Podcast transcription: Are There Anybody Here: The Music of David Fletcher
Glen Nelson: Hello and welcome to another episode in our monthly podcast. I'm your host Glen Nelson. You've just heard the first verse of "Weepin' Mary," a song written in 1990 by David Fletcher in an unreleased demo recording of 1998 with soprano Sarah Aspland singing and the composer of the piano. On today's podcast, I'm here with composer/songwriter David Fletcher to discuss his life and music. What a pleasure D., welcome. When I first came to New York City, your apartment on the Upper West Side was ground zero for LDS artists. I remember you'd have these giant parties, and the price that mission was to perform something. And you'd get Broadway performers, and Met opera singers, and poets and playwrights, and students and painters, and everybody else in between. And these salons were the first time I think that I had ever experienced a gathering of people like that. And I think I can pinpoint those parties as the first time I wondered whether it would be possible to study and champion Mormon art itself. So you started it all for me.
David Fletcher: Oh isn't that nice?
Glen Nelson: I didn't know it at the time but you were the one you gave my career direction.
David Fletcher: How about that?
Glen Nelson: You know, for better or worse.
David Fletcher: It's funny you should say that because you actually had Mormon artists' fine art on your walls, and I was completely influenced by that and decided, "Well, I could do that, too."
Glen Nelson: You but a whole bunch of stuff.
David Fletcher: I did. I bought a whole bunch of stuff. And that stuff, because I don't live there anymore, a lot of it is in storage, but I still have that stuff.
Glen Nelson: What did you get out of those parties?
David Fletcher: Well, the Mormon social world was my social world, so it was kind of connecting my interest, my fine art interests, my interests in performing arts, but also with the Church and my social world. And there were all always, you know, people who were not members of the Church at those parties, but it seemed to be a cool gathering place to bring all these people together.
Glen Nelson: I remember at one of the parties, and again you had this rule that everybody had to do something, so I didn't want to sing or anything. So I had written a set of poems called "Coney Island Hymn.: I used to live in Brooklyn. I just moved to Manhattan. And so I read, and while I was reading apparently the opera singer Susan Alexander Borhan leaned over to her husband Murray, who is a composer, and commanded him to set them as a song cycle for her to perform, which he did. And that was the first time I'd ever collaborated with a composer. And then that led to Murray and me doing three operas together among other things, which led to even more things, and with more artists, again all thanks to you. What other good results came out of those gatherings for you?
David Fletcher: That's a good question. I guess meeting and understanding different kinds of talents. You know, of course, I came to New York to be in show business, to write musicals, to write Broadway shows and which was my prime interest. But I now am meeting other kinds of performers, people who that is not their chief focus. You remember Hildebrand...
Glen Nelson: Oh yeah, Anne Marie Hildebrand/
David Fletcher: Anne Marie Hildebrand was fantastically talented--went to Juilliard as a pianist, but piano was not her main focus, not really in her life, she was really interested in sort of a very primal Irish music and came to one of my parties and played the Irish flute at one of my parties. So that's a very extreme example of something that was unexpected, that I don't know if I've influenced people, but the party gave people an opportunity to do stuff like that.
Glen Nelson: It was a true salon. I remember I was there once and there was a woman who was aspiring to be a Broadway actor, and she came up to me, and she I think she had realized the career of being on Broadway was just not going to happen for her. And she opened up to me about the internal wrestling match of identity that she was having. Her entire life she'd wanted to be a performer and didn't have a plan B. And then when she realized that it wasn't in the cards, she felt that she had no identity left, and she said to me, "If I'm not an actress then what am I?" It was the moment that pushed me to think that I wanted to help artists in my Church community in some way and advocate for them if possible. And I guess I've been doing that for 30 years since. So anyway that's a long roundabout way of saying that you've been an important presence for decades in this town among especially the community of saints and certainly for me. And you've also been the organist in your ward since--I mean I can hardly believe this...
David Fletcher: October 1985.
Glen Nelson: Incredible. Incredible. OK so let's let's go back to the beginning though. You're originally from New Jersey, is that right?
David Fletcher: I'm from New Jersey. I Grew up in New Jersey.
Glen Nelson: So tell me about your family and how music became a focus for you.
David Fletcher: First of all, I should say my roots are in Utah. My dad's father, Harvey Fletcher, was a scientist who, you know, he went to University of Chicago and then he came to New York and worked at Bell Labs his entire life. And my dad was born in Manhattan. Bell Labs is in the east. So my dad grew up, even though he was LDS, he grew up in the east. And you know he went to Boston to MIT, and my mother, who was from Salt Lake, she went to Boston University, and they met in the ward up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then his whole career, he worked at Bell Laboratories. So it's in the east that I grew up, but really we're Mormons from way back in Utah. You know...
Glen Nelson: Expats.
David Fletcher: There were expats. In fact they used to call it the "reverse migration," which is what my grandfather did--you know, the reverse migration East. And my grandfather... It's funny you were mentioning Heber J. Grant; Grant is my great-grandfather, and I have a letter from Heber J. Grant to my grandfather who was the second president of the New York State here in New York in the 30s. Just a letter saying, "Oh President and Sister Fletcher and Happy Merry Christmas. Here's a choir book for you."
Glen Nelson: And your grandfather invented stereophonic sound.
David Fletcher: Well, he was a developer of that at Bell Laboratories. But he did work on it. He was a consultant for "Fantasia," you know, the Fanta-sound, Disney Film multi-track Disney film from 1940.
Glen Nelson: So then again to your upbringing regarding music: how did that all happen? Were there other musicians in the family?
David Fletcher: You know there really are... My grandmother on my mother's side, Frances Bennett,she was a pianist, and my mother was a musician. She was a pianist and singer--a very good singer. On the Fletcher side, there really wasn't a lot of music. I don't know where music came... I know in my case, I guess that I had a talent for music, but I would not say that it was more pronounced until I later discovered that it was something that was special about me.
Glen Nelson: So you took piano lessons as a kid like many people.
David Fletcher: I took piano lessons, and I was a very bad student, a very lazy student. But the thing was, I was lazy because what I was doing was being creative at the piano myself. Having to play some old composer's music, like learning it note by note, you know, gave me no pleasure. But being able to create a sound myself at the keyboard that was pleasurable. But when I got to BYU as a freshman, I kind of realized, "Oh, well, I'm not going to have like some classical performance career. But look what I can do that these guys can't do. I can do all of these other things: I can transpose, I can make arrangements, I can do all these other things all solely because of what I had learned myself."
Glen Nelson: Were you a good improviser?
David Fletcher: I was very good improviser. I mean, actually when I was at BYU, first I was an acting major. That was a big fizzle, and then I was a math major, doing OK.
Glen Nelson: Really? Genetics are coming into play.
David Fletcher: But then I took... It was actually a spring class. Dr. Manookin (Robert Manookin) because they called it Musicianship 101, which is really music theory. I had never had any music theory. But all of a sudden he's presenting things that were names of things that I already know about. Does that make sense?
Glen Nelson: You knew them instinctively?
David Fletcher: Well, I had figured out how to do all these things, and now there were names for them. And you know, all I remember in particular that was a real eye opener was that spring semester, he would give dictation.
Glen Nelson: He'd play a note...?
David Fletcher: He'd play a little melody, and then he would want you to write it down. And you know, the students are struggling over what note is that, and I'm like, Can we get to counterpoint please? I mean...
Glen Nelson: That part of it was really easy for you.
David Fletcher: It was really easy, and eventually Dr. Manookin, he called me into his office and said, "I want to try a hard dictation.? And he gave me a Bach three-part invention.
Glen Nelson: Ok. How did you do?
David Fletcher: I got, you know, I got through the 20 measures of it without any problem. So he's the person that said, "You know, I ought to think about music. Maybe music is the thing you ought to think about."
Glen Nelson: Were they encouraging you to go a classical way with music?
