Fynsworth Alley: Michael Kerker

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

MICHAEL KERKER is the Assistant Vice President of ASCAP, the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Performers, serving as ASCAP’s authority on musical theatre and cabaret. He coordinates the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, the Sunday Night Songwriters series at the Firebird Cafe in New York, and other programs to encourage work by emerging and established writers in the musical theatre idiom. He has served on the boards of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, The Johnny Mercer Foundation, The Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame, and The Society of Singers.

DL: Let’s start off talking about your job. For people who have no idea what ASCAP even is, how do you explain it?

MK: To explain what ASCAP is, it’s nice to tell this short story: When Puccini came to America towards the turn of the century for the American premiere of his musical The Girl From The Golden West, he invited the great American composer Victor Herbert to the opening night. When the performance was over, they went to a very famous restaurant in New York on 14th Street called Shanley’s – kind of like the Harmonia Gardens restaurant in Hello, Dolly! Most restaurants at the time had little four-piece orchestras, and when they walked in, because Herbert was the composer of the day, they struck up some Victor Herbert melodies and played them during dinner. Puccini said to Herbert, “Isn’t this wonderful that while we’re dining, you’re earning money?” Herbert didn’t know what he was talking about. Italy had already established a performing rights organization to protect songwriters, to ensure that songwriters would be paid for their music when it was played publicly. Cutting to the chase, Puccini explained what this performing rights society was like, and thus Herbert got the idea that the United States needed an organization comprised of songwriters so that songwriters would be paid when their songs were performed publicly. That’s what ASCAP is. Herbert started it, and the story goes that in 1913, he invited the major songwriters of the day to a meeting. The meeting was held at Luchow’s on West 14th Street, another very famous restaurant. Because the weather was so bad, only eight people showed up! So those eight, plus Victor Herbert are the nine founding fathers of ASCAP. Of interest to your readers, one of the people who showed up was John Golden, for whom the Golden Theatre on Broadway is named; he wrote the song “Poor Butterfly.”

Essentially, what ASCAP does – any place you hear music performed, and that can be bars, grills, restaurants, nightclubs, radio stations, bowling alleys, airports, radio stations, television stations… ASCAP licenses the rights to use music. All that money in turn goes back to the songwriters in the form of royalties. It’s a very complicated system as to how it goes back to the writers, so I won’t go into it now, but that’s essentially what ASCAP does and how it got started.

DL: Now your job in ASCAP centers on musical theatre?

MK: That’s correct. Since that day when there were nine founding fathers of ASCAP, there are now about a hundred thousand members, and that includes everybody from the world of rap and rock and heavy metal, film and folk… and that includes Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and all the musical theatre writers. The musical theatre division is very small – actually, it’s a one person department, just me.

DL: Why is it there’s a separate division for musical theatre? What is it that you do that the person who handles gangster rap doesn’t do?

MK: First of all, obviously one person can’t do everything. It helps to have specialty and knowledge, and I can’t profess knowledge in any other form of music. I don’t know much about hip-hop, rap, or heavy metal. My expertise is in musical theatre. Essentially what my job is, is to find the future Cole Porters and Sondheims and Jerry Hermans and so forth, and at the same time keep the established writers that we have at ASCAP – the Sondheims, the Jerry Hermans, the Stephen Schwartzes – keep them happy and work with them any time they have issues that pertain to ASCAP.

DL: What are the major issues in ASCAP today?

MK: Well, it’s interesting because there’s a very famous picture that we have that dates back to 1923 or ’24. It’s a picture taken on the Capitol steps of Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and a few other writers going down to Washington to fight legislative matters that affect copyright holders. Nothing changes – we’re still in Washington. Every time a new technology comes around, somebody doesn’t want to pay for the use of music. When radio came about, radio stations didn’t want to pay for music, they saw no reason to pay for it. We had to take them to court, go to Washington and eventually we won. When television came about, television didn’t want to pay for music. Then cable came… and now in the digital age, we’ve got the internet and so forth. We’re constantly in Washington; while things change, they stay the same. ASCAP was just in Washington last week with Lyle Lovett talking to Congress about the need for monitoring the internet to make sure that writers got paid.

