Something momentous

March 22, 2020

Stephen Sondheim, the Boy Wonder of Broadway, turns 90 today, so I’m hell-bent on saying some positive things about him that other people might not say. And those who’ve read my comments over the years know that I have a somewhat idiosyncratic view of the man so many take to be a God. I think he’s written a handful of excellent shows, maintains a very high level of craft, but doesn’t nearly live up to all the adulation heaped upon him. I’ve known many otherwise perspicacious folks who claim they only like Sondheim musicals. And I’m appalled at those who believe he’s never done anything bad. I’m sure he’s just as appalled, because nobody could possibly think as highly of themselves as most Sondheim fanatics – I like to call them Steve-adores – think of him.

His first effort, Saturday Night, failed to raise enough money to get produced. I musical directed a school production and it’s charitably described as an interesting failure. One can see the positive influence of Frank Loesser, and there are a few nice moments: The verse to the main ballad, So Many People, goes up and down the thirds of a single chord in a haunting way. There’s a little chorale about Brooklyn that’s certainly droll. And there’s a fine up-tempo late in the show, What More Do I Need, which I prefer to the Berlin ballad it’s stolen from. 

But then came West Side Story, the first of two for which the 20-something only did lyrics. This is a classic, a huge leap forward. While Saturday Night never managed to build up enough feeling for its characters, audiences are totally invested in Tony, Maria, Riff, Anita et al. I’d say it’s one of the most moving musicals ever written. When Maria warbles “It’s alarming how charming I feel” she is Everygirl In Love, effusing in her native language.

Next, his Gypsy lyrics do more of the narrative lifting, and he hits an entertaining balance of humor, colloquialisms and cleverness. The proficiency of West Side Story and Gypsy, which both have fine books by Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins staging, would land him in the first tier of Broadway lyricists had he written nothing else.

The Sixties, though, were a bit of a let-down. The success of the first Broadway show to feature Sondheim’s music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, was due to its riotous libretto, not the songs themselves, which failed to garner a Tony Nomination. Not-funny-enough comedy songs also litter Do I Hear a Waltz and Anyone Can Whistle.

Then, 1970’s Company ushered in a truly brilliant period. Here was a show not quite like anything that had been attempted before: The songs, at long last, featured great gobs of actable subtext. A languorous ode to ambiguity, Barcelona, finds humor in a real and previously unsung situation. There’s also a patter song that’s a prestissimo ode to ambiguity, a ballad about ambiguity, and a quirky little jazz number about, you guessed it, ambiguity. If you can abide a whole score of that sort of thing… I’ll drink to you.

The following year, Sondheim demonstrated a real knack for pastiche with Follies. He used the type of songs we were familiar with from the age of Gershwin 

and added inner emotional layers.

As I was writing this not-quite-successful attempt at positivity, a friend asked what my favorite cut Sondheim song is, and I knew right away it’s Follies‘ Who Could Be Blue?/Little White House. So unlike anything else he’s ever written because it’s naive, simple, pretty, and a wholly positive expression of love. Not a color he paints with very often.

In his next show, A Little Night Music, a waltz called Soon begins and you think it’s going to be this loving expression but then he cuts the sweet with the sardonic and makes fun of the character. I want to say “I get it, Steve: You think love is awful.” It’s the color he paints with most often and anti-romantic cynics eat it up.

Still, the quality and craft exhibited in Company, Follies and A Little Night Music have no precedent; that is, I can’t think of anyone else who wrote three better shows in a row. What followed was Pacific Overtures, a wildly experimental entertainment with no human protagonist, and I admire its ambition if not its execution.

But then came Sweeney Todd, a brilliant synthesis of Grand Guignol melodrama and techniques taken from opera. It sounds overwrought but Sondheim filled every moment with enough majestic scoring to make it riveting.

After the debacle known as Merrily We Roll Along, Sondheim stopped working with director Hal Prince, who’d helmed all his shows since Company. He sought something truly new and experimental off-Broadway, and cast quite a spell with Sunday in the Park With George, a score filled with leitmotifs, its staccato riffs standing in for the pointillist techniques of artist Georges Seurat. I found this one very moving and relatable, and I’m one of the very few who prefers the second act to the first. It gives meaning to a whole bunch of things that, at intermission, seemed meaningless.

