The In Conversation series brings together theatre artists of all disciplines together to discuss their work and their passions. In this installment, fellow composer/performers Heath Saunders and Zoe Sarnak discuss Joe’s Pub, NYMF, and the unexpected joys of being hearing other people sing your songs.ZOE: We’re coming up on your Joe’s Pub show! How are you feeling about it?
HEATH: I am super-nervous, basically more nervous than I’ve been for anything. Which is exciting, I think. I usually like being nervous because it makes me feel like I’m a normal human (which I don’t often feel.)
ZOE: Can you talk about the difference between nerves when it’s material that you’ve written versus performing?
HEATH: I’m involved in theatre in three primary ways: first as an actor, second as a music director, and third as a writer. I find that as a writer, I get the most nervous because I think it’s a combination of feeling like you’re going to see a lot about me because you’re hearing what I’ve written, and then also it’s a little like, when I watch other people perform my stuff, I have no control over what’s gonna happen. It’s like, “Here goes.” I have the advantage at the Joe’s Pub of doing a lot of my own material, which will be fun, but it’s still a little stressful.
ZOE: Do you feel like that allows you to play with being both a performing artist and a writer, picking what you perform, what other people perform?
ZOE: How do you decide that kind of stuff?
HEATH: As a writer — it’s funny, I tend to break everything down into sections so I know what I’m doing at any given moment, so I feel like I’m less distracted by trying to be more things than I’m doing. But as a writer, I sort of write three primary types of music. I write musical theatre, which is sort of my favorite thing and my passionate thing to write, but also takes the most effort and time and it’s the hardest to get produced. It’s a whole thing — I’m sure you know.
ZOE: I get that.
HEATH: I mean, I love writing musical theatre, but it is a trip. Then the other stuff that I write is pop music, and my pop music sort of falls into two categories: it’s either stuff that’s intended for me to perform, or it’s songs I intend other people to sing. And I’m actually flirting with that line in this Joe’s Pub concert a lot, because there’s a number of things I’m singing myself that are designed for me to sing. They’re sort of on brand, if you will, they sort of live in this space. And then I have pieces that are designed for other people to sing them. So I have my friend Ashley Perez-Flanagan is in the show, and Jason Gotay’s in the show. And actually, comically, one of the songs I intended to sing myself, I on a whim had F. Michael Haynie sing, and I was like, “Oh, well, I guess that’s no longer gonna be my song. I’m just never going to perform this song.”
ZOE: But isn’t that a beautiful thing? I think there’s something really magical about the moment when you realize, “Wow.” It’s interesting to think that in a way, this song will tell you more than you even knew, right?
HEATH: Yeah! It was one of those things where I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even — ” I hadn’t heard this song prior to him singing it. “Oh, I see what’s happening.”
ZOE: You get to know your own children.
HEATH: For sure! There are some songs that I have no intention of anybody else performing. Which, you know, I’m going to be open about that.
ZOE: I think that’s part of what it means to be someone who’s both a pop artist and a musical theatre writer. There are some songs that you’re like, “Let’s give it a shot, see what happens,” and some songs that you know in your gut, that you know from the jump.
HEATH: Right, and you do your own music in addition to writing theatre, right?ZOE: I perform my own stuff a lot in like, band settings — but whatever, I will digress. Let’s get back to task here! So you have this Joe’s show and you’re playing a mix of stuff. Are you playing stuff from your NYMF show this summer?
HEATH: Yeah, my producer for my NYMF show and Shakina were both like, “You’re doing parts from Newton’s Cradle, right?” I was like, “Uhhh, sure! Yeah!” So my brother’s going to sing a song that he’s going to be singing in the show, it’s sort of the eleven o’clock number, and Ally Bonino is gonna sing another song.
ZOE: Ohh, Ally Bo!
ZOE: She’s kickass.
HEATH: She’s awesome. She sings the song very, very well. Super excited for you to hear it on her.
ZOE: Do you have performers, the go-tos, including your family, who you work with again and again?
HEATH: I don’t know! I’ve done a number of arrangements for my siblings, but I haven’t really written specifically for them yet. I mean, I guess I’ve written for Trent, and I definitely want to write a project for my fabulous sisters, too, but I write more for things that I want to say rather than who I want to say them.
You know, I exist in this sort of strange space right now, that I haven’t found muses per se — people who I’m like, “I just really want to write things for this person,” except for, you know, mostly when I write for myself, that’s a very specific thing. And I don’t mean like I’m my own muse, that’s ridiculous.
ZOE: But you know your own voice, you know how things sort of sit inside the body, that makes sense.
HEATH: Right, right. And it’s one of the things that I wanna sort of explore more — the idea of writing for people, for specific people. And so over the last two years of being in New York, I have been very specific about noting people who I’m like, “This is an artist who I want to be around me. I want this person to be in my circle so that when the time comes, I can just like, write things for them.”
ZOE: Right, I mean, I don’t know if it’s captured so well on this recording, and it certainly won’t be in this interview, but my voice is clearly one of those — low gravely inspirational messes.
HEATH: Oh, yeah!
ZOE: One day. I see that for us.
