Journalists are celebrated in a new musical at Theater for the New City, titled “America’s Favorite Newscaster.” The play chronicles how a highly-rated television journalist copes with the relentless struggle to maintain his insightful and fearless demeanor in the face of ever-more-troubling news reports.

Playwright and lyricist Tom Attea wrote the book for this performance, having been inspired by his own experience writing copy for newspapers and magazines and working alongside journalists. Tom recently granted an exclusive interview where he discussed this theatrical project, the true-life stories behind it, and more.

Journalism inspires theater

Meagan Meehan (MM): You mentioned that you previously have worked for newspapers and magazines. Where did you work, and what made you want to pursue that line of work?

Tom Attea (TA): I began in publishing at Grolier. Later, I was accepted into the copy training program at McCann-Erickson. Copywriting enabled me to support myself as a writer in a way that does not require a large volume of words. I could reserve enough mental energy to create literary work, which is the reason I came to New York from the small town in Pennsylvania where I grew up.

Within a few years, I became an award-winning copywriter and then a creative director at a number of ad agencies, including Young & Rubicam, Interpublic, and smaller creative agencies.

During this time, I enjoyed writing ad copy for some news organizations, including Time Magazine, The Village Voice, and WABC-TV News. Later, I also wrote ad copy The New York Sun and Lifetime cable TV. I often met with management. For example, I would occasionally sit with the editor-in-chief and other editors of Time when they decided on the cover story.

They would prepare five alternatives and then select the one they felt was the most timely. Along the way, I passed up opportunities to be the top creative director at two of the largest agencies because I knew the input would be so enormous it would bury my output. Instead, I went freelance.

I’m quite cantankerous about self-determination.

I also passed up the opportunity to go to Hollywood and write sitcoms because I didn’t want to be the scarred remains of hundreds of frivolous 22-minute scripts. At the time I had been represented by William Morris for three years and had created a sitcom Johnny Carson’s production company optioned. I also created a sitcom another major production company was interested in. Two agents who were working with me at Morris came to my apartment and advised me it was time to go to Hollywood. I realized it was more important to remain in New York, where I could support myself with copywriting and continue to write what I consider literature. I’m afraid the talent agency never forgave me.

MM: What did you learn working alongside journalists?

TA: I learned that journalists are admirably dedicated to getting the news right and ever-alert to scoops. I also learned that the ones in management are concerned about how they can connect with their audience. Among my activities, I observed the video editors of the evening news, reviewing clips to select for the broadcast. While they generally settled on appropriate ones, at times, they became ecstatic about clips I found unnecessarily violent. The experience made it into the musical.

MM: How did you discover your talent for writing lyrics and how did you transition to working in the theater?

TA: During my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher played a recording of Macbeth and exclaimed about the imaginative language.

My inspired inner voice responded, “I can write like that.” Later, the teacher told my mother, who was a librarian, I should be a writer. My father disagreed, but I enrolled in college as a Speech & Drama major.

During my freshman year, when I was walking back to the dorm, I suddenly saw in my mind a stairway with a man standing at the top of it. Somehow, I knew it was a stage, and I could write for it. But then my father insisted that I become a science major to pursue a career I had no interest in. When I finished graduate school, I came to New York to be a writer.

I happened to cast an actor in a commercial who told me he was the head of the Directors Unit at The Actors Studio. I said I was interested in writing for the theater.

He volunteered to introduce me to the head of the Playwrights Unit. After I was in the Studio for a while, the head of the Directors Unit told me that a well-known director was looking for a comedy writer and told him I was the only writer in the Studio who could write comedy.

The director was Charles Friedman. It turned out he was the original director of the landmark revue Pins & Needles, as well as a number of other musicals, a show doctor, and then the head of musicals at 20th Century Fox under Zanuck. But he had a heart attack and retired. Later, he began a collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein, but Oscar died. Charlie then came to Lee Strasberg, the head of the Studio, with an idea for a review, based on how actors reflect their times through the roles they take.

