A musical theatre composer discusses social media, personality types, and what it means to be a professional.
It’s about 9pm on a Sunday night and I’ve just finished interviewing the lovely Grace. We’re both pleasantly exhausted and very grateful to find that Grace’s gravelly-voiced roommate, Daniel, has been preparing some kind of feast during our absence.
The hurricane threat, he tells me, is real enough that the trains have been closed down, which 86’s my dubious plans for getting back to Prospect Park and instead means a sleepover on their living room futon following this tawny lentil-pumpkin concoction he’s put in front of us, decorated with thick yogurt and some kind of red powder and toasted seeds.
(I ask Daniel what it’s called and he tosses some kind of ethnic appellation over his shoulder and we leave it at that.)
It seems sort of transgressive, in hindsight, that we three spent the opening night of Hurricane Isabel so pleasantly. It’s really the best kind of New York City night–three overeducated folks staying up very late to share a vast amount of information and ethnic food with great dispatch. If it weren’t for the wind picking up speed outside, I’d easily forget the weather had anything to do with my invitation. Daniel gestures grandly to the array of bottles behind me. While everyone else was buying the stores out of purified water, he had the forethought to know what we’d all need most once the storm was over.
As Grace returns to the kitchen to bake dessert, Daniel and I begin to chat. I like the intensity and precision of his voice, and find his knowing air to be reassuring. He seems to me like the quintessential New Yorker, the kind who wears their strong features with distinguished confidence and extends a sort of detached magnanimity out of the wealth of his own self-assurance.
I learn that in addition to being a musical theatre composer and an award-winning hiphop karaoke performer with near encyclopedic knowledge of the form’s foundational era, Daniel is the son of noted psychologist Gabor Maté.
And also a Canadian.
When Grace told me that her roommate was also in theatre, I assumed actor, like you do. When she elucidated that he was a composer, my prejudgment took a sharp upswing into the positive zone.
Ever since I discovered Jonathan Schwartz’ WNYC show, I’ve been helpless prey to the Great American Songbook. Yes, I love watching musicals, but what I really love are the words, and how the music shapes the way we internalize their message, and how after enough hours spent poring over the liner notes, it all gets turned inside out so that regular life seems so rich with meaning and possibility that walking out the door and belting “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” seems not only plausible, but appropriate.
I’ve long wanted to meet someone who does that, and I guess I concluded (without realizing it) that they would have to be native to New York City, the only place I’ve ever been where all the world does indeed feel like a stage. A would-be show writer would be hindered anywhere else by too much perspective; only in New York City do people take it sufficiently for granted that their feelings are worth belting in octave jumps.
This is what I thought, anyway.
Daniel was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and went to school at Montreal’s McGill University. His success in the International Baccalaureate program gave him a year’s jump on his degree, but it also required that he declare a major right away. He chose psychology, much to his own chagrin–he’d always felt swallowed by his father’s illustrious shadow, yet couldn’t deny his own attraction to mental analysis.
All that, of course, is perfectly explicable through psychology–specifically, through the Enneagram of Personality model, which I’ve never heard of before now.
As Grace puts together a vinegar pie in the kitchen, and I hover over the dirty dishes, Daniel throws out a series of questions to us both. According to this test, it seems that like Daniel, I’m a Number 4.
He assures me that it’s normal for me to bristle at being classified.
“As an individual, I hate that there’s a label for what I am…which, of course, is classic Number 4.”
Compulsive individuality, he says, is at least partly to blame for his resistance of other people’s advice or encouragement…which, during his high school years, had been to pursue the theatre. As a student, Daniel had revamped a number of Broadway songs for performance with his Jewish youth group. His coup de mettre was a full-length musical during summer camp (in which a pre-career Seth Rogen may or may not have been involved) called “Little Shop of Hummus.”
Telling me this, he waits for the laugh. It comes, but it’s drowned out by a scream of indignation from Grace, who has just discovered a cockroach in the kitchen.
Daniel gestures toward the scream–it perfectly describes how he responded to encouragement about his musical gifting.
