MusicalWriters Academy Member J Sylvan (they/them) is a lyricist, bookwriter, and composer – and Unitarian Universalist minister – currently living in the Salt Lake City area. Their musical, Beloved King, won several audience-vote accolades at the 2023 MusicalWriters Festival Pitch Night, including “Most Engaging and Prepared Pitch,” and “Most Likely to Listen to the Cast Album on Repeat.”
(You can listen to the whole album on Spotify or at the bottom of this article.)
MusicalWriters is also presenting a staged reading of Beloved King on Sunday, November 19, 2023 in Dallas, TX. Click HERE for more information.
MusicalWriters sat down with Sylvan to talk about their musical and philosophical inspirations for this month’s Member Spotlight.
How did you get started writing musicals?
J Sylvan: I’ve always loved musical theater; as a queer kid in the Midwest in the ‘90s, it was a safe space. Throughout my young adulthood, I wrote poetry, learned to write songs, and wrote and produced theater all separately. Then eventually stories started coming to me that wanted to be told as musicals, and I realized I could create all the pieces to make them happen. On a more philosophical level, I believe that music, poetry, and theater are inextricably linked, and that they are all tied at a deep level to religion and spirituality. Beloved King, being about King David (who is traditionally believed to be a poet and a musician), almost begged to be told as a musical. And I keep getting ideas, so I don’t think I’m going to stop writing musicals any time soon.
Watch “Adoni” from Beloved King, by J Sylvan, with animated art created by a fan of the show, in the video below.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned from your writing journey that you’d like to share?
JS: You have to somehow balance holding true to your vision with trusting others with your work. It has taken me a long time to know when to stand firm on certain choices and when to let go when a collaborator has different ideas, or audiences have feedback that urge change. Unless you do exclusively one-person shows, this is a medium in which you always need multiple collaborators. This can work to the piece’s benefit (as multiple points of view can open up a piece and prevent solipsism), but it can also mean you risk losing what the vision was in the first place. It’s important to get clear on the core of what your vision is, and allow expansion and collaboration with the rest.
Writing a musical isn’t easy. What’s your “why” in being a musical writer?
JS: Well, I was raised Catholic, so I have a bit of a masochistic streak to my spirituality. Jk… (mostly). Truly, for whatever reason, I’ve never been drawn to easy things. For me, part of the point in creating art is to see if I can do it, so I rarely want to do something I feel will be easy. When a story comes to me that wants to be a musical, I almost feel like a soldier. I have my orders, now it’s my job to figure out how to make it happen, no matter what.
Why did you join MusicalWriters Academy?
JS: I lived in Boston for 14 years, and I had learned how to self-produce shows within the very specific artistic eco-system there. When things fell apart during that pandemic, many of the venues and organizations I formerly worked with didn’t exist anymore, and then I had to relocate for work. I realized I had to relearn how to get my work out there–and I actually think that’s a good thing. I think I was stuck in a comfortable place in Boston, and I needed to “level-up” and no longer do everything myself. I saw Musical Writers Academy as a way to level-up.
Click here to learn more about MusicalWriters Academy. Membership is open now!
What was your most memorable moment from the Musical Writers Festival this year?
JS: Honestly, it was the feedback session with Joey Contreras, Major Attaway, and others. As a self-taught songwriter, I always have this voices in my head saying “real songwriters are going to see through your amateur bullshit.” The fact that these “real” musicians responded well to one of my songs was a major confidence boost for me, and helped me quiet that voice just a little bit more.
Click here to purchase access to all the 2023 Festival recordings.
What’s your proudest accomplishment as a musical writer?
JS: I keep having people come up to me and tell me that Beloved King means so much to them – even if they haven’t been able to see the whole thing yet. Whenever someone, especially someone younger, tells me how much it matters to them to see an unabashedly spiritual musical celebrate queerness I feel like all this wildness is worth it.
Do you have any regular collaborators?
