Jay Kuo, writer/composer of Insignificant Others: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

For anyone living near or visiting San Francisco in the near future, there is an amazing new musical called "Insignificant Others" that is not to be missed. The show is a romantic comedy about five friends who move to San Francisco from the Midwest and learn the value of friendship.

The show is a decidedly San Francisco musical, so much so that it is about to begin what should be a long-standing run on Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf, which is tourist central. The show has many gay elements, but if you're coming to town with a mixed group, it's by no means a "gay show," so you can certainly get it in under the radar if you're closeted.

The music and book by Jay Kuo strike a perfect balance of entertaining you so much that any overt messages, such as the song "Who Would Jesus Hate?", sail right through without notice. One of my favorite elements of the show was the recurring presence of militant Starbucks baristas between many scenes.

There are definitely songs of people trying to figure out the sexual orientation of other characters they like ("Gay or Straight," "Heterosexual"), or why they can't find people who have the right, err... ("Plumbing"). One of my favorite songs in the show was the beautiful melodic "Time Doesn't Heal."

With its fun, nuanced score and playful spirit, Insignificant Others will give visitors an insider's tour of the city. Move over Rice-a-Roni, there's a new San Francisco Treat in town!

I sat down with Jay Kuo a few months ago, when the show was enjoying a sold-out run at another theater, to talk about something that I feel is very important to the Oasis audience. Kuo was a big-deal lawyer for a while, pulling in $200,000+ a year, but all his time in the courtroom was less interesting to him than his time onstage or behind a piano. So, he left the lawyer job and threw himself full-time into staging his own musicals. Here's what we said when we met at San Francisco landmark Café Flore to talk about his musical:

So, Insignificant Others is the first project of yours that's been staged at this level?

Certainly at this level. I produced original musical theater in college and we charged admission, but it wasn't like this. It wasn't a media campaign. And it wasn't really so much open to the public as it was to the students. But this is the third public incarnation of this show (Editor's note: Pier 39 is now the fourth). It's gone through two major workshop processes and is finally at the point where we're calling it a commercial production.

Yeah, you actually handed me a postcard for the New Conservatory Theater run a year ago, and I did the stupid thing of wanting to go and waiting until the last weekend, and it was sold out.

It was surprising. We had no idea how well the show would do there. We just knew that audiences liked it at the last workshop.

And that was in concert?

It was considered in concert, but I don't exactly know what that means in the context of a small theater where you still have a set, you still have props and costumes.

Yeah, in concert seems like it would be people on stools holding books.

Right, right. We were part of their In Concert series, but we had choreography. It's similar to what we're doing now, but with less of a set, and no costume changes.

And, to be clear, I'm not doing this as an after school special where I'm trying to hide the message in here. The message is: If you have something you want to do, that's what you should be doing. But let's set the stage. You graduated from law school. You are a lawyer.

Right, I got my bar number, and actually spent a long time in the law but wishing that I were doing what I really wanted to do. The little voice that says you can never afford to do what you want to do nagged at me for a long time. After two years in the law, I quit and went overseas and worked in China for a few years, just to do something else. I had a great experience over there, and even started my own dot-com in 1999, trying to ride that wave, but when the NASDAQ collapsed and all the venture capitalists went home, we had to face reality and pack up our stuff, too.

So, a half million dollars later, I was left with my fallbacks, so I thought, 'Well, you'd better go back and be a lawyer again.' So, I did that for five years after folding my start-up. But all the while, I wanted to get back into theater and I started penning songs on the side. Just whole bunches of songs. And it wasn't until an actor friend of mine told me, 'You can do a staged reading of this. It wouldn't be that big a deal to get a bunch of friends together in a house and put this show on. You've got the show, why don't you try it? See if it's any good.' So that's how the idea germinated.

Yeah, but I always do fear the thing where you see people on awards shows saying, 'If you're young and have a dream...' and on a certain level, I don't think it's realistic that every little girl watching can be Reese Witherspoon. So, what made you think, I can really do this, as opposed to ... was there a final push where you said, not only do I want to do this, but I'm playing at a level where I can be serious about this?

When we did the staged reading, it was at a church with about 100 people in attendance, a lot of friends but also my co-workers and bosses. Several of my bosses called me into their office the following day and told me, flat out... one of them told me, 'The show is great. It's really great. What are you doing here?' And I said, I'm earning a living. And he said 'There are 100,000 attorneys in the state of California, but very few people who could do what you did last night. So, why are you here?' So, I said, if you'll help me out financially, I'd be willing to take a sabbatical and do this. And he took it very seriously. I was kind of joking.

And it turned out that half a year later, I was able to quit my job because people like him and my other boss put money behind it. So, if I hadn't taken that chance and put this piece of work before my bosses, they wouldn't have shaken me and said you really ought to do something other than being a lawyer. You're a good lawyer, but you could be a great...

Well, it's not all a waste. There's lots of contracts involved and everything else.

I think I lost a lot of time going the law route and the business route and getting back to where I am. On the other hand, it's also proving useful to have that knowledge going in. I think I could have split the difference, certainly, and started a little sooner, but knowing how to deal with the unions and have contracts and how to set up a company, all of the things I learned by trying to be something else helped along the way.

I've seen local musicals and it's always sort of, you know, *exhales.* And often people have a good song they can do, eight or nine times over. And you kind of get the sense where if they're in a punk band, that's OK, but at a musical, it's boring.

Yeah, I've sat through a lot of bad staged readings.

And the other thing with musicals is half the time it's like being at a Cher concert, and nothing's going on between the set changes, lots of sets are moving, but nothing's happening. Where you have a variety of music, it's paced very fluidly, there were never really any stops in the show. It flowed, had things going on. It has a lot of local in-jokes. So, has it progressed to that level?

The hard reality of this is even after our successful staged reading, I had to slash the show to pieces and rewrite it. I think I cut about 40 percent of the songs, rewrote several of them, and even going forward from today, we have meetings about how we can trim the show down because, if we're going to be playing in a commercial venue like Pier 39, the show is too long and some parts of it are probably not palatable to the tourist market. So, you face some artistic questions that are unsquarable with a commercial venture. You have to be willing to lose a lot of ego in the process and hear a lot of criticism about the show.

Stephen King calls the editing process 'killing your children.'

Exactly. But when you're a lawyer, you write a brief that's 40 pages long and your limit is 25, so whole arguments that you spent nights writing get slashed out and you just have to move on. If you're in trial, you can make the best possible argument you can think of to a jury and they can not buy it and deliver you a horrible verdict and it's devastating.

Once you push through it, I think eventually it becomes, 'I like it even more now, because it's tighter and it's leaner...'

Right. I can barely remember its prior incarnations anymore. At the New Conservatory, we did the show with just seven people, and a pre-recorded track and now we've got 11 and a five-piece band, so it's a lot more to manage. It's nice having a bigger show like that, but then the producers come calling and say 'Can't you have four people in the band and nine actors?'

Yeah, the less mouths to feed, the better.

It's interesting... a show like this, if you're the producer and the writer, there are different hats you have to wear. We have like 24 people working on this show right now around the clock, and it's a lot to manage.

And, I'm not sure if there's a term for this, but unlike there's not much of a book of spoken dialogue, everything is nearly sung?

It's kind of like an operetta, I guess. There is a book. It's just not very complex. Just about people dating each other and other people in San Francisco, and about friendship, so it can be summed up pretty quickly.