The Newer Songwriters and a Few Familiar Names
June 14, 2005
Report by Rob Lester

"They're not writing 'em like they used to." You've probably heard that complaint about newer show tunes or the dismissive attitude that instant hummability is the be-all and end-all. I'll never stop being in love with classic theatre songs but I am always excited to hear new writers exploring new ideas melodically and lyrically, too. Sometimes you have to listen a little harder, it's true, but the sense of discovery is well worth the exercise of ear and brain. There is a tremendous amount of new talent out there writing new songs for theatre and I was lucky enough to hear a lot of it over the last few weeks, so here is a wrap-up of some one-night events, but you'll be hearing more from many of these writers and the singers and show presenters who champion their songs.

John Znidarsic is one of those champions. He just completed his fourteenth year of presenting new songwriters at the New York Public Library, Donnell Branch. "I'm lucky enough to be supported by the city," he says of the opportunity to present these monthly concerts free of charge to the public. John also puts together the annual "Broadway Bound" concert at Merkin Hall which previews promising new shows. Writers from the BMI Workshop are often featured in both venues, and they are interviewed onstage, too. "I want to give people a chance to have their voices heard!" adds this enthusiastic director-producer-teacher whose onstage personality often turns entertainingly mischievous to keep things informal.

The Donnell season finale presented 15 songs, each from a different writer or team. I was especially intrigued by well-crafted numbers from a show with the attention-grabbing title Depression: The Musical (D.D. Jackson/Carl Kissin) and one from Slapstick by composer Bernie Anderson and wordsmith Todd Yard. A lyricist to keep an eye on (or ear on) is Will Randall whose touching "Party Of Five" about friends bonding and unbonding (music: Benjamin Morss) contrasts with his uproariously funny lyric to Barbara Anselmi's music in a song from The Big Picture in which family members at a wedding corner the ex-boyfriend of the bride lamenting "It Shoulda Been You." The showstopper was Farah Alvin's tour de force rant, a laugh-out-loud specialty from Mat Eisenstein with witty words galore from Peter Morris. The series will resume in the fall.

Bound for Broadway, Bound to Please

Liz Callaway and John Znidarsic
Meanwhile, the Merkin event with a now permanent host, the permanently charming and talented Liz Callaway, was a nice "fix" of similar treasures to tide over new show tune seekers, held the night after the Tony Awards, an appropriate time to look to the future of musical theatre. A few writers were featured in both concerts. Neil Bartram, who writes affecting words and melodies and also sings, closed the library concert with a truly touching tale of a fondly remembered schoolteacher and had the chance to present that and two other numbers from his The Story Of My Life at Merkin. The trio of the aforementioned Morris and Anselmi collaborated with Michael Scheman for one "day" of The Twelve Days Of Christmas and I had a chance to chat with lyric writer Scheman before the concert. With admiration for the project's other writers, he told me of this ready-to-go holiday show's genesis. Participants in the BMI workshop each took one of the gifts mentioned in that famous yuletide tune and fashioned it into a lighthearted vignette, creating the team effort of a brand new family musical. Michael had also offered "Chantico," a cute specialty number, an ode to specialty coffee drinks, at Donnell (music to both: Karl Mansfield). Morris also got to write a lyric to The Nutcracker Suite in a love-hate look at that Christmas tradition.

Charles Leipart, Jenny Powers, David Burnham and Eric Shorr
Charles Bloom was a "Bound For Broadway" returnee with what seems to be a witty and appealing Heaven Knows for which he wrote music, lyrics and book. This show is about a woman who meets God in various incarnations, among them a man working at the restaurant where she's having a less-than-smooth blind date, a gay New Yorker, and Ethel Merman. The music of Eric Schorr and words of Charles Leipart bring a new spin to The Frog Prince.