“Exactly what Grace just screamed at the cockroaches: ‘Get out of here! Don’t you put your pressure on me. I’ll do what I want to do.’
“I craved positive feedback and encouragement, yet I would resist it and push it away. Yeah, I was a complicated creature.”
Immediately upon enrolling as a psychology major, Daniel proceeded immediately to dive deep into McGill’s theatre department.
“I was serious about it. I wasn’t in the theatre department at all, [but] I was one of the more active actors on campus. Having my outsider mentality, I liked that I got to do what I wanted to do, and yet not feel like I was part of the in-crowd.”
“I kept that attitude…”
“…Not attitude–that perceptual modality–until I was about 27. When that broke is when I realized is…there’s nothing to resist.”
Like most parents, Daniel’s mother and father felt responsible for how he’d turned out, and wanted to help him out of his darkness. At the time, he could only interpret their support as pressure.
By this time, Daniel had dropped out of school, due to a “depressive breakdown” that followed the enormous success he’d enjoyed from his play, his concert, and a three-year build of arts activities that had nothing to do with his degree.
“They ended, and I was left with my studies, and I was way behind in them because I didn’t give a shit about them. Meanwhile, I looked at friends who didn’t seem to have this conflict. They were engaged in courses of study that had something to do with what they were interested in, or some plan they had for themselves.
“And I had no such plan. All I knew was that I had talents, but I didn’t feel like it was in me to put them in the center of my life.
“This disconnect between who I really felt I was, and who I was being in my life, felt unbridgeable.”
I know what he means like this. Oh boy, do I. And it’s not just the memories between finishing college and this past September. It still feels like an unbridgeable gap, even in the last few months as everyone seems to see me for what I want to be, and I feel like a liar for not talking them out of it.
At least the post-college gap was vast enough that it seemed forgivable not to attempt crossing it. And it gave me the opportunity to try on lots of identities that were at least novel, for having nothing to do with who I really wanted to be.
That’s what Daniel did. At twenty-two, he had moved back to Vancouver and was working a series of baroquely interesting jobs: He drove a delivery truck for an organic grocery service. He proved to be a very able salesman of Persian carpets. (“I delivered a carpet to Sarah Maclachlan’s house once,” he remembers. “She held the door for me.”) And for two years, he worked alongside his father at a mental health clinic in the Hastings section of downtown Vancouver.
At the time, if you’d asked him, he says he would have described himself as kind of lost, melancholy and miserable, content to get as best he could. Doing music and theatre on the side kept despair at bay, until he began seeing his friends moving forward with their lives–graduating from university, embarking on families.
This “self-absorbed miasma” as he calls it was part and parcel of feeling constantly in his father’s shadow. But it made
The mental health clinic where he worked was also a place where his father regularly contributed his services as a doctor. So Daniel had a front-row seat to the changes that his father benefitted from, after attending a Landmark Forum weekend course. As far back as Daniel could remember, his father was constantly going through various courses of therapy and self-analysis, with no visible change. So when he returned from this Landmark Forum with a very palpable shift in his own perceptual modality, Daniel couldn’t help but take note. It was enough to make him suspend the skepticism he’d acquired from being exposed to every self-improvement technique imaginable. Daniel signed up for a Landmark Forum course himself.
“Maybe this American, for-profit seminar might have something to tell me that I don’t already know.”
One of the first things they told him, Daniel says, was that they weren’t going to fix him–that there was nothing to fix. The course would be an opportunity to look at where each person had some fundamental screw-ups in their personal perceptual system, based on decisions made in their youth.
“That sounded like bullshit to me. But I happened to get a lot out of it.”
As a result of the weekend, Daniel found himself able to hold his perceptions in check and decide whether they were valid before he let them affect him. At their center, he realized, was a reaction loop around what he perceived as outside pressure.
One day, while walking with his mother, she said something to him that she’d often said before:
“‘I can’t believe that someone of your abilities and talents and passions would be satisfied with a life that’s not devoted to exploring them, having them recognized, creating great things in the world.’
“I was about to argue with her, the way I always did. I had this very fixed notion about my mother, that she was controlling and overbearing and disappointed in me.
