Interview with Broadway’s Jeff Blumenkrantz

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com
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This week I had an opportunity to sit down with composer/lyricist Jeff Blumenkrantz.  I first met Jeff at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. He is an extraordinary performer and writer with a wonderfully eclectic background in theatre.  Here’s a more formal bio:

Jeff Blumenkrantz is a multi-talented artist whose career has taken him to Broadway and beyond.  He appeared in the Broadway productions of A Class Act, Into the Woods, Damn Yankees (1994 revival), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995 revival), and has also made several cameos on hit television shows like Will & Grace, Just Shoot Me, Law & Order and Ugly Betty.

As a composer/lyricist, Jeff’s songs have been performed and recorded by today’s top theatre artists.  In 2000, Audra McDonald recorded his song “I Won’t Mind” (with lyrics by Annie Kessler and Libby Saines) on her CD How Glory Goes.  Jeff was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write a song based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, again for Ms. McDonald.  His podcast The Jeff Blumenkrantz Songbook Podcast (subscribe for free on iTunes) features performances of his songs by Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, Marin Mazzie, Michael McElroy, Kelli O’Hara, Billy Porter and many other Broadway luminaries. For more information, visit his website: www.jeffblumenkrantz.com.

The following is taken from my interview with Jeff.

You went to school at Northwestern University.  What was your major?

I received a B.S. in Theatre from the School of Speech (which is now called the School of Communication).  I was an acting major, but while I was there, I studied orchestration and choral writing and was a regular contributor to The WAA-MU Show, a big student-written revue.  So the musical theatre-writing ball was already rolling….

Did you come to New York City straight out of college?

I got my first Equity job in Chicago the week before I graduated college, so I went right into that.  When the show closed at the end of the summer, I moved to New York, and I’ve been here ever since.

When did you become involved with BMI?

It was 1987, my second September in New York.  At the time, I was an understudy in the original production of Into the Woods, and I was very focused on my acting career.  Back then, writing was a fun hobby. It wasn’t until about eleven years ago that I got more interested in pursuing it full-time.  While I still do take the occasional acting job, the balance has definitely shifted.

What have you gotten out of BMI?

I’d say the top thing is craft. All those assignments from first year, and then hearing other people’s songs and getting feedback on my own songs in subsequent years… it starts to become really clear what works and what doesn’t. Along the way, I’ve picked up various techniques to sharpen my dramatic writing and storytelling, which is such a different thing than pop songwriting.

I remember when Maury Yeston used to moderate, and he would do this magic trick where he would distinguish exactly where the mismatch was between the emotional temperature of a song and what was happening in the music. Then he’d sit down at the piano and solve the issue. Sometimes it meant starting the song out of tempo or lifting the piano part an octave or adding some underscoring to the preceding dialogue. Whatever it was, his focus was on supporting the character’s emotional journey with the appropriate musical foundation, and once they matched, it would transform the song instantaneously. So valuable….

You’ve had an extensive career as a singing actor on Broadway.  How has your work as a performer influenced your writing?

Turns out that instincts that I’ve picked up from my time on stage have proved invaluable to my writing. As an actor, my job is to analyze what’s on the page and bring it to life. Sometimes all the emotional and logical dots are connected, and sometimes they’re not. Sondheim, for instance, is a master dot-connector, which is why everyone loves to perform his songs. He’s done all the work for you. Other writers leave gaps here and there, and it becomes the actor’s job to fill those gaps, which can be fun but it can also be challenging. Having been through that process over and over as an actor has made me strive to be a dot-connector in my writing.

What was the catalyst for self-publishing your songs?

When Audra McDonald recorded “I Won’t Mind,” the song got a certain amount of attention, so my co-writers, lyricists Annie Kessler & Libby Saines, and I approached one of the big music publishers to ask if they were interested in publishing the sheet music.   They said, “Sure,” and outlined a terrible deal – the three of use would share something like eight cents a sheet.  Then, Annie talked to one of the salespeople at Colony Records, who connected us with a distributor.  The distributor advanced us the money and published the sheet music for us, and then distributed it.  We ended up making much more per copy that way than we would have if we had gone through a publisher.

As for the songbook, I’d always dreamed of having a book of my own songs, but I didn’t put much stock in it. I thought, Who’s going to buy a book of songs by a writer who’s never had a show on? But then my friends Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich self-published their songbook and proved that there was an audience for it. When Marcy showed me a copy of her big, beautiful, book, I was so inspired. I thought, “This is possible, and I don’t have to wait for a publisher to ask me. I can do it by myself, right now!”

