‘We Need More’ of Taylor Fagins
The UCI Drama alum shares more about his journey to become an American Idol
It’s nearly 10 p.m. on the third straight day of filming, and Taylor Fagins, ’17 is the final contestant to audition for American Idol’s celebrity judges.
He sits down at a grand piano — an instrument he plays but never for an audience — and sings the piece that earned him the 2020 American Songwriters Award. When he finishes
4 1/2 minutes later, Fagins tells the judges he’s shaking.
“Me, too,” says four-time Grammy winner Lionel Richie. “That was very powerful, and I’m very proud of you.”
Then, in front of 5 million television viewers, Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan unanimously vote to give Fagins a “golden ticket” that sends him to the next round of auditions in Hollywood.
Fagins reveled in creative talent while he grew up in La Palma, just 25 miles from UCI. He started singing at age 9, decided to become an actor in his teens, then began writing songs in high school to cope with his parents’ divorce.
Although Fagins wanted to study musical theater at UCI, wires got crossed and he ended up auditioning for vocal arts. As he began to sing “Ave Maria,” it dawned on him that this was not actually the way to get into the musical theater department, and he had no interest in becoming an opera singer. After he was admitted to UCI based on his academic standing, he made his way to the drama department, which includes musical theater.
“My education at UCI really set the foundation for being an artist who tries everything, who doesn’t say no; who just creates, creates, creates,” says Fagins, who now lives and works in New York City.
In the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Fagins found creative outlets around every corner. He and a friend started a show choir at UCI, and later he collaborated with other students to write and perform Our Life: The Black Youth Stories Project in the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL).
“Collaborators are everywhere at UCI, and that goes beyond the arts campus,” says Fagins. “UCI is a research school, so when people want to do something, they’ll do it. When you want to make something, you make it. When you have something to say, you say it.”
His senior year, Fagins performed in UCI’s production of Parade, the Tony Award-winning musical that explores anti-Semitism and racism in the American South.
“The minute he opens his mouth, he only sings with truth, which is what you’re really looking for in a musical theater actor,” says Myrona DeLaney, head of music theater at UCI, who directed the musical. “He was brilliant in this critical role in Parade.”
But when Fagins was rehearsing a show written by New York University graduate students while he was participating in UCI’s New York satellite program, he had an epiphany.
“I realized, wow, I could write this whole musical,” he remembers. “Why don’t I just do that, because there are certain stories that I want to see on stage and I want to see exist in the world. I’d rather spend my life creating the stories that should exist than being in the ones others created.”
Image (above): Taylor Fagins during his audition for American Idol Season 20 on ABC. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)
Voice of the Unheard
A year after he graduated, Fagins moved to New York City to continue writing, singing and acting. In 2019, he crossed the country again to join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an ensemble member in a 10-month run of Hairspray. While reminded of his love for performing during that time, he also started sharing his music and plays with the cast and crew. Their reaction was a revelation.
“Being at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gave me that confidence that I could really pursue writing as a career,” he says. “I realized I’m actually a good writer.”
I’d rather spend my life creating the stories that should exist than being in the ones others created.
The next year, one of his plays was performed online by the Rubicon Theater in Ventura, California.
Then, in May 2020, two days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Fagins woke up, inspired to share his heartbreak through song. Written in a whirlwind half hour, “we need more” addresses the violence against young Black men and women like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and Fagins’ fears for his own younger brother and sister.
He posted it online that morning, and within hours, Fagins had an offer to produce a more polished version of the song, which attracted tens of thousands of views on social media. On a whim, he entered American Songwriter 2020, a nationwide contest, and won $10,000 and a new guitar.
“That made me feel like my writing is pretty important and people are interested in what I have to say,” Fagins recalls. “I decided to be the type of writer who innovates, and stick to my life goal of writing the stories that are unseen, giving stage to the voices that are unheard.”
Fagins had just doubled down on that commitment by enrolling in graduate school at the Berklee College of Music’s New York campus when an American Idol producer called him.
Becoming an Idol
The producer just knew that the judges would be touched by Fagins’ song. After an initial screening over Zoom, Fagins was sent to Los Angeles with the first group of contestants to audition for the show’s 20th season. When he arrived, the producers threw a curveball: he couldn’t just sing for the judges, he needed to play his own piano accompaniment, something he had only ever done while writing music in his apartment.
It was worth it for the stunning visual of Fagins, dressed casually in a black polo, playing a white grand piano before the panel of celebrity judges for the audition.
“For me sitting at the piano, it was like everything stopped for a minute and I said ‘this is for you,’” he remembers. “I remind myself who this is for – God, my mom, my little brother and sister and all the Black people who have died unfairly.”
Despite all the positive reinforcement over the years deep down, Fagins still felt insecure about his writing, so the glowing reviews from all three judges nearly brought him to tears.
“Part of me still felt like telling my story wasn’t worth the effort, but hearing Lionel Richie validate the space I take up in the world with my art – hearing him tell me to keep writing – it was breathtaking and inspiring.”
He’s naturally gifted. His talent remains raw and open. He’s such a fine representative of what training in the arts can do for a student at UCI.
Image: Photo: Taylor Fagins performs during the Hollywood Week: Genre Challenge. (Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC)
During Hollywood Week, about 100 contestants go through three rounds of competition. Fagins sang “Two” by Sleeping at Last, a love song that resonated with him and again led to positive reviews from the judges about his singing voice. Later in the week, when it came time to sing a duet of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” he felt his luck running out, and he was cut.
“The thing I take away from American Idol is confidence,” says Fagins. “I spent my whole life being afraid to share my voice with people, but now I think I can be honest with the world and people will understand.”
Fagins’ phone has been ringing off the hook since the show aired – sometimes with fans he’s never met but also with real opportunities. He’s had meetings with Fremantle, the production company for American Idol and America’s Got Talent, and Araca Group, the production company behind Urinetown and Wicked.
In the spring, Fagins taught UCI drama students his process for songwriting, as well as the lessons learned from Idol, as an instructor for the New York satellite program – the same one he attended not too long ago that inspired him to become a writer.
“He’s naturally gifted. His talent remains raw and open,” says DeLaney. “When you look at artists like Lin-Manuel Miranda and others today, they do everything. There’s no reason for Taylor to close doors at this point, when he can just keep opening more.
“He’s such a fine representative of what training in the arts can do for a student at UCI. Taylor could explore his multiple areas of interest through our program,” she adds. “And now he is bringing that exploration to the world, through his music and through his lyrics.”
As he finishes up his master’s in creative technology from Berklee this summer, Fagins is keeping the door open for new opportunities in whatever form they come – and he’ll find an audience eagerly awaiting him.
As Richie said at Fagins’ audition: “I want to hear what his plays are like. I want to hear what his movies are like. This kid here is something special.”
With luck, we’ll all hear more from him very soon.
Follow Fagins’ journey on Instagram @taylorfagins.
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