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Interview with composer, lyricist, performer Seth Bisen-Hersh

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In keeping up with the spirit of Dan Radcliffe's new Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, we have interviewed the very talented composer, lyricist and performer, Seth Bisen-Hersh.

Seth has compiled an impressive list of musicals on his resume and also produces two annual concerts for charity featuring his work. He also writes and stars in the web series, Every Day a Little Seth, which you can catch on YouTube right here

Check out everything there is to know about Seth, his career, upcoming projects, his workshops and so much more at Seth Bisen-Hersh.com.

Read our full interview with Seth below - enjoy!

SETH BISEN-HERSH (Composer/ Lyricist): is a prolific, versatile composer/lyricist and performer. His musicals include What If...?, Love Quirks, Stanley's Party (Manhattan Children's Theatre), More to Love, The Spickner Spin (FringeNYC Audience Favorite Award) and Meaningless Sex (FringeNYC Audience Favorite Award). He also produces two annual charity concerts of his work featuring Broadway veterans: Broadway Meows and Broadway Can!, and writes/stars in the web series Every Day a Little Seth. He has two Bachelors from MIT and a Masters from NYU. Visit: www.sethbh.com

1. Tell me about the musicals you are currently writing.

I have 4 musicals that are aiming for off-Broadway, and 3 that are aiming for Broadway. I am focusing on the smaller ones first, as I believe it’s important to build a foundation of a career, and I prefer to only talk about the 3 completed ones because I am too superstitious and paranoid to discuss unhatched chickens.

Love Quirks is a musical revue of unconventional devotion. It features 22 of my quirky, neurotic and poignant love songs, plus a few skits to tie it all together. Each of the 4 characters has a distinct journey and has an emotional arc as they explore the harsh world of dating. It’s kind of like a younger, hipper I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

More to Love is a poignant and funny look at contemporary society's obsession with weight and looks and its effect on interpersonal relationships. No matter age, sexual orientation, or the size of your waistline, dating isn't easy. While working out at a gym, six quirky, lovable characters attempt to find self-acceptance.

Stanley’s Party had its critically acclaimed premiere at Manhattan Children’s Theatre April 2010 and is based on the popular children’s books Stanley’s Party and Stanley’s Wild Ride, which follow the curious, amiable dog Stanley on exciting adventures.

My ideal goal would to get all 3 shows playing off-Broadway in repertoire, and we are inching towards that goal at a very slow pace.

2. Do you compose only when inspiration strikes you, or do you sometimes have to force the words to flow in order to complete a project?

I always wait until I am in the zone to do any writing, but I am inspired by real life situations very often – either in my life or from a friend’s rants. I find while I’m writing, I can work out the emotional complexities and inconsistencies that arise from a given situation. So, first I like to plan and brainstorm and when I have enough material, then, I am ready to write as soon as the creative juices are flowing. I am a big fan of outlines and structure in mapping out the emotional progression of a song. I have major trouble writing when I am over-extended or sleep deprived, but fortunately, I am such an anti-procrastinator that I get things done ridiculously  
early, so I’ve never had to force myself to reach a deadline. (For example, I handed in my 75 page master’s thesis 2 weeks early, while most of my classmates asked for a 2 week extension.)

3. Have you ever abandoned a project? If so, what were some and why? Would you ever go back to them?

Yes, I abandoned quite a few that I wrote in my early 20s that in hindsight ended up completely hopeless. I wrote a musical in college called Trivial Pursuits that I thought was amazing, but upon listening to it now, all I can do is cringe. I also abandoned at least 3 other projects probably not worth mentioning for various reasons, including inability to get the rights to one. But I am not above reusing songs – 2 songs from my first Fringe musical, Meaningless Sex, found a home in my web series, and 2 others (with significant lyric revisions) made it into Love Quirks.

