Old friends Stoller, Butler make new Broadway musical

Thu May 26, 2011 5:29pm EDT
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It took more than half a century, but composers Mike Stoller and Artie Butler have finally managed to cross the street.

W. 54th Street in Manhattan, to be exact. That's where the duo first met, at a recording studio where Stoller and his songwriting partner Jerry Leiber -- responsible for such 1950S classics as "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy" and countless others -- were producing a record. Butler was working there as a lowly "button pusher" who started the tape machines rolling.

Now they've collaborated on the music for a new Broadway musical, "The People in the Picture," playing at Studio 54, located just diagonally across the street.

It stars Donna Murphy, a two-time Tony Award winner for "Passion," and "The King & I", who won nominations again for her role a Jewish grandmother who is struggling to share her legacy.

The veteran songwriting duo began their friendship in the 1960s when a piano player couldn't manage a particular passage during a session.

Butler, then just 17 years-old, piped up that he could play it, much to the annoyance of his employer who berated him for talking to the clients. But Leiber and Stoller were intrigued enough to give the brash kid a shot, and when he pulled it off they immediately offered him a job as a session musician.

Stoller and Butler have different recollections as to which artist they were recording. Stoller says Johnny Maestro; Butler insists it was Jay Black and the Americans. But they agree that it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

"It was my college degree," recalls Butler. "It was the Leiber/Stoller magic show, and every day I got to watch! I learned by osmosis."   Continued...