Musical Theater Today: An Interview with the Creators

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Musical Theater Today is a new, annual print publication collecting diverse perspectives that all meet under the banner of musical theater. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, the inaugural issue is an explosion of fascinating conversations, fresh work excerpts, and insightful essays. The result is a unique and often surprising survey of a form that is constantly evolving, expanding, and diversifying. We were lucky enough to sit with the authors, Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed and Ben Van Buren, and learn more about the book and the authors themselves. You can grab the book here 

About the book:

What made you want to write this book?

Lucas: First it’s important to clear up that we are not the ‘authors’ of this book! We are the co-founders and editors, and all of the content in Issue 1 exists entirely thanks to the intelligence, ingenuity, wit, and generosity of the interviewees, authors, and writers featured within.

Books and musicals are two of my greatest passions, and I’ve also always maintained a significant interest in criticism and theory in the arts. But in terms of a specific inspiration, Michael John LaChiusa’s 2005 essay in Opera News, entitled “The Great Grey Way,” is the best point of reference. I read it just before moving to New York City, and to this day I have yet to see a similarly nuanced, frank, and fearless piece of writing. While other art forms seem to have consistently developed a tradition of criticism, somehow musical theater seems to have resisted that. In our early meetings, I remember hoping that MTT could be an entire, recurring publication of such writings, one that serves as a both a resource and a call to action.  Moreover it’s worth saying that my reading of said article coincided with my first listen to the cast recording of Bernarda Alba, and the two things in tandem immediately redefined musical theater to me.

Ben: My background as an artist is in dance, but recently I have found myself moving away from performance projects and toward publishing. In 2016 I founded Yonkers International Press as a way to conduct experiments at the crossroads of performance and publishing. We mostly publish book-documents of performance festivals, (books that feature interviews with artists, photos of the festival, essays, etc.), but have also worked on books of poetry written by dancers, and a hodgepodge of other things…

Anyway, I was just settling back into New York after a few years of working abroad and I was eager to work on something very local to New York, but also with big international echos. I love musical theater, (I once auditioned for, and was rejected from, many BFA programs), and Lucas is a dear friend, so together we started to dream up MTT...

What is the book about in your own words?

Ben: This book is about multiplicity, diversity, incongruity, and excitement. This book is a 480 page snapshot of musical theater today, which happens to be an absolutely THRILLING thing to take a snapshot of. The content in MTT is divided into three types: interviews, essays/editorials, and script and score excerpts. MTT is about printing sheet music from contemporary work alongside interviews with established artists, and editorials from professionals all over the country, and seeing what happens. MTT is a space to gather, to exchange, to agree or disagree, but ultimately, to champion the form of musical theater.

Lucas: I couldn’t say it better myself. I’ll only add that I hope that this book, and each subsequent annual volume, can expose readers worldwide to some of the many artists who are, if I may, “waiting in the wings,” just offstage—so talented and so ready to have their work scene, and to be so rightfully known.  A personal favorite trend that emerged as the book came together was one of contradiction; so many statements and opinions made by any given theater practitioner are directly opposed somewhere else in the book. I view this not as conflict but variance, a quality that, right down to Darwinian science, is invaluable to any community.

How long did it take to compile all of the information?

Ben: From the first spark of the idea to the June 4th launch party in midtown Manhattan was about 9 months.

Lucas: It all truly seemed to happen so quickly. I think in the last few weeks before the launch party, when we were in the final stages of compiling and formatting, we were both astounded by the amount of content we had gathered in such a short period of time. Amazingly, it didn’t feel cumbersome or time-consuming throughout the process; I remember with particular fondness the days when we had multiple interviews lined up all over the city.

What makes this book stand out from other books on Musical Theater?

Lucas: Well, generally none of the essays and editorials have been published anywhere else; many were written specifically for the first issue. And of course, the interviews that we conducted are totally unique to our publication, particularly the fact that we are in a situation where we don’t necessarily have limitations in terms of length of feature (when two of our interviewees were able to sit with us for several hours, for instance, we were able to hypothetically publish that entire transcript, which is insanely cool and unusual). Also, we love that MTT is not a commercial endeavor; in no way is it a platform for the artists featured within to “sell” their material, nor did anybody want it to be—there are so many prestigious avenues already in place for such publicity.

Ben: There is nothing this fresh, this contemporaneous out there in print. Other anthologies are often coming out of academic presses and thus take longer to publish and don't feature this sort of diversity of content. I love and welcome all printed matter having to do with the contemporary expression of musical theater, but I think what we have done is a bit unique in terms of the diversity of content both formally and in terms of the perspective of individual  authors.

