Boooooored. There was no such thing as Twitter, or hashtags, in the 1980s when Seaford native Amy Powers went to law school (at Harvard) and business school (Columbia), but in each case, her tweet would've been the same. One word. Lots of O's. To amuse herself, she took to writing parody songs about classes, penning the lyrics in various notebooks. Alas, she felt the same after graduating, when she nabbed a job at a prestigious law firm. Only this time, she was so dissatisfied she was making herself sick, suffering from chronic fatigue. Her then-boyfriend suggested she clear her head by writing a song -- not some snarky ditty but an honest-to-goodness musical theater song.
"In one night my whole life changed," Powers says. "I became obsessed. Every day it was all about . . . writing."
Powers today is an Emmy-nominated songwriter, and her latest effort, "Doctor Zhivago" -- a new musical with music by Lucy Simon ("The Secret Garden"), with lyrics by Powers and Michael Korie ("Grey Gardens") and a book by Michael Weller ("Hair") -- opens at the Broadway Theatre April 21.
That two out of three members of the music team are women makes this show something of an anomaly, for even today songwriting for musical theater is largely dominated by men. But for Powers, bucking expectations is nothing new.
A WOMAN'S TOUCH
"Zhivago," directed by Des McAnuff and based on the bestselling novel by Boris Pasternak, is a sweeping epic set against the bloody backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In it, Yurii Zhivago (played by British star Tam Mutu, in his Broadway debut) is a physician and poet, torn between duty to his wife, Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer), and a searing passion for the fiery Lara (Kelli Barrett). Simon has been working on the musical for nearly two decades.
Why so few women write for musical theater is something of a mystery. Of the 265 composers and lyricists nominated for a best score Tony Award since 1947, only 34 have been women.
That includes Simon, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter (and Carly Simon's sister) who made a splash with her 1991 Broadway debut when "Garden" earned Tony nominations for her and lyricist Marsha Norman.
Few composers understand romance like Simon, says Barrett, chatting before a matinee performance. "She understands how to melodically get to your heart -- not that a man couldn't, but she does it in a way only she can."
Simon met Powers through a mutual friend, and asked her to take a crack at lyrics for a song. At this point, Simon had already been working with Korie, a "brilliant" Tony-nominated lyricist, Simon says. "But I didn't feel the emotionality from his lyrics that I needed for some of the more romantic songs."
Powers immediately took to the material. "You know, I'm a lawyer-turned-lyricist -- I kinda relate to a doctor-turned-poet," she says.
Presented with an 18-page outline, Powers chose a moment that seemed like it would make a good song, when Lara reveals her entanglement with an older man. Simon loved Powers' lyrics, which became "When the Music Played," a poignant power ballad in act one.
"I guess it's a chick thing," Powers jokes.
IT TAKES TWO
Lyricist partnerships in musical theater are also rare, with some notable exceptions like Broadway legends Adolph Green and Betty Comden. In the case of Korie and Powers, "They each had something the other didn't quite have," says Simon.
While Powers was used to collaborating -- it's standard procedure in the world of pop music, where she's helped write songs for Brian McKnight, Alabama and animated films for Disney and Mattel's Barbie -- Korie was not.
The initial plan was to split the songs, with Powers taking the more overtly romantic numbers. But the two soon found they worked well together, Powers explains, and so each wound up contributing to all the songs to some degree.
"It's more fun to share everything -- the burden, the credit, the joys," Powers says.
THANK YOU, MR. HICKS
Powers can trace her love of musical theater back to Seaman Neck Elementary School, and one very special teacher. Every school has one -- the teacher that students go nuts for, the one who both educates and inspires. For Powers, it was Robert Hicks, her music teacher, who each year coordinated a musical production performed by fifth and sixth graders. (Powers played Mammy Yokum in "Li'l Abner" and Marian the librarian in "The Music Man.")
"It was a big deal," she recalls. "I think that planted the seeds that grew."
As for whether her gender gives her any subtle advantage or insight into a romantic saga such as this, well, she doubts it.
"Look, I don't consider myself a 'female lyricist'; Lucy isn't a 'female composer,' " Powers says. "It's not gender-specific. However, maybe . . . maybe . . ."
She pauses, considering.
"Maybe we're a little free, er, emotionally. Willing to go out on that skinny branch of authentic, honest emotionality."
Then she laughs.
"It certainly seems to be striking a chord with audience members. The other night there was somebody openly bawling," she says, squeaking with glee. "It was so great."
THE PHENOMENON OF 'ZHIVAGO'
For those who don't recall, or consider anything pre-Netflix the Paleolithic Era, here's a quick "Zhivago" primer.
THE BOOK Written by Boris Pasternak over decades and unpublishable in the Soviet Union, it was released in Italy in 1957 and becomes a worldwide bestseller. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize, but under Soviet pressure declined it.
THE FILM Starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, director David Lean's 1965 three-plus hour epic won five Academy Awards.
THE SONG "Lara's Theme," a haunting melody featuring a Russian balalaika, helped make Maurice Jarre's Oscar-winning film score one of the most memorable in cinematic history. Retitled "Somewhere My Love," with lyrics added, it became a hit in 1966. And, yes, it's in the Broadway production.
Says the show's composer Lucy Simon: "It's our way of saying thank you to that beautiful movie and signature song."