There’s gotta be an alternative

March 14, 2018

I’m setting myself a couple of huge challenges with this post. I’m going to talk about the process of writing music in a way that every reader out there can understand and yet will still be of some interest to those mavens who know way more about music theory than I do. And, if that isn’t hard enough, I’m going to start with a brief mention of current events that’s going to seem like it’s about politics, but really is not about politics at all.

You ready?

There’s a look of delight on Rachel Maddow’s face whenever she announces new indictments coming out of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And here’s the thing: her delight is not about another Trump-connected person going down. It’s about the unpredictability of the successfully secretive Mueller team. She can’t tell what he’ll do next and this fact truly tickles her.

Harmony’s a lot like that.

Things happen in sequences, and we can say they run on a scale going from most obvious to most surprising. We’ve all suffered through plots that get us to think, “I saw that coming.” Good plots tend to surprise us.

I’ve always been crazy about chord symbols. Not all music has them, but those Vocal Selections from Broadway shows usually do. And that’s where my eye goes. For most of my piano-playing career, my eye had to go there because I find it easiest just to play the vocal line and let my left hand render those chords. But this isn’t about playing music, it’s about analyzing as a step towards writing better music. So, I’m reading that sequence of chords and I might find them very surprising or not at all.

There’s always a most obvious chord. In a way, this is kind of comforting. The composer knows a path, a place to go next. I can draw you a chart. But a lot of people are scared of charts, and anything called “music theory.” Fear not! I’m making this simple. The Circle of Fifths is a way of arranging the twelve possible notes you can build chords upon in the shape of a clock. The space between any two that are next to each other is exactly the same. Travel counter-clockwise, and your harmony is going the most obvious route.

When I was sixteen, I wrote a little theme and started with something you don’t hear every day, going from F to B. But, from there, I took the cliché path, right around that circle: Em7, A9, Dm7, G7(b9), C7. (You can safely ignore anything that isn’t a capital letter.) I then repeated the sequence: F, B, Em7, A9, Dm7, G13(b9), C. I’m sorry if this looks like gobbledy-gook to you. Just saying that there’s a cliché involved in traveling along that clock.

For years I kept a sign over my desk that read:


Every time I pick a chord on that well-traveled path, I die a little. I’ve failed to eschew cliché. But here it must be said that if your chord sequence is too weird, listeners will revolt. Nobody hums Arnold Schonburg. Musical fans frequently hum Claude-Michel Schönberg, who consistently uses those most obvious harmonies. 30 years ago I walked out of Les Misérables humming Pachelbel’s Canon. This is considered the ultimate classical music cliché, because of its ultra-obvious and endlessly iterated harmonic structure. Its use in the film, Ordinary People, have led many to call it Ordinary Music.

But Les Miz is such a hit. It’s been suggested to me that my sign ought to read


But there’s got to be a happy medium, right? There’s got to be a way of avoiding too many obvious steps. Of shaking the listener, a little, but not so often that she can’t grasp what she’s hearing on first hearing.

Composers often talk in terms of emotional colors, but that’s so abstract. Instead, let’s talk in terms of cooking. You’re a chef who’s willing to experiment. You’ve a huge spice rack. (I like to alphabetize mine.) So, cilantro and cinnamon are right next to each other. How does your stew taste if you add those two? It’s either intriguing or ick. Now, maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Top Chef, but I think every experienced chef knows something about flavor on the effect of adding any spice on the rack.

Combinations of chords hit the ear in different emotional ways. Think about this stuff enough, and you memorize the feel behind a slew of them. Composers know what’s intriguing and what’s ick. Many’s the time we go to the most obvious chord, that neighbor on the Circle of Fifths. But I tend to admire those brave enough to go to unexpected places. If you surprise my ear, my attention gets drawn in; whereas a pattern I’ve heard a million times before is easy to tune out. Vernon Duke, Leonard Bernstein, David Shire, Adam Guettel – these wizards take my ear on a journey filled with surprising harmonies, God love ‘em.

