Sorry? No, ‘Grateful’

John Bucchino calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend and Stephen Sondheim his mentor. So how come he’s not a huge fan of musical theater?

I WRITE THE SONGS  |  Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

I WRITE THE SONGS | Composer John Bucchino has his turn performing his music with a cabaret show at Theatre 3, which is holding a mini-festival of his music this fall.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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AN EVENING OF CABARET
Theatre 3, 2900 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. Nov. 17. 7:30 p.m.
$50. Theatre3Dallas.com.

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If you look at John Bucchino’s web page, you’re immediately struck by how, under “biography,” he lists only the compositions he’s written and recordings made of his songs and awards he’s received. No date of birth, no hometown, no pet peeves. It’s as if his life story can be expressed through his work alone.

And the thing is, Bucchino doesn’t really disagree with that.

“I guess I do feel that way,” he says with a sudden flash. “I figure on a website, it’s not about me as a person but me as a songwriter. I do feel the work — especially It’s Only Life and the albums — are incredibly open and incredibly vulnerable insights into me. Ninety percent of them are directly from experiences in my life. I’m so wrapped up in what I do — probably unhealthily so — but I’m perfectly open. I need to get those two things in a better balance.”

In fact, doing so might make for a good song.

It’s not as if Bucchino doesn’t have a fascinating story of his own. One of the most respected composers of cabaret songs for more than two decades, he broke into Broadway with the acclaimed 2008 musical A Catered Affair, which wraps up its regional premiere at Theatre 3 Saturday. But that’s hardly your last chance to experience Bucchino. On Nov. 17 — his birthday! — he’ll perform his one-man show at Theatre 3, and the next day, previews of his revue It’s Only Life begin in the Theatre Too space. It’s a mini-festival of Bucchino in Uptown.

It’s surprising — to Bucchino, especially — that he’s become a staple of Theatre 3’s schedule, since he personally never had much interest in musicals. Even today, while he numbers Stephen Sondheim as a mentor and calls Stephen Schwartz his best friend of 25 years (he even claims credit for getting Wicked made; more on that later), he doesn’t really “get” lots of theater references. In fact, he never intended to be a composer at all.
“When I started writing songs, my goal was to be a singer-songwriter,” he says. “I started out playing piano at age 1; it became my favorite toy and still is. I just started noodling around with songwriting, which naturally evolved out of playing piano in high school. I figured I’d be a [piano playing pop star] a la Elton John or Billy Joel. But noooobody was interested in me — they wouldn’t give me the time of day. It wasn’t on my radar that other people could sing my songs, but that’s what took off.”

His songs have been recorded by everyone from Barbara Cook (“It doesn’t get better than Barbara Cook — her version of ‘Sweet Dreams’ just knocks my socks off. But her version of anything knocks my socks off”), Kristen Chenoweth, Audra MacDonald and Patti LuPone; he wrote the music for a children’s book by Julie Andrews and her daughter; he calls Grateful probably his most important work. The song was also a watershed for him.

“It was Saturday. I was cleaning house and suddenly found myself at the piano playing the chorus for ‘Grateful’ and I just started to cry. But that’s as far as it went for month. Then came the sweat of crafting these lyrics and bridge around this perfect chorus,” he says.

Bucchino invited his friend Art Garfunkel over to listen to it and give feedback. As soon as it was over, Garfunkel said, “Don’t give that to anyone else: It’s mine.”

“From that reaction, I knew something was going to happen with it,” he says.

Still, his ascension to Broadway was a long one.

“I didn’t really know about live theater. I kind of thought of pop songwriting as somehow cooler — theater writing as less complex and two dimensional,” he says. “But Stephen Schwartz is the one who encouraged me to write for the theater.”

How can a gay guy involved in music not be a theater queen? Bucchino seems unfazed by the idea. He says he “wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim” when Broadway’s greatest composer-lyricist called to say he was “really excited by my work.” But then came the pressure to produce something he wasn’t wholly conversant in. “It became terrifying to write for musical theater, because all these lofty people were encouraging me.”

A Catered Affair is his only show to open for a Broadway run, but his song cycles have been staples of regional theaters; Theatre 3’s Terry Dobson has been an especially enthusiastic supporter. (“I’m still not a musical theater geek just because I’ve done it,” he says.)

So how does he take responsibility for Wicked?

“Holly Near [for whom he has been a long-time accompanist] and I had gotten a gig to do a lesbian music festival on Maui. Stephen [Schwartz] was working on [the score for the animated film] Prince of Egypt in Los Angeles. I told him to come with me and we could hang out. He did. We were on a snorkeling trip with Holly and her partner and she said, ‘I just read the most interesting book.’” It turned out to be Wicked. When she described it to Schwartz, he immediately saw the potential to become a musical. “So if I hadn’t invited Stephen to vacation with us, it would never have happened!” Bucchino crows.

