David Shire, Award Winning Broadway and Motion Picture Composer-Episode #166

Jun 22, 2021 | 2 comments

“You have to listen to them. You have to swallow your ego a little bit sometimes a lot… They hired you because they thought you were the right one to paint their set or build their costume, musically speaking.”

– David Shire

The extraordinary composer, David Shire, is an Academy Award and two-time Grammy winner, and multiple Tony and Emmy nominee. David has composed prolifically for theatre, film, television and recordings.

On Broadway, he and a favorite StoryBeat guest, lyricist/director, Richard Maltby, wrote the scores for the musicals Baby, which received Tony nominations for Best Score and Musical, and Big, which was Tony nominated for Best Score.

His off-Broadway scores, also written with Richard Maltby, include Starting Here, Starting Now, Closer Than Ever, which won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and Score, Urban Blight, and The Sap of Life.

Other Maltby and Shire efforts include the musicals Waterfall, The Country Wife, and Take Flight, with book by John Weidman.

David is also collaborating with Richard Maltby and playwright Craig Lucas on a musical version of Madame Sousatzka. And he’s worked with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik on the musical, The Most Beautiful Room In New York.

David has scored many feature films, including Norma Rae, for which he won the Oscar for Best Song, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, All the President’s Men, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Farewell, My lovely, and Saturday Night Fever, which earned him two Grammys. Most recently he scored David Fincher’s Zodiac and Peter Hyams’ Beyond A Reasonable Doubt.

David’s numerous TV scores have garnered five Emmy nominations and include Sarah Plain and Tall, Rear Window, Raid on Entebbe, The Women of Brewster Place, The Kennedys of Massachusetts, The Heidi Chronicles, and Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women and Broadway Bound.

He also composed the theme song for the long-running Linda Lavin NBC series Alice, with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman. David and his wife, actress Didi Conn, have completed the pilot for Didi Lightful, a new animated musical television series that they co-created and co-produced.

David’s songs, with various lyricists have been recorded by such singing luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Maureen McGovern, Melissa Manchester, Jennifer Warnes, Julie Andrews, Glenn Campbell, Johnny Mathis, Kiri Te Kanawa, Kathy Lee Gifford, Robert Goulet and Michael Crawford, among many others.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat.

David Shire: If you’re deciding to go musical theater, you should do anything in order to be able to see your work perform. It’s been for many years, two wonderful workshops. One created by ASCAP, and one created by BMI where composers, lyricists, young, you have assignments, you often meet your collaborator there. Sometimes composers come who have no lyricist, they meet a lyricist who doesn’t have a composer. But the main value of it is you have assignments to write a song for a project you pick, and then you bring it in and play it. You have a singer. You have it performed for the whole group and get their criticism. Then you rewrite it. Nothing is more valuable.

Narrator: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, the legendary composer, David Shire, is an Academy Award and two-time Grammy winner and multiple Tony and Emmy nominee. David has composed prolifically for theater, film, television, and recordings. On Broadway he and a favorite StoryBeat guest lyricist director Richard Maltby, wrote the scores for the musical’s Baby, which received Tony nominations for best score in Musical and Big, which was Tony nominated for Best Score. His off-broadway score, also written with Richard Maltby, includes Starting Here, Starting Now, Closer Than Ever, which won the Outer Critic Circle Award for best musical and score, Urban Blight and the Sap of Life. Other Maltby and Shire efforts include the musicals Waterfall, The Country Wife, and Take Flight with book by John Weidman. David is also collaborating with Richard Maltby on a musical version of Madame Sousatzka.

He’s worked with New Yorker writer Adam Gonick on the musical, The Most Beautiful Room In New York. David has scored many feature films, including Norma Ray, for which he won the Oscar for Best Song with lyrics by Norman Gimbal, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, All the President’s Men, The Taking of Pelham 123, Farewell My Lovely and Saturday Night Fever, which earned him two Grammys. Most recently, he scored David Fincher’s Zodiac and Peter Hymes’ Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. David’s numerous TV scores have garnered five Emmy nominations and include Sarah, Plain and Tall, Rear Window, Raid on Entebbe, The Women of Brewster Place, The Kennedys of Massachusetts, The Heidi Chronicles, and Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women and Broadway Bound. He also composed the theme song for the long running Linda Lavin, NBC series, Alice with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman.

David and his wife, actress Didi Kahn, have completed the pilot for Didilightful, a new animated musical television series that they co-created and co-produced. David’s songs with various lyricists have been recorded by such singing luminaries as Barbara Streisand, Maureen McGovern, Melissa Manchester, Jennifer Warrens, Julie Andrews, Glenn Campbell, Johnny Mathis, Kiri Te Kanawa, Kathy Lee Gifford, Robert Gullet, and Michael Crawford, among many others. So for all those reasons and many, many more, it is my great honor to have as my guest on StoryBeat today, the extraordinary composer David Shire. David, welcome to the show.

David Shire: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Steve Cuden: Oh, I’m so glad you’re joining me. So let’s go back in time. At what age were you inspired to be a composer? When did all this start?

David Shire: Well, it started when I was in the crib. My father was a piano teacher, but he taught pop music. In those days, pop music was theater music. The big hits were things from South Pacific and Richard Rogers, Gershwin Kern. He had a club day orchestra, which played in the evenings, played all those songs. But when he taught during the day instead of hearing normal nursery rhymes, I would hear all the melodies drifting up from downstairs which were the great standards.

Steve Cuden: Which he was teaching and also playing.

David Shire: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: He was a professional musician as well then.

David Shire: Yeah. For 60 years in Buffalo.

Steve Cuden: In Buffalo.

David Shire: The twin city of Pittsburgh.

