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Special Interview
November 01, 2009

Sunday,November 1, 2009


I know that you just received an eNotes 5 days ago but I had the unexpected great fortune to talk with acclaimed Broadway and cabaret composer, JOHN BUCCHINO, just two days ago and I was sure you would want to meet him and read about him! He is a very gracious, warm and engaging person. And his music is gorgeous.

John Bucchino's songs have been performed and recorded by renowned pop, theatre, cabaret and classical artists including Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Judy Collins, Yo Yo Ma, Art Garfunkel, Patti LuPone, Deborah Voight, Michael Feinstein, Audra McDonald, The Boston Pops, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in venues including Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, The Hollywood Bowl, The Sydney Opera House and The White House.

Before you read the interview, here is a link to his website.
Broadway Composer John Bucchino

John is coming to Boston this week, November 1-6th to give a series of Masterclasses and Concerts that are open to the public and affordable. I will be attending one of the concerts on Friday or Saturday night, for sure. Here is a link to the website where you can buy tickets. Or you can call Boston Theatre Scene Box office at 617-933-8600 to reserve tickets.

tickets to John Bucchino's show

(Edited 10-31-09)

Debbie: Tell everybody about yourself, John.

John: I started out playing piano when I was one, believe it or not. My grandmother lived next door and would babysit me because both of my parents worked. She had a big old upright. It sat there unplayed until I came along. I just took to it. I started playing by ear and I’ve done it ever since. I still don’t read music.

Debbie: I was really shocked to read that. Did you take lessons?

John: I took lessons for about two months when I was nine years old and I joke that I was frightened by sheet music as a child. That is literally true. It was painful because that’s not the way I related to music at all and the way in which I related to it felt so much more direct. I didn’t have to start at a left brain place. It came straight from me or through me and I just hated those little black dots. But notation has become a sort of necessary evil in my life since I’ve become a songwriter, because in order for other people to perform my songs, they must be written out. I’ve written songs for an animated movie, two musicals (one of which, “A Catered Affair,” recently ran on Broadway) and I also have a couple of songbooks out. So it’s been essential to get my work onto paper.

Debbie: How do you do that?

John: With the help of computers. I play the left hand on one keyboard and the right hand on the other keyboard so that the computer knows what notes go on which staff. They go into a sequencing program as blocks of color on a graph. Then I add time signatures, make all the notes exactly the right length, and email it to someone I’ve worked with for thirteen years or so. He puts it into a print program called Finale and sends that file to me. My computer plays it back so I can make sure it’s correct. Finally, we add dynamics and expression marks. It’s quite a tedious process but a lot less tedious and infinitely more accurate than if someone had to try to transcribe what I play. So, thank goodness for technology!

Debbie: How do you approach your writing?

John: It used to be my journal and then it became my job. In that shift, a lot of the joy was taken out of it for me. It used to be just a fun thing…. a form of self-expression. No one was hanging over my shoulder telling me what to write. I’m trying to get back to that actually. Having done big projects for other people for the last 10 or so years and not written as many songs purely for the love of writing, I feel like I’ve veered too far.

Debbie: So what are the big projects you have been doing for the last 10 years?

John: Well, in addition to “A Catered Affair,” I wrote an earlier musical called “Urban Myths.” A few of the songs from my CD’s and songbooks were originally written for that show. One segment of that show was chosen by Hal Prince, as one of three short musicals in a show of his called 3hree, that had productions in Philadelphia and at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. I also put together a revue of my songs called “It’s Only Life” with Hal’s daughter Daisy, a fantastic director. It became a CD and its songs comprise my second songbook. And I did songs for the animated Dreamworks movie “Joseph, King of Dreams.” A few years ago I worked with Julie Andrews and her daughter to turn my song “Grateful” into an illustrated children’s book. I also collaborated with them on a musical, based on one of their books called “Simeon’s Gift” which, with Julie narrating, has been performed with symphony orchestras at halls all over the country.

Debbie: What was it like working on the animated film?

John: Well, it was my first experience of “writing by committee.” It was easier than the Broadway show because I completely gave myself over to writing whatever they wanted me to write. It was strictly a job. “A Catered Affair” was a little more difficult because it was my work being more visibly showcased. I would like to have had more control but, like the movie, when millions of dollars are being spent, everybody has an idea of how they want it to be so there are endless readjustments.

Debbie: How did that show do?

John: It ran for 116 performances, about four and ½ months. That’s not embarrassing, but it wasn’t as long as any of us would have liked. It was a very special show. It was not your stereotypical Broadway show with big production numbers. In fact, there was no dancing at all. It was a very subtle show. More like a drama with songs (although, with a book by Harvey Fierstein, there were certainly some funny moments as well.) When tourists come and spend $110 to see a Broadway show, they want to see their money on the stage – they want glitz and spectacle. This was not that. People were sharply divided about the show. But that’s true with art of any kind. Especially if it’s fresh and different, some people are going to like it and some people aren’t going to get it at all. One sweet thing about this show for me was that many of the people in the artistic community here, writers, directors and performers whose work I enormously respect, really loved it.

