A writer can struggle for months writing a song or a show. Once it’s done, it’s time to get that music out into the world. But how? How do you begin to find a performer to sing it? A venue to perform it in? We asked three of our ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com writers – Masi Asare, Nick Luckenbaugh, and Will Reynolds – to tell us how they first got their music “out there” and to give us their advice for young writers just starting out.
Who sang your first song in public (other than yourself)? How did you meet the performer?
Masi: My first songs were sung by elementary school kids in the greater Boston area at the amazing children’s theatre (Kidstock!) where I worked as a music director and teaching artist in college. I wrote songs for shows called things like 101 Dinosaurs, Jack and the Bean’s Talk Show, Charlotte’s Website. It was a fun place to work and a crash course in songwriting and underscoring. You had to work fast (in summer sessions, I’d sometimes write and teach four songs in a week), and your melodies had to make logical sense or else the kids would “correct” them!
Nick: When you put your work out for public consumption, it’s obviously a nerve-wracking, terrifying, make-your-palms sweat experience. So when I had someone sing one of my songs for the first time, I absolutely had to trust them. A good friend of mine named Jessica Wagner is a musical theater performer and the ultimate perfectionist. She has a powerhouse voice and would rather trip and fall on national television than give a lackluster, underprepared performance. And she absolutely slayed the tune in all the best ways. But even with implicit trust in her, my palms were still sweating as I watched.
Will: Near the end of my junior year at Carnegie Mellon, I put together a night of my music to help raise money for the senior’s trip to the LA showcase. I had recorded an album (“Composed,” available nowhere) with one of the sound design students, and we sold the CD’s as well. I was extremely lucky to have been able to write songs for the likes of Megan Hilty and Patina Miller while we were at school together, and they were a part of that terrifying/wonderful night.
Where did you have your first show performed? How did that come about?
Will: Another first while at Carnegie Mellon! Elizabeth Bradley, the head of the School of Drama at the time, created a festival called Playground, where classes were suspended for a week while students worked on their own projects, presented over a wall-to-wall weekend of performances. I had been playing around with an idea for a musical based on the Sonnets by Shakespeare, and this inaugural festival – now is a staple CMU experience, with Pig Pen Theatre Company being a notable offshoot – created the space to bring it to life. That show, The Greenwood Tree, has continued to evolve and has been seen at NYMF, the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival, workshopped with the Musical Theatre Factory, and Broadway’s Nikki Renee Daniels included “Sigh No More, Ladies” on her debut album, “Home.” There are some exciting new steps for the show in the future I can’t divulge at the moment, but I couldn’t be more grateful for that initial opportunity at Carnegie.
Masi: I wrote a musical for my senior thesis in college, which required a lot of jumping through hoops—i.e. inventing my own major—because at that time Harvard did not have any kind of theatre major (Diane Paulus is changing all that now, which is super exciting). It was called Dances for a Journey, I wrote 23 songs and directed it myself. At the same time, I got my first commission to write songs for an adaptation of the children’s book “The Knight Who Was Afraid of the Dark” for another local children’s theatre. I was paid $25 per song. Hilarious.
Nick: The first concert featuring my music was at Sidewalk Café in the East Village. It was a mix of my stuff as well as songs written by my buddy Amy Molewski, with whom I sometimes collaborate. Amy was working at a guitar school at the time, and she had organized a lot of shows at the venue. So she was able to get us into the lineup one night. It’s not really a musical theater venue at all, but it’s still hands down one of my favorite venues in New York.
What’s your advice to young writers wanting to “get their music out there?”
Nick: Obviously there are the usual things. Try to get someone with a following to sing your songs. Produce a concert of your work. Make sure that you get videos of your songs online. But the one thing that I think that’s important that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is to make sure that you talk to other writers. Get to know them and their work. Form relationships. Even sit down and have coffee with them and just pick their brains. You can learn a lot from other writers.
Masi: Make friends with aspiring performers and directors. When I moved to New York I worked as a producer for a company called Raw Impressions that organized teams of artists to create and stage 10-minute musicals, really fast, working with people they’d never met before. We’d put together groups to make 24 10-minute musicals in 24 days. It was madness but such a learning experience. And it made me fearless about producing things like readings and workshops, so when it came time to develop my own work, I knew how to do that, and I knew who to call to help me out.
Will: Don’t wait! There will never be some magical “right moment,” considered your stars aligned and use your immediate circle of friendly collaborators to make it happen. With social media, there really is no excuse not to get your work viewable via YouTube or a website (or how about both?) I am constantly shocked at what comes into my inbox based on videos from 5 years ago. These are your work samples. This is today’s version of knocking on doors and doing a dog and pony show to get your show off the ground. Producers, agents, directors, artistic directors, etc. are all looking for their next project, and their next click might lead to a meeting, or at least serve as a useful point of reference. One caveat … only keep material around that represents where you are now!
What are your favorite spaces to have your music performed and why?