David Fletcher: No. I don't think so. I think he didn't know, and I didn't know. I had played for Young Ambassadors. I was like a pop pianist, you know. But I really seriously had very little ambition, other than sort of to be in show business, to be you know somehow...
Glen Nelson: Connected.
David Fletcher: But I never thought of myself as an artist or a composer. And I think he was saying, "Well you have a specific talent for doing music. You really ought to think about what that means to you. What do you want to do with that?"
Glen Nelson: Had you written songs as a kid?
David Fletcher: I had not written songs. I had written one song.
Glen Nelson: Did your parents bring you to Broadway as a kid.
David Fletcher: They did.
Glen Nelson: What was your first show, do you remember?
David Fletcher: "1776." That was in 1970, and there were a couple shows. After that, we saw "Irene," was a musical, you know it was very expensive. We were not a rich family. But as a high school kid, I did come in and see shows on Saturday matinees by myself--money that I had made babysitting or whatever. I remember the ticket to "Chicago" I was 12 dollars...
Glen Nelson: It's not anymore.
David Fletcher: For sure.
Glen Nelson: So at BYU, in those days, the music department they didn't have a program like they do now of commercial music on one side and composition on the other.
David Fletcher: No, they did not.
Glen Nelson: So then how did you fit in with the other students who were starting out on a composer track?
David Fletcher: It was very hard, actually. When I switched to a music major, I switched to a composition major. But you'd have to have an instrument side. So I was taking piano, and I was very frustrated by the piano teachers, very frustrated, who told me, "Oh, you do everything wrong, and you know, you're fingering is terrible, and blah, blah, blah, blah." And in particular one piece, one classical piece, that I had worked up a whole lot, you know, the teacher said, "Well you're playing this all wrong, and your pedal technique is terrible, and I'm going to fix that." All that stuff. And so I kind of rebelled against the piano teachers. But meanwhile, so I went into the composition classes very... As I said, I sort of had been given the names of things that I knew how to do. But now I'm being asked to compose, like really on the page. And it was foreign. It was foreign to what I had developed myself. I really loved Dr. Manookin, and I loved Dr. Sargent, actually. But Dr. Bradshaw (Merrill Bradshaw), he was very hard on me, and he's the one that said, "I'm not sure composition is the way you are going." Like, I was composing at the piano and then trying to write that down, and which is basically what I still do. And you know I finally brought him some article that said that this is how Stravinsky did it, you know, so he backed away, but he was saying to me, "Well, your chords are kind of pop chords, and you need to write more string quartets, you need to write more...." Like you said, there was no commercial side to this. So it was a struggle. It was a bit of a struggle for me.
Glen Nelson: What kind of music were you writing?
David Fletcher: Well, I started out just writing piano pieces, you know, and if you want to call it pastiche, I remember one of the pieces was "Waltz in the Style of Chopin." You know, like OK, well, let me see if I can replicate some of these... It's not unheard of, actually, that people copy the da Vinci, you know the Leonardo's painting, in order to figure out of technique.
Glen Nelson: Right.
David Fletcher: So that's all I was doing. I was writing, and then I wrote a very jagged piece, but they were very pianistic.
Glen Nelson: What about their songs? When did those start coming?
David Fletcher: I didn't really... The problem with songs is words. So that means you have to either research, right?, you have to go to the library, you have to find poetry or something, or you have to get a friend to write it, or you have to write it yourself, which I was never particularly good at. So inevitably I did write a couple songs. But all in all I would say I could reduce my compositional output at BYU to about 10 pieces.
Glen Nelson: Do you still have them?
David Fletcher: Very small. Yes, some of them, I have them.
Glen Nelson: So after graduation, then you came back to New York?
David Fletcher: I came to New York. Now I should tell you at BYU, after Young Ambassadors, I took jobs playing the rehearsal piano for shows, and it was an actual job. They were paying by the hour.
Glen Nelson: These were student shows?
David Fletcher: These were student shelves at BYU, but they recognized that the rehearsal pianist is getting nothing out of this. So these were jobs. And I got paid, and suddenly I realized, "You know, all those years ago I kind of wanted to be an actor. I love the theater. Maybe acting wasn't the thing but I can still be in the theater. I can still be a part of this process just in a different way." So I had started playing piano, and that led me to, "Well, since I'm composing, maybe writing shows is the thing that I should be doing." I really hadn't written anything. And when I wrote to Sondheim from BYU, I had written zero. I had written zero songs. But I wrote to him because, you know, honestly I admired him, and I said, "What should I do. I don't know. I'm sort of an ambitious-less person who wants to be in the theater. I have got good music skills..." And he wrote back, and he said, " Well, stay in school. One thing you should do is stay in school, right? Send me what you write."
Glen Nelson: You're kidding. So roughly what year would this have been?
David Fletcher: 1979.
Glen Nelson: OK. So he was already a big deal.
David Fletcher: Oh yeah. Well really I wrote to him after I had come back and seen...
Glen Nelson: Sweeney.
David Fletcher: Sweeney.
Glen Nelson: Were surprised that he wrote you back?
David Fletcher: I was, like, over the moon.
Glen Nelson: I would imagine.
David Fletcher: That letter, which I have, which I should've brought, but, you know, it's got, like my thumb prints and I'm sure there are some tears on there. I still have it, but I never did... I did send him something a few years later, which he said was very amateur and not worth his time to look at.
Glen Nelson: But that's what you want somebody to say. You want somebody to be honest with you, right?
David Fletcher: But he continued to write. So I have about 20 letters.
Glen Nelson: Really?
David Fletcher: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: Let's talk about NYU because I think that's going to continue this story...
David Fletcher: And Sondheim got me into NYU. It had only just started. I was the Cycle Two.
Glen Nelson: Oh, it's very prestigious now.
David Fletcher: Yeah. They're on the 30th cycle or something, but I was Cycle Two.
Glen Nelson: So describe it people who...
David Fletcher: It was just a program where somebody said, "Well..." And I think Sondheim and Hal Prince were part of the source of getting it started. But you know it used to be that writers would write their shows, and they would go out of town, and they would get out of town productions where they could change and make choices. But it was so expensive, even by 1980, that they said, "You know, we've got to have some academic incubation places where people can actually write their show."
Glen Nelson: It was part of master's degree program...
David Fletcher: It was an MFA.
Glen Nelson: It wasn't just a workshopping seminar.
David Fletcher: No.
Glen Nelson: It was a program.
David Fletcher: No, it wasn't. It was an MFA. And I was in the Cycle Two.
Glen Nelson: Who were some of the other people, do you remember?
David Fletcher: Well, you know, the big one from Cycle 1 was Winnie Holzman, who "Wicked." She wrote the book to "Wicked," and "My So-called Life" is her big thing. But also...
Glen Nelson: And Ahrens and Flaherty, weren't they in...?
David Fletcher: Ahrens and Flaherty were in... He was in my group. Ahrens was never in the program. Flaherty was in my group, and I actually was a rehearsal pianist for a bunch of Flaherty stuff. He and I lived next door to each other.
Glen Nelson: So how did the program work? It was a once a week thing?
David Fletcher: The program was very nebulous at the time. There was a meeting place which was in Times Square. I never went down to the university...
Glen Nelson: It wasn't a classroom.
David Fletcher: It was a space. It was a space, and there was a piano in it, and it was basically like all the workshops. We just presented our work. For the first year, they gave us assignments that we had to do, like songs from shows, or our unfinished shows, or in fact one of the assignments from Richard Maltby was, "Write a song... We have trouble for this place in "Baby." Can you write a song?" So we all wrote our "Baby" song, and "Baby" was on the boards right then. So that's an example of that. And I should tell you even before NYU though, there was that BMI, the musical theater workshop, which is the thing that I got into instantly with Lehman Engel in 1981, and that was really the place where I decided, "Oh, the theater musicals is..., like I seemed to be good at it."
Glen Nelson: Yeah.
