Yinz Musicals. An interview with Steve Cuden

img_5150Steve Cuden, a native Pittsburgher, has worked in Hollywood as an animation writer for two decades, penning episodes for popular series like X-Men, Batman, and Iron Man . He has directed, produced, and recently started teaching screenwriting at Point Park University. Cuden recently visited PMT to meet with the students at the Richard E. Ruah Conservatory, who are putting on Jekyll and Hyde, a musical in which he gained critical acclaim as a writer. He also took a few minutes to answer some questions about his ethos on writing, and what’s next in his storied career.

LA-I did a little research into your book, Beating Broadway where you describe how to write a musical and how this is pertinent not only for writers, but also actors and directors.  I was wondering if you could expand on what kind of experiences you drew from in writing the book and how you’re able to cast such a wide net of readers?

SC-It really isn’t such a wide net because writing, acting and directing are three sides of the same coin.  After a script is purchased and cast, it goes through stages of interpretation in all levels. The writer conceives the script, the director interprets a vision, and the actors bring the characters to life.

LA-Can you describe the process of how you and Frank Wildhorn decided to write Jekyll and Hyde as a musical?

SC-Well Frank and I first met when I was working at USC in lighting design in the theater department.  Frank had just sold a show to USC, called Christopher, and as I was working, I would criticize everything that I thought was wrong with the show.  He would laugh about it because he thought it was funny to hear someone criticize his work.  Eventually we became writing partners and wrote three shows together.  We wrote The High and Mighty Caesar about Julius Caesar, The Last Czar about Nicholas and Alexandra, and for the third, we were huge fans of Sweeney Todd, which was newly released on Broadway at the time, so we discussed doing something in the horror genre.  We tossed around a few ideas and finally went with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde in 1980.

What do you think has been the biggest contributing factor to the success of Jekyll and Hyde and the fact that it’s maintained its longevity on the stage?

SC-It’s a horror story, which is unusual for a musical, but there are two things that attribute to the success of Jekyll and Hyde: first is that it is a very famous story.  It has a high awareness factor.  Second, it has killer ballads.

LA-I know you have a background in animation and you’ve written for kids’ shows, how do you feel about your show now being performed by an all-teenage cast?

Well this is the second time I am seeing a production of Jekyll and Hyde with a cast under 18.  The first time was in LA.  But it was great.  I know they’ll be very good.

LA-What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing the musical? 

SC-Jekyll and Hyde the musical is very different from the novella.  The novella is a horror story, where the musical is more of a romance.  We saw the need to introduce love interests because it helps for a successful musical.  We saw our protagonist as two characters that could each have their own love interest, so we came up with Lucy and Lisa, who eventually became Emma.  I never got an explanation as to why Lisa was permanently changed to Emma.

But what’s most difficult in writing a musical versus a screenplay for example is the description of characters in the exposition.  In a musical, characters express their inner thoughts and emotions with song and lyrics.  So the placement of the songs is critical, and it is very difficult to find that balance.  We also had to figure out where to incorporate any sort of choreographed movement.  You’ll notice there’s not too much dancing in the show.

LA-What do you think has most significantly contributed to your success?

SC-Generally speaking, what separates those who succeed from those who don’t is their drive, vision, passion- all unquantifiable qualities.  My advice is to find what you’re good at and specialize in it.  Everyone who works hard to perfect their craft is successful.  For me, I think sideways; that is I think differently than most people.  If you’ve read my IMDB page, you’ll see that I have a background in horror.  I see things in a skewed manor, with a mischievous sense of humor that I’ve been able to translate into writing.

LA-Do you have any advice for young writers or actors?

SC-For writers, there is no such thing as wasting your time.  Writing is like a muscle that needs to be exercised so as long as you keep practicing, even if you write something terrible, it’s a learning experience.  For actors, my tip before you go on stage is to say to yourself, just have fun.  If you do that, it translates to the audience.  Also don’t try and force a laugh line.  Let the subtly of the humor speak for itself.

LA-Are you working on anything now?

SC-Yes, there are a couple of things I’m working on right now.  I’ve been contacted by a couple of people in Hollywood to work on new projects so I’ll have to see how those pan out but I’m actually busier as a professor than I’ve ever been as a writer.  At Point Park, professors teach four classes a semester and while classes weren’t in session, I spent my time writing Beating Broadway and Beating Hollywood.  So yeah, there’s always something in the works.