I am really proud of what we have achieved in terms of editorial strategy. This issue features a really broad spectrum of writing, from fairly academic to fairly informal. And that diversity of style is something I know we are interested in preserving in future issues.

And let me use this soapbox to say: CALLING ALL WRITERS! CALLING ALL MUSICAL THEATER INTERESTED WRITERS! SEND US AN EMAIL! PITCH US AN ARTICLE! WE WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH YOU!

Will this be a series? What is the future of the series?

Ben : It is an annual publication. We are already talking about how to shape the next issue and we are really looking forward to the process of working on it!

Lucas:  I think one thing to look out for in future issues of MTT is a broader international focus. This first issue taught us that musical theater is a truly international popular form of storytelling, and we are eager to explore more of that.

Ben: Amen.

If you had to choose a favorite section of the book what would it be?

Lucas: It’s impossible to choose. Even during the crunchiest of crunch times, when we were frantically editing, revising, and forgetting to eat, I remained genuinely excited and often surprised by each piece of content. But something that always gives me a particular thrill is the data from our survey to BFA students. I often worry about the perception of the musical theater canon becoming too focused on certain shows; but when I look at the survey responses for ‘What is your favorite musical?’ and see that there is no real unanimity to be found, well… I love that. Sure, a lot of people pick Ragtime (and understandably; it’s masterful to say the least, and more important now than it has ever been), but then there are surprises like… Grand Hotel! That’s just beautiful.  

Ben: I totally agree there are no favorites, I love it all. But I also had a great time working on the national musical theater BFA survey. The MT BFA students in this country provide a tremendous life-force to the contemporary musical theater industry and I wasn't to hear more about their experiences and expectations. That’s a bit of a personal editorial goal for coming issues.

What do you hope your audiences get out of the book?

Ben: I hope they feel invited. The history of musical theater doesn’t exist unless we write it down, and we (Lucas and I) want to invite as many people as possible to come on into MTT and add to the conversation. I hope people get information, I hope they get entertained, but I hope they get excited and I hope they feel compelled to send us a note.

Lucas: Our audience is so varied (truly I believe that anyone with even the most cursory interest in theater would find something in this book that would hook them), so I think the specific “takeaway” from the book is going to be case-by-case. But to turn your question on its head, I would love for musical theater audiences to come away from this publication demanding to see the works of these artists in full production (I can’t bring myself to select a few to name here, as I’d love to list them all, so please go on our website and check out the roster!) alongside the more ‘known’ composers and pop songwriters who tend to dominate marquees these days. More thrilling still is the thought of this endeavor continually boosting interest in the countless amazing shows that happen off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and non-Broadway. Musicals are everywhere!

What value can a student find in your book? An actor? A Teacher? A Fan?

Lucas: Students of any pursuit in musical theater will all find specific articles or details throughout the book that speak directly to their goals; the musical theater composer, through the sheet music excerpts, will have access to a variety of composer-lyricist teams’ formatting and problem-solving strategies in terms of integrated dialogue, orchestrated sheet music, and use of chord symbols. Students of performance will gain exposure not only to several musical theater incubators that are constantly activating budding talent, but also an in-depth interview with two vocal instructors and audition coaches who expound at length on their perspectives from the other side of the audition table. Actors and teachers will also find this particular feature of great interest, and working actors will enjoy hearing perspectives from outside of the New York City scene (specifically, the virtues of sustained cruise ship work, and the possibilities of regional theater work). Musical theater fans? They gain insights into the “inside baseball” of musical theater development in a unique and in-depth way that heretofore was inaccessible.

Ben: Lucas totally just nailed it so there’s not much more to add. MTT is an all access pass to the conversation in New York right now. If you want to know what the rising star artists are excited about, that’s in there. If you want to know what producers are cooking up for the future of Broadway fundraising, that’s in there. It’s exciting. Having this kind of access to the conversation, from anywhere in the world, in print? 15-year-old musical theater nerd me would have lost his mind! But also, older me is losing his mind too!

How did the book change the way you look at musical theatre?

Ben: It didn’t really change it, it deepened a love.

Lucas: I felt encouraged by the enthusiasm that everyone brought to the table. Given that the most visible forms of musical theater are, inevitably, exclusive events that occur behind closed doors and behind an often unscalable paywall, commercial musical theater especially can feel cold and manufactured sometimes. But everyone has been so approachable and so eager to participate, and so supportive of the book—so to return to your question, it didn’t change my perception of musical theater; but it did offer me some much-needed reassurance that the field is in fact being tilled by passionate, red-blooded humans of all kinds, and thus the form will continue to mutate and accommodate new work because it cannot exist without it.

