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Maury Yeston: Mentoring New Musicals with BMI Workshop

In a linoleum-floored room sits a Yamaha piano and 70 people in firm green chairs. Before them stand two musical theatre nerds, nervously downing bottles of water. They cross their fingers and begin to play. Their music, sweet and filled with witty-rhyme, is brand new. No one outside of this room has heard the fresh melody.  Their own private show-and-tell; dreaming that one day their music will burst beyond the small room and reach the masses.

A dream not as out-of-reach as one may think.

We are at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop.  A program with the soul purpose of fostering creativity in the art of musical theatre – and to provide the footing for composers and lyricists whose music may one day leap from the page and onto the stage. 

The BMI Workshop (located at 320 West 57th St.) was originally founded by Lehman Engel, credited as the first person to establish a discipline for writing theatre songs.  Anyone can learn the rules, but to learn them properly requires respect, discipline – and above all else – inspiration! BMI Musical Theatre Workshop not only teaches the art, but ignites a passion in its members to strive for their best amongst a group of equally-impassioned peers.

Today, Engel's principles of songwriting continue to be taught by his former-pupils, such as Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist Maury Yeston (Titanic, Nine).  BroadwayWorld.com News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, found an unforgettable opportunity to meet Yeston and observe one of his Advanced Musical Theatre Workshop classes.

"Back in the Stone Age before there were workshops, it was a very difficult idea to get into musical theatre," explained Yeston, "Normally, you would be a chorus girl or boy and write something. People would get their start as rehearsal pianists or dance assistants. Gradually someone would lend a hand…" For example, John Kander began as a dance-arranger for Gypsy. And legend, Stephen Sondheim, learned tools of the trade under the wing of Oscar Hammerstein.

But in a world where the shadows of Tin Pan Alley are drowned by the neon-lights of Times Square, how can someone hope to find their way when a single bad review (or a speeding taxi) can plow you down?

"What you get at the BMI Workshop is the rarest commodity in New York City: Friendly Criticism. People who genuinely root for you; and a chance to rewrite your work, try it again, and hone your craft," declared Yeston proudly. 

BMI is a safe-haven for tomorrow's Kander and Ebb, Sondheim or Webb.  The concept is far from far-fetched when considering the program's track-record!

Alumni include Academy Award-winner Alan Menken of The Little Mermaid and Andrew Lippa with his big-band blasts of The Wild Party. Song-writing team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty tested the waters with Once On This Island at BMI, beside the unique compositional-mathematics of Michael John LaChiusa. And satirist songster Gerard Alessandrini unveiled the first ideas of Forbidden Broadway, what is now celebrating 25 years off-Broadway!

Yeston recalled the day two bubbly students, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, plunked-out the scales of "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." Years later, the gay-puppets and love-sick monsters of Avenue Q took home the Tony. 

"We knew before anyone in the world knew!" exclaims Yeston, "When they played 'There's a Fine Fine Line,' we knew they had written a world-class beautiful pop ballad that was going to work on-stage. We just had this tingle. These writers were going to make it. We saw them blossom and dare to challenge themselves."

Yeston referenced Ed Kleban's acceptance speech after winning the Tony Award for Best Score for A Chorus Line: Kleban thanked his co-members of the BMI Music Theatre Workshop for showing him how "not to write a theatre song!" Of the things he wrote with Marvin Hamlisch that didn't work, Kleban learned why by trying-it-out among his friends at BMI.  

During a typical advanced workshop, composers and lyricists present new songs, followed by feedback from the workshop members and instructor.  Each day brings new discoveries and inspired conversation.  During this particular mid-evening class, Yeston discussed the differences between the structures of a play versus a musical.

"In a play, a man comes out and says something. Another man comes out and says something. And by the end of the night, we've learned something we didn't know," he explained, "In a musical, there is singing and dancing for two-hours, but you've got to know everything in 5 minutes.  Do it in those 5 minutes or you'll lose them.  A guy walks in, covers another guy's tie and bets he can't tell him the color of his tie.  Next, he points to a girl and bets he can take her to Havana…"  We smile, nodding in acknowledgement of the pivotal scene in Guys and Dolls.

Before the classmates presented their new material, Yeston explained their next week's assignment: There comes a moment in every good musical when a characteristic of the main-character reverses. Like the moment Henry Higgins says he has "grown accustom to her face."  It is penning this song he asks the class to undertake next week.

Not only does the BMI Music Theatre Workshop provide an occasion to write something, but also an automatic audience in the form of other writers – an audience that can tell someone more valuable information than any single person.

"Musical theatre is now a world-wide conversation," stated Yeston, who believes American can now honestly be accredited to have created two great forms: Jazz and Musical Theatre.

Yeston's enthusiasm and faith in this one-of-a-kind program is infectious. "BMI does all of this as a public service because those of us who are here, who care and love so much for the form of musical theatre, have benefited ourselves. It's so valuable that it must go on! For those out there in Minnesota who are reading about this on BroadwayWorld.com… Get on the train, bring a couple of songs, get in, wait tables and learn how to write a musical! It's here for you. You can do it!"

BMI workshops are free but require an application form and submission of material. Finalists are asked to audition these materials before the instructors. Students need not be BMI members.  For more information on BMI Musical Theatre Workshop visit www.BMI.com/theatre 

Photos: Maury Yeston (2006, by Walter McBride / Retna Ltd); Maury Yeston; Maury Yeston (2004, by Linda Lenzi)

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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)