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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Saturday Special - Working in Theater An Interview with Seth Bisen-Hersh, Composer and Lyricist

Welcome to another installment of our Working in Theater series. This series in which we interview people working in different theater related jobs runs periodically on Saturdays.  Today we will be speaking with composer/lyricist Seth Bisen Hersh (SBH). 



What is your job title?

SBH: I’m the composer/lyricist of the musical Love Quirks, which means I’ve written all the music and the lyrics to the show, AKA the songs. The show started by taking some of my popular cabaret songs with quirky love themes in 2010, and was eventually turned into a full-fleshed out story with four three-dimensional characters and is now a traditional musical. All of the events in the show are based on actual things that have happened to me, my collaborators or our friends throughout the years, so the show is authentic with a universal appeal.

How would you describe what you do?

SBH: I wrote the songs for the show, and as we’ve worked to perfect the musical, I have rewritten the lyrics many times to wed them with the characters. In addition, we have cut songs and I’ve written multiple new songs only to rewrite those or replace them over the long process fine-tuning the story we tell. I’m happy to say we have finally got the show where we want it to be just in time for its Off-Broadway debut on February 28th.

How did you come to be doing the job that you do?

SBH: I first learned where Middle C was on the piano from my grandfather when I was 3 years old. He taught me how to read music, and my grandmother taught me how to fiddle around and play by ear. I took piano lessons starting at the age of 8, and started doing high-end community theatre at age 11. The first song I wrote was for my mom when I was 13. It was a song for her birthday, and that’s when I learned I could write people songs instead of having to spend money on gifts, which is something I still do to this day! I started writing songs more actively, and partnered with a high school friend to write my first musical when I was in college.

Did you have to get any special training for your job?

SBH: Yes, I went to MIT where I got a practical degree in Computer Science and Engineering, but since it’s so costly to go to school, I figured I should get two majors for the price of one! The second major was Music Composition, and even though people don’t realize it, MIT has one of the best music programs in the world, and I studied with a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, as well as one who used to tour with Paul Simon. (Incidentally, when Paul Simon was at MIT, my professor declined to bring him to class worried we would’ve fawned over him too much. This is completely not true, for I totally kept my composure when I did see Paul in real life. Granted, we were at the urinals during intermission for the show Once on Broadway, so it wasn’t really an ideal time for a selfie.) MIT was a great environment for doing things yourself, and I produced the first musical that I had written the score to there spring of my Senior year.

After MIT, I ended up getting a Masters in Music Technology at NYU, which was supposed to combine my majors, but really ended up in me focusing on musical theatre more actively. I took a wonderful class called “Composing for Musical Theatre” taught in the BMI method my first year, and my second took private lessons to hone my craft. I also joined the NYU Songwriter’s Club, where I worked on my lyric skills and learned to eschew cliche rhymes.

What is the best part of your job?

SBH: I absolutely love writing. I consider it a puzzle getting the music and lyrics to work together. (I also write crossword puzzles, and have been published by the LA Times.) In particular, a song in a musical has to accomplish so many things: firstly, it needs to work for the character and either tell us something new about them or forward the plot. Secondly, the lyrics have to scan properly so that there aren’t any syllables that are mis-emphasized, which make it both harder to learn and harder to hear. Thirdly, lyrics in theatre should have perfect rhymes, although there is much debate about that. Personally, I follow Sondheim’s ethos to a tee, and would refer you to his books on why. Regardless, writing music is much easier than writing lyrics, and I think the key to a successful song (in my style and my opinion) is having a catchy tune caged in some interesting and complex harmony. I do enjoy writing earworms like one of my other idols, Jerry Herman, so that the audience leaves humming the score.

What is the worst part of your job?

SBH: I firmly believe that only through collaboration can work transcend itself. My collaborators and I all have the same goal of perfecting the show, and I trust them implicitly. That said, I find rewriting challenging - I think most writers would agree with me - but there’s always a deeper level to reach or a way to improve a piece. I wish we could get things right the first time—that’s because I pride myself on being super efficient— but art is fluid and requires we keep going. Oftentimes my bookwriter Mark and I will think it works, and my director Brian will say “That doesn’t work because…” and we go back to the drawing board, and always we make something better than the first time.

What are some of your favorite shows that you have worked on?

SBH: I had a really cute kid’s musical Stanley’s Party at Manhattan Children’s Theatre in 2010. It was based on the books Stanley’s Party and Stanley’s Wild Ride by Linda Bailey. I would love to bring that back at some point. I also wrote the score to a musical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, which we hope to get produced at a regional theatre in the near future. It is a satirical story about the perversion of the American Dream, which is still relevant a decade after it was written. Besides musicals, I also have a sitcom based on my life as a pianist/cabaret producer called Every Day a Little Seth we hope to get on a network or streaming platform in the near future, and my popular podcast: Millennials are Ruining the World! an Xennial perspective: bridging the gap between Generations X & Y, which has the catchphrase: “I’m not woke, but I’m awake!” Not to mention my Instagram story series “Songs with Seth!” (@sethbhdotcom)

What show if any would you loved to have worked on?

SBH: I would have loved to be a part of any Stephen Sondheim or Jerry Herman original Broadway production. They are my two favorite composer/lyricists, and I think I somehow meld their styles to create my own.

Who are some other people in your field that you admire?

SBH: Besides Steve and Jerry, the established composers I admire the most are Kander/Ebb, Cole Porter, Cy Coleman, Maltby/Shire, Bock/Harnick, Ahrens/Flaherty, Marvin Hamlisch, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken.

In terms of more modern writers, William Finn is one of my favorites. I love his quirkiness, and his penchant for using perfect rhymes but surprising the listener with when they come out. Also, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori are wonderful. Additionally, David Yazbek has some of the best comedy songs as his lyric writing skill is very strong. I also really like Larry O’Keefe, and the star of Love Quirks was actually in Heathers the Musical, so we have similar taste in casting.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?

SBH: An artistic career is not for everyone. It takes non-stop hard work and perseverance. I have been working in the theatre professionally for a very long time, and Love Quirks itself took almost a full decade of development to get where it is today. But it is worth it. If this is what you want to do, then do it, and do whatever it takes to keep afloat. Work on honing the craft, and most importantly get your work seen by audiences. Listen to audiences and collaborators to figure out what works and to hone your personal style. Don’t try to sound like anyone else. Find the authentic you. And don’t wait around for someone else to produce your work. Only you will believe in yourself the most. And also, don’t compare yourself to others, as that is going to just make you bitter and jaded. You have your own path, and don’t fret if it seems like it’s going nowhere at the moment. Everything is connected, and eventually we all get to where we are meant to be. Trying to force it or being married to plans (and this is coming from a ridiculous planner) is again just going to lead to frustration. Remember that art is all subjective, and don’t take the rejection personally. Everyone has their own agendas, and the key is to find people who share yours. And if something isn’t meant to be, then it’s not meant to be. We took a few years off from this show, and last summer I had a dream that we were opening off-Broadway in 2020. I took that as a sign that I should put up another reading, and this time everything actually fell in place. And it’s a miracle that I am grateful for every day. So, I hope that this gives hope to those out there whose time has yet to come. It might not happen for you when you want it to, but keep persisting and some day it will.


We thank Seth for taking the time to answer our questions. Love Quirks will begin previews on February 28th at St. Luke's Theatre located at 308 W. 46th St., New York, NY. Opening night is set for March 16th. Performances will run four (4) times a week Friday - Monday. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://lovequirks.com. For more about Seth Bisen-Hersh and his work, visit www.sethbh.com.

Tune in tomorrow for this week's Sunday Scoop.

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