Posted on June 25, 2006 at 7:41 pm

Okay, this officially counts as playing hooky.  I’ve got a song to write for the State Farm show, four vocal arrangements to finish, orchestrations to sketch, a synopsis for another project I’m working on, a new scene for “13” to write, and I’m going to London in a week to work with the “Last Five Years” actors for a couple of days, so I really shouldn’t be taking the time out to do this, but, well… this is so much easier than doing any of those things.
Mark Falconer asks:
First of all, I love your music, but I think I might love reading your Q&As even more. Reading these posts really makes me feel like I’m eating lunch with you and asking everything I’ve ever wanted to ask a Broadway composer.
So here’s my question: you wrote some music for the Nick Jr. animated series Wonder Pets, right? What was that like – adapting your work for very young children, first of all; adapting it into the kind of operetta where the music at points seems to comment on the action, secondly (or did you just create mini-songs and arrangers added those comments based on your themes?); and adapting it to television, lastly? What would you say to an offer of a tv series, akin to something like “Cop Rock”?

JRB responds:
Lots of questions here.  I was just having dinner with, among other people, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who told me he loved the Unicorn episode, which made me very happy.  The show’s done very well, it’s the number one show on Nickelodeon and they just got picked up for a second season.  I probably won’t do any more episodes, though; I’m extremely busy these days, the pay was pretty lousy and I had a rough time dealing with one of the people on the creative staff.  But I love the show, I really do, and I’m very proud of having been a part of it.  I have to take this moment to credit Larry Hochman, who is not being acknowledged enough in the Nickelodeon publicity – he wrote the major themes (as well as several of the best episodes), he set the palette for the whole show, he truly did a remarkable job laying out the template for what the show should be, and the success of “Wonder Pets” is in no small part due to Larry’s work.
I don’t have a lot of trouble adapting my work to different audiences, I enjoy the technical aspect of figuring out exactly what I can and can’t get away with; I generally assume (to my occasional detriment) that people’s ears are more sophisticated than is acknowledged, so I really didn’t “write down” for the Wonder Pets episode (or for “13”, for that matter), I just had to deal with the technical limitations of the performers (and since Wonder Pets is obviously all recorded, they can fudge some things that could never be pulled off live).
The way Wonder Pets worked was that I was given a finished script, including the song lyrics, and told to go off and write the whole episode around it, knowing that the first and last section of the show would be Larry’s music (the beginning and end of every episode are the same from show to show).  The show had to be exactly thirteen minutes long, so I was given timings for pretty much every section of the script.  One of the weirder aspects of the writing is that every episode is apparently done at the exact same tempo, something like Quarter note=120, though I don’t think that was it.  So if I wanted to do any tempo changes or ritards or accelerandi, I had to do the math to figure out how to keep the quarter note consistent.  I’m sure there’s some good technical reason why they did it like that, but it made me crazy.
Anyway, I wrote out a full draft of the piano/vocal score (I remember doing this over two days in the middle of winter while I was in Youngstown, Ohio, because I was there conducting for John Pizzarelli), then I went down to the little studio that they had built at the production house and made a demo with me playing a MIDI piano and singing all the parts (don’t you wish you could hear that?).  Then I presented it and got a series of notes from the writers and producers, which I implemented for a second draft.  I then got more notes, but I had to move on because I was in the middle of another project, so there are about fifteen bars of music which Jeffrey Lesser (the music production supervisor) basically had to write himself.
They used the MIDI demo I had made to teach the singers (three adorable little girls), and meanwhile the animators got to work using the demo as a guide.  Finally, once the animation was finished, the episode went to the orchestrators (who I never met or worked with, though I think they did a great job) and finally the finished orchestra track was laid over the pre-existing vocals.  (The orchestra, by the way, is twelve real live musicians and then a bunch of MIDI tracks supplementing them.)
One of the bummers about my particular episode is there’s not a lot of singing.  The script was done before I got on board, so I didn’t get to say “Hey, I’d rather have more songs for the Wonder Pets,” but I wish I could have done more with that.  I saw one of Michael John’s episodes (“Save The Pigeon,” I think it was) and he got to write a lot more vocal stuff, whereas I feel like my episode is almost entirely underscore.  Oh well.  Like I said, I’m very proud of what I was able to do, I think the episode is a blast, and I’m really thrilled that the show is such a success.  I haven’t often gotten to be associated with a hit, it’s a nice feeling, even if my involvement is somewhat peripheral.
