AISLE SAY Special Feature

An Interview with Songwriter-Performer
Steven Lutvak

by Frank Evans

I am early for my appointment with Steven Lutvak. The songwriter-performer lives in an area of Manhattan that is north of Gramercy, south of Murray Hill, east of Chelsea and west of Bellevue. Smells of curry and exotic spices from nearby restaurants and markets float through the early autumn air.

Just as I announce myself to the doorman, Lutvak comes into the building. "I feel as if I already know you," he says as he greets me. We've both written musicals performed in the National Music Theatre Network's Broadway Dozen series, both completed work at the Dorset Writer's Colony and have colleagues and friends in common. We've just never met before.

Lutvak's sunny apartment is dominated by a Knabe grand. For the first part of the interview, he is seated on a teak steamer chair, and for the second part, he plays and sings at the piano. In one of his publicity photos he is posed atop an upright photo, his legs dangling barefoot towards the keyboard. He and the photo suggest that the interview is going to be fun,

Right now, he is juggling three exciting events in his career. This is normal; his career has been an intricate balancing act from the outset, which may be why at his relatively young age he has so much going on.

On November l7 he returns to Rainbow and Stars in an act he shares with "City Of Angels" and "Will Rogers Follies" star Dee Hoty. Later in the month they'll reprise their show in Connecticut at the Garde Arts Centre in New London. He is completing music and lyrics for an adaptation of an early A.R. Gurney play, "The Wayside Motor Inn" and has written music for Carol Hall's lyric "I'll Imagine You a Song", just recorded by Petula Clark. On December 11, Lutvak will perform the new song at Washington D.C.'s National Cathedral. He is almost embarrassed when he tells me "The people who will be performing or speaking at the event will be Jason Robards, Van Cliburn, Sandra Day O'Connor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Colin Powell, Ellen Burstyn, a four hundred voice gospel choir (or a four hundred voice choir plus a gospel choir, I'm not sure which) Hillary Clinton, and me singing that song."

Then he laughs and his laughter conveys a lot of wisdom he's gained in the time he's been carving out his career.

When Lutvak first came to New York, he made his living by playing in piano bars and doing vocal coaching. Lutvak Still coaches. "I'm lucky, knock wood, really lucky, because I've built up a thriving coaching business. I have a list of Tony winners, people in every show on Broadway and I've never had to advertise."

He was fortunate enough to be in the first class of the NYU Musical Theatre Program where his classmates included George C, Wolfe, Winnie Holtzman, Jeff Lunden & Art Perlman, and Robert Friedman, who just wrote the screenplay for "Mrs. Santa Claus", Jerry Herman's new musical for Angela Lansbury and "Cinderella" for Whitney Houston.

While at NYU he was able to study with Leonard Bernstein, whom he credits as his major musical influence. Or more modestly, he says, he would like to think of him as an influence.

"Bernstein's music is so big--it's big even when it's little. When Lenny came and taught at NYU, I got to spend a lot of time with him and hands down, he was the best teacher I ever had. He was often over the top, of course, so loving and so smart and frightening. I remember sitting there thinking any adjective is completely appropriate here. Everything from top to bottom.

"He had us work on a sequel to `Trouble in Tahiti', which he was working on at the time. So he said, 'How are you all going to solve this?' And from anyone else you'd think, `that's a little self-serving,' but from him, not at all. One time I played revisions of a piece incorporating suggestions we had discussed. And I'll never forget the look on his face. I looked up and it was like he was sizing me up and his eyes said 'Oh, you really get it, don't you?' He didn't say a word. He just nodded.

"I had a similar experience with Arthur Laurents where we had to do an emotion workshop because he thought our writing was too cold. He wanted us to do the climactic scene from `Waltz Of The Toreadors' and he pulled me aside afterwards and said 'I knew you were talented, but I never knew you had this depth of understanding.' I thanked him, my God, to hear this from Arthur Laurents, no less. Then he said 'You don't need an emotion workshop.' And I said, 'What do you think I need?' not stopping to think I had Just asked this of Arthur Laurents. And he took a beat and said: 'Experience.' That's as good an answer as anyone could ever hope for."

After NYU, Lutvak was commissioned to do the musical "Almost September", set in the World of A.A. Milne. "I would go up to Dorset to work on `Almost September' and take a day or two off and just write a song. And so I had this collection of songs. They can get pretty peculiar, they're sort of odd varied little things. I just wrote them and never thought what I was going to do with them.

"Then I turned 3l and I said 'Oh, I get it.' I woke up one morning and I said 'Oh, that's what I'm gonna do now.' Perform an evening of my songs. I'd never thought about it before. So I did an Equity Fights Aids benefit... `Seems to Me it's Time'...meaning time for me to do it and to do something for the cause. Because I coached everybody in Manhattan, we sold out in twenty minutes and had to add extra nights. My Broadway buddies pitched in and did guest spots and the rest of the time I'd just sit at the piano and sing; it was truly a life changing thing."

Life changing indeed. From there he joined the Cabaret symposium at the O'Neill, was hooked into the Russian Tea Room with Dee Hoty, returned to the O'Neill for a gala fund raiser and partnered with Hoty again in their first Rainbow and Stars engagement.

Lutvak finds the links between the different areas of his work make the various facets of his career stronger and stronger. "I'm a much better coach now that I've been performing as much as I have. And the more my shows are produced, the better I am at helping people prepare for auditions. And whenever I get a new cast together on a show, they'll invariably say `You really know how to write for the voice.' I'm really proud of that."

When I ask him about writers who influence his lyrics, he tells me. "These are all under the 'I would like to think they're influences.' Noel Coward: nobody does funny like he does. And you don't quite know it's funny 'til you play it. Sheldon Harnick for the warmth. He's the warmest writer, the warmest lyricist ever. And the underrated, under appreciated Carolyn Leigh comes pretty close."

Lutvak moves to the piano to perform two numbers from his adaptation of "Wayside Motor Inn." The play is about the rootlessness of the middle class via the story of four couples staying at a cookie-cutter Motel on an Interstate. Lutvak has a keen eye for detail. After checking in, a bright college student notices:

You've got your early Chagall

Nailed to the well...

And a rich sense of emotion. An older black woman remembers the excitement of her first trip away from the South for a ballroom dance held in a Boston hotel:

People say the world moved slower back then,

But not me.

Prior to the interview, I'd also heard a tape of two of his cabaret songs: "Beware of the Anger of Soft Spoken Men" which has a funny, twisty warning cloaked in a warm bossa-nova; and "Man of Words", which tells the plight of a writer who's at a loss for words when it comes to love.

Just before the interview concludes, I ask if I can hear one more song. Lutvak performs "Mrs. Whitney" an ode to the singer's first piano teacher.

Mrs. Whitney taught me to play the piano

Before my feet could even reach the pedals...

By the end of the song, Mrs. Whitney teaches him all he needs to know about life.

Thank you, Mrs. Whitney... It's a fitting end to the afternoon, As I walk uptown. I'm impervious to the scent of curry in the air. But Lutvak's songs are still swirling about in my brain...

Steven Lutvak appears at Rainbow and Stars on November 17 at 7:30 & l0 PM (2l2) 632-5000; as part of the ON STAGE WITH series at the Garde Arts Center, 325 State Street, New London, CT on November 22 & 23 at 8 PM 1-888-0N GARDE or (860) 444-7l73; and at the Washington National Cathedral December 11. By Invitation only.

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