Interview: Tune in Time’s Amy Engelhardt

Last December, my collaborator Tom Gualtieri and I took part in a musical theater game show at The York Theatre called Tune in Time. It’s a zany “competition” show where writers who have never worked with each other have to write a new musical theater song in 20 minutes based on audience suggestions and the spin of a genre wheel. The below video will give you a good idea of what the evening is like.

I recently sat down with Amy Engelhardt, the Creative Director of Tune in Time, and asked her about her life in the theater and the genesis of the game show.

Amy, tell us about your background as a theater artist.

I grew up in New Jersey. My poor neighbors had to listen to me belting the score from ANNIE over and over again. I even went for the replacement audition cattle call – I waited hours in the winter weather and never even got in the door. I met Martin Charnin 20 years later, and, over dinner, told him my ANNIE sob story. He reached across the table and said, “Amy, I’m so sorry I didn’t see your audition in 1977.” I said, “We’re cool.” It was one of those really funny theater moments!

As a teen, I took theater classes in the city and became a musical theatre major at Syracuse University, where I was always second choice for every role. I’d get cast as ensemble or an off-stage singer – “Vocal Minority” in COMPANY – which was interesting given that I ended up having a career singing very difficult music.

My senior year, my new advisor finally saw some of the stuff I was writing and asked me, “Why aren’t you doing this? And, by the way, you’re funny.” Thank God I met him! I started a cabaret series and other alternative performance opportunities. It was really a great example of having to carve a you-shaped place for yourself in the world.

After I worked solidly as a theater performer for two years after Syracuse, a bass player friend recommended Berklee College of Music for songwriting and arranging. Berklee was a greenhouse – I became a pop/rock/jazzer. But I couldn’t get the theater bug totally out of my system, so I did Boston ComedySportz (improv comedy as a sporting event) at night. I always kept performing in the mix somewhere.

Then I moved to LA to become a pop songwriter –  at a time where you could still do that. Looking back, the thought is crazy – but I thought I could make more of a living than I could doing theater in New York. Of course, I’m one of the most New York people I know, and I proceeded to not be very successful doing that in LA. I couldn’t get the smartass out of my writing. I pursued session singing, because I was a good sight-reader and ensemble singer.

In 1998, I landed in The Bobs, a Grammy-nominated vocal quartet known for its genre-busting, highly original material. Think Manhattan Transfer meets Monty Python meets Robin Williams meets Bobby McFerrin. NPR as a brand of a cappella group. It was a perfect fit for me, clever, goofy and theatrical. I was with them for 14 years as one of the primary writer/arranger/performers, touring throughout the United States and Europe.

In early 2005. I was commissioned to write lyrics for a musical adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby in Seattle, I took to it like I’d never left the theater, and got to thinking, “I don’t know why I’m not doing this, even though I’ve been having a blast with The Bobs…”

That led to other opportunities including a musical version of Carl Sagan’s Contact as lyricist and vocal arranger. Eventually, I met Marc Acito, author of the  novel, How I Paid for College. I approached him about writing a musical version of the book, but the rights were taken. He told me he’d always wanted to write a musical version of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding’s social satire from the 1700’s, and an Oscar winning movie from the 1960’s, I wanted to do it as a rock musical, writing the score myself this time and co-writing the lyrics with him, as he’s hysterically funny. It was one of the most fun collaborations I’ve had. Our first draft was a finalist for the Richard Rodgers Award and the Eugene O’Neill National Theater Conference. We just did a 29-hour reading with a band, directed by Danny Goldstein. Our next step is a showcase production in New York.

I still perform as a solo artist (from Bach to rock, classics to comedy, including touring with Harry Shearer and Judith Owen for the past few years) and write for web-based projects in New York and Los Angeles. I won MAC’s Dottie Burman Award for Songwriting in 2011, and have a bunch of musicals in development.

What is Tune in Time and how did you come up with the idea?

Tune in Time is a musical theater game show in which composers and lyricist who have never worked together have to write a song from a fictional musical, whose title is chosen by audience suggestion, and whose genre is determined by the spin of the “Genre Wheel.” It’s adjudicated by celebrity judges in three categories: use of suggestion, use of genre and “Was it a Thing?” – did it hold together. It’s all in complete fun. It’s a “contest” where the “winners” get a fabulous prize – a $10 Duane Reade gift card.

There are lots of different kinds of musical improv shows and time-challenge shows. I’ve seen and participated in several, but always found them too jokey, I saw a timed challenge as the perfect soil for a musical theater challenge – to impose conditions, make it more theatrical, more fun than the other shows I had seen. I wanted to make sure the writers had never worked together. 20 minutes seemed like the right amount of time, I wanted to incorporate audience suggestions like an improv show. And I thought it’d be fun to spin something like an arcade prize wheel to determine a style. All these conditions give the illusion of making the task more difficult – but, as writers, we know it makes it easier because there are clear parameters.