Steve Cuden: That is the twin city of Pittsburgh, Buffalo. Just as cold or colder.

David Shire: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: So then you were attracted to the musical theater sort of osmotically from day one?

David Shire: Yeah. The first chords that I learned at the piano was sitting on my dad’s lap when I was about five or six years old.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

David Shire: I studied informally with him for a while, and then he sent me to a classical music teacher. Got training there, then later graduated to a more grown-up piano teacher. That’s where it all started.

Steve Cuden: So you were playing piano from very young in life?

David Shire: Yeah, but not professionally till I was 13 or 14. I would sit in his band on certain club dates. Or when he had two orchestras to send out for the evening, I would conduct the second one.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

David Shire: Cocktail piano in various saloons and actually some very good restaurants when I was home from college during the summer. Musical director for Catskill Summer Resort. A jack of all musical trades and playing for the glee club in my prep school.

Steve Cuden: So importantly for the listeners to understand is, that you were doing it pretty much a lot when you were very young.

David Shire: Yeah. Right up through college. In college I had a jazz group, a jazz quintet co-ed with another undergraduate.

Steve Cuden: Is that where you first met Richard?

David Shire: Yeah. Did Richard tell you about our inauspicious meeting?

Steve Cuden: No. Tell us that story.

David Shire: He didn’t?

Steve Cuden: I don’t think he did.

David Shire: Oh, that’s one of our standard anecdotes. I chose Yale over three colleges. I was accepted at three universities because it had a great theater department.

Steve Cuden: Right.

David Shire: They produced an original undergraduate musical every year in an organization called the Yale Dramat. Richard went there for the same reason. Luckily, we had a mutual friend that he had from Exeter who happened to live next door to me in my freshman dorm. When I was telling him about who I was looking for, he said, oh, I know a guy who was looking for you. So he arranged a meeting. What the matchmaker makes in orthodox faith, Judaism, to set up arranged marriages. So we met in Freshman Commons, and he thought I was a hick from Buffalo, and I thought he was a snotty Exeter theater snob. Because he had written a musical there at Exeter. He grew up in New York, so he went to Broadway theater all the time.

I was in Buffalo. I was such a hick that when we decided to work together and when I went to the German Gourmet to play them what I called the score for the next musical, I went with a portfolio of 12 songs. No lyrics. No book. No story. Just what I thought was a good musical comedy score. A few comedy numbers, a couple of ballads, a charm song or two, and in those days, a rumble. They couldn’t believe that I was such a naive person. Somehow, I survived that. Richard and I started working together, and by our junior year we wrote an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

David Shire: Which had a very expensive production at the Yale Dramat because It was a period costume show. We had 12 pieces of orchestra with a New York orchestrator that we brought out. We took the show after it played at Yale to the Phoenix Theater, which was a big off-broadway theater in New York for a one-night benefit for, I think it was for a Yale Club or something.

Steve Cuden: Right.

David Shire: Richard, who was the treasurer of the German, didn’t realize that it didn’t figure in the budget unions. So it wound up costing twice as much as it was going to. The next year, Richard was not reelected as the treasurer in the aftermath. But we did write another musical called Grand Tour, which was interesting because it had a pretty all-star cast. The lead in it was Gretchen Crier who was married to a divinity student and trying to get away from him, I guess. Yale was not co-ed in those days. So we had to go to the graduate school for the women’s parts.

Steve Cuden: Were you there the same time as Phil Proctor and Austin Pendleton?

David Shire: Yes. They were in the musical.

Steve Cuden: They were in the musical? So both Phil and Austin have both been guests on this show.

David Shire: Well, along with John Batam.

Steve Cuden: Right.

David Shire: Who later led to a lot of TV movies I scored because, that he directed Universal. Then most auspiciously Saturday Night Fever. I wouldn’t have gotten that gig if I hadn’t gone to Yale. That was perhaps my biggest oil well.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s a really important thing for the listeners to pay attention to as well. That when you meet people young in life, sometimes you follow them through life, especially if you’re doing similar things. I think it’s important that you maintain those friendships over time.

David Shire: I scored two feature films for John Batam who became quite a well-known director.

Steve Cuden: Yes, indeed.

David Shire: Also we had Bart Giamatti in our first musical.

Steve Cuden: Oh, is that right?

David Shire: We became the president of Yale long after we were there and then the head of the National League.

Steve Cuden: Right. He was the commissioner of baseball, wasn’t he?

David Shire: Commissioner of baseball.

Steve Cuden: And the father of Paul Giamatti.

David Shire: Yes. We are responsible for Paul Giamatti’s birth because Bart and I chased the same girl who was the lead in Cyrano. She played Roxanne. He won, but he wouldn’t have met her if he hadn’t been in our show. Richard often says that he can’t wait to meet Paul Giamatti about it someday and say to him we’re responsible for your existence.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s hilarious. Alright. So how long were you composing? At the point that you met all these folks, you were, what, 18, 19 years old? Somewhere in there?

David Shire: Yeah. We were I think 19 or 20 by that time.

Steve Cuden: You must have felt like you were already a pretty decent composer before then to have even presented it to them.

David Shire: Well, in truth, I thought everything that dripped from my fingers was really wonderful, Neil Gershwin or Neil Richard Rogers. Richard soon convinced me that that wasn’t the case. We started working on Cyrano and he started throwing away the things I was bringing in. I was very disturbed by that, and I was really getting annoyed. I got so angry that one day I sat down, and I wrote Autumn. I brought it in and he said, ah, that’s the one.

Steve Cuden: That’s the one.

David Shire: It was later recorded by Barbara Streisand. It was our first Barbara Streisand recording.

