Songwriter David Shire’s newest work, “Waterfall,” which gets its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse May 29, started in his mind as anything but a likely hit. Now, however, the Academy Award-winning songwriter and composer, whose work has graced the stage and the silver screen for half-a-century, seems filled with excitement about this passionate throwback to the days when romance was king.
“Waterfall” tells the story of a romance between a Thai student and an American diplomat’s wife in 1930s Bangkok and Tokyo; the show started its life as an overseas production in Thailand, where it caught the eye of producer Jack M. Dalgleish, who decided to bring it to Broadway with the help of Tak Viravan, the show’s Thai producer-director. Dalgleish also knew the piece would need serious work to come to America, including an English-language book, so he reached out to Tony winner Richard Maltby Jr., the lyricist of “Miss Saigon,” among many other credits, and asked if he’d be willing to take it on. Maltby looked it over and felt it needed more than just English lyrics for an American audience; he thought it needed to be completely redone, and that’s where Shire, Maltby’s longtime collaborator, came in.
“We first took it as kind of an industrial show, in the sense that it was like a day job,” Shire said. “It wasn’t a topic we were particularly interested in or would have chosen for ourselves, but frankly, the advance was quite handsome … so we said we’ll just do this as a side job, and do it as well as we can.”
Shire and Maltby’s initial lack of enthusiasm soon changed, however. “In working on it, within half a year, we had become so enamored with the subject matter as it was taking shape under our own pens, that it really became a project of ours that we were working on as if we had given birth to it ourselves,” Shire said.
He began doing research for the score, something he said was made far easier by the Internet. He also visited music schools in Bangkok. The experience led him to incorporate Thai instruments, such as the Ranat Ek, a curved, xylophone-like instrument, into the score.
Although he incorporated many Asian influences into the piece, Shire is quick to point out that the music is still, at its core, Broadway.
“As you may know, you can’t use these influences literally, because they won’t work for a commercial Broadway musical,” he said. “When Jerome Kern got the assignment to do ‘Show Boat,’ one of his composer peers said, ‘What kind of music are you going to write for a Southern, Black, ethnic, musical story like that?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you know, good old Jewish Broadway music.’
“It’s made me write music that I’m proud of, because it stretches different muscles than I’ve had to stretch before,” Shire said of his experience composing “Waterfall.” “It’s a very passionate score, a very romantic score. It’s the kind of score Richard and I have wanted to write for some time.”
One leading cast member who’s particularly excited about the piece is Celia Mei Rubin, who describes herself as a “wonton-ball soup” (a tiny Chinese Jew). Born to an ethnically Chinese-Malaysian mother and an American-Jewish father, Rubin feels a particularly strong connection to “Waterfall.”
The central love story in many ways mirrors her own family experience. Her father, who was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, was always an adventurous sort, according to Rubin. “He always had this wanderlust, so as soon as he could, he left the United States, and he joined the Peace Corps and went to Malaysia as an English teacher, and my mom was one of his students … and they’re still happily married 40-some-odd years later.”
For Rubin, a cross-cultural love story is very the much the story of her life. Her mother has often told her how love transcends culture and religion. “She talks about how my dad had to go millions of miles to find her, and even though they’re from completely different cultures … their core values are very much the same.” Her parents’ love has always been a source of pride for Rubin, who said, “I never felt that being different was a hindrance.”
Rubin also is excited about working with Shire. “David Shire, in addition to being someone whose work I’ve admired since I was a teenager, is … a very lovely man,” Rubin said.
The feeling is mutual. In fact, Shire said he’s enjoyed working with all the young cast members on the show, especially those from Thailand and Japan. “Being able to have firsthand contact with a culture you just have cliché ideas about, and get more deeply familiar with it, is just intellectually very exciting,” Shire said.
“It certainly bucks the Broadway zeitgest right now,” Shire said of “Waterfall,” which is planned to move from Pasadena to Seattle, with an eye toward New York. “It’s about as far from a Disney show, or a rock show, or any of the things that tend to be hits now as you could imagine, but we’re hoping there’s an appetite for a good old-fashioned love story with passionate, melodic music that maybe hasn’t been on for a while.”
Now 77, Shire isn’t planning to stop working anytime soon. In fact, he’s currently working on a second show with Maltby and playwright Craig Lucas, which features some Jewish characters, something Shire said is a nice change.
When his old college buddies ask him why he hasn’t retired yet, why he keeps plugging away and composing and traveling, Shire has a simple answer for them.
“If I retired, I’d get up in the morning and do exactly the same thing as I’m doing now, except I wouldn’t get paid for it.”