What right have I?

July 20, 2018

Here’s one of musical theatre’s most groan-producing forced rhymes:

You are the light of the world
But if that light’s under a bushel
It’s lost something kind of crucial

(Some people quote the Bible; I quote musicals. Even when they’re purporting to be quoting the Bible.)

So, I’m about to give my internationally famous subjective musical theatre history in Los Angeles. (August 1-4, 2018) It’s the first time, in the eighteen-year-history of the History, that it’s been offered to the general public. (Register now at http://nmi.org/events/a-subjective-history-of-musical-theatre/ ) So, I really ought to say a few words about it but there’s a problem.

If I tell you, with proper honesty, about the reactions of those who’ve previously attended, it’s going to sound like bragging. And I don’t like to brag. But I really shouldn’t keep my light under a bushel. I see the rapt attention in everyone’s eyes. I engage the learners in a conversation about musicals and how they came to be – it’s imprecise to call them an audience. But, when it’s done, inevitably, every time I do it, a group will come up to me and say “Wow, that was amazingly entertaining. I learned so much.”

These were theatre students, accustomed to receiving a fabulous education – some had BFAs, MFAs, there may have been a PhD. Others made a choice to avoid college because they couldn’t picture themselves listening to lectures in a hall. Is what I do a lecture? I don’t think that’s a good word for it. I fill our time with jokes, with much back-and-forth; I run to the piano to sing illustrative songs. I even execute a move I saw in a Fosse show. And, at certain points, I make people cry. I tell the life story of a musical-writing hero of mine in such dramatic fashion, well, the last time I did this there was an audible gasp.

The talk sprung into being when I was given the floor at an acting school with a curriculum so packed, nobody had time for history. Some students knew the classics, but not the new. Others, the reverse. And then there were people who exclusively were into Sondheim shows. There were no grades, no tests, no consequence, really, for not apprehending what I put out there. Teachers, in traditional classrooms, have implicit sway: “Learn this, or get a bad grade <maniacal laugh>.” Take that away, you’ve got my kind of challenge! If I talked fast enough, if I suddenly broke out into song when nobody expected it, if good jokes came frequently enough, folks would eat it up. Learn. Understand.

And, thank God, it’s safely removed from traditional academia. The stories I tell needn’t be the gospel truth (or the Godspell truth, for that matter). No one was going to stop me if I injected my opinion. If I think a particular show is awful, I say so, and get to explain why. And make fun of it in such a way, you’ll laugh your head off.

Since it’s a dialogue, I suspect I’ll field some questions. What’s on many minds these days is the skittishness involved in the current revivals of a couple of Golden Era classics on Broadway. It would seem that producers are uncomfortable with presenting pre-feminism musicals to a post-feminist audience. Broadway, of course, is a business, and the supposition is they’ll sell more tickets to bowdlerized Rodgers & Hammerstein or a Lerner & Loewe with a reinterpreted ending than they would the pure unadulterated hits the world has loved for decades.

I’ve written before about the particularly ludicrous charge that Carousel somehow condones or romanticizes wife-beating. It rather explicitly does not. And since I once played the character uttering the line, I can quote you exactly what the Heavenly Friend says the moment long-dead Billy slaps the hand of his daughter:

Failure! You struck out blindly again. Is that the only way you know how to treat those you love? Failure!

This messenger from God is saying what Hammerstein wants us all to hear, that wife-beating or even daughter-slapping is never acceptable. And yet the text is radically altered to make it even more acceptable to today’s audience.

One property that Rodgers and Hammerstein felt couldn’t work as a musical was George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In that fine play, a lower class woman stands up for herself, getting the best, in argument, of a tony Mayfair scholar. Lerner and Loewe created the longest-running musical, ever (beating Rodgers and Hammerstein’s record), My Fair Lady, by leaving Shaw’s arguments in, virtually intact. I think the best word for it is proto-feminist, since it pre-dates what we call the feminist movement by a few years. 62 years later, though, powers-that-be saw the need to tip the scales a little further in favor of the reconstituted flower peddler, who now marches out of the theatre in response to the final power play.

I’ve admired the work of the directors, Jack O’Brien (Carousel) and Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady) in the past, but this seems a good definition of hubris. Rodgers and Hammerstein crafted what was named the twentieth century’s greatest musical. Lerner and Loewe crafted the longest-running show to open during the 1950s. Those writers are geniuses – you think you can do better?

Now, I’m not saying you have to love those shows. A Sondheim character sees My Fair Lady and says “I sort of enjoyed it.” But, please, have some sense of historical context. Carousel was written for a war-time audience, one that surely contained war brides and war widows. Rodgers and Hammerstein reassured wives of soldiers that they’d made the right choice, marrying those who served. Imagine if your husband died in World War Two and you get to watch a widow hearing her long-dead husband utter, “Know that I loved you.”

To appreciate this, though, you might have to have a sense of history. And those current producers don’t trust that ticket-buyers today have that. But one can always learn history. Which is why you’re going to attend my Subjective History of Musicals. You’ll learn; you’ll laugh; you’ll love musicals more.

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Head to toe

July 13, 2018

I’m writing this on the eve of a visit with the son of my best life-long friend, who is very much interested in writing musicals. So, naturally, I’m thinking about what to tell him, if I’m called upon to tell him something. Which isn’t likely. And I certainly won’t utter a thousand words. Like I will here.

A mid-century football coach said “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The thing that most people miss, in writing musicals, is that story isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Oh, sure, if you think hard enough, you can find successful musicals with plots that didn’t work at all. But aspire to higher than Andrew Lloyd Webber and various elements of your creation are more likely to fall into place. When I taught a college course in musical theatre performance, I began the first class every year with the words, “Greetings, storytellers.” I would have said the same to costumers, stage managers, conductors. It’s the most collaborative of arts and all of us, in any position, are endeavoring to tell the story. Make sure the audience is following along. Don’t assume that you can distract them from attending the tale by throwing in some splashy number, tangential to the plot. Cut that out! Kill your babies! Make your show a lean story-telling machine.

This probably entails tossing out your ballads. Songwriters fall in love with their slowly expressed cris de coeur and, more times than not, audiences are put to sleep by them. And then when you pile up a succession of ballads in a row: I know you didn’t mean to, but you’ve created a snooze-fest.

If a group of expert artisans were building a building, the architect would start by producing a blueprint. And, along the way, the finished edifice would differ, in many ways, from that initial plan. (I enjoy attending architecture shows in museums where you can compare these things.) So, eleven years ago, my script Such Good Friends had a cast of 19 and centered on a difficult exchange between a father and a son. Under the brilliant direction of Marc Bruni, the show was produced with a cast of ten, no son, and that difficult exchange never happened. The alterations told the story better. Neophyte scribes should be aware that the collaborative forces are very likely to adjust the plan on its way to fruition. And that’s a good thing.

I swear I’ll drop this analogy soon, but think of a component on that blueprint, looking wonderful. One reason it might not survive in the production is that it didn’t play as well, live on stage, as it did in its earlier form. It’s easy to get confused by this. A song may be wonderful on paper. A song may play like gangbusters in a cabaret. The recording of a song could be a YouTube sensation. But your principal goal is to tell a story in a theatre to a live audience, and that’s a very different thing. When I was just a little older than my young friend is today, there was a song from a musical you heard on the radio all the time. Its verses were rap – quite ahead of its time! – and the refrains were reminiscent of the disco era, specifically the Bee Gees’ use of falsettos. Number 3 on the charts! That’s quite a successful song, right?

Well, not in the theatre. In the musical, Chess, it was a scene-setter that made little sense. The character singing, a “bad boy” American chess master (you know the type) extended all this energy to tell us about Thailand. For no good reason. (Contrast how The King and I establishes the same country with music and images, not a descriptive word is sung.) The song – hell, the whole show – just lay there because the creators lost sight of the narrative need to motivate a high-octane description.

Composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, sometimes called “The ABBA Boys” were new to musical-writing, but experienced at concocting chart-topping hits. The veteran lyricist, Tim Rice, had, in Jesus Christ Superstar, successfully transformed the post-suicide Judas into a rockin’ narrator of that show’s title song. The original “hit” recordings of both these songs involved the same British actor, Murray Head. I am straining to avoid using a pun with all these names.

And maybe that last paragraph is just trivia. But there’s something to be said for knowing the history of musical theatre, and the repertory. When rock stars decide they can write a musical, they often stumble due to lack of familiarity with what’s gone before. No less a talent than Paul Simon served up a tale of Hispanic gang violence in New York of the late 1950s. Critics queried whether it hadn’t occurred to him this had been done before – one of the best shows ever. I figure if you’re going to do something that’s been done before, the least you can do is pick something truly obscure. So, when writing The Christmas Bride my librettist came up with an idea that a profligate’s lawyers want him to focus on serious debts but all he can do is rhapsodize about a woman. I thought, Wait a minute: Where have I seen something like this before? It’s similar to a funny duet from a show called Kean, To Look Upon My Love. I took the template from this incredibly obscure show tune and ran with it.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

So, where does one go to learn the history of musical theatre? August 1, 2 & 4 I will entertain all comers for four hours in North Hollywood, California. ( http://nmi.org/events/a-subjective-history-of-musical-theatre/ ) How our beloved genre came to be, told in story and song, moving and funny. Which seems appropriate, because good musicals tell stories through song and are always both moving and funny. It’s in two two-hour parts, which you can mix and match. Say hello. See you there. Aloha.


Stock quotes

July 4, 2018

Holidays give us license to kick back and be silly, and this particular one encourages us to be nationalistic. That is, to say something good about America. What to say…what to say… Now, you may have seen, a few weeks ago, a British theatre critic claiming that British plays are better than American plays in The New York Times, of all places. Was that “news” that was fit to print? And it wasn’t even British Independence Day (there’s no such thing). The whole statement is so abundantly absurd, only a truly silly person would even think of responding. So, here I go.

International readers, I hate to break it to you, but American musicals are better than your country’s musicals. There, I said it. (The title of the Times article included this oafish phrase.)

(click for details)

America invented the musical as we know it. And if you want a complete history of the origins, you’ll have to attend my Los Angeles “boot camp” presentation either August 1 or August 4. (Part Two plays August 2 and 4.)

America is a melting pot, and that goes for the development of our native art forms. We took a little sprinkle of Mitteleuropa operetta, a healthy scoop of Gilbert and Sullivan, some sauciness associated with the French, more than a dollop of jazz (which has its own fun set of melting pot origins), and a tinge of “serious” opera – in some ways a sister art.

Mixing that pot is one of those things that gets described as uniquely American. With so many ethnic groups immigrating here, the art we produce tends not to follow one genetic strain. While most of the key creators were Jewish men, their desire to assimilate into the larger American culture was such that they actively sought not to sound Jewish in their writing. And Cole Porter, a Midwest WASP, actively tried to sound Jewish! But these were side-goals: Mostly, all that anyone cared about was entertaining the audience.

It’s said that the British are less comfortable with emotion than the Americans. While this is another dismissible hoary stereotype, if I’m going to make this argument, by jingo, I’ll keep that idea in mind.

So, to be overly methodical about this, we’re going to need to get a little list of best American musicals and see what British shows, if any, measure up.

Quickly, because I have a summer trip to get to, let’s compile… the Rodgers & Hammerstein quartet,

Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I

3 directed by Jerome Robbins

West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof

add a Sondheim pair

Company and Sweeney Todd

I vastly prefer Frank Loesser; so this trio

Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, The Most Happy Fella

1 loved throughout the world but not in Britain

The Fantasticks

& finish up with a bunch of wild cards

Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, A Chorus Line and Hamilton.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into this list; I didn’t need to. Can you, just as quickly, name 22 solid British musicals? I could rest my case right now.

Never one to rush in to pressing “Publish,” I’m now thinking about this notion of a melting pot creating the tastieststew. And I’m wondering if what I really mean is that New York is a melting pot. There are certainly parts of America in which All Kinds of People don’t make up the community.