DL: If the other part of your job is finding new talent, how do you go about doing that? It seems like such a broad mandate.

MK: Yes, it is. That’s actually the fun part of the job. I would say in terms of musical theatre, one of the best ways of finding new talent is through the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop. It’s a program that was started about twenty-eight years ago by composer Charles Strouse who wrote Bye, Bye Birdie and Annie. I came aboard in 1990, and about two or three years later, Charles decided he had been doing it for so long, he wanted to take a break. I approached Stephen Schwartz, and he’s taken over the workshop. Stephen’s extraordinary. We’ve expanded the workshop quite a bit since Stephen took over. The workshop is held in New York each spring. We also have an ASCAP/Disney Musical Workshop that’s held in the winter in Los Angeles. And we’ve recently established a new program with the Kennedy Center. All three programs essentially try and help develop new works and new writers. Musical theatre writers from all across the country submit musicals to us, and we get lots of them. I would say every time we ask for musicals, we get at least 150 musicals. For each workshop, we take four projects, and essentially the writers get a chance to present excepts from their new musicals before a panel of musical theatre experts, always led by Stephen Schwartz. Our panelists have included everybody from Stephen Sondheim to Bruce Kimmel. In fact, we try to get Bruce every year when we’re in LA. ASCAP is not in the business to produce these new musicals – our job is really to nurture the talent. A lot of producers come and money people come and industry people come to the workshop. Several writers have gone on quite thrillingly to other things because of the workshop. The first time Jonathan Larson who wrote Rent ever presented any material in public was at the Musical Theatre Workshop. Stephen Sondheim was on the panel. Stephen really took a liking to the project and to Jonathan, and he became something of a mentor to him. In fact, if any of your readers go see a musical that’s about to open off-Broadway called Tick… Tick… Boom, which is an early work of Jonathan’s, the ASCAP workshop is mentioned prominently several times throughout the musical, because the show is about Jonathan in his early days trying to get his music out there. Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty, who wrote Ragtime, went through our ASCAP workshop. In fact, they’re the first ones who not only went through the workshop but who are so successful, they are now on the panel.

DL: That’s interesting, because they also went through the BMI workshop. They’re sort of the poster children for the BMI Workshop.

MK: They met there, but the ASCAP Workshop is very different from the BMI Workshop, and we’re definitely not in competition. BMI is more about teaching the craft of writing, how to write a theatre song. They give them specific assignments and try to match people up. A lot of writers go through the BMI Workshop first and then go through ASCAP. For ASCAP, it’s already a given that you know how to write. You come in with a very specific project.

DL: So it’s more about the show than about the craft.

MK: Exactly.

DL: When it came time to find a new person to lead the ASCAP Workshop, what inspired the choice of Stephen Schwartz?

MK: Well, let’s put it this way. It was a great choice, I’ll tell you that. There’s no way I could possibly verbally tell you how extraordinary Stephen is. Anyone who comes to the workshop will tell you there’s nobody like him. He’s an extraordinary leader, teacher, rabbi… each year I have to come up with new adjectives to describe how I feel about him. There’s just nobody like him. He’s the most caring person. As you can see, he does three workshops for us in three different cities and gives all of his time…

The story of how we met is interesting. We have so many members, as I mentioned, we have about 100,000 members, and in the theatre division, we have maybe a thousand or fifteen hundred writers – lots of them! There’s no way I can know all of them intimately. Certainly, all of the major ones I know, I have good relationships with them and I try to keep up with them. But in 1991, my boss called me in and said he had just gotten a call from Stephen Schwartz’s lawyer. Stephen happened to say to his lawyer that he felt neglected by ASCAP. He felt he didn’t really have a person at ASCAP that he could come to – that kind of thing. My boss at the time said to me, “Get to know him; take him to lunch.” It was kind of an order. I did not know Stephen at the time, obviously, so I called him up and said, “Can we have lunch?” We struck up a friendship, and about nine months later Charles told me he was going to leave the Workshop. I knew Stephen had taught at the Dramatists’ Guild, but he stopped doing that. Just talking about things, I had some ideas about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to change the workshop, and Stephen and I realized we were on the same plane. He clearly is a born teacher and he clearly likes teaching. He said he’d like to try it, and nine years later we’re still changing and still expanding. Now we’re talking about doing it in Chicago too.

