This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.
Several years ago, I was listening to a Brian Stokes Mitchell CD while cleaning my apartment. As the last track began to play, I stopped in my tracks. I thought, “What is this and why haven’t I sung it??” It was John Bucchino’s iconic song “Grateful.” I bought Bucchino’s songbook at the now-defunct Colony Records, brought it to my church choir director and have sung it as my personal anthem many times.
In a city of strangers, who knew I would have the wonderful opportunity of getting to know John through The Directory project. I recently sat down with him to talk about his work as a writer and teacher. Below is a transcript of the interview:
Tell us about how you came to writing songs.
I began teaching myself to play the piano at age one – my grandmother lived next door to us, and she babysat me every day when my parents went to work. She had a big old upright piano that nobody played and it became my favorite toy. I played for hours every day, and when we moved to the suburbs, I got my own piano. My dad would bring me a new 45 record each Friday if I behaved that week, and my collection grew. In high school, I hung out with a bunch of musician friends, and we’d all listen to pop music and recreate it together. I was also in a band where we’d play standards, so I was inspired by classic American popular music as well as contemporary radio hits. And I loved to write poetry. Songwriting was a natural extension of those things. Plus, it was really cool to write songs and I desperately wanted to be cool. In my senior year I got a tape recorder capable of a rudimentary form of multi-tracking, and that really sent my writing into high gear. I’d write about the usual teenage things: love gone wrong, yearning for romance, rebellion against parents and society, and hole up in my bedroom to record the resulting songs with piano, guitar, electric piano, bongo drums, recorder, harmonica, whatever I could find to layer in. I still have those early demos, and they’re not bad. Then it was a gradual development process – an increasingly complex chordal, rhythmic and lyric vocabulary and branching out into writing about broader topics. Everything I heard, from Burt Bacharach to Stravinsky filtered in and added something to my own style. Then I wrote and wrote for 20 years or so without many people noticing. Even though it felt frustrating at the time, in retrospect this was a good thing because it enabled me to further develop my own creative voice, unswayed by public opinion.
You’ve written many famous solo songs, but you’re also known as a writer of several shows including URBAN MYTHS, LAVENDER GIRL and A CATERED AFFAIR. What’s different about writing a stand-alone song versus one for a musical? What’s the same?
Until I moved to NYC in 1992, I’d only written songs based on my personal experiences. But many friends and mentors, most notably Stephen Schwartz and Steve Sondheim, upon hearing my work, urged me to try writing for the theatre. They felt there was something inherently theatrical in my style that was well suited to that medium. At the time, I knew very little about musical theatre, and I was still clinging to my dream of being a pop singer/songwriter like those I most admired: The Beatles, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, etc. But eventually, since no one was buying the pop thing, I tried my hand with a short musical called Lavender Girl which led to writing “Urban Myths”: seven short pieces each representing an urban legend. People liked it enough to give us a full production in 1998 in Wichita, Kansas directed by Scott Schwartz, Stephen’s son. Nothing further happened with that piece, but I had the idea of constructing a musical revue incorporating some of the huge backlog of songs I’d accumulated. Over the next few years, I tried with many directors to put it together, but it wasn’t until the brilliant Daisy Prince, a dear friend who knew my songs inside out, came on board that we succeeded. The result was IT’S ONLY LIFE, which has been performed all over the U.S. as well as in Australia. A few years after that, Harvey Fierstein asked me to write A CATERED AFFAIR with him and I said no. I was terrified of writing a full book musical, especially with someone as formidable as Harvey. But he eventually talked me into it and, amazingly, the show found its way to Broadway. I’m still not sure about writing for the theatre. I don’t know how to come up with the big belty showstopper numbers that theatre goers seem to want – I feel like what I do is more subtle and integrated, not flashy at all. So there’s an ongoing insecurity about the commercial viability of my work. But, commercial or not, I have found a way to write for the theatre that stays true to my artistic sensibility.
As for writing theatre versus stand-along songs, it’s felt like a natural evolution. I was getting pretty bored with just writing about my little life, so it’s fun to have other characters’ lives to explore. I’ve had some acting training over the years, which has no-doubt helped. I believe we’re really all the same at the deepest level, so I put myself in the character’s situation, go for the specific, and, if I hit it right, that will lead to the universal. The big difference between stand-alone and theatre songs is that the former, if they’re supposed to be “pop” songs, need to have a repetitive hook and keep restating a simple theme. Whereas theatre songs, while they may have a repetitive chorus musically, lyrically need to keep moving the story forward – they’re linear rather than circular.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just completed a new musical called ESAURA that was commissioned by a Danish producer. (Ahh, commission – “the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard…”) The book is by a wonderful young Danish writer, based on a Danish novel from 1913 that takes place in the very town, Fredericia, in which we’ll have our opening on Sept. 19th. They’ve hired Broadway’s Susan Schulman to direct, and Bruce Coughlin to orchestrate. I recently got the back translation (we wrote it in English, but they’ll be performing it in Danish) and, I must admit, seeing the literal translation back to English of the Danish paraphrasing of my lyrics is pretty mindblowing. The book writer is also the translator, and he kept saying “rhythm and rhyme, John, rhythm and rhyme…” meaning that the lyrics needed to be paraphrased in order to keep the rhyme scheme – which he miraculously managed to do! – and also maintain the same number of syllables to fit the music. I’m very excited about it all, and very proud of our work. Since we’ll also have an English version of the show, I’m hoping that someone here or in London will want to produce it at some point.
