PLAYBILL PICKS: The Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know, Part Three

By Michael Gioia
January 28, 2014

A new crop of musical theatre songwriter is making noise, and Playbill put its ear to the ground to hear what they have to offer. Pop-rock music, art songs, cabaret and traditional narrative show tunes inform the work of these rising writers. In this continuing series, we've got their stories — and audio samples of their songs.



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When you think of "contemporary musical theatre writers," who comes to mind? Jason Robert Brown, the Tony Award-winning composer of Parade, The Last 5 Years, Songs For a New World, 13 and the upcoming Bridges of Madison County? The late Jonathan Larson, whose Tony and Pulitzer-winning rock opera Rent changed the face of contemporary theatre? Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose varied Latin styles won him a Tony for In the Heights? Amanda Green, the lyricist of Bring It On, High Fidelity and Hands on a Hardbody? How about Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, whose Next to Normal told the tale of mental illness with pulsing rock, and whose If/Then will bow on Broadway this season? Playbill is about to change your view of what's "new."

Much like Brown, Kitt, Yorkey, Green, Larson and the other Broadway composers who fall on the wide spectrum of contemporary music theatre, there is a rising community of non-Broadway songwriters who use pop and rock to tell provocative, boundary-pushing stories. And, like those who came before, their songs are starting to be sung by up-and-coming voices in the Broadway community.

Although the newcomers' songs have not been heard on Broadway, there is evidence of their work everywhere. Their music is brought to life at New York City nightclubs such as 54 Below, Joe's Pub, (le) Poisson Rouge and Birdland, developmental spots like Ars Nova, on songwriter websites and internet platforms like YouTube. Their work is being developed in New York and around the country, their music is materializing on iTunes and fans are demanding their sheet music.

Playbill.com reached out to a handful of songwriters or songwriting teams — those yet to debut their work on Broadway — whose music is slowly making its mark on American Musical Theatre.

In this multi-part series, meet the songwriters you should know, who dish on their musical influences, projects in development and share a few of their favorite tracks. (We've also linked to some YouTube clips as well.)

Click here for Part One of The Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should KnowClick here for Part Two of The Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know

Alexander Sage Oyen

Composer-lyricist Alexander Sage Oyen — along with frequent collaborator James Presson — was recently awarded the 2013-14 Dramatist Guild Fellowship, and their musical Outlaws (which was given an industry reading Jan. 23 and starred Jay Armstrong Johnson as infamous outlaw, robber and murderer Jesse James) was selected for the 2014 ASCAP Workshop. The reading comes off the heels of Oyen's sold-out concert presentation of Moment by Moment, a song cycle of his work seen at 54 Below with Spider-Man's Jason Gotay, Mamma Mia!'s Zak Resnick, Godspell's George Salazar and former Spring Awakening actresses Alice Lee and Emma Hunton. "I'm not sure, exactly, if I can characterize my sound," admitted Oyen. "But what I can do is let you in on a bit of what I believe my writing aesthetic to be. I like to write simply. I find that my own voice (and, in turn, a character's voice) comes through best on a concise idea or melody. I find that no matter how detailed you've been in combing through your lyrics, that there's always a simpler and easier way to say things." (Check out "We Were Giants," a simplistic — and beautiful — coming-of-age ballad from Moment by Moment, performed by Gotay, Resnick, Salazar, Lee and Hunton; and "Vietnam," about a boy learning about the powers of war from his father, performed by Resnick.)

"Growing up, I listened to a lot of incredible theatre music on car rides," said Oyen, who has released three albums ("If I Knew Better" and two volumes of "Drafts") and is also the author of Sidekicks! (seen as part of NYMF's 2012 Reading Series) and A Night Like This (produced at Florida State University and Princeton University). "My mom is an amazing singer-performer — she was the first person to sing [songwriter] John Bucchino's music in New York City. I would listen to old demos of John's gorgeous tunes, I'd listen to Stephen Schwartz cast albums (and solo albums, obviously), Sondheim cast albums, and I think that those really helped the foundation of the writer that I am today." (Listen to "The Little Things," performed by Oyen and his mother, Lois Sage. Sage also sings "Boys," a song Oyen said he "is really proud of.") "The first musical that really made me pay attention as a young man was Wicked," Oyen added of his musical influences. "It was my thirteenth birthday, I think, and my mom had gotten us house seats, and I was just floored by it. I definitely got the bug that day." Oyen considers Wicked writer Schwartz one of his mentors.

