BMI/Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop Celebrates 40th Anniversary

Posted in News on January 28, 2002

by Frank Evans

Broadway producers, members of the New York Press as well as BMI officers and writers packed the BMI New York Media Room for a celebratory evening of songs inaugurating the 40th Anniversary of the BMI/Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. The rapt audience heard work from BMI's best and brightest new writers for the Musical Theatre. The evening was also a testament to the memory of Lehman Engel, the Dean of Broadway conductors, founder of the Workshop.

The Workshop in 1985: Ed Kleban (second from right), Tony and Pulitzer Price winner for A Chorus Line, with Alan Menken (right), winner of multiple Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys.

Lehman Engel was more than a conductor. Not only a renowned author of books about the theatre, he was also a composer and musicologist. He cared about the future of the musical theatre and at BMI found a home where he could nurture new writers.

Maury Yeston moderating the Advanced Group in 1985.

Forty years later The BMI/Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop has been the wellspring of Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musicals, not to mention dozens of Grammys, Golden Globes and Oscars.

Maury Yeston, moderator of the Advanced Group and Tony winner for Nine and Titanic, shares a light moment in the Advanced Workshop with Beth Blatt and Jenny Giering, co-writers of The Mistress Cycle.

Forty years ago, BMI stood alone. No other organization, within the music industry or the academic world, believed in fostering the creation of new work for the musical theatre.

Pat Cook, co-writer of Captains Courageous and Artistic Coordinator of the Workshop, and Jean Banks, Senior Director, share a chuckle while planning a showcase.

The Dawn of the Workshop

In March of 1961, Lehman Engel met with then-BMI vice president, Robert Sour (whose song catalog includes such evergreens as "Body and Soul" and "We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together") and BMI executive Allan Becker. The three men envisaged a Workshop where Engel could share his years of experience in the Broadway theatre with budding composers and lyricists. One of the fundamental principles was that the Workshop would not charge tuition. Engel also insisted that the Workshop be open to any writer who showed promise and talent. These principles still apply at BMI today and have been embraced by other musical theatre programs that followed, such as the Dramatists Guild Musical Theatre Development Program and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's Music Theatre Conference.

Bobby Lopez (at the piano) and Jeff Marx, co-writers of Avenue Q, with Maury Yeston in the Advanced Workshop.

The Workshops would not only change Engel's life, but the face of the American Musical Theatre. Engel devised a curriculum giving writers assignments to "musicalize" material from existing straight plays. Writers were flexing new musical muscles, exploring character through song. As the Workshop grew, Engel was teaching not only beginning, intermediate and advanced classes, but also a class devoted to writing the musical "book" or libretto. The Workshop was so successful, that Engel was traveling to run Workshops in Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville and Toronto.

The results were astonishing. Under Engel, writers who came up through the Workshop included Judd Woldin (Best Musical Tony Award for Raisin), Ed Kleban (Tony and Pulitzer Prize for A Chorus Line), Maury Yeston (Tony Awards for Nine and Titanic), Alan Menken (stage and film: Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast; films: The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame for a total of seven Oscars, six Golden Globes and nine Grammys). Clark Gesner's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown leads the list of most frequently produced musicals. Gary William Friedman's Off-Broadway, Obie winning The Me Nobody Knows moved to Broadway where it was Tony nominated for Best Score. Ellen Fitzhugh garnered a Tony nomination for Grind and Richard Engquist and Raphael Crystal won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Kuni Leml. Susan Birkenhead wrote lyrics for the multi-Tony-winning Jelly's Last Jam and Carol Hall's long running Best Little Whorehouse in Texas won Two Drama Desk Awards and is currently touring the United States in a new production starring Ann-Margret. BMI composer Doug Katsaros not only contributed to and arranged the off-Broadway long running hit A...My Name Is Alice, But also wrote original music to open last year's Tony Awards. In fact, Katsaros was seen later on the Tony broadcast, conducting the sequences from Footloose.

In addition, dozens of musical theatre professionals blossomed under Lehman's tutelage: Grammy Award winning Record producer Thomas Z. Shepard, Broadway and West End Musical Directors John McGlinn (Angel/EMI Broadway Studio series) and Kathy Sommer (Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors). Conductor/arranger Donald Johnston, musical director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, conducted the original 42nd Street and wrote orchestrations for the current revival. The Workshop also produced new writers who chronicled the Musical Theatre: historians and journalists Ethan Mordden, Peter Filichia, Marjorie Rosen, Marilyn Stasio and Robert Viagas. The Workshop roster includes Marilyn Clark Langner, who produced State Fair on Broadway and produces the ongoing Theatre Guild at Sea.

