Bay City native Leeds Birds and Kevin Cole met 45 years ago at auditions for the musical “Anything Goes,” which Bird directed. There wasn’t a part for a 14-year-old boy, but Bird created a character to include the teenager.
“I asked the choreographer to include the kids in a couple of dances,” Bird said. “The audiences loved it.”
It was the beginning of a collaboration that spans a variety of musical genres and composers, including adaptations; original stories and music; and most recently “A Carol of the Birds,” a Christmas-themed musical play debuting at Bay City Players in November.
A Career is Born
“I saw ‘Kismet’ at Bay City Players when I was in third grade,” Cole said. “It changed my life.”
This performance led the budding performer to a career in the theater and on the concert stage, most notably as the country’s foremost George Gershwin pianist.
Fast-forward to 1978. Cole is home from Interlochen and assumes musical director duties for a production of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” which Bird was directing.
“Kevin was 19,” Bird said. “He said, ‘I think we should write a musical together.’ I said, ‘I think you should find somebody else.’ I basically gave him a homework assignment with a couple of scripts. I thought that would get rid of him, but he kept coming back.”
Cole’s persistence paid off. The pair’s first major collaboration began when he discovered the novels “Life With Father” and “Life With Mother” in a New York drama bookstore.
“I could see how the stories could mix,” Bird said. “Parts of Act I could move to Act II and vice versa.”
With the script and songs in hand, the writing partners presented the show for a Connecticut audience.
“The potential producer didn’t want the script,” Bird explained. “He wanted to write his own. And he didn’t want Kevin’s music. He wanted Kevin to do music for his own ideas.”
Another presentation for the daughter of American playwright Russel Crouse (who controlled access to the stories) didn’t fare well either.
“It was an omen,” Bird said. “Although she was very nice she said we couldn’t play any of Kevin’s music because Irving Berlin supposedly stole a tune from his chauffer. I guess she didn’t want a situation where we would accuse someone of stealing Kevin’s melodies. The door literally slammed on us.”
The setbacks didn’t dampen their enthusiasm.
“We learned something very positive during that process,” Cole said. “(Gershwin biographer and Bay City native) Ed Jablonski said to Leeds, ‘Next to Ira Gershwin, you’re my favorite lyricist.’ I knew then we were on to something.”
Sometimes It’s Who You Know
“Mary Chelf Jones, my vocal instructor from Interlochen, was retiring to Kentucky,” Cole said. “I suggested that she should see how we do shows at Bay City Players. She was so impressed that she wanted to do the same thing in Harrodsburg. That turned into our summer production of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ (in 1983).”
Jones knew local resident Betty Kern Miller, Jerome Kern’s daughter, who controlled the rights to his music. Cole played for Miller, who was so enchanted with his interpretation of her father’s music that she said, “It’s like you’re a whole orchestra by yourself.” The fact that Cole, 59, shares a birthday with Jerome Kern sealed the deal. The result was “RSVP Jerome Kern,” which debuted at Bay City Players in 1985.
“There is essentially no story,” Bird said. “The process involves looking at the music. Can you connect it? Does it make sense? Is there drama?”
Getting It Together
“Once the music choices were made, we had to figure out the combinations,” said Cole. “Is this going to be a solo, duo or an ensemble piece? … There was interest, and then there wasn’t. So, we just put it aside.”
For several years, the team continued to direct established shows while honing their working relationship. The writing duo’s work sessions could be described as enthusiastic. Bird’s communication style is precise, and his wit is dry and sharp. Cole is passionate and expressive in his musical choices. In the early years, it could become, if not contentious, perhaps challenging.
The next original piece, “A Shine on Your Shoes,” debuted in 2007. “We were looking for another music catalog, and I suggested Dietz and Schwartz,” Cole explained. Lyricist Howard Dietz and composer Arthur Schwartz collaborated on 11 Broadway shows, writing standards such as “That’s Entertainment” and “Dancing in the Dark,” among others. Bird combined the rich history of Interlochen with influences from the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Repertory Theatre to create “A Shine on Your Shoes.”
“I needed to come up with a story, and I didn’t think I could write original stuff,” Bird said. “I wrote the whole script on a plane. I had ideas, but nothing on paper. I started writing when we left Saginaw and I was pretty much finished when we got to Budapest.”
Bird Revises Bird
Their latest collaboration is inspired by a novella read to Bird as a child: “The Bird’s Christmas Carol” by Kate Douglas Wiggin. “Leeds showed me the book at least 20 years ago,” Cole said. When Bay City Players was struggling recently to find a good Christmas play without high-end technical and production costs, Bird decided now was the time for “A Carol of the Birds.” “When I pitched the idea to Bay City Players, we had yet to write a word or a note,” Bird explained. That, of course, leads to the chicken and egg question composing teams are often asked: “Which comes first, music or lyrics?”
“We’ve worked both ways,” Cole said. “For ‘Life With,’ I wrote the music first. For “Carol,” Leeds handed me lyrics for five new songs.” And, perhaps fittingly, their working relationship has become more collaborative.
“ ‘A Carol of the Birds’ is about a wealthy family living near a poorer one,” Bird explained. “That lends itself to a lot of things from
the Depression.” Thus, the story’s original setting moves from 1888 to 1935 and now includes references to Bird’s own English immigrant family.
Born on Christmas Day, Carol Bird embodies the generosity of the Christmas season, a quality she exhibits with her own family as well as with the Ruggles, their rough-and-tumble neighbors. The story covers several Christmases and both families while highlighting Carol’s unique empathy.
“Theaters with the ability to provide high-end production values could certainly make this a much bigger show,” Bird said. “But the whole idea was to write something churches and smaller community groups could do very nicely without a lot of technical capability.”
It’s been an eventful year for Cole. A diagnosis of acoustic neuroma, a golf-ball-sized brain tumor near his right ear, led to surgery in March. His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. Precisely eight weeks following the procedure, he took on the unprecedented challenge of playing all four Gershwin pieces for piano and orchestra – in one concert – with the Albany Symphony. Back to a full performance schedule, he is also composing five original songs for “A Carol of the Birds.”
“For me as a child seeing Leeds on stage, to be in a show he directed, to be working alongside him as director and then to be collaborating with him as writers, that’s quite an evolution with a person and a friendship,” Cole said. “It’s just been really exciting for me because (“A Carol of the Birds”) is more personal than the others. How do I say it?”
“It’s for anybody who comes from a family,” Bird added.
Performances of “A Carol of the Birds” at Bay City Players are schedule for Nov. 29 through Dec. 2 and Dec. 6-9.
40 Years of Collaboration
* (All productions at Bay City Players except where indicated)
Leeds Bird, director
Kevin Cole, music director
“How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” (1978)
“Tonight At 8:30” (1981)
“Annie Get Your Gun” (1983, Kentucky)
“How to Succeed at the Best Little Playhouse in Michigan with the Sound of Musicals” (1984)
“The Four Poster” (1984)
“RSVP Jerome Kern” (1985)
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (1986)
“Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” (1989)
“RSVP Jerome Kern” (1996, Michigan Ensemble Theatre)
“Kiss Me, Kate” (2000)
“A Shine on Your Shoes” (2007)
“Always, Patsy Cline” (2016)
“My Fair Lady” (2017)