Eight 20-somethings entered Pace University's musical theatre program with Broadway dreams and showbiz ambitions. But, over the years, their goals evolved into something more, and with the help of composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver (an adjunct professor at the institution), they built a skillset they never thought possible. They're writing full-length musicals and getting their work put up across the city — with Broadway performers and creatives helping in their development.
"I think we all came to Pace for musical theatre performance, and, personally, I didn't even know that the writing option was a thing until about halfway through my freshman year," explains Jamen Nanthakumar, 21. "I kind of got put into the class… [Ryan] found out I could play the piano and was like, 'Take my writing class.'" The senior writes music and lyrics with Liana Wright-Mark, 21, another senior who writes book and lyrics.
Oliver teaches Writing for the Musical Theatre at Pace, one of the only universities that trains undergraduates in musical theatre writing and then formally develops and produces their work as a regular part of the season of BFA Musical Theatre productions. He encourages students to step outside their onstage comfort zone and into the behind-the-scene creative process. (He stepped out of the spotlight for this piece to allow the students and their work to take center stage.)
Aside from Nanthakumar and Wright-Mark, Pace's standout students include the songwriting team of Emily Dallas (23, senior, music), Billy Goldstein (22, senior, book) and Daniel Yearwood (20, junior, lyrics); writing duo Saidu Sinlah (21, senior, book and lyrics) and Ethan Carlson (21, senior, music); and Kailey Marshall (22, recent Pace graduate, book, music and lyrics).
"I think writing is very empowering as an artist because the stats don't look good," says Dallas. "Everyone tells you it's so hard to get a job, and you have to make your own work. And, for the longest time, that really frustrated me because I didn't understand how to do that, and I didn't feel like I had the power to do that or the ability or the talent to do that — that [it] was something that other people did and that I was just a catalyst for their work. But, now with Ryan's mentorship, understanding that I have something to say also as a writer makes me realize that I have a voice in the theatre world as a whole and that being multi-faceted… You kind of feel more of a valuable human being."
On a break from their classes at Pace, the students got together to discuss their writing. They all aspire to artists such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Hamilton (which he wrote book, music and lyrics for and now stars in) has taken Broadway by storm.
"I really liked being behind the table," Marshall explains, although songwriting was very difficult at the start. "I really liked getting to create something that is completely me. That I have a lot of control over. And, I also really love performing my stuff. I would love to be on that Lin-Manuel track and get to perform as a lead in my own stuff because I also found during my time at Pace that I have a very specific and odd acting type, so it was hard for me to find roles that I was interested in doing. Especially being a curvier woman in musical theatre, I feel like you're asked as a performer to walk into the room and announce, 'Hey, I'm not skinny. I'm fat,' or like, 'I have to sing about the fact that I'm a bigger girl,' and I'm really interested in taking away that stereotype, especially for women. I feel like there aren't enough strong female characters out there for women to play that are not sexpots or aren't just based off their body."
Being a performer first and foremost, the students feel at an advantage as a writer.
"I feel like this writing class at Pace has been such a valuable asset towards my performance education as well, having learned and experienced writing and what stories need and why you write this certain melody line or why you write the structure of the lines the way you do," says Nanthakumar. "[It] can better inform us as actors now, too, taking on other material [and] understanding why the writer chose to do certain things."
"We all love to pick apart our favorite works," says Wright-Mark, "and why that's so meaningful."
"We've had to deal with so many scripts or songs that maybe didn't fit right or were hard to act, or weren't active songs," says Goldstein, "and we know those things are so important to actors, so we know how to write for the actor."
"I think writing is so much of putting yourself into it and involving so much of your personal life and your history and your story," says Sinlah. "You're putting your own story and your own personal experiences into your writing. That is something that a lot of people can relate to, and it brings the heart to your work, so I feel like things like Hamilton… That's where it comes from, that's where it stems from — from that, those pieces."
The Pace New Musicals program has developed work by these new writers with readings, workshops and fully produced productions — functioning as a launching pad, since many writers have gone on to perform at cabaret venues across the city and theatre festivals around the country.
"Ryan was always pushing us to do better," Dallas explains. "It was never like, 'Great! You did it!' That doesn't exist because there's always the next thing. There's always the next Fun Home. There's always the next Hamilton. You have to always be striving, working for something new and exciting and different, and Ryan set very strict deadlines. There was no not meeting them, there were no excuses because I think he believes in all of us and I think that's why we're all here. So having to meet that deadline sometimes you have to write something that's really bad and then try again. Then you understand why it didn't work, and then you can write something that's good."
