Fynsworth Alley: Brad Ross

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Brad Ross is the composer of Little By Little. Two of his songs, “Kicks” and “Watching The Show”, are featured on the Broadway Bound album. In addition to his musical theatre work, Brad has written an album of children’s songs as well as symphonic pieces that have been performed by orchestras across the US.

DL: How did you get involved in writing musicals?

BR: I was always a musician from a very young age. I always played the piano, and when I was very young, I also played the clarinet and later the bassoon. But I was always playing other people’s music. There was a point when I was commuting for a summer job from my folks’ house into New York City. I was sitting on the train every day, and on the way back, I got sick of reading the newspaper, so I took one of my father’s music sketch pads and started sketching out melodies from my head. When I got home, I’d go to the piano and play them. I liked the way they sounded, and that got me off on writing my own stuff instead of playing other people’s. 

DL: You said you were a trained musician. Did you have any formal training in composition?

BR: Yes. I studied music at Cornell University, and I got an MFA from the NYU Musical Theatre program. In between, I was fiercely devouring and analyzing the great composers of the American Songbook to see how they did it – Rodgers, Kern, Bernstein, Sondheim…

DL: What did you think of the formal part of your education? Was it worth the time and effort?

BR: Absolutely. I think the classical background and understanding the basics of counterpoint and harmony is essential. A lot of rock people don’t have that, but I’m grateful that I do. I don’t put down the rock people for a second, I have a lot of respect for them. But for me, and for where my head is, I’m grateful that I have the education.

DL: At what point in your life did you decide this was something you wanted to focus on?

BR: This [commute] was [for] a summer job during college. I think it’s interesting, because during college I was jittery about a creative life, and I was more attuned to being a mogul or an executive, a businessman behind a desk. I had a couple of desk jobs after I graduated from college, but they weren’t doing it for me. So at some point, I gave up the desk work and went for the creative.

DL: Was there some moment or event that tipped you off that you really could do this, that it was more than just a pipe dream?

BR: I remember, one of the first songs I wrote, I hooked up with this guy. He had these lyrics, he put them in front of me, and I could set them to music! And I set them well, and I knew I could do it well.

DL: Why musical theatre? Why this kind of music?

BR: I have written other kinds of music too. I like to tell a story, and I like to heighten the emotions that are told through song. You can’t heighten emotions in pop music that much. You can in theatre. I think between my desire to tell a story my desire to heighten the emotional level, that’s where theatre is. Also, my father was a kid of the swing era. I grew up with the swing/jazz tradition, the American standard in my blood. While other kids where getting into Black Sabbath, I was getting into Charlie Parker.

DL: What do you find is your biggest challenge when writing a song?

BR: The biggest challenge is putting all the pieces together, in terms of it being right for the moment, being viable musically, and having a good marriage between the music and the lyrics. And also that it’s singable. The song’s got to be right for the voices you write for. It’s got to be right for the moment. It’s got to blend with the words. And hopefully there’s a melody that has some sticking power.

DL: When you write, do you ever write with specific performers in mind?

BR: Occasionally, yes. In fact, I always try to have if not a specific person, then a specific voice type. I always know this is going to be a song or this is going to be a role for a high baritone or a legit soprano or a belter… if it’s a group number, I usually have a good sense of where it’s going to be choral, where it’s going to be unison, where it’s going to be solo. I try to have sense of the architecture of a musical number, in terms of the structure. I don’t think enough people are aware of songwriting structure, whether it’s verse/chorus or AABA or whatever. I like to have an ear as to how the song’s going to build.

DL: You’ve worked with a whole bunch of different lyricists. What’s your preferred method of collaboration?