David Fletcher: And I was assigned a lyricist, so I had words coming at me. By the way I should say, it has seems to have always been true that I can do good music work if someone asks me. If someone else provides the impetus, I can do it. But if I have to think of it myself, no, I'll never do it. I never get it done. And this even plays out with you. You have given me several things that were your idea, and then I did them. Also it turns out Sondheim himself didn't initiate any of his famous projects. Other people said, "Oh, let's write about, you know, the opening of Japan in the 1857...
Glen Nelson: That would become "Pacific Overtures."
David Fletcher: Right.
Glen Nelson: When you said that Sondheim got you in, what does that mean exactly? He wrote a letter of recommendation?
David Fletcher: Well, I'll tell you. What it turned out is I was sort of a standard white guy, you know, writing Broadway kind of style music, and they didn't want that...
Glen Nelson: They had enough of those already?
David Fletcher: They had enough of those already, and they wanted, first of all, they wanted women, and they wanted people of color, and they wanted gospel music, and they wanted,, you know things that I guess I wasn't suited to do. So I wrote to Steve, and I said, "Just a word from you..." And he said, "Oh, absolutely." And he wrote them a letter saying, "Put this guy in the program." And I got in. Then I got the, you know, the Hammerstein scholarship.
Glen Nelson: What is that?
David Fletcher: Well, it paid for the whole thing.
Glen Nelson: The entire program?
David Fletcher: It paid for the whole thing plus stipend. And I had to go visit Mrs. Hammerstein. Hammerstein was long dead, but Mrs. Hammerstein was alive, living on Fifth Avenue, and I had to go meet with her. And so I got the Hammerstein scholarship. Meanwhile I should tell you I had never graduated from BYU, so it was it was a bit of a sticky situation. How can they admit me into this master's program without a bachelor's?
Glen Nelson: Right, but that worked out somehow.
David Fletcher: Well, the Dean called me and said, "You're going to have to do your undergraduate simultaneously. You're going have to finish at NYU what you didn't finish at BYU.
Glen Nelson: And you did that?
David Fletcher: No. I said, "Fine," and then nobody ever said anything about it, so I didn't ever register for any classes or anything. I do have the MFA it's on my... It's framed.
Glen Nelson: It feels now less legit, somehow. [Laughs.} So in this program there are mentors in the program who are really A-listers on Broadway. Who were some of those people that you worked with?
David Fletcher: Well, Arthur Laurents, Richard Maltby, Hal Prince... Sondheim never did show up to the program. Mary Rogers was a big person that was there a long time. One of the people that really was helpful and useful to me was Peter Stone. And of course "1776" was my first Broadway show. So here's Peter Stone. Went to his house a lot. He was very helpful and very surprisingly erudite and artistic and not the person that you think of as a showbiz person at all. Somebody you think of as really an artist.
Glen Nelson: Not the Tin Pan Alley side.
David Fletcher: No, no. Very, very erudite. Let's see. Was there anybody else?
Glen Nelson: And most of these were positive experiences for you, these people?
David Fletcher: I would say they all were. You know, Arthur Laurents had had a big tantrum and threw us all out of his house, but he still had a lot of very important things to say, very important things to say, and it was still positive.
Glen Nelson: I can't imagine what it would be like: wanting this career and then suddenly having access to all of these people. That must've just really cemented in your mind...
David Fletcher: Well, one thing... Like, when I was in college, it occurred to me, "Well, how do you get a show? How do you get, like, even if it's all written. How do you get the show done? How do you get somebody interested in doing your show?" And then when I got to NYU and I met all these people, I realized it's not that hard. If you have a show, you know, you call up a producer's office and you say, "I've got a show. Here's the demo, and here's the script. It's not... I mean, they may not choose you, but the point being I really had no idea. And it's really just like anything. You have to do the work, and then you approach the right people, and if they like your work, then they'll see if it can get the money to do the show for real. Unlike screenwriting... I mean, I suppose ultimately screenwriting is very collaborative, ultimately, but at least a screenwriter is sort of working by themselves getting that into a place where it can be then imagined visually, whatever. There's no show--no Sondheim show, no other show--that's not collaborative from Day One.
Glen Nelson: Yeah that's right.
David Fletcher: And it's very, very difficult. This is the other thing I really learned at NYU, which is, yeah if you've got a show, you can get it produced. That's not going to be the problem. The problem is getting it done. The collaborations are very, very hard.
Glen Nelson: Did you have a collaborator that you were working with?
David Fletcher: Several. And one of my collaborators--I'd say the one that I was most successful with--was the main writer of "Frasier."
Glen Nelson: Joe Keenan.
David Fletcher: Very successful. We were working together, and then we both had other collaborators, and then we moved apart, and then we wrote another thing together. And then, at no point was there ever a show that we were both working on that we were so excited about that we wanted to continue and get it to go. One thing I do think different from the old days and then to the 80s and now certainly, people would collaborate on their shows for ten years before anything saw the light. That's not how it used to happen. You know, "Oklahoma" was actually written in three months. At some point something changed, and I think it's the collaboration. But the formula became less solid. People couldn't follow the formula anymore, and then, you know, just personalities, "Don't lose that line. Don't lose that song."
Glen Nelson: I've never heard you talk about some of these shows, some of these projects that you were working on. Can you talk about them? Were they adaptations of existing materials, like books and films?
David Fletcher: They were all adaptations. I worked on... The big project that we worked on at NYU was based on an old Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard movie called "True Confession," which itself was based on a French play. And we actually ended up going to meet the agent of the original French play, who lived in New York. She was a hundred and fifty years old. She lived in Greenwich Village. We went and visited her to see if we could get the rights to the play. The movie, I think, was a Paramount movie. It would never have been able to get the rights. But if we could have gotten the play, then that would have been legally the right thing. Anyway, and I remember that day clear as a bell. This this ancient, ancient woman saying, "Yeah, that's ok. We'll give you an option, 'Ve'll give you an option for ze play. Ve'll just take, you know, 50 percent." And we were like, "50 percent?" That's like... Usually an option is 1 percent or something. So that ended that.
Glen Nelson: Had you already been working on it?
David Fletcher: We worked on it. We had five or six songs. So that collaboration ended. So there were a bunch of those kinds of collaborations that ended very badly.
Glen Nelson: I'm imagining that you have this steamer trunk full of songs. So you have a bunch of material in various states of completion.
David Fletcher: I would say the word to use is hundreds.
Glen Nelson: Hundreds.
David Fletcher: Hundreds of songs or unfinished... Hundreds of melodies unfinished. You know there were famous people like Leonard Bernstein, somebody that nothing got unused.
Glen Nelson: Right.
David Fletcher: You know whatever it was he was working on that got put over here, you know.
Glen Nelson: He was an archivist as an infant, I assume.
David Fletcher: Yeah, but I'm different than that. I'm more like Jule Styne, which is, "Oh, this doesn't work. Put it in the trunk and start again."
Glen Nelson: But you kept it.
David Fletcher: Well, in some cases I kept it, but in a lot of those cases it's just up here [tapping his head].
Glen Nelson: Oh, that's...
David Fletcher: That's not as good.
Glen Nelson: Future generations are going to distrust that...
David Fletcher: It's funny that you should say that because when you asked me for a list of things, you know, all the sudden I'm like, "Oh, maybe I should talk about this and this and this." And then I would try to play that. You know, like these songs that really don't exist except in my brain. You know, I do have a big storage...
Glen Nelson: Are you pretty good at remembering early, early songs of yours?
David Fletcher: I'm very good at it.
Glen Nelson: Really?
David Fletcher: Yeah. Particularly if it's just a melody. That sounds very reductive, doesn't it?
Glen Nelson: Well, it's not fully, it's not... The piano vocal wasn't completed.
David Fletcher: It isn't complete.
Glen Nelson: It's just the melody line.
David Fletcher: It isn't complete. But yeah, I have quite a few.
Glen Nelson: Now you worked for Mary Rodgers.
