When you think of distinctly American music, you might think jazz, country, hip-hop – and maybe musical theatre. But where do the next Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lin Manuel Miranda come from? Among other places, from Staunton, as WMRA’s Kimberlea Daggy reports.
Sophia Schwaner is a sophomore at Stuart Hall School in Staunton. She is among just seven winners of nearly 200 entries to the 2019 Musical Theatre Songwriting Challenge. The National Endowment for the Arts and the American Theatre Wing teamed up to look for the next generation of creators of musical theatre. It’s the third year of the challenge, open to high school students throughout the United States. In addition to Staunton’s Schwaner, this year’s winners criss-cross the country, from Los Angeles, California; Winnetka, Illinois and Andover, Massachusetts to Franklin, Tennessee and Willard, Missouri.
Greg Reiner is the NEA’s Director of Theatre and Musical Theatre. He’s worked with teenagers throughout his career and was thrilled about the project when he began working at the NEA in 2015.
GREG REINER: Oh yeah, yeah, and that’s why I jumped right all over it because I’ve seen, first hand, the impact that exposure to the arts and to theatre and musical theatre can have on a young person’s life. You know, not just performing some musical that somebody else has written, but actually writing something yourself and finding your own creative voice and how powerful that is for a young person.
KIMBERLEA: What makes a good Broadway song?
REINER: I’m trying to channel what Sondheim said in his book, Finishing the Hat: that it tells a story, has a beginning, middle and an end and moves forward the story that you’re trying to tell. It has to be something that the emotions are so strong you can’t just express them by talking. They have to be expressed through song.
(music: I Could Have Danced All Night excerpt)
And Schwaner’s entry fit the bill.
SOPHIA SCHWANER: Writing a musical was a really spontaneous decision for me. I just decided one night when I was eating mashed potatoes. So it wasn’t like a big epiphany that I’d been studying and working towards this. But if I hadn’t listened to myself that one night, then I’m not sure where I would be.
Where she is is on an album, being released on Tuesday (December 3rd). It’s a compilation of the songs by winners of the challenge, the culmination of months of work. After the finalists were named in July, a professional creative team from New York visited each winner in their hometowns. Schwaner worked with music director Benjamin Rauhala and performer, composer/lyricist and playwright Max Vernon. They were both attracted to the subject matter of her song, At Sea. It takes place during the Persian Wars. Artemisia, the queen of Greece, has allied herself with Xerxes, emperor of Persia. She leads Xerxes’ forces into battle against her own people, sung here by Ashley Loren.
(clip of At Sea)
SCHWANER: I thought that this song was unique in that the historical figure was the only woman who is recorded to have fought in the battle. And she’s kind of like the leader for maybe the women who didn’t get recorded to have contributed to wars. And I thought it was cool that a woman would get a ruthless war song in a history kind of dominated by men in this time period. So I thought that might stick out as something kind of modern even though it was thousands of years ago.
And that appealed to playwright Vernon’s sense of story-telling.
MAX VERNON: I like theatricality. I like high drama and that’s what I love about Sophia’s piece. You know, it’s not about two people going on a first date and grabbing a coffee. It takes place on a war battleship in the middle of the ocean where this woman is singing about, you know, going to war and imagining these men drowning and that’s the kind of theatricality I want to see.
Music director Rauhala agrees.
BENJAMIN RAUHALA: There’s a bit of melodrama to it. There’s sort of like a classic epic Broadway sense about it, reminded me of Man of La Mancha. And it centers around a strong female character which is always key to really successful musical theatre. I loved the woman leading into battle. I think that’s really exciting. It has a great melody, it gets kinda stuck in your head. It’s sweeping and it’s epic.
In October, the finalists all went to New York City for a session at Reservoir Studios. The award-winning songs were recorded by professionals for the compilation album being released today/on Tuesday, December 3rd. The songwriting challenge has grown by leaps and bounds, from its inception in three cities in 2016 to the nation-wide competition that saw almost 200 entries in 2019. And the NEA’s Greg Reiner says there’s room to grow:
REINER: My dream is that it becomes as big as our,uh, Poetry Out Loud program, where we have huge, robust competition from students in all 50 states with hundreds of thousands of students participating. I’d love to see it on the curriculum of every high school, that would be the dream.
Rauhala shares that excitement about the project’s potential.
RAUHALA: Musical theatre is very much an American art form. And so, to have all these different regions and all of these different winners, to see that musical theatre is happening everywhere and to have these programs encourage writers all over the country, it really makes me hopeful for the future of what we do.