DL: How long have you been with ASCAP?

MK: Oh, God, I hate answering that question! I’ve been running the musical theatre department since March 5, 1990. Before that, I was in the PR department of ASCAP for five years. It’s a long time.

DL: How has the musical theatre division changed since you’ve been in charge?

MK: My predecessor, for various reasons, kept the musical theatre department a New York-based department. Everything was cultivated in New York: the workshop and other kinds of showcases and things. When I took over, my boss at the time said, “You know, we’d like to expand what ASCAP’s role in musical theatre is because there’s a lot out there that’s not in New York. Do what you think.” That’s how it came about. What happened was, I kept getting calls from people on the west coast saying “there isn’t really a good musical theatre program on the west coast, why doesn’t ASCAP do one?” What happened was, I realized I wouldn’t do it without Stephen Schwartz. I asked him to do a workshop in LA, and he said sure, because at the time, he had just started working for Disney on Pocahontas, so he was out in LA a lot. In New York we hold our workshop on premises. We have a cafeteria that holds about a hundred people, and we can turn it into a theatre-style setting. In LA we have a small office and don’t physically have space. I started to look for a space in LA, and one day a light bulb went off, and I said to Stephen, “Gee, who has more space than anybody in California? Disney. Since you’re working for them, would you mind if I called them to see if we could rent some space from them?” He thought it was a good idea, so I called up someone at Disney whom I knew, told them about my idea and asked whom I could discuss it with. They told me it would come under the division of Tom Schumacher. I met with Tom, and he loved the idea. One thing led to another and he said, “We won’t rent you the space, we’ll give you the space, and we’d like to participate in the workshop.” At that time, Disney had just done Beauty and the Beast, and it has proved to be a really great relationship. Since then, I’ve brought mini-versions of these workshops, as well as musical theatre seminars with a couple of famous writers, to places like Little Rock, Miami, Dallas – there’s so much theatre out there, it’s a great way to meet new writers throughout the country.

DL: In addition to these musical theatre workshops, what are the other ASCAP initiatives for writers out there?

MK: For new writers, or for very contemporary writers, I have found that while new writers are circling Broadway or Off-Broadway, waiting for their new musicals to be produced (and we all know how difficult that can be), I have found the art form of cabaret to be really important. It’s a great way for writers to get their material out there. It’s a great way for singers to find new material in the vein of the great standards. To that end, ASCAP has established quite a number of activities. About eight years ago, I started a Sunday night songwriters’ series at the original Russian Tea Room cabaret. Every Sunday night we would do a songwriters’ night, featuring both established writers and new people, with David Zippel, Craig Carnelia, Carol Hall, Lynn Ahrens and Steve Flaherty each doing evenings of their work. Lesser-known theatre writers also presented their material. When that restaurant closed, we moved to Rainbow and Stars and did a Sunday night series. When that closed, we’re now at the Firebird Café, every Sunday night. We’re now into our second year.

DL: And the goal of these nights is to get their songs more exposure?

