Disciples of Sound

Will Van Dyke: From Broadway to Solo Breakout

Issue 141

For my money, Ted Lasso is the best show on television today. Starring former Saturday Night Live cast member and staff writer Jason Sudeikis, it tells the story of a successful college football coach who is recruited to coach an English football club. What sets it apart is how it marries equal parts of comedic fun with a real sense of the importance and impact that kindness can make in people’s lives.

I found a parallel to Ted Lasso’s best traits in the new music of Will Van Dyke. He has just released an EP of songs that he and writing partner Jeff Talbott created. There you will find music that is fun and approachable, with a general message that speaks to the goodness that people can bring to each other’s lives. The Mayor is a seven song EP that is part power pop, part pop rock, and at times it is quite personal, with ballads that really deliver and hit close to home.

Van Dyke is an established musician in the theatrical world of New York City who grew up in Boston studying classical piano, but who also loved theater and rock and roll. He moved to New York at the age of 18 to study at NYU. While there he met composer Andrew Lippa, who helped him enter the theater industry and encouraged his writing. At 22, Van Dyke hit the road with the first national tour of Wicked, playing the piano. After a brief stint on a national tour of Grease that starred Taylor Hicks, he landed his first Broadway gig, The Addams Family. Jumping from The Addams Family to Rent led him to Kinky Boots, where he was part of the music team with Cyndi Lauper. The relationships built on Kinky Boots led to the musical version of Pretty Woman and working with Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.

Currently, Van Dyke is the music supervisor of Little Shop of Horrors, for which he also served as orchestrator and arranger. He was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020 for his work on the Little Shop of Horrors cast recording.

With The Mayor he breaks out on his own. The first single, “You’ll Never Hear The Sound” tells the tale of a chance encounter and properly sets the table for the kind of storytelling style that drives his writing. Van Dyke will bring this music to life for the first time with a full band performance at the end of July at New York’s infamous rock venue, The Bitter End.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Will and talk about the origins and the making of the record. Along the way we were also able to discover what important lessons he had learned working alongside musical legends like Cyndi Lauper and Bryan Adams. Van Dyke’s musical journey has not been a straight line, but its measured pace and unpredictable turns have informed a collection of new music that is all the better for it. So is the message it will leave with you even after only one spin.

 

"The Mayor" album cover.

 

Ray Chelstowski: How do you describe your music?

Will Van Dyke: I don’t know. It’s sort of a power pop rock thing. I think it’s an amalgamation of the way that I came up in music and what listened to as a kid, which was classic rock with my dad and singer songwriters with my mom. I really like the kind of storytelling you find in Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and I try to do that in my own music. Everything I write is really filtered through the lens of all of the things I listened to growing up.

RC: The music moves from power pop, to ballads, to rockers like the song “Amy Clayton.” But throughout, there still is a sense of “Broadway” to the music. Was that intended?

WVD: From a writing perspective, Jeff and I really do like to have a beginning, middle and end. But if you listen to what we write for theater it’s much more lyrical with a good amount of specificity. I often wonder if people didn’t know that I work in theater, if they would make that kind of comparison. For me this music doesn’t feel any more theatrical than other pop material I’ve worked on.

RC: The press release for The Mayor says that partnering with Jeff Talbott was like when Elton John met Bernie Taupin. They famously wrote in separate rooms. What was the creative process like for you and Jeff?

WVD: We have only seen each other in person two times since December of 2019. We definitely are never around each other but we write together almost every day. Jeff is also a playwright so he has that going on as well. But we are constantly working on music. I don’t know that there ever is one way we approach writing because there is a lot of back and forth. Sometimes Jeff will have an idea and he’ll just send me a lyric. In those cases I’ll take it and figure out what it makes me feel like musically. That might lead to me wanting to adjust the lyrics and that will prompt a back and forth. Another way is when I write a musical hook and Jeff turns it into something more. And then there are times where I’ll write a whole song and I know that it’s just not there yet and needs Jeff’s touch. Then he will blow it wide open.

RC: Jeff is a playwright by trade, not a known pop hit maker. How did you know he was the right creative partner for you?