BR: I have worked everything from totally lyrics first, where I’m setting syllable to syllable, to completely music first. I have to say, my preferred way of working is a little bit of ping-ponging: I’m with the lyricists in the same room, and we know the moment or the character we have to write for, whatever the scene is or the tone is. I like to be with the lyricist and improvise different melodic and musical ideas that I think might suit the moment. With the lyricist. And I’ll put those down on tape or on music paper, and sometimes it’s just the vamp or the beginning of a tune – just four to eight bars. I’ll give that to the lyricist, and let the lyricist start with that and hopefully take it a little further. And then the lyricist comes back to me with more lyric than they had – more than I’ve written music to. And we go on from there.

DL: Do you compose at the piano?

BR: I like to start the music at the piano. I like to get the initial impulse at the piano, and then I like to do some of the development of the music in my head, away from the piano. Too many people get hitched to the piano, and the piano writes their music for them, which isn’t good. But I do find the tactile experience of being at the piano at the beginning generates a good start. And then I have to get away from the piano so I develop it in a way that’s viable.

DL: With all the different people that you write with, when you have an idea, how do you find a collaborator?

BR: Even though I have worked with different people, it’s not like I have a stable of people and I open up the rolodex and say, “Who’s right for this one?” It’s never been really like that. I can tell you where I’m at right now. I’ve been looking around for some new stuff, and some new collaborators. I’ve been doing a little bit of shopping, if you will. I’ve also been meeting with some different book writers. I’m trying to put something together organically, in terms of a viable idea and a viable collaborator.

DL: Do you start with ideas of your own, or are you looking for people with ideas that appeal to you?

BR: Both.

DL: Ultimately, do you think you could find one or two people you could settle down with and say, we’re the team of Ross and whoever?

BR: I’d love it. I would absolutely love it. I’d love to write more with people I’ve already written with, like Ellen Greenfield, Joe Keenan, Mark Waldrop, and Hal Hackady. I’d love to continue writing with them. You know, I’ve thought a lot about this issue of one collaborator or many. In light of history, you do have the Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe paradigm, the Kander & Ebb stuff, but you also have Harold Arlen who worked with different people, Jerome Kern who worked with different people, Cy Coleman who worked with different people… So there are cases for both. I think it is a marriage, and I do think settling down and having longevity with a partner is a really good thing.

DL: Do you have musical influences? And are they different from the people you like to listen to?

BR: I definitely have musical influences. You have musical influences in one point in your life, and then you move on to other people, but those musical influences remain embedded in your formative years. Definitely Richard Rodgers, definitely Beethoven. Beethoven knew how to take a motif and develop it. That is the essence of composition. It’s finding a good little nugget of a musical thought and developing it. Richard Rodgers had the melodic gift and the lyricism. Then everybody from George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern… the greats. I like the quirkiness of Prokofiev’s music, going to wacko notes, off-notes. Bernstein for sure. Sondheim to a degree. Sondheim definitely from a musical angle in certain instances. I like all of Sondheim’s canon. The melodic stuff from A Little Night Music blows me away. But for me as a composer, it’s probably Rodgers. I love Marvin Hamlisch and David Shire, and I went through kind of a Burt Bacharach phase. I love the kind of angular stuff of Bacharach, in his rhythms and his melodies. I like Alan Menken, I think he’s marvelous. There’s a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber – I think what he did in Evita is really good, by and large. A lot of his stuff is really schlocky, but he wrote the good stuff, too.

DL: Let’s talk about Little By Little for a little bit. The development of that show was pretty interesting, because it didn’t start as a “show” per se.

BR: Little By Little started out because I saw that I had these wonderful songs; a lot of them were theatre songs, some of them were pop songs, some of them were cabaret songs. Somehow, there was this idea of using songs in a timeline, from young to old. I actually had done a Little By Little with a different director and a bunch of songs upstate at a community theatre, and I got that videotaped. I got that videotape to Annette Jolles, and she started working with me to tailor it. It started out upstate as a seven-person show, and she trimmed it down to three people. As she kept refining it, we dropped songs and wrote new material. Little by little, what started out with about six different lyricists came down to just Ellen Greenfield and Hal Hackady. With each new incarnation of the show, we kept making it more and more story and less and less revue.

