''BMI'' Means ''Better Musicals Indeed!''
In praise of the long-running BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
Now that The Fantasticks has closed, what's New York's longest-running show? Does The BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop count? It sure does--and it has, since 1961. Members of the workshop have written A Chorus Line, Beauty and the Beast, Captains Courageous, Dorian, Elizabeth and Essex, Forbidden Broadway, Grand Hotel, Hello Again, I Don't Do Club Dates, Jelly's Last Jam, Kuni-Leml, Little Shop of Horrors, Marie Christine, Nine, Once on This Island, Phantom, Raisin, Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, Titanic, Urinetown, Violet, both Wild Parties, and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Okay, that doesn't quite cover A-to-Z, what with "Q," "X," and "Z" not represented--but more fledgling writers join the workshop every year, so we may have those three letters covered eventually.
All of these shows owe a debt to Lehman Engel, a composer who didn't have much luck on Broadway. His A Hero Is Born lasted 50 performances in 1937, and his Mooncalf closed out of town in 1949. When he was musical director of The Liar in 1950, he wound up contributing one song to the score, but that didn't help the show to run more than 12 performances. As a musical director, however, Engel was esteemed: He served in that capacity and/or conducted Call Me Mister, Destry Rides Again, Do Re Mi, Fanny, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Jamaica, and L'il Abner, as well as Wonderful Town and The Consul, for which he won Tony Awards. (Conductor/musical director was a Tony category in those days, and should be again.)
Standing in front of a musical night after night allowed Engel to notice what separates a good show from a bad one. (He also musical directed Bajour and Bless You All). Soon, he became known for his theories on what make a good musical. Two executives at BMI--which stands for Broadcast Music, Inc., an American performing rights organization--encouraged him to start a workshop to share what he'd learned. He did, and it's still here.
Maury Yeston has been around for more than 30 of the 40-plus years that the workshop has been in existence, first as a student and now as a teacher. "I was studying at Cambridge in England when David Black [the producer of George M.] heard my music and told me about the workshop," Yeston relates. "I was accepted in the fall of 1971 to this extraordinary class and met Alan Menken, Carol Hall, Judd Woldin--and, oh yes, Ed Kleban," he adds, mentioning the composer-lyricist whose life in and out of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, as it was then known, provided the grist for last season's much admired musical A Class Act. (Though it's true that the first assignment Engel gave his students was to write a song for Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, it was not to be a comedy song--as A Class Act alleged to get a laugh--but a ballad.)
"Lehman was unbelievable," says Yeston. "He made so many smart observations, like the differences between a musical and a straight play. You need to know what the problem is in the first five minutes [of a musical] so you can let 90 minutes of singing and dancing happen. He taught that the American musical was an optimistic form, that characters sing because they react with that great optimism. Musical theater characters respond to adversity with some positive gem of an idea. Lehman felt that if the character on stage did not complain or give into emotion, the audience would feel it for him, and the whole goal of a musical is to make the audience feel something."
Not that writing a musical, or performing your songs in a classroom in front of others, is easy. "But," says Yeston, "the workshop offers the rarest commodity in New York: friendly criticism. You can fail quietly and learn from that failure." Or you can succeed. Yeston has won Tonys for writing both music and lyrics for Nine and Titanic, but when he came to the workshop, he was a composer in search of a lyricist. "I wouldn't be writing my own lyrics now," he says, "had Lehman not encouraged me. He believed I had the style and insisted I develop it."
When Yeston was readying an early presentation of Nine, he asked a workshop pal to direct it. That was Howard Ashman, who wanted to write both books and lyrics for musicals. "So I told him, 'You must meet Alan Menken, he's a very good composer,'" Yeston recalls. That led to several household-name projects. "I also thought Ed Kleban was a wonderful composer; I loved his song 'Better,'" Yeston says, citing what became the rousing second act opener of A Class Act. "So, when Ed came to class and said he was writing just the lyrics to A Chorus Line, I thought: 'Who is this composer Marvin Hamlisch and how could he be any better than Ed?'"
Engel died in 1981 (no matter what A Class Act tells you). Yeston and his compatriots insisted that the best way to keep his memory alive was to continue the workshop. Apparently, in Kleban's day, it met on Friday afternoons; but now, on Mondays from 4pm to 6pm, Yeston can be found teaching the advanced workshop. That's followed, from 6:15-8:15 pm, by Pat (Captains Courageous) Cook's first year class.
"We spend a lot of time looking at musicals of the past and examining the craft," says Cook. "Wherever musical theater may go in the future, the craft of it was established by men like Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, and Cole Porter. We don't stop at classic book shows--we look at concept musicals, rock musicals, even Euromusicals. But we give them a grounding in the shows of the past. At the end of the first year, we make a list of shows that [the students] must be familiar with before they enter second year. As Lehman said, 'Talent without craft is meaningless.'"
There's also a second-year class taught by Richard Engquist and a librettists' group led by Nancy Golladay. So, in the 20 years since Engel's death, the workshop continues to thrive. "We're still giving chances to new writers," Yeston enthuses. "We all could tell right away that Ahrens and Flaherty were going to make it," he says of the team that wrote Ragtime and Once on This Island.
"We're so proud of them and of so many others," says the workshop's senior director, Jean Banks. "We do believe we're the hope of the future and that what we've done is, to quote Kander and Ebb, 'perfectly marvelous.' Not everyone we have here winds up writing for the theater, but many go into related fields--theater journalism, directing, or writing and producing for movies and TV. And that's fine, too." Remarkably, the workshop doesn't cost students one thin dime. "Lehman insisted on that," says Banks. "He also said it didn't matter if people signed with BMI or the competition; good musical theatre was the ultimate goal. What's also wonderful is that this workshop has led to so many others. We have workshops in country music, jazz, even conducting--but it all started with the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop."
Okay, you librettists, composers, and/or lyricists who think you have a good musical in you: Start the application process for September's class. Contact Jean Banks at BMI, 320 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019, or call 212-830-2508, or visit [email protected]--especially if you want to write a musical that begins with "Q," "X," or "Z."