WVD: I have been writing musicals and songs for other people for a really long time. Seven or eight years ago I was looking for other people to collaborate with. I was at a place where I had finished a couple of projects and wanted to start something new but I didn’t know exactly what. At that exact moment Jeff sent me an e-mail. We had never met. A mutual friend of ours introduced him to a song sequence that I had put out of other people singing my music. He wasn’t sure if I was looking for collaborators but he wanted to talk. So we went out to brunch at this place in Hell’s Kitchen and got to know each other. It was there that he told me about this idea he had for a musical. We began talking about it and literally started writing that week. It was really organic and felt so good. Six months later we had the first draft of a full length musical that was the beginning of our songwriting partnership. Over time that shifted to writing songs with other people, for other people. Then at the beginning of the pandemic I had this idea of writing an album where I sing the songs. What would that look like? How would that feel?

RC: Did you always approach this as an EP versus an LP?

WVD: Yes and no. We wrote a lot of songs and then whittled it down to thirteen or fourteen. As we listened it all just felt like too big of an arc. It was too dense and didn’t make sense. So we decided to release these seven songs as an EP and I think we genuinely will release the other seven separately. These other seven songs also fit together thematically and musically as a real arc.

 

RC: What drove your decision-making regarding the track sequence?

WVD: Once that we had decided that we wanted this to be an EP we began to understand how it should start and end. From the moment we wrote “You’ll Never Hear The Sound” I knew that I wanted to start the EP with this smaller, folksier idea. I wanted the first four tracks to build where you sense the record getting bigger and bigger. Then it lands on the song “Amy Clayton” where the drums are being hit real hard and there are multiple layers. That’s how the record builds. Then we have the release that comes in the form of the song “Grab A Slice.”

RC: The first song and first single, “You’ll Never Hear The Sound” is really terrific. Is it based on a true story?

WVD: Jeff and I have both been ghosted by people before. It’s a really interesting thing, especially friend-wise. It just sort of happens sometimes and it’s such a particular feeling. This was more of an exploration of that feeling and then the growth that comes from it. I actually didn’t know that it would be the single. The band sounds great on the song “Amy Clayton” and I also really liked “Grab A Slice.” So I was very conflicted. Then it dawned on me that this was the first track of the whole thing, so why not start at the beginning by releasing track one as the first single]? Ultimately, I think that I was the right decision.

RC: What do you want to achieve with this record?

WVD: It’s two-fold. In one sense it’s about my own artistic journey. There’s something very empowering about finally having written music for myself. That’s a win. It’s also about taking myself out of this world of theater and saying, “hey I’m also this singer songwriter guy.” Ultimately that’s success for me.

RC: You have worked with some big names like Cyndi Lauper and Bryan Adams. What did you learn from them?

WVD: Cyndi Lauper is her own breed of creative spirit. While working with her and the team on Kinky Boots she would constantly say that she didn’t want to make “fake music.” It can’t be fake. It has to be real. We understood what she was saying because she didn’t want to make “pop Broadway.” She instead wanted to make pop music that was on Broadway, which is a really hard thing to do. I think she did it quite successfully. She once said something to everyone at a party that I consider to be one of the wisest things I have ever heard anyone say. She said, “music without heart sucks.” I’ve taken that with me ever since, because if you can’t be vulnerable and “go there,” then the work isn’t going to be good. When people listen to your music they can tell if your heart isn’t in it.

Working with Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance on Pretty Woman was an eye-opening experience on the craft of writing hit songs. They were both so incredibly kind to me. They also taught me a lot about what revenue streams were like before Napster. Learning from them about the business of music was fascinating.

Once in talking to Bryan he told me about his relationship with Tina Turner. He produced the song “It’s Only Love” [with Tina Turner on vocals] for his album Reckless when she was having her “post Ike” resurgence. She was nervous about it but it led to her inviting him to open for her on the European leg of her tour. That helped Bryan to just explode in Europe. It was something that you can’t map out; it just kind of happens, and like that, your career launches.

RC: You and your band are performing at The Bitter End at the end of the month. Any surprises planned for that show that you can share?

WVD: I’ll play the songs from my other EP as well and we’ll do a couple of covers. It should be fun. I’m just excited to be playing at The Bitter End because I had a gig booked there for March 22nd of last year. Obviously, it got cancelled. It’s just nice go back there and be doing it all again.

Photo of header image of Will Van Dyke by Marc J. Franklin.

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