Steve Cuden: Oh, wow.

David Shire: Which we wrote when we were 20 at Yale.

Steve Cuden: Clearly, he was interested in working with you because he were a good writer then. It wasn’t like he suddenly brought you in.

David Shire: The way he describes it is, we were destined to work with each other because I was the only game in town for him and he was the only game in town for me.

Steve Cuden: But I imagine if you were plunking out really horrible melody lines, that still wouldn’t have happened.

David Shire: He must have sensed that there was talent there that just needed some discipline.

Steve Cuden: No doubt. This is a question I ask a lot of artists. What for you makes a good song good? How do you know a song is good? Is it just purely in your guts or is there something else?

David Shire: Well, it depends on what kind of song. I mean, a theater song, which is mostly 95% of what we’ve written. If it works dramatically. We’ve thrown away really good melodies, really good lyrics, really good completed songs, because when they got on their feet in shows it was clear after a couple of audiences that they weren’t pulling their weight. And we would rewrite them. Actually for Big, we wrote 57 songs to get 13.

Steve Cuden: Oh, wow.

David Shire: It either we would throw them away or the director would throw them away. In fact, the director threw some away that were very good that should have stayed in the show. Later when the national company went out, we put them back in the show. A reviewer from Variety who panned the Broadway production wrote another review of that show, and said why didn’t you leave these songs in? This is a great show now. So go figure.

Steve Cuden: But then you also, I imagine, have used some of those songs in other things, or recorded them individually?

David Shire: Not as much as you would think.

Steve Cuden: So they’re just in a trunk somewhere?

David Shire: Well, the songs we tend to have recycled are a good number in Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever.

Steve Cuden: Those were both compilation shows. Yes?

David Shire: Yes. But as Richard describes them, they were kind of reviews that were really a collection of short stories. Because the songs what we specialize in there, songs that are written for musicals that have a dramatic story or character within them.

Steve Cuden: Sure. Character’s the important element there.

David Shire: Richard always hated reviews, which is funny because we’ve written two kinds of classic reviews. He wrote the musical, I mean, he conceived and directed Ain’t Misbehavin, which was the musical that started all the Jukebox musicals.

Steve Cuden: Sure. And Fosse, which is another huge show of his, there’s no question about that. That is a little bit of irony there. When you’re writing, do you think about the audience at all, or you just thinking about story?

David Shire: Well, you can’t help thinking about the audience. My first audience is Richard, because the truth is that he has consistently made me a better composer. He’s thrown away things that at one point I thought were pretty good, but now I trust him so much that when he says, this just isn’t working, I tend to believe it. He’s right 99% of the time. There was a better one to be had. His lyric writing used to be very slow. I would finish a melody, he would say, that’s great. Then a week later, there still wouldn’t be any lyric because he would tend to write the first line and then until he had a perfect first line, he wouldn’t write the second line and so on. When I wrote, I started writing lyrics, and I would tend to very quickly write a first draft. So in order to get him to write faster, because he’s a great rewriter. So I would write a dummy lyric and he would say, oh, it shouldn’t be that. It should be this and so he would rewrite it. Then my dummy lyrics started to get so good that he would keep most of them and in some cases, all of them. In truth, we put both our names on almost everything. But the lyric to Starting Here, Starting Now is 90% mine. What About Today and Back On Base and a couple others and those two review shows are all mine.

Steve Cuden: Which comes first for you, music, or lyrics? Or is it the same time, or does it not matter?

David Shire: That’s the question that gets asked in every interview, and rightfully so.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s the chicken or the egg.

David Shire: It’s more complicated than that because sometimes the lyric is the impulse for the song, especially if it’s a patter song where lyrics tend to be more important than music.

Steve Cuden: Do you need the lyrical hook? Do you need that hook to get into what the music is?

David Shire: Yeah, sometimes. He loves to have the music first, because when he doesn’t, he tends to write, so admittedly, doggerel because the line links are similar. But when I give him the melody that he picks from mine, it’s usually kind of unpredictable and fresh. He loves writing lyrics to that kind of melody, because it forces him to think freshly about the lyric. The best example is The Story Goes On, which is the end of the first act of Baby, which has become arguably our signature song in the theater. I wrote that melody for another lyricist that I was working with in LA trying to write pop songs. When I came back to New York, I happened to play it for Richard, and there was no lyric for it yet. He said, if you give that melody to anybody else, we’re finished. It became, The Story Goes On, which is arguably his finest lyric. But he never would’ve written it if that particular melody hadn’t existed.

Steve Cuden: So, in your case, the two of you work or he works best having a piece of music first?

David Shire: Yeah. Then if it’s a certain kind of song, like a patter song, I like to have the lyric first. Because often, especially for a patter song, you can’t really begin until you know what it’s saying. Ballads tend to be more loose that way. I mean, all the things you are with 10 different lyrics by good lyricists would be a pretty good song in melody alone.

Steve Cuden: So let’s talk about musicals and process and musicals. Of the three known legs of writing a musical book, music lyrics, do you think that one of those is more important to start with? Or do you need a play in order to start writing a musical?

David Shire: Yes, we should have that. One of our bug bearers has been, we get so excited about an idea that we have written too much of the score before we find the book writer. That gets us in a lot of trouble because book writers have a different idea about the structure. We’ve often been out of town and found a new show that the book writer is writing one musical that he had, and we’ve written the score for another one. I mean, not that drastically, but they tend to diverge.

Steve Cuden: At least from my perspective, structure is pretty much everything in terms of making it work.

