Listen to this article

Writing by Oscar Andy Hammerstein

Northern Westchester native André Catrini graduated from John Jay High School in 2007 and is now a musical composer and lyricist in Manhattan. A graduate of the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati (CCM), Catrini composed the score for the new musical S/He & Me, which tells the story of Alexandra Billings; it goes into workshop this March and is, hopefully, headed for Broadway. Here’s an overview of how he got started, where he’s been and what’s next. 

How did you get started in musical theater?

I started writing songs when I was in high school, in secret, because I didn’t want my parents to know I was playing the piano. Because, as a child, they forced me to take piano lessons, and I was completely resistant to it. So when I actually got the bug and wanted to play piano, I was ashamed of having wasted their money when I was a little kid. And I didn’t want them to be right. 

Whenever they left the house, I would sit at the piano and try to understand the notes. But one day, my parents caught me, and they said, “What is that?” I said, “I wrote it.” They said, “You what?” 

It was a song called Mama’s Boy. That was probably 2004. 

So, what happened in high school that helped you realize your passion?  

When I was a sophomore at John Jay High School, Jeffrey Richardson was the music director and the band teacher. He directed most of, if not all, of the high school musicals. He heard me fooling around at the piano and asked, “What is that?” I said I was just trying to write a song. I had no formal training as a musician, but he invited me to take his advanced music theory course. I said I knew nothing about music theory. He said, “You’ll be fine. We’ll catch you up.” 

My first effort was a rather ambitious, vaudeville-style, production number called “Here Come the Girls.” It was really bad. Garbage. Terrible by all objective ears. But Jeff acted like it was the best thing he’d ever heard, and he was so encouraging. He said, “Awesome. This is great. For your next song, let’s try something really simple.” 

He gave me a challenge that sounded really fascinating. And that started me on the path I am still on today. 

Unfortunately, Jeff is no longer with us; we lost him last year. But he was an incredibly impactful, deeply gifted musician.

I’ve heard you return to John Jay every January to produce the Encore cabaret show. Can you please tell me about it? 

A little over a decade ago, Arts Alive, which promotes and values creativity within the public school system by funding a wide range of arts-related events and programming, contacted me. It’s an incredible organization. 

They contacted me and a fellow John Jay alumni, Tom Poulos. Tom was sort of the emcee who knew no limits, and we did the show together for the first six years. 

I remember him well!

He’s a fabulous actor and person. Together, we put together a cabaret concert—made up of students, past and present—that raises money for this very worthy cause. This year, we featured 39 solos, duets and trios. 

Speaking of the stage, tell me about Alexandra Billings.

Alexander Billings is an actress, writer, teacher and activist. She is a 61-year-old transgender woman who has been living with HIV for over three decades. She grew up in Illinois and somehow, magically, with a lot of hard work, really, started doing community and regional theater in Chicago, followed by TV and movie work in L.A. 

She achieved popular recognition for her role as Davina in the Amazon series “Transparent” and went on to star on Broadway as Madame Morrible in “Wicked.” In 2022, she came out with her memoir, entitled “This Time for Me,” which was co-written with Joanne Gordon. 

How’d you meet?

Around the time her memoir launched, Alex sent me a DM on Instagram saying she heard some songs of mine and that she’d like to meet with me, but I didn’t know what it was about. 

She liked my work and wanted to collaborate with me. She told me she’d written a musical describing the challenges she faced as a trans woman and the struggle to become ‘the you the universe intended you to be.’ She told me her musical was called S/He & Me. It was presented in 2017 as a jukebox musical and had a score comprised of songs from other musicals. Her dream was always to have someone write an original score, and I’m honored she chose me to help tell such an important story.

Why is her story so important story to tell?

In today’s political climate, stories about marginalized people often say, “Sure, you have value, but your story is a black box, off-Broadway story–not for the masses.” 

Yet Alexandra’s life is a human story—rich, complicated, and utterly gorgeous. She’s been to hell and back many times on her journey of self-acceptance and activism. 

Her story of struggle especially resonates in today’s political climate. Many people simply don’t understand what makes one transgender, and there is no answer to that question. But exposure to the issue brings greater acceptance and a richer, deeper connection to our common humanity. 

How do you view your role in this collaboration?

As a composer and lyricist, my primary job is to ask myself, “What’s the character thinking about? What are they going through? How do I turn that into a tune? How do I turn that into text?” 

I love doing that. I love exploring the character. 

Because this is autobiographical, I made it clear to Alex that this is her story, not mine. I told her, “I want you to share as much as you can. My job is to translate your experience, your deepest fears, and your deepest longings into the musical vernacular.”

Can you give an example?

Definitely. At one point, Alex wrote out about twenty pages of personal stories, questions, concerns and fears that dealt with the AIDS epidemic. I was eventually able to distill much of this into a five-minute song, but it took really investigating every fiber of her being to give that song authenticity. 

Overall, I wrote 20 songs for the show, and each one required a deep-dive into her life.

How has musical theater impacted your life? 

For as long as I can remember, the only thing I’ve ever cared about–other than people–is musical theater. It’s the closest thing to an addiction I’ve ever experienced. 

My first memory was “The Wizard of Oz.” Those tunes just stuck in my head. I got a hold of a bound script of the film and studied every word. The second musical I remember seeing–and I was not old enough to see it–was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. As a young gay boy, I was transfixed by what I saw on the screen. It blew my mind. 

Every day, to this very day, I will listen to a cast album I’ve never heard before–just to absorb different approaches. I’ve been doing this since I was 15. 

Nothing satisfies me more than to absorb everything I can about this magical world. Every song is a puzzle to figure out. Every collaboration is a challenge to enjoy. 

The first time I ever heard someone sing a song of mine, I knew I was hooked for life. There’s never been a feeling that matched that of being able to share what once was only in my head.

What’s next?

S/He & Me is intended for Broadway. That’s the goal. That’s what the producers are pointing us toward. We have a presentation in the spring and are currently revising the script. 

I also have a musical of my own that is very personal and very close to my heart. It’s called “Thursdays at 4:15.” It’s the only time I’ve worked completely by myself, and I had my first reading in the city in February. 

And finally, I am working on two musical ideas with the award-winning playwright Laura Zlatos. I never stop exploring new ideas.

This article was published in the March/April 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Oscar Andy Hammerstein
+ posts

Oscar Andy Hammerstein is a local artist and writer who has also taught graduate-level NYC theatre history and musical theatre history at Columbia University. He gives frequent lectures on his family’s pivotal role in shaping the development of musical theatre and popular entertainment in this country from the 1860’s to the present.