David Fletcher: Yes, because at NYU, Mary was one of the master teachers. We saw her a lot. Mary liked me, in particular. I remember going over her house and playing the piano. Mary thought I was somebody that knew a lot of trivia. She liked that.
Glen Nelson: Oh yeah, and she's Richard Rodger's daughter. And she wrote "Once Upon a Mattress," "The Mad Show," and later as a book writer, she wrote "Freaky Friday." And so it was like a secretary- assistant kind of job? Or what was it that you did?
David Fletcher: Well at first, yeah, that's exactly what it was. I mean what really happened is Mary hired me to help out with the "Follies" at Avery Fisher Hall. You know, the "Follies" concert at Avery Fisher Hall...
Glen Nelson: In 85.
David Fletcher: In 85 was really just the idea of Tom Shepherd to get "Follies" recorded, the whole thing recorded. The original cast recording in very truncated.
Glen Nelson: The Philharmonic is the orchestra...
David Fletcher: The Philharmonic is the orchestra. But you know, these guys... Everybody thinks to themselves, "Well, you know, oh, we don't want such self aggrandizement. So in order to do this, well, we'll we'll call it a benefit. Who are we going to benefit?" And in the case of the "Follies," it was the Young Playwrights Festival which had been started by Sondheim a couple of years before. And guess who the president of the Young Playwrights Festival was: Mary Rodgers Guettel. So I was Mary's secretary or assistant. And one of my first jobs was to sign Mary's name to fifteen hundred letters which went out to celebrities asking to buy tickets to the benefit. I could sign Mary's name better than she could.
Glen Nelson: Do you have any funny stories about working on working on that project?
David Fletcher: Oh, I've got great stories. We did those letters up at Avery Fisher Hall, there's a big board room up in the back of Avery Fisher Hall, and we we did those, and it took 24 hours. I slept there. And just on the couch, and just signing these letters because she wanted them hand-signed. I suppose today they wouldn't be hand-signed. They'd be computerized. But then I got to go to the rehearsals of the show which is pretty interesting because you know there's a video of the rehearsals of that show. And I'm telling you ,you don't you don't ever see me in that video but I'm there. I tell people, "Oh, oh, I'm right over here." I was in the room when Elaine Stritch came into the rehearsal room and went over to the corner and took off her pants. She was butt naked from the back, putting on her--whatever, her tights or sweater or something like that. We were all laughing, including Barbara Cook was right there laughing alongside. So yeah, that was a great experience. And again, I remember writing to Sondheim, "You know I'm working for Mary Rodgers," whom he had grown up with, and he loved, really loved. And so that was 1985, the same year I started playing the organ in Manhattan.
Glen Nelson: Yes, that's when I came to town.
David Fletcher: You know that show... They're just another little story. Carol Burnett was asked to be in it. She said yes, and they had intended her to sing "Broadway Baby." And when she found that out she said, "Oh no. I'll be singing 'I'm Still Here," which was supposed to be Elaine Stritch. Carol was never old enough, she wasn't old enough to sing "I'm Still Here." It's supposed to be somebody that's been there forever. And so Elaine Stritch very generously said, "That's fine. I'll do 'Broadway Baby' instead."
Glen Nelson: Really? That's seems a little uncharacteristic of her.
David Fletcher: Oh no. Elaine, I think, was very generous. Yes...
Glen Nelson: ...if she respected you, then you're golden.
David Fletcher: Absolutely. Absolutely right.
Glen Nelson: When I first met you, I didn't know any of this background. All I knew was that your songs were sung in church situations all the time--in worship services, and in concerts, and other events all the time--and my guess is other people at church didn't know about your background either. So what I think would be fun to do now is let's spend a little time talking about the group of songs that you wrote in that period that for me are kind of singular in the literature of our culture because they straddle genres of classical music and Broadway and art song and pop. And I don't think anybody else writes like these songs. I mean, they're there they seem really unique to me. And also, we've been talking too much. We need to listen to some music.
David Fletcher: OK.
Glen Nelson: So here's my here's my idea. I have three different songs. Why don't I just give you a title and then we'll play excerpt, and then why don't you tell me a little bit about how the songs came to be? Maybe you wrote them for a specific person, and something about them that you're proud of. Does that sound cool?
David Fletcher: Yes.
Glen Nelson: All right. So first off is "Eternal Day." [Excerpt: "Eternal Day"]
Glen Nelson: So we just listened to Ariel Bybee singing "Eternal Day." Alisson Eldredge is the cellist, and you're the pianist, if I remember correctly.
David Fletcher: Correct.
Glen Nelson: Tell us about that song.
David Fletcher: "Eternal Day" came in 1992. I had a friend living in California, Charlotte Smurthwaite, who was making a sacred recording. And I guess you don't see the air quotes on the podcast. So she asked me for some original material, and I had really only written one original sacred song, "Weepin' Mary." I'd written one, at that point. And so I sent that to her. But then I came up with two more: "Eternal Day" and "Wondrous Love." I used the same process that I used with "Weepin' Mary" which was I scoured the "Sacred Harp" for some words. "Wondrous Love" is a famous "Sacred Harp" tune, and I decided it would be better to come up with a completely new tune--using the same words. But also I find that tune very melancholy, and I find the actual text of "Wondrous Love" to be very joyous. So specifically set out to make something very different. "Eternal Day" was a little bit more difficult because of the need of the music, but I used two different poems. The verses came from one poem and the choruses came from a different poem, and I put them together with an old melody which I had.
Glen Nelson: It was recycled from something else?
David Fletcher: ... Recycled melody which I had, and I put them together, and it's actually a little bit of an experiment in major sevenths, and you can hear the major sevenths descending in the accompaniment of that first verse of "Eternal Day." That's why I thought it would be best to use that.
Glen Nelson: Ok cool. So you mention Charlotte. So then the next recording we'll hear is from "Wondrous Love," and Charlotte Smurthwaite is singing. That was written for this project?
David Fletcher: Yes.
Glen Nelson: Did that project come through, did she record it?
David Fletcher: Yes, she did, and there is a CD that was released, and she sent those out. She paid me royalties and all of that.
Glen Nelson: Bless her.
David Fletcher: But I also went out to California to do the piano accompaniment. [Excerpt: "Wondrous Love]
David Fletcher: "Wondrous Love" was actually notated. It was a little bit notated for her, but it was more specifically notated when it was published years later. And I just couldn't notate what I had played on that recording. It was too hard. It was too hard for me to notate that.
Glen Nelson: Some of these singers you met while you lived here in New York. Did Charlotte live here in New York?
David Fletcher: She did.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, and there was a tenor, Jonathan Austin, who lived here. Wasn't he like going to school.
David Fletcher: He was in the CES [Church Education System]. He was the institute teacher.
Glen Nelson: The institute teacher.
David Fletcher: Yes, he was.
Glen Nelson: He was this very clear English tenor...
David Fletcher: Very high, very high. It's funny how... This is another thing that we should talk about. I don't know why I like the trained voice sound for my pieces more than a pop sound, and it's not even particularly a Broadway sound. It's more of a trained voice sound--even though Jonathan's voice was really trained. He just sings like that.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, people like him don't come along too often. Let's listen to a section from "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." [Excerpt: "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief"]
Glen Nelson: How did that come about?
David Fletcher: Now it's funny you should say that's an arrangement because...
Glen Nelson: You don't think of it that way?
David Fletcher: Well, it is a piece where I've questioned. When Aaron Copland writes the Old American Songs, are those arrangements or are those compositions using melodies as source material?
Glen Nelson: Well, its title page definitely says, you know, "original American songs," and you know, he gives credit, certainly.
David Fletcher: Certainly, he gives credit, but does it say "arranged by Aaron Copland"?
Glen Nelson: No.
David Fletcher: OK, that's all I'm saying is that "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief"... Yes, we use the melody, and the words that are in the hymn book but, hello, everything else is so completely reinvented. How how is that only an arrangement? You know it's really a composition using a source of a melody.
Glen Nelson: In your head, what does "arrangement" mean? And like a hymn arrangement?