 

About you:

What originally drew you to musical theatre?

Musicals were always something I enjoyed as a child, though my experience of them was somewhat limited; in my tumultuous high school years, an acquaintance casually advised me to audition for the school play, and the diverse, intelligent, and witty community in which I suddenly found myself immediately felt both thrilling and familiar. On a professional level, my enrollment in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop provided a full immersion in the musical theatre-writing community that I had not experienced previously (since I majored in music and literature in my undergraduate years), and my classmates remain, to this day, an irreplaceable part of my New York family. It is through those friendships that I found myself truly investing in musical theatre on a professional level. To any of my BMI pals reading this, I love you all SO much!

Ben: Honestly, the original cast recording of Candide is responsible.

What are your standouts of this current season?

Lucas: For me, The Great Comet is a huge achievement and a representation of my ideal process for a show’s development. Companies like Ars Nova deserve to be seen by a wider audience, and often the optics of being ‘on Broadway’ are the best way to achieve that. Moreover, Comet’s ‘process’ has been largely defined by subsequent significant productions, with the show gleefully adapting to new spaces and audiences rather than getting trapped in a whirlpool of readings and revisions. As a writer myself, such a process is the dream. But it bears saying that the real standout of this season is… the season itself. With more new shows that Broadway has seen in decades. I would love to see that record broken year after year.

Ben: Broadway, Broadway, Broadway… I’m curious about what’s going on with ticket prices. Right now there are 7 or 8 shows consistently absent from the TKTS discount booths. And the half-price tickets that are there are usually cost somewhere between $80-$100. I have lots to say about the content of the season, but for me the question in recent years has been: are we in a ticket price bubble? Or is part of post-2008 economic recovery simply going to be that some people get priced out of seeing shows. I know it’s an odd thing to focus on here, and I know it’s a vastly complicated issue, but I’m just as eager to have conversations about Broadway economics as I am about Broadway content. Maybe I’m wrong to harp. I’m ready to be wrong.

Lucas: To add on to Ben’s observation, we’ve all seen the huge bubble that is Disney’s Frozen.

What is your favorite musical?

Lucas: That’s a tough one. I usually say that, from an analytical standpoint, Into the Woods is the ‘best’ musical because it offers the deepest overall experience for the widest variety of audiences; ie, casual theatregoers can be thoroughly entertained and moved, while the show also can withstand the intense scrutiny of a critic or seasoned theater professional. To mention a show that serves up the purest satisfaction to my personal tastes, On the Twentieth Century has always been a favorite, as the lushness and complexity of the score really embellishes an otherwise traditional musical comedy experience with detail and expressiveness. And lastly I can’t let this question rest without mentioning LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, which I always find myself returning to for the brutality and sheer raunch of its score and lyrics; and also for the undeniable precision with which LaChiusa crafts songs for certain performers.

Ben: Xanadu? Fun Home? Bernstein’s Mass? Life and Times Episode 1 by Nature Theater of Oklahoma?

Have you written anything before?

Lucas: In 2015 Ben and I collaborated on a dance oratorio with my musical settings of selected poetry of Michelangelo; decidedly not a musical, this was a way for me to scratch a certain artistic itch outside of the rigor of the BMI workshop. It primed me to jump into the lengthy development process (via Theatre in Asylum) of a musical about the Brontë siblings, which, just this past July, enjoyed a workshop production in Brooklyn with full tech and a 6-piece orchestra. I hope the piece will have some kind of future! Audience reactions were very strong—I think we might be able to help create a few new Brontë superfans in this generation!

Ben: Me? Written a musical? Oh dear, no. I’ve worked as a dance critic before, and written a couple of articles for magazine outside of the US. As Lucas mentioned I’ve worked as a choreographer. I’m currently working as a designer on a number of book/magazine projects, and writing a lot of amature HTML/CSS, trying to make a new website for Yonkers International Press.

Where can we find you on social?

 

Lucas: I’ve found that it’s very easy to find me now that my middle name is part of all of my social accounts; just search ‘Lucas Tahiruzzaman Syed’ on whatever platform and, if I’m on it, I should show up. Usually it’s a black and white picture of me playing the cello with a posh scarf around my shoulders (a comically inaccurate depiction of my day-to-day, I assure you!).

Ben:
Insta: @theregoesmydignity & @yonkersinternationalpress

Lucas: And of course you can find out all about Musical Theater Today you can buy the book on Amazon or via our website, musicaltheatertoday.com. We’re also on the following social media platforms: FB: @musicaltheatertoday TWITTER: @musicalstoday INSTA: musicaltheatertoday

 

Trevor Chauvin