All Broadway and music enthusiasts should know the name Michael Patrick Walker. Not only has he produced, played and conducted music on and off Broadway as well as music for television, he also has a superb album ready for your listening pleasure. Join me in enjoying this enthralling interview spanning the life and tribulations of this enthusiastic and extremelly sweet young man.
Can you tell me about when you decided to focus on music and what inspired you?
Well, I actually began to play piano at the age of 4, I’ve been told that I asked my mother to take piano lessons, I made the request out of the blue and we didn’t have a piano in the house at the time. To humor me and to be supportive they arranged to rent a piano for 3 weeks and took me for some lessons. Long story short, that same piano is still in my parents’ house.
I assume it is now non-rental and well used.
Oh yes! They got it on “rent to own” quite quickly.
I got into theatre because I was asked to play one of two pianos for my high school’s production of “The Sound of Music” when I was in 8th grade. I really enjoyed it and also was, for the first time, exposed to this way of story-telling involving integrated music and lyrics. From there, I experienced all aspects of theatre, as most people do, I acted a little but I also played in pit orchestras, conducted, music directed and, eventually, in university I began to write for original shows. While I’ve played and conducted on and off Broadway and on national tours of the United States, I eventually began to write more full time and, with a little bit of luck, ended up partnering with Gary Adler and began creating and writing “Altar Boyz” in 2001.
Believe it or not, that’s the “short” version of my pre-full-time-composer/lyricist” history.
I cannot help but wonder what interested you enough at age 4 to play the piano, did you listen to much classical music as a child?
I don’t know for sure, having very few memories from so far back but I do know that music was part of all of my family members’ lives, my grandmother played organ and piano, as did my mother, my father played guitar (though only by ear) so I imagine I heard music from my time in the womb. I have to think there was something more to it than that since I think most children have some exposure to music – perhaps it was just one of those “meant to be” things.
True, you need a certain something to be able and willing to learn, otherwise the whole world would be playing instruments.
That’s true – I also do think there is something about starting very early – at that age you don’t care about failing nearly as much because you fail at everything when you first try, walking, riding a bike, math, etc So the idea of “oh, well, better keep trying” is part of your world in a way that, sadly, it is not the more you age.
Going back to Altar Boyz, you won an award? How did that feel? Was it your first award?
It was the first time my work had been recognized in that way, yes and I’m very grateful and humbled by that. And also, while it was wonderful to win the one award, we were nominated for many more – which was quite a thrill. If I recall correctly we were nominated for 7 Drama Desks Awards which are for both Broadway and Off Broadway shows as well as several Lortel Awards (our Off Broadway awards) all in addition to winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best off Broadway musical, I am very proud and it is quite a thrill for my first professional show to be received as well as it was, it certainly isn’t always that way!
You must have felt exceedingly proud! That is quite an achievement! Can I ask how old you were at that time?
It was spread out over several months, but I was in my early 30s. It’s strange because while that was the very beginning of my composer/lyricist career, I had already had an almost 10-year career as a musician and conductor; there was some overlap of course
Do you have a preference for composing/conducting/playing/acting and singing? You are definitely multi-talented.
Well, I was never really an actor, I acted in university and community theatre which is important experience as a writer but it was never my profession or goal. It’s hard to pick among composing and conducting as they are such different things, though related. When I conduct, it is about interpreting the music artistically while also technically doing everything you need to do to keep the show running as it needs to run. The conductor and the stage manager are “driving the bus” so to speak and you have to be aware of so many things while also, if you’re good at it, emotionally tuned into the story, the actors and the show but in the end, you are realizing other people’s vision and work. When I write, it is about something very different, telling a story the way only I can tell it, good, bad or otherwise sometimes on my own, sometimes with collaborators but it is very fluid. In writing, you are 100% in control when you create but once you put it on the stage, during the performance; you have no control, no matter what happens!
When you conduct, you have quite a bit of control, but not nearly as much freedom, both are enjoyable but writing and telling stories through song and musical theatre is a thrill like no other, watching your show be performed and hearing the audience laugh, cry, applaud, or watch in riveted silence is amazing, it can also be very difficult if they don’t react as you want them to! And it’s definitely difficult to write a musical!!
You also released your own album called Out of Context, how difficult was it to write for? Did it include any of the songs from your musicals?
The album was also different, that seems to be my word of the day! Some of the songs were already written, most were at least started and some are from musicals I’m writing, or have written but the album becomes about other things like what collection of songs work well together, what order do they go in to provide a satisfying listening experience for those few people who still listen to CDs in order. I also orchestrated 12 of the 13 songs on my album and arranged all of them as well as playing piano and co-producing the album
My closet was over-crowded with all the hats I had to wear!
I can imagine! It must have been tiring!
