department did As You Like It (though the role I played did not make it into the adaptation). I wanted to write a show with lots of interlocking characters—seeing the “Night Waltz” that opens A Little Night Music has always been a formative experience for me—so I recalled the couplings in As You Like It, as well as the theme of going someplace where you can truly be yourself. Growing up in the 80s, our respite was always the mall (plus my hometown mall, The Galleria in Houston, Texas, had an ice skating rink!). Since I had done As You Like It in High school, those years were on my mind. It felt like a great metaphor of the “repression to expression” arc of the show. And with the lexicon of “Like” from the 80s, the title presented itself.
What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
Sammy: Apart from As You Like It, I simultaneously love and fear King Lear. I think it is such a beautiful tragedy, though I am still scarred from watching Diana Rigg’s Regan do what she does to Gloucester in the Laurence Olivier version.
Dan: You mean Shakespeare wrote another play?
How long have the two of you been writing together and how did you meet?
Sammy and Dan: We began writing together 14 years ago (last year we had a “Bar Mitzvah Concert”). We met in the BMI Workshop when Dan’s classmates Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez introduced us.
What do you think you bring out in each other as collaborators?
Sammy: We are a textbook example of yin and yang, so we complement each other very well—and thankfully travel well. We have been to so many different cities—and countries—thanks to Like You Like It. Creatively, Dan encourages me to think outside the box a lot, to go a little farther in the idea, to explore more. He’s also a good and decent human, and that’s the most important part.
Dan: Sammy also helps me think outside of the box when it comes to form and phrasing. I tend to stick to a few forms and squarer phrases. He helps me avoid that. Also, his knowledge of story and scene helps give my music more dramatic intent than if I were to write something on my own. We’ve worked together for some time now, and sometimes the line is blurred as to who writes what. Every so often, one can hear a Sammy Buck melodic phrase and a Dan Acquisto lyric line. He also pushes me to write in a timelier manner, procrastinator that I am. It also helps that Sammy is a good friend whom I can always rely on in life and creatively.
What’s coming up next for you guys?
Sammy and Dan: This is going to be a very exciting year for Like You Like It. We will be licensed and published by Playscripts, as well as recording a studio cast album that Broadway Records will release. We will be launching a crowdfunding campaign to support the recording, as well as an endeavor to audition high school students to sing in the ensemble along with our Broadway talent on the album. Beyond that, there is a show we’ve been kicking around for years called Ugly: The Unauthorized but Totally Accurate Sequel to the Ugly Duckling, so we hope to get back to it.
Interview by Shoshana Greenberg