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Inspired by Milwaukee

Off the Cuff with Award-Winning Composer Brett Ryback

Jan. 6, 2017
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Brett Ryback is a Muskego native, professional actor, writer and composer, raised in the Milwaukee theater scene. He is an award-winning creator of nine full-length musicals and travels around the country performing and developing new work. He recently received the ASCAP Foundation’s Cole Porter Award for a promising artist who writes music and lyrics. A current LA resident, Ryback continues to find himself and his work tied to Milwaukee as an incubator and inspiration for new theater.

You’re from Milwaukee. How did you get started here?

When I was five years old my mom had me audition for Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing at First Stage. I was cast in the part of Fudge, and that kickstarted my love of acting and theater. My mother was a musical person; she was a singer and a choreographer at Greendale High School where she taught, so I grew up around music, grew up singing. I started to compose melodies and didn’t have a way to write them down, so that drove me to teach myself how to play the piano when I was nine.

I graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles and immediately stepped into my professional acting career. I was still writing, but I took a detour for awhile and the thing that brought me back was a former professor asked if I would write a libretto for a musical he was working on. He gave me carte blanche but handed me an old German play for source material, which got me thinking of the story of how my grandparents met. It turned into The Tavern Keeper’s Daughter, a show about two Polish kids from Milwaukee who go to NYC and fall in love, and then come back to Milwaukee to find out they’d been arranged by their parents. The premiere was a staged reading collaboration between Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre. It’s something I would love to produce as a full production since the show really honors Milwaukee, and it’s a truly homegrown musical.

The show brought me to the attention of John Maclay, who commissioned me to write a musical for First Stage based on the Little Critter book series. It’s interesting to me that First Stage was the first place I worked as a young actor, and the first place that commissioned as an emerging writer.

Tell me a little about your recent musical, Joe Schmoe Saves the World, and how that led to you receiving the ASCAP Foundation’s Cole Porter award?

The next thing I undertook was a very political show; it deals with young artists in the US and Iran trying to make their voices heard. The show caught a lot of attention, including that of a man called Michael Kerker, the head of musical theater at ASCAP. He brought my show to the musical theatre workshop in LA last February to be presented before panel of professional artists including Stephen Schwartz, who’s known for Wicked, Godspell, etc. It was accepted to the National Alliance for Musical Theatre New Works Festival, which led Kerker to honor me with the award. 

What does the Cole Porter award entail?

It’s a cash prize, and I got a medal. And also the recognition, which is hard to come by in this industry. Because it’s not just about being young and talented; it’s also about being seen. My whole career and life I have been balancing these two separate professions and it’s difficult. A lot of people have to push one boulder off a hill, and I kind of have to push two. I’ve never wanted one to just be a hobby. 

What are your future plans for work in Milwaukee?

There’s a program Skylight runs calls Kidswrites. Ray Jivoff started it independently; he would go around and collect writing from students in Catholic grade schools and have the students at Catholic Memorial High School perform it. When I was nine, I was chosen as one of the writers. By the time I was a senior in high school, I composed all of the music because the regular composer, Tony Clements, went on tour. I still do the music for the program, which brings my writing back to Milwaukee in a big way. I’ll do it again this year; Kidswrites is performed in March and April. 

Also, I’ve been commissioned again by First Stage to adapt Nate the Great into a musical, which will likely be a part of First Stage’s 2018-19 season.

For more information on Brett’s projects and where to see them, visit www.brettryback.com.

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