Inside the Music of Broadway Hit Beetlejuice with Eddie Perfect

Interview with Beetlejuice The Musical Writer Eddie Perfect

Beetlejuice The Musical

1988 fantasy-comedy-horror movie Beetlejuice is the subject of a recent musical adaptation which opened on Broadway earlier this year. With music and lyrics by Australia-native Eddie Perfect, the musical was nominated for 8 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and has become a must-see show with its hilarious book and infectious score.

We were lucky enough to catch up with the man behind the music, Mr. Perfect himself. We learned about how he started out in the world of musical theater, the writing process behind Beetlejuice, and also got a glimpse into what might be next for the talented writer.

Download the official composer-approved Piano & Vocal sheet music for Beetlejuice

Interview with Beetlejuice composer Eddie Perfect

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): At what age did you write your first composition?

Eddie Perfect ("E"): I came late to writing music. I think I was probably nineteen years old when I wrote my first song.

S: When did you first know that writing music is something you could do professionally?

E: I arrived at writing music for the theatre in a very indirect way. Originally I wanted to be a visual artist. Then I studied classical singing. I found the atmosphere in a classical conservatorium to be one of fear, and the idea of locking myself in a room until I had achieved some kind of perfection in resurrecting music from the distant past didn’t appeal to me.

Perhaps I lacked discipline, but at the time I remember feeling that I wanted to perform new music and communicate new ideas. I gravitated away from opera and classical singing and studied music theatre as a performer. It was during my time learning to sing, dance and act at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth that I first started writing songs for the theatre.

In my third and final year of study I wrote a song cycle for the first-year students based on their own experiences of tackling adulthood. It was that experience that changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life; I discovered I had the drive and the passion for writing music and lyrics that far outweighed the experience of performing.

S: Tell us about the song writing process for Beetlejuice The Musical. How did it all come together?

E: Slowly. The whole process, from when I first signed on until opening night on Broadway, was about four years. Along the way there were numerous workshops and labs and even an entire season in Washington DC. It’s a very drawn out process, but it’s great for falling out of love with material, which is necessary. I tend to find the emotional heart of the show and write that song first.

The first period of writing is always the most exciting; you’ve got a clear blue sky and it’s really a case of throwing exciting musical ideas into the pit. As you go along and the piece starts to take a more concrete shape, the demands of songs become far more specific. Should this song be brief? Fast? Heavy? Reflective?

The latter process is also about editing and rewriting; especially lyrics. I cut a huge amount of songs from Beetlejuice along the way as myself and the book writers changed direction with what direction the piece as a whole should take. To use an analogy, it’s like building a house. First you erect the scaffolding, then you take that away when you’ve got a solid shape. Towards the end it becomes very focused. Should we move this chair into the kitchen? Should we paint this room a different colour? What’s the most unexpected way of taking the audience into THIS room?

S: Do you have a favorite musical number from the production?

E: I don’t really. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been living with this music for four years. There’s nothing in there I think is wrong for the show, which is something of a personal triumph. Then again, ask me in a couple of years and I may want to burn all of it in the fire.

I have to say that I’m surprised how much audiences love "Say My Name." That was one of those songs that underwent so many rewrites and new sections and cuts and overhauls that I was getting ready to throw the whole thing in the trash. If it wasn’t for [the book writers] Anthony [King] and Scott [Brown], I probably would have cut "Say My Name" a million times over. I didn’t feel like it totally worked as a song, mostly because it had been altered so much. But I guess that calls back to what I said before: the writing process takes so long that at a certain point it’s easy to forget why an idea was any good in the first place.

S: What is it like for you to see and hear your music performed live on Broadway?

E: It’s an indescribable feeling. There’s complete joy and shock and awe, but it’s tempered by a supreme vulnerability and intense fear. Nobody cares what the author thinks of it. It’s easy to love your own writing and think it’s great, but I tend to hold my breath waiting for the audiences’ response. And since Beetlejuice is a comedy, it’s totally worthless unless an audience laughs. So it feels wonderful and awful.

It also feels masochistic – having spent four years writing something and then exposing it to a critical gaze that plays out in public and is read by all of your friends, family, peers, enemies, ex-girlfriends, high school bullies, etc. There’s no room for self-satisfaction. What could be worse than loving your own work and everyone else hating it? That’s pure indulgence, delusion and madness, that is.

S: What advice would you give to aspiring composers?

E: There’s a lot I could say, but probably the most pressing piece of advice is this: Don’t push your first project for years and years and years, sitting in endless workshops, at the expense of getting back to writing. Write your first thing, get it performed in whatever way you can (even if it’s in your garage), then let it go and write the next thing. Do you want to spend five years taking meetings? Or do you want to spend five years writing new stuff?

Early on in your career no one will want to produce your stuff, and the first thing you write is probably not going to be Les Miserables. I mean, it might be. But the thing about the start of your career is you’re still learning to write, you’re learning to get over your fear of writing. Don’t hide behind the first thing you write thinking you’re a goddamn genius, because what you’re really doing is hiding from writing the next thing. Write the next thing. And then the next. You’re never going to have as much energy as you have at the start, so don’t waste it being a one-trick pony. Set it aside, write the next thing. Set it aside, write the next thing. Keep writing. If you don’t learn to have a rigorous relationship with writing, and faith that you’re always going to have another idea, you’re going to have a very painful career.

S: What are you working on next that we can look forward to?

E: I think it’s time for another revenge musical. Sweeney Todd is my favourite score of all time. I think it’s time for another story of bloody revenge, but this time I think I’ll make it a comedy. Dark comedy is where I live.

Beetlejuice is currently showing on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. Purchase your tickets here.

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