The Yale Dramatic Association kicked off this year’s DRAMATalk series Tuesday night with a panel of three prominent figures in the New York musical theater community.
About 25 undergraduate students gathered in the Theater Studies ballroom for the event, which featured Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer, composer and lyricist Peter Lerman and Tony Award-nominated producer Amanda Lipitz, all three of whom are currently collaborating on a new musical called “The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company.” Organized by Dramat associate board members Eliana Kwartler ’16 and Henry Tisch ’16, the panel discussion shed light on the process of making a musical while reflecting on the challenges and rewards of working in the theater industry.
“In order to succeed in this business, you have to be hungry for victory,” Lipitz said.
The conversation centered on the trio’s upcoming musical production, which is based on a Brooklyn store of the same name. Lipitz said the first time she entered the store, “it sang to [her],” and she was immediately inspired to create a musical. After she and Mayer crafted a basic story line starring a young clerk working at the store who “desperately” wants to be a superhero, they hired Lerman as the songwriter.
Members of the audience were given a preview of Lerman’s work when he played an audio recording of “The Science of Flight,” one of the first songs he composed for the musical. However, the speakers warned the attendees that what they heard would likely be modified before the final production.
“Things change,” Mayer said. “Musicals are big puzzles — you find the pieces that work and then you work around them.”
He added that the outline for “The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company,” which has been three years in the making, was “hammered out” in one afternoon — a testament to the fluidity of a musical in its early stages.
Mayer’s visit to the University is timely, since Yale undergraduates performed the musical for which he received his Tony Award — “Spring Awakening” — at the Off-Broadway Performance Space this October.
When the floor was opened to questions, one student asked the speakers about whether they thought a liberal arts education, as opposed to a conservatory program, was adequate preparation for the rigors of a theater career. Lipitz and Mayer were both trained as actors at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, while Lerman studied as an undergraduate at Columbia University.
Lerman credited his liberal arts degree with teaching him how to collaborate with other people, a skill he said is crucial for theater.
“You’ll graduate with such a wealth of knowledge,” Mayer said, advising students to take advantage of the many extracurricular activities offered by the University.
The panel emphasized the importance of flexibility, and Mayer and Lipitz both said they began their careers as aspiring actors before realizing that performance was not the only channel for their creative energies — now, all three focus on theater roles outside of acting. Lipitz added that it is necessary to be versatile in order to work on Broadway.
“I just came back from opening and closing a show within a day,” Lipitiz said. “It was a birth and a death in 24 hours, and it really comes down to one night and one guy deciding whether or not a show is good.”
Mayer compared directing to performing a medical operation, calling musicals “organisms hell-bent on self-destruction.”
“I’m a surgeon, this thing is on the operating table and I just want to keep the little f—-r alive,” he remarked.
One student at the talk, Jessica Hernandez ’16, said she thought the tone of the discussion reflected the camaraderie she has felt as a member of the theater community at Yale.
“There’s really the sense that even though it’s a tough process, everyone does care for everyone else,” Hernandez said. “The panel demonstrated that at the end of the day, it’s about working together to tell a story.”
Mayer won the Tony Award in 2007 for directing “Spring Awakening.”