From writing for NBC’s Just Deal to directing the Lucile Lortel awards to writing the Grammy-nominated song Throw That Girl Around from the Broadway musical Swing!, former Dramatists Guild Fellows Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid have traveled many roads. This week they celebrate a well-earned homecoming with a very special concert at the Cutting Room.
The two of you were both Dramatists Guild Fellows in 2008 and 2009, but you had already been writing together already for several years. How did you meet and when did you decide to be a formal team?
We met in College – Indiana University. We were singing together and became great friends. We’ve always had a similar sensibility and matching sense of humor! We had done a little bit of writing on our own, then Michael had an idea for a musical for us to both write and perform in along with two other friends/collaborators, Susan Draus and Everett Bradley. That sort of started this journey. The next musical we wrote, Bingo, and our first Off-Broadway piece, we collaborated with another great musician and friend from college, David Holcenberg. Shortly after that, MIchael and I decided we wanted to explore working as a team. I know I had grown personally and professionally from those wonderful collaborations and felt that Michael and I had gotten more single minded over the years about what we wanted to do and say, and the kind of projects that we wanted to pursue. The fellowship actually marks the beginning of us writing as a team. It was an invaluable opportunity to develop this new phase of our relationship.
Your upcoming concert is at the Cutting Room, which is slightly less traditional than the more “theatery” venues you’ve performed in like Ars Nova and Birdland. When doing evenings of your work, does the venue ever determine your choice of materials, or does the material determine the venue?
Great question – in this case the material definitely dictated where we wanted to play. We have a very contemporary approach to our music. A lot of the new pieces we are working on rely strongly on “feel” and allow our singers to have more freedom and take more liberties than more traditional musical theater. We wanted to have more of a rock club vibe, a little more casual and laid back. It also speaks to who we are as people – we love to talk off the cuff, and genuinely have a relaxed rapport with our audience, so we didn’t want it to feel too structured. The Cutting Room is the perfect balance, a beautiful room but also a club, with great sound! We’re very excited to be there.
You both independently have a lot of irons in the fire. How has having to wear multiple hats affected your collaboration? Are you better multi-taskers now or do you barely recognize each other?
Ilene: I would have to say, I’ve always been a good multi-tasker – as the mother of twins – it’s kind of survival! But I will say I’ve noticed we’ve become more focused in the past years. It’s funny when you work with your best friend, it’s sometimes hard to get work done. Hours would go by with us laughing and talking…I’ve noticed us both lately trying to approach our meetings more organized so we can get more done. You know, besides the creative there is a tremendous amount of business, so trying to accomplish all of that can be challenging. Now we try to bunker down and then at the end, treat ourselves to a cocktail…and THEN laugh and talk for hours!!!
Michael: I would add that having independent projects have had a really positive affect on our collaboration. I’ve been directing more and find that wearing that hat makes me a better writer. I also think it’s been great for us because both of our independent projects have opened doors for us as a team which is really exciting.
Your Youtube series Going Up is based largely on the idea of a seasoned New York artist saying “if I knew then what I know now” and sharing their experiences with the next generation of artists: what to watch out for, how to survive etc. What would you say to your younger selves? Would you do anything differently?
Ilene: I would definitely tell my younger self to have more confidence and conviction. Being an artist means being true to whatever it is you do, whether or not it’s popular or in style or easily marketable. When I was younger I was way more influenced by what others thought about what I did and let it impact or stifle my creativity. At times, It kept me from being completely honest and authentic about my writing, my singing, and frankly with who I was. I think when you’re young it’s hard to have confidence and conviction – especially while navigating the business of show business, but I do know young artists with that kind of attitude and I really admire them. I believe, if you’re doing quality work, the timing eventually becomes right for your artistry. Everybody’s path is different, it’s taken me a little longer to get there, but am very happy that I’m there now!
Michael: I would tell myself a couple of things. 1. Forget about labels. You want to write…write. You want to direct…direct. For a long time I felt I couldn’t do both…that I had to pick. It’s just not true. 2 . Your 20 year old metabolism will not hang around forever so eat as many carbs as you can because it’s going to be a bitch later.
I have to ask you about Throw that Girl Around. What was the genesis of that song and how did it find its way into the Tony and Grammy nominated SWING!?
One of our long-time friends and collaborators, Everett Bradley was doing the workshop of that musical and mentioned that the creative team was looking for contemporary swing songs. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas and wrote a few songs. We had a conversation about how swing dance was coming back into fashion and one of the reasons was that people felt like it was a great way to be physical, release stress and at the same time, just have fun. We had gone to one of the early workshop performances and were blown away by how effortlessly and joyously everyone was being thrown around and the idea just came from that. The creatives loved that idea and the song and how the lyric put i in a contemporary vein. We were thrilled that it was chosen for the Broadway production, that Everett got to sing it, and that now, girls are being thrown around in productions all over!
What’s on the horizon for Heitzman and Reid?
So many exciting things 🙂 We wrote the opening number for The Lortel Awards which will be performed on May 4th and sung by the amazing Tamika Sonja Lawrence – a very fun tribute to Off-Broadway and Lucille Lortel, and we were thrilled to have this opportunity!
Then as far as our next projects, we are very excited to be working with director, Glenn Casale on our newest piece, Solana – the show we developed at Indiana University as part of their premiere musicals program. In the next several months we will be doing a reading, then a workshop on the horizon – if schedules align – in the fall.
We also have some new youtube episodes we’ll be recording soon – with some more great people – so be on the lookout for that!
In addition, we’ve been wanting to do an adaptation for a long time and there are a couple of great things in the works – with some great collaborators. We look forward to sharing with everyone as soon as it’s a done deal!!!!
Interview by Timothy Huang