AISLE SAY Special Feature

Part Two:

Reported by Frank Evans

It is a cold December afternoon as I sit and speak to Norma Grossman and Jean Banks, Directors of the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. As I begin the interview, Norma and I reminisce about the workshop's beginnings. Suddenly something hits the three of us and we sit in stunned amazement. If it weren't for the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, there wouldn't be a American Musical Theatre as we know it. There never would have been "A Chorus Line," or "Little Shop of Horrors." And there would be no new American Broadway musicals this season, no "Titanic," no "Ragtime."


If you look through the archive of show music recorded as the long playing record evolved, the name of Lehman Engel is inextricably linked. In the 1950's, when Goddard Lieberson decided to preserve the Rodgers and Hart scores that had gone unrecorded, he and Richard Rodgers. chose Broadway conductor Engel as musical director for a dazzling series of show albums. Engel conducted and Columbia released: "Babes in Arms," "The Boys from Syracuse," "On Your Toes" and "Pal Joey." The "Pal Joey" album was so well received that it led to a Broadway revival of the show which outran the original production.

Engel's New York career went back to the historic premiers of Mark Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" and over the years he served as composer Harold Rome's conductor ("Call Me Mister" "Fanny," "Destry Rides Again," "Gone With the Wind," "I Can Get It for You Wholesale") and Producer David Merrick's conductor ("Jamaica," "Take Me Along," "Do Re Mi"). He conducted the original Bernstein "Wonderful Town" as well as the television version (re-recorded in stereo) and prepared the definitive Columbia recording of "On The Town" before Maestro Bernstein decided to step in the day of the recording and conduct it himself. He was responsible for the first complete recordings of "Porgy and Bess," "Lady in the Dark", "Brigadoon," "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel". Some of Engel's other Broadway long runs included "Li'l Abner," "Golden Rainbow," "What Makes Sammy Run?" and Menotti's "The Consul" for which he received one of his two Tony Awards.

As a composer, Engel was responsible for eight chamber works, incidental music for the original production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," and incidental music for dozens of other Broadway plays as well as television's "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

(One Monday in 1980, Engel arrived at the workshop and announced to the class: "I just got my royalty statements from Columbia. Would you believe which recording of mine is selling best? Nelson Eddy in "The Desert Song." Nelson Eddy in "The Desert Song???" Well, there's no accounting for taste.")


In March of 1961, Engel was approached by then BMI vice president, Robert Sour (best known as writer of "Body and Soul" and "We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together") and BMI's Allan Becker. The two convinced Engel to start a workshop where he would teach principles of musical theatre writing to budding composers and lyricists. The classes would not charge tuition and would be open to any writer, whether their music was licensed by BMI or ASCAP, so long as s/he passed the strong scrutiny of Engel's eyes and ears.

The workshops would not only change Engel's life, but the face of the American Musical Theatre. Engel devised a curriculum in which his students would write songs from plays which he termed unadaptable for the musical stage. During the first year, Engel gave his class assignments to musicialize material from "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of Salesman," and "The Member of the Wedding"; and to devise a musical outline of "The Moon is Blue." The curriculum grew to include an intermediate and advanced class too, as well as a class devoted to the musical libretto. Engel traveled to teach classes in Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville and Toronto.

The results were astonishing. Under Engel, writers who came up through the workshop included composer Judd Woldin (Tony Award for "Raisin"), lyricist Ed Kleban (Tony and Pulitzer Prize for "A Chorus Line"), composer-lyricist Maury Yeston (Tony for "Nine", the forthcoming "Titanic"), Alan Menken & Howard Ashman (Outer Critics Award for "Little Shop," Oscars for "Little Mermaid, "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin"), Ellen Fitzhugh (Tony nomination for "Grind"), Richard Engquist and Raphael Crystal {Outer Critics Award, "Kuni Leml"), David Spencer (lyrics for Public Theatre "La Bohème", and WPA "Weird Romance" [collaborator: composer Alan Menken], Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Commendation Award winner for music and lyrics to Theatreworks/USA's YA version of "Phantom of the Opera") Gary William Friedman (Obie for "The Me Nobody Knows"), Gerard Allessandrini ("Forbidden Broadway"), Michael John LaChiusa (Gilman-Gonzalez-Falla award for "First Lady Suite" and "Hello Again"), Walter Edgar ("Skip") Kennon ("Herringbone," "Feathertop" and the forthcoming "Time and Again"), Clark Gesner ("You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"), Carol Hall ("The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas") and Patrick Cook & Frederick Fryer (the forthcoming "Captains Courageous"). To name a few. And Kris Kristoferson emerged from the Nashville workshop.

