Michael Bitterman is crazy about music. He has channeled that passion into two separate careers: one as a studio owner and recording engineer and the other as an accomplished composer and lyricist. Hes a Broadway baby at heart, musical theater being his first and truest love. We talked about music and the theater, among other things, in the cushy comfort of his recording studio on a chill and winter day.
Sam Andreas: Where were you born and where have you lived?
Michael Bitterman: I was born in Manhattan and I spent the first 21 years of my life on Long Island. I spent two years in Westchester, and in 1973 I moved up here to Woodstock.
SA: What brought you up here?
MB: I came here one day with a friend in 1972 and I fell in love with the town.... There were people with long hair, musicians and everything, and I thought oh my goodness, I cant believe it!
SA: What are your first memories of Woodstock?
MB: I came into the old Joyous Lake in January of 1972. The whole town, I think, was in the Joyous Lake and people were sitting at the bar and at tables and they were all watching a movie and I felt so in place.
SA: Tell me about your family.
MB: My mom works off and on with a music attorney in New York, and my father owns a coat manufacturing company in New York, which his father had started in the 20s.
SA: Were you expected to go into the family business?
MB: I think my father would have liked that, but I had no desire for that.
SA: What jobs have you had in your life?
MB: The first time I made money was as a teenager playing in a rock and roll band called The Long Island Sounds. I had an exclusive songwriters contract when I was 18. I started teaching the guitar. I started a recording studio.
SA: How did you get into recording?
MB: I was spending money going to recording studios, recording all my early stuff in the 60s and I figured if I started my own studio with my own equipment, I could record it all myself and Ive been doing it ever since.
SA: Tell me about your studio.
MB: Its called Midnight Modulation and Im open for business! (laughs) I have a web-page, <midmod.com>. Ive been recording almost everyone in this town for the past 25 years, and for 10 years I worked out of my living room! I produced an album called Woodstock Moods & Moments, and this had a lot of local people on it. I acted as a producer and recording engineer throughout the 80s.
SA: Who have you worked with?
MB: Graham Parker, NRBQ, John Sebastian, The Band, Jean Redpath, Priscilla Herdman. When youre living in Woodstock, you use every hook you can find to create something, so everything I can possibly do as a musician, Ive been doing! (laughs)
SA: Do you have a treasured possession?
MB: A letter from Rod Serling. I was a big fan of Twilight Zone. I wrote to him and he wrote back! (Michael opens a Richard Rodgers songbook and gently takes out a dried red rose, pressed between the pages.) And I have a rose I caught from Chita Rivera in Chicago in 1976 when I saw it on Broadway. They threw roses out at the end. This was the same year I wrote my first musical.
SA: Lets talk musicals! (laughs) What was the name of that first musical?
MB: It was called Manhattan. It was kind of an exercise musical so it never opened anywhere, but several of the songs were included in Were Not Who We Think We Are, which was a revue of songs I was working on at that time.
SA: Did that ever open anywhere?
MB: It opened at the Kleinert in 1977. From there it went to play at SUNY New Paltz and a couple other colleges. Then I got a friend of mine to write a new version of the play using those songs and we called it Five After Eight and I produced it off-Broadway in November of 1979.
SA: Thats great! (laughs) Perserverance furthers, eh?
MB: Yes. (smiles) Ive been putting everything I have into my work as a composer. Thats where my true love is and thats what I want to try to make happen.
SA: Tell me, how did you get interested in writing musicals?
MB: Writing for theater has always been my first love. The whole style of music is totally different and the songs are for character.
SA: Are you writing something now?
MB: Well, I wrote a musical called Rasputin in 1980 with Dennis Drogseth. I'd been out of touch with him for many years and then all of a sudden, he said hed like to continue trying to make something out of Rasputin and I love the music from it and... about two years ago we started revamping the book and were in the process now of putting out a new recording of it. Were going to use the recording to send to directors, producers and theaters to try and get a production. (He shows me a CD called Discovering Magenta.) Thats the same thing I did with this. I put together a recording, I played everything and I got some local people, Amy Fradon, Steve Rust, Vickie Russell, to sing on it. The CD is available now through the Internet on <Amazon.com>, as well as Five After Eight also. I;m putting everything I have into my musicals, thats my love.
SA: Tell me, is there anything in your life youd like to change?
MB: Im very happy with my life the way it is now because its very organized. With these two musicals, I have to arrange and orchestrate and play the music, record it, produce the recordings, find singers, its all on me. Its a hell of a lot of work!
SA: It sounds like it! To relax, what music do you listen to?
MB: I listen to Sinatra, big bands, Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, mainstream jazz from the 50s, folk music from the 60s, all kinds of music from the 60s. It was such an eclectic era of music. I love, more than anything else, to listen to musicals because you hear a whole story unfold.
SA: Do you have a favorite musical?
MB: There are the "important" musicals: Showboat, Oklahoma, West Side Story; The Sondheim shows: Company, Follies and A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd. Five shows in a row were mind-boggling! Each of them was so totally different from the other and so rich in music.
SA: Do you have a favorite season?
MB: Fall. I like to see the change of color in the leaves and it means were leaving a time when its very hot and were coming into the cold crispness of winter in Woodstock. Winter is the first time I saw the town.
SA: (smiles) Why do fools fall in love?
MB: (laughs) Because were all fools and we all want love more than anything in the world, and if its there, well fall for it!
SA: Are you political, or were you ever?
MB: I believe we should all have civil liberties, which we dont. We cant do anything we want in the privacy of our own home, which is ridiculous. Censorship I dont believe in at all.
SA: Favorite nature spot?
MB: I love being by the ocean. It calms me. I wish I could look out and see the ocean, see the waves.
SA: Are your role models here or elsewhere?
MB: Im at the age where I just have to depend on myself and be my own role model.
SA: What opportunities would take you elsewhere?
MB: A production of one of my musicals would take me someplace else. Discovering Magenta will be produced in L.A. next year, so that will bring me there. I will go wherever a musical of mine will be produced.
SA: What were your first footsteps into aesthetics?
MB: I saw Gypsy when I was nine years old with Ethel Merman... and I was mesmerized. And hearing the Beatles in 1964. Once I heard them, I knew I wanted to get serious with music. I learned the guitar. I formed a band. I knew that after the Beatles, I would study the rest of my life somehow, with writing songs and playing music.
SA: Whats coming up for you?
MB: I have the production of two musicals in Los Angeles, possibly. Rasputin and Discovering Magenta. Theres a theater in Canada thats interested in Rasputin. I would love another production of Five After Eight from 20 years ago, but Im more into doing new stuff now.
SA: How do you indulge yourself?
MB: I can put on a record of a musical and get so lost in it that Im in another world. I can get carried away with the work of an orchestrator. I love that! Thats one of the greatest turn-ons I have. When Im working on a musical... am I indulging myself then? I think I must be.
SA: Have you had any major revelations in your life?
MB: I realize that opportunity does not come that often, and when it comes, grab it!
SA: Thank you for this opportunity, Michael.
Discovering Magenta and Five After Eight are both available on <Amazon.com>, at Footlight Records and Tower Records. ++