Call Answered: Michele Brourman: "The Belle of Tombstone" & "The Land Before Time"
Music makes the world go round! Every moment of my life can be defined by a song, which is why I’m beyond excited to have the opportunity to interview one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time, Michele Brourman. Michele’s music has been featured in The Land Before Time series and recorded by some of the music industry’s biggest names including Reba McEntire, Olivia Newton-John, Donny Osmond, and Michel Feinstein. She also worked with Designing Women’s Dixie Carter.
Michele’s current CD, The Price of Love, just received a 2019 MAC Award nomination in the Major Recording category. Additionally, Michele has composed the music for a new musical entitled The Belle of Tombstone based upon the true story of Josephine Sarah Marcus (Wyatt Earp’s third wife) and the women of Tombstone. After an Off-Broadway run and numerous regional/university productions, The Belle of Tombstone will be mounted this April at Hartt School in Connecticut.
1. Who or what inspired to become a singer/songwriter? I was always a singer/songwriter! born that way, I’d have to say. My earliest memories are of being sung to by my parents and my bubbie. I started to play piano by ear and sing when I was three years old, and I remember making up little childlike songs even then. I was given this gift, it seems, then learned to cultivate it. And growing up through the 60’s, the era of the singer/songwriter, I totally embraced that calling.
2. You, along with your co-writer Amanda McBroom, have had your songs recorded by such music industry luminaries as Olivia Newton-John, Reba McEntire, and Donny Osmond. Olivia, Reba, and Donny recorded your songs for The Land Before Time films you wrote the music for. When did you find out they were going to be the ones to sing your songs? In this case, do you get to be part of the recording session and/or do they ever ask you for advice about the song?
Our splendid creative team at Universal (we’ve written the songs for over 18 animated features for them) brought in Donny Osmond and Olivia Newton-John after those two pictures (Land Before Time 9 and 10) had been completed – their performances were used for the end titles. I’d already produced the versions that were sung by the cast within the actual picture. In both cases, Olivia and Donny had their own production teams work on the songs with them. Donny loved the song that he covered (“No One Has to Be Alone”) enough that he included it on his own CD.
In Land Before Time 14, Reba McEntire voiced one of the characters – a fabulous-looking flying dinosaur with a red topknot and red fingernails. Amanda and I wrote “Look for the Light” knowing that she would be singing it. We were thrilled when we got her message: she loved the song – and we’d captured her style perfectly! I got to produce the track for her but sadly didn’t get to go to Nashville where she recorded the vocal in her own studio.
As the producer for our animation songs, one of my favorite responsibilities is to produce the vocal sessions whenever the immensely talented voice-over actors are performing the songs. We’ve also had some extraordinary guest actors sing our songs as well: Michael York, Jean Smart, David Carradine, Corbin Bleu, Kenneth Mars, Michael Clarke Duncan, Camryn Manheim, Tress MacNeille, Wilfred Brimley, Robert Guillaume. I’ve loved working with every one of them!
3. Another musical luminary who recorded one of your songs was Michael Feinstein. He recorded "My Favorite Year." Did you specifically write that song for Michael? If so, what made you want to write a song for him? If not, how did this song find its way to him? Actually, I wrote that song, along with Karen Gottlieb, on spec for the movie starring Peter O’Toole. I’d gotten a call from a friend who asked if we’d be willing to give it a shot. And when I said, “Sure, Lloyd, when do you need it?” he responded “Tomorrow.” And he was serious!
So we wrote the song in one afternoon, I demo’d it the next day, and walked it into the office of the music supervisor at MGM who loved it and promised that he’d play the song for all the people involved. Ultimately they opted for an old Nat King Cole recording. Years later, when I met the director at a party and asked why they’d made that choice, he said “I never heard it then. I would have killed for that song!”
A couple of years later, Margaret Whiting, who was a mentor and friend to so many of us, recorded It – and Michael heard it on Margaret’s album. His version – with a stunning arrangement by Johnny Mandel – is the one that so many people fell in love with. I’m grateful every day!
