Peter Lerman's Great Expectations

The young musical playwright prepares for his debut--nine years from now!--and the pressure of being the next Stephen Sondheim.

Peter Lerman

Age | 24
Home | New York, New York
Musicals completed | 2
Musicals produced | 2
Career goal | "To write the Broadway show that people can kick their shoes off and enjoy."
Childhood ambition | "When I was five, I thought I was going to be a rock star."
What his parents think | "When I first started this thing, they were like, 'What?' "

"It takes 10 years to write a successful musical," says Peter Lerman, "and it literally all comes down to opening night." Where's Lerman now? Year one.

Lerman, 24, is the bright young hope of the Great White Way, a musical playwright who finds himself in the spotlight because of industry excitement over his prodigious talent. In April 2005, the Kennedy Center awarded him an American College Theater Festival Award for his show To Memphis (with the intention of returning). The musical was also his free ticket into the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, an intensive program sponsored by the music publisher that The New York Times has called "the Harvard of show tunes." But for all his early accolades, Lerman is still a long way away from knowing whether the larger public will embrace him. He's currently at work on a modern love story (and musical comedy) about opera in the South. How he prepares to live up to the hype is an object lesson for anyone facing great expectations.

Ten years is a long time to live under the weight of potential, and patience doesn't come naturally to Lerman. He is a high-energy, restless guy. One minute, he's acting out a story, the next playing the piano, the next strumming a guitar. Because it will be years before his work faces a real audience, Lerman has assembled a sounding board, a group of trusted friends who are involved in the music industry but not specifically musical theater. "They're a real audience," he says. "They don't mind telling me when they don't get it."

Lerman also spends a lot of time honing his instincts and heeding his inner compass. He watches other musicals for inspiration and to create a sense of rivalry. He studies when a joke falls flat and when a song lands so that when he goes home to his own work, what to do "is instinctual," he says. "I've developed the ability and awareness to know when I have or have not put enough heart (or hours) into a song. In the end, it all comes down to the music: If I rush the process, I rush the music. But if I pace myself, my songs will be thoughtful."

Pressure, in the end, is what you make of it, and Lerman treats pressure like a game. "I make it a positive," he says. He lives for criticism. "As soon as someone says, 'You're not going to make it,' I charge ahead." And if that doesn't work? "Sometimes I'll call my mom. She's a good critic."

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