BEFORE BILLY RECCE graduated college, he had already opened his first off-Broadway musical. Recce wrote the score to A Musical About Star Wars, which opened in March 2019 at Theatre Row on 42nd Street. His already impressive career includes winning the 2014 Thespian Musicalworks competition with his show Balloon Boy and being the youngest composer, at 17, accepted into the New York Musical Theatre Festival Developmental Reading Series (NYMF) in 2015.

Recce’s interest in writing musicals started when he was around 7 or 8 years old, acting in community theatre productions in his hometown of Long Island. “My favorite day for rehearsals was always the first day where you would get hardbound copies of the script,” he said. “Seeing this physical manifestation of the work we were going to do and being able to expand my imagination based on the script we were just handed, that was when I started writing musicals.”

He would write furiously, four or five musicals a year. Although he says no one will ever see those early works, they prepared him to write and compose the show that kickstarted his career, Balloon Boy. In seventh grade, he wrote the first draft, loosely based on a true story from 2009 when a man claimed his son was stuck in a weather balloon. That early draft was produced by a children’s theatre when Recce was in eighth grade, and it was called Balloon Boy the Kazoozical because it was performed on kazoos and slide whistles. Though that was the first time he saw his work staged, he says the International Thespian Festival was the first time he saw a staged reading that envisioned his work as he pictured it.

Thespian alum Billy Recce began writing musicals while still in elementary school.

Thespian alum Billy Recce began writing musicals while still in elementary school. Photo by Gabriella Spiegel.

Recce applied for Thespian Musicalworks his junior year of high school at the encouragement of his Hauppauge High School drama teacher, Ruthie Pincus, director of Thespian Troupe 7097. “They’re so good to young writers, and you don’t see that a lot. You don’t see a program that supports high school-aged writers of musicals,” Recce said. “It’s such a weird, niche thing that I guess it’s sort of hard to support, but when you see [a program] that does so lovingly and openly, it was the coolest experience.”

A highlight of that experience for Recce was sitting down with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Tony-winning songwriting team behind many movies and musicals, including Hairspray. “They were my heroes growing up. I got to play half the score for them, and they gave me notes,” Recce said, recalling that Shaiman even sat down at the piano and tinkered with parts of the score, resulting in some collaborative changes.

Winning Thespian Musicalworks showed Recce that his voice mattered and his desire to write musicals wasn’t a pipe dream but a possibility, even though it would take a lot of hard work. In addition, he learned the importance of collaboration in the fast-paced process of creating theatre. “Things had to be cut, keys changed, lines changed. I think that was a really beautiful aspect of Thespian Musicalworks,” he said. “It was about the sense of community and finding your tribe and finding a familial aspect to the work you were doing where everybody’s voice is heard and everybody carries their weight.”

Thespian Troupe 5989 of Monarch High School in Colorado also was represented at the 2014 ITF, and because that school was so close geographically to where the original story took place, they asked to premiere the musical during Recce’s senior year. “They flew me out, and I felt as much like a rock star as a gay kid who writes musicals in Long Island can feel,” Recce said.

From there, he applied to NYMF and got in as a high school senior. The festival (which ceased operations in January 2020 after 15 years) was another learning experience, as participants must do everything themselves, from fundraising to marketing. “It was something I wouldn’t wish on most 17-year-olds, but it definitely showed me that this is how you produce a show, this is how you build something from the ground up, this is how you make people notice, and this is how you tell a story you’re passionate about — by just taking the reins, getting many smart, talented people in the room with you, and making it happen. Nobody else is going to do it for you,” he said.

His involvement in his next big show, A Musical About Star Wars, can also be traced to his high school theatre teacher. Pincus founded an annual workshop, Stage the Change, to encourage students to create theatre with a social voice, and Recce continues to participate. It was at that workshop he met Tom D’Angora, one of the show’s creators.

