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A Dialog on the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop

Current and former members of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop talk about what the Workshop has meant to them.

Maury Yeston, longtime member of the Workshop and writer of the Tony-winning music and lyrics for Nine and Titanic, serves on the Workshop’s steering committee.

“[Lehman] provided loving attention to writers who otherwise would be separate and alone and without the foggiest idea how to get ahead or how to pursue their craft. He was really one of a kind. He created a forum for friendly criticism—and he offered it in the most avuncular and giving way. He brought into being a marvelous thing. And we refused to let it die with him.

“After his memorial service in August 1982, at New York’s Shubert Theater, several of the Workshop members, including Ed Kleban (lyricist for A Chorus Line) and Alan Menken, 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.”

Alan Menken, composer of Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Hercules, serves on the steering committee for the Workshop. Menken is the winner of eight Academy Awards®, seven Golden Globes® and nine Grammy® awards.

“[The Workshop] has been central to everything that has developed in my career. [It] is especially important now, in light of the economic crisis in the musical theatre. There are relatively few musicals being mounted. And the work must go on somewhere!

“The Workshop situation is particularly appropriate. It provides the opportunity for the creator to be daring. Breaking new ground is crucial to the continued vitality of the musical theatre.”

Yeston: “We are motivated to think and develop aspects of our ability we weren’t fully aware were there. I came into the Workshop with little theatre writing experience. And in the absence of producers knocking down my door, trying to hire me to write shows, the Workshop provided an excellent forum to make many early mistakes.”

Menken: “We encourage Workshop members to experiment and take risks. That was Lehman’s credo. He told us to go for it, to try for the new and unusual, to make that extra effort to do work that is worthy of attention. What he said still goes. The musical theatre remains a highly receptive medium for good and original work. Certainly, you can easily take more risks in the Workshop, without a multimillion-dollar budget hanging over you.”

Yeston: “I must make it clear, however, that the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop cannot duplicate the experience of writing an entire show—book, music and lyrics—casting, rehearsing and producing it. The Workshop cannot be judged on that level. What it can do is provide a situation for writers to learn vital aspects of their craft.”

Menken: “All the writers owe a great debt to BMI. The company provided the first exposure of our work within the professional theatre community . . . it’s certainly true in my case.”

Walter Edgar (“Skip”) Kennon is the composer of Herringbone, and composer-lyricist of Blanco, Time and Again, and Feathertop. A former Artistic Coordinator of the Workshop, Kennon taught the first year class for many years. Kennon’s observations about the first year:

“It’s a combination of discussing fundamentals and making assignments, as Lehman did, to familiarize the writer with what to do with certain characters and situations. It’s a matter of the members learning about what’s possible when it comes to form, rhyme schemes, basic types of musical numbers. There’s a good deal of analysis of the components of a good score. During the first year, teams get together. New things are tried and discarded. It’s scary, developing creative people. You’re accountable for a great deal. There’s so much beyond the work sessions in class.

“The Workshop is particularly open to unusual things, whether they are completely acceptable or not. When Ellen Fitzhugh and I presented the songs from Herringbone, our Off-Broadway show, as members of the Advanced Workshop, everyone was quite supportive. Most of the people said: ‘We don’t know what you’re doing, but the stuff is intriguing enough to hold our interest. We have questions about how it works. But it’s fascinating all the same.”

Susan H. Schulman is the director of The Secret Garden, Violet, and Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and The Sound of Music. Ms. Schulman is a former moderator of the Librettists Workshop.

“The book of a musical is its backbone. If the book isn’t working, even a sensational score won’t save a show in trouble. BMI recognized this by supporting the Librettists’ Workshop, the first of its kind as far as I know.

“We’re fortunate to get writers from many disciplines—not only playwrights, but writers with backgrounds in journalism, political science, biography and non-fiction as well as writers of books geared for young adults. Mixing these personalities in with composers and lyricists creates a really fertile ground for new musicals.”

