GUEST BLOG: Tips for Applying to the BMI Workshop by Patrick Cook (with Frederick Freyer)
In the spring of 1983, Allan Becker ushered me into a windowless room on West 57th Street where I found myself facing Ed Kleban, Alan Menken, Maury Yeston, Skip Kennon, and Richard Engquist. They said hello and pointed me to the piano. My legs were a bit rubbery, but I made it to the piano and started my first song. It was a comedy song called “Piano Bar Prayer” (I was playing piano bar at the time). The first line of the chorus was “God, don’t make me sing Feelings again…” They laughed!!
36 years later, I have Allan Becker’s job, and writers are often emailing me asking for advice about auditioning for the BMI Workshop. When Ken asked if we could come up with a few guidelines, Rick and I grabbed the opportunity to gather some of our thoughts about it.
Tips About the Application
Submit songs that were written for a character. A sweet, generic love ballad may show off your songwriting talent, but it won’t show if you can write for the theatre. Pick a specific character and write a song for them, revealing their character through the song. Classic examples are “Some People” from Gypsy and “Cockeyed Optimist” from South Pacific. Modern day examples are “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen and “My Shot” from Hamilton.
Write out your accompaniments. Although we accept lead sheets with chords, we much prefer you write out your piano parts.
Don’t worry about style. Some people think there’s a “BMI Sound” that we look for. Not true. Nine, Avenue Q, Next to Normal, Once on This Island and Little Shop of Horrors all came out of the BMI Workshop. Other than craft, brilliance, and theatricality, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a similarity of “sound.”
Always welcome are… strong melodies as well as spareness and economy in your lyric writing and melody writing.
Heavily produced demos can be counter-productive. A clear recording of a singer accompanied by a piano is often the best approach.
Don’t announce your setups on your recordings.
A Couple of Tips About the Audition (if you get called in for an audition)
Don’t worry about being nervous. Everyone is nervous. It has no effect on your audition. Unlike actors and singers who must perform under pressure in front of a paying audience, writers are usually pacing in the back of the house where nobody sees them. In fact, most of the time the audition panel won’t even be looking at you; we’ll be looking at your score and/or your lyric sheets.
Try out your comedy song ahead of time. One of the requirements of the workshop audition s to present a comedy song. Writers often tell me they wrote their comedy song right before the audition. My advice is to try it out on other people first, even friends and family if you can trust them to be honest. Neil Simon said that out of ten lines he meant to be funny, only three actually got a laugh. Writing good comedy songs is an essential talent in the theatre and the only way to really tell if a song is funny is to get it out there and see how it plays.
Members of the BMI Workshop often say it is a life-changing experience. I know it was for me. You can apply online at bmi.com.
Recommended reading:The Making of a Musical by Lehman Engel The American Musical Theater: a Consideration by Lehman Engel American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 by Alec Wilder The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey by Joseph Swain
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.