BWW INTERVIEWS: Kerrigan and Falcone Honored With Kleban Awards
It's the time of year where the Theatre World celebrates the best of the best and special recognition is bestowed upon certain individuals for their work. No...I am not talking about the Tony Awards...although I know where I will be that evening. I talking about the 19th Annual Kleban Awards, which will be presented in a private ceremony on June 1st, 2009.
New Dramatists recently announced that this year's Kleban Award for the most promising musical theater lyricist has gone to Beth Falcone and the award for the most promising musical theater librettist has gone to Kait Kerrigan. The 2009 awards will be presented on June 1, 2009, (by invitation only) in a private ceremony at BMI. The Kleban Foundation was established in 1988 under the will of Edward L. Kleban, best known as the Tony® and Pulitzer Prize award winner for the musical A Chorus Line. The will made provision for two annual awards, each in the amount of $100,000 payable over two years, to be given to the most promising lyricist and librettist in American Musical Theater. The judges making the final determination this year were Sheldon Harnick (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning lyricist of Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello), twelve-time Grammy Award winning original cast recording producer Thomas Z. Shepard (Sweeney Todd, La Cage aux Folles, No No Nanette) and Emmy Award winning and Tony nominated playwright and screenwriter Sherman Yellen (The Rothschilds, Oh! Calcutta!).
"The Kleban Award is unique as it is bestowed not only on the merits of an artist's previous achievements, but for the promise of what they have to come," says Tony Award winner Richard Maltby, Jr., president of the Kleban Foundation. "For 19 years, this award has recognized nearly 50 gifted artists, some of whom have become recognized to be among the brightest talents that the American musical theatre has to offer."
Previous recipients of the annual Kleban Award include David Lindsay-Abaire (Shrek), Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last 5 Years), John Bucchino (A Catered Affair, It's Only Life), Gretchen Cryer (I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac), Michael Korie (Grey Gardens, Happiness), Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), Michael John LaChiusa (See What I Want To See, The Wild Party), Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid) and John Weidman (Road Show, Assassins).
Beth Falcone is the composer/lyricist for Wanda's World, recently seen at the 45th Street Theater, produced by Amas Musical Theatre in association with Terry Schnuck. With a book by Eric H. Weinberger and directed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Wanda's World earned a Drama Desk nomination as well as two Lucille Lortel nominations, including Best Musical. Wanda had its regional premier in Austin, TX with Zach Showstoppers this past January, and was recently optioned for a commercial New York run. Beth is a contributing composer/lyricist for Spongebob the Musical, Live!, currently in London, as well as for "Hats!" the Musical, now on National Tour. Her song "We Choose Love" was performed at the Pennsylvania Inaugural Gala celebration in Washington, DC, earning her a cherished place in the festivities. Beth is a member of the BMI Lehman-Engel Advanced Musical Theater Workshop and won the 2006 Harrington Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement. She was awarded a Dramatists Guild Musical Theater Fellowship in 2004-2005. Beth served as Associate Conductor for the Broadway run of Martin Short's show, Fame Becomes Me, and produced and musical directed Broadway for Obama, a benefit concert in Easton, PA, which featured over thirty Broadway performers who traveled to show their support for President Obama's campaign. She has also been musical director for the BMI and Dramatists Guild Showcases, as well as the Eugene O'Neill Summer Cabaret Conference. As a voice teacher, Beth has taught vocal technique for over ten years and is a proud member of the Voice Faculty at Circle in the Square Theater School in Manhattan. She holds a Double Masters Degree in Piano Performance and Conducting from Northwestern University.
Kait Kerrigan is a bookwriter, playwright, and lyricist based in New York City. Her musical Henry and Mudge, written with composer Brian Lowdermilk had an off-Broadway run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2006 and was commissioned by TheatreworksUSA. Since she and Lowdermilk began collaborating in 2002, they have also written The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, The Woman Upstairs, Wrong Number, Tales from the Bad Years, and a web-based musical called The Freshman Experiment. This season, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown received a developmental production at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, directed by Daniel Goldstein and produced by Beth Williams and Broadway Across America. "Say the Word," a song from the show, was performed by Miss New York (and second-runner-up) Leigh-Taylor Smith in the 2009 Miss America Pageant. This summer, their song cycle Tales from the Bad Years will be represented at the New Works Festival at Theatreworks in Palo Alto, CA. Kerrigan's musicals, as well as plays Imaginary Love and Transit, have been developed by the La Jolla Playhouse, Primary Stages, LArk Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, Perry-Mansfield New Works Festival, National Alliance of Musical Theater Conference, CAP21, and Goodspeed Opera House. She was awarded the Jonathan Larson Award for her lyrics and a 2004-2005 Dramatists Guild Fellowship. She is a member of the BMI Advanced Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, ASCAP, Dramatists Guild, and is a graduate of Barnard College. For more information visit www.kerrigan-lowdermilk.com.
I recently asked the two award winners about this honor and the road to their respective careers.
