The butterfly trick
Greg Coffin used to be an actor. Then he morphed into a composer-librettist, and his new musical Convenience, a somewhat autobiographical tale of coming out, is the result.
Gregg Coffin used to earn a living as an actor. But over the last seven years, Coffin has done the butterfly trick. He’s grown wings and emerged into a new and more independent career as a theater composer—a career that includes Coffin’s musical Convenience, which gets its first West Coast production this month at the Sacramento Theatre Company (STC).
Coffin had a fairly high profile locally as an actor between 1990 and 1996. He came down from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to take a role in a show at STC and soon became a resident artist, appearing in several shows each season.
As an actor, Coffin is best remembered as the skinny, motor-mouthed white kid on a strangely funny Deep South crime spree in T Bone N Weasel. Coffin won praise for his acting in Lonely Planet, an AIDS drama that STC staged in the 1995-1996 season. In the mid-1990s, Coffin began doing sound design for STC shows and became the conservator for Dave de Berry’s score in STC’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol after de Berry’s death. STC also hired Coffin to write his first score, for The Grapes of Wrath.
But Steve Rothman, a director with sitcom credits, took the reins at STC in 1996. Coffin soon bailed out. “Everybody ran away,” Coffin recalled, as STC’s programming went down-market and the company’s subscription base eroded.
Coffin circulated his résumé and soon was working all over the country. But he began getting more composing assignments. He was hired by the Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival to write music for six shows, including the songs for Cinderella, a holiday show that STC picked up and produced in Sacramento for three years in a row. Coffin also got composing gigs on the East Coast, in the South, in the Midwest and in Canada.
After several years, the transformation is now virtually complete. “I haven’t acted in four years,” he said. “Now, I do seven incidental music scores a year, for Shakespeare festivals and regional theaters. Plus, whatever new musical I’m working on.”
And Coffin has several musicals cooking. Convenience is being produced this year in three cities. Cinderella and Christmas Carol are usually programmed somewhere in December. Coffin’s also finishing a new musical called Five Course Love (opening in June at the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y.), and he’s writing the music for another holiday show, called Mother Goose, commissioned by STC.
The switch from acting to composing has transformed Coffin’s mindset as an artist. “They say that when you’re a business person, you can be one of four things: employed, self-employed, a business owner or an investor. I went from being an actor, which was very much ’employed,’ to being a composer of incidental music, who’s ‘self-employed,’ a freelancer. But then, when you write your own musical [like Convenience], you’re immediately a business owner. [A musical is a] system that goes out in the world to send you money,” as it’s produced in various cities. That income gives Coffin the opportunity to spend time writing the next musical.
This means Coffin’s most often at home in Sacramento. “Now that I’m composing predominantly, I spend eight or nine months of the year here,” he said. “Before, I used to spend eight or nine months of the year away.” But paradoxically, Coffin’s less visible locally than before, because a composer doesn’t appear onstage.
Coffin has established a work routine. “I write from when I get up until lunch, no matter what I’m working on,” he said. This doesn’t always involve serious stuff. He’ll let himself tinker with a ragtime version of a piece by Debussy.
After lunch, Coffin focuses on projects with deadlines. Writing incidental music for a play is a specialized task, he’s found. “We live in a culture where music sells everything,” he said. “It’s been interesting to watch theater take up that habit [as more productions feature music specifically written for the show]. Movies do it very well. But you can’t do it the same way in theater, because if you do, you’re sentimentalizing the moment. There’s a distance in film that requires film to do that. But theatrically, it’s too much in the room. You’re too close [as an audience member]; you’re already in the moment.”
Incidental music for the theater should be subtle, Coffin believes. “Music gets you on the page, takes you from one scene to the next. It pulls the audience along,” he said. And it does so without taking the attention off the actors. Coffin’s music for STC’s December production of The SantaLand Diaries was a case in point: He’d take a Christmas carol, start it out sweet and then twist it with a minor key or dissonance.
