Advice I Received from 9 Broadway Composers and Lyricists
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I love writing music, especially musical theatre. Over the last few years, I’ve reached out to a lot of different composers and lyricists of various Broadway productions. Eight of them were kind enough to take the time to respond to me. I asked them all a simple question:
Any advice for an aspiring musical theatre composer?
Here are their generous responses, and my reflection of their words.
(Frozen, In Transit, Finding Nemo: The Musical)
“There is an incredible workshop (BMI writers workshop) here in NYC where I learned all of the craft that provides the foundation of my writing. I highly recommend it to you! Keep writing! Keep channeling those big feelings and keep making a thing where there never was a thing!”
Via Direct Message on Twitter.
(Dear Evan Hansen, Dogfight, La La Land, The Greatest Showman)
“Start writing.... and this Ira Glass quote has gotten me through a lot of hard days; ‘Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.’”
Via Personal Message on Facebook.
(The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Galavant)
“You have to do [the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop] if you can. And if you don’t get in the first time, keep applying because you get a better and better sense of what you need to do to get in, and eventually you’ll get in. It’s highly recommended.”
Via private Skype Interview on 7/19/2018.
(Something Rotten!, Smallfoot)
"Get [to] know as many people as you can in the community. Honor melodies & find good ones. Be you."
(Big Fish, The Addams Family, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown)
"Write! And then write more! And then find a way to put your show on. 'They' will almost always say 'no'. You say 'yes'!"
(Aladdin, Elf the Musical, The Prom)
"My advice would be to put your work on its feet. Even if it's a reading in a basement somewhere, the more you can experience hearing your work read / sung out loud and get feedback, the more you can fine tune it."
Via Personal Message on Facebook.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe
(Mary Poppins, Honk!, Half a Sixpence)
"Go to everything, study everything- even things you might not like. Find a collaborator who challenges you & makes you laugh!"
(Frozen, The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q)
"Join the @bmi musical theatre workshop!"
(Thoroughly Modern Millie, Fun
Home, Shrek the Musical)
"Hmmm. Read. A lot. Write, even more. Observe people, play on a team, analyze the masters. And ignore most advice. Xo"
What I Learned from Them
There were two common themes in everyone's advice: Attend the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, and write.
In one of my creative writing classes, we were required to write three single-spaced pages per day. Only one or two days of the week did I feel my writings contained anything substantial, but what it taught me was the process of "write and then rewrite".
I learned to not get so caught up in the process, and to be okay letting things that I had written never see the light of day. In my Skype call with Glenn Slater, he mentioned it took several hours, and over 50 different variants to finally come up with the melody we no hear in "I See the Light" from Tangled. He mentioned Alan Menken was never tied to a melody, because he knew he could probably come up with one that was even better.
Tying that back to the quote Benj Pasek mentioned; we need to remember that we are always going to be learning and progressing as artists, as long as we are constantly creating. The Ira Glass quote mentions that we need to accept the fact that our earlier work is going to be not that great. We can take that a step further and realize that we are always preparing ourselves to create something better tomorrow than we created yesterday. That's a beautiful thing, and the process of learning and creating sub-par material is necessary.
A lot of our Elite Eight participated in the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Besides learning the craft of musical theatre composition and critique from industry professionals, you learn to effectively collaborate with fellow artists. If the lessons of the workshop aren't enough to entice you, just remember that Robert and Kristen met at the workshop, and were later married!
What was interesting about everyone is how unique their journeys were to becoming composers and lyricists.
Before Glenn Slater wrote lyrics, he mainly composed music and worked at an ad agency writing copy. Andrew Lippa and Benj Pasek were both performing students at the University of Michigan before they decided to start writing music. Jeanine Tesori started out playing in the pit and conducting. And Wayne Kirkpatrick was a well-established Country and Christian songwriter before writing Something Rotten! with his brother.
They all had a unique path to writing musical theatre- and those paths are what give them such a unique taste on our world! Our different backgrounds give us the things that make us unique as artists. And while our individual journeys are all vastly distinct, one thing is common in all of them: it's hard.
I asked Chad Beguelin if he had ever had a time where he thought of giving up, and what helped him through. Here was his response:
"It takes incredible drive and determination to have a career as a writer. It means facing tons of rejection and soldering on. Early on I definitely questioned if I could ever make it work, but my desire to be a part of musical theater and Broadway always won out over the doubt."
I asked Andrew Lippa the same question.
"When I was becoming a sophomore at the University of Michigan I thought seriously about quitting music. I was not happy as a voice major and I had not yet started writing songs. It all seemed too inconsequential to me as I was, I think, looking for something with purpose. I found it in writing. And never looked back. But I came close to entering a music business track. Phew!!”
Like Andrew and Chad, I have found a purpose in writing music, as I'm sure many of you have as well. I've found many different people that I love to collaborate with, and that love making art as much as I do. I can't wait to continue to explore, learn, and experiment with my artistic voice. And I hope this post has helped you feel the same way.
And, like Jeanine brilliantly said, "Ignore most advice."
I'm working on a few musical projects right now, but we aren't ready to release anything quite just yet. Instead, for a look at other musical projects I've arranged, visit the following links:
The Playmill Playlist Sessions