Wednesday, July 28, 2010

If I Wrote A Song: An Interview With Daniel Maté

So this blog post is a special one, if I do say so myself. A few weeks ago, the roster for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre was announced for the 2010 Festival of New Musicals. The festival itself is an event where writers and composers are able to show their works to members of the theatre industry in the form of 45 minute readings. Every year, 8 musicals are presented, and this year's selection boasts a slew of great writers and diverse subject matters. Please check out the full list of musicals here, and read about the writers as well.

I wanted to do something special to really highlight some of the talent that will be presenting their stuff at this year's festival, especially since it's an industry-only event. So in the weeks leading to the October 21-22 dates of the event, I'll try to highlight a show or a writer who has a show in the festival every few days in the coming weeks. To really get things going, however, I had the pleasure of sitting down with composer/writer
Daniel Maté (who wrote lyrics and co-wrote the book with composer Will Aronson for the show The Trouble With Doug) in Prospect Park for an interview. Daniel was a 2010 recipient of the Jonathan Larson grant, is a two-time finalist for the New York City Hip Hop Karaoke Championship, and has his own custom songwriting business. Together, we discussed NAMT, being a slug, hip hop, and existentialism. Intrigued? Confused? Here is the transcript from our interview (and after the jump, check out more interview and youtube videos of his music):

(Daniel Maté singing "If I Wrote A Song")

Me: So I think I read somewhere that you said that you didn’t grow up with musical theatre necessarily. How did you get into it?

Daniel Maté: I definitely said that somewhere. What I meant is, I guess, I didn’t grow up all that aware of the history of American musicals, or surrounded by it as a general part of my cultural experience. Part of that was knee-jerk resistance to anything my parents thought I would enjoy – I remember deliberately not watching the movie of West Side Story for that reason.

If I actually look back, I was surrounded by certain particular musicals, certain soundtracks that I loved. So
Fiddler on the Roof was a record that... this dates me a little bit... but an LP that my parents had. And growing up Jewish, I actually thought “Fiddler” was a sort of blueprint for what Jewish culture was supposed to sound like. I didn’t realize it was a Broadway show for not only for Jewish audiences. Little Shop of Horrors...the movie came out when I was 9 or 10. I loved it. And I went to a summer camp where we did a lot of singing and songs based on popular songs. Lot of theatre. And I acted most of my childhood and I played music most of my childhood and often I would do the two things together. So me saying I didn’t grow up around musicals, or didn’t like them, is a case of “the lady doth protest too much.”

I did develop an attitude about musicals though. That somehow there was a culture of musical theatre I wasn’t somehow a part of, so I had to have a chip on my shoulder about it. And that’s partly that I just wasn’t that familiar with it, and partly that I had a lot of assumptions, and partly that I didn’t want to open myself up to a form that takes time to get to know. I was, and am, an opinionated person, and unfortunately sometimes my opinions precede my knowledge.
(Smiles.) That said, I probably still have an attitude about musicals.

I spent most of my 20s working odd jobs and doing music and theatre on the side. Acting, directing, collaborating on shows in my hometown in Vancouver. And also at the same time being a singer/songwriter. Ani DiFranco was sort of my idol; Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.

It was really when it came time to ask myself what do I want to do with my life, I had to face what do I really love, what do I care about? I realized pretty quickly it was music and theatre and I didn’t want to choose between them. And once I got over the idea that grad school wasn’t for me, I opened myself to the possibility, and a friend who was from New York said, “You need to check out NYU.” So I looked and saw there was a musical theatre writing program, and I was like,
I love New York, but that’s not for me. And fortunately I have people in my life who kicked my ass and were like, “You’re a very theatrical and musical person and all of your songs tell stories and have a lot of character to them. Why don’t you take a leap into something you don’t quite know about?” And luckily I listened to them.

I applied and I got in. And in the program I spent 2 years facing how much I didn’t know and learning as much as I could. Also realizing I don’t have to know every lyric to every show to get the basic principles of what makes a good or bad musical and to figure out what it is that I want to write.

