Having conducted four presidential inaugurations, the Gala Millennium concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, evenings at the Hollywood Bowl and his own violin concerto at Carnegie Hall, the composer-lyricist-conductor-producer Glen Roven has finally come up with something a little less ephemeral: the three-CD album Poetic License: 100 Poems, 100 Performers. Most of the readers are actors, but not all. A handful are seriously famous, but not many. A few poets—Wordsworth, Yeats, Frost, Emily Dickinson, Shel Silverstein ("the poet laureate of kids verse," says Roven) are heard from more than once. Shakespeare is represented both by sonnets and verse from the plays. A very few of the selections are translations. Apart from a few fleeting piano interludes (by Roven), the only music is that of the spoken word.
A quixotic venture, and no mistake. Yet an early audience of unlikely listeners—the sound engineers—pronounced themselves swept away. Released on April 2 to coincide with National Poetry Month, the collection sold 25,000 downloads by May, as well as receiving airplay on some 150 jazz, classical, and arts stations.
Poetic License is the first release on GPR Records, a new CD label in which Roven is a partner. Individual tracks, as well as the complete set, may be downloaded at gprrecords.com and iTunes. A sign of the times: downloads are outperforming CDs twenty to one. (A few personal recommendations: Emily Skinner reading Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love Is Not All," Chander Williams in Frank O'Hara's "To the Harbormaster," Michael Rupert in Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California," Edward Hibbert in John Betjeman's "Sun and Fun," Moisés Kaufmann in Tennessee Williams' "Life Story.") Apart from the spoken word, GPR plans future Broadway, classical, and children's-music projects.
In early May, Roven took time off from rehearsals for a Mother's Day concert in Central Park to discuss Poetic License. The concert was to feature that violin concerto of his, which was inspired by the children's best-seller The Runaway Bunny. (As you have guessed, Roven is full of surprises.)
Why 100 poems?
When I was younger, I worked a lot with the legendary Alexander Cohen, who produced innumerable television extravaganzas, the first 35 years of the Tony Awards, and God knows how much else. For him 100 was more an adjective than a fixed number. This is my tribute to Alex. I think it actuality we have 103.
How hard was it to recruit all that talent?
It was the easiest project I've ever done, a joy from beginning to end. There was a method to my madness. How do you make a poetry album sell? You start with big names. First I reached out to my friends Patti LuPone and Jason Alexander and Catherine Zeta-Jones: a Broadway star, a TV star, and a movie star. In return e-mails, they all said, "I'm in, sounds great, no problem." Next, I wrote to twenty more friends, who accepted and added notes about friends of theirs who wanted to come on board. "My friend is Richard Thomas, who loves poetry." "My friend is Michael York."
So how long it did take to put the package together?
In show-business terms, it was overnight. I started the week before Christmas, and wrapped up the second week of February. For the recording sessions, people were scheduled on the half hour. It was definitely a poetry machine.
Did you give the talent any guidelines? The A. R. Ammons track "Beautiful Woman" runs 11 seconds, including the title. Shido Bunan's "Die While You Are Alive" runs 15. But then there's Poe's "Annabelle Lee," three minutes and 20 seconds; nearly four minutes each of an abbreviated "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Coleridge, and Arnold Weinstein's "Grosz"; more than four and a half of Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter"; more than five of Tennyson's "Ulysses"… Was there anything you had to rule out as too unwieldy?
John Rubinstein actually recorded the complete "Rime of the Ancient Marine," which runs a half an hour and will be available soon as a special. But basically, the earlier people had fewer parameters. I was responding to what they said they'd like to do. What totally surprised me was that amount of contemporary poetry people wanted to do. Jane Hirschfeld, Billy Collins, fantastic stuff. As the project got more and more focused, I started paying attention to what was missing. I wanted a section on love, a section on eternity, a section on kids.
So some people were undecided?
Very much so. Some others had no ideas at all. Danny Burstein said, "I'm blank, you've got to suggest." I gave him Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," and he said, "I can't believe I didn't think of that! I had it taped to my mirror all through 'The Drowsy Chaperone.'" Poems are very personal. I knew so many of the actors well. I have a sense of what they might respond to.
Were there any poems that got chosen twice?
It happened a lot. The system was first come, first served. And if someone didn't get first choice, they'd get something just as good.
