Bookpleasures.com welcomesas our guest, composer, author of books and articles, librettist, playwright, and gastronome, Norman Mathews. Norman's work has been performed at the Kennedy Center, on radio, and at theatres and concert venues around the world. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, foundation grants, and commissions.
He began ballet classes at a late age that eventually propelled him into a career as a dancer on Broadway and films, where he worked with Barbra Streisand, Gene Kelly, Dorothy Lamour and Michael Bennett. An untimely injury forced him into a new career path as a pianist and piano teacher, once he earned his master’s degree.
Norman has composed opera, musical theatre, art songs, chamber music, and choral works, which have been performed by Tony-Award winners and major operatic talent.
As a journalist, he has been News Editor of Dance Magazine, Managing Editor of Sylvia Porter’s Personal Finance Magazine, and Editorial Director of Merrill Lynch internal publications. His articles have been published in Common Dreams and the Times of Sicily. His music is published by Graphite Publishing.
Norman has recently written his autobiography, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater that will shortly be published.
Norm: Good day Norman and thanks for participating in our interview.
What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?
Norman: Thank you, Norm, for inviting me. Probably, the greatest challenge any artist faces is being able to demonstrate that you have credibility in your work. One of the things that amazed me is how little confidence even experienced professionals have in their own opinions and convictions.
Someone may admire your work, but there is an inherent fear of giving you a stamp of approval until others have concurred in that opinion. I’m not certain it’s something one ever overcomes as an artist. You are only as good as your last success, so you keep having to prove yourself time and again.
The best example of this I know was in Arthur Laurents's autobiography. When Steven Sondheim came to him and wanted to write the music for West Side Story, Laurents said something to the effect that "Your lyrics are great, but your music is lousy.” Laurents’s defense of such reasoning for this was “Well, Sondheim had not yet become SONDHEIM.” in other words, who knew he was so great?
Norm: You have been involved in several careers, which one has given you the most satisfaction and why?
Norman: When I was in the theater, I thought that nothing could ever equal the joy and the high of performing a beloved work before an adoring audience. When a back injury ended my dance career, I assumed I would never experience this euphoria again. But I was wrong.
The satisfaction that I got from hearing my own music performed by Tony-Award winners and great operatic voices, the pleasure of hearing my lines recited and getting a laugh was every bit as moving as the joy of performing. So the short answer is: I got the most satisfaction out of whatever I happened to be doing at the moment.
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a composer?
Norman: Writing music is hard—perhaps arduous—for me, but as with all creative work, the creation is the easy part. The hard part is convincing the gatekeepers that what you’ve written is worth being presented. I’m not a naturally good salesman for my own work, so that’s the part I hate and find the most difficult.
Norm: How has your upbringing influenced any one of your careers?
Norman: Growing up in a close-knit Sicilian-American family in the 1940s without TV meant that our major entertainment was having the whole extended family get together on Friday and Saturday nights and sharing the wonderful tales—both funny and sad—that each member had experienced. I was mesmerized by these stories, which led to my being enchanted by what I heard on the radio dramas and watched in the movie palaces of that era. I fell in love with the genre of one-person plays in the 1970s because they reminded me of these family gatherings.
I believe this
was the major impetus for my writing my one-person musical, You Might
as Well Live, about Dorothy Parker. The payoff for me was watching
Tony-Award-winner Michele Pawk and Broadway star, Karen Mason, both
perform the piece.
Also, my Sicilian background and my love for Sicily led directly to my writing an opera based on the Sicilian writer, Giovanni Verga’s novella, La Lupa. It was only after I wrote the piece that I learned that Puccini had initially begun to compose it with Verga, but a disagreement between the two over characterization scuttled the project. Some of the arias in La Boheme are said to have been written initially for La Lupa. I was recently fortunate in having truly wonderful performers do the work at Ft. Worth Opera company. I believe my autobiography is an extension of the telling of family stories that I heard as a child.
Norm: What advice do you have for our readers who might dream of becoming involved in the theater as an actor, producer, director or any other involvement?
Norman: My big tip: Don’t make
the same mistakes I made. If you are burning for a theatrical
career—and you should burn for it because there are easier ways to
get through life—don’t let others discourage you. Once you’ve
decided this is the path you must follow, find out exactly what’s
required and begin training and developing the necessary skills as
soon as possible.
Also, don’t go into it blindly. Know what the difficulties are going to be and determine whether you have the drive and personality to face those difficulties. For example, if you can’t deal with rejection, this is not the field for you. Even the biggest successes face rejection all the time. And lastly, be certain you have some other skill that can sustain you financially while you try to find a footing. In my case I had two: the first was my experience as an editor; the second and more important was my ability to teach piano.
Norm: What was it like working with Barbra Streisand, Gene Kelly, Dorothy Lamour and Michael Bennett?
Norman: I was a dancer in the
Hello, Dolly! movie, which I worked on for six weeks in Garrison, New
York and West Point. During that period, Barbra was as professional
as I’ve ever seen anyone to be.
When we weren’t shooting or rehearsing, she spent her time caring for her son, Jason, who was only seven months old at the time. I had heard stories about how difficult she was in the sections previously shot in Hollywood, but I saw no evidence of it. That summer was brutally hot. In 100-degree temperatures, we were in very heavy costumes. I had a thick wool suit and high, starched collar. Barbra took this in stride without complaint as did the rest of us, while makeup people tried desperately to keep us from looking like sweaty laborers.
