For the last seven years, I have been honored to be a part of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, which helps theatre writers develop the craft necessary to effectively write musical theatre songs and shows.
I met my collaborator Tom Gualtieri in the First Year of the workshop, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. I’ve also met some of my dearest friends and colleagues at BMI. And I have (hopefully) honed my craft as a musical theatre composer.
I recently sat down with Pat Cook, the Director of Musical Theatre and Jazz at BMI, who also acts as a moderator for several of the various workshops, to talk about the history of the Workshop and how BMI supports writers.
Before we talk about the Workshop itself, can you tell us what BMI stands for, and a bit about the organization’s mission?
BMI stands for Broadcast Music Incorporated. It’s what is called a PRO: Performing Rights Organization. We collect money from performance venues to give to the writers as royalties for song performances. This includes radio, stage, cable television, broadcast television, night clubs… any place where music is performed, with the exception of theatre, movies and mechanical rights. We also collect from the internet – Pandora, Spotify, YouTube – that’s the new frontier. It’s a complicated world, but we’re making our presence felt online – we have a lot of people whose sole focus is how music is presented on the internet.
I understand the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop was spearheaded in 1961 by Lehman Engel, a well-respected Broadway conductor. What was the inciting event that inspired Mr. Engel to create a space to train musical theatre writers?
I never knew Lehman – he died exactly one year before I joined the Workshop. I only know of him from his books and my colleagues talking about him. Lehman was friends with the president of BMI at the time and was always talking about starting a workshop for young musical theatre writers to learn their craft. So when BMI offered him the space and financing, he jumped. Lehman ran the workshop until his death in 1982, when it was taken over by his students which included Ed Kleban, Alan Menken, Maury Yeston, and others. Then it was divided into three separate classes; Maury Yeston took one year, Richard Engquist took another and Skip Kennon taught the first year.
The Workshop has a couple different levels. Can you talk about them and how they prepare the writers?
The Songwriter’s Workshop is divided into three years. The First Year is unique because it’s all assignments: we pair up writers to write songs on assignment. Then they present their songs in front of the class, after which they receive helpful (and friendly) criticism.
Hearing criticism without having a nervous breakdown is an acquired art. It’s very hard to present in class – terrifying – I never got used to it. I remember Maury asking the class one time, “Where’s a better place to fail than in this room?” and I jokingly said, “On Broadway.” It’s not true, though. My attitude has always been: “Let us get to you before the critics do.”
Some of the assignments in the first year are pretty hard and date back to the Lehman Engel days. One is to write a song for Blanche Dubois (from STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), another is to musicalize the suicide scene from DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Very hard assignments, but that’s the point. The goal of the assignments is to teach how to write for character. The comedy song assignment changes from year to year. Lehman’s original assignment was to write a comedy song for COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA, which I think is maybe a little too tough. But if anyone in class complains about the comedy song assignment, I threaten to bring back LITTLE SHEBA. When I was in the Workshop, the charm song stayed the same – it was MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. We changed it to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to coincide with the holidays. We also do a combined assignment with the Librettists Workshop. We pick a play or movie, divide it up into scenes, and assign a book writer and songwriting team to each scene. When they’ve all finished, we present the songs in order and have a complete musical. It’s hardly ever a coherent musical, but it’s usually a lot of fun.
Skip Kennon was the one who added the 10-minute musical as the final assignment, and we’ve kept that. It makes for a wonderful ending to the year. People invite their friends and relatives and we present the works. It’s the first time the workshop writers can bring in their own performers so it’s a special occasion. NEXT TO NORMAL actually started as a 10-minute musical in first year. Back then it was called FEELING ELECTRIC.
In the Second Year, the writers get to work on whatever show they would like. Over the summer, the collaborative teams write a synopsis of Act I. Most of these are adaptations of preexisting material. So many 2nd Year writers were floundering on original musicals, we now usually make them wait until 3rd Year to write an original.
At the end of the Second Year, the writing teams take four of their best songs and perform them in front of the BMI Committee as part of their final presentation. On that basis, some of the writers are invited to join the Third Year. It’s not a contest – if everyone’s great, everyone gets asked to join the Third Year.
