Dina and Jack are married

September 10, 2019

In the spring of 2013, I had an idea for a musical. Artificially giving myself a deadline, I thought I’d try to finish a draft in time to present it, in some form or other, as a gift for Joy on our tenth wedding anniversary. That gave me six months, but… I failed to meet the deadline. The following year, Joy would have a major birthday, so I pushed back the deadline till then. And was all set to unveil a staged reading of a new two-actor show on her birthday when Joy got sick and landed in the hospital.

The reason I thought it might make a good anniversary gift is that our wedding had been an original musical. Now, I wanted to write a show about a couple struggling to keep their romance alive while raising their first child. My characters experience something we went through as new parents. The happy ending – the rekindling of their passion – would play as a romantic expression, a sort of meta present.

As luck would have it, Joy was recovering at home, after another trip to the hospital, on her recent big birthday. It’s taken me some time to get to this particular essay because I’ve been attending to her needs. But September 10 marks the five year anniversary of The Music Playing, because we ended up doing it a week after her birthday, and it was a moving surprise.

Peter Filichia, a critic who caught a certain amount of controversy this summer, wrote up the reading in glowing terms (“may turn out to be the season’s best musical”) but today, I’m considering the journey the show’s been on in the past five years. It included a name change, to Baby Makes Three.

The people who poured into the rented space in 2014 knew a few things. They knew they were there to see a staged reading of the first draft of a new work, hardly a finished project. More importantly, they knew me and Joy, and many knew our child. So, as the show began, they had a reference point, and an emotional connection to the characters. My musical, that night, didn’t need to spend a lot of time saying who these two people were, or give the audience any reason to love them. All of that was a given. And that’s a key difference between The Music Playing, draft One, and subsequent drafts.

Because I didn’t have to introduce the characters and the qualities that make them appealing, I could launch straight into the drama. The Music Playing starts with a busy morning, and sets up the idea that the wife works, the husband stays home with the child, and there’s an issue with her trusting him with all the parental duties. That’s gripping enough if you already care for the characters. For an audience of strangers, I found, you can’t raise the curtain on fraught hysteria because it’s off-putting. Who are these people? They’re frenetic and stressed and therefore I don’t want to get to know them. The conflict seems a bit meh – a common problem parents have, but why should I be interested?

Reworking The Music Playing for strangers to enjoy meant taking a certain amount of time to get to that crisis point. I added a prologue in which the baby is born and the parents get to celebrate the new adventure they’re embarking on. It is my hope that this endears them to the viewer. Before long, the wife gets a big promotion and they get the idea that the husband should quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad. This might be termed an inciting incident; those watching should be wondering what will happen next. Then there’s a peaceful interlude

to transition from the prologue to the main body of the play. This begins with the energetic morning routine that originally began The Music Playing.

Does any of this work? I do not know. There needs to be another staged reading to answer questions like that. Performing this two-actor musical requires extraordinary commitment from the actors, who have to learn an unusually large quantity of songs. It’s not that Baby Makes Three is sung-through (it isn’t), it’s that most musicals have a larger number of people singing different numbers. On this point, it’s fair to compare Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander, The Last Five Years. Besides the great quantity of songs, there’s a need to hold the audience’s attention for half the running length. Twice I watched Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott negotiate scads of overlong songs, sans dialogue; two dislikable characters in an incoherent plot. And all I could think – on the positive side – was Wow, they’re talented. Takes a lot of incandescence to engage an audience for that amount of time.

Autobiographical musicals are alarmingly common, and often involve a strange sort of ego. Do you actually believe you’re so interesting that people who don’t know you are going to be interested? We live our lives and think the stuff that happens to us is notably dramatic. Being objective about this involves looking at your story as if it’s completely fictional and asking the hard dramaturgical questions to make sure those who watch are gripped at every turn. My hope is that Baby Makes Three plays as a made-up story about new parents facing situations many people face. The stay-at-home-father aspect seems a topic begging to be explored.

