John Bucchino is one of New York’s most beloved composers. His work has been recorded by artists such as Art Garfunkel, Liza Minnelli and Kristin Chenoweth and performed at venues across the world – from the Sydney Opera House to the White House. His work with Harvey Fierstein, A Catered Affair, opened on Broadway in 2008 and won the Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Musical. Most recently, he was commissioned by Danish producer Soren Moller to compose music and lyrics for the musical Esaura.
He has also recently been in the studio with Australian singer and actor David Campbell for the brand new album David Campbell sings John Bucchino. Accompanied by Bucchino on piano, Campbell tackles 11 of the composer’s compositions including ‘Taking the Wheel’ and ‘Grateful’ which appeared on earlier Campbell albums but are recorded here anew with Bucchino for the first time. Also featured is ‘Better Than I’ which Bucchino composed for the Dreamworks Animation film Joseph: King of Dreams in which Campbell was heard as the singing voice of Ben Affleck’s title character.
Here, Bucchino answers Michael Darvell’s questions:
You are known for your prolific output of theatre and cabaret songs that are sometimes compared to the work of Stephen Sondheim whom you often quote. Was Sondheim a direct influence that made you take up songwriting?
While I do specifically quote Steve Sondheim in one song, ‘Playbill’, and mention him in another of my songs, he was not an influence at all when I began to write in high school. I had no idea who he was. At that time, my influences were mostly pop writers because that’s what I aspired to be. The Beatles, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder were the writers whose work most inspired me. Since I also made money playing piano gigs, I knew the American pop standards by the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart (and Hammerstein), Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, etc, and those impeccable pieces of writing also influenced both my style and commitment to solid craft.
It’s difficult to grasp that you do not read or ‘write’ music. You are in good company with the likes of Irving Berlin, so you must play piano by ear and compose by ear too? Did you never consider studying musical notation and composition and when did you discover that you had a musical talent for singing, playing and composing?
I started playing my grandmother’s piano by ear when I was only one. I’m still learning and growing as a pianist and songwriter. I can see, for instance, in a song like ‘Learn How to Say Goodbye”, the newest song on our CD, an evolution in my harmonic structure, which heartens me.
I have no interest in “studying composition” – I’m fiercely independent about doing musical things my own way. I think that, to the extent that I have a unique creative voice, that independence is responsible. As for notation, thank goodness the technology exists for me to play songs into my computer and get them onto paper. It’s a skill I’ve been learning for the past 18 years, working with a dear friend who’s helped with the technical aspects. And, as a result of all the proofing and polishing of that sheet music, I have learned how to read just enough to edit my own work. What I still cannot do is to read through any other music. While it would be lovely to feel Chopin or Brahms flow through my fingers, I think I have a kind of ‘sheet music dyslexia’ that dissuades me from even attempting it.
London has often heard your songs in cabaret, usually performed by American artists at the (late, great) Pizza On the Park. When have you performed in the UK?
I’ve performed quite a bit in London over the past few years. Once at the Pheasantry, and two times at the St James Theatre Studio, with a line-up of wonderful UK singers. I’ve also done two concerts in Dublin with some terrific young Irish performers.
What is the state of cabaret at the moment in New York and elsewhere in the US. Is it flourishing as it seems to be in London, which now has five regular outlets for the art.
It seems like cabaret is alive and well in the US. In New York City, even as some venerable rooms close their doors, more venues pop up to replace them. And cabaret’s popularity is not limited to New York, I’ve recently performed in terrific clubs in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
How did you choose the songs for the new album? Are they David’s favourites or did you both have some input? The hardest thing may have been deciding what to omit.
Since David and I have performed together quite a bit over the years, a number of the songs on the CD were easy choices. Then I sent him lots of other songs from which he made the remaining choices. I happily let him pick whichever ones he most wanted to sing. I am especially glad that he wanted to include a few lesser-known songs ‘Puddle of Love’. ‘Something Spontaneous’ and ‘Learn How to Say Goodbye’.
I am SO proud of this CD! David has never sung more beautifully or with greater sensitivity, and the response has been incredible. I feel like a very lucky songwriter, to have my work so eloquently presented.
Are there any plans to do live concerts with David of the songs from the new album?
We are currently finishing up a multi-city Australian series of sold-out concerts.
You presumably knew David from working on your songs for the film Joseph: King of Dreams. He seems a great supporter of your work in his cabaret appearances.
David and I met and began working together a few years before the Dreamworks movie. From the moment he began singing my songs he has included them in many of his shows and recordings. He is largely responsible for introducing my work to Australian audiences, both through his CDs and by inviting me to tour with him in his home country – this tour to promote our new CD is actually our second tour here together, and my sixth visit Down Under where I’ve also done my own concerts and master classes.
Your musical A Catered Affair, which you and Harvey Fierstein based on a Paddy Chayevsky television play that was also filmed with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, has been seen in London recently at the Royal Academy of Music and a London Fringe theatre. Is there any chance of seeing any more of your shows over here?
That’s up to producers. I’d be delighted to see more productions of my shows in the UK. I have four shows available: A Catered Affair, my musical revue It’s Only Life, the short musical Lavender Girl (one third of a show Hal Prince put together called 3HREE) and my brand new musical Esaura, which recently had its first production in Denmark.
Your songs have appealed to a wide range of great performers, of which you must be very proud, particularly with the likes of Ann Hampton Callaway, Judy Collins, Michael Feinstein, Andrea Marcovicci, Amanda McBroom, Patti LuPone, Art Garfunkel, Liza Minnelli, Billy Stritch and Jimmy Webb among many others on your Grateful album. You must have thought you had died and gone to CD heaven!
When I moved to New York in 1992 and was welcomed into a community of extraordinary writers, directors and performers, I realised how starved I’d been in Los Angeles for that sense of artistic camaraderie. Before I pitched the Grateful CD project, I called up the singers you mentioned and others, including David Campbell (who I rank right up there with the rest of them) to ask if they’d be willing to participate. Every one of them immediately agreed – and they all did it for minimum union scale. If someone had told me in high school that these people would be singing my songs, I would never have believed it!
You have been writing and playing for more than 40 years now. What are your future plans – more of the same? But might they include appearances at the Crazy Coqs, the recently opened cabaret room in London, or the London Festival of Cabaret?
I’ve heard great things about Crazy Coqs from friends who have performed there, and I’d love to be invited to share my songs there or at the London Festival – or anywhere else, for that matter.
What’s coming up for me is to mix and release my second solo piano CD – the first is called On Richard Rodgers’ Piano and it’s improvs on Rodgers’ songs played on his own Steinway – and the new one is me doing my spontaneous, and sometimes wacky takes on Beatle songs. Other than that, I’m open to whatever new creative adventure presents itself.
All of my CDs, songbooks, downloadable sheet music, and a Grateful children’s book (put together with Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma) are available through my website: www.johnbucchino.com.
* David Campbell sings John Bucchino is available on iTunes.
* Fans can also order a signed copy here.
Readers may also be interested in:
A Catered Affair – London Theatre Workshop – Review
A Catered Affair – Royal Academy of Music – Review