His most-performed show, Into the Woods, has a blithe vaudevillian duet for the baker and his wife that charms me, but I find it exhausting to sit through the rest. It means to be profound – always a bad sign – and means to be funny, which it isn’t – and I’ve very little emotional connection to Cinderella and what seems like a dozen familiar fairy tale characters. What it does have, in spades, is intricacy, and one comes away impressed with the mind that thought up all those tricky numbers.

The less said about The Frogs, Passion and the one I didn’t see, Road Show (f.k.a. Bounce), the better; so I won’t. Instead, I’ll take a complaint I’ve made about Sondheim – that he wrote so little beyond the age of 57 – and make it a compliment. I truly wish you had taken your words to heart: “Give us more to see.” The work is so good, so fascinating, I wish there were more of it.


Being your slave

March 12, 2020

“Look, the lighting designer’s not arguing with me. The costumer designer’s on board. Only you, Noel: Only you are giving me trouble. As this is my doctoral thesis, I have complete responsibility for the work…Let’s face it: We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer. Take the weekend to think it over.”

Many years ago, I created a structure for improvisation, a sort of a rap that always began with the line “You know what I hate?” So, with your indulgence, I’m going to rant a bit about the bane of my musical theatre writing existence, the hierarchical (non-)collaboration.

And now it seems like I’ve made up an overly fancy term. So, to simplify, I’ll recall the introduction Rodgers and Hammerstein put at the front of their Songbook. “To collaborate is to work together.” Now, that seems a bit too simple. But we ignore Rodgers and Hammerstein at our own peril. They were equal partners and this fact is an element of their success. You could drop a marble between them and it would roll to neither side. After Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers collaborated with three lyricists – Stephen Sondheim, Martin Charnin and Sheldon Harnick and none of them considered themselves Rodgers’ equal. Who could? As a result, perhaps, each turned out their worst work and those shows – Do I Hear a Waltz, Two By Two, Rex and I Remember Mama – are never done today.

I’ve had the severe misfortune to be caught in what I initially thought were collaborations only to discover I was a subordinate. There was one show in which a relative of one of the people I was writing with provided the entire financial backing. Naturally, this skewed things. I didn’t have an equal say because I’d brought no money to the table.

I’ve been through the opposite situation, too, though. I’ve worked with some wonderful people who produced our shows and yet never once bossed me around. In reminiscing about troublesome situations, I appreciate the good ones all the more.

So, now, I’m in a more positive frame-of-mind. Good collaborators have a certain amount of awareness of what you go through in your craft. As a lyricist, I can spend days or weeks trying to come up with the best possible expression, figuring out exactly how the character would put it. And one of the issues I’m often thinking about is frequency of rhymes, as coming up with matching sounds every few syllables is usually the sign of a clever mind at work. (Don’t get me started on Petra and The Miller’s Son.) So, there was this time I had a fairly inarticulate character sing “Something momentous has begun/You and I have begun.” But a superior had this changed to “Something momentous has begun/You and I are now one.” The rationale for this added rhyme had something to do with the concept of becoming one being used in certain marriage vow traditions, which, I must admit, I hadn’t heard of.” This irked me some, as it weakened the lyric and made the character seemed far smarter than how he was being played. It’s a safe bet the martinet ordering the alteration hadn’t thought about this.

Such experiences have led to some hypersensitivity. Watch out for any sentence that begins “As the Director of this Company…” because the essential level playing field has shattered. We creative people do not thrive in situations where somebody defines themself as overlord.

Enough years go by, though, and you can sometimes see something amusing about some self-proclaimed autocrat’s edicts. In writing an Industrial show, I knew that the corporation that pays the piper calls the tune. From some fancy office across the country, a man in a suit balled me out for writing a reference to a corporate structure. “The people who see this are going to be very offended if you say that some are at the top, some are at the bottom.” O.K., then, I said to the fellow who’d just placed himself in a higher position than me.

