Posted on June 11, 2006 at 9:29 pm

I have, in my time, been somewhat controversial (by the fairly boring standards of Broadway composers), and so I knew trouble was in the air when Melinda Saber asked:
What do you think of this year’s Tony noms?
but I did watch the show tonight, and I did say I would try to answer whatever you all asked, so rather than just doing my usual pontificating (since I always manage to offend someone I like when I do that), I decided I would respond by making three observations: 
1) The awards are set up in such a way that a lot of mediocre work has to be nominated, and that seems like a shame to me; I don’t think we’re really putting the best possible face on what professional theater can be.  The obvious response is that if the mediocre material weren’t nominated, there wouldn’t be any competition in a lot of categories.  Aha. 
2) All the advertising on the show tonight was for luxury goods or prescription drugs – the presumption being that the audience for the Tony Awards is an older, wealthier crowd.  I guess I could be wrong, but the sense I get these days is that those old, wealthy people are no longer the interesting audience; this show should be geared towards teenagers.  There are plenty of people in this world who watch a lot of television and would be excited to watch a t.v. show with Michael Cerveris and “The Wedding Singer” and Sutton Foster, and those people are sixteen years old, their parents have plenty of money, and they watch the Tony Awards and get really excited that Rebecca Luker is kissing Danny Burstein.  None of the advertisers targeted that group, and I think that’s a mistake, and it tells you a lot about what CBS thinks of the Broadway audience.  The folks that made “Wicked” a hit were not represented at all on the Tony Awards, and I bet they’re a little confused and pissed off about that.
3) They spend a lot of money putting this thing up at Radio City Music Hall, and they do a whole bunch of advertising and publicity, and all these plays and musicals say their lives depend on looking good on television.  So the question is: why is the Tony Awards telecast always such an embarrassing, cringe-inducing, amateurish, apologetic, under-rehearsed, ill-conceived, boring use of three extremely expensive hours of network television?   Nobody had a better idea to start the show than letting Harry Connick Jr. sing a lounge-act medley while SIXTY people stood behind him trying not to look uncomfortable?  Hal Prince has been involved in more than fifty Broadway productions, and the best tribute was to put a bunch of gypsies in old costumes while Howard McGillin sang for seventeen seconds?  Are you fucking kidding me?  
And that, my friends, is all I have to say about the Tonys this year.
(Well, I have one uncynical addition: I have a lot of friends and colleagues who won or were nominated this year, and it was really lovely to see them get their due, all of my carping above notwithstanding. So many of the people who were nominated are unbelievably talented creative artists, and it’s deeply gratifying to be able to watch them be acknowledged, even if it’s just a four-second shot of them in their chairs.)
Bryan Bird asks:
My question is this: is there something special or inherently musical about the key of B that draws so many Broadway composers to it? You seem to enjoy it as well, even if only for a few measures (e.g. Big News, Summer in Ohio). Is there some basis in music theory for why composers — it seems Broadway composers in particular — gravitate toward B (not to mention C-sharp, G-flat, and other fun keys)?
Or is this giant conspiracy all in my head and I only notice it because the five sharps present more of a challenge when playing the piano? Curse me and my classical training!

JRB responds:
I don’t want to say you’re out of your mind, but there are only three songs in my entire canon that are in the key of B: “Just One Step”, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” and “Music of Heaven.”  (“Summer in Ohio” was in B in Chicago, but the published score is in Bb.)  I move through a lot of keys in the course of any given song, but as a central tonality, I’m much more drawn to G or C than to B.  (I used to be an E-flat man, but I seem to have let that go over the years.)  There’s a certain amount of G-flat, I guess, especially in “Parade,” but I really don’t think I deliberately gravitate towards keys with a lot of accidentals.  Now, that Sondheim guy, HE likes keys with a lot of flats and sharps.  Not me.  Almost the entire score of “The Last Five Years” is in A, mostly because I knew it was a guitar-heavy score.  But honestly, I generally pick keys by looking at the vocal range – guys have comfortable top notes around F or G, belter girls live around C or D and sopranos are happy on E’s and F’s, so depending on what scale degree that high note comes in on in the song, I’ll base the key around that.
Duane Morrison asks:
Basically just asking if you’re going to be playing any other dates in NYC or that neck of the woods between the 15th and July 1. Don’t know my chances but can’t not ask…
JRB responds:
I don’t think so, I’m pretty much holed up in rehearsal and tech until August.
Ryan Touhey asks:
I’ve noticed in all your works you seem to love dissonance and in Parade especially there are those sequences where there are overlapping themes and melodies that are revisited throughout the show.  For example, at the end of “Come Up To My Office” where Leo’s part of the sequence is ending and the factory girls are coming back in with their earlier theme creates immense dissonance. Why did you use this method of overlap between two contrasting musical sections and what is it about dissonance that turns you on?
JRB responds:
Dissonance has many flavors and colors, and some dissonances are more aggressive than others.  Some dissonances are tonal, concerning themselves with pitch, and some are rhythmic.  I like the whole spectrum of dissonance, and every other composer with ears has a reasonable tolerance for a varying amount of dissonance except for hacks who are trying to impress Celine Dion.  (Even someone as pop-oriented as Frank Wildhorn wouldn’t write a song with no dissonance, since a suspended chord is a dissonance.)  I also happen to like consonance.  I think a better way to consider this is to use a different word: conflict.  All theater is about conflict, unless it’s very boring theater, and I am a theatrical composer, so sometimes I like the music to reflect the conflicts that are happening on stage.  Certainly in “Come Up To My Office,” there is a conflict between what the girls are saying and what Leo actually did, and it seemed like a natural illustration of that conflict to have the music crash into itself (the dissonances here are primarily rhythmic), much as the music crashes around throughout the show to illustrate the conflicts between ways of life, systems of belief, truth and myth.
