Legacy & Lyrics

Fred Ebb And Cathy Bernard
Bernard Ebb Logo With White Background


The Bernard/Ebb Songwriting Awards moves to Strathmore, celebrating the next generation of composers and lyricists.  

By Jessica Gregg 

There is a certain serendipity to the creation of art, but sometimes the synchronicity is extra special. Consider this: back in 2015, singer-songwriter Owen Danoff was a few years out of his residency at Strathmore when his mentors recommended that he enter the brand new Bernard/Ebb Songwriting Awards, a competition designed to recognize the DMV’s best composers and lyricists. 

Danoff took the advice, entered the competition, and won, adding new energy to his musical career. He began to be invited to sing at more venues in the area, and he used his winnings to finance his next recording. 

Now, a decade later, the competition has a new home—right here at the Music Center at Strathmore and Danoff returns this year as one of the judges. 

No one is more pleased to come full circle than Danoff. 

“I got to experience firsthand how wonderful and supportive this competition is for up-and-coming artists,” says Danoff, who grew up in Washington, DC, and is an alum of both Gonzaga College High School and Berklee College of Music. 

He recalls being excited to apply but having no expectations. In fact, he was surprised to be one of the contestants chosen for the competition’s final—and only—performance round. 

“I remember I was just happy to play my songs,” he admits, adding that he sang “I Wish I Knew Better,” one of his favorites among the songs he has written. “The audience was so supportive, and it was the best feeling as a performer.” 

This is exactly what Cathy Bernard wants to hear. The Chevy Chase resident and longtime arts supporter started the Bernard/Ebb Songwriting Awards to honor her uncle Fred Ebb, the gifted lyricist behind the hit Broadway shows Cabaret and Chicago, among many others. He also wrote the words to one of the 20th century’s most beloved songs, “New York, New York.” 

But Ebb was not immediately successful in his chosen field of songwriting, his niece says. He lived with his mother until he was in his 40s, hitless and somewhat misunderstood as the lone member of the family pursuing a career in the arts. Other relatives, wanting to be helpful, advised him to take up accounting or even picture frame sales, according to Bernard. 

Her uncle’s luck changed in the mid-1960s after the first Broadway musical he co-wrote with John Kander, Flora, the Red Menace, flopped at the box office. The duo’s next gig was writing the music and lyrics to Cabaret. When Ebb saw the long line of people waiting for Cabaret tickets, he told his family, “I might have made it now.” 

That story sticks with Bernard, who says it’s up to her generation to help younger generations “prepare for success.” And for that to happen, they need an opportunity, she explains. 

That’s why, in addition to cash awards for all finalists, the winner of the Bernard/Ebb Songwriting Awards receives 25 hours of studio time and two hours of business consulting. The competition also has a category for songwriters under 18. 

After the pandemic, the competition needed restaging and a larger venue, Bernard says. She thought the Music Center at Strathmore was the perfect choice because the contest aligns with the nonprofit institution’s mission. 

“The Bernard/Ebb Songwriting competition truly complements the range of Strathmore initiatives that support and nourish artists moving towards professional careers,” says Joi Brown, Strathmore’s artistic director and vice president of programming. “Providing both financial support and visibility to rising artists is a cornerstone of our work and purpose.” 

Other changes include a free, post-performance dessert reception and tables for contestants to sell merchandise and talk with attendees. However, the goal of the awards remains: “Finding the next Fred Ebb songwriter, the lyricist,” Bernard says. 

As for Danoff, he can’t wait to serve as a judge alongside esteemed artists Kavita Shah and Damien Sneed. His father, musician Bill Danoff, used to judge songwriting contests, and Danoff remembers sitting at the kitchen table with him discussing the entries, the lyrics, the vocals, and the production. 

After winning the Bernard/Ebb Songwriting Awards, Danoff went on to compete on season 10 of The Voice. Recently, he scored a YouTube documentary about Tony Hawk, a project he describes as “a dream.” He continues to create his own music and write for others. 

Danoff’s advice to the contestants taking the Strathmore stage this spring is to “choose the song that best represents you, not the song you think will win. It’s the way that your own experience translates into art that makes you stand out.” 

Strathmore extends its deepest gratitude to Cathy, Alex, and Amanda Bernard for their unwavering dedication to our region’s talented songwriters and for generously investing in this meaningful event.