Matt Schatz on multiple universes, Hugh Everett III, writing songs and musicals about science, and WHERE EVER IT MAY BE

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On November 24 the *EST/Sloan First Light Festival will be having the first ever reading/performance of a new musical about quantum physics, WHERE EVER IT MAY BE by Matt Schatz. The musical leaps off in the 1950s in Princeton where Hugh Everett III is pursuing his doctorate in physics and meeting for the first time the woman who will become his wife. From there quantum entanglements ensue, as Schatz explains in our interview.

What persuaded you that the life of quantum physicist Hugh Everett III would make a good subject for a musical? Was it the life or the name? Should we feel we know the historical Hugh Everett III at the end of the play?

Well, I’ve known about Everett’s “Many Worlds Theory of Quantum Mechanics” for a while.

The idea that each of our decisions, no matter how small, greatly affect our lives, and that there may be other worlds out there where versions of ourselves, maybe an infinite number of versions, have made other decisions, and are living vastly different (or even subtly different) existences, is of course fascinating. It’s particularly fascinating to storytellers whose job it is to create characters who make decisions (which is all a character really does).

There have been a fair number of movies and books and even at least one other musical (If/Then) that have played with the idea of alternate universes, but what excited me most about this is that it isn’t really fiction. There is a lot of science and math (little of which I truly understand) that supports this theory. It may well be true. And what are human implications of all that science and math?

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In many ways, WHERE EVER IT MAY BE is a thought experiment. I wanted to examine a relatively small moment, or period of time in someone’s life and try to look at it through this “Many Worlds” prism.  I wanted to find a conceit for exploring it in a way that you could only do in a play. That this particular moment could be a love story involving the man who came up with the Many Worlds Theory and about the formulation of the theory itself seemed like a fun idea so I went with it.

Also, I love the idea of a musical about quantum mechanics. My favorite kinds of musicals are the musicals that might inspire someone to say, “Why would you ever make a musical out of that?”

When you say, “the name” are you talking about the pun on Everett/Ever It? I wasn’t sure if anyone would even get that. But you did! That was just an accident. Something I thought of. I like puns.

And my hope isn’t that we’ll know the historical Hugh Everett III at the end of the play, but rather that we will know the fictional version(s) of the characters that I’ve made up in my dumb head. 

But if someone goes home after this show and researches the actual guy, I won’t be mad at them. Hugh Everett III had a fascinating, eventful and ultimately sad life, most of which I barely touch on in the play. In this draft anyway.

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The director of my MFA program at Carnegie Mellon, the late Milan Stitt, used to say something like: the only research you should ever do before writing a historical play is read the one-paragraph entry in the encyclopedia. I largely agree with that and think about it all the time. Research can be a kind of elaborate procrastination tool.

But for a play like this, you do need to do a little bit more than that to at least pretend you know what you’re talking about. I bought a few books: one by Michio Kaku, and one called The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III by Peter Byrne. The latter was pretty much indispensable not just for stuff about the science and Hugh, but also for information about the time period and the woman who would become his wife, Nancy Gore (who is the only other character in the play). There’s also a short BBC documentary about Hugh Everett and his son, Mark Oliver Everett (“E” of the band Eels) that I found online, that helped explain things like Schrödinger’s cat to me in a way I could understand, and more importantly make an audience understand.

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You’ve posted most of the songs from WHERE EVER IT MAY BE on SoundCloud. They have a light, folksonglike, singer/songwriter quality to them. I’m predicting that the title song, “Where Ever It May Be,” so plaintive and beautiful, will be the breakout hit from the show. What singer/songwriters have most influenced you?

First, thank you! That is lovely to hear.  Second, that was the one song I’ve considered cutting, but we will see how it plays in the show! 

I think all nine songs are up there on SoundCloud. I posted them for the actors to familiarize themselves with the material, but anyone is free to have a listen.

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Still, I consider myself to be a musical theater songwriter especially as far as the lyrics are concerned.  I’ve really studied the craft of musical theater lyric writing and try to bring my own voice to the form in that context. Musically, I just like musical theater songs that sound like songs I might otherwise listen to, or more importantly songs that sound specific to the characters I’m creating.

