Ever since animated Disney musical Beauty and the Beast inspired high school classmates Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner to become songwriters, the two have been working towards Broadway. In July of this year, they officially made it to the Great White Way with their musical First Date, which had its formative world premiere at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre last February. Now the composing team, along with Tony-winning bookwriter Rupert Holmes and Broadway vets Gregg Edelman and Marc Jacoby, is back at the 5th to premiere their latest project, Secondhand Lions, based on the 2003 film about a young boy sent to live with two ornery Texan uncles. We caught up with Zachary and Weiner in the darkened house of the 5th Ave during a rehearsal for their lavish new show.
Tell me about your first Broadway opening night.
Weiner: It was thrilling. It’s everything you want it to be: There’re tons of people there, we’re sitting in this beautiful theatre, and it’s all happening because we sat around with our friend Austin [Winsberg, First Date bookwriter] a few years ago and said “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
Zachary: You work so hard and so long and you hope that it’ll happen, but you never truly believe you’ll walk into a Broadway theatre with your show playing there. The coolest thing is seeing audiences go crazy for it. We just wrote about stuff that happened to us and our friends, and to see people relating is so satisfying.
A downside to Broadway is getting high profile reviews like that not-so-kind one in the New York Times. How did you take that?
Weiner: Our view of the New York reviews was a lot like it was here in Seattle: some great reviews, some not great reviews, and that’s fine. Everyone has an opinion. The truth is, we got way more positive reviews than we even expected to get. So the New York Times didn’t like the show. I don’t think we ever expected either of the Times critics to like this show, and that’s totally cool. It’s always about the audience for us.
So you do read reviews?
Zachary: We read them on our phones as they come in. You can’t stop us.
Weiner: I get that some people are very devastated by them, but ultimately, if you’re going to be in this business you have to have a thick skin and hope that audiences respond well.
How much did First Date change from Seattle to Broadway?
Zachary: Quite a bit. We were really paying attention to the audience responses here, and that’s part of the reason we wanted to come back to Seattle with Secondhand Lions because the cross section of people is a great barometer of what people are going to appreciate on Broadway and other venues.
Secondhand Lions has a long preview period here. Will the show change a lot during the Seattle run?
Weiner: We’re going to change as much as we need to, to make this the best show possible. What’s great about the 5th is we get audience response, including written feedback. With First Date, we were able to read comment cards every night and when things would come up multiple times we’d think, OK, maybe this is something we should really work on. The audience is a huge part of developing a new show. The most important part, really.
So, why Secondhand Lions?
Zachary: It’s romantic, it’s dramatic, it’s comedic, it’s adventurous. We were very attracted to the two different worlds in the story, because it lets us traverse two completely different styles of music. One dwells in 1950s era Texas, and that combination of bluegrass Americana is contrasted with the early 20s in North Africa, which is really reminiscent of classic movie musicals. As songwriters that’s thrilling.
Weiner: Secondhand Lions really deals with themes of what it means to grow older, and lose people that you love. What it means to be somebody who is young and not have a family, and find a family in people that you never expected. That’s even fascinating in terms of contemporary society—what do families look like? It’s not just a mom and a dad and kids anymore. And that’s not what this show is. It’s portraying the potential of a very unexpected family.
Do you prefer writing original stories or adaptating existing ones?
Zachary: On the one hand, it’s nice having a film as an outline of sorts, but at the same time you want to bring something fresh to it. That's the idea whether you’re doing something original or an adaptation. We want to feel like we’re bringing something new and interesting to the party.
Weiner: If you can rent a movie for a couple of dollars on iTunes, you have to give an audience a really good reason to come and spend theatre dollars to have a similar story told to them. That’s our job as writers, and that’s what’s so great about Secondhand Lions. You can bring these two different worlds to life in such theatrical ways, and seeing that world transform right in front of you is something that can only happen on stage.
Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary, photo by Jeff Carpenter. Secondhand Lions officially opens Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 6.