ASCAP Theater Workshop, Childhelp & Beyond: Conversations with Stephen Schwartz, Michael Kerker, Michael Bolton and The Tenors' Fraser Walters, Plus Music Exclusives

ASCAP Theater Workshop, Childhelp & Beyond: Conversations with Stephen Schwartz, Michael Kerker, Michael Bolton and The Tenors' Fraser Walters, Plus Music Exclusives
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photo credit: Joan Lauren

A Conversation with Stephen Schwartz

Mike Ragogna: Hello, Stephen! So what is a day like for Stephen Schwartz when you're in your creative mode?

Stephen Schwartz: Well, I can tell you about today. We're in the midst of a workshop for a stage adaptation of The Prince Of Egypt, the animated feature that I did for DreamWorks some years back. I had some music revisions to make, so I got up at about six this morning and worked on those for a couple of hours; I got them done, then I had an eight-thirty breakfast meeting with someone who was in from Australia because I'm going there next week to do some concerts so we were making some arrangements about that. Then I went to rehearsal for The Prince Of Egypt workshop at ten and that went until three. That just finished, now I'm talking to you and then at four o’clock, I have a meeting with some people here who have a television project they want to speak to me about. But I don't actually have a business dinner tonight. Tonight, I'm actually having dinner with friends. It's not quite as full a day as it might be. The dinner tonight might've been a business dinner but I got away without it.

MR: Stephen! You slacker!

SS: [laughs] I know, I'm feeling a little guilty about it.

MR: Let's talk about the reshaping of The Prince Of Egypt for Broadway. What goes into bringing an animation like that to the stage?

SS: First of all, the person writing the book for this adaptation, Philip LaZebnik, was one of the screenwriters. We’ve worked together before and we've actually done another project besides. We both worked together on the movie, so basically, the two of us sat down and went through the structure of the movie, talked about what we thought we could achieve, what we would need to change to work onstage, but also for the stage as opposed to an animated feature first of all it's longer, it's a two-act structure, you have the chance to go into the characters and situations in a great deal more depth, plus the stage musical will have a lot more songs. The movie had six songs in it, five of which we are using in one form or another in the show, and then I think there may be another twelve or so new songs. There's quite a lot of music in it. Those songs have to be written, and then one goes through a development process of hearing it read and making adjustments with notes from the director and the DreamWorks folks, then putting it on its feet in a kind of staged reading or workshop situation and learning from that, eventually leading to the point where we feel it's finished and can go out into the world.

MR: You're invited to those readings, obviously. When you meet the actors they've chosen and what they bring to their roles, do you find yourself adjusting what you're creating to the performer's unique qualities?

SS: Absolutely, and they will have suggestions, and there will be things one learns just hearing things spoken or sung in the mouths of very talented actors. We have a pretty superb cast, they're first-rate, so anything that doesn't work, we can't blame the actors, and we can just hear things and realize we don't need a certain line, or we need something that's not there or the music doesn't quite fit or whatever. This is the most fun time of all because you're in the room with all these people. Everybody’s creating, everybody's firing on all cylinders; it’s both intense and relaxed at the same time, if you know what I mean. It's enormously enjoyable.

MR: How do you know when to stop? Being so inspired by the actors, I imagine the book gets tweaked a lot.

SS: Of course. Philip LaZebnik, who actually lives in Denmark now, the two of us are actually sitting at a table during the reading discussing suggestions as things emerge, talking to the director about it, talking to the actors about it. I’m going back and forth with the musical director shaping the score, Philip is tweaking, changing, cutting, adding lines of dialog, et cetera. There's a lot of creative ferment going on. It's a lot of fun, it's very exciting and exhilarating.

MR: As you're putting so much effort into your work, some of you must end up in these characters and this music, no?

SS: Well, sure. I think that's what writers do, and obviously it's what actors do, although I'm not a very good actor. We find the part that is in ourselves that corresponds with the character, and we have to find ourselves in all of the characters and write from that point of view so that one is always writing from the inside out. Of course the specifics of the character are going to be very different from me almost a hundred percent of the time, but the internal motions or parts--it's particularly fun to go to the dark side and be the villain or that kind of character. We don't really have villains in The Prince Of Egypt--well I guess there's one--but I know when I was doing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame it was so much fun to write the character Frollo because he's so twisted and perverse, it's fun to be able to go to that dark side of yourself in a way that you never would allow yourself in real life, to just tap into this can be a lot of fun.

MR: Did you ever scare yourself with how far you were able to go using the vehicle of music?

SS: No, because it's safe, it's all make-believe. The emotions are real, but the situations are make-believe. There's never a point where you think, "Oh my gosh, I'm actually losing my mind."

MR: Are there things that you discover about yourself during the writing process?

SS: Oh, of course, always. I think that's one of the reasons that people become writers, because it is a constant journey of self discovery. You can't help it when you're exploring a new situation or a new role or a new idea. Of course, you're going to make discoveries. Also each project generally involves a great deal of research, so that's very enjoyable, too. You learn things you didn't now before. I know a lot about ancient Egypt now and how the society was structured. It's very interesting.

MR: How do you think The Prince Of Egypt has evolved from the original to now as far as the characters?

SS: For lots of reasons, not the least of which is length, one has time in a format like this to explore the impact these enormous biblical events have on the characters. Here (or “With the longer format of a stage musical vs. an animated feature,) one really has the time to explore, "What does it actually mean for someone to lose their firstborn child?" How does that affect the character of Moses who has, in his own way, caused that? What's the impact on him? And so on. What about the journeys or the arcs of all the characters? Where do they start out? Where do they wind up based on these events that they partly caused and partly lived through? Those are all fascinating things to explore that one can just do with more depth and nuance in this genre than in animation.

MR: When you look back at Godspell and its characters, they were tuned-in to the times they first appeared. Then you look at its revival and how much had culturally changed, there had to be appropriate or sensible updates. I imagine this happens with all your revivals, even in this theatrical conversion of the animated The Prince Of Egypt.

SS: Obviously, different stories make different demands, but you're accurate in that we're all living in time. When we confront material our response is going to be shaped by the world we live in. For instance, when Winnie [Holzman] and I were writing Wicked, as we were dealing with the character The Wizard, that character evolved because we started it at the end of the Clinton administration and by the time the show premiered we were in the middle of the George W. Bush administration. So the character changed, if you will, or had new things that came into play just because of the times we were living in and how we responded to them.

MR: Broadway has always been open to making commentaries in their works. Do you find yourself making commentaries on the times we live in, either conscious or unconscious?

SS: Of course. I think you can't help that. I don't tend to deliberately do works that proselytize but one can't help but be affected by the time we live in. Pippin, for instance, was originally written during the time of the Vietnam war and dealt with the so-called generation gap. It was greatly influenced by that, and then when we re-approached it for the recent revival, though that all remained in it, there were other thing that we were responding to, or were resonating in us, but I think you're right, that it's more unconscious than conscious, it's just something you can't help.

MR: I've seen your musical Wicked, which shouldn’t surprise you since it seems like everybody on the planet has seen it.

SS: [laughs] Well, I hope not! We still need people to see it or we won't be able to keep it running.

MR: But you see, it’s so good, people have to go see it again and again!

SS: Okay, fair enough.

MR: Stephen, what advice do you have for new artists? I guess for you, I should include performers and entertainers as well.

SS: I think there are a few things. One of the reasons that I thought this question is a good segue is that you know for fifteen or more years now, I have been the Artistic Director for musical theater workshops for the ASCAP Foundation for Aspiring Writers of Musical Theater. Many writers and shows have come out of there now. I do them in Los Angeles and New York every year and then we've done a few around the country and internationally. The whole point is to reach out to people who have aspirations of working in musical theater, in this case mostly writers--composers, lyricists and book writers--but also performers, so I've developed opinions over the years as to ways to get started, because let's face it: show business in general, and musical theater specifically, is sort of a difficult entry-level profession. There's no fixed way into it, and it's hard to get noticed a lot of the time. There's sort of this paradoxical thing that everybody is both looking for the hot new person and nobody wants to deal with anybody new. Somehow you have to get from the "nobody wants to deal with anybody new" phase to the "I'm one of the hot new people you should pay attention to" phase. I think that's really the trick of getting started, and I think one of the things that's important to do is to put yourself out there in any way that you can.

