On Feb. 12, the American Academy of Arts and Letters announced the winners of the 2004 Richard Rodgers Award. The award, which honors up-and-coming composers and writers of musical theater, is one of the field’s most prestigious accolades. Past winners include Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for “Rent.”
There are three winners this year — all of them Yalies.
Sam Carner ’01 and Daniel Levin ’98 each earned grants to produce staged readings of their musical theater projects; Andrew Gerle ’94, a three-time winner of the award, received funding intended to back a full-scale production of his work.
Richard Rodgers, the renowned composer (a la Rodgers and Hammerstein), established this award program in 1978. Through the Academy of Arts and Letters, non-profit New York City theaters receive up to $100,000 to showcase the year’s winning pieces.
For Carner and Levin, the performance is a recitation — seven readings over a three-week period. Although not a full-scale production — there are no sets or costumes — the readings help to publicize the works, often earning the attention of prominent directors, producers and theatrical financiers.
Gerle, and his collaborator, Maryrose Wood, have the opportunity to see their work come to complete fruition, having already won the developmental grant (won by Carner and Levin this year) and the studio production award (with minor costumes and backdrops) in past years.
As a sophomore in Branford College, Carner wrote and produced (with Isaac Meyers ’01) an original musical comedy, entitled “Just Call me Eli.” Set in the 1920s, and based on the musical styling of Cole Porter, the play earned rave reviews and went on to win the Dramat’s John Golden Prize.
Carner continued his musical studies as a student in the New York University Musical Theater graduate program. The culmination of his work was a final thesis project. Working with fellow classmate Derek Gregor (a composer), Carner wrote the book and lyrics for a musical adaptation of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” Their project brought successes far beyond the NYU campus: their first collaboration became their first Richard Rodgers Award.
Styled after English Restoration Comedies, and inspired by the writings of Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and William Shakespeare, Carner’s writing integrates past with present, incorporating modern prose into Pope’s eighteenth century high society. The music, too, melds distant time periods into one, as Gregor blends his classical-baroque training with a more contemporary sound, similar to that of his alternative rock band.
Levin, like Carner, attended the NYU graduate program — and his thesis, too, is now the award-winning work. Working with composer Jonathan Portera, Levin wrote the book and lyrics for a musical drama entitled “To Paint the Earth.”
Set during World War II in the Warsaw Ghetto of German-occupied Poland, Levin’s story is not one of suffering, but rather one of the unyielding strength of the human spirit. A fictional recreation of historical events, the play focuses on the lives and relationships of those within the ghetto’s walls, and ends as the Jewish uprising begins — on a positive, inspiring note.
When reflecting upon his days as a Yalie, Levin is quick to acknowledge one of his musical theater professors, Murray Biggs. An inspiration to Levin since his student years, Biggs continues to give Levin guidance and support — reading drafts, discussing rewrites, and offering advice. Murray’s young son even acted in Levin’s “The Impression of Panic Rising,” which he wrote and produced his junior year.
Unlike Carner and Levin, Gerle is a composer and thus followed a somewhat different path after graduation. Straight from New Haven to New York City, Gerle immediately entered the world of theatrical productions as a musical director. Having written two musical scores during his time at Yale — one for “Marat/Sade,” the other for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — Gerle had already established himself as a talented composer and musician.
Still in New York, he joined forces with playwright/lyricist Maryrose Wood, first on “The Gift” (2000 Richard Rodgers Finalist) and then on “The Tutor” (this year’s winning work). “The Tutor,” a musical satire, portrays the New York City private tutor phenomenon — the newest craze among wealthy high-schoolers looking to go Ivy. Written in a Chekhovian style, the play integrates jazz-based music like that of composers Frank Lesser and David Shire (also a Yale graduate). At the O’Neil Music Theater Conference in 2001, Gerle and Wood were encouraged to apply for the Richard Rodgers Award — they did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With production dates set for the 2004 calendar year, these three men are poised to make an impact on the New York City theater scene — and soon. So when your names are lit up on Broadway, hopefully you’ll remember us little people.