I had some big kind of epiphanies. Like realizing what Sondheim had to offer. I had him in a little box and that box didn’t include me. But the first Sondheim show I really encountered was
Sunday in the Park with George and although I don’t think it’s a perfect show, it blew me away, both in terms of ambition and execution. I just got excited and thought, Wow, this guy is doing amazing things with language. It reminded me of my excitement in discovering really great rappers who are able to take command of a verse and master the art of flow. Suddenly you’re on their wave length. It was a long process of opening my mind and it still is.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Driving for the Sake of Driving

Maybe it's been the heat or the fact that I've been feeling a bit under the weather lately, but I've definitely been due for a pick-me-up. There's something about the summer that leaves feelings of restlessness, so for no other reason than conjuring images of the open road and getting out of the crowded haze that is the city, here are some of my favorite travel songs as of late:

First up is Brad Alexander and Adam Mathias' "See Rock City" (sung here by Josh Young) from their song See Rock City & Other Destinations, which is currently playing at The Duke at 42nd Street:

And outdoing any Mapquest directions or GPS in style and delivery are Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alex Brightman singing "Halfway" by Ryan Scott Oliver:

And last, but hardly least, is my quintessential musical girl power road trip song, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk's "Freedom" from The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, performed by Helene Yorke and Phoebe Strole:

Friday, July 16, 2010

All About the Presidents

First of all, the exciting news of the day is that it's official: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is moving into the Jacobs Theater on Broadway! The show will also star Ben Walker as it did at The Public. Congrats to him, Michael Friedman, and Alex Timbers!

And because presidents seem to be so hot right now, I also can't recommend We The People: America Rocks! enough for anyone with a free afternoon to enjoy some free, educational theatre. It's perfect for families with its fast-paced story, fun and hilarious cast members, and cleverly informative lyrics that will keep kids engaged. But even for the older set, it's a nice refresher course about the structure of our government told in a joyful, slightly winking way similar to Schoolhouse Rock. I'm certain you'll find yourself tapping your toes to a particular number about the first 5 amendments thanks to Adam Overett. There are also other great songs courtesy of Brad Alexander and Kevin Del Aguila, Eli Bolin and Sam Forman, Joe Iconis, Tommy Newman, Ryan Scott Oliver, Erik Weiner, Mark Weiner, and Jordan Allen-Dutton--with a book by Joe Iconis. Here's a sample of what you can expect from this fun show:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Gadget

As you can see (or at least I hope to God you can see it, as I've been spending the last hour or so playing around with the html), I have a new little calendar going in my sidebar that I hope will be a nice way of sharing upcoming concerts and events that are on the horizon and feature composers mentioned on this blog. Most of them will take place in New York, but I will try to post about anything else I hear about in other parts of the country or the world where I can. I'll also try to actually mention as many of the events as I can in blog posts-- but I figure this is an easy way of keeping track of them all. Feel free to click on them and get more details if you're intrigued. Unfortunately, I can't afford to go to all of these, but I will write reviews where I can and hope you can get out there and see as many as possible! Also, if you have any ideas of upcoming events or have a reading you'd like me to add to the calendar, feel free to leave a comment or email me (you can find my email through my profile).

Other than that, I leave you with this haunting, beautifully belted song from the new musical Nicholas & Alexandra by Ryann Ferguson and Steven Jamail with Aimee Postell. Ryann and Steve are also the creative team behind Vote! The Musical, which had performances in last year's Fringe Festival in New York. I've been wanting to post this spectacularly sung performance of "Love Will Stay" by Autumn Hurlbert for a while now, but it seems like the video is finally back up after being deleted by a hacker. Enjoy!

Monday, July 12, 2010

All About the Process...

So the inspiration for this blog comes from how much joy I've gotten over the last month listening to the BMI Workshop Songbook podcasts here. And there are many reasons why I absolutely love these. First of all, the Broadcast Music, Inc. workshops help cultivate talents that continually contribute new, exciting works from new composers. Second, this collection of podcasts features the talents of 20 writers/songwriting teams, with composers and lyricists like Andy Monroe and Jack Lechner, Maury Yeston, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, Barry Wyner, Joy Son and Jill Abramovitz, Michael John LaChiusa, Beth Falcone, and Jeff Blumenkrantz. With all this creative talent, there's a wealth of vocal talent from the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Cheyenne Jackson, Victoria Clark, Gavin Creel, and Christine Ebersole. Perhaps my favorite parts besides all the music are the great interviews, which are really more like conversations about the craft of creating a musical. And through these conversations, a lot of interesting ideas are raised in many of the podcasts, from the difficulty of obtaining rights to adapt popular source material to how 9/11 created a sense of community in one of the classes. If you enjoy the music, you can also buy the Songbook on CD here.

