BY DAVID NOH | If any one person wrote the music soundtrack of our lives in the 1970s, that would have to be Paul Williams, composer of “Evergreen,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “The Rainbow Connection,” “Old-Fashioned Love Song,” “Love Boat Theme,” that wedding perennial “We’ve Only Just Begun,” etc.
He’s the subject of a marvelous documentary, “Paul Williams Still Alive” (opens Jun.8, Angelika, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.; angelikafilmcenter.com), directed by Stephen Kessler, a fan who basically stalked him into submission and got his full story, from the heady drug-fueled days of his jukebox glory through recovery and now perfect contentment as an artist still touring and the dedicated president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP. Over breakfast at the Park Lane Hotel, Williams, a brilliant raconteur in that hip, crusty way true musicians often show, regaled me in his irresistibly inimitable style.
“It’s been a great surprise to me, the way this film has been received,” he said. “I’ve avoided writing my memoirs because is there anything more disgusting than some little old man saying, ‘Please, sir, may I have some more fame?’ I wasn’t sure that I wanted to deal with everything again, because I love my life and have a great balance with my ASCAP work. But I’m really glad I did it because it says a lot about recovery, and is also really funny. It’s not a traditional documentary at all, but about the filmmaking process and the humor of this stalker becoming a brother.”
Williams started out as an actor, making his debut in the classic black comedy “The Loved One” at age 24: “In my childhood, there was a movie that blew me away that I watched with my mother when I was about 9, ‘With a Song in My Heart.’ Remember, Susan Hayward playing [singer] Jane Frohman? ‘Don’t take her leg!’ [Laughs.] I remember her singing to the troops and that was the music I loved, the Great American Songbook, Crosby, ‘Moonlight Becomes You,’ ‘Here’s That Rainy Day.’
“When I started writing songs, the music I had loved as a kid became my music school; the structure — two verses, a bridge, and a chorus. Always heavy-duty melody, and I write codependent anthems. My favorite love song I ever wrote is ‘That’s Enough for Me,’ which had a line about how ‘our pleasure makes me cry’ and everybody was like, ‘God, that’s so brave of you!’ and I was like, ‘That’s part of me!’ I’m totally in touch with my feminine side.
I told Williams that, because of his androgynous image and outrageous wardrobe — as a USC college kid, I remember seeing him at a movie premiere in a floor-length white fur coat — many assumed he was gay: “Oh, yeah, I know. I loved trying to be David Bowie. A lot of people thought I was gay, except most gay men thought, ‘No, he’s not very attractive.’ I got luckier with the women [laughs]. I’ve never been with a man, but I’m not dead yet…
“Oh, God, I finally get to talk about this: you remember in 1977 [orange juice pitchwoman] Anita Bryant had this whole anti-gay campaign? I was in San Francisco, and I took out an ad in Variety that said ‘Mr. and Mrs. Paul Williams, in response to Anita Bryant’s campaign, have stopped drinking dot dot dot.’
“The story got picked up by the Associated Press, so it went all around the world. I’d go to my dressing room and there’d be a stack of mail without return addresses, and I knew what that was going to be, and a few with addresses, thanking me for the stand we took. To this day, I will be standing on a set and someone on the crew will say, ‘You know what? The ad — thank you!’ but I’d never gotten such hate mail in my life.”
Williams’ encounters with showbiz legends alone could fill a book: “My manager called me, saying Mae West wants to talk to you about writing the songs for her movie, ‘Sextette.’ I went up to her great apartment, Ravenswood, with this kinda muscle guy she lived with. Everything was white, shag rug, and a copy of Life magazine from the 1940s with her on the cover, like time travel.
“After a while, she came out, fully made up, in a flowing negligee, and she must have been in her 80s then. She sat down and there was not a lot of conversation, so, finally, her friend said, ‘You know, Paul just wrote the songs for the new version of “A Star is Born.”’ ‘Oh!,’ she said, ‘I love that one!’ and sang, ‘The night is bitter…’
“I started to go, ‘No, it wasn’t…’ but she gave me this look, and I stopped, and to this day, I don’t know if she was putting me on. It will remain a mystery for my entire life — I think she was, but how hip to do that!
“When I did work on the ‘A Star is Born,’ Streisand asked me, ‘What do you need to write?’ Jokingly, I said, ‘White wine and macadamia nuts at my fingertips,’ and the next time I was at her house, they were at every table. I was being fitted for a tuxedo when the phone rang and my wife came in and said, ‘It’s Barbra Streisand.’ I was like ‘Hi,’ and she said, ‘You wrote a song called ‘You and Me Against the World.’ There’s this place at the end of the picture where I find this song that [Kris Kristofferson’s character] was working on, and I wanted to talk with you about writing that song,’ which became ‘With One More Look at You.’
