2,200 Words with Timothy Huang
Here at 10glo we showcase many different kinds of writing teams, but the one that is the most rare is the multi-hyphenate solo writer tackling book, music and lyrics simultaneously.
However, Timothy Huang is the true triple threat of musical theater. So, it’s no surprise that Timothy has a lot to say. Below he speaks openly about his process, the birth of his daughter and how the industry needs to be remade with a new generation of inclusive leadership.
I’m looking over a list of your musicals. American Morning with book, music and lyrics by Timothy Huang. Peter and the Wave with book, music and lyrics by Timothy Huang. Missing Karma with book, music and lyrics by….you. Do I detect a pattern?
I’ve actually collaborated with a lot of people. In fact I’m writing songs for two animated features right now that I did not pen the script for. I tend to do a lot of stuff on my own though, I get that. A lot of that is because of speed? Staged musicals have SO much going against them, not least of which is an industry that finds a ten year development cycle for a new musical to be remotely acceptable. Add to that they’d all rather be producing shows that we’ve seen twelve times over and like… oh man seriously fuck that noise.
Anyways this notion that a musical is the product of a collaboration between two specific people: A “words person” and a “music person” is antiquated and foolish. This is probably a longer conversation for later but in a nutshell: to suggest that book and lyrics are the same muscle simply because they are both made up of words is ignorant to the point of offensive.
And to suggest further that musical theater isn’t the result of a collaboration between directors, choreographers, music directors, arrangers, lighting set and costume designers and actors is to have a very narrow view of what musical theater is. Yeah so, I dunno, in the final analysis, three people, two people, one person all working on the same project is an academic point to me.
The substance of the matter is shows need to get written and then performed in order to be called shows. And that takes a thousand people. But really, I think this stigma that a script and score can’t be written by a single person is sort of laughable too. Especially in the world of the multi-hyphenate actor-producer, director-choreographer.
I’ll never forget this- I applied for an award once – I won’ say which – but it allowed applicants to apply as composer/lyricist/librettist. And further, offered critical feedback to those who did not win. I did not win, and thought hey maybe I’ll take them up on this offer.
So I did. I’ll never forget this phone conversation. This woman on the other line was looking at my application and was like “well your music scored really high… and your lyrics did too… so it must have been your book writing that didn’t…” she stops for a moment, like she’s looking at something that doesn’t make sense and then whispers under her breath “no wait that was pretty high too…”
I realized that I couldn’t take the conversation any further without it coming to the inevitable conclusion of “why didn’t I win?” Which… no one needs that. So I said thank you very much and left about as confused as when I came in.
You are a new father and your daughter was born just weeks before COVID shut down our industry. I think the obvious question to ask any new parent is: how has becoming a parent affected your work? But a global pandemic layers in a whole new set of challenges. How has being a new father during a pandemic shaped your work? Have you still found time to write and, if so, has it changed what are you writing, when you are able to make time for it?
The global pandemic was actually really convenient for me. Pandemic or no, our plan had always been to self quarantine for two months or so, just until our daughter was old enough to get her shots. So, we had expected to disappear from the world and resurface at a later time only to find that the entire world had cloistered themselves when we had.
During that time I was only planning on being away from the house for my day job and teaching artist stuff. With the work-at-home mandates, we didn’t have to budget for childcare. Which was great!
As for the writing, well yes and no. I haven’t written a whole lot of stuff that was on my back burner. I finished a draft of a one act (tentatively called That Time I Did a Show with Maria Irene Fornes– about that time I did a show with Maria Irene Fornes) but everything else I’ve written during parenthood has been stuff I was invited to participate in or hired to contribute to.
All of them have been artistically fulfilling, but very few have come from my own artistic or political agenda. Which is nice. My real focus for this time had always been to release music. Before the American Morning album, the last real music I released was the cast album to The View From Here, and that was fifteen years ago? It isn’t like i haven’t written anything in that time, I just stopped being interested in sharing it electronically. But knowing I’d be spending a lot more time at home, I started a timeline for releasing music a little bit at a time.
So far, I’ve released an EP for two short musicals, one called A Relative Relationship (featuring myself and Jennifer Blood), and the other called Missing Karma (featuring Diana Huey, Aaron Phillips and myself) and I’ve released two singles. One called “There’s You” (which I co wrote with lyricist Patrick Gallagher, and features Ali Ewoldt) and one called “Home Too Soon”, which features Alyse Alan Louis. All of this is out now and can be streamed or bought.
Your album for American Morning dropped this summer. Were you still recording or mastering the album after your daughter was born or was it already complete?
There was a lot of crossover. I was recording lead vocals on my daughter’s due date (she would be several days late) but following that there were a few ensemble vocals that needed to be recorded that kept getting rescheduled. Eventually the pandemic hit our shores and I wound up recording them remotely with friends who I knew had equipment and already knew how to do that stuff. So basically the entire finale was recorded independently by several different artists.
