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December 4, 2015


Have you heard “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Defying Gravity” and “The Impossible Dream” one time too many – or one hundred times too many?

Steven Gross knows the feeling. As a music director, conductor and pianist who’s been present at many an audition, he got mighty tired of hearing another young woman give him “Gimme, Gimme.”

Not that Steven Gross doesn’t love musical theater. He has ever since
he was six and his grandmother took him to see FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in the waning days of its original Broadway run.

When Gross speaks of it, however, he doesn’t mention which Tevye he saw or how Boris Aronson’s scenery was holding up. What he talks about is grandma’s bringing him down the aisle to see the orchestra pit “where,” he says, “I remember hearing a violinist play ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’”

And pop! went something in Steven’s head. When grandma took him to see LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR with Joan Sutherland, he came away talking about that man in front of the stage who stood there all night long waving his arms. (He was, in fact, no less than Erich Leinsdorf.)

Gross may well have inherited his love for music from his mother, who was a music teacher. “And my cousin is Jane Monheit,” he says with pride, citing the jazz and pop vocalist.

Whatever the case, he started piano at eight and was acting by junior high, playing Randolph in BYE BYE BIRDIE and even Jerry Cohan in GEORGE M! “In ninth grade,” he recalls, “the show was LI’L ABNER, and there wasn’t anything for me in it. So I decided to become the musical director.”

Gross later attended Northwestern as a piano major, wound up musical directing GYPSY at the Marriott Lincolnshire, and eventually received a Doctor of Musical Arts in Conducting from Yale. Now he’s had almost as many years on both Broadway and the West End in a variety of musical capacities as Putnam County has had spelling bees. (That is, not so incidentally, just one of the dozen or so musicals with which he’s been associated in a professional capacity.)

For one year, Gross taught at Baldwin-Wallace, one of the nation’s fastest-rising musical theater schools. That year changed his life – and one aspect of his career -- as much as that first look into an orchestra pit.

“Having had the privilege of teaching at the college level,” he says, “I was constantly being asked by students ‘What should I sing?’ Sitting in enough auditions for Broadway, the West End and regional theater and hearing the same songs over and over and OVER made me not want to give them the usual songs found in the usual anthologies.”

Yes, Gross’s hating to hear the same songs all the time – and never hearing “All the Time” from OH, CAPTAIN! – started him on a long quest that now benefits thousands of musical theater performers and teachers across the world.

“I probably had 400 scores digitally,” he says, “so I decided to go through and look at all the solos and make some notes about them.
My first attempt was literally just a Microsoft Word document of 80 pages. And after teaching out of that for three months or so, I realized that it was useless. I didn’t even put it on a spread sheet.”

He did talk about it, however, causing many to tell him “You should do something more with this!” A database soon followed, but nothing more, until (as happens so often) a chance meeting changed things.

“I’m an avid runner,” Gross says. “And one day, I just started talking to one of the guys I saw running in my neighborhood. When I asked what he did, he mentioned that he spent some of his time working with the ‘Jazz at Lincoln Center’ website.”

Well, Gross reasoned, if he were good enough for jazz, one distinctly American art form, he’d probably be good for another: musical theater. By the summer of 2014, Gross had, which he brought to the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. Since then, several colleges, universities, high schools and individuals have come on board.

Here’s how it works. You head to the site, and first are asked about the age for which you’re most appropriate. There are seven categories that range from “Under 13” to “60-plus.”

Next you tick which applies in “Voice Type,” be it “Soprano,” “Mezzo/Belt/Alto,” “Tenor” or “Baritone/Bass.”

Fine, but what about tempo? Here you have a choice of “Easy Ballad,” “Power Ballad,” “Medium/Moderate” and “Up-Tempo.” If those are too many choices, at least the type of lyric the song offers is limited to two: “Comedic” and “Dramatic.”

Want a song by a specific composer or lyricist? Yeah, Gross has that covered, too. Want one from a certain year or era? Ditto. Even such categories as “Time Signature,” “Level of Difficulty for Accompanist” and “Original Key” are on the docket, too.

The number of available songs has now reached 7,655 – “and counting,” Gross hastens to add. He’s very proud of the young woman who found and fell in love with “Like Love” from the 1965 British musical CHARLIE GIRL. “It has high-Fs, which showed off her voice nicely,” he says. “And she got three job offers from it.”

Off the top of his head, Gross opines that performers looking for good but underexposed material should take a look at THE GOOD COMPANIONS, a 1974 London musical that two giants of the music field -- composer Andre Previn and lyricist Johnny Mercer – wrote with Ronald (THE DRESSER) Harwood. “The summer between my freshman and sophomore year,” he recalls, “I worked at a Chicago theater on Lake Michigan. We did FORUM, COMPANY and MY FAIR LADY, and a woman who was playing Mrs. Higgins gave me the cast album and said, ‘Darling, I think you need to listen to this.’ She turned out to be right.”

Recent MusicalTheatreSongs’ customers include Western Wyoming Community College, which got its license for $250 because the number of students enrolled in the musical theater program is a mere eight. A professional individual can subscribe for $79 a year, but discounts are available for students and educators. E-mail with questions.

“Any university, college or high school with an interest in musicals will find the site worthwhile,” Gross insists. “Educators, this will save you boatloads of time. It’ll empower your students to go find repertoire they need to know.”

Gross pauses before adding his own agenda. “I would like more practitioners of the art and more audience members to be more in tune with what came before and influenced the future,” he says staunchly with his fist balled up. “The message of is to keep songs alive that are at risk of disappearing – or songs that have already disappeared.”

And isn’t that happening more and more in a world where we instead have songs with such names as “Defecate in My Face” and “Smell Yo Dick”?

         — Peter Filichia



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