Spring Arts: How an Awkward Date Became a Musical

For a new stage musical about dating and romantic baggage, a talented young trio turns doubt into song.

You know you’re on the path to success when you’re fresh out of high school and the first song you ever sell is put over by Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm. In 1996, animation giant Hanna-Barbera purchased “The Greatest Gift of All” from then-teenaged songsmiths Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner for an episode of a cartoon series in which the Flintstones progeny learn the true spirit of the holiday season.

“It’s in the grand tradition of Jews writing Christmas songs,” jokes Weiner. “And we sold it for a dollar.”

“Which we split two ways,” says Zachary.

“So we learned that songwriting was . . . “

“. . . a harsh mistress.”

Not a breath is wasted between them. Or an opportunity.

That’s how it goes with the guys who together wrote the music and lyrics for First Date, a new co-production between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT, which begins previews next month. Discussing the show over coffee at a West Hollywood eatery, Zachary and Weiner set up each other’s punch lines and end each other’s sentences. Their banter has clearly been honed over years of friendship and songwriting. Add to the table one Austin Winsberg, the show’s book writer, whom they’ve known since their 20s, and you’ve got three people who seem to speak as one—which, says Weiner, is perfect for making a musical involving real collaboration.

“The best musicals sound like a single person created the whole thing,” he explains.

“It’s about maintaining a tone,” says Zachary.

“We talk a lot about having a consistent tone,” says Winsberg.

First Date gives us just over an hour and a half in the company of Wall Street trader Aaron and SoHo artist Casey, a man and woman trying to get to know each other in a restaurant despite the nagging doubts and whispers in their heads: “She’s sort of hostile,” sings Aaron (Eric Ankrim, currently onstage at the 5th in Oklahoma!). “Her guns are drawn—is it weird or just screwed-up that I’m turned on?” The rest of the cast—all local except for Kelly Karbacz as Casey—play restaurant patrons who help embody the pair’s accompanying emotional baggage (e.g., visions of various exes).

The creative trio holds solid resumes for this gig. Zachary and Weiner moved on from the Bedrock clan of Cave Kids to commercial jingles, regional and touring musicals, and, most notably, work for Disney: made-for-DVD sequels (The Fox and the Hound 2, Cinderella II and III), a cruise show, and tunes for theme-park attractions in both California and Japan. They’re also adapting the 2003 movie Secondhand Lions as a musical.

This is Winsberg’s first musical, but he’s been writing since he was a kid. After winning the Young Playwrights Competition in Los Angeles five times, he’s graduated to TV credits, including the romantic complications of the 2005–06 John Stamos sitcom Jake in Progress (which he also created) and the heavy-breathing Gossip Girl.

First Date came together because the three L.A. friends had always wanted to do a contemporary romantic comedy and liked the constraint of having it take place in one night. They started talking about typical situations, Winsberg tossing around ideas with the songwriters, who generally each take turns at the piano while the other walks around struggling with lyrical notions. But how do you keep a show moving forward when the two main characters are so trapped in their heads that they don’t sing directly to each other until the evening’s almost over?

“The songs come whenever one of the characters has a revelation based on what the other person is saying,” Weiner responds. “So we’re following all these ‘lightbulb’ moments.”

“Anything,” says Winsberg, “that allows the relationship to deepen and progress.”

“We just keep finding new ways of conveying their baggage,” adds Zachary.

As for the music, well, that’s another challenge—even smashes like Rent occasionally struggle with just what “contemporary” sounds like.

“No saxophones,” quips Winsberg.

“You avoid a certain kind of chord change, for instance, that would not be evocative of someone living right now,” says Zachary. “We’re not doing heavy metal, but we’re also not doing something that sounds like a Broadway show from the 1950s.”

After a reading in New York, First Date immediately attracted producers who, says Winsberg, saw Seattle as the only city to host a first staging: “They all thought Seattle was a good, safe place with the available talent and an audience that seems to know what works. And you’ve got a real, supportive theater community.” (Shows like Hairspray and Memphis have used Seattle as a springboard to Broadway and touring success.)

The production, with costs shared equally by ACT and the 5th, was refined over three weeks of private workshops here last summer. Thirty minutes were cut to keep First Date under two hours. “I think we knew emotionally what we wanted to achieve,” says Zachary. “How we were going to get there was another question.”

Where they go from here is yet another. “The purpose of doing the show right now is just to see what we’ve got,” says Zachary. “We want to see how it plays.”

They’ll discover, too, if what they’ve got is “big” enough for the Big Apple. “You don’t have to be a spectacle to work on Broadway,” notes Weiner, citing the Issaquah-born, Pulitzer-winning family-dysfunction musical Next to Normal as a prime example. From the 5th Avenue’s creative team, Bill Berry will direct the show; he’s previously helmed Cabaret and West Side Story for the 5th (where he’ll also be staging Rent this summer).

Zachary, Weiner, and Winsberg welcome the three weeks of previews, when they’ll visit Seattle to tinker with the piece, though they’re also anxious about that initial curtain rising on their new musical. “You might as well torture me,” Weiner cracks. “I believe all those stories about writers who get drunk while their play is opening.”

Fortunately, there’s a bar—Sullivan’s—just across the street, where nervous first dates may also be occurring.