A Second Golden Era:
The Music of Post-Millennial Musical Theatre Composers
[This session, presented in October 2016 at the National Association of Teachers of Singing Central Division student summit in Iowa city, surveys the work of numerous (generally) post-millennial musical theatre composers.]
The current musical theatre scene includes a wealth of younger songwriting teams and individual composers, many of whom self-publish. Their music is vivid, varied, and worth knowing.
With a wealth of examples available on YouTube, we witness a number of songs in recordings of live performance. We also review composer websites and resources on line. The aim is to help students and teachers gain new insight into contemporary literature, and build knowledge of a dozen or more contemporary composers. I also share some personal notes about my impression of some of this music.
A word about sheet music: most of these composers and teams provide purchasable PDF sheet music from their websites, or link you to an on-line store. Buying this music directly, rather than sharing a scan from someone else, enables these folks to make a living and keep on writing. Notice too that numerous songs come in female (belty) and male (baritenor or tenor) keys.
Do check out the resources at newmusicaltheatre.com.
And also check out this Buzzfeed column.
N.B. — While I include Andrew Lippa on this survey, he really is not part of the gestalt of post-millennial musical theatre. Rather, along with JRB, Guettel and others, he’s an important voice in contemporary musical theatre, with songs cast in more traditional formal structures and story-telling techniques. Also not part of this survey are originators of current rock musicals and rap musicals.
And another N.B. — I have received some comments reminding me that many of the composers on this team are not Millennials. Those reminders are correct. But this list is intended to be a very incomplete survey of composers writing in a post-millennial style. Perhaps I’ll do another blog entry or session on composers and composing teams who are indeed part of the Millennial generation! [comment added 11/7/16]
Broadway’s ‘Golden Era’ is generally considered to be the days of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Bernstein, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Meredith Willson. Yip Harburg, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman and others are in the mix too.
Others of the remaining third of the 20th century (some of whom remain active today) included Cy Coleman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Boublil & Schonberg, Stephen Schwarz, Marvin Hamlisch, Ahrens & Flaherty, Marsha Norman & Judy Simon, Jason Robert Brown, Maltby & Shire, and the great Stephen Sondheim. We must also consider composers of rock musicals and rock-influenced musicals, such as Elton John. And the Disney musicals.
Millennials are the generation born 1982-2002, according to demographers.
But what is post-millennial musical theatre?
Much of post-millennial musical theatre literature is intimate, emotionally present, and very much in a story-telling vein. Songs that, in the moment, drive a plot ahead with action or need. Songs that stand alone well in a cabaret setting — solo mic, lights focusing on the performer, audience not many feet away. Performers delivering without artifice or traditional conventions of musical theatre. Hand-in-hand with this observation: most of these shows won’t go to Broadway, but will be Off- and Off-Off-Broadway instead, suiting the more intimate style and subject matter.
My colleague Neal Richardson says
Vocal considerations are akin to acting considerations–casually natural qualities predominate. For me, this means both male and female should be largely in a mix characterized by an ease and uniformity between low and high. Parlando singing that is closely connected to speech will help achieve the desired vocal colors. A beautiful, pure head voice is a distraction as it will communicate an “I’m singing now” quality. Belt is acceptable and even required at times, but only if the moment justifies it. If you belt without justification it also communicates: “listen to my voice.”
I might add a danger too: many contemporary singing actors have grabbed onto an artifically tight, retroflex R; a stiff upper lip; and an exaggerated /u/ vowel (perhaps modeling Alice Ripley and others) — all of which may be appropriate as an occasional dramatic choice, but which in no way mimic normal speech patterns. I work with my own students to avoid these affectations, going for the most natural quality possible.
