by Miryam Gordon -
SGN A&E Writer
Presenting the perfect gift for the 'person who has everything': How about giving her/him/them their own song? It's not one more painting on the wall or vase for the bookcase. They don't need it! It takes up no room, except for room in their hearts.
Composer Richard Gray offers this unique and meaningful service for the low, low starting price of $2,000. He describes what he does thusly: "I do a thing called song portraits. I look at it like painting a picture of someone. I try not to have it be a corny 'I was born on September in Iowa'; more like the type of song that doesn't have specifics but when you hear it on the radio, you feel like, 'Oh my God, that's my life.' Usually it means several long interviews to get a solid stab at a lyric. I've done about 20 of them.
"I will tell you why I started doing them. I donated the writing of a personal song to [an arts organization] because I had heard that [the composer of Broadway productions Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can] Marc Shaiman had donated [a song] to the 5th Avenue Theatre. [My donation] ended up selling for $8,000 and they sold two [songs] at $8,000 and the Oprah Winfrey tickets only went for $6,000, so I figured I was on to something! It's a three-month process for me. I try to make it a real song. And I record it. And the person has unlimited personal use for it, like sending it as a Christmas card.
"There've been a wide variety [of commissions]. Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays - one was a summer party to tell their friends how happy they were. I wrote 'The House of Joy.' I performed it at their event. I go perform if it's an event."
"It's my favorite kind of writing, like writing a character song monologue. I just want to expand on why we write songs. Lisa Dupar Catering and I did an evening with food and song pairings - like food and wine pairings. We did this at her catering space. We put a piano on a butcher-block table and each course I wrote songs for the food. I wrote a song called 'Bring on the Washington Wine' and 'The Steelhead Blues' for the fish course!"
"[The personal song] is almost like being naked; the emotional content reaches you. They're not all ballads; some of them are funny. Somehow, if I get enough of them, I'll figure out how to do an evening of them."
When Gray says that about an evening of personally written portraits, you can believe it might happen. Gray is what you might call a quintuple threat. In theater, a triple threat is someone who can act and sing and dance, all well. Add composing and directing to that list for Gray. He's an amazingly talented guy who is also carving out a name for himself nationally.
But first, he fills us in on his early history. He was born and raised and went to school in the Portland, Oregon area. "I started playing piano when I was 6, and always did theater. And baseball. I was crazy about piano. My elementary school music teacher would let me run the class in 5th grade. I played 'name that tune' with the kids. She just supervised. I would direct and play the piano for musicals at church and school all through elementary and junior high.
"I used to go to the library and get musical scores and sight read [them] and bring them back. Once I got to high school, it was like being pushed into being a classical pianist. I wanted to play baseball and have fun, and do all the high school things. I stopped playing piano for a year until I was in an acting class in college. The professor said we needed a piano player in this section about auditioning and it pays $50 a session. I raised my hand and they laughed it off, and then I said, 'No, I'm really good.'
"Once they find out you play the piano, that's what they have you do all the time. I couldn't get a part in a musical because they put me at the piano. The nice thing for me, from high school on, I split my year composing, directing, music directing, acting, and if I was just doing one of those, I wouldn't be as happy. I'm able to put on a different hat every day, but still all in the world of theater. I couldn't have set it up better. And Seattle has been great for me; I've had a lot of opportunity."
Gray shares his "coming out" story. "I came out in college. A friend of mine [who teaches at college said] & he'll see a freshman, and the phrase is 'Gay by May.' I didn't really know [that I was Gay], because I had a high school girlfriend, which was fine, but I discovered a whole new world. I was doing a production of Godspell, living in a Christian co-op, and [the guy playing] Jesus gave me a ride home and leaned over and kissed me, and said 'Oh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that.' I said, 'No, I'm glad you did.' So my coming out was really easy. He was the out-of-town actor doing Jesus, and we had a great 'showmance.' And then he went on his merry way.