 

4. How long does it take for a musical to be completed enough to begin casting and choosing a director?

It really depends on the project. We wrote Stanley’s Party in two months, but it is a kid musical, and we already had a director because Manhattan Children’s Theatre commissioned it. Love Quirks came in many forms before it finally arrived as is. I wrote 7 cabarets of my songs from 2003-2010, but I realized that those cabarets could never be performed without me because they were built around me on purpose. So, I decided to take the songs that weren’t about me and create a song cycle. I tried a few different formulas over the years, but finally came up with the title Love Quirks, which allowed me to narrow down my songs to just the quirky love songs, which I had a lot of spread throughout my cabarets. Once that happened, I had a song cycle for 4 characters, and it became clear I needed to write a few more songs to make it gel as a piece. I did a one night only concert of the song cycle last September (2010) featuring my friend, Brian Childers (Helen Hayes Award winning star of off-Broadway’s Danny and Sylvia), and he felt he knew what the piece needed to be expanded off-Broadway. We did a production a few weeks ago (March 2011) which replaced a few of the songs, and now we are adding 2 more songs and 20-25 minutes of skits to transform the show into the revue I mentioned, which we both believe is exceedingly commercial and marketable towards an off-Broadway audience.

5. How long does it take to create an episode of Every Day a Little Seth, from conception to the final product?

I jumped head first into season 1, so I only really had the first 4 episodes planned out – thankfully I figured out what 5 and 6 should be when I hit episode 3, but season 2 will be planned out completely before I start writing.  Partially thanks to all the snowstorms cutting out other distractions in my life, I churned out the first season in less than 2 months. I like to brainstorm and take notes until I am pretty confident I have funny stories in each section. Then, I write out the stories, and after a few days of revisions and adding in as many organic references to musicals/ movies/ tv series I can come up with. When I am happy with the script (after I show it to a few close friends for feedback), it takes me a few days to get it in my head memorized (though I mess up a lot, hence the blooper reel on the Season 1 DVD). So, I wait till I am having an energetic day to film the show. Afterwards, I send it to the same friends for feedback, re-film the show, and when I’m happy with THAT, I add in all the post production stuff  (song cues, writing on the screen, etc) – send it out again for feedback, and THEN I’m ready to post when everyone feels it’s good. So, I think a week and a half to 2 weeks from start to finish, as long as nothing else in my life disrupts the process.

 

6. Do you handle all areas of creating the episode yourself, including the writing, composing, casting, shooting, editing?

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. It’s actually a relief to not be stuck waiting on collaborators for anything, unlike all my musicals.

7. What are you inspired by to create the material for each episode? Real life events in your life and people you meet or know, or are the episodes more fictitious in nature?

My show is 99% true, although some of the situations have been embellished or exaggerated for humor. I am a big believer that the truest stories are the funniest and most touching, so all my songs and the stories in my show are all based very much in honest situations, and that is why I feel they are so easily relatable for the audiences.

8. The series seems to be very comic in nature, is most of your original material comical or would you ever bring a darker, serious side to your work?

I definitely have a darker, serious side, but I do emphasize the humor because I think it is what people prefer to see. There are a few sad songs in Love Quirks, and while some of the stories on Every Day a Little Seth aren’t completely comic in nature, I do play that up because life is hard, and people deserve to laugh!

9. Let’s talk a little about your charity concerts. What was the inspiration for Broadway Meows and Broadway Can!?

My cat, Smee, almost died in January 2009. His bladder got blocked because of all the dry food he would wolf down. The animal hospital was going to charge a fortune that I couldn’t afford, so I called the Humane Society, and they were able to squeeze him in when they realized the dire situation. As a thank you for their generosity towards poorer pet owners, I decided to do a charity concert featuring my songs performed by Broadway performers I was friends or acquaintances with. We did it a few weeks after Bernadette Peters’ Broadway Barks (the obvious inspiration for the title), and it was a big success.

 

So, we decided we should do a holiday themed concert around Thanksgiving, and I had a dream that we did a can raising drive called Broadway Can! (Incidentally, I’m such a workaholic that I work while sleeping.) We raised cans for City Harvest, and gave the proceeds to Citymeals-on-Wheels, which brings food to the elderly.

