Andrew pays Lippa service to become a Broadway hit


Andrew Lippa is hardly a household name in the UK, yet he is the latest in a long line of Jewish composers to make their mark on Broadway.

And, although he's now one of the leading lights in the Broadway industry, the 49-year-old is proud to acknowledge that he was "born in Leeds".

"I was raised to believe that the Leeds Jewish community was akin to Jerusalem - that Leeds was the seat of Jewish learning and, yes, I'm very proud to say that this is where I was born," he declared on a whistlestop visit to his birth city prior to hitting the West End stage on Sunday.

He made his London debut at St James Theatre to present his life story in words, music and singing with an all-star cast, including musical comedy sensation Jenna Russell.

"The producers contacted me to say they were big fans and that Britain should know more about me and my music - so here I am," he said.

Born in 1964 to Naomi and Ronald Lippa, he was raised in Leeds until he was 17-months old.

The Lippas emigrated to Canada and, when he was three, they relocated to suburban Detroit in America.

His background is non-musical, although his father's cousin was Frankie Vaughan and that, he claims, is his biggest connection.

So from where did his interest in music begin? His response is direct - "from the womb".

He said: "I was a singer from day one. As a kid I had a beautiful voice and was always hungry to join any group going."

Andrew also wanted to be a pianist, but his parents couldn't afford a piano or lessons so he didn't "tinkle the ivories" till he was two months shy of his 14th birthday.

"I knew how to play the instrument, but my fingers didn't know what to do," but he took to it very quickly.

By the time he reached high school, he was playing Beethoven and Mozart concerti.

That was the moment for unlocking doors and Andrew knew instantly that music would play a big part in his life.

Looking enviably trim on the cusp of 50, with brown hair, Andrew has a firm handshake and talks animatedly, clearly displaying great passion for his craft.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, he moved to New York City in 1987 and became a middle-school music teacher at Columbia Grammar on Upper West Side.

Religion played a big part in his early life. Prior to his role as visiting chazan to a small Vancouver shul, he was a soloist in a synagogue choir where he felt "a real theatricality" in the music of prayers.

"That kind of melody and tonality one hears in shul lends itself to theatre - there is something very visceral and time-honoured about it.

"A lot of Jewish composers are influenced by liturgical music. Listen to the first bars of Gershwin's It Ain't Necessarily So to hear the same intonation as the blessings one recites on being called up to read a section of the Torah."

Asked where his inspiration to write originated, he replied: "In life we need only one person to offer encouragement and my good friend Jeffrey Seller did that for me.

"We were 19, in college in Michigan and he said, 'let's write a musical together - you like musicals and you play piano'.

"I thought it was an absurd idea; it felt like a complete non-sequitur.

"Nevertheless, something about it seemed interesting to both of us, so we wrote a musical. And I liked it."

Andrew still holds British citizenship and is about to become an American citizen as well.

"They'll ask many American history questions, no doubt, which I know like the back of my hand," he said.

"Just to make sure, my lawyer's preparing me for the whole interview, so I should be OK, but it's important I hold dual citizenship."

What he loves about writing lyrics is not only the literate creativity, but the idea of playing around with words.

Lyrics, he feels, are not to be read on their own, "they are created with the sole purpose of being paired and married to music and that's what makes them different from poems."

But he loves language and finds a frisson of excitement in the singular act of "being the person who creates a musical and lyrical idea for a character to sing."

Andrew is happy to diversify; in 1998 he was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver to create an anthem for a concert celebrating Israel's 50th birthday.

Around that time he was invited to assist with vocal arrangements for the opening sequence in the animated film The Prince of Egypt.

With The Wild Party - a crucial theatrical breakthrough - and his long-running The Addams Family figuring high on his curriculum vitae, as well as his current show Big Fish, based on the Tim Burton film, Andrew has been sailing on the crest of a wave on Broadway's choppy musical stage.

He maintains The Addams Family, which ran for two years on Broadway, is "a very Jewish musical" because it's about a family in crisis.

He said: "The father sings a song that deals with ambivalence, feeling two emotions simultaneously, called Happy/Sad when his daughter decides to leave the nest and marry.

"He tells her life is full of contradictions, every inch a mile, but the moment we start weeping that's when we should smile, which is so Jewish."

"And what do we do at the end of a wedding service - we break a glass.

"There are many interpretations for why we do that. Even in the midst of joyfulness, we still take a moment to acknowledge the world's a broken place.

"We have to guard against that brokenness and we have to protect ourselves, because we play a huge part in how we fix it."

In 2008, Andrew married film marketing executive David Bloch shortly after the State of California Supreme Court handed down a ruling permitting marriage of same sex couples.

In 2012, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus commissioned him to write a musical tribute to the life of Harvey Milk, the US politician who became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California.

The oratorio, I Am Harvey Milk, stars Andrew as the eponymous campaigner and, after a wide US national tour, the piece is due to be staged in London in 2015.

The Broadway musical, the brightest beacon to world theatre, makes Andrew aware that staging musicals is a precarious affair, judging by the amount of flops.

Big Fish, which opened in October, is sadly slipping its hook at the end of this year after 34 previews and 98 regular performances. Is he disappointed?

"It doesn't bother me," he says resignedly. "To a certain extent I'm sad that it won't be reaching a larger audience - but that's all I'm disappointed about.

"We made the show we meant to make and we staged it as we wanted to stage it and, because of some crazy alchemy of words, music, story and character, the piece moves audiences deeply."

So what is the secret? He replied: "My job is to make the best art I can, and when I've done my job and feel I've done it well, then some people will love it and some people won't.

"If I get caught up in worrying about what people think, then I'm a dead man."

As to great art, he claims that at different stages of life one encounters the same piece endlessly and "we always see it from a different perspective.

"For example, when confronted by a great painting at 20, you see it very differently when you're 50. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to understand what the artist is really saying."

In 1998, Andrew was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver to create an anthem for a concert celebrating Israel's 50th birthday, to be sung by 350 singers and conducted by Sergiu Comissiona of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

In 2000, when The Wild Party opened, John Kander, the Jewish Broadway composer of Cabaret and Chicago, warned him: "You're going to write a masterpiece and maybe it's The Wild Party and maybe it's not - but people could very well pour scorn over it.

"And then you'll write something else and, although it's good, you know that it's not the best thing you've ever written -but that could be the one that makes your name and fortune.

"And from show to show you have no idea which the favoured one will be - so you just go on and write another one."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph