John Bucchino is one of New York’s most prolific and well-respected songwriters. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Liza Minelli, Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel, Patti Lupone, Kristin Chenoweth and Australia’s own David Campbell. His Broadway musical, A Catered Affair, was co-written with Harvey Fierstein and starred Broadway legends Faith Prince and Tom Wopat.
Ahead of shows in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, John Bucchino spoke to Australian Stage's Michael Bingham.
In researching for this interview, I found there was not much written about your background. Where did you grow up and are you from a musical family?
Actually none of my relatives are musicians or performers in any way. My grandmother had a piano, which my mother and her sister took lessons on when they were little girls. But neither one of them was very good, so they abandoned it pretty quickly. Have you ever seen the film Moonstruck? That’s exactly what my family was like when I was little. An Italian family in South Philadelphia. And the goal in those families was for the children to stay with the family as long as possible. Ideally in the same neighbourhood. So my Mom and Dad moved into the house right next door to my grandmother! They both worked, so my grandmother would babysit me everyday. And from when I was about a year old, I just took to playing her piano. Playing little melodies and making up songs. People kinda were impressed. It was my favourite toy. That’s the way the music started.
Cabaret has such a strong tradition in New York, where you started to make your name. Was it always your intention to work in this genre?
No, not at all. Everything that has happened has been opportunity falling in my lap. All I ever wanted to do was to write and record my own songs. I wanted to be a singer/songwriter a la Billy Joel and Elton John - one of those piano playing singer/songwriter types.
I never particularly aspired to have other people sing my songs. I briefly moved to New York for six months (from LA) in 1980 and a singer named Lois Sage, who has been a good friend all this time started singing a song of mine “It Feels Like Home” in the cabaret scene. And little by little more people started discovering other songs and asking me for songs and it just sort of happened. And also the cabaret scene was a place where I could perform my own songs when I visited New York, which was with increasing frequency. Over time my work became better known.
I believe getting the green light for the album Grateful was not easy. Can you tell us about that and the companion songbook?
The first part of the Grateful project was the book. I don’t read or write music but the technology had just come into being where I could play note for note and rhythm for rhythm, exactly what the songs were into the computer. And then I worked with a fellow, who I actually still work with who would put it into a different programme and turn it into sheet music. We started work on a batch of songs. We were about halfway done when an acquaintance of mine, then working at RCA, happened to mention that he had some money in a fund that he could use as he wished. And would I be interested in talking to him about a project. Of course I said yes. And I had this idea to do a compilation CD, which ultimately became the Grateful CD.
By this time I had lived in New York for eight years and I had met quite a few extraordinary performers who had recorded or performed my songs on their own recordings or in cabaret shows. So before I had the meeting with him, I called up some of my famous friends Liza Minnelli and Art Garfunkel and Michael Feinstein and Patti LaPone. And asked them if they would participate and they all said yes, with no thought of money - there were no dealings involved. They just wanted to support my work and be part of this project.
We went ahead and recorded the Grateful CD, which included the songs we had written out. And then the rest of the songs were included those in the songbook.
It has been the biggest single advertisement for me as a writer for my work. It went out into the world and acquainted people with what I do. It was a really beautiful experience all the way round.
Was A Catered Affair your first time collaborating with Harvey Fierstein?
Yes it was. A mutual friend gave him my Grateful CD because he was looking for writers for various projects and always interested in new writers. Harvey sent me a fan letter saying how much he loved the CD, which was very nice. I think I met him at a party, but he was larger than life and I didn’t talk to him. I just said hello. Then a couple of months later he sent me another fan letter saying he was sort of obsessed with the CD and was continually listening to it. So I got his number from our mutual friend and called him up and said, “Well, would you like to have dinner?” His response was, “As a matter of fact I would love that because there is something I would like to talk to you about”.
He wanted to talk to me about writing the score for A Catered Affair. It was a very easy, fluid, organic collaboration with him. He’s a very smart man and a wonderful writer. And I found that what the music needed to be evolved very naturally out of prose that he wrote. So it was a lovely collaboration.
Your earlier show Urban Myth contained one act works and I read that you were not sure if you wanted to be a writer of full-length musicals or short story pieces. How do you feel about this now?
