Songwriter John Bucchino to make Broadway debut

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 2, 2008

John Bucchino, the award-winning songwriter whose compositions have been recorded by the likes of Patti LuPone, Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel and many others, will make his Broadway debut as composer and lyricist for the Harvey Fierstein authored A Catered Affair later this month.

The Philadelphia-born Bucchino, who spent his teenage years in Palm Desert, Calif., and began his career in Los Angeles, spoke with this reporter over sushi and salad just before an orchestra rehearsal at the Walter Kerr Theater on West 48th Street.

He described himself as that "nerdy little kid that everybody picked on." Bucchino confessed his shyness, and he further added he feels he has to 'pretend' to be a big deal in order to give notes to a conductor and an orchestra.

Bucchino learned to play on his grandmother's piano at a year old. He learned music by ear, and added he still follows this technique. Bucchino notd he does not read or write music, and he acknowledged he is unsure whether he would be able to get as many songs out into the world if current technology didn't exist.

"I play the music note for note, rhythm for rhythm, exactly as I want it and email it to a guy in LA, who transfers it into the written product and then sends it back to me," he said. "Then we edit back and forth for dynamics and expression marks until it is done."

Bucchino also discussed how he relates to his music.

"I don't think about it, I feel it. I hope that enables me to connect to my emotions and that it elicits the listeners' emotions as well," he said.

Bucchino admitted his career has not gone at all like he had imagined it would in his early days, but he thinks of himself more as a piano-playing singer and songwriter in the tradition of Billy Joel and Elton John.

"I'm not a great singer, kind of a quirky singer," Bucchino said. "I don't have an extraordinary voice and because the songs I write are more complex than what was being played on the radio when I started and certainly more complex than what's being played on the radio now, nobody was interested."

He waited tables and played in piano bars in Los Angeles, but his first break came in 1984 when he began to accompany lesbian icon Holly Near. This association continued for 22 years until A Catered Affair came calling. Bucchino said their more than two decade association forced him to overcome his shyness because it allowed him to travel the country and gave him a sense of life on the road as a professional touring musician.

"She put me on the road and took out of my comfort zone," he said.

A phone call from Stephen Schwartz in 1989 provided an even bigger moment. A friend had given Schwartz Bucchino's number, and they met at lyricist Dean Pitchford's home in the Hollywood Hills. The three played songs for each other all afternoon, and Schwartz told Bucchino he should write for the theater.

"I didn't know much about his work at that point," Bucchino said. "But I figured if some big fancy theater guy wanted to call me about my work; that was pretty exciting."

"Harvey writes with an enormous amount of heart and our writing of this piece has been very heart-centered."

Schwartz continued to nudge him in that direction, and the two have remained friends since their initial meeting. Bucchino performed alongside singer Lois Sage at the old 88's cabaret space on West 10th Street. He often used this venue while Near was in New York.

Bucchino recalled the sparse reception he received during his first show.

"There were three people in the audience," he said. "I had no money and I was spending a lot of money and wondering what I was doing there."

Bucchino quickly joked, however, he soon found out why he was on stage. Stephen Sondheim, who had received a cassette with Bucchino's music at a Dramatists Guild event, called and requested a meeting.

"At that point I was thinking, OK, I can't get arrested in LA and two of the biggest musical theater geniuses are saying 'Write for the theater,'" he recalled.

Bucchino moved to New York in 1992, and has remained in the city ever sense. He defined success as "having a bedroom," even though he still lives in a studio. Bucchino also said his initially skeptical attitude about working in the theater industry has changed.

"I had some negative preconceptions about what musical theater was. I thought of it as somehow more presentational and kind of big and glitzy," he explained. "What I do is more inner and emotional."

Fierstein's busy schedule allowed Bucchino to have a lot of time to make the adjustment to writing for characters. He gave Bucchino the book, and they later met to discuss where each song should go.

"Our lists were virtually identical," Bucchino said. "It was a very good sign. Harvey writes with an enormous amount of heart and our writing of this piece has been very heart-centered," he said.

Bucchino has produced many cabaret shows, and has appeared at the LGBT Community Center in lower Manhattan. He is also one of three gay siblings: a lesbian sister and a brother who lost his battle to AIDS in 1992. Bucchino released a critically acclaimed piano-only CD of Richard Rodgers' compositions (recorded on Rodgers' own piano) in late 2003 that demonstrates his versatility as a pianist and musician, in addition to being a songwriter.

Bucchino joked after 22 years working for Near, he's thrilled his Broadway debut will afford a (much) more active social life and gay men may notice him through his own press.

He stressed he is not sure what lays ahead, but Bucchino said he fantasizes about Barbra Streisand recording one of his songs.

"So Jason, if you're reading this, tell your mother..." he said.

A Catered Affair opens at the Walter Kerr Theater on 219 W. 48th St. on April 17.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).