With the release of two musicals by John Bucchino announced in this edition of “Show Business,” we wanted to get to know a bit more about the composer and lyricist behind IT’S ONLY LIFE and A CATERED AFFAIR. Bucchino's songs have been performed and recorded by renowned pop, theatre, cabaret and classical artists including Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Judy Collins, Yo Yo Ma, Art Garfunkel, Patti LuPone, Deborah Voight, Michael Feinstein, Audra McDonald, The Boston Pops and many more.
How did IT’S ONLY LIFE come about?
Various people have been trying to put together a revue of my songs since I moved to New York in 1992. I collaborated on a few of these attempts, but they never quite worked. A revue is a very tricky form. Since you’re dealing with a batch of songs not written to tell a particular story and not from the point of view of the same characters, how do you turn these disparate songs into a theatrical experience? What holds them together? Other people have tried to string my songs along some kind of plotline which actually seemed to diminish them – because rather than just succeeding as songs, they failed as plot developers. Or they had actors sing songs representing a character’s “arc” but that always seemed contrived. Finally, I asked my dear friend Daisy Prince to help me construct a revue. Daisy has known my songs for nearly twenty years, and is one of the best directors and smartest people I know. We pored over literally hundreds of songs, and it felt like creating a mosaic. I kept being tempted to have the singers play specific characters, or for there to be some kind of loose story line, and Daisy would steer me away from those kinds of thoughts. Instead, she wanted to simply have an emotional progression over the course of the piece, subtly connecting the songs while giving the audience plenty of room to interpret the cumulative meaning for themselves. This is what we ended up doing, and it works beautifully.
When did you begin writing the songs for IT’S ONLY LIFE?
The songs span my entire writing life from the late 1970s to 2008. But since I never wrote commercial music, they don’t seem tied to any period and can therefore stylistically work well together. I’ve joked that this show is a retrospective of a career that didn’t exist.
Daisy Prince (co-conceiver and original director) mentioned the importance of transformation in the revue and your songs. Why is transformation important to the piece?
Well, I’ve certainly gone through my own growth process, both as an artist and as a person over the period of time during which these songs were written. Many of the songs we chose deal with a struggle for understanding and transformation. So that seemed a logical progression for the revue to take. In fact, there’s an instrumental piece in the middle of it called “Progression” during which Daisy came up with a beautiful way to show the passage of time. On a larger scale, I think the whole world is experiencing a time of transformation, a necessary shift from operating out of fear to operating out of love, which is another theme presented in this show.
Do you have a favorite song?
My favorite song of mine is “Unexpressed,” which is in IT’S ONLY LIFE. By other writers, I have many, many favorites. Of theatre songs “Move On” from Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK... comes to mind, as does “How Glory Goes” from Adam Guettel’s FLOYD COLLINS. Standards I love include the Gershwins’ “(Our) Love Is Here To Stay,” Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance,” and almost any Beatle or Joni Mitchell song.
The Ovation Award-winning world premiere production at Rubicon Theatre in California featured a talented cast of 5. While the show is written for 5, could other theatres have more performers?
Absolutely! Daisy even put that into her director’s script. That’s one of the benefits of the way in which we constructed the show – any number of performers can participate.
By the way, Daisy’s director’s script is a wonderfully detailed song by song explanation of her directorial approach to the show. Licensors may use it exactly as is, or as a jumping off point from which to create and present their own vision.
You mentioned to me that the piano part for IT’S ONLY LIFE is very challenging to play. Do you have any advice for music directors or pianists?
I do have an idiosyncratic style of playing which takes some getting used to. But other pianists have told me the music is very clearly written and that, once they get the hang of it, it feels very comfortable in their hands. Since I labor over every note and rhythm, and since the interplay between the accompaniment and the vocal is essential to my work, I would ask pianists to play the music exactly as written. If they need an additional idea of my intention they should listen to the CD on which all the songs are recorded, with me on piano, just as they are in the score (except for the title song which has a new arrangement.)
And if licensors would like, they’re welcome to use more than one pianist – each playing the songs that most suit their individual strengths and styles.
How did you become involved with the musical A CATERED AFFAIR?
Harvey Fierstein had been given my GRATEFUL CD, liked it, and asked me to write the show with him. He loved the movie and had the rights for several years. At first I said no for a number of reasons: I was intimidated at the prospect of working with a larger-than-life multi-award-winning playwright and actor, I had never written a full length book musical before, I didn’t know if the story would make a good musical and didn’t want to spend years working on something that would never be produced. But Harvey kept pestering me. So I suggested we have dinner with my friend Stephen Schwartz, who lives in the same Connecticut town as Harvey, to get his opinion of the project. Harvey told Stephen about his ideas for the show, and after dinner Stephen said he thought it would make a beautiful musical and that I should do it. So I said yes.
