Michael Cooper: Musical Theatre Songwriter

In this feature article, Art Motif Magazine is honored to showcase Nogales, AZ native and musical theatre writer and producer Michael Cooper.

With songs featured both on and Off-Broadway, Michael Cooper is a Jonathan Larson Award winning, Outer Critics Circle/MAC Award nominated songwriter based in New York City.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Williams College in Massachusetts and a Master of Fine Arts from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In this interview, Michael candidly shares with us some of the high and low notes that have underscored his lyrical and breathtaking artistic journey, from masterfully executing original student musical productions in the James K. Clark Performing Arts Auditorium at Nogales High School, all the way to hearing his work fill that magical space inside the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway.

Second To Nun is an inspiring story of inclusion, love and living life without walls. It is based on the heroic, adventurous life of fearless pioneer and Canada’s first female saint Marguerite Bourgeoys. Through soaring song and monologue, this one woman musical recounts Marguerite’s death-defying journey to bring liberated women to the New World and help build the city of Montreal. The show, starring Molly Pope, has inspired audiences for six weeks this summer (July through August 2017) with opening night coinciding with Canada’s 150th Anniversary. Second To Nun received rave reviews and played to standing ovations during its premiere at The Zeiders Amercian Dream Theater in Virgina Beach.
What is essential to your work as an artist? I definitely need a piano, my computer, my iPhone and a quiet place to create. When I was younger, my equipment and supplies included an electronic keyboard, a pencil and paper but now I’ve really embraced technology in my creative process. I use my iPhone to capture and record musical motifs and sample snippets of melodies and lyrics. I’m constantly updating my “Notes” and texting or e-mailing them off to my collaborators. And I absolutely need the quiet space to tune in and channel the work. Lin-Manuel Miranda once shared this famous Leonard Cohen saying with my class, “Being a songwriter is like being a nun: You’re married to a mystery.”  That “mystery” is essential to the process.

What works, events or moments in your life have influenced your art? I think major turning points in my life have always been the deepest, richest well from which I draw my inspiration – transitioning from childhood to adulthood, the beginning and ending of romantic relationships, those melancholy shadows around the edges of my experiences – that’s where I tend to mine the most theatrical material. I find that I’m also inspired by historical characters and distant places and cultures. I like to escape into somebody else’s imagination for a while.  I distinctly remember seeing the Broadway musical Cats as a child and being so dazzled by the synergy of sound, light and movement. I guess, in some weird way, I’m always trying to recreate that euphoric feeling of being a wide-eyed kid watching Cats. But making art definitely becomes more challenging as you learn more about yourself, the world and your own limitations. You begin to question the “art” you are making and how it rubs up against commerce and criticism and competition. For many years, I really struggled to find my own artistic voice until I realized that I just had to get out of my own way and commit. Every project is a new blank slate. It never gets any easier.

JE SUIS CANADIENNE from SECOND TO NUN (Music by Michael Cooper, LYRICS BY ANTON DUDLEY)

How do your background, cultural roots, and/or sense of identity manifest in your art? I’ve always felt like an outsider. Growing up in Southern Arizona on the border with Mexico, I was a minority within a minority. I never really identified with one particular culture or another – I had a foot planted firmly in two very different worlds. After leaving Nogales, I went from being a big artistic fish in a small artistic pond to a tiny artistic fish in the biggest artistic pond on earth: New York City. In NYC, everyone hails from somewhere else and has a story to tell. I had to forge my own community of misfits and weirdoes, poets and songwriters – artists who wanted to create the same kind of unique, musical theatre work that I was doing. I only return to Nogales every couple of years, usually for sad occasions like funerals, but it always feels like coming home for me. And I try to infuse that feeling of home – so distinct and specific and unusual – into everything I create. I can’t help but manifest a cross-cultural sensibility into every project I collaborate on, which is why I love working with many different types of writers. There are so many stories to explore.

How has your artistic practice changed over time? I’ve always been a slow and steady writer – working for years on a specific project and pouring my heart and soul into it. I think over time I’ve gotten better at multitasking and throwing a lot more spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.

BY THE RIVERS EDGE  from LOVE, ALWAYS (Music by Michael Cooper)

Are there any themes you gravitate towards more in your works? For some reason I am especially drawn to themes of adventure and journeying. Almost all of my work involves some kind of a major quest or cross-cultural (or spiritual) transformation. Even if it’s a very intimate story, the stakes have to be incredibly high.