Of course, good songs are written in different ways. One pictures James Taylor, hearing of the death of a young friend, and strumming the most obvious chords on his guitar, without thinking, perhaps, pouring out his emotions. There’s nothing wrong with Fire and Rain and I admit that what I do is fairly uncommon. I prefer to experiment with unexpected harmonic language quite often, as if ESCHEW CLICHÉ was a command from God. And “God,” you know, is my silly pet name for George Gershwin.


Magical music

March 6, 2018

Stephen Schwartz turns 70 today but way back when he was in his twenties he had three smash hit long-running musicals on Broadway. One of these, Godspell, had transferred from Off-Broadway, where it had played five years. That’s an amazing amount of success at an amazingly young age.

Like many of us, I’ve been contemplating the power of the young in recent weeks. Sometimes, it takes a tyro to start a revolution. The old ways can seem played out, no longer effective. Prior to Schwartz, a show tune sounded like a show tune, and musical theatre’s Golden Age had provided a bunch of scores that sounded somewhat similar to each other: Your parents’ music. Then, a kid bursts on the scene whose songs sounded like Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. How fresh he must have sounded, imbued with the energy of youth.

I’m not one who knocks the Golden Era. (A major critic once called me Jerry Hermanish.) But, today, listen to a little of Mack and Mabel and then listen to Pippin. They don’t seem like they’re from the same planet, let alone the same era. The former had stars but wasn’t a hit; the latter lacked stars but ran forever.

The Seventies can be seen as a transformative period. The older generation clung to the idea that show music shouldn’t sound like pop. Later came the idea that new shows shouldn’t sound like Golden Era shows. In the Seventies, both types existed, and nobody did more to demonstrate how pop sounds can be used for dramatic purposes than Stephen Schwartz.

That’s because he’s a man of the theatre, with an innate understanding of what makes a song theatrical. This quality is notably missing when aging rock stars decide to try their hand at the legitimate stage. The first Schwartz number heard in the first Schwartz musical is an octet in which various philosophies are heard in counterpoint: Socrates, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Sartre, Nietzsche, and Buckminster Fuller. Now, I ask you, could a professional rock star ever come up with anything like that? Schwartz turns these intellectual tenets into easily-understood lyrics, like only a Broadway baby can. And just when this threatens to be too wordy to take, we hear the startling sound of a ram’s horn. A new song begins, and its lyric consists of seven words repeated over and over again. The mind gets a break. We can sit back and enjoy the joyful dancing. The boy in his early twenties who came up with that understood something about how an audience pays attention that older writers consistently miss.

Let’s hear it for the boy; let’s give that boy a hand. Or, a wall of hands. The opening number I just described would be awfully hard to top, no? Well, what if, in the beginning, you saw three dozen hands, palm forward, instead of a curtain? The light catches nothing else. There’s a rock bassist and an electric piano and yet, somehow, this music is placing us in a faraway time and place. “Join us,” a commedia player commands. Harmonically, we’ve got the cool jazz of a minor ninth chord, never settling into anything truly familiar, like a tonic. But what was strange and wondrous in 1972 is now iconic: We think of Magic To Do as the paradigm of openings.

And then comes the paradigm of I Want songs, Corner of the Sky. But my favorite first two tracks on a Stephen Schwartz cast album are Chanson and Merci Madame from his first bomb, The Baker’s Wife. It closed out of town but, miraculously, four performers were hustled into a recording studio. None of the numbers involving anyone other than Paul Sorvino, Patti LuPone, Kurt Peterson and Terri Ralston were recorded, so this cast album doesn’t really represent the show as it actually was. But, having seen it some years later, I can tell you: that’s a good thing. The solos and duets are wonderful, tell a moving story, and the album is a joy to listen to. The whole show, in the theatre, is filled with annoying ensembles and the plot is deeply problematic. We love the baker and the baker loves his much younger wife. She decides to run away with a young lover, so, naturally, we hate her. Except Schwartz came up with a tour-de-force for the performer, an extremely long allegory that allows this adulteress to justify her perfidy. By rights, the audience should boo and hiss her off the stage. But that song, Meadowlark, is so hard to sing, we’re so impressed by the singer, we applaud wildly. This is so problematic, the producer David Merrick tried to cut it by literally going into the orchestra pit and removing every musician’s copy from their music stands. Contractually, it’s up to the writers to approve all cuts, but I can see where he was coming from.