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, lyricist and composer of the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime, met and became a team in the Workshop and found the experience “invaluable.”

Ahrens: “If you’re serious about getting your stuff produced or if you just want a place to have your work evaluated, it’s an excellent place to be.”

Flaherty: “It is the most developmental of all the musical workshops. It’s helped me build confidence in a variety of areas, particularly when it comes to presenting my material. I’ve learned to take chances, to stretch.”

Judd Woldin, composer of the music for the Tony Award-winning musical Raisin, has been a member of the Workshop for years. “Because we start together and remain in the same class, rapport and a sense of understanding develop within each group. Each writer seems to sense where others are coming from and what they’re trying to offer. Because of this, criticism of a piece of work tends to be sensible and realistic.”

Yeston: “I love being a teacher. Let’s define it. Ned Rorem says in Diaries that an artist is somebody who exults in his own self-discovery and a teacher is somebody who exults in the self-discovery of others. Teaching keeps you alive and on your toes. One doesn’t decide to teach. One is a teacher or one isn’t—I really feel that way. A person has a need and an impulse to teach and be helpful. And if you have it, you must do it.

“Lehman was a glorious example. Like most great persons, he had a selflessness to him, a love for helping and nurturing others. After being deeply involved in other areas of music, Lehman became the Broadway conductor in the 1940s. He conducted virtually everything. He developed an extraordinary expertise. At the center of one of the most exciting periods of the musical theatre, he experienced so much. He came to know everybody. And he learned the medium, from top to bottom—from writing and orchestrating and copying to costumes, lights and, of course, conducting.

“After a while he discovered that he needed to impart what he knew to others. The results—the Workshop, the books—we are the ultimate beneficiaries. He gave us so much—not the least of which are a great tradition and giant amounts of love.”

Patrick Cook, lyricist and librettist for Captains Courageous and Director of Musical Theatre for BMI: “The BMI Workshop has been a second home for me since I joined in 1984. It is where I go for support, help, confidence, and the courage to do what I do.”

David Spencer, composer-lyricist of The Fabulist and TheatreWorks/USA’s Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, lyricist for NYSF La Bohème, lyricist to Alan Menken for Weird Romance and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, is a member of the Workshop Steering Committee, moderator for second year and Advanced Workshop, and editor of the Workshop newsletter.

“When I tally up what I owe the Workshop, it’s truly astonishing. It keeps an industrious and talented writer in fighting trim and provides tools when you’re under pressure.”

Nancy Golladay, Broadway and regional literary advisor, serves on the steering committee and moderates the Librettists Workshop. Golladay has written a musical adaptation of “The Great Impostor,” and is currently developing a project based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

“From the songwriter’s point of view, the dirty little secret of musical theatre writing is: If the story doesn’t work, nothing else you put onstage will work very well, either. Grab any passing Broadway producer by the lapels and ask him why a specific show flopped, and I guarantee he’ll blink and then say, ‘Book problems.’

“That explains why Lehman Engel, a musical director and composer, created a program to develop musical theatre scriptwriters at the same time he created his workshops for songwriters. And why BMI is smart, as well as generous, to continue to support a Librettists Workshop as a valuable resource for lyricists and composers.”

Frank Evans, lyricist of Back Home, Ravenswood and No Speed Limit, produced regionally, serves on the Workshop Steering Committee.

“I was fortunate enough to study with Lehman for the two years before his death. Since then, I’ve seen the Workshop become even greater, which is, in a way, his living legacy. After I’ve come back to New York from grueling out-of-town productions, the Workshop is wonderful place to recharge one’s creative batteries. It’s a thrill to see the new talent coming up to join the ranks of BMI veterans whose work is the backbone of Broadway season after season. BMI is always a creative home.”

Jane Smulyan, lyricist for three TheatreWorks/USA productions, is a member of the Workshop Steering Committee.