David Fletcher: I don't know, but it's interesting that this has come up because I do think one of the things that I learned in the 80s playing the organ in church is that our church is about the hymns. Right? So they don't really even like other music. They want the hymns, but an arrangement of a hymn is ok, because already the people can be focused on what the words are. If you're if you're talking about an instrumental, you know, the people know what the words are, and they know the melody, so they can follow the arrangement. That's jazz, also. Jazz uses some standard that people already understand what the melody is, and then they can follow.
Glen Nelson: That's the baseline.
David Fletcher: That's the base. They can follow what you're doing that's changing it.
Glen Nelson: And organist is, by nature, arranging because they're constantly adding things to make it new.
David Fletcher: And I guess that's true. That's sort of true. Anyway, because I was an improviser, it kind of fell right into my skill set. What do I do well? If there's a definition of what I've done, it's a composition. It's original to me.
Glen Nelson: Before we leave "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief," was there an occasion that that was written for?
David Fletcher: Yes. Sacrament meeting. Jonathan Austin was asked to sing it. I can't remember who was speaking, but somebody was speaking and asked for that song and asked for all the verses of the song. And Jonathan came to me and I said, you know, "Well, I've never liked this song. It's so slow, and it's so repetitive. So we're gonna have to do something." Even though it has that "poor wayfaring man of grief," it's got that word "grief" in it, and bad things happen to the poor wayfaring man, but really the song is about "I helped him, and that helped me." And every single verse is that. Every single verse is that. So "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" really isn't melancholy. Anyway, we did it. The next day, instant acclaim--I hate to use that word--but the audience got it.
Glen Nelson: If this happened once, it happened two dozen times: every time a performance of yours at church--most of these words were in Sacrament meeting--would occur, after the meeting was over, you would be mobbed. Because you would have members of the congregation who were excited to hear a new thing, completely wanted to communicate with you about that, and then you had this other group, which is very common in New York, a lot of tourists are here, who had never heard anything like this in church, ever, who wanted to come and say, "I love the concept that music like this can exist." Is that accurate the way that I'm describing it?
David Fletcher: Absolutely true. Absolutely true.
Glen Nelson: These three songs are interesting examples to me of style. They differ from hymns and sacred songs in obvious ways, and from Broadway songs they differ, too, and from our songs they differ, but they have elements of all those. What do you make of that? Is it a structure that is different? Is it t he tone that's different?
David Fletcher: Well for "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" in particular, it's a story, and there is no other story in the hymn book. No other. This is a story, so it needs to be told.
Glen Nelson: There's a beginning, a middle, and an end.
David Fletcher: There is a story teller. A story teller. If you listen to Jonathan, he sings more like a Broadway singer. He does not connect the notes. He is singing on the words, not the phrases like an opera singer sings the phrases. If you listen to Ariel Bybee, she's not telling the story in the same way. Jonathan is telling a story. He's communicating the words. It's really very different, actually, than "Weepin' Mary," which is, the words are very repetitive, every verse completely repetitive. It's not telling the story. And the words are instantly understood by the audience, and so they don't need to listen to the words anymore after they get it. You know, then it's just a song that needs to play out. But "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief"... I'm telling you, I scoured the hymnbook to find another song that would work as well. And there isn't one. That's what makes that song. So is it Broadway? Yes, in the sense that it's a storyteller that's more about the kind of action of the story than, per se, the music, but the music still has to... You know, the music is intensifying the story, you know, the last verse where he meets the Savior has to be the visionary first, so the music is going to have to provide that, you know. But yeah, that's really the difference. Also, by the way I should say, I had never before "Weepin' Mary" in 1990, I'd never written an original song, because our church is kind of about hymns. We don't really think about original songs. The only original songs in our church, I guess, are for the primary. We don't really think about that as part of our artistic legacy or something that we need to do. And so just doing "Weepin' Mary" was a bit of a surprise, to do it. And then having done that, and having successfully done that, I would say, then I was freed, "Ok now I can write some more of these."
Glen Nelson: They remind me, in a way, of the anthems that my mom used to sing. She was a fine singer, and she used to sing at every funeral. She was one of those in a small community, and she would sing "The Holy City" and "The Lord's Prayer," and "O Divine Redeemer," and all of those...
David Fletcher: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: ...That also have this narrative arc to them, and they have a dramatic structure more than hymn-like structure with verses and choruses.
David Fletcher: Absolutely true. I should tell you though, I know we're saving "Weepin' Mary" but the truth is I wrote it because I think of myself as the practical musician in the Church. Somebody needs something, I can do it. In fact, I said this before I became the organist, I said, "Whatever anybody wants me to do musically in the church, I will say yes, whatever it is, I will say yes even if I can't do it," and I have done some things that I should never have done. I should never have played Mozart in church. But honestly I will do it and because I'll be that person, then they'll continue to ask me.
Glen Nelson: I have to insert here that there are a lot of musicians in the Church, in my experience here in New York, who don't share that communal feel to the extent that you have, who would say, "Yeah, no. That's not what I do, or no, that's kind of beneath me, or I don't have time," or whatever. And I've always noticed that you, if there's a funeral and somebody calls you up you're, "Yes."
David Fletcher: That's right, and it was totally conscious on my part. And several years, several people have complained. I remember one year the Christmas concert people said, "Why is D. Fletcher playing for everybody?" There's all these other pianists." Guess why?
Glen Nelson: Because they asked you.
David Fletcher: Well, not only did they ask me but they asked me because their other accompanist said, "No." You know, like all these other people said, "No." So I just ended up being the person, "OK, I can do that, too."
Glen Nelson: I'm curious about the availability of your published music.
David Fletcher: I'm very annoyed about that.
Glen Nelson: Have works of yours been published?
David Fletcher: Well, I have six songs in a published book, Jackman Music...
Glen Nelson: Was that the "Sabbath Songs"?
David Fletcher: "Sabbath Songs II". Clayne Robison published them in that book, and you can get that book in different keys--a higher key or lower key or a middle key--and some of them have the cello obligattos that I wrote. I retained the copyright for those, even though Jackman did not want that, I retained the copyright because I kind of figured there's going to be a time when I'm going to want to publish all my works together, or something. And so that book has brought me some money, and I think it's still available you can still buy it. I kind of feel if I'm an artist, that my body,, my piano my fingers are part of the art. So the published versions of my songs particularly "Weepin' Mary"--I don't play it anything like that, and it almost seems foreign to me...
Glen Nelson: The way that is notated? Now when you look at it?
David Fletcher: And I notated it.
Glen Nelson: For the last few minutes we've been teasing "Weepin' Mary", not intentionally but it just comes up so often, so it's been a little bit of time. I remember I went to your apartment once, and you were queued up from a Broadway show a whole bunch of different cast recordings of the same song, and you played them for me. I think the point of it was to show how Broadway orchestras used to be enormous, and over time they just got smaller and smaller and thinner and thinner. And the experience of comparing was just a revelation to me. I assume that everybody does this, but I had never done it. So let's do a little experiment like that with "Weepin' Mary." Why don't you tell us first about the occasion that this was created and where the text came from, just a little bit of background.
David Fletcher: It's very easy to tell. It happened in August of 1990. My friend Kathryn Laycock Little, somebody that I'd known from BYU, had come back to New York to be an actress, met her husband here, and now they were moving back to Utah. She called me and said, "We're moving away next Saturday." And she said, "So I would like to sing in church," and she said, "I would like to sing your arrangement "If You Could Hie to Kolob." And I thought to myself, "Well that's nice, but you won't be able to do it. And how will I have to compromise it." You know it's very high and difficult. So I said, "Let me get back to you." And this was on a Friday, Friday night as I recall. And so I said, "I gotta write something for her. I've got to write a song, something that's very easy." She's a soprano, but she's not like an Ariel [Bybee] soprano. I said, "So let me find something." So I've got this Sacred Harp recording, the original tune to "Weepin' Mary." Actually, it's wonderful but it's very jagged. It's like, [sings] "Are there anybody here like Mary 'a weepin'?" And you wouldn't know, in most cases, if there was an actual composer or not. It will be you know just something that happened, sort of spontaneous.
