A song in their hearts, a creative duo takes aim at the lights and stages of the Great White Way
By: Kristin Boyd
One day, maybe when they’re walking the red carpet or accepting the Tony Award for best new musical, writer Diane Uniman and pianist Kevin Cotter will tell the story of how they met, which, in a nutshell, goes like this:
Woman revisits lifelong passion. Woman has chance meeting with man at a quaint Princeton cafe. Woman and man form a creative partnership that later produces two "babes" an award-winning musical parody and independent movie.
"We call it serendipity," Ms. Uniman says. "It’s our serendipity moment. Now, I pay attention to people all the time. I wake up and wonder who’s around the corner today? Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s something. You never know."
With their latest project, "Tink!," earning rave reviews and awards, Ms. Uniman and Mr. Cotter are determined to become the next Rodgers and Hammerstein and take Broadway by storm. In the meantime, they say, they’re happily basking in the bright lights of Central Jersey.
Act I, Scene 1:
Setting the stage
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Cotter began taking piano lessons at age 5 at his parents’ insistence. He studied music on and off through high school, his interest in the piano rising and falling like the notes of a score.
While studying microbiology at Princeton University, he rarely played the piano. In 1996, the year he graduated with a degree in genetics, he agreed to perform during a local fundraiser. He fell in love with music again.
Mr. Cotter now works full-time with the university’s Young Alumni program. At night, he works on his music, an fusion of improvisation and classic chord patterns.
"As I was preparing for that event, I just got back into it," he says. "I wanted to do it. I wanted to do something different with my music."
Ms. Uniman, the daughter of physicians, was raised in Philadelphia. She has enjoyed reading and writing poetry much of her life, but it was a summer theater production of "Kiss Me Kate" that showed her how a stage play could sparkle.
"The lights came up, and wow," she says. "I thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is magic.’"
Ms. Uniman has since indulged her "right brain and left brain," she says. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she became a criminal defense attorney and an established opera singer. She has performed with the New Jersey State Opera Chorus.
Now, she works part time, reviewing state criminal appeals from her North Brunswick home, where she lives with her husband, Howard. She spends the remainder of her time fostering her budding playwright career, which has become her life’s passion.
"This is my calling," she says. "It’s necessary for me to do this."
Act I, Scene 2:
After visiting Israel four years ago, Ms. Uniman began working on her first script or pipe dream, as she jokingly calls it. The screenplay, "Pyramid Scheme," which uses humor to bring together Arabs and Jews, is part screwball comedy, part conflict resolution. The tagline: "Peace Through Comedy. It’s No Joke."
One morning, as she sat at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, poring over her in-the-works script, she felt compelled to move to another table. She scooped up her jumble of items, including her laptop computer, and plopped down at a table across the room that seemed, she says, to have a bright light shining on it.
"I swear, you’ll think it’s crazy, but I felt an energy pulling me there," she says.
Mr. Cotter was sitting at the next table, talking with a friend about architecture. A bit nosy, Ms. Uniman admits, she eavesdropped on the conversation, then introduced herself. She had a friend in Israel, she told Mr. Cotter, who worked in theater architecture and was looking for American contacts.
The pair began talking, and, just like a razzle-dazzle movie scene, became instant friends. She told him about the independent movie she was writing; he told her about his musical background. They immediately decided to work together.
Act I, Scene 3:
Ms. Uniman and Mr. Cotter are determined to become the next great songwriting-playwriting duo.
They work together, often by the piano in Mr. Cotter’s Princeton apartment. She’ll relay a piece of the script, and he’ll frame music around it. Or he’ll come up with a few bars, and she’ll add lines or even a new character to fit with the rhythm and tone.
They bounce ideas off each other and flesh out questions. There are no egos and no pretensions, Ms. Uniman says. "We help each other with the creative process," she says. "We figure it out together, and we work back and forth. It’s exciting. Inspiration comes from so many places."
Shortly after meeting, the pair began working on the musical parody "Tink!," which was inspired by Ms. Uniman’s love of Tinkerbell.
"Sometimes your characters speak to you," she says. "I always wanted to be Tinker Bell, and a good friend of mine told me I remind her of Peter Pan. So, I decided I was going to write a musical about Tinkerbell and explore her as a person, look at the emotional, the human side of her."
In the play, Tinkerbell must decide whether she’ll follow her heart, and thus love, or save Peter Pan’s portal to childhood, which has been threatened.
"Everything I do has to have music," says Ms. Uniman, who learned how to play flute as a child. "I love the way (Mr. Cotter) is fluid. He has a bell-like quality and his range of emotion is huge. He’s able to translate that to music. His music has a younger spin. It’s memorable. It sticks, and it speaks to your soul."
Mr. Cotter mixes an eclectic sampling of classical music, jazz standards and Broadway showtunes. His style, or musical thumbprint, as he calls it, complements Ms. Uniman’s characters and storylines.
"We don’t emulate. We have our own flair, our own twist, our own collaboration," he says, adding "Tink!" bridges the gap between Broadway musicals and modern-pop music. "Our voices are just different from what’s out there now."
Act II, Scene 1:
Ms. Uniman and Mr. Cotter are no strangers to receiving accolades. He’s a two-time Olympian and world-champion rower, and she previously won first place in the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ national legal writing contest.
Still, they were unprepared, Ms. Uniman says, for the number of awards their "babes" have received during the past two years.
So far, "Pyramid Scheme" has won five awards, including best comedy and runner-up for best screenplay at the Pocono Mountains Film Festival and best comedy at the Beverly Hills International Film Festival. The film has also been nominated for several awards, including best film score at the Moondance International Film Festival and best screenplay at the Boston International Film Festival.
"Tink!" has won two awards, including best music in a feature-homegrown at the Garden State International Film Festival and best musical feature at The Indie Gathering. The play has also been nominated for a host of other awards, including best screenplay at the Reelheart Toronto International and the Barebones International film festivals.
Act II, Scene 2: The
Great White Way
As they continue to rake in awards, Ms. Uniman and Mr. Cotter are looking for producers, in hopes "Tink!" will someday make it to Broadway. "People are ripe for this type of humor. We want to have the next ‘Wicked.’ We just want to get the story out there and get the music out there," Ms. Uniman says
Besides taking Broadway by storm and becoming the next great playwright-songwriting duo, Ms. Uniman and Mr. Cotter say their goals are simple ones: To leave the audience wanting a little bit more, and, ultimately, through their music and lyrics, to leave the world a better place.
"I always ask myself, ‘What if? What if I am the person who, on some small level, could touch people’s hearts with music and humor?" Ms. Uniman says. "That would be wonderful."