Artistically Adventurous

Enterprising alum finds ways to thrive in New York musical theatre environment
Denton Ketels

When Brian Cavanagh-Strong ’09 landed himself in the New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate program for musical theatre writing, it was, he says, “like a dream.” And why not? To be among a handful of elite candidates in the mecca of musical arts is heady stuff for a kid who started out plinking on a Sesame Street piano at the age of 4.  

Today, Cavanagh-Strong is busy honing his craft in New York City, pursuing what would seem to those with similar hopes to be the dream life of the ascending professional artist.  On a practical level, he is also learning to finesse his creative aspirations into avenues for making a living.

Cavanagh-Strong’s circuitous route to New York City — from hometown Ann Arbor, Michigan, through Grinnell — might seem a pedestrian detail except that the classically-trained student of jazz piano  “was decidedly not looking for music programs” when seeking out a liberal arts experience. A “magical” campus tour and the energy of the Grinnell campus sold him on coming to Iowa.

“I didn’t take a music class my first semester; I didn’t even plan on studying music at Grinnell, necessarily,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I didn’t do very well in a philosophy class my first semester, and I think that was an impetus to study music theory in the spring of my freshman year. After that I was hooked.” 

The decision to major in music produced artistically fruitful relationships for Cavanagh-Strong. He cites Grinnell music faculty members Eric McIntyre and John Rommereim as “primary mentors” in his studies. His participation in the Grinnell Singers and a cappella group Con Brio were also key in his development, and it was on a Grinnell Singers tour that he first became aware of the Tisch School.

“I think I applied to NYU/Tisch out of curiosity,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I didn’t know that I wanted to write musicals for a living. I just thought it would be an exciting adventure.” 

Cavanagh-Strong is now in the midst of that adventure — writing musicals, music for plays, opera, a film score, and “music-directing the work of other writers in theatre and other media.” He returned to Grinnell twice recently for two “amazing opportunities”— the first as music director for the film Saints Rest, and another built around the premiere performance, by the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra, of the orchestral version of Cavanagh-Strong’s short opera, A Gardener

Cavanagh-Strong says the breadth of his current projects speaks not only to his diversity of interests and capabilities but also to “how I have to survive.”

“The journey of the musical theatre writer from conception to production is perilous,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “The responsibility to develop patronage support is on the writer for a very long time, and that patronage is not immediately available for even the most deserving creators.” 

After nine years in the New York scene, Cavanagh-Strong says he’s only just starting to see the benefits of building a network of relationships that can provide a solid professional grounding.

“In creative work there are no guarantees,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “Saying ‘yes’ to all kinds of opportunities allows me to meet new people, to experience music and storytelling in different ways, and to clarify my aspirations for the future. 

“Pursuing a master’s degree in musical theatre writing is exactly what I needed to do, though it represents a great cost to enter into a field with few clear lines upward. Finding a way to support yourself in a city with a high cost of living and still pursue your greatest passions means taking a wide look at all kinds of storytelling and continuing to explore them.”

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