David Shire: Exactly. Structure of the song. Richard is a genius at structure. He’s helped me. He’s shaped melodies I’ve written that say, I have a good A section and the bridge does something, goes to contrasting material. Richard says the bridge isn’t as good as the A section. It doesn’t really do it. It should go up instead of down, or it should go down instead of up. Or it has too many notes in it, like the A section. It should have less. I mean, he just is so sensitive to that and to the job the total song has to do, that he often directs the music into the finished song.

Steve Cuden: Over time, you have I guess the right word would be learned to listen to his instincts on that.

David Shire: Yes. To the point that often before I even play something for him, now, I listen to it till the next morning, instead of calling him right away saying, oh, you got to hear this. I wait till the next morning, and I say, oh, boy, I’m glad I didn’t send him that piece of shit.

Steve Cuden: Well, I bet your pieces of shit are 99% better than most.

David Shire: None of them are terrible. But they’ve got to do the job.

Steve Cuden: So finding that balance is then very important. You know what the play is or the story and what the characters are, now you have to figure out how to balance between the play itself, the libretto. Well, the libretto, including lyrics, I guess. And what then is music? Are you pretty good, do you think, at spotting where songs belong?

David Shire: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes when we’ve started on the score, first, Richard tells me to just freely think about the show and it’s venue, it’s characters, it’s story, the [inaudible 00:25:02] of the thing. He says, start improvising and see what you come up with.

Steve Cuden: In that development process, how important is it that you make decisions that we’re going to put X number of ballads in a show? Not at all.

David Shire: It’s all instinctive. The show that we’re working on right now, you said in the intro, it seemed that it was already written. The Country Life. That’s the show that we are presently, now that Covid is allowing theater events to take place again, we’re going to have a first workshop of it on Zoom in three weeks. We were writing Baby, and we were both living in New York, and I would go over to his apartment and play things on his piano where he would go over to my apartment and play things on mine, and we’d work there. It turned out that I can’t exactly remember, but one night I was sitting at his piano and we had to write a score for either an industrial show that was set in a period kind of day nineties or thereabouts. It was one of those rare things where you sit down, and you often get a single gift from the gods after you’ve been working hard and trying to intellectualize a song into existence. You’re so tired that you finally give up. You’re almost ready to give up, and suddenly your fingers find something wonderful. Sometimes, more rarely, that gift comes immediately. Well, that night I sat down at the piano and I started improvising. Luckily, he turned on a tape recorder and I played for an hour. Most of that tape has wound up in Country Life.

Steve Cuden: Wow. That’s cool.

David Shire: 40 years later.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

David Shire: We used a lot of the melodies for the industrial show. But industrial shows, the melodies just…

Steve Cuden: Well, you play them, and they’re done. One and done, as they say.

David Shire: But these, we kept around.

Steve Cuden: So you said something that fascinates me about creative people in general. I’ve had lots of conversations with many people over time and done lots of reading on it. The notion of the inspiration or the actual work itself coming through you as a conduit from, as you say, the gods. Do you feel that way about a lot of your work, that you are not necessarily creating it, it’s coming through you?

David Shire: Yeah. Well, if you’ve done the work and you’ve prepared your brain. What is that famous quote? Luck favors the prepared mind.

Steve Cuden: Yes.

David Shire: The older I’ve gotten, the more I feel the talent of any kind is mostly genetically determined and upbringing and nature and nurture determined. You’re a firm believer in that what you are is a collection of stochastic events, random events, contingent events. I mean, look at all the, look, my father was a musician, I had the opportunity to go to Yale and meet Richard. The one pop song hit I’ve had was a little melody I wrote as an underscoring for a musical that nobody remembers, and we needed an extra cut for the album of that movie. It became With You I’m Born Again, which most people don’t even realize that I wrote. There’re so many instances I can tell you like that. I’m sure every artist can and every carpenter and every plumber. Whether they want that job or not.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think with any success, a certain amount of it is luck.

David Shire: I think a great amount of it is luck and genetics.

Steve Cuden: And genetics and like you say, keeping your nose to the grindstone and doing the work. If you don’t do the work, it’s not going to happen.

David Shire: Well, people say that, but I say that being able to keep your nose to the grindstone and do the work is a talent.

Steve Cuden: Yeah. I agree.

David Shire: It’s something you’re born with. Some people can stay with it and other people can’t. So they become something else. If they start to write, they realize that it has to be their hobby and they do something else as a day job.

Steve Cuden: Right. Exactly.

David Shire: Lucky to wind up with my day job as a composer. In fact, the guys in my dad’s orchestra, when I kept telling them what a famous composer I was going to be, this was when I was in my teens. All of them who had day jobs and did club dates at night as a way to make extra money, they would say to me, well, don’t be too sure that. You’re talented, but you don’t sound that talented. Instead of going to Yale, they said, you better have a day job, something else that you can rely on to make a living. So, I loved literature. I was an English major. I thought I’d become an English major and took a lot of music electives. The best thing was getting to write two large, produced musicals which was on the job training. But that whole skillset, I’m just repeating myself.

Steve Cuden: Oh yeah. It’s quite fine. The notion of being capable of doing something is different from actually doing it and succeeding at it. You have to keep at it. It’s the perseverance and I do believe in perseverance. There’s no question about it.

David Shire: My senior year I had to write a senior project for the English major. But by then I had switched to a double major of English and Music because I realized after we wrote the first musical that that’s what I was going to have to do first, whether I made it or not. We were writing this the senior year musical, which was taking up 90% of my time. I realized I wouldn’t have time to write an English thesis. So I told my composition teacher, I said, listen, we’re writing this musical. I think you will count it as a senior music thesis when you hear it. He was a very serious classical composer. He said, well, I don’t know. But I had no choice. I didn’t have any time except to write that musical. He came to it, and he said, this is really good. Just dash me off a quick movement of a piano sound and I’ll graduate you.