For writers, what I would suggest is write something. Have a project. Have a show. Even if you don't really have an expectation of that specific show being produced, have something to show to people, and then try to get it out there in whatever way you can. A reading, something at a local school, people singing the songs in a cabaret or whatever, have a demo, et cetera. Find ways to put it out there and you never know what it will lead to. Similarly for performers, participate in readings, put yourself out there on a cabaret night or things like that so people can see you and start to get to know you, because so much of the entertainment industry is built around networking and opportunities showing up in places you didn't expect them, so that's my advice. Obviously, there are other things to be said about doing what you can to develop craft. Try to develop knowledge. If you are a writer who aspires to write for musical theater, know what's gone before you. See things, take libretti out of the library, listen to cast albums, see what appeals to you, personally, and ways that you can extrapolate lessons, if you will, or approaches that you can learn from people who have gone before you. Then you can interpret in your way and interpolate into the work that you do.

MR: Beautiful. What's interesting to me is that you don't have a Tony for a musical, although you have that wonderful Isabelle Stevenson Award.

SS: That was very nice and I appreciate getting it, but it is a little bit like winning Miss Congeniality. Much as I appreciated it. It's sort of weird that I've spent my life in musical theater but the awards that I've received have basically been in film and the recording industry. But, you know, whatever.

MR: On the other hand, this is an important award because you're developing and contributing to the lives of people who will eventually be in those positions and those roles that take the craft further.

SS: Well, thank you for saying so. It's something that I enjoy doing. Frankly, it's something I've learned a lot from doing over the years in terms of my own work. It's probably been among the most fulfilling stuff that I've done if not the most fulfilling. I do appreciate your saying so. Every year when I finish the ASCAP workshops, I think, "I'm really too busy for this, I have to make this the last year," and then the next year comes around and I find I want to do it again, and then Michael Kerker, who is the organizer of the workshops for ASCAP, sends me choices of new works to listen to and to help select and then I get excited about the talent that's out there, so I do it again.

MR: Right, you handle the ASCAP workshop for both the East and West Coast. What does that involve?

SS: It's actually a pretty simple process, because the truth is that while I will try to respond to the work that is being presented in as constructive and inspiring a way as possible. And the other people on the various panels to which they're being presented will also do that. Frankly, the people presenting will get the most out of simply having presented it and experiencing their show, which is in development, in front of an audience. Yes, people may say useful things, but if no one said anything, they still would get a lot out of it. Basically, what I do—having selected with Michael Kerker the shows that feel as if they have promise or also present interesting issues that musical theater writers face or a particular show that lends itself well to discussion of those issues—I basically show up for the presentation and respond in an as articulate and intelligent way as I can. I have with me panelists who are experienced and experts in the field of developing new musicals, writing new musicals, and we hope we say some things that are helpful to not just the presenters but to the large audience that joins us and attends. One of the things that I'm really excited about in Los Angeles this year, because we've moved and are at the Wallis Annenberg Center, is that we have more room, and therefore, we're going to be bringing in students who attend musical theater programs in local schools. The educational component has increased and obviously, that's a very exciting development as far as I'm concerned.

MR: How do you feel about funding cuts or eliminations in high school and grade school music and arts programs?

SS: I feel very, very strongly that is an extremely poor idea, not just obviously because I work in the arts, but because I think it's extremely short-sighted in terms of education, frankly. I think without it, there's a whole aspect of a way of thinking about the world, a way of interacting with one another, a way of challenging oneself with ideas that are new and maybe feel controversial, there's a whole aspect that if you don't have it, I feel the educational system is impoverished for it. I feel it's an extremely shortsighted choice to be making, not really out of any selfishness particularly. I'm out of school, my kids are out of school; we can take care of ourselves in terms of making sure that our continuing progeny are exposed to the arts. But I feel that there are too many kids who don't have that opportunity and it's really shortchanging them in my opinion.

MR: Relative to that and bringing in the concept of mentoring, are you recognizing individual people who need to be developed or you would like to work with? You seem like the kind of guy who needs to get involved on many different levels of a project.

SS: Of course, in every group like that, there are always going to be young people who seem particularly avid, or have a certain kind of energy or a certain quality that you recognize, some special thing that would merit development. I think that sort of goes without saying. That just happens all the time. In addition to doing the ASCAP workshops, when I can, I do master class workshops with performing arts students. I think you may or may not know that I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, which has a wonderful Performing Arts program. I try to get back there once a year if I can to do master classes with their students. Great people have come out of there, many who are, right now, in the cast of Wicked. It's sort of a continuing process, if you will.

MR: By the way, during a break when I was at Xavier High School, they gave us the option of going on a camping trip or seeing Godspell, the movie. I saw the movie.

SS: can always go camping. [laughs]

MR: [laughs] Many years later, I went to the Broadway revival, and we actually sang songs from Godspell in my grammar school, so your work is my first exposure to musical theater. And that particular musical has resonated with me through the years. Have you been surprised at how some of your musicals have affected people or even lured them into the musical arts?

SS: Well, sure. Of course, it's enormously exciting and enormously gratifying. Godspell, in particular, and also, to some extent, Pippin. Because they're young casts, it tended to be a lot of people's first jobs who then went on to success, et cetera. Also, as you say, they get done in schools a lot, so I think that has an effect. But one of the best things that can happen to you as a writer—and that I experience with some frequency—is getting a communication from someone who has said, "I was in a bad place in my life and then I heard 'Defying Gravity' and it gave me courage to get through that difficult period," and things like that. You really can't have much of a better experience than that. And I have been fortunate enough that has happened to me and continues to happen with some frequency.

MR: And I think it might tap into what we talked about earlier as far as the unconscious element. Wicked, to me, has an uplifting, "You can do it!" type of message—even though we all know what happens to the witch in the end. It's a really interesting spin on evolution, like, “Well, no, she wasn't inherently evil." Actually, to me, it seems you often push barriers with your characters concepts, and how you're framing them.

SS: I think it is true. I tend to be attracted to stories about outsiders, about people who find themselves in conflict with social norms, who are trying to find ways to fit in without giving up who they are. I think I deal with that story a lot, and maybe it has some psychological underpinning for myself. To be honest, I haven't really tried to psychoanalyze why I would be attracted to doing the Oz story from the Wicked Witch's point of view. It just immediately sounded like my territory, if you know what I mean. I think that one of the reasons that I've come to feel that Wicked speaks to so many people is, in fact, the very thing you cited: It doesn't have a perfect happy ending for this character who winds up showing a great deal of courage and comes to accept herself for who she is. But it isn't all wrapped up and sugarcoated, and consequently, I think it feels more realistic to people and therefore, in some way, it can be more inspiring. Being in the midst of doing this workshop for The Prince Of Egypt, I've heard anecdotally from many people, "Oh, that's my kid's favorite animated movie," and it surprises me because it doesn't seem really geared for seven year-olds. Because I'm working on it again, I've been asking people, "Well, why? What is it they like about it?" and what I've been hearing is A, the characters seem very human, and B, that it doesn't flinch away from bad stuff, from cruelty and from death and really sort of tough stuff in the world that kids experience and are very aware of. We feel like we're protecting them if we don't mention it, but it just seems phony to them because they know better.

MR: Interesting, as you said that, Grimm's Fairy Tales came to mind.

SS: Exactly!

MR: Stephen, I kind of feel like Into The Woods, with all the issues that it dealt with and its overall approach, could've been written by Stephen Schwartz.

SS: I think what you're responding to in Into The Woods and what may remind you of the shows that I do and the subject matter that I'm attracted to—even though Stephen Sondheim who, obviously, I and everyone else enormously admires and whose work I think is very, very different from mine in many ways—is it takes familiar stories and characters and it spins them and looks at them from another angle. I've sort of made a career of doing that. I'm very attracted to that kind of idea, and Wicked is an obvious example of that. But then, most of the projects that I tend to be attracted to do that in some way. Godspell is another obvious example of taking a story and characters with which we're very familiar, and then looking at them in another way. Of course, that is the essence of Into The Woods.

