Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.
Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)
Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.
Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio — she was a high school classmate of KQED’s Michael Krasny — Rita Abrams launched her career in 1970 when her novelty song “Mill Valley” stormed its way up the charts.
At a time of great social and political upheaval—not unlike today—the song was a breath of fresh air among nonstop sermons about war, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction. With its success, Abrams went from being a local grade-school teacher to instant fame, guest-starring on “Hollywood Squares” and dating prominent entertainers.
50 years later she is still going strong, continuing to pen some of the cleverest tunes ever created.
Recipient of two Emmy’s and multiple SFBATCC nominations and awards, Abrams is perhaps best known for her long-running Marin County spoof For Whom the Bridge Tolls (a collaboration with Stan Sinberg) and many musicals, including Pride and Prejudice, scheduled for May 2021 at Ross Valley Players. Among friends, she’s known as the quickest wit in the west.
ASR: How did you get started in theater?
RA: I wrote poems and songs all my life, starting with family musical sagas.
ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?
RA: My first paid performance was singing “Bell Bottom trousers, coat a navy blue” when I was three. The neighbors paid me ten cents apiece. As an adult, I made a musical out of a quirky little love triangle play written by a TV comedy writer friend which ran in a little SF theatre.
ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?
RA: My stage musicals have been produced by fifteen theatre companies. I’ve also composed for various children’s media and educational companies . . . maybe twenty-five companies altogether.
ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?
RA: My mother, who introduced me to the work of all the great musical theatre composers and lyricists, and many lesser known ones as well. The Cleveland public schools took us regularly to great theatre and concerts, and my parents took me to New York to see Broadway shows.
ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?
RA: Intimidating question but I’ll try: Raisin in the Sun, Private Lives, Our Town, Fences, Bad Jews . . . and then there’s Shakespeare and too many more to mention.
ASR: Musicals? Comedies?
RA: All of Rogers & Hammerstein, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, The Fantasticks, And the World Goes Round (Kander & Ebb Revue), Hamilton, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers, The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig.
ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?
RA: George Maguire.
ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?
RA: Regarding songwriting:
1. Write lyrics you can easily speak, as in conversation.
2. Build as the song progresses—Save the biggest, funniest, or most moving for last, and don’t be too repetitive or derivative. Keep introducing new ideas or twists.
3. With comedy songs—never give away the punchline, especially in the title, and when possible, end with a surprise.
ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?
RA: Very tough question, as I love so many of the actors and musicians (and even a few collaborators) I’ve worked with. But when I asked a great bass player friend—Jack Prendergast—if he knew any conductor/synthesizer players for Just My TYPE, a 2018 Ross Valley Players musical, he surprised me by saying he could do the job. He worked so hard on all aspects of the music that he won my heart. We’re still together, and still working together on music.
ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?
RA: The wacky satirical musical revue about Marin County, For Whom the Bridge Tolls, that I co-created and produced with Stan Sinberg, from 1994 to 2005, was filled with unscripted goofs and gaffes. One night during the sketch, The Overpasses of Marin County (a parody of The Bridges of Madison County), Frank Brown, as photographer for “Dangerous Exits Magazine,” while passionately embracing Sharon Boucher as “Francesca,” caught her long black wig in his belt buckle, where it hung amid gales of laughter from the audience. For two actors who knew how to ham it up, this was their moment. The hilarity went on and on.
ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?
RA: When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row, she, a tough one, dismissed it as no big deal—but I was mortified, fearing the audience would think that was how I wrote the song!
ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?
RA: I was playing piano for a show at San Francisco’s Improv Comedy Club, when in the middle of a scene, a disheveled figure ambled up to the stage and started riffing. A rumble arose from the audience, turning to a roar as they realized who it was—Robin Williams!
ASR: Do you have a “day job?”
RA: Not one day job, but revolving freelance gigs—like B.C. (Before Covid) writing scripts for Gregangelo’s Velocity Entertainment shows, and I’m a longtime writer of greeting cards, which is fortunately pandemic-proof.
ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?
RA: All forms of entertainment: Scrabble, Zoom Fictionary, watching the horror unfolding on MSNBC, and now trying to plan some kind of virtual commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of our Miss Abrams & the Strawberry Point School Third Grade Class “Mill Valley” record release. And keeping in touch with family, like my daughter in LA.
When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row
ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture?
RA: Truthfully, while I’m interested in everything, I’m usually focused on my original music and theatre creations.
ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?
RA: Just the artifice of pretending not to age.
ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?
RA: 1. Enforced Social Distancing between Democrats and Republicans. 2. Twenty minutes of daily laugh therapy before rising. 3. No fitbits.
ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?
RA: Canned tripe, or dinner with the current president. Not necessarily in that order.
ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?
RA: “Where Have I Been All My Life?” features real senior citizens confessing their one big regret, and then, through the magic of technology, being able to reverse and redo it, for all the world to see.
ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?
RA: Been mistaken for someone more interesting.
ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?
RA: Sequined mask.
ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?
RA: A butterfly.
ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?
RA: Just reading the names gives me heart palpitations.
ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?
1. From Just My TYPE (book by Charlotte Jacobs & Michael Sally): “I can change him AFTER we get married.”
2. From For Whom the Bridge Tolls: “Between my mani-pedi, my Shiatsu massage, my Bickram Yoga, and my Zumba class…I have NO time for ME!!”
ASR: Theatrical event you are most looking forward to?
RA: The Ross Valley Players production of Josie Brown’s and my Pride and Prejudice Musical from May 13th to June 13th, 2021. Phoebe Moyer will direct the great lineup of talent already we’ve already cast.