And sometimes, the orders-from-oh-high are so ridiculous, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wrote a funny song about romantic gestures, and came up with a speech leading into it referencing Valentine’s Day. Well, this could not stand: You see, several of the big money donors were religious Jews who’d take great offense if our show referenced a Catholic holiday! Huh? Really? I think you misspelled “pagan.” The speech and song were instantly cut.

It’s possible, though, that what I’d written wasn’t good and that the person-in-charge didn’t have the heart to tell me that. So, an intermediary was told that rationale and reported it to me. We were similarly stunned. But hey, I’ve a limited understanding of religion. For all I know, Valentine is a real serious saint and Jews rail against yet another Christian holiday smack dab in the middle of February. I’d appreciation information about this, perhaps after Lent is over.


Heaven is here

March 1, 2020

My friend Tom, as everyone who knows him will admit, is crazy. But there’s such thing as crazy-in-a-good-way, and, exactly twenty years ago, the combination of crazy-good and good friendship led to a musical that created a lot of joy.

Many readers of this blog wonder when and how they’re ever going to get a show on the boards. Sometimes, it’s a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time. In the mid-nineties, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new kind of improv group. A fiery redhead named Karen Herr had a vision about doing something that had never been done in New York before, the Harold. A Harold is a specific type of improvised play, long-form, and, as our story begins, it had only been done in Chicago. Karen was still on very good terms with an ex-boyfriend, Ian Roberts, who lived there. He and three like-minded improvisors, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Amy Poehler, had studied with the legendary Del Close.They’d formed a troupe called Upright Citizens Brigade and regaled audiences with Harolds and other forms. Karen felt her effort to get something similar started in New York needed much guidance from UCB, and also needed me, on stage, not doing music, not improvising songs; just acting.

When I met Tom Carrozza, he thought I was like him, an improvising actor. We ran into each other at some show, and he sheepishly admitted that he loved old-fashioned comedy songs, was working on a send-up of cabaret acts, but wasn’t quite clicking with his musical director. Did I know of anyone? Did I know of anyone? I was one. And so I outed myself as a musical comedy aficionado who’s really most comfortable behind the piano. Before long, we put up a hysterical show in the Stella Adler school cafeteria as part of a festival called Moonwork. It contained some comedy songs I wrote for Tom, one I translated (from German, but I made it funny) for Tom, some I found for Tom and one I wrote with Tom. The audience howled: a very successful adaptation of Tom’s craziness into something so-called “normal” people could eat up.

How to follow such a profound success? Tom had a notion. We were both headed towards a big birthday and Tom felt he was reaching an age by which he should have written a musical. This is, of course, crazy: nobody needs to write a musical. But it’s the good sort of crazy.

He showed me a sketch about a creature from outer space who has a headache. Humans bring him an aspirin and the alien get perturbed. “Aren’t you going to bring me water? Who takes an aspirin without water?” He then drinks the water and rubs the pill into the side of his head.

There are times you ask yourself, “Should I be doing this?” Tom hadn’t written a musical before. What was I getting myself into? This was crazy. Could it ever be good? The alien was acting so human; that was very appealing to me. I’m not a fan of science fiction, but our show wasn’t going to be serious science fiction, quite the opposite. Making fun of the hysteria surrounding visitors from outer space seemed a worthy shared goal.

Tom rented us a room with a piano to write the show in on 18th Srreet, near Bed Bath and Beyond. As I walked past, I felt I was leaving the quotidian drudge of beds and baths and entering The World of Beyond. Because writing with Tom was an adventure. Sometimes, he just wanted to gossip about people we knew in the improv world. But the more he focussed on things that could happen in our show, the more I found myself coming up with wild ideas for numbers.

You know my favorite musical is How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, partly because I’m so impressed that each of Frank Loesser’s songs manages to get the audience to laugh. So, I made that my goal: No serious moments, no explorations of human feelings, cris-de-coeur, or sober anthems. Keep it wacky – these were our watchwords.

Who would produce? Tom. Who would star? Tom. Who would direct? Not Tom. I put my foot down. We needed someone with experience directing humorous musicals and eventually settled upon Gary Slavin, a dynamo of good ideas. To my surprise and delight,  there was no denying a significant overlap in their senses of humor. In a full-length, all-humorous entertainment, you have to appreciate someone who can get your more laughs. Gary got us there in spades, and we were also buoyed by the lunacy of musical directorJono Manelli.

