Broadway Bound 

A Nashville songwriter leaps to the stage

A Nashville songwriter leaps to the stage

The challenge of writing music,” says Mike Reid, “is to shorten the distance between what you can imagine and what you can actually do. Your best work comes from the imagination, from the heart.”

Success in the creative arts breeds that sort of introspection. And when persistence finally delivers recognition and success, the talent of a songwriter may be channeled in other directions. Some people aspire to be songwriters and nothing else. Others reach their aspirations and then wonder if there is more.

Songwriter/composer Mike Reid is one of those finding out about music beyond Music Row. His extended one-act musical, Different Fields, is being prepared for a February production on Broadway under the aegis of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. “I don’t think there’s enough time in a lifetime to understand the full range of musical expression,” he says. “There are literally a handful of music writers who understand the full range of that musical palette. I’ll never understand it.”

But he has made a grand attempt. As a songwriter, Reid has penned hits in the country, rock and pop vocal arenas. As a composer, Reid cowrote the musical A House Divided with Mac Pirkle for the Tennessee Repertory Theatre. He also created music for the Tennessee Dance Theatre’s original production Quilts. These days, Reid is able to pursue his creative interests over commercial concerns, and in the process he has helped blaze a trail between Broadway and the community of Nashville songwriters.

Compared to other successful songwriters, Mike Reid came late to the Nashville scene. After a standout career in professional football with the Cincinnati Bengals, including a 1971 Rookie of the Year award, Reid retired in 1975 with a lifetime ahead of him. A long interest in music led him to pursue songwriting. By 1983, he had not only had his songs recorded by the biggest names on Music Row, he had also picked up a Grammy for Ronnie Milsap’s recording of “Stranger in My House.”

Reid quickly joined the elite of the Nashville music community, but his songs were marked by their flight from formula. Lately, his work has been recorded by everyone from Collin Raye to Bette Midler. Bonnie Raitt has covered a pair of his tunes on her two “comeback” albums, and Wynonna’s latest single, “To Be Loved By You,” was cowritten by Reid with Gary Burr.

Reid remains a songwriter, but his success has allowed him freedom to explore. “I’ve always loved theater and the idea of songs living within a narrative,” he says. “A great piece of musical theater is my favorite kind of entertainment.” It is also among the most difficult and expensive sorts of entertainment to mount. Quilts and A House Divided, he explains, were more valuable as learning experiences than as financial or critical successes. Yet neither project called Reid to the attention of New York “operators” who could connect a Nashville “composer” to Broadway.

Despite discouragement, Reid continued to explore musical theater as a purely personal creative fascination. Early on, he faced the challenge of making the transition from songwriting to composing. Musical theater required him to acquire a technical command of musical language—and “not to be pretentious,” he adds, laughing.

Before he developed his interest in musical theater and opera, Reid had confined his writing to music he could sing and play himself. In writing music for the theater, however, he merely imagined music and then set the sounds to paper through his growing fluency with written music. Other players would bring it to life. Reid credits Memphis Opera Artistic Director Michael Ching with giving him insight.

“I learned more in six months from him.... He’s got little phrases that unlock doors for me. ‘Start writing your ear.’ That was exciting to hear.” Reid says that he had often wanted to “go beyond what I could play. I want to write what I hear, beyond what I can do.” Ching taught him that with sufficient mastery of written music, the ability to play becomes superfluous. Ultimately, the capacity to create music is only limited by the supply of ideas.

“Who knows if Puccini could sing?” Reid asks. “But he could imagine what a great tenor or soprano could do. You have to have command of the note on the page, then you hand it over to schooled musicians. I’m just not good enough to perform everything that I write or imagine.”

Reid finds musical theater and opera considerably different from radio songs. “In a larger form like a one-act [musical play], it is important that you write one hour and 15 minutes of music to take you on a journey through the narrative. It’s just not enough to string one song after another. That’s boring. What happens is you end up with the same musical moments one after another. You want to follow the story, and the music must drive the story.”

One of Reid’s biggest boosters is Lisa DuBois, a freelance writer who covers performing arts for the Nashville Banner. Though she drubbed the staging of Reid’s A House Divided in a review, she saw merit in the composition and in Reid, whose now pending arrival on Broadway has very nearly been a solo journey.

“He broke the four-minute mile,” DuBois says. “He was the first Nashville songwriter to come in totally ‘green’ and direct his skills toward musical theater. By doing that, other songwriters have realized that they too can do that if they choose.” In less than a couple of years, Reid learned the finer points of writing for musical theater, networked both the business and creative side of production, and ended up with a commission from the New York Metropolitan Opera.

“I predict that 50 years from now,” DuBois says, “scholars of the theater may look at the early 1990s and investigate the near extinction of American musical theater, and they may find that the reason that it didn’t become extinct was the interest of Nashville songwriters.”

Reid is characteristically modest but agrees that American musical theater is in a slump. However, he notes, “I would remind you that not too many years ago, a guy in The New York Times declared country music dead. Forms change. I believe in human beings walking on a stage and entertaining. I think these tough circumstances are what breed new things. I don’t necessarily think it’s dying, but a new birth is needed, and there are too many people that are working passionately at it to not believe somebody’s going to come up with something to slap us upside the head.

“[Broadway] was, and is, and always will be, storytelling. I don’t know a human being who won’t turn off the TV to sit and hear an interesting story. I think the public has been burned by a lot of lousy shows. If my work is lousy, then I don’t want it to have a life.” The job of a composer in musical theater, he submits, is to “find a story—find a tune. Musical theater is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and it’s deepening everything I think about musically. I accept the difficulties. The rest of my writing life, this is what I will do.”

Different Fields will debut on Broadway Feb. 7-18 at the New Victory Theater. It will then be performed April 25-28 in Memphis, and May 24-25 in Nashville.

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