May 26, 2011 / 9:33 PM / 8 years ago

Old friends Stoller, Butler make new Broadway musical

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.”

Eventually, Butler went off on his own, becoming a leading producer, arranger and composer responsible for over 40 gold and platinum records. Among his songwriting credits is “Here’s to Life,” a modern classic that has been recorded by such artists as Shirley Horn and Barbra Streisand.

Stoller’s music has been heard on Broadway in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” the hit musical revue of classic Leiber and Stoller songs.

But he had never composed directly for the musical theater until he was approached by novelist Iris Rainer Dart, the author of “Beaches,” who asked him to work on a show she had written about a Jewish grandmother and her days as a Yiddish theater star in 1930s Warsaw.

Stoller invited Dart to his home, where she read the script aloud to him. “By the time she finished I had tears running down my face,” he recalls. “It’s such a moving story.”

Dart then began looking for an arranger for the demo recordings necessary to attract backers. Someone recommended Butler, so she contacted Stoller to ask if he knew him, and if so, did he like him?

“Yes, I know him,” Stoller replied. “And I don’t like him. I love him!”

The two composers wound up collaborating on the score, with Dart writing the lyrics. Although the show opened to mixed reviews, all three received Drama Desk Award nominations for their efforts.

For Butler, it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.

“All my life I’ve chased my dreams,” he says. This is one of the biggest dreams I’ve ever had. I don’t understand why people take drugs. They should write a Broadway show and get it on. Because nothing gets you more high.”

“The People in the Picture” runs at Studio 54 until June 19.

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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