Authenticity: It is crucial to stay true to yourself and your artistic vision. In an industry that often favors conformity, holding onto your unique voice and perspective will set you apart from the crowd. We have enough musicals that sound like a knock-off impression of Golden Age Broadway — find something that makes you unique as an artist, and use it to deliver shows that push boundaries and that we haven’t heard before.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alex Petti.
Alex Petti is a Lebanese Irish-Catholic writer from Massachusetts who grew up as a pop punk rocker. Though his dreams of headlining Warped Tour have ended, the energy of the genre still infuses his music. He writes musical theater shows in the genres of punk, folk and rock, and is the front man of good thoughts, his NYC based rock band. He has his Off-Broadway debut as a Composer/Lyricist with the show The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends this June 15th to July 16th at The Players Theater.
Alex is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon, a composer in the BMI Advanced Musical Theatre Workshop, a 2022 O’Neill Semi-Finalist, a 2022 Participant in the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project and a proud Dad to his cat, Sonia.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Massachusetts around my mom’s massive Lebanese Irish Catholic family in the late 90s and early 00s. Boston Catholic stereotypes are mostly true, for better or worse, and there was a lot of guilt and regressive beliefs flying around in my school, especially my All-Boys Catholic High School. Also, the early 00s were a really weird time to grow up part Arab. I learned some messed up things about gender and identity in the school and church environments I was in, and even though Massachusetts is generally a pretty progressive place, there was a lot for me to unpack. I was so lucky that my mom insisted on music lessons.
I was in piano lessons from age 8, but my trajectory really changed when I started listening to my brother’s punk CDs and switched from piano to guitar at age 10. I discovered punk music, and from there, music became my singular focus in life. I was practicing music 4 or 5 hours a day, I started a band when I was 13, I started going to Warped Tour and shows in Boston, and was totally in love with the energy of the music scene. Music was a great refuge for me for all the ways I didn’t fit in, and taught me a lot of the DIY values I carry with me as an artist today.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I remember my freshman year of college, I was super desperate to make friends. As you can imagine, I was not very popular in my high school, so I saw college as a second chance, and I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I knew a little bit about sound engineering, so I signed up to join the Sound Crew for the student theater troupe, Scotch’N’Soda, for their fall musical, Urinetown. I’d never done theater before, but I remember thinking the energy was electric. There were no adults, and we were building this massive, ambitious, and frankly super dangerous set for the show. We loaded in the show, and everyone was down to be up until 4 AM building the set, and then coming back the next day to start tech week. Everyone was just super cool and friendly and so down to go crazy to make this thing happen, which reminded me a lot of the Boston punk scene. Once I got a taste of it, I knew I wanted to be more involved, and that was the first step that brought me to theater and musical theater composing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Buckle up, because things are about to get extremely cheesy: My fiancé, Dani Joseph, is truly the single most powerful force in my life. We met in college doing a cappella together and bonded over our shared love of music and theater. She’s an incredible theater producer and dramatist, and has the know-how to make shows come to life out of nothing, both in the production sense once something is already on the page and needs to move to the stage, but also helping artists do iterative drafts of shows. She’s my secret weapon as a writer, because I’ll show her new material and she’ll help me shape it into something bigger than I could ever make on my own.
