Interview with Lewis Flinn ’89
Lewis Flinn ’89 is the composer and lyricist of the Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones. Flinn has composed scores and songs for over 50 Broadway, OffBroadway, and regional productions including TONY nominated The Little Dog Laughed, Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die, The Divine Sister, The Tribute Artist (Drama Desk Nom for Best Music) and The Third Story. He has been a guest artist at Cornell, Dartmouth, The Boston Conservatory, The Royal Academy London and The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He composed the themes and music for the TV shows Power of 10 and Million Dollar Password as well as scores for dozens of national commercials. Stay up-to-date with Lewis at www.lewisflinn.com.
Lewis, thanks for joining us at The Vine. When did you start composing, and how did that process evolve?
I started composing when I was 5 or 6. I was taking piano lessons, and I didn’t like the pieces my teacher was giving me so I made up my own. I studied piano classically all through high school, but shifted to composition when I realized I wasn’t going to cut it as a professional classical pianist. I was a music major at Princeton, and [was] writing more [traditional pieces] as required by the department. I was also involved in Triangle Club and Tigertones, so my musical vocabulary expanded. I wrote an opera for my thesis, which leaned more toward musical theater – the music department didn’t really know what to make of tonal music. After graduating, I realized I needed to make money so I started writing music for commercials in NYC, started a band and became involved in the theater world. Those paths eventually led to writing themes for national TV shows and musicals on Broadway.
Describe a turning point in your development as an artist.
My first Broadway show was “Dreamgirls” and I had never seen a live audience react so enthusiastically. People were giving standing ovations in the middle of songs – that didn’t happen in the classical world. It made me realize that a composer needs to consider his/her audience, especially if the composer wants to earn a living outside of an academic environment. There must be a balance between art and entertainment.
How has the pandemic impacted your life and work, and what do you foresee for the future of theater?
Like all of us, I am pivoting, pausing, and adapting as best I can. Right now, everything is stalled. My newest musical was scheduled to open out of town in March 2020 and move to Broadway fall 2020. We are now scheduled to open out of town in March 2021, but I’m not holding my breath. My family moved out to our farm in rural Pennsylvania during lockdown, so I am currently focused on renovating a barn and raising ducks and trying to stay positive. I would predict that a few Broadway shows will open sometime in 2021, but until there are tourists coming to NYC, it will not be sustainable. . . Off-Broadway, which relies on a local audience, may bounce back sooner.
What’s your view on the political/social/creative roles of composers today and how do you incorporate those into your work?
I think every piece of theater is political- from the Greeks to today. In commercial theater, the trick is not to preach to the audience, but craft the entertainment so that it causes an audience member to re”ect or consider things a bit differently without feeling that the author is wagging a !nger at them. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
What’s your advice for an undergraduate student who hopes to make a career in composition and theatre? What advice, speci!cally, would you give to your younger self?
I would tell any student to discover their authentic voice/style and stick to it. Don’t replicate what other artists are doing just because it is popular. Go to a graduate program (I didn’t) as you will meet people that can help you. Get a website, but make sure anything you put on it is well produced, with real instruments and good singers. People (producers, directors, audiences, etc) won’t see past bad production. You can’t say “imagine if it had real drums” or “imagine it with a really great singer”. Try to get a mentor or assist someone and realize a career in the arts is a marathon, not a sprint. Figure out how to enjoy the journey (on a budget).
During your time at Princeton, how did the Ivy Club factor into your social and creative life?
Ivy was certainly the center of my social life. My good friend, Mike McCoy (the piano in the entry hall is dedicated to him) would hold court around the piano late nights – everybody singing along (the crew team was known to have some outstanding voices). I miss that energy.
As 2020 comes to a close, what do you hope we collectively take away from the year, and what do you hope we leave behind?
I hope we leave behind the virus, zoom readings of plays, and take away an awareness that live entertainment- concerts, theater, opera, sports- is worth it and better than binge watching Net”ix.