When Glen Kelly won a Drama Desk award last weekend, for Outstanding Music in a Play, he says he was genuinely surprised. "I've never won a damn thing in my entire life," Kelly told me a few days after the ceremony. "I didn't think I had much of a chance. I was up against so many good people, including Steve Martin." But Kelly, whose Playbill credit for The Nance reads "Original Music," did triumph. "In my acceptance," Kelly remarked, "I said that it is such a pleasure to work for geniuses who are nice."
Kelly was referring to Nathan Lane, the production's star, and Jack O'Brien, its director, and Douglas Carter Beane, its playwright, among others. "I know I'll look back on this time as memorable," he continued. "Jack and Doug gave me such a great opportunity to write what I did."
Kelly, who has no formal training other than the ability to read music, was originally hired to make a more modest contribution to The Nance. "But at one point in the process," he said, "Nathan asked for a song. And before I knew it I had come up with seven songs for the play. Each is under a minute and is mostly meant to fill a gap in the show."
If Kelly's assignment grew gradually, it has come to represent a mini-soundscape for the 1937 burlesque world the play conjures. "The show starts with a sax solo," he said. "It creates ambience and mood. It goes throughout the piece - a tango in act two is based on it. The music helps define character, and is pastiche with burlesque overtones."
Kelly has a long and rich history with Lane. He did dance arrangements forThe Frogs, a 2004 LCT production of a Sondheim/Shevelove show for which Lane starred and revised the book. And Kelly was the musical supervisor on the 2001 The Producers, for which Lane won a Tony. For that show, Kelly was closely involved with Mel Brooks, its composer/lyricist and co-book writer.
"Mel would come over to my house, and we'd sit at my piano," Kelly said. "He would work on the songs there. He was the composer and the boss, but it was a real collaboration. It was magical. And a lot of fun."
Kelly said that many movies that are turned into musicals "just aren't meant to be musicals. It was always completely clear to me that The Producersshould be a musical." Kelly said he has the same feeling about his latest project, Bullets over Broadway, an upcoming musical adaptation of the 1994 movie, written by Woody Allen and Doug McGrath, for which Kelly is music supervisor and arranger.
"All the songs in the show are pre-existing," Kelly said, "but it's our job to interpret them into the script. The arrangements should be done in such a way so that the production has the feel of an original score." The story takes place in 1920s New York.
Kelly said "Bullets" is about to have another reading preliminary to a fully staged reading. The production will open next April at Broadway's St. James Theater. In the meantime, Kelly has found time to revisit The Nance in performance. "It has gotten even richer and deeper as it's gone along," he said. "And I'm so proud of how well the band, led by David Gursky, plays the music every night."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com