The cast included some mainstays of the New York improv scene, as well as four Broadway performers: Kathi Gillmore, who now works with my wife, Gregory Jones, Jay Aubrey Jones (no relation), and the very young Mamie Parris, in her New York debut. Mamie’s played a whole bunch of leading roles on Broadway, including Mother in the revival of Ragtime, a show Kathi had done the First National of many years earlier. Interesting show, Ragtime, but that’s a different essay.

It’s safe to say Area 51 – did I forget to mention the name? – is the silliest thing anyone associated with it has ever done. Its success had a lot to do with all of us accepting Tom’s craziness, being confident that his madcap ideas would be embraced by an audience. Following his lead, we all came up with outré contributions. There were even singing alien puppets in glass tanks. And, in the end, we were chased out of the place by a lava-like explosion of marshmallow fluff.

You had to be there.


Dance with a rake

February 22, 2020

The broader world of entertainment danced its way into a controversy this month that I do not understand at all. So, rather than commenting, rather tardily, on the pearl-clutching “Eek! There’s a stripper pole in the Super Bowl halftime show” thing, I’ll use it as a springboard for some thoughts about musicals. That is, if a stripper pole can be used as a springboard: I don’t know that, either.

“Something wrong with stripping?” asks a character in Gypsy, with a delicious dollop of indignation. America’s long history with Puritanism means that somebody’s bound to object to sexiness wherever it rears its pretty tush, but America’s musical theatre history had scantily clad dancing girls right from the start, a little over 150 years ago, in the legendary “first musical,” The Black Crook. For at least a century, comely chorines were a main factor drawing straight men to Broadway. Here’s how Bob Merrill, the principal purveyor of not-quite-clever-enough rhymes, described the stage scene of 1910:

Any guy who pays a quarter
For a seat just thinks he oughtta
See a figure that his wife can’t substitute

It’s not always the male gaze on the female curves, of course. In 1956’s hysterical Li’l Abner, government scientists create a magic tonic that turns scrawny men into Atlases. I have a wonderful, if vague, memory of an elementary school production many years ago, in which the boys put on the sort of shaped plastic used in old Halloween masks to give themselves abs and hulk-like muscles. More recently, when Encores put on Li’l Abner, they hired a bunch of behemoths from a modeling agency. In other words, the real thing. Not as amusing, but satisfying to audience members who appreciate well-built males – most people, nowadays.

Li’l Abner was based on a surprisingly risqué comic strip in which Al Capp let his imagination run wild and drew his characters, of both genders, as preposterously well-endowed. The musical’s plot has the transformed husbands (and yes, they’re all husbands) concomitantly lose all interest in sex, leading their wives to sing:

They was not known for beauty,
But they sho’ done they duty,
And they made the boudoir buzz!
Put ’em back the way they wuz!

They was long, lean, and lanky,
But they loved hanky-panky
They did things that outdone duz!
Put ’em back the way they wuz!

They wuz vile lookin’ varments
Wearing vile lookin’ garments
But they knowed a his from huz…
put ’em back the way they wuz!

They was no shakes as lovers,
But they warmed up the covers,
Covered as they wuz with fuzz!

(Johnny Mercer)

I can claim a small family connection to this musical, as my father, then a young lawyer for a show business firm, was assigned to keep an eye on Al Capp, make sure he stayed out of trouble. This proved difficult, as Capp eluded Dad’s watchful eye and, before much time had passed, was found chasing some underage girl through a hotel room. This is similar to the plot and setting of another musical, My Favorite Year, in which the young hero has to keep watch on a hard-drinking movie star with limited success.

None of Johnny Mercer’s other musicals ran more than a year, but I’m just now reminded he wrote a novelty song about stripping that never fails to bring a smile to my face.

That notion that she’s always a lady plays a big part in Gypsy, where we come to the inescapable conclusion that Gypsy Rose Lee elevated the form with her patina of class. And one of the few lyricists I feel is superior to Mercer, Lorenz Hart, used this as the basis for an amazing comedy song in 1940, Zip.