For Meows, I ask the performers for stories about their pets, and we put up their pet pictures on a board on the piano, and for Can!, I ask the performers for their favorite canned food, and we build a can pyramid throughout the evening, all of which gets donated after the show. (Last year we raised 70 pounds of cans for City Harvest!)

Both concerts are going to be going into their 3rd year in 2011, and it is a win-win-win situation in that Broadway performers do my songs, while we are raising money and cans for great charities. They have been some of the best nights of my life.

10. You also produce, accompany and emcee weekly talent showcases, of which you have done 150 featuring over 500 performers. How did you first get involved with showcases to aid aspiring artists?

I was getting hired out to accompany some of my clients at similar showcases, but I was irked by the fact that they had to pay me out of their own pocket, while still having to guarantee audiences of 10-15. Not to mention, the talent was not screened, so sometimes people’s friends would sit there being tortured, which turned them off cabaret for life.

At the end of the day, being the producer and the pianist, I realized I could do it for a fraction of the price (only bringing 6 people) of the other showcases, while screening the talent to make sure the evenings remained consistent and enjoyable. Plus, I make sure the experience is fun by being the emcee and asking all the performers for quirks to introduce them with instead of mundane biographical facts or show credits.

And I would say that, as of May 1st, 2011, having done 150 in only 4 years, that they are pretty popular.

 

11. How many artists do you fit into one showcase? Is the showcase only for musical theatre performers, or would you consider a film actor who prepares a monologue for the audition and showcase without a musical piece?

A regular showcase features 6 performers each doing 2 songs. An extended showcase features 3 performers singing 4 songs each. I also have done a few alumni shows that feature 8 performers who each do a solo and a duet (which keeps the number of songs performed that evening consistent, while still allowing each artists to sing 2 songs.)

My shows are only musical theatre performers, but there are other ones in the city for comedy and singer/ songwriters, etc. Personally, I recommend against doing pop songs, which become very repetitive in such an intimate space. I encourage story telling songs, that both complement in theme while contrasting in tone and style.

As we approached 150, I did 5 successful concerts of my songs with showcase people, which were structured much like the Broadway concerts.

12. How do aspiring artists hear about your showcases? What is the audition process for obtaining a spot in the showcase?

I put an ad in Backstage, which is the most popular magazine for casting notices three times a year. Other than that, I fill a lot of the slots by word of mouth. I do make everyone come in for an audition so I can continue to have high quality shows.

13. What training have you had in the performing arts?

My first lead role was Captain Hook in my 5th grade production of Peter Pan.  From there, I got the bug and made my regional theatre debut as Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man that summer. I did community and regional theatre for years and also participated in a Summer Theatre program in my hometown for a dozen summers, first as a camper, then a CIT, then a counselor, then the head counselor/ musical director.

Degree-wise, I went the “practical” route and got a degree in Computer Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but since college is ridiculously expensive, I made sure to get a second degree in Music Composition – who knew that would become the more practical one for my life?

After that, I decided to combine both degrees to get a Masters in Music Technology from New York University. Thankfully, they had courses in musical theatre writing, which I could take, as well as private lessons. Between those and the student run Song Writing Club, I was able to hone my craft and gain the confidence I needed to pursue this professionally.

 

14.  What are some of your most memorable events in your career thus far, including performances and people you’ve met?

Just seeing my songs and shows performed is remarkable. I especially enjoyed when Stanley’s Party was at Manhattan Children’s Theatre because I didn’t have to do a thing for that production besides writing the score. I hope to segue to the point of my career where I can just write and collect the royalties.

Additionally, having Broadway performers singing my songs has been a huge highlight. I have used a few performers that I idolized in the past, and to be at the point where they are peers, or in some cases friends, is just remarkable to me.

In terms of heroes, I have met Stephen Sondheim a few times, and he is always really friendly, and just the other day I was playing auditions at Chelsea Studios where they were casting a Woody Allen one-act, in the next room and I got to meet Woody, who is another of my idols. When something serendipitous like that happens, I take it as the universe giving me green light, telling me to keep persevering regardless of the stress and anxiety. So that is what I intend to do until all my dreams come true. (Rhyme unintended, but well put, nonetheless.)

 

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