Debbie: I interviewed a man a few months ago who was a very successful director and composer. He said that his only regret in life was that he never had a show on Broadway.

John: I know. There are thousands if not millions of people whose dream it is to have their work on Broadway. I feel like I have to apologize to them because it was never my goal to be on Broadway. The opportunity just fell into my lap. I always wanted to be a singer/songwriter like Elton John or Billy Joel. The only problem was that I thought I was writing pop music but it ended up being too complex. It’s not really theater music either, but people have said that it has the inherently theatrical elements of storytelling and character development that make it suitable for the stage.

Debbie: I was listening to your song “If I Ever Say I’m Over You”. Beautiful song!

John: Thank you. It’s on the “Grateful” CD.

Debbie: Let’s talk about your “Grateful” CD. How long ago did that come out?

John: It came out in 2000 and it totally changed my life. There was a community of performers in New York who already knew my work, but that CD and subsequent songbook with sheet music for those songs really gained me a lot more visibility. Students in musical theater schools around the country and the world (who are always hungry for new material to interpret) somehow latched onto the songs. This led me to do master classes, like the week-long series of classes, coaching, and concerts I’m doing in Boston this week. I love doing these!

Debbie: How did you assemble the singers for the “Grateful” CD?

John: As you may have noticed, there were some very illustrious singers on it, accompanied by me on piano.

Debbie: Were these people that you had worked with before?

John: Some of them I’d worked with. Some of them had recorded my songs on their own CD’s, and some of them were friends. There was a fellow at RCA who had some extra money, enough to do a small project. He liked my work but wasn’t sure about doing a CD with me. I said “what if I could get Liza Minnelli and Art Garfunkel and Michael Feinstein and Patti LuPone and Judy Collins and Kristin Chenoweth and Jimmy Webb to sing?” He was suddenly a lot more interested. I called those and other extraordinary singers to see if they would participate, and they all said yes. So I got to make the CD.

That’s another reason the CD got more attention than it otherwise would have, because my songs were being performed by all these famous singers. They came into the studio one by one over a six month period, and we recorded the piano and vocal for each song simultaneously. There were some amazing moments: I was sitting at this beautiful Steinway grand piano and looking into the vocal booth through the big glass window. And there was Judy Collins singing my song while I was playing along with her. Halfway through, I completely forgot that I was playing and I was just listening to Judy Collins sing my song. It was astonishing. I was completely out of my body watching the whole thing.

Debbie: What are some of the highlights of your career so far?

John: Certainly one of them would be having a Broadway opening night. It was quite a memorable evening. I got a “break a leg” call from Julie Andrews while I was on my way to the theatre. I was in the audience with my parents and at the end I went out on stage and took a bow. Pretty wonderful.

Another extraordinary experience was with my song, “Grateful”: Michael Feinstein, who sang it on the CD, had it orchestrated for a symphony and he was going to be performing it at the Hollywood Bowl with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra. He asked if I would like to come out and play the piano for his two shows there. So I had the surreal experience of being on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl playing my song with an orchestra and Michael singing, in front of 17,000 people.

I’ve had a lot of “pinch me, is this a dream?” moments. Like sitting next to Art Garfunkel on his couch watching a concert DVD that was made of him singing every Simon and Garfunkel song that I grew up listening to. And it ended with him singing my song “Grateful.” That was mind-boggling. Working with Julie Andrews was amazing. Every moment with Julie, who has become a dear friend, is magical. I love it when I get to meet an icon, someone I grew up admiring, and discover that they’re a really good person.

I also want to mention this solo piano CD that I’ve done called “On Richard Rodgers’ Piano.” A friend of mine, Adam Guettel, happens to be Richard Rodgers’ grandson (as well as a brilliant composer himself.) So I had this idea to do a CD of piano improvisations on Rodgers songs and to record them on the piano on which he wrote most of them. Adam has the piano and, conveniently, he has a recording studio in his home. It worked out really well. There were eight recording sessions. I would go in for a couple of hours and play whatever Rodgers song popped into my head, in whatever style I felt at the moment. Only one song was mapped out, all the others were not premeditated at all. And we used only complete takes, we didn’t edit anything.

Debbie: What are some of the other songs on the CD?

John: “My Romance,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Where or When,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “Edelweiss,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “If I Loved You,” and a few others.

Debbie: Great songs. Did you listen to those songs as a kid?

John: Oh sure. But the first music I ever heard of Rodgers and Hammerstein was from their musical “Carousel” because my mom loved that show. She had a little boxed set of 45’s that she played constantly. Probably even in the womb I was listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein. So, it’s especially sweet that my work is now represented by the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization who license performance rights to both “A Catered Affair” and “It’s Only Life.”

Debbie: Did you play those standards when you were in high school? By ear?

John: I certainly did. Mostly, though, I played pop songs by The Beatles, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Joni Mitchell. Those 70’s pop artists are the music that I grew up listening to.

Debbie: Do you know how to read chord symbols?

John: If pressed, I can play from a very simple chord chart, but when you start putting 9ths and 11ths and flatted fifths in there and I have no idea what they mean.

Debbie: But you are playing them without knowing their names.

