Feature: Hilarious Musical Theater Game Show TUNE IN TIME Showcases New York's Talented Young Songwriters and Composers at the York Theatre

By: Nov. 07, 2015

Question: Would you buy an orchestra ticket (or any ticket for that matter) to an experimental Broadway musical called The Sweaty Smorgasbord where the 11 o'clock number is "Supper Sings Tonight?" How about checking out a derivative Jason Robert Brown musical titled The Gassy Breakthrough, where the song "Too Soon" is about whether the protagonist should fart on the first date? Here's one that potential musical theater show investors would love: A new Disney style musical called The Sticky Snake.

Of course these aren't real or even prospective Broadway musicals. They are ideas that have emerged from the creative minds of some young composers and lyricists who might very well have their musicals gracing Broadway theaters some day. But in the meantime they have been conjuring up these wild concepts in Tune In Time, a musical theater game show staged semi-regularly at The York Theatre Company on East 54th Street (the next installment will be on Monday, November 9 at 7:30 pm) that could have been created by some hybrid of Chuck Barris (of The Gong Show fame) and Mel Brooks. As the show's creators and producers Amy Engelhardt and Heather Shields are fond of promoting about Tune In Time, "Anything goes . . . and usually does."

Here's how this wonderful yet wacky "Musical Theater Olympics," as the producers call it, works: Three teams of composers and lyricists who have never worked together are forced to collaborate (in some shows actual songwriting teams are broken up in a sort of composer partner swapping) and they are tasked with writing a song for a new Broadway musical--the title of which is picked from audience suggestions of random nouns and adjectives--and in a style determined by a spin of the "Dreaded Genre Wheel" (as in Sondheim, Jazz, Disney, Opera, etc).

But here's the kicker: These new teams must write their song in just 20 minutes. Talk about trying to beat the clock. Elton John is famous for writing songs in less than 30 minutes but he's working off lyrics from Bernie Taupin. These would-be Rodgers and Hammersteins have to come up with music AND lyrics to what are basically nonsense concepts. Good luck. Rosters of musical theater composers and lyricists, as well as a panel of celebrity judges, determine the winners (a recent group of judges was actually made up of Broadway kid actors). The prizes? Would you believe $10 gift cards at Duane Reade? Hey struggling songwriters can use all the cheap munchies they can get. "I actually bought a lot of Excedrin with my gift card," reveals Joe Kinosian (Composer/Librettist of a show called Murder for Two), part of the songwriting team that took the prize last August. "I'll be using it the next time I'm asked to write a whole song in 20 minutes with an audience watching,"

But what makes Tune In Time (TIT, sorry) much more than just musical theater egg-headedness--and such a hoot--are the hijinks and hilarity that ensues while the teams are off brainstorming, thanks to the ditsy blonde and statuesque host Emily McNamara (right in photo right), playful Musical Director Nate Buccieri (who can come up with an appropriately zany impromtu song on a dime), and the "resident lesbian" timekeeper Sheila Head, who attempts--sometimes in vain--to keep McNamara's stream of consciousness riffs reigned in and things on schedule. There's even a funny and clever Tune In Time theme song, as well as the sprightly and educational "Songs In a Musical" (both composed by Engelhardt) that McNamara and Buccieri duet on periodically through the festivities.

Artistic Producer Engelhardt and Managing Producer Shields came up with the concept for Tune In Time in 2013 and launched it in Spring 2014 with four shows at Stage 72 on West 72nd Street. Engelhardt is a singer, songwriter and musical theater composer herself, and between 1998 and 2011 she was the sole female member of the Grammy-nominated vocal "band without instruments" The Bobs. Shields is a former singer, actress, and improv performer who in 2013 picked up a Masters in Arts Administration from Columbia University and recently was Executive Producer for a show in the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

"Tune In Time is like a Valentine to the art of musical theatre, which is the most collaborative of American art forms," says Engelhardt. "In fact, TIT is a hybrid itself--there are great timed-challenge shows, great improvised shows, and great musical theatre writer showcases [like those at 54 Below]. I wanted to create a show that combined elements of all of those but that was specifically about the art of musical theater without it feeling like it was just for musical theater geeks."

Engelhardt (left) found a more than willing collaborator in Shields (below), whom she met at Columbia. "When Amy first came to me with the original concept for TIT, it was a much different show than we have now at the York," says Shields. "We worked hard to make it not only an old school kind of game show but the kind of show that would also appeal to both up and coming musical theater artists and audiences. It would be cool to play the game with Rogers and Hammerstein, sure, but the idea is to give a playful platform for artists that have something new to give and audiences that want to be a part of something new and who are excited to be on the cutting edge of what musical theater has to offer."

After the show's Spring 2014 debut, the producing team moved it over to the York Theater for four more 2014 shows. The York's Producing Artistic Director James Morgan had scouted it at Stage 72 and was instantly charmed. "I thought it was a unique pairing of wacky entertainment and something that's a big part of our mission at the York," explains Morgan, "namely supporting and showcasing emerging musical theater writers. Tune In Time was attracting a young audience, something that is always good, yet I saw that it could also appeal to an older audience. And I feel it is doing both. All sorts of people have come to see it and have had a great time, and are returning for second and third times." The York presented five shows between February and August of 2015 and a new season begins on November 9 (see info on participants and judges at end of this piece).