After the reading, someone pointed out that I’d done the Cole Porter thing by having a tall and handsome actor play the Noel role. Porter, perhaps as a joke, suggested Cary Grant play him in the biopic, Night and Day. The studio did just that, and Cole didn’t stop them: “If they wanted Cary Grant to play you in a movie, would you complain?”

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Under the green-wood tree

September 3, 2019

I’m someone who sees metaphors everywhere. Metaphors are those floaty things my eyes sometimes get – oh, there I go again. It’s Joy’s birthday, a fairly notable one, and I imagine you don’t want to trudge through another blog post about how wonderful she is. But, if I can frame something she did recently as a metaphor for musical writing, we’d be back on topic. And such a frame would be the sheltering oak leaf cover on a hot day, a balm for rhetorical excesses, the elixir of expression…

We’re driving along one of those one-lane mountain highways where the curves are constant but the views are heart-stopping. And that’s a combination of the beauty of the mountains, close and far; the roller-coaster-esque lurching left and right; vertigo, perhaps affected by altitude, when you suddenly realize you’re gazing thousands of feet down; and, let’s face it, safety concerns. Now and then you focus on those low guard rails and wonder if they’re strong enough, or too low. One errant turn might send you tumbling down 5,000 feet of mountain greenery and that can’t be good.

Surprisingly, out of silence, the GPS announces a left turn but there’s no road to be seen, no sign of any sort. All there is is a break in the guard rail and you can’t see any road beyond that. Joy hears this as her cue, and, barely slowing, plunges us into the void, off the side of the mountain. Now we’re dropping down, at a steep angle, but I can see that we’re on pavement; a single lane. Could she possibly have gone the right way? She seems to think so, which makes one of us.

Eventually, we got out of the car and began a three-mile hike that brought into question how one defines “hike” as opposed to how one defines “mountain climbing.” Our valiant 7-year-old daughter uttered few complaints, which was astounding. The destination was a remote mountain stream, but we never found it; we only heard it, but, at that altitude, this may have been a group hallucination.

When I returned to civilization, I resumed thinking about musicals and how they’re created. I read yet another book on the subject, and, indeed, it’s the main stuff of this blog. To some extent, creators everywhere are looking for signs, hoping for a path on a map to follow. The comparison with our near-death experience in the mountains is inescapable. I wish we had an accurate map or a working GPS there, but, led by Joy, we were forced to find our own way. Some of us were 7, and it’s fair to say there was nothing in our experience that prepared us for the equipment-free mountain climbing we did.

Sally forth, musical writers, and, sure, seek advice. But know that you’re deep in the woods and the path isn’t always clear. Hell, it may not even be a path. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, there’s a fork in the road. And you don’t need a fork because you’ve only packed granola bars.

There’s something admirable at the pioneer spirit. That madwoman hanging a left into an unviewable road down a precipitously steep hill? I love her. The metaphor also applies to her stunning career as a New York casting director. After turning thirty, she took a leap of faith on a new career, as an unpaid intern in a boutique casting company. The paid staff there took a shine to her, took her under their wings, and they were a dream team: These were people who went on to become some of major casting folk in this town. Before long, though, they all flew the coop, and Joy became the only paid employee, a casting director by default.

Is “baptism by fire” a metaphor, too? She and her boss cast a show with a huge amount of dance requirements, its director-choreographer a phenom of internationally high esteem. Somebody had to become expert in assessing dance ability, pronto, as somebody else was soon headed for rehab. With her boss out of the picture, Joy suddenly had to educate herself in running the company. Returning sober, her employer gratefully added Joy’s name to the shingle. Then he switched careers and left New York, leaving Joy all the clients in what quickly became Joy Dewing Casting.

The road was rocky; there wasn’t a map; there was limited information about how to do what she needed to do. Joy’s observation of how small businesses operate led to innovative ideas about how she should run hers. She got particularly fabulous people to work for her. In the first year she had a show on Broadway.