Glen Nelson: Quote, unquote "traditional."
David Fletcher: So this record that I had of Sacred Harp singing, it was a choral record, and it had the words printed. So as I said, words, I always need words. So I looked there, and I saw that "Weepin' Mary" is really three verses that are all the same, except for one tiny component that's different. And I thought, "OK, I can work with this."
Glen Nelson: Because the structure...
David Fletcher: The structure is perfectly easy. So I listen to the song, which as I said I thought was really wonderful, but it's so jagged. And I decided, well, she's not going to like this. Let's make this smooth. And, you know, pretty. Let's pretty it up. So I wrote it, and it's just verses. That's all it is. It's four verses. But like on Broadway, you can't just do four verses in a row all the same. So on the third one, I decided, "Change the key for the third verse; it'll be a bridge." And so I did that, and then, guess what, I needed a fourth verse. There were only three. So I made it up. I made the fourth verse up.
Glen Nelson: Really. I didn't know that.
David Fletcher: It was easy. So I notated just the melody, and I drove up to her apartment. Now this is Saturday, she's going to be singing Sunday.
Glen Nelson: Did you tell her that you were writing something new?
David Fletcher: I think... I can't remember exactly, but I think I did say, "Well before we do 'Kolob,' let's just wait a minute." And I was supposed to rehearse with her on Saturday, so I drove up to her apartment. They had a piano, and I played it for her. And she cried. "Weepin' Mary". She said, "Oh, we're doing this." So she learned it...
Glen Nelson: Did you sing as you played it for her?
David Fletcher: I sang. And then she recorded it. She recorded it on a little cassette player, and then I practiced with her because I had the melody written out. She was a good musician. So she read it, and then the next day, we did it. And it was like there was something that changed that day. The song was barely written. It has changed certainly since that time, so it was still kind of raw, but that rawness really helped it. Really helped it. And I remember the member of the bishopric afterwards,, you know saying, "Thank you," whatever, talking about the final speaker. He was crying. And I'm telling you, if I could bottle that or if I could get back to that... I don't know. As I say, I really was writing it in a rush and a sense of practicality, something that can be simple enough to be learned and done in 24 hours.
Glen Nelson: Were you in the moment at the time enough to realize what you had?
David Fletcher: I really wasn't. But afterwards, I did say, "Oh! So all of these, I've got hundreds of these Broadway things that may never see the light of day, you know, they're all unfinished, and they're all giving me pain--some sort of pain about their artistry or whatever happened in the collaboration--and here's this little thing that I made, and people are crying, one day later. I said, "Yes. I think I can do this more and more." What's a little bit sad [is] I never really had that. Well, I did--"A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" was the next time that I really sort of felt that. So what I did with "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief" is make it more complex and add dissonances. And so it's really like the art song version of that song. Whereas what I did with "Weepin' Mary" was take an original, very jagged melody and make it sweet and pretty. And so they can respond to the sweet and pretty and then the words are simple enough... And as I say, I've tried to analyze what makes "Weepin' Mary" work. I'm not even sure. I think it's both melacholy, but it's also joyous.
Glen Nelson: First up is Jamie Baer, from her album, "Rejoice Greatly." [Excerpt: "Weepin' Mary"]
Glen Nelson: Second is Ariel Bybee, from her album "Eternal Day." [Excerpt: "Weepin' Mary"]
Glen Nelson: And lastly, Sarah Asplund. [Excerpt: "Weepin' Mary"]
Glen Nelson: It might be interesting for listeners to compare. The opera people have a thicker sound, and the people who have a lighter voice, it changes the tone of it.
David Fletcher: It seems to work for everybody. Actually, one thing I noticed only after the fact is that even though I'm never playing the same notes for any of these, all the ones that I play on are within seconds of a time duration.
Glen Nelson: I'm noticing that the tempos in any given moment of the thing really vary. Like there are some times when Sarah sings the last verse that's very slow. I mean, it's to the point where I'm saying, "How is it possible that someone had breath control that who can get through it?" They speed up and slow down different times but the full length, is what you're saying, are within seconds of each other.
David Fletcher: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: When you go on YouTube and look you search "Weepin' Mary"--and, of course there are other versions of the song, not just yours--but many of them refer to it as an African-American spiritual.
David Fletcher: Well, there is one. There's a whole other version of "Weepin' Mary" by Burleigh.
Glen Nelson: In 1917, Harry Thacker Burleigh, who was a baritone and in his day--he was African-American--and he published a version for solo voice and women's chorus and G. Ricordi, which is a big deal publisher, published it. And a 1920s recording of Paul Robeson exists. Burleigh's kind of cool. When Antonín Dvorák came to the US and was writing "Symphony from the New World," he had Burleigh come over every day and sing spirituals to him. And he also coached a whole bunch of these singers like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and others. The tune is different, but the sensibility's certainly the same. Do you that there's an African American connection in the song, at all?
David Fletcher: I really don't. No. And his version is more based on the original but still quite different. In fact, you know, one Christmas, Ariel sang "Weepin' Mary" in the Christmas concert, and then the next day we we went up to the spirituals in Harlem. They used to do it every year. And we sang "Weepin' Mary" up there, and they were disappointed.
Glen Nelson: Because it wasn't the version...
David Fletcher: It wasn't the spiritual. But it is true. I think people... as I said, it's meant to sound like an art song version of an old folk song. That's what it's meant to sound like. And people don't see that composed by David Fletcher. They think somehow this is some old tune that they can do whatever they want with, you know.
Glen Nelson: Well, let's talk about the way that people take a song and do whatever it is they're going to do with it. The readiest example to my mind is what's happened with your song on YouTube. So if you go to YouTube and you search "Weepin' Mary" and the word "Fletcher," there are a dozen or more. And they've changed over time. I've seen some appear and disappear over time, and some of them are pretty good, and some of them were pretty terrible. I don't know if you agree with that assessment or not, but there's a pretty wide range. You have everything from tweens singing in their bedroom a capella, with a camera just at them, to other people who you have coached and performed this with over time, or people who are singing it in church congregations. I found one version sung by a guy from the EskDale community do you know what that is?
David Fletcher: I don't. Is that something... It's Utah though.
Glen Nelson: It's Utah. So there there was a there is a guy named Dr. M.L. Glendenning, and he founded a religious community called the House of Aaron. And at the time, it was a ton of former LDS members. And if you go to Delta, which is sort of in the middle of that state, and you go all the way to the west where the Nevada border is, that's where this community is, and so you had a singer on YouTube from that community, and he's in his church singing that, which is kind of fun for me to see how it's transcended, you know, the LDS community. What do you make of these different versions of "Weepin' Mary" and the way that it's kind of become its own animal?
David Fletcher: Well, it's hard for me to... I don't mind. I like the fact that people like it and they want to sing it. I like that. I'm torn in particular people... Like a bunch of those say "Old traditional song" or "Old African-American spiritual" or something. In other words, they don't realize it came from me. They probably are not doing it purposefully illegally. They just don't realize that it's something I wrote. So that's hurtful.
Glen Nelson: You know, I've seen one version where they change the words however they want.
David Fletcher: I don't like that.
Glen Nelson: I saw one version of two women singing it, and they've added harmony that's kind of terrible. I mean, it's so not your version of harmony.
David Fletcher: I totally agree.
Glen Nelson: And then there's another version that I saw. There's a gentleman is accompanying it, and it's just so over his head that a certain point he just gives up, and it's like the notes underneath are not connecting in any way to what the vocalist is doing. [Laughs] So you can't love that.