But writing for a musical like Convenience puts the composer in a far more visible role. Convenience is “sung through,” with only a few lines of spoken dialogue. The songs grab you in the first scene and seldom let up. Each song phases into the next.
Coffin’s songs in Convenience are steeped in styles from 1960s and 1970s pop, which he heard growing up. He jokes that he was “raised with a radio in my crib.”
Coffin also loves American musicals, especially those by Stephen Sondheim. “You cannot beat the overture from Gypsy. That and Candide and Merrily We Roll Along. And I’m a big fan of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And Sunday in the Park with George.”
Coffin also wrote the book and lyrics for Convenience. His summary: “A single mom and her grown-up son, age 26, each have a secret to pop on each other. Neither one knows what the other is going to tell them. And during a week together at home, they both pop their secrets. It has to do with doors that got slammed years ago in their lives. When the husband [and father] walked out, both the mother and son inadvertently slammed a door on each other, in addition to the one he slammed on them.”
The action takes place at two levels of time, presented onstage simultaneously. “You see the current problem being worked out. But you also see the remnants of what broke 20 years ago onstage as well. There’s a 26-year-old guy and a 6-year-old boy onstage, literally. And a mom in her 40s along with a mom in her 20s. And everyone can hear everything.”
Convenience is somewhat autobiographical. “Yes, a kid comes out to his mom. But my mom never remarried, and in this show, it looks like she’s going to. And in my life, it was a piece of cake to come out. But it is not for this kid [in the show].
“When I first came out to my mom, her response was basically, ‘Don’t tell the grandparents, because it will kill them.’” But everything changed when Coffin and partner Joe Zaniker became homeowners and settled down. “My mom called and said, ‘I know this isn’t going to make any sense. But it really only struck me that you are gay when you bought the house.’”
(Zaniker, incidentally, has an exhibit of his paintings opening at Uptown Studios, 912 1/2 J Street in Sacramento, on March 13—the same night Convenience opens at STC. “And you think you have scheduling problems!” Coffin quipped.)
Coffin started writing Convenience in 1999 and workshopped it at Geva in 2000. In 2001, Convenience was mounted in a studio production by Geva and showcased for theater professionals by the National Alliance of Musical Theatre in New York.
“Out of that, it got all kinds of buzz. And I got an agent,” Coffin said. One of the producers interested in the show was Kevin Moore, of the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio. Moore attended a Geva revival of Convenience in 2002 and decided to direct a Dayton production of Convenience himself. That project became a co-production with STC. It ran in Dayton during January and February and begins previews in Sacramento on March 9.
Moore described Coffin as a storyteller. “He tells it through music,” Moore said. “The styles, the tempos, the rhythm tell you about the story and the characters.” Though several songs are studded with guitar riffs, the “rock opera” moniker is not apt.
“The mother-son relationship is the crux of the show, really,” Moore said of the show’s dramatic premise. “The fact that he’s coming out is secondary to the main relationship, which has been so hampered. They really have to go back and sort that out. Until they do that, neither one can move forward. They really have this thing that’s in the way.”
But the gay relationship is still high-profile. “Two men kiss very early on in the show,” Moore said.
Actress Melissa Rain Anderson, an old friend of Coffin’s, has appeared in every production of Convenience, playing the young version of the mother. “I’ve always made room for it; I’ll give notice on other shows to do Convenience,” she said. “It’s a piece that absolutely moves people. It speaks to people on a very deep emotional level. Anybody who has a mother or father, anyone who has kids, anyone who is in a loving relationship can relate.”
Lucinda Cone Hitchcock plays the older version of the mother. (Sacramento audiences know her as the Fairy Godmother in STC’s Cinderella and from last year’s tour of South Pacific.)
Having sung Coffin’s songs in two shows, Hitchcock is convinced that Coffin has the right stuff. “The guy’s brilliant. He has his own unique voice. The music is very accessible, so the audience is able to go with us on this journey. That’s the brilliance of the piece. They’re not put off by the music; they’re brought in.”