4. Who do you still hope will record one of your songs that hasn't yet? Barbra Streisand, of course. Reba ( a non-animation song this time :) Diana Krall, Marilyn Maye, Trisha Yearwood. Willie Nelson! I would be thrilled to have Michael Feinstein record more of my songs. Lady Gaga, Norah Jones, Kurt Elling, Madaline Peyroux, Allison Krauss, Melissa Manchester, Bernadette Peters.
5. You have written music for a variety of mediums: theatre, film, albums, TV. Does your process vary for each medium? Yes and no….in the most basic way, songwriting is songwriting. For me it always begins with a concept, an idea, often a lyric or a fragment of a lyric. The music grows out of that. I hear melodies and rhythms, energies and emotions in the words.
When I’m writing for film or theatre, I’m always conscious of the context of the song – how it serves the story and where it falls in the musical sequence.
And the character. Who is singing? And why?!! A character will have a certain sound, color, drive, that dictates the music in that moment. Also, unlike a pop song, a theatre song rarely has a repeat chorus or repeat lyric. We need to know things by the end of the song that we didn’t know at the beginning – so there’s a moving through-line to the song.
For albums (or, these days, EP’s or even a single release) the song CAN use repetition – in fact, that’s a strong selling point for a pop song. And it can dwell on an emotion; it doesn’t have to carry us through plot points or character development.
6. After you get hired for a job, do you have any pre-writing rituals you do to get you ready to write music? No “rituals” per se. I read the script, talk with my co-writer. If it’s an animation project, I’ll talk with the creative team at Universal, find out what they have in mind for the sequence – what I call the “energetic” of the moment.
7. How long does it take you to write a song, from idea to recording? That can vary a lot! With “My Favorite Year”, Karen and I wrote the song in 90 minutes and I recorded the demo the next day. At the other extreme, I have a song on my first CD called “Aurora.” I carried around the first four lines of that lyric for three years, kept trying to finish the song – but couldn’t find it until I’d had a heart-hurting experience - and finished the song in two days.
As for when I record something – that too can vary wildly. The song “Consolation Prize” on my new CD was written several decades before I recorded it. Some things just need to marinate!
8. You worked very closely with one of my favorite actresses, Dixie Carter (who was best known for her roles on Designing Women, Differ'nt Strokes, & Family Law) for her CD & cabaret shows. What is something about your time with Dixie you can share with us that you haven't talked about previously? I’m so glad you asked about Dixie! And that you loved her work. Very few people know what a great singer she was – and how important that was to her.
When she agreed to do Designing Women, one of her conditions was that her character had to sing on some of the episodes. And each time “Julia Sugarbaker” sang, I was hired to play – either on or off camera. It was great fun, being on the set. Working with Dixie – onstage or off – was always a joy!
I produced two albums with her, the first of which we recorded in 1985 before Designing Women. We’d put it out as an LP, but very few people ever heard it. After Dixie’s passing, I got together with her husband, Hal Holbrook and had the album re-mastered and released in CD format, renaming it The Heart of Dixie. Her performances on the album are musically impeccable, funny, deep, vulnerable, elegant, literate, down-home, even dangerous. She sings Dylan better than anyone except Dylan. (I know, cause I worked with him). Her rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” is one of the sexiest and most unexpected versions ever. The CD is available online – but so few people know that it’s out there (click here for the CD)
9. You are currently continuing to develop the show The Belle of Tombstone (formerly titled I Married Wyatt Earp), with a book by Thomas Edward West and Sheilah Rae. (This show focuses on the woman of Wyatt Earp).
What is it like to write music for an all female cast? The show, in its earliest inception, was called Josie and the Women of Tombstone. It’s based on the true story of Josephine Sarah Marcus and her collision with the wives of the Earp brothers when she and Wyatt fell in love. Writing for an all-female cast is a delight! We have a variety of vocal styles since there are characters in the piece from some very different backgrounds, though I like to describe the musical style overall as “Aaron Copland goes to Nashville.” And though, with an all-female cast, we don’t have the deep low vocal ranges that men would add, our orchestrations, by Tony-award winner Bruce Coughlin, give the score plenty of dark, deep colors.