David Fletcher: I guess... I don't know. I guess every composer--that's what I was trying to say; I could be totally wrong about this--every composer has to deal with, you know, their children, their work going there and being hacked to death by somebody. You know, Sondheim has told people time and again when you audition for him don't sing one of his songs. You know, sing something else, please, because he has a specific way he wants to hear it, and if you don't do it that way, it's going to be a black mark against you. I actually think "Weepin' Mary" is a song that can be interpreted. I don't mind that and even that pop music version which I'll show you in a second, but I don't I hate it. But I do hate the fact that I am not credited or given any attention for having done it.
Glen Nelson: Yeah, that's completely fair, I think.
David Fletcher: But one thing I really don't like: people change the words. They change that "Are there anybody here?" to "Is there anybody?" OK, I get it. It sounds archaic and wrong, that "Are there." But that is part of the charm of that song. That archaic sound...
Glen Nelson: It's a historical text.
David Fletcher: But also there is something even more deep than that which is "Are there" meaning, all of you, out there who are weeping like Mary. Not "Is there" one of you. All of you who feel this way. You know, so I don't like that. And actually on Youtube I will say, "Please please sing the original words. Don't change those."
Glen Nelson: Do they respond to you when you post something like that?
David Fletcher: I did have one person respond and say, "I don't see how you think you can take credit for this old song."
Glen Nelson: That is an interesting thing, what we were referring to earlier about where this line of originality and arrangement comes in.
David Fletcher: Well, I do think what happened to "Weepin' Mary" it might not have happened if it had been published right up front. But instead it got spread around. It got spread around on sheet music just willy nilly.
Glen Nelson: So somebody had a copy and then they xeroxed it, and somebody said, "Oh what was that song you sang?"
David Fletcher: Totally.
Glen Nelson: "I'd love to sing that, too."
David Fletcher: "Can I have that?" I know specifically some people that did that--just copied it for whoever that wanted it. So now the song... Actually Clayne Robison, right BYU used it in all of his master classes of singers, made everybody sing it. So on the one hand, wow, that's great! So now it's really popular. And now all of these people, without buying it, have a copy of it, you know. That's why I said it's practically in the public domain. Like it's out of my control, really. It is published, and I could sue everybody, but suing people... They're going to sing this in church, you know?
Glen Nelson: I'm a big fan of all the people who have sung it. Even these people on YouTube. There's just, I don't know, there's something compelling about most of them. I had asked you years ago if you had an idealised sound in your head of who would be singing it. And I think at the time you told me it was like a Country Western singer...
David Fletcher: Like Emmylou Harris. No, but I will tell you this and this--and this will tie everything together back with theater--Sondheim has retained something from earlier times in musicals, which is a style of singing, which tries to be playing without too much personal style. What that means pop singers... So if you want to listen to Idina Menzel singing from "Wicked," you're going to hear her specific slurring, her specific thing that sounds very pop. She's terrific at doing it. And if she was in a Sondheim show, he would say, "Don't do any of those. None of those." Yes, you're telling the story. Words are important, but you have to slowly eliminate everything that isn't the character. And to me that pop style isn't the character, that's you. That's what a pop singer is meant to do. They're drawing attention to themselves. One time, I asked Sarah Asplund to sing "Weepin' Mary" and to "pop it up" as much as possible, to slur and appoggiaturas, and ornaments everywhere. And she was great! She did it very well. And the soul of the song just went right to the floor.
Glen Nelson: Interesting.
David Fletcher: So because it became about the singer: "Look what I do with this. I can't really make this something." So, what's my favorite voice? The perfect, simple voice. Obviously, everybody sings in a style. Even high opera singers sing in a kind of style. But as simple as you can get it. The thing that characterizes, particularly, theater sopranos from opera sopranos or pops pop singers is that they're trying very hard not to have any style. And then once we get into the other writers of musicals, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, it's all slurring and styling: everybody.
Glen Nelson: Of the versions of the song that I've heard of "Weepin' Mary," there's something special about the way that Sarah Asplund sings it. It completely knocks me out. What has your collaboration with her been like? How did you meet her?
David Fletcher: It's funny about Sarah. She showed up--she and Peter--showed up in ward choir one Sunday morning in September of '98, and Jonathan and Cynthia Austin had just moved, and they had moved down to Virginia. And I was kind of despondent thinking, "I'm not going to have any good choir..." And here these voices. I hear these voices.
Glen Nelson: Peter's her husband.
David Fletcher: Yeah, Peter's her husband. And then Sarah asked me if I would play, if I could accompany her. She was doing "The Rake's Progress," Stravinsky. And I was like making bad noises out of that, and I said, "You know..." And by the way, this brings up that other thing I say, I always say yes. I said yes to her, but I did tell her at the time, "You know, there are going to be better people to do this than me.
Glen Nelson: If you want a note-perfect accompanist...
David Fletcher: If you want somebody that really understands and knows how to make this music, you should get somebody else. But then, right at that moment, like in November of '98 is when Deseret Book contacted me to say, "We would like a demo." Here's Sarah. So I said, "Can we put 'The Rake's Progress' aside for a mo and go in and do a bunch of my songs? "If you're willing to do," that is what I said, "I will write you and Peter a duet for the Christmas concert," which I did.
Glen Nelson: You alluded to this earlier, when you're playing a work of your own, you have a version printed on a score in front of you, but you're not wedded to it. You're improvising to some extent.
David Fletcher: I wish there was a way to notate that. I wish there was a way to notate the actual notes not that important.
Glen Nelson: Do a hierarchy of notes in the score?
David Fletcher: I don't know. I don't know. How would you notate that? I mean really just saying, "Here's what the rhythm is..." Well, you know, when I was professional musician, I was always called to do "Jesus Christ Superstar" because the keyboard book is just chords.
Glen Nelson: They're like sheets?
David Fletcher: They're exactly... They're lead sheets, and sometimes they'll give a measure that kind of shows you know what they want, and that's it. And so they need somebody who can do that, who can improvise.
Glen Nelson: Let's play now the last verse of "Weepin' Mary" with Sarah singing, and I'd like listeners to pay a little attention too to your playing, which I think is as lush and orchestral as I've never heard from you.
David Fletcher: It's supposed to sound a little like a guitar. The keyboard is supposed to sound like a picking guitar. But then, when I... It was Ariel, actually, this was in Christmas of 1991. Ariel asked to do it at the Christmas concert, and when I practiced with Ariel--I don't know what she was doing, she was, like doing some Judy Collins-y kind of thing, if you can imagine. And I said, "Don't, don't do that. Just sing your normal voice, your normal big opera voice, let's just hear what that sounds like." Ariel's got a big mezzo voice. And so as a result, I had to improvise a sort of a richer lower keyboard accompaniment to match Ariel. And all of a suddenI had this Brahms thing going on. So as a result of that... And I've had so many people say to me, "Why isn't 'Weepin' Mary' in the published book like Ariel's recording?"
Glen Nelson: And that's what we're responding to but they just didn't know...
David Fletcher: They just didn't know.
Glen Nelson: Yeah. Here again is Sarah Asplund. [Excerpt: "Weepin' Mary"] So when you hear that now, what goes through your mind?
David Fletcher: Oh, there is something about Sarah. She's got this sound that catches the overtones so perfectly that you... The pitch is just sublime. I don't think humans... And actually, a lot, plenty of people don't want that. They want the pitch to be weird. You know, that can be very exciting, too. But if there's a voice that this song really was written for, it's definitely her.
Glen Nelson: I have a difficult time disassociating the sound of the singer from my personal connection with them, and when I'm listening to her sing, I just think, "This is the loveliest person I know." [Laughs] Of course her voice sounds like that.
David Fletcher: She kind of is. Do you remember that... It was when we were doing the Joseph Smith songs and she also sang "Weepin' Mary" pregnant, completely pregnant with her child that's graduating from high school, and she just has that, that sound.
Glen Nelson: When you were composing a lot, what was your compositional process? You strike me as the kind of person who has a text written out, you put it on the piano and then you improvise and play around with it. How do you develop a melody?