"When I came out to my mom, she said, 'I wish I would have known earlier.' Why? She said, 'Because I heard that was difficult, and I wish I would have been there for you.' I said, 'That is the right answer. That should be in a book of what you say to your kid when they come out to you!' After about a year, I only dated men."
Gray had family in upstate New York, so he'd been there a lot and moved to New York City for a summer. "You're 22, living in New York, and it's the middle of August - sweltering hot - and I remember walking through one of those clouds of bum urine smell that comes up from the subway and I thought, 'I don't want to live here.' But I knew I wanted to do theater."
Composing didn't come right away. "I didn't [compose] anything until around '85 in college as a director, and I was looking for the right song and couldn't find it and decided, 'Oh, I'll just write one.' Then I started writing mostly for theater because I had an idea for a show and I'll use these five songs [composed by others] and can't find others [that I want to use, so] I will just write some. Now I have written over 250 songs. I keep a complete song list so I can keep track. 'Oh, right! I do have a song about that that I wrote in 1990!'"
Once Gray knew he didn't want to live in New York, "I looked at what cities had vibrant theater scenes and decided on Seattle. I had a great partner that I moved to Seattle with. Moved here in '88-'89 and been here ever since. And I've been with Ernie [Ernesto Pino] for 19 years. Our roots are really thick in this town; we're not going anywhere.
"We're really suburban Gay. We're best friends. We fight really fair and we constantly talk about how to resolve conflicts. We're very different. We're kind of like Felix and Oscar. But we're a really good match. We always talk about how, in both of our worlds, we're the other person's 'first lady.' We're very comfortable putting on the pillbox hat at each other's events.
"We're legally married in California. We got married in Napa right before Prop 8. Registered here. We've done all we can. We keep threatening going from state to state. It just means our friends have to keep buying us gifts. We had a commitment ceremony in '98. We had our first date on the 16th of September, our commitment ceremony was on the 20th of September and our Napa wedding was the 17th. We basically have an anniversary week, which works great. In theater, the Monday night I have off is our anniversary celebration. We celebrate a lot on Mondays - that's our Saturday night."
Aside from Gray's participation in many musicals with the top theaters - including 5th Avenue, Village, and Showtunes - he has written several whole musicals. In 2005 and 2006, he was a finalist in the brand new Fred Ebb Awards for emerging musical theater composers or teams of lyricist/composers. "I co-wrote the score for Little Rock at the Seattle Children's Theatre (1995) and Time Again in Oz (2000). I wrote a musical version of Cold Turkey, the Norman Lear movie. That's stalled right now because of rights issues."
Gray also composed Love Is Love with Tony-winner Martin Charnin, and used to write songs for what he calls "mini musicals" for the cabaret shows at Crepe De Paris. A more complete list of his shows is available at his website, www.richardgray.net.
More recently, Gray had an epiphany. "I decided I'm going to think about my career as Seattle-based, but bigger. I have a manager in New York who handles me as a songwriter, so I had to think outside of our little community. It was a great turning point for me, and my songwriting got better, too. If I'm going to put myself on the national map, I'm going to step up my game."
One of Gray's current projects is a new musical for this Christmas season for Seattle Children's Theatre, Lyle the Crocodile, with Kevin Kling, who's writing the script. "[The characters] go skating at Rockefeller center and look at Macy's windows, and see the Rockettes." Gray is also writing a musical with playwright Jordan Harrison, whose plays Act a Lady and Kid Simple were performed in Seattle last year, called The Flea and the Professor, based on the last story that Hans Christian Anderson wrote. It will perform at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia.
In relation to Pride week, Gray acknowledges that his relationship with Ernie is often seen as a model for younger Gay friends. "We definitely feel a responsibility. We have a lot of young Gay friends who are single or in couples that look up to us as the ideal. Not everybody has to be married like we are, but they want that. They want to have a life partner and they see our relationship as something that really works. It's kind of like Gay mentoring. Letting people know that you don't need to [stress about it]; there can be an ease, a comfortableness."
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