Mercer program presents new songs in Evanston
Ann Hampton Callaway headlines a tribute to the music of Johnny Mercer on June 23.
Johnny Mercer Foundation
Northwestern University, Evanston
‘Songwriters Showcase,’ 8 p.m. Friday June 22, Josephine Louis Theater, $10
‘Celebration Concert,’ at 8 p.m. Saturday June 23, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, $40
For additional information visit www.amtp.northwestern.edu/mercer.html
Updated: June 22, 2012 10:09AM
The Johnny Mercer Foundation is presenting a double-header the weekend of June 22.
On Friday evening a group of 16 young songwriters, chosen from 90 applicants from around the country, will present songs written during their week-long workshop at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus.
The following night, singer/songwriter and Winnetka native Ann Hampton Callaway will headline a tribute to Mercer, along with the workshop’s 2012 master teachers, Craig Carnelia, Andrew Lippa and Lari White, plus some of the fledgling songwriters.
“The applicants must be between 18 and 30,” said Heather Schmucker, producing director of the American Musical Theatre Project (AMTP), which presents the Mercer project at NU. “They send three songs they have written and then they are selected blind by a panel of professional adjudicators made up of some alums and other theater people not affiliated with Northwestern.
“It is intense because the songwriters only have one week,” she explained. “They arrive Sunday night and meet the master teachers and get to know each other a bit.
“The real work begins Monday morning,” she added. “Classes run from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. each day. They break up into three groups and rotate teachers, so each songwriter will have time with each of the teachers.”
Some of the aspiring songwriters selected are still in college, others are already professionals. However, they all share the desire for time away to compose and write lyrics in a supportive environment.
“It’s a creative retreat,” Schmucker continued. “From the very first day they have an assignment or a challenge, and they get notes from the teachers on everything they write. They stay in our dorms, but I have a feeling none of them get much sleep. After five o’clock, they have dinner and start working on their songs, probably most of the night.”
The Friday evening program will have material hot off the presses from all song genres, including pop, folk, hip-hop, country, Latin or musical theater. “It’s always a lot of fun to hear what they come up with,” declared Schmucker, now in her fourth season with the project.
This is the seventh year for the songwriting project, and outgoing AMTP director Dominic Missimi was present at the creation. “We had a night at Northwestern in 2005 honoring Jerry Herman with our students performing,” he said, referring to the composer and lyricist of Broadway blockbusters “Hello Dolly,” “Mame,” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”
Afterward Missimi talked to Michael Kerker, director of musical theater for ASCAP, who was also a member of the Johnny Mercer Foundation. “He said that Northwestern with its great facilities and talented students was the perfect setting for the Mercer foundation’s songwriters showcase. We were the first place to host it and we’ve continued every year since.”
Missimi is particularly pleased to see the number of applicants this year “The word is out that this is the place to be if you’re a young songwriter,” he said.
The 2012 Mercer songwriters are: Matilde Bernabei, Jeff Bienstock, Kayley Bishop, Cassie Boettscher, Andrea Daly, John Gurney, Caleb Hawley, Patrick Lundquist, Rebekah Greer Melocik, Gregory Nabours, Sarah Nisch, Jennifer Sanchez, Peter Seibert, Shaina Taub, Becky Warren, and Jacob Yandura.
No Northwestern student songwriter made the cut this year, but Missimi sees that in a positive light. “That proves our own students are not shoo-ins,” he observed. “The selection process is very rigorous.”
The Mercer people are also pleased that the workshop has become more and more competitive each year. “My personal mission is to have the craft of songwriting taught to each new generation,” said Jonathan Brielle of the Mercer Foundation, himself a musical theater composer. “On Oct. 11 at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan, we’re going to have a night of new music to celebrate the first seven years of our project at Northwestern.”
In addition to the Mercer alums, the 2012 master teachers Carnelia. Lippa and White will be featured in that show.
Award-winning Broadway songwriter Carnelia wrote the lyrics to Marvin Hamlisch’s music for “Sweet Smell of Success,” for which they received both Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations, and again with Hamlisch again for Nora Ephron’s “Imaginary Friends.” He himself received the Johnny Mercer Emerging American Songwriter award.
Andrew Lippa wrote the Tony-nominated music and lyrics for the Broadway production of “The Addams Family,” starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. He also has received a Grammy nomination, as well as ASCAP’s Richard Rodgers/New Horizons Award, as well as the Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle awards.
Lari White made her critically-acclaimed Broadway debut in the spring of 2006 in “Ring of Fire.” She performed in the Marilyn and Alan Bergman Tribute with Michael Feinstein at Carnegie Hall and returned to perform for the Bergmans in their Lincoln Center tribute in February. She recently debuted with a week-long run at the Algonquin Oak Room.
The Mercer Foundation was established to continue the legacy of the four-time Oscar-winning lyricist, composer and singer who created the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
As co-founder of Capitol Records, Mercer was instrumental in the early recording careers of such musicians as Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Margaret Whiting, Jo Stafford and Nat “King” Cole.
So a program for young songwriters is an ideal project for the foundation bearing his name.