A Composer’s Take on Award Success – In Conversation with Andrew Lippa

Playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London through June 14.

Playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London through June 14.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend time with composer Andrew Lippa ahead of his new show The Life of the Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London. The production, he describes, is much more theatrical than a concert and more along the lines of a revue. Whilst Sondheim has Marry Me a Little (amongst others) and Kander and Ebb have And The World Goes Round, The Life of the Party is Lippa’s own addition to the genre, charting hit songs from across his wide catalogue of works into a new narrative, and one which the composer himself also stars.

One of the things that struck me as we spoke is how London has so far been deprived of one of Lippa’s many and varied musicals. Despite a mix of critical and commercial success on Broadway, the West End is yet to see titles such as The Addams Family, The Wild Party or Big Fish, although according to the man himself, there are plans afoot to change that.

As I argued in my last piece, versatility as a composer certainly seems to be key to success when looking across the scope of a career. Delving into Lippa’s canon of works there seems to be no doubt that he has taken on a wide range of subject matter in creating a full range of productions, from the grandiose spectacle that was Big Fish to the beautifully intimate John & Jen. Lippa has collaborated with a wide breadth of different creatives, introducing him to different ways of working, scales of production and complimentary skills, which have all made each of his projects completely unique and stand-alone.

He is blessed by having worked with the ‘who’s who’ of musical theatre royalty, proving himself to be a real ‘singer’s composer,’ who writes music that is not only purposeful and fulfilling to listen to, but also highly enjoyable to perform and deliver. When asked about this quality in his music he was quick to attribute it to the fact that he himself is a singer. He writes constantly from the viewpoint of the performer, which in many ways is the key to his success and increasing longevity in the industry.

The Addams Family themselves.

The Addams Family themselves.

Whilst he has attached himself to hugely commercial titles such as The Addams Family, which has a huge international following due to the universality of the source material, he has never shied away from more controversial topics, seen in his most recent and arguably most powerful work, I am Harvey Milk, which he happens to be reprising this summer in New York alongside his great friend Kristin Chenoweth. This breadth in material highlights not only his versatility, but his ability to apply himself musically to whatever task he undertakes. He is by no means ‘boxed in’ as a composer, his greatest hits, and indeed The Life of the Party will show, he is one of the most sought after composers working in the industry today.

As is the season, I was keen to ask Lippa about the upcoming Tony Awards, and the effect awards season can have on a composer. In a year where the nominations for Best Musical seem downright bizarre, Lippa recognized that frequent contributors to the industry, such as himself, Jeanine Tesori and Jason Robert Brown were not embraced. Calling the process a ‘mystery,’ it’s not one that Lippa ever spends much time trying to figure out, for fear of going crazy. He’d (quite rightly) rather go crazy making musicals.

Many may find it hard to believe that composers don’t take events such as the Tony Awards as seriously as you would expect, but it is worth remembering that these judgments come so far down the line in the process, they almost become immaterial. Of course, everyone loves to win and feel recognized by their industry peers, but as Lippa profoundly said, as a composer, “whether you win awards or not, It’s always the same – you still have to wake up tomorrow and make something up.”

Every industry has awards, be it creative, technical or promoting world peace. It’s only human nature for us to want to seek that recognition. From winning a swimming gala in junior school, to class President, society is constructed towards ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ It would be foolish to suggest that anyone completely dismisses awards, and in the case of the Tonys, everyone recognizes the obvious commercial benefits they bring, and the doors they open for future projects and collaboration.

Whereas actors, directors and creatives can certainly find job security through accolades and awards, for composers I believe it is quite different. As Lippa points out, as a composer you’re constantly starting at the beginning, and award or not – you still have to wake up the next day and create something new. Obviously everyone can ride the wave of success for some time, but this wave seems to be significantly smaller for composers over any other collaborator. There are plenty of actors who get to a stage that all they need to do is cough to be nominated for a major award, and their success seems to be somewhat cumulative over time. The same to some degree can be said of directors; in every review of their latest work you’ll find reference, either good or bad, to an earlier work. Composers on the other hand find themselves proving themselves almost from scratch with every outing – and as recent new works by composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber have recently proved, past successes counts for very little when judging a new score.

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

In talking to Lippa about his 2013 musical Big Fish I was shocked to hear that initial work on the musical had begun almost a decade before, in 2004. The show received good notices on its out of town tryout in Chicago and the preview period continued to show increasing grosses, leaving the creative team believing they had ‘nailed it’, but once the mixed set of New York reviews were filed audiences diminished and the show closed after only 98 performances. Committing almost ten years of your creative life to a project must prove disheartening when it comes to an end so abruptly, but as with winning an award, for a composer, the next day it’s back to making up something new.

The average audience member who attended Big Fish would not perhaps appreciate the length of time the show took to create from page to stage, but does this matter? Many are quick to criticize productions for ‘jumping on bandwagons,’ especially when it comes to turning films into stage shows as many expect these decisions are formed overnight by greedy producers who have dollar signs in their eyes, when in reality it’s quite the opposite. Newby ‘theatre producer’ Simon Cowell recently realized the hard way the risks involved in rushing new material into production in a short time frame.

It’s refreshing and exciting to see Andrew Lippa’s work getting an airing in London, especially at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is the most vibrant and successful off-West End venue for musical theatre. With any luck this will lead to one of Lippa’s shows, or perhaps even a new musical, launch in the West End.

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