Tom Toce is a man of many parts. You might even call him a polymath. The “poly” part is a songwriter, performer, producer, puzzle master and Jeopardy! champion.
And the “math?” He’s an actuary.
“The curse and the joy of my existence is that I’m a little bit good at most things, but I don’t know that I’m very good at anything,” says Toce, a consulting actuary living in New York City. “I’m a little bit good as a performer, but I’d like to think I’m really good as a songwriter and an actuary. It seems like a weird combination, but it’s natural to me.”
Like many people of his generation, Toce fell in love with the music of the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and others. He learned to play guitar at age 11, joined a rock band in high school and sang folk music in bars and coffee houses in college. It was the age of the singer-songwriter, when performers weren’t taken seriously unless they wrote their own stuff. Somewhere along the way he realized that, as much as he liked performing, he might not be “good enough at it to make it or try to live that kind of life.”
But there was still songwriting. In college at Yale, he began to explore theater and the music it generated. Fifty years ago, most popular music came from the theater. The songs of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein all first appeared in Broadway shows. The shows themselves may or may not have been memorable, but the songs became hits through the voices of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and others. And those songs became the enduring pages in what has become known as the Great American Songbook.
So Toce immersed himself in those songs, studying how they were put together and what made them tick. At Yale he took a special seminar in theater songwriting that was life-changing. “It made me realize that there were people dreaming of being the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
This schism — between the Tin Pan Alley songsmiths of the ’20s through the ’40s who wrote for other singers, and the singer-songwriters of the ’50s to the present who sing only their own material — is mirrored in Toce’s own musical career.
“I usually write both the music and the lyrics. What I’ve found over the years is that I was going to have to sing them myself if anybody was going to hear them. But the natural performers of my songs — people like maybe Lyle Lovett or John Prine — are all writing their own stuff. It’s very hard to place anything with people like that because your song has to be way better than anything they can do themselves. A couple years ago I put my singer-songwriter songs into a show and made a CD because I wanted the songs to be heard and I knew nobody else would do it.”
So for the past 40 years, Toce has followed another path, one leading into the increasingly rarified world of writing for theater and for small cabarets in New York City. That’s where just a singer, with an accompanist on piano, performs his songs for a small, attentive audience, often made up of friends and family.
It helps to have a lucrative day job. “The trouble with theater songwriting is that I know people who make $10 million a year from their songs and people who make $1,000 a year and hardly anybody in between. It’s either boom or bust. There are a lot of people out there who are in the bust phase looking for the boom. And every now and then it happens.”
Just waiting for it to happen isn’t going to cut it. Part of the job is producing the shows and vehicles that can showcase his work. This means auditioning and hiring the singers, finding the accompanist and booking the venue from a dwindling supply that now includes small, intimate clubs like New York’s the Metropolitan Room, 54 Below, Don’t Tell Mama and the Laurie Beechman Theater.
Though he often writes both words and music himself, about a quarter of the time he writes lyrics for an existing tune. Half of the time he writes the lyrics first, and the other quarter is a mixture of the two.
“What I’m trying to do when I write words first is to set them down in a way that I suspect music will be able to accommodate. I try not to make it too square. I don’t want the lyric to be obviously metrical because that tends to limit the composer. Sometimes it’s better to write staccato phrases, varying the meter, varying the number of syllables in a line, trying to give the composer some ideas about how to write music that’s more fun than every line just being the same length.”
Toce estimates he’s produced maybe 10 or 12 shows in the last five years. Among them is a musical written for children called A Charles Dickens Christmas, for which he wrote the lyrics. The concept of the show was that Charles Dickens, the most prolific author of the Victorian age, couldn’t write a happy Christmas story because he had had such a miserable childhood. During the course of the play, he comes to terms with his upbringing and frees himself to be able to write A Christmas Carol. But the concept proved a little too sophisticated for its intended audience. Efforts to attract a more general audience have run up against the ubiquitous productions of the original all over the country. “You’d think they might want to do something different like our show,” says Toce, “but so far they haven’t.”
In 2015, Toce co-produced a show called The Harvard-Yale Cantata with a young Harvard grad. The title is a lyricist’s word play on the more famous regatta of that name. So many great songwriters were forged in those institutions that Toce and his collaborator wanted to make sure the young ones who are emerging now can showcase their talent through the Cantata. A second was produced last year, and he’s working on the third for a September opening at 54 Below in New York.
Toce and another collaborator are also in negotiations to secure the rights to a series of books that could serve as the basis for a humorous stage review or collection of songs and sketches. If it goes through, it could constitute his biggest writing project to date, a goal he feels has been too long delayed.
“The hardest thing for me has been finding the Rodgers to my Hammerstein or the Loewe to my Lerner,” he says. “Writing individual songs is very gratifying, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. I could write 10 wonderful cabaret songs in the next month and maybe some singers would sing them, but it doesn’t change your life. I think I need to be thinking bigger and working on a show that might actually get produced and make a splash. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.”
Listen to some of Tom Toce’s work on his website, www.tomtocemusic.com, and you’ll see that the odds are definitely in his favor.
Steven Sullivan is a freelance writer/editor and president of High Concept Communications in Baltimore.
Tom Toce also creates cryptic puzzles, for Contingencies magazine six times a year. Tom explains how it works:
“Writing a cryptic puzzle is about finding the right combination of words to work a certain way. With a song, I know that I’ve got to say something in 14 syllables and the stresses have to be on syllables 2, 5, 7, 11, and 13. It’s a lot like a puzzle, working within a constrained area to say something.
“A crossword puzzle is pretty direct. It provides a clue and you provide the answer. There may be humor or puns or misdirection, but it’s basically straightforward. Every cryptic clue gives you two ways to get an answer. One side is a crossword puzzle-like clue; the other side is a play on words that leads to the same answer. The solver has to decide where the breaking point is.
“For example, here’s a cryptic clue: ‘Singing grubs; they sang yesterday.’
“The answer to that is the Beatles. The straight definition, ‘they sang yesterday,’ is Beatles. But the other side is trickier. ‘Singing’ is a homophone indicator. Grubs are a kind of ‘beetle’ that, when you factor in ‘singing,’ become ‘Beatles.’ There are homophones and anagrams and puns, and it can become total lunacy. But like any kind of puzzle, there are people who like that sort of thing.”
Not unlike a “croissant moon,” a bit of word play that appears in a lyric from Toce’s song “The Night I Fell in Love With Paris.” Or when he rhymes “like a helpless baby” with “to your deep dismay, be.”
“And in a way, it’s that kind of stuff that relegates my songs to the noncommercial realm. Some would say it’s just too smartass for its own good.”