In speaking of process, I revisited Kerrigan and Lowdermilk's Freshman Experiment website the other day and am continually amazed by the scope and ingenuity of this venture. Through two college Freshmen's blogs, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk created songs based on their subjects' experiences, almost all of which are now fan favorites. Through the blogging done by all parties, it's also easy to chart the evolution of the songs as lyrics are tightened and ideas are formed.

For another great resource for hearing about a journey of a show through grassroots promotion, check out MTI ShowSpace's Vault for videos from Pasek and Paul as they discuss the process of creating and getting productions of their song cycle Edges, much of which was done while they were still in college at University of Michigan. It's a fascinating story of how they were able to bypass the Off-Broadway dream by taking the show on the road on a non-equity bus tour and managed to get a slew of college performances long before their first professional production.

And to top off this theme of songwriting and creation comes more Jason Robert Brown blogginess. In this two part blog, JRB gives examples of some lessons he goes over with USC students, from a list of examples of different musical theatre songwriting techniques to how to construct a cheesy disco melody.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

No Holiday When It Feels This Way

In recent news, I have become absolutely enamored by the songs of Peter Lerman as of late. Lerman is the recent recipient of the 2010 Jonathan Larson award, and from the sound of his music, it was well-deserved. There is definitely a pop sensibility in many of these tunes, but are grounded in hints of history and nostalgia. The energy is easy to get lost in -- and I have been spending a lot of time doing so. Watch his concert at the Kennedy Center here and be sure to check out the music at his website. Here are some of my favorites:

Steven Booth singing "Netherlands Carillon":

Peter Lerman himself singing "How to Write a Song":

Matt Doyle singing "No Holiday":

Brandon Victor Dixon singing "Washington to New York":

I got you worst than anyone I ever had...

Unfortunately for me, I totally missed the Julia Meinwald/Eric March Cheap Show tonight since my roommate won tickets to Shakespeare in the Park (Merchant of Venice was awesome, by the way... though the intense feeling of swimming in the humid 90-something degree air made me with I was drinking cheap beer and listening to live music indoors on more than one occasion). But, in honor of their show, I thought I would post videos for two Julia Meinwald/Dan Collins songs that have been stuck in my head for the past week or so:

"Lovesick" sung by Nick Blaemire:

And "The Water Song" sung by Mary Ann Schaub and Liz Carbonell:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

We all get a little sad sometimes...

Jason Robert Brown's blog post last week has received quite a bit of attention, causing him to shut off any further comments, though the debate continues on in other forums. It's an interesting topic, to be sure, and it highlights problems that transcend even the theatre industry, bringing about questions of where technology is going and how to hold future generations responsible for things they do in this virtual world (as well as the need to readjust antiquated, tangible analogies for the information that is passed along these channels).

Another blog post I read recently that brings up an interesting perspective from a writer's point of view comes from B.T. Ryback's guest blog at Ryan Scott Oliver's Crazytown Blog. In response to a prior blog made by Julia Meinwald about the idea of the "autobiographical song," Ryback offers his own criticism of the expectations for contemporary writers to draw directly from their personal experience. And while some of his argument is surely a bit incendiary (he makes the bold statement that "While at times this exercise in autobiography can be poignant and interesting, it isn’t really theatre"), he does touch on some really interesting points about the trend of musical theatre writers/composers moving more towards a cabaret set up for their work. I think one thing he does neglect to discuss is that there is a demand for this type of cabaret style -- it's not just the writers creating the work, but there are people across the country who are eager to perform these intimate, insular tunes (which is evident in the countless youtube videos of people making entire nights out of self-contained songs or licensing song cycles that are examples of "The Twenty-Somethings-Living-in-New-York-and-Creating-Art Dilemma" he mentions). However, I do think Ryback poses a meaningful and important challenge to writers: to not rest on the laurels of writing what you know. While it provides personal fulfillment and creative inspiration to draw from real life, the only way to continually expand one's craft is to create -- to reach outside of yourself and make something that didn't exist before.

Also, I just wanted to close out this blog with some videos which are now up of Joe Iconis' show at the Duplex. I think this batch of new tunes is quite affecting. While about disparate subjects -- Norman Bates, a werewolf, and an introspective human male -- a sadness, deeply felt and seemingly personal, lurks just below the surface. Enjoy, and happy 4th!