Can you briefly talk about the steps you took to self-publish your songbook?

First, there’s the music prep, which is intense. It takes a lot of time and proof-reading to get music print-ready. Then there’s working out the logistics, dealing with the printers, getting the artwork designed, then there’s promoting it, shipping it, storing it, selling it… It was a great education, which I’m so happy I got. And as you may know, I went through the whole process again when I spear-headed the publication of The BMI Workshop Songbook. (It was much easier the second time….)

Would you go through a publisher now?

I don’t know. It’s a trade-off. The big publishers can really widen your audience, but the profit per book is greatly reduced. Self-publishing is much more profitable per book, but I’m guessing you sell way less books. Plus you’re doing it all yourself. Maybe one day I’ll get too busy (or lazy) to do it myself, and then I’ll seek out a relationship with a publisher, but until then, it’s working for me.

I think the future of printed music is in online sales. I sell sheet music for my songs on my website, as well as through newmusicaltheatre.com, and I’m more inclined to make my songs available individually than to publish another volume.

What are some of the technical and/or logistical challenges you find as a both a performer and writer in this field?

Collaboration is probably the biggest logistical challenge we musical theatre artists face (and ironically, one of the greatest joys as well).  There are a lot of cooks in a musical theatre kitchen, and it’s tricky to create something that will satisfy so many master chefs.

Not to mention, not every story deserves to be told with songs. So often, you invest months or years exploring a story or subject, only to discover that your story is unworkable or simply that it doesn’t “sing.”

You’ve had the opportunity to work with Audra McDonald a couple times now.  Can you talk about your collaboration on “I Won’t Mind” and “Seven Deadly Sins?”

Audra is a freak of nature, so outrageously and effortlessly talented, it boggles the mind. I knew Audra from riding the subway together to our respective shows (Damn Yankees and Carousel) back in the 90’s. Then when her concert career started taking off, our mutual friend and her musical director at the time, Ted Sperling, showed her the song “I Won’t Mind,” and she added it to her repertoire and eventually recorded it. That put me on the map as a composer, and I will always be grateful to Ted and Audra for that.

Later, when Ted conceived the “Seven Deadly Sins” song cycle to be the centerpiece of her Zankel Hall concert, I was thrilled to be among the songwriters who were given a sin to explore musically. I requested Sloth and proceeded to write the song “My Book,” which Audra performed brilliantly.

I have to confess, there was very little collaboration that I can recall, no back and forth, no process. I wrote it, she learned it, and then she performed the hell out of it. And I couldn’t have been happier.

What do you want musical theatre singers to remember?

Singers get very stressed out about finding the perfect audition song, comedy song, [fill in the blank] song.  And they think that because a song works for someone else, it will automatically work for them. Not true.

I encourage people to focus on the journey of the song and whether or not it resonates for them.  That’s the only barometer they should be tracking – NOT “Does this song get a lot of hits on youtube?” or “Does it show off my high notes?”  If they don’t have anything personal to say through the song, and they’re not that excited to share the journey with others, it’s not the best song for them. Find a song that you’re dying to sing, not one that you’ve strategically chosen.

I’m very drama-centric in terms of my approach to musical theatre – I care about the story-telling.  I’m not interested in watching singers having musical experiences.  I want to see people having dramatic experiences. If your voice cracks, but you’re really inhabiting the song, I’m won over. If your voice is stellar, but there’s nothing going on with you emotionally, I’m much less drawn to you.

 What do you think musical theatre writers need to remember?

I think we’re often better off writing more simply than we think we should.  I hear a lot of complicated, smart, beautiful, dense songs that just can’t be digested in a single listen, and unfortunately, that doesn’t work. The gig is to get it across in one hearing.

The other thing I try to keep my eye on is telling a good story, i.e. creating a journey that someone would want to go on, that others would want to watch someone go on, and giving my characters problems worth solving.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m heading into the final third of my song cycle, Month Upon a Time.  I’ve also started preliminary work on two new shows – it’s too early in the process to say much about them, but they’re both period pieces.  And most recently, I contributed an original song to the March 2nd episode of “Submissions Only” (the acclaimed web series about show business, watch episodes at submissionsonly.com).

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