Steve Cuden: Wow. That was nice. That was very nice. Are you a great believer in research when you decide you’re going to take on a project, do you start to research the style and tone?

David Shire: Oh, yes, definitely. Especially for movies. I’ve scored maybe between 100 and 200 feature length things, either for television or actual feature films. I think I’ve scored in every genre. One of the first course I did was for a Vietnamese television.

Steve Cuden: Really?

David Shire: Yeah. I had to do research. I knew nothing about that music. I was in New York, and I went to a percussionist who I found out had all those Vietnamese percussion instruments. I read up on what I could. Now with the internet, it’s so easy to do research.

Steve Cuden: Oh, no kidding.

David Shire: It’s a pleasure. Sousatzka, South African black music, Jewish music, which I could handle. Did a lot of research for that. The Bangkok musical that we wrote which was produced, had two out of town tribes and that we’re still working on, was set in both Japan and Thailand. I had to do research to find out things like the pentatonic scale is different in Thai music than it is in Japanese music.

Steve Cuden: That’s interesting.

David Shire: Yeah. It’s much more chromatic. It’s much blander in Thai music than it is in Japanese.

Steve Cuden: Do you find yourself having to research or wanting to research characters as well? Or is it mostly you’re focused on the music part?

David Shire: Well, the characters you usually get from the script, from the story or from what you’re adapting. But musically, I do a lot of research and I’ve learned that I have to do the research and then kind of forget it. Because I tended at first to write things that were very authentic, and they were very boring because they were very authentic. You get the feeling for it, and then you filter it through yourself.

Steve Cuden: Sure. So let’s focus a little bit on movies and tv since it’s a very good segue that you brought there. When someone comes to you, assuming it’s a producer, your agent, a director, whoever approaches you and says, we’d love you to score our movie. What is the first thing that you do? Is it to read a script? Or are you usually brought in after there’s production and you have footage to look at?

David Shire: More often than not, there’s at least a rough cut. Sometimes there’s a finished cut. Sometimes they hire a composer with the rough cut and don’t like what he’s writing and the movie’s finished and they quickly need another composer.

Steve Cuden: Does that then force you into certain rhythms?

David Shire: No, I just take it as another assignment to start from scratch. I figure if they didn’t like what they had, I don’t even want to hear it.

Steve Cuden: Right. No, no. What I meant was, is the editing of the movie will be with a certain pace. The editing will dictate a certain rhythm.

David Shire: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Which is why sometimes you have enough of a reputation that you start getting a film occasionally where they just have a script and want to make sure they require some material that has to be used in the shooting. That can be very misleading because, as you wisely point out, the rhythm of the editing, the rhythm of storytelling determines a lot. It determines to a great deal the structure and the nature of the music.

Steve Cuden: So when you start looking at the footage, are you usually looking at it either, I assume maybe once through, if not with a piano in front of you. Are you starting to noodle and get ideas as you’re watching?

David Shire: Yeah, I tend to not really. I try to watch it as an audience would watch it to get the feeling of the film and know what it is before I start thinking about what I’m going to do for it. Then you watch it a lot, and then you spot it, which is going through it inch by inch with the director or the producer, or both of them and the editor to decide where each cue begins and where it ends.

Steve Cuden: So that’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just on you to do that.

David Shire: No, no. Very rarely have I been sent off to just write the score. Actually, once it happened with the Taking of Pelham 123, which is one of my signature scores.

Steve Cuden: One of my favorite movies. I love that movie. By the way, we’re talking about the Walter Matthau version.

David Shire: Oh, yes. Not the other one.

Steve Cuden: Not the John Travolta, Denzel Washington version.

David Shire: We spotted the movie, and the director went off to pre-production some other location on another film. I was pretty much left to my own devices, but I knew what I wanted. It took me a month to find it. I even wound up going back on something I learned along the way with serious composition of using a tone row as the basis for a score, which was semi-serial. That’s why it has a different sound for one of the jazz scores. I think it’s made such an impression on people.

Steve Cuden: It’s a cool score. It’s a really good jazzy score.

David Shire: Its basis is a tone row. Serial thing. We use every note before you can use it again.

Steve Cuden: Interesting.

David Shire: Look, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Those are the 12 different notes of the chromatic scale.

Steve Cuden: That’s cool.

David Shire: Various combinations and things. It only came after a month of tearing my hair out, both figuratively and literally, to try to get a jazz sound that didn’t sound like warmed over Lalo Schifrin.

Steve Cuden: Right. That would be very challenging back in those days because he was a very important composer at that time.

David Shire: I wanted a New York sound that expressed, I just had this vague idea, that New York in the seventies was this pretty wild place in one sense and you wondered how it all worked, but there was always that grid of avenues and streets and those kind of geometrical things that held it all together. And I thought, how can I capture that? Serial device was the template. Then around it I could have all kinds of jazz things.

Steve Cuden: So when you are conceiving a cue or a whole score, are you also in your mind’s eye thinking about the arrangement and the orchestration of it?

David Shire: Yeah. More and more I’ve become a pretty good orchestrator. I had to pretty fast, because in the early days at Universal, when I was having to write a cop show or a western score for an hour episode in two weeks, if I had to use an orchestrator, I would’ve been doing the score for nothing because I would’ve had to pay the orchestrator. I had some experience with orchestrating, but there was nothing like having to write a score every couple of weeks for a 25-piece of orchestra. You quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work. What you shouldn’t try again.

Steve Cuden: So you tend to arrange and orchestrate your own work then. Is that true for Broadway as well?

