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Popular American cabaret and musical theatre singer / songwriter John Bucchino is visiting Australia during March to accompany the Australian premiere of his musical revue, It’s Only Life, at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel from March 10, and for a series of concerts beginning in Brisbane on March 2.
Stage Whispers: It’s Only Life is described as a musical revue of your songs – what is it that makes that collection of songs work together as a show?
John Bucchino: A revue is perhaps the trickiest form of show to put together. Since revues are usually made up of a string of disparate songs, the greatest mistake is to try to force those songs to tell a story they weren’t written to tell. If one does that, what may be perfectly good songs are diminished by their failure to function as theatre songs, propelling the story forward. So instead, one needs to find another way of tying the songs together into a cohesive whole. For It’s Only Life, Daisy Prince and I came up with a simple progression: moving from living from a place of fear to beginning to live one’s life from a place of love. The first words in the show are “I’m afraid...” and in the final song there is the line “Fear is what we learn / Love is who we are.”
SW: How did the show come about?
JB: When I moved to New York in 1992, I hadn’t yet written for theatre, but I had a huge backlog of “trunk songs,” individual songs that I wrote simply because I noticed something, or had an experience, or felt some deep emotion. As people here became acquainted with my work, quite a few tried to fashion some of those songs into a revue, but none were successful. Daisy and I are dear friends, and she’s a brilliant director who’s intimately acquainted with my work, so I asked her to help me put together a revue which became It’s Only Life.
SW: What were the influences and circumstances that led to you becoming a songwriter?
JB: I started playing piano by ear when I was a year old. And I just kept doing it because the piano was my favorite toy – it still is. In high school, many of the people I hung out with played guitar and learned pop songs off the radio. We had jam sessions, formed bands, and it was a natural next step in emulating our pop heroes (The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carole King, etc.) to start writing ourselves. The music of that time not only shaped my writing style, but also greatly influenced my piano playing. I feel like my left hand is Paul (bass) and Ringo (percussion) and my right hand is John (melody) and George (rhythm guitar.) As I listened to more diverse types of music, classical, electronic, avant-garde, ethnic, jazz, it all fed into my writing and playing as well.
SW: Do you see yourself more as a writer, composer or performer, or does the reality lie somewhere in between?Which is your major passion?
JB: I love doing it all, and seem to focus on various aspects at different times. Sometimes I’m drawn to improvising on old standards at the piano, sometimes a new song will hit me out of nowhere and insist on being born, sometimes I’ll do a performance somewhere, even if just in somebody’s living room. The last few years have been more about writing, so I’m especially thrilled at the performing opportunities my trip to Australia will provide. And over the past 8 years or so, I’ve fallen in love with teaching – doing master classes where singers perform my songs for me and I offer suggestions, then usually accompany them myself. In fact, it may be that teaching has taken the forefront as my favorite creative thing to do.
SW: You’re probably best known as a writer of stand-alone cabaret songs, but you’ve also composed a Broadway musical – A Catered Affair. What influenced you and are you motivated to write other musicals?
JB: The A Catered Affair saga started when Harvey Fierstein, who I’d never met, sent me a fan letter. He’d just been given my Grateful CD by a mutual friend, and wrote to tell me how much he liked it. A couple of months later, he sent me another gushy letter, so I called him and asked if he’d like to have dinner. We got together and he asked if I’d be interested in writing the show with him and I said I didn’t think so – I’d never written a full-length book musical, and the prospect of working with a 4-time Tony winner not to mention a very strong personality was daunting. Plus, I didn’t know if a quiet little family drama would make a good musical. But, after a dinner with Harvey and my friend Stephen Schwartz where we discussed the show, Stephen told me he thought it would be a good thing for me to do, so I agreed to give it a try. I’m not especially personally motivated to write more theatre music.
SW: Tell us a little about your songwriting process – how does it vary between stand-alone songs and songs for book shows?What led to your step into musical theatre?
