Photo by Monica Simoes
He is one the funniest serious man you’ll meet. You might notice that he’s wearing his chocolate brown argyle pullover inside out, for instance, but you still would need to guess whether it’s meant to be worn that way, whether it’s intentional for some artistic statement or practical purpose, or whether it was a mistake. You’re never sure whether you’re supposed to be in on the joke.
When asked for instance how Broadway, Here I Come! was selected to be featured in the second season of the NBC show SMASH, he responds “They found the sheet music in the trash I think.” He he he One can almost hear the other Muppets snickering in the background. The delivery points to a sharp mind, though you might say a “sick mind” instead and he would probably be more keen to that.
But it is difficult to imagine that the song, brilliantly performed for and in the show by Jeremy Jordan, that is “tearing up the charts,” was discovered accidentally. After all, it is considered by many as among the best (some contend THE best) of songs to come out of the series. It’s almost certain that the powerhouse team behind the series’ production was well aware of its seductive snare.
Its meaning has already ignited debate on the internet. It doesn’t help that the melody prances cheerfully along while the lyrics forebodes a frighteningly gory ending. And just when the singer reaches a level of clarity and awareness, the realization careens through notes. The “here” lasts no more than a split second. Then, full stop. No fade to black.
This type of velvet-wrapped dagger of a surprise may be regarded as a Joe Iconis signature. He is fascinated with unanticipated pivotal benign events, events that would have gone unnoticed had it not completely changed the course of one’s life.
“I like to write about small moments that feel huge… write songs and musicals that take a surprising turn at some point, both lyrically and musically,” notes the composer. He also enjoys poking fun at what are otherwise unfunny themes or moments like in the oddly charming song entitled, “Jeff,” that feature playfully lyrical, voyeuristic, somewhat sexist, racist and delusional rantings of an alcoholic.
The more perky, transparent and harmless the songs sound the higher the likelihood Iconis has hidden a darker underside to it. Joe Iconis to musical theater is what Dexter is to Miami, bloody and poetic. “I like to write about blood a lot,” he decides. “I write about things that are hyper-specific but also feel universal. I rhyme.”
Bloodsong of Love is one that is close to his heart. The spaghetti western musical that was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards including Best Music, Best Book of a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Asked why he has special fondness for Bloodsong, he explains “I love pieces of art that kind of masquerade themselves as something (else) and don’t show their cards right up top. I also love the challenge of writing a piece that operates, more or less, by the rules of a very specific genre … (Bloodsong of Love) feels like a biographical musical to me, only its pretending to be a rock ‘em, sock ‘em action musical.”
Bloodsong also exemplifies another Iconis favorite: the ensemble. “I think the heart of the show lies in the fact that it’s a musical about artists and the creation of an artistic family….” the composer observes. In general, he says, he is inclined to write about “people or moments that usually don’t get musicals written about them.” In many ways, Iconis works the ensemble as Henson did with the Muppets. Everyone gets to take part. But ask Joe which one he is and you may be surprised at the answer.
Most people who form a performing company of actors would probably say Kermit is the one with whom they most identify. Performers, too, would probably choose Ms. Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal or any other muppet who is frequently front and center in scenes or Scooter who plays a big role behind the scenes. But unlike them, Iconis identifies most with Rowlf the Dog, not just because he plays the piano, but because Iconis feels “he holds the show together” through his music.
Like Rowlf, Iconis doesn’t entirely fade into the background during a performance. But what he does extremely well is lead excitedly from behind, setting the stage musically, pushing those in the dark and letting both the performer and his music shine. According to Joe, he is naturally inclined to collaborate with artists in this manner. “I like the idea of putting on shows in the backyard and that’s all it is,” he says. “Everybody chipping in. It makes everything better.”
As a result, The Family keeps growing. Iconis jokes that he constantly harasses actors of whom he is a fan and gets them to be in his work. His current obsession, he claims, is Danny Burstein, the multi-award-winning veteran who starred with Bernadette Peters in the 2012 Broadway revival of Follies.
“The fact that my work is performed anywhere continually blows my mind. I love it and I am shocked by it. It’s always exciting…I’m pretty precious about the artists I surround myself with, so I can honestly say that I’ve been proud of any performance of my work…” Catch a glimpse of him while one of the actors is singing his song, and you’ll no doubt see the pure enjoyment painted on his face.
Turn the page
Joe Iconis is genuinely most happy when he gets to share moments of success with friends. On the evening when his song was aired on SMASH, he says he was delighted that his friends “forced (me) to have a viewing party.” He goes on to describe the experience as “lovely” because it felt “communal.” “It made it feel like it wasn’t just my song on television but everyone’s song—which is the truth anyway. My greatest friends were there and everyone cried. I made a really nice cheese plate and my girlfriend was kind enough to put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Celebration complete.
But the work of a musical writer is never really done. Iconis admits he doesn’t really have days off but rather only days when he feels “proud” of the work he has accomplished as opposed to days when he feels “guilty” about not having accomplished enough.
“I write all the time, except during those moments/days/months when I am unable to write.” He continues to say that he lives his life “in a flurry” and that “there’s always too much to do and not enough time, the reality of which is occasionally electrifying and frequently debilitating.”
And how does it feel to be working on “a million writing projects (and) a million other projects?” “It feels confusing, except when it doesn’t,” he quips. “When I finish a song, it sometimes feels great, and sometimes it feels disappointing. I get more unbridled joy out of performing the music than I do writing it.”
What Joe Iconis doesn’t want to write and would rather see not ever written again are “the song cycle about being young and dating in New York.” “If I never see another one of those again, I’ll be a happy man… and musical updates of Greek myths. I hate Greek myths. All of them. Equally,” he declares