Shakespeare once said „the earth has music for those who listen.” Someone who has heard the music of life…and loss is Vinnie Favale. As you will see in this conversation, his interests are diverse. A Brooklyn boy, Vinnie Favale always loved music and began his career in radio at WNBC. His path first crossed with David Letterman, who in years to come would be known as one of the biggest stars in television. Many years later, his path would cross with Letterman again. In 1996 he joined CBS as the Vice President of Late Night Programming. He produced over 50 editions of the „Live on Letterman” concert series with everyone from Paul McCartney to Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters. He has been a guest on Howard Stern many times and it would appear that all of this would mean a lifetime of stories.
True… but, what gets Vinnie Favale especially passionate is his musical „Hereafter.” Favale is the book-writer, lyricist and composer for „Hereafter,” a musical that explores the question of what happens after we leave the world of the living. Written with his creative partner Frankie Keane, Favale hopes to bring closure to all who have lost someone. Audiences of „Hereafter” have left the theatre in tears, but not tears of sorrow—tears of relief.
Let’s meet Vinnie Favale.
Ladies and gentlemen, our special guest is a music, lyric and book writer of the musical stage. Vinnie Favale is also the CBS Vice President of Late Night Programming. He’s produced over fifty editions of the ‘Live on Letterman’ concert series. He’s been regularly heard on Howard Stern’s radio program and he seems to be a very busy man.
Not too busy for you.
How are you doing tonight?
I’m doing great! This is an exciting time in late night. We’re all…I mean, it’s exciting and bittersweet as Dave Letterman winds down his show, but it’s the best show on TV and I’m lucky to say that I work there.
Wow! Well, I kind of want to go back a little bit. Where are you from and what was life like growing up?
Boy! That’s a broad question. I like that. I am from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn specifically and I actually grew up in a really…on a really cool block. Right down from the block where I grew up, John Travolta did his famous walk from the beginning of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and one of the most famous chase scenes in movie history was also filmed on the same street from ‘The French Connection.’ I grew up in a cool area in a place that could claim disco was born. And it died there. But it was great and I loved growing up in Brooklyn.
You know, I’ve found that people from Brooklyn are always the best interviews.
I’ve never met someone from Brooklyn who is afraid to talk. (Laughs)
(Laughs) That’s great! Well, I’m proud to say that, and I’m very low on the list or hardly made the list, but Brooklyn has a long list of people in entertainment that can claim that they’re from Brooklyn, including Mel Brooks who also crosses the world of television, comedy and live musical theater.
Yes, and Bensonhurst is also the home of Larry King.
Oh yes! So we don’t talk about that too much, but yes… (Laughs)
Well you just mentioned music a second ago. What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
I’m fortunate. I guess every generation has their own like bragging rights, but I’m really lucky in two respects. I was born in 1959 so when I, you know, I think that was like a golden time of music. My passion for music goes back to the doo-wop, I love Sinatra era music and jazz, early jazz and big band and all that kind of stuff, but I really grew up because I was born in 1959 and had an older brother who was born in 1950 so by the time I was like nine years old it was like 1968. I was well aware of the music that was happening because of my older brothers, but they were also turning me on to music that they loved which was a lot of that Doo Whop stuff and there was a great radio station in New York. It’s still here, but it’s in a different format called CBS FM and when I was growing up, it was a golden oldies station. In the early 70’s….in the 50’s when the 50’s music was being played a lot…so it’s a well-rounded musical background. Ironically, though, not a lot of Broadway. I was not exposed to a lot of Broadway music or big Broadway shows until much later in life.
Tell me about that…you said “later in life” was when you kind of got exposed to musicals.
Yeah…I don’t know what it was. Maybe because I was busy. Maybe because I’m the classic New Yorker that wasn’t taking advantage of what was going on. When I was coming of age, if you will, it was the punk rock scene… I was going into the City I was going to CBGB’s or the Ritz and experiencing that kind of music and not really…but when I think about it…I worked as a messenger on Broadway…in the Broadway area when I was like 16 years old, you know…15 or 16…and I can kick myself now, like I could’ve seen ‘A Chorus Line,’ you know. I could’ve seen the original version of ‘Grease.’ They were all playing on Broadway and I remember vividly seeing them not really understanding…you know, I grew up my…my parents were from Italy so first generation and we weren’t exactly a theater-going crowd, you know, so the only kind of little glimpse I had of musical theater was from “The Ed Sullivan Show,” you know, from like seeing Robert Goulet singing something from ‘Camelot’ and at the time, it didn’t appeal to me. My tastes weren’t mature enough to appreciate what was going on. There really wasn’t a place for me to enjoy musical theater till, I think, like the 1980’s.