New York’s acting community adored her. A former musical theatre performer herself, she insisted each auditioner be treated with respect, and kept up a level of professionalism that’s now the stuff of legend. While Joy’s services are no longer for sale, I advise you, intrepid musical creator, to utilize the best casting director you can find. A good c.d. made a world of distance to me: Geoff Josselson of the aforementioned Dream Team cast Such Good Friends with Tony nominees Liz Larsen and Brad Oscar, as well as Lynne Wintersteller, Michael Thomas Holmes, Dirk Lumbard and others.

Some strange compulsion tells me to quote the man-falls-down-a-hole speech from The West Wing here:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

Not sure why I’m quoting it. But it’s a metaphor.

 


Bright lights

August 16, 2019

“You’ve got to come to New York!” begins a Rodgers and Hart song and you know Rodgers and Hart are never far from my mind. On the recording with Dorothy Loudon, it’s sung like a loud drill sergeant’s order, as if the singer is grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you. (I failed to find the clip.) It’s from their musical, I Married an Angel, a rarely-performed romantic fantasy that was recently done at City Center by Encores but I missed it because I wasn’t in New York.

That fortissimo imperative would seem to be a message to musical theatre writers. So, perhaps we should consider the question, Do you have to be in the New York City metropolitan area in order to create musicals?

Years ago, I said something and thought it was hyperbole: That you could attend a musical you haven’t seen every day for a year in New York. Now I’m wondering if that was an overstatement. There are roughly two dozen musicals on Broadway, but Broadway is a place with a limited quantity of venues. Off- and Off-Off- Broadway means many more, and that’s not counting all the cabaret spaces. I mentioned Encores a moment ago, and that’s at a far larger space that’s not considered any of these types of houses. They do roughly six old shows a year for limited runs. But that leads me to start counting other spaces, like Town Hall, the Shed, Queens Theatre in the Park (where one of my musicals once played) and the various venues associated with colleges. Need we add high school auditoriums? And then you have NYMF – what is that, another three or four dozen shows right there? – and the Fringe, and why not NAMT? Does anyone have a clear count on the number of backer’s auditions? Are we anywhere close to 365, yet?

Why should you care? Well, perhaps you live far from New York. I’m going to make up a mythical town for our purposes, Polecat, Alabama. How many different shows play Polecat? If musical theatre is a thing that can only be truly appreciated in live performance – and I believe it is – you’re going to want to attend far more frequently than you can in Polecat. Or San Francisco. Or some other mythical place. This is a living, breathing art form, and you, as a creator, need to cast your eyes on living, breathing performances as often as possible.

Somewhere – and perhaps it’s Polecat – somebody is reading this, thinking they really don’t need to see a different musical every night throughout the year. And somehow, the Bard of Polecat writes something, and, drunk with accomplishment and hubris, decides it’s ready to hit the boards. Are you going to do that in your Alabama hamlet? You got a lot of theatres there that produce new musicals? But of course, since musical theatre is the most collaborative of art forms, you’re going to need more than just a producing organization. You’ll need a director, a musical director, a choreographer, a full design team, backstage personnel, musicians, and actors. And you’re going to rely on these people, so they all better be freakin’ talented. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I’ll ask, are they Polecat talented or are they New York talented. Because, as the song goes, “If I can make it in Polecat, I’ll make it anywhere.” Sorry, I meant New York, New York.

Somewhere on my computer is my current résumé. And, foolishly, I don’t know where I keep it. So, I always have to search for the word, “résumé” and, in addition to mine, a bunch of other people’s résumés come up. Without intending to, I cast my eyes on the c.v.’s of a whole bunch of directors who popped up out of nowhere when it was announced I had a show in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. And the thing about these people is – they all had an impressive list of credits. Because New York.

