With the excitment of the attending International Thespian Festival next week in Lincoln, Nebraska, I found myself going through our titles that I thought would be a great fit for high schools. One such title which came up many times in my head was Earnest or What's In A Name?, a comic, witty "what if" musical that hypothesizes a scenario where Oscar Wilde and Arthur Sullivan (from Gilbert and Sullivan) team up to write The Importance of Being Earnest. This musical can prove to be a truly educational experience for all involved. Earnest or What's In A Name? not only gives students a chance to delve into this Oscar Wilde classic, it also provides the opportunity to study a style of music that can help enhance their knowledge of music theory, utilize proper vocal techniques, and understand the connection between lyrics and music. I sat down with Leonard Diamond who wrote the book, music, and lyrics to Earnest or What's In A Name? to discuss his inspiration behind creating this absolutely perfect high school musical.
Q: How many times did you read The Importance of Being Earnest prior to writing Earnest or What’s In A Name? What was the defining moment that made you want to make Earnest into a musical?
A: 2, 3 maybe. Not an awful lot. I read the show a lot when I was writing it. Of course, I essentially took and went through it eliminating all of those things that are no longer relevant to our time. After that, I went and chose the dialogue that I thought would work as a libretto for a musical. I have always liked the play. The Importance of Being Earnest is a favorite of mine. The defining moment for me came when I read an article about 16, 17 years ago. The article basically described what had happened after Gilbert and Sullivan broke up. That was about 1895, the same time Wilde was writing The Importance of Being Earnest. They [Gilbert and Sullivan] had a big fight. Sullivan said he couldn’t work with him any longer. He went looking for another librettist. He actually was given the names of three people. One was James Barry (JM Barry) (Peter Pan), another was George Bernard Shaw, and the final one was Oscar Wilde. He knew Oscar Wilde. They knew Oscar Wilde because they, meaning Gilbert and Sullivan had fashioned their musical Patience after Wilde. He was a character with the name Bunthrone who was really Oscar Wilde. It had been a huge success. Wilde liked it a lot. He even played the part in different places and toured with it in America. When I read that article, it came to me. I said, I think I know how to make it a musical. I’m not going to reset it in a different time. I am going to leave it right where it was. I am going to give it a prologue that Sullivan was looking for a new librettist. And he came to Wilde and between the two of them, they wrote the show. The musical itself is my hypothetical: What if what if they created the show.
Q: Why did you decide to make Earnest or What’s In A Name? a show within a show as opposed to a book musical on The Importance of Being Earnest?
A: That’s easy. First of all, that happens to be a favorite form of mine. This is the first time that I have ever written a book or ever been my own librettist. Prior to that, I had written the score for a number of shows but had never written the book. A couple of those was a musical within a musical and I thought, this is kind of a neat form. That way, I can put the hypothetical musical into a definite setting. I thought the audience would benefit from a setting of the musical that was to come. That was something I was taught in one of the courses I took. You really have to prepare your audience. You have to tell them what they are going to see.
Q: Earnest or What’s In A Name? has a score written in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan. What specific Gilbert and Sullivan Musicals influenced you the most when creating the score?
A: The Mikado, certainly. In fact, there is a song in there, the opening of the second act, “A Sad Tale.” If you listen to or look at the first song in the second act, you will see it is pretty rhythmically related. Also, Pinafore. Because Pinafore has a lot of patter songs. A number of the songs in Earnest are essentially that: Different characters sing songs involving a lot of different elements.
Q: What are some of your other favorite Oscar Wilde plays and why?
A: Lady Windermere. It’s funny, its cleaver, and its very good. Earnest is really funny and its a marvelous satire of the upper middle class. Women of No Importance. The Importance of Being Earnest really caught a sense of the upper class and characterized it beautifully.
Q: Did you have to do a lot of research on the late 1800s to write Earnest? If so, what sort of research did you do?
A: No I didn’t do any research. I felt all I needed was in the play and in that article that set the stage for it. I did research the actual breakup of Gilbert and Sullivan. In those days, the authors and the producer or the theatre owner which is in their case was a theater owner who was also their producer, D’oyly Carte, they bore the costs. If something in the theatre needed replacement, they paid for it. The reason they had the falling out. Gilbert was a kind of a picky guy and had accused D’oyly Carte of lying about how much money he had spent on a carpet. Sullivan took D’oyly Carte's side and said "How can you do this to this guy? He has been our manager for years, our producer, he has been unscrupulously honest and you are carrying on that he spent too much on a carpet or that you don’t really believe he spent that much?" So, they got into quite a battle and they broke up at that point. Beyond that research in terms of the reality of the argument and also how it was ultimately patched up, Gilbert came to Sullivan and said he apologized, he didn’t know where his mind was at the time. Everything I really needed was contained in Wilde’s play in terms of what was going on at that time in British Society.
Q: What are some of the other shows that you have written? What inspired you to write those other pieces?
A: I wrote a show called Esther, Wow What A Women. Its about two rival studios in early Hollywood. One is very poor, practically going out of business, the other is quite well to do. The larger one is trying to absorb the smaller one. The smaller one is called Solman Studios and the larger one is called Hayworth Studios. Its a musical within a musical. In the outside envelope is the story of the struggle of these two studios. The inside is the making of the movie musical based on the Book of Esther. The outline was largely mine. The music and lyrics were all mine. And then began the search for a librettist. That is unfortunately where we ran into trouble. It was optioned by Peter T. Kulok productions. Kulok was a guy who thought they wouldn’t have any trouble finding a librettist. A musical called Cyrano – the Musical imported from Holland by a Dutchman who wanted to make the Broadway scene. And he picked Peter as the guy to shepard the musical from Europe to the United States. He did look for different people but no one was biting. Cyrano was one of the most costly failures going so he never got around to finding a librettist. The other one was based on the life of Florence Ziegfeld. Peter had the idea that he wanted me to write a musical based on the life of Florence Ziegfeld mainly about the fact that he had a lot of different women in his life and was very innovative at the time and probably one of the major forces back in the 1930s. Again, same problem, I wrote the score impressario. That one had a lot of staged readings but he never found a librettist. The first one was called Pot of Gold. The first one that I wrote was based on roman comedy much in the style of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We took an old roman comedy and kind of updated it. There I wrote the score and some of the lyrics. The book was really great. Very early on, I did a musical version of Pippi Longstocking. It was very good. It was very successful. Everybody loved it. It went to a number of schools. So I thought, well, why not, I’ll see if I can find out if I can call Astrid Lindgren about what I had done, I’d be happy to show her the material and see what she thought of it. Around the same time, it had been made into a movie. So I got in touch with her agent, her agent came back to me and said well, its very nice, we’re delighted but you better cease and desist right now.
Q: Are you working on any new theatrical projects? If so, can you give us a glimpse of what they are?
A: It’s a musical version of Anne of Green Gables. It has been in the public domain for about 15-20 years. As long as you take the material directly from the work, you’re fine. I’m pretty far along with it actually. Now that I got a theatre that will be happy to produce my works, that’s Theatreworks CT located in New Milford. They were the ones that did Earnest first. They were chosen by Connecticut Magazine as the best community theatre in the state in 2014. They are wonderful, they are really great.
Q: What is your day job?
A: I am an MD which specialized in Psychiatry. Practied for a lot of years. I still do practice.