David Shire: No. There’s no time on Broadway, but I tend to write out such complete piano parts or sketches that the orchestration is pretty much determined. In fact, at some point it was impossible for me to think of writing piano music for a musical. As I was conceiving the piece, the orchestration was part of the composition.

Steve Cuden: Interesting.

David Shire: I wasn’t writing a melody on the piano. I was writing a melody for a clarinet or for a string.

Steve Cuden: But you could only do that by using a piano. Right?

David Shire: Yeah. But in my mind, I would hear what I heard it winding up. It could get you in a lot of trouble because you’d have to play for… Most directors want to hear the score before you record it. They’d often like it on the piano and then when they heard it at the first cue orchestra, they come running out of the booth and say, that isn’t what you played for me. I said, yeah, I played you something on a piano, and this is a 40-piece Hollywood orchestra. Then you were in big trouble because you got to start rewriting and trying to figure out what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it. That doesn’t happen too often, especially now in the last 20 years, I kind of grew up with synthesizers and digital tools. Now I can make demos sitting right where I’m sitting now. I have in front of me a computer screen. I have a digital keyboard below me. I have what you can see, an acoustic keyboard in the background. But I’m mostly working on the digital keyboard with two programs, one called Logic X, it’s an Apple program, and Finale, which is a notation program. But on the Logic program, I can write a reasonable simile of orchestral score.

Steve Cuden: So you’re turning out in your demos, things that sound pretty much like they’re fully orchestrated.

David Shire: Yeah. In fact, we made a demo of The Country Wife because it was the only way the producers could really get a jump on it because of Covid. It was ready to go into rehearsal six months ago. But we couldn’t, so Richard said, let’s make a demo of the complete thing, book and score, 26 songs and 120 pages of script. But we did it all in here. We orchestrated it as we went along. So now we kind of have a cast of the whole thing. I mean, it’s not the final one. Nothing can replace a live orchestra, although the samples have gotten so good…

Steve Cuden: Oh, really.

David Shire: through the years. I finally graduated from just the logic samples to complete ultimate, which is a thousand first rate samples.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

David Shire: Now I have access to all of those as well.

Steve Cuden: Have you ever released a movie score that was all you?

David Shire: Yes. Because about 10 years ago, I stopped getting big features. Unless you’re Johnny Williams or a Lalo, you age out. So when I stopped, when I moved back to New York, which was about the time of going into rehearsal for Big, I was living bicoastally. Then finally Didi and I bought a house back East. I committed myself basically to theater. I started commuting from New York to LA rather than living in LA and commuting to New York, which we did while we were writing the two reviews and Baby.

Steve Cuden: Right. So tell me, what are the big differences? Are there big differences between writing for movies and TV, aside from time and money?

David Shire: The big difference is that when you’re writing for TV or movies, you are one of the handmaidens of someone else’s vision. The story exists, the director has in mind what he wants. I compare it to being a set designer or a costume designer, a makeup designer, a production designer – you are one of many elements that has to mesh with all the other elements to make a terrific movie. When you’re writing for the theater, I’m one of the prime creators and other people are working for me – orchestrators and costume designers, not working for me alone, but the basic project exists from Richard and my brain and or John Weidman’s first, and other people are helping us to fulfill our vision. That’s the huge difference.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s a huge difference for the writer of the material, the words, as well. Is that in a theater, you own the words and in movies and TV, somebody is paying you to do it. You’re a work for hire.

David Shire: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: That’s a big difference.

David Shire: Yeah. Mostly it’s nothing that involves words. It’s 95% instrumental music.

Steve Cuden: So, alright. I want to talk for a moment about collaboration because you’ve done a lot of it. Not only with Richard, but with many other collaborators as well. Though Richard is clearly your primary go-to person.

David Shire: 63 years

Steve Cuden: Is that all?

David Shire: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: Wow. That’s impressive. So when you’re collaborating with someone, what makes a collaboration work? Do you know? Can you identify what it is? I know it’s like a marriage. I’ve heard that many times.

David Shire: It is.

Steve Cuden: But what is it that makes the collaboration work? Is it just respect? What is it?

David Shire: In one sense it’s being on the same wavelength. That you enjoy the same kind of things, and you realize that you like the same kind of music, and you agree about what’s good and what’s bad. Richard’s answer to that same question, which he might have said is that it’s because we have never, in 63 years, said I’m going to do it my way. This is the song, or this is the lyric. We have so much respect for each other’s talent that we tend to defer to a great deal more and more as we’ve gotten older and older.

Steve Cuden: So if one of you really doesn’t like something, it goes. It goes away.

David Shire: Yeah. Or it’s never that clear. You like part of something, and it isn’t so clean cut. You like part of something. He likes the first couple of bars of the melody, the hook, doesn’t like the way it develops, or I love the first few lines of the lyric and I tell him the rest of it sucks. He doesn’t get angry. He says, well, why? I tell him why I thought so and he tells me the same. We just quickly reached the point where we didn’t say, it has to be my way.

Steve Cuden: That is what makes it work. It sounds to me it’s being on the same page about most everything. When you agree, you agree, and when you disagree, you disagree in a way that’s pleasant and respectful, I assume.

David Shire: Yeah. We’re best friends too. I know some famous collaborators never saw them. So Gilbert hated Sullivan. Hated Gilbert. Richard and I hang out together all the time or talk together all the time. We tend to like the same things.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s helpful. I mean, that just makes it that much more pleasant, doesn’t it?

David Shire: Our senses of humor are very similar.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s also helpful.

David Shire: Kind of dry and we love making up satirical lyrics about all our friends. Appreciating each other’s work, whether it’s kind of off the clock or on the clock.