Joshua Salzman and his lyric-writing partner Ryan Cunningham went straight from the concert to the next day's auditions for a presentation their I Love You Because. Judging from the samples, you'll be loving it because it's fun and breezy. Using Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice as a reference point, they switched the genders, named their leading man Austin and made the story about

Ryan Cunningham, Joshua Salzman, Stephanie D'Abruzzo & Sally Wilfert
today's 20somethings. Also featured was Doctor Sex by Larry Bortniker (book written by Sally Deering) which has already premiered in Chicago and won the Jeff Award there and the After Dark Award.

As a bonus at the end of the evening, Liz Callaway interviewed a veteran team and turned from host to singer, putting the icing on the cake. The song was from the new musical version of Marty by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, still writing great things decades after Bye Bye Birdie and other shows. Happily, I got to hear it a couple of times at the rehearsal, but once was enough to know it's a beauty. A few Broadway performers among the singers were Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jenny Powers, Meg of Little Women, and I think you'll find some of these other names will one day be familiar like those last mentioned.

More Treasures Revealed at MAC

MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) and the songwriters' organization ASCAP celebrate new work, too, in their own regular Songwriters' Showcase series. The most recent was held on May 25, the day after the Donnell night. It showcased a variety of ambitious works for cabaret and from theatre.

Sally Wilfert, who also graced the stage at Merkin, presented a strong number by composer Jenny Giering and lyricist Beth Blatt. Elizabeth Doyle sang a top-drawer number she co-wrote with Owen Kalt, comparing a less-than-satisfactory boyfriend to a dog ("Neither one has a job"; "When I talk, Scruffy listens.") Lanny Meyers' "Just like That" was impressive and tender, sung by Lauren J'aime Feinberg. Writers singing their own songs were Ed Alstrom, Craig A. Meyer and Johnny Rodgers, an audience favorite as writer, singer or pianist. Also on the bill were the delightful Catherine Dupuis with Harriet Goldberg's "I Don't Mind" and Sandi Durell with Dennis Livingston's "Springtime In Boston," as well as Valerie Fagan doing "At Last" by Nan Selle Patterson and Nicholas Levin.

This event included a very special guest writer, Sheldon Harnick, who spoke of his days long before Fiddler On The Roof and his early influences (seeing Finian's Rainbow inspired him to become a lyricist). Sally Mayes, who'd co-starred in his and Jerry Bock's She Loves Me came out to sing that show's "A Trip To The Library," a comedy song which could serve as a master class example to any newer lyricist in any audience. She also performed a cut song from The Apple Tree, particularly interesting since many in the audience had just seen that Bock/Harnick show done in the Encores! presentation. MAC's series will also pick up in the fall, and is reasonably priced at $15 for non-MAC members.

The evening was hosted by MAC President Emeritus Jamie de Roy who told me, "for the past 20 years, the MAC/ASCAP Showcase has been showcasing up-and-coming writers along side established writers. Having songs heard can be so trying for these talented songwriters, and these shows gather a crowd of music lovers and performers. Often, songs are picked up for cabaret acts, or shows have been given a run in a regional theater, as a result. It is encouraging to hear so much talent."

An Abundance of Ebullience

I was especially impressed with a benefit concert of newer work at the Zipper Theatre on May 16. It was put together by two very young and personable people as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Their names are Todd Adamson and Stephanie Safko and they turned are charming and polished performers as well. This was no thrown-together effort with singers stealing glances at sheet music as one often sees. With director Philip George and choreographer Minami Yusui, the songs were all well rehearsed, staged with movement and interaction that made them like little vignettes. The youthful cast included many recent college graduates studying theatre who already had stage credits and were overflowing with talent, promise and energy that matched the skill evident in the songs being showcased.

Peter Morris, Barbara Anselmi, Michael Scheman
Barbara Anselmi's songs get around - I heard one here, too: "Perfect" written with Carla Rose Arnone. Another writer whose name and songs are seemingly everywhere, and always a big hit, is Brian Lowdermilk, who collaborates most often with Kait Kerrigan. The Giering/Blatt team was represented here as well. Good songwriters attract good singers again and again. Some established songwriters lent songs as well, such as the longing "Live Out Loud" (by Brian Crawley and Andrew Lippa from their version of A Little Princess) and Avenue Q's Bobby Lopez' showstopper written with wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez. It's called "A Thought" and is even more impudent and side-splitting than anything even those puppets dare to croon. Also in the comic relief department was the tale of being in love with self-centered "Chelsea Boy" by Hector Coris and Paul L. Johnson (their work is currently on display in town in a revue that this one song sent me flying to for more laughs).

