At just 26 years old, composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver finds himself at the vanguard of Broadway’s best and brightest talents, reimagining the classic Times Square song-and-dance spectacle for a 21st century audience. Oliver’s dynamic, spry scores, taking on topics from photography to criminal punishment, have caught the attention of numerous heavy hitters including NBC, Donald Trump and The Apprentice. But Oliver’s got more personal projects on his mind for the time being: in between mounting productions and courting producers for his latest works, 35MM, Darling, and Mrs. Sharp, he takes a moment to share his own musical-worthy story with Daily BR!NK.
How did you get started composing for theatre?
It was in seventh grade, with really basic, stupid unrequited love songs like every other seventh-grade girl. [laughs]
You mean you were basically Taylor Swift….
Yeah, totally. I didn’t think too much of it, and then in eleventh grade we were reading The Crucible in English class, and I thought, “Oh, this sounds like a musical!” So I started writing it, and then it was mounted in LA and caught the attention of Joe Mantello, and then it was on Broadway the next year… and that’s all a joke. [laughs] But taking that huge, intensely dramatic piece of theatre and making it a musical taught me a lot.
So, “Crucible! The Musical”? [laughs] Did any of those songs live on in your more recent work?
None of them have survived into my current representative catalog. Although, when I was in grad school, we had an assignment where we had to choose from one of three plays that could “never be musicals,” and one of them was The Crucible. I guess I should have known better.
Did your relationship to writing musical theatre change when your childhood love of writing encountered the institutionalized setting of grad school?
One thousand percent. At UCLA, where I studied undergraduate music composition, the musical theatre folks thought my music wasn’t very tuneful, was too heady; the classical students and faculty thought it was too unoriginal, sometimes even too “Broadway” — I couldn’t win. Then when I got to New York, I sort of came to see their unified point; a lot of other people were writing the way that I had been, with music that was more academic than commercial, or popular-sounding without originality. I realized that by my own judgment, I needed to experiment with more popular styles, like pop music, rock music, jazz… simplifying while re-characterizing my work. I’m not about selling out, and I’m not about writing radio pop, but I also acknowledge that you have to write things that people will want to obsess over, even if not on the first listen. The musical theatre business has more to do with business than with music or theatre, and it’s important to not forget that. Producers won’t shell out 10-15 million dollars on something that’s not accessible, but consumers won’t pay them back with interest if they’re sold the same old crap. “Surprising but inevitable,” accessible, but also –
True to yourself?
True to myself. Interesting. So, accessible, but interesting.
Describe your personal style.
I like to be a composer who can do anything and who has a broad range. As time goes on, it becomes clear to me that there are musical and lyrical ideas that I constantly come back to. I tend to really love loud, sensational, dynamic, and chaotic stuff. Perhaps “intricate” is a nicer word. I love fusion, incorporating numerous styles in one. I think it gives my style a singular, unexpected feeling.
Let’s talk about your most recent projects.
One of my recent projects that I’m working on is called 35MM, and it’s based on the work of photographer Matthew Murphy. Basically the piece is a song cycle that takes the worlds of his photographs and then creates a story through a song. We’re doing a reading of it in November with director Daisy Prince, who was the director of Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years. I’ve also written a show called Mrs. Sharp, based on the 1991 murder trial of a teacher named Pamela Smart, who sleeps with her student and murders her husband. It’s a comedy. [laughs]
The character of Mrs. Sharp is batshit crazy, and being able to incorporate her endless psychosis really helped to get me interested in writing more exciting music. We had a reading of the show at Playwrights Horizons (via the Richard Rodgers Award) in July of last year, with Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) starring and Michael Greif (who directed Rent) directing. In all three of these projects, I think there’s a freedom to the musical score that allows me to break rules whenever I need to.
For the future, do you have any concepts floating around?
Another project, Darling, is a dark deconstruction of Peter Pan set in 1929 Boston. Darling is my baby in a lot of ways. I wrote it with my bookwriter B.T. (Brett) Ryback; it was his idea, and we developed it over the past couple of years. We just appeared on Donald Trump’s The Apprentice a few weeks ago!
It was an awesome, surreal experience.
What’s the community been like—a lot of groundswell support?
It is funny to have people as I grow older that count themselves as fans. I mean not thousands of followers, but someone who can honestly say, “You don’t know me but I admire your work.” That’s new and definitely exciting.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Producers. Support. I hate to say ‘fans,’ because fans can be monetized.
Finally, where do you see the industry going, and do you feel good about it?
I can’t tell you where it’s going; I can tell you where it’s gone, and I can tell you where it’s leaving. As long as there’s been Broadway, there have been musicals based on movies. And I think that people now look at these movie musicals with a sharper, more discerning eye.
And do you think this atmosphere creates a desire for freshness that we haven’t seen for some time?
Absolutely. Just like the movie business or the music business, we’re always looking for what’s next, new, fresh, and exciting. And then, of course, we make that super popular and then it becomes passé. And then we do it all over again.