Jay Kuo, writer/composer of Insignificant Others: Interview

And is that the kind of thing you are drawn to, or at some point would like you like someone else to do the book and you're just writing these amazing, show-stopping songs?

Well, certainly the critics have weighed in on that question. You know, we won Best Original Musical Script, but then critics will say the book is trite or shallow and you just have to understand that, I guess, critics aren't always the same as normal people. But, my second musical that I finished last December, we put it on at the Magic Theater, and I did the book, music, and lyrics again. And I was able to do it from a position of strength, which was 'I'm going to start this project with a beginning, middle, and ending in mind,' rather than piece it together, having never done it before.

So, it wound up being a much stronger piece, got much better critical review, and I'm not ready to give up authorship rights for the book and just become the guy who writes the funny songs. I'm a little frustrated by this show in that I don't think it shows what any of our team is capable of. It's just sort of the first one out of the door. It's kind of like your children, the first child you make mistakes with and sometimes they are overburdened, you're overprotective, and you let loose a bit more with the second and third.

Yeah, I never go into things with that mindset, where it seems like they go in like, 'Let's see what goes wrong with this...' I mean, if you see a $10 million Broadway production, they have more skill in pulling focus away from what might be wrong, or have the ability to fix it.

A good example is we just got reviewed in the Guardian, and they decided it would be a good idea to review us and Avenue Q at the same time, in the same article. It was great because the headline says 'Avenue Q and Insignificant Others: Comic Musicals with Bite.' Great headline, but then when you go down into it, they say it doesn't nearly have the budget that Avenue Q does, it conceptually isn't as interesting... well, yeah, because they've got puppets. You know?! (laughs) And we don't. We just have normal people.

So, there's a lot of unfair stuff that happens, but they're paid to do that and part of the process of becoming an artist instead of a legal professional was to subject yourself to the criticisms of not only your workplace but of the public. That's harder because you can't please everybody and, for every great review you get from an audience member or a critic, you'll get somebody snarky.

But the house is doing pretty well, it seems. You're not in one of these 15-seat places, you've got a pretty good size venue and the night I saw it, the audience was very into it and having a lot of fun. I know at home I have a stack of DVDs and I'll just pop them in like, 'OK, here we go, make it good...' so there is the whole issue that when you're constantly reviewing things you're constantly reviewing things. They aren't showing up because they heard the show is fun. It's their job. I mean, it's not a serious show, you have Starbucks baristas dancing around...

A lot of critics think every piece of theater should be art. And there are some artful moments in the show, but it's entertainment and it's different. My second show, Homeland, is more art than entertainment although it is entertaining. I never want an audience member to be looking at her watch. I don't even like when they look in their program to see what song is next, because you think, are they bored?

Just checking them off...

Right. But some people just need that semblance of order. How much longer am I going to be entertained? The balance between art and entertainment is a tricky one. Entertainment is far more commercially viable, and I didn't go into this wanting to be poor. I wanted to do what I really like doing and what I think I do better than lawyering, which is writing music, writing lyrics, and promoting shows. The thing I didn't realize is I would spend 80 percent of my time promoting the show and about 20 percent writing it. And, lately, it's like 80 percent promoting, 10 percent trying to get the next show up and going, and auditions and rehearsals, and the occasional new song. I'm supposed to be writing a new musical every year for the next ten years. That was the promise I made to myself when I did this. So, it's a year and nine months and I've got two, so I'm doing OK, but the next one needs to come out, so I'm trying to find time to do it, and the inspiration, and it's hard to do when I'm producing.

And do you tend to know the thematic thing you're going for and then the songs fill in around that?

For the third musical, it's pretty easy. The big decision was: do I write a drama or a comedy? And after Homeland, which is such a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking show, I wanted to write a pure comedy. So, not even any sappy moments in it. And I was just bouncing around looking for ideas for a while, just surfing the net, looking at television, thinking about what to write, and I thought, 'Oh, I'll write a musical about cheerleading,' since I actually was a cheerleader in college and it's a campy, funny thing. But then I decided against it when I was surfing cable television and came across the World Series of Poker. I found myself watching it, despite myself, and listening to the backstories of these crazy people who are at the final table. So that's how All In was sort-of conceived, just an inspiration from television, watching it and thinking, 'This could be really funny' and also have that sort-of suspenseful ending that you want in a musical.

Well, I intend for my novel to become a Broadway musical, to the psychotic level that I changed one of the secondary character's ages to be 10 years older than me, so that after it takes years to work its way through channels, I can be appropriately stunt-cast in it. So, I have it all planned out.

These shows do take a long time. We're going into our third year on Insignificant Others and it's finally just getting a commercial run. And my show that debuted in December (2006), it got great critical review and now it's just sitting around waiting for the next thing to happen. I have to shop it around all the time, and raise money behind it.

Doesn't this show being staged help the next one along?

Yes and no. They're very different shows. Obviously, if you have a winner, and no one knows if this one is yet, it's easier to get your financing. But one of the things I learned before doing this was how to raise money, so that was convenient. I didn't know I'd be using it to raise money for musicals, but I raised money for a dot-com, found angel investors, and I know how to pitch a pie in the sky notion to people and say, 'If you give me $10,000, you are likely to lose that money, so it was to be $10,000 that you can kiss goodbye. But, if this show makes it, that can be the best money you ever spent. But you shouldn't be investing this money for the purpose of making a lot of money. You should be investing because you think I'll never stop working and one of these days, I'll have a hit.' That's sort of the pitch I gave to people, and it totally worked. I raised more money in a year and a half than I would have been able to earn as a lawyer.

You didn't have millions socked away from being a lawyer?

No, no... I was debt-free except for my mortgage. So, the scary question was, how do I pay for my house? Literally going from earning $275,000 a year to earning zero. It's like slamming on the brakes. And I wasn't used to living like this, so I immediately canceled my HBO and Showtime, and all these luxuries that I had, made a pact with myself that I would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of going out to get oysters, all kinds of things. I haven't bought new clothes in a long time, other than to replace things that wear out, so it was quite a shift. You have to be willing to do all of that.

Yeah, I did a lot of that, but then I lost 80 pounds, so I have some skinnier clothes, but I'm not totally where I want to be yet, so I have to wait even longer in these few clothes in this size, and then I can eventually buy new clothes. Well, I'll have to, since I'll be a new size again.

I made a pact that I would sooner sell my house than go back to being a lawyer. And it's still possible. I would say we're breaking even on the show right now and although that personally isn't where I want to be, when I talk to producers and investors, they're somewhat amazed that we've been breaking even from day one. The minute we opened at the Zeum, we were bringing in slightly more money than we were spending, so in the books, we're in the black. Now, how long it takes to recoup your investment is another question, but if you can prove you have profitability, it's a matter of how to become more profitable and not whether you have a viable product.