Interview with Rick Walters

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com
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Do you know this man? I bet you do without even knowing it. Rick Walters is Vice President of Classical Publications at Hal Leonard Corporation and, perhaps most notably, the editor of the well-regarded multi-volume The Singers Musical Theatre Anthology, which many of us have heavily relied upon for years.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Rick about his work in the publishing industry. Below is a transcript of the interview.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching you present publisher showcases at the NATS (National Assoc. of Teachers of Singing) Conference and am always struck by your gifts as a collaborative pianist. Tell us about your background as a musician.

I began studying piano when I was six years old and was a piano major in college.  I also studied to be an opera coach and conductor.  As a result, I worked with a lot of singers and, along the way, did a lot of musical theatre.  On the side, I played for dinner theatre and open audition calls.  I also played for a comedy theatre in Minneapolis when I was in graduate school.

How did you come to work for Hal Leonard?

While I love working with singers and love the voice and vocal literature, I realized coaching and conducting wasn’t my calling.  Also, becoming an opera conductor was going to be a very tall order.  So, I went to graduate school for theory and composition, with a heavy emphasis on composition.

When I finished my degree, I was burned out on going to school and wasn’t really interested in academia.  I had been working at a music store and was familiar with Hal Leonard.  I answered an ad posted in the graduate placement office from Hal Leonard for a freelance keyboard arranger and was sent an audition cassette tape of three songs. The task was to transcribe piano/vocal sheet music, an ability I didn’t know I had until I did it.

I was then asked to come to Hal Leonard headquarters in Milwaukee for an interview. It wasn’t until I was in the middle of the interview that I realized I was being considered for a full time job.  I began here as the first person on full time staff devoted to piano/vocal sheet music.  So, for the first two years at Hal Leonard, I spent eight hours a day, headphones on, transcribing songs.  I think the very first song I wrote the sheet music for was “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins.

The Singers Musical Theatre Anthology has become a staple in many teacher and student’s collections. Tell us how the collection came to be.

I knew there was a need for this kind of publication and that there wasn’t anything adequate available.  At the time I was a lowly keyboard editor, not allowed to conceive publications.  This was my bold move: I put together a compilation and pitched it to the president of the company. I guess I persuaded him because he allowed me to make those books.

The theory of the compilation was that all the songs would be in the original keys and be the original show version.  This had never been done before.  There had always been vocal selections, which were arrangements of songs with the melody in the piano part and transposed into one of the acceptable keys, which was a limit of two sharps on one side and three or four flats on the other.  Those were the general rules of sheet music publishing during the “standards era.”

My taste played a role in the development of the compilation.  I’m a guy who loves Kurt Weill and some of the more ambitious things that were done in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when there was a theory that Broadway was a home for American opera.  I was very interested in that material – still am – but I was also interested in contemporary material.  So, even from the first volumes, no volume is about the most recent thing.  It’s always been a mix, and that’s been deliberate.  If the volumes had only included new material, I think they would have dated quickly.

The first books were released in January, 1987 and were immediately successful.  I’ve been told by some people in New York that the anthologies helped to expand the audition repertoire at a time when that was needed.

I’m impressed with the performance notes in front of each volume.  Do you write all of those?

My secret weapon on that was a fantastic musical theatre historian named Stanley Green, who died in 1993.  Stanley was one of the first serious, published musical theatre historians.  He had worked as a Broadway and Hollywood publicist, knew everybody and had access to all this material at a time when you couldn’t just search things on the internet.

I was Stanley’s editor on his last book, Hollywood Musicals Year by Year and the second edition of his Broadway Musicals Show by Show.  This included a short paragraph about most all the major musicals in the history of Broadway.

Stanley’s work was the inspiration for those introductory paragraphs. With his permission, I started with what he had written, then adapted it. That’s why the credits in the volumes credit him and me, and sometimes others. The writing is a mixture of our work.

It’s a tricky thing to write a condensed plot synopsis. It’s frankly much easier now on the internet with a lot of resources available.

How do you go about choosing what makes the final cut?

Several questions have to be answered.  Does the song make a vocally gratifying statement?  Is this a good piece to sing?  And is it extractable?

I also have to imagine lots of different types of tastes and different singers – people in high school, college, young ingenues, people playing character parts, those trying to find post-ingenue material – a wide variety of needs and tastes.

To what extent do you collaborate with living writers when publishing one of their songs in an anthology?

It depends on the writer and the relationship.  Hal Leonard has many relationships and rights to a very large body of material.  Sometimes a writer is directly involved.  Sometimes the musical director is the one playing the main role in terms of the printed edition. Sometimes it’s purely through the mail, or through a lawyer and we have no direct contact.  Sometimes the writer wants things notated in a very specific way.  Other writers are less well versed about issues of notation and welcome the editing.

Anecdotally, I’ve worked directly with Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa and Marc Shaiman, and lots of others.  Back in the day, I worked with Marvin Hamlisch. Other Hal Leonard editors have worked directly with many other writers.

How has the Anthology changed over the course of the last twenty-plus years?

