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Songwriter Shaina Taub on Joining Elton John for 'Devil Wears Prada' Musical: 'It Just Felt Like a Fit'

Sasha Arutyunova
Shaina Taub

It's been an exciting past month for Shaina Taub. The piano-playing composer, lyricist and performer -- a winner of theater's prestigious Jonathan Larson Grant and the first female recipient of ASCAP's Lucille and Jack Yellen Award -- was just announced as the lyricist working with Elton John on a forthcoming Broadway-aimed musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, produced in partnership with 20th Century Fox. Earlier this month, she co-wrote Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles' opening number for the Tony Awards. And Taub's own musical adaptation of Twelfth Night will play as part of the Shakespeare in the Park season in New York July 17-August 19.

In the wake of the Prada announcement, Taub, whose album Die Happy came out in March, spoke to Billboard about starting to work with John and why the movie is perfect Broadway musical material.

How long has The Devil Wears Prada been in the works for you? 

I had heard tell of it happening when it was first announced. It’s one of my favorite movies -- I know it by heart -- and I was like, man, I would give anything to work on that! But it seemed like they had a team and were on their way. I got a call this spring from my agent, and he was like, "I think you’ll be excited, they’re interested in talking to you about doing the lyrics." So I had some meetings with the book writer, Paul Rudnick, and got connected with Elton, and it just felt like a fit for everyone. So I’ve been working on the first hunk of songs, and last weekend I went to London to be in the studio with Elton. I was excited and nervous, but he just immediately put me at ease and we hit it off. I brought the lyrics in, and he likes to work in the studio with the band and get the full gesture of what he’s hearing musically out. To track a whole song in a day and realize a full musical idea in a day, it’s a luxury I haven’t always had, so it’s exciting to be working like that. He and his longtime bandmates have this camaraderie, and they just welcomed me with open arms. I had to remind myself every couple hours I was with this hero of mine.

You usually write both lyrics and music -- is writing lyrics only a different kind of challenge?

For my theater songwriting, I write lyrics first anyway, so I’m used to working only with them, and then at a certain juncture I bring it to the piano. It’s fun to learn what [Elton] likes. I’ve studied his lyrics and his theater writing to find out his phrasing and tempo and the kind of melodies he likes, so I can then tailor the lyrics to what his gifts are. It’s been a challenge, but in a positive way I feel like I’m learning from.

What about the story made you think it worked as a musical and was right for you?

It so naturally expands and heightens into a musical. The fashion world is so larger than life and theatrical, the movie itself is so theatrical, and the characters -- in Andy, you have everything you want in a protagonist, someone with big dreams and huge ambition who has to deal with the reality of the world and adulthood for the first time. And I haven’t quite seen a relationship like [Andy and Miranda Priestly's] between two women onstage. And the movie is such a delicious comedy, with real stakes and heart. It really excites me to put that in a musical. It just feels natural -- making the outline of songs, things jump off the page really easily. I was re-watching the movie recently while working on the lyrics and was like, "It's Wednesday afternoon, I’m watching Devil Wears Prada, and it counts as work -- I'm doing something right."

Your sensibility seems like an incredible match with Elton’s. Had the two of you met before? Has he told you why he wanted you on the project?

We'd definitely never met, but he's such a seminal figure for me musically. His "Border Song" is my favorite, and I remember dancing to it in my dance class as a child. Lion King was my generation to a T, memorizing all those words. It’s that thing of feeling you have a connection to someone via their art, and it was beautiful that we both shared the thought that we felt as if we’d known each other for a long time. I don’t totally know how my hat got thrown in the ring -- the producers probably brought my work to Elton. But I remember he said my lyrics made him laugh, so I was glad to hear that. 

This isn't your first time working with a big pop star -- you worked on Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles’ intro number for the Tonys this year, right?  

Yeah, I co-wrote it with Sara and Josh. That was also really fun and unexpected. I’ve looked up to Sara for so long and we’ve met a couple times and recently we were both involved in a night at Carnegie Hall honoring female songwriters. She just sent me a message on Twitter like, do you have a sec to talk? They were working on this song and wanted some new perspective on it. We hung out on a Saturday and worked out the idea and lyrics. Writing can be so solitary, and it was so fun to get a window into Sara’s process but also bring my side to it. With our powers combined, it felt like that fun collaborative energy, which is why I write for theater. I’ve done a little co-writing here and there over the years, but it’s been fun to dive into that more fully this... month, I guess! Sara Bareilles and Josh Groban and Elton John -- are you kidding me?! 

Is Prada the first time you’ve been brought in for a show of this size and profile? 

It’s a first in the sense of something that is a well-known adaptation, beloved and on this level in the commercial world. Over the past couple years I’ve been approached about various things, but I try to hold on to anything I commit to being something where I feel very passionate about the story and the characters. It’s not gonna work if I don’t really love the story and characters. And this felt like the right one. I genuinely love it.  

You're always working on multiple projects at once -- will you be able to do that while Prada is in the works?

I define myself as both a songwriter and performer, and I’m still writing my musical about the women’s suffragette movement. I’ve been working on that awhile, I just had a workshop, so I’m really excited in my writing life for this and Prada to kind of be the two things I’m working on. They’re so different, and my role in writing them is different, and obviously Prada’s really contemporary and based on something that already exists, but they’re both stories about women just trying to get shit done. So it’s exciting to be dually working on these pieces. 

Speaking of your other work -- you're reinterpreting your musical adaptation of Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in the Park soon. What does that entail?

I went back in and did some rewrites, I wrote a new song. The Public Works shows are written so quickly for these brief runs, so it was initially just about getting it up and making it work; I didn't have a chance to step back and reflect. I’ve never had a remounting like this and it feels great. I’m learning that negotiation between when something needs to be sharpened or strengthened and when to not fix what isn’t broken, to trust things that work, to know that difference. I’ve never really had a proper preview process, and there are things you just can’t learn until you’re in front of an audience, so I’m excited to learn those things and have actual time to address them before we open.

On your recent album, there's a song called “Huddled Masses” -- referencing the poem on the Statue of Liberty -- which you wrote in the wake of Trump's inauguration and his initial travel ban. Obviously, it feels especially powerful right now. As someone who bridges the pop and theater worlds and who has never shied away from addressing politics in your music, how do you feel about how artists are engaging with our current political atmosphere?

It feels like there’s this artistic force right now, where artists are realizing we have a crucial role to play. I believe change gets ratified by legislation -- you have to change hearts and minds first, until it forces legislators to respond to the overwhelming emotions of the people, hopefully in a positive way.  The arts help us empathize and look at the world from a different perspective than our own and to humanize these issues so they’re not just talking points for politicians. I think artists are realizing that we actually do have a role in this. I’ve always been writing politically and it’s been exciting to feel that larger galvanization of people responding, to feel a community rallying in a way I didn’t feel necessarily when I was writing the song a couple years back. On August 13, there’s going to be an evening at the Delacorte that’s a partnership between the Resistance Revival Chorus, a women’s activism choir I’ve been a part of, and the Public Forum, so that’s a really exciting collaboration. I'm not sure exactly what I'll perform yet, but it feels like "Huddled Masses" ... we might want that.