White Plains Performing Arts Center follows the world premiere of the Laurence Holzman-Felicia Needleman musical “Wallenberg” with the Westchester premiere of another Holzman-Needleman musical, the sketch comedy Christmas-Hanukkah-New Year’s musical “That Time of the Year.” Dec. 2-19. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $49, $39 for previews. 877-548-3237. 11 City Place, White Plains, 914-328-1600. www.wppac.com.
Here’s an archive version of a story I wrote about “That Time of the Year,” the show that introduced me to Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, back in December 2006:
Words don’t fail them
Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman have written themselves into a bit of a corner.
Hours before the start of previews for their holiday revue “That Time of the Year,” they’re still fine-tuning a lyric.
The 2006 Kleban Award named them the year’s most promising musical theatre librettists – but that isn’t helping them as they sit side by side in a darkened York Theatre at 54th and Lexington, trying to come up with a one-syllable word that means “cherish” but isn’t “love.” When they find it, if they find it, they’ll plug it into one of the reprises of the show’s title song.
They banter back and forth – she proposes, he disposes; he tries, she refines – kicking around ideas in a conversation that makes it clear they are attuned to each other and three steps ahead of everyone else in the room. They speak in shorthand bursts.
Holzman and Needleman have been writing lyrics and books of musicals in this fashion since they met in modern drama at Columbia in the mid-’80s.
These days, the Westchester natives – he’s from Rye Brook but lives in Manhattan, she’s from Larchmont and still lives there – do most of their collaborating by phone, in marathon conversations that last for hours after their kids are fast asleep.
Holzman is also a graduate of Columbia Law School. He and his wife, Lara, have two children: Andrew, 7, and Zachary, 5.
Needleman toured in “42nd Street” and taught tap for several years. She and her husband, Rich Levinson, have three children: Simon, 11, James, 9, and Annabel, 5.
Their latest musical, “A Million Tomorrows” – written with composer Benjamin Rosenbluth – was presented at September’s New York Musical Theater Festival. It’s about Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts that saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.
That successful two-night run – which drew 1,000 people – garnered plenty of attention, and a lead producer who’s looking to take the show to the next level, a regional theater next summer.
“And then, who knows?” says Needleman.
The producer has committed to maintaining the scale and scope of the show – the cast numbers 36.
But first up is “That Time of the Year,” the 25-song musical revue that Holzman and Needleman wrote with seven different composers.
There are songs about Hanukkah, Christmas, Hanukkah and Christmas, shopping, eating and office holiday parties. There are rock ‘n’ rolling Hasidic men, a dancing dreidel, men who can’t decide what to buy their wives for Christmas, a soldiering Judah Maccabee, mama’s latkes, a lovely song sung by the Virgin Mary to her newborn Jesus – and many more.
“You would think the songs written by the same composer would sound the same, but they really don’t,” says Needleman.
The revue came together sporadically. When the writing team had time between other musicals, they would dash off a lyric.
For this show, the words came first and then – having met several composers at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop – the songwriters said “let’s write a song with him or let’s try writing a song with him,” Holzman recalls. They sent off the lyric and got a melody in return.
Their approach to BMI – a laboratory for musical theater where lyricists are assigned to work with different composers – demonstrates how committed the two are to working together.
BMI wanted them to work separately, writing a song every week or two; they chose to write two songs together every week or two and submit them separately.
“We wrote two of every project,” Holzman says with a laugh.
They not only finish each other’s assignments, they finish each other’s sentences. In conversation with Holzman and Needleman, it’s he-said-she-said-they-said.
“We got a lot out of BMI,” he says. “It’s a phenomenal program. When we went in…”
“…We had naturally good instincts,” she says.
“But we had no training,” he continues. “And it forced you to learn about the craft of musical theater writing… ”
“…And to think about what you’re doing and to collaborate with people who have different styles than you and to learn what you don’t want to do,” she says, finishing the thought.
“As the show developed,” Needleman says, “we saw that we had three serious songs about Christmas and we wanted to have a comedy song for a woman. Or we didn’t have any songs about Mary or about a dreidel, so we started to brainstorm.”
“We just wanted a balance,” Holzman says.
What they ended up with is a show that has contemporary songs about Hanukkah, something that Needleman sees as unique.
There’s “The Grinch,” “A Wonderful Life” (at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse), and “A Christmas Carol,” Holzman says…
“But for the metropolitan area,” Needleman says, “there are Jewish people who are looking for an expression of their holiday.
“That’s what we’ve got,” she says.
“We don’t write full time. We all have children and it’s not a 9-to-5 job,” Needleman says.
Sometimes, other projects take priority.
While working on the revue, they got hired to write “Suddenly Hope,” a relationship comedy musical set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The form of “That Time of the Year” – a revue – made it easy to pick up again, and it jelled in 1995 when they workshopped it in cabaret spaces like Don’t Tell Mama in Midtown.
There’s a comfort level at work here. They clearly enjoy each other’s company.
“We are always on the same wavelength,” Holzman says. “Half the time we don’t have to say what we’re thinking.”
“We feel passionate about the subject matter we’re writing about,” says Needleman. “And we like to tell good stories. Our songs tell a story from beginning to end, even in this show.”
The team is also working on “The Jerusalem Syndrome,” a comedy that chronicles the bizarre medical condition that besets about 200 Westerners who visit the Holy Land each year.
“They’re struck by the holiness of the place and end up believing they’re characters from the Bible,” says Holzman, even dressing up in bed sheets.
“They are apprehended – police know to look for them – and they are taken to local hospitals and treated and, after three to seven days, they are released,” he adds.
Holzman says doctors have tracked patients who’ve been struck by the ailment and found no residual effects after 40 years.
“Jerusalem Syndrome” has music by Kyle Rosen, with whom Holzman and Needleman wrote seven songs in “That Time of the Year.”
They submitted samples from “Jerusalem Syndrome” and “A Million Tomorrows” to the judges of the Kleban competition, the judges who named them most-promising librettists.
“It’s a nice thrill,” says Holzman.