In terms of a specific story, she willed my first musical I ever wrote, Guts, into existence by sitting down and teaching me and my writing partner a million things about storytelling that we would’ve never thought to explore. We were so lucky to have her as the dramaturg on that show, and we’re so lucky now to have her as the associate producer on The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting story is definitely when we competed in our first festival for The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends. We were invited to participate in MCL Chicago’s Premiere Premieres! Festival in 2017, and we had no idea what to expect. We had to figure out how to rehearse our show in Pittsburgh, drive our set and our actors and band members from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and compete in this long standing festival that we only got to perform for one time, all on a tiny shoe-string budget. We ended up renting a house in Chicago for 2 days and doing a long midwest roadtrip to make it happen, but it was insane because we won the festival! Our cast and band were absolutely on fire for this festival showing, and the audience was eating up every line from the show. They called our name at the awards ceremony for “Best In Fest,” and we spent the whole night drinking Malort and dancing in the theater at the afterparty. It was one of the craziest and most fun things I’ve ever done, and it really made us believe we had something special in this show. Who would’ve guessed that 6 years later, we’d be gearing up to make our Off-Broadway debut.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh God, I remember a funny mistake, but I’m going to leave names out of it because it’s just way too embarrassing. I was at this singer-songwriter night when I had just moved to New York, and everyone who had given me advice kept telling me “make sure you network, get to know people, ask them out for coffee.” And there was this guy, we’ll call him Brian, who played this incredible song, and I was like “Oh I have to meet him.” So after the music was done and everyone was milling about and chatting, I muster up the courage and walk up to Brian right before I’m about to leave. And at the same time as I’m about to say something to him, his girlfriend taps him on the shoulder, and they have a MOMENT — hands on waist, a couple of kisses, talking in each other’s ears, etc. And I’m just standing there, and rather than taking a lap around the room or trying to get his email from someone else I met, I decide I SHOULD INTERRUPT and I completely ruin the moment. The energy is apocalyptically awkward. I proceed to have the most brutal interaction of my whole life that ends with me giving him my business card, and never getting an email from him.
I guess the lesson of the story is “Shoot your shot, but only when the timing is right.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The first project I have to mention is of course The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends. It’s my first show as the writer in an official Off-Broadway space, and it’s going to be a crazy good time. The show is hilarious, and we have an insanely talented creative team, cast, and band working on it.
In addition to TWDB, I’m also working on developing multiple other musicals with other collaborators on the topics of an autobiographical mental health show, a show about Arab assimilation in the United States, and a show about the perils of capitalism told through the perspective of aliens on a spaceship. It’s a real smattering of interests, but they’re all projects that I’m really excited about pushing forward.
Finally, my band, good thoughts, is playing some local shows in NYC this summer, and we’re in the middle of planning some shows throughout the Northeast in late summer/early fall. We’re also getting ready to release our sophomore EP soon. The first single off of the EP, Everything About You, is out on streaming services now!
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
My advice is that the rejection, lack of support, and failure are all going to come — you’ve got to lean in and become your own biggest advocate in spite of that rejection. There are so many deeply talented writers out there who just don’t have the guts to submit to things every year — they get rejected from an opportunity once and they say “Oh well, I guess this organization doesn’t like me.” And 99% of the time, that’s not true! They’re saying “Ah they’re good, but they don’t fit with our cohort.” Or “I like their voice, but I don’t think this is the right project for our organization right now.” Don’t overread rejection as a rejection of your whole person as an artist — it just means it wasn’t your turn this time.
And I can say all this with real data to back me up: I’m an alum of the BMI program — it took me 4 applications to get in. I’m an alum of the Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project — it took me 6 tries to get in! The Trouble With Dead Boyfriends started 6 and a half years ago, and we’re just now getting to our Off-Broadway premiere. You have to trust the process and believe in your own work, and take those rejections in stride.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The biggest tip I could recommend to avoid burning out in the theater industry would be to align yourself with other artists who share your values and then commiserate with them. This is a tough industry, with a lot of actors going out for the same roles and a lot of writers looking to get the same residencies. If you start to think of people as your competition instead of your teammates, it’s going to be really isolating and exhausting to stay in this industry. Create community and think more in a “rising tides lifts all boats” mindset than an individualistic mindset.
Another tip I can’t recommend enough is to learn the power of saying “No.” There’s a common scarcity mindset where if you’re out of work, you feel like you have to say yes to anything that comes along, even if it’s a bad project, or it underpays you, or if you’ve heard horror stories about the people in charge. I find I have to remind myself that I’m working to live, not living to work, and sometimes that means saying no to projects that aren’t going to fulfill me in at least 2 of 3 categories: artistically, socially, and financially.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I’ll answer from the perspective of a writer, since that’s the only career in Theater I feel qualified to speak on:
- Authenticity: It is crucial to stay true to yourself and your artistic vision. In an industry that often favors conformity, holding onto your unique voice and perspective will set you apart from the crowd. We have enough musicals that sound like a knock-off impression of Golden Age Broadway — find something that makes you unique as an artist, and use it to deliver shows that push boundaries and that we haven’t heard before.
