Fynsworth Alley: 10 Questions with Denis Markell

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

10 Questions with Denis Markell

How did your songs end up on Broadway Bound

Michael Kerker, the indefatigable head of ASCAP’s musical theatre division, called my writing partner Douglas Bernstein and suggested we send in a tape. Many months later, a phone call came in saying “Boys, you’re in!” Sadly, that was a crank call. Months after that, ANOTHER call came in saying “Is this Douglas Bernstein? I’m Bruce Kimmel and I’m heartened by your songs.” Bruce let us know he was planning on taking three of our songs for the CD.

Do you write exclusively with Doug Bernstein? How did you two find each other?

Doug and I found each other at a music camp, when he was sixteen and I was seventeen. Anyone humming Rodgers and Hammerstein right now (and you know who you are) stop it. It’s been done. We stayed friends, and ended up both going to Amherst College. Upon arrival in New York, (or return to New York – we both grew up here) I went into the BMI workshop, where I wrote by myself. I was also paired with a few other people, but those experiences were more frustrating than inspiring. At some point the opportunity presented itself for Doug and I to write together (for Upstairs At O’Neal’s) and from that point on, the majority of our writing for the theatre has been together.  

What are you currently working on?

Currently, Doug and I are writing the book only (for the first time) for a new musical being produced by Musical Theatre Works, with a score by Zena Goldrich and Marcy Heisler (“The Alto’s Lament” “Taylor The Latte Boy”) to be directed by Lonny Price. It’s based on a 1973 TV movie by Joan Rivers which starred Stockard Channing. We’re doing a staged reading in December, and after that, we’ll see what we have.

Do you prefer to write revue material or show material? Why?

Both are fun and can be equally challenging, but I guess if I was forced at gunpoint to choose (now there’s a concept for a reality TV show!) I would say book musicals, as I feel there are so few funny musicals out there that aren’t camp or revivals.

How do you find material for songs?

I assume you mean revue songs. Obviously, in book musical, the songs should come from character or story. Sheldon Harnick once said that all his funny songs came from anger, and I think that’s true for a majority of our songs. Something annoys you or gets under your skin and you try to address it with humor. Some other songs, like “Joshua Noveck,” come from personal experience (or the experiences of our friends).

What’s currently on your CD player?

Believe it or not, the soundtrack from Dancer In The Dark – which is Bjork’s CD “Selmasongs.” Also a great CD called Music For TV Dinners which a selection of all the great hokey muzak themes from the sixties and the seventies. Oh yes, and the Jason Graae CD.

What does an “up and coming” songwriter do to feed himself? Do you have a “day job”?

I think it was Douglas J. Cohen who said that being called “up and coming” in one’s forties is one of the most depressing things about trying to write for the musical theatre. For the most part, what money I make outside of the theatre these days is through writing for corporate events and freelance writing. Recently, Doug and I wrote and produced the first telecast for Broadway On Broadway which was loads of fun.

Can you name some of your writing influences?

They are so numerous it’s hard to keep a list. When I was a lad it was Tom Lehrer, Laugh-In, The Beatles, etc. Later, I added Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, SNL, and the usual suspects. I guess somewhere in there I discovered the Algonquin round table, mostly Robert Benchley. Musically, I always loved James Taylor, Carole King and Burt Bacharach. Since I was a composition major in college, I also was influenced by everyone from Francois Poulenc and Ravel and to Schumann and Brahms. I’ve also been drawn to Jacques Brel, Michel LeGrand, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the contemporary genius, Ivan Lins.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any musical theatre names.

Growing up, Musical Theatre for me was something on the record player, and I loved the scores for which we had albums: Guys and Dolls, Cabaret, Forum. I caught up with all the other writers after college, when I immersed myself in the Lincoln Center Library. I’ve learned from EVERYONE. Even Sondheim. (as opposed to ONLY Sondheim.) The ones I admire the most include Frank Loesser, Yip Harburg, and the works of Bock and Harnick and Menken and Ashman (especially Little Shop and the movie version of Beauty and the Beast). That’s who I want to be when I grow up.

A lot of young songwriters have older, more established composers and lyricists as mentors. Do you have one? How did that relationship develop?

None of your damn business.

Oh, all right. I was privileged to work with Lehman Engel in his last two years running the BMI workshop. He was quite supportive of me and made me feel like I had a place in this world.

After taking our songs for Upstairs At O’Neals (and putting Doug in the cast) Martin Charnin became a real mentor, directing our first book musical at the Manhattan Theatre Club and teaching us more about the business than anyone else. We have never gone the route of “sending a tape to Sondheim” (the equivalent of a Bar Mitzvah for most theatre writers of our generation) but through hearing our songs and writing, we’ve made friends (and sometimes fans) along the way who’ve also helped us, including Ed Kleban (whose pre-and-post Chorus Line work is finally being given a hearing in the wonderful A Class Act playing now at Manhattan Theatre Club – go see it!) and Alan Menken.

Was there a moment when you said “I was meant to write songs?” What triggered that?

I think like most kids, I wrote song parodies (inspired by Allan Sherman and Mad Magazine) which were received with much mirth and hilarity. Then I got my heart broken by some girl or other in junior high school and found that instead of writing a poem or painting a picture or throwing a brick through her window, I wrote a song about it.

That song was “Send In the Clowns.” Later, I realized Sondheim had written it already. So I set about writing my own songs. I had actually planned to go to grad school and be a conductor or something, but found that I was miserable. I was reading Richard Rodgers’ autobiography “Musical Stages” when it hit me that the happiest I ever was was when I was writing or working on musicals. It kind of made sense that I should persue it. And I continue to pursue it to this day.

I just wrote a new song this morning, as a matter of fact. It’s called “S’Wonderful”.

Oh, damn!

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