Interview: John Riley Talks Law, Lyrics, and His New Musical A GIRL I KNOW

The lawyer-turned-musical theatre writer discusses his career, writing, and more

By: Jun. 21, 2022
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Interview: John Riley Talks Law, Lyrics, and His New Musical A GIRL I KNOW

John Riley is a man of many talents. He is a pianist who worked as a lawyer in Korea for more than 13 years and is now a musical theater writer. The musical, A Girl I Know recently had a concert at Feinstein's/54 Below in February and is currently holding staged industry readings this week with top Broadway stars, including Roe Hartrampf (Diana), Chloe Lowery (Rocktopia), Sean Thompson (Sunset Boulevard), and Stephanie Lynne Mason (Fiddler on the Roof). If you're in the industry, you can RSVP for seats here.

We spoke with Riley about his career, writing musicals, and what the audience can expect about his latest, A Girl I Know.

Your background is fascinating. How does a pianist, turned lawyer, turned composer of musical make it all work and get to this point in his career?

The simple answer is I have been very fortunate to work with extremely talented people and therefore trust the collaborative process enough to stay in my lane. In law school, I remember learning that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, and I believe this applies to my musical theatre writing as well. I can only write songs based on what I feel in the moment and my life experiences with a vague storyline or basic idea for a lyric. That's it. If I didn't work with other talented people, all I would have are a bunch of half-finished piano recordings.

Can you talk more about this collaborative process?

My writing partner, Kate Queen, takes my basic ideas and adds meaning with her lyrics, not to mention creating great characters and a story that weaves the songs together as a whole. We go back and forth with ideas, working hard but also having a lot of fun. Knowing that she will give me something great makes me want to do the same, so this process naturally motivates me.

It's the same with my music partner, Yves Matar, who adds color and depth to the songs by transforming what I write on piano and translating that into sublime orchestrations. My ideas give him ideas, and his ideas give me better ideas, and so on. Every draft or revision gets better, and most songs go through many revisions before finalizing.

The first two singers I collaborated with extensively and who did all of my original recordings, Jonathan Roxmouth and Lena Chung, not only gave life to the songs through their incredible voices and interpretations, but they also taught me a tremendous amount about how to write for the voice. I'm only a pianist (and not even a good one anymore). If they hadn't lent their voices or been willing to share their expertise, I simply would have remained ignorant about what the voice can do and how to write for it. I had a lot of fun and learned a tremendous amount every single time we worked together.

I am also really grateful to have worked with great engineers to capture, mix, and master the recordings. This allowed us to go back and listen to all of the minute details, revising the songs as necessary to get the best final product.

Since coming to New York, this collaborative process has continued to deepen and enhance my work and made it possible to be at the stage we are at now. Our show's director, Jamibeth Margolis, has not only taught me how to stage the production, but also all of the technicalities of producing a show in New York. The cast of the show (Roe Hartrampf, Chloe Lowery, Sean Thompson, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Maria Lawson, and Michael Patrick Ryan) are not only insanely talented actors and musicians who bring the characters and music to life, but they are the epitome of professional excellence, and I am really grateful to be able to work with all of them. Again, it's a lot of work but it's also fun and hilarious to work on a show like this together.

In short, it's really clear to me that the main reason I was able to get to this point is that I was fortunate enough to work with great people. That's not to say that I don't put in a ton of effort myself. I do. I would do anything to make the show better. It's all subject to criticism and change. It also doesn't mean that good relationship are easy to cultivate. They're not. It takes a lot of time and effort to build trust with people and make them want to work with you, especially when you are working with people at the top of their professions. People disagree and have strong opinions. I don't always see things the same way, but at the end of the day, it's the synergy between the people I work with, the fun, the back and forth, as well as the individual and group efforts that carried me to this point. The people are everything.

Did you always know you would come back to music? Was that always the plan even during law school?

I never thought I would come back to music after going to law school. Once I became a lawyer, I stopped playing piano for many years, but a couple of major turning points brought me back. The first was when a friend invited me to a rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic which was touring at the time. I distinctly remember the fun and joy the musicians were having on stage and, honestly, I was really jealous that they were able to have a career doing what they loved to do because I didn't feel that intrinsic value as a lawyer.

I didn't know exactly how to get back into music, so I just started playing simple songs I liked or improvising after work or on the weekends. If a tune stuck in my head for several days in a row, I would record it on my phone. This process continued for a couple of years at which point I had maybe 30-40 songs, some with lyrics or stories for lyrics, some without.

The second major turning point happened during Covid. I was working in Korea at the time, and we had experienced a pretty severe wave of outbreaks and quarantines before it had spread to Europe and the US. For approximately four months we were living in isolation and I, like many people, became depressed, angry, fearful, and a bit hopeless about the future.

Fortunately, I had someone in my life who wouldn't put up with my negative thinking about the situation and talked me into making a bucket list of things I wanted to accomplish in my life. One of the things I wrote on that list was to write a musical. I don't know exactly why I wrote this. I guess it was partly because I had a lot of song ideas at the time but nothing connecting them together. I also really loved teaching my law students how to tell stories as part of their trial advocacy training. So perhaps writing musical theatre fulfilled those two natural desires.

In any event, in late spring 2020, Korea came out of its first wave of Covid and began opening larger public venues that had been shut. At the time, Phantom of the Opera World Tour had just opened in Seoul, which I believe was one of the only large shows playing in the world. I went to see the show in a theatre of full of perhaps 2000 people after months of home isolation. Just being around that many people was surreal, to say the least. I can't describe in words exactly how I felt or how powerful the performances I saw that day were other than to say it was the reason I decided to begin the process of writing my first musical. I really wanted to create something that would inspire others the way I was inspired that day.

A Girl I Know is a musical about a female sociopath who kills men. What was it like to write music for such a production?

The story is so fun and dark but a bit extreme, which made us want to keep the music and lyrics very grounded in real emotions that everyone could relate to. While our beloved sociopath might not have emotions, she does have thoughts and connections that make her less of a monster than one might originally think. As such, we tried to use the music and lyrics as an opportunity to showcase that commonality and authenticity because ultimately, she's the one we're rooting for.

What is the best thing about creating music and lyrics for a show like this or any show?

As I mentioned before, I love the collaborative process. I mean, who wouldn't love working with extremely talented writers, musicians, actors, directors, and professionals? It's like Christmas every day when someone shares their gifts with you.

What can your audience expect from you in the future? Any other projects in the works you can share?

I think they can expect to see A Girl I Know on Broadway very soon. The story really is a lot of fun. It's also dark, and emotional and mixes well with the music which has an early 2000's Broadway vibe and is a mix of classical, jazz, and rock influences. It's the kind of musical I would want to see, and I think it will have a broad appeal to a New York audience. I expect we will also open the show in Seoul shortly thereafter, as we have already translated and localized the book and have an amazing group of people in both cities to produce the show.

Kate and I also wrote a second musical called Crazy Love which is about breaking up with your first love. We recently completed the book and orchestrations and will be workshopping the show later this year, which I am really excited about