From musical director for the First National Company of "Dreamgirls," (starring the extraordinary Jennifer Holliday), to composing, arranging, and conducting for some of the great performers of our time, including Melissa Manchester, Bette Midler, Diahann Carroll, and Georgia Brown, to his work for film, television and Madison Avenue, Steven Cagan has done it all in the music world. He has worked with some of the theatrical giants of our time, including the legendary Michael Bennett, Lester Wilson, Michael Peters, Bob Avian, and Joe Layton. He is a classically trained musician, graduating from the esteemed New College at Hofstra University. His choral works were premiered there, as well as early theater pieces, some performed by his classmate, the late great theater and film star Madeline Kahn. He studied composition with Elie Seigmeister, David Diamond, Lukas Foss and George Rochberg, and arranging with Kermit Levinsky and Tommy Newsom.
Steven was in the inaugural class of the famed Lehman Engel B.M.I. Musical Theatre Workshop. At the same time, he launched one of the busiest commercial music companies on Madison Avenue. He wrote and arranged many popular jingles for television and radio for Chevrolet, Ford, State Farm Insurance, Coppertone, (which launched Melissa Manchester’s singing career when she was fifteen years old), and many others. Concurrently, he composed a number of ballet scores for Tony-winning choreographer-director Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Theatre Dance Collection. Among his early film assignments was as arranger and orchestrator for Woody Allen’s classic, "Take the Money and Run." Later, his original score for the film "The Cat and the Canary," starring Dame Wendy Hiller, Olivia Hussey, Wilfred Hude-White and Honor Blackman helped make it a cult favorite, and it was recently released in a 'classic package' DVD. He has scored countless TV series and specials, including those with "Spinal Tap," Robert Klein, Michael Keaton, Lainie Kazan and Rob Reiner.
He appeared as a guest musical director on the famed "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" numerous times. Steven has guest conducted the Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas and Honolulu Symphony Orchestras, the Ravinia Festival Orchestra, the Houston Pops, and others.
Now, Steven is "previewing" his musical "Love Songs" at NYC's famed nightclub Feinstein's at Loews Regency from August 26-30. Starring Ashley Kate Adams, Kevin Spirtas, Debbie Gravitte, Ken Clark, Fleur Phillips and Bryce Ryness and directed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, "Love Songs: A Musical" tells the tale of a wedding weekend at a luxury resort hotel. At the outset, the groom is stuck out of town on business and the bride has discovered that she's pregnant, while the other two couples, members of the wedding party, appear to be mismatched and ill-fated. As the piece runs its course, however, all is sorted out. Everything and everyone winds up in proper place for the nuptials. Happy ending!
"Love Songs: A Musical" will play Feinstein's at Loews Regency (540 Park Avenue at 61st Street) from August 26-30 at 8pm. Click here for tickets!
1. Who or what inspired you to become an author, composer, and lyricist? 1957 I staggered into the Winter Garden Theatre as a young kid and experienced something called "West Side Story" and it changed my life. All I ever wanted to do was move an audience with music and words the way I was moved that day. And I've been chasing the dream ever since.
2. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? That's an interesting question. Pretty much like Sondheim, I'm a self-contained entity. I do my own music, my own lyrics, and my own book. I have worked with other book writers and lyricists in the past and I've found that I am my own best collaborator. I prefer to work alone. There are some great Broadway singers I'd love to hear sing my music like the Marin Mazzie's and Jason Danieley's of this world. I'd love to work with some great theatre directors like the James Lapines'.
3. What made you want to write "Love Songs: A Musical"? The way I work is a textbook case in how not to write a musical. I do things backwards. For me, the process starts with melody, the stringing together of the notes, but I'm a devout melodist, I think that's the ultimate pursuit in musical composition, so if I latch onto a melody that works for me and I think it's worthy then I will try to drape some lyrics around it and turn it into a song. The process with "Love Songs," was I written a few songs and Michael Feinstein had sampled one of them called "Carpe Diem," and I took a step back and said "Okay, these songs fit into an evening." So I conjured up a scheme to continue writing these songs and what came after the melody and lyrics came a concept for book and a concept for characters. Some writers will stagger into a movie house and say "Okay, lets turn this into a musical and sing some of this." My process it completely different. It begins, as I said, with melody.
