PLAYBILL PICKS: The Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know, Part Two
By Michael Gioia
A new crop of musical theatre songwriter is making noise, and Playbill put its ear to the ground to hear what they have to offer. Pop-rock music, art songs, cabaret and traditional narrative show tunes inform the work of these rising writers. In this continuing series, we've got their stories — and audio samples of their songs.
When you think of "contemporary musical theatre writers," who comes to mind? Jason Robert Brown, the Tony Award-winning composer of Parade, The Last 5 Years, Songs For a New World and 13? The late Jonathan Larson, whose Tony and Pulitzer-winning rock opera Rent changed the face of contemporary theatre? Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose varied Latin styles won him a Tony for In the Heights? Amanda Green, the lyricist of Bring It On, High Fidelity and the coming Hands on a Hardbody? How about Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, whose Next to Normal told the tale of mental illness with pulsing rock? Playbill is about to change your view of what's "new."
Much like Brown, Kitt, Yorkey, Green, Larson and the other Broadway composers who fall on the wide spectrum of contemporary music theatre, there is a rising community of non-Broadway songwriters who use pop and rock to tell provocative, boundary-pushing stories. And, like those who came before, their songs are starting to be sung by up-and-coming voices in the Broadway community.
Although the newcomers' songs have not been heard on Broadway, there is evidence of their work everywhere. Their music is brought to life at New York City nightclubs such as Joe's Pub, (le) Poisson Rouge and Birdland, developmental spots like Ars Nova, on songwriter websites and internet platforms like YouTube. Their work is being developed in New York and around the country, their music is materializing on iTunes and fans are demanding their sheet music.
Playbill.com reached out to a handful of songwriters or songwriting teams — those yet to debut their work on Broadway — whose music is slowly making its mark on American Musical Theatre.
In this multi-part series, meet the songwriters you should know, who dish on their musical influences, projects in development and share a few of their favorite tracks. (We've also linked to some YouTube clips as well.)
Singer, songwriter and actress Katie Thompson, who will appear in The Public Theater's upcoming production of Michael John LaChuisa's Giant, not only writes and performs her own material, but is often seen singing the songs of Scott Alan, Jonathan Reid Gealt and Kerrigan and Lowdermilk, among others. "Working as an actress in new musical theatre inspires me and teaches me all at the same time," said Thompson, whose signature songs include "It Doesn't Hurt," a tune that longs for contemporary choreography and has been performed by multiple dance companies and on dance shows such as "So You Think You Can Dance," which can be seen in this clip; "I'm Not Pregnant, I'm Just Fat," one of her favorites, performed here by Hairspray and Cry-Baby actress Carly Jibson; and her soulful cover of "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," sung by Thompson at her 2010 Birdland concert.
The composer-lyricist, who says her tunes live in the world of musical theatre pop, developed R.R.R.E.D. a Secret Musical, a musical about a read-head revolution that premiered in L.A. and was workshopped at NYMF (watch "Too Pretty," performed by Mariand Torres) and is currently working on a traditional book musical about a haunting with Sara Montgomery. "I'd like to create new stories to put music to, while rethinking and reinventing character 'types,'" said Thompson. "The ingénue, the leading man, the quirky supporting actors that have become almost 'text-book' now, when writing musical theatre could use a little expanding. My other ideas for musical theatre involve using current media/film to help the 'new' musical become as popular as the current trend of making movies into musicals."
Listen to "Terrifying Bliss" from Thompson's "haunted" new musical that she is developing with Montgomery:
Check out the singer's SoundCloud profile with more new music here.
"People always tell me they hear a blend of both contemporary and 'old school' sounds in my work, which I think just reflects my interest in writing new theatre music, whatever that may mean," said award-winning composer Adam Gwon (Kleban Award, Fred Ebb Award and the Second Stage Theatre Donna Perret Rosen Award, among others). "I love writing for theatre because of the variety of sounds you're able to explore." His Ordinary Days, which was produced by Roundabout Theatre Company's Underground program in 2009, centers on four New Yorkers connected by circumstance and features "I'll Be Here," an emotional recounting of a lost love who perished in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center — a song that Gwon said, "essentially launched [his] career." The song was performed brought to life Off-Broadway by Lisa Brescia and has been performed in concert by five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald. (Watch "Sort-Of Fairy Tale," also from Ordinary Days, performed here by The Book of Mormon's Jared Gertner and Legally Blonde's Kate Wetherhead).
Gwon added, "I was a piano nerd as a kid [watch 'C Major,' a musical metaphor, performed by Lysistrata Jones' Alex Wyse], obsessed with classical music and Tori Amos, and then got into musicals. A high school teacher of mine introduced me to Sondheim, then a teacher my freshman year at NYU really opened the floodgates and I was all in."