Do you have a preferred genre/style/medium? Theater and film have always been my preferred mediums. I love the risks you can take in musical theater – that moment when characters have to break into song, the kind of montages and dramatic sequences you can create in a musical that just cannot exist in any other art form. Film is wonderful, too, because you can truly capture a moment and then exploit it indefinitely across many different platforms. Theater is so ephemeral, it evaporates as soon as it happens, living on only in the memories of those who were actually present to see it. There’s something beautiful and frustrating about it. Maybe that’s what keeps me coming back.

SOMEWHERE from LOVE, ALWAYS (Music by Michael Cooper)

What is your creative process? What does a typical day of creative expression look like for you? I spend a lot of time procrastinating and weeping (I’m only sorta kidding). I’ll end up doing five loads of laundry, cleaning the house, walking the dogs and then updating my Facebook status a few times – there’s a lot of “avoiding” – before I finally settle in and do the actual work. Once I’m in the groove of it, however, I become possessed. The hours fly by. This creative energy tends to come in fits and starts so there will be long spells of intense writing and then days where I’m totally burned out and not able to write anything at all. Of course, a deadline (or a commission!) always helps because I know I simply have to deliver. On my best days, I get up early, make coffee and I’m disciplined enough to sit and work for a few hours. On my worst days, I’ll end up with a sparkling clean house, folded clean clothes, and a blank screen in front of me with only that damned cursor blinking, blinking, blinking and accusing: “You didn’t write a single song today!”

Different people perceive and respond differently to art. Do you recall any memorable responses by others to your works? I remember working on a musical in high school about the conquest of Mexico. I was incredibly proud of how dark and serious the production felt. An audience member and her husband came up to me after the show to congratulate me and the husband said, “It was so cute. Really charming!” Well, fuck. I’ll never forget that because it was exactly the opposite of what I hoped the audience’s experience of my music would be. Years later, after one of the performances of my newest musical Second To Nun (based on the life of French Canadian Saint and pioneer woman Marguerite Bourgeoys), I received a letter from an audience member, a nun from the congregation that Marguerite herself founded, that said, “Thank you for making the hidden known.” I truly felt, in that moment, that my collaborator and I had achieved what we set out to do:  to shine a light on a lost history, to tell the story of a remarkable woman; to make her heart be known, and make it beat again, in music and lyrics.

NYTB: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST from TIMELINES (Music by Michael Cooper)

What piece of advice would you give other aspiring artists? “All you need is one person to tell you you can do something – if they’re qualified. One talented, credited person to tell you, ‘You’re right, you can do this, do it.’ Because there are a thousand people who tell you you can’t. You’ve got to disregard that thousand.”  ~ Hal Prince, Broadway Legend

Your favorite writers and/or poets? Gustave Flaubert, Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, Stephen King, Tennessee Williams, Pearl S. Buck.

Your favorite painters? Caravaggio, Picasso, Manet, Caillebotte, Seurat.

Your favorite composers? Ryan Tedder, Arvo Part, Max Martin, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Rodney Jerkins, Stephen Schwartz, Sia.

SUNFISH Sizzle Reel [Produced and Co-Written (book & lyrics) by Michael Cooper]

Your favorite heroes/heroines in real life? My grandmother, my mother and my father – three of the most generous, supportive and heroic people I’ve ever met.  I’m also truly inspired by the life and teachings of Marguerite Bourgeoys, the subject of my newest musical. She overcame incredible obstacles to forge a life in the new world, to liberate women and live a life without any walls around her heart. As an artist, this resonates for me.

Your favorite heroes/heroines in fiction? Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary and Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (true, this one is a memoir and not fiction, but I’m still including it here).

Your favorite motto? “Get out of your own way.”

Your idea of happiness? Sipping a cucumber martini, surrounded by my best friends, my family and my dogs (chihuahuas and dalmatians) on a beach in Maui. Also, revisiting a show I’ve written, but a little later on in its run – once the piece has lived and breathed on its own and without my direct involvement for a while. Happiness is sneaking in, unannounced, and bearing witness to those new colors the actors have discovered since we last rehearsed together, their ownership of the art.  I love experiencing the audience experiencing it for the very first time.

To learn more about Michael’s work, click on the following links:

 

Shows (Twitter Handles)

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