John: Oh sure, I do it intuitively. My work includes some very complex chords and rhythms. I’ve been writing now for probably 42 years, so, after that long, the work naturally grows more sophisticated. What’s good is that I wrote songs in a total vacuum for about 20 years. I played them for some of my friends, but they had absolutely no outlet in the world at all. At the time, that felt tragic. But, looking back on it, it was a blessing in disguise because, writing in a vacuum, I got to develop my own unique voice. Friends of mine say, “I heard 4 bars of a song and I knew immediately it was a song of yours.” That feels good to hear, but it always surprises me.

Debbie: Well, this question comes from my 11-year old daughter who I was putting to bed tonight. I asked her if she had any questions for you. By the way, she has been trying to learn the piano and hates reading notes! She said, “Ask him how he’s gotten so far as to write music for Broadway without reading notes. Ask him how he’s done that”. I teach a lot of people and I de-emphasize the note reading because I think that unless you are playing classical music, you really shouldn’t be bogged down with reading notes.

John: Oh, I like you even more now! But really, it’s however you get into it. There are different approaches and one is certainly not more valid than the other. In fact, it is a great sadness to me that I don’t get to feel Chopin or Brahms coming through my hands. Obviously, it’s not sad enough that I work on reading so I can play their music, but I do wish that I could have the experience of feeling what they wrote under my fingers. That would be wonderful. But, then again, it’s pretty wonderful to hear something in my head or just imagine something and have it pour out.

Debbie: I think more people want to be able to do that, more so than just reading notes.

John: And non-musicians so rarely take the time to try and do that. I believe that if you can hear a song on the radio and hum it or whistle it, you are using the same circuitry that I use. It’s just a simpler version of that. I believe anyone can develop the ability to play by ear to some extent. It’s not as hard as people think. Yes, you have to have a knack for it but I think people short-change themselves. So many adults say to me “Oh, I’ve always wanted to play the piano.” And I say, “Well, get a piano and start to play it!” And they say, “Oh, I’m too old.” I say “No, you’re not. And there’s going to come a time when you really are too old and you’re going to wish you had done it now, so do it!”

Debbie: I seem to spend all day telling this to people.

John: Yes, well, it’s intimidating and adults don’t have a lot of time. Luckily, for me, starting at age one, what else did I have to do except explore that black and white keyboard universe? And I’ve been told that I didn’t pound, that I was delicately experimental. By the time I was 2 and 3, I was playing songs. I remember my mom took me to a department store in Philadelphia, where we lived, at Christmas time. I was three. We went in and there was an area full of electric organs. I sat at one of them and started playing Christmas carols. A whole crowd of people gathered around - my first audience!

Debbie: Did you get a music degree?

John: Yes, I got a Bachelors of Music. I went to junior college where I took basic subjects and little bit of music – I especially enjoyed music history. That was really useful because it exposed me to classical music about which I knew almost nothing at that point. I learned about 20th century classical music like Stravinsky’s which just blew my mind. It exposed me to polytonality, polyrhythms and dissonance. It expanded my harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary. For my 3rd and 4th year of college, I majored in composition. I wrote electronic tape pieces and avant-garde weirdly notated things so I didn’t have to write out notes.

Debbie: Where was this?

John: Cal-State Fullerton in southern California. I pretty much did everything I could to get away with not reading. I actually did have to learn some classical piano pieces and I did that by memorizing. I would count the lines with “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and figure out what the notes were but it was so laborious. My ear, thank God, was good enough so I could memorize it quickly. It was reading but I couldn’t sight-read. I would have to go through a song painfully slowly. I squeaked by, doing the bare minimum.

Debbie: When did you start writing songs?

John: In high school.

Debbie: What about your teaching. You’ve said that you love doing these master classes. Tell me more about them.

John: I just did a bunch in Australia. What they usually are, and what this upcoming week in Boston will consist of, is working with people on performance of my songs. I feel like I’m an expert at that if nothing else. In the class, people perform my songs for me with their own accompanist. We basically play and try different ways of doing them with different acting subtexts. It is fascinating to see how things shift if the singer is operating from a different perspective. Even if the audience doesn’t know what the subtext that I’ve added is, it’s just richer. That’s what it’s about, trying to make the performance as captivating and effecting as possible. Eventually, I accompany them and that shifts things another notch because I play the songs differently than anybody else. That guides them to a deeper level as well. What I’ll be doing up in Boston is two master classes, one on Monday and one on Wednesday. Tuesday and Thursday I will be working individually with the singers and then on Friday and Saturday night, we’re going to all do a concert with me accompanying. The information is on my website where people can also find out more about my work, songbooks and CD’s. It’s The master classes are closed to more performers, but they, as well as the concerts, are open to the public and there’s plenty of room. These classes might be interesting for pianists as well as singers. There is a whole lot of creativity floating around, and I learn something every time. It is remarkable, how much the students teach me. I hope they’re getting as much out of it as I am!

Debbie: That was great. Thanks so much for your time.

John: Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you!

Hope you enjoyed this. If you go to the Product page on John's website, you can hear snippets of his music.

talk soon,

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