Hooked on Happiness: Interview with Playwright Tom Attea

Hooked on Happiness
“Hooked on Happiness” is a new musical at Theater for the New City in NYC. Photo by Russ Rowland.

“Hooked on Happiness” is a new musical at Theater for the New City in NYC, now in performances through December 1st.  The book and lyrics are written by Tom Attea and focuses on the issue of global warming and its special impact on young people.

“Hooked on Happiness” is about a high-school drama class that decides to create their own original musical about climate change, as opposed to performing the musical or play that their drama teacher suggested. The students are very passionate about their beliefs, and the drama teacher allows the students to perform their show pretty much as they wrote it. Unfortunately, many of their parents are very conservative and some of the content shocks members of the audience. They demand that the show be cut short and the teacher be fired. But the students say they’ll go on strike. So the show is allowed to continue.

Hooked on Happiness
“Hooked on Happiness” is about a high-school drama class that decides to create their own original musical about climate change. Photo by Russ Rowland.

Tom Attea recently discussed his experiences writing this play and the lyrics via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): What most inspired you to write “Hooked on Happiness” and did the song lyrics or plot line come to you first?

Tom Attea (TA): I’m always watching the contemporary culture to see how I might reflect it on the stage as intelligent entertainment with social significance. I write a play first. Then I go through it and select what Ira Gershwin called “lyrical occasions.”  I realized that the one thing a living playwright can do that none of the playwrights of the past can do is write about his or her own time.

MM: Are any of the characters at least partly inspired by real people either in the public eye or who you personally know?

Hooked on Happiness
The book and lyrics are written by Tom Attea and focuses on the issue of global warming and its special impact on young people. Photo by Russ Rowland.

TA: The characters are inspired by watching and listening to young people demonstrate and by my own feelings about the need to make our primary devotion the care of this life. I grew up at a time when young people were demonstrating vociferously against one of America’s calamitous elective wars. The stresses shaped my lifelong philosophy, so I found it easy to identify with today’s young people and give them an authentic voice on the stage.

MM: Why did you decide to stage this in a small-town high school? Does that mirror your own youth at all?

TA: The reason for the location is that it allowed me to write naturally about a topic that is deeply relevant to the subject. The ability to deal with such subject matter is why I’ve chosen to write for the Off-Off Broadway theater. It’s the only contemporary venue that welcomes it. Some of their conservative parents are evangelicals, who are waiting for End Times, when they expect to ascend into heaven. While many evangelicals do care about value of this life and are wonderful people, they’re hardly encouraged by their beliefs to make it their primary devotion. I did grow up in a small town in Southwest Pennsylvania. The experience gave me the ability to empathize with people that, I think, gives my characters, heroic or villainous, an essential tenderness and goodness that radiates from the stage.

MM: What most concerns you about climate change and the world’s reaction (or, some would say, non-reaction) to it?

Hooked on Happiness
Tom pays attention to contemporary culture to see how he can reflect it on the stage. Photo by Russ Rowland.

TA: One of the songs in the show is “The World’s Only Wait-And-See Emergency.” I think the title pretty much captures the predicament many of us find ourselves in. I also wrote a revue early in my career that the theater produced, which I titled “It’s an Emergency, Don’t Hurry.”  Since the long view is seldom expressed in the news, the gradual improvement of the human condition is generally not top of mind. Everything seems to be going wrong, and hardly anybody seems to be doing anything about it. Trouble is, at this pivotal time in human history, we can’t afford to wait and see.

MM: How did you get this play scheduled for performance at Theater for the New City and what was the casting process like?

TA: My first show was presented at The Actors Studio, where I was in the Playwrights Unit for ten years. My wonderfully talented composer for the show and for this show, Arthur Abrams, found a home at Theater for the New City and called to say he was doing the music to a revue, and the creative team needed comedy sketches and lyrics. I was able to provide what they were looking for. From then on, the theater became my creative home. Crystal Field, the executive director, who has been a steady champion of mine, called to say she had a 4-week opening in November and asked if I had a new work ready. As always, I had a number of them, including “Hooked on Happiness.”  The casting call was for professional actors 18 to 33 who could pass as high-school students. We had over 2,400 submissions. I wish we could have hired them all.

Hooked on Happiness
The play is a musical and one of the songs is titled “The World’s Only Wait-And-See Emergency.” Photo by Russ Rowland.

MM: What is your favorite song, scene, and line from “Hooked on Happiness” and why do they stand out to you so much?

TA: Different songs have different values. The tenderest song is “Love in an Uncertain Time.” It’s about the difficulty of young lovers to plan a future when they don’t know if they’ll have one. My long-time director, Mark Marcante, staged the show with his usual imaginative brilliance, so there are many enchanting scenes. One of the especially charming ones is when the other animals do a song about how they’re having trouble with the changing environment, too. I would say the most telling line is the title of one of the songs, which is presented as a chant a al Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana: “Revere the Biosphere.”

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from this play and remember most about it?

TA: My goal in writing it was not just to reflect what young people are saying and doing about climate change but also to enlarge their vision about what’s at risk and to give them persuasive new content that will assist them in making their argumentative power equal to the challenge.

Hooked on Happiness
Tom is currently planning future theater projects. Photo by Russ Rowland.

MM: Do you have other theatrical or writing projects coming up that you would like to discuss?

TA: I have a number of plays that I’m considering the merits of having presented. One is a pointed comedy called “Tech Times,” which is a laugh-fest about an ambitious man who knows nothing about technology but inadvertently becomes the chief technology officer of a large retail chain. Another is called “The Poet and the Billionaire,” about two brothers dealing with divergent meanings of Keats’ lovely line “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold…”  The third is “An Evening with Bertrand Russell,” which is based on his witty and very human Autobiography. He’s at the head of my list of especially commendable philosophers. One thing he said in his book “Principles of Social Reconstruction,” which was published in the midst of World War I, is particularly relevant to the climate crisis and the deeper meanings in “Hooked on Happiness”: “New thought will be required … the world has need of a philosophy, or a religion, which will promote life…. through the spectacle of death, I acquired a new love for what is living.”