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A Lifetime of Making Mem'ries

Legendary lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman

Alan and Marilyn Bergman share their thoughts on a lifelong partnership, both personal and professional, the inspirations from which they’ve drawn and what it means to create new work.

What inspired you to develop “Chasing Mem’ries” and how did it evolve?

Alan Bergman: The idea of another stage project had been in the back of our minds, but we had two experiences on Broadway that were not particularly nourishing, so we weren’t in a hurry.

Marilyn Bergman: Though we were always open to the idea. If the right ingredients came together, we’d be interested. We had seen several plays that Josh Ravetch [Chasing Mem’ries playwright and director] wrote and were intrigued by his ideas and the easy elegance of his writing.

AB: …and his humor.

MB: Yes, definitely that! And he really understands this art form. So we met with him and felt an instant chemistry. At our first meeting we discussed the possibility of a slightly different take on the classic American musical.

AB: The question was whether or not songs could exist in a play in a different way — songs that might live within the circumstances of the play itself. It’s hard to describe exactly.

MB: Alan and I sometimes sing songs because we hear something on the radio or a conversation evokes a certain song from our past, so we find ourselves singing and enjoying songs we love — but we never “stop and sing,” we usually continue washing the dishes. It’s just a part of our “dialogue.”

AB: In the end, this collaboration produced a play where the musical components are really extensions of the dialogue and the circumstances of the play.

How did you choose which songs to use that already existed versus new songs?

MB: The text of the play really dictated that from the beginning.

AB: We gave Josh all of our songs, which I’m told he listened to in his car for about a month.

MB: Who drives that much?

AB: It’s Los Angeles, darling. Josh came back to us with an intriguing idea that came from something in his own life, but also rang true in our lives and our friends’ lives, and even our daughter’s life. It involved —

MB: Don’t give too much away.

AB: Okay, but that idea required the judicious use of some of our existing songs with mostly new songs. The songs had to serve the play and not the other way around.

MB: Of course that delighted us. The idea of writing new songs for a new musical while including a few of our existing songs seemed to be a perfect approach to this project.

AB: So with that in mind, from the beginning, we knew it would be crucial to cast actors who sing, rather than singers who act. Chasing Mem’ries is really a stage play at its core and not the book for a musical in the classic way a musical has a book. It’s very much a play.

MB: That’s exactly right.

AB: The idea that there are songs that we had written that had become part of popular culture allowed us to justify that characters in this play could know some of our songs and that those songs could be part of their own personal history.

MB: We wrote a song called “It Might Be You” that was the theme song from the movie Tootsie.

AB: Dave Grusin composed the music.

MB: Brilliant composer. And people tell us all the time that they used that song as the first dance at their wedding.

AB: I always think to myself privately, “The song is called ‘It MIGHT Be You.’ By the time you get married, shouldn’t you already know?”

MB: That’s Alan’s little joke. But it’s an example of how a song can percolate into people’s own personal history.

You’ve been such an inspiration to so many singers and songwriters and composers, but who are some of your inspirations? And some of your favorite plays and/or musicals?

AB: Certainly Steven Sondheim.

MB: All of Steven Sondheim.

AB: And Johnny Mercer was my mentor.

MB: And Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls was significant, and West Side Storyand Gypsy.

AB: But when you’re lucky enough to write songs for people like Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand — that’s inspiration.

Many people aren’t familiar with the process of creating a world premiere. Can you speak a bit about the process?

MB: That’s not an easy question to answer. A play must work on so many levels and the marriage of songs to a play and a collaboration with a playwright become even more complex.

AB: And there’s no source material to go back to for any guidance. You can’t see what someone else did with the material and decide what your interpretation will be. You are building something from the ground up.

MB: It’s like cooking without a cookbook. Which is, of course, the best way to cook!

AB: It’s challenging. Josh talks about how every moment in a play has to engage and transport the audience and ultimately be about ideas. Not dissimilar to how a successful song must work. So from the beginning, we knew we had much in common.

MB: And in creating a new work, it was important to figure out where the songs would exist and not replicate the ideas already living within the play.

AB: The songs had to “fly at a different altitude.” So we met every week or so, and slowly the play emerged.

MB: During each session, something new would evolve and propel us forward to the next.

AB: One weekend we felt we were at the point where we needed an audience to hear the play, so we produced a simple workshop-reading with the same incredible cast that is opening the play here at the Geffen.

MB: When a play really works, it’s lightning-in-a-bottle and we knew that we had the right ingredients that afternoon and did everything possible to keep that cast together.

AB: Which we did! That rarely happens.

What do you hope the audience takes away from “Chasing Mem’ries”?

MB: I’ll answer that. We would like audiences to know that we’re all in this thing called life together. Profound love and extreme loss and crippling pain and unbridled joy are all part of the experience and no matter how alone you may feel at some point, there is no alone. We’re all facing the same realities and struggles and often we face them privately. Sorry, Alan, I didn’t mean to jump in. What would you say?

AB: I think that’s exactly right.

By Amy Levinson

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/chasing or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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