A couple years ago a friend published a book titled “Teacher!, Teacher! , Mr. D’s amazing adventures at Collwood High .” It’s by J. D’Alessandro. We got to talking, me listening, and he waxing eloquent about writing music. So I asked him permission to re-publish his words of wisdom on the subject.
The following is all his ideas.
1. There is always the question of which comes first, music or lyrics. Jerry Herman, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter and many others sat at the piano and wrote and lyrics at the same time. When Rodgers worked with Hart, Hart wrote the lyrics and Rodgers would do the music. Since Rodgers was always drunk at Sardi’s, Rodgers gave up on him, and joined up with his classmate from a Brooklyn high school, Oscar Hammerstein II.
They worked separately with Hammerstein writing the lyrics first, and then Rodger putting it to music. Stephen Sondheim stays away from the piano and writes all his lyrics laying on a couch with a yellow pad then putting it to music. Although famous, Sondheim has never had a hit song. His only popular song, “Bring in The Clowns” was stuck into “A Little Night Music” by his friend, John LaPointe, the director, although it had nothing to do with the play. Some of the great song writers like Irving Berlin and Anthony Newley could not read music ( It was also said that Sinatra, really couldn’t read music) Cole Porter became famous writing outrageously tricky lyrics to his catchy music. He did write several musicals. “Anthing Goes” and “Kiss Me Kate” remain popular and are given all over the world many times each year. Without question, Oscar Hammerstein is the greatest lyricist of all, having written the lyrics for everything from “Showboat” to “South Pacific and a dozen more great musicals. Stephen Sondheim does not really want to write Broadway musicals. He really wants to write opera where everything in the play is sung.
3 The 1999 federal law said all songs, musicals, and artistic works of an author would have copyright protection for his heirs for 99 years after the the death of the lyricist or composer, but that all artistic musical works would be in the common domain if written before 1923. Although the song is sung in every country from Italy to China, “Happy Birthday” has been held, until recently, by copyright law by Warner Music.and royalties had to be paid. ($12,000 if played on network television) Recently the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “Happy Birthday” was in the common domain, but it is being contested and appealed.
4. Most song writers have ASCAP collect royalties for them. Its phone number is 800 505-4052. This agency used to find out about the illegal use of songs by information from newspaper clipping services; now it finds out about illegal use from anything and everything put on the Internet. Illegal use usually results in a bill sent to the illegal users for the royalties. ASCAP was organized when Victor Herbert heard his songs being played in a swanky restaurant. He demanded payment of a royalty. After he was rebuked, he got together with Rudolph Friml, Sigmund Romberg, Irving Berlin and 10 other to form ASCAP ( American Association of Composers and Publishers). Although ASCAP controls 50,000 songs, some songs are controlled by other agencies like Disney Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein
Repertory, Tams-Witmak Musical Library. If one does not know who the song writer is, he goes to a “clearing” house to get appropriate licenses for the songs. If a piano player is using a lot of songs in a saloon, ASCAP will give him for a fee a “blanket license”.
5. As for musicals, the licenses for use are mostly controlled by Tams-Witmark, or Music Theater International, or Rodgers and Hammerstein Repertory ( which also controls all of Irving Berlin’s songs). Nothing can be used for free, royalties must be paid for everything or a lawsuit ensues. The current royalties on non-professional musical productions is about 20% of the “take” (the number of seats, times the number of performances, times the ticket price determines the total take). Meredith Wilson’s 3rd wife sold all his copyrights to one of the Beatles for 5 million. “The Music Man” is given someplace in the world 800 times a year paying full royalty. Two years ago TheWalnut Theatre had to pay $ 45,000 to the Beatles guy for the right to perform the show. For example, West Chester High School had to pay about $5,000 in royalties in order to give “The Music Man 3 years ago.
6. Recently “Bullets Over Broadway” .. the failed Broadway musical ( it lasted only 3 months on the Great White Way) played in Philadelphia. Woody Allen, the author, decided to use about 20 old time 20’s songs, but the production has to pay royalties to all original authors by way of ASCAP.
There are perennial songs that keep on producing royalties for song writers. Lee Adams who wrote “Put On A Happy Face” for “Bye Bye Birdie” told me he lives on the royalties from that one song.
7. My field is play production. I wrote a cost estimate for possible investors for the musical “Bridges of Madison County” with capitalization at $12 million. It played a month in previews, but was killed by the critics on opening night and closed immediately. The investors lost everything. Only one in 5 Broadway musicals make any money. Because too many people were losing money on Broadway shows, Gov Cuomo has passed a law that investors must be “qualified” ( half million in income, at least 5 million in assets). But one can still invest in corporations that invest in Broadway musicals for at little as $10. It is like betting on horse. But investors in “Phantom of the Operas” have made 3.2 billion. Investors from Camden N.J, who put up the money for “My Fair Lady”, are still getting royalty checks.
IF YOU HAVE ANY FURTHER QUESTIONS ON SONG WRITING OR PLAY PRODUCTION PLEASE CONTACT ME. J D’Alessandro jayteacher
Ricardo Ben Safed.