‘Beyond my wildest dreams’: Altoona native Michael Kooman composes for Disney, London show at Shakespeare’s Globe theater
Barbara Kooman would watch in amazement as her young son would listen to a song on the radio for the first time and then play it on his small keyboard in their Altoona home.
“It flipped me out,” said the mother, who proceeded to put the boy in piano lessons.
But when Michael Kooman inherited his grandmother’s upright piano, it flipped a switch — and portended what he would become.
“Although I started lessons when I was 10, I did not really delve into it until I got that piano,” said Michael, now 33. “Keyboards are great, but there’s something for me personally inspiring about a real piano. I started spending more and more time at the piano. It foreshadowed that I would become a composer.”
One of his most recent projects is a new animated series called “Vampirina” that premiered last week on Disney Junior network for which he composed the theme song and other music. And it is like most of Michael’s impressive body of work that he has created in the 10 years since college: a collaboration with his artistic and business partner, Christopher Dimond.
The New York-based duo now is in London tweaking their next big project, a romantic comedy adapted from a Netflix film called “Romantics Anonymous.” It opens at the Shakespeare’s Globe theater on Oct. 22.
Technically, the venue is not considered part of the renowned West End of London — as Broadway is to New York.
“But this is beyond my wildest dreams,” Michael said in a video phone interview recently. This 1970s reconstructed building “is where Shakespeare wrote all his plays.”
He and Christopher spent three years writing and “bouncing back” ideas with the Globe’s artistic director when an opening occurred at the theater, and production began last month.
“You spend a lot of time writing what you think is a great piece, but it’s a whole other beast when they start bringing it to life, and there’s a whole lot of rewriting,” he said. “This song is too slow for this moment. Or we have two slow songs in a row, and we’ll put the audience to sleep if we don’t change it. We’re analyzing each moment.”
Growing up in Altoona, Michael Kooman never knew his maternal grandfather, Jack Allen, but the man must have been an influence, the family says.
“Everyone who knew my grandfather and also knows Michael are pretty confident that the artistic side, his talents come from my grandfather, Jack Allen,” said Michael’s twin sister and biggest cheerleader, Kate Kooman Starkey.
Allen traveled with several swing bands including the Dorseys, playing the saxophone, clarinet and other instruments and arranging the band’s music, according to Barbara.
Another grandparent was a “great pianist and organist” in church.
“I think it skipped a generation,” Michael said.
“That’s a nice way of saying I have no talent,” laughed Barbara, who is a wealth adviser at Kooman and Associates, a highly respected financial planning firm in Altoona founded by her husband, Marty, and where Kate also is a wealth adviser. “I always felt (Michael) was my dad reincarnated.”
Michael gives his parents credit for stoking his musical interest by taking him and Kate to musicals in New York City at least once a year when they were growing up.
But that piano gave him the confidence to write and rewrite songs.
“I would try to change up the style, see if I could do a country version of a classical song or a classical version of, say, a Britney Spears song,” he said. “It helped me at parties. Music was a sort of therapy for me. It was the way I dealt with emotions. … It really helped me in adolescence to get through those difficult and awkward times.”
After Wright and Washington-Jefferson elementary schools, Michael attended Roosevelt Junior High School, where he joined the band as a drummer.
Meanwhile, Kelly Detwiler, a middle and high school music teacher for the Altoona Area School District, needed a stringed double bass player in the orchestra and encouraged him to join. Kate already played the violin, and Michael figured the teacher recruited him so his sister would have a ride home from practice.
Not exactly, said Detwiler.
“I knew he could read music, so he was a natural recruit,” she said. “With the support of his parents, he joined the orchestra … I think he had a turning point in junior high when he finally decided to get serious about his music.”
Said Michael: “It opened up a whole world of orchestral music for me.”
By his junior year at Altoona Area High — where he still drummed in the marching band — Michael was selected for the Pennsylvania Music Education All-State Orchestra. He got that award his senior year, as well, and he was one of 60 students selected to perform in a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert in the prestigious Heinz Hall.
“Mrs. Detwiler really nurtured me, and she believed in me,” he said.
Michael said most successful people can point to a teacher who changed their lives. He had two.
English teacher Elizabeth Happeny, now retired from AAHS, also was the school’s theater director as the drama club was preparing to stage the play, “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.”
Michael hung out at auditions and production meetings even though he wasn’t acting or working on sets.
“He was one of the groupies of the theater gang,” she said. “Everybody loved him, and he loved everybody.”
Happeny also knew that Michael was a musician, and she needed music for the play, a theme song that “would incorporate the personalities of the different characters.” So she asked him to compose some music. He accepted the challenge, and for weeks showed up for rehearsals with a notebook, quietly taking notes in the auditorium, Happeny said. She heard his song for the first time at dress rehearsal.
“It was just so inspiring,” she said. “He really caught the nuances of the personalities of the characters.”
After that, he became the school’s “resident composer,” writing, among other things, the music for a Holocaust memorial service, and he remained active in all school musicals.
“He was so gifted, so enthusiastic about anything musical,” Happeny said. “This was what was inside of him, in his soul. Music was in his soul, and we needed to find a way to get it out.”
Michael said he still doesn’t understand why Happeny gave him that chance on the “Junie Moon” play.