A generous program of over 20 songs was a pleasure from beginning to end, thanks to gifted songwriters like Georgia Stitt, Patrick Dwyer, John Mercurio, Ben Moore and more and more. I'll be expecting to see the charismatic and gifted performers Sean David Johnson, Hollis Scarborough, Matthew G. Myers, Stuart Landon and Lea Cabrera again. They're just terrific. Like the Bound For Broadway concert, it ended with an established star; this time Karen Ziemba ended the evening. Her song "Thank You For Today" by Douglas Cohen was as appropriate as it was graceful and heartfelt in performance and writing. It made me want to get a recording of it, as did "Who Will Love You Now?" (Stephen Cole/Jeffrey Saver) - and that wish came true last week as it is included on the new release of Time After Time/Dodsworth. The singer? The host of the Merkin concert discussed above, Liz Callaway. The producers tell me they were thrilled with the turnout and response and are determined to do it again soon. They should also be proud.

Lonely Sky

It's been some years now since Ricky Ian Gordon was up and coming, but he's still considered part of the "next generation of composers," the sole focus of Lonely Sky Theatre Company, with workshops, readings and concerts. Its founding Artistic Directors, Chip Klose and Michael J. Ross, are clearly excited about exposing newer artists writers to new audiences and "making a home" for them. One of their events is called "Hear & Now" and the next is planned for July. (

Their Memorial Day music fest at Opia on East 57th Street saluted Gordon and found him at the keyboard, expertly leading the way. Gordon was joined by four singers well up to the challenge of his sometimes intricate, but always rewarding work. They were Diane Sutherland, Rosena M. Hill, Scott Murphee and Michael Arden. The program was mostly familiar to those who have followed his career. It included Dream True's rich Tina Landau lyric "Finding Home," introduced in that show by Jessica Molaskey with whom he wrote "Cradle And All," one of the evening's best received numbers. Songs from his collaboration with Richard Nelson My Life With Albertine were prominently featured. Several of his settings for poems by the likes of Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker were presented as well. If you were out of town for the holiday, you have a new chance to see much of this and more. Ricky Ian Gordon's songs and singers are currently on stage - this time with a dance company - at The Joyce Theatre on Eighth Avenue for a run.

And More

Yes, there's plenty of melodic, intelligent songs still being written. There's a series called Musical Mondays with BMI at Musicals Tonight!'s home, watched over by another new writers' shepherd, Frank Evans, and the autumn marathon New York Musical Theatre Festival ( if you want shows, shows and more shows. You have to know where to look for all this (we'll be helping you in the new season) or happen to be fortunate enough to be in a nightclub at the right time.

This week I went to see the smash New York cabaret debut of Jasper Kump at the Hideaway Room at Helen's (next door to the Joyce). His talented musical director Russ Kassoff had just written a brand new song, "I'm Glad You're My Friend" (lyrics by Dan Regan), and shown it to the singer who couldn't wait to sing it. So that was the last-minute encore, and a great discovery. At the piano bar Marie's Crisis on Grove Street, one of the house pianists is Marc McBarron Kessler, who writes some of the most searing confessional story songs you'll hear and he's been asked to do an act of his own. Many of the musical directors and pianists about town playing the standards or in the pit of a Broadway show are composing their own music on the way to work and have brand new songs. Try asking one of them late one night in a piano bar and you might get a treat. Sure, some will be full of obvious influences, try to hard to cram three songs' worth of ideas into one, or may overreach, but there's plenty to cheer and plenty to hear.

Photos: Maryann Lopinto

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