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John Harvard's Journal

Broadway in His Blood

November-December 2005

Ask Michael Mitnick ’06 what kind of singing voice he has and he replies, “A bad one.” Inquire about his piano-playing skill and he remains dismissive, quickly noting, “My sister is a lot better than I am.” Mitnick will admit to being “much more of a composer than a pianist,” though even there he claims that his sister, Jenny, is his superior.

For the second-best composer in the family, Mitnick has done all right. He has written or co-written the score, lyrics, and book for four musical comedies that have been produced during his undergraduate years, including one Hasty Pudding Theatricals show. In the summer after his sophomore year, his musical Snapshots had two off-Broadway performances in New York with cast members from the Broadway show Bombay Dreams. He coauthored the script for the film Winning Caroline, a musical that was chosen as best comedy at the 2004 Ivy League Film Festival. And that “bad” baritone singing voice joins tenors and basses in the Krokodiloes, Harvard’s oldest and best-known a cappella group; this summer, Mitnick and the Kroks performed in more than a dozen countries on a six-continent tour that literally went around the world in 80 days.

A witty young man, Mitnick loves musical comedy “a bushel and a peck.” Even as a young shoot he knew what he wanted to do; at age eight, after listening to Guys and Dolls, he tried to write new lyrics to Frank Loesser’s music. “I found that very difficult to do,” he says, chuckling. But he didn’t give up his ambitions: at Fox Chapel Area High School outside Pittsburgh, Mitnick wrote his first musical, The Race, about a political campaign in a small town. “Now I cringe when I hear it,” he says, but when he and his classmates mounted the show, they raised $1,500 for charity from the receipts; he recalls that first production as “one of the best memories of my life.”

“There really is no place to go [for college] if you want to learn to write musicals,” Mitnick says, but Harvard’s track record in educating so many creators in that field appealed to him. He is well-versed in Broadway history(the Gershwins, Sondheim, and Loesser are members of his personal pantheon, and he singles out Dinah Washington’s recording of “If I Were a Bell” from Guys and Dolls as “explosively good”). He readily reels off the names of Harvard-trained giants like Leonard Bernstein ’39, D.Mus. ’67 (music for On the Town, Candide, West Side Story), Alan Jay Lerner ’40 (lyrics for My Fair Lady, Camelot), established creators like John Weidman ’68 (book for Pacific Overtures, Assassins), and lesser-known but highly successful composers such as Laurence O’Keefe ’91, of the future movie Bat Boy and the forthcoming stage version of Legally Blonde.

But the big pull was Hasty Pudding Theatricals. “There’s nowhere else in America,” he says, “where you can write something that gets more than 30 performances, plays in New York and internationally in Bermuda, has a budget of a couple hundred thousand dollars, and involves working with professionals in set design, directing, musical direction, choreography, and so on.”

I write, you play: Songwriter Michael Mitnick's passion is musical comedy. One of his heroes is Randy Newman: "His songs are mini-musicals told in the first person."
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Mitnick’s family took him often to the theater in Pittsburgh; the group included mother Margy, a public librarian, father Barry, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh business school, and older twin siblings Jenny and Jeff. Mitnick’s father wrote a musical while an MIT undergraduate, and Jenny was president of the Original Music Group at Brown University. (Jeff has Down syndrome; Mitnick’s shows, over the years, have raised thousands of dollars to benefit those with that condition.)

Having an older sister who was actively writing chamber music was a great advantage. “I think her composing ability is fantastic,” Mitnick says. Jenny taught her younger brother instrumentation and orchestration and commented on his scores. But her mere presence may have been the most important thing. At one point she produced a CD of 10 modern piano pieces. “She was always saying, ‘Here’s a piece I wrote,’” he recalls.

