This is the second installment of Advice for Sweatpants Wedding, a series of interviews that are part of a larger documentary project called Future Hit Musical Sweatpants Wedding, the subject of which is an unfinished stage production called—you guessed it—Sweatpants Wedding.
Today’s advice-giver is former Annapolis, Maryland-area community theater child actor slash musical prodigy Brian Whaley.
JAKE DE GRAZIA: What do you know about Sweatpants Wedding?
BRIAN WHALEY: It’s a musical that you guys are writing.
JDG: That’s it?
BW: The groom is a musclebound guy who likes to work out. The best man likes the groom. The maid of honor likes the best man. The best man is gay, and maybe the groom is too, but he doesn’t know it yet. The maid of honor obviously doesn’t know it. And I can’t remember where the bride stands, in terms of either love or working out.
JDG: She likes to work out too.
BW: They’re both buff people? Did they meet in the gym?
JDG: I don’t know the answer to that question. See the thing is the story’s not mine—
BW: Because I think that’s where it needs to start, in the gym. I can hear the machines at the beginning of the show, setting up a beat, a rhythm, and the music beginning from that [Brian makes a series of clinking and grating sounds] and the people on treadmills [he adds thuds to his clinks and clunks and scrapes], and all of a sudden it’s all clicking into one [the sounds settle into a beat] and then a song comes out of that.
JDG: That sounds awesome.
BW: And then the groom starts singing. He’s got his earbuds in, and he’s wiggling to a song only he’s hearing, but then the song in the gym catches up with his dancing, and everybody else in the gym starts moving with him. And they all sing and dance together, and then the bride comes into the room, and she gets on her treadmill, and the groom sees her, and his jaw drops, and just before you think she’s about to get in on the singing, the whole thing stops.
JDG: I like it. But what about the wedding? How would you go from buff boy meets buff girl in gym to a sweatpants wedding?
BW: It could be that everybody has become such friends in the gym that the theme of the wedding is sweatpants. So it’s kind of a non-traditional wedding, with guests showing up in wife beaters and tank tops and spandex and sweatpants.
JDG: I see. You’d surround your main characters with a community of gym-goers.
BW: Yes. And the bride and groom would send wedding invitations to the community, specifying that theirs is going to be a wedding in gym clothes. So there aren’t tuxes as such but instead the most expensive running suits. I can see the groomsmen all in the latest Nike workout attire.
JDG: So when you imagine a sweatpants wedding, you think really nice sweatpants, not these sweatpants [Jake indicates navy blue pair he’s wearing right now].
BW: Well, I guess your pants could work too. I mean when I think of sweatpants, I think first of the greys: long grey pants with elastic ankles and slightly fleecy insides. But a lot of people would probably go for something different at a sweatpants wedding, something special for the special occasion.
JDG: Well there certainly are a lot of different kinds of sweatpants.
JDG: Do you have much experience with sweatpants the pants?
BW: I wrestled in high school.
JDG: Nothing since then?
BW: I sometimes wear sweatpants to bed. It looks like you do too.
JDG: Sweatpants are a good pant, maybe the best pant.
BW: You know the title of one of your songs should be “Sweat.”
JDG: Oh yeah?
BW: And maybe that’s that opening sequence with the weight machine rhythm. Sweat! You gotta burn ‘em to win ‘em! Or something like that.
JDG: What kind of music do you think would work well with Sweatpants Wedding?
BW: Well the “Sweat” song could start off as industrial mechanical techno, something you could extract from those gym sounds.
JDG: Do you see that being the flavor of all of the music?
JDG: Smart. I’m writing this down. You know there’s honestly very little to Sweatpants Wedding at this stage besides the title. Anything is still possible. There are six songs, of course, but they focus on the relationships between the four main characters. They don’t really tell a story. You could probably plug them into lots of different plots.
BW: Yeah you’re gonna need to settle on a plot.
JDG: I know [sighs].
BW: But a musical set in a gym could have an appeal, because there’s such a culture of working out in America. I mean at some point in almost every American’s life, they’ve gone to the gym, either to try to lose weight or bulk up or deal with their fifties. I think the gym is a big part of our culture.
JDG: You’re right. It is. Do you think sweatpants are part of our culture too?
BW: You should think of sweatpants as a metaphor for giving yourself the flexibility—the range of motion, if you will—to actively change your life. Think about any gym you’ve ever been to. Who’s in there? First timers with big dreams. People with incredible drive and focus and the red faces to prove it. Personal trainers who want to be change agents. Guys who aren’t personal trainers but give everyone else tips anyway. People who love looking at themselves in the mirror. People who have been going to the gym every day but who can’t make the big change because they refuse to quit smoking cigarettes or eating fast food. The one high-level kickboxer who has absolutely no interest in the culture or the riff raff but who goes to the gym because it’s way closer to his house than the professional training facility downtown. There’s probably a good song in all this, you know. We could make it part of the “Sweat” number or make it something different entirely. I’m here to be someone I hope to be. That sort of thing. I wanna be like her, on wheel number one.