DL: When we added the new songs, was there one lyricist you worked with for all the new stuff? How did you decide whom to call?

BR: Both Ellen and Hal were very involved. As things developed, Hal Hackady’s numbers were really good numbers in terms of being marvelous set pieces. Ellen turned out to be the whiz at creating numbers specific to situations and characters. Most of the new stuff was written with Ellen, and Annette had a big impact. She was in conference with Ellen about making it work. So I have to say Ellen was really the lynchpin for the new material.

DL: What are some of the songs that managed to stay in the piece from the very, very beginning?

BR: “Tell Me” was there from the very beginning. Popcorn was there pretty much from the beginning. I think “Rainbows” was there from the beginning. “Little By Little” was there from the beginning. “Starlight,” that little thing was there from the beginning.

DL: I think it’s interesting that you said you had this first production at a little community theatre. How did that come about?

BR: I had a connection to the Chappaqua Drama Group up in Chappaqua, New York, where I’m from. I had a connection to this gentleman who was directing there, George Puello. A lot of actors know George because he’s been at the Westchester Broadway Theatre. I had an opportunity, and I had this inkling that George could pull it together, and he did. It was adorable, it was great. And out of that was the incubation.

DL: What was the timeframe between that production and the York Theatre production that we recorded?

BR: Well, we all know these things take years. Part of it is having the means to get something on. All writers don’t do anything until they have to do it. We did York in 1999, we had some other things in ’93 and ’95 at the Triad up on 72nd Street. We had the Coconut Grove theatre in late 1996. That was helpful. I did something in ’91, before Annette got involved. I think the very, very first thing in Chappaqua was ’91 also. So I guess that’s eight years. That’s about right.

DL: I take it you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t only work on one show at once.

BR: Well, I’ve had multiple projects on the burner, but I’m trying to just focus on projects that are viable: quality, not quantity. I’m kind of at a bit of a crossroads, looking for something that really could sail.

DL: Is your writing affected by the state of what’s going on in theatre in general, economically and artistically?

BR: That hasn’t really been an influence on me. I’m aware of that, but the biggest influence on me that I’m aware of now is wanting to find a project that has some name recognition. We all know that adaptations work well in the musical theatre. But I also think a known title is a big help to a show. And a theatre or a producer is thinking about selling it to their audience, and they know they can sell “Phantom of the Opera” faster than they can sell “Life on Santa Monica Blvd.” But I think as a composer, I’m very much attuned to the subject matter of the piece, the period and the demands of the material.

DL: More generally, what do you think of the state of musical theatre in 2001?

BR: Some good, some bad, I think. If you look around, right now there’s a lot of stuff happening, in terms of shows that are on. There’s stuff out there, and we all know how hard it is to get a new show on. The only thing I’m kind of bummed out about is that there are definitely fewer melodic-inspired theatre-music people. There are very few, and I think the priority, as it should be, is on telling a story and creating something that’s theatrically compelling. But with all the new technology in terms of drum machines and electronics and the rock age, melody has definitely been lost, and that’s the most unfortunate thing. The Full Monty doesn’t have a tuneful score that’s going to endure as a body of tuneful songs. They’re good songs in the show, they’re fun, they’re clever, they sound contemporary – all that stuff. They’re not really hummers.

You know, there’s a lot to talk about in that, because the Adam Guettel kind of stuff, the Ricky Ian Gordon music… some of it is kind of nice, but it’s all a little bit arch and “music theatre” the way that Ned Rorem’s songs are, or Carlisle Floyd’s operas or Menotti is. And that stuff is “high art.” I have a high respect for that stuff – enormous respect, but it’s not where my heart lives.

DL: What advice would you offer to a young composer starting out and trying to make that decision about whether or not to devote all of his or her free time to writing musicals?

