“If you’re looking for Steve Thomas the hockey player, basketball coach, magician, oral surgeon, realtor, designer or attorney, you’re in the wrong spot.”
Those are the opening words on Steve Thomas’ website. In fact, he is a musician, a musical composer and musical director with a long list of songs and shows to his credit. Steve has collaborated with famous Canadian playwright Norm Foster 4 times over the past 12 years, the first of those collaborations being ‘Jasper Station’, to be presented by South Simcoe Theatre in April. The Green Room chatted with Steve about their unusual collaborative process, and discovered a self-effacing and modest song writer who is thrilled that audiences enjoy his songs.
I found the opening lines on your web site quite amusing.
Everybody says once in a while to me ‘You should ‘google’ yourself and see what comes up!’ Of course I knew none of what I’ve ever done is going to come up, and I know there are a lot of Steve Thomas’ in the world, it’s a pretty common name, but I was shocked at how many there are. The hockey player came up the most obviously, but there’s a magician and many more.
It’s one of those names where someone might say “Yeah, I know that guy! Isn’t he the ….”
Exactly! I’ve been working on my web site, it’s just in its infancy, but I’m going to try to get a lot of my music up so people can buy it and hear some samples of stuff.
You have a remarkable list of accomplishments across the full range of music; writing songs, writing music in collaboration with playwrights, directing musicals. Is there any one aspect that gives you the most satisfaction?
Writing the music. It’s my first love. I always love working on a show in any capacity, even playing in the orchestra of a show, but there’s no doubt the thing that brings me the most joy is the writing. It’s a constant challenge to not repeat myself but also try to stay true to the to the character or the situation and story that’s being told. And to see it all, hopefully, come together is the biggest thrill for me. I’m always astounded when I sit there in a show I wrote and marvel: ‘Wow! People paid to come and see this!’
‘Jasper Station’ was the first time you worked with Norm Foster. How did you two come together?
I had always been a great fan of his work, but I had never met him. Just before we did meet, I happened to have seen three or four Norm Foster shows in a row, and really enjoyed how he captured that slice of life. I was writing some incidental music for a play that a mutual friend, Chris McHarge and a good friend of Norm’s, was doing at Theatre Aquarius. Then, one day out of the blue, he said ‘Would you like to write a show with Norm Foster?’ I nearly choked on my Cheerios! ‘What? Are you kidding? Of course!’ Chris said ‘Norm’s looking for someone to collaborate on a show, and I recommended you.’ So I put together some samples of what I’d written, I sent them to Chris and Norm, and Norm liked them. Within like three days Chris called me back and said ‘Yeah, Norm wants to work with you.’
Almost everyone would be daunted just writing a song, any song. But to write a song that fits within the context, mood and vision of someone else’s show must be particularly challenging.
Exactly, except that in fact I haven’t sat down and written something just for myself for years. I used to obviously, but ever since I started writing for theatre, it’s like I need to know the place, the story and the characters before I can write something now. Believe me, that doesn’t make it easy but at least it gives me a direction; you know the situation that just happened, you know the character and their quirks and foibles, so you at least have a direction. But the beautiful thing about working with Norm is that he was really relaxed in terms of what I might come up with. Generally I hit the mark. In the case of ‘Jasper Station’, we did a three-day workshop before it opened for its debut in Fergus Ontario in 2001. Most of the songs were dead-on and Norm said ‘Yeah, I love it’, but there were a few songs he said ‘Let’s chop that one’. There was actually a song cut from the show entirely and replaced. We also added a new song for a character. He’s really relaxed. I usually went the way he wanted, but I did take some other stuff went in a different direction with it, and he loved that too.
Walk me through the process. You get a script….
Actually, it’s funny. Before he even wrote a word, we had two meetings to just discuss what the show in a general sense. He said he wanted it to be about people at a train station, but he didn’t know if it was going to be an all-girl group sitting at the station or what, in fact he didn’t know who was going to be at the station at all when we first met. After that, and here’s an interesting tid-bit, we wrote the entire show via email! I never saw him after our second meeting until we did that workshop in Fergus. I think from start to finish it took about 8 months. Norm would send me clumps of text. I think he sent me the first 20 pages or so, and said ‘OK, there’s going to be a song here, I don’t know what it is; you can do whatever you want.’ Then he’d get to another place for a song and he might give me some lyrical ideas. He’d say ‘There’s a song here, and should be about this, I think, or whatever you think, or what do you what? It could be about this, and so on.’ And then he pretty much let me go. I’d send him lyrics that I wrote and he might say ‘Yeah, but that character wouldn’t really say that, he’s say this.’ We sort of collaborated on the lyrics. He was really amenable to that.
That’s very surprising. I had this vision of the two of you hunched over a piano and typewriter.
And that’s what I thought too. Here I was, working with Norm Foster and I don’t want to mess up! By the time he’d finished Act One I had a few songs done. I asked ‘Do you want to hear them?’ And he said ‘No. We’ll do that at the workshop.’ So I was really terrified at the workshop because he hadn’t heard a single note, and I thought ‘Man, that’s real trust.’ The night before the workshop, I got together with Chris McHarge and Norm. I sat on the stage and I played him all the songs; I was sweating like crazy! He loved them! He said ‘That’s great, but let’s change this or change that.’
