CROpera: How did you first hear of the original Lawn Chair Man, Larry Walters, and what inspired you to write a musical about him?
RLN: I can’t remember when I first heard of Larry Walters, but I remember how the idea for the musical came to me. Hal Prince had asked me to come up with an idea for a one act musical. I was in rehearsal for the LAIR’S THEATRE in Marion when someone started joking about the “Lawnchair Man.” In that moment I knew the basic outline of the plot. It would have elements of fantasy and not be about Larry Walters or one of the other “lawnchair pilots,” but a fictional “everyman.” Peter Ullian (who wrote the book) and I named our character “Jerry Gorman,” as a tribute to our mutual friend, the respected mystery writer from Cedar Rapids, Ed Gorman.
CROpera: Do you think the message of the show still holds up after the challenging year and a half we've all just had?
RLN: I think the show is more relevant than ever. Jerry Gorman has just received a promotion at Walmart he doesn’t want – from shopping cart collector to manager of the snack bar. Jerry doesn’t want to work indoors where he can no longer see the sky all day. He wants to be free. He wants to fly. But he doesn’t know how. During the last two years many people have realized they, too, that life is more than a paycheck and they want to be free to pursue their dreams. They, too, need to see the sky.
CROpera: Where did the show first premiere, and what did it mean to produce the show right here in Cedar Rapids?
RLN: FLIGHT OF THE LAWNCHAIR MAN was originally one of three one acts in a musical called 3HREE. It was directed by Hal (Harold) Prince and premiered in Philadelphia at the Harold Prince Theatre. It then moved to the Amanson in Los Angeles. A cast album was put out and there were plans to move to Broadway, but then 9/11 happened and no one wanted to think about airplanes anymore.
Hal then decided it should be turned into a full-length musical, which had its premier several years later (directed by Broadway director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett) at the Goodspeed Opera in Connecticut (which originated many musicals, including MAN OF LA MANCHA and ANNIE). Then it had a limited off-Broadway run and is published by Theatrical Rights Worldwide.
My friends Tom and Nan Riley came to see LAWNCHAIR MAN at Goodspeed and said they wanted it to be seen in Cedar Rapids. So they helped sponsor Daniel Kleinknecht’s wonderful production.
CROpera: What is it like to revisit a show you've been away from for awhile?
RLN: My shows are my children. It’s always a joy to see how they’re doing and to have them come alive again. However, I never sit in the audience with a sense of having authored them. They seem to have always existed.
CROpera: Any funny anecdotes or mishaps to share?
RLN: The way Peter Ullian and I came to be collaborators is kind of magical. We didn’t know or know of each other at all. I was living in New York and Peter (having graduated from the Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa) was living in Cedar Rapids with his wife, Michele. At the U of I he wrote a play about the famed Untouchables detective, Eliot Ness. It was optioned by the Hal Prince Workshop in New York to be turned into a musical. Peter was not directly involved in the adaptation from play to musical, that was to be directed by a newcomer director under Hal’s guidance.
My mom mailed me a clipping from the Cedar Rapids Gazette about the play/musical adaptation. I didn’t know Peter at all, but contacted him just to say hi. We decided to meet when I was back in Cedar Rapids for a visit. I read his play and loved it, but had no idea how it could be musicalized.
Exactly one month later, the writing team of the musical quit – only three weeks before a major funding deadline, when the sponsors of the workshop (the Denver Post) expected a showcase of 20 minutes of material from the musical. Peter knew nothing about any of this, as he had simply optioned his play and was not actively involved in the musical.
I’d worked with Hal previously on another project. He contacted me and brought me into the musical. Hal knew the playwright was in Cedar Rapids, but had no idea I was from Cedar Rapids, too. Though Peter and I were a thousand miles apart, we were brought together by happy coincidence. I will never forget Peter’s amazement when I called him to tell him all that happened and that I was now the composer/lyricist of ELIOT NESS.
Peter was brought on board as the active book-writer and we did, indeed, produce 20 minutes of material in time for the funding workshop, which went off successfully, resulting in ELIOT NESS IN CLEVELAND having a 1.7 million dollar production in Denver with subsequence productions in Cleveland and most recently a workshop in New York.
CROpera: What is one thought or idea you hope audiences will take away with them when they see the show?
RLN: I hope they recognize how fortunate we are to have Daniel Kleinknecht and the Cedar Rapids Opera in our midst. His productions are superb. And of all the productions of LAWNCHAIR MAN I’ve had, his is my favorite. His musicality, the orchestra and the cast were superb.
And I hope the audience takes to heart the message of the show: to follow your dreams, no matter how impossible or improbable; no matter where they lead.
CROpera: What are you working on next? :)
RLN: I’ve been working on a musical called TESLA about the genius/visionary Nikola Tesla, who saw electricity as a human right and made possible our modern world. Cavan Hallman wrote the story and I’ve written the book, music, and lyrics.