Seth Bisen-Hersh: Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artist
by David Sabella
Seth Bisen-Hersh is a prolific, versatile and award-winning composer/lyricist and performer. His musicals include Love Quirks (currently off-Broadway at the St. Luke’s Theatre), The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (2019 Finalist: Stiles & Drewe Best Song Award, Studio Cast Recording), Stanley’s Party (Manhattan Children’s Theatre, 2010), More to Love (2014 Winner: Best Lyrics, West Village Musical Theatre Festival), The Spickner Spin (2004 Fringe NYC Audience Favorite Award), and Meaningless Sex (2003 Fringe NYC Audience Favorite Award).
He has also written and starred in 10 cabaret song cycles of his work: And Then She Dumped Me, The Gayest Straight Man Alive, Meaningful Sex, Neurotic Tendencies, Why am I Not Famous Yet?, Writer’s Block: a cabaret that was hard to write, I’ll Relax When I’m Dead: a reluctantly prolific cabaret, If Adele Can Do It, So Can I: an evening of mostly sorrow, Not Your Grandma’s Cabaret (unless she’s really naughty) and his Self-Isolation Song Cycle during the 2020 pandemic.
For 10 years, he produced two annual charity concerts of his work featuring Broadway performers (Broadway Meows and Broadway Can!); he wrote/starred in the 5 seasons of the web series “Every Day a Little Seth,” co-wrote/co-starred in the TV pilot version and has emceed, produced and accompanied over 620 musical theatre talent showcases at Don’t Tell Mama (and virtually during the pandemic). In addition, he has published 3 books: a memoir, “Sleep. Write. Now. Emerging from a dark year of insomnia, anxiety and depression from loss” and two books of essays: “Every Page a Little Seth” and “Millennials are Ruining the World!”, the latter which he turned into an audiobook and podcast. Also, he was a winner of 2019 & 2020 ASCAP Plus Awards. He has two Bachelors from MIT (Computer Science & Engineering and Music Composition) and a Masters in Music Technology from NYU.
Seth is a founding vendor on Cabaret HotTrax and we are thrilled to have his music represented on the site. I had the opportunity to interview Seth and find out more about this remarkable man and his work.
David: Seth, what drew you to become a songwriter? Did you know as a young child that you wanted to do this? And if so, did your parents or family support your artistic desires?
Seth: Before I took official piano lessons at 8, my grandfather taught me how to read sheet music, and my grandmother taught me how to play by ear starting around the time I was 3. My grandfather also made me cassette tapes from his original cast albums so I had most golden age musical theatre scores memorized at an early age. I started doing theatre in 4th grade in my elementary school, first as the title role of “The Giving Tree” then as Captain Hook in “Peter Pan”, and I made my community theatre debut as Winthrop in “The Music Man” at the age of 11. From then on, I was always doing at least one production at a time. My family has always been supportive of my artistic desires as a side gig. In fact, my father was dragged into the cast of multiple community productions due to my sister’s and my involvement. However, it took many years before some people in my family accepted that it could be a viable career. Regardless, I am very grateful to my family for their constant support over the past few decades. My parents came to see the early previews of “Love Quirks” off-Broadway with lots of their friends, and I know they were planning on attending it many times (and hopefully they can once we reopen!).
What was the first song you ever wrote, and how old were you when you wrote it?
The first song I wrote was for my mother’s birthday when I was 13. It was called “I Love My Mom”. Then, I had the epiphany that if I wrote people songs, I didn’t have to pay for actual presents so that started a flurry of songs for family members. As I hit puberty, writing songs became a type of therapy and emotional release. Senior year of high school I mentioned I’d like to try writing a musical, and one of my friends agreed to write the book and co-lyrics. We produced that show, “Trivial Pursuits” my senior year at MIT (where I went for my undergraduate studies). At the time, I thought it would go straight to the Broadway, but spoiler alert… it didn’t. When I got my Masters at NYU, I started looking at pursuing piano and theatre as an actual career, and had two shows in the New York International Fringe Festival in 2003 and 2004. Once I started making a living in music/theater, there was no turning back for me.
Who are your musical influencers, both writing, and performing?
Stephen Sondheim has been my biggest idol, hands down. I’m a complete Sondheim acolyte and I devoured his books and any book on his process. I attempt to adhere to his impossible standard of writing lyrics. Other favorite musical theatre composers I try to write like include: Cole Porter, Jerry Herman, Marvin Hamlisch, Alan Menken, William Finn, Kander & Ebb, Maltby & Shire and Ahrens & Flaherty. I would say another big influence in terms of material and style for me is Tom Lehrer. And my biggest comedic influences would be The Muppets, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.
