We recently sat down with NYFA musical theatre instructor and award-winning writer/composer Bobby Cronin to talk about his approach to songwriting, his successful productions that include the musicals Concrete Jungle and Daybreak, and what advice he’d give to aspiring composers.
Bobby Cronin: I’m Bobby Cronin and I teach Pop Rock, Musical Theatre, Audition, and I write some of the scores for the films at the New York Film Academy.
NYFA: Would you mind telling us about your background and what drew you towards your career path?
BC: My background is technically as a director. And Yale’s program as a director you had to study acting. And then I knew I wanted to do musical theatre, Yale did not have musical theatre so I then got to have my music minor turned into a double major in the theatre program so I left having quite an extensive knowledge of music and theatre and I had, like, Maury Yeston was my professor who wrote Titanic. So as a kid it was all ear, all ear. Like no piano lessons, no nothing. And I think that’s actually helped me tremendously, is that I’m not as bound by the rules, but I know the rules. But I let my ear do most of the work.
NYFA: When composing a musical theatre project, what comes first, the songs or the story?
BC: I would say it switches all of the time. Most of the time it’s story because I’ve gotten to the point where time is really important so I know if I’m going to write something it has to be very specifically for a moment. And that’s what makes a good song anyway. I was mentioning that you can be a songwriter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that writing for musical theatre or writing for film is the same thing, because you do have to advance the story. The song has to have a different beat at the end than it had at the beginning or else you’re not going anywhere, you’re not advancing the story, which is why for me, I’m now going to change my answer, it’s always the story. It really is always the story. And then it’s how do I enhance the story, how do I come up with the right hook because for me that’s everything, the hook. Whether it’s a lyric hook or a music hook, something has to have the audience walking out remembering that tune and what it did in the story. I don’t want them to just remember the tune, I want them to remember what happened.
NYFA: Would you advise aspiring composers to adapt existing property when developing their first production?
BC: I would say that using existing material for early projects is excellent. You already have an arc. You already have your characters drawn for you. And then it’s you figuring out “How do I want to tell this story?” For instance, with Christmas Carol, I wanted it contemporary, how do we make it contemporary, how do we put it in to today, but paying respect to the actual property. And coming up with the hook of how to tell that story made it work. To keep it contemporary.
NYFA: What opportunities do you feel musical theatre offers for exploring complex themes of self and sexuality?
BC: Well, I think contemporary musical theatre, it yearns for exciting themes, interesting themes, darker themes. You know, it’s interesting. If you go back to something like Carousel, it’s actually really dark and I think that people think of the old musicals as, you know, cheesy, and they really weren’t. They pushed the envelope a little. What I think we try to do today is to really push it. And why not? Why not push it?
So for instance with Daybreak I wanted toexplore a struggle with sexuality whereas with Concrete Jungle there are two gay characters that that’s not what they’re about. They just happen to be gay. In fact, it’s just about love for them. Also with Daybreak I was dealing with suicide, just darkness, mental illness and…why not? You know, why not? These are things that we face every day and I think we want to be challenged as an audience today. And I also think that things like Netflix, all these shows that are really brave and really pushing the envelope. It’s making the audience want more. They don’t want just high kicks and high notes anymore. They want to be challenged. And I think that’s why Next to Normal did so well, is that not only was it really contemporary, but it really challenged your brain as to “What is normal?”
NYFA: Do you have any advice for aspiring composers just starting and is there anything you know now you wish you knew then?
BC: Advice-wise, get your stuff out there. Work with good people, surround yourself with people who want greatness for you and don’t sweat the small stuff at all. There’s always going to be small stuff. Look to the future. Build a future. Figure out which actors you want to be working with and approach them. The worst they can say is “No.” And then they’ll recommend somebody. But then they recognize your name and that’s what is important. But you have to get your stuff out there and you have to have projects. Don’t just have songs, have projects.