New voices are the bedrock Broadway is built on and while shows like Hamilton are making waves on the world’s biggest stage, a new generation of lyricists and composers are crafting the songs that audiences in the near future will be leaving the theater humming. We talk with Andre Catrini, David Reiser, and the songwriting duo of Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar about the struggle of getting a foot in the door within the industry, how social media has changed the game for emerging writers, and how they overcome writer’s block.
Let’s start at the very root of the matter. Why do you write and why do you create?
David: Is it ridiculous to say because I want to? It’s something I wake up and find myself wanting to do. When I was acting, as much as I enjoyed it when I got to do it, I didn’t find myself wanting to pursue my craft as much as I wanted to pursue writing. With writing, it feels like a joy to try to improve. I think if you want to make yourself better and you have fun working hard at something, that’s a good sign.
Andre: When I was a kid, all I ever did was listen to show tunes. I recognized all I wanted to do was make more of what I wanted to listen to. What I was so inspired by, I needed to contribute to that. Maybe there’s someone like me who will feels the same way as I did and my writing will help their trajectory.
Ethan: I think for me, I don’t like when people say “someone should write a story or a musical about this.” Instead of “someone should do this,” you should push yourself to write it. I want to write something that I’d want to see.
Douglas: Creating is a constant game-changer in that there are no rules. We can write what we want and we don’t need permission to do so. So many things in life we need permission and support for. In acting, you need permission for that job. To write a song, I don’t need anyone’s approval.
As men who are actively writing and pursuing careers in the theatre, tell me what your biggest struggle is as songwriters.
Douglas: From where I am right now, it’s getting people to read the scripts and take us seriously. Everyone is so busy, but at this level, we have to get people to take the time to hear the thing we’ve put so much into. As artists, we can think that once we’ve created it, the world is just going to embrace it. But you have to push it and get it in front of people.
David: For me it’s about going from good to great; going from compelling to unavoidable. It’s the difference between crafting something that is good work and crafting something people can’t help but listen to. That final step is a really hard step and it’s why we keep working at it. There are so many people in New York who are doing good work and you have to get yourself to the highest place you can reach.
Andre: In terms of craft and process, I caught the bug of not being able to write stand-alone songs anymore, after doing that for so long, because I just want to write full shows. For me, the hardest thing is the initial idea. Not of the song, but of the project. It’s about finding that thing you want to invest that amount of time into and then after working on it for a while, it’s about rewriting. When your work has to change, which almost everything does in one way or another, finding a new look or view through the same window can be difficult. It takes a lot of patience and a lack of ego to do it successfully.
Ethan: The hardest thing for me in a collaboration is letting your collaborator’s vision come through as well as letting your own vision come through. That’s the hardest part but that’s always when you get the best product as well.
You mentioned wanting to write the music people can’t get out of their head. With shows that are runaway hits like Hamilton or Waitress this season, how does that challenge you?
Douglas: I’m glad it’s happening. I personally feel some musicians and composers have come before their time. What Cy Coleman did with The Life is what a lot of people are doing now and now it’s hip. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, but the greatness of these new shows is reminding show business that there’s a generation of writers that needs to be heard. They are pushing that door open so hopefully people of our esteem can tip-toe our way in and prove we are capable.
David: It opens doors for new writers. It’s hard to get your foot through the door initially. It’s nice to see when people who have come up through musical theatre originally can break through to that level.
Andre: With every success on Broadway, it brings attention to musical theatre as a legitimate form of entertainment and art, which does nothing but help us. Especially with social media as present as it is, the more people who are aware there’s good musical theatre going on, the more willing they might be to give us a shot. Also, when you look at the hits from the past year, the one thing that’s undeniable is that there’s no formula. Something like Hamilton couldn’t be more different than A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder. There’s beauty in knowing there doesn’t have to be a formula.
How has social media changed the industry of what you do as well as the way you approach what you do?
Ethan: For us, we have done an album and YouTube videos to compliment them. We had an article on Playbill and because of that, a producer reached out to us and is now involved in one of our shows we are writing. All because he saw an article somewhere, which happened because we’d be so active on YouTube. It’s a snowball effect.