“But instead, this time, I said, ‘Mom, can you repeated exactly what you just said?’
“And she did, and I heard something completely different.”
What he heard was that his mom was his biggest fan, and it blew him away. It wasn’t just knowing that she was on his side; having removed her from the role as “enemy,” he says, made him able to realize how much he really both wanted the thing she was encouraging him toward, and it was only his fear of failing at it that made him resist her.
“I was actually able to feel, ‘Wow, I really want this! The extent to which I want it totally trumps whatever fear I have.
“‘The world wants me to succeed. Or at least my mom does. I don’t need to fight her.'”
Within a couple of months, he’d been accepted to the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing program.
In the past few months, life feels to me as if it has possibility again, the first time it’s felt that way since school. The gap between now has closed to the barest asymptotic sliver, one that I should be able to easily step over, and somehow can’t. Or won’t. I’m not sure I’m not to blame, and it’s awful to think I might be.
The fact that to most people I look like a success right now doesn’t help. Weirdly, it only makes it worse…when they congratulate me for succeeding in something I love, the feeling I get is oddly similar to the one time I committed plagiarism in school and got away with it.
“There seems to be some law, of physics or whatever, that when you open yourself to a possibility, things start happening. You open a door to God, you manifest it…whatever your language is for that, I don’t care.”
Daniel was sitting at work in the clinic in East Van, looking over a variety of grad programs around the country, when into his office walked Jay Hamburger.
“He stumbles in, looking for the co-op radio building, which is around the corner.
“‘Daniel! How’s it going? Ar-hum, I’m lost!'”
Daniel’s voice goes an octave lower and twice as gravelly. Jay, he says, is a New York theatre director transplanted to Vancouver, who collaborated with Stephen Schwartz in the early drafts of Godspell, and directed Daniel in one of his experimental theatre productions in a cafe on Commercial Drive.
“He says, ‘Aw, kid, you gotta go to New York! You gotta go to NYU, yeah! That’s where you need to be. Yeah, NYU’s the place for you. You should look that up.”
While still at McGill, Daniel had visited New York every chance he got. He felt both at home and immediately energized; he envied everybody, felt attracted to everybody. Nevertheless, he’d never considered moving there, because he simply didn’t think he could. Money, logistics, the problem of being Canadian
“Reasons, as they always do, cropped up to buttress the fear. Money, logistics, legality…I’m Canadian, how can I go to the United States?
“Really rudimentary hurdles, that a toddler dwarf could step over, but just seemed insurmountable to me, because I wasn’t thinking in terms of actual possibility. I was thinking in terms of vague hope.”
Jay’s encouragement got Daniel as far as checking out NYU’s website, though. But for some reason, the acting and musical departments didn’t resonate with him…though he loves performing, he didn’t see himself devoting two years to studying it seriously.
Then he noticed that the Tisch School of the Arts had a grad program for musical theatre writing. Something, he says, called to him.
“Again, another stupid obstacle presented itself in my mind. I discussed that with my brother: ‘Aaron, I could do this, but I’m not really into musicals, and I’m not gay, so I feel like I’d not really fit in.’
“Aaron, God bless him, looked at me and said ‘You’re crazy. This is clearly what you’ve always been gearing up to do. The songs you write are really theatrical. You love mixing music with theatre. Where those two things meet is where you should be. End of story.”
With three weeks before the application deadline, he put together a huge portfolio of work, much of which he hadn’t even written yet. He included some songs from the singer-songwriter album he’d recorded when he was 25, from an album was called “Through These Parts Alone.”
“The cover was a picture of me sitting in a field by myself, cross-legged, but fuckin’ a mile away–you could see me off in the distance. It was this perfect encapsulation of my self-image at the time. ‘Come closer and figure me out!'”
He giggles. The precision of his voice and the rehearsed sound of his story dissipates when he laughs at himself.
Another part of the application was to take a scene from a famous play, and make a musical scene out of it. Daniel took an angry diatribe from David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and turned it into a tango.
In 2004, he received an acceptance letter for training as a lyricist in the program. At first, he took this as a slight to his ability as a composer. It makes sense now, he says, in light of all the highly trained music students that were applying for the program.
