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After two decades of obscurity, singer/songwriter John Bucchino burst out Sunday (April 30, 2000) at a party launching his first CD. The RCA album, "Grateful: The Songs of John Bucchino," features sixteen artists singing Bucchino songs as he accompanies them at the piano. They are Ann Hampton Callaway, Judy Collins, Art Garfunkel, Brian Lane Green, Adam Guettel, Daisy Prince, Lois Sage, Billy Stritch, Jimmy Webb, David Campbell, Kristin Chenoweth, Michael Feinstein, Patti LuPone, Amanda McBroom and Liza Minnelli.

The first nine of these singers were at the Firebird Cafe on West 46th Street Sunday evening to sing in person. It's notable that several of them are songwriters themselves. A friend of John's calls "Grateful" his "star-fucker album" and John laughs when he relates the comment. That glib label implies that John sucked up to these stars to get them to sing his songs. But exactly the opposite is the case. Almost all the stars have championed his work, introducing his music to their friends and recommending his songs. They volunteered to sing, without pay, at the party.

Bucchino's musical, Lavender Girl, is having its world premiere November 1, 2000 at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia as part of an evening of three one-act musicals supervised by Hal Prince in his first directorial appearance at the theater which bears his name. Scott Schwartz will direct Lavender Girl. Bucchino's first musical, Urban Myths, had its premiere last season in Kansas City. Books to both musicals are by James Waedekin, and the new CD includes songs from both works.

But it's been a long and frustrating haul for Bucchino, who is 47. Born in South Philadelphia, he never had music lessons of any sort. His family moved to California when he was young, and he taught himself how to play the piano. He still doesn't know how to read music. He composes at the piano and makes cassette tapes which he gives to friends. For years, those amateur Bucchino tapes have been legendary among insiders in the music business, as singers and song-writers passed them around to each other with words of glowing praise.

"It's been a widening circle," explains Bucchino. "Things started to move when I met Michael Feinstein. We both were playing in L.A. piano bars around 1990. Then he introduced me to Jimmy Webb. The two of them said they were fans of my music, and I really appreciated their comments, because nothing was happening with my career." Webb arranged a CD project for Art Garfunkel in 1994 and asked Artie to sing Bucchino's "If I Ever Say I'm Over You." But Garfunkel never finished the recording, and that CD was abandoned.

Soon after that, Bucchino wrote "Grateful." "The first person I played it for was Artie, and he included it as the closing cut on his subsequent album, "Across America," recorded at Ellis Island. In that album's context, the singer is grateful to be in the USA. To most listeners, though, the song is about love. Bucchino wrote it for Urban Myths, where the singer is grateful for having "a family of friends."

For years, Bucchino worked in Los Angeles as a music director and pianist for pop and folk singers such as Holly Near. On the advice of composer Stephen Schwartz, Bucchino moved to Manhattan in 1992 to concentrate on a music theater career. He thinks of himself as, basically, a communicator who tries to tell stories. His tunes are hummable, often haunting and sometimes irresistibly toe-tapping.

David Campbell included "Grateful" on his first CD, and the young Australian singer then asked for the chance to appear on a cabaret program that Bucchino was doing in Philadelphia in 1998. The two of them built it into a duo act that eventually won a MAC Award in April 2000. Campbell sings one of Bucchino's newest songs, "Better Than I," on the soundtrack of the Dreamworks animated film "Joseph" and on the new Bucchino album. (He had to miss the Firebird party because he's singing in Nebraska. He offered to cancel and fly to New York, but Bucchino refused to let him give up his engagement. LuPone has been busy rehearsing Sweeney Todd and also could not attend the event. Chenoweth missed the gig because she's in California taping her new TV sitcom.)

"I met Brian Lane Green when he was a 20-year-old kid scooping ice cream in West Hollywood," says Bucchino as he returns to his narrative. "He wanted to do a cabaret act, and he hired me as his pianist. Then Brian introduced me to two of his Los Angeles friends, Amanda McBroom and Andrea Marcovicci. They are two wonderful, intelligent women, and they became my dear friends." Each of them has recorded several Bucchino songs. Marcovicci was appearing in Los Angeles Sunday night. Speaking from there by phone, she said his music stopped her in her tracks the first time she heard one of his tapes. "I was in my car and literally had to pull over to listen. He's one of our great artists and today's event is exactly what should be happening for him. I think of his lyrics as the sophistication of Sondheim combined with melodies that are tinged with pop, folk and theater."