I’ve also just finished recording my second solo piano CD – the first was “On Richard Rodgers’ Piano,” improvisations on Rodgers songs on his own Steinway – and this one is of Beatle songs. I’m at the stage where I have no objectivity about it at all, so I’m playing tracks for friends and hoping they like them.
You’ve been leading master classes and workshops on performing your songs around the world in the last several years. What excites you about teaching? How does it differ from writing?
My favorite thing to do is the master classes! Nothing brings me more joy than to see someone’s communication through one of my songs elevated by our discussion of it. I guess it’s a combination of things: being of service to someone is a beautiful feeling, seeing the lightbulb of recognition flick on is very rewarding, I love the opportunity to be supportive and nurturing when so often these poor performers are torn down and demoralized, and it’s fascinating to dissect my songs in a way I never do while I’m writing them, and to be reminded that our subconscious is capable of so much more than our conscious mind could ever do.
Teaching, I’ve learned, is very similar to writing in that it’s about getting the ego out of the way, letting something bigger come through, and trusting that it’s good enough.
What would you like young performers to remember as they prepare a new piece of your music?
1. Please sing the correct lyrics. Do not use synonyms – “house” is not the same as “home”, “she” is not the same as “her.” do not replace a “the” with an “a” or a “yet” with a “but.” We songwriters sweat over every single word, so please honor that and memorize accurately.
2. I write very specific vocal rhythms that are intended to feel conversational, and to ride the music in such a way as to accentuate the emotions the song is attempting to convey. Breaths are indicated by rests or commas. Increasing passion is indicated by surges in both speed and volume. Everything you need to know is there on the page.
3. Please, oh please, avoid riffing. I construct melodies designed to build in specific ways, and a riff will almost always dilute the power of that melodic line. Besides which, a riff pulls the listener away from what you’re trying to communicate – it suddenly becomes about “singing” and not telling the story. If you simply must riff, please do it at a logical climactic moment rather than on the word “the” in the second verse just because it feels good. Make sure any variation of the melody is connected to, and enhancing, the emotion rather than distracting from it. (But better yet: Don’t riff.)
4. Encourage your pianist to play all the notes that are written. The chord symbols were insisted upon by the publisher – if I had my druthers they wouldn’t be there at all. My music is more horizontal than vertical, and every line of counterpoint is as important as each word of the lyric.
5. Once you really know the song, make it your own. If you thoroughly understand it and choose to do something that feels true to the emotion you want to convey, then go for it.
You have a very interesting day job to pay the rent. Can you tell us about it?
For the past 18 years I’ve been playing piano in the lobbies of mid-town office buildings each weekday from 11:45 to 1:45. A German company owns the seven buildings, and each has a Steinway grand in the lobby. We pianists rotate from building to building, one week in each. I play everything from Gershwin to Sting (never my own songs) and, in addition to helping to pay my rent, it’s enormously helped my playing. Plus, it’s a joy to create a sonic environment which, hopefully, is brightening the day of the passers-by.
What excites you about contemporary musical theatre? What frustrates you about it?
Hmmmm… Much easier to answer the “frustrating” part. I’m frustrated by the tug of war between art and commerce and the fact that, increasingly, commerce seems to win. I’m frustrated by the fact that what is seen as commercial is usually pandering to the lowest common denominator of audience member: one who wants spectacle over subtlety, escapism rather than thought-provoking examination of the human condition, musical bombast rather than intricacy and, often, a big name rather than the most capable actor for the part. Audiences, by being “talked down to” are having these lower expectations reinforced, creating a downward spiral in quality. I’m frustrated that writers (some who are given the opportunity because they have a name in the pop world) are writing musicals when they don’t have the skills and experience necessary to construct solid theatre songs, which further contributes to that downward spiral.
What excites me is that, despite the trends, gifted writers with roots in the best theatrical songwriting traditions are continuing to pour their hearts and minds into the creation of sensitive, well-crafted musicals. It excites me that there are still theatres, however small, that are willing and even eager to provide a home for such work. It excites me that still, every once in awhile, a fresh, smart, well-made piece can defy all the odds and become a huge success.
To view the full-length video interview, in which John answers different questions about his work as a writer and master teacher, become a member of The Directory by subscribing here. The trailer version of the interview can be seen here.
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