Leaving Behind the Bad-Luck Song

She abandoned country music for a witty, sophisticated style and a comic voice much like her father’s
The lyricist Amanda Green, a Broadway baby with a show of her own on Broadway and another on its way. Durell Godfrey

   After eight childhood summers at her famous parents’ house in East Hampton, the Broadway lyricist Amanda Green went off to Camp Chimney Corners in Massachusetts, where she was homesick every single day.
    “I would write home and say, ‘Come get me!’ ” she said. “But after I was cast as Maria [in ‘West Side Story’], that was the last time they heard from me.”
    Odds on, no other 9-year-old ever got a break-a-leg telegram on opening night from the show’s composer, the legendary Leonard Bernstein. Actually, make that “Lenny,” which is what she called him while growing up in one of Manhattan’s grand old West Side buildings and on Georgica Road here. The daughter of one of the city’s most prominent theatrical couples, Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green, she had a relatively unscathed childhood despite the frequent comings-and-goings of Lenny, Cy (Coleman), Jule (Styne), and a supporting cast of characters whose names could be seen in lights up and down the Great White Way.
    “It certainly was a different household,” Ms. Green admitted on a recent weekend at the Springs house she shares with her husband, Jeff Kaplan, an orthopedic surgeon. “But as kids, it wasn’t that cool.” If her father had been Paul McCartney, she said with a double-wide Green grin, it might have been a different story.
    When she speaks, Ms. Green’s words tumble over each other like the high-flying high school cheerleaders in her current musical hit “Bring It On.” Arriving at Broadway’s St. James Theater in August after a 13-city tour, the show, featuring rival cheer squads — white-bread meanies and teen goddesses on one side, inner-city hip-hop crews on the other, plenty of adolescent angst in between — was welcomed by one critic as “a stage spectacle defying gravity.”
    “Thirty feet in the air they throw them,” Ms. Green marveled. “Bring It On” was originally scheduled to end its run in October, but it’s been extended through Dec. 31 to accommodate its core audience, the families, teens, and tourists who will be in town for the long holidays.
    Anyone who was in the Shubert Theater on Dec. 4, 2002, when Broadway stars turned out en masse for a memorial tribute to Adolph Green, will remember his daughter, alone onstage, singing a song of her own composition, “On Daddy’s Shoulders.” Its characteristic humor and poignancy had the packed house on its feet applauding:

    The waves crashing on the beach
    were dragons out to bite my feet
    the icy cold, the undertow
    was trying to drag me down below . . .
    I thought I’d scream, I thought I’d cry
    then big hands flew me to the sky
    and I was sittin’
    on my daddy’s shoulders . . .