JS: My wife, Sue Buzzard, a Berkelee-trained violinist helps me write my music down in the earliest stages and helps me create demos. She’s the reason Beloved King was able to get out of my bedroom in the first place. For the past several years, we’ve been working with Brandon Jackson, another Berklee alum who has orchestrated and arranged songs from Beloved King, as well as led the band on the concept album. He’s wildly talented and I love what he has done with the songs so far! Listen to the EP to hear some of his work.
What do you love about MusicalWriters.com?
JS: MusicalWriters Academy has been wonderful in that it’s taught me how to connect with the wider musical theater world. As a self-taught creator and recovering self-producer, there were huge gaps in my knowledge of how to best present my work to theaters and producers. Additionally, just being able to connect with others who are doing what I’m doing has been invaluable. I’m a minister and parent currently in the Mountain West. It’s not like I can walk down the street and go to 54 Below.
What is your favorite musical writing (tech) tool?
JS: Tie between Garageband for demos and Rhymezone for lyrics.
What’s the best way to get better as a musical writer?
JS: GET YOUR WORK IN FRONT OF PEOPLE! Get your work in the mouths and bodies of other people. See how it lives in the world outside of your mind and your computer.
Do you have a website? What tool or service did you use to create it?
JS: https://belovedkingmusical.com – I used Squarespace and a web designer.
Just for fun: What’s your favorite “guilty pleasure” album to listen to on repeat?
JS: Soundtrack albums from 90s films: Clueless, Romeo & Juliet, Empire Records, etc.
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Digital or analog? Digital unless I’m feeling fancy
Fly solo or team up? Solo
Pizza or Hamburgers? Pizza
Road trip or fly? Fly
City, Country, or Suburbs? Currently in the suburbs
Flip Flops or Croc? Ew. Birkenstocks
Apple or Android? Apple
Most recently used emojis? I way overuse the ❤️
Last thing you texted? I’m not at liberty to repeat
Three things within arms reach right now? Acoustic guitar, shoujo manga, yoga blocks
Any Final Thoughts?
About once a year, my conservative father and I meet in New York City to see Broadway shows. We can’t discuss politics or social issues straightforwardly, but we can sit together in the dark and be moved together by the shared humanity of Come From Away, Wicked, or Into the Woods. I think musicals have an ability to bring people together through the combination of theater and song that few other art forms achieve. As naive as this may sound in 2023, this is part of my goal–bringing different people under the same roof to feel together in the dark.
You can connect with J. Sylvan – and learn more about Beloved King – on Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram (“I hate them all in different ways 😊,” Sylvan says) using the links below.
J Sylvan (they/them) began performing poetry at slams and other spoken-word events in the 00s, and soon began publishing poetry, essays, and stories in journals, websites, and anthologies, including The Washington Post, The Toast, BuzzFeed, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and more. Sylvan had a collection of poetry published (The Spark Singer, 2009, Spuyten Duyvil Press), and a mixed-genre memoir about touring in France called Kissing Oscar Wilde (Write Bloody, 2013). During this time, they began their work in the Boston fringe theater, drag, and burlesque scene. Sylvan was soon writing and producing their own events, such as the long-running Sailor Moon Shoujo Spectacular (2013-2019), and Spider Cult the Musical (2016), both at Oberon Theater through the American Repertory Theater. For over a decade, Sylvan has sought to empower and uplift LGBTQ+ people with their work.
September of 2017 to May of 2020, Sylvan was a Ministry Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. Pained that religion is still misused to harm LGBTQ+ people, they found themselves uniquely positioned to help bring the queerness in the Bible into the popular imagination. As their Master’s thesis, Sylvan created the first drafts of Beloved King: A Queer Bible Musical, a full length musical based on a queer interpretation of young King David. Since then, Beloved King has been developed in partnership with Harvard Divinity School, the American Repertory Theater, The Boston Foundation, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the Museum of Science Boston. They look forward to partnering with more organizations to share this powerful work. Sylvan currently serves as a Unitarian Universalist Minister in Salt Lake City.