Tin Pan Alley's New Tunesmiths Learn the Score at Broadway's Oldest Songwriting School

updated 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

In a fluorescent-lit classroom near Manhattan's theater district a young man sits at a piano, as another stands clutching a musical score. They have just presented a melodic scene about an ambitious young New Yorker to 40 other beginning songwriters. After a tense pause, a wry-looking man faces the crowd and pronounces judgment. "It is deadly," says Maury Yeston, who wrote the songs for the recent Broadway hit Nine. "It is horribly, impossibly wrong. Without question, so much of what you've got is musically very attractive, but it's got no shape." The student lyricist asks, "So should we streamline it?" Yeston replies: "No. You should throw it out. Here. Here's the trash can. That's the place for it. If you worked on it 100 years, it would never be a musical scene."

Brutal, yes, but that's just how Yeston's students want it. They're writing songs they hope to hear on Broadway, the first and last bastion of musical comedy, and they know you can't make it to the big time on an earful of lame compliments. Each year hundreds of songwriters vie for about 45 spots in the program Yeston helps to teach. Founded in 1959 by the late Lehman Engel, who conducted the pit orchestra for Wonderful Town, Brigadoon and many other shows, the workshop is the first program of its kind to help songwriters conquer the Great White Way. Its success rate is astounding. Parts of at least 10 Broadway hits have come out of it, including Carol Hall's lyrics for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Ed Kleban's for A Chorus Line and Clark Gesner's music for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Sponsored by Broadcast Music Inc., an agency that collects royalties for songwriters, the weekly classes, which most students attend regularly for three years and sporadically after that, cost nothing. All you need is talent.

"Every professional development for me can be traced back to the workshop," says Alan Menken, who wrote the music for off-Broadway's Little Shop of Horrors at the workshop. Menken found success at a showcase of BMI students' work, an annual event that attracts such powerful producers and talent scouts as Alexander Cohen and Joseph Papp. Choreographer-director Michael Bennett heard Ed Kleban's work at the 1973 showcase and decided to hire him for A Chorus Line, the longest-running musical in Broadway's history. Still a regular workshop visitor, Kleban says the class helped him refine his Chorus Line lyrics. "I came in with one number and it was a bomb," he remembers. "You can play a song to your mother or your lover all day, but you never really know about it till you play it for a group of songwriters."

Yeston, 39, who also runs the undergraduate music department at Yale, encourages his second-year BMI workshop students to study the greats: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls "the most experienced, authoritative current practitioner of the musical theater." And they learn the basics. "You violated a primary rule by telling and not showing," Yeston chides a lyricist about her song. He also rails against sloppy rhyming and shows the difference between a charm song, which makes you smile, and a comedy song, which makes you laugh out loud.

Skip Kennon, 35, who teaches the first-year workshop and wrote a musical called Feathertop that opened off Broadway last month, says show music is not like any other: "A theater lyric, unlike a pop lyric, advances a dramatic situation, fits in with the way a character would normally speak and uses comparatively little repetition." Skip sharpens writing skills by asking students to create music for plays that don't lend themselves to moon/ June tunes: Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire. The third year of the workshop is taught by Richard Engquist, 51, lyricist for the current off-Broadway musical Kuni-Leml. His students choose their own topics. Last year one duo worked on a musical about a New Jersey beauty parlor. Engquist admits he sometimes goofs when appraising such projects. For instance, when he first heard Little Shop of Horrors, he hated it.

Lynn Ahrens, 36, a lyricist and TV producer-writer, began writing songs last year with pianist Stephen Flaherty, 24. After they composed tunes for a theatrical version of the film Bedazzled, the duo presented their work in the BMI showcase and drew calls from 15 backers and promoters. When and if 20th Century-Fox releases the story rights to them, Ahrens and Flaherty will probably have a show on Broadway.

They were worried about a much smaller audience when they performed their climactic song from Bedazzled for the workshop at the end of last year. Standing before the class Lynn sang sweetly, "Tonight is perfect, well, close to perfect, I mean—a bowling date complete with taco chips and beer and everything..." When she was done, she looked at Maury Yeston. He paused for a tense second. "Absolutely delicious and attractive," he announced. "Lovely, tender and touching." You should have seen her smile.

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