Volume I has what I would call more expansive vocalism. There’s more opportunity for a classical singer who’s coming to musical theatre to find things in the first volume than the other volumes. As the series evolved, there has been more focus on providing music for people interested in musical theatre only, and less for classical crossover talent. I did some revised editions in the 1990s of Volumes 1 and 2. The mezzo volume really changed because I had some classical mezzo material in the original edition of Volume 1 and realized that was probably not the best idea.  I moved some of those songs into subsequent soprano volumes and kept the mezzo volume where it’s possible to belt most of the literature.

I always have more mezzo/belter material than I can fit into the books.  In the more contemporary literature of the last fifteen years, bari-tenor is a favorite voice category.  I’m always having the problem in men’s literature of where to call it.  If it’s bari-tenor, right between the voice types, where do I put it in the series structure I’ve created? I have to call it one or the other. That’s been a challenge.

Soprano literature is harder to find for Volume 6, which I’m working on.  And how soprano is defined has changed.  There’s less legit soprano singing for an entire role in contemporary theatre.  Women who are sopranos are generally asked to belt too.  I might take something that a legit soprano can do, but some of the song might be belting, and I might call that soprano.  I wouldn’t have done that twenty years ago.

I think the topic of original key becomes difficult.  You can be too purist about original key.  In many instances, the original key was for the original performer and the show was not written in an organic compositional way where that key was important to the structure of the show.  That’s true with some shows – SWEENEY TODD, for instance – but with more contemporary shows, it’s not always necessary.  Nevertheless, it’s a value of the series I’ve stuck with.

Original keys are important for someone who wants to go in and get a job in a role where no one is going to spend the money to transpose the orchestration. If you’re singing a certain kind of material in an audition – a song from a show with a small orchestration of an Off-Broadway show or revue, I don’t know that original key is that sacred.

As someone who has a wide range of knowledge and experience, what do you find to be the most challenging aspect of today’s musical theatre industry?

Trying to stay on top of what’s going on is not a challenge because it’s a lifestyle for those of us are interested in musical theatre.  For print rights – although we follow the shows in development – they have to reach a pretty mature point for us to express any official interest.  Most of the time they have to really be headed to Broadway in the short-term future.

There are many good writers in musical theatre, and it’s really hard to tell them their material doesn’t have a wide enough audience to support the publication we’d be selling not only in New York and San Francisco, but also in St. Louis, Minneapolis and everywhere else.  That’s often the conversation I’ve had.

There are some very inexact factors and unknowns in this.  Jason Robert Brown is a good example.  Here’s a guy who had some shows that ran Off-Broadway for brief runs. But his music hit a nerve with all the college students in America and they all wanted the music. Or a show like Andrew Lippa’s THE WILD PARTY.  There was clearly national interest in this show even though it didn’t have a big national profile.

Many writers are starting to self-publish their work and make it available online. How is Hal Leonard staying competitive in an ever-changing market?

First off, I think it’s great writers are self-publishing. In many cases I think it’s the right choice. It’s great for them to get educated on the legal issues and know how to do it.  Writers previously didn’t need to know those things.  They just signed a contract and all those details were taken care of for them.  You have to know publishing from a legal and copyright point of view to do this, so I applaud that.  The way I think of it is, “Welcome to publishing!”

I don’t view self-published writers as competition because we have exclusive rights to the material we publish.  So, if someone wants to go to our SheetMusicDirect website and digitally buy “If I Loved You” or “Defying Gravity”, they can do that.

Or course, if someone is getting a lot of attention and building a substantial audience by self-publishing, we’re going to pay attention.  If someone has Broadway credits, yes, you’d look at that differently than someone with no Broadway or Off-Broadway credits. It doesn’t mean we’re not interested in keeping tabs on where a writer’s shows goes.  We need to be open to things, open to the trends.  At the same time, there’s another factor here: we have a responsibility to all the material we already have rights for.  So, the question is: do we bring somebody into that mix?

I understand you’re a composer yourself. Do you like to work in a particular genre?

Borodin called himself a Sunday composer, and I’m that at most.  I write sometimes, but it’s for myself mostly.  My composition studies were with Dominick Argento, and I recently sent him a piece I wrote for soprano Susanna Phillips.  I don’t have illusions about promoting myself as a composer at this point.

I write primarily for the voice and always have – mostly classical and some classical crossover material.  I’ve never written any purely theatre material. I don’t think it’s in me to do that.

I think being a composer does inform how I look at a score, though.   I much prefer to go to the piano and play play something, rather than listening to it.  I get a much better sense of what it is.

What are you currently working on publishing related to musical theatre?

We’re working on several major things.  I don’t think Mr. Sondheim’s works have been given the kind of editions they deserve, so we’re trying to make good on that.  We’re compiling one gigantic volume of Sondheim, so look for that this fall.  We’re also replacing the “All Sondheim” series and working on a big five-volume anthology of Sondheim songs by voice type (soprano, mezzo-belter, tenor, baritone/bass, duets).  In addition, we’ve been creating revised editions of Sondheim shows, like SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE vocal selections with added songs.  So, there’s been a lot of focus on Sondheim.

We’re also working on research for The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology, Volume 6.  And there are always musical theatre teens books in the works because they’re our biggest sellers.

For more information about Hal Leonard’s wide range of publications, please visit www.sheetmusicdirect.com.

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