Composer Paul Libman wins Rodgers Award for musical theatre, $40,000 in prize money

Composer Paul Libman, a multiple award-winner for his thousands of commercial jingles and industrial film scores, has found glory in another arena.

The 35-year veteran of the Michigan Avenue agency scene has copped one of the nation’s most prestigious and richest theatre prizes, the 2005 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre.

Libman shares the prize with lyricist David Hudson. The pair won for “Bringers,” adapted from Carl Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers,” a 1918 collection of rural-inspired poems that won Sandburg his second Pulitzer Prize. This year, the Richard Rodgers Award carries with it cash grants of $3,000 each to Libman and Hudson, plus a hefty $40,000 towards the cost of a fully staged reading in New York.

Libman doesn’t need the money. He’s one of Chicago’s most successful commercial composers whose advertising songs have graced thousands of TV and radio ads for what he calls his “personal KKK,” Keebler, Kellogg’s and Kraft (and other companies, too). Libman was a partner in the Imagineers, a very successful music house and studio of the 1970’s, before opening Libman Music in 1980. For many years, he ran his own studio complex on Illinois Street before downsizing (ah, the magic of digital technology) to a music suite in his downtown lakefront apartment.

A late-bloomer in legitimate theatre, Libman wrote the score for “Pitch Man,” an ad industry satire (book and lyrics by Pat Byrnes) produced at St. Clement Church in 2002, and “Dear Father,” a work about Franz Kafka seen at the Los Angeles Edge Fest in 2002. Libman and Hudson first worked together on “Muskie Love,” a musical comedy produced last summer at the American Folklore Theatre in Door County, Wisconsin and scheduled there again this summer.

Hudson and Libman met online four years ago through the Yahoo group Musical Makers. As Hudson’s day gig (at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois) was just two blocks from Libman’s home, they soon met over coffee and began to exchange ideas. Hudson brought Libman into the Writers’ Workshop at Theatre Building Chicago, a well-known musical theatre incubator of which Hudson was a member.

Hudson was first to formulate the idea of creating songs inspired by–but not literally taken from–Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers.” The show’s title, “Bringers,” is the name of one of the poems. It’s not a narrative show, but a song cycle or musical revue in which the cast reads one of Sandburg’s poems followed by the song inspired by that poem. Collectively, it’s an elegy to Midwestern prairie life of the early 20th Century. Musically, Libman’s tuneful score counts folk music, ragtime, waltzes, church hymns and swing jazz among its influences. “Bringers” is designed for 12 singer/dancers and a band of four-to-six.

Hudson grew up in various Western states and was drawn to Chicago in 1994 to pursue a theatre career. In addition to his work with Libman, Hudson’s work includes “Just So” (with composer Leah Okimoto) produced at the Open Door Repertory in Oak Park, and “St. Peter’s Umbrella” (with London-based composer Denise Wright) to be produced in March at Theatre Building Chicago.

The Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre is a program of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, named after the legendary Broadway composer whose career spanned six decades. A musical theatre immortal, Rodgers (1902-1979) wrote the scores for “Babes in Arms,” “On Your Toes,” “The Boys from Syracuse,” “Pal Joey,” “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “No Strings” among several dozen other titles.

The New York-based Academy presents annual awards in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and music composition, but the Richard Rodgers Award is the only competitive honor. Rodgers established the award himself in 1978 with a grant of $1 million to the Academy.