Inside the creation of Broadway musical It Shoulda Been You
Musical theatre songwriters have been known to drive themselves crazy seeking suitable source material for shows. They rack their imaginations, plunder public-domain literature titles, ask studios for rights to movie scripts, and track down playwrights or their heirs.
It was somewhat easier for composer Barbara Anselmi. Her inspiration came in the mail. Wedding invitations sparked her marriage-minded musical It Shoulda Been You
, now at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
"I went to three weddings in a very short period of time that spring," Anselmi says, recalling 2003, when she was scrambling for show ideas to present in the second year of The BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. "I was taken back to what happened at one of the weddings: a friend of mine hooked up with somebody in the bathroom, and the guy on my right side at the table, I wished that he had married the bride."
"It shoulda been him
," Anselmi thought at the time. With that, the long walk down the aisle toward an original new musical — exploring "all the hijinks that go on in a wedding" — began.
As with any relationship, there were bumps along the way. For example, Anselmi didn't have a script or a librettist early on, just an idea: "A wedding picture with everybody smiling and happy, but [telling] the story of what's going on behind each of those people's smiles — or, non-smiles — on that day."
The BMI Workshop is known as a matchmaking organization for composers and lyricists. Writers are paired together for short assignments to see if they're a fit for a future full-length project. Anselmi recalls, "I went to a bunch of lyricists in class that I hadn't worked with in the first year of the workshop, and a couple I had worked with and had good relationships with, and said, 'Would you be up for writing one song for my project?' Everybody signed on."
The unusual, piecemeal approach to the score remains to this day, even though television writer Brian Hargrove would eventually become the show's librettist and primary lyricist.
A handful of the earlier BMI lyricists — William R. Martin, Carla Rose,and Ernie Lijoi, among others — are making their Broadway debut with the show, as are Anselmi (who is credited with both concept and music) and Hargrove.
Indeed, the show's title song emerged from an earlier lyric by BMI'er Martin. He told Anselmi that he wanted to write about the bride's ex-boyfriend, but from the family's point of view. Now, family members all confront the ex and sing, "It Shoulda Been You."
"We presented that song in class and it went over like gangbusters," Anselmi says. "And somebody said, 'I wanna know what happens to these characters,' and that's when I went on a search for a book writer."
The composer, whose bread-and-butter career up to this point has been as a musical director and arranger, met Hargrove when she served as music director on an alumni show for New Hampshire's Weathervane Theatre in 2005. She pitched him the wedding premise, and by 2006 he had crafted a plot that included a shocking twist. (Hargrove's husband, David Hyde Pierce, would later join as director of the 2011 tryout at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse, and he's also helming the current run.)
"There was no story before," the composer says. "It was just all these songs about the guests."
As the Anselmi-Hargrove collaboration deepened, the character of Jenny, the plus-sized sister-of-the-bride (played by Lisa Howard) emerged as the leading role. She gets the opening number and an audience-favorite power ballad, "Beautiful."
To be sure, It Shoulda Been You
also revels in maternal star turns that illustrate the Jewish and Catholic sides of the aisle, with Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris spitting acid and sparring on behalf of their prejudices.
A self-admitted "pizza bagel" with Jewish and Italian-Catholic heritage, the New Jersey-raised songwriter told Hargrove about several incidents from her own life. Some of them surface in the show.
For instance, the busty and blowsy Aunt Sheila, who drunkenly makes passes at the wedding reception, is not completely fictional. Nor is Judy Steinberg, played by Daly, who berates her daughter Jenny for not being slim, married, and settled.
Is Jenny a stand-in for the composer?
"I feel there are elements," Anselmi says. "I was writing this in my thirties. Until your forties, there's still a lot of figuring-it-out and people-pleasing, at least there was for me...and that's Jenny. All those comments that people want to boo Tyne for, those are real lines they're reacting to."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo (L to R): Tyne Daly, Lisa Howard, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka, and Harriet Harris