I’m reminded of the trouble Jimmy Carter ran into when he tried to praise America’s “ethnically pure” neighborhoods. He was called out for racism, as if he wanted to keep black people in ghettos. The American Dream, to me, involves a community in which all types (ethnicities, sexual orientation, age, income) intermingle, support and learn from each other.

New York is such a community, although the not well-off are continually more and more squeezed out. But you know what happens: young people, from all backgrounds, are drawn to the Apple with musical theatre dreams. They intersect, and that’s the melt that comes up with innovative musicals. While other towns may have produced their share of good musicals, I never hear anyone say “I moved to Seattle because of its vibrant musical theatre scene.”

The historical context is that Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin et al had immigrant parents who got off the boat in New York and stayed. More recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents, Puerto Ricans of the West Side Story generation, came to New York to raise their family. (His In the Heights depicts a typically multi-ethnic community.) The City holds out its welcoming arms, and people from all over the world keep coming. It’s as if it has a sign on its entryway. Oh, wait, it does:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 


Give them what they want

June 22, 2018

This June has been so busy, I’m late in acknowledging Charles Strouse’s 90th birthday, which was June 7. And I’m going to cut myself a break by reprinting, here, something I wrote for a Big Time Professional Blog. I have it on good authority that Martin Charnin finds my premise ludicrous. So… enjoy!

People usually credit Hair with bringing the sound of rock & roll to the Broadway stage, but one composer effectively inserted rock into his scores years earlier: Charles Strouse. At a time when pop culture and Broadway were parting ways, Strouse bridged the gap, incorporating contemporary sounds into his scores for Bye Bye Birdie, All American, Golden Boy, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Applause, and even Annie. Songs from his shows were some of the only Broadway tunes to get significant radio play in the 1960’s.

And it started as a joke. In 1960, four funnymen who’d never written a musical professionally before, got together to make fun of a cultural phenomenon. Elvis Presley had cast a spell on young America. He sang a new kind of music and had a different kind of personality than previous stars. He wasn’t particularly articulate in interviews, pictures showed him with a sullen sneer, and his hip-swinging while singing struck a lot of people as obscene. Of course, those words could describe a lot of subsequent rock stars, but Elvis-the-Pelvis was the first. Gower Champion (director), Lee Adams (lyricist), Michael Stewart (librettist) and Charles Strouse (composer) thought this was so amusing, they wrote a show about it: Bye Bye Birdie.

Gower Champion had a choreographic vision involving women swooning and losing control of their muscles as their dreamboat gyrates. Lee Adams noted how rock & roll lyrics often seem to have a thinly veiled sexual content. (“When I sing about a girl, I really feel that girl.”) Michael Stewart had written for Sid Caesar’s television show and would have known Caesar’s musical sketch, You Are So Rare To Me, in which one syllable gets broken into unconnected pulses, just like the endless “baby” in the bridge of One Last Kiss – lampooning rockers’ vocal style.

But Strouse goes beyond mere Presley parody. He sets up different musical landscapes for the two warring generations. The adults sing in styles other than rock – Kids and Rosie are, in effect, old people’s music. Meanwhile, the teen ballad, One Boy, uses a shuffle rhythm and back-up singers in the manner of 50s pop, and when Birdie and the teens sing together (Got a Lot Of Living To Do) Strouse marshals the power of a rhythmically pulsed major seventh, a chord not often heard in musicals of the time, but emerging in rock (e.g., This Boy).

After the breakthrough success of Bye Bye Birdie, Strouse and Adams teamed up with another of Sid Caesar’s gagmen, Mel Brooks, to pen All American. The show also depicted a generational divide, this time between college students and their professors. While the show’s one hit, Once Upon a Time, was a duet for the oldsters, the ingénue has a naughty number called Night Life. Its jazzy vamp keeps accenting the seventh of the scale on an off-beat, where one doesn’t expect it. She’s rebellious and sexy in the way the teenage girl of Bye Bye Birdie is not allowed to be. (You wouldn’t know this from watching the Birdie movie featuring the too-erotic-to-be-believed Ann-Margaret.)

When Strouse and Adams teamed with Clifford Odets to musicalize his play, Golden Boy, the challenge was to represent contemporary urban African-Americans with some level of authenticity. Broadway hadn’t heard anything quite like it. Strouse produced a score that sometimes rocks, sometimes swings and culminates in an energetic gospel funeral. Is Golden Boy a rock musical? It’s certainly soulful, and the definition of what constitutes “rock” gets revised over time. Many of the songs – even a traditional show tune like Don’t Forget 127th Street – end with repetition and quasi-improvisational jazzy playoffs more common in rock records than theatre.

Writing It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Strouse & Adams faced a familiar scenario: a happy chorus giddy with admiration for an unusual superstar. Whether he was conscious of the connection with Bye Bye Birdie or not, Strouse rocks We Need Him, It’s Super Nice and Lois Lane’s It’s Superman. She references a “schoolgirl fantasy” and so seems, in a way, Birdie‘s Kim McAfee all grown up. The hit that emerged from the score, You’ve Got Possibilities, was once sung by Lady Gaga. (I should know: I was at the piano.)

Applause was another hit set in present-day New York. In a production number called But Alive, the leading lady visits a gay bar and dances with adoring fans. They’re accompanied, naturally, by the groovy strains of 1970. This was after Hair, and Broadway audiences, by that point, had become more acclimated to rock music in the theatre.

In fact, the culture, at large, had a new attitude about rock songwriting by the 1970s. What had seemed like inarticulate utterances of hormone-crazed teens grew, in seriousness, as adult performers sang out protests against the war in Vietnam, racial prejudice and other weighty issues. Making fun of young people’s music eventually seemed a tired joke, which may account for the box office failure of Strouse & Adams’ sequel, Bring Back Birdie.

Last night I saw Annie and was puzzled by the use of a rock beat in a show set during the 1930s. What’s up with that? I can vividly remember hearing the original cast album for the first time: it began with a small brass choir, like you might hear on a street corner at Christmas. Just as I was thinking how much I love brass choirs, the music abruptly shifted to a staccato repeated chord on electric instruments. This struck me as an odd choice at the time – an inappropriately contemporary way of coloring the rebelliousness of besieged orphans – but many years later Jay-Z’s version of It’s a Hard Knock Life went platinum. So why question it? Charles Strouse invented the rock musical, and keeps finding opportunities to rock out whenever he can. The guy can’t help it.


Blow blow thou winter wind

June 10, 2018

It’s the day that lives in infamy, y’all.

For me, June 10 marks the golden anniversary of something hurtling from the east to the west, landing in something of a cataclysm. And that something is a small boy. And that small boy is me.

This might seem meaningless, and I’m aware this is the third entry in a row that might be described as a personal essay. But frame it as The Making of a Musical Writer and perhaps you’ll find some useful insights. I’m going to talk about the worst day of my life in a way that doesn’t involve self-pity; when I’m writing a musical, I see to it that characters never pity themselves. When those ultra-serious Eurotrash shows do that, I always have to stifle a giggle. And when you read a blog, you’re free to giggle out loud: I’m not going to hear it.

Untimely plucked from his natural environs, the lifelong Manhattanite was plopped in the lap of Southern California luxury, and viewed it as a fate worse than death. Dad got a too-good-to-pass-up job with Universal, and I got to know his black glass office building. It was square. Why? In Manhattan, you build to the shape of your lot. This was the only tower in Universal City, the large lot owned by the studio. No rationale for it being square, or black; or was I just looking for things to hate about the place?

In those days, the Universal City Studios Tour was – wait for it – an actual tour. Trams drove you around the lot and everyone got out to see Lana Turner’s dressing room. The guide proudly pointed out a familiar sight: the bridge from which Shirley MacLaine gets pushed into the water at the beginning of Sweet Charity.

Hey, wait a minute! I know that bridge. I played on that bridge. That bridge is mine, back home in Central Park, my personal property. And here they’ve constructed a replica, to fool the world. And so I thought of Hollywoodsmen as counterfeits, convincing the world they’re seeing New York – my New York – when they’re not.