Although a handful of geniuses like Loesser and Sondheim have written both words and music to remember, it is very rare at the professional level for one person to compose both lyrics and score (not to mention the “book,” or narrative story of a show). But as someone starting out, Mitnick tackles all three, often in collaboration. “First I think of the idea for a song, what I want the song to be about,” he explains. (“I Was Wrong,” from Snapshots, for example, is the protagonist’s apology to a love interest.) “Then, at the piano I work out the melodic and harmonic structure, and record it on tape. Next I’ll sit at the computer and write the lyrics, set it, and after that, it’s back and forth between the keyboard and the computer. At the end, Finale [a composer’s software package] prints out the score. It takes hours just to write down the notes of a song, but you get so engrossed in it, the time flies.”

As freshmen, Mitnick and Derrick Wang ’06 each wrote half of the score, and Mitnick most of the book, for Get Some, a freshman musical staged in Agassiz Theatre (“three male Harvard freshmen in search of love on a weekend night”). “So much fun,” Mitnick recalls. “That was a blessed experience.” Then, he collaborated with Kiernan Schmitt ’06 on book and lyrics for As the Word Turns, the 2004 Hasty Pudding show (with music by Wang), about Russians trying to steal vowels from English at the national spelling bee. (The original title, Vowel Movement, was vetoed.) That fall, Mitnick collaborated again with Schmitt on a Currier House show, Peanut Butter and Juliet, adapting the Shakespearean tale to Appalachia in a story whose climax explains the origin of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Last spring, he and Schmitt joined forces with Robbie Pennoyer ’05 to create The Life and Many Deaths of Mr. Plumb, about love in an old-folks home, staged at the Loeb Experimental Theatre.

Currently, Mitnick is working on his senior thesis, a creative writing project in the English department. It is an untitled “dark comedy — all the plot points are dark,” he says. The musical concerns two upper-class New York families who are longtime friends until two of their college-age children decide to marry. That unearths uncomfortable issues because two of the parents once had an extramarital affair, making paternal responsibility uncertain. “It’s not a musical from the 1950s, where the community puts up a show in the barn that raises enough money to save the town,” Mitnick says. “It has a bittersweet ending, darkly ironic.”

As an English concentrator, he has been able to do his thesis “exactly as I wanted it,” he says. “But if I were in the music department, it would be mostly the music that got the attention.” He did take three music courses, including Music 4, which Mitnick calls an “only at Harvard” experience: “At the end of each unit, your project gets performed and recorded by professional musicians. My sophomore year they had the Ying Quartet, a world-class chamber group. It really makes you do your homework because if you don’t, you’re squandering a tremendous opportunity.” For a chance like that, Mitnick wrote chamber music.

Even so, Mitnick, who also belongs to the Harvard Lampoon and the Signet Society, cites the Office for the Arts (OFA) as his favorite thing at Harvard. Before college, he spent two summers at Lincoln Center Theater working for Stephen Flaherty, composer of Ragtime and Seussical, and two years ago helped arrange Flaherty’s participation in OFA’s Learning from Performers program. “In my three years here, they must have had four or five musical-theater writers,” says Mitnick, who took each of their master classes in songwriting.

Mitnick even got to meet one of his “absolute heroes,” Randy Newman, the Oscar-winning songwriter. “His music is impeccably written — melodious music that is also complex,” Mitnick explains. “His lyrics are ironic or funny, but he writes them from the perspective of the character, so it’s almost like musical theater.” Newman spoke in Sanders Theatre, and Mitnick talked with him afterwards for a few minutes backstage. Newman said, “If you have any stuff, let me know” — and Mitnick just happened to have a CD in his pocket. Five months later, Newman called and gave Mitnick a half-hour-long critique of his compositions. Says Mitnick, “It was one of the big thrills of my life.”

No doubt there are more thrills to come. Mitnick is applying for fellowships and to a few graduate programs in playwriting and musical-theater writing, as well as television comedy shows, whose writing staffs have historically drawn heavily from Lampoon alumni. He’s also pursuing internships with some of his favorite songwriters. “Unfortunately,” he says of his many interests in entertainment, “all these things are very difficult to do professionally.”           

~Craig Lambert