David Fletcher: Exactly. A song like "Weepin' Mary" is definitely me playing at the piano chords and me singing. That's how I come up with the melody. I sing against the chords. And I would say most of my, certainly most of my most familiar pieces, were done that way.
Glen Nelson: In the late '80s, notation composition software called Finale was introduced. 1.0 is from 1988, and you were an early adopter, as I remember. I remember you were teaching other composers how to use it.
David Fletcher: Yes.
Glen Nelson: And so for people who don't know who might be listening, it's just a software program, and people who who are generating a printed score would use this software essentially to do their notation, which can be very complex. When that came along, did that change the way that you wrote music?
David Fletcher: You know it really didn't. Although when I did do that "Swirling World of Ersatz Earth," I used the computer, and I used Finale, and in a lot of ways, I think it was a mistake.
Glen Nelson: Well let's listen to an excerpt of that. That was a piece that you wrote based on a painting by Lane Twichell that has a visual path that's sort of this swirling vortex that goes from the outside in, like a spiral, and then the music basically follows that same path. So we'll listen to the last section of it. [Excerpt: "The Swirling World of Ersatz Earth"]
David Fletcher: The only reason I thought that it was kind of a mistake, it's because the computer aided me in writing the piece, and therefore it became sort of humanly impossible to do.
Glen Nelson: Which was never the case when you were just at the piano composing because obviously you were going to play it.
David Fletcher: Well, I wrote all the little bits, you know, the same way for "Swirling World"...
Glen Nelson: The layers of it...
David Fletcher: But the layers, and of course, and there's a lot of repetition, and so I would just like I would put those in by step and repeat in Finale. That's a piece that is fully notated that I cannot play.
Glen Nelson: Right.
David Fletcher: So there's something wrong if I can't even play it, then...
Glen Nelson: I don't know if I agree with you. I mean, if you were a soundtrack composer writing for a film, that's how you would build up a score.
David Fletcher: Ok but that's a that's a different animal. Like actually there's nothing wrong if the artwork is actually the recording that you make.
Glen Nelson: The end product.
David Fletcher: If that's the end product, then that's fine. But if the end product is you want Grant Johannesen, who was this great pianist, to be able to play it and have him record it live, then no. That was a mistake.
Glen Nelson: And you had written that project for him right before he died. Your career is taken a bunch of different twists and turns. What kind of work are you doing now?
David Fletcher: Well, I am the same person that I have always been, which means I'm still the church organist, I'm still the accompanist that plays for, you know whatever the singers need me to play for them-- classical and pop people. I still do arrangements. I'm still available to do any recordings, but meanwhile I had a whole middle career where I worked in design studio doing print work, and I'm available to do some of those things, too. And people periodically ask me to do some of those things, and I do those, including doing all the notation for that "Mormoniana." I did that, and to make extra money in the last five years, I have taken some work as a background person--they call it background not extras--but it's extras, as an extra actor in movies and television. And I have been surprisingly successful at doing that.
Glen Nelson: I will see you... Because I like TV and I like going to movies. You pop up all the time, like you're busy. [Laughs] Can you give us some titles of movies and TV projects that you've been on.
David Fletcher: Well, I've been in all the Woody Allen movies in the last four years. I was in the Spielberg film, "Bridge of Spies." You could really see me in that. I was in... And of course, all the TV shows. Hugh Jackman "The Greatest Showman." And you see me quite a lot in that. And I was in, as I say, on television, "Gotham," in "Elementary" and "Blue Bloods," "Law and Order."
Glen Nelson: Anything that's filmed here, essentially.
David Fletcher: Anything that's filmed here. In my first two years, I made a goal of getting on everything that was filmed here, and I succeeded, so, I was...
Glen Nelson: Do you just have that face? It is a malleable face, a period face?
David Fletcher: I think it is, but I also think they like people to be dependable. It's not all that different from being in the church and saying, yes. They just like people that say, "Yes, I'll be there," and then show up.
Glen Nelson: Back to music, a little bit, is there something that you've wanted to write but haven't gotten around to?
David Fletcher: Oh, there are many things I wish I could write. You know, it's funny you talk about me being ambition-less...
Glen Nelson: No, you said that. I didn't say that.
David Fletcher: No. I say I talk about me being ambition-less. I am ambition-less in the sense of no need to be an artist of note or famous, or... But there are some ideas that I've had that I kind of wish... In many cases, I'm not sure I'm even capable of making them. Years ago, I had an idea for an opera, "The Long Christmas Dinner" by Thornton Wilder, which turns out to be an opera already by a famous composer, but I have thought that would be a great opera. I have an idea also for a movie about, actually, Marilyn Monroe that I think would be a terrific movie if I could get somebody to write it and make it. [Laughs]
Glen Nelson: Other than that...
David Fletcher: But I don't really have... Now I think I have added--and certainly if we're talking about music in the church--I would like to hope that I've made an unusual and unique, a mark that not everybody's doing. I don't think people are writing these solos like this. I don't think people are writing... You know the church music is either the Tab Choir or it's kind of the Mormon pop.
Glen Nelson: Because of your work at the organ... And sometimes I heard you say that you don't really consider yourself to be an organist, I mean, like you've done it and do it great, but compared to somebody who trained to be an organist...
David Fletcher: Not at all.
Glen Nelson: ...is not the same as you.
David Fletcher: Yeah.
Glen Nelson: But you have a way of making the hymns sound very fresh. I don't know exactly how you do it, but they seem different when you play it.
David Fletcher: I don't know how I do that, either. Again, it's something... Like I can't help but think... Several times, not just once, a real organist--somebody who really knows how to play--has shown up in our stake, and inevitably those people tell me, "You do everything wrong. Everything wrong. You're not supposed to play the bass with your left hand. You're not supposed..." And I used to get very annoyed and worried and think, "Oh, I gotta fix this." But now I think, "That must be it. That's the thing that makes it fresh. Because I'm doing it wrong." And so it's only wrong in terms of the training, right? But it's right in terms of the audience, congregation's never heard it this way.
Glen Nelson: Right. There is a freshness to it. I think that you also bring this mini-drama. The songs have an arc, often with some climactic moment that are sometimes surprising. It's not, you know, what you would imagine always. And I've been to more than one funeral when you just played a song at the piano, like a primary song, in such a way... And sometimes, I've heard you drop out of a verse and just have it be a capella for a minute, I've heard you be grand and then pull back to almost nothing. Always though appropriate for the text. It's really tasteful choices that you're making.
David Fletcher: You can't... One thing I have learned, actually, by trial and error, that you can't really change the harmonies for hymns.
Glen Nelson: Because people are singing the parts?
David Fletcher: In our church, people are singing the parts. And if you change the harmony too much, they, first of all, they get distracted. They're like, "Where are we?" But then also they'll stop singing, drop out. Actually, Jeff Pugh is somebody who told me, "Don't do that that much."
Glen Nelson: Yeah. He's on Broadway right now in "Frozen." I was once talking with Bob Cundick about this, and he didn't want anybody in a congregation to sing any harmony at all. He wanted them just to sing the unison.
Glen Nelson: Well, anybody listening to this can tell from this podcast that I can hardly express how wonderful it's been to be your friend and watch this music of yours spread and grow. On behalf of the Mormon Arts Center, I want to thank David Fletcher for being our guest today. It's an honor to know you, truly. We've listened to a bunch of D's music, all used with permission of the composer, and a final excerpt in a minute from "All Creatures of Our God and King," sung by the late, great Ariel Bybee, with Alison Eldridge at the cello and D at the piano. You can learn more about the Mormon Arts Center by going to our website: mormonartscenter.org. To learn more about D's music, go to the encyclopedia on our website, and search for his name. It includes a narrative article about him, links to a sampling of online recordings, and a catalog of his complete works--which I'm finding,, after this podcast is not complete at all. We need to update that, D. It's part of the project of the Center to document, as far as possible, all known works by LDS composers. So check that out. I'm your host Glen Nelson in New York. G'bye.