Five days before our one-way flight landed in Los Angeles, something truly devastating occurred there. As a little kid, I followed the presidential race with the intensity of a sports nut twice my age. All my little kid hopes and dreams rested on RFK. LBJ (took the IRT…) had mucked up the good work of the JFK administration by miring us in Vietnam and I just knew that it would take my Senator, the slain hero’s brother, to set the country right again. That morning, I got up early to read the election results in the Times: a banner headline proclaimed good news! My idol had won. The morning edition had published too soon to report that Bobby Kennedy had been killed right after his victory speech. My parents woke to deliver the sad truth. Now, my mother had a college friend who’d settled in Dallas, and she’d long wondered how anyone could live in the city where a Kennedy had been shot. We all learned, the hard way, starting on the day that lives in infamy.

Kids bullied me. For my impenetrable New York accent. For rooting for the Mets. For liking to read. I got the idea that none of my miseries would have plagued me had we remained in New York. And so, perhaps as a defense mechanism, my heart stayed in New York. I continued to read The New York Times, and particularly enjoyed Walter Kerr’s think pieces on Broadway shows. I wish I had a picture of my bulletin board from childhood, because it symbolizes my obsessive connection with New York theatre. I took tacks and yarn and mapped the streets around Times Square. Then I cut out colored cardstock in the shapes of every Broadway Theatre, placing them on the board. Finally, I tacked on little marquis signs showing the names of the show currently playing there. But you all did the same, I’m sure.

Eventually, at the age of 16, I got to visit the actual brick and limestone and wrought-iron version of that creation on my wall: I spent 13 days back home, and saw 17 shows. A Chorus Line, Chicago (the original with Gwen, Chita, and Jerry), Streamers, Equus, Pippin and Godspell. Was the intermission of the last one my first cup of wine or my first time on a Broadway stage, or both? I was just reunited with my scrapbook from the trip, containing all the playbills. I wrote notes using the calligrapher’s pen I’d been given to write music with. I don’t know which makes me sound older, that, or the $12 ticket stub for my orchestra seat to A Chorus Line.

It was abundantly clear to me and everyone who knew me that I needed to be in New York; it was the only place I could thrive. And two years later I moved back, for college. There, I immediately had something of a rude awakening when I discovered that my classmates from the east coast had all read the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school. What did my California A.P. English course have me read instead? A tome called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not going to say the insufficiency of a California education is my Achilles heel; I’ll just say “rivet masterlink.” (Just yanking your chain.)

So there’s the context for my unusual Golden State antipathy. (Most residents like it.) And why I always said I’d never want to raise a child in the West. But, reading this over, I see that my connection to New York theatre was somehow solidified by being away from New York theatre, for an important ten years in my development. I survived the away-time, and can take the attitude of many a war veteran: Sure, it was a tough decade, in hell, but ultimately it made me stronger.


Snuggling

June 3, 2018

Let’s start at the very beginning

Today’s our meetaversary. 21 years ago, I opened my door and there was this beautiful young person, possessed of a glorious sense of humor, a powerfully mellifluous voice, a mind that goes a thousand miles a minute, and, as I soon discovered, a splendiferous kisser. This was a watershed moment for me, a transition from my most-accustomed state – abject loneliness – to lifelong companionship that could be counted upon. And I went from a musical-writer who spent his time imagining love to an inspired one, living it.

Joy was always a go-getter, and there’s something to be said from up-close observance of a person vigorously pursuing goals. I can remember times, pre-Joy, when it would be tough to drag myself out of bed to get on with the work of writing something. Around that time, on Astor Place, a place for writers was set up; the idea being that you’re more likely to get things done if you’re surrounded by people who get things done. Now I was energized, a moon pulled along by a swiftly moving planet.

