News Column

Steve Cuden: Screenwriter, Director and Lyricist

August 18, 2013

YellowBrix

It takes a lot of words to name all the artistic professions Squirrel Hill native Steve Cuden has worked during a wonderful career that includes about 35 years of time in theater and television shows in Los Angeles. Those words: screenwriter, director, lyricist, playwright, author, theater lighting designer, artist and teacher.

The list also could include actor, although he hasn't acted since his days in college.

Which of the eight professions does he like best?

"That's like asking which of your children are your favorite. I like doing them when I'm doing them," said Mr. Cuden, 57, who is back living in Squirrel Hill. "I like doing them all. It keeps me fresh. ... I've done much more screenwriting than anything else, but does that mean I like it more? No."

In fact, he has more than 20 years as a paid professional screenwriter -- "That's the most I've done in my life" -- although he's not doing it now.

Instead, this month he's about to begin his third year teaching screenwriting in Point Park University's Cinema and Digital Arts School. In April, he published his first book: "Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations." Since returning here, he also has joined the board of directors for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre.

"Returning to Pittsburgh to teach after so many years in L.A. has been as surprising as it has been fulfilling," he said. "I never expected to return to live in Pittsburgh, but here I am and loving it. Point Park has a spectacular, growing program in Cinema and Digital Arts. We focus on narrative storytelling, which is my forte, and so I feel that I am able to contribute a lot of my experience to the students and the school."

Mr. Cuden is best known for the story and lyrics he wrote for the famous musical "Jekyll & Hyde," and when he talked about his latest writing, he said, "I hope I become as well-known for my book."

Has Mr. Cuden ever quit any of those many professions?

"I haven't designed lighting in a very long time ... more than 20 years. Have I quit it? No. Some have been in remission. I might design a show again if somebody asks me," he said. "Part of the dilemma of being a freelance in entertainment arts ... you're always keeping your options open."

Mr. Cuden earned his first paycheck in the arts when he was a teenager.

"My first paying theatrical job was a show, 'Captain Mad and the Treasure Tree.' It was a children's production in 1972 at Kaufmann's store here in Pittsburgh when I was still in high school," he said. That school was the city's Taylor Allderdice. He got his elementary education in Wightman. Both are in Squirrel Hill.

From 1973 to 1976 he attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and then transferred to the University of Southern California, where he got a bachelor's degree in theater in 1978. He earned a master's degree in screenwriting from UCLA in 2010.

After graduating from USC, Mr. Cuden became the university's School of Theater's master electrician. It was while working there he met composer Frank Wildhorn. They became friends and began collaborating on writing musicals, including "Jekyll & Hyde," which they started in 1980.

"We cast the show in November of 1987, so we could start production in January '88 and be on Broadway in March '88," he said. "But the stock market crashed in October of '87, and that caused the financial backers who became financially distressed to back out. When that happened, the various players involved in New York lost confidence in the product."

Several months later, well-known musical author Leslie Bricusse was hired. Mr. Bricusse "didn't want a partner on the words, so I was ... put aside," Mr. Cuden said. Many of his lyrics were kept so he retained both co-conceptual and co-lyrics credits for the show, which finally opened on Broadway in April 1997.

"You learn to live with it in a period of time," he said of his removal from the play.

Besides his work on "Jekyll & Hyde," Mr. Cuden is well known for writing scripts for numerous television series. "The series number is in the 30s, and I've written close to 90 episodes of various series," he said. "Almost all of it is animation for kids."

Some of the series he's most famous for are "The Batman," "X-Men," "Goof Troop," "Extreme Ghostbusters," and "The Pink Panther."

Mr. Cuden also directed the 2004 black comedy "Lucky," which won a number of awards and is still available from Netflix and Amazon.

He was delighted to be offered the teaching job at Point Park in 2011.

"I was a little tired and burned out with LA and the nonstop hunt for work," he said. "When the job opportunity came I said, 'Why not? I came back to Pittsburgh with a job. It is nice and I'm grateful for it. ... I do a very good job, and I enjoy it."

Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.

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