I was urged, some weeks ago, to consider producing Baby Makes Three in a city known to be full of actors and my first thought was that I don’t know anyone whom I’d trust to bring life to those characters. Of course, cast size is a factor. Baby Makes Three requires two prodigious players. And then I start thinking about director, musical director, producer and such folks are plentiful in New York. But of course they are. New York’s theatre scene draws talented people and now let’s think like a mathematician and consider the nexus of opportunity.

What makes for a successful show is having excellent people in every role, on stage and off. In New York, you can’t swing a cat without hitting top quality theatre people. In other places, it takes a far greater amount of luck to find top-notch showfolk. If a person’s strongest suit is a theatre job, they’re more likely to be in the Big Apple.

My experience, as a native New Yorker, is that one meets like-minded individuals and learns from others in the field. In college, my teachers included Lee Adams, Howard Teichmann, Arnold Weinstein and Kenneth Koch. The same years I was at Columbia, I learned a lot at the BMI Workshop under Lehman Engel, and the ASCAP Workshop under Adams’ main collaborator, Charles Strouse. A graduate program in musical theatre writing began at NYU, and Pace, even further downtown, bolsters new creations as well. I ran into Tom Jones at my local copy shop, and Sheldon Harnick just happened to be in the audience as one of my comedy songs played at a benefit. To be complemented by the Greatest Living Lyricist! This doesn’t happen in Polecat.

My mind flashes to a Harnick line, “Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place, searching for an old familiar face.” Displacement and exile are heartbreaking. My advice: Don’t be a stranger.

 


The king of this department is the prince

August 1, 2019

Harold Prince died this week, the day after he turned 91 and a half. I’m gearing up to do my one-man show telling the tales of musical theatre history in Los Angeles next week, and of course Hal Prince is a major part of that. Seems like it might be an appropriate time to say a little about what he did as the shaper of extraordinary shows.

I like to focus on the connections between people. Prince had two directing mentors, and, to a certain extent, he became a combination of them both. The first was the Great Old Man of the theatre, George Abbott. Mr. Abbott also started as a stage manager, and the musicals he directed and sometimes wrote were traditional musical comedies, thoroughly trained on giving the audience a good time, rarely with a serious thought in their minds. An example is The Pajama Game, which is about a labor strike at a Midwestern factory, and yet refuses to treat that possibly explosive topic as anything more than a lark. This hit was the first show produced by Prince, and it was co-directed by Abbott and Prince Hal’s other mentor, Jerome Robbins. When you look at Robbins’ musicals, you see a genius often attempting to pull the genre forward, with more serious ideas, and new ways of presenting musicalized action on stage. Two of the best shows in terms of packing an emotional wallop, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, were produced by Prince, directed by Robbins. I think of Fiddler as the apotheosis of the Golden Age musical and it marked a transformation for both men: Prince began his shift from producing to directing and Robbins left the stage to innovate at New York City Ballet.

There’s no such thing as a typical Prince show, but Cabaret exemplifies the lessons learned from Abbott and Robbins. It never loses sight of the fact that it’s an entertainment, providing substantial razzamatazz in the diegetic numbers at the Kit Kat Klub. But it’s also a sober depiction of the rise of Nazism, and pierces the heart with a quartet of lovable characters forced to make gut-wrenching choices. Early in his directing career, Prince established two realities: Sally, Cliff, Schneider and Schultz live in echt Berlin; there’s naïveté, marriage proposals, broken engagements vandalized shop-windows, and abortion. But in the cabaret life is beautiful, and each number is a fun-house mirror of the main plot. After the protagonist gets a financial windfall, there’s an incredibly energetic number about suddenly becoming rich. When Sally’s promiscuous tendencies seem to hurtle towards breaking a man’s heart, we get a daffy depiction of polyamory. Prince’s idea is to fuse the audience with the unsophisticated American at the center of the story. We and Cliff are Americans who know and care nothing about European politics. We step into an oddly charming cabaret, are soon seduced in two senses: by the M.C.’s showmanship and, sexually, by an Englishwoman who enjoys sex like no musical comedy character we’ve ever met. As the Kit Kat numbers grow more and more sinister, we (and Cliff) realize to our horror we’ve been enticed into collaborating with Nazis. Chilling in the extreme, especially when Prince lowers a mirror angled to show us watching the show.

