In this digital age, it may seem odd to purchase and read a 400+ page tome (even if it’s on your favorite subject). And yet, Ben Van Buren hand Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed have created a brilliant new publication entitled Musical Theater Today, which is causing people to do just that.
The contents of this impressive book include essays by various industry artists, sheet music by contemporary writers (with a set-up of corresponding scene for context), and interviews with a plethora of musical theatre artists (including one with Laura Josepher and I about ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com on p. 316). Needless to say, it’s not coffee table fare – it’s for serious musical theatre aficionados.
No, that makes it sound academic, and it’s not – it’s very readable. Still, its size would perhaps make you think twice about grabbing it for light beach reading, only because the subject matter is consequential and highlights (of course) a wide swath of what musical theatre is today for creative and performing artists alike.
We decided to turn the tables on Ben and Lucas, interviewing them about the genesis of this considerable undertaking.
Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds and how you met.
Ben: We met in college, during a production of Camino Real. I was assisting the director with some choreography and Lucas was writing original music for the project. To be honest my career still feels fairly nascent, so my background still feels a bit like my foreground. I studied dance and philosophy in college, and danced for a few people in New York before moving to Belgium to keep studying dance and work as a performer and choreographer there for a few years. More recently my interest in making dances has expanded to included an interest in publication, and I have been exploring how performance based art forms and contemporary publishing might want to intersect.
Lucas: I’d consider myself primarily a composer at this time, but during college I didn’t do a lot of musical theater work since musicals weren’t present at all in our theater program, and therefore there were also very few singers among my classmates for whom I could write theater songs. So I explored a lot of different theatrical endeavors (and was provided with ample opportunities to do so), including directing and a fair amount of playwriting. After my undergrad years, when I got into the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in 2012, that was really my first professional-grade foray into musical writing and it was real game-changer. But my academic interests have always been prevalent in my theater songwriting, from harmonic influences from modernism and classical music to choosing subject matter. Between launching Musical Theater Today and putting up my current musical about the Brontë family, somehow it all seems to come back to books!
What was the impetus for this publication? What need did you want it to fulfill?
Ben: The history of Musical Theater does not exist until it is written down, and, to me, this project is a kind of call to action. I have always been fascinated by the form of musical theater, and through conversations with Lucas about the community of artists that he’s a part of the idea to start a yearly publication was born. I really believe that the form is both capable of sustaining and poised to profit from a space of intense yearly conversation. But also, it should be noted that MTT is not merely a space for conversation, through its presentation of many different types of content it also has an archival function. I think a great deal of it’s value is potentially in its status as a yearly time capsule.
Lucas: There’s a very specific inspiration for me, and that’s Michael John LaChiusa’s 2005 article in Opera News, entitled “The Great Grey Way.” That was the year before I moved to NYC. And the discerning and erudite nature of that editorial hit me really powerfully, not to mention the courageous outcry against what LaChiusa saw as very negative trends in production models and in narrative content. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with his perspective, that piece remains one of the only significant articles of it’s kind that I have ever encountered. And I hope that MTT can encourage and facilitate more in-depth discourse and writing from theater professionals. Also, coming to musical theater writing from a very different educational background than most other writers my age, I’ve observed that so many strong communities of musical theater writers exist and individuals co-mingle but the entities themselves don’t seem to interact as much; by putting all of these names in a single volume, I’d like to think we are reminding everyone about each other’s work, you know?
You cover a little bit of everything, from the birth of the Musical Theatre Factory and New York Theatre Barn to a conversation with the Director of the Theatre Development Fund Costume Collection. How did you settle on this impressive amalgam of topics?
Ben: We wanted to cast as broad a net as possible. We set out with a few guiding questions. My two were always something along the lines of, “What are the unique challenges and opportunities currently facing artists, audiences and institutions?” and, “What strategies are being devised are a result of those challenges and opportunities?” And it is absolutely fascinating to read how people from very different corners of the musical theater world agree and disagree on certain topics.
Lucas: I remember when we first started assembling a list of proposed articles it just kind of flowed out onto the page that way. And throughout organizing our content I thought of some of my good friends who are musical theater superfans but who do not work directly in the industry and thought, “They would LOVE to read about all this inside baseball!” Also, though I am very aware of the existence of all these different artists, institutions, and projects (having lived in New York for over a decade), the aspiring young theatermaker doesn’t necessarily hear about companies like NYTB or MTF; the fledgling theater composer most likely hasn’t yet thought about some of the intense legalese that will inevitably come up during the process of a professional production… and so on and so forth. So the wide variety is meant to help jump-start their brains as they embark on their first few years of real-world theatermaking.
