John Bucchino laughingly calls It’s Only Life “a retrospective of the career I wish I’d had.”
The 55-year-old songwriter spent his youth, and much of his adulthood, attempting to establish himself as the next Billy Joel. Most of the songs included in this revue-which has its official West Coast premiere Saturday night at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre-date from that frustrating period.
As that particular dream faded, however, another outlet for his talent materialized. New York-based cabaret artists such as Patti LuPone, Kristen Chenoweth, and Audra McDonald started discovering, performing, and recording Bucchino’s songs. Legendary Broadway composers such as Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) and Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd) took notice and encouraged him to write for the stage.
Following their advice, Bucchino created It’s Only Life in 2003 with his close friend, director Daisy Prince. A workshop production had a brief run in New York in 2004, as part of a summer festival. A concert version presented at Lincoln Center in 2006 was turned into a critically acclaimed CD.
Rubicon’s staging, which features five performers with extensive experience on the New York stage, is the show’s first full-scale production.
“There are no characters, and there is no story,” Bucchino said. “But there is an internal emotional progression in the way we structured the piece. We put the songs together in a kind of spiritual arc, from (those that describe) operating out of fear to operating from a place of love.”
A native of Philadelphia, Bucchino’s childhood was full of both fear and love. “My family was very much like the movie Moonstruck,” he said. “The second and third year of my life, we lived next door to my mother’s mother. She would babysit me, and she had a piano. She bought it for my mother and her sister to take lessons on, but that idea didn’t go anywhere. It was just a piece of furniture sitting in the corner.”
Until young John crawled onto the bench and started experimenting.
“From age one, I was pounding on it,” he said. “Then I started picking out little melodies. It came very naturally to me, like breathing.”
Bucchino’s parents bought him his own piano when he was 6 or 7, and at 9 they arranged for him to take lessons. “But I really resisted,” he recalled. “I related to music in a totally different way. Reading music was like using a different part of my brain-and music didn’t live in that part.”
He quit after a couple of months, and can’t sight-read music to this day. (Instead he records new songs by playing them on electric keyboards. A computer program turns his phrases into notes on a page, which he and a friend then edit for publication.)
Bucchino moved with his family to the Palm Springs area when he was 12-a difficult experience, but one that opened him up creatively. “I had a traditional, straight-laced Catholic upbringing,” he explained. “There were a lot of rules and restrictions. Music was my refuge-the place where I could really be myself. But when we moved, we couldn’t afford to take my piano. That was traumatic.”
In need of a means of expression, Bucchino taught himself the guitar. It was the late 1960s, a tremendously fertile period for pop music, and he was inspired to emulate the singer/songwriters who dominated the charts-“especially the Beatles, who were my favorites and my biggest influence.” He would play current hits on the piano at the Shakey’s Pizza Parlor across the street from his high school, then go home and write his own originals.
“In my junior year, I got as a present a reel-to-reel tape recorder that allowed me to do multitrack recording,” he recalled. “It was very rudimentary. There was no volume control, so you had to record the thing you wanted loudest last.”
“I started recording my own songs, although I was very shy about it. I would take the microphone into my closet, behind all the clothes, and sing very quietly, so my family couldn’t hear me.”
Bucchino went on to earn a degree in composition at Cal State Fullerton-quite a trick for someone who can’t read music. “I bluffed my way through,” he said.
He then moved to L.A., where he spent a couple of decades singing in bars and coffeehouses. In 1989, he was called out of the blue by Schwartz, who had stumbled across one of his songs and wanted to express his admiration. Encouraged by his praise, Bucchino moved to New York in 1992 and set his sights on the stage.
His unexpected creative journey culminated earlier this year when his first musical, A Catered Affair, opened on Broadway. Reviews were mixed, with many critics calling the show, and Bucchino’s songs, subtle and subdued to a fault. When the Tony Award nominations were announced, his name was not included.
After “a few days of feeling bad,” Bucchino realized he and his collaborators-including writer/performer Harvey Fierstein-had remained true to their artistic vision. “What’s important is that we did what we wanted to do,” he said. “It’s a beautiful work of art, and it’s communicating to a lot of people.”
And, hey, it’s only an award.
It’s Only Life opens at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 21, with previews on Thursday and Friday, June 19 and 20, and runs through July 13 at the Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). For info, call 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org.