I am lucky that I could say that I saw the original production of ‘Nine’ which I think might have been my first show which to me, is still my favorite musical of all time partially because it’s based on my favorite movie of all time, ‘Eight-and-a Half.’ Once I saw ‘Nine’ it was like the perfect way to get into musical theater because I was already familiar with the story and the music is beautiful. It’s probably one of my favorite soundtracks as well. And that got the ball going and then I started…really musicals…mostly musicals. All the big shows as they came out I would see and enjoy them, never thinking I would even be writing a musical down the line but I did come to it late, but I very much love it now.
What are the lyricists and composers that you would say made the biggest influence on you?
Well, I got to go with not musical theater, but Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, lyrics that are actually simple but very, very powerful. They tell a story. You listen to the Beatles ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and it’s a simple lyric, but it’s so powerful because the characters are so three-dimensional. They paint the picture so beautifully.
When I was writing, I should add that I co-wrote ‘Hereafter’ musical with my writing partner, Frankie Keane. She’s also in the show. But while working on the lyrics, I was really kind of drawing from what I learned from the Beatles—from Lennon and McCartney and these characters that they had written. We had these characters that we were writing songs for not ourselves. It wasn’t really my story. It was this fictional person who might have elements of me in it and elements of Frankie in it and then just totally fictitious. So I mean it was just really from rock-n-roll. I guess I should say Sondheim, but I got to him much later and I’m still learning and understanding and discovering his genius but when you look…when you hear the lyrics for ‘Gypsy,’ that’s probably my second favorite musical. The lyrics from that show are amazing and ‘Westside Story.’
What was the initial inspiration behind ‘Hereafter’?
It was when I read about in the local newspaper, the tragic death of a nineteen-year-old neighbor. I didn’t know him or the family at the time. I read about this car accident that he had. He was with three other friends driving. He was a passenger. They all walked away. He unfortunately died and it was in the neighborhood and it was tragic and I remember thinking, “Oh god…at such a young age.’ I read the article and it said he left behind two sisters and a mother and father and I felt horrible for everyone, but the sisters really stood out to me because I lost my sibling. I lost an older and younger brother over a three year period when I was like sixteen so it just rekindled a lot of stuff.
I drove by the crash site the next day on my way to take my son to soccer practice and I noticed a memorial tree with roses and I thought, “Oh, this is so tragic and sad,” and I kept on riding by every week taking my son. Life goes on but on a busy highway, it’s really jarring to see that, you know, you see a cross and you see his picture up there and it just started me thinking about life and how we handle the loss of a loved one, how we deal with that and I wrote a song. I wrote a song called ‘Nineteen’ from the point of view of the young man who died. I really kind of wrote it about me like, “Gee I wish…wouldn’t it be great if we could come back and tell people who are mourning us that not to really stop living, to go on with your life and we’ll be together again and even though I died so young I did a lot in life.” And so it just got me thinking about. It was an exercise. I wrote the song. The song came out fantastic thanks to some very good, talented friends: Pat Barry, Eric Garner…they helped turn that song into an amazing demo and it was never intended to be for a musical. I mean, the song was powerful, but what am I going to do with it, you know? It’s like, “Who’s going to want a song about a kid who died at nineteen?” And then it just hit me soon after because I was obsessed about it. I realized the only place that a song like this could live is in musical theater. You can get away with that kind of subject matter and so I wasn’t going to write a show, but I was like, “Okay, it could live there somewhere but good luck. I’m not going to write a musical.” That was way beyond my grasp. And then, you know, I obsessed on it and then I just said, “Well, what would the show be where a song like this could live?” I was like, “Oh, I know where it could live. Maybe the kid’s mother goes to see a psychic maybe to try and contact him.” I’ve been to psychics over the years with my wife and then I looked at my wife’s story of having lost her mother when we first got married and our journey that we went going to see psychics and being disappointed every time and I said, “Maybe there’s a story about a woman….three women who go to see a psychic to connect.” They don’t know each other but they bond one afternoon. One of the characters was based on my wife….you know, loss of a mother. The other character is a mother whose son died thirty years ago so it’s kind of like my Mom’s story and kind of filtered through that. And then we had a third woman who’s a deeply religious woman whose daughter had committed suicide and that’s kind of what we started out with and didn’t write it. These are very broad and it was kind of like literally almost like someone could have designed a computer program to spit out on paper in very broad strokes what this musical would be so if you had a musical about people searching for the answer to what happens when you die, some titles would be songs like ‘Rest in Peace’ and ‘Take My Life’ and ‘Life and Death,’ almost all clichés, I’m embarrassed to say.
