New Music

New Music With seven songwriters making their Broadway debuts this season, it's cause for celebration.
From Left: Eric Idle and John DuPrez
From Left: Eric Idle and John DuPrez Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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"The Song That Goes Like This" may be delighting Spamalot audiences, but its songwriters, Eric Idle and John DuPrez, are actually part of something which, for champions of the musical theatre, is even more joyous. Four of the season's 11 new Broadway musicals were scored by songwriters making their Broadway debuts; seven songwriters in all. Joining Idle and DuPrez are Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein of the recently closed Little Women, Barri McPherson and Mark Schoenfeld of Brooklyn, and 2005 Tony Award winner Adam Guettel of The Light in the Piazza.

Two other shows are second efforts, and a further two are musicals compiled from pop songbooks, also representing a kind of Broadway debut.

Here are the stories of the first-timers' creative collaborations, and their first taste of being produced on Broadway.

LITTLE WOMEN
Music by Jason Howland
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein Akin to his Broadway debut, Jason Howland's first musical score was adapting a classic. "In the eighth grade," he said, smiling. "Jack & the Beanstalk." The first song? "Jackie Can You Hear Me?," Howland says, laughing, "...in the key of F."

And while Mindi Dickstein wouldn't begin writing lyrics until adulthood, "I wrote my first play in the fourth grade," she proudly declares, "The Case of the Missing Jewels."

Joking aside, Howland and Dickstein's early works actually illustrate a dramaturgical instinct each brought to their five years composing Little Women — a dedication to character and narrative drive. "It's all about telling a great story," Howland insists, "while fully integrating it with music. That's at the heart of the experience which I gained as a music director on Broadway for ten years."

In fact, Howland says his role as conductor and/or musical director of Jekyll & Hyde, Les Misérables and Taboo, among others, was invaluable to understanding how to make Louisa May Alcott's novel sing. For Dickstein, who received her MFA from NYU's Musical Theater Writing Program, collaborating with Howland was "a joyous journey." Further finessing Dickstein's abilities as a lyricist was the show's exceptional cast. "Having people like Maureen McGovern and Sutton Foster — with these incredible voices — didn't change the nature of what we were writing, but it certainly made it more specific."

Speaking of specific, Dickstein admits one of her favorite moments of the Little Women experience occurred on opening night. "I was sitting in the fifth row center, and Sutton is singing 'Astonishing.' And suddenly I hear my mother's voice — who'd first heard the song at a reading and told me afterwards, 'it's you at 16!' — and I just started bawling. Cause here was this wonderful actress singing this song I wrote that expressed the essence of who I was at that age. And I thought, here I am now, a grown-up person — realizing that dream."

BROOKLYN, THE MUSICAL
Music and Lyrics by Mark Schoenfeld & Barri McPherson

After years of pitching a film concept of "Brooklyn to Hollywood," creators Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson found themselves broke, bitter and back on the streets of New York. Soothing their Tinseltown wounds, the duo sat in Central Park, boom box in tow, singing Brooklyn's songs to passersby. Like a showbiz fairy tale, one of those who stopped was an aspiring theatre producer. "Scott Prisand heard us there," recalls McPherson, referring to the man who'd eventually become one of Brooklyn's lead producers. "He said, this is a Broadway musical!"

Confessing that "my dream was to write and sing in any genre I could find," the willowy McPherson says, "where ever it took me, I was willing to go." Via Prisand, it took the team — who'd been writing partners since 1991 — to "the best thing in the world that could've happened to us," she says: Jeff Calhoun.

Forever grateful to the director/choreographer's guidance, Schoenfeld describes their segue from street singers to Broadway composers. "Jeff would mold what he saw as the lyric of the song, and John McDaniel was excellent with the arrangements because he knew what was right for Broadway. Now that we're here," Schoenfeld chuckles, "we don't want to leave!" And despite a birth-by-fire reception from critics, the duo agree they'd do it again in a second. "The riches you get out of Broadway," Schoenfeld says, "is when people come over to you at the end of the show. They get its humanity, its spirituality. That's the currency Barri and I go home with. It's the greatest part of the whole process. I can't even imagine why other writers are not in the theatre enjoying that!"

