Sitting in synagogue Shabbat mornings when he was young, Broadway composer Andrew Lippa was enthralled with the Torah service.
“The Torah service is high theater as anybody can attest,” he explained. “You sing this fantastic music and then 50-foot high doors open,” pieces of silver glitter sparkle as the Torah is brought out and a parade begins. Next, the Torah is raised as high as its bearer can manage.
“What is more theatrical than that?” asked Lippa, who has written music or lyrics, or both, for such well-known shows as Big Fish, I Am Harvey Milk, The Addams Family and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Lippa spent last Wednesday afternoon with 30 high school students from Young Artists of America at the AMP by Strathmore in Rockville, showing them what it takes to make it on Broadway.
Musical theater “is harder work than you think it is. It’s not singing a song and putting on a play. It involves real commitment,” Lippa said, adding, “There is nothing casual about musical theater.”
Although busy with his latest show, I Am Anne Hutchinson, and finishing a score for an orchestra in China that will debut in December — “Guess who’s having Chinese food on Christmas day?” he joked — Lippa said he believes it’s important to work with young people. “I think it’s part of the job. I think it’s my responsibility,” he said.
Few young people involved in theater during high school and college will spend their entire careers on the stage, he said. Some with go on to direct or produce shows, and others will embark on entirely different paths. However, all of them will attend and support the theater throughout their lives.
Besides, he added, to these young people, “I’m close to a rock star. They love being around people who make these things.”
Modesty is not Lippa’s strong point. When he first greeted the students, he opened his arms wide and said, “I know, you can’t believe you are in the same room as Andrew Lippa.”
But he paused, turned serious, and said, “I am exactly like you. I love music. I love theater. I love telling stories. I just happen to be further down the road. That’s the only difference.”
It took more than talent and hard work for him to get where he is, Lippa said during an interview before his class got underway. “I was given a certain set of gifts: music, chutzpah and a desire to get people to say ‘yes’ to me.”
He convinced Strathmore, the multidisciplinary arts center in North Bethesda, to showcase I Am Anne Hutchinson before it was finished, he said, of the show about a woman who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her religious views and teachings.
Most days for Lippa are creative days, spent writing, rehearsing or making a record, he said. Success has meant that “I’m encouraged and paid to spend time with my craziest ideas.”
Although he is proud of all his efforts, Lippa said his show, I Am Harvey Milk — Milk, about a gay man slain while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — is “as close to the bone as it gets for me.”
As a gay man, Lippa was reluctant to tackle the subject. But he went through a “time of personal reflection” before deciding to write the words and music for the show. He also sometimes acts in it, portraying Milk.
Lippa originally was a singer, and often sang with the cantor at his synagogue near his home in Oak Park, Mich. He was the featured little boy asking the Four Questions in a local PBS television special.
In high school, he learned to play piano, and “that really pushed me, although I thought I would be an actor.” Then, in a music composition class at the University of Michigan, “something clicked in me,” he said.
“I love writing lyrics, but music is the fun part. It’s the thing in my blood,” he said. However, he advised, go into this field only “if you want to know what disappointment feels like, if you want to know what self-recrimination feels like.”
Remember, he told the YAA students, “being uncomfortable is all part of it.”
YAA began almost five years ago by brothers Kristofer and Rolando Sanz. The former is a conductor at the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras and an instrumental music teacher at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, and the latter is an opera tenor who performs around the world.
They hold YAA classes at Churchill and Red Bridge Studios in Savage. They also run a two-week overnight summer camp at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring.
The Sanz brothers said they love working with teenagers.
“Their passion is endless,” Kristofer Sanz said.
His brother added, “These kids are sponges.”