Young Writers Find Their Voice

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com.

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Daniel: “This song is from your parent’s generation. Do you know Chaka Khan?”
Jeremy: “Duh, I LOVE her!”
 

I sat in on a jam session, which included Frank Sinatra, John Legend, a very clever piano/vocal arrangement of a Wu-Tang Clan song and, of course, Chaka Khan. Daniel Maté, an established musical theatre writer (part of contemporarymusicaltheatre.com) and Jeremy Dominguez, a recent high school graduate (and The Future Project participant) began using a sort of musical shorthand for getting to know each other in the 5th Floor conference room at City Center. They, along with two other students and three other professional writers, took part in a trio of collaborations between City Center’s ENCORES: Off-Center (Jeanine Tesori, Artistic Director) Lobby Project, The Future Project and contemporarymusicaltheatre.com, which culminated in a performance at City Center on July 17.

The brain child of composer and Off-Center Coordinator Ben Wexler, this project paired talented high school students from The Future Project (a dynamic organization dedicated to helping public school students connect to their passion) with Directory writers who mentored them in writing a song about a specific moment in their life. In addition to four work sessions with the professional writers, the students met with Tony award-winning writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as they shaped their songs. The collaboration was a reflection Jeanine Tesori’s mission to create work that highlights diverse voices in our community and make theatre accessible. For these reasons, we were so happy to participate. City Center made tickets to the invited dress of tick… tick… BOOM! available to all the artists, which starred Miranda as the almost-30 Larson (read his beautiful reflection on the composer and his work here).

The culminating performance was part of The Lobby Project, a fascinating series of presentations, which provided a unique context for the season’s three shows: tick… tick… BOOM!, Faust and Pump Boys and Dinettes. With each of these musicals, the authors took matters into their own hands to ensure their unique voices would be heard. After Jonathan Larson’s reading of Superbia failed to garner commercial interest, he created a “rock monologue,” which later became tick… tick… BOOM! (with the help of playwright David Auburn after Larson’s death). Randy Newmann’s Faust was in production in Chicago with hopes of moving to New York, but creative differences stopped the piece in its tracks. Instead, he created a now-legendary demo of the show’s score, which has long had a cult following. The authors of Pump Boys and Dinettes were all out-of-work actors who decided to create a musical around their particular talents. The result was a show that eventually made its way to Broadway.

While this type of chutzpah makes for a great story (of the “let’s put on a show” movie musical variety), it’s becoming an increasingly common one, given the challenges of commercial theatre. It seemed appropriate to create a platform for young writers to find their voice in honor of writers who struggled and were eventually successful at doing the same thing.

These types of projects always sound good on paper, but the execution of them (as with creating a new song) can be very messy. Thankfully, the collaborations were incredibly fruitful across the board, to the benefit of the student writers. Below are the students and writer-mentors’ thoughts on the experience, along with pictures and video from the event.

From l-to-r: Masi Asare, Danny Larsen, Michelle Elliot, Daniel Maté, Alize George, Madison Abdul, Jeremy Dominguez
From left: Masi Asare, Danny Larsen, Michelle Elliott, Daniel Maté, Alize George, Madison Abdul, Jeremy Dominguez

The Student Writers

How did you come up with the personal moment you decided to share as your song?

MADISON ABDUL: My mentors [Danny Larsen & Michelle Elliott] asked me to think of turning points in my life. There were many; some of these moments were very emotional, some solemn, others full of humor. I picked the specific moment that I did by discussing different ideas until my mentors and I began to bond over a specific one: going to Comic Con. My mentors and I agreed that we were all super geeks. And, after a brief conversation about Comic Con itself, we concluded that it was the best moment we could have chosen.

JEREMY DOMINGUEZ: The personal moment that we decided to share in the song came from a conversation that my mentor, Daniel [Maté] and I had. We discussed the moments we each were experiencing in the present and we found that my topic was layered and interesting to explore. That is how we came up with the song “I Have No Idea.”

ALIZE GEORGE: When I was asked to create three topics that help tell the story of my life, I thought to myself, “What is one thing you wouldn’t be able to survive without?” and the answer was, my mother. In that moment I realized that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the air I breathe is all due to her blessing and supporting me. I knew then, that without her being in my corner, I would never be the person that I am today.

Masi Asare & Alize George
Masi Asare & Alize George

How did your writer-mentor(s) help you shape your song?

MADISON: I was fortunate enough to have two mentors for this project [Danny & Michelle]. One of which was very keen on structure, while the other was more detailed in their lyrics and their meaning. Because I had one person helping me understand WHAT to write and another coaching me on HOW to write it, I was able to complete my lyrics in a very organized manner.

