A Sweet Dreamer Tunes in to the Human Condition

The songwriter that LA let get away has found a natural home on Broadway. BRYCE HALLETT talks to a man who seems destined to join the greats.

When Patti LuPone performed Matters of the Heart at the Opera House last month, it was essentially an out-of-town tryout. In other words, her showcase of famous and lesser-known love songs had not yet premiered in New York.

Her concerts featured an array of songs, not just the obvious music theatre fare, although it did include the big belting anthem Don't Cry For Me Argentina from Evita. Among the works of Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Randy Newman, Lennon and McCartney and Judy Collins were three songs by the American composer/lyricist John Bucchino.

The choice of repertoire - contemporary pop and country, and story songs written for the theatre - enabled LuPone to reveal her versatile handling of humorous lyrics and those exploring deeper emotional terrain.

Bucchino, 46, who is making a name for himself as a gifted songwriter of tremendous potential, recently formed a creative liaison with Australia's David Campbell. They perform their intimate cabaret show, Sweet Dreams, at the Cremorne Orpheum on February 19 and 20, and at the Astor in Melbourne on February 21.

With Bucchino at piano and Campbell at the microphone, the friendship they have forged means they are able to send sparks flying in performance. They have an ability to read each other's mind and communicate the songs as they were intended.

For some performers, having the songwriter close at hand might seem an unwelcome distraction or intrusion, much like the playwright scrutinising rehearsals of his own play. But for the inquisitive, enthusiastic Campbell the very presence of Bucchino, a songwriter described by colleagues as "a true late bloomer", appears to make his commitment to the material stronger.

David has an ability to grasp the musical subtleties of my songs," Bucchino says. "He gets my musical sensibility in ways neither of us can verbalise. He's a very good improviser and responds to my songs with such openness and understanding that I am often surprised ..."

Buchino has written a vast catalogue of songs, some performed and recorded by Barbara Cook, Andrea Marcovicci, Amanda McBroom, Michael Callan and LuPone. With Campbell, he has built a trusting relationship that has enabled him to be less proprietorial about his songs.

"It took me a long time to let go of my self-image as a singer-songwriter and for me to release the tight-fisted control of my music," Bucchino says. "I labour over every note and nuance and have seen my work compromised ... But I no longer feel the need to be so fiercely protective, and it's an honour to have people like Barbara Cook and Patti LuPone want to communicate my work to an audience. My goal is to get my songs known, for audiences to be touched by them."

A few months before LuPone's Sydney Festival concerts, she insisted that Bucchino attend a rehearsal to offer advice on how she should interpret his songs Unexpressed, Playbill and This Moment. "When she asked for my input I was slightly anxious, but I went along and offered some constructive advice in order for her to communicate one of the songs more emotionally. She said, 'Look, I'm just the hired hand,' and didn't mind in the least; there was no sign of a diva temperament ..."

There is a part of Bucchino that suggests he's a little in awe of where his songwriting career is taking him - not in terms of the celebrities or well-connected people he has got to know, but in the way his perseverance, faith and lack of compromise are, finally, receiving recognition from people such as Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and Hal Prince. He earned high praise from Michael Feinstein ("His songs are the continuation in the evolution of classic American popular song - he is a man of great talent") and there is little doubt that in the next few years Bucchino will be more widely appreciated.

When he was growing up in Philadelphia, his musical influences were not the stuff of Broadway, although he admires the work of Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. His most direct influence was the Beatles, closely followed by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Paul Simon - a rollcall from which the names of music theatre composers are conspicuously absent.

"I wasn't listening to theatre music when I was a boy and I'm still fairly unfamiliar with it," he says. "I've grown up listening to pop and country and when I was living in Los Angeles in the '70s and '80s I was trying to earn a living as a singer-songwriter à la Randy Newman and Billy Joel, but it never quite happened that way ..."

Although he absorbed the pop tunes and ephemera of California, the songs he penned bore little resemblance to the music around him. "The style of songs I write aren't what you would call the garden variety pop song," he says. "They are quite complex, even idiosyncratic ... I encountered resistance from record companies; a lot of politely closed doors. The usual line went, 'Yes, well, your song is fascinating.' They didn't know how to categorise my work or what to do with it."

In New York, in the belly of the theatre and cabaret community where he has lived and work for six years, the opposite is true. Although the record companies remain unsure about how to label his work, Bucchino is getting noticed by those who count. His musical drama Urban Myths has won many admirers, not least Campbell, who is championing the distinctive work.

For instance, in Sweet Dreams, Campbell manages to get in and under the idiosyncratic, comic and touching song cycle. It encompasses an eclectic range of styles, from the whimsical My Alligator and Me to the poignant Grateful. "When David sings that song you can expect tears to be shed," says Bucchino.

The story of two gay men, one of whom is dying of AIDS, Urban Myths has had five readings in New York, but there has been no recording made of the show yet. All it needs is a producer to take a risk, either in the United States or Australia.

The songwriter mentions the lean creative years he spent in Los Angeles. It was a time to learn and take stock. "The blessing of not being recognised or having success in LA gave me the isolation to develop my own style and strengths. I feel my music has grown organically and that I have not been unduly concerned by pleasing people or making compromises to get recognition.

"The thing I want most is to communicate to a wide audience and write about common human experiences that resonate for a great many people. There's a vulnerability, a candour and openness to my work which audiences respond to, particularly when sung and acted by someone as talented as David; he's going to be a big star one day, not just on the stage but in film."

For Bucchino, the need to protect and nurture an original voice, unobstructed by commercial imperatives or the expectations of theatre producers, has ensured that his music will infuse musical theatre with welcome new blood.

When the recipient of an ASCAP Foundation/Richard Rodgers Award returns to the US after his concerts here he will put the finishing touches to songs he has written for DreamWorks' sequel to the animated feature Prince of Egypt. If anyone's career is ascending, it's Bucchino's: the songwriter LA forgot and Broadway took to its bosom.


 from Sydney Morning Herald - 5 Feb, 1999.