WaPo Cartoonist Tom Toles Tries a New Medium: Musical Theater
Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles already has a bully pulpit, a Pulitzer Prize, a Herblock Award, and two bands. What’s left for him to do? Write a live musical comedy, apparently.
Toles is currently working with Katie Goodman and Soren Kisiel to write and stage Catapult Love, a production that will be backed by funds raised on Indiegogo, a campaign that's halfway to its goal of $9,000 at this writing. When I heard about the campaign, I began to wonder if he was thinking of a career change. We finally synced our schedules for a chat.
Obviously, you're best known as a cartoonist, but music seems to be a real love of yours. How did that come about?
I started playing music about seven years ago with some D.C. friends when we started the band Suspicious Package. I play drums and sing—not the easiest combination in the world, but I didn’t know that when I started, what you don’t know doesn’t deter you. Suspicious Package is still together and still playing out.
You write your own songs, I believe. What's your process?
I wanted to do more original music, so I started a second band, Lethal Bark, with other musicians that I met here and there around town. The songs of Lethal Bark have been written primarily by me and keyboardist Lee Drutman, though the arranging has been a collaborative band project. When I write songs, it either starts with a line of the lyrics that I build out from, or a tune or bass line that pops into my head. Not reading music makes full composition a challenge, to say the least, but Lethal Bark is packed with talented people who help fully develop my musical outline. Writing lyrics is an easier extension of the writing I do in my cartoons and daily blog. While my songs tend not to be overtly political, they usually employ a wry offbeat attitude toward whatever the song is about.
So, even with two bands, you decided to write a musical? Why?
The Lethal Bark songs just cried out to be a musical. They are storytelling songs, and a lot of them are about what an impressive variety of jerks that guys can be. It became a show idea when I realized how the story should be told from a woman’s point of view.
What's the basic plot?
The plot follows a woman who gets caught in a vortex of bad sequential dating of guys who don’t, won’t, can’t work out as relationships, while she’s simultaneously trying to figure out some other basic issues in her life. It’s a lot of goodbyes. The original title of the play was Kiss Your Asshole Goodbye. The plot leads up to a decision the woman—named Lurid, by the way—needs to make.
Does the fact that she’s a cartoonist mean you're sticking with "writing what you know?"
Needless to say, I've never been a woman with a history of dating jerky guys, but I sure have talked to a lot of people in that situation here in D.C. It seems to be astonishingly common. As for Lurid being a cartoonist, that was actually the idea of the Katie-Soren wing of the team. Somehow, that didn’t occur to me. But yes, I do know a bit about that.
How much of it did you write before contacting your co-creators, Katie Goodman and Soren Kisiel? How did you decide to bring them onboard?
The full first draft of everything was completed before I contacted Katie and Soren. We’re now rewriting it to both fit Katie better and to get the irreplaceable input of, you know, an actual woman. I contacted them after having stumbled across and watched a bunch of Katie’s performances online. I knew immediately that she was the exact person on the whole planet for the show, but did not really expect to be able to recruit her for the show. I contacted her cold and sent the script and music to Katie and Soren. The rest is history, or will be someday.
Editorial cartooning is generally a solo activity. How are you finding collaborating on a musical?
Working on music and a show is very collaborative and very unlike cartooning in that way. The plusses and misuses of each are what you might expect. Solo: control! I like that! Collaborative: synergy! I like that too! Working with others can be frustrating at times because of that sharing of control, but Katie and Soren are great to work with. Lethal Bark too. So it’s all been a lot of fun in addition to a lot of work.
Were you inspired at all by any other cartoonists who've written for theater or television, like Jules Feiffer or Garry Trudeau?
I’m not directly inspired by others, but it’s always interesting to see people going for new creative endeavors. I really wasn’t thinking about doing a show. This one just kind of compelled itself out of the material. I had to follow the imperative!
You're fundraising on IndieGoGo and are halfway to your goal. How did you decide to crowdsource funds for the show?
The Indiegogo idea was from Katie and Soren, and they had some experience with it before. Fundraising is always a complicated affair, but you know, real life.
Some of the lyrics are NSFW, or at least PG-13. Did you think twice about writing this kind of material? Or is it a welcome relief from the genteel standards of the Washington Post editorial page?
There are some not-safe lyrics in the music and dialogue in the play. The song or plot kind of dictates where that goes. I don’t go out of my way to include profanity. I don’t really think about it and it’s a pleasure not to think about it.
Your campaign is fundraising for "development of the script which is what is going to make something like this a success or not." If you don't raise the complete $9,000, will the project continue? Are you considering another fundraiser to stage it?
I’m pretty confident now we'll get enough from our Indiegogo campaign to continue the project. After that we enter the strange, complicated world of really producing and staging a show, yes, more money will be needed at some point. T’was ever thus. One of the songs in the show is called "Figure Something Out." It’s about how you get presented with complicated problems and you find a way to solve them.
Your fundraising video says this will be a multimedia show with a live band, puppets, and projected cartoons. Sounds complicated.
The actual mechanics of the show sound complex, but they aren’t really. It’s essentially a one-woman show with [a] band onstage. Bands aren’t that complicated, as we have that already. Puppets? They are big. Lifesize! But they are cartoon puppets. Black and white and two-dimensional. My drawing made bigger. Not too hard. Animation? Same story. Animation programs make animating a whole lot simpler now. I’ll be doing all the artwork. I like to draw! It should all look quite involved and dazzling to an audience, but not be outlandish to produce.
Does this mean you're bored with just plain ol' cartooning?
No. I'm not bored with cartooning. Far from it. I've just gotten swept up in the excitement of the music and the project, and the excitement is just proving irresistible.