One doesn’t always associate Pasadena with bicoastal living—Beverly Hills or Malibu are more associated with a New York and a glamorous show-business dual residence. But Ryan Scott Oliver is not glamorous—people who grow up in East Pasadena and Sierra Madre rarely are, and thank goodness for that. He is, however, in show business, specifically as a composer and lyricist. The LACHSA alum is only a few years out of UCLA, where he studied music composition, and he recently earned an MFA in musical theatre writing from NYU-Tisch. Yet his accomplishments outside of school belie his youth: He wrote the music and lyrics for the award-winning play Mrs. Sharp; a collection of his work, Rated RSO, has toured the country, playing as such venues as the Kennedy Center and Joe’s Pub; he’s currently developing a musical multimedia exhibition in New York called 35mm; he’s an adjunct professor of music at Pace University; and, most important to us locals, he’s the artistic director of the Pasadena Musical Theatre Program (PMTP), a thriving summer academy for young performers that draws heavily from PUSD students, as well as local kids in private schools.
We caught up with Ryan just as the PMTP season was closing, with rousing performances of Positively Wicked and Happily Ever After, before he returned to New York for more grueling work writing lyrics and composing music.
You teach in New York and New Jersey, you’re developing projects in New York, and yet you are the artistic director for Pasadena Musical Theatre. Where do you actually live?
Since 2005, I’ve considered myself bicoastal, spending about nine months in New York and three months in L.A. and Pasadena. This year, however, that’s changed, and I now think my California visits will be a bit more sporadic. But I’ll be back as needed to continue to work with and oversee the Pasadena Musical Theatre Program.
What do you get out of Pasadena that you don’t get out of New York, and vice versa?
I often say that Pasadena is my bedroom and New York is my office—so you can figure the pros and the cons from that! Being in California is less stressful, more relaxing and usually the time I gain the most weight. New York City is more fun, more exciting, but also a heckuva lot more work. That said, I think the location in Pasadena has helped the PMTP survive and thrive. I don’t know that it could have in New York.
We saw the recent shows staged by PMTP and were amazed by the amount of talent. Is this unique to Pasadena Unified, or do you think there’s great talent in many schools?
Having taught all over the country and witnessed many performing kids ages 12 to 20, I think that talent is abundant across the country. That said, I do feel that PMTP is unique in that its goal is not simply to “put on a show.” We do so much more, challenging students’ minds from all directions so parents and kids literally feel they get the most bang for their buck.
How does working with kids inform your creative process as a composer and writer?
SO MUCH. When I first began working with PMTP seven years ago, I realized quickly that it could be a tremendous outlet and resource for me, selfishly, to learn my own part of the trade. Just as my students have grown, I feel that I, too, have grown.
When you’re in Pasadena, you’re working all day with kids. What do you do around here for fun when you’ve had enough of teaching?
I work some more! I have a lot of fun doing my many jobs, which are part work, part hobby and totally stimulating. Naturally, I make time to see friends and go to the movies (or dare I say it, the theatre) or my favorite of all: eat. I spend a lot of time at the Yard House and Buca di Beppo.
Favorite musical of all time?
I love most musicals, so I don’t really think I have a favorite. I will say, though, that I’m partial to Sondheim’s work. A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd are musical masterpieces, while Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George are brilliant therapy sessions for children, parents and lovers alike.
Learn more about Ryan at ryanscottoliver.com.