To me, it makes sense differently. Remember all those quotations I’ve been dropping in? Daniel has a significant ability to express the deep and cloudy yield of introspection with not just clever concision, but trenchant insight, humor, and frank compassion.
His considerable musical skill lies chiefly in creating reassuringly familiar anchors for the gentle genius of his lyrics, which have a similar effect to driving your usual commute in unseasonable weather. They make everything familiar look suddenly intriguingly strange. They give you the gift of outsider status in your own consciousness…an outsider status gussied up by Broadway-style delivery.
I think my relationship with my shady subconscious would be vastly improved if it sang to me the way Daniel’s does.
After deferring for a year to save money for his move, and nearly deferring another year for no good reason, Daniel received some of the most loving words he’d ever heard from a friend driving him to the airport:
“He said, ‘Daniel, I’ve seen you start a lot of things and then kind of bail on them. I really, really hope that you won’t do that with this. Because I really think your’e in the right spot. I think it’s going to be hard for you, but I think you need to plow through it.'”
His first place in New York was also in Ditmas Park, not far from where he lives now. He found a roomshare with a woman on Craigslist, who had interviewed him over the phone from Vancouver.
“I made myself sound charming, and sane. And that’s it–I moved in.”
His first day in class was less of an immediate success…or, if you credit his subsconscious, you could say he was eminently successful. He immediately alienated everyone in the class by finding ways to prove he was different, better informed, and didn’t care. He scored even more negative points with his blog, which quickly went from being an update for friends and family to a boundary-free addiction where he poured out anxieties, revealed juicy details, and indulged in gossip-mongering about his peers.
This, he reminds me, was in a pre-Facebook era, when oversharing wasn’t taken as a matter of course. people back home were worried about him–they told him, only half joking, that they were considering showing up outside his apartment to picket against the blog.
Within only a few months, though, Daniel found his blog featured on a site called ShittyBlogs.com.
“They did this whole thing on mine, about how they thought my girlfriend was just a beard to cover up for my gayness.”
By November, he’d shut the blog down.
He hastens to add that the advent of Facebook has reinstated the problem; the only reason it’s less concerning now is because, number one, everyone does it, and number two, he’s more self-aware of why he does it.
“There’s a desire, I guess…a restlessness inside me, an unresolved energy. And I want to feel less alone with it.”
Yes. Less alone with it. That would explain why I can have three-hour interviews with people but can’t spend thirty minutes writing about them. Even as Daniel is explaining this to me, I’m simultaneously overjoyed to be getting it on tape and wondering whether it will ever see the light of day…if I’ll ever have the self-discipline to write it down for others to see…which is why I’m here in the goddamn first place.
This energy, Daniel says, is a distortion of the genuine creative impulse. Where the creative impulse would be go write a show about it, or a song, or a novel with characters fueled by this energy, instant gratification prefers to express it in a short burst of cleverness. Where writing a show requires time, collaboration, and edits, a status update lets your output be seen tonight.
“Instead of putting attention on what we most deeply care about–or maybe because we don’t know what we most deeply care about–we put attention on what makes us feel good in the moment, in the quickest way.”
He refers to the feeling of getting likes on a status as an “instant hit.” I think at first that he means like the way shows are hits, but he says no.
“I don’t mean a success. I mean a hit. Of dopamine, or whatever brain chemical is activated.”
Daniel doesn’t have a lot of experience with hard drugs, but he does recognize himself on the spectrum of addiction. He even contributed a chapter to his father’s book on addiction, writing about his experience of being addicted to his blog. Even the Landmark course that helped him so much became an addiction, for a time; his friends accused him of exhibiting cult-like behavior. (Turns out that’s a common criticism of the Landmark Forum.)
“The object changes, but the process is the same. This thing starts taking precedence over everything else, it’s filling the void inside.
“Facebook is absolutely a placebo for genuine creativity, genuine connection, genuine intimacy. But it feels like all those things. And I do get to be creative on Facebook. If you were my Facebook friend, you would know that my posts are creative, and they’re intimate, and they’re honest. And they actually touch people sometimes.