Shortly after Bucchino moved to New York City, in 1992, McBroom came there to do a nightclub act. "After the show," Bucchino remembers, "she introduced me to Judy Collins who was in the audience. Judy invited me to her apartment and asked me to play all my stuff. She especially loved "Sweet Dreams," but she never recorded it until now. Sunday night, Collins performed the same song that's on the album, as did the other eight singers.

"Brian Lane Green moved to New York just before I did," continued Bucchino. "He introduced me to his pal Daisy Prince. Through Daisy, we joined a circle of musicians who met to sing and play and talk about music: Liza Minnelli, Billy Stritch, Ann Hampton Callaway and Adam Guettel." Daisy's parents, Hal & Judy Prince, are good friends of Adam's parents, Hank & Mary Rodgers Guettel. "We'd sit around the piano at Adam's loft or at Daisy's or Liza's or Hal & Judy's place and goof around. One night I was playing Richard Rodgers' piano in Adam's loft while Liza was singing and I suddenly said to myself, `What on earth am I doing here?!' I just love being around talented people, but it just dawned on me that these were celebrities, and who was I? For many years I cried on my parents shoulders wondering if I'd ever be successful. Now they're so happy for me. I'm not crying anymore."

John's parents still live in the Philadelphia area. He is a retired accountant. John had a younger brother, Michael, who died of AIDS in 1995. Many of John's songs since then reflect loss and longing. "Unexpressed" is the narrative of a man who has love to give and fingers that ache to intertwine, but no one is there for him. "But," the song says, "maybe the love we yearn to give/ Can find a release some other way/ Coloring how we choose to live every day/ The kindness we can share..."

Partial loneliness is a theme in many Bucchino lyrics, such as this from "It Feels Like Home," about a couple that's just moved into a house: "We don't need a dining room table/ So far there's no one to invite/ For me a cardboard box will do just fine/ As long as I'm with you each night."

Bucchino's music incorporates even more elements than Marcovicci mentioned. For example, his "The Song With the Violins" includes trippingly rhyming couplets that evoke Tom Lehrer, and also parodies Viennese operetta. "Unexpressed" is based on Protestant hymnal cadences, transposed unexpectedly into yearning romanticism. Listen especially to how the melody is elongated on the words "I'm waiting to see that pair of eyes." "Better Than I" starts as a virtual homage to Disney animated anthems and then surges into a more personal statement. "Dancing" and "The Song With the Violins" demonstrate Bucchino's masterful way with a waltz.

Returning to our discussion of his personal ties with singers, Bucchino says, "Lois Sage is one of my oldest friends. She recorded the demo of `It Feels Like Home' back in the 1980s. Then she left the business, moved to Florida and had three kids. She came back to be part of this concert."

The two most recent friends who are on the album are Patti LuPone and Kristin Chenoweth. Bucchino explains: "A mutual friend gave Patti a demo tape of mine in 1997. One year later I got a phone call, saying: "This is Patti LuPone. I'm so sorry. I never played your tape until now, I'm so embarrassed, but I love everything on it.'" She included three Bucchino songs on the CD she recorded in 1998, including a devastatingly funny parody of Sondheim called "Playbill."

Bucchino says that Adam Guettel took him to a benefit concert at Union Square last winter "and he surprised me by singing `Unexpressed.' I felt so flattered because he could have sung any of his own great songs, but he chose mine." At the same concert, Kristin Chenoweth also performed "and knocked us all out with `Glitter and Be Gay.' Afterwards Adam introduced me to her, and she became the perfect choice to sing "This Moment." That song is about trying to catch a metaphorical butterfly - happiness -- and pin it down, to capture and frame the moment." Bucchino sang the number himself to end the April 30 evening.

Judy Collins says that it's "an honor to sing his music. I'm so crazy about his songs and his spirit. And he really communicates with people. I sang `Sweet Dreams' in Illinois last night -- the night before the party -- and the audience wept." Ann Hampton Callaway comments: "He writes songs that make us all feel understood."

Guettel sums up the opinions of many of the singers: "John writes pop with a personal twist. He's the most naturally gifted musician I've ever met. His brain and his fingers are as one. His voice-leading is completely natural, and his harmonic ideas are always graceful." Stephen Sondheim, after hearing a Bucchino audition tape, called him with words of encouragement. And composer and director Stephen and Scott Schwartz -- father and son -- say that Bucchino is a born writer for the theater.

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Key Subjects: 
John Bucchino; Grateful: The Songs Of John Bucchino;
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
April 2000