So many songwriters have influenced me. But the ones that immediately spring to mind are Dylan, Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields), Billy Bragg, David Berman (Silver Jews), John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Regina Spektor, Aimee Mann, Kanye West, Jay Electronica, Tom Petty, Marc Cantone (The City and Horses), Belle and Sebastian, Loudon Wainwright, Randy Newman, and also musical theater songwriters like Bock and Harnick, Frank Loesser, Kander and Ebb, Adler and Ross, William Finn, Howard Ashman, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Sondheim, sometimes, and people like Jeff Moss and Joe Raposo who wrote a lot of songs for the Muppets. I could go on and on, but won’t.

The pantheon of singer/songwriters who have written songs about scientific themes in which they actually respect and even try to explicate science seems rather spare. I’m thinking of Tom Lehrer, They Might Be Giants, The Animaniacs, Jonathan Coulton. Who are your favorites?  Do you have a favorite song about science?

I like They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton. Tom Lehrer is very witty of course, but I don’t have any of his records or anything.  I like that Coldplay song “The Scientist” but who knows what the hell he is talking about in that one?

But what excites me most are songs that have interesting and/or surprising ideas behind them or in their execution.

What comes to mind are musical theater songs like Loesser’s “Adelaide’s Lament” which isn’t about science per se, but finds a complicated, surprising and delightful way to talk about something seemingly simple like love, which really every song is about anyway. Except “The Scientist” which again, who knows? Pretty, though.

Listen to Faith Prince sing "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys & Dolls

First Light seems to have had a fondness for musicals about science. During this season of First Light there is a reading/singing of another musical, The Elementary Space Time Show by Cesar Alvarez. Last year we had The Drive, a musical about NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. And in 2011 there was Ada, a musical about Ada Lovelace.  Wasn’t one of your musicals, The Tallest Building in the World, also in a previous First Light showcase? Outside of EST, I’m not recalling that many breakout musicals about science. The only ones that spring to mind are Star Messengers, about Galileo and Kepler, and Fermat’s Last Tango, about a character based on the mathematician Andrew Wiles. Am I missing any? Do you have a favorite musical about science (other than your own)?

I don’t have a favorite musical about science.  I’m not even sure I have a favorite musical.

And I have no interest in any of those shows you mentioned.  Art is a contest and they are my competitors.

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In 2012 you won the prestigious Kleban Foundation’s annual Kleban Prize for the most promising musical theatre librettist for Love Trapezoid, which I believe first began as an EST/Sloan First Light project, didn’t it? Can you take us through how Love Trapezoid changed as it went through the EST/Sloan development process?

EST and the EST/Sloan project in particular has been such a big supporter of mine and really instrumental in my creative career.  I can’t overstate that.

I got the commission for Love Trapezoid, I think, in the winter of 2008.  Graeme Gillis had me do this thing where I came to EST at the start of the month to present some sketches of what I was working on for that show, rough scenes and songs, etc. I then wrote all that month, came in again at the end of the month and presented a version of the entire show. It was great to have that sort of deadline hanging over my head. Back then the show was called Postumusical.

Later, I workshopped it with EST at the Southampton Writers Conference. EST’s Jamie Richards directed it and she really put it through its paces. I’m not even sure if she liked it, but she really made it better. We performed it at like 11 PM, outside under a tent and it went great. That was the draft I sent to the Kleban Foundation. I really should have thanked Jamie when I got that award.

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[You can listen to a demo recording of the music from Love Trapezoid here]

The Kleban award included a cash prize of $100,000. What was the impact of winning that award?

It was life changing. The money was anyway. I still can’t believe I got that and I often suspect that they made some sort of mistake. Winning allowed me to quit my day job, and eventually used some of that money to move to LA to write for Hollywood like F. Scott Fitzgerald; it’s going about as well for me as it did for him!

I’m kidding. It’s going OK.