MK: Absolutely. If they can get critics to come in, they can do very well. People like John Bucchino and David Friedman have done very well. Singers know they can come to these Sunday night series and hear songs they might want to record. We do a similar series in California. We had been doing them at a small cabaret in LA, at the Gardenia. We’ve expanded, and we’ve been doing them on a three times a year basis at UCLA in a 600-seat theatre. That series has been very successful. We also do a series of songwriters’ showcases four times a year in New York with an organization called the Manhattan Association of Cabaret. What we do there is four times a year, we’ll present an evening of fifteen new songs by fifteen different writers, some of whom Bruce has put on his Broadway Bound album, I’m proud to say, and essentially what happens is the writers present one new song each, and the audience is comprised of a couple hundred cabaret artists looking for new material. We’ve been very lucky because a lot of artists have found songs in these showcases to put in their acts or record. Those are two different kinds of activities that have been really helpful to our theatre writers.

In terms of our established writers, a great example is what I just started with Jerry Herman. About a year ago, I got a call from of all things, the Utah Theatre Association. A gentleman called me and said he was having a thousand high school kids get together in Utah, all musical theatre students, and he wondered if I could bring a great American theatre composer to come talk to them and maybe perform some songs. So, after a long discussion, we came up with Jerry Herman. I called Jerry and said, “How would you like to come to Utah and have a seminar in front of a thousand kids?” I brought Jerry and a couple of performers – all Fynsworth performers, actually – Jason Graae, Paige O’Hara, and Karen Morrow. We did a seminar that I moderated with Jerry and Jason and Karen and Paige, with the usual questions about how they got started in theatre. The kids had a chance to ask questions, too. The next night we did a concert, all Jerry Herman material. The response from these thousand kids was extraordinary. It’s almost a direct quote to tell you that Jerry said he felt like he was at his own rock concert. He called me a couple of weeks later and said, “You know, this is what I want to do. I want to make sure my music is still out there after I’m gone. I want to do similar seminars and concerts for high school and college kids, and maybe even younger, all around the country.” So we established this ASCAP/Jerry Herman Legacy series, and we just started it this year. Three or four times a year, we’ll go around to various cities with the same cast of characters to present a seminar and concert. This year we did two in San Francisco and San Jose, where they went over really well. This August, we’re going to Sundance, and in October, we’re doing it at the University of Miami.

DL: You also have a close relationship with many performers…

MK: That’s why I’m lucky that I worked in PR at ASCAP before I got this job at ASCAP. In PR, I mainly worked with our major members, and we would do lots of events for our major writers, which would incorporate lots of performers. I worked on memorial services for Jule Styne and Burton Lane, and that’s when I got to meet everybody like Rosemary Clooney and Michael Feinstein. It works beautifully now that I know the newer writers, if there’s material of theirs that I really, really like, I can call someone up and say, “You’ve got to hear this song.”

DL: Are there particular moments from your job that stand out as favorite memories?

MK: Well, I would only answer that question two ways. First I would say no, because since I’ve been doing this job, there’s never been one day that I got up and said, “You know, I need to call in sick today, I can’t come in.” I never think of my job as a job, in fact it’s all part of my life and I can’t believe I get to do this. One day I heard David Zippel say to someone who asked him what he would do if he couldn’t be a writer, and he said the only job he’d want if he couldn’t be a writer would be Michael Kerker’s job. It’s the best job in the world, it really is.

There is one moment, I must say – I’m thrilled about all of them, and I’m not jaded, and I’ll probably sound like a high school kid when I say sometimes I’ll catch myself in a conversation with someone and say to myself “Can you believe you’re working with Jule Styne or Burton Lane or Stephen Schwartz?” Once I had an ASCAP dinner in the Berkshires, and when it was over, I drove Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn home, and it was just the three of us in the car. They were telling stories, and it was just fabulous for me.

The person who changed my life, though, and he didn’t know it, was Jerry Herman. The first musical I ever saw was Hello, Dolly! I knew from that moment that I had to be involved in theatre – I knew I didn’t want to be a performer, but somehow I knew I wanted to work with the creative people. In particular, I was fascinated with Jerry Herman, I wanted to know who he was and how he made these songs. Years later, I got to know him a little bit, and then I worked on my first event: a town hall concert of theatre writers I put together. One of the writers on the bill was Jerry Herman. I was waiting in the wings as he was ready to go on, and I just had to tell him this story, that the reason I was sitting there because of him. It was such a moment for me, I’ll never forget it. And he told me that for him, it was Irving Berlin, because Jerry’s first show was Annie Get Your Gun, and Irving Berlin came backstage after Dolly opened. For him, it meant so much, and for me, it’s my version of the same story. It’s amazing how life turns out.

