Since Lincoln Center launched the American Songbook Series in 1999, they have become one of New York’s most invaluable cabaret presenters. This winter, while focusing their programming into a six-week schedule, many of the headliners shimmer with a Tony-winning luster: Brian Stokes Mitchell strutted his stuff Jan. 12, Victoria Clark’s cabaret debut is set for Feb. 10 and The Naughton Family (James, Greg and Keira)’s harmonizing will be heard Feb. 23.
Of course, the composers are the real stars of this series. And with evenings devoted to the songbooks of such acclaimed tunesmiths as Jule Styne, Cy Coleman and David Zippel, it’s refreshing to see Lincoln Center open its door to someone who, though well known on the cabaret scene, has yet to breakthrough to a larger audience: John Bucchino. On January 27, however, that may change when 22 of his songs will be presented at the Allen Room in a revue entitled It’s Only Life.
The shift began this past fall when Bucchino won the first annual Fred Edd Award, honoring musical theatre composers. Broadway legend Chita Rivera introduced him at the ceremony, and Bucchino says with a laugh, “I think it was the happiest and most surreal moment of my life.” The Philadelphia native who was reared in Los Angeles dabbled in pop music for years in Hollywood before heeding the advice of an unexpected mentor, Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz. “He told me, ‘Your songs are too complex for pop. They’re theatre songs,’” recalls Bucchino. And while the fledgling songwriter continued his day job —accompanying folk singer Holly Near on tour (as he has for over 20 years)—soon after Schwartz’s assessment, he relocated to Gotham in the early nineties to pursue the Broadway terrain. Along the way, Bucchino’s melodiously pop-flavored, yet story-centered songs—“It Feels Like Home,” “Grateful,” “Unexpressed,” “Sweet Dreams”—began finding their way into the acts (and recordings) of such cabaret luminaries as the late Nancy LaMott and Michael Callen as well as Amanda McBroom, Phillip Officer, Billy Stritch, Barbara Cook and Patti LuPone, while a close friendship with Daisy Prince has resulted in this month’s show in the Lincoln Center series.
Accompanied solely by the composer on piano and as conceived and directed by Ms. Prince, It’s Only Life features a top-notch cast: Billy Porter, Jessica Molaskey, Gavin Creel, Brooks Ashmanskas and Andrea Burns (also seen in the Prince-directed revue of Jason Robert Brown’s work, Songs for a New World). With only a couple of Bucchino’s musical theatre scores having seen the (regional) stage lights—including the one-act Lavender Girl a few years back in the Hal Prince-produced triptych 3hree in L.A. and Philadelphia—Bucchino hopes the Lincoln Center one-nighter will spur more of what its title declares: Life.
“Because I don’t read or write music,” says Bucchino, who composes and accompanies entirely by ear, “the only songs of mine that people perform are the 16 numbers that’ve been written out.” [For a recording list check out www.johnbucchino.com.] “That’s why I’d love an Off-Broadway production of It’s Only Life,” he says. “My fantasy would be to have a run of the show in New York and a recording of it so that it can get out into the world.” As for the monetary bonus of his recent award from the Fred Ebb Foundation ($50,000), Bucchino jokes, “It’s saving my butt. Literally. I may splurge and buy a new sofabed."