The two-time Tony-winning composer Maury Yeston recently told MusicWorld: "The BMI Workshop is a wonderful opportunity for writers of music and lyrics for the theatre. It is absolutely free; you do not need to be a BMI member, and it allows writers to practice and hone their craft in an atmosphere redolent with that rarest of commodities in New York: friendly criticism.

 "The BMI Workshop does not pretend to climb all the trees at once and duplicate the experience of writing and presenting a whole show. What is does, more specifically, is to provide a forum in which lyrics and music can be written and reworked to an optimal music-dramatic effect.

 "Most writers quickly learn, in the Workshop, that the art of writing is the art of rewriting. Writing cannot really be taught, but it can be learned by the experience of doing it and observing the consequences. The more one writes, the more one learns to write."

Even while Engel was receiving radiation treatment for cancer at Sloan-Kettering, he continued to direct Workshop activities. In the spring of 1982, he produced the last in a long series of BMI showcases at Broadway's Edison Theatre. Later that year he would die at home, having been cared for by three of his students, Time and Again composer-lyricist Walter Edgar "Skip" Kennon, Paper Moon lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh and Feathertop librettist Bruce Peyton.

The Workshop After Lehman

A group of Workshop members, including Maury Yeston, Ed Kleban, Alan Menken and Walter Edgar Kennon, met after his memorial service. Yeston recalls: "We discussed what could be the best memorial for this great man of the theatre. We concluded that nothing could be more fitting than to keep his work going." Yeston was joined by his colleagues to help shape the form of the Workshop as it exists today.

BMI unflinchingly continued its support for the Workshop, but it became necessary to divide the duties that Engel had borne alone. The entire Workshop is now overseen by BMI's Senior Director of Theatre, Jean Banks; Maury Yeston holds the chair filled by Engel for the advanced Workshop, Richard Engquist moderates the intermediate group and Patrick Cook, winner of the Kleban Foundation Award, serves as Artistic Coordinator for the Workshop. Cook co-moderates the first-year program with his writing partner, composer Frederick Freyer; Susan H. Schulman, Broadway director of The Secret Garden and the acclaimed revivals of Sweeney Todd and The Sound of Music, serves as Senior Director of the librettist Workshop. Broadway dramaturge and literary manager Nancy Golladay is moderator of the Workshop. Workshop moderators are part of an advisory committee that also includes writers Alan Menken, David Spencer, Patrick Cook, Jane Smulyan, Frank Evans and Annette Leisten.

The next generation of writers started appearing: Workshop members who were under Lehman's wing during his final years: Michael John LaChuisa, who was Tony-nominated for Marie Christine and The Wild Party, and Gerard Allesandrini, creator of the long-running "Forbidden Broadway" series, now in its second decade. Michael Korie wrote the libretto for The New York City Opera's Harvey Milk and David Spencer wrote the new text for the NY Public Theatre's La Boheme. Spencer went on to collaborate with Alan Menken on Weird Romance and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Just before Engel's death, Walter Edgar Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh broke theatrical ground with the Playwrights Horizons production of Herringbone.

BMI's tenacity has paid off with yet another wave of new writers, those who joined the Workshop after Lehman's era: Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty filled Broadway houses with Once on This Island and Ragtime, both Tony Award-winning shows. Douglas J. Cohen's No Way To Treat a Lady has played both New York and the West End and the team of Patrick Cook and Frederick Freyer won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Captains Courageous and received an NEA grant for the musical version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Alan Menken partnered with Lynn Ahrens to write the Madison Square Garden perennial, A Christmas Carol.

Seasoned BMI writers Nancy Ford (I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road, Shelter, Last Sweet Days of Isaac) and John Driver (Scrambled Feet, Shogun) have recently joined the Workshop to hone new works.

And as the Workshop enters its fortieth year, plans are being finalized for a BMI Showcase in conjunction with the Manhattan Theatre Club. The Workshop has participated both formally and informally with various New York and regional theatres, including Goodspeed Musicals, The Century Center for the Performing Arts, The York Theatre and organizations such as the National Alliance for Musical Theatre and the Dramatists Guild.

Lehman may be gone. But somehow, he keeps having more children . . .

Frank Evans is a lyricist who serves on the steering committee of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop


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