by Jimin Han
It’s snowing. My mother has died. This morning’s gray sky presses in around my small stone house. Grieving takes time. The composer Dan Martin told me that once. He also said, “No one will love me as much for who I am as my mother did.” We were on Cape Cod for a writers’ retreat last August. We talked, he and his partner of forty-one years, the artist Michael Biello, in the living room of a house that looked out into a horseshoe-shaped harbor. Blue sky with a wind blowing children in their beginner sailboats out to sea. Both Martin and Biello’s mothers had died, Martin’s twenty years nearly to the day we talked and Biello’s the previous year on September 11. They offered words of comfort, knowing what was ahead for me.
Martin spoke of 1996 when his mother came to Provincetown to see “Fairytales” (which would be renamed “Breathe”), a musical Martin and Biello had written that explores the joys and challenges of gay and lesbian experience. His mother had been proud of his success. It would be the last time she saw one of his shows.
“Breathe” was a milestone, their first fully formed piece of musical theater, begun in 1992 when Biello was forty-two years old and Martin forty-one at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. Prior to that, from 1976-1980, Biello and Martin were part of “Two Men Dancing,” a gay men’s dance/theatre/music collaboration with choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, which was performed at the first gay arts festival at the University of Pennsylvania and New York spaces like PS 122. In 1984 they wrote Xposed, a concept musical set in a male burlesque theater, which was performed in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. They wrote songs during this time for other choreographers and performance artists at La Mama, Danspace, and Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun Festival. Biello and Martin also wrote and performed autobiographical pieces at HERE in Soho, BAX in Brooklyn, and the West Village’s new Gay and Lesbian Center.
Since “Breathe,” Biello and Martin have gone on to write music and lyrics for “The Cousins Grimm,” “Marry Harry,” and “In My Body.” Biello is a lyricist and multidisciplinary artist with an education in clay, sculpture, and dance. Martin is a musician who founded OUTMusic in 1990, produced scores for dance and award-winning short films and a PBS documentary. They are emeritus members of New York’s BMI Musical Theatre Workshop.
That day on the Cape was the beginning of a week with six other writers. My mother was still alive but suffering in a hospital in Seoul. The value of the conversation I had with Martin and Biello wouldn’t reach me fully until later, when we were able to recount that time and talk further by email for this interview. They reminded me that love persists, even after the most profound losses. We endure, because of—sometimes in spite of—our relationships to those we have and had in our lives.
Jimin Han: Describe the experience of seeing “Breathe” performed again, in Orlando this fall?
Dan Martin: I was horrified when I heard about the Pulse Nightclub shooting. It hit me hard because it appeared that the shooter was specifically targeting queer people – and possibly motivated by self-hatred of his own sexuality. I felt afraid for myself and for my friends. I looked at photos of all the victims and wept at their beauty. When the Orlando LGBT Theatre Festival contacted us to ask if they could inaugurate their festival with a production of “Breathe,” Michael and I were thrilled. Seeing it performed in Orlando by this young vibrant ensemble felt like a time warp connecting now to then – the pain of the shooting somehow echoing the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, the invitation to come out, love, live passionately, to inhale and exhale deeply – all still extremely relevant and true.
Michael Biello: Tears. How can we have come so far, marched so hard, lost so many, and still have this hatred hovering over us? There’s still much work to be done. It was a beautiful thing to see “Breathe” come to life and still feel current after all these years. The cast was perfect and followed the script with full-out joy and generosity. They even surprised us with actually following the script’s nude scenes with total pride and celebration. They put it out there in all of its darkness and light, a beautiful sight. We were proud daddies. Healing is possible.
JH: Talk a bit about “In My Body,” which just premiered in Philadelphia.
DM: “In My Body” is a concept musical about the journeys we travel to find home in our bodies. A theatrical collage melding our songs with spoken word pieces written by our three collaborators. Our brilliant director, KC MacMillan, helped connect the dots between our varying points of view.
MB: Writer/Producer Lis Kalogris saw a production of “Breathe” and was inspired by our song, “In My Body.” I felt from the audience what I’ve felt all along: There’s a place–and need–for this piece to live in the world. There’s some editing that needs to happen and new stories/scenes/song waiting to be told/sung. Our hope is that “In My Body” finds a successful run, leading to being published and produced around the world.
JH: Tell us about your backgrounds and childhoods.
DM: I was born in a row house in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia. When I was a young boy we moved to a split level home in the suburbs. My earliest, fondest memories are of the woods across the street from our house where I would play for hours building things, like miniature cities, with rocks and twigs. My mom and dad seemed happy – maybe they were then – but it’s hard to know for sure when I look back through the filter of Dad’s betrayal, Mom’s depression, and their eventual sad, incomplete ending.