JB: I used to only write stand-alone songs. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter like Elton John or Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell, so I wrote what I thought were pop songs. I moved to Los Angeles to try to get a record deal, but my songs were too complicated and too different for any record companies to be interested. So I wrote and wrote, continuing to develop my own style, and continuing to bang my head against closed doors. In 1987 I got a phone call from Stephen Schwartz who’d heard some songs of mine at an East Coast benefit. He said he was coming to LA and wanted to meet me. I didn’t know his work, but knew he was a successful theatre writer, so I agreed to meet with him. He quickly became my best friend and a champion of my work who suggested I might want to think about writing for the theatre. Then I got a call from Stephen Sondheim who’d heard some songs of mine and wanted me to meet with him next time I was in New York. He also encouraged me to consider theatre writing. Eventually, since nothing was happening for me in L.A., I moved to New York where my songs found a growing audience – first in the cabaret community, and eventually in theatres. The main difference between writing a stand-alone song and one for a musical is that often a stand-alone or pop song relies on repetition to hook in the listener’s ear, whereas the theatre song, while it can have a “hook” in it, usually it must evolve, must continue to tell the story, pulling us forward instead of simply repeating a catchy chorus. For me, both types of songs involve writing from a clear perspective: with an individual song, that perspective is my own, and with a theatre song, the perspective is the character’s.
SW: Your songs have been performed by some great musical theatre and cabaret stars – have any of them been written with a particular performer in mind or have any of those stars commissioned you to write a particular song?
JB: When I’m writing by request, I ask for as much specific content as possible. Then I weave those details together to make the song as individually tailored as possible. I’ve only written three songs upon request from a singer. One was for a wonderful cabaret singer named Sally Mayes who wanted an opening number for her act, which she called The Story Hour. She told me what she wanted it to include, and I came up with a song called “Once Upon A Time” which she used to open both her show and the companion CD.
The second request came from my friend Billy Porter, an astonishing singer and writer, who was doing a Christmas show for which his mother was flying into town. He asked me to write a song he could sing to her and I wrote one called “A Mama Like Mine.”
The third song request came recently from an Australian performer named Tyran Parke, who’s putting together a show where the songs are each based on one of his brother’s extraordinary photographs. I will be including that song, “The Effect Of A Sky,” in the solo show I’m doing at Chapel Off Chapel on Mar. 14th.
SW: You’ll be playing for the Melbourne production of your own show – what do you expect of the production and what do you expect to bring to the production?
JB: Having seen and heard our actors via Skype, I expect funny, moving, beautifully sung performances. I expect to bring my perspective as the author, but also to discover things in the songs I didn’t know were there because of these uniquely talented people who will be interpreting them. And I expect to fall in love with Melbourne even more than I have on my past visits.
SW: What will the performers learn from you?
JB: They will learn where the songs came from and what my intention was when I wrote them. That might serve as a departure point for their discovery of what the songs each mean to them and how they can most fully inhabit and most affectingly share them.
SW: What is the most important thing that a performer can bring to your show?
JB: Heart and the craft to express that heart.
SW: Stella Entertainment & DTM’s Melbourne production of It’s Only Life will be an Australian Premiere. Has the show been performed anywhere else outside of the United States?
JB: No – this is the first performance outside of the U.S.
SW: Is it important to you that your show has broader exposure?
JB: Art is communication, so the more people to whom the show can communicate the better.
SW: Do you write for yourself or with the audience in mind?
JB: When a feeling or subject strikes me, I attempt to distill the essence of it into words and music. It’s like I see the end of a thread and follow it to wherever it leads, which often includes twists and turns even I don’t expect. So you could say I’m writing for me, but I guess I’m actually writing for the song itself, to honor it as best I can.
SW: While you’re here, not only are you going to accompany your own show, you will also perform your own concert. Tell us what we can expect?
JB: I’m always interested in hearing songwriters perform their own work. They have a take on it that, obviously, no one else has. While I’m by no means a great singer, what I lack in technique I hopefully make up for in commitment and unique insight. In my solo show I’ll sing and play songs that are not included in “It’s Only Life,” tell stories about the inspiration for the songs, about my life experiences, and some of the extraordinary talents with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working.
SW: You’ve been to Australia quite a number of times now. What attracts you? What else will you be doing while you are here?