Cabaret takes a troubling moment in 20thCentury history and answers the question, “How could it happen?” My musical, Such Good Friends, asked the same question about a time a few years later when people who’d named names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee found themselves working with those who’d suffered from being named. Prince, Abbott and Robbins found themselves caught up in these circumstances when a supposed-to-be-hysterical show, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was playing to near-empty houses in its out-of-town tryout. Abbott, directing, couldn’t understand why all the jokes were falling with a thud. Many times in his career, he’d been called in to fix other people’s shows out of town. Now Abbott said, ruefully, “I like it, but they don’t like it: We need to call in George Abbott.” Producer Prince called in Robbins, but this meant emotions were bound to over-boil. The star of the show was Zero Mostel, a victim of blacklisting. Robbins had named names. One can only imagine what Prince did behind the scenes to get the two to set aside their history and fix the show. But that’s exactly what happened. Robbins thought nothing needed changing except the opening number, so he got Stephen Sondheim to replace it, staged it with his trademark proclivity for physical jokes and Comedy Tonight turned a flop into a hit.

Years later, Prince, as director, teamed with Sondheim on a series of innovative – I’d say revolutionary – shows, each more audacious than the last. The zenith of these is Sweeney Todd, in which characters indict the audience in Brechtian fashion. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” The fun revenge drama of the source play was given a broader resonance, at Prince’s insistence. We enter the theatre and are confronted with a chart showing the strata of Victorian society. We contemplate this as eerie organ music plays, then a piercing factory steam whistle overhead shocks us, in the manner of horror films. Anything can happen, now, and Prince has us on edge, eyes darting around the stage. Something wicked this way comes.

In Cabaret, a mirror comes down from the flies. In Company, an elevator goes up and down. In Sweeney Todd, characters rise from a trap in the stage, and there’s also a slide that takes newly murdered bodies from the second story of a set piece into a bin in the basement below. And I seem to recall some fairly awful musical in which a chandelier falls from the theatre’s ceiling, but this may just have been a nightmare I had.

All that stunning movement grabs the audience’s attention in exciting ways. There’s only one medium that can present such a thing, Prince’s beloved Broadway. Seeing any of these effects on a screen diminishes them almost out of existence. You had to be there. I’m glad I was. Grateful to have been in the audience for a cornucopia of Hal Prince creations.

My lecture at New Musicals Inc.

 


Top-heavy aria

July 26, 2019

I very much enjoyed Linda Holmes’ piece on the score to The Muppet Movie posted on the NPR website but the immediate question becomes: Why is this an article on a website? Doesn’t NPR have some sort of radio station where we could listen to these songs?

If you want to grasp musicals, ideally you’d go to some place where you’d be in conversation with someone who, at any moment, can run to the piano and play and sing an example. And that’s what’s happening in L.A. August 7, 8 & 10 at New Musicals, Inc. I’ll talk the talk, tinkle the keys, sing a little. And I realize this blog is similarly limited. I post some videos and sound clips, but musical theatre is a dish best served live, so click here for tickets.

Holmes makes a great point about Muppet singing: It’s never quite beautiful. The lack of dulcet tones from those foam mouths distinguishes Muppetland from, say, Disney, where the best professional singers they can find hit every pitch squarely. In a way, this is part of the joke: Muppets are pure id, and what they express comes out without varnish. It’s funny when Miss Piggy or Fozzie the Bear let rip with far from mellifluous sounds, and we accept that they’re too excited to sing any better. Or that nobody in the storied Jim Henson Workshop cared about that sort of thing.