So I was just kind of specking them out and then I met Frankie through just Divine intervention. I was looking for some singers just to kind of work on some demos. I had done some demos. They came out, but it was a lot of work to do it on my own and Frankie came in and she responded in such a powerful way. She had lost siblings when she was younger and her mom when she was very young so it became apparent to do that. I wasn’t hiring and actress but I was actually hiring someone who not only turned out to be a very good friend, but a partner on the show—a writing partner and together we wrote the show! It was an amazing process. That was in 2008 and then we work-shopped it. We did readings and the story evolved over a couple of years. We did the traditional readings and then we did a stage reading which was pretty incredible. We learned a lot every time we did it, we’d learn something new about the show. The script started telling us what to do. You know? It’s like, “Oh, certain songs….” I’m sure you’re familiar with “trunk songs.” They’re a bunch of songs that didn’t fit anymore, you know, so we had to chuck them and write new songs and they’re great songs. They’re not in the show, but they’re great songs. We had to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and then one year we said, “You know, this is the year we gotta do something with this. We either got to like stop or take it to the next level to see if we have a viable show here.” Like a story cause we had never performed it in front of a tame audience or even just a large audience with production value…with the lighting and the costumes and all that so in the early days of Kickstarter we said, “You know, let’s try this thing,” and shockingly we raised $70,000 dollars…
Yeah, to do a full production but not so shockingly, like an idiot, I thought that would be enough (laughs). It turned out I was about $180,000 short, but we were just so thrilled by the response that we got from that and we had been building a fan base so we said, “You know what? Let’s just go for it.” So, I put a lot of money into the production.
We did two weeks at Theater 80 on the Lower East Side, East Village, and it was amazing. We had full bands, a great director, Terry Berliner, director/choreographer. We had our musical director on the production…our musical director was Bill Hindon who, with Frankie, was like my other partner on the show, but he wasn’t available for the run so we got Lon Hoyt who had been the music director on ‘Hairspray’ on Broadway so we were like, “Wow! This is amazing!” We had a really great creative team. The production was fantastic. Excellent reviews. Great response. And then…it was just a two week run cause it costs a lot of money to keep these things going and it was really more like, “Do we have something here?” Turns out we that we did. We were thrilled and then we were on hiatus because we had to raise money again to do it again and then we had just recently finished a sixteen week run at the Snapple Theater on Broadway and 50th Street. Our theater is right next to the Brill Building, the legendary building where most of rock-n-roll was written in the sixties in that building and the one across the street at 1650 Broadway, so we were at a great location. It was an amazing run. We’re on hiatus now and we hope to come back again in the summer.
Well, first of all, congratulations! I wanted to talk a little bit about Frankie Keane. Tell me about working with her. Because of the similar losses in your life, did you feel like there was a bit of “meant-to-be” kind of thing?
Yes! Yes. Absolutely. It just felt, “Boy, that’s the person I was waiting for,” that needed a spark of an idea to help me take it to the next level. What’s interesting though, is we share the same losses, but we come at it from two completely different perspectives. She has more of a faith, a lot more of a faith in God. I believe in God, but she really believes in God. I want my own proof, but she has more hopeful look at things and I’m more desperate look at the idea of what happens when we die. I think it’s reflected in the script where there’s a hopeful character, the cynical character, which is a combination of both of our feelings but yeah, the connection was powerful. The fact that we both shared those losses really helped us with the shorthand when we were writing it.Semnat de Paul Leslie