JB: I’ve made some wonderful friends in Australia, and I feel my work is appreciated there – which is a huge draw for any artist! In addition to playing for “It’s Only Life,” and doing my solo show at Chapel Off Chapel, I’ll be doing concerts featuring terrific Australian singers in Brisbane (Mar. 2) and Sydney (Mar. 3) and master classes in those cities plus Melbourne, and a solo concert and master class in Hobart (Mar. 23.)
SW: What do you think of the standard of Australian performers?
JB: I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m sucking up, but honestly I think Australian performers on the whole are as good or better than performers with whom I’ve worked in the States.
SW: How difficult is it for Australian performers to obtain work in music theatre in the United States and should they try?
JB: Oh my, I don’t know how difficult it is. It’s certainly more difficult if they don’t have a work visa or green card because, naturally, it’s easier for casting directors to hire American actors. So I think an Australian would have to be truly exceptional. Case in point: my dear friend David Campbell, who first conquered the cabaret world here and then moved into theatre. In general, I believe people should try whatever they believe they can achieve.
SW: Mark Featherby, Stella’s principal, is investigating bringing out to Australia potential new musicals from the United States as part of their workshop development program. What is your view on that process and do you think that it could work?
JB: I think Mark’s goals are admirable, though it’s a tricky prospect to find new musicals that are well written. But Mark’s a smart fellow, and if anyone can find and develop worthy new works, both Australian and American, I bet he can.
SW: What are your plans for the future?
JB: I’ve been commissioned by a producer from Denmark to write songs for a new musical. It’s called Esaura, and we did a very successful reading of the first act over in Denmark this past summer. The script of Act 2 has just been completed, so when I get home from Australia I’ll be writing the songs for it. Then another reading over there this August and, hopefully, a full production in 2012. I hope to have more teaching opportunities, since I love doing that so much, and I’d like to do more solo piano recordings – a few years ago I did one called “On Richard Rodgers’ Piano” where I improvised on Rodgers tunes on the Steinway on which he wrote many of them. And I recently bought some new recording software with lots of great sounds, so I’m hoping to get back to writing more songs out of my personal experience and doing home recordings of them – which is what I dreamed of doing back in high school: simply writing and recording my songs and putting them out into the world. All this other stuff that’s happened has been a kind of surprising, delightful detour.
Stella Entertainment & DTM’s Australian premiere season of It’s Only Life opens on March 10. More Details
The top two images are of John Bucchino, while the lower image is of the Australasian premiere cast of It's Only Life during rehearsals.
“For lovers of musical theatre, It's Only Life is one of the rare genuine must-sees. And if you're someone who has been thinking about giving musical theatre a shot, you'd be hard pressed to find a better starting point.”— Daniel G Taylor, Stage Whispers, March 01, 2011
“A new American pop master... Bucchino merges the artfulness and sophistication of America’s master songwriters (Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, George Gershwin) with the contemporary style and plaintive folk quality of the top singer/songwriters who emerged in the 1970s, such as Carole King and James Taylor.”— The Houston Chronicle
"If Tennessee Williams was alive and writing tunes he'd be John Bucchino."— Rex Reed, The New York Observer
"An original, inspirational and distinctive voice." — The Sydney Morning Herald
Written By: Daniel G Taylor
It's Only Life
For audiences and cast, the Australasian premiere season of John Bucchino's It's Only Life is a rare treasure. Why? Bucchino himself is at the piano.
As one of the Olympian gods of contemporary musical theatre, Buchinno's songs have been performed by notables including Liza Minelli, Art Garfunkel, Michael Feinstein and Australia's own David Campbell.
It's Only Life debuted off-Broadway in 2006 and went on to win the Los Angeles 2008 Ovation Award for Best Book/Lyrics/Music for an Original Musical. You may ask, how well does the revue translate for Australian audiences?
The answer is, delightfully easily. Buchinno's always accessible songs connect to the emotions of everyone —longing, fulfillment, loss, triumph and ultimately wisdom, where romantic love is anticipated with high expectation, high anxiety and open hearts.
Add to that the across-the-board high-calibre cast and you have a recipe for brilliance.
Two of the cast members deserve special acclaim. Each time Christian Cavallo appears on stage, he hooks your attention and lures you into the song's emotion. Unlike many people bursting with star quality, Cavallo manages to fade into the crowd during the ensemble numbers.
