THE OPENING SHOW of the 2019 International Thespian Festival closed with an inspiring message about chasing your dreams: “Draw Your Own Conclusion” from the musical The Man in the Ceiling, sung by a cast of Thespians from across the country. What made the performance more special is that the song’s lyrics were customized for Thespians by one of their own — Tony-nominated composer and alum Andrew Lippa.

Born in England, Lippa grew up outside Detroit, attending Oak Park High School and the University of Michigan, where he originally aspired to be a performer. He wrote his first musical in college, but his breakthrough came in 1995 as the composer for Off-Broadway’s john & jen. In 2000, Lippa’s adaptation of the 1920s poem The Wild Party earned him the Drama Desk Award for best music. Broadway hits followed with The Addams Family in 2010 and Big Fish in 2013.

Andrew Lippa

Andrew Lippa

The Man in the Ceiling, based on a young adult novel by Jules Feiffer, is Lippa’s latest musical theatre project, one he pursued for nearly 20 years before a premiere in 2017 at New York’s Bay Street Theater. A CD of the original cast recording featuring Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin was released this summer just prior to ITF, and Lippa has made his custom version of “Draw Your Own Conclusion” available royalty-free to any Thespian troupe.

Asked what draws him to new projects, Lippa said, “My heart needs to sing. I need to be emotionally attached to the characters and feel they have something to sing about. If so, I’m in.”

What sparked your interest in musical theatre?
I was 6 years old when my parents took me to see the West End production of Fiddler on the Roof in London. No doubt, I probably didn’t understand much of what was going on (and I spent the rest of my Jewish childhood thinking the songs in Fiddler were liturgical music), but I think it was that production that initially pulled me in. When I was in 10th grade, I was cast in the school musical — The Pajama Game — and that’s when I really got hooked and started buying cast recordings.

I loved being in The Pajama Game, but I also loved all the parts of making a show that weren’t only about performing: the design, the tone of the songs, the story and characters. I played El Gallo in The Fantasticks the following year (and was in love with my best friend, Adam, who played Matt — an unrequited love story for another magazine), quickly followed by Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was cast as the king of the fairies. Apt.

When did you discover your love for writing musicals?
My lifelong best friend Jeffrey Seller (co-producer of RentAvenue QHamilton, and The Wild Party) was also my college roommate at the University of Michigan. He suggested we write a musical together, though I’d not written a single song up to that point. We wrote a musical, and our teachers — specifically, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom and Brent Wagner, head of musical theatre at Michigan — gave me much praise and encouragement. “You’re good at this,” they said. “Keep going.” Well, that was enough encouragement for me. What I found as I kept writing was that it was the perfect way for me to combine my love of music and story with my passion for acting and performing, both singing and at the piano. All the things I like to do and do pretty well — acting, singing, conducting, playing piano, storytelling — these are all encompassed every time I write a musical.

The Addams Family repeatedly tops Dramatics’ annual survey of most produced high school shows. What are the challenges of working on a project with such iconic characters and the rewards of introducing them to new audiences through music?
I’m delighted beyond measure that The Addams Family is so popular with high school theatres, students, and teachers. It’s thrilling to me to know so many young people may be, like me with The Pajama Game, getting their first exposure to working on a musical with a show I wrote the score for. That’s wonderful.

The challenges of the show — and there were some — included what our audience’s expectations were for the characters. They (the audience) thought they knew them (the characters). This meant if we strayed too far in how the characters behaved or spoke, the audience was likely to rebel. That said, we had to figure out how and why the characters sang. They didn’t do that in the TV show or films in the way they do in the musical. It was a lot of trial and error — not unlike the early days at NASA — but that’s why you develop a musical over a long period. And one of our characters goes to the moon, too!

The Man in the Ceiling was a passion project for you. Why is the show’s song “Draw Your Own Conclusion” a perfect Thespian anthem?
The Man in the Ceiling is, in its way, about me: a boy who’s no good at sports, sees himself as a disappointment to his parents, prefers to be an artist at the expense of all else, and, ultimately, proves his worth to himself and his family.

“Draw Your Own Conclusion” strikes me as the perfect lesson for teenagers: Listen to your critics, then go and prove them wrong. Learn the rules. Then when the runway belongs to you, go break the ones that make sense to break. Recently, presidential candidate Kamala Harris spoke about her mother’s words to her, something like “Don’t let others tell you who you are. YOU tell others who you are.” This, to me, is the lesson of both the show and this song that was so beautifully performed at the International Thespian Festival this year.

You began your professional career as a middle school music teacher at New York City’s Columbia Grammar and Prep School. Why is arts education important to you?
Without Art — in its fullest, most uncensored, and full-blown expression — the world is simply work. We are not only meant to bale hay. We are meant to build hope. Music, poetry, dance, sculpture, painting, novels, plays, songs — these are the roadmaps for humanity, much more so than Wall Street and Windows. Money and science are important, yes, but point me to one single scientific idea that didn’t include at least one artistic building block. Our souls matter most. And Art is the greatest soul-expression tool we have.

Any young person who wants to pursue a career in the arts ought to be reminded how difficult it can be. The world is full of “no.” But if you can find your voice, and if you can doggedly pursue being the best at what you choose, you have as good a shot as anyone at making a career.

In the end, I’m not interested in career artists only. I’m interested in lifelong support of, interest in, and intelligent interfacing with Art. Note my capitalization. Art — like Romanticism, Renaissance, Christianity, God, Ford, Kleenex, Mom, and Dad — deserves to be capitalized.

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