A Lyricists' Journey from Page to the Stage

A Lyricists' Journey from Page to the Stage

Brett Boles

OnStage Guest Columnist

So you just saw a Broadway Musical.  How did it get there?  The journey of a musical from a writer’s brain to a Broadway production is almost never a linear one, and the question “How did it get there?” is one many writers continue to ask even after the show has had its Broadway premiere.  I can’t speak for every writer — and every writer’s journey is different — but I can speak for my own journey, which is still very much in progress — fifteen years and counting!

My first real foray into musical theatre writing happened when I was a junior in high school.  That was in 2002, so it was some time ago.  I started as a performer, and made my way to writing because I was a pianist and I enjoyed writing tunes; I figured I may as well write the kind of music I liked to sing — the more I wrote, the more I fell in love with writing.  Story time: In 2002, I took a girl to the prom.  When I stopped at her house to pick her up, I was invited in to a party her parents were throwing…and her mother, knowing I wrote music and performed, prevailed upon me to play a song for their friends.  I acquiesced (I really liked her daughter, so what choice did I have?).  Weeks later, I received an email from a playwright named Bill C. Davis.  He introduced himself as the writer of a Broadway play called Mass Appeal, which was adapted to the screen starring Jack Lemmon in the lead role.  Apparently, the mother of the girl I took to the prom was friendly with him, had heard that he was looking for a collaborator for a new musical he was working on, and recommended that he reach out to me…a junior in high school.

As you might imagine, I was thrilled — excited and scared, you might say (thank you Stephen Sondheim for the words).  I met Bill at his CT home, played and sang some original material for him (which he loved), and took a copy of the script home so I could write a couple of demo tunes for him.  He had already written the book and the lyrics, so I was charged with composing music to fit his lyrics (which I had no idea at the time is not the way these things are usually done).  As it turned out, he loved what I came up with, and thus began a collaboration that still continues (on and off) to this day.  

That was the very beginning of my journey as a musical theatre writer.  I ended up attending Ithaca College as a music composition major with an emphasis in musical theatre writing.  I wrote book, music and lyrics for an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo during my four years there which ended up being the first student written work ever performed as part of the MainStage season at the college.  Jeremy Jordan (whom you may know from Broadway’s Newsies and TV’s Supergirl) played the starring role; we were classmates, and right after college he came to Virginia with me to play the lead role in a regional production of the musical I had written with Bill C. Davis. 

I had been warned that a show with as large a cast The Count would be difficult to get produced, especially for a writer like me who wasn’t an icon…or a known entity in any way.  So I began work on a smaller scale original musical called Foreverman.  I submitted Foreverman to the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) in 2011 for the 2012 summer season, not expecting to hear anything.  In the meantime, I was teaching private voice lessons and music directing local school and community theatre productions.  I had also applied for and been accepted to the Tony Award Honored BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop as a lyricist.  The workshop is basically free grad school for musical theatre writers.  You spend the first year being paired with other collaborators in your class, working on different assignments and presenting them for feedback.  The second year, you work on a full-length musical with a collaborator of your choice from the class — this culminates in a final presentation of twenty minutes worth of material from said musical.  The BMI steering committee then determines whether you qualify to be accepted into the Advanced Class, which is the group of writers that meets every Monday…forever.  Each week they rotate moderators — Lynn Ahrens is a frequent moderator, as are Bobby Lopez and Maury Yeston.  Receiving feedback from these masters of the craft is something every writer craves…and frankly, needs.  My time at the workshop is worthy of a separate column entirely.

While in my first year at BMI, I received a phone call from NYMF to let me know Foreverman had been accepted into the festival via the Next Link Program…the top tier of ten shows that receives a subsidy from the Festival.  I was shocked, and honored, and once again excited and scared.  My experience at the festival is fodder for another entire column, but suffice it to say that it cost a lot of money, but/and it was also an experience I wouldn’t have traded for anything (I also got married halfway through the rehearsal process, so that was an interesting challenge).  I developed many relationships through that experience, and built a network of people I still keep in contact with today…perhaps the most important of which is my director, Stephen Nachamie — who I use for everything, because he’s brilliant and kind and really gets me.  Not to mention that he is an actor’s dream; he knows the right questions to ask to really get at the heart of a scene or a character.  That year (2012) our show won the New World Stages Development Award, and the award for Best Orchestrations.

Later that year, tragedy struck my hometown of Sandy Hook, CT when a gunman opened fire on Sandy Hook Elementary school and murdered twenty children and six staff members.  Knowing I had to do something to help, I reached out to a producer I had met briefly during my time at NYMF.  His name is Van Dean, and he is from a town very close to mine (I still live and work in Sandy Hook).  Together, we conceived of From Broadway With Love: A Benefit Concert for Sandy Hook, which was performed at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT and later aired on PBS.  Again, this is fodder for an entire column.  The point as it relates to this particular story is that Van became a tremendous resource for me.  At the time, my BMI collaborator (Natalie Tenenbaum) and I had been working feverishly to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as a musical for our second-year project at the workshop.  I had mentioned it to Van, and it was largely due to his support that we finished it as quickly as we did.  He introduced us to a host of Broadway producers who came to our first table read and our first staged reading.  

Van also placed the Benjamin Button script in the hands of Donna Lynn Hilton at Goodspeed Opera House in CT, and last year we were invited to attend the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed.  It was an amazing one-week residency to work on the show in a retreat-like environment, and we are eternally grateful for the opportunity.

Our director — Stephen Nachamie once again! — helped shepherd the piece to the York Theatre Company in August of 2014, where we did our second staged reading.  We just had a third staged reading in January of this year, which appears to have led to some amazing opportunities for our show — still on the horizon, but seemingly within reach at this point.

Being a writer is a lonely job.  I spend a lot of hours at my keyboard and my computer talking to myself (in any other job I’d probably be locked up somewhere!).  It’s months (sometimes years) of solitary work interspersed with a few days or a couple of weeks worth of excitement when the material is in the hands of actors and on its feet in some capacity on a stage…which, ironically, is the only time the really good work gets done — because how can you possibly know what you have until you hear it performed by actual live people with feelings and opinions and responded to by an audience of living, breathing people?

Again, every writer’s journey is unique, but most are winding roads — there are few straight roads to Broadway, and Broadway isn’t even always the ultimate goal.  But keep in mind the next time you see a production on the Great White Way: what you’re seeing is barely the tip of the iceberg, and there’s always a story behind the story.  And I hope to share more of mine with you!

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