Me: I like that your process is different than most people. I think that's what makes you special, that you do things differently than everyone else. This show will be my first introduction to your music, so I'm really looking forward to it.
Steven: Well, bless you for saying that. I think after listening to my music and seeing the piece, this conversation will make much more sense to you in retrospect.
Me: Yes, I think so too.
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing "Love Songs: A Musical"? Tunes. I want melodies to stick. I want them to walk out humming the tunes. Remember Richard Rogers and all those guys Jerome Kern and Lerner and Loewe, it was all about leaving the theatre humming the tunes. I don't feel that is what musical theatre is today. I feel it's an E-ride at Disneyland and all about the spectacle, trickiness, and special effects. "Love Songs" is the opposite of that. The prototype for me writing "Love Songs," when I first started working on it, was a piece called "The Fantasticks," which basically is half-a-dozen characters who sing their hearts out and the piece can be done in its most simple form, with just gifted actors singing and a piano without the need for props and sets and costumes and special effects. Just barebones.
At the other end of the spectrum, after this run of "Love Songs" at Feinstein's, I'm envisioning this show in it's full two act form, in a theatre with a chorus, with an orchestra, which is to say this can be done as big or as small as we'd like it and that was all done by design, none of that is accidental. I wanted to make the show as cost effective as possible for anybody to produce it. My dream is that years from now "Love Songs" will be performed at schools and community theatres around the country. I hope it has that kind of life in it. I believe that all depends on the quality of the songs and whether or not they have value. I think they do and Michael Feinstein, God Bless him, is a huge champion of the work, which is why we are doing it at Feinstein's. I should add that, this is very unlike me, there was a very, very long time when I despaired that there was a place on this planet for my music and what I do and now it's quite the opposite, I'm convinced that there is not only a place for it, but a need for it. We need to get back to simple, beautiful, lovely, elegant melodies and words with honest emotion and affection. We'll find out that soon enough whether "Love Songs" has resonance with the audience when it takes off at Feinstein's at the end of August.
5. What excites about debuting some of the songs at Feinstein's? What made you want to have this "preview" of the show at Feinstein's? The quality of the audience. Feinstein's attracts people who are used to good songs. They are used to meaningful melodies and good impactful lyrics. Michael prides himself on having coined the term Great American Songbook and I am privileged and proud that he considers my work to be part of that package. That is his audience and I firmly believe that that is "Love Songs" audience as well.
I wanted the opportunity to get the songs in the air and heard by an audience. One of the greatest frustrations in doing what I do is that unless it's performed it doesn't exist. It's an interpretative art form and it needs voice. Unlike a painter or sculptor, who when finished, can walk away and their work is there. With music/songwriting it's different. If it's not performed, it might as well never have been written. So, just to have been given this opportunity to have my music heard is wonderful. Michael is my hero and I've been so grateful to him for all these years. He's a real champion of my work, so to be able to have this first incarnation at Feinstein's is very special to me.
6. What do you like about this cast that will be performing "Love Songs" at Feinstein's? I love their passion for the work. I've gotten some of the most glorious voices that there are. I am pleased to tell you that I did all the casting myself. In this day and age if somebody mentions a name, we're able to go to Youtube to see these people sing and that is pretty much how I cast this, purely by voice, who could best sing this music of mine. The best part is that everybody is grateful to sing my music because these voices don't get the chance anymore. They don't get to sing such songs. Their enthusiasm is so sky high and that is a reward with in of itself. I love this cast dearly for their commitment to "Love Songs."