MR: When you look back at your earlier period to now, how do you feel you've grown the most?

SS: First of all, I definitely have developed craft, which I didn't really start with, because I was fortunate enough to start out so young on a major stage, if you will pardon the pun. I was so operating essentially on instinct, and then, over the years, as I've done this more and more, I've kind of developed the process that works for me. I've developed craft, which I can now apply to work that I'm doing. So there's that, purely from an artistic point of view, but also one just grows as a person. It's been very interesting for me to re-encounter Pippin, which I began in college when I was seventeen and I was still very young. When it premiered on Broadway, I was twenty-four years old. My point of view about the characters and the story was very much through the eyes of the Pippin character. Now, as I've reencountered it as much more of an adult, I see the story from a whole different angle and that's been fun to experience.

MR: Is Pippin one of your favorite musicals that you've worked on? It’s come up a couple of times.

SS: It's just one that I've had a lot of recent experience with because of the recent Broadway revival, which I was very happy with. I guess also because you're asking questions about the point of view one has a young person and then how one feels looking back, and obviously, the subject matter of Pippin has a lot to do with that.

MR: Do you actually have a favorite musical or a favorite character that you've worked on?

SS: Sure, but I'm not going to tell you what they are.

MR: [laughs] You never want to single out your favorite child.

SS: Well, listen, people always say, "Oh, my songs are my children and I love them equally," or, "My shows are like my family and I love them all equally," but you know that's bull, of course. There are things that one feels more strongly about for whatever personal connection. But I think I've said it often enough that people know that my personal favorite of my shows is actually Children Of Eden. It’s the one that I continue to have the most personal connection to. I think that doesn't really color people's response, but I don't like to talk about favorite songs or things like that because, speaking of Stephen Sondheim, many years ago, I read an interview with Stephen Sondheim in which he was asked what his favorite song was. He said, "Someone In A Tree" from Pacific Overtures. I found that thereafter, I couldn't really ever encounter the song in the same way because it was filtered through my trying to understand why this particular song was his favorite. To be honest, I suspect that if he had been asked that question a week later, he would probably have given a different answer. I think it's just whatever he happened to feel on that particular day, because that's how we are. But for me, it colored my experience of this particular song and I didn't want that. I wanted to be able to just come to it for how I received it, not trying to second guess why the writer liked this particular piece. I don't really like to get between my work such as it is, and an audience, so I try to keep myself out of it.

MR: Okay, so I am not rephrasing the question, but do you find any of your songs haunting you after you've composed them? Like you can’t get them out of your head?

SS: I think a writer is always dealing with things that haunt him or her, and his or her own demons, so in that way, yes. But I tend to always be moving forward, and once something is done, it's kind of done, unless I have to revisit it for some specific artistic reason. Maybe I'll get to the point in my life when I'm not working on new material and then I can allow myself to reflect and be haunted. But right now, it's always about, "What's my current project, what's my deadline, what are the songs that are due for this or the things that need revision and attention?" I'm not really looking back.

MR: Ah, perfect set up. To that point, what does the future bring for you?

SS: The immediate future?

MR: That, and then I’d like to ask you what is an accomplishment you really want to get done.

SS: Well, in a way, let me answer that. At this point in my life, what's interesting to me is to try to work on things that feel as if I haven't done them before. I'm interested and have been exploring media I haven't done a lot of work in, places I haven't worked a lot, rather than feel like, "Oh, what's my next Broadway show?" Consequently, the things I'm working on, I have a new musical that is going to premiere in September in Vienna where it will actually have been translated into German. I have a movie that I'm working on with Alan Menken; I have a television project that I'm talking about because I haven't really done that much for television and the medium has gotten increasingly exciting in recent years; I've been composing individual pieces for a soprano who is a friend of mine, the point being that it's interesting to me to explore areas that aren't that familiar to me and see what I have to contribute to those, or perhaps, be defeated by them. I just want to experience things that are different.

MR: And hopefully, that will be for many, many years to come. And speaking of that, what would you like your legacy to be?

SS: You know, I wouldn't presume to want. I'm just doing my work, you know? I'm just telling stories that are significant to me in terms of the ideas they deal with or characters that speak to me and that I feel I have an affinity for. People will decide what the legacy is or isn't or what speaks to them or what doesn't. Not only do I not try to control that, I don't actually really think about it very much.

MR: I asked you earlier if you have any advice for people, but do you have some parting words of wisdom?

SS: Apropos of what you just asked, there's something that I heard recently and liked in terms of working in a profession like mine, which is, "Never compete, never compare." I think it's so easy to fall into one or both of those, feeling, "I have to compete with so-and-so who is more successful or more popular" or "I have to compare myself to somebody, am I doing as well as they are?" We live in a society that pushes us in that direction, and I think one can keep as a motto, "Never compete, never compare." Just do what you are doing as well as you possibly can. If it's not a more successful way to live, it's certainly a happier way to live.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

ASCAP Theater Workshop

A Conversation with ASCAP's Michael Kerker

Mike Ragogna: Michael, every year, ASCAP puts on a musical workshop. However, this year, it moves to a bigger venue, and it involves reaching out to even more up and coming theater students. And hundreds of tickets instantly were allocated. To get a better understanding of what the workshop is, what has it historical been focused on and what does it accomplish?

Michael Kerker: Basically, the workshop is here to help nurture young theater writers. ASCAP is not in the business to produce musicals, but it is to encourage, nurture, offer feedback to young writers who are writing musicals. Obviously, it's a unique art form and as you must have heard when you spoke to Stephen, he is the artistic director, he is the leader, he is clearly the reason it has been extraordinarily successful. One of the great things that has happened through the years because of Stephen's nurturing--and I assume he told you—is we invite other people from the musical theater community to offer feedback and critique these writers, I assume he explained that to you?

MR: What is the actual evolution process like?

MK: Every year, depending on Stephen Schwartz's schedule, we select a certain number of musicals to present in the program. The particular program this year is in our new venue here in LA. We actually had room for four musicals. Each night, there will be a presentation or two, excerpts from the musical. The writers have to present about a half-hour of their musical. In the first half hour, they can't pick their favorite parts of their musical. It's got to be thirty minutes, book and song. That's because, if you think about, in those first thirty minutes, that's about what an audience will give a writer. You come into the theater and in that first half hour, you want to know what this musical is about, what is the style of the musical, who are the lead characters, what are the issues that these characters will face, who are the secondary characters you should watch, what is the theme of the piece. You need to establish that pretty firmly in the first thirty minutes, so it's a good indication of the quality of a piece. That's why we encourage the writers to present those first thirty minutes.

MR: So it's kind of like presenting a first act.

MK: Exactly. In some years, when Stephen has a more open schedule, the writers will present two excerpts; the writers will present the first thirty minutes, then we will give them a week or two off. Again, that depends on Stephen. Then they'll come back and present an hour of their musical. They have the option of presenting the first hour, assuming they might have made some changes after they got feedback, or they can present a different sixty minutes, but it always has to be consecutive. Usually, with Stephen, there will be two or three other people on the panel; other writers, directors, producers, people who can offer intelligent and helpful feedback to the writers.

MR: Who have been some of those people over the years?

MK: Stephen Sondheim, Lyn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime and Once On This Island; Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics to Fiddler On The Roof; Charles Strouse, the composer of Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. We’ve had orchestrators and arrangers like Jonathan Tunick; we've had producers like Kevin McCollum, who produced Rent and Something Rotten on Broadway right now. It's always based on the availability but I always try to get at least one other composer/lyricist to join Stephen and then, perhaps, a producer or an orchestrator or someone else in the field of musical theater.

MR: After the half-hour presentation, what is the prep for the hour presentation like?

