Today, I'm interviewing two delightful Marys. First up is the multi-talented Maryrose Wood, an author, actress, and librettist whose writing garden is filled kittens, fairies, and musicals. (Gee, do you think we'll get along?) We kicked things off with discussion of her latest novel for teens and went on from there.
Which of the characters in My Life: The Musical shares the most in common with you and your real life?
In My Life: The Musical, the main characters are Philip and Emily, two Long Island teens who travel to New York City on the Long Island Rail Road every weekend to see the Broadway musical they're obsessed with. For readers unfamiliar with New York geography, Long Island is, literally, a very long island adjacent to Manhattan, with the Hamptons on one end and Queens and Brooklyn on the other. In between is a long, dull chain of flat suburban towns, and in the middle of that is where I grew up.
The schism Emily and Philip experience between the boring suburbs and the Oz-like magnificence of Broadway was very much a part of my adolescence. Of the two characters, emotionally I'm probably more similar to Philip. Like him, I was kind of a talented kid in a family that didn't have a lot of resources or affinity for the creative arts. So, much as Philip does in the book, I glommed onto a best friend from a more functional and culture-oriented family and sucked it all up like a sponge, and later formed an intense devotion to the theatre that was productive and nourishing but also a kind of escape.
There are many other pieces of emotional or factual material in the book that draw on my life experience: I've been a fan, an acting student, a Broadway performer, a director, and a writer of musicals. I've logged a lot of hours in the theatre district! So places that turn up in the book, like Don't Tell Mama or the Café Edison, are quite familiar to me.
Are any of the songs or plotlines from the book's fictional musical Aurora related to a production you have in the works or cast aside long ago?
Ha! Not really. Aurora is basically my invention, a kind of naïve pop-rock musical that becomes a fan-driven phenomenon. A lot of the details I ascribe to it are quite true to life, of course – the stunt casting with a boy-band star, the leading lady who's torn between Broadway and a pop music career, the fans who see the show over and over again, the heated online gossip in the Broadway chat rooms. I don't think there's ever been a Broadway show whose author's identity has never been revealed, though! So that mystery makes Aurora unique.
It was a lot of fun to make up a musical for the book, I must say. I've worked in the theatre for so long and in so many capacities - actor, director, playwright, lyricist, librettist and also as an evaluator for a major developmental organization - that I feel like I've seen literally every outlandish idea for a musical put into practice at one time or another. It's quite hard to parody Broadway musicals; they're so out there to begin with!
You were a member of the original cast of Merrily We Roll Along, a Stephen Sondheim musical. I know you've told the story ten million times by now, so let's put a new spin on it: What was the first thing you did when you found out you had been cast?
The actual delivery of the news that I'd been cast was pretty theatrical. It was at a big group audition for all the "finalists" that had lasted all day, with singing, reading, dancing, more singing, more reading, more dancing. By then we'd been auditioning for months and were all on our eighth call-back, so it was getting crazy-making. Finally all the survivors were brought into a room, and a bunch of names were read off a list. Those people were asked to leave.
And there were the rest of us, standing around scratching our heads wondering what was happening, and then they told us: You guys are in! Which was immediately followed by: But the show is being postponed for a year! So don't get older, don't cut your hair, don't gain weight, don't lose weight, don't change in any way. Can you imagine saying that to a bunch of teens? But we were overjoyed; there was much jumping up and down and yelling.
For anyone who doesn't know the story, there's an Author's Note in My Life: The Musical that tells the saga of how I was cast in Merrily when I was eighteen. For a show that only ran for two weeks, it's been quite a defining experience!
What has been your most fulfilling experience related to a musical? Are you still involved in the theatre?
My most satisfying experience to date out has been writing book and lyrics for The Tutor, which is an original musical I created with composer Andrew Gerle (you can find out more at www.tutormusical.com). I think of it as my first official YA project, since it's about a 16 year old goth girl who falls in love with her SAT tutor!
The show is the only three-time winner of the Richard Rodgers Award for new musicals, which is awesome in its own right but doubly so when you consider that the awards ceremony involved having lunch with Stephen Sondheim and other incredibly special guests. The first year we won I was seated next to Sir Ian McKellen, who was so charming and gracious and kept chatting with me as if I were an interesting person, and the whole time I'm thinking, "Oh my God, I'm having lunch with Gandalf…"
And yes, we are still actively seeking productions for The Tutor. Some songs from that show and other projects of mine are being performed in a revue of Andrew's work called "Up" on March 17 and 31 in New York City, at the Zipper Theater. I'll post details on my website in case any local theatre-lovers would like to come check it out.
The title of your first novel, Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love, widened the eyes of some folks. I read the book and was pleasantly surprised to find that the story was totally G-rated. It's adorable! How would you summarize the book's plot?
The plot is summarized thusly: "Fourteen-year-old Felicia has a mad crush on Matthew, a science prodigy, but Matthew only has eyes for the genius rabbits he breeds in the school's science lab. So Felicia decides to use the scientific method to unmask the Secret of Love, otherwise known as X - and she asks Matthew to be her research partner! Felicia is sure she can win the science fair and Matthew's heart at the same time. But when the X unloosed by their research misses its target, it sends her, Matthew, their friends and even their parents on a series of romantic adventures, all set against the twinkling backdrop of a magical New York City."