Nevertheless, you had to interpret his overall intent via chunks of scripts sent over the internet!
I saw how the story was going. In fact, the story evolved and changed from the workshop. But it was a blast, and like I said, he’s such an easy-going guy; he knows what’s cool and he knows how to fix stuff easily by changing one or two words or sentences.
Obviously it must have worked. You’ve done three more shows with Norm; ‘Race Day’, ‘Sitting Pretty’ and ‘One Moment’. Was the method the same with shows as well?
It was. But the most interesting thing was that we were about halfway through the run of ‘Jasper Station’, and he said to me ’Wow! This is fun! I like this musical stuff! Let’s write another one.’ That evolved into ‘Race Day’. I think Norm started to feel a little more comfortable with musicals, he hadn’t done a lot of it up to that point, and he started feeling a little more comfortable putting in his 2 cents. I love feedback, especially when it’s helpful. Whenever I meet someone who’s seen show of mine, I ask ‘What song didn’t you like?’ That’s what I want to know. What didn’t they like; because that’s what I want to fix or work on. For some reason, the other shows we wrote together, we met more often. We were never in the same room like those legendary stories you hear about, but I would play him my songs long before the show was finished.
How do you balance your music between the character who is singing the song and the mood of the play as the story moves forward?
When Norm sent me the chunks of script and there was a song coming up, he’d generally have a feeling in his mind for what the song might be. Some songs he said I could do what I wanted, others he’d want a song but didn’t know what he wanted. Hewould ask ‘What do you think it should be?’ But some he was very specific about; he might say that he saw one as a ballad, another as a duet. If I didn’t agree with what he was envisioning, I might throw out an idea and he would either shoot it down or say ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’ But you always have to take into consideration the character and their journey through the song, and where we want them to be at the end of the song.
Jasper Station opens with the big number ‘There’s a Train’ even before any words are spoken. Did that create added pressure for you?
That opening song was one instance when Norm said to me ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do here. I think everyone should be singing, but I don’t know what they should be singing.’ I think I came up with the idea of having average people, not the characters in the play, simply singing about a generic train that’s passing by, wondering who are the passengers are, where they are going, and and why are they going there.
Did you write that song first, or was it after you knew how the story would develop?
I remember knowing pretty early what I wanted. It opens with two piano chords, and I came up with that idea pretty quick. I knew that was exactly the feel I wanted.
South Simcoe’s Director Bob Buckley describes that song as ‘ethereal’.
It’s one I wrote the words for and I knew it was kind of generic in its way, but I thought it posed a cool question and was a neat way to open the show. It asks some questions that I often wondered as a kid when I saw a train pass by ‘Where are they going, why are they going?’ I think of that every time I look at an airplane too. I was really pleased with it when I wrote it and particularly the way it bookends the end of the show.
The collaborative process that you have described with Norm Foster seems incredibly casual. Has that been your experience when working with other playwrights?
It changes actually. That’s the cool thing about a collaboration; there are a couple of brains working on the same thing. I enjoy the back-and-forth feedback. I just finished writing a show with Derek Ritschel called ‘Rum Runners’ for the Lighthouse Festival in Port Dover. We met quite a bit. It evolved in quite a different way than with Norm’s shows.
There are shows where the music drives the story, like ‘Mamma Mia’; and others where the story drives the music.
Norm Foster is of course a brilliant story-writer. I was totally willing to back a back seat: ‘You write the story, you tell me where a song goes, and I’ll put one in!’ And at times, he would ask my advice and ask ‘What do you think of this? Do you think I should do this with the character?’’ It was kind of cool to have him ask for my opinion. I remember we changed a few things because of what I said. But I’m not taking any credit for anything, it’s all his story; I was just fitting the music in.
Norm Foster’s dialogue is often very funny, yet not contrived.
And natural too. Everything just rolls off the tongue so easily. The actors feel it too. So I had to make sure my music felt as natural as the dialogue. I find some musical theatre so stiff musically, the way the music sometimes feels forced. I really tried to make mine sound natural.
Unfair question. Do you have a favourite song in the show, or one you that always makes you smile when you hear it strike up?
Oh man! I should use the old cliché: ‘They’re all my children, and I love them all!’ My favourite song often changes as the run goes along, or one I didn’t really like so much become really enjoyable. I do like the song at the end of Act One, ‘Get a Ticket, Sterling’. I like the way it moves back and forth between the people. I was always really pleased with that.
Bob Buckley commented that your songs seem simple at the outset but are in fact quite challenging for the actors.
That makes me so happy! Thank you! To me simplicity can be catchy but it can also be boring, but I hope it’s catchy. But there’s no doubt that it’s challenging in some spots. Just ask Scott Hurst; he played Sterling in one of the productions and he had to sing this one song in 5-4 time. He’s still cursing me to this day about it! It’s funny because he had to work on it so much that he tells me ‘I can sing it for right now!’ But that’s a huge compliment to hear that about my music; it’s simple yet challenging.
This interview has been condensed and edited from the original conversation
South Simcoe Theatre’s production of ‘Jasper Station’ opens April 11th and runs until April 28th.
CLICK HERE for details