Songs for an Election

In our time, the U.S. elections have spread from an event that gets sharp focus for only the year leading up to Election Day to a two-year (at least) race with many twists and turns, which leaves us all limping toward the first Tuesday in November.

Every election is an important opportunity for us to practice democracy and let our voice be heard, whether it be at the local or federal level. This year is no different. In many ways, there is a renewed urgency to make sure all people get out and vote, especially amidst false rumors of rampant voter fraud and understandable worries about the pandemic.

Today – one week from Election Day – we want to lift up four songs that inspire us to vote. We had the opportunity to interview the writers and find out what spurred them on to get political. We asked them what the role of the artist should be in politics. As we expected, they had very thoughtful answers.

Get Out and Vote

Music & Lyrics by: Divya Maus & Daniel Weidlein

What inspired you to write your “Vote” song?

Divya Maus: The new musical theatre platform 10glo reached out to me asking if I’d be willing to participate in their “Get Out The Vote!” initiative. In the past months I’d been pretty deeply entrenched in writing a new musical while also gloomily observing the deteriorating state of our political landscape, so writing this “Get Out And Vote” song was a huge relief. I just vented all my pent-up anxiety, energy, and optimism into it, and my co-writer Daniel Weidlein helped me keep that optimism at the forefront. 

Brad Ross: Ellen Greenfield, lyricist, and I are both passionate about the election and wanted to do something.   The founder of @feelgoodvoting invited us to write a song and we did.  We owe a debt of thanks to the other people who made invaluable contributions to the video.

Kim Sherman: I was actually asked by my friend, Flora Stamatiades, who is part of the Broadway community and is a very active volunteer for the Biden/Harris ticket. She had the idea to write a song in support of the campaign and wanted it to go viral. I was looking for ways to get involved in supporting the campaign, and this idea attracted me. We started with a small team of people. I asked my friend, Scott Killian, to co-compose. Christine Toy-Johnson wrote the sung lyrics, and Reg Flowers (Notorious Pink) wrote and performed the spoken word section. There were a handful of singer/actors from the Broadway community who were on the original call.

Part of the inspiration for the song came from two quotes from Biden, himself. “We’re in a battle for the soul of the nation” which became the center of our song, and “Change occurs when the conscience of a country begins to rise up and demand, demand change.” That second quote is at the bottom of all of Biden’s fundraising letters, and I really like it. So we start the song with that quote. The rest of the song grows out of the two quotes. It is a passionate call to action. 

Susan Birkenhead: “Sign My Name” was one of the first songs Duncan Sheik and I wrote for the musical The Secret Life of Bees, which tried out last summer at The Atlantic Theatre in New York. It has a book by Lynn Nottage, and was directed by Sam Gold. It was headed for a production in London when Covid brought everything to a grinding halt. At the time we began writing the musical, the fact that the Supreme Court had eviscerated the Voting Rights Act weighed heavily on our minds. The story begins on the day that the act was signed by Lyndon Johnson, and it figures prominently in the musical. When this election became what we considered the most important election of our time, we knew that the future of democracy depended on everyone exercising his or her sacred right to vote. We realized that “Sign My Name” might be helpful in galvanizing people…..especially young people to vote. Our producers, and creative team came together to make the video, and the result is what you see.

Say it with Your Vote

Music: Brad Ross

Lyrics: Ellen Greenfield

Writing a song that is a personal call to action can be different from writing a musical theatre song. Did you find any part of your writing process change as a result?

Brad Ross: Honestly, no.  I always try to write music that’s right for the message or character or situation.  In this case, I was writing for a youthful pop voice in a contemporary pop style.  I tried to come up with an appropriate melody and musical feel.  I’m incredibly grateful to Matt Anthony, the audio producer who successfully brought my music alive with a great groove and awesome studio production.

Kim Sherman: Well, a really new aspect of the writing process, was collaborating over zoom. Who knew this would be a thing? Also, the production of the song became a big part of writing it. So I was using some technology (Logic Pro) that I don’t normally use when I’m writing. 

When writing for musical theater, I always start with a piano/vocal and the orchestration process comes much later — during rehearsals because things change so much between the writing and the actual show. “In real life,” I have actually been slowing my writing process down. After years of composing at the computer, and feeling like something in my process was missing, I wrote the score to my most current musical in pencil, at the piano, just like in the old days. By contrast, this song was quickly written and produced, and that process felt quite fast to me. 

We had the great fortune of working with the super talented young arranger and orchestrator Dean Scarlett, who I believe has a stellar career ahead of him. Scott and I wrote the music together over zoom — using screen sharing, and playing our keyboards to each other. Then Dean jumped in with his orchestration and we had a lot of back and forth to get the feeling the way we wanted it. It was quite fun, actually. 

Divya Maus: Daniel and I usually collaborate on writing songs for other artists to release. This time, though, we got to pick the sound of the song based not on the artist we were writing for, but on how we wanted others to hear it: like a Randy Newman song! We love Randy’s music so much; it’s quirky and wonderfully energetic, but also brims with this naked truthfulness that feels so bold. …Not that I’m comparing our song to a Randy Newman song, goodness… but that’s the music we had in our hearts when we wrote this!

Sign My Name

Music: Duncan Sheik

Lyrics: Susan Birkenhead

What kind of response have you had to the song? 

Susan Birkenhead: The response has been electrifying. Artists For Biden used it in an online fundraising event, and it’s about to be used yet again in another.

Kim Sherman: Well, my mom sent it to her church group. My therapist sent it to his friends. People are sharing it widely. That is what we wanted. I am going to send it to my newsletter list this week. Hopefully it will keep spreading.

Divya Maus: We hope that it has caused some increase, however incremental, in the amount of people who will vote in this election. Of course there’s no way of really knowing, and we don’t need to be the sole reason that convinced an undecided person to vote. But we hope that this song added to the many, many amazing initiatives people are taking across the country to get out the vote, and hopefully the sheer number of initiatives like ours can convince more people to make their voices heard!

Brad Ross: Very positive!

Soul of the Nation

Music by: Kim Sherman & Scott Killian

Lyrics by: Christine Toy-Johnson

Spoken Word by: Reg Flowers (Notorious Pink)

Some artists feel politics should stay out of the work we create while others believe that everything (our body, what we eat, who we love, etc…) is political. What is your credo?

Kim Sherman: You know, when I was a young female composer (maybe not as uncommon anymore) it was a statement just being who I was and doing what I do. Not that I was doing it to make a statement. It was just the reality. I write a lot of shows with female protagonists, which could be seen as a statement, but it is simply what I am drawn to, as a storyteller. This song, too — yes it is political, but more importantly for me, it is passionate. That’s my credo. 

Brad Ross: As a composer, I can write music that’s stirring or inspirational but I can’t write music that says, by itself, “Black lives matter” or “Stop using fossil fuels”.  Although these are 2 issues I feel strongly about, I feel my job is to write the best music I can to complement the lyric message.

Divya Maus: It’s for every artist to decide for themselves, as it is for every fan to decide whether they want to support an artist who stands for something, or one who stands for nothing.

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Check out the updated edition of our book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent.” The second edition includes more than double the repertoire recommendations, updated summer intensive listings around the country and internationally, and recent developments with common pre-screens, Unified Auditions, and financial aid offerings. Available now on . 

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 600 songs.

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