Andre: I agree. On a personal level, I find it overwhelming, especially when you’re in the depths of the writing process. In the back of your mind, you know you should be posting a picture or a clip or tweeting about it. I was in rehearsals for a show in November and I had to keep reminding myself to put stuff out there, even though my brain wasn’t in that space. Today, it’s essential and you have to be a little pushy for people to know who you are and hear your voice.
Douglas: It’s my go-to. It’s the way I expose everything to people. I use Facebook like I’ve paid to be there and I post and create a following in that way. It’s gotten me productions, people have seen YouTube videos of shows and within months, it’s in production. It’s not even about personal things, it’s about business. It’s the people who are seen that are heard.
Andre: There are songs I wrote 8 years ago that, in retrospect, are awful. But they’re online and I can’t change the fact that they exist for anyone to see. My frustration is that my number one song of mine that sells is a song I really don’t care for. So I have to decide, do I pull it, do I take it down and remove the videos, or am I thankful that I make money every time someone buys it and that people are hearing my music at all. I think about that before I post anything.
David: It sets the tone. Everything you put out there starts to cultivate the idea of what type of creator you are. Casting directors are sending YouTube links to songs and writers so it’s important.
“I want to write something that I’d want to see.” – Ethan Pakchar
What do you do when you feel like you’ve got nothing to give? How do stave off writer’s block?
Andre: I run a writing group called Circle Songbook. We meet every Sunday night and the rule is that at the end of the meeting, you have to give yourself a deadline for the next Sunday. No matter what goes on that week, I know there’s a group of nine other people who are keeping me accountable and I have to share. I’m not very precious about keeping things private, I’ll show you my draft seconds after finishing it just so I can get outside of myself.
David: I try a different space, physically and mentally. I have to get into a different environment and when you have a deadline, putting yourself in a different world and change your point of view can jump start the process for you.
Ethan: I think when there’s trouble writing, for me that means it’s not what I’m supposed to be writing in that moment. If our book writer wants a song for a scene, and it’s not coming, that’s probably the project telling us it’s not coming naturally. It’s not about giving up, it’s about looking at why you’re stopped rather than just trying to start again just to get it done.
Douglas: I created this urgency of writing. We write in a nontraditional fashion in that we jam and get the melody first. I make it my business all the time to finish as quickly as I can. I call it the first burp, just getting it out and going back to it later to fix it. It’s like the technique of singing, you have to know how to hit that note. With writing, I have to know how to finish that song.
Andre: I like the concept of ‘the first burp.’ That’s a good way of putting it.
What are your hopes for the future of the art form?
Ethan: The thing that’s so great about Lin, and guys like him, is that they are creating works that are original, with great success, and people love it. I hope the hunger will be there to see new work as opposed to their old favorites.
David: I’m prone to listen to pop music in my headphones than musical theatre and I like the idea that original music from Broadway can and will be the music you listen to on a daily basis. Something that blows my mind musically. There are so many good stories to tell but it’s exciting with the new work that is out.
Douglas: There was a point where Broadway was the platform and I hope the new writers can have more opportunity so there isn’t a gap when our established writers pass on.
Andre: This season there are some heavy hitters but then we have some newbies along the way too which is really fantastic. I would hope that new writers remember they don’t have to be anything other than themselves. Let it be new because it came from you.
Douglas: I think today, people are writing for their show and not writing for the world. They are so concerned with the narrative that they sometimes forget it’s the score that stays with people. The older generation wrote for the world. “Seasons of Love,” that’s for the world. That’s a song that exists outside the Rent story.
David: Historically, musical theatre music was pop music. Richard Rogers is credited as saying, “They don’t go home humming the set.” It’s the music that stay with people when you go home. It’s exciting when music, regardless of the style, stays with you.
Andre: I’m aware of all of your music and at this table are three different distinct styles. There may be someone out there who writes like any one of us, but they don’t write just like us. I think that’s cool in this one day there’s this much variety.