TJ: Congratulations to both of you on this wonderful honor. What does it mean to you to be recognized with the presentation of this award?
FALCONE: Thank you so much. The whole thing is overwhelming and very exciting. When I got the phone call, I cried, screamed, and jumped up and down! But what it means to me most of all is that I have a responsibility to use this gift wisely. A writer will always make time to write, but life often gets in the way. Now, I will have no excuses at all. This vote of confidence and investment in me is something I am taking very seriously.
KERRIGAN: It's really exciting to be recognized for your work. And it's incredibly rare that you get to win an award named for one of your favorite writers. I've been very lucky in that respect thus far in my career. But on a more practical level, I don't think I let myself realize how worried I was about money until suddenly, I didn't have to worry about it. And more than anything else, being freelance for as long as I have been, getting real health insurance is always difficult. It's incredibly expensive on an individual level and it's a constant concern of mine. I'm really grateful that I can afford to take care of that. And I'm excited to splurge on something my writing partner and I have been wanting to do for a while. It's the kind of thing we've talked about taking out a loan to do or raising money for.
TJ: Has it been a long journey for you to get to this point in your career?
FALCONE: Wow. Yes. The whole story is way more than you probably want to hear... I'll try to shorten it! I caught the bug for theater early. (I played Gretel in a high school production of "The Sound of Music" when I was five!).
In high school and college I wanted to be a concert pianist. I also played for numerous community and college Theater Productions, having caught the bug for theater early. When I graduated, Cedar Crest College gave me my first music director job. I dreamt of one day conducting on Broadway, but I had no idea how to go about that, so...
I applied to grad school (Northwestern) for piano and conducting, figuring those would be good skills to have. All throughout this time, I was writing songs and dreamt of performing as a singer/songwriter. I submitted a song to a song contest at NU (Niteskool Project) and was one of six chosen to do a professional recording, so I was encouraged. Then the Dean of NU's music department gave me the opportunity to write the music and lyrics for a children's musical produced by Northwestern's Summer Theater Festival. I found the process of writing for theater fascinating and very gratifying, though vastly more difficult than writing pop songs.
Eventually I played the piano for a show that toured the country for a while which brought me to Philadelphia, not far from where I grew up. The show closed early, so I moved back home with my father for what I thought would only be a few weeks. I had no idea what next or how I was going to make money. I felt lost... I wanted to be in NY, but I wasn't sure how to get there... no money, debt from school. I was so desperate that I even met with a Mary Kay representative who wanted to make me "one of the girls." I saw a future of knocking on doors and Tupperware parties. Yikes.
I finally found a church job, and when I heard that the Pennsylvania Youth Theater was looking for a voice teacher, I thought, 'I can do that!' (I had studied extensively while at NU and had made my living playing for voice studios.) I built a business teaching voice in PA, turned my bedroom into a studio, and saved money until I could get an apartment in NY. I stumbled on an amazing find in Weehawken, NJ... never even checked the paper. I just drove there, parked my car and asked people where they lived.
At first I was in PA four days a week, NY three. I auditioned for the BMI Workshop and attended every Monday. Then eventually it was three days in PA, four in NY, two and five, etc... That process began 12 years ago. I let my PA students know in September that this would be my last year, and some are graduating and going on to music and theater programs. Our final cabaret is May 31. So, as of June 1, 2009, I will be in New York full time. I now teach voice at Circle in the Square Theater School as well as privately in Manhattan, and I music direct for various projects... I will, with this award, be able to write and network 5 days a week and teach 2!
KERRIGAN: I've been writing since I was a little kid and I started writing musicals with my writing partner Brian Lowdermilk when I was a senior in college. Two years later we had our first workshop production and we've hardly had a moment to look up from the page since. I know that I've been really lucky in that way. It's definitely been a difficult journey but in the scheme of things, I don't think it's been particularly long. That said, many of my goals are still so far away from where I am right now that I imagine the journey will be a long one.
TJ: Who were some of your inspirations and how did they affect your choices?
KERRIGAN: I've always been inspired greatly by other genres. I was an English major in college and primarily studied modernism. I think that's made me really interested in trying to make the ordinary feel extraordinary. I think musicals are particularly good at elevating a story in that way. Some of my favorite bookwriters and playwrights are Lynn Ahrens and Gretchen Cryer - both of whom I've had the privilege of working with. I love Rodgers and Hammerstein so much, Kander and Ebb, and Hugh Wheeler's book for Sweeney Todd and Tony Kuschner's for Caroline or Change. And there are a lot of young writers who I think are doing incredible things both in theater and on television. I have to say, one of the most influential pieces of writing I've come across in the past couple years is The Wire - the superstructure blows my mind.
FALCONE: I have been inspired by so many great writers, but my first idol was Stephen Sondheim... I saw "Into the Woods" on Broadway (the first time) and was mesmerized by the wordplay, the double meanings and how the story worked on different levels. When I was writing my first children's musical at Northwestern, I read an interview with him, and he said he used a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary... my eyes were opened! So it's not cheating?! I immediately purchased both.
