Review: Green Room 42 Boasts a Rainbow of Musical Colors from BMI's NEW WRITERS

Student composers and lyricists present polished work

By: Mar. 03, 2024
Review: Green Room 42 Boasts a Rainbow of Musical Colors from BMI's NEW WRITERS
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New musical theatre songs are born every day.  Well, not “born” so much as “made.”  And, hopefully made with care.  It’s a craft. To create good, solid, entertaining music and lyrics takes talent, and tools. I grabbed a chance to attend a presentation of some new work by those instructed in structure, practicing the principles, and fine-tuning their tunes.

“Songwriting is kind of like a craft.  It’s not something that just comes in a dream.  You’ve got to work at it.”  That’s an observation of Sean Lennon who likely gleaned some of that from being the son of tunesmith John Lennon, who should know.  Stephen Sondheim gave a character these lines to ponder about creativity: “Where is style? Where is skill? Where is forethought? Where’s discretion of the heart? Where’s passion in the art? Where is craft?” As a teenager interested in writing, he was mentored by one of the giants of musical theatre, neighbor Oscar Hammerstein.  But what do you do when you want to learn and don’t happen to be lucky enough to have a dad or a guy on your block like that?  There are books with tips and interviews that pick the brains of successful writers and then there are classes and groups where one gets guidance and feedback on early efforts.  One such source is the program that began 63 years ago by prolific Broadway conductor/music director/composer/author Lehman Engel: the BMI Workshop.  A February evening found a cluster of current enrollees of the program sharing their songs at the Green Room 42, although the event was set up and presented  independently by the students, not in any way directly affiliated with or produced by BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.). 

Throughout the night, the students showed talent and much mutual support, cheering for each other, and some would make later appearances to sing another writer’s work or play the piano accompaniment for a colleague. Some sang/played their own pieces, others enlisted fellow students to perform them. While the focus was on the material, one couldn’t help being just as impressed (or more, at times) by the vocal abilities or piano chops or or sharper characterizations and stage presence that made some creations come more fully alive. (Full credits below.)

The program got off to a spiffy start with the laugh-out-loud “It Was Just So…”  It was about a tongue-tied situation that the audience related to big time, judging by the laughter of recognition: What do you say to a friend, without being truly honest, right after the dreadful performance you just suffered through? It was a great start, but might have served the night better as needed comic relief later, as respite to break up between heavier fare of poignant sincerity and earnest drama.  Those with “charm songs” meant to be sweetly amusing were, rightly so, aiming for smile-inducement, not gunning for guffaws.  “It Was So…” works as a stand-alone number, not relying on listeners having familiarity with the plot and people of a story. Enthused and genial host Nate Garner kept things going with the sparkle and spunk of personality, plus helpful commentary about the BMI program.  

The evening, titled New Writers, was billed as a “Song Assignment Showcase,” demonstrating the fruits of the labors of the composers and lyricists, specifically tasked to such challenges as: writing a love song without the word “love” in the lyric; a piece rich with subtext so that the character is not singing of actual feelings; and material that they’d create if musicalizing certain older properties.  It’s interesting to hear the wide variety of approaches to what a song might be appropriate and illuminating for the iconic character of Blanche in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The strikingly different proposed pieces, each a justifiable choice for the moment and mood at hand for the fragile woman who has much lurking below the ladylike, seemingly self-satisfied surface, were titled “Back in Belle Reve,” “Teeth,” and “Ruin.”  (Some readers may know the opera version of this by Philip Littell and Andre Previn and others will smile remembering the episode of “The Simpsons” with bits of intentionally ludicrous, lame songs from a community theatre musical version.)  Other pre-existing source material plumbed for hypothetical musical treatment included Intimate Apparel, The Sisters Rosensweig, and The Half of It, a recent film inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac.

Folks in the very full room were attentive and appreciative and applause-happy.

The evening featured songs written by Sair Kaufman* & Alex Ngo; Polly Hilton* & Adam Rothenberg*; Anna DeNoia* & TJ Rubin; Ginny Mohler & J Quinton Johnson; Ginny Mohler* & Adam Rothenberg; Anna DeNoia* & Andrew Underberg; Artemis Montague* & Abram Foster; RJ Christian* & George Luton*; Andrea J. Love* & Ammon Taylor; Pance Pony* & Sam Sultan; John-Alexander Sakelos* & Noah Weisbart*; RJ Christian* & Jack Lipson; Brenda Withers* & Simon Broucke; Mark-Eugene Garcia & Andrew Underberg; Jessica Wu & J Quinton Johnson; Ginny Mohler & Chris Blacker; Cassidy Dermott* & Amanda Ekery; Rachel Aberman & Connor Marsh*; Diallo Adams & Ernie Bird*; Anna DeNoia* & Emily Johnson-Erday*

*Indicates someone who also sang his/her co-written number. 

For more information about BMI, visit their website.

Visit the Green Room 42 online to find more great shows.