“Members of the Workshop get a firm and informed grounding in what a ‘musical’ is—what constitutes musical the form, its requisite elements, what makes it relevant—so that they have common language with which to talk about their own work and to understand examples across the spectrum of musical theatre. While always encouraging, implicitly demanding originality and freshness from its writers, the Workshop helps direct them away from reinventing the wheel.”

Jean Banks, formerly Senior Director of Musical Theatre for BMI and Director of the Musical Theatre Workshop:

“It is particularly exciting for me to watch Workshop writers get better and better. Observing from a central place, I take pride in them as associates, friends, family. When they go out in the world and succeed, I and everyone involved with the Workshop feel a part of their achievements.”

Yeston: “Lehman would have wanted the forum he created to continue with few if any changes. He felt it should be free to anyone with talent. Fortunately, BMI has been wonderful and supports Lehman’s aims. Our goal remains consistent with his attitude: To foster good musical theatre, purely and simply for the love of musical theatre.”

Carol Hall: “Young writers in a windowless room every single week… listening hard, talking intensely, nervously and tenderly presenting their embryonic songs to the laser-beam criticism of their fellows, and becoming better writers (not to mention tougher professionals) every time they do it… I consider the BMI Workshop sacred space! Every day of my writing life, I am aware of the principles I learned with Lehman Engel. The BMI Workshop is the best program for theatre writing that I’ve seen yet. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”  [Note:  The room now has windows.]

A Dialogue from the Past

The late Edward Kleban, Tony Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize for A Chorus Line

“The Workshop will remain. It’s an institution that needed to exist. Lehman invented something larger than his own life. It’s a challenge—to all those who teach and guide the Workshop, making it into a self-perpetuating body. We are quite pleased with how things have gone.”

The late Richard Engquist, winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award for best lyrics for his Off-Broadway show Kuni-Leml, served on the Workshop Steering Committee and moderated the Advanced Workshop.

“What a privilege—to work with and encourage musical theatre writers! The talent pool is enormous, and since BMI is unique in offering craft and continuity, I’m delighted to be a part of the process. If my lifetime as a performer, writer, editor, teacher and student of the musical theatre can be of value, what more can I want?

“As one of the Workshop moderators since 1982, I feel it’s my primary function, as a teacher, to find and cultivate talent. Helping to put together teams—people who complement one another—is another thing I try to do. I’m ever on the lookout for those newcomers who are not only talented musically and wordwise, but who have dramatic instincts and the gift for storytelling—both essential for theatre writing. I also offer a great deal of nurturing and encouragement.”

The late Annette Leisten, lyricist of a dozen family-theatre musicals that played New York and toured the country, was a member of the steering committee.

“[I feel] a dedicated responsibility to share the legacy of Lehman’s creative disciplines with new writers. Lehman always insisted that a score seamlessly evolve out of a story, character and situations. Criticism sometimes led to tears, but paid off in gratifying rewrites. Our shows for young audiences [written with composer Shelly Markham] had to meet the same standards as those meant for adults.”

Lehman Engel, two-time Tony Award winner, was a major force in the American theater since his first Broadway assignment as musical director of the Group Theatre’s production of Johnny Johnson in 1936. He headed the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop from its inception until his untimely death in 1982. He authored dozens of books ranging from scholarly criticism to practical handbooks about the theatre and the musical theatre as well as his autobiography, This Bright Day.

“I wouldn’t urge anyone to stay in this business unless he had a real need to do it, because it’s very difficult. Too often, writers envisage sudden success, but it doesn’t happen that way. I don’t believe in instant success. What happens to people comes from serious work over a long period of time.

“Patience is necessary. The way talent develops cannot be predicted. Sometimes there’s a rapid burst of progress after a year or so in the Workshop. But generally, it takes a great deal of time before a writer has it all the way it should be. It takes 10 years to learn to be a good doctor or lawyer. Creative people should be given equal time and opportunity to burnish their talent. If they have responsibility and sufficient knowledge as an undercoating to their talent, they’ll come through and ultimately be marvelous.”