Jay Kuo, writer/composer of Insignificant Others: Interview

How much does the work change as it goes? I mean, I write on paper basically and when people see it, they will be reading words on paper. Whereas your thing, you're writing it in your living room or wherever, and then you have 11 actors bring their take to it, a director, so how much does it change when so many people have to be involved?

It's not at all the same thing as what was on paper. When I write it, I don't really have an idea of how it's going to be staged or who's going to sing it when I wrote Insignificant Others. And that was very hard and part of the reason the show had to go through so many changes, because a lot of the notions I had really didn't work staging-wise, and the storylines didn't really flow when living beings occupied the territory. So that's why it took two years of development, and changes, and audience testing.

We tested it like a beta product. I was religious about getting feedback forums: what songs did you like/do you hate? What characters do you like? Who don't you identify with? And we made the changes based on audience testing. So it wasn't much of an artistic endeavor after the show was initially penned. It was more like a series of necessary compromises.

That's why having the luxury of writing another musical, knowing what works and what doesn't, is so much better. Homeland is going to have to go through much less of a change and I didn't even poll the audience. I just kind of know. I knew what needed to get fixed before they even saw it. And I think the third one will be stronger still, so that's been the biggest surprise in the year and a half I've been doing this now.

When I started writing Insignificant Others, I told people, 'This better work, because I don't think I can do better,' and I was totally wrong. I can completely do better. (laughs) And that's great because it means you're never really stagnant, you're still intrigued by other people's ideas. I scribble stuff down all the time when people say stuff, because it might make its way into a show. When I trash a song out of one musical, I think, 'Well, maybe I can use it in another one later.'

So, you're trying to do the Beach Blanket Babylon sort-of standing thing? Would that be the dream?

That's certainly the dream for this show. I think that's about as far as this show could probably go. Maybe it could tour, maybe play Off-Broadway. It's not going to be the show that makes my name artistically, and I don't really want it to be. But it could potentially pay the mortgage, and that would be great. If it brought in enough money so I could sustain myself, then I would have the luxury to write what I want to write, and hire people to do the jobs that I don't like, like company management.

The last standing show on Pier 39 was Menopause the Musical. Is there any concern this might be too gay or anything like that? Menopause is more broad...

Broader and narrower at the same time. I mean, there's a certain demographic that's going to want to see Menopause, but not everybody. It doesn't resonate with people the same as it does with its target demographic. Its target demographic is a great one for theater. It's the same one we can snag, though. Women in their 40s and 50s are our biggest fans at Insignificant Others, surprisingly.

I think a lot of people would assume it's gays and lesbians, but we can't just play to that market. I think the show will challenge the tourists, but if they're going to see the San Francisco musical, they expect to see the gays, and the boys in drag, and outrageous hippies, and everything else that's in Insignificant Others.

Where we're probably going to tone things down or eliminate things are the more controversial political aspects of the show. The show's not really supposed to be a political show, and there are political moments in there that will probably come out, that are vestiges from when I felt like I could write whatever I wanted and say, 'Screw you, I'll just do it.' It doesn't work when you know who your target audience is... if it's the tourists coming from the Midwest or wherever, you don't want people walking out of your show.

Well, they have paid at that point...

(laughs)

But, word of mouth, I guess...

Right. You don't want the calls from the tour operator saying, 'I can't do this anymore. People are so upset by this, I'm getting angry calls and they're canceling bookings.' You can't do that.

For me, I would think the hardest part would be that... don't you have some desire to be up onstage singing it?

That's definitely not my thing.

Really? You don't want to be up there dancing around?

I guess I'm more like a parent when it comes to it. I'm proud when my kids, my cast, get up there and do it. And they can do it better than anything I could do. I was a performer for years in musical theater, and this is really where I belong... at the piano, behind the table. And I work closely with each of them, I vocal-directed this show, so I know the sound I want to get out of all of them.

