Irish composer Lauryn Gaffney’s musical Big Shot has its Off Broadway debut next week. Here, she shares her career learnings and new goals...
Tell us about your musical, Big Shot?
Big Shot tells the story of Jeremy Crocker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer. Jeremy’s ambition in life is to own the most successful law firm in the city, but soon finds himself distracted when he falls for Carrie, a struggling Irish artist. Carrie’s paintings are displayed on the walls of the coffee shop where Carrie works. Fate and a shared passion for art brings the two of them together, but when Crocker agrees to defend a white-collar gangster – Hank Midden – Jeremy has a tough decision to make. Not only is Midden guilty, but he is also engaged to Carrie. So basically, it’s a whirlwind of a love triangle! Like an Irish coffee with a New York blend!
I’ve been influenced by many different music genres, mainly pop, rock and musical theatre. The songs are what tie the show together. We have the most amazing band and cast who bring all the songs to life. Noelle Brennan is on piano (which is very special, as Noelle began the journey with me in DCU five years ago when I started writing it; we studied music together in St Pat’s), Darren Bell and Dylan Murphy are on guitars, Paul Flood is on bass, and Ben Cooper is on drums and arrangements.
We also have a phenomenal cast joining us. Some have performed on the West End (Amy Penston), some have just finished studying musical theatre in London, and one or two have been there from the beginning (Donal Brennan).
When you were writing and composing Big Shot, where did you go for inspiration, and what was your vision?
I never had an exact place to get inspiration – sometimes lyrics would just pop into my head and I’d quickly jot them down; it could be on a bus or walking down the street. But mainly, I write and rewrite behind the piano – that way, I can do music and lyrics together. I wrote a good initial bulk of it on my J-1 in Boston, as the frat house I lived in had a grand piano.
My first vision – before I had even finished the script – was to get the show on stage. DCU were so supportive, and they allowed me to use their space and stage to rehearse and perform the show. Then, when the show sold out and people actually enjoyed it, I knew I had to continue this after college. I love NYC so much; I always felt a pull to there. Broadway and Off Broadway has been the dream.
How did you feel when Broadway producer Ken Davenport invited you to bring Big Shot to New York as part of his Rave festival?
Absolutely thrilled! When he came to Ireland, we didn’t know this festival was happening, as it’s the first year of it. I remember he called me and his “waiting music” was music from his Broadway shows. I was so nervous and excited listening to them while waiting to talk to him!
Myself and Grainne MacNeill (producer of Big Shot) were just so happy. Then the reality of “how the heck do we make this happen?” kicked in.
The show has travelled far and wide at this stage (California, London, Mexico…) – what have you learned from the various audiences and how have you applied your learnings to the production you’re bringing to New York?
Every time you put on the show, you learn something. Kevin Patterson is the CEO of the San Diego Fringe Festival, and he was such an amazing person to meet and was so accommodating to us. We had an amazing theatre there, and the audiences loved the show. We even got asked to close the fringe ceremony with one of the songs from the show. Jake Curran was on guitar and I was asked to sing, and we ended up winning the Spirit of Fringe award.
Before the new production, I made some rewrites. I chopped some songs out, added new ones in, and was happier overall with the plot. London was totally different. It was challenging. There was a lot of technical issues. We got some great reviews on our music, but the show was asked to be shorter due to a time restrain, so the script suffered. However, I knew after that production what needed to change.
The last production in The Helix was our most polished. I was a lot happier with the songs and script. The show sold out and got outstanding reviews. We had a full set, thanks to Phoenix Performing Arts College, and no technical issues whatsoever. I have a lot of respect for that cast and crew because I was still rewriting a few days before the show. When you’re in rehearsals, you can clearly see what needs to be changed. Thankfully, they never had any hassle and were always open to new songs and dialogue.
The NYC version is even more polished. In short, I learned a lot from doing the show in different venues, and I’m very excited for the New York audience to see what we have done.
The show at Feinstein’s/54 Below – what will audiences be treated to and how excited are you to hear your music performed in this venue?
I am beyond excited to perform in 54 Below – it’s the dream venue for any Broadway artist.
I have done a tester concert in Ireland in Bewley’s and Whelan’s, and they were magical. The audience will hear some songs from Big Shot as well as my new songs. Some are pop songs and others are modern musical theatre. We have some phenomenal singers joining us. This will be the first time my music will be played in New York City.
Your dream of becoming the first female Irish composer-lyricist to have her work performed on Broadway feels one giant step closer – what’s next for you goal-wise?