“I could have ruined the production,” he said. “But she took a chance on me, she so believed in me.”
He also said it was Detwiler’s music theory class his senior year that solidified his life goal of composing music.
After graduating from AAHS in 2002, Michael opted for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh because of its strong musical theater program. Writing so many classical, orchestral compositions in high school no longer was “igniting the fire,” so he registered for as many drama courses as possible, including those for actors and playwrights.
A lyric-writing class that studied musicals and Disney animation films made him realize that was where he wanted to be. But he was hardly the best student in the class. He approached the student whose “lyrics stood out from the rest,” and asked Christopher Dimond to collaborate on class projects.
They worked so well together, they wrote the music for cabaret-type songs for class, which they later enlisted other rising stars to record them, including Patina Miller, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon the same time Michael did. Miller went on to win a Tony Award for “Pippin” on Broadway and plays the role of the press coordinator, Daisy, on “Madam Secretary” on television.
“It was really cool to write songs for these people who went on to success,” Michael said, noting that the sales of the CDs of the music later would help finance their move to New York City. But Christopher, a native of Pittsburgh, had one more year of college and asked Michael to stay in the Steel City so they could continue their collaborating. They wrote “Homemade Fusion,” as well as “Dani Girl,” a musical about a 9-year-old girl coping with leukemia that has been staged at least a half-dozen times, from Brisbane, Australia, to the Mishler Theatre, where Altoona Community Theatre produced it in 2014.
“We’re getting a body of work together, and this is right when YouTube was happening,” Michael remembered. “Someone put a bunch of our music up without our permission or knowledge.”
That turned out to be a blessing because “it helped get our name out … and helped us jump into the industry” as they moved to its center in New York.
To pay the bills, they picked up odd jobs that complemented their musical work. Michael became a rehearsal pianist for the likes of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts.
“All the actors and actresses are waiting tables in New York City, but because Michael can play that piano, he could work in his field,” said Barbara, adding that she only paid her son’s cell phone bill that first year. “I don’t know how he made it.”
“It was a nice way to make a living and keep me musically focused,” Michael said.
In 2008, the Altoona Symphony Orchestra commissioned Michael to write a composition for its 80th anniversary. At that concert, the symphony also performed a portion of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, and Maestra Teresa Cheung noted that Michael, like Beethoven, was only 24 when his first symphonic composition was publicly performed, Barbara said.
Michael and Christopher kept writing and attending every workshop they could, applying for grants, fellowships and awards to underwrite their work. They started licensing their musicals, selling their sheet music and CDs on their website at www.Kooman Dimond.com.
“All of these things together — our body of work, making our music available, writing, getting our work seen at theater festivals, colleges — all help you lift up your career,” Michael said. “That was our strategy, to get as good as you can at writing and putting it out there. It helped that we were doing this as the age of social media came to prominence.”
Known simply as “Kooman and Dimond,” the team started getting recognition and, in 2013, took the Fred Ebb Award that recognizes excellence in musical theater songwriting by a writer or team that “has not yet achieved significant commercial success.” The duo got $50,000 and an opportunity to show their work even more.
Kennedy Center honor
The next year, The Kennedy Center commissioned the two to create the music, lyrics and book for “Orphie & The Book of Heroes,” designed to teach children, while entertaining them, about the history of mythology on world events.
Through their work, Michael and Christopher knew the star of the Disney Channel’s “Johnny and the Sprites,” and, in turn, John Tartaglia shared their work with Disney officials. They were called for auditions several times, but weren’t hired.
Until January 2016.
They had been invited to write two songs for the first episode of “Vampirina,” which was in develoment, and Michael said the storyline “sparked something inside of me.” It is the animated story of a family of vampires that moved from Transylvania to Pennsylvania with episodes scheduled to air on Disney Junior every Monday and Friday in October.
“It’s about outsiders wanting to fit in, a universal idea that we can all relate to,” Michael said.
The day after they sent in their music tracks, they got the job of writing the show’s theme song, as well as two songs for each of the series’ 25 episodes.
“They said it was the first time everyone in the room unanimously voted for a songwriting team,” Michael said. “It changed our lives.”
He had grown up watching “Rescue Rangers” and found himself loving and playing on his piano all those Disney cartoon theme songs, he said. Getting the Disney gig “was a full circle moment for me.”
With “Romantics Anonymous” hitting the stage nearly at the same time as his music debuts on television, Michael is somewhat enjoying his young success — and living it up in temporary digs in London — with an eye on the future after he returns to New York in a few months.
“I’m kicking myself because I know there’s a certain amount of luck involved, and I wouldn’t discredit the role that social media played,” he said. “Thirty or 40 years ago, if you wrote musical theater, nobody knew who you were unless you had a show on Broadway. I’ve never been on Broadway, but a lot of people found my music. Yes, it would be nice to do (Broadway), but I just want to be working on projects.”
He has discovered he can do theater and television simultaneously.
“I think the higher goal is to just be working as a composer and working on things I’m passionate about.”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.
Graduated from Altoona Area High School: 2002
Graduated from Carnegie Mellon University: 2006
Moved to New York City: 2007
Won prestigious composing award: 2013
Landed Disney gig: 2016
Took musical to London stage: 2017