Jared Newall delivers the unexpected power performance. Throughout the show, his parts were light and playful. But toward the end, when he performs "Taking the Wheel", he gives that song every gram of presence and gravitas it deserves.
For lovers of musical theatre, It's Only Life is one of the rare genuine must-sees. And if you're someone who has been thinking about giving musical theatre a shot, you'd be hard pressed to find a better starting point.
Daniel G Taylor
Written By: EVERETT EVANS, Arts Writer
The formula for a successful cabaret revue is deceptively simple — just lots of good songs and good singers to perform them.
Ah, but the songs must have enough variety to sustain interest while hanging together stylistically and, ideally, creating some sense of an emotional arc despite the absence of dialogue or narrative. Ideally, too, the songs should be melodically appealing, sophisticated in their lyrics and not worn out through overexposure.
It's Only Life, making its Houston debut at Main Street Theater, meets those criteria so well it qualifies as one of the best of its breed.
The revue showcases the work of composer-lyricist John Bucchino, who during the past two decades has won admirers for his finely crafted cabaret songs and who made a notable Broadway debut with the heartfelt chamber musical A Catered Affair, given a fine Houston premiere by MST earlier this year.
The company does as well by It's Only Life, thanks to a quintet of fine singer-actors, exemplary piano accompaniment by musical director Miriam Daly and simple but effective staging by director Andrew Ruthven.
One detects in Bucchino's work the influence of Stephen Sondheim, as well as subtle pop influences — all filtered through his own idiosyncratic perspective, introspective and wary yet open-hearted. Most of the songs reflect the yearning and fulfillment, disillusionment and hope of urban single life.
Up-tempos such as Painting My Kitchen and Taking the Wheel ride on propulsive, shifting rhythms, with clever and pointed lyrics. Lovely ballads such as Sweet Dreams, I've Learned to Let Things Go and Unexpressed have an unabashed heart-on-sleeve quality yet still surprise with their fresh turns and subtle harmonies.
Susan Draper's sweet, pure voice and focused delivery enhance her solos, especially Sweet Dreams and I've Learned to Let Things Go.Jamie Geiger limns the contradictory feelings of On My Bedside Table (a guy's inventory of his life after a breakup), then conveys thoughtful emotion in the hymnlike ballad If I Ever Say I'm Over You.
With his rangy, ebullient voice and bright manner, Cole Ryden radiates youthful enthusiasm, whether in the ballad It Feels Like Home or the cutting-loose manifesto Taking the Wheel.
Christina Stroup's strong voice and brash edge punch across the tougher turns, especially the frustrated Love Quiz. Yet her memorable rendition of This Moment conveys exhilarating wonder.
David Wald invests every number, from the searching What You Need to the caustic A Powerful Man, with vocal power and a sense of character. His soulful conviction in Grateful makes that solo his peak, and perhaps the entire show's.
In full-cast numbers such as the complex opener The Artist at 40 and the title song, the five voices blend exceptionally well. They unleash an infectious exuberance with the bubbly, jazz-infused That Face.
One quibble: When at full volume (only then), the singers would do well to move away from their mikes, as such close amplification tends to distort the lyrics, especially in rapid-fire numbers.
As It's Only Life is essentially a songwriter showcase, and since MST's rendition leaves you wanting to hear not only these songs again but alsowhatever Bucchino writes next, you'd have to rate this production a success.
LA'2 2008 Ovation AwardJanuary 01, 2008 — Award for Best Book/Lyrics/Music for an Original Musical
Vocal Range of Characters:
Written By: Daisy Prince
The notes and stage directions included are intended to serve as a guideline and also to illustrate for you how the show was initially conceived. It is entirely up to the director to decide how much, if any, of the following information is useful.
Keep in mind that while the show does have some serious content, it is funny and exciting material.
In our production we used five actors and developed a deliberate trajectory for each of them. They were never intended to play a single character throughout. Instead it was our idea that the material chosen for them would represent archetypes so that their individual personalities might be more immediately recognizable to an audience.
