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Pomona Student Writes a Musical as His Senior Project


By Lawrence Biemiller

Claremont, Calif. -- Brendan Milburn is pushing an upright piano toward a Pomona College rehearsal studio when the afternoon light picks up an unusual shade in his hair. It's too black for dark brown, too blue for black. "I was trying to dye it purple," Mr. Milburn says, grinning. "I needed to do something different."

Something different. As if it weren't different enough to write a musical for your senior project -- a musical about a bag lady who turns out to be God and a man who turns out to be pregnant. Or to talk your best friend into transferring to Pitzer College, just up the hill, so he can write the books for your shows.

As if it weren't different to set up a free "Dial A Song" service on the extra phone line in your dorm apartment. Or wear your bedroom slippers to lunch at a restaurant in town. Or know -- if you were born after the Beatles broke up -- who Frank Loesser was.

The piano clatters through the studio doorway. The eight-member orchestra for Mr. Milburn's musical is first to rehearse this afternoon; Mr. Milburn, on keyboards, is both the show's ninth player and its music director. The orchestra rehearsal goes quickly, because Mr. Milburn has so far completed instrumental parts for only 7 of the 13 numbers. Opening night is a week and a half away.

"I was going to have it all done by January," Mr. Milburn confides at the rehearsal's end, grimacing and running his hands through his not-black hair. "But we keep changing the show, and I keep throwing music away. Now I'm slogging away at the orchestration every night, after rehearsal ends. I don't get much homework done, but when I come in here the next day it's just incredibly cool to hear eight people playing notes I've written. It's such a high."

Mr. Milburn is himself no slouch as a player. Rivulets and then streams of piano notes accompany the lead singers as he takes them through the scales in a short warm-up for their rehearsal; then a full racing flood of sound and rhythm introduces Mr. Milburn's favorite song from the show, "Your New Child." All around the room people look up.

Mr. Milburn started playing piano when he was five -- "simple stuff, 12-bar blues," he says over another lunch a few days later. He is wearing Birkenstocks today, and he has orchestrated two more songs.

He grew up in San Francisco. His mother, Julie Milburn, worked as a waitress and box-office clerk at several clubs, and he remembers hearing a lot of rock. Piano lessons gave way to theory and composition courses at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; meanwhile, he was cast in Loesser's Guys and Dolls at his high school. "I really dug the interplay of music and lyrics," he says -- so much so that he and his friend Max Langert wrote a musical based on the children's book The Phantom Tollbooth.

"It was a very fun show," Mr. Milburn says. "Writing music for the theater is really interesting. When you place music alongside of drama, what comes out of the collision is much more than the sum of the parts." He says his favorite shows are Loesser's The Most Happy Fella and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd; he also says he's been influenced by William Finn's use of narrative songs in Falsettoes.

"When I got to Pomona, I realized this was a great place to put on a musical," he says. "Max wasn't happy at the University of Puget Sound, so I convinced him to transfer to Pitzer. My sophomore year we wrote a show called It's Just A Stage, which was about these people who put on a terrible musical with a cranky director, and meanwhile all this romance blooms backstage. It got rave reviews -- on campus, at least."

By that time Mr. Milburn had decided to create a dual major for himself, in composition and theater. As part of the deal that he negotiated with the music and theater departments, he promised to write a full-scale musical during his senior year. And the college promised to mount it on the main stage in its new theater complex.

Mr. Milburn and Mr. Langert started work on the project a year ago. "Things went kind of haywire in April and May of last year," says Mr. Milburn, grimacing again. "In two weeks in June we went through three different plots. Finally we decided to expand a three-character play Max had written for an arts festival at Pitzer, Mary, Joe, and the Bag Lady. This woman Mary finds out she's pregnant, but she doesn't want to be. She and her husband, Joe, meet this bag lady who says she's God. And the bag lady tells Joe he's going to be pregnant instead."

Mr. Milburn and Mr. Langert added songs, characters, a chorus, and a second act that Mr. Milburn says was "surreal" but also very funny. The director asked for a rewrite. Even that was too experimental, Mr. Milburn and Mr. Langert were told. By this time it was December; rehearsals were to start in January. "We decided to expand the first act," Mr. Milburn says.

The result is a socially aware, 90-minute show called Come Again? Despite its brevity, it has a lot of clever writing, in text as well as in songs, and an intricate -- perhaps overly intricate -- plot. Using the fingers of both hands, Mr. Milburn describes a "romantic tetrahedron" on the lunch table -- a pyramid with a triangular base and three sides. Mary and Joe, who is pregnant, are pessimistic about their marriage and are both dating others. Joe turns out to be seeing Mary's sister, Mary to be seeing Joe's dad. At the show's end, Joe gives birth to twins. The show has 11 songs, two of them used twice; Mr. Milburn wrote their words as well as their music. At least five of them are excellent.

Mr. Milburn orchestrates the last two on the Sunday before the Wednesday opening. Then come sound checks and dress rehearsals and assorted technical problems. Everyone is tense. Finally opening night arrives; when the lights go down, the theater is less than half full. In the pit, Mr. Milburn plays the show's opening notes on an electric keyboard, then snaps his fingers to set the tempo for the strings. An hour and forty-five minutes later, he is grinning wildly and jumping up and down at a post-show reception, leaping into the arms of his bass player and hugging everyone who comes near.

After the reception Mr. Milburn invites a few people to his cramped apartment. Friends have come from as far away as Phoenix; champagne is served in plastic tumblers. Mr. Milburn seems contemplative. "I'm frightened about the fact that this is the last time it'll be easy," he says -- as if the past few months had been anything like easy. "From here on out I'll have to fight to get a show produced."

"The thing you and I never did," he says suddenly, "is write a song. Want to? Now? It'll take ten minutes. It's how Max and I do Dial A Song."

A quick interview with the friend who drove from Phoenix provides ideas for a lonely-sunset-on-the-interstate song; Mr. Milburn finds a guitar and leads the way to an empty study room downstairs. It is almost midnight, but he is grinning again. In minutes he is singing the first verse -- ... I kept driving down the highway till I saw a sign for Blythe,/And I didn't feel like driving any more.

Now pacing with his guitar, now leaning over a page of new-born lyrics, he invents melodies that not only fit the words but also give them full and precise character. He sings beautifully. I'd lost the Phoenix stations/A couple of hours behind/But that radio kept playing in my mind. "Then after that repeat, it's time for some new music," he says, humming a few bars of what will soon be a lovely refrain about a roadside Taco Bell. "Yeah, I think that's what's coming next," he says, grinning. "See? It's easy."

[Added 2003: With his wife, Valerie Vigoda, Brendan Milburn has for several years been part of the trio Groovelily.]

Copyright © 1993 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 24, 1993.