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel

"I had a love song that had no title," says Adam Guettel of a composition he'd written for his best friend's wedding in the late nineties. "And that music just kept circling around me. I knew I wanted to write more music that could express the sound of being in love — and of losing love, which is pretty much the same sound. So I started looking for a vessel for a love story, and came upon The Light in the Piazza."

Based on the same-titled 1959 novella by Elizabeth Spencer, the lushly romantic musical still holds the seed of Guettel's original inspiration, as the show's title song is the music from that wedding composition. Five years, three book writers, two workshops and two regional productions later, Piazza opened at Lincoln Center this spring. "And we're very lucky to be here," says the Yale graduate of his show's producing organization. After good reviews at the Goodman, Guettel recalls a slew of New York producers "came flooding into Chicago saying, 'We should take this to Broadway!' And I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't that be wonderful?' Interestingly," he says with a sly laugh, "they all sort of dropped away. But Lincoln Center pulled through."

Like with Guettel's 1996 break-out musical Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons, "because of the way you get threaded through the process at a not-for-profit," says the composer of his experience with developing Piazza, "it's so much more wholesome for the storytelling, for the growth of the score — you're really able to maintain its singularity, its signature, its thumbprint. You're not always being asked to amp everything up, 'Bigger! Faster! Funnier!'"

As for making his Broadway debut, Guettel says, "in the most excited and positive way," he laughs, "I'm freaking out. I guess because, for my entire adult life, it's something I've hoped to achieve. And so I'm not able to forget, in a titular sense, that I have achieved that goal."

Guettel also has family history to help him through. His mother, composer Mary Rodgers, made her Broadway debut with Once Upon a Mattress in 1959, and his grandfather, Richard Rodgers, took his first Broadway bow with Poor Little Ritz Girl in 1920.

MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT
Lyrics by Eric Idle
Music by Eric Idle & John Du Prez

"There's no solid set piece," says Eric Idle of his manner of collaboration with John Du Prez. "We've worked together so long we can do just about anything." Indeed, since meeting on the 1978 movie "Monty Python's Life With Brian," their talents have fueled more than two decades worth of Python films, TV programs, LPs and live concert shows. Was Broadway inevitable? "It was a process, not a miracle," Idle says of the show's evolution. "Every day you move a little pebble."

Three years, 12 drafts and 40 songs later, Idle says he believes their ability to straddle the cult material with the musical theatre structure rested in the score. "If you've got a wasp-ish lyric," Idle explains, "and you put a wonderful melody to it, you've got two things happening at once: The sentiment and the sentiment being mocked at the same time." In short, he says, "you get to an emotion, while taking all the laughs en route."

The latter, says Du Prez, is what differentiates their work from the satires of Gerald Alessandrini. "To set the record straight," Du Prez says, "I had never seen or heard of Forbidden Broadway until it appeared in the [pre-Broadway] Chicago reviews in December 2004. I had to ask what it was. Please note that Python has been spoofing songs since at least 1969."

Meanwhile, both Du Prez and Idle are honored to be making their Broadway songwriting debuts. "One of my proudest moments," Du Prez recalls, "was when the doorman of my hotel said, ‘Thank you for coming to Broadway, we need good new work to keep us employed!’"

As for writing another show — or perhaps performing in one, as Idle has done on tour — "I'd love to," Idle admits. "But since Spamalot kept me on the road the past six months, I can't be absentee-dad any more. There's no total rush," Idle ponders, with a laugh. "'Cause the great thing about Broadway is you can be older on it."

With 11 new musicals having opened on Broadway in the 2004-05 season, it has been a boom year for the art form. Of course, any time new works are offered by Stephen Sondheim, Frank Wildhorn and William Finn there is reason for excitement. Also extremely welcome back are David Yazbek, making a timely return with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels after his Tony-nominated debut four years ago with The Full Monty, alongside the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang brothers, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman — whose previous Broadway score premiered in the Tony-nominated 1974 musical, Over Here!. Add to the mix a couple of Top-40 songbook shows featuring tunes made famous by The Beach Boys and "The King," and — as Fats Waller once said — this joint is jumpin'.

David Drake is a columnist for the national edition of Playbill and author of The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.