It seems like that actually was a kind of a natural progression. I never really thought about writing for the theatre. It didn’t particularly interest me and I’m honestly not sure it particularly interests me now. I just like writing songs and like creating a world in a three and a half minute song.
But I met Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (most recently Wicked, he also wrote Godspell, Pippin and all those wonderful shows). He heard some work of mine (when I was still living in California). I kind of knew he was a famous Broadway guy, and although I hadn’t seen any of his shows, I was familiar with his work.
He came out to California. We played songs for each other and I thought “this guy’s really good”. We ended up becoming best friends. He heard something inherently theatrical in what I wrote. And he was the first person to encourage me to think about writing for the theatre. A few years later I got a call from Steve Sondheim.
I had gotten a tape to him actually just because I knew everyone worshipped at his feet. And I thought I’d like him to hear my work. And he invited me to visit the next time I was in New York. Like Stephen Schwartz he thought I would be very well suited to writing for the theatre.
And when I moved to New York, I got very close with Hal Prince and his family, including his daughter Daisy. Hal Prince was the director of many Sondheim shows as well as Cabaret, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Phantom of the Opera and lots of Broadway show. When Hal became acquainted with my work, he said I should think about writing for the theatre. And it was like “Gosh, here are three of the biggest names in the world of theatre encouraging me to give it a try.”
So the first thing I wrote was a series of short pieces rather than one big show. Urban Myths was a series of seven vignettes; each of them based on an urban legend. Lavender Girl was one of those and Hal Prince took this piece and put it into a show he was developing called 3hree – a series of three short musicals. Stephen Schwartz’s son Scott was our director. It was a natural progression from writing individual songs to writing short pieces and then the full show that Harvey and I wrote A Catered Affair.
The Artistic Director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and one of Australia’s favourite performers David Campbell listed you as one of his favourite contemporary composers. Can you tell us about your working history together?
We met here in New York. He was about to take New York by storm. But of course no-one knew that. He had just arrived and a mutual acquaintance introduced us at an event. She said this guy should sing your songs and I was sort of not interested. And then I heard him and suddenly I was a lot more interested. This guy was incredible!
We started hanging out and I think people were telling him he should start singing my songs. We kind of had a mutual admiration society. And we started making music together and did a few shows of him singing my work at Joe’s Pub, a very respectable cabaret venue. We also took that show to Australia, performing concerts in Sydney and Melbourne in 2003. We've been good friends ever since.
As well as at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, An Evening with John Bucchino and Friends will also be performed at Manchester Lane in Melbourne on Sunday 14 June and in Sydney at The Supper Club on Saturday 20 June. Will this be the same show from Adelaide with new friends along the way?
There will be some different friends each time. David Campbell will be joining us in Adelaide. You know, I don’t know actually know these people. I have not met them. There will be two groups numbers with vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown if we can put them together. We only have a couple of days to put the show together – of course they would have learned the songs. They will be working with the Musical Director to learn the work. And I sure should know them! (laughs)
And will you be playing one of your infamous tribute pieces to Richard Rogers?
Oh, you know so much about me. It’s delightful. People have been asking me for years to do a solo piano recording. I just took my piano playing for granted. It was just a tool in my songwriting. I had this idea to do a solo piano recording of improvisations on Richard Rodgers, recorded on the actual piano on which he wrote most of the songs. It is called On Richard Rodger’s Piano.
My friend Adam Guettel, who is Richard Rodgers grandson, at the time had the piano in his loft in his home recording studio. Yes, I will be playing one of the songs from that.
It will be my first visit to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. But not my first visit to Adelaide. I did a tour accompanying an American singer called Ronnie Gilbert from the 50's group The Weavers (with Pete Seeger and two other guys). Her big hit was Goodnight Irene. It was about 1986-87.
This will be my fourth time I have been to Australia, but I have never been to the Festival. I am really looking forward to it.
John Bucchino Dates
Adelaide Cabaret Festival June 7 & 10 - details»
Manchester Lane in Melbourne June 14 - details»
The Supper Club in Sydney June 19 - details»