That ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady

The most visible people in any performance — theatre, opera, or film — are often the actors or singers. They are the ones who get the most public acknowledgment, despite the fact that there are many more people deeply involved: directors, producers, designers, writers, and composers. Douglas Cohen, a composer and lyricist most recognized for his show No Way to Treat a Lady, had the show performed by Scotch ’n’ Soda this past weekend.

No Way to Treat a Lady was originally a novel written by William Goldman that was later made into a feature film. Cohen was folding laundry in his New York apartment in the early ’80s when the film came on TV, and his creative wheels started turning. “I was really intrigued [by the film],” Cohen said. “It combined so many elements I found entertaining: romance, suspense, and comedy.” The book, which follows an unemployed actor, Kit Gill, and his attempts to gain his dead mother’s approval by going on a killing spree, has a very dark tone and dry humor. Cohen saw it as great material for musical theater. “The idea started right away. I sat down at the piano and wrote five songs — one song, ‘So Far So Good,’ actually made it into the final piece.” Cohen said the inspiration came in part from the fact that he could relate to the characters: Moe Brummel, a Jewish cop who is still “tied to his mother’s apron-strings,” and Kit Gill, an unsuccessful actor who just wants to be accepted.

When Cohen called Goldman with the proposition to make the book into a musical, the author was hesitant, particularly because of the book’s dark nature. “He didn’t understand why I would want to make [the book] into a musical, but the book is much darker than the show itself.” With Goldman’s eventual approval, Cohen continued on the wild ride of writing an original musical score.

From 1985 to 1987, Cohen traveled from New York to Florida to London, performing the play and revising the songs. “[Premiering the show] in New York City was a mistake in hindsight,” Cohen said. “Seldom you get things right the first move, and in New York they expect a finished product.” Despite Cohen’s reservation about this initial performance, No Way to Treat a Lady was well received by audiences, though it still had a long way to go before making it as a commercial production. “The show had in no way the depth, the emotional arc that it does now,” Cohen said. Among the revisions, the lead character shifted from Kit to Moe to give the plot more of a moral center. Rather than a plot limited to the psycho-killer, the play included a sub-plot featuring a romance between Moe Brummel and Sarah Stone, a socialite from the Upper East Side. While admitting that revising a piece he had worked so hard to perfect was a difficult task, Cohen said he was very thankful for the guidance and advice of the many directors and producers who helped him along the way. “Although I didn’t want to change things, if the right person can motivate you, you can make it happen,” he said.

Cohen’s most recent production was The Opposite of Sex. He is currently working on Barnstormer, a musical based on the life of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female aviator, who learned to fly in Paris. Cohen, who wrote the music for Barnstormer, recently received a Jonathan Larson Grant and will be traveling to Seattle in the spring for a two-week workshop culminating in three public performances.

When asked what advice to give to the many aspiring performers at Carnegie Mellon, Cohen said, “The best thing to do is find material that inspires you — and find good collaborators. The artistic experience is rarely a solitary one.”