What is it about the story of A CATERED AFFAIR that speaks to you?
In everything I write I look for some powerfully affecting universality, and this show certainly has that. From the departure point of Paddy Chayefsky’s poignant teleplay and Gore Vidal’s screenplay, Harvey Fierstein shaped the material to make it even more resonant today. In our Broadway audiences I saw people relating so deeply to what the characters were going through, whether it was a young couple dealing with similar issues in planning their own wedding, an older couple seeing themselves in Tom and Aggie, the bride’s parents, or anyone who has been afraid to fully embrace life choking up at Uncle Winston’s admonition to Aggie to open her eyes and enjoy the ride. I was so proud to see husbands treating their wives more lovingly as they prepared to leave the theatre, or people sitting sobbing for awhile before they stood to go. And there was also that wonderful laughter of recognition – my favorite kind – as people saw so many aspects of their lives reflected on the stage.
Do you see any parallels between these two shows?
I think in both shows the people onstage evolve from a narrow fearful way of dealing with life’s difficulties to a more open and loving approach. I think each show attempts, through both humor and the emotional content of the material, to shift the audience’s perspective and expand their view of possibilities for (here’s that word again) “progression.”
Do you have a favorite song from this show? Or a favorite moment?
I like “Vision,” when Aggie is imagining the wedding. In that one I’m especially proud of the counterpoint between the melody in the accompaniment and the sung melody. I also like the passion and heartbreak of Tom’s “I Stayed,” and I love the tender moment when Winston sings “Coney Island” to Aggie. That song is a big favorite, but the song most people have told me is their favorite is “One White Dress” sung by the daughter, Janey, in the bridal shop.
Do you have any advice for theatres looking to produce A CATERED AFFAIR?
Just that they present the universal themes in as clear and affecting a way as possible. I think the material has so much built into it that it will allow for a variety of equally powerful interpretations, and I’m so looking forward to seeing other productions.
Which comes first, the music or the words?
It’s different for every writer I know. For me, 99% of the time the words come first. They’re more concrete and the music more fluid, so it makes sense to me to put up a lyric framework and then pour music over it. Also, for me, lyrics are the hard part and music is the easy fun part, so it’s about delayed gratification – I don’t allow myself the “dessert” of the music until I’ve finished the “lima beans” of the lyric.
Having said that, there is one song in each of the above shows for which the music came first.
In IT’S ONLY LIFE it’s “A Powerful Man.” In writing A CATERED AFFAIR, something remarkable happened: one morning I abruptly woke up at 3:30 A.M. and sang the entire melody to “Coney Island” straight through into a portable recorder, then went back to sleep. In the morning, without changing a single note, I wrote the lyric and the song was done. Oh, how I wish that would happen more often!
What’s your favorite musical?
CAROUSEL is very special to me for a number of reasons (besides the gorgeous score...)
It was the first musical my parents saw together, when it came to Philadelphia on the first national tour in 1949. It was also the first musical I ever heard – my mother had the cast album in a box set of 45 rpm records that she would play constantly from when I was born. And in 1994 my parents came to visit from California and I surprised them with tickets to the Lincoln Center revival of the show.
What have you been doing since putting together these two shows?
I wrote the lyrics for a children’s musical called SIMEON’S GIFT with Julie Andrews, her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, and composer Ian Fraser. What a joyful creative experience! It was performed with full symphony orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl and several other halls around the country with Julie narrating, as part of an evening (the first half is all Rodgers and Hammerstein) called THE GIFT OF MUSIC.
Other than that, I’ve written a few songs but haven’t taken on any new large-scale projects. Years ago I wrote the songs for a Dreamworks animated movie called JOSEPH, KING OF DREAMS and I’d really like to do another one of those.
The most rewarding things I’ve been doing lately have been Master Classes, working with musical theatre students on performance of my songs. I recently did several of these classes, as well as some concerts, in Australia and we all had a terrific time. My favorite format is a three-day intensive where the first evening is a class, the second day I coach the singers individually, and the third night we all do a concert with me at the piano. It’s great to work with enthusiastic young performers, and I always learn so much.
For A CATERED AFFAIR or IT’S ONLY LIFE CDs, other recordings and songbooks, and more information about John’s work, please visit www.johnbucchino.com. To learn more about his shows, visit our show web pages:
IT’S ONLY LIFE
A CATERED AFFAIR