Theater folk once were deficient in putting rootsier music across. "It used to be like when [operatic soprano] Eileen Farrell would sing the blues—it would make you crawl under a chair," Newman observes. But he thinks that's getting better. "They bring something to it. In this case [Education], with a number of the songs, the context and the performance are better than I could do. It's more effective."
"Because I can't hold a note, for one thing. And I can't sing a lullaby where an African-American woman sings, trying to get a kid to go to sleep."
It is only in his past two studio albums, Land of Dreams and Bad Love, that Newman has attempted any directly autobiographical songwriting. In revisiting some of his older songs, though, he's been surprised to see more of himself revealed than he'd thought.
"'Old Man,' I thought, was just about a cold father-son relationship that I didn't think I had," he says. "I saw 2001, and there was that thing where the parents are there going, 'Happy birthday,' with that kind of chill that Kubrick had without trying. I wrote 'Old Man' from that, and then when my father died, it felt more like the reality than I would have hoped, where I wish I could have shown more warmth.
"'Love Story' is a song I wrote as a kid that seemed to me a fairly impoverished dream. But as I've gotten older, it doesn't look that bad to me, that kind of 'you do it and then go off to live in Florida and play checkers.' As I get older, that doesn't seem so bad, but when I was a kid, it was ridiculous and funny to hope for so little."
The arc of Education, he said, "is I learn that life is not so bad, which is something I think I actually learned. I was a lot more unhappy at 24 than I am now. Maybe I'm just not paying attention. I never had a horrible, bleak view of the world. I always knew that people were kind of decent. I always thought that the people in my audiences weren't as bad as the people in my songs, that those are exaggerations. I know they are. That's it: 'Life is what you make it.' It's simple, like an after-school special or Disney movie: 'If we all pull together, things will work out.' Every Disney movie I've done, I could have written the same song for it: 'If we work together . . .'"
THE EDUCATION OF RANDY NEWMAN AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. PREVIEW PERFORMANCES, FRI.-THURS., JUNE 1; REGULAR RUN, JUNE 2-JULY 2. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 P.M. & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M. PREVIEWS, $23-$42; REGULAR, $33-$52.