Steve Cuden: What have you learned over the years about working with producers that you now know that you must do when you’re working with producers? What have you learned?

David Shire: You have to listen to them. You have to swallow your ego a little bit sometimes a lot.

Steve Cuden: A lot. Yeah.

David Shire: Because as I said, you’re helping them. They hired you because they thought you were the right one to paint their set or build their costume, musically speaking.

Steve Cuden: Right. Sure.

David Shire: I lost a few pictures that I was working on because I just had too much. I couldn’t control myself and had a too astringent a conversation with the producer.

Steve Cuden: That was a very pleasant way of saying that you were fighting.

David Shire: I did a picture for Mike Nichols. I was in total awe. We were at the recording studio. We recorded a number of things, and finally he came out of the booth. One particular thing, he said, do you know what? I really think you missed it on this. I said, really? You think so? He said, do you mean you’re not going to rewrite it? That was the end of the conversation. That that was it. That was a key moment. If Mike Nichols said, you’re not going to rewrite it, that said everything about it.

Steve Cuden: Did you rewrite it?

David Shire: Oh yeah. Of course.

Steve Cuden: He didn’t want to hear any argument about why I thought it was great. He knew he didn’t like it. He wasn’t one to suffer foolish remarks gladly.

Steve Cuden: He was after all Mike Nichols.

David Shire: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: That’s pretty heavy stuff to be working with him in the first place.

David Shire: Except the movie was one of his few flops. It was The Fortune.

Steve Cuden: It was The Fortune.

David Shire: Yeah. Big Bob.

Steve Cuden: He didn’t blame you, did he?

David Shire: No, I once heard him giving an interview before the picture was released, and somebody asked him, what is this movie about? He said, it’s about the American dream going sour, some really intellectual answering. I’m so proud of him. Then I heard him after the movie had been in previews a few times, and somebody asked him, what is this movie about? He says about if there isn’t a laugh every 15 seconds it’s in the toilet.

Steve Cuden: In some cases, he’s not far off the mark. You’ve got to kind of have it. Well, I have been talking to one of the greatest composers of this or any age, David Shire, for almost an hour now. I’m just wondering, in all of your experiences can you share with us a story that is either quirky, offbeat, strange, or maybe just plain funny?

David Shire: I didn’t think it was funny at the time when it happened to me and Richard. But I think it is indicative of a lot of things. When we were out of town with the first Broadway show that we had a chance to do, which was this show called Love Match, which we were hired to do. It wasn’t our idea. It was about Prince Albert and Queen Victoria and their meeting and their marriage. We were hired to write a few songs to replace the original team’s songs and they had us come in and replaced two of the songs. They offered us an amount of money, which at the time seemed, oh my God, we’re making this much money for writing a couple of songs. They liked him so much that within a little while they’d fired the other team and we were writing the whole show. It was a fully financed Broadway show. It went out of town to Detroit. Then it went to the Almanson theater in LA, and it was clear then that it was supposed to go to one other locale, and it was clear that it wasn’t going to make it. But they hadn’t decided that yet, we were wildly rewriting. The book writer for the show, a guy who was a professor of playwriting at some university who had taken a play of his to the producers of this musical to record it, to produce as a play. They said, well, we don’t want to produce it as a play, but we think it’s a great story for a musical. So he reluctantly agreed to that. We came in and I’ll cut to the chase. We were out of town, I believe in LA. We had an English director whose favorite expression was, get on with it, boys. Get on with this. We were the least experienced Broadway composers, people on the project, except for the book writer. Danny Daniel’s doing the choreography. This director directed at the National Theater and all over the place. When a scene didn’t work, they would blame it on the song. And we would rewrite the song. It was one of those cases where Christian Hamilton was trying to hang onto as much of his play as he could. We were trying to hang on to as much of the score as you could. It’s one of those things where you’re writing two things and you’re going and cross purposes. Finally, we were blamed for a terrific song which was really working, but the scene wasn’t working. We agreed to rewrite it, but it needed a different lead in. The lead into the gazinta, as it’s called.

Steve Cuden: The gazinta. Sure.

David Shire: Yeah. We absolutely had to have it because if we didn’t have that, no song was going to work. So we cornered him after the meeting and said, Christian, you’re really going to have to rewrite the last part of this scene to make anything rewrite work. He said, no, I don’t have to. We were stunned into silence, and we couldn’t speak. He says, well, why do you feel that? He said, because I have a rich wife. That is word for word. The show closed in LA and a couple of songs came from it like I Think I May Want to Remember Today, that’s in Starting Here, Starting Now. It was the first song that Queen Victoria as a young woman who had just met Prince Albert. It was a very serious stage meeting. Very formal. She suppressed her feelings. Then she went in, picked up her diary and said, we have met, and I think I must write all this down in my book. Oh, Albert, Albert, Albert, Albert. I think everyone should remember today. That was the explosion. That’s why that song has the name Albert in it. It wasn’t just picked out of the blue. It was Prince Albert.

Steve Cuden: Prince Albert. It became a standalone song.

David Shire: Wonderful. I mean, yeah. Well if you have the money to walk away that’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it can be harmful to the whole project.

Steve Cuden: It’s a bad thing for us.

David Shire: Yeah, yeah. No kidding.

Steve Cuden: A good thing for him. Can you imagine the balls, the chutzpah to say something like that?

Steve Cuden: Oh, well.

David Shire: He was dead serious. I don’t have to. I have a rich wife and he turned around and walked away.

Steve Cuden: Well, some people are both lucky and unlucky all at the same time. That’s a good example of it. So, last question for you today, David. This has just been a extraordinary lesson in everything – musical theater, music and otherwise. Do you have a solid piece of advice or a tip that you can lend to our listeners who may be trying to break into the business or maybe they’re in a little bit, but trying to get to the next level?