Challenging and stressful, but tremendously rewarding, the entire process took over 6 months from the moment I considered doing it and it was only that “quick” because I had most of the material already written.
I assume you knew other musicians personally that you wanted to play instruments that you were not playing for your album or did you have to find suitable people?
Most of the players I already knew, I was fortunate to have been the conductor of “Avenue Q” on Broadway and met an amazing core group of musicians that I use on almost every project I do but for the album, several of the songs had much larger orchestrations so I also met many new musicians and the record label also helped me find players for strings, woodwinds, even B3 organ on a few tracks.
It must have been a difficult project to orchestrate! Were there any problems during production?
Nothing unusual really there are always scheduling issues now and then and you also have to design the cover and interior art of the CD at the same time but nothing too crazy.
Which did you find easier or more fulfilling the live theatre or TV/Studio performances?
Here comes my word again – different!
There is nothing like live theatre – it’s amazing – and different every night.
You designed the art too? I always thought there were specific designers for that!
No, I didn’t design the art, but I worked closely with the graphic designer and the idea for the cover was something I came up with the graphic designer was great , he does all of Yellow Sound Label’s covers and he brings so much to an idea that makes it much more than it would’ve been. As for an album the advantage you get there is that you can control the sound of everything much more than in a live show, the mix can be exact in a way even the best live show won’t achieve. There is also the pressure of “FOREVER!” with a CD you always have to compromise and let certain things go and you have to hope they aren’t the ones you’ll hate yourself for in 10 years and TV is even more different , it has the “forever” part, but it also has the “HURRY HURRY HURRY!” part of a TV schedule.
Has that happened as yet?
I’ve been lucky so far with all the recordings I’ve done for professional release – Altar Boyz, Out of Context, Sprites – I hear things most people won’t that “bug” me but nothing crazy, same things happen with printing music, you KNOW there will be a mistake you miss somewhere, you just hope it’s not the spelling of the title of a song, and just maybe a missing accidental somewhere.
I am amazed at how much you have done!! What is the biggest accomplishment that you are most proud being a part of?
That’s tough because I am grateful for all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do, create or be a part of but I always look forward and want more. I think that’s okay in that it creates a drive that you need to succeed but the danger is in not appreciating what you have done and accomplished.
I am very proud of Altar Boyz, it was something not many believed in and we found the way to make it work, make it funny, make it good and if any one of the three of those had not been there, we would’ve closed in a second and been poorly reviewed and received but there are many things I’m equally proud of and many, many more I want to accomplish before I’m done.
Anything specific that you want to accomplish?
Oh yes, absolutely, as proud as I am of Altar Boyz, it has in some odd ways been something I have to overcome. Because of how successful it was, many people assume that “silly boyband songs” are all I do when of course, that was just what our show called for and needed. So, my next big goal is to have a show on Broadway (or off) that shows people there is much more to me than that – not to say it might not be funny (and it might not be!), but that it will be a new side of me as a writer.
The same thing which lead me to do the album actually.
Do you think writing your own musical is something for the near future or is it not quite in the pipelines yet?
Oh, there are several things in the pipeline, in fact, I finished writing a show with Rick Elice who wrote Jersey Boys and Peter and the Starcatcher among other things that is currently lining up a producer and director and I’m also writing a show on my own that is not as far along and turning “Out of Context” into a song cycle ala “Songs For A New World”.
Do you feel that your album has been well accepted and helping people to see that there is more to you?
I think so yes. A part of the reason London is happening is because of the way the album was reviewed particularly by David Finkle who wrote an article in the Huffington Post calling me a “must-know” songwriter which I was extremely proud and pleased to be called!
Some very nice things have been said about the album but one of the hardest things to learn and remember (and also balance) is that you can’t stake yourself on what others think of what you do artistically. I say balance because, if nobody likes what you do, it’s hard to continue because it is show BUSINESS but I’m a firm believer that I have to write what I think is good and smart and moving and funny and cathartic and hope other people agree rather than the other way around.
Your own show sounds interesting.
It will be a 4 or 5 person show that doesn’t quite have a plot and doesn’t quite NOT have a plot. More of themes and through-lines across the actors through different characters they play than a top to bottom plot.
As per your balance point, I totally agree, I do not believe that the music would be as accepted if the writer does not believe in it, listeners can tell if it is played or sung with love and belief in one’s self
True, yet there is an upsetting trend in theatre in particular of trying to “write via focus group”. You must take the audience into account of course but you must have a creative compass if you will that guides you, without that, a show has no heart, no soul and, 9 times out of 10, no chance.
Does but does not have a plot? That sounds intriguing but confusing. It must be difficult to balance all the requirements.
Yes, much harder to explain than to see, more like “Songs for a New World” I only mean it’s more than a review, but not quite a traditional musical.
As long as it succeeds I guess!!
True. If there were a formula, then there would be thousands of successful shows every year.