His other material includes The Boy Detective Fails, based on the Joe Meno novel of the same name about boy detective Billy Argo whose younger sister and crime-solving partner, Caroline, committed suicide, which premiered at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, in 2011; and Cloudlands, about a young woman piecing together her mother's secret life, which premiered at South Coast Repertory earlier this year. Currently, he is developing an original musical called String with playwright Sarah Hammond (watch "So Over," a song from the musical performed by Carrie actress Blair Goldberg), and recently began work on a new project commissioned by Playwrights Horizons. "The collaborative element of musical theatre is really invigorating, and there are many playwrights, directors and actors I want to collaborate with. So I'm hatching evil plans to get them to make new musicals with me," he said.
Listen to "Little Mysteries," a favorite of Gwon's from The Boy Detective Fails, performed by Anika Larsen and Stephen Gregory Smith:
Listen to "I'll Be Here" from Ordinary Days, performed by Lisa Brescia:
Composer-lyricist Joe Iconis' garage-band musical The Black Suits was seen this past summer in a workshop production in Pittsfield, MA, that was part of the Barrington Stage Company Musical Theatre Lab series. "I like songs that go on journey, both lyrically and musically, and I love songs that are surprising and end up in a place you don't expect," said Iconis, the recipient of an Ed Kleban Award and Jonathan Larson Award, among others. "I respond to aggressive, full-bodied melodies that help the listener understand a character or a moment or a feeling. I also respond to characters who are inarticulate and unable to express themselves." "The Answer," a song from The Black Suits performed here by Jason Hite, who appeared in the summer Black Suits workshop and will be seen in the upcoming Off-Broadway production of Bare, embodies all of the aforementioned qualities and is built around a character who is looking for something more.
Aside from The Black Suits, which Iconis hopes will be given life in New York City, the composer's other projects include the Drama Desk Award-nominated Bloodsong of Love, a Spaghetti Western rock 'n' roll musical following a wandering guitarist (watch "Play the Princess," a cut song from the musical, performed here by Katrina Rose Dideriksen, MK Lawson, Kate Pazakis and Tracy McDowell); ReWrite, a mini-musical triple feature that, Iconis says, "absolutely baffles and frightens people"; and the Theatreworks USA musicals The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks and We The People, among others. Currently, he is working on Be More Chill, an adaptation of the science fiction novel by Ned Vizzini, with book writer Joe Tracz; a musical about writer Hunter S. Thompson, with book writer Gregory S. Moss, for La Jolla Playhouse and Broadway Across America; and Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! with Lance Rubin and Jason "SweetTooth" Williams ("It's an ass-kicking love letter to our favorite red-headed actress of all time," said Iconis).
"It's my greatest dream to have a show on Broadway, but a show I believe in," he added. "One that, hopefully, is something that I feel good about and isn't a paint-by-numbers adaptation of a movie franchise. I just want my writing to reach as many people as humanly possible. Watch Lisa Brescia's performance of "Starting To Forget," the songwriter's favorite, which he wrote 10 years ago about his grandfather… "It sorta felt like a turning point in the way I was writing."
Listen to "Find the Bastard" from Bloodsong of Love:
Listen to "Helen" from Things to Ruin, Iconis' theatrical rock concert, seen at Ars Nova, Joes' Pub and Second Stage, among others:
"We met in the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program," explained songwriting duo Sam Carner and Derek Gregor, who said their tunes are often infused with elements of stadium rock and Cole Porter. "We were paired together for a 20-minute one-act in the first year of the program, and we selected each other as writing partners for our second year in the program." Collaboratively the pair created Unlock'd, the "Best of Fest" winner at the 2007 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) and recipient of the Richard Rodgers Award that is based on Alexander Pope's narrative poem "The Rape of the Lock." The musical, a love story that they describe as "a 'Mean Girls' meets A Midsummer Night's Dream," will receive its Off-Broadway premiere in summer 2013 with Prospect Theatre Company. (Watch Next to Normal's Brian Crum sing "All at Once" from the musical).
"YouTube has certainly served to encourage and spread the work of writers like us who don't even have a Broadway credit, and it's wonderful that works of young New York writers is now being performed literally around the world as a result," they added. Cabaret and concert performances of songs from their Island Song musical anthology, the story of five New Yorkers and their tortured love affair with the city, which will be seen Nov. 12 at (le) Poisson Rouge, have risen to popularity on YouTube. (Check out an acoustic version of "Stay Awhile," performed here by Hands on a Hardbody's Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Wall Lovin'," performed here by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan).