Even given the publication’s breadth, did you have to leave something out you wished you had included?
Ben: Not really, no. I am proud of the publication we have assembled and am so looking forward to working on the next issue. Like I said, I hope this first issue serves as a loud invitation to anyone interested in the form of musical theater. Please! Check out this first issue and then get in touch with us!
Lucas: Yes, our doors are open! And certainly there were things we discussed and left out, but not because they didn’t have a place in the issue—moreso because we could only take on so much content ourselves. All of those features that we put on the backburner are completely viable for future editions, and remain exciting to us!
Why a hard copy in this predominantly digital age?
Ben: To me it has to do with the archival dimension of the project. Because it is printed and because ‘comments’ cannot be tacked onto it, as they often are online, the book must remain essentially what it is, an object that contains texts to be interpreted and discussed in person. I think that that mode of reading and conversation may be a useful complement to the already healthy online discourse.
Lucas: I also hope it’s an invitation for musical theater to look at itself with a more critical eye; every art form that is taught on a BFA/MFA level has developed some legacy of theory and criticism, which I’ve always consumed in true book format. And I simply cannot locate that same type of legacy for musicals. As a composer I’ve read a variety of fantastic books about writing musicals, structuring book, structuring songs, but they are often (and this is in no way meant to diminish them) manual-like in tone, or ‘how-to.’ I loved reading art criticism and aesthetic theory throughout college and in my wildest dreams MTT could plant the seed for the eventual Adorno- or Danto-esque essayist, critic, and theoretician.
To be clear, this is not just a book of articles and interviews. The design element adds its own layer to the conversation. Talk to us about your vision for the layout of the book and how that manifested in process.
Ben: Editorial decision making informed my design decisions quite a bit. For example, an important editorial decision came when we decided that our three types of content (essays, interviews, and excerpts) were going to be shuffled together thought the whole publication, instead of being roped off in three distinct sections. And as result I began to experiment with ways in which to clearly indicate what kind of content the reader was interacting with on each page. MTT is not an academic journal, it isn’t a gossip magazine, it isn’t a sheet music anthology, it isn’t a newspaper, but it is also all of those things at once. Overall, the final publication is designed to be able to support many different textures of content without appearing to prize one over another.
Lucas: And I think those design choices, particularly with the way Ben has differentiated the look of each type of content, help put at ease any reader who might feel that the book, due to its book-ness, must be read from cover to cover straight through. One can simply flip through it and immediately perceive that it can be navigated at any pace.
What else do you envision for this project (as if a yearly publication of this magnitude isn’t enough)?
Ben: This is something we are still discussing in depth. We are eager to see how people interact with issue one, and are doubly eager to incorporate that information as we move ahead with issue two!
Lucas: I’m chomping at the bit. Just yesterday I was at a cabaret showcase of new writers and I had the thought, “I want to feature every person in this room! There’s SO much out there, we could hypothetically do a full-sized book of excerpts, essays, and interviews EACH!” On condition that we never sleep, of course. But yeah, that excitement is there.
How has what you’ve learned through these essays and interviews and the logistics associated with this undertaking influenced your own work as an artist?
Ben: Well given that we’ve just barely launched issue 1 it is hard to say how its influence will echo into the rest of my work as of yet… but I will say that this experience has been an wonderful experiment in collaboration. This is the largest book project that I have ever taken on as a designer, editor, and publisher, and it has only been possible because as a team we both challenge and encourage each other daily. So maybe that has been an influence, I want to work with more people on projects such as this. Please! Get in touch with me!
Lucas: Well I am constantly in danger of succumbing to ‘imposter syndrome’ as a writer, and Issue 1 is the perfect panacea for that. The multiplicity of perspectives, particularly with regards to the process of getting a show off the ground, reveal that there really isn’t a single right way to make musicals, from a creative perspective. And that’s the exciting thing to me, and it’s helped me to just say to myself, “Stop fretting and write your darn show!” Also I’ve definitely used the sheet music excerpts as models for manuscript formatting.
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