In our world of stage musicals, the closest thing to the Muppets is, of course, Avenue Q. To a certain extent, John Tartaglia and Rick Lyon continue the untrained-sound tradition of Henson and Frank Oz. And now I’m flashing back to a memory from about twenty years ago, when I met the original Kate Monster, Stephanie D’Abruzzo

We were in a gorgeous theatre near Lincoln Center for the annual Broadway Bound concert. I had a funny duet in it that brought down the house and D’Abruzzo sang A Fine, Fine Line without puppet. This was greeted with polite applause. The audience saw a young woman delineating romantic troubles and didn’t get that this was a spoof of anything. Now, this is going to sound like I’m knocking D’Abruzzo’s voice – trust me, I truly admire her – but nobody knew what Avenue Q was back then. In the 1990s, when way too many musicals featured women pitying themselves, people naturally expected a certain high quality sound. If it were Kate Monster, a puppet, performing, we’d get that this was part of the Muppet aesthetic, and appreciate the odd pleasure of an inexpert forlorn foam diva we care about.

A far older memory: On my parents’ hi-fi, the rather unusual contralto of Carol Channing. This is not a thing of beauty, but it’s certainly a thing of musical comedy gold. Last week, the Playbill website put up five different renditions of If You Hadn’t But You Did and it’s an eye-opener how much funnier Channing is than, say, pretty soprano Kristin Chenoweth. It says something about these times we live in that the latter has to resort to physical shtick while that much-preferred blonde uses her voice, acting and inflection hysterically.

The world of musical comedy embraces all sorts of voices, from Ezio Pinza to virtual cartoon characters. Channing, after all, once voiced Mehitabel and his South Pacific and her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes opened the same calendar year. But now, seventy years later, I wonder if voices with rougher edges are as welcome as they were.

We have, today ubiquitous colleges and conservatories, instructing aspiring musical theatre performers to sing as prettily as possible. Many include so-called “juries” that seemed designed to throw anyone with a catch in their voice out on to the street. Then, more weeding out of oddballs goes on in auditions, if composers, musical directors and colluding casting directors call for it. No two characters voices sound exactly alike, but two over-trained songbirds can be indistinguishable.

And many’s the time we go to the theatre for reasons other than vocal beauty. We might want to be engaged in a story – this would need superior acting more than a delectable sound, or we might come to laugh. How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum are two hysterical musicals with hysterically long titles. I don’t go to either of them for the players’ musicality.

When people complain about the “clean” quantity of the modern generation of Disney princesses, it’s likely they’ve a preference for character voices like you’d hear, more commonly, in Golden Age musicals and Muppet musicals. Of course, a little of that goes a long way. For some reason I still don’t quite understand, my GPS voice became that of Cookie Monster this summer. And I wasn’t happy about this. Of course, I’m never happy to be driving. The GPS voice setting was then switched to “Boy Band” and that’s pretty annoying, too. It’s just one boy. With a British accent. Band of brother?


Maybe he wouldn’t have left me

July 19, 2019

      A coloring book picture of Rosie the Riveter was going around and, given the way my mind works, I immediately thought of two musicals that were smashes in the late forties but only make brief appearances in my Subjective History of Musical Theatre because I don’t have time for everything.

     To see what I do have time for, attend the two parts next month: New Musicals Inc. is hosting in North Hollywood, California, Part One 8/7; Part Two 8/8; both parts, 8/10. The presentation flies by, because I don’t believe in going on too long, I zip through the last 153 years at breakneck speed.

     But back to Rosie: she stands for all the women who worked during World War Two while the men-folk were overseas doing the combat thing. Before the war career gals were relatively rare, but the country had a need so pressing, patriarchy was supplanted for a time. Winning the war sounds like a wonderful happy ending, but where you choose to drop your curtain can make a world of difference. All those troops returned from the battlefields and, naturally, wanted their jobs back. But their feminine replacements in the work force, why should they have to give up their positions? And what if they’d done the job better than the men? There’s a conflict.