Joey Lieber asks:
The question is, which is better to start with when composing, music, or lyrics?  Does it depend on the situation / whichever inspires you at the time?  And once you decide, how do you feel about fitting them together / making words line up with rhythms, putting rhymes in strategic places, etc. etc.?
JRB responds:
Every songwriter gets this question all the time.  Here’s an idea for a book proposal for one of you enterprising young authors out there: “Which Comes First?: Songwriters Talk About How They Work.”  Don’t expect a big advance, but I bet Applause Books would take you up on it.  Anyway, Joey, while I’m sure I’ve answered this on this site somewhere, the answer is that for me the situation comes first every time.  There must be story.  And from there, sometimes I’ll come up with a title, and I’ll let that lead me to a musical style, and then everything starts piling up until there’s a song.  But it doesn’t always work that way, sometimes I surprise myself by writing an entire melody before I even know what the song is about (“Nobody Needs To Know” happened that way).  The rest of your question is all about technique, which is a much longer answer than I can really give right now…
Alisa Ledyard asks:
I mean really… you write the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard…. one of them being “In This Room” (which I heard on your weblog). Any chance you’re going to release the sheet music to this? Or, you know, just send me a copy? 🙂  I realize this is a really special song to you, since you said you used it at your wedding, so I completely understand if you want to keep it somewhat private, but I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since I first heard it and I would really like to sing it with my friend next year.
JRB responds:
I’m sure if the demand is there, we’ll release the sheet music eventually, but the doors are not being blown open yet.  Keep your eye on this site over the next couple of years, we’ll see how things go in the music publishing department.
James Dummer asks:
A great big thank you for the new vocal selections. It’s brilliant to see a lot of new material available and not a rehash of what’s already available in your vocal selections. I love ‘Someone To Fall Back On’. A lot of the new material has bass parts written an octave lower, how close are the piano arrangements to what you play and how much influence do you have over the arrangements?
JRB responds:
I have a lot of influence over the arrangements since I wrote them.  I don’t know about putting anything deliberately an octave lower, it just might be that on the day I wrote that arrangement, that’s where I heard it.  I can be very meticulous about my piano parts, but I can also be very loose.  The arrangement I’m most disappointed in is “Nothing In Common,” which is close enough, I guess, but not as interesting or as colorful as what I played at the session.  But I’m very proud of “If I Told You Now,” even though it’s a lot different than the version on Lauren’s album.  Basically, the stuff from the shows is more precise than the stuff from the solo albums, and that’s because other people have had to play the songs from the shows and I’ve gotten to hear it in their hands and make adjustments based on that, whereas the solo songs have really only ever been played by me, so I don’t have a lot of outside perspective on them.
Heather Moss asks:
I am a very big fan of your work and have always wondered if you write pieces for performers who come to you for material. I know that you can commission works from different composers for events and charities and some will just write you a song that fits you for cabaret purposes for a certain dollar amount. I have always been interested in putting together a cabaret of more obscure works from shows that didn’t necessarily get the exposure they deserved, but it would also be wonderful to have a song that was mine. So I guess my question is: is this something you do or no, and if not are you familiar with other good writers who do?
JRB responds:
I think it’s a great idea for all solo performers to have songs that they can call their own, either because they commissioned them or they just found something no one else had found before.  But commissioning me is complicated: first of all, I’m so busy right now that I couldn’t fit in one more song if my mother needed it (all right, for my mother, I would do it); second of all, unless I was an enormous believer in your talent (and I don’t know you at all, obviously), the only reason for me to write a song for you is because it would make me a lot of money, and since you’re not a world-famous artist, the song probably isn’t going to become a big hit single or show up in the end credits of a movie, so now I’m writing a song that only you can sing that proportionately not many people will hear – that’s gonna cost you an awesome amount of money.  Buried in that sentence there is the main point: if I really think you’re astonishing and I feel like I have something amazing to contribute to what you do, then you don’t have to ask me twice, I’ll have the song written before the week is out, and you won’t have to pay me, I’ll be hiding in your closet begging you to sing it.  And I think that’s true of any composer you’d want to commission; we write our best work when we believe in what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with.  So stick around, stay out there, and when you get the opportunity to meet the composers whose work you love, hopefully you’ll be able to inspire them in return. Good luck!
Chelsea Leibow asks:
I’m a 16 year-old who’s hopefully going to be auditioning for “13” in July. I was just wondering, is there any way to get/listen to the music from the show before I audition? I want to be as prepared as possible and I’ve done some research to try to find it, so far no luck. Also is there a complete characters list anywhere? I’d like to know what types of roles are available. Thanks and I hope to see you soon! 🙂
JRB responds:
As soon as I know what’s going on with auditions, I promise I’ll post something here!
Anushka Wikramanayake (now THAT is a name) asks:
Just out of curiosity, I wanted to know if you ever watch any performances of ‘The Last Five Years’ that are performed by theatre groups and schools. 
JRB responds:
I’ve seen three productions of “The Last Five Years” other than the original, and I generally enjoy myself, but it’s not something I want to do very often; it’s a very painful show personally for me to sit through, and ironically, the better the production, the worse the experience.  But I do keep tabs on those productions and I collect reviews from all over the world, so I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on with my show.  I used to go see a lot of productions of “Songs for a New World,” and it was a blast seeing what people came up with, but being as busy as I am now (and having an eight-month-old daughter!), it takes a lot to get me on an airplane.
All right, let’s see how much trouble I get in now.  Off to bed, I’ve got to be at Birdland at 7 pm tonight with Missy Errico, which is very exciting but I’m completely unprepared. Catch you guys later this week!  And thanks again for the great questions!