DL: If someone wants to become a member of ASCAP, what are the membership requirements?

MK: Essentially, it’s very easy. You just have to have written a song. There’s no reason to join until your songs have been performed, in a nightclub or a cabaret or on a recording. You just need to fill out an application. The dues are $10 a year, and they’ve been $10 since Victor Herbert started it. The members don’t even give us $10, they deduct it from the money they get from us.

DL: How is ASCAP different from BMI or the other groups that also represent songwriters?

MK: That’s a twenty-minute talk! When a writer comes to me and wants to join, I always tell them to check out the other organizations because it is a business decision. I feel fully confident that they will join ASCAP if they really hear the differences. I can honestly tell you that in all the years I’ve been doing the job, I’ve never had a writer leave ASCAP and go to BMI, but I’ve had several writers leave BMI to join ASCAP.

The biggest difference between the two organizations that I point out – and it doesn’t sound like as big of a distinction as it really is – ASCAP is a membership organization, it’s run by its members. The board of directors is made up of twelve songwriters and twelve publishers. Among the board of directors that your readers will know: our president is Marilyn Bergman, who wrote “The Way We Were,” and our board members include Cy Coleman, Hal David, Johnny Mandel, and all the big publishers. Any time any kind of policy is made as to how members are paid, the board of directors will suggest something and the membership will vote on it. BMI is a privately-owned organization. Its board members are businessmen, and several of them own radio stations, which is fairly ironic since both ASCAP and BMI license radio stations, and we try to get as much money from them as possible so our members have more money. It’s kind of a conflict if BMI has a board that has radio station owners on it.

In terms of the writers that I handle, another important difference is the awards program. Essentially, ASCAP and BMI do the same thing – we both license the rights to perform music, and we distribute that money back to writers in the form of royalties to our members. We also have an awards program, which is something BMI does not have, because we have a lot of members whose works are being performed, but not necessarily on radio and television. That would include cabaret writers and theatre writers. Each year, a member gets an awards application, and all they have to do is let us know who’s out there performing their work. And example would be Craig Carnelia. There isn’t a cabaret room you can go to where five out of seven nights someone isn’t singing Craig Carnelia songs. He might not get a lot of radio airplay, but he gets lots of performances out there. He’ll fill out an awards application, and he’ll get money for those performances.

DL: Let’s talk a little bit about your life, which we haven’t really touched on. How did you go from the little kid who saw Hello, Dolly! to the person working at ASCAP?