MK: After they've gotten their feedback, many writers will choose to do some rewriting, depending upon what the comments are. I can't pick a specific example now, but certainly, one of the criticisms might be a weak opening number; your opening number doesn't quite establish what you're trying to say in the piece, or there might be comments about lyrics. The tradition in musical theater is often that lyrics should be true rhymes. No rhyming “home” and “alone” in the theater. No rhyming “tomorrow” and “sorrows.” That may come up in comments, and thereafter, a writer can go back in that time that they have off and make some changes, if they so choose. No one tells them that they have to make changes. It's always a person's work and they're entitled to look at the piece after they've gotten feedback and decide for themselves what they want to do. And Stephen is very careful. I don't know if he mentioned this to you, but that first night, before we actually begin the program, Stephen will sit with the writers who are in the workshop privately and he will tell them, "You'll hear a lot of feedback from me and from panelists. Take everything in and then it's your decision as to what you feel you might want to do to go back and look at your piece." Just because Stephen Schwartz offers a suggestion doesn't mean you have to follow what he says. He's very careful about that.

MR: And then comes the presentation.

MK: That's essentially what we're there for. I don't know if Stephen gave you names of some of the great writers who, while their particular piece in the workshop was not produced elsewhere, but they themselves, because of what they got out of the workshop, could go on to work on something else, let's say, and become rather successful. Stephen certainly is rather humble but I could give you four or five musicals that have been on Broadway in the last couple of years, and all of those writers have gone through the workshop, and you can see Stephen's hand in their successful musicals that are either on Broadway right this minute or have been in the last two or three years.

MR: Who are some of those people?

MK: Currently, the book writer and co-lyricist of Aladdin—the big hit Disney musical—Chad Beguelin. He came through the workshop. He actually was in the workshop with a gentleman named Matthew Sklar. They wrote Elf: The Musical together and that gets produced all around the country. The Tony award winning musical of 2014, Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder, written by Steven Lutvak. He was in our ASCAP workshop nurtured by Stephen. Glenn Slater, who currently has a big hit on Broadway, School Of Rock. He also contributed lyrics to The Little Mermaid. He came through our program. You can talk to any of them and they would tell you that Stephen's nurturing hands are embedded in what they do now. Two women named Marcy Heisler and Zina Goodrich have a musical called Ever After, which was at Paper Mill Playhouse last year; they've been through our workshop. Actually, their musical that was in our workshop quite a while ago, a children's musical, gets produced all the time—it’s called Dear Edwina. There's just a whole generation of writers that would tell you how influenced they have been by Stephen. There's just nobody like him.

MR: But ASCAP decided to commit itself to this kind of program. What are its origins?

MK: It's before my time, but in 1976 or 1977, the first workshop that ASCAP ever put together was a disco workshop. That'll tell you how long ago that was. It was in 1979 that the person who ran the musical theater department at the time—she's no longer living—decided that there should be a musical theater workshop. She enlisted the composer Charles Strouse to develop the workshop, which he did, from '79 to '91. I came on board in '91, so I got to work with Charles for the one year and then Charles told me that he had done it for quite a bit of years and he decided he couldn't do it anymore. He wanted to go back to his busy schedule. I approached Stephen and he has been running the workshop since 1992, and that workshop was only in New York. I kept getting calls from people asking, "Why is there no workshop on the West Coast?" I decided that maybe I should explore the possibility, but I wouldn't do it without Stephen, so I asked him would he consider doing something out here. Coincidentally, at that time, he had just begun working with Disney on Pocahontas, his first foray into film. So that's how that came about. We needed a physical space to do the workshop. In New York, we do it on premises; we have a cafeteria/employee lounge that's large enough to hold about a hundred people, but we have a small office here in LA, so I started looking for places to rent. Then I just had this thought that maybe Disney would supply us with a space that we could rent since Stephen was working with them. Stephen put me in touch with Tom Schumacher who was head of Disney animation at the time, and I went to Tom and he said yes right away. So for at least twelve years, we were doing the workshop with Disney and then, for a variety of reasons, Disney felt that they couldn't give us a home there anymore.

At that time, Stephen was working with DreamWorks, so I went to them and they gave us a yes right away. We were literally doing it on the lot of DreamWorks up until last year. It was a wonderful place to be, here in LA. The only negative aspect was we were a little limited in the physical aspect they had; we could only have about a hundred and twenty-five people in the venue that they could give us. Last year, somebody from this new theater that was just built in Beverley Hills—The Wallis—happened to come to the workshop, she'd never seen it before, she was the associate artistic director at the time. She loved it so much and was so taken away by Stephen as everyone is. She said, "You know, if you ever need space, you might want to consider moving to The Wallis." So we’re about to go to The Wallis with five hundred seats and the extraordinary thing is within three days of making the announcement, we have a waiting list already for tickets. I'm kind of taken aback by that. It's causing me problems, but I'll figure it out. And by the way, we should say that it's free, we don't charge or anything.

MR: Where does this go? What is the future for the workshop at The Wallis?

MK: [laughs] Well, let me get through this year first! I can't really answer that yet. But what I would say we have done over the years is to ask writers' feedback after they've gone through the program—what they like about it, what they didn't, any suggestions for us—and one of the things they say to us is they wish there was a second step after they've gone through the workshop to help them further along. So what we have established is a stage-reading program. What we try and do is take a musical that comes out of our workshop that looks like it might have legs and through the ASCAP foundation—which underwrites it because money is always an issue—we will underwrite a twenty-nine hour stage reading for a musical. We try to do one every year in LA for a musical that comes out of the workshop, and we try and do it in New York. We're still searching for more funding, to be honest with you, but it has been successful. One of the musicals that came out of our workshop three years ago maybe was called Bubble Boy, it was a Disney film way back, I think it was Jake Gyllenhaal's first movie.

MR: Oh, baby!

MK: Oh my God, you know it? Nobody knows that movie.

MR: It was a horrible, wonderful movie with Jake Gyllenhaal.

MK: [laughs] So we paid for a twenty-nine hour reading on the East Coast, in a small theater in New Jersey that wanted to work with us. Because of that twenty-nine hour stage reading they got the show licensed and now it's a licensed musical around the country. We're trying to get more funding so we can continue to do that. We will most likely do one here in L.A. this summer, we do have the funding for that, so that's good. Again, I just want to make it clear that we're not in the business to produce them; we don't take any money, we don't take a percentage, we're just here to help the writers. You should know that most of the people in the audience are writers who either applied to the workshop and didn't get in or just writers who are working on projects, because the value that Stephen offers. And the other panelists will offer feedback to the writers on their specific projects, but then those comments will also incorporate more general coverage of musicals. Like I said, the writer's opening song is critiqued a bit, not found to be strong enough or whatever; that will lead to a discussion about what a good opening song should do. Perhaps the lead character's "I want” song, that first song that the lead character usually gets, after talking about that for a specific project that we just heard, Stephen and the others might go off and do a discussion about, "What makes for a good 'I want' song? Where do you place the 'I want' song?" So that the people in the room who have their musicals have just learned something which will help them. You could interview any writer in that audience and they'll tell you they just learned something about their own project and how to make their project move a bit forward.

MR: How do writers submit to the panel? How does the panel come together, and who puts it together? Then how does the panel come to the decision of who gets in? Is it four every year?

MK: It'll depend on Stephen's schedule how many we can take. The maximum we've taken is six. We solicit musicals from around the world and, I must say, a lot of it has to do with Stephen. Ever sine Wicked, he’s had an international profile so we get musicals every year from around the world. This year alone—Italy, Spain, Israel, Australia, England, Canada… We get lots of musicals. I think this year, we received a hundred and forty-six musicals. I listen to all of them.

MR: Wow! You make it through THAT much material?

MK: Yes, but whoa, whoa, whoa, we don't ask them to send the entire musical. We ask for a sample of four songs of the musical, copy of the lyrics, and a synopsis or outline of the musical. I always want to have a statement or two about each song as to what they think the song they've written is supposed to accomplish in the musical, and then background information—biographical information on the writers. Then I listen to everything. I give myself quite a bit of time, and then I'll usually send Stephen about fourteen or so of the projects. I can't remember the exact number.

MR: So you're the first filter.

MK: Yeah. I listen to it, and then I send it to Stephen and he listens, and then we'll have a discussion about which projects to accept. I certainly look to him, he's a good judge of that. The panelists have nothing to do with that. Then it's up to me to pick the panelists. I try to pick panelists that feel appropriate for the projects they're going to hear. In other words, if it's a musical comedy, I might ask a composer or lyricist who has done work in that field. If it were a pop rock opera I might find a composer or lyricist or book writer or producer who has expertise in that. To be honest with you, I try and do that, but it's also based on availability. I'm pretty good about being able to do that, and I must say that people from the community are really generous about giving back to other writers, so it's something that's relatively easy to do. But it's always about coordinating schedules. Stephen doesn't know in advance who the panelists are; the panelists don't get to hear anything until that night. In a way, they're like going to the theater. Then we have a panel discussion. Sometimes we take a break after the presentation so we can gather their thoughts. We give them copies of the lyrics that night so they can read along with the lyrics if they want to and make notes.