Two years ago we had a concert reading of "Love Songs" at The York Theatre, which was directed by Lynn Taylor-Corbett, who will be directing the piece again, and at that performance Robert Cuccioli sang the role of "Roy" for us and Robert was all set to do Feinstein's until two weeks ago when he got the call to go into "Spiderman" and God Bless him that is where he belongs, starring on Broadway. So, I had to reluctantly let him go, but the quality of the voice is what I am talking about, and I was lucky enough to get Kevin Spirtas to take over that particular role. A couple of the performers are reprising their roles from the York Theatre and earlier workshops and they've been dedicated to it and grateful for the chance to sing such music. That comes through in their performance.
7. You have worked with some of the biggest names in music/entertainment: Jennifer Holliday, Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, and Diahann Carroll, just to name a few. What was the best part about getting to work with these legendary performers? The paycheck. Seriously, the work I did as an arranger/conductor/and sometimes pianist for these artists were very much work for hire. None of that satisfied my need to compose music; they were simply just jobs as if I were selling pianos or real estate. Some of those were more pleasurable than others.
8. While you were attending the New College at Hofstra University many of your choral works and early theater pieces premiered there. Some of the pieces were performed by your classmate, the late, great theater and film star Madeline Kahn. What do you remember most about working with her and what did you learn from working with her? Did you stay in touch with her after college? I learned two things. First of all, I learned how to be funny. Secondly, I learned how to laugh at what's funny. God Bless her may she rest in peace. She was one of the funniest people on earth with one of the greatest funny bones ever. She also taught me how to write for a coloratura soprano, which is what she was. I wrote certain things for her voice that only a coloratura could do, certain vocal enhancements, certain frills, ridiculous melodic intervals, etc. Maddy was up for all of it. She had those kinds of chops.
We did keep in touch after college, through "Blazing Saddles." I had a few friends that were in that movie with her. A couple of my buddies wrote the film. She unfortunately died much too young. The one thing I will always remember is how she kept me laughing.
9. Your music compositions have been featured in national commercials, films, and ballets. What does it mean to you have this kind of success? The truth is I haven't had success yet. I have had some performances, which is lovely, but nothing like success, success. Nobody knows Steven Cagan's music, but I'm hoping "Love Songs" is the success that finally gets my music heard.
Many years ago, I had written a song to Stephen Sondheim, who is my God, if I had a God (I'm an Atheist) called "Pitter Patter," which is an homage to Mr. Sondheim, and I wrote the song and sent it to him and ever since then, we've been writing letters back and forth. I'm hoping he'll come to a performance if he's in town. In his piece "Sunday in the Park with George," there is a song called "Children and Art," and those are the only two things we leave behind on this planet. I hope "Love Songs" becomes my legacy, my "Children and Art." I also hope it empowers me to write more because I need the positive reinforcement and validation of my work for me to proceed with my writing and I'm hoping "Love Songs" does that for me so I can get back to doing what I love, which is writing.
10. What have you learned about yourself from your illustrious career?
Me: And I do consider it illustrious.
Steven: Well, thank you! I am flattered and honored you think that. What I found out about myself is that I have patience and persistence that I never knew I had. The lack of exposure of my music put me into therapy, rather intensely, and had me considering all kinds of things. I have chased this dream around the block for years and years and years, so learning that I have this patience and persistence in me is very rewarding. It all comes from a belief in the quality of the work and to me it's the quality of everything.
Me: It's good that you have that belief.
Steven: It's required I think. Somehow I have survived all those trials and tribulations and reached a great truth here, so we shall see if the work speaks for itself. That's all I ever wanted, was the chance. Unlike my colleagues, I want people there at this "preview," I want the critics, I want the feedback. I want to know what people think. Some think I'm crazy for that, but I want people to sit in judgment of what I do. I've earned it. I'm old enough and been at it long enough to want to know what the Ben Brantley's think of my work.
11. What's the best advice you've ever received? If you believe in it, persist.
12. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? I would love to spend some quality time with Leonard Bernstein. He's another one of my heroes. What a genius he was. He left some great music behind. I'm indebted to him.
13. Favorite way to spend your day off? Doing absolutely nothing. Lazing around the house, reading or doing crossword puzzles.
14. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? I'd like to be able to fly, particularly living out here in LA with all the traffic. It would be great to just leap of a building and be where you need to be...hahaha.