Midgets Still Curse Him

On the many lessons in Randy Newmans education

The ads for The Education of Randy Newman give me the willies.

"Everyman's life in song!"

"A musical biography that bears an amazing resemblance to the life of one of America's most exciting composers."

"See the USA through the music of Randy Newman!"

Randy Newman is not a Chevrolet. If he's Everyman, so are Brahms and Pinter. And if his songs told his life story, he'd be a slave-trading, midget-hating, babe-shtupping monster.

It's enough to make a Newman fan wary. Yet here comes Education's world premiere at South Coast Repertory, and the party to whom it should matter most isn't worried.

"I haven't jumped up and said, 'Stop! Stop!' It's not like they're profaning my work," Newman says, having seen a goodsome chunk of the show in rehearsal. Rather, he thinks The Education of Randy Newman is better than Randy Newman when it comes to introducing many folks to his songs.

Having previously taken his music to the stage in Randy Newman's Faust, he found that "these kinds of shows will play to people I don't play to. They wouldn't come to see me, and I couldn't keep them. My voice offends some people—music lovers. I like it, but other people don't. Once I get past 'You've Got a Friend in Me,' 'A Bug's Life,' 'Love to See You Smile' and 'Short People,' I'm in trouble with a lot of people."

In musical theater, meanwhile, "it's pretty people to look at; people are dancing around. In Chicago and San Diego when they did Faust, they had kids and old black ladies who liked it and sat through it—people I couldn't play to. I'm sort of hard to understand, I've recognized over the years. I always think that I'd be accessible to everybody, but I'm not the Backstreet Boys."

May we hear a "hallelujah"? Indeed, Education celebrates one of the more unusual composers in American music. The bulk of his songs are written in character, and as scuzzy as some of those characters are, Newman never gives them short shrift, realizing that there are no monsters so terrifying as the ones in whom we can recognize ourselves. If you think punk is angry, listen to the vicious old lech of his "Shame" going through his waning years with the voice of conscience wailing in his head like the Raeletts. Newman's "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" is at once a riotous send-up of the "We Are the World"-type megaballad and a sad commentary on the driving force behind so much of human communication.

Alternately, he has written some of the most warmly touching songs in modern pop, from the flawed, liquored-up lover in "Marie" to his buddy tune "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Disney's Toy Story.

Education co-conceivers Michael Roth and Jerry Patch (Newman's role in creating the piece was largely editorial, he said) culled 44 songs from his nearly four-decade career (marvelously encapsulated on the Rhino box set Guilty: 30 Years). With a nod to American historian Henry Adams' semiautobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, they shaped a musical in which a character playing Newman forms his vision of America by observing his other characters.

"It's of course an artificial construct," Newman says. "As I wrote, I didn't reveal what my life was. That's not the kind of writing I do. I can already see the newspapers saying, 'A narrative has been imposed over Newman's tunes,' but it's all right to me. I think they were right to do that. Some of the songs jump out better than they are because they're in context.

"It's sort of a fantasy based on my life. In this one, I grow up, move to Los Angeles, get married, behave badly, get divorced, get married again, which is all basically true. Intelligently enough, they called it The Education of Randy Newman so they could have other characters saying things, and presumably it's an educative process for me. The detail would be overwhelmingly boring if it were just what I did: 'Then he went to grammar school, junior high and high school, and there he was.'"

He grew up a doctor's son in LA—after spending his first three years in New Orleans, a time expanded upon in Education to better work in his songs on racial injustice. His uncles, Alfred and Lionel Newman, were esteemed film composers and conductors, and he often got to watch them work. By his midteens, he was himself writing songs recorded by the likes of the Fleetwoods and Jerry Butler.

In 1967, he was signed by Warner Bros., a label seemingly intent on recording every eccentric in the LA basin (including Captain Beefheart, Van Dyke Parks, Frank Zappa and Ry Cooder). His first album sold something like 8,000 copies, and that was with Warner Bros. giving away 1,000 of them. While the 1974 Good Old Boys was one of the finest albums of the past century, the public didn't notice Newman until his 1977 satiric hit "Short People," the widely misunderstood import of which earned him the enmity of midgets everywhere. He has continued to burrow his way into listeners' hearts with such songs as "I Love LA" and his movie soundtracks —including The Natural, Awakenings, Parenthood and A Bug's Life—which, in what must be something of a record, have gleaned some 13 Academy Award nominations and not a single win.

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."

Why?

"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.

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