In his songs, Randy Newman has invented enough characters to stock a season's worth of Broadway musicals. Regretful lovers. Scared school boys. Unreconstructed rednecks. Blissfully smug Angelenos. An oddly contemporary Karl Marx. And, of course, short people.
Which helps explain why, a few days ago, the L.A.-born, Big Easy-bred composer was sitting in a downtown Los Angeles rehearsal room, tapping his running shoes to the beat, amusement skittering across his eyes, while he watched a rehearsal of the new musical "Harps and Angels." A loosely structured revue of Newman's songs, conceived by theatrical polymath Jack Viertel and directed by multiple Tony Award-winner Jerry Zaks, the show is having its world premiere this month at the Mark Taper Forum, where it was developed, with hopes of future productions elsewhere.
Later, backstage, the prolific author of albums and film scores ("The Natural," "Toy Story") pronounced himself pleased with the results. Well, as pleased as it's possible to be, perhaps, if you're Randy Newman.
"I don't have a face that's got a smile painted on it in any sense," he said. "It's a difficult effort for me, these [facial] muscles. But I was happy on the inside. Some things I loved, and I think it'll be an entertaining evening."
Putting Newman's characters onstage as alive-and-kicking human beings has proved trickier than one might assume. There've been two previous Newman revues: "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong" at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1983, and "The Education of Randy Newman" at South Coast Repertory in 2000. In addition, La Jolla hosted the premiere of Newman's much-praised original musical "Faust" in the fall of 1995.
The critical consensus of the revues was mixed-to-good, with several reviews noting the difficulty of translating Newman's sly, situational lyrics into three-dimensional drama. Newman was more directly involved in those past shows. This time around, he mainly presided as a guiding spirit, rooting from the bleachers. "I had nothing to do with the creation of this show at all," he said. "Sometimes I know enough to shut up and defer to experts."
Newman, 66, comes across like his songs' most companionable characters: witty, open, sincere, occasionally wistful and disarmingly self-mocking. It's that array of traits and emotional states that makes his songs appear so temptingly transferable to a musical show.
Michael McKean, one of a six-member cast that also includes Katey Sagal, says that Newman has a quality shared by only a handful of songwriters, citing Cole Porter, Elvis Costello, Noel Coward, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright. "All my favorite songwriters can break your heart and make you laugh," said McKean, the comic chameleon best known as Lenny on "Laverne and Shirley" and as the blithely clueless rock god David St. Hubbins of Spin¨al Tap.
For "Harps and Angels," the Taper's creative team took the view that the show needed to be structured as what Viertel calls "a journey," but not necessarily a narrative one. Viertel decided that the songs in themselves, if lined up properly and performed by a cast able to quick-change identities, could furnish a fully engaging dramatic experience that would be the story of a man's life as well as a tongue-in-cheek meditation on love, sex, geography, the fate of great empires, New Orleans, race relations and God, among many other things.
"Unlike almost any other pop composer, he has written about every age that he has been at," Viertel said. "It just felt like it had a natural flow to it."
A previous working draft of the show had one character who was a kind of Newman stand-in, but this was later dropped. In the show's current version, Ryder Bach sometimes assumes the part of a Randy-like character at a youthful age, while McKean occasionally steps into the rumpled, rueful persona of an older man with a more than passing resemblance to the composer, or at least his popular image.
The songs in "Harps and Angels," named after his most recent album, traverse much of Newman's career. They include "Shame," "Sail Away," " Louisiana, 1927," "My Life Is Good," "Great Nations of Europe," "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and, almost inevitably given the show's Southern California provenance, that deceptively sunny, de-facto Lakers-Dodgers anthem, "I Love L.A."
Zaks calls them "songs of experience, the songs you sing when you've had a chance to put a few miles on your life."
While film scores help pay a lot of bills, Newman indicated that he still evaluates himself first and foremost as a songwriter, a process he describes as both fulfilling and mystifying. "Sometimes I wonder, 'How the hell did I do that?' I mean, they're so complicated, and the words are just there all lined up, click-click-click. I don't know. I read [ Bob] Dylan said he couldn't write the stuff he wrote a long time ago now. But I was satisfied that I was still writing as well as I ever did with the last record. Which is so important to me, I can't tell you. It's how I've always judged myself. Too much. It's a main thing to me. Selfish thing."
As the composer who likely has written more comic songs than anyone of his generation, Newman thinks that contemporary music could use a few more laughs, and he's glad to see some younger artists going in that direction.
"Irony is noticed by children as a major kind of thing, and they get it," he said. "Their humor is sort of geared in that direction. I hear some bands now, and I always wondered why everything was so serious in rock 'n' roll, mostly, except the whole feel of everything is fun, the beat and all. But I think now when I listen to stuff — don't ask me too many names, I don't go deep — but they're making fun of themselves and things. So it's a little better, for me."
A prodigious reader, Newman said he always has been attracted to "unreliable narrators" in novels, whose biases and blind spots gradually reveal themselves to the reader, a dimension that many speakers in his own songs possess.
"Sounds a little highfalutin to say it," he said, "but when I think of it, I've always liked memoirs. Like, I don't know how old I was when I read [ Benvenuto] Cellini's autobiography. But you know, he's always caught in awkward positions with 12-year-old girls. And I really like that. And Berlioz's too. It's really good, one of the best books I ever read, very funny."
There's a kind of Newman family legend that Randy may have inherited a tortured-artist gene from his late uncle, the film score composer and orchestra leader Alfred Newman. "I never saw him comfortable, I never saw him enthused about his work. God knows he may have been," Newman said of the man who wrote the scores for "Wuthering Heights" and "How Green Was My Valley."
"You know, some people in the family think that I somehow, either subliminally or not, picked up on that misery and tried to emulate it. I don't think so. There are enough writers that are sort of miserable about the process. They just don't whine about it as much as I have."