With graduation looming just over a month away, many nervous seniors may find that the first song in the hit Broadway musical “Avenue Q,” “What can I do with a B.A. in English?” hits just a bit too close to home.
But it is at least a little heartening to know that in the case of Bobby Lopez ’97, the writer of that song, the answer to that question was to become a Tony Award-winning composer.
Yale is famous for its undergraduate drama scene, one that consistently produces successful theater professionals. Lopez is among many Yalies who make it big on Broadway: two others — Doug Wright ’85 and Jefferson Mays ’87 — won Tonys the same year as Lopez, for writing and acting respectively, in the hit play “I Am My Own Wife.” But Lopez, who just turned 30 in February, gained fame quicker than most. A combination of long-standing dedication and unexpected opportunities helped Lopez make his mark early.
Lopez became interested in musical theater long before his time at Yale. He wrote his first song at age seven, calling it “Oy Vey, What a Day.” Lopez’s parents encouraged his interest in musical theater, taking him to shows like “A Chorus Line,” “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” and introducing him to the work of Stephen Sondheim, who would eventually write Lopez a recommendation to Yale.
“I knew right away that I had found my passion, and I’ve pursued it ever since,” he said.
Lopez was already a prolific composer in high school, and continued to work towards his goal of becoming a professional musical theater composer once he arrived at Yale.
“I came to Yale specifically because I’d heard that the undergrad theater scene was really great, and it was, and still is,” Lopez said.
At Yale, Lopez acted, directed and wrote shows, but he says that his most important role at Yale was as a member of the Spizzwinks(?). Though Lopez said he joined the a cappella group “on a lark,” he said the group’s blend of “nostalgia and humor” had a direct influence on the work he does today. For example, Lopez originally created Avenue Q’s “Bad Idea Bears” — cute and colorful teddy bears that goad characters into making bad decisions — as a running gag for the group.
The Spizzwinks(?) signature of combining music with comedy continues to be important for Lopez.
“The guys in the group were so funny, and we had so much fun making audiences laugh, that it gave me a real taste for comedy, and that became part of who I am as a writer,” he said.
After graduation, Lopez first worked as a theater intern in Manhattan, moving back in with his parents to save money. He said even though his internship largely consisted of getting coffee, answering phones, and managing people’s schedules, it was a valuable experience because he got to meet people in the business and learn “which end is up.”
Next, Lopez worked as a temp, often in the Viagra marketing department at Pfizer with a number of other recently graduated, unsettled Yalies.
“When we Yalie temps would have lunch together in the cafeteria, we’d have fun kidding around, but the deeper subtext was always, ‘How the hell did we wind up here?'” Lopez remembered.
In 1998, Lopez did what he called “the best thing I did for my career, perhaps the best decision I’ve ever made in my life” when he joined the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, a free program for aspiring composers and writers. At BMI, Lopez met Jeff Marx, an entertainment lawyer who joined the program looking for talented writers to represent, and they liked each other’s work enough to collaborate on a song for the class.
From there, the partnership grew. Eventually, Lopez hit on the idea for a show in the format of a Sesame Street-like children’s show that used puppets based on Lopez and his friends that would teach adults about adult problems. Together, Lopez and Marx started developing songs for the show, “Avenue Q,” whose main character, Princeton (“We would have named him ‘Yale’ if that had been a better-sounding first name,” Lopez said), struggles to find his way in New York shortly after graduating from college.
Two years after Lopez and Marx sold the musical to producers, it went up on an off-Broadway theater. After great success, the show moved to Broadway where it received rave reviews, winning the Tonys for Best Musical and Best Score in 2004.
John Hansen-Brevetti ’07, the composer of the student musical “Nero,” said Lopez’s early success gives him hope for his own career.
“I think it is promising to know that people from Yale have made it and are willing to reach out and help other people from Yale make it”, Hansen-Brevetti said.
Lopez has several pieces of advice for students trying to “make it”.
“Aside from talent, which you can’t do anything about, learn your craft,” Lopez said. “Learn the traditions and the entire history of the art form you’re working in. Imitate, steal from the best, then figure out what you hate most about your idols, wean yourself away from them and let your own voice come out when it’s ready.”
As Lopez and other professionals make clear, however, there is no one clear path to success in theater.
“I think there are just so many possible paths that any prescription I would offer would be inadequate,” said James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. “People who want to make theater should get out there and make it. There is no one approach, nor is there one appropriate career goal in theater.”
Lopez agreed that students should be prepared for success to come through unexpected channels.
“Be open to the curve balls life throws you,” he said. “Even if your dreams come true, it never happens quite the way you imagine it will.”