Warmed by the glow of insolvency

Some romanticize what it’s like to be penniless and in love. Joy drove a broken-down vehicle on its last legs up to New York, and barely had enough for tolls. She naturally hoped I’d take her out to dinner, but that was something I couldn’t afford to do. I don’t know why anybody romanticizes this: Being poor sucks. I’d go to the 99-cent store for pasta and sauce a lot. And five such trips would run through my royalty check for a musical I wrote that was regularly playing to big audiences. It paid me that little.

Joy took some of those usual awful jobs to support her not-lucrative acting habit. (And I do mean “habit” – often she was second nun from the right in The Sound of Music.) Eventually, she found work in a law firm on East Forty-Second Street, far away from where you’d “meet those dancing feet” (that was West Forty-Second). There, Joy developed a deep distaste for incompetent or non-office-like behavior. She honed the high standards for how a business should be run that later served her so well when she ran her own casting company.

Unpredictable as weather

Some recently-met friends picture that Joy and I worked together a lot. Seems to me that happy happenstance was rather rare. I contributed special material for her cabaret act; she assembled and appeared in my Donnell Library concert. More famously, there was Our Wedding, which was a musical. We sang our vows; she delivered the 11 o’clock number, This Man Loves Me. And everyone in that theatre sang the finale, certain that she’d always be singing and we’d both always be musical theatre pros in New York.

It must have been around the time Joy turned 30 that she shocked all who knew her by deciding to cease performing. Friends refused to believe it: they continued to look forward to the next Joy Dewing appearance despite being told many times that she’d retired. Reminds me of the John O’Hara line: “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” The gorgeousness of that voice was more craveable than chocolate. I’m reminded of my late friend Gary Austin. We were talking in a big meeting room when his wife, Wenndy, started to sing. He politely left our conversation to draw near: “Excuse me, but this is why I married her.” Would I ever hear Joy again?

The duet will become a trio

Thank God for lullabies. Our daughter needed (and needs) quite a bit of coaxing to get to sleep. I’d cup my ear to the wall to listen to Joy sing again. And thus ever-loving Adelaide brought the sound of music back into our home. And, these days, I mean that literally, as she’s playing Gretl, the littlest Von Trapp, in a local production of The Sound of Music. The movie and various recordings are in constant play in our home. And impromptu performances. And if Joy hums a bit of the score to herself, I don’t relish the sound; I want to yell “ANYTHING but that!” It’s gotten to the point where I’m unconsciously using bits of its lyrics as section headings in things I write.

I’ll sing once more

Six-and-a-half years ago, there came into the world this beautiful girl, possessed of a glorious sense of humor, a powerfully mellifluous voice, a mind that goes a thousand miles a minute, and, as I soon discovered, a splendiferous kisser. (One wonders why I call them both “Honey.”) And I went from a musical-writer who regularly wrote songs for his wife to one who conjured up an entire musical about how parenthood changes relationships.

So here’s a sentence with a meaningless verb: I recently completed a new draft of Baby Makes Three. But what does that mean? I’m not putting down my pen. There are improvements to be made, always. Maybe, some point in the far-distant future, a director will grab me by the shoulders and sternly tell me to stop making changes; for the sake of the actors, we have to freeze the show. At present, I have a draft I’ve declared Ready-For-Certain-Others-To-Read. But nothing is set in stone. There’s much fixing to be done.

These days, though, I’m far more likely to receive praise for being a father or husband than I am for being a musical writer. But, just as I’d never declare a draft of a musical Finished or Unimprovable, I view my roles at home as an ongoing march of trying-to-do-better with wife and child. Not perfect yet – not nearly – but at least Year 21 can be declared complete.


I’ll miss

May 24, 2018

Sea birds soaring twenty feet above a body of water suddenly spot food and plunge down, faster than gravity. The speed of their descent is more like what a falling human’s would be. Picture, now, a Brooklyn warehouse, and on the floor is a gymnastics mat, not more than a few inches thick. From a very tall platform, people jump, their arms stretched out, and plummet, completely flat, on to that mat. One after another they fly, to a rhythm, in time to music.

