Crossover Corner: Repertoire Resource – The Music of Will Reynolds

Composer Will Reynolds shares his approach to writing for voices in musical theater. 

 

If you’ve interacted with musical theater content, or searched for guidance on creative living, odds are high that the Instagram and TikTok algorithm wizards have introduced you to writer, performer, and teaching artist Will Reynolds. The same is true if you’ve searched for recordings and videos of star singers including Jeremy Jordan, Audra McDonald, and Santino Fontana, to name a few. Or, if you’ve looked for (in his words) “a hyper-niche musical theater meets the dogs-of-the-Internet series lovingly dubbed Into The Woofs,” then you’ve definitely had the pleasure of encountering Will Reynolds and his indefatigable, inspiring, and vivid personality. 

Vivid and inspiring are just two adjectives that begin to capture his settings of wildly diverse texts and topics, ranging from the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay to physicist Marie Curie’s pioneering work in radioactivity. Along with his longtime writing partner Eric Price, Will was the corecipient of the 2018 Fred Ebb Award (named in honor of the late and legendary lyricist). And over the past year, the album release of their new musical, The Violet Hour, has further heralded the pair as one of the hottest musical theater writing teams on the scene. 

Will Reynolds and Peter Thoresen

Will also is one of my oldest and very best friends. Our friendship began during our professional child actor days in Chicago. We would perform in a matinee of Oliver! and then head to McDonald’s with our moms (Nancy and Mary Ann) before heading back to sing another chorus of “Food, Glorious Food.” Over the next (almost) 30 years, our association evolved from spending countless hours simultaneously talking about Phantom of the Opera and playing Sonic the Hedgehog, to ultimately working in tandem with dozens of student singers in the Pace University BFA MT program, and with the college audition preparatory firm Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA). It’s a friendship that I treasure, and I’m delighted to introduce many of you to him for the first time here in “Crossover Corner.” 

More than ever, I find myself assigning Will’s music to my musical theater voice students as we endeavor to select contemporary musical theater rep that is appealing, satisfies the requests of casting professionals and is, most importantly, sustainable and singable

As a singer, Will is also well known for his commanding yet agile instrument and soulful resonance. His vocal writing is empathetic, but certainly not limited to one voice type or range, which is so frequently the case when it sounds like a singer-songwriter is writing exclusively for their own voice—or only for a specific singer or two known for their idiosyncratic and sometimes unhealthy-to-emulate vocalism. Quick evidence of this can be heard (and seen in the score) in his song “Tavern,” recorded by living legend Audra McDonald (Go Back Home, 2013), or by way of Hannah Corneau—one of Broadway’s favorite Elphabas—in “Getting Closer” from his and Price’s musical Radioactive. Both songs reflect Will’s understanding of vowel migration and soprano passaggio navigation and key registration elements of belting and mixing (head dominant/chest dominant, etc.) in both songs, respectively.  

Audra McDonald and Will Reynolds

He shares his primary considerations when writing for singers: “I discovered my voice as a writer while training as an actor at Carnegie Mellon. I would be captivated by someone’s performance on some other tune and scurry away to my piano and work to re-engineer what I’d experienced in something of my own, tailor-made for that performer. It made this extremely satisfying instant feedback loop, where I could develop the work directly with that performer and revise it in real time.

“My basic rule is if I enjoy singing it, maybe someone else will too. I start most of my songwriting away from the piano for this very reason—I have to fall in love with the melody completely on its own. It’s a kind of creative insurance—loving the melody means there’s no way I could abandon it. I have to keep it fed and watered. I’ll work forever to refine the harmonic world around it. If I love the melody, I’ll actually stay motivated to finish the song.

“I’m always writing with someone in mind—it’s such a healthy ‘choice limiter.’ I’m instantly less overwhelmed by all the infinite possibilities and instead have a specific set of colors to play with.

“With singers, it all comes down to trust. When you consider that they’ll only be able to take on a certain amount of repertoire or projects in their career, committing to something of mine signifies a massive show of trust in me, my collaborator, and the material itself. In return, I have to trust their process and the necessary transformation the song must undergo when it no longer belongs to me, but to them. It’s the only way the song has a chance to transform one final time—and belong to the audience.”

When it comes to identifying what distinguishes his writing from that of others, Will offers context that’s all too familiar for some singers and their teachers: “Something I’ve noticed in new musicals is that soprano and baritone voices seem to be becoming endangered species. Broadway has always mirrored the music of its times. So, when these voice types began to fade from popular music over the past 100 years or so, the parallel isn’t too surprising.

Will Reynolds and Eric Price

“I’ve been writing alongside my collaborator, Eric Price, for nearly 20 years. We released a studio cast recording of our show The Violet Hour starring Santino Fontana, Erika Henningsen, Jeremy Jordan, Solea Pfeiffer, and Brandon Uranowitz. We’re incredibly proud of the album. It’s not even been out for a year, but it’s had over 1 million streams and was declared the Best Cast Recording of 2022 by the Broadway Radio Show. In all our work, we work hard to uphold the theatrical tenant of variety as one of our keystone values. For my part, insisting we have a diversity of sounds on stage is an important part of that.  

“Meanwhile, our singers today are truly Olympic athletes. The expectations have gotten higher and higher, but vocal pyrotechnics shouldn’t supersede the storytelling. I work closely with actors and educators in a course I offer called Audition Breakthrough, where I introduce them to my Inspired Actions™ Method. It’s a results-based, step-by-step system for generating impactful storytelling on demand so you can get out of your head and into the room. One thing we talk a lot about a lot is what I call ‘Performance Dynamics.’ If everything’s consistently dialed up to a ‘10,’ that intensity quickly loses its value. Audiences require variety; without it, they’re easily disengaged or overwhelmed.

“I do my part by making sure the range, the contour of the melody, and the overall build of the song set the singer up for the most success and the most compelling performance dynamics possible.” 

Stephen Sondheim and Will Reynolds

As you consider programming, assigning, and (hopefully) binge-listening to the music of Will Reynolds, it’s revealing to consider Will’s answer to my request to describe the aesthetic of his writing: “Like all of my contemporaries and heroes, I owe so much of my artistic lens to the work of Stephen Sondheim and was lucky enough to get to tell him so when I was cast in the 2013 NYC revival of Passion at Classic Stage Company. I am beyond grateful to have my very own ‘Sondheim Letters’ where he responded to my early work and encouraged my writing. What a gift.”  

For more information, visit willreynoldsonline.com and follow @willcreynolds. To purchase sheet music, visit store.reynoldsandprice.com. For a limited time, readers of “Crossover Corner” and Classical Singer Magazine can use the code CLASSICALSINGER to get one additional item for free with any purchase upon checkout. Most songs also have accompanying piano or orchestral tracks! Additionally, you can stream the music of Will Reynolds on Spotify and Apple Music. Music videos for The Violet Hour are on the Reynolds & Price YouTube channel. 

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).