One of musical theater’s most exciting new writing partnerships started with a breakup song. Composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Steven Sater bonded while creating “Ready to Be Done With You,” cementing a collaboration that has now produced a 13-track concept album sung by some of Broadway’s best.
“It’s just been a thrill ride for me and the thrill of a lifetime to work with Burt,” says Sater, the Tony-, Olivier- and Grammy-winner behind Spring Awakening, which paired his story and lyrics with music by Duncan Sheik. The still-to-be-staged musical is called Some Lovers and Broadway Records has released its clutch of songs just in time for the collection to be eligible for this year’s Grammy for best musical theater album. The starry list of singers includes Jennifer Holliday, Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, Christy Altomare, Ramin Karimloo, Auli’i Cravalho, Derek Klena, Betsy Wolfe, Tracie Thoms, Katrina Lenk, Santino Fontana, Conrad Ricamora, Ashley Park, Ethan Slater and Lilli Cooper.
“Just as a fan of all things great songwriting and great Broadway, it’s just perfect,” says Colton Ryan, who sings the opening song, “Molly,” with his Alice By Heart co-star Molly Gordon. “I mean, I’m a little biased, but I’m also pretty objective.” Some Lovers is designed to have a cast of four singers, who together portray a couple — Ben and Molly — in their optimistic youth and also in their jaded, disaffected middle age. It moves in and out of memory and time.
“The show kind of happens in the memory and imagination of the older people. But the young parts of themselves are still in love with each other and trying to convince them to get back with each other,” says Sater. He says the story was inspired by “The Gift of the Magi,” the O. Henry short story about a young poor couple. She sells her hair to buy a watch chain, and he sells his watch in order to buy her a set of combs for Christmas.
“What if we took what happened to those people 15 years later, after they made these huge sacrifices?” asks Sater. “What are they feeling? And so that was how we began work on the show. It was almost like crafting a jukebox musical out of your own songs.” The path that Some Lovers has taken has taken years, led to dead ends and yet proved more powerful than the pandemic. Sater first connected with Bacharach years ago when he was invited to the house of the composer of such timeless songs as “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
“At the end of this long meeting, where I kind of stayed too long, he said to me, ‘Well, it sounds like you have your partner for the theater. But if you ever have a lyric, maybe you could give it to me.’ And I said, ‘I brought one.’”
That song was “Ready to Be Done With You” and Bacharach read the lyrics while he was walking Sater out. As he read it, he slumped against a wall, turned around and walked Sater back to read the whole lyric out loud sitting down. “He said, ‘Oh, Stevie, this is so real, man. You know, who hasn’t felt this?’”Two months later, Bacharach called Sater and said, “I have a little something for that lyric you wrote. Do you want to hear it?” Sater recalls. “Somehow he had turned it into a Bacharach song, and it was just the most beautiful thing.”
A partnership was born.
The proto-musical made its debut at the Old Globe in San Diego in 2011 but its creators weren’t happy. “We were so not ready,” Sater says. In 2016, the songs were presented in concert at Lincoln Center and a revised musical was staged at a festival in London in 2017 and the Adirondack Theatre Festival in 2018. Just before the pandemic hit, Sater and Bacharach came up with a clever twist: They’d ask singers who played lovers previously on Broadway to record their songs as duets. It meant Ryan would sing with his Alice by Heart co-star Gordon, Groff and Michele reunited from Spring Awakening, Slater and Cooper from SpongeBob SquarePants and Lenk and Ari’el Stachel from The Band’s Visit.
“There’s something so heartbreaking and there’s so much yearning in this album. It’s because I think it has so much chemistry already within it,” said Ryan. Ryan recorded his part at his mom’s house in Kentucky. He used a room a little bigger than a closet and soundproofed by putting Styrofoam on the walls. He sang to a stripped down track and the horns and strings were added later. Gordon sang her part months later from Los Angeles and their voices were knit together. “To actually hear the finished product I was elated. I was shocked. I could not believe that it sounded as good as it did,” says Ryan. “We all sent our little pieces away from our corners of the world. And then it turned into this lush thing.”