Why you should care
The multitalented writer Khiyon Hursey is crafting musicals and more on both coasts.
If you worked on Hamilton, you’ll likely spend the next 25 years bringing up the smash musical in job interviews. It’s bound to happen when you contributed to something that won 11 Tonys, a Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize. But Khiyon Hursey could talk about his own work for at least an hour before mentioning Hamilton.
In 2014, a few months after graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston with a degree in songwriting, Hursey connected with the Broadway show’s music director, and fellow Berklee alum, Alex Lacamoire. Impressed with Hursey’s composition skills, Lacamoire hired him to be his assistant on Hamilton. Hursey helped keep track of daily changes to the score as it went through constant revisions ahead of its off-Broadway debut. These days the 25-year-old doesn’t reminisce much about those long nights at the Public Theater. The songwriter-screenwriter doesn’t have time to, not with projects bouncing him between New York and Hollywood.
Last year, Universal Pictures bought the movie musical Love in America which Hursey co-wrote (the company hasn’t put the script into production yet). This winter, Netflix will debut the romantic musical TV drama Soundtrack, on which he also was a staff writer. Now playing is a fresh dalliance with Broadway: Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz commissioned Hursey to write a song celebrating the musical’s 16th anniversary. Next up, with some luck, his own theatrical blockbuster: Eastbound, a musical about two Chinese brothers separated at birth that Hursey created with classmate Cheeyang Ng, is hunting for a regional theater where it can premiere after its August staged reading at the Festival of New Musicals.
“Also right now, my writing partner [on Love in America and Soundtrack] Harrison [Richlin] and I are about to shoot a pilot,” Hursey says. “Oh, also, I’m shooting a doc series with some friends. This is super new, it just kind of popped up in the past few weeks. It’s called Burnout.”
Burnout isn’t autobiographical — even if the title does seem to allude to Hursey’s intense workload. (The series will chronicle songwriting camps led by Tayla Parx, who co-wrote three Top 10 singles last year, including Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next.”)
Because he doesn’t have a background in musical theater, he only sees possibility and potential.
Harrison Richlin, Khiyon Hursey’s writing partner
Hursey has devoted an absurd amount of time to music since elementary school. But when he started playing saxophone as a tween, he barely thought about Broadway, Hollywood or much modern pop. Hursey began his musical life in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw, Georgia, as a hardcore jazzhead after his stepfather introduced him to John Coltrane around age 10. “It definitely became an obsession where I could practice saxophone 10 hours a day,” Hursey says.
Hursey went to Berklee to hone his bebop chops. He thought the school would be a steppingstone to a career as a professional jazz musician as it had been for Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding and hundreds more. Then, a few months in, he saw Rent.
For years, he had been consumed with music devoid of narrative. Jazz could elicit emotions — maybe even impart ideas — but it couldn’t conceive of characters or follow them from heartbreak to triumph. Watching the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Rent reshaped Hursey’s vision of music.
“It was a pivotal moment in understanding that I wanted to make music that told a story,” he says. “It was also the year that [NBC’s] Smash came out, which was incredibly illuminating in terms of understanding that people actually wrote musicals. I didn’t know that could be a career.”
Hursey began taking more songwriting classes. Maybe because of his jazz background or his newness to musical theater, his compositions were innovative from the beginning. “Because he doesn’t have a background in musical theater, he only sees possibility and potential,” says Richlin, his writing partner. “He sees so much freedom in it. And a brain like his really needs that freedom.”
Berklee songwriting professor Michael Wartofsky recognized Hursey’s talent early and remembers his former student’s work being honored several years running in the university’s musical theater songwriting competition. “The very first semester he wrote he had a song chosen,” Wartofsky says, adding with a laugh: “It was a pretty out-there song. It was in an odd time signature and it was about a bird who poops on someone’s head on his way to a job interview.”
Hursey remembers the song: It was called, appropriately, “Shithead.” While he has moved on from juvenile humor, he hasn’t given up his passion for innovating — one back-burner project is a stage musical about a Black Lives Matter activist who falls in love with someone who is White. Unfortunately for Hursey and audiences, Broadway still has dismal numbers when it comes to promoting works by people of color.
While a handful of recent successes, including Hamilton and Ain’t Too Proud, point to a changing landscape, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s most recent annual demographics report concluded White playwrights wrote 95 percent of all plays and musicals produced on Broadway during the 2017 season.
“There are a lot of good conversations happening now, but when it comes to the gatekeepers, the decision-makers, we are further behind than a lot of people think,” Hursey says of the theater industry. “As Broadway becomes more enamored with big names and brands, big-name songwriters are getting the jobs and the big brands with existing catalogs of music [such as Disney] are creating shows. It’s a great time to be in musical theater, but it’s a scary time.”
While Hursey clearly loves musical theater, he knows that spreading his talent among Broadway, TV and film can only increase his chances of landing a smash all his own.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Khiyon Hursey
- What’s the last book you read? Confessions of a Serial Songwriter, by Shelly Peiken.
- What’s your favorite color? Green.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Music.
- Who’s your hero? Currently, my hero is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s amazing.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To live in a different country, at least for a little while.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Love in America has been greenlighted. Universal bought the script but has not yet put it into production.