“She gave me this little melody [for “Evergreen”], and I still have a tape of her playing the guitar, looking for the chords, and singing ‘Love dadadadeedada,’ and I’m going, ‘I love it! It’s gorgeous!’ But I had to write the other stuff first, and she kept asking, ‘Where’s my love theme?’
“The first two lines I wrote were ‘Love, fresh as the morning air/ Love, soft as an easy chair’ and I called her and said, ‘You know what? It sings better if you flip them. They’ll probably laugh us out of town, but dig it [sings it]. ‘Morning’ sings better than ‘Easy’ there. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘That’s cool. Bye!’
“‘With One More Look at You’ is one of my favorite songs, an homage to the 1954 version when James Mason would say to Judy Garland, ‘Hold on. I just want to take another look.’ I had the verse on a napkin with three lines underlined when I sang it to her, and, after she heard it, she said those exact three lines could have been better. Like a heat-seeking missile, she knew what worked for her, she knows music.
“She gave me a chance to do something that reflected amazingly on my children’s lives, and I don’t think I ever really thanked her as I should have. I was too busy being cool, but she’s a spectacular talent and I love that she always puts ‘Evergreen’ on every album, love it when another version comes out.”
“The great thing about my career is I caught the third act of Crosby, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella, and Torme, who recorded my songs, and today I’m president of ASCAP and can fight for these kids to make sure they can make a living with their music. I wrote songs for the movie ‘Bugsy Malone’ in the styling of Ella and Torme and later on, they both recorded them. You don’t get luckier than that.”
I told Williams that the star of ‘Bugsy,’ Jodie Foster, was, in those days, a dead ringer for him: “We were interchangeable. She was a little more butch than me, but other than that… Now I look like a cross between Hayley Mills and Jo Stafford, with a dash of Skip E. Lowe.”
If you’d dropped a bomb on the Marriott Marquis on May 24, the entire Broadway season would have been wiped out as almost every actor on the boards right now was there for the New Dramatists lunch honoring Bernadette Peters. Peters was there, amazingly ageless as ever, with curls and “girls” (in her ubiquitous low décolletage) on display, receiving glowing tributes, including one from Elaine Stritch, whose memory failed her at the beginning of an anecdote, and after she looked to her accompanist for help, said, “I asked for a prompt and got, ‘You’re doing good!’”
I asked Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tony nominee for “Ghost” and so deserving for the bighearted brashness and joyful musicality she brings, if she felt as completely at home and comfortable onstage as she seems.
“Yes, I love it!,” she responded. “Stepping into the shoes of Whoopi Goldberg [who originated her role in the movie] was amazing, but I didn’t get bogged down in what she did. She got nominated for a reason — she’s fabulous, obviously. But, like anything else, if you want to do Shakespeare, what does the text tell you about your interpretation? You do the work, and I knew that would be the biggest downfall if I tried to recreate what Whoopi did because it’s a musical for a reason. It’s not ‘Ghost Part 2,’ you know.
“I started singing in church and am a classically trained opera singer. I was home, in bed, when I heard about my Tony nomination. I’d asked my assistant to call me if something happened and she did that morning, and it’s amazing, fabulous, thrilling, and I’m taking the ride as it comes.
“I have so many influences — Aretha, Whitney, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the list goes on and on. It’s great to be an artist in this generation where we have so many wonderful artists to look up to. I feel very solidified to have this great library of research. When I was younger, I would watch Turner Classic Movies, tons of old movies with my grandmother — Greta Garbo, all that stuff I grew up with.
“Dream role? At the beginning, I wanted to play Rafiki [in “The Lion King”] so bad, but now I would love to do a biopic of Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald, whatever is open.”
“Ghost” was lambasted by the critics but, far more mysteriously, “End of the Rainbow” was praised to the skies, and Tracie Bennett seems a sure bet for Tony’s Best Actress. While she’s undoubtedly energetic and fearless (but completely clueless as to the correct gestures to use while singing), the show is a steaming pile of ordure, an incredibly vulgar and witless desecration of the last days of Judy Garland’s life.
I started to seethe near the very beginning, when “Judy” falsely recalled going to classes at MGM with Deanna Durbin and Elizabeth Taylor (who would have been about four at the time), and then had to watch her click her heels with groaning obviousness at any mention of travel, rut around stage like a dog in heat, and shriek “Suck my cock!” in some insanely ludicrous approximation of the star’s legendary wit.
It was frankly horrendous, not helped at all by the queasy, depressingly retro portrait of a homosexual assistant (Michael Cumpsty) or the nasty depiction Garland’s last (ineptly acted) husband, Mickey Deans, as a hustling drug enabler. It was all enough to make me want to demand that all involved be flogged — or at least turn in their gay cards immediately for such shameful shamelessness.