HEATH: I mean, when they were asking me who I wanted to interview me, I gave them three people and you were one of the people. I was like, “She’s one of those people who I think I should know, so let’s make this an opportunity for me to get to know her.”
ZOE: I absolutely love that.
HEATH: This is all manipulative.
ZOE: And this has clearly been paid for by Sponsorship of Zoe Sarnak International.
HEATH: I was paid earlier. But I can’t release the transcripts from my speeches.
ZOE: We are on topic for politics and musical theatre.
HEATH: Basically everything in the world.
ZOE: So you’re playing stuff from your NYMF show, Newton’s Cradle. Tell us about it, and what it’s like to work with your family on it.
HEATH: Great. So Newton’s Cradle is a show that I wrote with my mother. We don’t really like to differentiate it between book and music and lyrics but technically speaking, she wrote the book and I wrote the music and lyrics. But we’re very collaborative when it comes to sort of how we write the material, and it’s very integrated. There’s no real sense of book versus music versus lyrics. That was really tangential.
ZOE: No, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s hard to explain that kind of relationship in a byline.
HEATH: Right! Our ideal byline for the show is, “Newton’s Cradle, by Heath and Kim Saunders.” That’s our ideal world. I have this very strong belief that everybody who writes a musical should be credited with writing the whole musical because the score and lyrics and book should not be addressed separately from one another, because if they are, we’re sort of taking away from what make musicals musicals.
ZOE: That’s spot on.
HEATH: When people say things like, “This is the best score ever written,” I go to a place of like, “Well, if it doesn’t work in the show,” and then they’re like, “No, that’s the book’s fault.” Then I’m like, “Okay, but if it doesn’t work in the show, can we really call it one of the best scores of all time?” I’m not gonna give any specific examples because I’m being recorded, but…
ZOE: You’ll tell me later.
HEATH: We’ll talk about it when we talk again. But Newton’s Cradle is about a young man who at a young age was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and it’s about the relationship between him and his mother and his brother, and how that diagnosis has influenced his growth as a human being. You could call it a coming of age story, but it’s really about grappling with identity and what the labels that we give ourselves versus what the labels that other people give us do for us.
ZOE: Which is a huge thing for you.
HEATH: Which is a huge thing for me. And it’s super fun because — so my mom and I started writing together — we actually didn’t intend to write a musical together. Originally we were both inspired by the same person, the real life person who sort of inspired this story and we both were really fascinated in writing about this subject and about this person. And in sort of our working — we were going to write companion pieces, I was working on a musical and my mom was going to write a novel, and as we were working on it, and we were discovering the characters and talking ad nauseam about who these people were and what they did, we ended up being like, “Well, why don’t we just write the musical together?” And then the rest is history. And we always sort of intended in the back of our minds that we wanted to make sure the show is not at all racially charged, the show has nothing to do with race, there’s no race mentioned. But we wanted to make sure that the show was diversely cast, and one of the ways we thought about that was I would play the lead and my brother — my real life brother — would play my onstage brother, in the show. So to sort of incorporate a little bit of diversity into the cast by its nature.
ZOE: It’s interesting because it’s something where you can, as a performer, feel like — take your brother, I’m sure he can feel like he can get at the character because all of the research and the actual personal connection is being shared with him as you’re writing the show too, right?
HEATH: For sure. He has been an integral part of the crafting of that character, of Michael, the younger brother, because every time my mom and I have written a new scene, or come up with a new idea we’ll run it by him. It’s actually kind of really funny because I went through a brief phase where I was like, “Oh my God, I haven’t seen Trent actually perform this, this is a really tough role, blah blah blah,” which is obnoxious and hugely asshole musical theatre of me. But then he actually got to do it in the reading at Musical Theatre Factory — we did a reading of the show in its entirety. And he was stunning in the role. And I was like, “Oh yeah, we did sort of write this for you.”
ZOE: And that’s a beautiful Musical Theatre Factory story too!
HEATH: Oh, I know! I love Musical Theatre Factory. And they did not pay me to say that.
ZOE: Only I pay in interviews, please.
HEATH: I think that Musical Theatre Factory is one of the greatest places in New York.
ZOE: It’s why we’re both on this call, right?
ZOE: I wish I could say more than like, hell yeah, ditto, all that. So here’s the thing, it’s important that we wrap up with something that goes — give us dates and details for both the Joe’s Pub shoe and the NYMF show.
HEATH: Great. Joe’s Pub is going to be in — so soon, it’s in like three days! Monday, May 9th, 9:30 pm at Joe’s Pub. That’s MTF Presents Heath Saunders at Joe’s Pub.
And then the NYMF show is going to be the first week in August. The dates for the actual show will be released relatively soon, he said tentatively? I think I know when they are but I’m not allowed to tell people yet. There’s also some very exciting news
ZOE: But you’re like, stay tuned, follow me on Twitter and all that and they’ll know!
HEATH: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.
ZOE: Well, that’s [deleted] rad! Oh, wait. Pretend I didn’t say the f-word, guys. That’s rad! And I will see you when I’m back in New York, and we’ll have the off-the-record end of this conversation.
HEATH: Amazing. There’s so much to it!
ZOE: And I didn’t pay him to say that.