Bucchino acknowledges some have called his songs “not immediately hummable,” but that’s a good thing.

“That’s because you haven’t heard them before. I’d like to think that’s a reflection of my unique voice. What I go for in my writing is surprising inevitability — a chord progression or turn of phrase that makes you say, ‘I didn’t expect it to go there but, gee! How satisfying.’ I think the songs that are immediately memorable are derivative or formulaic in a way,” he says.

He also strives for a timelessness of sentiment, which is why, although often recorded by gay artists, his songs are usually gender neutral.

“If you look at the love songs on the Grateful CD, because I had not come out or to terms with my sexuality, I just decided not to use pronouns. There are no ‘he’ or ‘her,’ but ‘you.’ Maybe that’s a copout but also makes them more universal. We’re all people — gay or straight, male or female, we all go through the same stuff. I’m trying to reach that commonality which transcends gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes I wish my art were more overlapping into commerce, but I’m happy doing what I do.”

What’s the word? Oh, right: Grateful.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

‘The Temperamentals’ tonight at Uptown Players

Keep it hush-hush
Uptown Players regional premiere of The Temperamentals closes out the season on a high note. If you were “temperamental” in the ’50s, that was code for gay. Jon Marans play touches on the alternatve vocabulary used by gay men to communicate in a more conservative time.

DEETS: Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 8 p.m. Through Oct. 23. $25–$35. UptownPlayers.org.

—  Rich Lopez

Best Bets • 10.07.11

Saturday 10.08

Pretty in pink
Edna Jean Robinson steps out of the box and into the pink. She hosts Pinktober 2011 for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Between fundraising and premiering two new songs, Edna Jean should make the event a fabulous one.

DEETS: Hard Rock Cafe, 2211 N. Houston St. 8 p.m. $10.
HardRock.com

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Saturday 10.08

Keep it hush-hush
Uptown Players regional premiere of The Temperamentals closes out the season on a high note. If you were “temperamental” in the ’50s, that was code for gay. Jon Marans play touches on the alternatve vocabulary used by gay men to communicate in a more conservative time.

DEETS: Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 8 p.m. Through Oct. 23. $25–$35.
UptownPlayers.org.

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Sunday 10.09

Dog day late afternoon
Support Animal Angels this weekend as the sanctuary for homeless animals celebrates 20 years. The event includes drinks, appetizers and prizes. This sweet dog will thank you.

DEETS:  Sambuca 360, 7200 Bishop Road, Plano. 6 p.m. $25.
AnimalAngelsTexas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Out of step

Fitting in seems overrated in two musicals of substance

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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ON THE BOARDS
NEXT TO NORMAL at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Through July 3. UptownPlayers.org.

BILLY ELLIOT at the Winspear Opera House,
4103 Flora St. Through June 19.
ATTPAC.org.

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OUT, OUT BRIEF CANDLE | A birthday cake triggers a couple’s painful memories in ‘Next to Normal.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

Reality: It’s so inconvenient sometimes. For Diana, the wife and mother in Next to Normal, reality often means staying drugged to the point of catatonia; for 12-year-old working class kid Billy Elliot struggling through life in an England mining town interferes with his passion to dance. Mental illness and politico-economic upheaval — not exactly the stuff of the typical song-and-dance musical. But there is little typical about either of these shows.

For Uptown Players, the regional premiere of Next to Normal is the best show the company has ever done: The best cast, all of whom are at the top of their games; the best set; the best band (a pitch-perfect performance, led by music director Scott A. Eckert); and the best directing personally for Michael Serrecchia, who moves the scenes seamlessly as the play hits you in waves, alternatingly poignant and humorous.

It’s not the easiest material to make into a musical. Diana (Patty Breckenridge) had struggled with bipolar disorder for years, ever since a tragedy left her with a slipping grip on reality. Her husband Dan (Gary Floyd) has soldiered on, monitoring her prescription use and looking for warning signs. But what if Diana doesn’t want to feel “normal”? What if feeling a little crazy is her baseline — it’s normal for her?

At the same time we watch Dan and Diana work through their marriage, we see how their daughter Natalie (Erica Harte) and her new boyfriend Henry (Jonathan W. Gilland) mirror their relationship from 20 years ago.

These are heavy issues, but for each moment of devastation, you are simultaneously awed by its beauty and power. It helps that the score — basically a rock opera — is performed by some of the best singers around. On all her songs, Breckenridge reaches into the emotion and the musicality; nowhere is she better than on “I Miss the Mountains,” a heartfelt ballad of the Jewel-Indigo Girls variety that you can imagine hearing on the radio.