    By the time her father died, Ms. Green was already writing for the musical theater, although, surprisingly, it wasn’t on her radar growing up. She would be an actress and singer like her mother, she thought, and after graduating from Brown she went through the usual Broadway-baby incarnations: “waitressing, coat-check girl, receptionist at Lincoln Center, development director at a charity.” At one point she was in charge of the cabaret room at Tavern on the Green, performing and booking other performers. “I got some acting jobs, but not many.”
    What she was becoming instead was a nightclub singer and sometime songwriter — a “chronically lovelorn” one. In the mid-’90s, enamored of Lyle Lovett and disenchanted with her nowhere jobs, she fled to Nashville to write — so she thought — country songs. The experience was a game-changer.
    “I’d have songwriting blitzes with four or five other songwriters in a week,” she said, among them a number of up-and-comers who were to be heard from big-time a few years later. Pretty soon she abandoned country music for a witty, sophisticated style and a comic voice much like her father’s.
    Ms. Green honed her songwriting talents and made still more gifted friends after being accepted for the prestigious BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, which brought her back to Manhattan. One of those rare artists who can not only put her personal stamp on other people’s songs but make audiences laugh and cry over her own, she was becoming a recognized nightclub draw.
    “More and more, I was singing my own songs,” she said, “until I was doing all my own songs. I drew from my past experiences dating itinerant poets and ne’er-do-wells. The first time I sang a song I’d written in front of an audience, it was absolutely intoxicating. I loved it. I felt powerful.”
    Her husband, she said, was “the first solid citizen” she ever dated. He was from Memphis, visiting East Hampton for the first time, when they met on Egypt Beach.
    “I thought he was handsome. Then his daughter Samantha, who was 4, ran up and said, ‘Daddy!’ and I thought, ‘Ah, yes . . . of course.’ ” Until she noticed the book lying on his towel: “Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child.”
    “We were married three short — long — years later,” she said, “and I had no more bad-luck songs to write.”
    By then Ms. Green had started writing lyrics for musicals. One of the earliest, written with the composer Curtis Moore, was a farce called “For the Love of Tiffany,” in which she herself played — wait for it — a triple-amputee German housekeeper. “I was in a box. I had one leg, a stump, no arms. The leg stump had a feather duster in it, to clean with.” (Dr. Kaplan made the box.) The offbeat show had a sold-out run at the New York International Fringe Festival, and “We’re hoping, we’re hoping,” that it gets to Broadway some day.
    The 2006 “High Fidelity,” written in collaboration with a BMI classmate, Tom Kitt (a Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Next to Normal” who also worked with her on “Bring It On”), was her first show that did get there. After a month’s tryout in Boston, it arrived at the Imperial Theater, where it didn’t just bomb, it imploded, closing after 14 performances. Ben Brantley of The Times called it “a show that erases itself from your memory even as you watch it.”
    Ouch. How do you keep going after that?
“The best thing is not to read the reviews,” Ms. Green said with a rueful smile, “and I often don’t follow my own advice.” Critics may have excuses for their rants, she tells herself. “Maybe they woke up with toothaches.” Sometimes, though, bad press can be instructive. “If eight critics all say the same thing doesn’t work, then we know we need to work on it.”
(Don’t weep for “High Fidelity” — “It’s enjoying many regional productions now, and in colleges.”)
   This week Ms. Green is at work on a new song for a new show, “Hands on a Hardbody,” slated to begin previews in February before a Broadway opening at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in March. None other than Trey Anastasio, the frontman of Phish, is her collaborator; he wrote the music, she the words and, for the first time, some of the music as well. “We were introduced by a friend who thought we’d enjoy writing together,” she said. “He has two daughters also, and we’re about the same age. I could not have done ‘Hands’ without Trey.”
    The new musical, with a book by Doug Wright (who won the Pulitzer for drama in 2004 with “I Am My Own Wife”), is based on a 1997 documentary about an annual endurance contest in East Texas, in which contestants compete to see who can stand up the longest with one hand touching a brand-new pickup truck. The last one on their feet gets the hardbody. “This is a Red State musical that Blue State audiences won’t hate themselves for enjoying,” said The Los Angeles Times when it previewed there in May.
    One by one, the characters tell what the truck would mean to them — escape from a one-horse town, escape from a long-term marriage, escape to Hollywood to become a stuntman. “They all really need that truck,” Ms. Green explained. “No one is doing it for a lark.” Keith Carradine (“The Will Rogers Follies”) plays the oldest contestant. “I had a crush on him ever since I saw him in ‘Nashville,’ ” said the lyricist, “and I wrote a couple of songs with him in mind.”
    Sometimes, she said, she’ll rewrite a song “40 or 50 times, just to get what the character is thinking. Half of writing is rewriting.” Other times, though, especially with comic songs, inspiration comes in an afternoon.
    After a long day at a piano or in a writing workshop, Ms. Green can often be found belting them out onstage. She sang in Amagansett at the Talkhouse a few years ago and would “totally love Guild Hall, but they never asked me.” On Monday night, if you happen to be in the city, she’ll be performing at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street, in a show called “Amanda Green and Friends.” Reservations have been “strongly suggested” (birdlandjazz.com).