Gah, that is scary! I’ve never had that said to me before. Honestly, I just love writing songs. Writing catchy hooks that get stuck in people’s heads is my favourite thing to do. I would love to write songs for Broadway and pop songs for great artists. So I guess my goal is to be writing full time. I love collaborating; I think it’s the key to art, so I’d love to collaborate with other artists. But if I was to mention the big, giant dream, it would be to be at the Tonys as part of a show.
Can you tell us a little about other projects you’re currently working on, and what we can look forward to seeing from you in the coming months?
I’ve been writing a lot of music. I’m currently working with a number of artists. I’ve been asked to release an album of my pop songs, which could be in the pipeline. There are also talks of a Big Shot album and a tour. I’m currently writing songs with Sophie Doyle Ryder, who’s been flying back and forth to London with many offers. She’ll be one focus when we come back from NYC.
What age were you when you first began to dream of becoming a composer and what led to that ambition?
I have been writing songs from a young age. I’d just think of a hook in my head and sing it again and again, then my family and friends would then get it stuck in their heads and sing it back. Some of my earlier songs were terrible – my sister constantly reminds me of this one song I wrote when I was around 13; she haunts me singing it around the place, but hey, even if it’s not a “great” song, it’s still stuck in her head all these years!
When I was a kid, I used to gather all my friends on the road and we’d put together a summer show. All summer long we would practise dancing and singing. We took it very seriously; we used to have an “end of summer” show for all our parents out the back garden. So I guess I’ve always produced shows. My younger self would never believe that eventually one I created would be Off Broadway.
Is there a mentor or an early experience that has stuck with you and had a big influence on your career?
A mentor I have to mention is my old vocal coach, Maureen V Ward. I remember being at my first lesson in the RIAM, and in that first lesson, she inspired me to be a vocal trainer. When I was 19, I got my first student, and I have too many amazing students to count now! She was one of the first individuals I showed my original Big Shot songs to. She encouraged me to pursue my dream of being a composer. She made me believe anything was possible.
Two other people are two close friends: Jake Curran – he was the first guitarist and arranger for Big Shot. He is now Niall Horan’s guitarist! He’s so hardworking and positive. He always encouraged me to write and has pushed me to do Big Shot. Grainne MacNeill is a friend who came to one of Big Shot’s early productions; she texted me after the show saying, “Big Shot will take over the world!” Without her passion and drive, Big Shot would not be where it is today. I am so lucky and grateful to have Jake and Grainne as close friends. They’re instrumental to the show.
What have been the biggest highlights of your career so far?
San Diego was magical; London was a lifelong lesson; Irish productions were stressful, but very fun. A Broadway producer flying to Ireland to see my show and chat about it was crazy. The biggest highlight of all, though, has been the people I have met and friends I have made with Big Shot. We have made a crazy, fun, talented Big Shot family from all walks of life.
What have been the greatest challenges?
There have been a lot of challenges over the years. Saying no to people who you would love to be a part of it but aren’t right for the roles. Receiving hundreds of “Nos” from arts grants, companies and people, but you get used to that. Trying to get money and spending all of your money on the show. (People tend to think you’re mad to do that.) Trying to organise everyone to be in a certain place at once. Getting a cast, lights, sound, set, poster and trying to get people to come and see the show just to break even. We’ve been very lucky with our recent shows, as they have all sold out.
What would surprise people most about your job?
That’s it’s not all sitting on the piano and jotting down music. It’s meeting and managing people and learning every aspect of the theatre from knowing where someone should stand on stage to understanding when piano would sound better than guitar in a scene, and how to do a mic and lighting plot. Also, trying to keep a cast, band and team happy. There are many personalities in theatre.
Is there another artist/creative you’d really love to work with?
So many! I think Julia Micheals is a pop queen – I would love to collaborate with her and write a catchy tune for an artist. Declan O’Rourke is, in my opinion, one of the best Irish composers of all time. Obviously, I love Lady Gaga, Adele and Sara Bareilles (she has recently smashed it with Waitress the musical – such an inspiration). Musical-wise, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen, Avenue Q), Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), and Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde: The Musical).
What advice would you give to young people considering musical theatre as a career path?
It’s not all plain sailing; there will be many sleepless nights, but there is nothing in the world like live theatre. Surround yourself with the right people because no one is able to achieve anything in this world on their own! Trust me – I wouldn’t be doing this without my fantastic team!
Lauryn Gaffney will bring her songs from Big Shot to Feinstein’s/54 Below on August 7, and Big Shot the musical will run Off Broadway as part of Ken Davenport’s RAVE festival August 9-14. @BigShotMusical @LaursyG