From WA to Broadway – in conversation with Carmel Dean

Carmel Dean, WAAPA graduate and proud red head from Perth, has been making waves on Broadway for the last decade. The Australian musical director, arranger, composer and pianist spoke exclusively with AussieTheatre about her life on Broadway, composing for theatre and working with Broadway composer William Finn…

Carmel Dean
Carmel Dean

Most recently, Carmel Dean was seen onstage as the Musical Director of American Idiot on Broadway. Before that, she was the vocal arranger and associate conductor of Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

She has performed with Green Day on the Grammy Awards, 2010; she worked closely and extensively with Broadway composer William Finn; she’s an all-round extremely talented and completely awesome woman.

And, Broadway loves her.

We catch up with Carmel to talk about the last 10 years on Broadway…

After you graduated from WAAPA, did you ever see yourself working in the music theatre industry on Broadway?

Honestly, I don’t know if I ever thought that far ahead! What I did envision for myself was moving to America to attend an American University. Looking back now, I’m sure I subconsciously thought there would be the possibility of working on Broadway – but it was such a grand notion! Plus, the reality was, when I left Australia I only had a visa to stay in the States for 2 years, until I’d completed my studies, so that was about as far into the future as I was planning!

What are your greatest musical influences?

I started playing classical piano at the age of three. My parents always had jazz and classical music playing in the house. When I became old enough to work the stereo myself, I discovered my Dad’s old records – James Taylor, The Doors and Stevie Wonder to name a few! It wasn’t until late in high school and early university days that I really got in musical theatre – and I fell HARD for Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bernstein, Cole Porter etc! Later I discovered Adam Guettel, William Finn, Jason Robert Brown. And now I listen to anything and everything! I try to keep my interests diverse – my current faves are The Punch Brothers, Gotye, Imogen Heap, Iron and Wine, and Dianne Reeves!

You have worked extensively with William Finn off Broadway and on Broadway over the last few years – how did this come about?

It’s funny,  I just attended his 60th birthday party last night, and I figured out I’ve known and worked with him for 10 years now! I met him whilst I was doing my Masters degree in Musical Theatre Writing at New York University. One of the perks of going to “school” in New York is that you have access to amazing industry professionals (and some of your idols!) He was teaching a class, and I ended up talking to him afterwards and offering my “services” as an assistant, arranger, whatever – and he took me up on it. That was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done! We clicked right away, and he just kept asking me to help him out with projects. The first “assignment” turned into Elegies (the song cycle), and then that segued into Spelling Bee – a show which I was a part of for almost 4 years.

Have you always been interested in composing music theatre pieces?

I guess my first experience in the musical theatre was as a musical director, back in Perth, in amateur shows and at WAAPA, so composing didn’t come until later on, when I first moved to America. And even though I then went to NYU for it, I went back to musical directing after I graduated, because I loved it, and because that’s how I could support myself! I wrote a few things intermittently between MD-ing projects, including a show I workshopped at WAAPA, but it was always hard to focus on both composing and MD-ing. And then as I was music directing American Idiot last year I felt this HUGE urge to start focusing on my own writing full-time. So since the show closed, that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing. Which is why I finally had the time and resources to build my website!

Are the songs available for download on your website stand along pieces? Or are they from a song cycle/show?

Both! I have a lot of songs from A Girl Called Vincent, the song cycle that I workshopped at WAAPA a few years ago! It also had a production here last year, which inspired me to record more of the songs. And then there are a few stand-alone songs, including some I wrote with William Finn, from his latest song cycle, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and some I’ve written with other collaborators for concerts and cabarets.

You’ve worked as an MD, vocal arranger etc on Broadway.. Are you planning on moving into composing for the Broadway stage? (The next Sondheim?)

From your mouth to God’s ears! I would love that – and that’s my goal right now! I’m not sure about being the next Sondheim, LOL – I don’t think anyone will ever achieve what he has – but he is certainly the greatest inspiration!

How long have you lived in New York?

I moved here in 2001. I started classes at NYU the week before 9/11. It was a crazy, crazy time.

What is your next project?

I am working on an original musical with my collaborator, Sarah Underwood and we are hoping to have a reading of it this summer. I’m also really excited to be launching something I’m calling “Project: Song Blog”, in which I will write a new song every other week and have one of my Broadway singer friends sing it on camera, then I’ll post it online. You can check out the Intro Video on my website now!

As well as working on an original musical, she has also just launched “Project: Song Blog” on YouTube.

“This will be a regular online installment of songs that I write for my Broadway actor friends, who will do me the honor of learning and recording those songs all while sitting at my piano!”, she said.

Check out her instalment of Project Song Blog below, featuring Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange and American Idiot).


Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

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