Musical theatre writers in New York and Los Angeles have another reason to appreciate Schwartz. Annually, at the ASCAP writing workshop, he shares his thoughts, critiquing new musicals. The information I’ve gleaned, listening to him over the many years, is far more valuable to me than the fine examples of his formidable musicals for the stage and screen. No writer has shared more about what goes into the crafting of a show. And he’s not delivering a prepared speech; he’s simply saying what comes to his head. I admire his mind even more than his music.

The thing about Schwartz lyrics is that they’re squarely in the musical comedy tradition and usually sound nothing like pop. They deliver story, subtext, surprise and here’s the part that gives one pause: overly clever rhymes. That’s an old-fashioned quality, seemingly at odds with the modern sound of his music. In a way, this contradiction defines Schwartz – the new-fashioned sound with old-fashioned showmanship. I sometimes lose patience with this showiness (“Life is fraught-less when you’re thoughtless.”) but this may have to do with my fear that something similar goes on in my own work.

And we’ve this other odd thing in common. As children, our parents took us to visit a professional composer who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. The idea wasn’t to influence us to become musical theatre writers. We went because George Kleinsinger kept all sorts of exotic animals in his apartment including a toucan named Sam. Only one of us went on to write a musical about Noah’s Ark, though. Happy birthday to him.

Jazz waltz

March 2, 2018

When I criticize songwriters on this page, I suspect some readers go “Fine, Katz, but who do you like?” So let’s talk about Harvey Schmidt, who died the other day.

He’s known for exactly three shows – there are others, but they’re rather obscure – 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do and The Fantasticks. That last one is the longest-running musical that ever was. People were so shocked that it closed after 42 years – New York no longer seemed like New York – that a revival opened uptown and that ran for eleven years, closing just last June. Now, one could cynically look at the economics: extremely cheap show to produce managed to fill a tiny theatre on Sullivan Street until it could advertise itself as the longest-running musical in town when My Fair Lady closed. But looking at The Fantasticks through the economic lens minimizes what’s extraordinary about it. Harvey Schmidt’s tunes were like none ever heard before, and Barbra Streisand’s recording of Soon It’s Gonna Rain let the larger world know there was something rather special to be heard down in the Village.

If I use the phrase “harmonic palette” please do not skip this paragraph. We’re discussing a composer here (also a painter) and I’ll attempt to explain what makes a Schmidt song sound different from anyone else’s. The 1950’s saw the flowering of a particular kind of jazz. Listeners to popular music now appreciated all sorts of chords that hadn’t been used much in previous decades. “Jazz piano” was enjoyed, in part, for the kicky way fingers fell off keys – a “grace note” – in which a sound is briefly heard, something like a mistake, and then, more strongly, the next note on the keyboard sounds. The piano is a percussive instrument, so unexpected rhythms, often on a heavy left hand, became popular. And another thing – block chords – which use more notes, closer together, a cluster where the pianist might use all five fingers. There’s an ugliness to these, and so there’s a fresh surprise when a pianist manages to make them pretty.

It’s long been my observation that, in music, harmony marched forward. Every age innovates, somehow. Gershwin does things Irving Berlin never thought of. Bernstein took composing a step further. And, after Harvey Schmidt, well, I’m afraid that, for the most part, the harmonic palettes failed to get more colorful. Here, I blame rock, often the production of untrained young folk strumming guitars. Their fingers didn’t reach out towards the more complex chords and audiences got used to the I-IV-V and progress halted. (Sorry to sound so bleak.)