Ten years later, my favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, thought of two musical permutations on strip tropes. (Say “strip tropes” three times fast. It’s a good thing this isn’t an audiobook.) One involves an emotional justification for removing clothing, Take Back Your Mink. The character claims to be shocked that the man who gave her expensive tokens of his esteem tried to remove them all, and so she throws them at him in a fit of pique, stripping in anger.

Now, it just so happens I can claim a family connection to this song. My grandfather was in the fur business, and, at a fairly advanced age, found herself on a beach chaise by a pool in Miami, Florida. Go figure! She got to talking to the lady next to her and they discovered they both had husbands in furs. It was Mrs. Hollander, whose husband had invented a treatment to make cheap muskrat fur look more like mink. When Adelaide sings “tell him to Hollanderize it for some other dame” she’s revealing that the mink isn’t really mink at all, an insult the entire New York audience would have understood in 1950 but nobody gets today.

Adelaide, which is the name we gave our daughter, is also central to the other strip-borne number in Guys and Dolls. At one point, Frank Loesser thought about how uncomfortable it must feel to stand on stage in minimal covering. The temperature might be chilly enough to make you sick, and so he began a song called The Stripper Had Developed a Cold. The music had the driving 12/8 repeated chords one associates with ecdysiastic accompaniment, but, eventually, the song was abandoned. But when the idea emerged that Miss Adelaide would break into sneezes every time Nathan Detroit exhibited his faithlessness, it was a hop, skip and a jump to “A person can develop a cold.” So that’s why you hear striptease music in Adelaide’s Lament, widely considered the best comedy song ever written for the stage.

And so I ask you, once again: Something wrong with stripping?


Good night waltz

February 14, 2020

It’s Valentine’s Day so it’s not wildly inappropriate to subject you all to a description of a wonderful date I recently had. Since we saw a musical, and I’ll have some comments about that musical, it fits the theme of the blog as well as the theme of the day. Also, I’m not holding myself up as the model paramour here, but I will say that if more of us took in a musical on dates, the business of musical theatre would be in better shape.

The theatre was near the corner of Hollywood and Vine and I explained to my date that this is, for no good reason, the most famous intersection in all of California. Many years ago, when radio was a popular form of mass entertainment, a high-rated show announced it was broadcasting from this corner. Soon, tourists flocked to the space, as if there was something to see here. But there isn’t. And there never was. Radio studios exist in non-descript office buildings. But did you know that Sondheim composed a song called Hollywood and Vine? It’s not very good and he didn’t do the lyric. I once owned a lead sheet copy but seem to have misplaced it.

There’s famous-just-for-being-famous, and then there’s the Walk of Fame, where you have to have succeeded, in some aspect of the entertainment business, in order to have your name stamped into a star stamped into the sidewalk. The young lady I was with didn’t previously know about this, but said that, if it weren’t disgusting, she’d lean down and kiss the star of Kristin Bell. This came as a surprise to me: I’m certain she’s never seen Veronica Mars nor The Good Place. We crossed Hollywood Boulevard and found a few feet of street with no star. “That’s where my star is gonna go one day,” she said, assuredly.

Another thing we did before the show was ride an escalator from the Walk of Fame deep into the ground. Turned out to be a subway entrance, and this surprised us both. Do people use subways in Los Angeles? I mean, it’s great if they do; I just can’t picture it. You get out of your apartment building, and within a block or two, descend into the ground to quickly get to a location you can walk to from your destination stop? I’ll have to learn more about this.

Then my date remembered a friend of hers was turning 8 the next day, and she looked around and asked, “Is there a toy store here?” Once, not so long ago, you could buy toys on Hollywood Boulevard, but these weren’t the sorts of toys a child would enjoy. Those days are gone. Some decades ago, Times Square underwent a similar transformation; all so-called “adult” amusements got shunted away. In making our entertainment centers cleaner, in this sense, I wonder if theatre gets swept along for the ride. A family-friendly entertainment district is more apt to present family-friendly fare.