Floyd’s lilting tenor melds gorgeously with Anthony Carillo, playing Dan and Diana’s son Gabe, especially on “I Am the One” and “It’s Gonna Be Good.” Carillo imbues his performance with an impressing physicality as well, bursting out of his skin on the anthem “I’m Alive.”

Next to Normal, which won the Tony Award for best score as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama, sounds sad, and sometimes it is, but its genius is leaving the audience with the memory of the power of the human spirit. This is not a musical about depression; it is a musical about hope.
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GOTTA DANCE | A working class boy imagines a future, dancing ballet with himself, in ‘Billy Elliot.’ (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

You could say almost the same thing about Billy Elliot, now at the Winspear Opera House. This national tour of the Elton John hit about how a boy discovers ballet is perhaps an even less likely topic for a musical treatment, given its context: A strike during the Thatcher Administration that, in the mid-1980s, nearly resulted in a British civil war, and polarized the classes in a way that hadn’t been seen in a century.

Billy (played on press night by Giuseppe Basilio, but with a rotating Billy almost each performance) is growing up amid the fiercely testosterone-fueled environs of Northern England, with a father and older brother who are miners, with only the memory of his late mother and his often soused grandmother to nurture him.

Billy is forced to study boxing, but when he wanders into a ballet class led by Mrs. Wilkinson (Faith Prince), he begins to realize that being different isn’t easy, but it sure is liberating.

You know you’re in a strange world, even in musical theater, where the showstopping number in the first act (“Expressing Yourself”) is a lavish tap-dancing fantasy about the joys of cross-dressing, led by Billy’s fey companion Michael, who seems more at home in his burgeoning sexuality than his older friend.

Everything about this production is massive — the sets, the themes, the score, the dances, the talent, even the accents — except the kernel of it: The lone boy who wants to make a better world for himself. (In the show’s most moving sequence, miners contribute what they can to help fund Billy’s audition for the Royal School of Ballet, because they realize — sadly, beautifully — that Billy represents the future, their future, as their industry is being gutted by right wing bullies.)

Broadway veteran Prince demonstrates her star-power with a flashy supporting role, but Basilio is a remarkable young dancer, with fine lines and a commanding presence during a duet with his older self and on his big solo number, “Electricity.” On opening night, the audience swelled in a sustained, spontaneous ovation. It was completely deserved. It was, itself, electric.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Uptown Players announces its 2011 season

On Tuesday night, Uptown Players hosted a nice turnout at the Kalita Humphreys Theater where they announced the roster for their 2011 season. They held off on announcing one production due to contractual reasons, but if it fits in with the rest, it should make quite a season — especially for the LGBT community. Joining Players producers Jeff Rane and Craig Lynch onstage was the cast of the upcoming show Closer to Heaven, the Pet Shop Boys musical which opens Oct. 1.

• Uptown Players will start the season with Thank You For Being a Friend, The Musical, a Golden Girls parody by Nick Brennan. Expect camp overdrive as the “women” aren’t too thrilled about a certain gay celebrity moving in next door. Who knew Lance Bass could be such a problem? The show runs Feb. 4–27 at the Rose Room inside Station 4.

• As part of the upcoming Foote Festival celebrating playwright Horton Foote, Uptown Players joins in with the regional premiere of his Pulitzer prize winning play, Young Man from Atlanta. The show runs April 1–17 at the Kalita.

• UP brings back Broadway Our Way in which local actors switch-hit showtunes. Men sing the women’s parts, vice versa and it’s a gay ol’ time. BOW runs May 6–15.

• The Twilight Zone theme played when they didn‘t announce their next show, which will run June 10–July 2. We know it’s a musical at least, but the official announcement will be made Feb.1.

• Victor/Victoria, the musical based on the Julie Andrews/James Garner 1982 film, will run July 29–Aug. 2.

• Personally, I thought their announcement of the Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival was the most exciting. The fest will feature cabaret sets, performances and plays with the musical Crazy, Just Like Me by Louis Sacco and Drew Gasparini as the centerpiece. The fest coincides with Dallas Pride and runs Sep. 9–17. The full schedule will also be announced Feb. 1.

• Finishing off the season will be The Temperamentals, a new play by Jon Marans which opened this year off-Broadway. The site notes that the play “‘tells the story of two men – the communist Harry Hay and the Viennese refugee and designer Rudi Gernreich — as they fall in love while building the first gay rights organization in the pre-Stonewall United States.”

—  Rich Lopez