Which has been the easiest song to write thus far? The “easiest” song to write – probably is the round sung by the Earp wives when they’re working. It’s called “Pins and Needles” and it’s the song most people come out humming. Tiny and simple, it becomes the mantra underlying a huge musical set-piece, “The Shoot Out.”
Which one has given you the most trouble? And the hardest song to write – probably “In the Cards”, a sung-thru scene where “Bess Earp” is reading Tarot cards. The meter keeps shifting, roiling, as the cards foretell the heartbreak that has already started to unfold.
What is one song you were happy to get rid of and what is one song that just pained you to cut in the rewrites? As for the songs that we’ve cut – there’s one that hurt to lose, “It’s Never Perfect.” But I included that song on my first CD as a duet with Amanda McBroom – so at least it’s not sitting in the proverbial trunk. There have been a few that were easier to get rid of – or replace, generally because they either weren’t strong enough – or they weren’t carrying the story forward.
10. This April Hartt School in CT will be mounting a production of The Belle of Tombstone. What are you looking forward to most about seeing this production? Sheilah and Tom have done some terrific rewriting on the book. They’ve streamlined it – and deepened it at the same time. I’m excited to see the new shape of the piece, get a feel for how It’s working now.
11. "The Only Time” is a song you wrote for an Off-Broadway show called AIDS/Us/Women. How did you approach writing this song for such a heavy topic? What was it like in the room when you presented it? Why hasn't it been heard since? It was an extraordinary piece of theatre since the women onstage were the actual women, telling their own stories of their struggles with AIDS.
The director, a magnificent man named Steven Kent, had asked me to compose incidental music for the show. He and I had collaborated on a number of productions prior to this one, where I would create underscoring for the piece – almost like scoring a movie. I came to the first read-through having never heard the stories or met the women. As they read through the script, I was crying. What each of them had gone through – and was still going through – was excruciating. At the very end of the script, Steven had added : “Here everyone will sing an anthem that Michele is going to write.” That wasn’t something we’d talked about – but he knew it was what he needed to end the show. I really struggled with that song. Ultimately, I drew the inspiration from the words of several of the women in the piece.
One of them had said “If something scares you, honey, run to it – because you won’t be able to escape it.”
So my chorus became:
“Run to what you fear.
There’s nowhere to be but here
And now is the only time, the only time we have –
So live it now.”
When the women in the show heard it for the first time, we all wept together. They sang it beautifully. And Steven gave them only one piece of “choreography.” They would simply stand in a line across the stage and sing (along with my pre-recorded track that included some “ringer” vocals) – and at the end of the song they would all breathe in – and breathe out. Together. It was powerful!
12. I have a component to my interviews called "I Can See Clearly Now" where I try to clear up misconceptions about my interviewees. What do you feel is the biggest misconception out there about composers that you would like to clear up right now? People don’t think about woman composers, but there are some terrific ones out there. We so rarely get to see or hear women’s compositions – but there are women emerging now, and that’s thrilling!
13. Rapid Fire Questions:
Coke or Pepsi? Neither. Water!! That may be so “LA”!
City or Country? Love nature, but I love living in the city.
Colgate or Crest? Arm & Hammer.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee in the morning – strong, French press with steamed milk. Tea later in the day.
Favorite go to Emoji when texting? Hearts and musical notes. And the Namaste hands.
More on Michele:
Michele Brourman is an award-winning singer/songwriter whose best-known song, “My Favorite Year” has been recorded by Michael Feinstein, Margaret Whiting, Dame Cleo Laine, and more.
With lyricist Amanda McBroom, she’s written the songs for 18 animated features for Universal Studios, including the beloved Land Before Time series, writing for artists like Reba McEntire, Michael York, David Carradine, Jodi Benson, Olivia Newton-John, Donny Osmond, Corbin Bleu and a host of others.
Her work has been featured in television and film and performed by countless cabaret artists, garnering numerous awards and critical acclaim.