Which brings us to the musical of the evening, Frozen, at the Pantages. The Pantages was built as a one of those grand old movie palaces in the grand old days of movie-going. We were in Row QQ, very far from the action. The performers looked like ants – well-trained ants, certainly, but ants nonetheless. When you design a movie palace, the far-back seats aren’t a problem because the heroine’s face, in a close-up projection – perhaps voiced by the aforementioned Kristin Bell – could be twenty feet tall. I’m always disconcerted by cinema-to-legitimate theatre conversions for this reason.

Enough of Frozen focuses on romance that my date snuggled into me. At other points, she put her head down on my lap, exhausted. That’s a sign of how enervating the stage version is. Frozen, for us, exists in three different forms. It’s most familiar as the original animated film. There, it zips along with many amusing and emotional songs by Kristin and Bobby Lopez. And then comes Let It Go and everything changes. No more songs, just snowy adventure-drama. I’m reminded of Yip Harburg’s disappointment with how the classic film, The Wizard of Oz turned out. It’s great, and then it stops being a musical.

We’d recently enjoyed Frozen on stage at Disneyland; a good friend’s in the cast. This is in a tall structure in California Adventure, built as a theatre. Holds a lot of people, but nobody’s so far from the stage that anyone looks like ants. And it’s far shorter – a saving grace. The amusement park Frozen doesn’t have time for avalanches and abominable snow monsters. It hits its emotional points, sings its fine songs and gets you out of there.

Which gets me thinking about how musicals choose to spend their time. On the legitimate stage, the major plot points, impressive special effects, and the familiar songs are spread far from each other. What’s sandwiched in-between is material of far-lesser effectiveness. We get characters singing about their feelings, and these bits of self-reflection are never catalysts for action. Plus at least a half-dozen butt jokes. Not to mention the production number that highlights the limitations of shows meant for the whole family…

Like something from Hollywood’s dirtier past, we’re meant to be amused by a chorus line of naked people. Yes, you read that right. Bunny-hopping out of a sauna are men and women in strategically-placed towels. When my date and I saw the same show a couple of years ago on Broadway, we sat close enough to get the joke. Sort of like fan dancers of the strip-tease era, the merry choristers zip from one strategic placement to another. At the Pantages, we couldn’t tell what was going on, although the lady to the left of me could. Far-sightedness enhanced her experience.

The girl on my right, though, had such a good time at Frozen that, a few days later, she sat down at a toy piano and improvised a song that went “I love you, Daddy.”


The mushy stuff

February 5, 2020

Recently, I got super-productive, churning out more than a dozen pages per day of a libretto. I packed my daughter off on a sleepover; my wife was on a business trip; in the middle of the night, I woke and couldn’t get back to sleep. Perhaps writing issues were swirling around in my brain. I needed to take a break, clearly. But here’s proof I’m crazy: I picked up Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, about Rodgers and Hammerstein.

So now my mind was filled with details about the birth pains that led to South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. I think you all have to read this book, because, even though we know these turned out to be huge successes, it’s a page-turner. Problems crop up, and, as you take these in, the happy outcome seems very much in doubt. Also, we look to these masters for some uncanny secret sauce: what can we emulate after 60 years?

Oscar Hammerstein was born into a theatrical family; the roman numeral after his name, II, was originally necessary to distinguish him from an eponymous uncle. He took time and care to educate himself in the ways plays work. This involved stage management gigs and other sorts of apprenticeship. In the Roaring Twenties, all that know-how led him to pre-eminence in the then-popular genre of operetta. It’s a style of musical theatre I’ve little fondness for, partly because it all feels so unreal; forced, oddly unnatural.

Seven years his junior, Richard Rodgers chose the opposite direction. His tunes swing in a way operetta does not. They knew each other: teen Dick saw Oscar in the Columbia Varsity Show and was star-struck upon meeting him. He decided then and there to attend Columbia because he wanted to compose the annual Varsity Show, and Oscar gave him that job and teamed him up with Lorenz Hart.

I wonder if either young man was aware of the schism in their ambitions. Oscar gravitated towards the big-throated romances, often set in exotic places and times. Rodgers was attracted to jazz – as the term was defined in the Jazz Age – more rhythmic, more vernacular. This was a far better match for the loopy word-play Hart excelled at.