Do you have a favorite song or a project?
While trapped in my apartment last year, I put out two different Facebook Live series (facebook.com/sethbhdotcom). (I actually did 125 virtual performances in 2020.) The first one was 30 episodes and called “The Making of a Musical”. I discussed all the songs that have been associated with my off-Broadway musical “Love Quirks” at some point, one at a time, and went into depth on my writing process. After I finished those, we were still not able to do much, so I did 24 episodes of a weekly show called “Seth Sings Bisen-Hersh” where I discussed projects over the last 20 years or so. So, I basically revisited 300 songs last year, and I love them all! But I would say my favorite songs are always the project I’m working on at the moment because that’s where my headspace currently is, as I still have a chance to perfect them before they are in the public eye. (I revised the lyrics of “Love Quirks” many times over the past decade, but new performers tend to do the earlier lyrics they hear on the YouTube.)
Tell us about your process, even your daily schedule when working. Do you write every day? Are you inspired by current events or things around you?
I write when there’s something to be written, either emotionally or project-wise. I usually write when I wake up in the afternoon until I run out of steam for the day. I write incredibly quickly in spurts and very often am multitasking. If it’s a song for a musical, I like to have an outline of the song completely in place by the book-writer before I start it. If it’s a song I am writing emotionally, usually the music spews out and sometimes it ends up instrumental and sometimes I’ll add lyrics later. And if it’s a comedy song, I often try to get all the jokes in place before starting the music. But ideally, it’s good to write one verse both lyric and music at once to have a template for the rest of the song, and whenever possible I try to write that way.
I honestly had thought I’d written all the standalone cabaret songs I was going to write, having depleted all the topics in terms of relationships, apartments and career frustrations, but the pandemic gave me something to write about that no one has ever written about before! So, it was exciting for me to put out a dozen new songs (of which I made videos with my cat: tinyurl.com/sethsongcycle) in my Self-Isolation song cycle, which was obviously completely inspired by current events. Other than that, I mostly work on musicals, and the limiting reagent is almost always the collaborators’ availability.
What has been the hardest song or project to finish, and why? And, how did you finally get out of this song-writers block?
I definitely have periods where I don’t feel like writing songs, and usually I switch to writing something else — a book, some standup, a sitcom episode, 10 second songs for my Instagram story series “Songs with Seth!”, but I mean, I’ve also learned it’s okay to have months where you don’t write anything. Usually when you come back to the process, you are refreshed and have new ideas. Also, if you force yourself to write too much in a row, everything starts to sound the same, so it’s definitely good to take some time off.
“What songs are you featuring on HotTrax, and what else can we expect you to offer in the future?”
Right now I am featuring my most popular songs on HotTrax, including a few from my off-Broadway musical “Love Quirks.” I have almost 200 songs so as people start buying them on HotTrax, I will add more.
What’s next? Are you currently working on a new project?
R.C. Staab, the collaborator with whom I wrote “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (concept cast album currently streaming everywhere) and I have indeed started a new Broadway aimed musical (2030?). We are 5 songs in, and I think it’s the best thing I’ve written so far (I tend to always feel that way about my most current work). We hope to put on an industry reading in the fall, and you can bookmark: www.sethbh.com to keep updated! And also follow me on the Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sethbhdotcom.
Other than that, we intend to reopen Love Quirks (www.lovequirks.com) off-Broadway in 2021, though obviously we have no current timeline. It got audience raves on Goldstar, and we intend to be one of the first shows back! We will be releasing the original off-Broadway cast album once we have a link for people to buy tickets again, but until then, the concept cast album from 2011 is still available on all streaming platforms. There is also a playlist for the show on YouTube, as well as playlists for all my songs sorted by both show and genre. And if you’ve listened to the almost 200 songs on that page, you can find all my comedy stuff including my hilarious sitcom pilot and web series on YouTube. And if that’s not enough for you, all my live shows from quarantine, including 39 virtual showcases (more coming soon!) featuring 224 performers in 35 states and 7 countries, can be found at: tinyurl.com/sethbhdotcom. You can also visit my webpage (www.sethbh.com) for links to my books, audiobook, podcast, talk show, puzzles, travel blog and photos of my cat, Smee!
Thank you for taking the time to interview me, David! It is a pleasure to be featured on Cabaret HotTrax.
Thank YOU, Seth!
To check out Seth’s music, listen to and buy his songs, visit his Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artist Page And be sure to check out next week’s Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artist, Singer Songwriter, Steve Sieck!