PITTSFIELD — Although composer-lyricist William Finn says it felt as if he was “wandering in the wilderness for 100 years’’ after graduating from Williams College, he realizes now, looking back, that success in musical theater actually came to him remarkably early.
By age 26 Finn was established as the composer in residence at Playwrights Horizons, the renowned off-Broadway theater. That paved the way for a lengthy career during which Finn, who grew up in Natick, has created such musicals as “Falsettos’’ (which earned him two Tony Awards in 1992 and is being revived on Broadway next month), “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’’ “Little Miss Sunshine,’’ “Elegies: A Song Cycle,’’ and “A New Brain.’’
But Finn knew that plenty of other songwriters do indeed wander in that wilderness for many years, desperate to get their work produced. He knew there is nothing more vital to the development of a new musical than feedback from a live audience. And Finn knew something else, too: “I’m good at sniffing talent out.’’
So 10 years ago he began to make it his business to do just that. As the cofounder and artistic producer of Barrington Stage Company’s Musical Theatre Lab, an incubator for new musicals, Finn’s mission has been to help young composers, lyricists, and librettists wrestle their creations into shape. Then he has shepherded those new musicals into public view.
“I always enjoy things that are dirty, rather than finished,’’ says Finn, 64. “What’s interesting is seeing the dirty beginnings of a real talent. I love everyone’s early voice. It’s a person screaming to be heard.’’
Under the supervision of Finn and Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, the Lab has spawned 12 world premiere productions, including two this season: “Presto Change-O,’’ presented in May at Barrington Stage, and “Broadway Bounty Hunter,’’ which just opened at the company’s St. Germain Stage.
Several musicals developed in the Lab in the past decade went on to receive productions in New York, including “Southern Comfort,’’ a musical about a group of transgender friends that was staged at the Public Theater earlier this year after its 2013 premiere at Barrington Stage. Others have been workshopped or received stage readings.
Taking on such a demanding job might seem an unusual step for a major Broadway composer-lyricist who already has plenty on his plate. At present, Finn is making tweaks to “Falsettos,’’ along with the show’s original director and co-librettist James Lapine, who is also helming the revival.
But in an interview at Barrington Stage’s offices, Finn gets more animated talking about the work of his protégés than about his own. It’s clear that he sees teaching as a vital calling; you get the sense he’s repaying his debt to his own teachers, such as Gerald Dyer, a former drama coach at Natick High School whose name Finn brings up frequently. In addition to supervising the Musical Theatre Lab, Finn teaches at NYU and at Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Conservatory.
“Bill Finn is one of the most committed mentors I have ever seen to young writers,’’ declares Boyd. “He is totally committed to getting their work done. He is totally ego-free. When he gets behind your work, he doesn’t stop. And I think the writers feel that. They know he is here for them.’’
Will Aronson, a composer who studied under Finn at NYU and developed the musical “Mormons, Mothers and Monsters’’ at the Musical Theatre Lab, says that Finn’s “enthusiasm for his students’ work has been obvious and palpable from the beginning.’’
“Bill wants to try to pass down the things he’s learned, or just pass down his excitement and respect for this art form,’’ says Aronson. “He cares so much about theater and people baring their souls onstage. He wants to see that continue.’’
Finn says he looks for certain intangible qualities when he works with aspiring lyricists, composers, and librettists. “Talent is only about 45 percent of success,’’ he asserts. “You need the drive to be successful. What I’m attracted to is an alive, original voice that I haven’t heard before.’’
To bring attention to songwriters who are current or former students of his at NYU or protégés at the Lab, Finn teams up with Boyd each summer to produce a concert whose title says it all: “Songs by Ridiculously Talented Composers and Lyricists You Probably Don’t Know But Should.’’ Song lyrics are projected on a screen behind the performers, and Finn explains to the audience what makes them work.
Finn’s relationship with Barrington Stage deepened when “Spelling Bee’’ was workshopped and developed there before premiering in 2004 at the Sheffield venue where the company then operated. In 2006, with Barrington Stage having moved to Pittsfield, the Musical Theatre Lab was founded by Finn and Boyd.
In close collaboration with Boyd, Finn provides artistic guidance to emerging talent at the Lab. They will round up accomplished actor-singers and musical directors for staged readings and workshops, which enables the songwriters and librettists to see their work up on its feet and get a sense of what changes might be needed. Does the story need to be streamlined or fleshed out? Does a particular character need to be more fully developed or pushed into the background? “The question that we ask is: ‘What story are you trying to tell?’ ” says Boyd.
They will also examine how well particular songs work in the full context of the musical, and what might be missing. “Some shows need a new opening number. Some shows need a second number,’’ says Finn. “Every show is crying out for something different. You have to find out what you need. It’s about helping them to find their voice.’’
As part of that process of discovery, Finn makes it clear to musical-theater writers that they have to be ready for what can be an arduous slog, including substantial rewrites. When needed, Finn doesn’t hold back: “I say ‘Look, you gotta fix this.’ ” Remarks Boyd: “Bill is very specific. He gets them ready for the real world. He’s not sugar-coating what it’s about.’’
Finn did not sugar-coat his message to Aronson, the composer of “Mormons, Mothers, and Monsters,’’ which premiered in 2011 at Barrington Stage. Early in his development as a songwriter, Aronson was reluctant to end a song with a crescendo or allow the singer to finish a tune by holding an extended note. Finn bluntly asked the young composer: “Are you sure that’s an artistic choice, or are you scared of going for something big?’’ Aronson realized it was the latter, so he changed his approach.
“Bill’s belief is you want a moment where the audience and performer can connect through pure emotion,’’ says Aronson. “His general philosophy is that people want to be thrilled when they go to the theater. So don’t be timid. Take big risks. Put yourself on the page. The classic leaving-it-all-on-the-field: That was very much Bill’s attitude when it came to theater.’’
Finn’s willingness to play artistic matchmaker boosted Aronson’s career. When his then-assistant Sam Salmond told Finn that he was working on a musical based upon his turbulent upbringing as the son of a thrice-married British mother who raised him in the Mormon faith, Finn suggested that he meet Aronson and see if the composer might be willing to write music to go with Salmond’s lyrics and book. The two hit it off and formed a team that resulted in “Mormons, Mothers and Monsters.’’
Today, with one decade under his belt at the head of the Musical Theatre Lab, there’s little chance of that wandering-in-the-wilderness feeling overtaking Finn. He is now closely identified with Barrington Stage Company, a fact that still tickles Boyd, who says that “having a person with his ability and credits to be working with young people is exciting for all of us at Barrington Stage.’’ Finn divides his time between Pittsfield and New York City; his house in Pittsfield is across the street from Boyd’s. Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, a club named for Finn, occupies the lower level of the company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center. On a recent sweltering weekend night, an evening of “Musical Theatre Shorts,’’ mostly featuring the work of emerging songwriters, was presented there, to a packed and appreciative house.
All in all, it’s not too soon for Finn to think about the legacy he is building at Barrington Stage. When asked what he’d like it to be, he thinks about the question for a long moment, then says: “In 20 years, hopefully you will be able to look back and see the list of writers we had and know how special they were.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.