Even during radiation treatment for cancer at Sloan-Kettering, Engel continued to direct Workshop activities and produced his last in a long series of student showcases in the spring of 1982. Later that year he would die at home, having been cared for by three of his students, "Skip" Kennon, Ellen Fitzhugh and "Feathertop" librettist Bruce Peyton.


BMI unflinchingly continued its support for the workshop, but divided the duties which Engel had borne alone. The entire Workshop is currently overseen by Norma Grossman and Jean Banks; the first year class is now led by "Skip" Kennon, the second year by Richard Engquist and the advanced workshop by Maury Yeston. The librettists' workshop, originally led by the late Bruce Peyton, is now helmed by Broadway director, Susan H. Schulman ("The Secret Garden" and the vest-pocket "Sweeney Todd" revival). The current advisory committee also includes writers David Spencer, Patrick Cook and Annette Leisten. Before his death, composer-lyricist Ed Kleban was also an active force in shaping the new workshop.

BMI's tenacity has paid off in another wave of new writers: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty ("Once on This Island" and the upcoming "Ragtime"), Douglas J. Cohen ("No Way To Treat a Lady") and Andrew Lippa ("john & jen"). And new shows keep appearing from senior members.

For the balance of this article, I spoke with workshop committee members Richard Engquist and David Spencer and a new writer, now in her fourth year of the workshop, Beth Blatt.


Richard Engquist was nearly forty when he joined the workshop, hoping to revive a childhood dream to write for theatre. "Once I was a accepted as a member of the workshop, I discovered that I could write lyrics. Fortunately, Lehman' Engel liked me and encouraged me. Eventually I started writing shows."

His first show in New York was "Elizabeth and Essex" with music by Workshop alumnus Doug Katsaros (currently composing music for the cult animated TV favorite "The Tick") and a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble. The initial production starred Estelle Parsons and a revival by the York Theatre company featured opera star Evelyn Lear. "That experience was fascinating. I learned so much from Michael Stewart, who was a consummate professional but not an easy person. But on balance, I finally came to like him and love him.

"Later, I got connected with the Jewish Repertory Company and started writing with Raphael Crystal." Jewish Rep was the first home for "Kuni Leml" before its transfer to off-Broadway. In addition to winning four Outer Critics Circle Awards, the show was cited (and published) as one of the ten best plays of the 1984-85 season. "Kuni Leml" gives me tremendous joy to this day because it was the show where everything worked. The writing worked, the casting worked, people liked it and it's been done all over the country.

"As a teacher in the workshop, one has to look for the dreamers, look for talent and encourage and nurture. Out of five hundred people with talent, only a handful may end up with careers writing for the theatre, because talent isn't everything. Sometimes it's being in the right place at the right time, having the right show, having the right collaborator. But others may come through the workshop and work as conductors, coaches, arrangers or [prose] writers. Ethan Morden, for instance, is a wonderful writer about the theatre, but he wasn't a wonderful songwriter.

"I have an enormous storehouse of theatrical information and experience. I've come to a point in my career and life where I'm happy to pass on to others what I have acquired and that's what gives me joy."

Which is exactly what Lehman Engel would have said.


Composer-lyricist David Spencer's award-winning "The Phantom of the Opera" is on the first leg of two year-projected five year tour for Theatreworks/USA. He collaborated with composer Alan Menken on two shows, "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz", produced in Philadelphia and "Weird Romance" at the WPA, which is recorded on Columbia Records. He created new lyrics and libretto for the acclaimed Public Theatre Production of "La Bohème" starring Linda Ronstadt and directed by the late Wilford Leach. His New York debut was at the Westbeth Cabaret Theatre with the title song for "White Piano", composed for the show written by the late Christopher Adler (Richard Adler's son). The song was subsequently a highlight of the l98l BMI Showcase.

