Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar have emerged as two of the busiest new voices in musical theatre. Their New York appearances include Lincoln Center’s Future Songbook Series, Broadway Unlocked, Cutting Edge Composers and more; plus sold-out concerts at Rockwood Music Hall, 54 Below, New Voices at Seattle Rep and Broadway Au Carré in Paris, France. Most recently the team was in residence at Goodspeed’s 2014 Johnny Mercer Songwriting Project. Their musical Five Points, which has been workshopped at Music Theatre Factory and The Labyrinth Theatre Co, is a finalist for the 2016 New American Musical Award. We talk about collaborating while doing 8 shows a week on Broadway, being true to their voices and what’s next.
How did your collaboration form?
Ethan: We were both on tour with the First National tour of The Book of Mormon, I was the guitarist and he was one of the actors. We started hanging out and jam and we recognized we were doing something that was exciting to both of us so we decided to pursue it more seriously.
What was the first thing you wrote together?
Douglas: “Who I Am.” We were in tech in Denver and in our hotel room, I wrote down some lyrics on a hotel pad. We would meet up, work on it a little bit, then take a break. It was very informal, especially the first six months. We would meet between shows in a hallway and jam for a little bit.
What made you guys want to make it less informal and something to take seriously?
Douglas: I challenged him, because we had written four or five songs, to do an EP. I was leaving the tour around the time we started that. We raised some money and made it a whole album with 11 songs. When you’re excited about something, you want to pursue it. As we continued, we became more excited about it. We played one of the songs for our castmates and the whole cast was singing along, so that was cool.
How are you juggling being writers right now when you are both working in Broadway shows?
Ethan: It’s tough. It’s not easy but you do it because you know it will be worth it. Work now, play later.
Douglas: We’ve also learned to work together when we are both passionate about something. Polkadots: the Cool Kids Musical is my other show, he didn’t write it with me, but he did the orchestrations for it. We figure out a way to work together even when it’s not “our” project.
Ethan: It’s exciting and fresh every time. We are in a routine and holding ourselves accountable to working together once a week is a good thing.
Douglas: It’s healthy that way so we don’t burn out. That and we take care of each other. We aren’t just writing partners, we are friends. We check in on how real life is going, not just writing life.
Why do you write? What do you have to say in your work?
Douglas: Other people are doing what we are doing, I just don’t think they’re doing it in the theatre. We have a crazy mix of sound. R&B, gospel, classical…it’s a mosh pit of sound. We want the world to know musical theatre doesn’t have to sound like one certain thing. When we started writing Five Points, there’s an entire Irish and Negro community in the story, and we were writing what we thought the 1863 Irish music would sound like. But, we are now back to our sound, on top of what 1863 Lower Manhattan would’ve sounded like, which are two different sounds, but I think encouraging the artform to open itself to various styles is what we need to do.
Ethan: When people say, “Write what you know,” it doesn’t mean write about your life. It means to write about the emotions you have felt through the characters. Love, sadness, feeling left out, it doesn’t mean writing my version of that, but it’s about writing that feeling into these characters. It’s a matter of expression and technique. We are always working on our technique and if you do that well, hopefully people will recognize it.
Douglas: We are doing a workshop this week and we are doing a concert presentation of Five Points in Philadelphia in the fall. The boat has started and we have paddles, but we don’t have an engine yet. We are still paddling this ‘Lyons and Pakchar’ thing but we are having so much fun.
Interview by Ryan Brinson
Photography by Christopher Boudewyns
Douglas Lyons, who tackles lyrics and music, is currently in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway. His other credits include Pageant, The Book of Mormon Broadway/1st Nat’l & tours of Dreamgirls and Rent. Douglas’s originally conceived musical Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, inspired by the stories of Ruby Bridges and The Little Rock 9, is getting multiple productions all over the country in 2016.
Ethan Pakchar, who crafts music and orchestration has played for the Broadway/ Off-Broadways productions of Hamilton,Wicked, Book of Mormon, Kinky Boots, Invisible Thread and more.