By Emma Forgione
Music plays a crucial role in so many people’s lives and cultures. Not only a means of self-expression and emotion, music can also be used to prompt social change and inspire young people to get involved in the political lives of their communities. Such is the goal of professional composer and ΦBK alum Ben Wexler.
A graduate of Stuyvesant High School and Yale University, Wexler found his calling under the mentorship of Tony Award-winning composer of the Broadway smash Fun Home, Jeanine Tessori. Tessori acted as a teacher, an advocate, and a friend to Wexler. One of his early jobs right out of college was assisting Tessori on scoring Romeo and Juliet for the Public Theater starring Kevin Klein and Meryl Streep. He then assisted her on future projects, including arrangement work on a Fun Home for Spotify.
He illuminates the importance of mentorship in education, and the things you learn through a mentor that you wouldn’t without that close-knit relationship.
“I’ve learned I think two really crucial things that I would not have learned otherwise through her,” Wexler says. “I think the most important is how to treat others and collaborators and folks who work on your project with dignity and respect… I think there’s an expectation that sometimes in order to be successful you have to knock people down, and [Tessori] does not do that at all. And in terms of how she writes, she writes based on human connection and not based on ego… how do you get to the essence of it through music, through storytelling, not how do you put your stamp on something.”
Wexler takes these lessons into his own work, as he strives to use music and theatrical performance to impart social change. He is the Artistic Director of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. “We partner with organizations that are doing work in the areas of educational criminal justice and figure out how what we do as artists, how our tools of storytelling, how our tools of narrowing in on the core of something, how they can apply to the work that’s already going on on the ground and how we can collaborate on projects that are outside of the theater space,” Wexler explains.
An example of one of these projects Wexler describes was a tap dance piece about the Muslim travel ban. He took transcripts from three Muslim law students at Columbia who felt fear at the time of the ban, and he paired each text with a tap dancer. The tap dancers performed a piece on top of suitcases, providing the image of baggage paired with text about travel. Another project was with the alliance for quality education, and had students perform at the New York state capital advocating for public education funding.
He is also a resident composer for A Broader Way Foundation, an immersive arts program for young women. Wexler got into theater and music as a teenager to deal with social anxiety, and he tries to impart the skills he learned to young girls. He tries to teach music and voice as tools for gaining confidence and trusting one’s own voice.
Wexler is incredibly proud of his Phi Beta Kappa membership, as well as his commitment to passing the torch of education to developing artists. He encourages artists to continuously learn and grow—to stay curious. But perhaps one of his most crucial pieces of advice for artists fresh out of college is to take personal time away from their craft in order to gain perspective and remain emotionally healthy in a turbulent and often tough business.
“I think it’s really tempting outside of college, or especially right after college, to go dive in and to be competitive and to try to play the game and do the industry thing,” Wexler says. “There’s a time and place for it, to do that with your whole heart and mind, but there’s also a time to step away and don’t do it for hours, and be a human.”
Emma Forgione (ΦBK, Muhlenberg College, 2018) is a recent graduate in English and theater with a minor in creative writing from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Muhlenberg College is home to the Pi of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.