I wanted to make sure the show didn’t feel as if was too “inside baseball,” so I came up with these “Songs in a Musical” pieces, which explain the functions of…uh… songs in a musical, so the audience understands more of what’s going on.

I wanted an old-school game show feel, so the theme song is like a game show theme song. I also wanted it to feel like a contained event, while still giving off the sense that anything could happen.

I asked Heather Shields, a fellow Columbia alumnus, to co-produce. Heather has a very strong improv background and she’s a great coordinator/producer who will likely be ruling the world someday. We are great artistic partners in every sense of the word.

And I wanted a host that was very appealing and would put their own stamp on it. And certainly we got that in Emily McNamara! Nate Buccieri, our amazing musical director, was a great recommendation from multiple MAC award winner Terese Genecco, a college buddy. And timekeeper Sheila Head, is one of the wryest, funniest improvisors I know.

Tune in Time is ultimately a truly great showcase for the writers, who get to perform something they have written before they start their challenge. I like to work with writers that take what they do seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously. The whole point of our show is to have fun. You just have to be unafraid to fail. And that’s what good theater is about.

Having been a contestant on Tune in Time, I can confirm it’s both a nerve-wracking and exhilarating experience creating a piece that quickly. What kinds of responses has the game show elicited from your contestants?

Almost across the board, the writers ask to come back, which I’m so happy about. They’re thrilled if they win. They seem to take it well if they don’t. The point is not the win. I hope they see it as fun, because it’s certainly luck of the draw when it comes to what you’re going to get as the suggestion. The cool thing about it, is that no one is going to hold it against you if something you created under ridiculous circumstances doesn’t hold up. There are no repercussions.

Also, the amount of good will beaming from the audience when the writers return from their twenty minutes away is off the charts. I hope they all feel that. Truly, anything they do will be amazing. I really just want everyone to have fun, because that’s what it’s meant to be.

No one has said no when I’ve asked them back. it’s been great. People have sent me e-mails saying it was the most fun they’ve had in a long time.

You have a trivia question section and the questions are REALLY hard!! Who comes up with those?

Rob Lester of Talkin’ Broadway wrote those. And I’m always tweaking the show to see what fits well in the 20 minutes while the writers are working. We recently cut the trivia section and changed it up with a camera in the writer’s room (of course, the writers know). We project 30 seconds from the room on the screen without sound. It’s ridiculous. This is the stuff of Candid Camera and classic game shows from the 60’s and 70’s.

This Fall, you moved to The York Theatre. Tell us a bit about that partnership.

We originally developed the Tune in Time at the Triad (now Stage 72). I have always envisioned this as a theater show, but the opportunity to perform at The Triad (Stage 72) came to us. It’s a great space to be in, but it was hard to build momentum – and we were still trying to figure out what show we had. Also, the stage is so small, the writers and judges were sitting in the audience. Still, we took any dates we could get because that’s the nature of working in a cabaret space.

We were thrilled to move to the York because their mission and devotion to the art of musical theater is completely in line with ours. Our show is a valentine to musical theater (with a little kick), so it was a really good match. I knew the York’s brand to be a bit on the conservative side, but they were looking to expand it, so it was an advantageous alliance for both sides.

We adore the people there! Jim Morgan and Andrew Levine have been so supportive – completely wonderful to work with. Seth Christenfeld and the entire staff have been great. We’re always very open to their suggestions – after all, they certainly know what they’re doing over there. We love being at The York.

Has there been a particular Tune in Time stand-out success story?

You know, no. Because it’s always a completely new and wonderful surprise. Some shows have more energy than others, but the talent and skill of the writers that come through is so extraordinary. I personally pick the writers (now The York has a hand in that too) to ensure we have really fun, open-minded people.

The structure is always the same but the content is different every time. We really never know what’s going to happen, which is what I love about it. Part of that is what Emily, Nate and Sheila bring to it. Because the personnel and writers are so strong, it’s always a wonderful experience every time.

Are some songs a little weaker than others? Sure, but the thing is it’s so crazy, you can’t really “blame” the writers when that happens, and I think everyone knows that. And really, who cares? It’s ALL IN FUN. And it’s always a great evening of entertainment.

My whole theory of this business is, “If you’re not having fun, you should not be doing this.” I mean, seriously! Yes, it’s hard work, but we are living the dream to even be able to do this. Sometimes you get paid for it and sometimes you don’t. I want to see smart, fun, talented theater artists having fun – and see an audience enjoying it. And I absolutely love creating a sandbox where that can happen.

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For more information on upcoming shows (including this Monday, March 9 at 7 PM), please check out Tune in Time’s website!

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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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