Podcast Episode 180 — Two Time Tony Award Winning, Multi-Faceted Musical Guru, Stephen Oremus

Which ONE of these things would mean that you’ve “made it” in our biz?

  1. You’re from the theater and you’re asked to work on The Academy Awards.
  2. You win not one, but two Tonys.
  3. Lady Gaga gives you a shout out during one of her concerts.

Just one of the above would probably make you think, “Ok, I’ve arrived.  I’m good. Check please.”  Am I right?

Well, what if all THREE of those things happened to you?

Because they did for Musical Director, Supervisor, Arranger, Orchestrator, Conductor and more, Stephen Oremus (Avenue QBook of MormonFrozen, etc.).

Stephen and I chatted about these three career peaks of his, as well as:

  • The job of a Musical Director and what makes a good one.
  • How working with Lada Gaga differs from working with Stephen Schwartz.
  • What makes a “hit” song and how he knows when he’s working on one.
  • His role in the creative process.
  • The frustrating thing about long-running shows on Broadway.

Click here for my podcast with Stephen.

Listen to it on iTunes here. (And if you like the podcast, give it a great review while you’re there!)

Download it here.

GUEST BLOG: Tips for Applying to the BMI Workshop by Patrick Cook (with Frederick Freyer)

In the spring of 1983, Allan Becker ushered me into a windowless room on West 57th Street where I found myself facing Ed Kleban, Alan Menken, Maury Yeston, Skip Kennon, and Richard Engquist. They said hello and pointed me to the piano. My legs were a bit rubbery, but I made it to the piano and started my first song. It was a comedy song called “Piano Bar Prayer” (I was playing piano bar at the time). The first line of the chorus was “God, don’t make me sing Feelings again…” They laughed!!

36 years later, I have Allan Becker’s job, and writers are often emailing me asking for advice about auditioning for the BMI Workshop. When Ken asked if we could come up with a few guidelines, Rick and I grabbed the opportunity to gather some of our thoughts about it.

Tips About the Application

Submit songs that were written for a character. A sweet, generic love ballad may show off your songwriting talent, but it won’t show if you can write for the theatre. Pick a specific character and write a song for them, revealing their character through the song. Classic examples are “Some People” from Gypsy and “Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific. Modern day examples are “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen and “My Shot” from Hamilton.

Write out your accompaniments. Although we accept lead sheets with chords, we much prefer you write out your piano parts.

Don’t worry about style. Some people think there’s a “BMI Sound” that we look for. Not true. Nine, Avenue Q, Next to Normal, Once on This Island and Little Shop of Horrors all came out of the BMI Workshop. Other than craft, brilliance, and theatricality, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a similarity of “sound.”

Always welcome are… strong melodies as well as spareness and economy in your lyric writing and melody writing.

Heavily produced demos can be counter-productive. A clear recording of a singer accompanied by a piano is often the best approach.

Don’t announce your setups on your recordings.

A Couple of Tips About the Audition (if you get called in for an audition)

Don’t worry about being nervous. Everyone is nervous. It has no effect on your audition. Unlike actors and singers who must perform under pressure in front of a paying audience, writers are usually pacing in the back of the house where nobody sees them. In fact, most of the time the audition panel won’t even be looking at you; we’ll be looking at your score and/or your lyric sheets.

Try out your comedy song ahead of time. One of the requirements of the workshop audition s to present a comedy song. Writers often tell me they wrote their comedy song right before the audition. My advice is to try it out on other people first, even friends and family if you can trust them to be honest. Neil Simon said that out of ten lines he meant to be funny, only three actually got a laugh. Writing good comedy songs is an essential talent in the theatre and the only way to really tell if a song is funny is to get it out there and see how it plays.

Members of the BMI Workshop often say it is a life-changing experience. I know it was for me. You can apply online at bmi.com.