MB: Both Mom and Dad’s parents were Italian immigrants, originally from Porto San Giorgio at the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Many of Grandmom’s family were fishermen and artists – one of her cousins actually painted the ceiling of the theatre in the town center. It’s magnificent! My parents were born and raised in South Philadelphia’s glamorous Italian ghetto. My sister was born there too. Four years later when it was time for my arrival, we moved to Southwest Philadelphia to a larger row home with a front and backyard! Southwest Philadelphia was 100% Irish. Not a good place for an Italian in 1951, or ever. Mom was a closet couture fashion designer. A working mom/crossing guard. Dad was a closet singer/star/craftsman. A factory die-maker. They were supportive of my creativity. I think we were poor, but I never felt poor. Never felt deprived of anything at home ever.
JH: How did music/story/poetry/art/dance enter your life?
DM: I was always singing – making up songs. There’s a home movie of me at about seven or eight years old awkwardly walking across our front lawn singing to myself in a kind of trance. When we got a piano—big, old, upright in the basement / $25/ painted bright red–I would improvise rain, thunder, and wind. I took piano lessons too but was somehow resistant to technique – much more interested in making up little songs. In elementary school I decided to join the school orchestra. The music teacher asked me what instrument I wanted to play and I said: “Flute.” Her response: “Flutes are for girls. Take this clarinet.” In retaliation I became the worst clarinet player in the history of Cedar Road Elementary School – always last chair in the section. Later in college I reclaimed the flute and the universe gifted me one of those great teachers, Beth Bullard, who changes your life. She encouraged my compositional self.
MB: I was silent in school. Afraid to be made fun of for speaking. Twelve years of Catholic school was not a nice place for someone like me. If I could return with a healed heart, I would proudly have early-teen-me stand on my desktop in the middle of class and ask: “Where is the love the God you speak of lived by? I can’t seem to find it here in this room. Where is it?” Then with great pride I’d walk slowly out of the room. Maybe slip a “fukyou” in there somewhere.
Silence led me to journal, journaling led me to write, sketch, draw, sculpt my world. I found a life. In art college, I took a dance class. I wanted to join the company but the instructor told me it was too late for me since my body wasn’t trained as a dancer. So… being the me that I am I changed that no into a yes with lots of hard work and became a company dancer in Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theatre. After college, Group Motion Performed at The Academy of Art in Berlin. On our return from the tour we headed straight to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio to teach a dance/theatre workshop. It was 1975. Enter Dan holding his silver flute, fingers touching the tabs like petals of a rose. Gently, as not to harm them, inhaling, exhaling into the tiny opening, making the sound of angels for us to dance to. I made sure Dan knew I was interested in him by finding a way to position myself close to him during the workshop.
JH: How has your relationship to your work changed over the years?
DM: Michael taught me how to be an artist – before I met him I was very undisciplined. He showed me that you could actually live life as an artist. But you need to work at it every day. When we started co-writing songs a collaborative pattern developed: Usually we talk about what we want to create – the character, story, moment, mood. Then Michael goes away and writes lyrics. He gives me the pages – I ask him to read me his words aloud – and then I go away and look at the words while sitting at the piano. I see what melodies / themes / musical patterns emerge. Then I play for him and we discuss what sounds promising. Then either he goes back to write again or I go back to compose again or both. It’s a collaboration with lots of time alone and some time together.
MB: I shared my journals with Dan and he set my words to music. Dan is my music. I call him “La.” Also “My Love.” Hardly ever “Dan.” Turning journal entries into song has come a long way for us. When I heard Dan’s music/rhythm/melody with my words, my world changed. I began to write with melody in mind. I began to hear the rhythm words make the meter, the beat(s). I began to write lyric specifically for the music, Dan’s music. We work when we work and sometimes the timing feels way off balance but I trust it will find its way to center—it always does. Music and lyrics, free falling, words and music, in the shower, in the midst of a meal, in the car, on the train, in bed, by the sea.
JH: What advice do you have for other creative partnerships?
DM: I feel extremely lucky and profoundly grateful that Michael and I found each other. After all this time it’s a bit hard to know if our songs spring from our love or if our love springs from our songs. My hunch is that it probably goes both ways – one feeding the other – one stable when the other is struggling – one informing when the other is unsure. I think finding balance is the biggest challenge in a relationship – creative or otherwise. When do you spend time together? When do you take alone time for yourself? When do you hide out as a duo? When is it time to open yourselves to family / collaborators / creative community? It’s helpful when we remember that although we live and work together we are unique individuals – each with our own history, sensibility, and chemistry. Gentleness, compassion, patience, and honesty are very useful.