Did anyone want direction?
Yes, absolutely. I would say almost everyone did. I had an overriding concept that this would be an album for the people who listen to books on tape. People driving and listening. It's not background music, for when you're doing the dishes. I said to the readers, "Remember, your audience is about two feet away, listening on car speakers." Onstage there are lots of ways to express joy, but here, unless it was expressed in a smile, it wouldn't read.
What was the maximum number of takes? The minimum? How many tracks got laid down on Take 1?
It'd say 80 percent of the people did a first take and then another to get it better. Then they'd listen. And then they would nail it on the third take.
Several actors chose dramatic excerpts—almost all of it (or maybe all?) Shakespeare…
Shakespeare is a whole world by himself. He was the best poet who ever lived. We have a couple of the sonnets, which are certainly excerptable. One of my favorite experiences ever was to have Christine Baranski recreate Helena from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which she performed so beautifully all those years ago. And to hear Len Cariou read Prospero… I pushed for that.
Charles Busch read Browning's "My Last Duchess," which is a free-standing dramatic monologue in itself.
Yes, that's another favorite. Isn't he masterful?
Come to think of it, the Ariel Dorfman poem "Correspondence," spoken, as I take it, by a mother of a Chilean desaparecida, is almost a one-woman play.
Who knew? Poetry is political! Isn't it extraordinary? Kathleen Turner brought it in. I was worried we couldn't get the rights, but she said, "Here's his e-mail address." He wrote right back, saying "By all means, use it." I got the same answer from Tony Kushner, whom I'd never met. "I'm thrilled," he said. All these names I'm saying. It shows the caliber of riches.
There are poems that tell amazing stories. Taylor Mali's "A Dog Named Bodhisattva," about a three-legged dog reunited with his lost leg in Dog Heaven, Peter Cook's "Blue Football," about a man who thinks that's what he is, and pretty much proves it…
Every poem in the set has a story. Taylor is a great friend of Cady Huffman's, who read it, and a great favorite with college kids. "Blue Football" was a written as a house present for Tony Walton, whom Peter Cook left had been staying with. It's never been published, and it's never been heard. A rare gem…
There are a few poems that criticize or make fun of a poetic attitude, of self-conscio
us poetic delivery, notably Marianne Moore's "Poetry," the one with the line about imaginary gardens with real toads in them. But there are also performances that exemplify the very sentimentality that the satirists like to send up. Catherine Zeta-Jones in Wordsworth's "Daffodils," for instance…
Catherine picked "Daffodils" because the daffodil is the national flower of her native Wales. She told me that she had also read recently it at her aunt's funeral. And it's such a seminal poem, almost the first contemporary poem. But what about is "The Day Is Done," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A friend suggested including it. He knew it from an episode of The Brady Bunch, where Mike and Greg sent it up in a school talent show. I read it and knew that Florence Henderson of Brady Bunch fame could do it straight, and make it something beautiful.
Wheels within wheels…
Amanda Green, the daughter of Adolph Green (as in Comden and Green) and a great lyricist in her own right, said she wanted to do "You Are Old, Father William." And when we were talking about it, it hit her like a lightning bolt. "My father used to do this poem for me." I said to her, "Do it like your father."
Given all the different tones and approaches, are there any poems in the set that you personally just don't care for?
I hate to say it, but no, or they wouldn't be on the album.
Not all the performers are actors.
Two opera singers, Daniel Okulitch and Lauren Flanigan. Lynn Sherr is a newscaster. Tony Walton is a designer. Moisés Kaufman is a director. "Are you sure you want me, with my accent?," he asked. And then he read Tennessee Williams, so brilliantly.
There's the poem "Eating Poetry," spoken in the voice of a dog wreaking havoc at a library. I love it that it comes first—and with the title following the poem. Did you know from the start that you'd make that the opener?
I probably did. I just adore it. "I have been eating poetry." What an opening! It doesn't get any better than that.
If you'd read a poem yourself, what would it have been?
Without a question, "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven," by Yeats. No one chose it, and I was mortified. Tony Walton was designing and directing a show at the Irish Repertory Theater and said he'd get the head of the company, Ciaran O'Reilly. I was so glad. I asked Ciaran when he came in, "Why is this my favorite poem?" He laughed and said, "It's a lot of people's favorite poem."