JDG: Your suggestion here is that we set Sweatpants Wedding in a standard American gym and the standard American gym culture?
BW: Yeah. Use it as a framework in which you can develop the relationships. Think about what Book of Mormon did. It’s a setting-driven story. The relationships between the characters and the conflict they face grows naturally from the way Mormons go about proselytizing and the developing world problems they inevitably run into while on their missions. Inside that structure, the characters’ relationships all work. The guy who’s trying to hide the fact that he’s gay. The guy who’s the superstar of his missionary class. The guy who’s the underdog student. The girl who has hope for her village. They fit the setting, and the setting drives the story forward. Granted, the Mormon missionary experience is a very different setting than the American gym, and, while Mormons in Uganda are exotic and exciting, everyone can relate to treadmills and stairmasters, and audiences like that kind of comfort.
JDG: How could the American gym setting drive the Sweatpants Wedding story forward?
BW: Standard weight room conflict. Maybe somebody tries to steal the bride away from the groom. Maybe she gets attracted to someone else. Maybe the personal trainer buys her a protein shake, and she has a fling with him and then realizes in the middle of some broom closet tryst who she really loves.
JDG: Yeah we’re way behind on that stuff. I mean the plot, the conflict, the all-is-lost moment: we don’t have any of that stuff yet. These suggestions are great.
BW: And I think in a play called Sweatpants Wedding, you need a big wedding scene. Wedding scenes make great climaxes.
JDG: A wedding does have a nice natural tension to it. Cold feet, in-laws, the whole speak now or forever hold your peace thing.
JDG: This is fantastic. Do you see now why I asked for your advice, why you’re qualified to give it?
BW: I still don’t really consider myself qualified.
JDG: You’re a songwriter. You produce a Christmas concert with harmonies and shepherds and reindeer and choreographed bells every year. You were a show-stealing child actor.
BW: I was a child actor. I was in Oliver, the musical Oliver, as Oliver. I was Prince Charming in Cinderella. I’ve also written a couple of little musicals myself. The last one I did was about Noah and his arc, based on Bill Cosby’s version of the story, a story of a reluctant Noah. And, you know, with that, we did something similar to the thing I was talking about for that opening scene at the gym. We started a song with the sound of a saw on wood.
JDG: So you recommend, whenever possible, using the props on stage as musical instruments?
BW: Yeah. That’s how people pick up rhythms. The Bee Gees got their second sound from that kind of thing. Their early stuff was more melodic and not so rhythmically structured, but their later stuff had that dancy thump to it, and that second style came from them driving across a wooden bridge together and hearing the sound of their wheels hitting the planks. They were like, “We like that. How do we imitate that?” And they figured it out. I’m sure people catch rhythms and start songs all the time in the gym. But of course I still have no idea what exactly you guys are doing, so this could all be totally irrelevant.
JDG: You know enough about what we’re doing. There’s really not much more than a title and some characters and some character-driven songs. I guess the other little thing you should know is that this is a project that has been going on since 2004, and it’s—
BW: That’s ten years. You guys sound like me. I’ve got a play called Mr. Wizard and the Magic Weather Machine that I’ve been [air quotes] “working on” slash [more air quotes] “fine tuning” since the eighties.
JDG: Yeah. Ten years and going strong.
BW: If you’re not careful, it’ll go on for twenty.
JDG: We’re actually happy to have it go on for twenty. We’ve started writing about it. We’re documenting the making of Sweatpants Wedding, which is an extremely slow process, but it’s lots of material over a long period of time. I, the documentarian, am getting in ten years into the project, but the more I learn, the clearer it becomes that that’s still pretty early.
BW: You might want to give yourselves a deadline.
JDG: Like try to schedule a performance before it’s written?
BW: Maybe. You need to find a nice stage, some set people, some costume people, a choreographer, some actors, an orchestra maybe. A deadline’ll push you to find your people.
JDG: Yeah. Divide the duties. Good advice. Man, this is going to be a lot of work.
BW: It is. Let me know which song you want me to write.
BW: I could write that opening number we talked about.
JDG: “Sweat”? What about “Sweat”?
BW: Ok. The one with the weight machines and grunts. We could make that “Sweat.”
[And he did. The audio clip below arrived last night by SMS. Sweatpants Wedding, ladies and gentlemen, has a new songwriter, and Stephan McCormick, the old songwriter, is only just now, right here in on this page, finding out. Stay tuned.]
Jake de Grazia is Trop's Musical Theater Correspondent.