I did try to get a weekly musical sitcom off the ground a couple of years ago, but it never got anywhere.  Now that “High School Musical” is such a hit, I hope the executive I pitched it to feels stupid.
Scott Douglas asks:
In “King of the World”, there are two passages with a repeated pattern of 5 sixteenth notes- obviously, the beats don’t really line up with the same note each time.  Do you have any tips or tricks for a not-as-good-as-you pianist to really nail this without getting lost and playing a mishmash of notes?  I’m assuming that accuracy is important to you in these two sections.
JRB responds:
I wish I could tell you some shortcut, but the truth is I’ve been practicing phasings since I was fourteen years old – playing over the bar line is one of my favorite tricks as a pianist, and it can really mess with your head if you aren’t used to doing it.  The good news is that it will help you immensely with your sense of time and groove once you get comfortable with it.  The bad news?  Slow way down and work with that metronome.  Work with the click until you’re sick.  I’ve always thought I should write a manual for playing my music, teaching impressionable youth all the stupid bad technique things that I do that make regular pianists loathe my music so much.  I have a really funny name for it, but I’ve been forbidden to tell you what it is.
Sarah Davis asks:
There are dozens of internet messageboards that are focused on Broadway. On the whole, I generally despise these boards (one in particular), because I feel they completely destroy the treasure of theatre, creating tension and gossip and rumors that are absolutely unnecessary, not to mention that the most common users tend to be “Wicked”-frenzied preteens who are teeming with dreams of being the next Idina Menzel. I’ve heard stories that you occasionally will read through and give your two cents on certain topics being discussed – is this true? What are YOUR thoughts on the web influence of theatre? I ask because The Last Five Years is one of those “phenomenon” musicals that tends to be brought up time and again in these threads.
JRB responds:
I don’t get as emotional about it as you do.  I do read the message boards, as does every single theatrical professional I know except for maybe Hal Prince, and I basically think they’re kind of ridiculous but fun and they give people who really do love theater a chance to belong to something even when that thing they love is so marginalized in the culture at large.  I remember Lynn Ahrens saying that “Seussical” flopped because of the people reviewing it on the Internet during tryouts and previews, but I just don’t buy it.  Even when the producer comes running into the rehearsal room waving a post from some putz or other and telling us we “have to change the ending!” or whatever, the artists in the room all know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.  There’s a saying that we invoke, which is that no one in the audience knows anything individually, but the audience knows everything collectively.  If we hear the same comment over and over again, or a certain joke never gets a laugh, then that’s when we consider changing it.  If a bitchy old queen on “All That Chat” says he hates something, I can tell you honestly that no one in the rehearsal room takes that seriously at all.  And you’re right, I do occasionally chime in, particularly if there’s some thread going around that’s completely inaccurate or offensive, but most of the time, even if I see a thread with my name on it, I just let the fans have their fun without barging in.
And finally, Mike Betteridge comes back with another question:
I was wondering about why and how you got into music.  Did you come from a musical family?  Or did it just happen?  I’m asking because I come from a musicless family, we just had an old crappy piano lying around and I started thumping it aged 3 and from there sparked my musical journey.  Do you think it makes a difference whether your parents are musical or not?
JRB responds:
If it made a difference whether or not my parents were musical, then I wouldn’t be a musician.  My mother doesn’t really listen to much music at all, and while she’ll occasionally sing along to the radio, it’s not necessarily on pitch; and my Dad is a big fan of music who listens to a lot of different things, but he’ll be the first to tell you he never had any real musical talent.  (He did play the comb-and-tissue-paper sometimes when I was a kid while I would accompany him on the piano.)  And my brother did everything short of setting the piano on fire to stop me from playing.  Maybe there’s a gene for musical talent, maybe there’s not, but I was always encouraged in my family to explore whatever excited me intellectually, and I think that counts for more than anything else.
I have to go find some other ways to procrastinate.  If I’m not back soon, it’s because my producers actually read this and made me go back to work.