A Conversation with Alexander Sage Oyen
One of the great thrills of working in this business for me is discovering new writers. It’s like listening the future of the art form in a very real way. I’ve been blessed to work with so many of the NMT folks in one way or another, but I’m only a recent follower of the remarkable work of Alexander Sage Oyen. He graciously agreed to answer a few common questions and few weird ones for Green Room readers. Here is what he had to say:
DB: As Julie Andrews once mused, “let’s start at the very beginning…” – What drew you to writing for the theatre and what motivates you to keep doing it?
ASO: Ah, yes. Julie’s a really smart human- the beginning really is a great place to start. This is actually a pretty big question (and a two part-er) so I’ll do my best to answer it both briefly and also well.
When I was 12, I was on a reality television show (it started an amazing actress’ career and I actually taught her a few guitar chords on set) and I wanted to be in one of those emo bands of the time. I then saw my first musical and was enthralled- I quickly enrolled in the theatre magnet at my local high school and started doing theatre and seeing how my pop songs could be turned into character songs and the rest is history. What motivates me to keep doing it is complex and also pretty simple- I’m a really driven, really competitive, really hardheaded person who loves writing. I also know (and this is like, the single most cliché thing that anyone could ever say but) that there’s nothing else that I could ever do that would benefit society in any way. I’m pretty useless but I can make things rhyme pretty.
DB: As a writer myself, I am constantly saying that the current world of new musical theatre feels like a second golden age creatively. Do you agree? If so, who do you see as some of the writers who are energizing that movement?
ASO: A lot of the time it really feels that way. I’ve always fantasized about what it must’ve been like to be at a party where Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers is playing their newest composition but I feel like I get the same effect by going to The Musical Theatre Factory for their Salon nights (which are INCREDIBLE and every writer in NYC should follow up and make their way to those). I think that there’s a lot of amazing theatre being made right now. There’re some writers that I don’t even need to mention because it goes without saying (like Joe Iconis, Ryan Scott Oliver, Pasek and Paul, Miller and Tysen, Kerrigan-Lowdermilk and, oh, look, I just mentioned them) but there’re also some off the beaten path writers who make great art and don’t always get mentioned in these things (I’m not usually mentioned in these things either but like, whatever). Right now I’m super into Sam Salmond, Ben Wexler, Mark Sonnenblick, Michael R. Jackson, Zack Zadek, Timothy Huang, Kinosian and Blair… There’re so many more… Michael Finke, Joel Waggoner… I’ve forgotten people, but musical theatre is very much alive and well.
DB: The current Broadway season is a fascinating one – with shows like An American In Paris, Fun Home and Something Rotten on polar ends of the spectrum….and Hamilton and Amazing Grace moving in soon. What is your take on the current crop of new musicals represented on Broadway?
ASO: This season is incredibly interesting and next season is going to be interesting too. I think that, by and large, honestly, Broadway isn’t where I go to find exciting new theatre most of the time and the fact that things that are exciting and new and cool as hell are being produced is the most exciting thing that’s maybe ever happened in my life. I don’t like everything- I don’t think that anybody really does. But what’s cool is that this art form is progressing in so many different directions, the roots of musical theatre are growing out in ways that I don’t think David Merrick could ever have predicted and I think that’s really cool.
DB: As a writer, talk about your own process a bit.
ASO: It’s a hard thing to explain as it’s ever changing and also I’m very much at the beginning of my career- who knows the possibilities that await? But one thing I can definitively say is that when I am working on a show, I’m obsessive. I don’t stop or ever want to stop. I’m constantly writing down lyrics, musical ideas, story beats. It sounds pretentious but as soon as I really take on a project it becomes my life. And it’s more exciting than that part in Empire where Cookie said “You ain’t getting no more nookie from Cookie until you ditch the bitch.” And that was pretty damn exciting for me.
DB: If you could choose one currently popular binge-watching TV series to musicalize right now, which would it be and why?
ASO: Honestly, this is going to sound so weird, but like, wouldn’t Daredevil be a bomb musical? No? Just me? Okay, you win. I’m pretty obsessive about Nashville and Empire. They are, in their own way, intrinsically musical shows, so they may not count…I was REALLY into a show called Forever but then it got canceled, so maybe I’ll get a crack at it in like, 2050?
DB: What was the first musical you ever saw and what impact did it have on you?
ASO: I am completely unashamed to say that Wicked was my first musical that I ever saw and it made me want to write musicals. Stephen Schwartz for President (but actually he’d probably be an incredible President)!
DB: Some writers get to the wonderful place of being able to write for a muse – a performer who embodies what they write. If you could choose, who would you love to write a song for and why?
ASO: I think most writers have a group of actors that they usually like going back to for comfort’s sake- for me personally I know that if I have Elanna White, Jason Gotay, Zak Resnick, Caissie Levy, Lois Sage (who also happens to be my mother) singing my stuff that I’m in incredibly capable hands. In terms of people that I’ve never worked with, I think that there’s a bunch of people I really want to work with. I’m a big fan of Ciara Reneé at the moment. I really love her voice. And also I know that every writer in the world probably wants this too, but I’d love to write something specifically for Norbert Leo Butz. What an actor.
Alexander Sage Oyen is the recipient of the 2014 ASCAP Foundation’s Lucille and Jack Yellen award for lyricists. His musicals include OUTLAWS (Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals- book by James Presson, dir. Noah Himmelstein), DIVA (book by Sean Patrick Monahan), A NIGHT LIKE THIS (book, music, lyrics) and MOMENT BY MOMENT (directed by Brandon Ivie, 54 Below. Production at Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand). He and collaborator James Presson were awarded the 2013-2014 Dramatist Guild Fellowship and their musical, OUTLAWS, was a 2014 NAMT Finalist and was the recipient of the 2014 ASCAP Workshop. He was named one of Playbill’s “Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers You Should Know,” and he was selected for the 2014 Johnny Mercer Songwriter’s Project. His music has been heard at 54 Below, Joe’s Pub, Playwrights Horizons, The Signature Theatre, New World Stages, The Laurie Beechman Theatre and venues in Thailand, London, The Netherlands and all across the world. His song cycle, MOMENT BY MOMENT, is available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. Proud member of ASCAP and The Dramatists Guild.