Skip to main content

Theatre phenom shares stories and songwriting tips with Waa-Mu cast and crew

He joked that being back in the Wallis Theatre, where he’d taken acting classes, flooded him with “nervous memories of Chekhov scenes gone awry,” but Michael Mahler (C04) exuded nothing but warmth and confidence when he visited campus last month. The composer/lyricist/actor, whose musical Hero won the Joseph Jefferson Award for best new work last year, was the guest of the 2013 Waa-Mu Show, which hosted “In Conversation with Michael Mahler,” a talkback and songwriting workshop. The event was heavily attended by the cast and crew of this year’s production, Flying Home, which opens May 3.

The three student co-chairs for this year’s show are Jesse Rothschild (C13), Ed Wasserman (C13), and Jack Mitchell (C13), who moderated the event.

Mahler, who’s currently at work on a musical comedy series for Sony Pictures/TV, told the gathered students that “all my favorite college memories involve Waa-Mu. I sort of felt like it was my major.”

He described the “staggering” feeling, as a freshman, of having songs he’d written chosen for the show, then hearing them played in rehearsals by a full orchestra. “All these people are doing great work with your song,” he said—musicians, choreographers, actors—“and you realize it was all born out of this little idea you had in your room.”

Waa-Mu is also where Mahler met Alan Schmuckler (C05), his friend and collaborator. “We were in writing meetings together and when the meetings got out we would stick around and play Ben Folds songs for each other on the piano,” he said. Mahler and Schumucker would to on to co-write the family musical How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?, which was produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2007 and by the Northwestern Theatre and Interpretation Center in 2009.

After sharing stories about his undergraduate days and life in Chicago, post-college, Mahler asked the students where they were in their production process and was told that, while the story had been outlined, nothing had actually been written yet.

“Oh, that’s so exciting,” he said.

He moved to the piano and launched in to an informal master class on songwriting. “A pop song is a vertical experience,” he said. “You live fully in one particular moment. There’s one idea. It kind of sits in one place and stays there for three or four minutes.”

A song for musical theatre, however, he said, “needs to be a horizontal experience. You need to get from one moment to another. You can’t just sit in the same place for three minutes, because the audience will get bored.”

To compare the two, he played “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” by the Beatles, and “That’s When I Miss You,” a song he had written for Waa-Mu about the breakup of a relationship. He discussed the use of verse-chorus structure in each song and emphasized the importance of creating the right frame. “Structure is everything in musical theatre writing,” he said.

When asked about storytelling, Mahler said, “You need a central person, or people, who the audience can follow from beginning to end. Make sure the reasons they do what they do are clear. There needs to be a necessity for each beat of the story.”

He also offered tips on getting laughs. “Perfect rhymes help comedy a lot. And the rule of threes,” he said, is hard to beat. “Always save your biggest laugh for the end of the song.”

The point he wanted to most drive home, though, was short on pyrotechnics and long on common sense: think about arrangement; have an outline in your mind. “Structure is your friend,” he told them. “I promise you.”