Yalies sample songs

Yale students and community members had the opportunity to sample the music of what may be the next generation of Broadway stars.

On Friday night, a pair of veteran songwriters Richard Maltby Jr. ’59 and David Shire ’59 listened in on and critiqued the compositions of Alex Ratner ’14, Jeremy Lloyd ’12 and Mark Sonnenblick ’12 before an audience of 20 students and community members in Stoeckel Hall. The event, part of the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater’s “Fridays at Five” series, brings in celebrated figures of the world of musical theater to work directly with students in Andrew Gerle’s ’94 “Introduction to Musical Theater” class.

Ratner kicked off the evening with a song he recently composed for the class, which he titled “Main Street Nowhere.” Llyod performed two of his pieces, “I Guess I Wish” and “A Man Like That.” He selected the songs from two different musical projects he is currently developing. Sonnenblick also shared two numbers from his musical “Bunkerville,” which debuted at the Saybrook Underbrook Theater last spring.

Though Maltby and Shire offered a lot of specific suggestions for the songs — “Only lyricists say ‘I can take a prank,’” Maltby, the lyricist, said of a particular rhyme — they said they were consistently impressed by the technical ability of the three composers.

“Skill is going to be something that we just sort of take for granted in this room,” Maltby said during his critique.

Maltby lauded the classes for musical theater composition — which are part of the Shen Curriculum — noting that they are likely responsible for the high level of virtuosity seen in the music of the three student composers.

“When I was here, the musical theater curriculum was David and I wanted to write a musical and we did,” Maltby said. “So the fact that there’s a class is mindblowing.”

When Maltby and Shire were at Yale, the Dramat produced their original musicals “Cyrano” and “Grand Tour.” Nowadays, Yale’s undergraduate theater scene continues to provide opportunities for aspiring composers to stage their works.

“From the production side of it, nowhere in the world is there an undergraduate theater community like Yale’s,” said Sonnenblick, whose musical “Bunkerville” had a fully staged production last spring through the support of the Sudler Fund. The availability of financial help from the Fund, combined with the wealth of talent on campus, makes Yale an ideal place to stage new work, Sonnenblick said.

Both Ratner and Lloyd said they hope to take advantage of these resources and stage their work next semester. Llyod wants to produce a song cycle tentatively titled after the piece he performed Friday, “I Guess I Wish.” The musical consists of songs, including a piece he performed on Friday, that focus on people’s hidden dreams and desires.

One of musical theater’s most esteemed songwriting teams, Maltby & Shire, critiqued student compositions as well as discussed their collaboration and individual work.
One of musical theater’s most esteemed songwriting teams, Maltby & Shire, critiqued student compositions as well as discussed their collaboration and individual work.

Ratner wants to produce a revised version of his revue “Mimesis,” a piece he first staged in June 2009 with a cast of his friends from Stagedoor Manor performing arts camp. His show features five male and five female characters each of whom embodies a stereotype like “the blonde,” “the rebel” or “the scholar.”

“In theater, you’re always writing for a character,” Ratner said. “My collaborator and I … wanted to see what it was like to write for an archetype and not for a character.”

His favorite song from the show is “Norman Rockwell,” the song his “scholar” character sings. In it, the character compares himself to the stereotype of a small-town American boy as depicted in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

Ratner, Lloyd and Sonnenblick each started writing musicals before coming to Yale, but said they felt the resources the university offers them have greatly contributed to their growth as writers.

They each have taken Gerle’s musical theater song writing. In addition to reviewing music theory and harmonic concepts, students in the class write a new song each week based on a given topic — writing a piece based on a literary character, for example, is the assignment this week. Five students, including Ratner, are currently enrolled in the course, which is one of three classes offered as part of the Shen Curriculum this semester.

Lloyd, who took the class last year, said the structure of the class forced him to compose more regularly than he would have on his own. Having to write or revise a song each week on deadline allowed him to produce a greater quantity and, as a result, a higher quality of music than he’d written before, Lloyd said.

“I don’t know if any class has affected me as much as these courses have,” Lloyd said. “From when I started to when I ended, the improvement in my song writing is just unlike any other improvement I’ve had with any other course.”

The “Fridays at Five” series has also held talks with Tony Award winning actress Victoria Clark ’83 and Stephen Schwartz, the composer and lyricist of “Wicked.”

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