How on earth do you manage a private life?!!
Well, I don’t always! But, the thing about writing is it is off and on there are months where I can’t find the time to do laundry and weeks here and there where I have plenty of time for anything I want/need to do. Plus writing is hard work, but it does involve, at least for me, marinating time, I have solved many problems lyrically, structurally, even musically while running errands or cleaning the kitchen!
I’m also fortunate to be in a long term relationship of almost 12 years so I don’t have to find the time to date or try to meet somebody that would be almost impossible!!
What has been the biggest struggle for you either personally or professionally?
I think I’d answer that differently from year to year in my life but of late, I truly believe it is (as it is for most people), getting out of my own way. Sounds trite, but the career and life I live is undeniably difficult – full of rejection and difficult times but if I let myself focus on that, it impedes my ability to keep working and writing creatively which then makes things harder and can very easily become a downward spiral. I’ve always been very realistic and pragmatic which I prefer to boundless dreaming with no basis in reality BUT you have to have some of all of that to be a success as a writer, especially given that there are so few “successful” writers in theatre so if you focus on the realistic odds, you’d be done!
It sounds as though you have thought that out a few times! You are a very humble gentleman I must say, which is a rarity these days. I am sure you will be as successful as you desire.
Well, from your mouth…as they say.
I am currently listening to your album again and it occurred to me that you do not actually sing on it. Did you not want to or was it too much after doing everything else?
That’s true, I don’t consider myself a singer. I’m certainly aware I sing well enough (and better than many composers), but generally I leave that to the professionals. That being said, I do sing for demos now and then and occasionally in concerts but less because it’s about my voice and more about it being interesting to see a composer interpret his own work.
Will you be singing in London? (Please!!)
I will. I’m not sure if I would have, but Simon Greiff who is producing asked me to as, when he does these composer evenings he has established the precedent that each composer sings at least one of their own songs.
Do come and see me at the London Hippodrome on Sunday August 19th at 5pm for “An Evening with the Composers” featuring me, Georgia Stitt and Scott Evan Davis as well as 5 wonderful West End actors; Kelly-Anne Gower, Stuart Matthew Price, Lauren Samuels, Caroline Sheen and Simon Thomas.
I totally agree that composers who are able to sing, should sing at least one song live!
Yeah, I think it can go either way but the idea of each composer doing one of their own songs is a nice one and I also think I’m smart enough to pick a song that I’m suited to as opposed to tackling some of my tougher work .
Absolutely, you have to find one that fits your voice and you are comfortable enough with to sing.
Do you prefer to collaborate or work alone and which is easier?
That really is Sophie’s Choice for me, my lyrics and my music tend to inform each other, so when I write alone it’s hard to see how somebody else could “get in my brain” and be a part of that. That being said, I have and do write with others but the process then is totally different and to me, less organic. The flip of it all is that I really value a sounding board and a collaborator is one of the few ways you can get that.
Everybody on a show informs the writers, but only another writer can help you bounce things back and forth and more than that, only another writer who is in there with you in the trenches. The closest you can get to that, for me, without a writer-collab is the director but that takes a very good director who truly understands what it means to work with writers and develop a piece.
I guess then, a lot would depend on who the collaborator is and how well in tune you are with each other?
Absolutely and then, on top of that, there is the issue of a book-writer. I do write dialogue, but generally I’ll work with a book writer on a “book musical” that is a different kind of collaboration, I’ve had very successful ones, and disastrous ones. Really, as long as everybody has the same goal and even more importantly, the skills to do their job, you can usually find your way forward.
It all sounds very confusing and time consuming.
Oh yes, it truly is!
Do you have any advice for upcoming musicians/composers/writers? Or any pitfalls to avoid or ways to better succeed?
It’s funny, I’ve been asked versions of that question before and I’m never quite sure I’m qualified to answer it but I do realize we all have experience to offer and I have had some measure of experience, though not near what many have had.
My advice then for what it’s worth, is to write music, lyrics, dialogue, shows (whatever it is you do) that you think are good. Meet your standards and make them high standards and then later worry about if other people like what you’ve done. I really feel strongly that you have to write the way you write, always learning, always rewriting, always changing and adjusting but not trying to fit a demographic and not starting at the end. Beyond that, keep writing, keep trying your material on actors and in readings, work with good, great and wonderful people whose art and vision you respect and hope you get lucky too because without that, nobody ever succeeds in this business.
Trust yourself where you know you can.
A pinch of luck never hurts!
I guess that’s metaphorical pitfalls AND advice all in one pompous speech!
Not at all pompous!!
I can be contacted on my Facebook fan page and twitter page. Also, by all means, please pick up my album “Out of Context: The Songs of Michael Patrick Walker” – it’s available on iTunes and Amazon and you can also buy it at the Dress Circle in London!