The Festival of New American Theatre: Composer Lyricist Cabaret: Derek Gregor and Sam Carner

The Festival of New American Theatre

Composer Lyricist Cabaret: Derek Gregor and Sam Carner

Phoenix Theatre Company, Phoenix, AZ, January 20, 2024

Reviewed by Lynn Timmons Edwards

Sam Carner & Derek Gregor

The Composer Lyricist Cabaret is a treasured annual component of Phoenix Theatre Company’s (PTC) Festival of New American Theatre. Traditionally, a panel of 12 that includes both artists and patrons reviews and selects the plays, cabarets, and musicals to be workshopped. Composer Derek Gregor and lyricist Sam Carner were offered one of the cabaret slots because they are currently in residence at PTC workshopping their new musical Unlock’d. The musical has a commercial producer who has requested that PTC producing artistic director Michael Barnard work with the creative team to develop and direct the emerging show. A reading of the show will be presented to an invited audience. Gregor and Carner met in graduate school at New York University and have been working together for 20 years. They have found a successful niche, but they are still waiting to break through to Broadway.

The cabaret opened with a very funny stand-alone cabaret song “What Do You Do with Your Arms?” sung by Festival director and talented singer/actor Michelle Chin. It has some risqué lyrics and would work very well for emerging cabaret singers. The nine other songs came from musicals, most have already been licensed. The duo’s newest show, which has just been licensed and will be available in the Fall of 2024, is Techies. It’s a show within a show and takes place amid the teen angst of a high school theater department. They also shared songs from Island Song, which has been produced more than 60 times around the world. Their style is contemporary and has lots of song-speak, with melodies that move quickly and very funny lyrics. What we heard was all written for young characters who are discovering their emotions. Soprano Maggie Barry had the perfect voice for “Behind the Spotlight” from Techies and “Just Outside” from Unlock’d. Her voice is bright and perfectly on the pitch, and she can take her belt into her high register, exactly what is required by most show scores these days. She constantly smiled, and has cheek bones that provide plenty of resonance. I do not know her age, but she can sell herself as a high-school ingénue. Gregor clearly loves working with her on the Unlock’d rewrites. In addition to Barry and Chin, the cabaret company included Catherine Ricafort; she’s also blessed with acting chops and a bright, high Broadway belt. Also in the cast is veteran actor/singer Seth Tucker, who is a favorite cabaret artist whom we have not seen much on stage of late.

The second offering from Techies was “Making Peter Fly,” sung by two girlfriends about their love of theater. The show should do very well with youth theaters and in high schools. Island Song is loosely based on experiences that Gregor had as a young man in New York. Tucker did an excellent solo job with “Wall Lovin’” and in duet with Chin on “Tooth Brush.” In the latter, gender stereotypes are flipped as a commitment-phobic young woman is taken aback by her boyfriend’s insistence on leaving his toothbrush in her bathroom. Both songs are comedic and vocally fun for the actors and the audience. These selections are examples of writing what you know and then embellishing it. (I suggest adding the songwriters’ trunk song “What Do you Do with Your Arms?” to the score.) Tucker soared, showing outrage, pain, and optimism about his new destiny in “Out of the Bay” from Unlock’d. He has range and knows how to use his falsetto. Carner described the show as A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Mean Girls.

Richert’s tour-de-force number was “New York Do You Care” from Island Song. It has a full-circle character arc that begins with a young woman who’s angry about her cross-town journey in the rain. After listing all of the very real reasons to hate living in New York City, she comes to realize that she cannot leave her geographic soulmate. The song was requested by the writing team’s producer, who also asked for a song that they wrote but did not perform, “My Vagina Is Not the Highway to My Heart.”

Carner is the founder/director of the Musical Creators Institute ( that is dedicated to fostering young music-theater creators. He introduced “Amelia” from Plane Girl, written by student composer Canaan Harris with lyrics and book by Hayley Goldenberg and Julia Koyman. It was accompanied by Institute pianist Lindsay Miller and sung by Barry. It is a strong song for a young flying-obsessed girl, sung as an ode to her hero Amelia Earhart. Carner was quite modest during the cabaret, but he has won awards for his work as a lyricist, including the $100,000 Kleban Prize and the Richard Rodgers Award.

The cabaret closed with “Advice to a Young Firefly,” delicately sung by Ricafort, from their show Second Lin, which they chose not to elaborate on. Gregor accompanied all the songs except for “Amelia.” He has a delicate touch, and he did a fantastic job supporting the singers, who had only four days to learn the material.

There was a spirited audience talkback following the cabaret that focused on the charm and entertainment qualities of Gregor and Carner themselves. Gregor talked about composing for musical theater and about collaborating with a producer, a director, and singers to craft and improve a score. When asked the proverbial question, “what comes first, music or words?,” he replied that “it depends.” Often his notes grow out of a riff, a rhythm, or a vibe he gets from Carner or from his own inspiration. He sees composing as a blue-color job and checks his ego at the door. “If you don’t like this melody, let me give you three more to choose from.” He taught us that rising baselines in a song signal something is coming. Carner discussed the turn in a musical-theater song; sometimes it is placed in the bridge, but sometimes it works better in a second verse. They both value singer/actor input regarding a song’s emotional beats and judging how the lyrics work for someone’s voice placement. They aim to please. Their commercial producer was about to fly into Phoenix to listen to what they had done with Unlock’d, and I was reminded of Tom Hanks’ line in his film That Thing You Do: “I don’t want to hear any lovers lament crap—I want something snappy!”

Lynn Timmons Edwards

Lynn writes and performs themed cabaret shows based on the songs of the Great American Songbook throughout Arizona. She has had three short plays produced in the Theatre Artists Studio Festival of Summer Shorts and is working on a full length play, "Fairy," based on the life of Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, a founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to writing and singing, Lynn plays bridge and tennis and enjoys traveling with her husband and artistic companion, Bob. Born in Ohio, Lynn is a graduate of Denison University (BA), Arizona State University (MPA) and has lived in Arizona since 1977.