Gene Kelly was as personable as you would expect. I was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t more creative and subtle in his direction of that film. My only real encounter with him was when my dance partner and I inadvertently brought a huge scene to a sudden halt. We were shooting the finale at West Point with 3,000 extras added to the cast. Kelly called for action, the cameras began to roll, and suddenly a voice from high on the hill began screaming, “Stop this movie.
Stop it this instant.” The woman came storming down the hill. Who is she? Why is she so angry? The woman was famed costume designer, Irene Sharaff. Then I realized she was coming straight for me and my partner. What could we have possibly done wrong? She summoned Kelly over to us and pointed accusingly at my partner, “Get that dress out of my movie, and get it out now.” My partner had been fitted with a dress from 20th-Century Fox’s collection, which had been worn by Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls. It was a hideous brown crepe number, covered in turquoise chenille balls. We who had been prominently featured in the shot, were exiled to the far reaches of the hill, not to be seen on camera
with whom I did a road company of Hello, Dolly! was a great singer.
She had been a major big-band vocalist before she became a movie
star. She was also a very tough cookie who was very proud of
her accomplishments. She bragged how she did her own stunts in
the movies, including actually swinging from her teeth at the top of
the big top in The Greatest Show on Earth.
She loved when i told her stories about what people I met would say about her: A waitress in New Orleans (which was Dorothy’s hometown) whom when I told that I was working with Dorothy Lamour said to me: “Oh, that Dorothy Lamour. How I loved her in The Wizard of Oz.” When I relayed that Dorothy, she laughed in her deepest, guttural voice, “Ha, ha, ha,” that always sounded as if she had just told a dirty joke.
Michael Bennett was one of the great talents of musical theater. I worked as a dancer in a production of West Side Story that he choreographed before becoming famous. In my book I relay a tale about the dreadful way he humiliated the man playing Bernardo before the whole cast during rehearsal. The encounter was so brutal it was hard for me to have any respect for him as a person after this incident.
Norm: What would you consider an outstanding theatrical production and why?
Norman: Sadly, I’ve not been able to attend a theater production in the past year and a half. My spouse was diagnosed with a serious disease and it has catapulted me into the role of a full-time caregiver. I hope to catch up soon.
Norm: What do you think is the future of live theater?
Norman: I worry sometimes that social media are destroying our ability to enjoy live performances. The rudeness of the audience, particularly with regard to cell phones, is appalling. My hope is that watching live theater, in which every moment of every performance is different from any other performance by the same actors, carries such immediate significance that it will never die. if audiences could only be made aware of the tremendous role that they play in what is happening on the stage, I think there would be a better sense of the communal aspects of theater and more reverence for the art form.
Norm: I understand that you claim that you experienced ageism from the time you were twenty-one. How so and how did it affect your life?
Norman: I have to blame myself for this. Because I started late in all my endeavors, I opened myself up to the problem. I first experienced it when I auditioned for a major ballet company in my early twenties. After the audition, I was told that despite the fact that I was by far the best dancer in the room, I could not be hired because I was already too old for the kinds of people they were seeking. I didn’t begin composing until I was nearly fifty. We live in a youth-oriented culture and producers are always looking for the next young talent. I was already way beyond young. I can’t use age as an excuse, but at least 85% of all opportunities listed by various organizations to submit your work come with an age limit of 35.
Norm: Could you tell us a little about your soon to be published, The Wrong Side of the Room: A Life in Music Theater?
Norman: The book could be subtitled: My First Seventy-Five Years. I sometimes term it as a coming-of-age, a coming-out, and a becoming-an-artist story. It tells the tale of a boy who lacked self-assurance but had larger-than-life dreams. He let others discourage him from pursuing his interests to his own detriment. After severe psychological issues and a near suicide, the boy pulls himself together to build a meaningful life in the arts and to find fulfilling love—his two dreams finally realized.
Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?
Norman: First of all, I hope they will be entertained by following the Byzantine journey that has been my life—that they will find it funny, honest, touching, moving, dramatic, and inspiring. I hope that it will be of great help to those youngsters who struggle with psychological issues and that it will provide inspiration for older adults who have lacked the courage to find meaning in their own lives.
Norm: How did you decide you were ready to write the book?
Norman: I’ve thought about it for years but was uncertain whether I was up to the task. Then two years ago, I was introduced to the publisher of an online publication called the Times of Sicily. He asked me to write a piece about how Sicily and my Sicilian-American family inspired me to write my opera, La Lupa. I so much enjoyed writing this article that it gave me the courage to tell the whole story.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your book?
Norman: The best place is to check out the Books Page of my new WEBSITE On this site you can read excerpts from the book, and for the time being, if you join my email list, I will send you a free copy of the first chapter.
Norm: What is next for Norman Mathews?
Norman: I’m working on revisions
of my play, Drone, which depicts the terrible human toll that our
drone-warfare program is exacting on both the drone pilots and the
victims and their families. Also, when I injured my back, I debated
whether to pursue a career in music or as a chef.
Although music won out, I’ve been cooking through most of my life and wanted to share interesting recipes from my family—my grandparents were excellent cooks and ran a restaurant for a time. Some of their recipes I’ve found nowhere else in the world. On my website, I am posting a new recipe each week on the Food Page. Also, I’m contemplating several new pieces of music.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your various careers, but nobody has?
Norman: This is your toughest question since you’ve already asked so many good ones. I guess it might be: In an age of specialization, why did you choose so many different fields?
The answer to
this is rather complex. In one sense, I don’t know if these were
choices. Expediency, accidents, and luck played a greater role.
Perhaps the better question might be:
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Thank you again for inviting me.