BR: I would say if someone really wanted to make a stab at it, they’d have to have two things in place: they’d need a really good collaborator and a really good idea for a show. If the collaboration was sound and the idea did something, I’d say go for it. If either of those two ingredients wasn’t there, I’d say wait until those ingredients are there. You can have the greatest collaboration in the world and still write a bad show – history has borne that out. Similarly, you can have a great idea for a show, but if you don’t have a good collaborator to write it with, you’re not going to pull it off. I think those are the two ingredients that need to be in place if you’re going to spend all your waking moments trying to write a script.

DL: Let’s now talk a little bit about the two songs of yours on the Broadway Bound CD. The shows that gave birth to these songs – Little Pinks and The Times – are they complete? Are you still working on them?

BR: Little Pinks was a show based on a story by Damon Runyon, and to this day Hal and I would love to do it, but we understand that Alan Menken has the rights to the story. I think that he’s been working on it. It was made into a movie with Lucille Ball called The Big Street. Hal and I have written a half a dozen songs for the project, and this was one of them.

The Times was a show that to this day I’d still love to see get resurrected. We did a production at the Long Wharf Theatre in ’93, and I hope Joe Keenan will have a willingness either to record the score or to mount a production. It’s an original book about a couple that traced the ups and downs of their relationship from meeting to a near breakup through the pages, stories, and reporters of the New York Times.

DL: How did those songs end up on the Broadway Bound CD?

BR: At some point I have to put a wonderful big plug to Bruce. They ended up on Broadway Bound because I was talking to Michael Kerker at ASCAP, and he told me that Bruce was looking for songs for this project. I think I gave a tape to Michael who gave it to Bruce, and I’ll never forget getting the call from Bruce saying he wanted these two songs. I don’t think I knew Bruce, although I certainly knew all of his stuff, and I remember talking to him about those two songs. Bruce is amazing – he’s got impeccable taste, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s fantastic! I can’t sing his praises loudly enough. That album is so fantastic, and people call me about both that and Little By Little. They write to me, they find my number and call me, both because my stuff is good, but also because of the way Bruce rendered it on audio. He really captures those numbers. Broadway Bound is a full orchestra, and Little By Little is only three pieces, but people respond because of the way Bruce captures it on CD.

DL: Did you go to the recording sessions for Little By Little? What were those like?

BR: First of all, we had some problems in terms of the run because we had some illness in the cast. Our opening night had to be cancelled because Christiane [Noll] got sick. And then Darren [Baker] got sick. And there was all this stuff about trying to get Bruce to see the show, because we wanted Bruce to record it. I’ll never forget Liz [Larsen] calling me when I was at the dentist telling me that Bruce finally came and wanted to do this. It was very exciting when he said he would do it. I think Bruce liked the show, but he also wanted to do it for Christiane and Liz. I had many discussions with Bruce both on the artistic end and to make it work financially. Bruce was really great; he was upfront and honest about what the album was going to be, and he was a really straight-shooter on that. Liz Larsen got sick, and we had to cancel the last two performances of the show. We canceled them, and the recording session was a week away. Liz could not sing, she could not talk – something had happened, and she told us if she missed these performances and didn’t talk for a week, her doctor assured her she’d be able to sing for the recording session. And thank God she did and she could. And Darren Baker showed up at the session with a suitcase full of medicine to get through the day. The pianist showed up one minute before we were supposed to start.

DL: But once everyone was there and medicated, did it go smoothly?

BR: Sure. We had a rehearsal the day before at Carol Music. Bruce was there. Larry Moore did a great job with the orchestrations – when we did the show at the York, it was only piano. He wrote a percussion book and a bass book. All the writers were there, and it went well. Then we all went to Joe Allen’s afterward.

DL: To wrap this up, if you were interviewing yourself, what else would you like to say? Or what else would you want to be asked?

BR: I’d just like to say that one of the greatest thrills for a creator is to hear a song come together with a good set of lyrics, a good melody, a good performance by a wonderful performer, a good orchestration played by wonderful musicians, and good producer preserving it for posterity. It’s very exciting when that happens. And in my experience with Bruce and Fynsworth, it’s very exciting that that has happened.

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