Masi: I’m literally honored to have my work performed anywhere. From a Manhattan cabaret venue like 54 Below or a high school auditorium in Texas—I’m always psyched and honored to know that people are enjoying the music and jumping into the creative worlds that my collaborators and I have imagined. I will say that the Composer-Librettist Studio at New Dramatists was an amazing process—less about having things performed there but more about having the space to really think about what collaboration means, and the many, many different ways it’s possible to work with music and stories on stage.
Will: I recently had the honor of being a part of the New Orchestrations concert put together by the Musical Theatre Factory. 3 time Tony Award winner Doug Besterman (The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie) orchestrated selections from my new show Radioactiv (book & lyrics by Eric Price) for the 36 piece Chelsea Symphony in beautiful Merkin Hall, with Tony Nominee Beth Malone (Fun Home) singing as our leading lady, joined by Broadway’s Hugh Panaro (Phantom). I’ve never heard my music so fully realized and it was a night I will never forget; and one I will always remind myself of whenever I find myself pounding my head on the keys.
Nick: Well, as I said before, Sidewalk Café is definitely one. They have a diligent team over there. The space is awesome, especially since they renovated. And there’s a no nonsense feel about things over there. It’s just about the music. Of the more traditional theater spaces, I love the polish and professionalism of 54 Below. Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 space is fun. It’s so far underground that you never have to worry about sound bleed! And I love working with the Musical Theatre Factory. They’re just so dedicated to new work over there. It’s awesome.
When self producing a concert of your own music, what’s the most important things you need to do?
Nick: I don’t know that there’s one thing. There’s so much that’s important both making sure that you have a fulfilling concert and making sure that people actually come out to see it. It’s definitely a challenging endeavor – but of course a worthwhile one, too. I will say that one thing from a more philosophical standpoint that I’ve learned is that things will ALWAYS go wrong. It’s unavoidable. A singer will miss a line or a mic will go crazy. You just have to make peace with it and go along for the ride. It’s the fun of live theater, right?
Masi: I haven’t done as many concerts as workshops and an indie cast album. But I think the same principles apply. Be organized. Make the best use of people’s time—especially if they are donating their time, or working for very little cash. I try to give performers and directors some kind of compensation, even if it’s subway fare, pizza, a Starbucks card, even if it means crowdfunding. It makes people feel valued—also, it makes it clear that you are both writer and producer so that later no one can come back to you and claim rights to your work because they helped to “develop” it for free. Promotion-wise, get a team of friends to mobilize on social media—you need a team.
Will: ACTUALLY DO IT! No, seriously, set a date, work backwards from there and schedule all the necessary action steps. If you don’t know what they are, well you just found yourself your first one! Reach out to someone who has already done it. We won’t bite and love coffee.
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Masi Asare wrote music and lyrics for the secret agent musical Sympathy Jones (book by Brooke Pierce), published by Playscripts, with more than 20 productions in the US and internationally. Her songs have been heard at venues across NYC including 54 Below, Playwrights Horizons, and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Masi was a past Dramatists Guild Fellow and participant in the ASCAP, New Dramatists, and BMI musical theatre workshops. She is an alumna of Harvard and NYU Tisch, where she is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies. As the inaugural recipient of the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award for women composers, she is mentored by composer Jeanine Tesori and producer Daryl Roth. www.masiasare.com
Nick Luckenbaugh recently received a 2015 New York Innovative Theatre Award nomination for “Outstanding Original Music” for his musical Royal Fables, which premiered in November 2014 at Libra Theater Company in association with The TRUF. His work has been performed at 54 Below, Atlantic Theater Company, Sidewalk Cafe, The Path Cafe, the Musical Theatre Factory, The Underground Lounge, and The Cellar at The West End among other venues. Other projects include original book musicals Unbound (with singer/songwriter Amy Molewski) and Aurora, both developed at the Musical Theatre Factory. Honorable Mention recipient of the 2013 and 2014 SongDoor International Songwriting Competitions.
Will Reynolds is the composer of The Greenwood Tree (NYMF, Kennedy Center “Page to Stage” Festival) Poems & Moon Songs, a song constellation – with the song “Tavern” featured on Audra McDonald’s most recent album Go Back Home, and The Whole World Is Watching, (commissioned by Marymount Manhattan University.) With Eric Price – The Sixth Borough, Around The World (children’s theater commission), and Radioactive (developed at the Rhinebeck Writer’s Retreat and the Goodspeed Colony). Will is an ASCAP Johnny Mercer Project songwriter, an ASCAP PLUS award winner, and a 2013 Dramatist Guild Fellow. As an actor he was most recently seen in NY in Daddy Long Legs Off-Broadway, and the revival of Sondheim’s Passion at Classic Stage Company (dir. by John Doyle, cast recording by PS Classics.) Other acting credits include the American premiere of Love Story at Walnut Street, Tony Kushner’s The Illusion Off-Bway at Signature Theater, Emma at the Old Globe, the world premiere of A Room With A View at the Old Globe and the 5th Avenue Theater, and Mamma Mia! on the road. Film: The Good Shepherd (dir. Robert De Niro.) Carnegie Mellon graduate. www.willreynoldsonline.com
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