“…Which is all the things I want to do in my career!”
His voice suddenly gets high and strains frantically, for a moment.
“But it’s like blowing my load–forgive the expression–on something that’s quick and easy. So if it’s not Facebook, it can be relationships. It can be women. It can be drama in my life. It can be anything. And I’m still…”
He breaks off abruptly. When he resumes, his voice once again sounds rehearsed.
“Look, quite aside from that inner struggle, I’m pretty satisfied with where I’m at. I think I’ve accomplished a lot in the five years since I’ve graduated. I’ve clearly not been spending the past five years only distracting myself, because if I had, I wouldn’t have won the awards I won, I wouldn’t have had the productions I’ve had, I wouldn’t have the shows I’m currently working on, and the collaborators…”
And just like that, the highs and the lows even out into a single éclat line:
“The extent to which in a given day, or a given week, I feel free to create versus enslaved by distraction, is a daily calculus I have to make, you know?”
“I feel weird that I’ve spent the majority of the interview so far talking about my neuroses and my impediments, and not talking about how proud and excited I am about my work. Which I totally am. I think my stuff kicks ass.”
At the age of 37, after living in New York City HOW MANY YEARS, winning the ASCAP Foundation’s Cole Porter award for excellence in music and lyrics, being voted Best New York by and performing a concert at the Kennedy Center about a month ago, even Daniel can admit that’s pretty prestigious.
And at the moment, he has four shows in the works, with a fifth waiting on a contract signature.
One of his projects is a comedic musical based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis; he calls it “The Trouble with Doug.” He’s been co-writing it with Will Aronson, a composer from his graduate class at NYU. They’ve workshopped it in California, in England, in Connecticut, and here in New York. They’re currently looking for a theatre company or private producers to give it a world premiere.
Another project is a cycle of stand-alone theatre songs, for which he’s written both music and lyrics. Formerly called “The Longing and the Short of It” (now simply known as “The Untitled Daniel Maté Song Project”), it is “a series of songs about people dealing with their own internal impediments to what they really want.”
He worked on the songs during the 2010 ASCAP Foundation workshop; at the end, the directors awarded him the Cole Porter Award. Since then, he’s gained the patronage of Tony Award-winning actress Victoria Clark. “She’s very connected with the material,” Daniel says. But as she is currently starring as the Fairy Godmother in Broadway’s Cinderella, the show’s development comes in fits and starts. They did a reading of it last spring that went over like gangbusters.
Then there are two other shows, both of which he originally wrote for specific ensembles of actors, and which he’s now reworking to make them “more generally produceable.” One is called “The Story of Jo Beth,” a retelling of the biblical story of Job, set in today’s American midwest. The other is called “Middle School Mysteries.”
Both were commissioned by Cat21, a theatre company affiliated with NYU that has a training program for middle school to college students. They hired Daniel for their Creative Musical Ensemble, where students get to work with a guest artist to create an original piece of musical theatre.
Both groups inspired a furious amount of work in Daniel, resulting in two very promising, if incomplete projects that merited further work. At he moment, he’s still working on both of them, rewriting, workshopping and arranging staged rewrites.
When you write a show for a specific group of actors, he says, you ultimately end up democratizing the story to a point where it’s not as focused. The issue at hand is finding a more universal core to the story, that will translate no matter who performs it.
“Most stories have a main character or a group of main characters. Even A Chorus Line, there is a hierarchy. And you have to understand that hierarchy as you’re writing the show, so the audience knows who to care about, and where to put their attention.”
At the present time, all these projects bring him only “seasonal income.” Daniel’s regular work includes babysitting, chauffeuring kids from the city to hockey practice in New Jersey, drywalling rooftop gardening on the Upper West Side, and, increasingly, music transcription.
Ron Melrose, a Broadway music supervisor who put together Jersey Boys, is now creating musicals based on Superfly and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. He hired Daniel to spend most of the past summer transcribing songs by Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and the Flaming Lips.
Daniel also does custom songwriting now and then; people hire him to write a song for them to perform at a particular event. Earlier this year, a motivational speaker in Texas hired him to write a one-woman musical for her.