Recommended reading:

The Making of a Musical by Lehman Engel

The American Musical Theater: a Consideration by Lehman Engel

American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 by Alec Wilder

The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey by Joseph Swain

 

GUEST BLOG: To Stream or Not to Stream (or When to Stream) by Van Dean

The question of if and when to stream is something we strategize for each and every release. It’s certainly not an exact science, and reasonable people in our business disagree on this important decision.  The issue at hand is that the average Broadway cast album costs between $300,000 and $500,000 to produce.  Spotify pays between $0.001 and $0.007 per stream.  So an average Broadway cast album receiving average revenue from Spotify would have to receive 100 million streams to cover its production costs.  That doesn’t including paying for distribution, the songwriters royalties, the show royalties or anything beyond just the creation of the album.  Given that there are approximately 320 million people in the United States, your cast album has to be extremely popular to recoup it’s production costs from streaming alone.  Of course, repeated listens and international fans help rack up the streaming numbers. The Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen‘s of the world can do it, but not many others.

This is why when using the current music business models, CD and digital download sales are still so important for cast recordings.  Luckily, they still represent the lion’s share of our sales.  Broadway is a unique niche within the music business in that a Broadway cast recording is still considered an important collectible or keepsake of the musical experience.  We always make sure that our cast recording packages are chock full of photos, lyrics, essays and more to help enhance the fan experience. For those fortunate enough to see their favorite Broadway or Off-Broadway musical, the cast album is a cherished remembrance.  For those who live further from New York City, the cast recording is their way of discovering all of the amazing shows that are difficult for them to see in person. At any one time, there are around two dozen musicals running on Broadway.  Of course, there are thousands of musicals in the theatrical canon that can also be discovered and embraced through their cast recording, as well as through Off-Broadway, regional and licensed productions.

Whenever we work with a Broadway show, an Off-Broadway show, or a solo artist, we have the streaming conversation.  Most often, with Broadway shows, we wait a minimum of 6 months to a year (and sometimes longer) to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.  This is to allow the recording time to reach its audience amongst CD and digital download buyers. The aforementioned high expense of Broadway cast recordings frequently necessitates this approach.  However, if the marketing and wide exposure of the show’s score are deemed more valuable for a particular production than the financial considerations, then early streaming may make more sense. Part of this decision depends on who financed the recording.  If the show financed the album via its marketing budget, it is much easier to justify prioritizing the marketing needs of the show.  If the album was financed by direct investors expecting to make their money back, then the financial considerations must be given more weight.  Without investors supporting the cast recordings, these important preservations of a show’s score and performances will become less and less common.

Off-Broadway recordings and solo artist recordings are far less expensive, so the pressure on streaming to deliver financially is less.  Streaming is excellent for getting more ears on an artists’ work, so early streaming is very attractive if the artists’ primary goal is wide exposure.  However, since many solo artists finance their own albums, we have this streaming conversation with each of them so that they can make the decision regarding the balance between exposure and financial return.

The next phase in cast albums will require innovative use of social media and streaming, collaboration with the unions to make the finances more efficient, and collaboration with creators and show producers to evolve with the changes in the industry and technology. Continued love and attention to quality and detail will be essential in the preservation of the art form that we have made our life’s passion.  The ability for future generations of theater lovers to discover new musicals, as well as rediscover the classics, depends on our industry’s ability to keep the cast album business strong for the foreseeable future.


Van Dean is President and Co-Founder of Broadway Records. He is also a Tony Award-winning Broadway Producer of 12 musicals and plays and is a Grammy Award-winning producer of The Color Purple (New Broadway Cast Recording).  Broadway Records has released 150+ albums including the Grammy-nominated Matilda, Once On This IslandMy Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof as well as AnastasiaGroundhog DayBandstand and also created the popular “Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below” album series and the Tony Award Season series. Van’s philanthropic work includes being a producer of “Broadway For Orlando: What The World Needs Now is Love”, “Broadway Kids Against Bullying: I Have a Voice”, “From Broadway With Love” benefit concerts for Sandy Hook, Orlando (Emmy Award winner for sound design) and Parkland and his work with NewArts in Sandy Hook/Newtown, CT. www.BroadwayRecords.com

Episode 166 – Broadway Musical Director, Conductor and Musical Muse, Kristen Blodgette

Listen to about 15 seconds of this podcast, and you’ll hear a joy in Kristen Blodgette’s voice that tells you she’s doing exactly what she was meant to do.

Her love of music and interpreting music for composers, musicians and actors is so obvious, you can see why she got her first MD job having never MD’ed before (true story). And to watch her conduct a show is like watching LeBron James play basketball or Tiger Woods play golf. It’s a show unto itself.

It’s easy to understand why the world’s (!) best, including Andrew Lloyd Webber and Josh Groban want Kristen in their musical corner.