Each song was designed as a mini play, united in theme and association with the songs that have come before them and those which will follow. There is a marked direction and progression to the show; a forward motion that leads us to the conclusion. To clarify, we asked ourselves, “which idea should come before the next?’ and “how would that enhance the material that follows?” It was also our intention to create both a through line for the actors’ material, and an overriding arc from the beginning to the end of the show. We wanted to be graceful about it, hoping the audience would see the connections, find pieces of the puzzle, without our being completely obvious. To that end, the staging was deliberate and schematic. How and where the songs happen on stage is essential to the audience’s understanding of these connections and associations.
One of the more important organizing principles of “It’s Only Life” is the illustration of the passage of time. The show itself is bifurcated by the instrumental “Progression”. We found a piece of John’s music that we both loved, and I decided that this might be a perfect way to illustrate the passage of a year in time without words. Finally, we decided to use portions of two songs from the show as a linking device to our show: the idea is to examine the effect the passage of time has on our understanding of such universal themes as love and loss, hurt and healing, aspiration and acceptance.
Some explanation of the original scenic design and the staging: it seems a good idea, because John’s songs are so personal and emotional, to set them against a backdrop that is urban, isolating, chic, and even a bit cold. Our set was a spare modern space made entirely from black glass: floor, walls, everything. It is an interior to match the exterior of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York. It is beautifully but unmercifully reflective. A series of neon fixtures create a ceiling to the room. Two trapezoids and a rectangle of neon hang over the stage, and two long lines of neon hang parallel to the front of the stage. These lights are sometimes on, sometimes off, and occasionally lower to compress or define the space.
There are entrances into the space downstage right and downstage left that lead to corridors of more black glass. Upstage there is a low platform. All of the action that happens upstage happens on this platform.
The furniture we used was iconic Modernist stuff. Downstage left sits Mies van der Rohe’s leather and chrome daybed. The rest of the furniture is similarly sleek and spare.
Down right are 2 chairs and a side table. Upstage center, on the platform, is designer George Nelson’s simple backless bench, neither interior nor exterior, just very simple. A second side table next to the daybed.
Over the course of the play the space will be transformed. Early in the evening, the black glass surround will be revealed to be transparent, and the audience will become aware of a lush green world beyond the glass, and a vast Magritte-like sky dotted with white clouds. A series of grass-covered palettes will appear, eventually covering the entire shiny black floor with thick green grass. The idea is to use real sod (the fake stuff isn’t ideal given the metaphor). On the final notes of the final song, the upstage wall of the set will burst open transforming the space into a wide open, brilliantly lit and seemingly limitless landscape.
Again, these are only suggestions. We hope that you will take your own ideas and run with them and use any of ours that are helpful. Although designed with five actors in mind, the cast can be any number in size. (Also, if desired, multiple pianists may be used to perform the score.) The sex of the actors may be determined by their ability to sing the material and maintain the integrity of the harmonies and arrangements. We decided that, as the actors would not really be playing “characters” per se, we would assign the names of the performers in the actual production the audience was seeing to the songs in the show. We like it better than Woman A and Man B!
I believe John’s songs, whether in their sincerity and simplicity, or in their hyper-articulate complexity express the commonality of our emotional lives. Like some of our best novelists, the absolute specificity in his writing is, perhaps, the thing that makes it most universal. The stories told onstage posit the theory that our common struggle with doubt and fear is perhaps the only true precursor to insight. Our insight may be apportioned to us in just a glimpse or may last for just a moment; but that the moment is really all there is.
John Bucchino, composer and lyricist of IT'S ONLY LIFE, is available for Master Classes. He is also available to coach and accompany performances of the show.
My goal with these classes is to broaden the singers’ perspective on what is possible in the performance of my (or anyone’s) songs, to encourage them to find their own emotional truth in the interpretation of words and notes. I also hope that discussion of my career and creative process will inspire them to pursue their own unique path, discovering their strengths and continuing to narrow their focus as to where their deepest passion lies and how they might best offer their gifts to the world.
For more information, or to book a class, please contact John
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ITS ONLY LIFE was originally designed with 3 men and 2 women, however it can be performed with a larger cast. The character names (taken from the recording) are used only as reference. In your production and program, you may substitute the names of your performers.