How Ben Lee & Author Tom Robbins Teamed Up 'B Is for Beer: The Musical'
Listen to "Everything Is Better With Beer" ft. Jon Cryer
The author Tom Robbins says that he "hesitated not much longer than it would take to pop open a can of Budweiser" when Ben Lee approached him with a pitch to turn Robbins' 2009 book B Is For Beer into a musical theater piece. But Lee remembers things a bit differently as the duo prepares for the Oct. 12 release of the all-star B Is For Beer: The Musical album -- whose track "Everything Is Better With Beer" ft. Jon Cryer premieres below.
"It was just a very gradual thing," Lee tells Billboard about the project, which is coming out some eight years after he first approached Robbins with the idea. "I think Tom was cautious. While I think he likes the idea of mainstream success and recognition, he's not someone particularly willing to alter his creative impulse for the sake of the masses. So I think he was like, 'OK, who is this guy calling me?' and it played out for a number of years before our friendship developed and we began to have these great phone calls about all these things we're both interested in and (B Is For Beer) began to gain momentum."
The B Is For Beer musical idea was actually a lightning strike moment, starting when Lee was on a family vacation in Portland and found Robbins' book in a store. Robbins was inspired to write it after seeing a New Yorker cartoon in which a publisher dismissed a writer's idea, saying that, "'I don't think a children's book about beer would sell.'...I decided then and there to prove the fictitious publisher wrong." Reading the book, Lee himself had "a very intuitive moment of 'I'm gonna make a musical of this book.' It was one of those bizarre things I think artists don't find so bizarre, 'cause a lot of our life is decided through those weird moments. I read it in one sitting and had a great feeling about it. I was vibing to it. I thought it would be great (for a musical)."
Lee began writing B Is For Beer's songs even before Robbins jumped on board, working with another script writer. The project was accelerated when actor Jon Cryer became involved as a co-producer and "cheerleader," and the work was workshopped at Los Angeles' Largo last fall. "It's the pushing a boulder up the hill approach," Lee says of the musical's lengthy gestation. "I was compelled enough and came to love Tom so much and want to honor his place in American culture that I think it really became an impetus for carrying on and being patient enough to see it through, no matter how long it took."
The B Is For Beer album features performances by Cryer, Rose Byrne, Laura Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, the Go-Go's Belinda Carlisle, Busy Philipps, Cary Brothers and Alex Wyse. Their game plan is to introduce the music first and then take the production to the stage, though a timetable for that has not yet been specified. Lee -- whose brother-in-law Donovan Leitch co-produced the new Go-Go's musical Head Over Heels -- acknowledges how "very political" the stage community is, and he's hoping B Is For Beer can follow a different, but established, path.
"I think of it more like Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise and Hedwig, Evita or American Idiot... these odd musicals that began with music and went from there," explains Lee, who also composed songs and score for HBO's new adaptation of the British TV series Camping, which debuts Oct. 14 and is co-written and executive produced by Lena Dunham. "Look, I don't know how to hustle myself onto the Broadway stage with a show, but I know how to make a good album. So beginning with the integrity of meaning an album the way I envisioned it, that really honored the quirk and idiosyncrasies of who Tom is as a writer and who I am as a musician is the way we need to begin." Robbins, meanwhile, is happy to be along for the ride in whatever direction it takes.
"I hadn't written a stage play since my senior year in high school, and I enjoyed the challenge," he says. "The idea was audacious enough to be entirely attractive -- and possibly even brilliant. Working with Ben was a joy -- he even allowed me to write a few of the lyrics. Ben and I were in almost daily contact, and we had very few disagreements. I can't say the script poured out of me like ale from a bottle, but neither did it ever stagger me or leave me hungover."