Biography

Tom Attea (playwright and lyricist) Tom Attea has written 14 shows that have been produced in the publicly funded Off-Broadway theater. The first show, Brief Chronicles of the Time, was a contemporary revue presented by The Actors Studio, where he was a member of The Playwrights Unit for 10 years. The rest of his shows, ten musicals for which he wrote the book and lyrics and two full-length plays, have been presented by Theater for the New City in New York’s East Village.

Tom received a TNC/Jerome Foundation emerging playwright grant and is a long-time member of The Dramatists Guild.

He has a broad education that encompasses science and art. The combination informs his work. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a doctor’s degree.  After his arrival in New York, he studied composition and orchestration at Juilliard, sight-singing with Helen Hobbs Jordan and voice with David Sorin Collyer, acting and directing at HB Studios, and piano with Norman Gold, John Corrigan, and Milton Kaye.

He supports his literary work as a freelance copywriter. He has won many awards for creative copywriting, including four Clios in one night, Gold and Silver Lions from Cannes, The Gold Telly, The Gold Mobius, The Effie, LinkedIn’s designation as “Best of 2016 for Copywriting,” as well as awards from The Copy Club of New York, The Art Directors Club of New York, The Advertising Club of New York, and International Broadcast Awards.

Critics have called his writing for the theater “Hilarious … and simply charming.” – The Village Voice; “Delightfully funny … humorous and thoughtful.” – The Villager; “Compelling … good storytelling” – Theater Pizzazz; “Inspiring,” – INNewYork.com; “Written with a great understanding of today’s politics.” – AXS.com.

Tom is a member of The Dramatists Guild.

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Reading of the first play I wrote. It would need work.

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Since I could always hear a lyric sung while I was writing it, I decided to study piano. After a number of years and great teachers, I decided to study composition and orchestration at Juilliard. I went for an interview and was admitted to the evening school. I got straight A’s in composition. In orchestration, I got a B and an A. The “B” arrived because the first course that was available was Advanced Orchestration. So I took it first. I’m lucky I did as well as I did. Then I was able to take the basic course, Instrumentation, which by then was quite easy.

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My great theater mentor, Charles Friedman, at the piano with Ethel Merman, Moss Hart, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Bea Kaufman, George’s wife, with whom he had a business partnership, and Frank Sinatra. This is an article he wrote that expressed his idealism about the American musical. He was the original director of the landmark revue, Pins & Needles, as well as the original director of Sing Out the News, the musical version of Street Scene, and other shows. He went to Hollywood and became the musical director of 20th Century Fox under Zanuck. Later, he was the original director of The Colgate Comedy Hour and then the director of The Bilko Show for seven years. He was on the road with an Irving Berlin musical when, in his 50’s, he had a heart attack. He had to retire from the theater. When he was 70, he decided to give the theater another try and went to Lee Strassberg, on of the founders of and the director of The Actors Studio, and told him he had a new idea for a revue. It would be based on how actors represent their times through the roles they take. The name of it would be “Brief Chronicles of the Time,” which is Shakespeare’s description of actors in Hamlet. Naturally, Lee loved the idea. Charlie then went looking for a funny writer and happened to ask the head of the Directors Unit, the actor Donald Buka, if he knew of any funny writers in the Studio. Donald shared with me later that he replied, “There’s only one funny writer in the Studio, Tom Attea.” Charlie and I arranged to meet at a coffee shop near the studio. When I walked in, I saw him sitting there, in the fedora he always wore. I was about 33 at the time and a star copywriter at Young & Rubicam. I had been in the Playwrights Unit for only a few months, but would remain in it for ten years, the period of my collaboration with Charlie. He had a little smile and quick eyes. I soon realized he was as sharp as can be. What I didn’t realize is that he was a consummate theater craftsman, who had actually been a show doctor during the 30’s. He had been collaborating with Oscar Hammerstein prior to our meeting, but Oscar had died of cancer. We got along great and that marked the beginning of a very sharp learning curve. We would meet in the small back room of the Studio where there was an old white piano. He would sit in one chair, and I would sit in another. I would read a sketch, and he would lower his glasses on his nose and ask, “What’s the situation?” I would explain what I thought it was, but he had a very exact idea of it that you won’t find in any drama books. He wanted to know, “What’s the emergency? When the curtain goes up, the question is, where’s the fire?” In other words, the heart of drama is not conflict, which all the drama books say it is, because conflict is an effect. You can’t control it. The foundation is an emergency a character has without a ready escape and which grows worse. The emergency, which has no ready escape, precipitates the conflict. Then I would bring him a lyric, and once again he would lower his glasses on his nose, and ask, “What’s the form.” I would explain what I thought it was but, once again, he had a very precise idea of it. I knew about the 32-bar song form, and such forms as AABA’.  But he would say, “When you write a lyric, you create a line of tension with the first word that isn’t released until the last word.” That sort of tension is a very hard idea to grasp and put to work with naturalness. He told me to read the complete librettos of W. S. Gilbert, which I did and which I learned Larry Hart found inspiration in, too. I went on the study the complete lyrics of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, and others. I would make the metrics and rhyme patterns of every lyric. Meanwhile, we kept working on the revue as I learned. It took us ten years of working together, but we finally had the script in hand. We showed it to Lee and he said he wanted to be the moderator. The next week, he went to the Night of 1001 Stars at Radio City, came home, had a heart attack, and died. We went to the Schubert Theater for the memorial service. We were all very sad about Lee. We also wondered if the Studio would still present our show. A struggle ensued for control of the Studio, but our show did go on as a fully produced showcase. At the time,  the studio presented them, while today new work is presented only in readings with commentary afterward. The show went over very well with the audience. My dear mother came in from our hometown in Pennsylvania, Connellsville, and was able to enjoy seeing my work while she was still alive.  It so happened that the composer Charlie found for the show was Arthur Abrams. Our meeting marked the beginning of a collaboration that has gone on since then. I owe him a huge debt, because, after the show, I was figuring out how to proceed in the theater when he called and told me he had established a relationship with a theater downtown and he was working on a new show but the director wasn’t happy with the writing. He wanted to know if I’d like to contribute to it. The theater was Theater for the New City. The show was, as I titled it, Brief Chronicles of the Time. It market the first of what are now 14 shows we’ve done together — ten musicals for which he composed the music and two plays, for which he contributed incidental music. Charlie passed away a couple of years after the show at the Studio. Arthur and I went to visit him at the hospital. We also went to his memorial service. His wife, Vicki, invited me to offer a eulogy, which I was proud to do. I wish every young writer in the theater could have the kind of wonderful apprenticeship that I did.