JEREMY: I had no experience in writing music at all. Because we had only three sessions to meet I got a lot help from Daniel. He gave me a writing prompt and I wrote three letters to each of the types of people I was addressing in the song. He used my words and wrote lyrics, which we later edited to fit my meaning. I also wanted a song that fit my musical style. I like R&B and soulful music, so I wanted to incorporate some of those sounds into the music.

ALIZE: In creating “You’re In My Corner,” my mentor Masi [Asare] always reminded me that you have to be able to tell your story, and still allow listeners to understand and connect with your music. With this is mind, I explained my mother’s love for me with various small, but meaningful, things that she’s done to shape me into who I am and show her love for me.

What was the biggest thing you learned from this experience?

MADISON: As previously mentioned, I worked, for this project, with two professionals. Danny, whom I spoke with about lyrics, and Michelle, whom I spoke with about structure. They taught me that no matter how glorious your content is, it can be lost if the structure is not refined. In other words, no matter how good the lyrics are, if it isn’t put in order and tell a story, the listener will lose interest and may even become confused. You only have one chance to make the audience listen to your song and lyrics. Structure is the best way to compliment detail and vice versa. My mentors have taught me a lot through this process, and I hope that I remember all of their advice moving forward in my musical career.

JEREMY: I learned that I need to take more risk with my talent. I feel like I constantly play it safe. I wanted to be more adventurous and this project gave me that opportunity. It was very hard for me but I knew I never wanted to quit. So now I feel like I have the tools to do things that challenge me musically and to go for them no matter the outcome.

ALIZE: Music is one of many different artistic ways to express a series of emotion and experiences. As a musician you can entertain and take people on a journey through a moment of joy, adversity, failure, or triumph; only to realize that everyone has had similar experiences, along different roads.

Daniel Maté accompanying Jeremy Dominguez
Daniel Maté accompanying Jeremy Dominguez

The Writer-Mentors

Each of you have worked with youth in various ways throughout your career. How did this experience differ from those experiences?

MASI ASARE: This was an opportunity not to write a song for a young person, but to help her find her own voice, sharing a few tips I’ve picked up along the way. In that way I think it was very different from many teaching experiences and songwriting for young performers that I have had in the past.

DANNY LARSEN & MICHELLE ELLIOTT: Mentoring Madi was our first chance at working one-on-one with a young person interested in songwriting. Madi has already written songs and she knows that it will be an important part of her life for years to come, so we wanted to give her a primer on song form and structure that she can draw from regardless of what kinds of songs she writes in the future. We tried to distill the craft of songwriting to her over a few weeks and she was an eager student and a quick learner. We’re sure she will be writing songs for many years and hopefully the skills she started developing during the mentorship will prove valuable.

DANIEL MATÉ: In the past I’ve worked with and written for groups of young people. This was my first experience working one-on-one with a teen, playing the role of creative mentor in that teen’s individual self-expression. Since the teen I mentored (Jeremy) wasn’t a writer by inclination, the job of writing the song fell to me. In order to do that, I had to engage him in a particular kind of conversation, asking the sorts of questions that would draw out of him his deepest feelings and most authentic individual perspective. I’ve done that sort of thing in the past when people have hired me to write custom songs for others as surprise gifts, but this had an even more intimate quality to it. From the start I wanted the song to be a very personal expression of Jeremy’s point of view, of who he is as a “character” in his own story. Fortunately, he’s an extraordinarily self-aware and reflective young man who’s highly capable of articulating his passions and dilemmas, so it wasn’t hard to generate usable material.

Jeremy Dominguez & Daniel Maté performing “I Have No Idea” 
 

We believe teachers always become the students. What did you learn from your student writer?

MASI: It was exciting to see her [Alize’s] joy in the songwriting process, and to remember how important that is – even when sometimes it feels like a slog! – to recapture the sense of joy that comes from self-expression and creativity.

DANNY & MICHELLE: What we learned from this experience is that we really love working with young people and we love talking about and teaching song form, and we hope to do more of it in the future. And of course, we were inspired by Madi’s passion and enthusiasm, and we were pleased that her hard work and dedication paid off in such a wonderful way.

DANIEL: I learned, or I guess I should say I re-learned, just how self-possessed and mature a 17-year-old can be; how much life has already been lived at that age, and also how much remains uncertain, open to possibilities. I was reminded what a rich inner world lies beneath the surface of people, waiting to be seen and discovered — as long as I remain open and curious. And I got in touch once again with how strongly another person’s struggles and journeys resonate with mine, and can be an inspiration to me creatively.  I sometimes feel boxed in by my own personality and limited point of view, and working with someone else as a muse — especially someone young enough to still be emotionally open in that way — is a great way of jumpstarting my imagination and rekindling my inspiration circuits. That’s important to remember as I continue in this profession.

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We hope this is just the first of many such collaborations with The Future Project and other organizations, who desire to give students a unique foray into songwriting. We applaud and thank everyone involved with making this such a meaningful experience!

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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