I have also always greatly admired the lyrics of Sheldon Harnick. They are so personal. They come from a real emotional place, always with such heart. "Do You Love Me?" for instance, is straightforward, economical, makes me laugh and then evokes a tear, all in just a few minutes. There is nothing there that doesn't absolutely need to be there... no more, no less.
TJ: When did you first know that this was going to be what you wanted to do in the creative process?
KERRIGAN: I really like writing lyrics and book together but book is really where my heart lies. I find lyric-writing very satisfying, but as a writer, I'm most interested in the structure of the story and in the ways in which you can move around a story - which is a lot of what bookwriting is about. I also think it's incredibly hard and I know it won't get easier, which I like. I hope that I get better at it and that it keeps presenting me with new challenges, but it's the kind of thing that can't ever be perfect. It can always be improved. I also write plays and I find the collaboration of bookwriting really helps balance the seclusion of playwriting.
FALCONE: My dad was a music teacher; my mother was an English teacher. At age three I remember saying that I wanted to be a musician to please my father and an author to please my mother. So maybe I knew even then?!
But I didn't get really serious about writing for theater until joining the BMI Workshop. It provided so much... a creative outlet, structure, deadlines, and a community of people who are really supportive of one another. If it weren't for the Workshop, "Wanda's World" wouldn't exist. I have learned so much there... I am thankful for all of the programs that encourage writers... BMI, The Dramatist's Guild Fellowship, Musical Mondays... It's important to celebrate every step in the process. That's what keeps you going!
TJ: Did you grow up in a musical environment?
KERRIGAN: Yes. How did you know? My grandmother is a piano teacher. My mom is a sculptor and her sister was a painter. My dad also plays the piano and so does his sister. Both my mom and dad were involved in the local theater community when I was very young and one of my first memories is watching Carousel from backstage. I didn't really know what it was about but I loved it. I started studying the violin when I was 3 and for a long time, I thought I'd want to become a professional violinist, but I liked theater and storytelling so much more than classical music.
FALCONE: My father was a music teacher in the public school system, and both my parents sang... in fact, they met in an opera workshop in Hot Springs, Arkansas! We had lots of musical things around the house... a piano, a pump organ, clarinet, violin, trumpet, tons of records, an old working Victrola... Playing the piano was my first love.
TJ: What has been the best advice you have received from anyone?
FALCONE: "Go where the doors are open." There was a time I was upset that my church wouldn't include a song I had written for a service. It meant so much to me at the time, and I took it very personally. I kept trying to beat down this door, which only succeeded in frustrating me and alienating the people around me. Then a mentor of mine said: "Go where the doors are open." I hadn't thought of that or even that there were other doors. That expanded my view, changed the way I thought about it. The song ended up being sung in concerts all over the place. It wasn't my original vision, but what happened was actually more comprehensive. Sometimes it is easy to focus on the one person or organization that is rejecting you or your work, but I try and remember that the response is reflective of their values and priorities, not mine. Sometimes they line up, and sometimes they don't. So I keep going, learn everything I can, continue to follow my instincts... and look for open doors.
KERRIGAN: Lynn Ahrens told us that at some point, you have to stop listening to your peers and even the people who you admire and write what you know is right. I think that's an incredibly important piece of advice for young writers. We get so much feedback and so much of it is from people we think the world of. You have to take what makes sense to you from what they say - what just clicks - and ignore everything else.
TJ: Are you currently working on any projects?
KERRIGAN: Brian and I just finished a developmental production of our show The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown and that will continue to move forward over the next year, but I don't think I'm allowed to talk about that too much. Suffice to say - it's very exciting and we're very happy about the direction it's going in. And we're doing a workshop of our song cycle Tales from the Bad Years at Theatreworks in Palo Alto in August. But normally, we have a lot more on our plate so we're looking for new projects. We have a couple ideas we're going to flesh out and see if there are any bites for them.
FALCONE: I have a couple of things brewing, but unfortunately nothing I can talk about just yet... "Wanda's World" is being optioned for a commercial run in NYC, though, and that is very exciting!
TJ: So will this award mean that more doors will open for you?
FALCONE: That is so hard to say. I know for sure that it will open the door of time... time to work on all of these ideas bubbling in my head... and I will be eternally grateful for that.
KERRIGAN: You never know exactly what's going to open a door and it's sort of my belief that you have to sort of pry doors open for yourself. I think this award will let me and my writing partner do that more effectively. More than anything, I think it gives you the opportunity to write with peace of mind - which is one of the most delicious things a writer can ask for.
Well, congratulations to both of these talented individuals from Broadwayworld.com and we will be looking forward to seeing your work in the future. For now, I am going to make my predictions for the Tony's this year and I would love to hear your predictions, so send me an email and let me know who your winners would be. Ciao and as always, theatre is my life!!