Algonquin Round Table doyenne Edna Ferber published a novel dramatizing the racism of the post-Civil War South and when Hammerstein and Jerome Kern musicalized that, Show Boat pointed to a reality-based future. It wasn’t frilly; although there’s lots of comedy, it’s a musical drama that takes itself seriously. While it was widely-recognized as groundbreaking, for the next fifteen years, Hammerstein was unable to create anything remotely similar. His post-Show Boat shows without Rodgers are largely forgotten today.

And Rodgers and Hart kept hitting them out of the park, like Babe Ruth in the Bronx. More than anybody else, they shaped what musical comedies are. There’s piquancy and pep in those Rodgers melodies, matched to unparalleled wit in Hart’s lyrics. It’s fair to say they paved the way for Cole Porter, and the brothers Gershwin were worthy rivals, but not quite as successful.

As they weren’t parallel lines, Rodgers and Hammerstein were bound to meet; their collaboration started about a year before Hart died. Rodgers, for seventeen years, had been the master of popular music. His are the tunes everyone loves, such as The Lady Is a Tramp, Bewitched, Isn’t It Romantic?, My Funny Valentine and I Could Write a Book. Now he was ready to give up the hit-songwriting pursuit to try something radical. I don’t believe people understand just how radical it was.

When you picked up your Playbill, right under the title, and above Rodgers and Hammerstein’s name, were the words “A musical play.” The creators took enormous pains to make certain the audience experienced an entertainment every bit as thoughtful, as fully-wrought, as any straight play. Musicals of the time simply hadn’t done this. Rodgers’ music is filled with harmonies and rhythms that one could plausibly have heard in the Wild West of the twentieth century’s first decade. I love that minuet, Many a New Day, more than the equine clip-clop of The Surrey With the Fringe On Top. There’s propulsive bass-clef accompaniment, thundering up as in Copland’s prairie pieces, in I Cain’t Say No, The Farmer and the Cowman and All Or Nothin’. The words that Hammerstein chooses are distinctly of the period, too – isinglass, velveteen settee, gas-buggies and privies.

From then on, every odd-numbered year came a new Rodgers and Hammerstein premiere. I know people hate when I make this comparison, but in the past 30 years, Sondheim’s premiered three musicals, Assassins, Passion and the oft-rechristened Road Show. Purdum’s dual biography depicts Hammerstein hard at work for months, attempting to get every detail just right. While waiting for lyrics to arrive, Rodgers thought about the harmonic palette of the show’s setting, be it New England, Siam, Monterrey, or Austria. And so, exasperatingly, he was able to toss off these perfect tunes with head-turning swiftness.

On Oklahoma, Carousel, Allegro, Me & Juliet and Flower Drum Song, the team made the conscious decision to cast no stars. Famous performers gave them all sorts of trouble, and it’s odd, given their pre-eminence, that anyone ever doubted their judgment.

Purdum’s one weakness is in his analysis, at the very end, of what’s happened to the reputation of their five mega-hits since Rodgers’ death forty years ago. Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music continue to be produced and loved all over the world. Carousel has seen its popularity fall a bit because the syndrome of wives defending abusive husbands reaches contemporary ears in a discomfiting way. But the whole of their output is earnestly moral, anti-prejudice, and pro- (and proto-) feminist. These are big themes, and I wish more writers today would sweat the details like these Masters did. Examine Rodgers and Hammerstein, gang. You’ve got to be carefully taught.


In these times

January 27, 2020

To consider life after NYMF, my mind goes back to life before the New York Musical Theatre Festival, which premiered in 2004.

Creating musicals is a herculean task made more difficult by the thorns and nettles of producing theatre in New York. It shouldn’t be so hard. After all, New York contains a huge number of talents who are extremely good at what they do: performers, directors, choreographers, designers, musical directors. Being the crowded place that it is, New York, more than anywhere else, contains people who are interested in seeing new musicals, and this crowd includes critics, producers who might be from out of town but come to town to find material to produce elsewhere, a savvy audience that’s seen many a new musical before.