David Shire: Which business?

Steve Cuden: Well, the music business, the musical theater business or even movies. You tell me.

David Shire: It makes a big difference.

Steve Cuden: Which do you think would be the best?

David Shire: If you’re deciding to go to musical theater, you should do anything in order to be able to see your work perform. It’s been for many years, two wonderful workshops. One created by ASCAP, and one created by BMI, where composers, lyricists, young… Moryason was the leader of one of them. Ed Clendaniel was the leader of another one.

Steve Cuden: Steven Schwartz ASCAP Disney.

David Shire: Steven Schwartz. You have assignments. You often meet your collaborator there because sometimes composers come who have no lyricist, they meet a lyricist that doesn’t have a composer. But the main value of it is you write. You have assignments to write a song for a project you pick and then you bring it in and play it. You have a singer, and you have it performed for the whole group and get their criticism. Then you rewrite it. Nothing is more valuable than that. Because writing a song is one thing for the theater and then playing it for an audience is another. We still sometimes are surprised by a song that was gangbusters on the rehearsal stage, goes into the first preview, and something you didn’t think was funny gets laughs and the other way around. So try to get your work written. Write as much as you can and get it seen. Even if you have to go to a cabaret. Friends who are cabaret singers who are trying to move up the industry that way. And the same thing in film. There’re so many film schools now. Try to meet a director who’s directing a student film and needs a score, and doesn’t have any money. Pay him if you have to. There’s a score for his movie because you’ll find out a lot of things.

Steve Cuden: You get a piece of footage as well with your score on it.

David Shire: Yeah. You get an audition tape. Because I went out to Universal with some television tapes for CBS Playhouse. I had something to play for the head of the music department there, and two weeks later I was writing the fifth season of The Virginian.

Steve Cuden: Wow. I think that’s very, very valuable advice that you must get the work. First of all, you need some kind of a collaborator in the musical theater if you’re not doing both music and lyrics. You need a collaborator.

David Shire: Even if you’re not. Even if you do it all yourself, even more so then do you need feedback.

Steve Cuden: You need the feedback. There’s no question and there’s no substitute for an audience.

David Shire: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: That’s absolutely splendid advice. Well, David Shire…

David Shire: Say one more thing there. So many universities now have actual musical theater writing programs. When we were at Yale in the end of the 1950s, the musical theater writing department was me and Richard. There was nobody else in thousands of people who were interested in doing what we were doing. Now, there is a full musical theater writing program because we’ve been asked to be up there a number of times to do master classes.

Steve Cuden: Those kinds of programs have grown throughout the country.

David Shire: Incredibly. And film scoring programs have. I’ve guested at countless ones of those where I help people who are trying to make it.

Steve Cuden: I think it’s really wonderful that you have mentored people in that way.

David Shire: I’m not unusual in that. When we first came to New York our first show attracted some attention from Steve Sandon. He became our mentor for the rest of our lives.

Steve Cuden: Well, if you’re going to have a mentor, that’s not a bad one to have.

David Shire: He’s very gracious. You find most writers in either industry tend to want to give back and enjoy meeting and working with younger people. It’s no burden. I love going to a university and hanging out on the campus for a couple of days and working. We learn a lot about our songs. They prepare for it by learning songs that we’ve written and preparing them. The first day they sing them for us, the performing students. This is a performance in the performance department. Then we give them our notes, give them our criticism. Then the next day they come back and sing the song again. It’s amazing how a little direction lifts them.

Steve Cuden: There’s no question that people who are developing something new and don’t really know exactly what they’re doing. Not that you always know what you’re doing anyway. But when you don’t know what you’re doing at all, and you’re starting out a little direction from professional is very, very useful.

David Shire: Yeah. When we were at the Yale Dramat, I remember that was New Haven, was in the big tryout city for Broadway musical.

Steve Cuden: Sure It was.

David Shire: Whenever musical or play was in town, we’d often get one of the people in that musical, either director or a star, would come over to the Dramat and give us a talk.

Steve Cuden: I can’t remember who wrote the play We Bombed in New Haven. Was it Israel Horowitz? Somebody wrote a play called We Bombed in New Haven. It’s an actual, well-known play and that tells you everything.

David Shire: Richard and I could say we bombed in the Almanson Theater. Oh, here’s another funny story.

Steve Cuden: Okay, good.

David Shire: We wrote a show with Mike Stewart, the book writer of Hello Dolly and other things, that was done. It was called Goodbye, I Love You. It’s about computer dating, which shows you how archaic it was.

Steve Cuden: Okay.

David Shire: Early seventies when computer dating was very hot. The first place we went to was a theater tent outside of Chicago. The first review we got from a professional, I think it was maybe the first review we got for a professional score. The title of it was Goodbye, We Hate You. And Richard has often said that if you can survive that, you’re eventually going to make it. You’re probably eventually going to make it.

Steve Cuden: Yeah. Well, if you can survive really, really nasty reviews, the chances are you are going to make it if you just keep at it. Well, David Shire, this has been just a tremendous hour plus on StoryBeat Today. I cannot thank you enough for coming out here and sharing all this wisdom with us. But to have you on the show is a wonder, and I really can’t thank you enough.

David Shire: Be well. Thank you.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to give us a rating or review on whatever app or platform you are listening to. Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden. May all your stories be unforgettable.


Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


  1. Myla Lichtman-Fields

    What a prince of a human being. Steve illuminated this fine artist with his insightful questions. A real winner!

    • Steve Cuden

      David Shire is a marvel. I was lucky to have him as a guest on the show. So glad you approved!


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