MR: Michael, what advice do you have for new artists?

MK: I'm certainly going to echo Stephen. Ninety percent of what comes out of my mouth, I've learned from Stephen in the last twenty some-odd years. He always says, "Just move forward and open and say yes to everything." If a writer is asked to contribute a song to a concert, to a benefit, get your work out there somehow. I can be a little bit more specific: I have found that one of the great places for new writers to get their work out there, particularly in New York—although it's changing a little bit in LA—is the world of cabaret. I can mention lots of writers who have gone on to major success including Jason Robert Brown, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. While they're still waiting for a show to get on or they're waiting on a project, they put together some friends, do some cabaret shows in New York. Cabaret's such a small world and such a popular world; a lot of theater performers will go to hear new writers because they're always looking for new songs to sing for their concert acts. That's a great place for writers to get their work heard. But in addition, there are always benefits. I tell writers, "You should be going to hear other theater performers when they do their concerts or cabaret shows," you should be prepared to have material with you. Go up to them. Most performers want to hear new songs. Say, "Hey, I'm John Doe, I'm a theater writer, I have a couple of songs I'd like to give you, would you listen?" Most will say yes, and you just don't know where that will lead you.

These two young women who I've mentioned—Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich—they’re currently working for Universal Pictures on Pillow Talk, the old Doris Day movie, as a stage musical. They started performing themselves, they can sing well. They’re not going to be singing stars but there's something nice about songwriters performing their own work, and they would have a guest artist or two, some friends. One of the people who came to see their show early on in a small club in New York was Kristin Chenoweth. Kristin heard one of their songs, “Taylor The Latte Boy.” It's a great song, she loved it. I wasn't there but I know she went up to the writers, they gave her the song, she started singing it. She sang it on Rosie O’Donnell's talk show. That song is not only sung by every young girl under the age of twenty-something around the world, but it became a kind of go-to audition song for young girls on Broadway, so much so that when a girl would start to sing, "Taylor The Latte Boy,” producers would say, "Okay, what else do you have?" because they were so tired of hearing it! But that's a great example of how the art form of cabaret can be really useful for putting a theater writer on the map, and from there, their reputation grew. Producers came to them and now they're well-established. Jason Robert Brown started work in cabaret, doing shows by himself. But also, say yes to everything. Someone comes to you and says, "We're putting a revue together, will you contribute a song?" say yes. Do a reading anywhere. You never know who'll be in the room.

MR: That’s exactly what Rupert Holmes told me. He told me he was once told, "Whenever you're with anybody who says, 'Hey Rupert, can you…,’ the next work out of your mouth should be yes."

MK: Absolutely! By the way, Rupert has been on our panel. He is certainly one of the smartest people. He's a book writer as well as a composer/lyricist, so he can be helpful in all those ways. In fact, two of the young writers that Stephen have nurtured, who are going to be on one of our panels here in LA—Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner—they’re with Rupert on Secondhand Lions, a new musical that they're working on.

MR: Beautiful.

MK: It's a real small world. How do you know Rupert?

MR: I've been in the music business forever and always loved his album Widescreen. When I was at Universal, I reached out to him to do a box set. It’s one of the best; five discs and what great material. It has every one of his albums plus stray singles and material he wrote for others, like duets with Rita Coolidge, his TV series themes, and demos for his work on A Star Is Born. We became friends and have stayed in touch over the years. He is such an amazing mensch. His assistant Teressa Jennings too.

MK: Mensch, yeah, and he's also one of those people—because I've gotten to interview him—you just ask him a question and he will talk for twenty minutes and he will dazzle the audience.

MR: And he's very funny; he’ll line-up that magic moment for the punch line flawlessly.

MK: Absolutely. We ask him as often as we can to be on our panels. He's really smart, and in a kind, helpful way, and that's important, too.

MR: I asked you before about the future of the program, but what about you? How do you see your role in this endeavor growing or evolving in the future?

MK: I have the best job in the world, I honestly do. I've not had one day since 1990 where I've said, "I can't come to work today, I've got to take a personal day." I'm so content. I have no talent. But to get to work with talented people? Well, I get the best of both worlds! I get to work with all the great Stephens, from Schwartz and Sondheim to Flaherty, to the young writers and to watch them flourish. I don't want to single out specific writers, but we created a program ten years ago at Northwestern where every summer, we invite about sixteen songwriters to spend a week just writing. There's no agenda, there's nothing. It's not just for theater writers. It's theater, it's pop, it can be country. They spend a week there with three master teachers who work with these writers. They have to be under the age of twenty-nine and there's no cost. We started this ten years ago. It's every June at Northwestern.

That first year, there were these two young boys who had just graduated college and they worked on a song. At the end of the week, all the writers have to sing one song. We put together a little concert, open it to the general public, and each writer has to play one song that they've worked on. These two young boys get up and sing a song called "Part Of A Painting," and I just fell off my chair. I went up to them and I said, "I don't know who you are, but we have to have breakfast tomorrow and you have to join ASCAP." We did and they did and you just knew how extraordinarily gifted these two young boys are. They've gone on and I'm not surprised. They had a hit Broadway musical about two years ago, the Tony-nominated A Christmas Story, based on the movie. They had an off-Broadway musical called Dogfight that gets produced internationally. They are currently working on four major projects. They wrote eight songs for Hugh Jackman's movie musical about P.T. Barnum that begins filming in June. They wrote six songs for a movie that just finished filming here in L.A. called La La Land with Emma Stone. They have a musical that played in Washington D.C. next month called Dear Evan Hansen that got extraordinary reviews, they just signed with Sony Pictures to have their first animated movie musical, and they're working for Disney on a stage adaptation of a documentary about magic. They are thirty and thirty-one years old and this is what makes my job slash life worth everything, when I see that happen. I hope that answers your question of where I see myself. I just want to keep doing that. I'm a very happy man.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne


photo credit: Lindsey Byrnes

According to Zack Lopez...

On the "I Don't Know" Video:

"I've only ever worked with one video director, so when it came time to start thinking about visuals to go with the music I was sort of out of my comfort zone. A, for this being my first piece of music outside of MC Rut, and B, for not having the familiarity of someone I've worked with before. A good friend of mine hooked me up with Tomas, a local up and coming video director and we went over ideas. I was into the style of videos I'd seen him do, which felt like a flip book. constant collages of different footage that relied more on helping the song move than any single performance or story line. So we met up in downtown Sacramento, shot a bunch of stuff in an the attic of a community center, shot some live performance stuff at a show, then he came down to the rehearsal space of my other band Burro and filmed me and those guys jamming the song. I think this time around I was looking to have multiple visuals to represent the different songs vs. one big budget video and all the weight on ONE song. It felt like less pressure. I think what we got flows really well with the song and drives its energy."

On "Even The Losers":

"I got a text one day from Tiffanie at my label Bright Antenna. she told me she could hear me singing Petty's 'Even The Losers' and that I should cover it. Being a huge fan, and always looking for a reason to cover more of his songs I agreed. I was already on my way to the studio so I sat down with an acoustic and figured out a good key for my voice to sing it in. It felt good right away, and sounded natural so I threw up a guitar mic, a vocal mic and a room mic and started to record. It was a lot more stripped down than what I normally do. When this Pledge campaign started, it felt like a perfect opportunity to throw a song out to whoever wanted to hear it, one that might normally be considered a 'demo' and destined to live on a hard-drive. Going back and re-recording it properly--whatever that means--would have lost whatever feel I was able to capture with recording the song a few minutes after learning and singing it for the first time. I feel like I work best when things are brand new and the energy isn't planned out yet."

Michel Bolton with pianist Brian Becvar
Michel Bolton with pianist Brian Becvar
photo courtesy Childhelp

A Conversation with Michael Bolton

Mike Ragogna: Michael, it looks like you've been a busy guy.

