PLAYBILL PICKS: The Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know, Part Three

By Michael Gioia
28 Jan 2014

Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham

Composer Joshua Salzman and lyricist Ryan Cunningham are recent Jonathan Larson Award winners as well as Drama Desk and MAC Award-nominated writers. Their 2006 Off-Broadway musical I Love You Because has been produced around the world in five languages, and their second musical, Next Thing You Know, has been produced at CAP21 in New York, across the States and in Europe. "Our sound depends heavily on what subject matter we're tackling — but we do think of ourselves as songwriters first and foremost," they explained. "Our first two musicals, I Love You Because and Next Thing You Know, both took place in contemporary New York, and we took cues from the music you hear in New York City bars and coffee shops — and then put it through a theatrical filter." (Listen to "Another Saturday Night in New York" from I Love You Because, performed by Colin Hanlon, David Austin, Courtney Balan, Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jordan Leeds; and "Hungover" from Next Thing You Know, performed here by Lauren Blackman, Adam Kantor, Andrew Kober and Kate Rockwell.)

"Our newest show takes place in 1977 New York City," they continued, "so now we're trying to capture the sound of the city at that time, while making sure that all the layers of New York that came before are bubbling under the surface as well." Their next project is about the New York City blackout of 1977 and is entitled The Legend of New York. (Check out "Get Gone," featuring lead vocals by J. Bernard Calloway, that is from The Legend of New York.) The musical, an adventure comedy "through New York at its grittiest" and a love letter to the city, will be directed by John Simpkins at New York University at the end of March.

"We have a lot of influences, both in the theatre world and the popular music world," said the duo, who met at the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program (and who are both members of ASCAP and the Dramatist Guild). "Going way back, we are both huge fans of the classic Broadway writers — Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser. But we grew up in the '80s and '90s, and we were particularly attracted to contemporary songwriters with a theatrical bent — Billy Joel, Ben Folds, They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies. That reverence for the best theatrical songwriters of all time, combined with a love of contemporary pop storytelling, probably best explains why we write the songs we write.

"We want to keep writing stories that interest us and entertain audiences," continued Salzman and Cunningham. "When creating a new piece, we always make the choices that best serve the story, and we are happy to be in the service of a good story well told. Some of those choices may be new and thrilling, some of them may be traditional and comforting — wherever the story leads us, that's where we're going." (Check out "Maybe We Just Made Love," a story song about a guy who just slept with his friend that is performed here by Bring It On and Spider-Man star Jason Gotay.)

Listen to "Just Not Now" from Lauren Kennedy's solo album "Here And Now":

Listen to "Little Bar On Sullivan Street," one of the duo's favorites, because, they said, "it represents the moment that Next Thing You Know went from being a song cycle to a narrative book musical."