“She’s a recovering alcoholic, she read my father’s book on addiction, and it really resonated with her. She always wanted to be a singer…she was a singer, until she traded it in for a life of alcohol.”
The woman wanted to do a musical keynote thing for her speaking engagements; Daniel wrote seven original songs based on her life, her experience, and her path to liberation, that she’ll perform in corporate boardrooms.
When I ask if he enjoys this work, he gives something between a philosophical smile and a grimace.
“It’s always a bit of a chore to write in someone else’s voice. When someone says ‘I want you to take my innermost thoughts, and what I care about, and I want you to turn them into a compelling series of songs which is going to form a musical that I’m going to do.’ …Well, you try to do your best work. You parcel it out, you do your best, you try to honor the client. I found that I was able to find a way to write music that was of a quality that I could be satisfied with, without feeling like I was giving away my limited precious metals…you know what I’m saying?”
Right now, Daniel is waiting to hear back whether he’s won the Fred Ebb award, a $50,000 award that will be announced next month. His attitude toward waiting is, he says, a little obsessive.
“It would be a game-changer,” he says. “It would change my life. Not in the sense of allowing the Holy Spirit in…”
Grace starts to giggle, and so does he, as if surprised by his own comparison.
“But it would alter the circumstances in which I have to toil every day. It would eliminate a lot of the excuses I currently have. It would make writing easier.”
He pauses for a moment.
“In some ways, it might make it harder.”
His tone is measuredly aggressive toward himself. You can hear the struggle between instinct and intention.
“I have friends who say, ‘Look, when are you just going to admit that you’re a success?'”
His accomplishments aren’t just fodder for his friends to encourage him; they earned him the right to stay in the US after two years of being here illegally. It’s called an ‘Alien of Extraordinary Ability’ visa…a title that I opine should come with a commemorative T-shirt.
(As soon as I say this, Daniel gets up and leaves the room, only to come back with a grey T-shirt that has the title silkscreened across it in yellow.)
The time when he was sweating out the interim between his student visa and this work visa, he says, was a rare moment when he thought about abandoning what he’d come to New York to do. In order to get this visa, you have to prove that your work is valuable enough for them to allow you to stay in the country and keep doing it. In the meantime, he couldn’t travel back and forth from his hometown, he couldn’t legally work, and more than anything, he felt as if neither his present nor his future had any “structural integrity.”
When I ask how he got past it, he says, as if it’s self-evident:
“I won the Larson.”
He’d been waiting since November of 2000 to get word on whether his visa was accepted. By January of 2010, he was preparing to move back to Vancouver. Then he got word that his application for the Jonathan Larson award had been awarded the prize. The money was fairly negligible, but the jury panel included Stephen Schwartz, Kathleen Marshall, Robin Goodman, and Tom Kitt…good people to have know your stuff, as a creative of any kind.
He ended up with a letter of reference from Stephen Schwartz.
“I went back to my lawyers and asked ‘Do you think I have a shot now?'”
His visa was approved for three years; actually, it’s at this very moment coming up on renewal time.
Last September, The Longing and the Short of It was performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage…Daniel can admit that this felt like a really big deal.
“I just thought, you know what? A person who doesn’t have a serious future in this wouldn’t be doing this. This concert is a better test for reality than my feelings are.”
That contrast–between the immediate reality of feelings and the actual circumstances that often oppositely provoke them–may prove to be Daniel’s calling card on the musical theatre world. His shows and the songs in them take a third-party stance within the action on stage, reducing the terrifying details of regular life to a play-within-a-play. Watching his actors analyze the hell out of themselves makes self-consciousness a little easier to bear…which I’m pretty sure is what Aristotle says drama is supposed to do. Has anything so classical ever come from something so meta?
Just to make sure, I ask Daniel if he’s noticed a pattern taking shape within the shows and songs that he writes, and he says yes.
“People are more vulnerable and fragile than they pretend to be. And everyone in some ways wants the same things, and everyone just has radically different ways of either expressing that or avoiding expressing it.”