The Third Year is an ongoing year. If you have material to present, you can keep coming back. You can work on anything you want, you can work with outside people – it’s a true workshop. It’s much less of a teaching situation than the other years. The writers simply bring songs in and get feedback. In the Third Year we also bring in different moderators. Some of the past moderators have included Lynn Ahrens, Bobby Lopez & Kristin Anderson-Lopez, Maury Yeston, and Richard Maltby. This spring, Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler will join us.
In your time as moderator, have you noticed a change in what young writers need to learn about composing or lyric writing?
What changes is cultural outlook, style, point of view and materials. But the basics of dramatic writing stay the same. Richard Maltby told me once, “We’re all in Drama 101. There is no Drama 102.” The taste for certain kinds of musicals changes, but the basics of dramatic writing remain the same.
It’s like playwriting. There’s a craft of playwriting. Even if you’re writing a modern-day play, you’re still using principles that Aeschylus was using back in Greek times. There is a craft of writing no matter what time you’re living in. Musical theatre has its own unique craft, and that’s what we talk about.
We don’t tell workshop members what to write or what style to write in, but we do talk about the craft of musical theatre past and present.
What kinds of things is BMI doing to promote the work of Workshop writers?
Quite a few. We showcase their songs, we make recommendations to producers, directors, and theatres all over the country. We are members of NAMT and NYMF, we publish songbooks, and we have a new CD of Workshop songs coming out at the end of March.
Twice a year, we have what we call Smokers – evenings of songs that were written at BMI Workshop. We invite industry people, friends and relatives to come see it. Once every two years we do a larger BMI Showcase in a midtown theatre. Shows that have gotten productions from the Showcase include NINE and AVENUE Q. Ed Kleban was offered the job of writing lyrics for A CHORUS LINE when Michael Bennett saw his work at an early BMI Showcase.
We also have Master Classes twice a year. We take two musicals from the Workshop and present 25 minutes from each for a celebrity panelist. This December we brought in Stephen Sondheim. Past Master Classes have included Alan Menkin, John Kander, Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock, David Yazbek, Tom Jones, Marvin Hamlisch, and many others.
But the most significant thing BMI offers is a community of writers. People in the Workshop find colleagues, friends, and relationships that last the rest of their lives. I was just at a tribute to Alan Menken, and Alan and Maury seeing each other – they were like old college buddies… so tickled to see each other.
The Workshop is also a lifeline to musical theatre. Peek into one of our rooms and you’ll see famous writers, student writers, pianists, composers, lyricists, actors, singers, conductors… it’s an amazing collection of talent.
The second-best thing you’ll find there is an audience. It’s a unique, rarified audience, but it’s still an audience. It’s a great luxury to be able to come in and perform for an audience. The best feedback you can get is how a song is going over as you’re performing it..
I remember Rick Freyer, my writing partner, and I had a 10-minute song and I knew we were dead about 20 seconds in. I almost raised my hand and said, “Listen, can we stop? We made a mistake and would like to sit down right now.”
A couple years ago, BMI published a wonderful book of songs by Workshop writers. What was the process of putting that together and are plans for further volumes?
That was Jeff Blumekrantz’s project. We just got together and picked out the songs from all the submissions. Jeff, who had published his own songbook, approached my predecessor Jean Banks and said he would like to put it together, and not for any particular gain. He really worked hard to get that out.
We’re hoping to do another songbook in the near future.
How does one audition for the Workshop? What kinds of things are you looking for in perspective writers?
There’s an initial submission process which we’re beginning to move online. The live auditions take place every September the week after Labor Day. The only real criterion is talent. [For more information, please click here]
What personally excites you about today’s musical theatre?
Seeing the sensibilities of a new generation of writers getting heard and produced. Shows like AVENUE Q, BOOK OF MORMON and NEXT TO NORMAL are presenting their generation’s take on the world, and that’s very exciting.