An old portable radio sits on the ground near where a spaceship from outer space lands. Out pour a bunch of galactic travelers in white-face; although, the more one looks at them, the more you realize various ethnic groups are represented under the greasepaint. They turn on the radio and imitate the scratchy sound in-between stations. When they hit the right spot on the dial, though, they suddenly imitate classic rock, orchestral warhorses, pop of various eras. They harmonize; they make percussive sounds; they humorously interact with the audience without speaking a word.

On tour, a traditional song-and-dance man bounds across a stage, tapping up a storm, to the tune of Young and Healthy. You’re so bedazzled by his dexterity and grace, you never notice that he’s legally blind, and had only “seen” this unfamiliar theatre space a few hours before.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music rocks the house as singers who are also actors who are also acrobats fly on trampolines and trapezes and do all the impressive things done by competitive cheerleading squads.

You’re having the time of your life, applauding so hard your hands hurt. These experiences of wild showmanship stick in your memory. Eventually, a question forms in your head: “How did they find people who can do all that?”

Joy Dewing. The widely-beloved casting director Joy Dewing engineered a process that found those people who could drop twenty feat without putting a limb forward to cushion their landings; the beat-boxers and close harmony experts who also mime; extraordinary tappers in droves; kids who leap while waving pom-poms and belting their faces off. The more than five year run of Joy Dewing Casting was responsible for 21 national tours, 56 regional productions, 2 Broadway musicals, 25 New York/Off-Broadway concoctions, and 3 dance companies; plus countless readings the public didn’t get to see.

Something else the public might not know: Joy Dewing, almost single-handedly, revolutionized and modernized the way casting is done in New York. So here’s something else to picture. The sun comes up on a snowy morning. A crowd of young aspirants is standing in front of a locked door. Someone takes a piece of notebook paper, tapes it to the door. Everybody signs up, then leaves until the time the notice in Backstage says auditions are to begin. And then they’re heartbroken to find the people behind the table have a completely different list, their names not on it.

That’s how life used to be for performers in New York. If you got in the room, you sang your sixteen bars in less than a minute, the word “next!” was yelled brusquely, and you’d be out the door. Once out, you’d mutter to yourself “There’s got to be a better way.” Thanks to Joy, the better way was born, became the industry standard. Casting notices get posted on-line, and there’s an equitable system of signing up for slots on-line and no name gets lost. Your time in the room is markedly different. A friendly person greets you, sincerely interested in what you can do. No one yells “next!” but a heartfelt thank you comes when it’s time to go. You leave the room feeling you’ve shared something of yourself, to receptive ears, and eyes that are on you, not screens. The process isn’t only fair, it’s designed to bring out the best in people.

And it’s not just a certain kind of people. Joy spearheaded a more enlightened age in which performers of all ethnicities and the differently-abled are not just considered but cast in roles that would have only gone to traditionally able-bodied whites just a decade ago. That sort of acceptance comes from altering a mind-set: no, Annie doesn’t have to be a redhead with skin white as snow. Now, we all know there’s lots of prejudice in the world: always has been, continues today. Imagine the ingenuity and perseverance required to get the old powers-that-be to revise their thinking and cast a wider net for performers. That’s my wife, Joy Dewing.

So, I imagine that you don’t accept that I’m reporting all this unbiased; that’s a natural assumption. But ask anyone in the New York theatre community and they’ll go on and on about her extraordinary abilities and empathy. We all know that auditioning is a harrying cross-to-bear for a lot of people. Joy sees to it that everybody is at ease, feels welcome, finds the fun. So it’s no wonder that performers’ hearts are lifted whenever she’s in the room.

What can a spouse tell you? This will seem like more than a bit of a stretch, but let’s look back at what Jackie Kennedy said after her husband was assassinated. She recalled that he enjoyed listening to the cast album of Camelot (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, with whom he attended Harvard). And suddenly, the press and historians referred to the Kennedy White House as Camelot. Now, I’m certainly not saying Joy has the importance of her fellow crusader for civil rights, John F. Kennedy. But, on a different scale, there’s a somewhat similar sense that we just lived through a short and impermanent golden age in which the world got better. Joy Dewing Casting is no longer. But

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.