Expressing it, he adds, is not necessarily the same thing as asking or it. In fact, sometimes expressing something in art can be a way of avoiding asking for it in real life.
“We do what we can. We’re going to go through the messy stuff and have some fun with it, and hopefully in doing so, something will be illuminated or transformed or redeemed, even. If I could be so bold as to use a term like that.”
In the past, he says, his songs were asking for connection, asking people to come to him. Now he’s more interested in looking out into the world and creating characters that can connect with people. As a result, even the heaviest themes he writes about have a certain levity to them. He doesn’t need his feelings to be validated, which means he can be both more specific in his writing, and buoyant in the way he treats his own experiences.
He plays me a song he wrote called “Misery Loves My Company,” wherein a woman describes a sado-masochistic love affair with misery that makes her unhappy, but also is highly functional in her life.
“Now, I wrote it completely about my experience of being depressed. But the song is a joke–it’s very playful.”
As to whether it changes his own life for the better, or at least helps in his experience of misery moving forward, he hesitates to say for sure.
“When I’m depressed, there’s nothing funny about it. You could say, ‘Hey Daniel, remember that song you wrote?’ and I’d be like ‘Yeah, those were good times.’ But I do feel like the song gave me good altitude. I climbed a mountain, I looked down, I saw some things from a certain distance. You can never go back to not having done that.
“I think that’s what’s great about everything you create. You may lose sight of it, but you can’t go back to never having created it. You did create it.”
At this point, Daniel can admit to being successful–he’s doing what he came to New York City to do, and one of the hardest gigs to land here. What’s next is doing it better, bigger and more often, so that the career remains plausible in the face of his other dreams–having kids, not having roommates, marshaling the icons of grown-up dignity as we recognize them.
His words get less fluid, making him sound less self-assured.
“At the moment, I feel like I’m the best little composer no one’s ever heard of. I have the respect of my peers.”
His good-natured sarcasm resonates deep in my bones. Of course what we want, maybe even more than we want to be grown-ups or self-sustaining creatives, is to progress from the respect and support of family and friends, to that of our colleagues, mentors and enemies, and on to a worldwide acknowledgement that what we are doing is good, and that we are the right ones to be doing it.
“That, like, my thing is a thing.”
Sigh–yes. And no matter the body of evidence that mounts, we always reject it. Maybe we want to reject it; maybe we want to be convinced of our uselessness. It’s a great excuse for not working.
“‘If I were a rich man, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray,’ as the song goes. Or to sit in my room and work. Or to travel wherever I want and go on a writing retreat.
“Money solves nothing, but at the same time, it creates opportunities.”
What keeps him interested in working–in particular, working on a show for the better part of six years–is the conviction of its still-to-be-reached potential, that people continue to be excited about it, and an utter delight in his material.
“Look, Next to Normal, which won the Pulitzer, took them ten years. Shows take a long time, so what’s the rush?”
That’s easy–the rush is impatience with yourself, envy of others’ success, bitterness at the accumulation of years. Daniel still has all that; he’s just gotten used to doing daily battle against it, so that the work gets done.
“The work”…he speaks of it so respectfully, as if it’s more not his than his. I’ve heard of artists regarding their art this way–I don’t know if I’ve ever met one. But it makes sense that this is the only way that work could be about you without being about you. Because really, that’s the only way you can get enough distance from your feelings to make a real-world difference.
The work takes an awful lot of work–on the self, first of all. When I ask what keeps it from being a grind, Daniel says he’s in a relationship with his work, which is both the strangest and most resonant way I’ve ever heard of looking at a creative endeavor. It recasts the idea of success and validation in an entirely different light, when I think of it this way.
“I can’t wait until after I’ve won these battles to start considering myself a professional. This is part of being a professional. The older I get, the easier it is. The more evidence you get, the more you start to honor that evidence.
“I still get very down, or really up, and think that the way I feel represents reality.”
I must look dubious, because he adds, gently and definitely,
Update: Daniel’s song cycle was recorded in performance at NYMF. Watch it here, starting with Grace’s thunderous rendition of “Misery Loves My Company.”