Aside from Outlaws, Oyen is also at work developing a musical about "suspiciously murderous Catholic school girls" entitled Immaculate Hearts, an untitled musical about a father and son who are separated by time and tragedy and a musical about the porn industry entitled Money$hot!" I just want a young person to someday be able to see something that I write and, love it or hate it, watch a story unfold." (Listen to "Where Do the Lonely Souls Go?," an autobiographical tune about being a musical theatre artist in New York City.)

Listen to "Minnesota Nice" from Immaculate Hearts:

Listen to the power-ballad "South I Used to Know" from Outlaws:

Zoe Sarnak

Composer-lyricist Zoe Sarnak's musicals Mixtape (a series of vignettes that track the lifelong friendship between two record-store owners, Thatcher and Louise, and mixes pop, rock and soul tunes with original song) and A Lasting Impression (about two sisters, a composer and a painter, and the young journalist who uncovers their family secrets) were recently seen in concert in New York City. Mixtape was presented in January at 54 Below with Richard H. Blake, Kristy Cates, Mykal Kilgore, Taylor Noble, Zak Resnick and Kacie Sheik. (Listen to "Here to Fix You" from Mixtape, performed here by Sheik.) A Lasting Impression was seen in summer 2013 with Meghann Fahy, Sheik, Tony winner Alice Ripley and Preston Sadleir. (Listen to "Unfold" from Lasting Impression, a favorite of Sarnak's that is performed here by Sheik, Taylor Noble and Allison Case.)

"Let's call it folk/rock/pop/soul/theatre," said Sarnak of her musical style. "That's a Billboard category right?" (Check out "Give Words of Love," performed here as part of the Playbill Video Hot Off the Ivories series with Ghost's Caissie Levy and Taylor Noble; and "Give Me Strength," performed with Godspell's Eric Michael Krop. The songs both exemplify Sarnak's musical theatre influences with traces of folk, rock, pop and soul sounds.) The composer-lyricist, the winner of Pace New Musicals 2012 and the 2013 NJ Playwright's contest, also said that her musicality is influenced by The Beatles. Why? "I think that's because it's a damn good answer," she said. "I also love singer-songwriters like Sara Bareilles, Gavin Degraw, etc. I have a soft spot for Britney [Spears] because of when I grew up. Musical theatre wise, my 'know-every-word' favorites are probably Rent and Hair... though there are so many other shows that are near and dear." (Listen to "The Flame," performed by former Next to Normal actresses Ripley and Emma Hunton, that has a rock feel.)

Sarnak has also written The Quad, which was produced at Harvard University's Loeb Experimental Theatre in 2009 and received the Ann Radcliffe Trust, and PainLess, which she is developing with Michael Kimmel (The Last Goodbye). On her favorite songs, Sarnak said, "As cliché as it might sound, that's like choosing a favorite child. I do have a few songs like 'Unfold' and 'I Had Today' that have special meaning personally. Still, no playing favorites!" (Listen to "I Had Today," performed here by Taylor Noble, Gabe Violett, Krista Pioppi, Emily Kay Shrader and Tim Young.)

Listen to Sarnak's popular song "If Your Child," performed by Spring Awakening's Lauren Pritchard:

Listen to "Unfold," performed by Taylor Noble:

Joey Contreras

Joey Contreras considers himself "a musical pop songwriter." He said, "I have songs that are musical theatre tunes through a pop lens [as well as] those that are pop songs through a musical theatre lens. I like playing in the gradience of those two colors." (Check out "Great, Cool," a song that straddles the worlds of pop and musical theatre and is performed by Spring Awakening's Blake Daniel and Newsies' Ben Fankhauser. The song functioned as the premiere music video in "Hot Off the Ivories," a music series, created by Contreras, that screens exclusively on Playbill Video and captures story songs in a sleek, intimate format, à la MTV-style music videos. "Good Friends," performed by Spring Awakening's Phoebe Strole — and the second video in the "Hot Off the Ivories" series — is another example of Contreras' musical theatre instincts infused by a pop flair.)

"My current trifecta of inspiration is Dr. Luke, Sara Bareilles and, randomly, Leonard Bernstein," explained Contreras, whose musicals include All The Kids Are Doing It, which features a book and lyrics by Kate Thomas and recently received a workshop at The Provincetown Theatre with The Steinhardt School at New York University, and the song cycle This Thing Called Love. "Their work has such elements of fun, emotion and sensuality — all things I respond to and hope I can pack into my music. Not many shows have strongly influenced my style, per se, but I will say that The Last Five Years opened my eyes and ushered me into the contemporary musical theatre scene… Company sort of changed my life as well." (Watch Contreras' "Love Me, Love Me Not," a song about unrequited love performed here by Natalie Weiss that is the title track off his debut album "Love Me, Love Me Not: The Music of Joey Contreras" and arguably his most popular piece — alongside "With Him," passionately performed here by Katie Thompson, who, Contreras claimed, "hit it out of the park" with this song. His album features many tunes from This Thing Called Love.)

