Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman: Musical Blacksmiths in the Auto Age

Article excerpt

Most people write musicals because they love the musical theatre," lyricist-librettist Arthur Perlman says, almost offhandedly. "We fell in love with the musical theatre because we wrote musicals." Periman's comment - offered as a coda to a two-and-a-half-hour-long interview with him and his collaborator, composer Jeffrey Lunden, in a coffee shop on New York's Upper West Side - is an appropriate summing up both of the interview and the team's joint career. Perlman and Lunden aren't merely longtime colleagues; they've known each other since kindergarten, and they did, in fact, write their first musical before either of them really knew what a musical was.

Today, fans know the team for a small body of quixotic, finely crafted works, including Wings, their multiple award-winning adaptation of Arthur Kopit's 1978 play about a stroke victim; last season's Another Midsummer's Night, a contemporary riff on Shakespeare, which (like Wings before it) premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre; and The Little Prince, based on Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book and one of a series of musicals for young people they have written for the New York-based touring company Theatreworks/USA.

A musical Godfather rip-off

In the early 1970s, however, Lunden and Perlman were simply suburban kids growing up in Silver Spring, Md., friends since Lunden moved to Perlman's neighborhood at age four. Perlman wrote plays all through grade school, and Lunden studied piano and flute. But as they recount it now, what happened on the day their ninth grade teacher was absent was a fluke: They told the substitute they and a few other friends were writing a musical, and escaped from class.

They agree that the musical they did, much to their own astonishment, write - a Godfather rip-off titled The Dark Side of the Sun, complete with a chase scene - was terrible. The show was, nevertheless, given two school performances and recorded in a makeshift "original cast album."

Sitting side by side, telling the story of what could be called "Lunden and Perlman: The Early Years," the composer and lyricist talk almost simultaneously, artlessly weaving two voices into one great flood of words, like two currents that continually rise and fall, separate and merge. On the surface, at least, Perlman is quieter, Lunden more gregarious. Perlman initiates most of their projects; Lunden needs to be convinced.

Both applaud the creative contributions of their collaborators - particularly directors Michael Maggio of the Goodman and Ted Pappas of Theatreworks - before they praise each other's work. As a team, however, they are clearly bound by a shared aesthetic. As Lunden says, "We've worked together for so long that if we get to a certain point in writing a song, we know what he has to do and what I have to do. We don't even really have to talk about it."

Lunden and Perlman can chart their growth as artists with relative ease, aware of how the shows they wrote even in high school advanced their ability to play with a musical's complexities. (These musicals include an adaptation of Julius Caesar, a version of Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt, called Zenith; and an existential musical, Trio, written as their senior thesis.) "One of the reasons our first show was so stupid," Perlman says, "was because that's what I thought musicals were. It wasn't until we started writing them, and Jeff finally convinced me to listen to Sondheim and get involved in what he was doing, that I realized musicals could be quite interesting and have something to say. That's when we started to get serious."

Following college, Lunden and Perlman enrolled (though not as a team) in New York University's musical theatre program, which was then initiating a series of pilot workshops with master artists, including Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince, prior to its official launching as an MFA program. …