MK: Coming from Brooklyn and being Jewish, it was expected that I would be a doctor or a lawyer. I guess I thought that was fine too until I saw Hello, Dolly! My parents had a hard time with me when I said I wanted to get involved in this theatre business. They thought I was crazy, they didn’t know anybody in the business, I didn’t know anybody in the business, they thought I’d never get a job. It was difficult, but I kept saying this is what I wanted to do. I knocked on all the doors, and I couldn’t get in anywhere. I remember trying Hal Prince’s office, Variety, Billboard, I went to a couple of record companies. It was just impossible, because I didn’t know anybody. I kept going to employment agencies, but I realized that employment agencies didn’t have those kinds of jobs. Every week I would make the rounds of the same employment agencies, and one day one of the agents said, “You know, I have a friend who works at this company called ASCAP. Even though ASCAP is not one of our clients, you should go in for this job. I told my friend about you because you’re so hungry to work in the music business.” I didn’t even know what ASCAP was at the time. I quickly learned, did some research, and gave a great interview. I didn’t get the job because it was in the legal department, and I wasn’t qualified. But I guess they remembered me, because about eight weeks later, I got a call from ASCAP saying there’s an opening in the radio department. I was still looking for a job, so I went back down, gave a really good interview again, and I got the job. I quickly realized it was not the kind of job I wanted because I was basically a collection agency. Most of what ASCAP does is collecting these license fees, and my job was to call these radio stations who didn’t pay their monthly fee and get them to pay. I realized it was the door to this business, and I saw right away that there were only two parts of ASCAP that really were of interest to me: one was public relations, and the other was membership. Most of ASCAP was very corporate, because it’s a huge operation to collect and distribute money. It took me a couple of years, but eventually I made it into PR and I hit my stride. The first day on the job I knew I was in the right place because one of the things they were going to have me do was handle the advertising, be a liaison between ASCAP and the agency that handled our ads. The first day, the agency brought in an ad that happened to be a theatre ad. I was sitting around the table with my colleagues looking at this really great ad, and when the ad got to me I noticed that Jule Styne’s name was misspelled – it always is. Nobody said anything; no one caught it. At the end of the meeting, someone said, “Is there anything else we need to talk about.” I reluctantly raised my hand and said, “There’s a typo here.” No one else had caught it, and so I knew I was in the right place. I had a great time in PR, and when the person whom I eventually replaced – Bernice Cohen, who ran the musical theatre division – passed away unexpectedly, they gave me the job. I’ve been extraordinarily happy ever since.

It was difficult for me at the beginning because I didn’t know anybody in the business. I don’t know what would have happened if that person at the employment agency hadn’t thought of me for the ASCAP job. I don’t know how it would have turned out.

DL: You had a circuitous route to your job, so I’m curious: if someone came to you and asked for advice on how to grow up and get a job like yours, what would you tell them?

MK: Oh, God. Well, actually, they better wait a while. One of the reasons I think my job is so great is that it’s really the only one there is like it. I don’t know if I can answer that question, really. There are certainly great jobs out there in musical theatre, but in terms of my specific job, they’re going to have to wait until I leave.

DL: If an aspiring writer called you up before he or she had anything performed yet and asked what to do, what’s your advice?

MK: That’s a great question, and I get that all the time. And I actually have an answer for that. A lot of writers complain to me they’re not getting anywhere. Usually, when I ask what they’re doing to obtain that success, it’s not very much. What writers need to do is get out there and get their work out there. That’s why I said cabaret is a great place for theatre writers. They should be going to cabaret, going up to singers they like and introducing themselves after the show and saying, “Hey, I’m a writer, can I send you material?” Most singers are dying for new material! I tell writers to have readings of their new musicals and invite people. Go to readings and meet people. Frankly, we assume you already have talent, so it’s about networking and schmoozing and all of those things. That’s where the break is going to come from, that’s how the door is going to open. Go to everything, you just don’t know who you’re going to meet or how it’s going to happen. It sounds like a simple answer, but it does work.

The last thing I wanted to say is that the main reason I love my job, the reason I’m so in awe of theatre writers is because these writers have everything going against them. It’s such an uphill battle because nobody cares. The radio stations don’t care – how many stations around the country play this kind of music? Even in New York we don’t have a major station that plays this kind of music. At least when WNEW was around, you could still hear a David Friedman song or a Craig Carnelia song. Nothing now. Television doesn’t care, there are no variety shows anymore, there’s no place to have these songs presented. It’s so difficult to get a new musical on in the theatre. With all this going against them, these people, the writers I work for, that’s all they want to do. They don’t want to write pop, they don’t want to write rock, they don’t want to write rap. They want to uphold that tradition of the great theatre writers of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bernstein, the Jerry Hermans and the Sondheims and the Stephen Schwartzes, you just have to be in awe of them. And that’s why I’m in awe of them, and I just think they are to be treasured because they really care about this artform. And thank God they do! Thank God there are people out there like Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and David Zippel. It’s just wonderful. And the writers who are not names yet, but are striving for the same kind of great writing. That’s why I’m in awe of them, and I’ve got the best job because I get to work for people like that.

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