And, having been a performer, I can give them some tips about it, and coaching on how to project, where to go to head voice, where to put in a sexy growl or whatever. It would be an injustice if I actually attempted to perform it. It would be a disservice to the show. Some of my idols, like Jason Robert Brown, he's quite a performer and he performs a lot of his own stuff, which I'm in awe of. But I think it actually holds him back. I don't think he knows what he wants to be.

What is it like working with a director on this since you already have such a clear vision of what you want?

I didn't have any experience working with somebody like our director, who is so much more experienced in musical theater than I am. So that's been a joy. I sort of hit a point in my legal career where I didn't feel I was learning, incrementally, that much more, I was just going through the motions. But with shows, going to rehearsals is like a master class every time. It's great.

So, at a certain point, when you had the internal voice telling you 'This is what I want to do,' but you had stability and a career... did you fight with that?

I tried for a long time to do both and my body started rebelling on me. I caught walking pneumonia because I was trying a case down in Los Angeles that required me to be there at 8:30 in the morning to argue motions and other things, conclude by like two o'clock in the afternoon, hop on the shuttle back up to San Francisco, work at the office until around 7, grab dinner, head to rehearsal, and then catch another red eye back down to Los Angeles. And it was that way for about a month and a half.

I wore myself out and was deeply unhappy and resentful about my work. There was a lot of drama going on about the issue of my being up for partner. I was having political fights with junior partners in the firm. It was just not a happy situation. And, one day, I just said, 'I don't want to be at this firm anymore.'

And I thought it's going to be now or never. I can't jump to another firm and say I want to be a partner when, in fact, all I want to do is to save up enough money to do what I'm about to do anyway. So, instead, I turned to my supporters and said 'Give me $100,000 and I can quit.' And that's what they did. So, I quit and have not looked back. That aspect of it has been really, really good.

And how are you supposed to date if you were doing all that other stuff before? There was no time in there. You'd have to date someone that works for the airline.

I actually haven't dated anybody since 2003.

Why not?

There's just no time. It's been four years since I had a boyfriend.

But how are you supposed to write the big love musicals? That's why you're writing about poker and friends...

Well, I had my heart broken in 2003, which led to a lot of the ballads in Insignificant Others. So, having been through that, I sort of stayed pretty far away from anything romantic.

You need the redemption to come into the picture.

(laughs) Well, Homeland is a love story that ends really tragically. So, I don't know if there's redemption.

We're OK with tragedy in theater, but still... we like the people to get together, too.

Well, the gay boys in Homeland wind up together, but the main characters, the straight characters, don't. So maybe that's coming from somewhere inside of me. I've been "married" like three times. My first boyfriend was ... seven years together, then three and a half, then one and three quarters. It keeps going down by half.

So, you have a nice six-month quickie coming up.

Probably. Yeah. But I haven't really thought about it, because I don't have much time. I don't know where I could fit it in, because honestly I work from about 7:30 in the morning to about 1:30 at night. It's constant.

Oh my, I need to learn from you.

I get six hours of sleep seven days a week. It just never stops. I think because I was trained as a lawyer, so I still think of the day in terms of eighth of an hour increments. Every .125 of an hour, I feel like I should be accounting for what I'm doing, so most of my day is broken out that way. Before I go to bed, I make my to-do list of the next day's things I have to get done, and then there is a master to-do list. It's mostly terror that drives me, the terror of having an empty house.

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For more information on the show Insignificant Others, visit its website at isomusical.com.

You can also visit Jay Kuo's YouTube page, where you can see You Tube clips from past stagings, as well as rehearsal and dance footage.

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Note from Jeff: I can't emphasize enough how important it is to follow the path you know you should be on. Personally, I wanted to go into creative writing back when I was young, but I couldn't figure out how you'd pay the bills that way, so I took journalism instead, which led to a journalism job, then a magazine job, then marketing jobs, and now most of my time is about finally finishing my first novel. Back-up plans, or "something to fall back on," end up becoming your life most of the time. Be careful.