Musical theatre has always been about taking what’s in the air and assimilating it into a show. I remember someone making a comment about a show’s music saying, “This isn’t real rock music.” And what do you say to that? “Well, no. No it isn’t. It’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be musical theatre.” “West Side Story” wasn’t a “jazz” musical. When musicals from the 30s or 40s used swing music, they weren’t called “swing” musicals. They were just styles of music used for dramatic purposes.
We’re starting to see a new crop of writers with a contemporary message that speaks of their generation. Again, to me the style doesn’t matter. NEXT TO NORMAL and AVENUE Q are completely different in terms of style, and yet they speak of a generation that is recognizable.
I understand you and your writing partner Rick Freyer met at the BMI Workshop in 1983 in the First Year class.
I was already on my third career change by the time I came to BMI. I was an actor, piano player, composer, then a lyricist. Rick and I met in First Year and worked together on the DEATH OF A SALESMAN assignment. Our second year project was based on a novel called “Toots in Solitude,” by John Yount. It was about a forty-year-old car salesman who didn’t like his suburban life. He leaves his wife, builds a treehouse in the woods and decides he’s going to live there for the rest of his life. Of course, he meets a girl who’s running from drug dealers, who’s hiding out.
We met a lot of people from that project, did a couple Dramatists Guild presentations and had some really good songs, but never solved the book problems. So, eventually we moved on. The second song we wrote for the show is in the BMI Songbook. We hope to go back to it at some point.
Our newest show SEANCE (working title) is about the Fox sisters, two little girls who lived in a farmhouse in upstate New York in 1848. They could make loud knocking noises with their toes against the floor – so cleverly that no one could see how they were doing it. As a prank, they convinced their parents there were ghosts in the house. Word spread, and soon the whole town was coming to the farmhouse to communicate with the so-called “spirits.” With the help of their older sister Leah, they invented the séance and started a movement that exists to this day. At the end of their lives, feeling guilty about the fraud they had perpetrated, they performed a show at the Academy of Music in New York explaining how they had done everything. But it was too late. The movement had become too big. Fascinating story. We’ve had a couple of readings with Musical Mondays and have gotten some interest in the show. We’re now in rewrites.
A little point of interest: Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty, Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey, Bobby Lopez & Jeff Marx all met at BMI in the First Year of the Workshop.
Can you talk about your role at BMI and how that’s influenced your work as a writer?
I started teaching at the Workshop in 2000, and when Jean Banks retired, she championed me for the job. I had never worked for a corporation before, so it was quite a life change. I’m now BMI’s Director of Musical Theatre and Jazz. Basically my job is to find new talent and keep mature talent happy. I still hate getting up in the morning, but I get to have lunch with people like Sheldon Harnick and Herbie Hancock. So what’s not to like?
I oversee the Workshop, but anyone who writes musical theatre is also part of my job. I’m just now settling into the job – it’s been about a year and a half now – and I’ve been turning my attention to my writing.
Tell us more about your collaboration.
Rick and I do our best work in the same room. That way there’s no surprise. It’s a bad surprise when you write a lyric or tune and bring it in and your collaborator doesn’t like it. Especially if you’re really happy with it. It’s better to get in a room, have the hook, play five, six, seven variations of it and say, “Yes, that’s it.” Then there’s no surprise. Now you can go off and work on the details separately.
Usually at some point I stop writing and let Rick finish the music, then craft the lyric to that. There’s total flexibility, though. The problem with us being teachers now is that he doesn’t let me get away with anything!
What is the biggest challenge facing today’s writers?
The first challenge is to write something that works. And that’s harder than anyone can imagine. Then you have to get the show on! Getting a producer interested, then getting it up on its feet at the right time, the right place, the right cast, and the right director is mind boggling! All the planets have to be aligned. Richard Engquist once said about musical theatre, “Anything that works is a miracle.”
An actor once said to me, “I’ve never gotten a bad review.” I said, “Oh, yeah? Write a musical.”
But you have to get it out there. Maury once said, “The world will have its music. No one is going to bang on your door and say, ‘Where’s yours?’”
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