Kristen is the first MD we’ve had on the podcast, so I took this opportunity to learn more about the gig and her rise to the top, including . . .

  • Her definition of what a Musical Director does.
  • How she cold-called the Conductor of A Chorus Line at the theater, during the show, to try to get a meeting (and how it’s a shame that courage comes so easily when we’re young).
  • The craft of turning non-singers into singers.
  • What she thinks about the shrinking Broadway orchestras, including how Phantom has changed since it began.
  • Why she doesn’t write . . . and how that lack-of-desire has made her an even better MD.

Kristen could have been a classical pianist, and while she downplays how good she was as a player in this podcast, something tells me she could be quite the name in that world right now.

We’re so lucky she came into ours instead.

Click here for my podcast with Kristen!

Listen to it on iTunes here. (And if you like the podcast, give it a great review while you’re there!)

Download it here.

GUEST BLOG: Three Tips to Improve Your Music Notation by Peter Flom

In creating music notation for the stage, our goal is to empower successful performances. Sometimes our unintentional bad habits throw up barriers to this success. Today we’ll identify some of these habits as well as quick ways to correct them.

 

Beaming, Rests and the Invisible Barline

Beaming and rest choices are often ignored by the lazy copyist, but a little extra effort here will lead to better performances.

The meter of a measure must always inform the notation. Every time signature implies a grouping of beats, which determine beaming and rest choices. Take the following excerpt as an example. Which is clearer?

Most working musicians could play the first example correctly after some practice time, but ideally we’d like these charts to be sight-read, as is typical on the gig. By contrast, the second example clearly defines the halfway point in the measure, which is a great aid to readers. This is a concept known as the “Invisible Barline,” and is vital to writing in an even meter.

Additionally, notice how the beaming has been changed to outline each beat in the measure. This practice makes it easier to subdivide rhythms while reading the piece. Proper beaming technique is especially important in complex meters:

The engraver’s rests must also support the performer by outlining the meter. I find each of the following measures to be very difficult to read: Here is the same example with appropriate rests and beaming:

Note that each syncopation is split into multiple rests. Again, this helps the performer subdivide rhythms more easily. When mixed rests are needed, always choose rests which outline the beat appropriately.

 

Writing Chords

Another challenge for many writers is using chord notation. While this is a large topic, here are some basic guidelines to remember when building parts for the rhythm section.

First and foremost, develop a system that works for your performers. If your musicians prefer to see a ø7 chord suffix instead of min7 b5, then you need to swallow your pride and write the chord they want – even if you believe it’s wrong. Never sacrifice a good performance in the name of being “right.”

Just make sure to stay consistent – don’t write “C-7” in one measure, “Cm7” in the next and “Cmin7” later.

 

Comping Notation

Suffixes aren’t the only important part of writing chords; you must also pay attention to notation in the staff. While the lazy copyist may not see the value in writing notation during a comping part, the performers often need it badly, and each member of the rhythm section expects different conventions.

When in doubt, keep the notation simple. Here are some of my rules of thumb for writing rhythm section parts.

  • If you know exactly what notes you want them to play: write the notes in the staff. (This should be rare.)

  • If you only have a few specific notes: write the rhythms in the staff and only the specific notes you want. (This is common for guitar players, who often remember voicings based on the top note of the chord.)

  • If you don’t care what voicing they use but you have a specific rhythm: write rhythmic slash notation. (Common in a score with ‘hits’ that the band plays together.)

  • If you want them to improvise a comping part: Use slash notation. (This is the most common and easiest way to notate chords, but your performer may not know exactly what to play.)

Being a guitarist, I wrote all of these examples for a guitar part. However, the same rules apply to other instruments. Typically, the bass part is written with a sample bassline and chord symbols – that way, the bass player has an idea of what groove to play, but they can freely ad lib fills when appropriate.

You can find part two of this post – where we look at placing notation on the page – as well as my other tips to improve music notation, on the Finale blog.
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Peter Flom is the production manager in the repertoire development department at MakeMusic. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Peter has previously worked at KMA Studios in New York City, and in MakeMusic’s Customer Success department. He now spends most of his days developing new content for Finale and SmartMusic, and has worked with many publishers along the way. He also is a freelance arranger and engraver, and plays a mean guitar when no one’s watching.

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