Q & A with Lyricist, Mindi Dickstein
Mindi is most well known for her work as a lyricist on the Broadway Show Little Women, but has a plethora of other accomplishments as a lyricist and many more musicals on the way. We are thrilled to add Mindi to our wonderful list of experts! A fabulous Q & A for lyricists and actors alike!
BB: What does a lyricist do?
MD: A lyricist writes words that are sung to music. The words usually rhyme and have to fit into a musical pattern. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle where all the words not only have to say what must be said, but they say it in character, in rhymed phrases, and with a certain amount of poetry as well as story. The work is intricate, compact, variable, often deceptively simple, but always artistically challenging.
BB: What inspired you to become a lyricist? Do you do other types of writing?
MD: I became a lyricist by chance. I started as a playwright as an undergraduate and had some recognition for my work in my early 20s. Then I was offered a fellowship at the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program. I learned to write lyrics there and fell in love with the musical form. I have done many other types of writing, most especially bookwriting (which is the play part of a musical) and journalism (which I haven’t done in years).
BB: Do you also have a day job and/or branch out into other areas of the performing arts field?
MD: I am fortunate enough to make my living from writing musicals. So most of my time is spent writing or meeting about my musical projects or rehearsing new work. I do teach lyric writing in the program at NYU where I got my MFA, where I’m an adjunct professor. But that isn’t a day job. More of an extension of my work as a lyricist. I love going there – generally one day a week – and talking with young writers about lyrics.
BB: How can someone become a lyricist? Is this something you can go to school for and/or is this something you gain experience and/or learn from by just working in the field/creating new material?
MD: Well, as I’ve said, I learned to write lyrics in graduate school. The NYU Musical Theater Writing Program is the only MFA program of its type. I loved it. I never intended to become a writer of musicals but attending NYU literally changed everything for me; I loved the program and what I learned there. Of course, many DO simply learn by working in the field, by writing material on their own and learning through trial and error. There is also the BMI program in New York which gives writers good training in the craft. If you want to be a writer of any form – write. And read. And if what you want to write is musical theater, go see musicals performed. As many as possible. In a live theater. And, if you can, attending a program like the one at NYU is invaluable.
BB: Do you have any advice for actors in studying/interpreting lyrics/music for shows and creating roles?
MD: Act the beats. Sing the notes. Understand the character and know every word you are singing, every reference. Consider why the writer chose the words and the notes they chose and make your own choices accordingly. A well-acted song is always going to land better than one that is only sung prettily.
BB: What gravitates you to one project versus another?
MD: Sometimes it’s the chance to write characters I love (like TOY STORY, for which I wrote the book, or BENNY AND JOON) and sometimes it’s the chance to explore a world or a time and place I don’t know (like SNOW IN AUGUST, which is based on a novel by Pete Hamill that is set in post-World War II Brooklyn). There has to be something in the material that sings as well as something in the material that I feel I can bring myself to, one way or another.
BB: Do you work with many composers and what types of attributes gravitates you towards certain composers?
MD: I do. I think the number one thing I’m drawn to – other than simply liking the music a composer writes – is theatrical sensibility and approach to craft. How we work together (which in most cases we’re able to discover before we get too far) and what we agree upon as “good” in our work is very important.
BB: Do you have any advice for other budding composer/lyricists on writing lyrics that both inform the character and forward the plot?
MD: That answer takes two years in the NYU Musical Theater Writing program. It is, seriously, something that takes experience and practice. How a character speaks definitely informs how they sing words; and songs that forward plot come in a variety of forms – some forward plot dramatically, others more subtly. You have to know who the character is, what is happening in the moment, and how much the plot is, in fact, moving forward through a given song before you can even begin to write it. You have to know what kind of music best expresses the moment. And you have to follow your gut. A good song is made of many things and some of those things are craft and some are simply art. You can learn the craft part.
BB: Any other advice or words of inspiration either as a lyricist or in the performing arts field in general?
MD: When I was 18 my mom clipped and shared an article with me from the New York Times. It summarized the results of a survey of successful people in the arts. They had interviewed people in all sorts of disciplines: film, theater, fine arts – and in all sorts of jobs – writers, editors, designers. The survey found that all of the successful people interviewed had two things in common no matter what their field of endeavor: they were flexible about their definition of success – and they never gave up. Words to succeed by.
MINDI DICKSTEIN wrote the lyrics for the Broadway musical LITTLE WOMEN. Her newest work, A WIND IN THE WILLOWS CHRISTMAS, a musical adaptation of the Kenneth Grahame novel for which she wrote the book, premiered at The Two River Theater in New Jersey this past December.
Other current projects: lyrics for SNOW IN AUGUST, based on the novel by Pete Hamill; lyrics for BENNY AND JOON, based on the movie; and lyrics for AT THE BECK, an original musical. Recent work includes: book and lyrics for TRIP, an original musical commissioned by Playwrights Horizons; book for TOY STORY -- THE MUSICAL for Disney Creative Entertainment; and book and lyrics for NATE THE GREAT for Theatreworks USA. Mindi’s songs have been performed widely, most notably as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook ("Hear and Now: Contemporary Lyricists”) and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Awards and honors include playwriting fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, ASCAP Bernice Cohen Award, Second Stage Constance Klinsky Award for Excellence in Musical Theater, and a PEN International New Playwright Award (selected by Wendy Wasserstein). She received her MFA from New York University's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, where she was an Oscar Hammerstein Fellow and where she now serves on the faculty. LITTLE WOMEN is available through Music Theater International and Cherry Lane Music. The original Broadway cast album, released by Ghostlight Records, is available from Amazon.com and other music retailers. Contact or follow Mindi on Facebook: www.facebook.com/public/Mindi-Dickstein or Twitter mindidickstein.