In the Spotlight: Penning Lyrics That Dance Across the Stage
When you live and work in the Big Apple you are bound to get caught in the hustle and bustle of the city. Take it from Michael Cooper, the Jonathan Larson Award-winning Broadway songwriter. He knows first-hand what it means to enjoy the bright lights of New York. There is no place quite like it! Originally from the Mexican-American border of Nogales, Arizona, Michael found his way North and has seen incredible success as a composer, producer, lyricist, and librettist. While he has collaborated with countless people to whom he can give appreciation for his success, Michael’s personal talents as an artist have given him the chance to see his work literally dance and sing across international stages. Michael and his partner live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with their two chihuahuas, a Dalmatian, seven fish, and a shrimp. What better way to enjoy life than to write your own lyrics and sing them as you please?
Rachel: Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
Michael: I’m a writer who tells stories through music and lyrics. I first moved to New York City just before 9/11 to attend the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and I have been working in the theater in a variety of different roles ever since. My Broadway debut was in 2015 where I contributed lyrics to the opening number of the musical, “It Shoulda Been You”. Since then I have had my work performed nationally and internationally on stages in London, Paris, and South Korea.
Rachel: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your songwriting career?
Michael: A few years ago, I was selected to participate in the Johnny Mercer Songwriting Project (a workshop on the campus of Northwestern University, sponsored by ASCAP). Composers and lyricists from all around the country come together for a week-long writing intensive, led by songwriters such as Lin Manuel Miranda and Craig Carnelia. I remember one class where everyone had to go around the circle and present a new song from a project they currently had in development. Lin Manuel said he was working on a new show about Alexander Hamilton, and then proceeded to perform the entire jaw-dropping opening number of what would eventually become his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning blockbuster, “Hamilton.” When he was finished, there was a palpable, reverential silence. It was one of the most awesome and humbling moments — to be that close to an artist firing on all cylinders, at the very height of his creative talents. Lin plugs in and channels something bigger — and it was unforgettable and inspiring to bear witness to that process.
Rachel: What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Michael: I’ve written a new musical, “Second To Nun,” with my collaborator, the playwright and lyricist Anton Dudley. “Second To Nun” is based on the heroic, adventurous life of fearless pioneer and Canada’s first female saint, Marguerite Bourgeoys. The show is an immersive, one-woman musical told in song and monologue, recounting Marguerite’s death-defying journey to bring women to the New World and help build the city of Montreal. It’s the piece I’m most proud of as a composer, and we’re working on producing it in Montreal, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Marguerite in 2020. I’ve been commissioned to compose a new project, based on the life of Edgar Cayce, the famous psychic and healer, widely regarded as the father of holistic medicine. I had the opportunity to visit Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment Center while working in Virginia Beach last year and was captivated by the power of his story and the many lives he touched and continues to touch.
Rachel: Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Michael: For my survival job, I’ve worked as a personal assistant. One of my favorite experiences was visiting the great Joan Rivers’ lavish Upper East Side apartment for a reading of a new play. Joan’s apartment was literally like the Palace of Versailles! I will never forget stepping out of the elevator and into her opulent foyer, thinking, “I cannot believe I’m here!”
Rachel: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Study music theory and don’t seduce your piano teacher! I became a musician almost entirely by ear and would constantly sweet talk my piano teacher into foregoing the “theory” part and just letting me write whatever I wanted. Years later, I regret not having been more disciplined, because there is a whole set of musical skills I had to learn after the fact.
2. You cannot please everyone! I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to appease my teachers, my family, my collaborators — those judgmental voices inside my head. It’s easy to deplete your creative energy sources when you’re giving so much of yourself away, in the service of others. I’ve learned that if you invest even half the energy you’ve been giving away on yourself — put it into your own work — you’ll be more efficacious and confident, and ultimately that leads to stronger boundaries and more successful collaborations.
3. Don’t get in your own way! This, of course, is easier said than done — but by practicing mindfulness, recognizing patterns of behavior that are no longer serving you, and actively becoming a non-judgmental observer in your own life, you can slowly overcome creative paralysis and anxiety. If this sounds like I’m regurgitating something I recently learned in therapy you’d be 100% correct! I have to regularly work at getting out of my own head and out of my own way. It’s not easy.
4. Trust your taste! It’s so easy to become intimidated by others who have more success, more money, more awards than you, but always try to plug back into that authentic “thing” that makes you “you”. Your artistic voice is unique. It may not appeal to everyone. I’ve learned to trust that if I feel something is meaningful and worth writing about, it probably is.
5. There is always going to be someone younger who is more hungry than you are! Support them, champion them, teach them, learn from them.
Rachel: Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Michael: “Sometimes you have to say no to what you don’t want in order to manifest what you DO want.” — Asa Hoffman
For many years, I was worried about missing an exciting opportunity or else disappointing others, so I blindly said “yes” to things I didn’t really want to do. Saying “no” can be incredibly powerful; it creates a space in your life to call in those things that you actually want.
Rachel: Who do you consider to be your role model for the way in which you have molded your career? What can you share about that person?
Michael: I admire the versatility of lyricists like Glenn Slater and David Zippel, who are master chameleons when it comes to storytelling and writing with multiple partners. I also look up to the team of Ahrens and Flaherty, who have a classic, timeless quality to their work. Their songs have always been a stylistic touchtone for me, in terms of craft and dramatic/emotional accessibility. Of course, there are the titans: Sondheim, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lloyd Webber who remain role models for every musical theatre writer.
Rachel: When you have the time, what do you binge watch?
Michael: I am obsessed with The OA on Netflix and I always make the time for RuPaul’s Drag Race. I think RuPaul Charles is my spiritual guru! She brings so much joy and creativity to the world and has truly transformed the cultural landscape.
Rachel: Where have you travelled that has given you inspiration personally or professionally?
Michael: This summer I journeyed to Peru to visit Machu Picchu. It was the trip of a lifetime, one of the most sacred experiences ever. The people of Peru were so warm and welcoming, and I found great inspiration in their history, architecture, arts, and culture. Strolling along the cobblestone streets of Cusco, or hiking to the very top of an ancient temple to take in the view of mountains and glaciers, or exploring the Sacred Valley, or meeting with a Shaman is like nothing else in the world. I returned from South America refreshed and with a newfound sense of purpose and drive to create. It was my creative re-charge.
Rachel: What would you say we need to know as a society to “move forward”?
Michael: I think we need to delve ever deeper into our relationship with kindness and compassion. My Dad has this saying that if we just focus on taking care of our children, teaching them to be kind to themselves and to each other, they will pass on that energy. It’s a simple, almost idealistic idea, but one that shines like a beacon of light during these dark times.
Rachel: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Michael: My dearest friend, collaborator, and manager/publicist Roberta Greene has been both a mentor and catalyst in my life. From her, I’ve learned to pay attention to the very smallest of details, to agonize over a specific word or phrase in order to make sure the message is clear, to always respond to e-mails right away and be completely straightforward and no-nonsense in a business that often extremely unpredictable and convoluted. Roberta lives and breathes pop culture and politics and has kept her finger on the beating pulse of everything over a many-decades long career.