MB: Writing songs is our mission. We wouldn’t have known this if we hadn’t given ourselves the time for it to blossom. Know you don’t know everything about him/her/other, know you don’t know everything about your own self, continue to teach and learn from one another, be afraid to be afraid, let your partner know your fears, share yourself unabashedly, love deeply.
JH: What is the nature of collaboration at its best for you? At its worst?
DM: To me collaboration is best when it’s loving, respectful, generous, honest, expansive – inspiring me to see things differently than I would have on my own. To write more deeply, more quirky, more silly, more angry, or more anything that nudges me outside the familiarity of my box. It’s at its worst when fellow collaborators are overly protective or intrusive or dogmatic. Good collaborations are sexy and rewarding. Bad collaborations are depressing and alienating. In reality there are always snags within good creative relationships and wisdom within difficult ones.
MB: Collaboration is an art form unto itself. Dan and I love collaboration. Best: writing songs. Worst: not writing songs. For the best collaborations/collaborators: trust the process, be able to edit, be open to change, make choices that are best for the piece, believe in the piece, believe in yourselves–and the other team players, believe in the future of the piece if you want a life for the piece beyond itself. Worst collaborations/collaborators: ego-centric thinking/doing/being.
JH: What’s in the works?
DM: We’re diving back into the musical, “Marry Harry.” We have a new director on board, Bill Castellino, who’s bringing us some much-needed perspective as we work to simplify the story and create a more focused and playful framework for telling it. We’re also in the midst of writing a theatrical song cycle based on the life of same-sex marriage activist Edie Windsor.
MB: Jennifer [Manocherian, writer and producer of “Marry Harry”] is one of my favorite collaborators as well as writer/producer and friend. We met through yet another of our LGBTQ musicals, “The Cousins Grimm.” You never know what’s going to come your way when you put your creation out in the world! There’s always something in the works with Jennifer on board. As a producer she is determined to see the piece move forward. Following our reading on the Cape and at the York Theater, we’re back on board writing/re-writing/editing/shifting scenes/characters.
JH: What matters now in life and love and art?
DM: I feel like I’m on the cusp of a new phase of my life and I aspire to find fresh perspective. More love in the art. More art in the love. More life in the life. More royalties. More joy. Less desperation. Nothing ever changes. Everything always changes – ebb, flow, earthly rotation around sun – moon and stars slipping by. Finding stability in the new chemistry of me. Deeper intimacy with Michael, myself, and our art. Is this possible? Is this already happening and do I have the courage to fully embrace what’s already here now?
MB: What comes to mind: same but different, Dan, good health, strength to carry on, speaking my truth, letting go, letting go, letting go … of dreams past, creating new ones, day by day, moment by moment, trusting the process, believing in self, being present.
JH: Favorite songs? Art? Favorite quotes to live and create by?
DM: Musically speaking, it’s complicated. I like a lot of classical music, especially late 18th and early 19th century. I like most songs from the “Great American Songbook,” especially Rodgers and Hart, Jule Styne, Harold Arlen. I love a lot of bands/songs I grew up with like Motown, The Beatles, The Doors, many others. Some experimental art/pop like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk. My favorite sound is silence – or silence plus ocean – or silence plus light breeze rustling through trees.
I guess I’m a cynical optimist. Or maybe a hopeful pessimist? Although I’m not an alcoholic several of my dear friends are in recovery and they’ve taught me the Serenity Prayer which I say often: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
MB: What comes to mind: many different kinds of music, music I listened to at different chapters of my life. I revisit the sounds past from time to time; Woodstock; disco – dance; musical theatre – early and new, American Songbook – all; romantic songs Dad sang to us: “Begin the Beguine,” “Mona Lisa,” “Stardust,” etc.
I listen to music a lot in our studio. Singer songwriters: Ferron, Tracy Chapman. Experimental: Laurie Anderson. Pop/R&B/poetry: Jill Scott; “Sticks and Stones” by Dan Martin (on rotation daily) Favorite musical: “Hair.” Musical Theatre: Maury Yeston‘s “Titanic,” “A Chorus Line,” “Cabaret,” “West Side Story.”
“Fear is the absence of love” – from Marianne Williamson‘s “Return to Love” course in miracles. I look at quotes all the time – in books – on line – inside bottle caps – hanging from tea bags. I find inspiration in single/simple yet complex words/sentences that speak to me. Few words. Powerful meanings. They’re everywhere.
Jimin Han was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in New York, Rhode Island, and Ohio. She attended Cornell University as an undergraduate and earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing can be found online at NPR’s “Weekend America,” Entropy, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, The Good Men Project, Hyphen Magazine, Kartika Review, KoreanAmericanStory.com, among others. Her novel, A Small Revolution, is forthcoming from Little A, spring 2017. She teaches at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College and lives outside New York City with her husband and children.