In Love Trapezoid lyricist Betty Lou is writing a scientist-loves-girl / girl-loves-scientist / scientist-is-sick / scientist-clones-self / girl-loves-clone / clone-loves-boy musical comedy. The play itself features a robot who recreates Betty Lou’s deceased writing partner. WHERE EVER IT MAY BE now ups the ante with multiple versions of the two main characters. Does something about doubles/clones/multiples fascinate you? Will the number of same characters multiply exponentially in your next play?

This is the most amazing interview question I’ve ever been asked. The short answer to all of it is yes. And no.

You got your MFA from Carnegie Mellon, which is also known as one of the country’s leading institutions for turning out scientists and engineers. Did you take any science courses there? Have to read anything special to keep up with lunchtime discussions?

We weren’t allowed to take any classes outside of the MFA Program.  One time, my friend and classmate Sallie Patrick asked if she could take some class outside of the program. The aforementioned, late Milan Stitt told her if she wanted to do that, she would have to go to “hell and back.” Sallie, then asked who “Helen Beck” was and how she could get a hold of her.

Carnegie Mellon also has a partnership with the Sloan Foundation though, and they give out awards. My play The Tallest Building in the World began as an MFA screenplay. It didn’t win any awards though.

Over the years I’ve witnessed you playing many terrifically witty songs about science at the annual Youngblood Science Brunch. Which came first the music or the science? What is it about science that cries out for musical expression?

Oh that is so nice to hear. Thank you! I like to be witty.

Lyrics and music certainly came first for me.  They say music is related to math but I’ve always been kind of dubious because I have very little aptitude for math. I went to an arts college with an admissions department that only looked at your verbal SAT scores.

But I’ve been fascinated with science since I was a little kid. My dad‘s favorite writer is Isaac Asimov. I think scientists and artists have a lot in common. They are both very interested in ideas. They both probably are bullied in middle school.

You were a member of EST’s famed Youngblood program. For how long? How did being a member of Youngblood affect your writing/composing?

I don’t think it was quite as “famed” then, but it was terrific. I’d applied a couple times and was interviewed but didn’t get into the group. The third year, I’d gotten an EST/Sloan Commission (for The Tallest Building in the World), went on a retreat for that, got to know Graeme a little, and they asked me to join the group. I almost said “no” as a kind of “you had your chance” reaction, but I said “yes” and thank God I did.

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I got in when I was twenty-eight, so I was only a part of it for two years, but for that time it was basically my life. The program made a huge impact on me and I’d like to think that I made an impact on the program.

I didn’t really write musicals when I started Youngblood. I wrote plays and songs but kept them separate.  But when I was on my first Youngblood retreat in 2006, RJ Tolan asked me if I would write a song for the upcoming Youngblood Sunday Brunch. I was so excited that I wrote the song while on the retreat. I went on to write an original song for every Youngblood Brunch for the next two years. And it was for the “Musical Brunch” that I wrote my first ever musical with my dear friend Courtney Lauria. It was called Co-op. It went on to be fully produced by EST/Youngblood in February of 2008 as part of its “Thicker Than Water” revue. It got us a rave review in The New York Times. And I haven’t really written a play without some sort of music in it since.

In “The Galaxy Song” Eric Idle has the Earth “revolving at nine hundred miles an hour” because “rotating” did not rhyme with “evolving.” Have you ever been tempted to cheat on the science to make a song work?

Rhyming is everything to me, so, yes.

Also, I think you “cheat” in some way in every song you ever write or every work of art you ever make. You also lie. And you also steal.

That answer is likely stolen.

What’s next for Matt Schatz?

In the longish run, I’m writing a couple musicals and pitching a couple television shows.  

In the short run, I’m on a beet salad kick. Today I’m cancelling cable because it is too expensive. Tomorrow (November 21st) is my 4th wedding Anniversary.  My wife Jenna and I are celebrating by taking a red-eye back to the East Coast for theater and family and Thanksgiving. I couldn’t be more excited. I couldn’t be more delighted.

Thanks for this interview. Such smart and thoughtful questions. I had a blast!

*The First Light Festival is a month-long series of workshop productions and readings that is part of the play development process of The EST/Sloan Project, a joint venture of the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.