The Real Broadway Treatment: A Look at the Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

By Victoria Hutter

3734 Winners having a good laugh ByNataliePowers.jpg

Six teenagers holding each other and laughing inside a recording studio.

Having a good laugh are the 2019 Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge winners Sophia Schwaner, Emalee Flatness, Tessa Barcelo, Makai Keur, Akira Sky, and Breezy Love. Photo by Natalie Powers

Although I work in the Office of Public Affairs at the Arts Endowment—writing press releases and pitching stories to the media—I am a certified musical theater nerd. I love the stories, the drama, the dancing, but most of all, I love the beautiful, belting voices of musical theater. So, managing the communications side of the Arts Endowment’s Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge has been a privilege and a joy. This was never so true as at the October 20 and 21 recording sessions for this year’s winning songs at New York City’s Reservoir Studios.  

For the 2019 winners—Tessa Barcelo, Emalee Flatness, Makai Keur (his songwriting partner Julian Watson was not able to attend), Breezy Love, Sophia Schwaner, and Akira Sky —these sessions were the culmination of their participation in the Songwriting Challenge, an opportunity to collaborate with professional musicians and vocalists to give their song the real Broadway treatment.  

Our partner in the initiative, the American Theatre Wing, made that opportunity possible by bringing exceptional theater artists to work with the students and managing the brain-scrambling logistics of all program components.

But prior to the recording sessions, much had already happened. Each winner had worked closely with their designated mentor and music director—their coaches—both virtually and in intense weekend workshops in the winners’ respective hometowns.

I attended several of those workshops, and watching students and coaches gathered around keyboards and scores—digging deep into the why, how, and what of their song—was fascinating. Questions I heard included, How does the song propel your musical forward?, Why is the main character singing the song?, Let’s try a different chord here. What other word rhymes with smile that isn’t beguile?

At the recording sessions, for each song, the musical tracks were laid sequentially so the first to arrive at the studio and be recorded were the musicians, generally followed by the lead vocalist(s), and then the vocal ensemble adding their voices to the others. The music director acted as an air traffic controller, pulling in the strings here, the vocal ensemble there, finessing a lead vocalist’s note, and conferring with their winner all the while.

So many things struck and touched me. The aural acumen of the music directors was astonishing. Not only hearing tones and rhythms I couldn’t possibly distinguish, but also offering adjustments (at a speedy pace, I might add) that I could hear and appreciate. The atmosphere in the studio was supremely generous. Not surprisingly, the winners were beside themselves meeting musical theater professionals, but the professionals were beyond delighted to meet the talented young songwriters of their song.

Among other moments that will stay with me are;

  • The immediate bonding among the winners, excited to move from virtual to real life connection.
  • Ashley Loren, the lead vocalist for Sophia’s song, blowing the roof off the building with her sustained final note.
  • Breezy breaking into tears, taking in the enormity of the moment.
  • The unflaggin humor and patience of sound engineers Ian Kagey and Thom Beemer, the only ones among us working every moment of both days.

We look forward to sharing the final songs, photos, and more on December 3. In the meantime, check out the awesome sizzle reel here (and check out the Washington Post story on the initiative here). Guaranteed to make you smile.