Michael Bolton: I've got an interesting calendar. It's got these little airplane icons all over it.

MR: I know you've been working with Childhelp. Can you go into what the organization is and your association?

MB: Well, I just had the pleasure and honor of association with them by performing at one of their events years ago. As most people who experience their events and the work that they do are, I was completely, emotionally blown away by what they do for children and this very emotional, human approach that they have even though there's a lot of clinical work involved, they just feel like people who really, really care and really love what they do. I was very impressed. There's an evening of music and artists--actually, I believe there are a few evenings, because there were people who performed the night before as well. Then you listen to the kind of work they're doing. It's heartbreaking that the work needs to be done, but I see this pretty much everywhere I go, because I also have an organization that works with at-risk youth. This organization in particular, the Children's Center of Arizona, this is all they do, non-stop. The thing is, all I can do is show up. I can help raise money. I can help raise attention by showing up; I found that out some twenty-six years ago.

It dawned on me that I should be doing my own work. I do it in my home state of Connecticut with the Michael Bolton Foundation, which became the Michael Bolton Charity and is primarily about women and children at risk. You see people there doing incredible work; as a matter of fact, the Children's Center Of Arizona is what we'd like to see more of around the country. The work that my organization is doing in Connecticut is important, but there are so many more children, so many more families that we can't reach, that we can't get to. The shelters and organizations and family advocates that exist now in Connecticut are overburdened or at their max. When you go to this event in Arizona, you see and feel this hopefulness and you understand how completely engaged they are in their work and it's very, very moving, especially when you have children of your own and for a second, imagine your kids having this kind of challenge and this kind of trauma in their lives. It's incredible that there are people there to see them through the toughest times. Hopefully, the toughest times that they'll ever face will be behind them shortly.

MR: So what I also didn't know about Michael Bolton is that you are the Honorary Chairman of Prevent Child Abuse America and This Close For Cancer Research, as well as the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital.

MB: I couldn't find the time that would justify that title, even honorarily. I wish that I had more time and maybe at some point, that's all I'll do. But I wish I had more time to do more work with those great organizations. I'm now primarily in an intense mode to create a family justice center in the state of Connecticut--the first one. Mayor Bloomberg has created several and they are phenomenal, one-stop facilities for women and their children. They protect them and they have legal counseling and therapists, pretty much everything that a family needs during a transition, in one place. That's one of the amazing and impressive details about Childhelp's Children's Center Of Arizona. It is like a one-stop with people with all kinds of skills and training; people who are forensic interviewers and family advocates and very familiar with lots of therapists. A lot of services are available to children through this organization, so I was happy to get the phone call.

MR: It's also worth mentioning you've received awards from the National Child Labor Committee, the Martin Luther King Award from the Congress Of Racial Equality, Ellis Island Medal Of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition Of Organization, Hollywood Chamber Of Commerce also recognized you with a star on the Walk Of Fame--in fact I even think I remember where it is.

MB: [laughs] It's across from the Chinese Theatre. I wasn't aware of some of the organizations that approached me and how far back their history goes in helping people, but I think that's something that celebrity accelerates, that the opportunity to do something where you feel like you're making a discernible difference hopefully, and having people who have been doing this for fifty years or seventy-five years before you and they are just one generation of committed human beings after another. It's great to be recognized by them but I find that to be fuel. It inspires you to do more and it all makes perfect sense down the road. As I'm sure you know, it's one life at a time. If you can help reach one person at a time and bring whatever resources they need, that is going to be a life-altering experience for them. With at-risk youth, you're talking about life-saving services. I'm honored to be able to say, "Yeah, I showed up at that event," or "Yes, I worked with this organization," "I support this organization," you want to do that with your life, don't you?

MR: With all of the associations and organizations and the focus on child advocacy that you've had over the years, do you have a story of anyone who deeply affected you?

MB: There are many more than one time. There are events that have happened where stories have been shared and your face is wet, your eyes are streaming basically. I think so many of us are so fortunate and we're wanting the best for our kids and we're hoping they succeed in whatever arena they pursue and we're not necessarily threatened by the enormity of the challenges that a lot of children, a lot of young people are. I've been to events where the most powerful thing that you could ever hear or feel is a survivor with their children talking about how they just barely made it to be able to speak in front of you, to be able to be there today because they were in life-threatening circumstances. A lot of times where there's family violence and domestic violence, everyone is in extreme danger. I spent a lot of time going to DC and basically working the Hill--I wouldn't say "lobbying" because I was basically asking politely or begging for meetings with senators and congressmen to be able to keep authorizing and funding VAWA--the Violence Against Women Act. While I was in DC, I would hear women and children speak in front of congressmen and senators to try to make sure this bill was passed and supported and funded. I think that's just the most powerful experience you're going to have if you're taking up any cause. Hearing it from someone who lived and survived through it, there's a tone and a reality of what you're listening to that is riveting.

I know I have a lot of individual stories that are very powerful; for me, they were very impactful. It's not one alone that makes you think, "Okay, I've got to do more of this," it's just the series of them. It starts with statistics and information that come through my executive director for my organization, and she'll come to me and say, "We have this shelter asking for a grant and here's what's going on, here's now many people they have, here's how many kids are here and they're there for more than ninety days," and then she'll walk me through the circumstances and it's heartbreaking, but the cure to it is achievable, it's reachable because you have these people--and I have to come back to Childhelp and the Children's Center Of Arizona because that's a big part of what has us on the phone: It's the commitment that these people are making with their lives to support the children, to take care of them, to provide them with therapeutic service that's definitely life-saving, life-altering and they've been through a lot of trauma. It doesn't happen unless you have these saint-like people--that's how I look at them. They're speaking about how many years they've been with this organization, that was one of the single most profound elements of my last fundraiser with the center. I didn't feel like I was hearing data from doctors and scientists about the breakthroughs in a certain type of cancer or cancer research in general; I wasn't hearing facts and figures. I was hearing these loving, devoted people who live for their work, who wake up looking forward to doing work with children. Those are the heroes. The celebrity gets their name plastered on posters or advertisements for events, but that's basically using celebrity as a type of currency. That's something we can do in the United States. We don't have royalty but we do have celebrity. I saw these other people doing this for massive fundraising and I felt like I should be doing something. I felt like I was doing nothing but showing up at their events, so I started in Connecticut. But I've found organizations like this around the world. This one in particular, there's something so constantly human throughout the event and throughout all the people speaking that you just feel very, very humbled to be a part of it.

MR: And you balance this out with being an entertainer. You're, I guess the term would be "crowdfunding," a new album, right?

MB: I don't know that would I use that term "crowdfunding," although that's probably correct. We're working with people who are pretty much forward-thinking, and they see a lot of artists who are branded enough and have a high enough recognition factor that we can do a lot of the work going around the record label until we decide to go through whichever label is the right one. I was at Sony for about twenty years and we had tremendous success together. The possibilities of promoting and marketing your music, as compared to the 101 that I did for twenty-five years or so, mostly with Sony music... We worked really well as a team together. They said, "If you go to Norway, they're going to really bring this album home," and I had to look to on a map to see where Norway was, but I went and I did the work and I realized there's a human element in all the business, too. When you're a real person, you're not just a CD cover, and you show up in different countries you say, "I'm here because I hear I've got some champions who believe in this record." It's amazing how you'll find these champions and they'll sit down with you and say, "This is what I love about this song, this is the second single I'm thinking." There are people who are taking up the cause of your project.

That is something you find all around the world, especially if you've been around a hundred years like I have. You meet people who have been fans for a long time; they know all the hits, they know who you write with, their favorite tracks are sometimes not necessarily the singles or the biggest songs in that country, but they're huge fans. It's about engaging with them and then activating them as champions in the new world of the new music business. Pledge is a company that I work with that you mentioned in the form of "crowdfunding." Pledge is a very, very smart company that will work with branded, well-known artists and names to help them achieve what they're trying to do artistically without going the route of starting with a label, being A&R'd or controlled by a label. It's been a long time since I've been controlled by someone who works at a record company deciding what I should record and what I shouldn't record. Artists, I think, should have the freedom to be the artists they are. Pledge has created a platform for people like myself to put out the word through social networking, another term we both learned from our kids, and now we do a lot of it. You basically tell them you're about to start recording and engage with them about what they're looking for and then they get engaged. I apparently have some very active friends through social networking. I guess you could call that a form of "crowdfunding."

