My Cousin Fred & the Power of the Broadway Musical
By Susan Sloate
Let me tell you about my cousin Fred. Fred was the failure of my family. (And no, I didn’t plan all that alliteration.) This is my father’s side I’m talking about now. On my father’s side were all people who came from poor backgrounds, who determined they weren’t going to be poor in the future, and in the 1920’s, ‘30s and ‘40s rolled up their sleeves, started their own businesses, worked long hours, sacrificed, and yes, became very wealthy. (And God bless them; I didn’t realize for many years how much I owe them and how hard they worked to make my life wonderful. But that’s another story.)
My cousin Fred, however, wasn’t a start-your-own-business kind of guy. He had another dream. To support that dream, he took a job in a shoe store in New York in the 1950’s.
None of my relatives had a problem with the shoe store. They understood starting at the bottom. What they had a problem with was Fred’s dream: he wanted to be a (gulp) songwriter.
What was worse, in my relatives’ opinion, was that he didn’t even want to write the music. Oh, no. Fred wanted to write just the words for these songs. Seriously.
“You call that a career?” my aunts, uncles and grandparents would bellow. “What are you thinking? You got a good job at the shoe store; if you work hard, who knows, someday you might become the store manager. Think big, Fred!”
I don’t know how Fred felt, hearing that ongoing vote of confidence, but he persevered anyway. He teamed up with a composer friend and they wrote their little songs. And eventually they met a young girl with a big voice who had lots of energy and ambition. She wasn’t all that pretty, but she could belt out a song.
So all three of them worked together and eventually got their big break, with an off-Broadway show they wrote the score for and their singer friend starred in.
I know; you thought it was going to end with their all showing up my relatives, right?
My relatives took that failure as proof that they were right; Fred needed to focus on the shoe store. Fred took it differently.
And my relatives finally did stop bugging him about his career in feet on the night he got them house seats for his new Broadway show … CABARET.
My cousin Fred was Fred Ebb, half of the musical team of Kander & Ebb, who also wrote the scores for CHICAGO, ALL THAT JAZZ, and the movie FUNNY LADY. And that energetic young girl they worked with? Her name is Liza Minnelli, and she introduced their most famous song, “New York, New York”. Start spreading the news, indeed.
Kander & Ebb are not just a Broadway success story; they are legendary. (And I promise, all of the above is true. How can you not believe a family story?) Fred Ebb, sadly, is no longer with us. But for the purposes of this blog, what’s important to know is that by the time I was old enough to hear Fred’s story, he was already a Broadway superstar. Also, my mother had studied voice and planned to sing on the musical stage herself, and that was my first career dream as well. So I was raised with Broadway musicals—old ones, new ones, famous ones, not-so-famous ones, hits, flops. I knew their stories, I knew their stars, producers and creative teams, I knew how they came to be hits or flops. To this day, I can still sing more than a hundred show scores from memory. I’m praying someday someone invents a game show entirely about Broadway musicals. I’ll be a million-dollar winner. Guaranteed.
So many years ago, when I sat down to write about a complex love affair I was living through and didn’t want my characters to have the same jobs or lives as we did, it was natural for me to set the story in the musical theater. I’d grown up in it; I’d actually written a musical at the age of 14 (book and lyrics), with a close friend. And yes, I still dream of writing for the musical theater. If you should really ‘write what you know’—well, it was something I knew, all right.
The beginning of what I called for years my ‘baby novel’ was about two characters much like my love and me. I didn’t consciously think about it, but within just a few pages of starting to write, I found he had become a Broadway lyricist (no, not modeled on Fred, but I’m sure his story was at the back of my mind). I became the girl who was studying to be a singer on Broadway (which I’d once desperately wanted; funny how things change when you realize you have no talent). In real life, the guy was a novelist/screenwriter and I was working at becoming a novelist/screenwriter. It wasn’t the same thing, but on the other hand, it was.
The novel which finally emerged from many years of writing, putting it down, and picking it up again is titled STEALING FIRE, and it’s just been published by Drake Valley Press. And the reason (apart from plain old fear and procrastination) that it hasn’t been published till now is just that I really had no idea how the story was supposed to end, and for a long time I wasn’t sure it mattered. I told myself for a long time that this was just therapy for myself during a tough period long ago, that it didn’t have any relevance for me now. It had nothing to do with the me of today.
But it kept nagging at me. It’s hard to ignore 275 pages of passionate pleading, especially when you wrote the passionate pleas to begin with. You can’t just throw all that stuff out. But after it had languished for awhile, I took it out again when I stumbled on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest (nothing like a contest to spur you to do something you should have done anyway). I had one week to get in my entry, and in that one week, I cut 100 pages, wrote 100 new pages (new scenes, connections between scenes) and basically finished it, though I still wanted to clean it up a little.
I got it in with about 30 minutes to spare, panting all the way, and was thrilled when it was named a Quarter-Finalist in 2012. I promised myself I’d publish it, and when Drake Valley Press and I found each other earlier this year, all the stars seemed to align.
STEALING FIRE is about the musical theater, yes, but it’s mostly about a love affair between unlikely soul mates, but soul mates nonetheless—people who have no business understanding each other so well, but because they do, they change each other’s lives. It’s about a love most of us only dream about, but few of us ever know. I’m grateful that what I lived through all these years ago is now down on the page for readers to experience along with me, and I hope they’ll believe such a love is possible—because I know from experience that it is.
I think what I loved most about writing it was that since Beau was a lyricist, I got to write song lyrics again, something I hadn’t done for many years. The challenge, of course, is that I set up Beau as a really superb lyricist, far above other lyricists in the musical theater. So the lyrics I wrote for him had to be, of course, superb.
Well… not sure I nailed that, but there are three song lyrics that Beau ‘wrote’ in the novel. Whether you’ll think they’re good or not is debatable. But wherever he is, I hope my cousin Fred is proud.
HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE YOUR SOULMATE?
In glittery 1980’s Los Angeles, Beau Kellogg, a brilliant lyricist now reduced to writing advertising jingles, yearns for one last Broadway hit to compensate for his miserable marriage and disappointing life.
Amanda Harary, a young singer out of synch with her contemporaries, dreams of appearing in Broadway musicals while she holds down a day job at a small New York hotel.
When the two meet in a late-night phone conversation over the hotel switchboard, it’s the beginning of something neither has ever found—an impossible situation that will bring them both unexpected success, untold joy and piercing heartache… until they learn that some connections, however improbable, are meant to last forever.
STEALING FIRE is, at its heart, a story for romantics everywhere, who believe in the transformative power of love.
SUSAN SLOATE is the author of 20 books, including her latest, Stealing Fire (which went to #2 in its category on Amazon the day it was published), the upcoming JFK time-travel thriller Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition (with Kevin Finn) and Realizing You (with Ron Doades), for which she invented a new genre: the self-help novel. The original 2003 edition of Forward to Camelot went to #6 on Amazon, took honors in 3 literary competitions and was optioned by a Hollywood company for film production.
Stealing Fire has autobiographical elements, including Susan’s love for the musical theater. She is proud to be distantly related to Fred Ebb, the legendary Broadway lyricist of Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, and “New York, New York”.
Susan has also written young-adult fiction and non-fiction, including the children’s biography Ray Charles: Find Another Way!, which won the silver medal in the 2007 Children’s Moonbeam Awards. She has been a sportswriter and a screenwriter, managed two recent political campaigns and founded an author’s festival in her hometown outside Charleston, SC.