An Interview With Carmel Dean

Carmel Dean is a composer and music director. As a writer, her work includes A Girl Called Vincent and Songs of Innocence and Experience. She was the music director for Hands on a Hardbody and American Idiot, and she’s currently music directing If/Then on Broadway. 

NMT: When did you start writing songs?

Carmel Dean: I began writing songs when I realized it was how I could get to NYC! I found out about the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program in 2001 and thought that would be a great window into the city I knew I always wanted to live in, so I composed some songs for my application, and luckily, at the same time I also fell in love with writing!

NMT: What is your writing process like? How does it change when you work with a poem as your lyric?

CD: It’s exactly the same whether it’s a song lyric or pre-existing text like a poem. I obviously read it through enough times so that I understand the story I’m trying to tell or the journey the character is going on, then, if it isn’t already specified, break it down into a song structure like AABA, verse/chorus or something more complex. I then try to find the internal rhythm and meter of the language which helps me set up the tempo and feel, and then start playing around with sounds on the piano. I like to come up with a groove or motif first, and usually the melody and harmonic structure follows soon after.

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NMT: What advice do you have for people who want to pursue music directing?

CD: Study, practice, listen, learn! Music Directors have to be good at so many things – playing piano, sight-reading, accompanying and working with singers, conducting, people managing – and the add-ons which you are often asked to do are arranging and orchestrating! Music direction is such a multi-faceted skill. And nowadays there are so many styles of music on Broadway – it’s not just “musical theatre”! The shows I’ve worked on in the last decade have been drastically different musically – so you need to be familiar and comfortable with different genres – which is why it’s always great to listen to as much music as you can – not just musical theatre!

NMT: Your dispatches from the front row of If/Then are so fantastic to read. How do you stay focused through interruptions from disruptive audience members?

CD: Most of the time I’m so tickled by my interactions with the audience, because they’re harmless and not distracting once the show starts. There have been a few times when the people right behind me have chatted through the whole show, and I’ve shot a dirty look back at them – but luckily that’s few and far between. What happens most often is that there will be a “screamer” right behind me, who doesn’t realize her mouth is 6 inches from my ear – so every time Idina comes out, or finishes a big number, or does anything remotely exciting to this person, I’ll have to duck and block my ears, or I’ll go deaf. The orchestra think it’s hilarious.

NMT: How does your experience composing inform how you music direct, and vice versa?

CD: I think the overlap is most helpful around working with singers. I’ve learned so much from collaborating with amazing singers as a musical director, and it’s so informative to see what makes them tick, and especially what they can sustain eight times a week. The singers are the ones telling the story, they’re the conduit for your music, so you really need to understand the voices you’re writing for – their strengths, weaknesses, what’s easy for them, and what they love doing.

NMT: What do you think is the biggest problem affecting the musical theater industry today?

CD: Unfortunately we now live in a world where musicals are SO expensive to produce, and even in New York, there are way more new, original musicals being written than there are producers or theatre companies willing to take risks. A huge majority of works being produced are adaptations of previous source material. So as a writer searching for ideas you begin to think “What will sell? What has commercial appeal?”, and you think twice about doing something obscure. It’s such a shame because that shouldn’t be a factor in choosing what show you write. I am so proud to be involved in If/Then because the producers were willing to take a risk on telling an original story, and I wish that there were more opportunities for writers to come up with ideas from scratch!

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