How did you respond to the tongue-wagging and raised eyebrows?
As for the delicate flowers who got the vapors when they read the title: my initial response was genuine surprise. I've since learned that, although the title sounds adorably comic and cute to some people, it sounds shockingly salacious to others, despite the pink and blue cartoony cover, the obvious innocence of the plot and the "hilarious and squeaky clean" reviews.
There are quite a few books out there that mention bras, thongs, butts, boy toys and the like in their titles, and there are many older YA books that actually depict sexual activity, which Sex Kittens does not! But it seems that merely using the word "sex" has a special power to send a certain subset of alleged adults screaming in terror. I suppose it's not unlike the brouhaha over the word scrotum in The Higher Power of Lucky; all this anxiety and reactivity over the utterance of a perfectly correct and non-vulgar word!
The thing that worries me is when I hear from teens who love the book but tell me they found the title kind of embarrassing. Darlings, how are you going to pass biology if you're embarrassed by the word sex? How are you going to learn the facts and make wise decisions about your own body if you can't tote around a book that has the letters s-e-x on the cover without feeling like you have to hide it in your binder?
So now part of me wishes I'd named it something else, so kids would feel comfortable carrying it around, and another part of me wishes that all children's books would have the word sex in the title so everyone can get over themselves. Try it!
(Maryrose then gives a few children's books updated titles, making Little Willow crack up and nearly choke on her berry-flavored water.)
Your second novel, Why I Let My Hair Grow Out, is a fun-loving modern-day fairy tale - literally, as there are fairies. Was this your first attempt at a fantasy novel?
Yes, but it won't be my last. I think even my non-fantasy writing thrives on the interplay between reality and "other dimensions." Magic realism is perhaps an overused label, but that's definitely the spirit of my storytelling mojo. For example, the New York City of Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love is practically a character in itself; it's a real place, but with a very heightened sense of possibility.
Likewise, My Life: The Musical juxtaposes the everyday suburban lives of the two main characters with their devotion to the fictional world of the Broadway musical they love. Obviously, as a writer who spends big chunks of my workday in the realm of the imagination, this worldview is pretty close to life as I experience it. Stretches of the banal with fantasy sequences erupting at regular intervals!
How I Found the Perfect Dress, the sequel to Why I Let My Hair Grow Out, will be released in May. Did you always plan to write more than one book about Morgan? If so, how many books are lined up in the series?
I was fairly confident that there would be a second book about Morgan, since Berkley Jam offered me a two-book commitment up front. I do have a third and final Morgan book outlined; I hope to announce something definitive about that soon.
Your life would be complete if your books were recommended with the likes of . . . ?
My favorite comparison-to-another-author experience so far was the reviewer who described the first-person narration of Sex Kittens as "P. G. Wodehouse as a Greenwich Village girl." I felt very understood by that!
But to answer your question - in general terms I think I'm writing in a similar vein to witty mischief-makers like Maureen Johnson or E. Lockhart or Meg Cabot. But I like to let each of my books develop its own distinctive voice, as the story requires. I'm sure this comes from my background in the theatre – I think of each of my books as a different "character" that has its own way of speaking and telling a story.
What are you working on at present?
I'm almost done with the first draft of a new book for Delacorte titled A Beautiful Nothing. It's a reinvention of the plot of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, set in the Bronx's Little Italy. Madon', the food in this book! Writing it has been a mouth-watering experience.
Much Ado is one of my all-time favorite plays, and Italian-American is the cultural background of my own family, on my mom's side. I grew up with big Sunday pasta dinners, home-grown vegetables and a grandpa named Giuseppe who made wine in the basement and had a bocce court in the backyard. So I feel connected to this book in quite a personal way.
What are your favorite musicals to participate in or to watch?
Well, Sweeney Todd is a favorite. I saw the original Broadway production with Angela Lansbury when I was in high school, and after Merrily closed I was cast in the bus-and-truck tour of the show as the understudy for Mrs. Lovett! I had just turned twenty years old at the time; it was insane. I still haven't seen the film version!
What are your ten favorite books of all time?
I'm always intimidated by making lists; how can one possibly choose? But here's a sampling of books and plays that I find of enduring interest.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronté
Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
Much of Shakespeare, especially Much Ado, the Henry plays, and King Lear
Our Town, Thornton Wilder
A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
A Forthcoming Footnote: Both Maryrose and I recommend E. Lockhart's forthcoming book, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I just so happen to recommend Maryrose's novel My Life: The Musical alongside E.'s book Dramarama. When Maryrose learned about all of this, she said, "E. is very flattering company to be in, thank you! I'm a huge fan of her books and her as a person too. Disreputable History is fabulous, a shoo-in for one of the top YA books of 2008, so read it, everyone!"
Read my review of My Life: The Musical.
Read my review of How I Found the Perfect Dress.
Visit Maryrose Wood's website and LiveJournal.