Peter Lerman is a gifted composer, lyricist and playwright, who is making his New York theatre debut with BROOKLYNITE. The recipient of a Jonathan Larson Award, Stephen Sondheim Young Artist Citation Award, and The Kennedy Center-ACTF Musical Theatre Award, he is a graduate of Columbia University where he followed in the tradition of Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers in writing for the amateur Variety Show. Since then, his musical THE VIRGINIA was presented at the Disney/ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, and he has performed solo concerts of his work in DC and his home state of Virginia. Simultaneously, Peter has met with success as a composer of music for film and television, including the Emmy Award-winning “Modern Family.” The Vineyard’s Literary Associate Miriam Weiner recently spoke with Peter about his artistic inspirations and aspirations.
Miriam Weiner: You’ve been very busy writing music for theatre, television and film, but BROOKLYNITE is your first musical theatre production!
Peter Lerman: I moved to New York to write musicals. In high school I read Meryle Secrest’s biography of Richard Rodgers — a friend’s mom bought it for me from a library sale, because she saw on the card that I was the only one who had ever taken it out of the library! When I saw that he went to Columbia and wrote The Varsity Show there, I was like, if that’s how you become Richard Rogers, that’s what I have to do. I went to Columbia and wrote music and lyrics for The Varsity Show. I’ve been writing music professionally since, but this is my first production. It’s exciting!
MW: What motivates you when you’re writing?
PL: You know, it’s funny — I read a lot of books, and see a lot of movies, and think about a lot of different media. Sometimes I see movies or read books and I think “That’s perfect.” For example, Michael Chabon is one of my favorite authors — I read his books, and I’m like, “I don’t know how you would do this any better.” But I see musicals and for some reason, I’ve never sat in a musical and thought “This is it! This is the musical that makes me satisfied with musical theatre.” So I think, for me, it’s always been a passion to write the show that I really want to see.
MW: When I listen to the music in BROOKLYNITE — and I love the songs, I can sing, like, all of them — when you’re crafting a song, do you know, “There’s going to be this soaring part here” and “I’m gonna make your heart lift up like this here?”
PL: It’s funny, because to me, that’s related to the last question. I think when I go to the theatre, I don’t always hear that. I yearn for music that does all those things, music that sounds fresh and new. The reason I love Richard Rogers so much is that I think he was able to do that. When I sit down at the piano, I want to hear what Stephen Schwartz always says — “something that makes my ear hear something different.” I repetitively work until I hear something that I haven’t heard, and then I know, this is the road I need to go down.
MW: How has the real Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company store in Park Slope inspired your work?
PL: When I heard of the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company being a real store in Brooklyn, I didn’t really bat an eye. Of course Brooklyn would have a store that caters to superheroes! When I visited for the first time with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, it was clear to me that there was a unique language about the place. I may have actually heard music right there in my head. It was inspiring to envision a Brooklyn with real superheroes. They’re all a little left of center from your typical “Manhattan” ones.
MW: Can you tell us more about the characters in BROOKLYNITE?
PL: The show is about a young Brooklynite Trey Swieskowski who longs to be more than a hardware store clerk. He has sights on doing the impossible — like maybe figuring out how to turn himself into a superhero but everyone he knows likes to remind him of the impossibilities and his lack of qualifications to do anything besides remain a clerk. He also happens to be in love with Astrolass, who may be the greatest superhero ever. Just about everything he wants is way out of his league. Astrolass, however, has been superheroing since she was 13 and longs to do something besides 24/7 call of duty. In this story I think superpowers are the metaphor. Trey is someone who does not have power, but who wants to do good in the world. He doesn’t feel like he has the means to do it, physically. He has to come to terms with who he was born to be. Astrolass does too, just the other way around.
MW: When you compose, are you thinking, “This is the theme for Trey” or “This music belongs to Astrolass”?
PL: Definitely. I do not sit down at the piano and write unless I’m thinking dramatically. In fact, I used to just sit and jam for fun, and I really don’t do that anymore. If I don’t have a specific dramatic moment in mind, I don’t write music. Because I’ve found that I’ll write some things, and think that I’ll find a place to use it later, and I never do — because it never feels specific and true to the moment unless I’m writing directly for the character in that moment.
MW: The music is just a way to get where you’re going, dramatically.
PL: Yes. It’s all a process of finding that fresh thing that I was talking about. The audience only hears it once, and even if they don’t leave humming it, you want them to connect with it in that moment. There’s no “Wait till you hear this three times and then you’ll really appreciate it” — that’s just not who I am. The first time I hear it I want to be absorbed by it. I want to understand the moment and feel the moment. So, I definitely go into it searching for those things, very specifically.
MW: Do you find writing music or writing lyrics to be more challenging?
PL: Music is one of those things that’s hard to explain. Lyric-writing I can talk about forever, because it’s a very specific process, it’s about refinement, it’s about rewriting, and it’s hard work. Music is different — it takes a long time and it’s a repetitive process, but when it comes, you just know. I’m a music lover of all genres and time periods — if it’s good, I love it. So having an ear for something that I haven’t heard is how I know if this is gonna work or not work. It’s like, if I’ve already heard that particular joke. The great composers of the golden era, they told great jokes, not in the lyrics, but in the music. I think there’s so little of that now. I like to tell musical jokes that you haven’t heard, so that when my ear hits that thing, it makes me laugh, it makes me feel something. And if it works on me — I’m really picky — then I hope it works on everyone else.
MW: What is your collaboration like with Michael Mayer?
PL: Michael and I met while I was writing a musical movie for MTV Films. It never got made, but through that project I came on board to write the music and lyrics for BROOKLYNITE. Michael is a rare person because he truly is a director of musicals; he understands how they work and intuitively understands how they are made — these folks are like hen’s teeth. The collaborative process between us is very easy and uncomplicated. We both arrive with a clear or strong impulse of what we envision (in a scene or song moment) and then we hammer it out until it’s something clearer and better than what we came in with. As a major asset to our process, Michael understands each of the jobs of the creative team almost as well as the person doing it. We both understand you can’t write a musical in a vacuum, and so we consider all our choices with respect to the different collaborators and the end result — which is people on a stage telling a story by dancing and singing in costumes and backed by a band. It’s those elements coming together that have the potential to make something awesome.
A story: I worked tirelessly for weeks and weeks on a song in the second act. Michael and I had talked about the purpose of the song and the musical form it would take. So I finished it and invited him over to play it on my guitar. I played maybe three seconds of it at which point he stopped me and said: “Nope. Here is what it needs to be.” And in that moment he saw an entirely new direction for the song that we had never considered. He left, and in ten minutes I wrote the new one as it stands in the show now.
MW: What are you most looking forward to in bringing BROOKLYNITE to audiences?
PL: It’s such a great group of collaborators and designers and actors and a SUPER band. I’m honored to have such a great team and so glad BROOKLYNITE is home at The Vineyard where I’ve seen so many awesome shows that have inspired me. Many of the actors in BROOKLYNITE are past collaborators and friends of mine and Michael’s and [Music Director] Kim Grigsby’s and [choreographer] Steven Hoggett’s. It’s a very trusted and talented group. When you share a room with collaborators you know and trust you can go deeper and try new things that might seem crazy. You can only find out if you try. Mostly I think Michael and I are excited to bring music to the stage that tells a compelling story but also brings the fun.