The upcoming off-Broadway musical Only Human tackles themes of imperfection and redemption through the eyes of Biblical characters. So who did the creative team, including musician Mike Squillante and producer Jesse Murphy, cast as God? Veteran actor Gary Busey, of course. While it may seem like an incongruous choice, Squillante, who penned the show’s music and lyrics in between his duties as a member of the band Running Lights, notes that Busey is an “exact representation” of the Almighty. “In our show, the character is zany, off-the-cuff, a little unpredictable and eccentric, but has a true depth of spiritual energy.”
Ahead of the production’s official Oct. 21 bow at New York’s Theatre at St. Clements, Billboard has a first peak at Busey and Squillante performing the show’s title song. We also spoke to Squillante about the genesis of the heavenly tale and what it’s like to collaborate with the legendary actor. “If you can catch a groove with him as a performer, it’s magic.”
I feel like people’s first reactions are, Gary Busey? But then when I watched the video, it made perfect sense. Are you getting that reaction a lot?
The great thing about Gary is that he has a lot of hidden talents. You don’t realize how good he actually is, because most of his public persona is as this crazy, wacky dude. If you look into his filmography, you’ll find he played Buddy Holly in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story and was even nominated for an Academy Award. Every time you see him in that movie singing, that’s really him singing live on set. And if you go a little deeper, you’ll find he put out music with his son Jake, who plays drums. When he first went to Hollywood, he actually started out in a band and they were signed to Epic Records. That was all very encouraging to me, so I’m glad we’re able to showcase that for Gary.
This is heading to New York after a workshop at the Oklahoma City University last year. How did it all come together?
Well, you’d have to turn back the clocks about eight and a half years. In 2011, I was fresh out of the Berklee College of Music and my childhood friend Jesse Murphy gives me a call. At the time, I was putting out singer-songwriter music as an independent artist and he said he wanted to manage me. We realized pretty quickly that wasn’t going to work, but we knew as a team we’d be a force to be reckoned with. Jesse and I were throwing ideas back and forth, trying to figure out what exactly we wanted to collaborate on. One day he called me up and said, “Mike, I got it. The Bible according to the devil.” That idea sort of perked my ears up. I always loved an anti-hero story and I figured, why not do it on a level known to everyone? It’s got nothing to do with loving the devil or devil worship, but more about humanizing these Biblical characters in a way that you see yourself in them.
How did Gary get involved?
Jesse was a creative executive at NBC Universal under Marlon Wayans for a while. He had a lot of creative connections throughout Hollywood and he was able to reach out to Gary’s representation and put us on a phone call. We expressed to Gary we’d love to have him involved. The fact that he can do music also really drove it home for me, but he’s actually the exact representation of the character of God that we wrote. In our show, the character is zany, off-the-cuff, a little unpredictable and eccentric, but has a true depth of spiritual energy. It can be a little daunting working with him because he loves to improvise and color outside the lines. That’s the beauty of Gary. If you can catch a groove with him as a performer, it’s magic.
Have any moments stood out to you since you began collaborating with Gary?
When I walked in his house, he pulled out Buddy Holly’s guitar.
His actual guitar?
Yes, from what I understand. He started strumming it and playing a Buddy Holly song, so I whipped out my guitar and joined right in. Also, when we were going over the song “Only Human,” he actually started to tear up. That is something I never thought I’d see him do. He has such a manly-man persona and is larger than life, but to see him come down to his essence and actually shed tears at something I wrote was a pretty heavy moment. He’s also funny as hell.
Only Human has humor, but I understand it also has a lot of heart. Was that an important part of the process for you?
It has comedic moments, but it goes to places that I think touch on fundamental truths about each one of us as humans. It’s about learning to love your imperfections. Everyone’s got pieces about themselves they can’t stand, so it’s about learning to embrace those and truly being in your skin. Even though you can try really hard at something and maybe you won’t succeed, it’s more about realizing that it’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s the fact that you tried at all. That makes all the difference.