When I was in high school applying for college, the thing I wanted most to do was study musical theatre. Moreso than that, I wanted to get more into what theatre was in general. I’d been in a number of shows with school and with community groups. But I still had no clue what I was doing. I applied for a few schools and went through rigorous audition processes, most of which cut me after the dance call. I was not a dancer. I had a little tap under my belt, but my body is not cut for ballet, and I was never afforded the opportunity to study dance. We didn’t have the kind of resources to make that kind of thing happen. My mom thought it was best to focus on one talent, since it was all we could afford, and so I ended up doing a lot of music programs. I begged to go to a theatre program, but it seemed out of the question.
Luckily, I had gone
to Tanglewood the summer before my senior year (on scholarship),
where the final week was spent auditioning for the music school at
Boston University. It was the only program I got into, and they gave
me a scholarship, which meant I could actually go.
A number of good
things came out of my time at BU, but I was not a happy voice
student. My voice teacher once remarked, in front of a fellow
student, “For Kevin, being a student is an extra-curricular
activity.” I know now that she missed the mark. I loved being a
student; I didn’t love being a vocal performance student.
And I wasn’t a bad
music student. I got into junior-level music theory and senior-level
sight-singing in my freshman year. I was reportedly one of two
students that year who aced the entrance exam; unusual, especially
for a voice major. The thing was, I didn’t feel like I belonged
there. I wanted to do theatre. I auditioned for a student-run
production of Bat Boy in my
first semester and was cast as Pan. Doing that production taught me
that my classical singing wasn’t going to cut it in musical
theatre. I needed a more flexible voice capable of handling multiple
styles. It also taught me that movement was more important than
dance; you need to look comfortable on stage or
else the audience is going to be uncomfortable. Finally, it made me
realize how unhappy I was studying voice alone.
I needed to get out.
a consolation, and since I was there already, I decided to attempt to
transfer into the composition department. This side-line was inspired
by my father, who was a failed composition student. (Not a failed
composer; I actually quite like his music: songs and gospel tunes in
a jazzy-pop style, a little bit of rag. He has never been proactive
about getting his work performed or published outside his little
circle. At least, not in my lifetime.) I started writing music when I
was thirteen, and I’d always wondered if I was any good at it. No
one seemed to like my pop-style songs. They always came out too dark,
with lyrics that were too cerebral or just plain awful. I wrote some
music for church, though, which people seemed to love, and I wrote
instrumental pieces. I started writing my first musical with a high
school friend of mine who, conveniently, was also at BU. We had an
informal recital, the freshman class of voice students, where,
instead of singing, I asked to play one of my piano pieces, a
suite pretentiously titled L’imagination.
It was fairly well-received, so I resolved to contact the head of
composition at BU, an avant-gardist called Richard Cornell. He
invited me to send along some scores, which I did. In hindsight,
perhaps, I should have included recordings, because my actual music
writing may not have been clear enough. But I thought, surely, he’s
a composition professor, he should be able to understand at least
what I’m getting at.
not hearing back for
a while, I finally confronted Dr. Cornell in person. I
was surprised to find him a short man—shorter than me, and I’m
not tall, not that his physical stature is as important to the story
as his professional stature.
He told me he wouldn’t be
recommending me for a transfer because my music wasn’t good enough.
“Accompaniment in search of a melody.” Those words have haunted
me for some time now. At the time, though, I said, well, maybe music
isn’t your thing. I started looking at theatre schools to transfer
fourth semester at BU, I gave up. I stopped going to classes, I
skipped exams. I was done. Part of this was unrelated to learning; I
was depressed from a failed
relationship, and I was torn.
On one hand, I loved living in Boston, and I loved my friends. On the
other hand, I needed to get out. The funny thing that happens when
you don’t go to your classes is that professors either give you an
incomplete or they fail you. And when you get an incomplete or
failure in a class, it doesn’t count towards your credit hours. I
suddenly found myself without enough credits to be a full-time
student at BU, and my scholarship was revoked. Thinking I just needed
one more semester to figure myself out, I wrote an appeal letter in
hopes I could come back in the fall and then get my transfer
paperwork in order to be somewhere else by spring. By mid-August, I
hadn’t heard anything. The prospect of not going to any
college in the fall was daunting for some reason. I needed to be
knew about this small performing arts college on Long Island (the
Land of my People, for better
or for worse) and thought in
a last-ditch effort that I would just walk in and see what their deal
was. My thinking was that I would go and inquire about the theatre
program and, if I liked it, I
could apply to begin in the spring. So, I drove to Five Towns College
towards the end of August. Within two days, I had auditioned and
secured a scholarship to study theatre, beginning the following week.
I wrote to BU officially
withdrawing from their music school. The day I started class, I
received a letter reinstating my scholarship at BU. Too late,
Terriers. Too late.
I became an actor and, inadvertently, a scholar of the theatre. I
studied every aspect. I became the student accompanist, a teaching
assistant for multiple classes, a master electrician, an occasional
assistant stage manager. I
directed a world premiere of a play I’d done a reading for as my
senior project. My first
musical had its first (and only) table-read. I wrote my second
musical by myself using a bunch of songs I’d been writing over the
years; it later got a new book by Travis Leland and received two
staged readings, one in New York City. In one of my midterm reviews,
a professor told me I should consider getting a PhD. It
didn’t seem likely then, but now it’s on my bucket list.
first gig out of college found me on the professional company at
Theatre Three, a small-but-mighty non-union theatre on the north
shore of Long Island. I had music directed a few things there while
in college, including their summer Musical Theatre Factory. When the
artistic director found out I wrote music, I was given my first
commission: to give a new score to his children’s show Little
Bo Peep and the Great Lost Sheep Caper.
I joined the company because I wanted to be on stage and be immersed
by the world of theatre. Writing music and lyrics and (occasionally)
full shows was sort of icing on the cake, a little side-gig. I
realize now it gave me an opportunity to try things out and learn the
art of composition as I went.
still didn’t consider myself a “real” composer, even as I wrote
for church choirs and for the theatre. I studied scores I loved. I
read books. But first and foremost, I was an actor and a director
trying to make a way in this crazy industry.
moved to Los Angeles and back. I got my master’s in Performance
Studies from NYU, in part to prove that I could succeed at a big
university and in part to lay the groundwork for a PhD. Somehow along
the way, I ended up at the 92nd
Street Y, that great New York cultural institution, writing more
children’s theatre and getting praise from their School of Music
as a fluke, I applied for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre
Workshop and got in. It’s changed my whole outlook. Now, finally, I
see myself as a composer, legitimized by a prestigious institution and regarded by my peers.
Perhaps my purpose all along has been to create musical theatre
instead of just be in it or direct it.
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