It’s not hard to see where Amanda Yesnowitz’s passion lies. She sums it up in a song she wrote called “A Way With Words”: “I’m for verbs / I’m pro nouns / I love sentimental sentences with sibilant sounds.”
For more than two decades, Yesnowitz, J94, has been arranging words with wit, rhyme, emotion, and meter as a professional lyricist for the stage. She has written entire musicals, including Somewhere in Time, which premiered in 2013 at the Portland Center Stage, as well as stand-alone songs performed by Glee’s Lea Michele and others.
All those hours spent with a rhyming dictionary have paid off. Earlier this year, she received the Kleban Prize for the “most promising musical theater lyricist.” The annual prize, which includes a $100,000 award, was endowed by Edward Kleban, the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize–winning lyricist of the musical A Chorus Line. “I am gobsmacked to be a mere tile in the mosaic of Ed Kleban’s artistic legacy,” Yesnowitz said in her acceptance speech.
It took Yesnowitz a while to figure out that songwriting was her destiny. Her first love was math. She also enjoyed theater. Growing up in Brooklyn, she made many trips to Broadway, the first of them to watch Sarah Jessica Parker in Annie. She was more mesmerized by the spectacle than the musical repartee. “You are not thinking, ‘Who wrote this?’” she said. “You are thinking, ‘How do I get on that stage?’”
At Tufts, Yesnowitz was a double major in English and drama. She acted, stage-managed, or manned the box office for several productions. In her spare time, she amused her friends with parody songs. Josh Weintraub, A94, who went on to produce shows for Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman, recalled that “something as small as a note she passed in class . . . would include a tidy limerick or a few lines of verse I’d find clever, surprising, and funny.”
After Tufts, Yesnowitz enrolled in the musical theater program at the Boston Conservatory. But while she enjoyed performing, it didn’t feel quite right. “There were a lot of girls who looked like me, who sounded like me,” she said. “And more than that, I didn’t possess that particular brand of ambition. I just thought there was something else that I should be doing.”
A turning point came when each student had to perform a solo show. Yesnowitz chose to make up her own material, rewriting the words to some favorite songs. After the performance, people didn’t tell her, “You’re such a great singer,” but rather, “You’re a really great lyricist.” Her favorite part, she realized, wasn’t when she nailed a high note but when people laughed at her wordplay. In 1997, she enrolled in New York University’s musical theater writing program. Lyric writing, with its fitting of syllables into beats and bars, reminded her of the precision and structure of math.
At some point, Yesnowitz sent a letter to the lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who won a Tony for Ragtime. “She said she wanted to become a lyricist and asked if I could give her some advice,” Ahrens recalled. Impressed, she became a mentor. “She has a graceful contemporary voice, a sharp wit, and a wonderful sense of craft,” Ahrens said.
Yesnowitz’s most recent project is a musical inspired by Margaret Bulkley, a nineteenth-century Irish woman who lived as the male surgeon James Barry. But that’s not all she has going on. Yesnowitz is also a competitive crossword puzzle solver—she’s taken part in national competitions and has even had one of her own puzzles published in the New York Times. It was notable for its lyrical clues, such as “Where to park a parka?” It’s about what you would expect from someone who loves words. As Amanda Yesnowitz writes, “Wouldn’t that be natural for someone like me? / a dame whose name goes literally from A to Z?”