A Visit With John Znidarsic of the Free "Songbook" Series At The Donnell Library

by Rob Lester

Also see Flopz 2 & Cutz: February 26 Concerts

Most of the songs John Znidarsic has been presenting monthly for 15 years in his "Songbook" concerts are from musicals that have not been produced, some not even completed. There is a sense of real discovery in these sneak peeks, and the informal atmosphere with John kibitzing with writers and performers is part of the ambience. Looking back at the early years, he told me, "Initially, it was very formal. I had a whole script all typed up. I wore a suit. But it wasn't me and it made some performers very rigid." He prefers the relaxed way. "We're here to have fun."

For the writers, this can be their first reaction outside of fellow songwriters in workshop classes. And sometimes a potential producer is in the audience and a connection is made. A prime example is Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham's I Love You Because. John smiles, "It made me so happy last week when I walked into the theater and they came up to me and said, 'You gave us our big chance.'" Other shows glimpsed in embryonic form at "Songbook" include Time and Again, Little by Little, john and jen, No Way to Treat a Lady and Musical of Musicals: The Musical.

John remembers the first season, a decade and a half ago, when Jason Robert Brown presented his songs and in the house were Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. Most theater lovers can fill in the blanks and fast forward to Parade. The other songwriter spotlighted that night was Andrew Lippa, and the premiere season also included David Friedman, Brian Lasser, John Bucchino, Gerard Alessandrini, Douglas Cohen and Robert Nassif & Richard Pearson Thomas. Thomas returns for this year's April event with young songwriters from the Yale School of Drama where he now teaches. They will present their class-assigned musicals-in-progress.

The series runs from September through May on the final Tuesday of each month. Talented composer-lyricist-pianist Nicholas Levin opened this year's season showing an unusual versatility of styles (from a children's musical to the powerful ballad "They All Come Home") in a concert smartly directed by Michael Cassara. May 23 ends the year with a mix of writers, mostly returnees, called "Broadway's Discovered Treasures."

Singer-actors active in New York theater present the songs. They work for no fee, often to support their songwriter friends or to just champion new material. The free concerts begin at 6 p.m., partly so they can include performers on their way to work in Broadway or Off-Broadway shows and cabaret. For example, October's evening found Bill Russell presenting his songs from Side Show, Elegies, Kept, etc., with Lauren Kennedy, Alan Campbell, Barrett Foa, David Burnham, Christiane Noll and others. It attracted a larger number of 20-something theater fans, sharing rows with many senior citizens who come regularly, plus the usual eclectic mix. It was musical directed by the always in-demand Michael Lavine, Musical Director of this week's Flopz/Cutz shows. Another special event was last April's memorial tribute to musical director-songwriter Dick Gallagher, who'd been part of many past events.

The next concert is this Tuesday, February 28 with the songs of M. Kilburg-Reedy, including several from her pop-rock musical, Spin: A Musical Myth, which has already had three readings in town. She appeared in two previous “Songbook” concerts. John says simply, "I like her music very much. I met her first because she's a theatrical lawyer. Now she has a show just published by Samuel French."

Carol Kissin
Carl Kissin
In March, the spotlight is on one comic musical, called Depressed, Depressed. It's described by its lyricist-bookwriter Carl Kissin as being about a comedian whose obsession with romance requires him to "navigate the minefield of meddling family members, frustrated therapists, and powerful pharmaceutical interests to find his way back from depression to good
D. D. Jackson
D.D. Jackson
old-fashioned neurosis." He and its JUNO Award-winning composer D.D. Jackson will present the songs (with guest singers) and comic monologues, too. (Audiences who attended last year's season-closer heard one of the songs in a concert with many other writers including Mat Eisenstein, Peter Morris, Barbara Anselmi, Will Randall, Benjamin Morss, Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan.)

"I love being the conduit," says Znidarsic, "to me, that's very satisfying." He also enjoys his year-round job as Artistic Director and series presenter for the non-profit Arts & Artists at St. Paul's Church, the as well as his directing jobs (like last summer's residency at Texas' Star Theater showcasing some of these same writers), teaching Advanced Musical Theater Techniques at AMDA and Marymount. John has also directed presentations of new writers' work for the valued Bound for Broadway series at Merkin Hall.  He comments, "I've been offered jobs directing revivals of classics and revues of famous writers. That doesn't excite me." He'd rather work on things that haven't been produced or recorded before, where performers come "fresh" to new material, "where the Cliffs Notes are not available." Like his audiences, he loves new talent. If it's not nurtured and exposed, he feels, "The whole art form just starts to deteriorate."

New musical theater is alive and well in his series at the Donnell Public Library's theater, where all the concerts take place. That's at 20 West 53rd Street. And there is no admission charge. Tickets are given out one hour prior to the program on a first-come, first-served basis.