Other projects in development include their children's musical The Great Cookie Quest (book by Jim Weitzer) and their short Love, Splat, which is slated for production in TheatreWorks USA's The Teacher from the Black Lagoon. "Artistically speaking, we always aim to crystalize experience, to give voice to thoughts and feelings that people have constantly but have never heard in a song," they said. "We're told all the time, 'that character is me' or 'that character is my best friend' and even 'that was therapy' or 'that was scary... I've totally done that.' I think that goal of writing songs that resonate in a fresh way with people's lives is pretty constant in all of our projects." One of Gregor's favorite tunes is "Make It Here," a song written for a friend on Broadway whose father was not supportive.
Listen to a demo of Carner's favorite, "Out of the Bay," the 11-o'clock number from Unlock'd performed by Jordan:
Listen to "Make It Here," performed by Crum:
Songwriter and musical director Deborah Abramson, a graduate from NYU's Musical Theatre Writing Program, found inspiration from a few of her professors: Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa. "I moved through my idolatries and picked up pieces of them, while simultaneously ruling out sounds that I decided I didn't want coming out of my pen anymore," said Abramson, the recipient of The Max Dreyfuss Award through ASCAP. "That process continues. I'm chipping away at the parts I don't like, while trying to open up and agree to satisfy the listener's ear more often. I'd still take a swing at trying to write in just about any style, but it would all surely come out sounding like me — restless, emotional, avoidant, complicated."
Abramson frequently collaborates with lyricist Amanda Yesnowitz. Together they have developed a song cycle entitled While I Wait (check out "Another Day," performed by Spring Awakening and "Glee" actress Lea Michele); and The History of War, the story of a 12-year-old boy who conjures up seven of the most famous tyrants of all time that features a book by Chip Zien and was seen at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) (watch "I Will Conquer You" from the musical, performed here by Evita's Max Von Essen). She has also composed for Marco Polo, with Peter Mills, and Songs of Innocence and Experience, with William Finn. "I finally got to conduct its New York premiere last winter at the Allen Room," said Abramson about Songs of Innocence. "One of the best nights of my life. Now that's a group of my songs that I would love to have recorded. Lisa Howard recorded one of them on her solo album. She chose the quirkiest one of all, ['How To Make Delicious Chocolate Pudding'], but she delivers gorgeously."
"I want to write songs with other people who get me," added Abramson. "Honestly, my secret fantasy has become that lyricists will start sending me text messages saying, 'I read your Facebook status update this morning and I've already started turning it into a lyric for you to set... In the end, I think I'll be wise enough to simply wish that I am leaving behind songs that will move people to endure, to love, to reconcile, to laugh, to get born." One of Abramson's favorite tunes is a song she wrote by herself for her niece, "Liliana," performed here by Ryah Nixon (9 to 5 national tour).
Listen to "Essential Me" from Songs of Innocence and Experience, performed by Abramson in the initial private demo for Finn:
Listen to "Waiting to be Won" from Marco Polo, performed by Megan McGinnis:
Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk are known for their coming-of-age power ballads in their contemporary musical pieces The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown and Tales from the Bad Years. "Run Away With Me" is one of the duo's most frequently performed tunes — a song from Samantha Brown in which Samantha's high school boyfriend simply asks to be her "ride out of town." Their other popular songs that teeter on the brink of adolescence and adulthood include "Last Week's Alcohol," performed here by Spring Awakening and War Horse actor Matt Doyle ("It's one of our most structurally ambitious songs," said Lowdermilk, "and it's all in service of describing a small moment of introspection at a keg party"); "How to Return Home," performed here by Tony nominee Laura Osnes; and "Two Strangers," performed here by Doyle, Morgan Karr and Jay Armstrong Johnson.
"Brian and I have the surprising and wonderful benefit of having grown up in the same theatre community as kids," said Kerrigan about the duo's collaboration. "We reference productions we saw when were first learning about theatre as often as we reference what's happening in professional theatre today. Additionally, we have a lot of shared musical influences. We both grew up in families that loved music and the influences are as varied as the Indigo Girls and Bruce Springsteen to Mozart and Dvorak." Currently, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk are working with Broadway Across America on The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, which premiered last year at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris; developing a musical called Republic, based on Shakespeare's Henry IV and set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s; and working on a commission from Dan Markley and Brooks Hale — the coming-of-age story of a Chinese dancer named Zhong Mei Li.
"Right now, musical theatre is closer to pop culture than it has been in decades," continued Kerrigan. "We think that's so exciting and we want to push the boundaries of that. In the future, we think it's possible to erase the stigma that people have towards musical theatre and bring in more audiences. The authenticity of a live experience can't be replicated on YouTube or television and I think that will become more and more valuable."
Listen to "Run Away With Me," performed by Michael Arden on the duo's CD "Our First Mistake":
Listen to "One Last Prayer," a pivotal moment from the duo's newest work, Republic:
Expect Playbill's Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know, Part Three, in the future. Write us with suggestions at email@example.com.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Tweet him new music and composer suggestions at @PlaybillMichael.)
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