     Good musicals have been built on far less. Translating this into musical comedy terms let a Broadway product exorcise a societal demon, the work war between the sexes. Imagine seeing a gal in a traditional male field, out-competing a blustery prideful male. Might be fun. And then throw in the obvious plot twist and have them fall in love. But first establish that they’re total opposites. You could even have the title subtly reference the war experience the nation had just been through. Not Johnny Get Your Gun, but Annie Get Your Gun.

     Rodgers and Hammerstein, after the revolutionary success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, decided to venture into producing. They booked Broadway’s biggest star, Ethel Merman, and who better to compose than Jerome Kern, who’d written Show Boat with Hammerstein? In later years he’d collaborated with the pre-eminent female lyricst, Dorothy Fields. And she and her brother Herbert, who’d been responsible for the libretto of some early Rodgers shows, would do the book. This seemed a perfect plan until Kern died.

     That led Rodgers and Hammerstein to call Irving Berlin, but there were a couple of problems. One was that Berlin was his own lyricist; Dorothy Fields would have to give up that role – Berlin was nice enough to compensate her, though. Everybody respected Berlin; except, it seemed, Berlin. He realized that Rodgers and Hammerstein had revolutionized the form, and wasn’t sure he could write their new style of show. But the innovators themselves would be standing by to the guide them through it, and before long, Irving Berlin came up with the best set of songs that had ever been written for one score.

     This sublime entertainment, created for 1946 audiences, has to come up with some sort of resolution of the conflict. Rosie the Riveter left her job at the factory. Annie Oakley perceives that she can’t retain Frank Butler’s affection if she bests him in a shooting contest. No refrain of “I’m not throwing away my shot” for her. Although we know she’s the superior marksman, she intentionally misses the target to shoot an arrow through Frank’s heart. Disappointing by today’s standards, but embraced by practically everyone in its time.

     Currently revived on Broadway is a post-war smash with a host of similarities, Kiss Me Kate. When its original producer was a stage manager, he observed the Lunts, the married pair of non-musical actors then considered America’s best. In some play in which they played a loving couple, backstage on-lookers were surprised to see them bicker – unhappily married people – as soon as they weren’t in front of the lights. There’s clearly a musical comedy in this, and the producer came to Cole Porter to write the songs. But Cole felt exactly what his friend Irving did: he thought he’d been supplanted by Rodgers and Hammerstein and their new-fangled “integrated” musical. To take the pressure off Porter, the idea became to do show a divorced couple working on a musical version of a Shakespeare play – and not a particularly good one. So, the show-within-the-show has a lower barre set for it: it really didn’t have to be good. And it could be as Porter-esque as anything the Indiana scion had written before the aforementioned revolution.

     Book writer Bella Spewack has my admiration for making this work. Unfortunately, she shares credit with her husband Sam, who did very little. They’d long been a team, but were now divorcing. (She didn’t need to rely on her imagination re Splitsville.) The libretto milks the premise: When we watch Petruchio spank Katherine in the show-within-the-show, we don’t know if we’re seeing Fred slapping the butt of ex-wife Lili a little too hard, out of spite. By the show’s conclusion Katherine sings Shakespeare’s words,

I am ashamed the women a so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.

Is this how Lili truly feels? Kiss Me Kate, like Annie Get Your Gun, exists in that pre-feminism period where musicals couldn’t risk upsetting “the tired businessman” who paid for the tickets. In recent decades, the Bard’s monologue has rubbed many the wrong way. Often, the actress will wink to show she’s not sincere. “Ah, there’s a wench!”

tickets/info about my subjective history


Get you hence

July 9, 2019

August 7 – 10 I’m performing my Subjective History of Musical Theatre again, in Los Angeles.

When I tell people about it, I tend to sound egotistical – “Yeah, I do this thing and it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” People who’ve already attended the thing tell me I’ve undersold it. “It’s so much better than sliced bread, sliced bread isn’t a proper comparison.” I’m trapped between two camps: one suspects I’m being immodest; the other believes I’ve been way too modest.

Promoting one’s shows is just a fact of life in the theatre, something we all must do. I’ve never been comfortable with it. But here on the blog, at least I don’t have to look in your faces, seeing your “Oh, come on!” while I do it – this alleviates my embarrassment.

