When Ben Folds Grows Up He'll Be On Broadway

by Annie Schiffmann

Ben Folds has no idea that his sound is on Broadway - but he isn’t surprised. The singer/songwriter/piano virtuoso best known for his melodic-pop sound knows that he has had an influence on many writers coming up in the Broadway world today. (For the Ben Folds connection to two hit Broadway shows, check out “Dear Ben Folds.”) In a recent conversation with him, Ben says, “Mainly I’ve heard from so many Broadway composers, directors, writers, actors who love what I do. That’s what I’ve gotten mostly - that I’m welcome there.”

'90s Kids Who Play Piano

In the 90s when the band Ben Folds Five hit the scene, Soundgarden was wrestling for radio time with Britney Spears. Much like kids in the '70s who played piano and were drawn to Billy Joel, any kid from the '90s couldn’t avoid albums like The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. "When I came along there wasn’t a lot of piano and melody out there. So I do have a lot of musicians who have told me they feel like that was a bit of a life raft in an era that didn’t do that. And so, if nothing else, it’s the carrying of a torch of a sort of classic songwriting thing.”

Aaron Burr, Dr. Dre, and Benj Pasek

Ben has seen Hamilton and calls it “one of the best things ever made.” When I mention the similarities between his cover of the Dr. Dre song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and “Aaron Burr, Sir” he downplays it saying, “I think that Lin [Manuel Miranda] has said that he’s a long time fan of my music and if I could pick just a few people that would say that, he’d be on the top five list. And I always thought that was a little flattering.” He likens the musical references to being on the same wavelength. Not so much ripping chords or stealing phrasing, but following the vibe of other artists. “I think it’s really cool. I hear myself doing that with loads of artists before me and they did that as well and it’s nice to be some little part of his DNA.”

Dear Evan Hansen has undeniable Ben Folds Five influences. Although he has met with Benj Pasek and they talked about jazz, the musical never came up. Anytime, though, that Ben hears a resemblance to his songs he’s wary. “You don’t know if it’s flattering or not. I don’t know if I’m imagining it. If it is, I’m flattered. And if it’s not, then I’m just being a dick.”

Someday, Someday

Pete Townsend made Ben go see Rent at New York Theater Workshop and put the idea of writing songs for Broadway in his mind. "I was offered really good deals to do that stuff starting between ’98 and 2002. I think I met with everybody. If there was a meeting to be had on Broadway I had it.” But at the time Ben Folds Five was no longer and he was going solo. "I got caught up in my career. I was making so many albums and touring. I found it hard to jump off of that.”

Although he’s open to writing for musical theater, it’s not on his dance card quite yet. “I think it’s an amazing way to tell stories. My problem has always been that I feel like I tell almost too specific of stories. I would have to adapt a little bit - which is fine, that’s what you do on a project - but it’s very specific.” Right now he is seeing shows - he just saw The Great Comet and loved it. He’s thinking of his next project - perhaps an album, or finishing the book he’s been writing. But the seed has been planted. As Ben Folds says, “I enjoy it and I have so many friends in these things and one day when I grow up I’m going to make one.” 

Photo Credit: Allan Amato

Photo Credit: Allan Amato