Contreras, a recipient of the 2010 ASCAP Foundation Max Dreyfus Scholarship Award, is currently the first artist-in-residence with Broadway Dreams Foundation, in which he is currently developing his next album "Young Kind of Love." The composer-lyricist, who has recently played sold-out concerts at Rockwood (premiering a plethora of pop music) and will make his Los Angeles debut next month, plans to create "refreshing, honest and enjoyable stories that pack emotional punches and infectious melodies." He continues to develop All The Kids Are Doing It alongside collaborator Thomas, with plans for additional book musicals in his future.

Listen to Contreras' current single "Constellation," recorded alongside BDF students:

Listen to "Ready," a song Contreras is particularly proud of. "The fact that it's been used in a bunch of graduations and show choirs across the country," he added, "is pretty amazing."

Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham

Composer Joshua Salzman and lyricist Ryan Cunningham are recent Jonathan Larson Award winners as well as Drama Desk and MAC Award-nominated writers. Their 2006 Off-Broadway musical I Love You Because has been produced around the world in five languages, and their second musical, Next Thing You Know, has been produced at CAP21 in New York, across the States and in Europe. "Our sound depends heavily on what subject matter we're tackling — but we do think of ourselves as songwriters first and foremost," they explained. "Our first two musicals, I Love You Because and Next Thing You Know, both took place in contemporary New York, and we took cues from the music you hear in New York City bars and coffee shops — and then put it through a theatrical filter." (Listen to "Another Saturday Night in New York" from I Love You Because, performed by Colin Hanlon, David Austin, Courtney Balan, Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jordan Leeds; and "Hungover" from Next Thing You Know, performed here by Lauren Blackman, Adam Kantor, Andrew Kober and Kate Rockwell.)

"Our newest show takes place in 1977 New York City," they continued, "so now we're trying to capture the sound of the city at that time, while making sure that all the layers of New York that came before are bubbling under the surface as well." Their next project is about the New York City blackout of 1977 and is entitled The Legend of New York. (Check out "Get Gone," featuring lead vocals by J. Bernard Calloway, that is from The Legend of New York.) The musical, an adventure comedy "through New York at its grittiest" and a love letter to the city, will be directed by John Simpkins at New York University at the end of March.

"We have a lot of influences, both in the theatre world and the popular music world," said the duo, who met at the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program (and who are both members of ASCAP and the Dramatist Guild). "Going way back, we are both huge fans of the classic Broadway writers — Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser. But we grew up in the '80s and '90s, and we were particularly attracted to contemporary songwriters with a theatrical bent — Billy Joel, Ben Folds, They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies. That reverence for the best theatrical songwriters of all time, combined with a love of contemporary pop storytelling, probably best explains why we write the songs we write.

"We want to keep writing stories that interest us and entertain audiences," continued Salzman and Cunningham. "When creating a new piece, we always make the choices that best serve the story, and we are happy to be in the service of a good story well told. Some of those choices may be new and thrilling, some of them may be traditional and comforting — wherever the story leads us, that's where we're going." (Check out "Maybe We Just Made Love," a story song about a guy who just slept with his friend that is performed here by Bring It On and Spider-Man star Jason Gotay.)

Listen to "Just Not Now" from Lauren Kennedy's solo album "Here And Now":

Listen to "Little Bar On Sullivan Street," one of the duo's favorites, because, they said, "it represents the moment that Next Thing You Know went from being a song cycle to a narrative book musical."

Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen

Composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen — Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Award nominees — were scheduled to make their Broadway debuts with the fantastical musical Tuck Everlasting, but without an available Broadway home in the busy 2013-14 season, the musical (based on Natalie Babbitt's popular 1975 children's novel) was postponed. (Watch "Everlasting" — Tysen's favorite song — performed here by Annie's Sadie Sink, who was set to play the musical's young dreamer, Winnie, in the pre-Broadway engagement. Also watch "The Wheel," performed by Tony Award nominee Jeremy Jordan.)

