Joe Iconis Interview, Part Two

Last week I brought you the first installment of my interview with writer Joe Iconis. Here's part two, in which we find out what Sondheim’s heart, William Finn’s guts, and Kander & Ebb’s swagger have in common. Plus, Joe talks about his artistic and personal heroes.

(Find the first part here, and check back next week for the final installment.

Art and commerce. Mutually exclusive, one evilly necessitates the other or some combination therein? (Can there be true artistic expression within commercial constraints?)
I think there are magical situations where art and commerce can coexist. Certainly, most of the big musicals of the past ten years have been both commercial and artistic successes. I mean, look at Book Of Mormon—that show remains completely true to itself and there’s nothing about it that feels “corporatized” or homogenized to [help it] succeed commercially. I think that the theatergoing audience is proving more and more that they are open to seeing groundbreaking, off the beaten path work. I think it’s just a matter of producers having enough faith in that to take chances and trust the artists (and the audiences).

Of course, for every Book of Mormon there are ten hit musicals that feel like they were created by a committee and a million great musicals that are critical and commercial flops. So I don’t think it’s as simple as If You Build It They Will Come. But I’d like to believe that Broadway is still a place where the Sweeney Todds and the Falsettos of tomorrow can open and thrive.

Let’s analyze the state of theatre and music these days. We’re seeing more and more adaptations in theatre, as well as lots of revivals. Is this necessarily a bad thing? The music world is inundated with disposable, auto-tune created noise. Does anything rock anymore? What about today’s art turns you on?

Like anything, adaptations are great when there’s a reason for them to exist. Take a show like Hairspray—I think its amazing. [It’s] a really wonderful piece of popular theater that actually has something to say. In that case, I think you could really feel that [songwriting team] Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman needed to tell that story. But there are so many other adaptations of hit movies where you watch them and think, “Why?”

And then it all kind of feeds into this idea of “the audience will only go to see properties that they are familiar with.” “People only see shows with recognizable titles.” That’s when things start getting dangerous. Because while I think that audiences are really capable of enjoying or supporting new work, we’re not doing them any favors by putting our efforts behind these (shitty/easy) adaptations of blockbuster movies and jukebox musicals. Because then you’ve got a situation where if people are given a choice between going to see a show they’ve never heard of before or a known property, they’re probably gonna choose the known property—especially when it costs so damn much to see a show these days.

The idea of “taking a chance” on something new is going away, and that’s very hard for me to digest. Even back when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s, you could still “discover” a show. The first time I heard about [Hedwig and the Angry Inch] was through my S.A.T. tutor. I went to see it with my aunt and we had no idea what to expect. We were surprised and it was amazing. Nowadays, you have to go out of your way to be surprised by a show. The new ad campaign of Mamma Mia! centers around the tagline: “You already know you’re gonna love it!” The first time I saw that on a billboard on 44th street, I almost threw up. I think it’s that thinking that is the real monster—it’s what’s going to kill Broadway if we aren’t careful. I think the tagline of Mamma Mia! is far more dangerous than the show itself. You already know you’re gonna love it? Fuck you.

Reeve Carney recently said, “It’s scary to think that a generation of potential future world leaders [is] responsible for what’s currently happening [on] the Billboard charts.” What role does art (theatre, music, et al.) play in society, and how is artistic expression, or lack thereof, shaping our future?

Oh, I don’t know. The music business is [in] a state of absolute upheaval these days. I think that the Billboard charts used to be representative of what America was listening to, but I don’t necessarily know if that’s the case anymore. Of course, acts like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and whoever else are ridiculously popular, and you can argue their artistic merits all you want, but there’s always been horrible pop music out there in the world.

While there are pluses and minuses, of course, the incredible thing the internet has done [is change] the way people receive music. There’s so much out there and, in a certain way, everyone is on an even playing field. It’s so easy to share music with friends. Critically acclaimed indie bands like Arcade Fire or Bon Iver or Mumford & Sons have benefited from this. Those are bands who have sort of catapulted to success because of this new way people are discovering music. I don’t think any of those guys could have been as big as they are ten years ago. … In short, I think that there are plenty of incredible artists out there making music and affecting people, they just might not be the names that are on the top of the Billboard chart.

Something [else] the internet has done is [it’s] given everybody (in particular, Young People) a platform. Anyone with a camera and a computer now has a stage with an audience of God-Knows-How-Many people. I love the fact that some kid in their bedroom in the middle of nowhere can write a song, record it, and have it become the most popular song in the world. Just the idea of that is empowering, and I’d really like to believe that it's an idea that will inspire a new generation of writers/performers/whatevers.

Who are some of your artistic and personal heroes? Do you notice a common thread? Can you articulate what it is you like about them, or what it is about them that you aspire to?

ROBERT ALTMAN. My biggest influence. His movies changed the way I thought about art, plain and simple. Stylistically they are so different from one another—from straightforward documentary-like domestic dramas to insanely theatrical, hyper-stylized fantasies. But regardless of the world they live in, his characters are always so human, so real, so relatable. I love that his movies are populated with these everyday, seemingly unremarkable people and their tiny little problems. Of course, their tiny little problems are the things that we all go through in our lives so everything feels huge. That’s something that I return to time and time again in my writing. If I’ve got a “voice,” it stems from that—dissecting and dramatizing the little moments in life that wouldn’t normally seem worthy of attention.

Aside from that, I love the way he lived his life. I love how much he appreciated actors, how he collaborated with fellow artists, and how he believed that the team he put together was a family. Everyone says his film sets were like a party and everyone, from the big stars to the interns, had a seat at the table. He was a stubborn, strong, crazy, humongous personality and he serves as a constant source of inspiration. He worked consistently until the day he died. Never took a break, never retired. That’s what I wanna do.

DOLLY PARTON. I just flat-out love her songs. Her craft, her humor, her hooks. The songs are so deceptively smart. Her ability to tell a story, establish a character, and create a dramatic arc would be impressive in and of itself, but she makes everything sound so simple that you don’t even realize how much information she’s packing into this little space. The song is [over] and you think: “Holy Shit! I’m crying! How did that happen?!” It’s like getting kissed on the cheek by someone and then going home and realizing that you’re pregnant.

SONDHEIM, WILLIAM FINN, KANDER & EBB. I guess those [are] my biggies, musical theater wise. They are all geniuses in their own ways and tons have been written about all of them. In general, I think I respond to Sondheim’s heart, William Finn’s guts, and Kander & Ebb’s swagger.

THE MUPPETS. They have informed my sensibility in huge ways. They are ragtag, wise, childish, passionate, silly, serious, furry, and brave. I want to be all of those things.

MY FAMILY. They have tolerated and supported me for thirty years and all of my good traits came from them.

In no particular order, my other biggies [include]: Shel Silverstein, Harry Nilsson, Hunter S. Thompson, Elton John, Quentin Tarantino, The White Stripes, Walt Disney, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Rolling Stones, Pee-Wee Herman, Annie Golden, John Goodman. The list goes on and on and on.

For more information about Joe Iconis, visit

And check back next week for the final installment, which will include Joe's responses to Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire and Inside the Actor's Studio's Bernard Pivot Questionnaire. (Find the first installment here.)

A huge thank you to Joe Iconis for his thoughtful answers. And now, here's another heart-wrenching song from his repertoire. This is "Lisa."