Engelhardt and Shields don't seem to have much problem corralling TIT game show contestants or judges. "Are you kidding?" laughs Engelhardt. "This is New York City. This is where musical theater lives. I can't imagine doing this on a regular basis in any other city in the world."

Last year, one of the more prominent judges was wunderkind musical theater composer and 2014 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Award winner Joe Iconis (Bloodsong of Love, The Black Suits, Be More Chill, among others). Before his appearance, Iconis told BWW he was attracted to the very fun notion of the concept. "I like the idea of pitting songwriters against each other in a fight to the death," Iconis joked. "I don't think that Tune In Time goes that far, but it's a step in the right direction. Seriously, though, there is incredible songwriting talent in New York and it's very inspiring to be part of a community that is as active and vocal as the songwriting community in NYC. I'm as inspired by the writers I love as I am by the ones I hate. That mixture of jealousy, admiration, and disgust motivates me hugely."

Once Iconis served his time as a TIT judge last March, he was again singing that appreciative tune. "I thought the night was surprisingly wonderful," he said. "I say 'Surprisingly' because I've been to many of these 'writing songs on the spot' events and they are normally embarrassing, insufferable, and generally painful to sit through. But TIT feels like a fully realized weirdo variety show that happens to involve talented songwriters making up stuff on the spot. I like the playfulness of the whole thing and the fact that they've got a sense of humor about it all. Also, there's free wine. The only thing that would make it better is nudity."

While it's clear from the audience perspective that TIT songwriter participants are having a ball, a modicum of creative-type stress is also obvious. Trying to write a winning song for a fictional musical in less than a half hour is something to be taken seriously.

"I had seen Tune In Time several times before I competed because a lot of my friends from the BMI Songwriter's Workshop had played the game," says composer/lyricist Christiana Cole (The Piglets--A New Musical) who, with songwriting partner for a night Joe Kinosian (between Emily McNamara and Christiana in photo, right) wrote--and also sang--the winning tune in August, "Supper Sings Tonight" from The Sweaty Smorgasbord, which with Kinosian at the piano sounded sort of like a spastic opera. "I knew right away that TIT was up my alley," continues Cole, "because I'm super competitive and I love a good deadline. And there's no better deadline than having to write something immediately. I started training as soon as I was a confirmed contestant. Every night during August, I would drink several glasses of cheap wine and then attempt to write a musical theatre song. The training clearly paid off. I also gained a little weight, which gave me an advantage in the wrestling portion of the show."

The writing team of Erik Jareth Ransom (composer/librettist for Grindr: The Opera) and Clare Cooper (composer of How To Marry A Divorced Man and a regular piano bar keyboard player/singer at the Don't Tell Mama cabaret) finished second to the Cole/Kinosian team with their operetta, The Galavanting Rocketship. Cooper was thrilled to be part of TIT but admits to being as nervous as a actor on an audition. "Write a song in 15 minutes?" she asks. "Come up with spontaneous funny answers to random questions? And during our week for a panel of judges who were all under 15? But Nate Buccieri assured me that it was all about having fun, and he was right. And Emily McNamara is a force of nature. I got to meet some truly amazing people and it was a blast; as entertaining for the participants as for the audience."

In addition to the inspired winning songs mentioned at the top, some other gift certificate honorees that came from the fevered brains of various songwriting participants included: "Retweeter," a tune from the disco-era musical, The Capricious Hashtag; "Kiss Her" from the Jason Robert Brown tinged, The Slighted Hickey; the title song from a fictional 1950s-'60s throwback musical, The High-Octane Chola; a duet from the mock operetta, The Moist Aardvark; and a song from the historic epic, The Hairy Ebola.

Is there a Tune In Time winning show that could conceivably make it to Broadway?

"The one I'd love to see staged is one of the winners from our development run at Stage 72," says Engelhardt. "It was written by Erik Jareth Ransom [a two-time TIT champ] and lyricist David Ingber and it's called The Relaxed Pickle." Composed in double entendre style, no doubt.

The next installment of Tune In Time will be presented on Monday, November 9 at 7:30 pm at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's (Citicorp Building, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue). Featured participants will be lyricists Meghan Kelleher (songwriter), Sukari Jones (Location, Location, Location!!!), and Kathleen Wrinn (Ten: The Story of Grace and Joe), and composers Bobby Cronin (Unlucky in Love, 2014 NEO writer at the York), Andy Roninson (creator of the podcast Take a Ten Musicals), and Adam Spiegel (Cloned! and a returning TIT champion).

The panel of illustrious celebrity judges will feature three members of the original cast of AVENUE Q: Tony Award nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jordan Gelber, and Ann Harada (photo left). In May of 2000, the York played host to the very first readings of the original version of Avenue Q, then subtitled "Children's Television for Twenty- Somethings." D'Abruzzo and Harada have been with the show since those performances, and the role Gelber would later play was essayed by future Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey.

General Admission tickets for TIT are $20 and can be purchased online at www.yorktheatre.com, or by visiting the York Theatre Company Box Office (Citicorp Building, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue), or by calling the Box Office at (212) 935-5820 during regular business hours (Monday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm).


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