The duo, who characterize their sound as "equal parts James Taylor and Stephen Sondheim," specialize in a more folky and earthy tone, especially evident in their 2008 Drama Desk-nominated song cycle Fugitive Songs, a 19-song "journey across America" that follows a handful of characters and ran Off-Broadway at the 45th Street Theatre. (Listen to "Reasons to Run," the opening song of Fugitive Songs, performed here by Andrew Durand, Kyle Dean Massey and Andy Mientus as well as Karen Olivo, Alysha Umphress and Barrett Wilbert Weed, who are featured on the song cycle's recording.) "I was introduced to William Finn's Falsettos and Ani DiFranco's self-titled first album on the same day my sophomore year of college — mind blown," admitted Tysen on his influences. "I would never write the same way again. It was a good day. I also had the album of Jesus Christ Superstar spinning constantly as a kid. It was great to build legos to." Miller added that the musical theatre composers he is inspired by the most are "[Stephen] Sondheim, [Lynn] Ahrens and [Stephen] Flaherty, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChuisa."

Miller and Tysen are also the authors of the popular musical The Burnt Part Boys — about the adventures of a group of teenagers in West Virginia's coal country in 1962 — which ran Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons and is currently licensed by Musical Theatre International with productions happening around the country; The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which premiered at Barrington Stage Company; and Super Circus Heroes, a show the two recently wrote for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey that is currently touring the United States. Aside from the Broadway-aimed Tuck, the two are developing commissions from Lincoln Center and Playwrights Horizons and hope to one day "do a show with holograms" and "score an animated feature." (Listen to "Town Goes Boom," performed by Hands on a Hardbody's Jay Armstrong as part of Playbill Video's Hot Off the Ivories series.)

Listen to "Everlasting" from Tuck Everlasting

Listen to "Annie's Party" from Fugitive Songs

Zack Zadek

Zack Zadek, a composer-lyricist and singer-songwriter, recently made his London concert debut. "I would say my sound, overall, is a blend between piano-rock and Top 40 pop music," said Zadek, whose musical influences range from Frank Loesser to Katy Perry, who he often covers in concert. (Check out Zadek's cover of Perry's "Roar" at New York City's Highline Ballroom.) "In general, I like fusing some more complex musical stuff harmonically with really simple melodies. To me, music has to make you feel — and my goal as a writer is to do that on some visceral, musical level. While I wouldn't say I write in one specific genre, I try for all of my stuff to be super accessible. I think each project calls for different stuff, and I love opportunities to write different styles with those same aesthetics." (Listen to Zadek's catchy tune "Just Me," a coming-of-age, feel-something song performed by Spring Awakening actress Emma Hunton. "I wrote [a song] in high school called 'Just Me' that has sort of been the gateway drug in getting people to check out my stuff," he said, "and it has a very special place in my heart — that song and I have been through a lot together.")

"Just Me" is from Zadek's fully developed musical called 6, the story of six isolated people in New York City who have unknowingly affected each other's lives in deep and profound ways, that was featured in the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) in 2012. Another piece of Zadek's that was seen at NYMF was The Crazy Ones, a show about Steve Jobs and the people who ignited the computer revolution, that had its first reading last summer. (Listen to "Something There" from The Crazy Ones, performed here by Godspell's Nick Blaemire and Hair's Andrew Kober.) "I grew up listening pretty much exclusively to cast recordings," added Zadek, a member of ASCAP and the Dramatist's Guild of America. "The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof dominated my childhood, and growing up I collected different versions of cast recordings (I must have hundreds of versions of Sondheim). It was only later in high school that I started to get really interested in popular music, too, especially the piano playing icons I looked up to — Billy Joel, Elton John, Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles, etc. I think the two shows that really gave me 'aha' moments were The Last Five Years, which really influenced how I play and how I thought character stories and complex music can all go together, and Spring Awakening, which made me want to write musicals forever."

Zadek is also developing an immersive theatre piece called The Party In My Mind that combines electronic dance music and partying with a narrative; a commission for a theatre company in Connecticut; and a pop EP, among others. "I think musical theatre needs to unite more closely with other forms of music and storytelling. I yearn for the days when songs from a musical would be charting across America, performed by the biggest artists in the world… My 'mission statement' as a writer is to try and break down some of the gaps between musical theatre, contemporary pop music, some of the narrative aesthetics in modern filmmaking." (Listen to "Dancing All Alone," performed here by Emma Hunton.)

Listen to "Medicine":

Listen to "Hoist The Flag" from The Crazy Ones, a song, Zadek said, "was the moment — for a bunch of us working on the show — that we felt we really wanted to push ahead with the piece."

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Expect Playbill's Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know, Part Four, in the future. Write us with suggestions at mgioia@playbill.com

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Tweet him new music and composer suggestions at @PlaybillMichael.)

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