The dream evolves for each. Goldstein says that the mantra he lives by is, "Be a person first and an actor second… Be a human being first." He says, "I think that it is so important that if you are an actor, you find other outlets to broaden your horizons and see life through different eyes."
MEET THE TEAMS
Jamen Nanthakumar (music and lyrics)
Liana Wright-Mark (book and lyrics)
How they work: "There's times when I write stanzas of lyrics," says Wright-Mark, "and when I'm writing I have a beat in my head of how it's going to go… I have those awful voice recordings on my phone to remember little things, and I will send it off to Jamen, and it's really unreal to see what comes back. I sent him a poem, and he came back with…a full song. I can come up with melodies, but as a composer, I mean… That's why I do the book." Nanthakumar adds, "I remember Ryan saying there's really no way to teach how to write a song."
Their musical: Elsie is a folk-western musical that tells the story of 15-year-old Elise, who has been brought up in a Brothel in 1910 Stockton, CA. When her mother mysteriously dies, Vera, the Madame of the Brothel, takes the young girl under her wing. Elise is thrown into adulthood, where she finds love, sex and the lust of revenge for the first time. The show won four awards at New York City's Planet Connections Theatre Festivity Awards, including Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical.
Hear a song: "With Each Lace," performed by Andrea Ross.
Billy Goldstein (book)
Emily Dallas (music)
Daniel Yearwood (lyrics)
How they work: "I obviously can't speak for everyone," says Goldstein, "but at least for me, when I started his class, it was bad. I was horrible." Dallas adds, "We got paired together because we were equally awful." But, when they presented their material to the class for the first time, the collaboration proved to be successful. "It was like something between the three of us, it just worked," says Goldstein. Dallas was a transfer student who hadn't played piano in ten years, but when tasked to write a song, she sat in practice rooms at Pace and wrote until she improved. "You have no choice but to get better at it," she says. "Or just quit."
Their musical: Privilege follows Russell, a Korean War veteran who returns from the war and is suffering from PTSD. "You watch his relationship with his wife, Sadie, start to crumble," says Yearwood. "She moves towards instability as he moves towards stability. Throughout the show you watch them both take their individual paths." Russell falls in love again and is led to the Civil Rights Movement. "I felt really strongly about the Civil Rights Movement. I thought that was something [important], especially given the current events and what's going on in the real world right now… We're telling the story of a man who uses connections with all different types of people to regain stability."
Hear a song: "For My Life," performed by Hillary Fisher.
Ethan Carlson (music)
Saidu Sinlah (book and lyrics)
How they work: "Our main sound is probably a classic contemporary-folk, I would say," says Carlson. "[That] is what we really are drawn to… We have a lot of strings — strings are our best friends…! We've been writing since freshman year. We found each other, and we would just be in practice rooms writing really random songs, and then we found ourselves both in Ryan's class…"
Their musical: A Knight of Columbus is a dark romance set in New Orleans, LA, in 1917. It follows Orion, a young naïve girl who joins the traveling circus in search of excitement and escape from her life. However, she meets an array of characters that change her for good and bad. In the end, she must choose between continuing the damaged life she has started or the mediocre life she left behind in New Orleans.
Hear a song: "Journey," performed by Chloe Gasparini.
Kailey Marshall (book, music and lyrics)
How she works: Marshall only took Oliver's musical theatre writing class because she thought, "I'll try and impress him," but found that songwriting was harder than she anticipated it to be. "I was really, really bad for like a year," she says. "I was so, so bad — to the point where Ryan was like, 'Maybe you shouldn't do this anymore,' so I cried about it for a second and was like, 'No, f*ck that — I'm going to try and make this work.' And the next week came into class with 'Give It Up'…and they were like, 'Wow, actually — this is good.' From there, I really liked being behind the table."
Her musicals: Songs for Slutty Girls, recently seen in a concert production at Don't Tell Mama, is a song cycle that captures the ecstasy and despair of love and sex for the modern woman. Her musical Confirmed is a pop/rock spiritual journey that follows bad girl Lana when she is sent to Catholic school to mend her ways. While there, she will search for faith in a higher power, her peers and most of all, herself.
Hear a song: "Give It Up," performed by Marissa O'Donnell.