I tend to use the term, Critical Mass, a lot. What I’ve just described is the intersection of two Critical Masses – the makers of musicals, and those who appreciate new musicals. If one were to try to mount a show someplace else, say, Dubuque, Iowa, both masses would be far smaller, and the whole thing becomes harder. You don’t have a large-enough group of talented-enough folk to do a show and fill the seats with interested-enough theatre-goers. I picked Dubuque because I know a guy there who’s been attempting to create and produce a new musical there for many years. But, wherever you are, it can’t be denied that, compared to New York, your critical masses are puny.

But Gotham, that cruel mistress, throws stumbling blocks in your way. One is the price of real estate. So many people want to live in Manhattan, the laws of supply and demand make every inch of the island a spot likely to be used as a living space. And now I’m thinking of my beloved West 57th Street: I had a show in C.A.M.I. Hall and attended the BMI workshop in two different West 57th Street locations. But now one cranes one’s neck to gawk at the incredibly tall and thin Steinway Tower and the even taller Central Park Tower where a modest studio apartment goes for a million and a half. The longest-reigning Tallest Building in the World, the Empire State, is now the seventh tallest in Manhattan. Talk about puny!

And imagine the land use problem with finding a performance space for a show. Tiny theatres – and we’re not talking nice-looking ones – charge exorbitant rents. In 2000, my musical comedy, Area 51, played at the Sanford Meisner Theatre, way the hell west on the West Side Highway, across from Chelsea Piers. Audiences had to be really committed to walk there. Wasn’t anywhere near a subway. In a famous letter, Jason Robert Brown, whose Songs For a New World had played around the corner, said he didn’t venturee that far. The joyful noise of tap dancing paratroopers hit relatively few ears.

Something had to be done, and, one day, a group of young people who cared about the future of musical theatre – specifically, how new musicals are made – met to discuss ideas. What if they presented a bunch of shows at the same time, in the same small set of theatres? Normally, a musical plays for an hour or two and the rest of the day, the theatre lies empty. What if the same venue hosted different shows all day long? One at one, one at four, one at seven, one at ten. You could sell four times as many seats. The cost of producing could be split between many shows. Imagine the fee for renting a keyboard. Normally, one show pays the whole tab, but what if you had ten different musicals sharing – not so high a cost.

Now we’re talking a critical mass of new musicals, an economic structure based on sharing space, and maybe they all share a casting director who’ll run a huge audition, and a publicist. An individual musical like Area 51 failed to get press coverage, but “Hey, we’re doing 30 musicals over three weeks in New York!” warranted a full page in the Daily News. And a mass of critics would attend, and out-of-town scouts looking for new shows to do, a far-more fertile ground for Life After the Festival.

Just as many of us know all we know about Gypsy Rose Lee from the “musical fable,” Gypsy, there will always be those who know what they know about NYMF from one of its first-year offeringss, [title of show], Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s musical-à-clef about their process of getting in the festival. It went on to Broadway, as did Feeling Electric, but not until after Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt changed the title to Next To Normal. Both have small casts, as you’d expect from a festival situation. Two of my favorite NYMF experiences were two-man musicals about guys writing musicals, the hysterical Gutenberg! and the warm and winsome The Big Voice: God or Merman? But I’ll run out of space if I list the shows I loved there, including ones by friends, Night of the Hunter and Like You Like It.

Rather, I can illustrate the great goodness wrought by NYMF by discussing my 2007 career highlight, Such Good Friends. First, being accepted, by blind submission, meant something to a lot of people. Area 51 had been produced by my collaborator. Such Good Friends attracted a top-flight director, Marc Bruni, who hooked me up with a producer, Kim Vasquez, and Kim was one of the innovators at the founding-of-NYMF meeting described above. Musical Director Michael Horsley and choreographer Wendy Seyb were also dying to work with Marc. Our cast was mostly Broadway vets, including two Tony Nominees, Liz Larsen and Brad Oscar – fantastically talented performers who were willing to devote their time to the show because they wanted to be part of the creation of something new. All wanted to be a part of NYMF. We won raves from various esteemed media outlets, interest from a scout from a well-known out-of-state theatre, and all sorts of awards.

Our theatre, the Julia Miles, has since been knocked down for some massive apartment building. And now comes the news that NYMF has gone out of business. And again we’re all lost in the wilderness, our individual shows lonesomely looking for a home.

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as the New York Musical Theatre Festival