American playwright and concert pianist, William Robert Martin, is an emerging artist whose star is on the rise. His 1930s-style musical comedy about George Gershwin writing a musical comedy, “The Curtain Rises” is destined to make a big splash with audiences worldwide. Influenced by the aesthetic choices of George Gershwin, Martin’s ambitious undertaking fosters a greater understanding and appreciation of a bygone era.
Against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline, Martin—a champion of artistic endeavors—reveals why he is writing drama as opposed to other literary forms:
“I write drama, as opposed to other literary forms, because I think in terms of action and dialogue. Most of my writing is done away from a computer or pad of paper—it happens when I’m driving, or in the shower, or doing my day job. In these moments, I see the action of my play on the stage in my mind’s eye. I hear my characters speak. I’ll muse like this for days, weeks, or even months, until I can run an entire scene in my head from beginning to end. Then I sit down and write it.”
On the art of playwriting, Martin continued adding:
“I try to write about old truths in new ways. The truth always needs to be rediscovered because people forget. I know I do.”
Freshness and originality play into Martin’s rich and deep oeuvre of work. Similar to the instrumental compositions of Gershwin, which incorporate Jazz in its various facets with classical music, Martin’s thematic material creates a mystique so powerful.
“My primary focus has been writing ‘The Curtain Rises,’ a 1930s-style musical comedy about George Gershwin writing a musical comedy. It is inspired by the film and stage musicals of the Golden Age—you know, things like Fred & Ginger, the Marx Brothers, Kaufman and Hart, and Busby Berkeley. While it is light-hearted entertainment, it deals with the timeless themes of art vs commerce, love vs duty, and high art vs low art. What makes it particularly interesting is that the characters aren’t characters at all, but real people! It has romance, spectacle, comedy, big production numbers, and Gershwin’s music. Who could ask for anything more?” expressed Martin.
Much like Gershwin’s unforgettable orchestral and piano compositions of clashing melodies and bold improvisation, Martin’s concert works and dramatic productions intend to create an immediate, evocative response.
“Moss Hart had the idea to collaborate with George S. Kaufman and the Gershwin brothers on a musical comedy about the writing of a musical comedy, in which they would all play themselves on stage. ‘Curtain Going Up,’ they called it; but they never actually wrote it because George Gershwin died. So I wrote it. I tried my very best to be true to who they were, to their writing styles, and to their times. More than anything, I wanted to bring them back to life on stage so that I might finally meet them—and so that others might meet and fall in love with them, too,” said Martin.
Pointing clearly to developments to come, he continued adding:
“I am also working on a dramatic short about Dame Myra Hess, whose acts of courage during the London Blitz in World War II are legendary. Despite the constant danger of bombings, she gave free piano concerts in the middle of London to uplift the spirits of the people, and to remind them that beauty persists even in a war-torn world.”
When it comes to the theatrical form, Martin expresses an expanded, considered view of playwriting.
“Cheryl Coons, who serves on the National Council of the Dramatists Guild, is my mentor. I love her. I often say she’s my George Kaufman because she taught me how to break down a scene into its narrative beats, just as Kaufman did for Moss Hart. I learned more from her about musical structure than from anyone else,” expounded Martin.
He continued, adding:
“My three favorite playwrights from the past are Moss Hart, John Dryden, and Eugene O’Neill. Hart, whom I consider to be my first playwriting teacher, taught me that ‘character is destiny’—which is as true in playwriting as it is in life.”
When it comes to the dramatic medium, Martin reflects on the essential art form:
“Nothing changes minds and hearts quite like theatre, because you can’t put it down or on pause, like a book or a movie; everything is really happening, right in front of you. You are witness to the transformation of the characters; and mystically, that transformation can take place in your heart, too, if you let it. That said, my primary goal is to entertain. If, in the process of entertaining, I remind you of something true and beautiful, then all the better.”
Using music to tell stories, Martin reveals where to direct investments within the creative process:
“I believe one of an artist’s most important roles is to help society remember who we are. In ‘The Sacred Wood,’ T.S. Eliot talks about the meaning of the word, ‘original.’ To be truly original, he says, is not to write something new, but to ‘go back to origin’—to say something old in a new way. All good art does this. All good art remembers something vital, something true and worth preserving.”
William Martin’s dad is Fr. Paul Martin, the presiding priest at Annunciation St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church in New Buffalo, Michigan. His mom Nikki is an active parish member.
“Gershwin has been at the front and center, always. My dad is a huge Gershwin fan, to such a degree that Gershwin’s music is practically a Martin family heirloom. My dad and I have always related through music; in this sense, my art could be said to be born of a son’s love for his father,” reflected Martin.
Turning heartaches and challenges into a story about how he overcame obstacles, Martin is ready to embrace the spotlight.
“As a matter of fact, Gershwin helped to save my life. In 2012, at the very beginning of my career, I developed a crippling case of tendinitis which the doctors all said would prevent me from playing the piano ever again. Thanks to Sheila Paige, a brilliant pianist and teacher who developed The Keyboard Wellness Seminar to help broken pianists recover from terrible injuries, I was able to get back to the piano and make my professional debut as the featured pianist with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, playing—you guessed it!— Gershwin. Gershwin’s music healed me,” said Martin.
On thinking about the scope of his work, Martin’s artistic bent for unearthing hidden treasures for dramatic production is noteworthy.
“All of my writing is musical. Whether I’m writing a play, or working as a music supervisor, or playing the piano, I use music to tell stories. For ‘The Curtain Rises,’ I’ve chosen Gershwin sleeper hits to tell his story, because so many of his unknown works are just as great, if not greater, than the ones we all know and love. My goal was to make my show feel like a new Gershwin musical, as though it were a script from the 1930s recently discovered in somebody’s attic. The one well-known hit I use is ‘The Man I Love,’ but there’s a very special reason for this. Every time Gershwin tried to put that song in a show, the producers would cut it because they thought it would bore people. Can you imagine? So, I put it in my show twice,” expounded Martin.
Drawing upon an immense influence from 1920s Broadway musical theatre’s most talented score-writer—George Gershwin—Martin’s masterworks aim to create a truly memorable experience. To delight in an idyllic escape, namely an exhilarating interpretation of George Gershwin’s “A Rhapsody in Blue,” played by William Robert Martin drop by www.thatwillmartin.com.
This article was originally published in the New Buffalo Times on August 25, 2022, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, click here.
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This post was written by Alexander Fatouros.
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