- Versatility: While staying true to your authentic style, it’s important to be versatile and open to exploring different genres and roles. The theater industry thrives on diversity, and being adaptable to various performance styles and genres will expand your opportunities. I use my punk background as a foundation, but I’m willing to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with different artistic expressions to better tell the story of the show I’m writing.
- Networking and Collaboration: Building strong connections within the theater community is crucial for a successful career. Collaboration is the lifeblood of theater, and by working with other talented individuals, you can learn and grow together, while also expanding your professional network. My one warning: DON’T BE A LADDER CLIMBER. It’s so easy to spot someone who’s only talking to you to try to get something out of you, and the theater community is so small that word about your reputation will get around. Try to make genuine connections with people, and if you don’t vibe with someone, that’s fine! Don’t force it.
- Resilience: The entertainment industry can be highly competitive and challenging. It’s essential to develop resilience and perseverance to navigate the ups and downs of the industry. Rejection and setbacks are inevitable, but it’s how you bounce back and keep pushing forward that will define your success. And just because someone says no to you, don’t let that answer define your next steps. Figure out a way to do your show DIY, or do concert versions or album versions of the show. Don’t ask for permission to make cool art.
- Challenging the Status Quo: There are plenty of people who can build a decent career in the theater industry, and even get some prestigious writing opportunities on their way up. But the people that we really remember and revere are the ones who are doing things we haven’t heard before. Some of my favorites are Michael R. Jackson, Jonathan Larson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Troy Anthony, Shaina Taub — these are the people who don’t just write hits, but they tell stories in a brand new way. They take the best of the craft, but they give us a new sound or a new perspective to view these stories through. We have to try to do something that people haven’t heard before to really make our mark.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
In theater, you have to think about what’s going to work well on stage. The movie and TV tricks that they use to make explosions or the camera angle cuts they do to make a shot look just right aren’t available to us in the theater because it’s all happening live on stage. But that’s what enables “Theater Magic,” which is that sleight of hand that intoxicates us all about working in theater. You have to figure out a way to accomplish that quick change, or drop a chandelier over the audience (RIP Phantom), or even just to hit those high notes every night consistently. It’s the live element of theater that makes it so special and irresistible in our community.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Organize your workplace! This is applicable to my field in the arts, but also to white collar and blue collar jobs all across the United States.
I’m constantly thinking about the WGA Writers Strike these days, and how the only reason careers in the arts are possible are because of the strength of unions like WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and the Broadway Musician’s union, 802. We are in this incredible golden age of content in TV and Film, and that’s all being put at risk because Entertainment Executive Compensation is off the charts, while writers’ pay keeps shrinking.
We’re in a period of historic wealth inequality in the United States, and union organizing would do a lot of good for a lot of people, because collective bargaining will increase worker pay and allow them to live healthy, sustainable middle-class lives — inside and outside of the arts!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mom always told me “If someone you’re in a relationship with presents you with an ultimatum, the relationship is already over.” She definitely meant this about romantic relationships, but it’s true for producing theater too. Theater is a collaborative art form and big feelings are always involved. When someone needs something out of you so badly that they’re ready to ruin your working relationship over it — it’s time to cut and run.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh man, if you could get me a private breakfast or lunch with Jeff Bezos, I think that would be a real treat for everyone involved. Fans of my band know that I’ve always wanted to go to space, and I can’t stop thinking about him and Blue Origin. I even wrote a song about him for my band, good thoughts, and I’d love to show it to him.
But on the entertainment front, I’d love to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda. The man is just an unbelievable songwriter and dramatist, and I want him to see one of my shows one day so badly. My parents know who he is, so that breakfast meeting would give me Family Christmas Party talking points for the rest of my life.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
You can find more info about my upcoming Off-Broadway show at deadboyfriendsmusical.com, and you can look me up at alexpetti.com. My Instagram is @alex.petti, and my band is called ‘good thoughts’ on Spotify.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!