Interview with Nan Knighton
NR: How did you get from college to starting the show in 1989?
NK: I went to graduate school and that was when I really started writing seriously as opposed to having a lot of fun with it. I got my Masters in creative writing. Boston University is one of the few places that offers an M.A. in creative writing and that was why I went there. It was such an exciting writing program. I studied with John Barth and Anne Sexton - prose writing with Barth and poetry writing with Sexton. Both of them were at the peaks of their careers at the time. It was very, very exciting and I learned so much from them. I'm very ambivalent about writing classes and writing workshops because I think a lot of people walk in thinking that there's a formula they can learn as to how to write and I think that's garbage. You're in the process of trying to find your own voice. But, what's great about groups of writers is having that constant feedback and living within those rhythms and I really did learn so much. My writing got a lot better. It was a terrific experience and by the time I had my Masters degree, I knew I wanted to write. I think I actually thought at that point that I was either going to be a poet or a novelist. Pretty quickly I dropped the novelist thing out because I realized I didn't have the patience to rewrite a novel. First drafting a novel is one thing, but sitting down to redraft a novel is just like climbing this huge mountain. I thought I would just do poetry and I actually went through a long period of submitting poems, and then I got a job. My first husband and I had moved to Maryland and I got a job with the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting, for a nationally broadcast PBS show called Consumer Survival Kit. It was very exciting. I was 25 or something. It was extraordinarily exciting to get a job as a professional writer, making a salary. It was nothing, but to me it was incredible. I was making $10,000 a year and I felt that was amazing. It was a consumer show that took a different topic every week, like real estate or dentistry, any topic you could think of and presented a half hour show that tried to give the consumer information about the topic but to do it in a variety show format so that it was fun. We did skits and dramatic sketches and songs, anything you wanted to do. There were four writers on the show and every writer was assigned every fourth show. They gave me a lot of free rein so I just had a ball. That was when I did my first songs. I had written song lyrics for fun in school but that was when I did my first songs that were produced.
NR: Did someone else do the music?
NK: Yeah. I think the first song I ever had done was for a show on weight control. I did everything from going down to Johns Hopkins Hospital and interviewing their weight control clinics so that there were documentary segments on the show to a skit that was a take-off on a French movie with a guy jogging through a little village and I wrote a song called "Come Jog With Me." It was like a French, (singing) "Come jog with me, lose a little fat, cherie." And it was so much fun, going out on the film shoot and I was in seventh heaven. So, pretty much from then on in, every show I wrote I put a song in. I always had at least one comic sketch in it too because the other thing I loved to do most was funny stuff. They were great. They let me have fun with it. I did that for two years and probably would have stayed there a lot longer but my marriage had broken up and I was dating my current husband, John, who lived in New York, and who had to be in New York because he's an entertainment lawyer. If I was going to be with him, I really had to go to New York. I had always loved New York anyway, and to me the whole thing just made sense that this was the time that I would shift my life to New York. That's why I left the television station. I was sad to go though because I really had fun.
NR: So, how did you meet Frank Wildhorn?
NK: I met Frank in 1989. Basically, Jimmy Nederlander was going to produce a musical of The Scarlet Pimpernel and he had hired Frank to do the music and Arthur Kopit to do the book and Mike Ockrent to direct, and they didn't have a lyricist. Frank heard about me and I talked to him on the phone. He said, "Don't send me anything on paper. I only want to hear tapes of things you've done." Now, what I had in the way of tapes of things I had done at that point was pathetic. I didn't have anything. I had a song that was done in the Radio City Christmas Show but I knew that wasn't going to do it for me. I had some really bad quality tapes from an experimental musical I had been working on about pregnancy and I knew that wasn't going to do it for me. So, I took a risk. It was one of the first times I really took a professional risk and I just sat down and wrote some lyrics on spec for Pimpernel, and read the book because I had never read it before. I wrote one funny lyric and one love ballad and sent those to him, and he really loved them, thank God.
NR: Were they anything that still exist?
NK: They still exist somewhere. They're in my files somewhere.
NR: But, they're not in the show now?
NK: No. One was called "Cloak and Dagger" and it was about the guys disguising themselves and I don't even remember what the other was called. No, neither of them went into the show but he really liked them enough that he called me back and said, "I want to meet you." We met and we hit it off right away so that he gave me two pieces of music. Frank only writes music first. I can't give him a lyric. He never works that way. I've worked with other composers who work lyric first, so that I can write a whole show, book and lyrics and give it to them, and they can set it to music, but Frank works the other way. He gave me the "Madame Guillotine" music and he gave me the music to a song that ended up being on the concept album but never went any further than that, called "There Never Was a Time."
NR: I love that song. I wanted it to go in the new version, and I'm not alone.
NK: I just hate it. I hate it so much.
NR: (laughs) Then I guess that explains why it's not in the show.
NK: I always felt it was corny and I always thought it was not Frank's strongest work and certainly not my strongest work. I wrote up the lyrics for these two and in particular, he loved my "Madame Guillotine" lyric, which was very much as it is today although I've changed things over the years, but it was pretty similar to the version that's in the show now. And then there was a period of MONTHS of him trying to persuade the producers to take a chance on an unknown, which was what I was. I had done little things. I had co-written a screenplay for a movie that got made and produced but never got released in this country. I had done some work at Radio City Music Hall and I had my television work, but I really didn't have any substantial theater credits. I'd had a couple showcases only as a playwright. Frank said "They want me to work with somebody else, so in the meantime, let's you and I start on another show." So, he and I started working on another show called Vienna which we have yet to do. We started working furiously around the clock on that and then in October - I had met him in May so this was all taking place over that period. In October, he called me and said "You have the job as the lyricist." I was thrilled. It was wonderful.
Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.
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