Any list of post-millennial musical theatre composers is naturally going to leave important voices aside, but here’s a somewhat curated list of folks I teach:
Carner and Gregor; partnered on a project in the early 2000s at NYU, and have worked together ever since; Derek Gregor, music & Sam Carner, lyrics; strong melodies, clear story arcs, accessible rhythm, beautifully written accompaniments; musicals include Island Song and Unlock’d; printed pages are beautiful, demonstrating great care
Pasek and Paul; started working together at University of Michigan; Tony Award nominees; collaborate on music and lyrics; intricate accompaniments, highly detailed rhythmic patterns, rich and singable melodies, with music described as ‘elegant’ and ‘consistently bouyant and clever’; musicals include Dogfight, Dear Evan Hansen, James and the Giant Peach, A Christmas Story: The Musical and Edges; original songs also featured on second season of Smash
Scott Alan; more songwriter than show-writer; music of simpler style, less complex than Pasek and Paul, direct and appealing melodies; “I write about issues that are relatable.”; seven CD albums available; many of his songs are more or less autobiographical; N.B. — I find many songs need a key change, and many accompaniments are written in the same vein
Kerrigan and Lowdermilk; Kait Kerrigan (words) and Brian Lowdermilk (music); musicals include Henry and Mudge, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, Tales from the Bad Years, The Woman Upstairs, Wrong Number, The Freshman Experiment, Republic, Unbound, and Flash of Time; strong and appealing melodies, evocative accompaniments, superior sense of build and climax in the arc of a song, intricate rhythmic underlay; N.B. — printed music often has rhythmic notation that is non-standard, but new songbook from Hal Leonard has cleaned much of this up
Seth Bisen-Hersh; musicals include Love Quirks; extensive YouTube channel; multi-faceted artist, author, reality TV star; some witty comic numbers
Peter Mills; musicals include Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, The Taxi Cabaret and Lonely Rhymes, a contemporary comic song cycle; currently writing lyrics for Broadway-aimed The Honeymooners; elegant and sophistocated writing, wicked and witty word play, and beautifully presented music, both visually and aurally
Brett Macias; Webster University and NYU alum; composes to lyrics by Caroline Murphy; musicals include Tuesday, Fishing the Moon, and Beneath the Surface; intriguing and probing subject matter (rape, fighting the current of life, violence in our schools), and easily among the most social-commentary of the composers and writers in this list; Macias says that when he discovered that he could “do more for the art form by writing and building a musical from the ground up” (as opposed to pursuing acting), his path was clearly laid out in front of him; read a superior and lovingly-written introduction
Andrew Lippa; significant Broadway and off-Broadway successes include John & Jenn, Big Fish, The Wild Party, The Addams Family, and the rescoring of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown; a chameleon composer, capable of a pastiche of styles and genres, always careful with notation, clear with lyrics, and generous to the performer; songbook available from Hal Leonard, with some non-show-related songs
Jonathan Reid Gealt; multi-talented composer, performer, and screenwriter; check out the song cycle Forward; two albums available; his music has a strong following among top-line performers such as Kelli O’Hara, Matt Doyle, Kate Baldwin, and Titus Burgess
Tom Kitt; successes include Next to Normal, If/Then, and High Fidelity; and with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bring It On: the Musical; punchy and evocative music, with well-crafted rhythms, melodies that mean something, and a kaleidoscope of textural colors; engages in significant work as arranger and MD
Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell; Hunter is the playwright, with Jeff writing lyrics and music; shows include [title of show], Silence: the Musical, and Now. Here. This.; composes self-aware, stream-of-consciousness musicals that mock some conventions but are also incredibly entertaining and at times emotionally moving; N.B. — many songs are tough to excerpt because they are so specific to time/place/character; I suggest Now. Here. This. as the best show to look at for song study and audition cuts
Jeff Blumenkrantz; actor, composer, lyricist; musicals include Urban Cowboy; multiple Broadway stage appearances; songbook is available, as are single copies of many songs; honest and strong approaches to real life, with lots of humor, some wonderful moments of raw pathos, and powerful melodies; piano accompaniments are strong and lay beautifully under the fingers
Adam Gwon; one of the cleanest websites you’ll see!; shows include Ordinary Days, Cake Off, and The Boy Detective Fails; emotionally accessible, powerful sense of descriptive melody, lovingly written accompaniments; one of the most-awarded of post-millennial musical theatre composers, winning nearly every new musical theatre prize and recognition out there; a real fan of the current crop of Broadway stars
Goldrich and Heisler; composer Zina Goldrich and lyricist Marcy Heisler; music published by Hal Leonard; have composed for children’s theatre, including Dear Edwina; other musicals include Junie B. Jones and Adventures in Love; perhaps best-known for ‘Taylor, the Latte Boy’; among the most accessible of all the teams and composers on this list, with audience-pleasing melodies, clear story arcs, plenty of humor, and pianist-pleasing accompaniments
Ryan Scott Oliver; self-described “A composer-lyricist fashioning epic dramas, Gothic thrillers, and high-octane rock and roll into exhilarating new musicals.”; shows include 35MM, Darling, Jasper in Deadland, and We Foxes; songbook published by Hal Leonard; strong rock influences, more provocative subject matter, powerful sense of rhythm; Huffington Post said he “could very well be musical theater’s answer to an auteur filmmaker or a gothic novelist”
Timothy Huang; has more recently specialized in short musicals; shows include Peter and the Wall, The View From Here, and Costs of Living; here’s an interview with him; “I want them to respond to all of my shows: to question the way they, as members of this society, define what an American is.”; and check out this interview
And check out some other resources! —