I asked David how he can maintain his equilibrium working in an industry where, as Engquist says, only a handful are actually working as writers.

"As long as I have something interesting to work on and know that I'm actively involved in a project, I can be reasonably content. It's when I'm not working, or when I'm waiting around for the material that I'm supposed to working on, that I go crazy."

Spencer first started serving the workshop as a scriptreader for the Librettist workshop. He co-produced the last major BMI Showcase with Engquist and currently serves as liaison between the scriptwriters' and songwriters' Workshops. With Maury Yeston preparing "Titanic" for Broadway, Spencer pinch hits as instructor for the Advanced group, alternating with Patrick Cook. He is currently working on two new projects, and will take on a third in late summer--yet another musical commissioned by TheatreWorks/USA.

"Over the Years, we may have evolved a more efficient and practical method of teaching musical theatre. But when Lehman died, we lost a father, a patriarch. As observed by Mark Glick, who didn't alas, continue in the biz, but was nonetheless one of the best writers of my first year class: Since Lehman wasn't a [competing] writer, he was never jealous of talent, only encouraging. And if you brought in a song that worked, you were only the second happiest person in the room. That's the legacy I try to pass on."


Lyricist Beth Blatt started writing songs when she was an actress on tour in Japan. Yagi Masao, a well known jazz writer and writer of the musical she was in, offered her an opportunity to write lyrics with him. They worked on jingles, television themes and eventually songs for two albums and a show produced in Tokyo.

She moved for a brief time to Hong Kong and then back to New York, resuming her acting career. But even when she was doing eight shows a week, she found she had excess energy, heard about the BMI workshop and decided to apply.

Once she was accepted into the Workshop, she started finding an new sharp focus to her writing, pop songs would not satisfy her creative output. She needed the rich vocabulary that theatre songs allow.

That was four years ago. Writing with composer Jennifer Giering, she is creating song landscapes that are experimental yet completely comprehensible to an intelligent audience. She is not a member of the Downtown, try-to-figure-out-what-I'm-doing school of musical theatre. Rather, she and Giering are gently bending the rules, aware of their obligation to entertain an audience, yet always keeping their audience on its toes.

"To You: A Cycle of Mistresses", originally written as a song cycle, is being expanded into a full length show. The work has won honors and will have a reading at Musical Theatre Works in January. "At The Met", another full length work, examines the life of a woman who discovers the world of painting as she tries to run her life from a telephone booth at the Metropolitan Museum.

What keeps Blatt going? "I love the writing. That in itself makes me intensely happy. Just that creative spark, when you find something that amuses you or touches you or when you've really captured something. Whether it makes you a million dollars or whether a million people hear it is almost irrelevant. Jenny comes from a slightly younger generation, who think they can revitalize the musical theatre. I believe the same thing, so if I start losing the faith, she bucks me up. I think that musical theatre has to find a new voice and that's what we're trying to do."


Unlike the ASCAP workshop, which puts unformed work in front of theatre professionals much in the hit-and-run manner of a faux backer's audition, BMI has created a safe haven where new work can be heard, developed and nurtured over time without dire consequences from the theatrical community at large.

When the workshop committee feels there is enough good work to warrant presentation, they produce the BMI Showcase, which draws serious attention of the theatrical Community. Recently, BMI started a program of In-House Cabarets (otherwise known, among some of the BMI faculty, as Smokers), hour long performances of new songs from all three workshops, which have generated a buzz in the theatre community. In addition, BMI has produced two programs of ten minute musicals in association with Arts and Artists at St. Paul's. And a joint program to develop full musicals, an exclusive arrangement with the Goodspeed Opera House, is currently in the works.

Lehman is gone. But somehow, he keeps having these children...

The BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. 320 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, Jean Banks, Senior Director; Norma Grossman, Director. For further information, contact Norma Grossman (212) 830-2515.

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