After my show, people inevitably come up to me and say they’ve never been so thoroughly entertained by anything of an educational nature. And “lecture” seems the wrong word for it, connoting the imparting of facts for students who might be taking notes, or falling asleep. The word I used in my first sentence today – performing – gets at it a bit more. I sing songs. I run to the piano to play illustrative pieces. I execute a Fosse move (!). But a lot of time, I ask my audience questions, such as “If you lived in Victorian England and wanted to gamble, legally, where would you go?” There’s a lot of improvisation as I deal with wrong answers. And, in a way, a light bulb goes on, as people connect that seemingly silly gambling question with a key moment in the development of musical comedy.

Just yesterday I asked a bunch of children if they knew the meaning of chip-on-my-shoulder. And this might have seemed too schoolteacher-y if there wasn’t a spirit of fun; no penalty for giving a wrong answer. Grown-ups don’t mind being teased in my lecture. It’s mock school. Learning happens, but we all know there are no grades given.

I’ve performed this every year since, I think, 2001. So, certain punch lines have hit enough audience’s ears that I know exactly how they’ll land. But what’s the opposite of a punch line? A cry line? People are quite surprised how moving at all is. Jokes are easy; I take more pride in getting tears to fall.

Some history lessons are a bunch of dates, easy to forget or dismiss. Others are a bunch of names. So, you’ve heard of Gilbert & Sullivan, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim and probably you know their music. By the end of my lecture, you’ll know them as a bunch of people, some of whom hated each other so much they couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. Another guy had to literally lock his collaborator in a room to get him to write. And I dramatize that story in a way that gets my audience to gasp.

Plus, there’s music. We tend to prefer the musical versions of plays – My Fair Lady over Pygmalion, for example – because music enhances the tale, gives us something extra to enjoy. So this is a far cry from college because how many college professors break out into song all the time?

I don’t mean to give anyone SAT flashbacks here, but there’s an Is To analogy that fits: My Fair Lady is to Pygmalion what my lecture is to other people’s lectures – worlds more entertaining because it’s chock full of song.

A lot of writers, I’ve noticed, wish to teach their audience something. I’ve a pretty low opinion of this ambition, because the shows often seem preachy, too school-like to effectively entertain me. My show’s the reverse. From the trappings, it seems to be an educational experience, but it’s more show than lesson. And I see an overlap between giving a riveting talk and creating a riveting musical.

It’s all about the storytelling. Picture cavemen around a campfire, captivating each other with accounts of their days. The one champion, the raconteur everyone most loved listening to, was Mel Brooks. Yes, he’s that old. (He’s the 2000 Year Old Man, after all.)

This sets me off on a tangent: His earliest professional credit I know of – billed as Melvin Brooks – was a sketch he contributed to the Broadway revue, New Faces of 1952. The best thing in that show was a song by Sheldon Harnick – also his first professional credit – and they’re both alive today. Pretty impressive. Who expects two members of a writing team to be around 67 years after opening night?

Adapting The Producers into a musical, Mel visited Jerry Herman, hoping to get him to write the score. Herman went to the piano and demonstrated that the perfect person to write the songs was right in that room – he played a medley of numbers Brooks had written for his films. Could Mel do it all? Not exactly, he needed a collaborator on the script, and the understanding of story structure Thomas Meehan brought to the piece proved a key ingredient in The Producers’ success.

Eventually, the pair published an explication, “The Producers: How We Did It.”

Now you know that this book exists, you naturally anticipate a fun time could be had reading it. You’re used to laughing at Mel Brooks material. I’m not comparing myself to Brooks here – who would do that?* – and this here blog is fairly dry: I don’t know that I get you to laugh all that often. So, it’s a bit of a stretch, imagining you’ll have the time of your life watching a manic raconteur detail the entire history of musical comedy. But… “It’s true! It’s true!”

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