We began to collaborate.

Charlie was a remarkable theatrical craftsman and became my mentor. Unlike books on dramatic writing, he didn’t talk about conflict. He talked about an emergency that precipitates a conflict. The difference is critical, because conflict is an effect, and you can’t work with effects. When it came to lyrics, he talked about form and creating a line of tension from the first word to the last one. He also advised me to study the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert and others leading lyricists.

Charlie found a composer for the review, too, Arthur Abrams. He and I have been collaborating ever since. The show was our first produced work. It was called Brief Chronicles of the Time, after Shakespeare’s phrase for actors.

Creativity, lyrics, and music

MM: What kinds of things inspire you from a creative standpoint?

TA: Writing has always come naturally to me. Theatrically, I think about the culture and what character deserves a timely voice on the stage. Usually, I write a play, select what Ira Gershwin called “lyrical occasions,” and then write the lyrics. Sometimes, I’m inspired to write a straight play. Thanks to Crystal Field, who has made Theater for the New City my creative home, with this show, I will have had twelve musicals and two plays produced.

When I get an idea for a musical, I share it with Arthur and Mark Marcante, our brilliant long-time director. Then I go to work. Between shows, I write poetry.

I also get inspirations to add to my collection of personal beliefs. I’ve been a lifelong reader of philosophy, subscribe to The Philosophers’ Magazine, and am convinced the beliefs have great human merit.

MM: Tell us more about “America’s Favorite Newscaster”… Is the tone more comedic or dramatic?

TA: My esthetic approach to the theater is the one W. Somerset Maugham enunciated in his memoir, The Summing Up, which is to create “intelligent entertainment.” It can be a comedy or a tragedy, as long as it’s engrossing and rewarding for the audience.

“America’s Favorite Newscaster” is a character-centered play about the struggles of a young but exceptionally successful network newscaster to come to terms with the world he is currently obliged to cover, from the shenanigans emanating from Washington to the mayhem and ignorance afoot in much of the rest of the world.

The show is comedic but, like all my shows, it has the consequential tug of reality beneath it.

MM: You wrote both the book and lyrics for the musical, so which songs were most challenging in terms of writing them?

TA: I’ve learned that there’s a difference between writing a lyric based on your first inspiration and considering the subject until you can write a lyric that provides a fresh insight into it. The result is, what I consider, a lyric that offers surprise and delight. Getting there often takes a bit of thought, but writing the lyric is usually quite easy for me.

I think the most challenging lyric is the one I wrote for the President, who goes unnamed in the show as the lead character’s decision to be selectively reticent.

The lyric had to be an original and worthy insight that would also be timeless in time so that the show could last, something not immediately apparent when we all have a challenging time keeping up with his outrageous dalliances. The lyric turned out to be a song and dance music number, titled “Floating Above the Facts.”

MM: Are any parts of this play based on real people or events?

TA: I admire the way Scott Pelley used to present the CBS evening news – with unflinching insight, graced with calm elegance. Otherwise, it’s based on my observations of journalists doing their alarmed and perplexed best to deal with the capricious events they must report on these days.

MM: What else are you working on right now and do you want to talk about anything further?

TA: I think of myself as a good brain farmer. After I finish a piece, I like to rest the soil for a month or so. I got the script to Arthur and Mark on September 3rd. Recently I’ve been inspired to write some poems and submit a few to literary magazines. I’ve also gotten inspirations to add to my collection of personal beliefs, which I’ve been writing since my twenties. They amount to voluminous variations on the theme of human beings seeming to have faith in, to paraphrase William James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” but seldom to have faith in life itself, which is the fundamental value we find ourselves with and, it seems to me, the very naturally miraculous gift that invites our devoted care and intellectual fulfillment, as the way to enable our best lives and as our primary reverence to whatever its ultimate source may be.

But now it’s time to see how “America’s Favorite Newscaster” does. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to take care of causes and let the effects take care of themselves. The approach enables peaceful accommodation to the inalterable eventualities.