MR: Right, and it's just a term that's used. Hey Michael, what advice do you have for new artists?

MB: I've always felt like I would never push anyone into the record business even when records were selling in the millions and tens of millions if you had a couple of hits on the same album. Once I realized how hard a career is in the business, I never pushed anyone in that direction. But when I could feel that someone really had the fire in their belly, when it's really all you want to do and it's your first and most powerful passion, then I just give them advice depending on whether they're songwriters or singers primarily. If you're a singer primarily, you've got to take care of your voice. My primary advice would be that your instrument is your gift and how you take care of it and how you take care of yourself in every way--physically, mentally, how focused you remain, to make your instrument the greatest it can be. Choose the few favorite singers that you have and sing along with their records when they're performing some of their most difficult vocals. The ones that are difficult to sing along with, those are the ones you should master. Then you'll have that kind of flexibility in your voice, you'll have that control and that projection, the elements that are appealing to you, and you'll definitely bring your own instrument, your own voice, front and center. Study the masters, whoever you think the masters are. Study them, because that's like working out in a gym, and that's demanding. For me, I grew up to--well, I didn't quite grow up, but if I had grown up--Stevie Wonder was so great to sing along with because if you could finish his variations along with him, you just achieved something with your instrument. You just achieved a certain level of control and flexibility. Listening to Pavarotti or sing along with the great tenors and you're going to have more power. You're basically taking your voice to a gym and trying to achieve something with it, which is to make it the greatest instrument it can be. That's my advice. We don't have enough time to get into the steps that follow to find a good manager and representatives who are your champions, but you also will need a champion in your corner to fight. It's a very, very tough business. But if you have the gift and the right song or songs, you can be heard above the clutter.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

The Tenors album

A Conversation with The Tenors' Fraser Walters

Mike Ragogna: Fraser, The Tenors tour is pretty much non-stop. You've already done the seventy-city North American fall tour, you've had a Christmas single, your album was at number one--I think it's certified gold already--what is going on, sir?

Fraser Walters: Well, it's been a wild ride, we're having a blast! We're really enjoying meeting new fans and some familiar fans alike on the Under One Sky tour. It's an exciting show to bring to all of these communities around North America. We've got a big rig with us with great video projections, we spent a lot of time building this show, we've got the most productions we've ever had on the road, and the response from the audience and fans has just really been incredible. Like you said, the record's already gone gold, it's on its way to platinum, we were buoyed by a number one song on the radio this Christmas, and another one of our original songs on the album got great radio play in the US. We're about as happy as we could be.

MR: Let's chat about how you approached this album. To me, the concept of Under One Sky is a statement of unity. So how did that concept come about?

FW: Originally, we were writing a song for the Pan Am games that happened in Toronto last year, so this idea came up and it was an original idea and we ended up penning this song that took on a life of its own. The label really loved it and loved the concept of humanity focusing on our similarities instead of our differences. As we all know there's a lot of chaos in the world, and we take the responsibility seriously that our music really inspires people, it helps them through difficult periods in our lives, and we just wanted to really have a positive impact with this album. The response has been incredible. We end each show with that song, "Under One Sky," we get everyone up, and it becomes a bit of a dance party at the end with lights flashing and people screaming. It's pretty fun! There are so many different styles in this Tenors show--you've got everything from "Granada" and classical pieces... We've got a very epic arrangement of "Who Wants To Live Forever" a Queen cover that we did; we filmed a great video for that over in Prague that we released on Halloween. We were all dressed up as vampires in a great castle that we found in the outskirts of Prague. That was a duet actually with Lindsey Stirling who is an amazing violinist who has had some incredible collaborations. She's a YouTube sensation who's got millions and millions of subscribers. So there's that piece on the record, and then there's a lot of stuff that we've written ourselves including "Under One Sky." But there are six or seven songs that are originals and we're really appreciative of the songwriting community. The fans have all spoken up that they love hearing our original music, so we've built a part into the show where we're all playing our instruments.

MR: What instruments do you all play?

FW: We play guitar, bass, and piano between The Tenors, so we like to do an acoustic set in the middle to show off those chops as well.

MR: Wow. All under one sky. Ahem.

FW: That's it. [laughs]

MR: What do you think led to The Tenors' global acceptance?

FW: On our first tour, we did twelve shows in fourteen days in a small province in Canada called Saskatchewan. There's a lot of farmland there, and we didn't even perform in the major two towns. So we really started very small and honestly, we joked that it was a Toyota Corolla that we were traveling around in or that the janitor was the guy working the lights. We had very humble beginnings and it was just word of mouth that helped us sell about ten thousand CDs out of the proverbial trunk of the car. The record label really caught interest after they realized that the movement was taking on a life of its own, so they wanted to be a part of the ride. Obviously, they offered some great exposure and some resources for us to record higher quality albums and get them out to a global audience, so we started as The Canadian Tenors many years ago and we feel like we earned our stripes. We did our ten thousand hours as it were, going from city to city, community to community, we did a tour around the US, there were about sixty dates that we did with a piano player all in smaller towns, but that led to us doing our first PBS special which we got great exposure for, we had David Foster as a guest artist on that one and Sarah McLachlan as well. Now we've just finished our third PBS special, it was our biggest and best yet. We're so thrilled to be breaking through that glass ceiling like you said. Being on Oprah's show helped, with Celine Dion surprising us. That took us to a new level in the US and internationally. We're getting a lot of great opportunities as The Tenors, we got invited to sing at the white house Christmas celebration on PBS. We've done a lot for the NFL now. We're very, very grateful to be musicians that are getting an opportunity on the world stage.

MR: In the beginning, you were The Canadian Tenors, something that obviously differentiated you from the other tenor groups in the world. Wasn't that a bit intimidating to you guys, there being so many "tenor" vocal groups out there? Or was it so inspiring that it led you to work harder?

FW: That's a good question. We are classically trained; two of the guys are more operatic-sounding, two of us are more pop. At the time, we were probably seen as nobodies, so when you're starting out and you're automatically called The Canadian Tenors, it does bring some power to the name, that you're already the national tenors, whether anyone anointed you with that title or not, it worked well for putting on concerts and things because people think, "Oh, these are the national tenors!" So it certainly was a great way for us to start in our home country and get going, but we always knew we wanted this to be an international project, no matter what. Now we are referred to as The Tenors, but we still share our Canadian story. Every song that we write or co-write is inherently Canadian because of where we were born and where we grew up. We also feature Canadian songs. One of our most well-known songs is "Hallelujah," which we sang on Oprah and the Emmys, and we don't go a concert without performing it. That's from a great Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen, from Montreal. We do share our stories of growing up in Canada, but having that name, The Tenors, allows the international audience to take ownership. Sometimes if we're in the US people happen to think we're from there, or if we're from Australia for instance. It works as an international moniker. We are going back to England in May, we've been invited to sing at the Queen's ninetieth birthday, which is about as extreme a thrill as one could have. That one will be broadcast on ITV to millions of people, so that quite something.

MR: Because of your upward trajectory, I imagine your publicists and managers and advisors and everyone must be throwing suggestions at you every five minutes. Are they doing that? How is that affecting how you approach your career and your creativity?

FW: I think that's a great question and not one that we get often. It does take a village, no doubt, and with the good comes the bad. I think there can be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but ultimately, it is the four of us Tenors who own the business, as it were, and who make the final creative decisions. There's not one "suit" leading the charge and laying down the law and saying, "This is how we have to go." We're very lucky because there are other groups who don't have our autonomy. We do put our heads together, and, of course, there are four alpha males, so sometimes, you get some serious discussions going, like any family would. We do consider it a family and a marriage because we spend so much time together. In fact, we're with each other more than we're with our own families, and that's a sacrifice that we make to pursue this dream that we have of sharing our music with as many people as will listen. Certainly, we have great management and great agents and an amazing team that can help inform us of certain statistics whether it be with social media or helping to find some collaborations or some great gigs internationally. But at the end of the day, to your question, the creativity does sort of start and stop with us, and we feel very, very lucky to have that creative freedom to try things. Sometimes we fail, but sometimes it's an incredible success.

