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In Demand: Why Broadway’s New Musical Creators (And Anna Wintour) Rely on Justin Levine

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“I try to really put all my focus into the project in front of me,” says Justin Levine. That may sound like a simple enough goal – but for Levine, Broadway’s favorite musical polymath, it’s not so easy these days.  

Since 2009, when Levine was music director, co-orchestrator and also a performer in the genre-smashing off-Broadway rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, more and more theater creators have called upon his various complementary talents to bolster their work. As a music director, orchestrator and arranger, he’s most often found himself involved in the development of new musicals. “Sometimes I look at my résumé and feel like, ‘Oh wow, it has felt like there were twice as many projects as this,’ when in actuality it was about weaving in and out of each developmental step of a show,” Levine says with a laugh.

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Case in point: Eight years ago, Levine started work on the two biggest musical projects he’s had since — Moulin Rouge! The Musical and The Outsiders, both ultimately Broadway-bound — within mere weeks of each other.  Moulin Rouge! began performances in June 2019; was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening along with the rest of Broadway in mid-2021; and won 10 Tony Awards in 2021, including one for best orchestrations for Levine and his collaborators. 

Levine’s work on “the bullet train that is Moulin Rouge!,” as he calls it, is still far from done — he’s been “heavily involved” in mounting its iterations all over the world, including one in the Netherlands this fall, helping train the new companies for each. But that’s just one ongoing project on his slate lately. At the 2024 Tony Awards on Sunday, he’s nominated in three categories for his work on The Outsiders, making him one of the most-nominated individuals at this year’s ceremony. One of those nominations (for best original score) is in the same category as another major show whose music team he worked on this past year, Here Lies Love. And in May, Levine returned to one of his more glamorous jobs in recent years: overseeing the musical elements of the fashion world’s landmark event, the Met Gala.

“I just wanna make music, but I also want to perform that music, I want to create music for others,” says Levine, who studied theater in college but says he doesn’t have a formal musical background. Actually, add one more goal to that list: providing a place for others to do all of the same and more. Amid all he has going on, Levine says, the project he’s actually most excited about is far from New York City: He’s in the process of turning a “real fixer-upper” of a house he bought an hour north into “a place that will foster creativity and inspiration” for other artists, where “art can be made but also where it doesn’t have to feel that way.” He imagines it as a less productivity-obsessed artist residency, where he’ll also be able to indulge in his latest creative hobby: vegetable gardening.

Below, Levine breaks down his work on three of his recent high-profile projects.

The Outsiders

The cast of The Outsiders on Broadway.

For the intimate musical adaption of S.E. Hinton’s young adult classic, Levine occupied three roles: contributor to playwright Adam Rapp’s book; co-creator of the score with Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance of Jamestown Revival; and co-creator of the orchestrations with music director Matt Hinckley and Jamestown.  “I used to play in bands, and played music that definitely feels in the same world as the score,” says Levine. “I have a wide and varied musical taste: I love American roots music, soul, early country, bluegrass and folk, Americana, gospel. When I first encountered John and Zach and listened to Jamestown’s music, it reminded me of some of my favorite music. Overall, the world of [The Outsiders] is both familiar and unique unto itself.”  

Levine helped the Jamestown duo preserve the integrity of their music within a theater context, focusing on the ways in which it could be used most effectively within the show to build and advance the story and character development. With Rapp, who had never written the book of a musical before, “it was largely a matter of me from an early stage working with him on the structure of the book, stitching together the book and the songs, finding the most effective ways to trade those off. Adam and I did that together, and John and Zach were often part of that process.”  

Here Lies Love

Conrad Ricamora, Arielle Jacobs and the cast of Here Lies Love on Broadway.

The immersive David Byrne and Fatboy Slim disco-driven musical about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos in the Philippines had an unusually long and winding path to reaching Broadway in 2023, and Levine was the show’s original music director, involved since its early workshops in 2011. “I loved it from the moment I started working on it,” says Levine. “I learned so much from David.” As Here Lies Love was based on a concept album of the same name, Levine’s roles working on music production and additional arrangements meant helping the creators flesh out the show and figuring out how the album songs would be adapted to the stage.

“That involved working directly with the cast, with David, as far as bridging the gap between the pop and theater world,” Levine explains. “On the one side it was about the cast’s approach to singing the material, exploring the ways in which these songs could be performed with the Integrity of the style and the story telling; how they’re placed; where there’s vibrato vs a straight tone. The concept album itself has so many different styles of vocal technique.” Besides examining the ideal forms of those songs, Levine also worked with Byrne and Matt Stine [Levine’s collaborator on music production and additional arrangements] to find ways to “maximize the storytelling and [the songs’] viability in the context of a musical.” 

The Met Gala 

Ariana Grande performs onstage during The 2024 Met Gala Celebrating “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 06, 2024 in New York City.

Four years ago, Levine was approached with an unusual assignment: to create a musical medley celebrating the return of Broadway and theater in New York for the first post-pandemic Met Gala. Vogue’s Anna Wintour “didn’t call me or slide into my DMs,” he says with a laugh, “but she did request me because of my work on Moulin Rouge!” He admits that, prior to the invite, he “didn’t really know much about [the event],” but thought it “might be fun to build something with pieces of musical theater that have crossed over into the pop world, or been sampled, or just been a major piece of the fabric of popular culture.” 

Since then, Wintour and her team have continued to invite him back, and his role has expanded to include everything from creating random musical moments throughout the spectacular evening to working closely with the headliner — this year, Ariana Grande — to build their setlist and starring performance.  “She’s such a collaborative person — so enthusiastic and passionate and hardworking,” says Levine of Grande; he also worked closely with her “humble and brilliant” music director and producer Natural (aka Johnny Najera).  

As for Wintour, who Levine calls “one of the biggest supporters of theater in New York,” she pays attention to every musical detail of the evening — and, Levine adds, “gives the best notes. But she’s very much a supporter and a fan of the arts; it never feels like she’s giving a note just to give one. It’s clear it comes from a genuine place and that there’s a real vision behind it.”  

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