Berkshire School student reaches finals of NEA's Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

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SHEFFIELD — Though his parents live in New York City, Berkshire School senior Tucker Donelan doesn't attend ballyhooed Broadway musicals much.

"I'm not going to go see 'Chicago,'" the 18-year-old said during a break between classes on a recent Tuesday afternoon. "It's not on my bucket list to go see all these Broadway classics. I want to see what's on the cutting edge."

Pretty soon, Donelan may just find himself contributing to one of those productions exploring new creative terrain. Donelan is one of six finalists (including a duo) selected from nearly 200 applicants in the U.S. to participate in the Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiative that will wrap up on Monday. The finalists are already winners: They're being flown to New York City for a weekend-long workshop with professional musical theater artists before Monday's final competition (available to watch on a webcast beginning at 6 p.m.), which will award a $25,000 school scholarship to the best song performed in front of a panel of judges. And just by reaching the finals, the contestants have been guaranteed a recording and a publishing deal with Samuel French.

Donelan submitted "Caleb's Confession," a song that typifies the weighty writing the NEA sought to reward when it began the challenge in 2016, for consideration in January. (The challenge was limited to three cities in 2016 before expanding to a national competition in 2017.) He found out he was a finalist in March.

"'Caleb's Confession' is about faith amid an epidemic," the NEA's website describes. "Pastor Caleb de Silva, who leads the South Boston Baptist Church, is torn between the tenets of his religious beliefs and the devastation he sees around him wrought by the opioid crisis."

While the names and places don't make their way into the song itself, the themes certainly do. At times, the imagery is jarringly direct: "Her head shoots back and she's foamin' out the mouth / While we're poutin' about some stupid stuff on the couch / Little kids pickin', prick their necks on the needles ouch."

And later, the repeated line, "I might as well pray to the devil," clearly conveys cynicism about maintaining one's faith.

"This whole questioning of God thing is both an internal questioning and one that manifests itself in a lot of my music," Donelan said, seated adjacent to a piano in the Berkshire School's music center.

Donelan was raised to be religious but is uncertain about how to define his current spiritual state.

"I wouldn't say I'm an atheist or a devout Christian. I'm just trying to figure it out," he said.

He's certainly a musician. Born in Tokyo, his family moved to New York City when he was 6 months old. At 2, he picked up a violin at the School for Strings.

"I'm a classically trained violinist by nature," he said.

He attended The Dalton School in the Upper East Side before the family returned to Japan when he was 8. He did most of his schooling there at the American School in Japan. Along the way, he learned how to play more instruments: drums, guitar, bass.

"I'm pretty good at all of them, but I don't specialize in any one thing. So, it's not like I'm a phenomenal instrumentalist or vocalist by any means. But that multi-instrumental background really helped me in composition, which is where my head's been at lately," Donelan said.

When his brother, JP, left for Berklee College of Music, Donelan started looking at boarding schools in the U.S. He had ties to the Berkshires; his father had grown up in the county, attending Mount Everett Regional High School.

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At Berkshire School, he has taken chamber music classes all four years, strengthening his violin skills. He has also taken choir and music theory. The school's music directors, Tasia Wu and Clive Davis, played a vital role in his growth.

"[They] are incredible musicians and teachers, so they've been really big influences. And they've been really encouraging. They were actually the ones who encouraged me to submit to this competition in the first place," Donelan said.

Wu cited Donelan's passion in a press statement issued by the NEA.

"Tucker is not taking music to fulfill a class credit. He takes it because he loves it," Wu said.

Donelan has participated in four musicals at the Sheffield private school, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily drawn to the stage.

"I've really enjoyed the musical theater part of it, but I think the fact that I've only ever done musical theater is sort of a testament to the fact that I enjoy the music more than I enjoy the theater," he said.

Donelan is a perfectionist when it comes to music. His songwriting process begins with a flurry of composition, focusing more on rhythm and pairing words he likes than creating a coherent message.

"I sit down, and in, like, 30 minutes, I'll have just a ton of words on a page, and it'll be like poetry. It's just stream-of-consciousness," he said.

"Caleb's Confession" started that way about eight months ago.

"I was sitting at my desk, and I was like, 'I had a great idea while I was asleep. I need to wake up and write it on a napkin,'" he recalled. "[It was that] kind of thing. But then the subsequent months were all, 'Does the rhythm here work? The syllables are stressed in the wrong places; do I even have time to breathe?'"

Despite his tweaks, the content largely remained the same from that initial creative burst, he said. In terms of sound, he drew inspiration from an innovator in musical theater: Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"It's a little bit hip-hop-y," Donelan said of his song. "It was pretty heavily influenced by Lin-Manuel because I really like his work."

Donelan prefers jazz to hip-hop, saying, "There's a structure there, but the structure is one such that it allows for a lot of freedom."

The student's immediate future can be described in similar terms. He'll be heading to Tufts University in the fall, but the path taken from there remains to be determined.

"I really enjoy academics. I'm a huge fan of environmental sciences and biology. I really like academia, but I also really enjoy music. And I don't know; is music what I go to when academics get too stressful? Or, is it the other way around: Do I like doing well in school because music is such an emotional toll? Hopefully, I can find a way to combine those two. That would be the culmination of my interests. It would be great if I could put those things together, and it's starting to seem like it's shaping up to be that way, especially with this song."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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