Billy Recce tinkers with songs from his Thespian Musicalworks score of Balloon Boy under the tutelage of Tony-winning songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman at the 2014 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Recce grew up in what he calls a Star Wars household and wrote his college essay on being taken out of school to see Revenge of the Sith. This project was a natural intersection of his love for the famous George Lucas film franchise and musical theatre. He specced some songs and was hired for the composing job.

“I really appreciate Tom taking such a big risk on somebody young. It’s hard for young writers, especially in theatre. I think people are afraid of young people telling stories,” Recce said. “So, it really was a great honor to go into the industry so quickly and headfirst.”

The musical is not a straightforward parody of the Star Wars films. It’s about two Star Wars fanatics who want to write a Star Wars musical and perform it at Comic-Con, but due to a restraining order, they have to perform it off-Broadway instead. They hire a woman to play the female roles, but she has a hidden agenda. “I’m really proud of the show. It’s silly and it’s ridiculous, but I do think it’s trying to say something about fandom and how best we can funnel the things we love into productive discourse,” Recce said.

After opening, the show transferred to St. Luke’s Theatre, a larger venue, in July 2019, where it was still playing until the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020. Recce believes it will come back when theatres are safe to reopen. Because there are constantly updates to the Star Wars universe — the movie The Rise of Skywalker and the TV show The Mandalorian both were released after the show’s original opening — Recce continues to make updates.

A staged reading of Billy Recce’s 2014 Thespian Musicalworks script, Balloon Boy. Photo by John Nollendorfs.

When Recce writes, he always starts with an outline, even if it’s not one he wrote, as was the case for Star Wars. “I definitely need to see the visual map of the story I’m going to tell laid out for me,” he said. He writes both music and lyrics but doesn’t necessarily write one before the other because they’re ingrained together. He usually writes the hook first, which is his way into a song. “From there, it’s about writing that three-act play. How does the song end, what is the middle of the song, how does the song start? Every song is a mini-play in itself. It has to be treated that way. I believe every character has to leave the song from a different place than they started,” he said.

Thespian Musicalworks taught Recce lessons about the writing process that stayed with him, such as how best to pace a story and how to make a joke land. Since he started so young without formal training, he mostly learned by listening to musical theatre composers who valued a classical sense of songwriting. If you listen to his music, you might notice that his lyrics rhyme, which is not always the case with younger writers.

“With theatre, you have to make sure those words are hitting from the moment the audience hears them,” Recce explained. Rhymes help by confirming to the brain that what you think you heard is what you heard.

Recce also cut his teeth on the New York City cabaret scene. “I love cabaret specifically because it’s so intimate. The audience is right there, and especially with a place like 54 Below, you’re always competing with the risotto balls in the front row, so it forces you to put on the best or at least the most abrasive, loudest, and most exciting version of your work. It is sort of a competition for people’s attention, no matter how intimate the space,” Recce said. “Once a song really kills in a cabaret venue, that’s how you know it’s a winner.”

Recce advises young writers to play in small, intimate spaces, “even if it is that grimy piano bar where there’s two people in the audience.” The most important thing, he says, is just to do it. Write for yourself and write what you love. “Meet as many people as possible. Say yes to as much as you can. It’s a few sleepless nights now. Staying up all night to work on a draft of something is going to be worth it in the long run. And learn from the masters. Steal from the masters,” he said. “I think good songwriting and good theatremaking are experiential and based on going out and doing and seeing and getting your friends together and having them sing your stuff.”

At the time of this interview, getting together with people to perform was impossible. It’s a scary and uncertain time for artists, but they are adapting by making digital content. Recce is excited people are trying new types of projects. “Theatre has survived centuries upon millennia, and it’s not going to go anywhere because of this,” he said. “It’s up to us to continue to invent, to create ways to be creative, and to get our stories out there … even if it is four Evan Hansens playing Jackbox video games.”

Check out Recce’s work on Spotify and iTunes, including the cast recording of A Musical About Star Wars and Recce’s solo album, The Perks of Being a Snowflake, released in 2018.

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