MR: Nice. What separates your vocal group creatively from other vocal groups? What is it about The Tenors that makes you most unique?

FW: We appreciate the other groups in our genre that are working hard and being creative, coming up with new ideas. Pentatonix are doing incredibly well and we love the focus that's bringing to vocal music and to harmonies. There are a lot of kids out there that sing in choirs, the TV show Glee was pretty cool, it shows that kids can be alienated or stigmatized for being in the glee club but there are some amazing things to learn when you're standing in a group of people, some of whom you don't have to be best friends with, or you might be of a different background, a different religion, but you come together with that global language that is music. There's a beautiful theory there of conflict resolution. You can have differing opinions, be them political or religious or what have you, but there always is common ground with humanity and with music, we think. We're proud to see other groups in our genre having success because the amount of times that we've heard from people, "Oh, I was on Pandora looking up Josh Groban and I just stumbled upon you guys." We're so grateful that Josh has done so well, and Andrea Bocelli before him, and The Three Tenors before Andrea. We're sort of standing on the shoulders of giants that came before us. We certainly tip our hats to them at times when we're covering songs by them. In our live show, we do a tribute to Pavarotti and Elvis with a medley that you wouldn't think would go together but it brings the house down at the end of the performance with songs like "Funiculi Funicula" and "Nessun Dorma" and then "Can't Help Falling In Love" and "Suspicious Minds."

MR: Sounds pretty wild! You're having a lot of fun at this point, aren't you.

FW: You have to. If you're not having fun nine years in, you should probably look for something else to do. Because we do spend so much time on the road we have to be really committed and we have to be ready to work and ready to set aside any issues or differences and be there for the right reasons. We've had such an outpouring of support from our fans over the years, we hear from them all the time on Facebook and social media, we get letters to our office, and our meet and greets, our fans are bringing gifts and things, but really just having them at the shows cheering us on and singing along to our songs, especially ones that we've written, seeing them know every word, it's like nothing else. It's such an honor to have that, and we cherish our relationship with our fans. We're so grateful that they share it with their friends and family, because God knows we cover pretty much every inch of North America, so if we haven't been to your neck of the woods, we'll be there soon.

MR: I live in Iowa so I'm expecting you to play in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City any day now.

FW: Absolutely!

MR: [laughs] You've mentioned your original songs. How do you create them when you're so busy? What's the creative process like when The Tenors write a brand new song?

FW: That's a good question. It can happen anywhere; it can happen in a hotel room, or sometimes we rent studios when we're on the road; it can happen on the back of the tour bus. There are no boundaries as to where the right place is. Sometimes you're sitting on a plane and you're working on lyrics with your colleague and people around you are wondering why you're talking so much. It can really happen anywhere and, in fact, it does. You never know when that voice is going to come through you. Sometimes, you feel like the medium through which this creative juice is flowing. We're grateful that it's happened to us. We've also had some incredible writing sessions with some of the best writers who have worked with the top artists in the world, people like Bob Ezrin who produced Pink Floyd, and Walter Afanasieff who worked for many years with Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, and David Foster, of course, who's behind Michael Bublé, Groban and Bocelli. To have colleagues like that... Foster took us on his HitMan tour of North America and Asia, that's where I met my wife, so he's kind of our Cupid in a funny way. He's been a great champion for us, helping get our music out there. We have no shortage of friends in high places and we're very, very lucky to have their support.

MR: And I imagine creative instincts come into play when you're arranging or even choosing songs to cover.

FW: Yeah, exactly. We do share our ideas with some people on the outside. Again, if you open up the conversation to too many people, there can be so many cooks in the kitchen. But we certainly do send some emails or have a meeting with certain people we trust and say, "Hey, here are fifty songs that we've narrowed down from three hundred." We'll have these crazy lists of songs and they'll help us. They'll say, "Well I don't really see you guys doing this but maybe throw a demo together and see what happens." There's always a good challenge there for us to prove why a song might work.

MR: Is there a certain type of song you all gravitate toward?

FW: Yeah, there's never a clear-cut, necessarily obvious choice. Some of those songs are so big. Like "Lean On Me" is such a huge song, you're almost nervous to take it on because you think, "How can we beat the original?" But that's not essentially the goal in the end. You really want to put your own stamp on it and you want people to be moved by your version and make it different. On our version, we made it more contemporary. We really focused on the harmonies, which aren't in the original as much, and we changed some chords around and gave it a little different color to some of the lyrics. We're so happy with how it ended up. It actually was chosen for a big promotion on TV recently, which was actually touching on mental health and how it affects many North Americans. We think the lyrics really bring light to some of the challenges that people have and that there always is someone there to lean on, and our video speaks to that message.

MR: Is the band committed to social causes as well?

FW: Yeah, no doubt. There's a lot of information on our website that talks about the work we've done in Bulembu, in the Kingdom of Swaziland in Africa. Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV in the world, so there's a grave issue there with orphan care. Over the past few years, we've given four or five concerts to help raise over three million dollars for this organization. We're very, very proud of that work. We also work here in North America with the Horatio Alger Association, and they give financial need-based scholarships to students who have the grades but not the resources to pursue further education. I think in ten years, they've given a hundred and ten million bucks to twenty six thousand North American students, so it's an incredible number and we do encourage people who might know of a deserving student to read more on our website.

MR: Obviously, you guys learned to juggle. Lots of plates in the air!

FW: You bet. We juggle with knives and we ride elephants. No, you know what? We're so lucky and we do feel the responsibility upon us as that as we are having success, so, too can we bring light to issues that we find very important in the world around us.

MR: Fraser, what advice do you have for new artists?

FW: There's nothing better than spending those hours honing your craft, really digging in and--as a skiing term--earning your turns. It's the hours it takes. It's the bloody fingers with the calluses when you're playing guitar, your back hurting after hours at the piano, all those minutes, seconds, hours that you spend into developing your craft really come in handy when you're finally given that opportunity to shine, when you're finally put in front of a national television audience. If you've done those hours of preparation and you really focus that energy, it's going to be quite a thrill. If you're a little too lackadaisical and you're hoping that because your dad knows someone in the business, it might work for a shot period of time. But if you can't deliver in those high pressure situations, this might not be the path for you.

There are a lot of great ways to get your music out there these days, the music industry is no longer governed by the major record companies in the sense that they pick the five stars that they want to make that year. These days, you can directly communicate with your fans, and, no doubt, no matter how eclectic your music is, there are going to be groups out there that are keen to hear what you have to do. It just depends on what level and how many people. But certainly putting those hours in, being creative, being prepared to fail, putting things out there that may not get as great a response as something else...but you have to be prepared to meet failure and just overcome that. There are a lot of successful people out there who will tell you they had an idea and they got turned down ten, fifteen, twenty times. But the twenty-first time they tried, it was the perfect answer to what someone was looking for. Just because you get turned down a few times doesn't mean that there won't be someone there to enjoy your music. Failure is just another word for "No, try again," or "Maybe in the future." It doesn't have to be finality by any means.

MR: Were you guys mentored? Do you mentor anyone?

FW: Yeah, absolutely. The kids that I talked about in Africa are featured in one of our new music videos, the kids choir. That's one example, but we've done a lot of work with Free the Children as well in North America, so we'll go and play the schools, sharing music in local communities. This year, we're going to be doing some more master classes. We have a new initiative that we're planning. Certainly, we love sharing this gift with young people and we love seeing them grow over the years.

MR: So what is the plan from here?

FW: The plan is to continue being creative. It looks like we're going into the studio to record new music for a Christmas release next Fall. We'll have a big Christmas tour in November and December around North America, so that's the immediate side of things. Globally speaking, we will be over in Europe and doing some dates in Asia as well. We're just so grateful. Like I've said, we take this responsibility quite seriously, to share music. We have the platform to bring a lot of positivity to the world and we love that our music inspires people to do their best and we're going to keep putting that positive tinge on our music for years to come.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne


photo credit: Megan Marie

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