Were you surprised at how the music did or did not evolve during the recording process?
Not even a little, actually. I mean, the show has at this point been around ten years. When you stare at anything long enough it sort of stops surprising you. I will say though, that the orchestrations for the album were meticulously made by Alexander Sage Oyen who doesn’t want you to know that he played every instrument on them save the piano and trumpet.
You began your career as an actor, but you gave up acting to pursue writing because you weren’t satisfied with the roles you were being offered as an Asian actor. Can you talk about how the theater industry let you down, or even failed you?
I mean…this could be so many different conversations. I think I’ve written and spoken enough on the record about politics of race in the theater. And you can probably find far more eloquent essays than any of mine on de-centering whiteness or the white narrative.
And at this point for me to be anything less than gracious for what I did get would just be pointless. I got what I got, I’m happy I had it. I probably deserved better, end of story. Many many people got screwed way harder than I did, and I’ll let them tell their stories instead.
I will say though, putting that aside for a moment, that the one way that the theater industry legitimately let me (and frankly all of us down) irrespective of race is by prohibiting the growth and maturation of the musical. I came of age in New York City in the late 90s where plays like Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle and a host of others were being lauded for challenging their audiences. A few musicals managed to break through and achieve that as well but comparatively speaking far more didn’t than did.
I think partially the bombast of the 1980s mega musical pushed us in this direction where musicals can and should only entertain. And now instead of leading the aesthetic or political conversation, musicals on Broadway are mostly following the other cities’ leads if not totally pandering.
I know I’m painting with a broad brush here, but the truth is many of today’s gatekeepers and tastemakers are the very same people who were in power thirty years ago. The generation that was supposed to take over got wiped out by AIDS and the generation that was supposed to pass the torch only knew how to hold on to it.
So then my generation spends twenty years punching holes through doors so we can turn the knob from the outside, only to get in and hear them say “oh how wrong we were, let’s find someone half your age and give them the opportunity you were fighting for.” That makes sense right? You invest in the generation to come, not generation X. But still- that’s kind of the grossest way this industry let me down.
How can the industry do better?
Baseline gender parity in its institutions is the first thing. That’s just to start. Statistically speaking, we’d do way better if women were in the majority but let’s take it one step at a time. Then parity among the artists they employ.
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition is about to release some data for 2019 but their data from the 2017/2018 season suggests on the non-profit level, 79% of the writers that were produced were white. 9.6% were Black, 6.2% identified as Asian American (I was not produced that year so I’m not even in that percentage) 2.8% MENA, 2.3% Latinx and 0.0% were Indigenous.
That seems incredibly biased to me, but it’s a symptom of a greater disease. The question is and has always been “who is doing the looking? Who is doing the booking?” So get them the fuck out of there. Also, anyone over 50 who isn’t already looking to groom their replacements is absolutely doing it wrong. Also, they should be women. Every last one of them. And they shouldn’t all be white.
Georgia Stitt has a fantastic story about searching for an all female orchestra for the revival of Sweet Charity that starts with her thinking “if I could just use my guys, this search could be finished in twenty minutes and not take three weeks.” and ends with the realization that “when you lose your house keys you don’t look for them for twenty minutes and then stop. You look for them until you find them.” It’s actually way better when she tells it though. Ask her about it. And be sure to ask her HOW she found that all-female band. It’s fantastic.
We heard Raymond Lee singing “If Only” from American Morning. We love Raymond. Not sure if there’s a question in there. But, seriously, we love Raymond.
I love Raymond J. Lee for so many reasons. Most recently, he has been texting me support and advice on how to be a new dad. Which is deeply appreciated. But here’s something you don’t know about Raymond J. Lee that I think everyone should be talking about. Are you ready?
Here it goes: During the week that American Morning was at the NAMT Festival, (We had cast Raymond and Kelvin Moon Loh as the two leads for our show) Ray was also on hold for a national commercial. Those two hold dates overlapped with our rehearsal, but since he is such an amazing musician and dedicated performer, we trusted him to learn his material on his timeline and knew that he could cut out those two days if need be.
This was not a problem. That is, until the commercial changed their shoot dates and they overlapped with our performance times. Now, any performer in that position could take that kind of life-changing economic opportunity and anyone with half a wit would understand. Sure it might amount to a few late nights and recasting and whatnot, but that’s always the agreement in festival situations isn’t it? You shoot for our most employable performers in hopes they have some down time, and you say go with god if that status changes.
Raymond J. Lee turned down his national commercial to do the NAMT Festival. Because he did not want to let us down. That’s who Raymond J. Lee is. And now you know.
You can see more of Timothy’s work at 10glo.com/user/keyglow/.
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