Another thing that halted in the sixties was Harvey Schmidt’s Broadway career. After Celebration, an experimental musical that was a touch too weird to enrapture audiences on The Great White Way, the master jazzman made no further forays to The Street. His first decade was so glorious, one might have looked forward to a steady stream of great Schmidt scores over the subsequent five decades, but, damn, the stream got dammed.

This is pushing the metaphor too far, but I once appeared in a Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt show involving a lack of water, 110 in the Shade. I was all of 16 and was particularly impressed by what was happening in the chords on Another Hot Day. The first five notes send us straight up a major seventh chord, and I love major seventh chords. They use four pitches in the major scale in what sounds, to me, simultaneously happy and poignant. (And is found infrequently in pre-Schmidt music.) Then, he goes right into another major seventh chord, establishing a pattern. But, on the words, “not a sign on the horizon” the ear is surprised. Instead of hearing the major seventh, we hear the note just below it, the sort of unanticipated detour that characterizes the blues. The title line keeps hitting the minor third where the major is expected. I fear I may have gotten too technical here, but that’s the blues for you.

And Texas. Jones and Schmidt were both from Texas, both preacher’s sons from small towns. It seems a no-brainer that David Merrick would choose them to adapt The Rainmaker. One number exemplifies Schmidt’s flair for the theatrical. Every time you hear the title, Old Maid, you’re hearing block chords, pulsing dramatically, and some of these are major sevenths. Plus, the song ends with a large quote of Another Hot Day. When we first heard it, it was a pleasant, if laconic, way to set the scene. Here, the drought is a force of evil, so that once-pleasant song is now heard as sinister.

They tried and failed to get Mary Martin to do 110 in the Shade, but then David Merrick succeeded in signing her for the next Jones & Schmidt bon bon, I Do, I Do. I think about this show all the time, because it’s a two-performer musical that focuses on a marriage, and that’s what I’m writing now. So, I ask myself, how do I keep this interesting for an audience? How can I remain true to my characters but throw in the maximum variety in the score? If I keep writing songs and then decide to cut them, it seems I’m in Schmidt’s footsteps, because he and Tom Jones wrote 114 songs for 110 in the Shade. I Do, I Do also has some intriguing discards you can hear on one of Bruce Kimmel’s Lost In Boston albums. But one that was kept was much on my mind last month. For Valentine’s Day, my Facebook status was the entire lyric to I Love My Wife. Seeing it on the page, as “just” words, doesn’t do it justice. Schmidt set it to peppy jazz, with that trademark grace note, and so it plays as fun rather than sentimental. If you don’t know the song, I suggest you read the lyric before listening to Robert Preston.

lyric                                  Original Cast Recording

(One of my ongoing anxieties is the idea that a two-character show can only work with prodigiously talented, always-interesting performers. Maybe I Do, I Do succeeded because people really wanted to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston and I need to get their equivalents. O.K….)

But I wanted to leave you with an anecdote about Schmidt you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. As I Do, I Do was in rehearsals, a reporter confronted him about he could write about marriage since he was a lifelong bachelor. “WELL…” mock accusingly, the pressman pressed him as to why he’d never married. Harvey Schmidt jibed back, “I’m waiting for the reviews.”


Cabaret of despair

February 26, 2018

If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:

  • Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
  • No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
  • Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
  • And… I just don’t get them.

In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:

My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.

That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.

In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.

So, let’s get specific:


This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.

But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.

I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.


The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.

In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.

When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.


Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.

Pretty funny?

A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.

(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)

I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…


Our language of love

February 14, 2018

A while ago, I heard some former presidential speech writers talk about how difficult it is to avoid clichés in the State of the Union address. We who write love songs, usually more frequently than once a year, can sympathize. Well over 80 years ago, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin asked “What can you say in a love song that hasn’t been said before?” And now I’m wondering what I can say in a Valentine’s Day blog that hasn’t been said before?

Well, it’s the late great Florence Henderson’s birthday, and she happened to have uttered what I think is the sexiest speech ever delivered on an original Broadway cast album. (Those who think of her as matronly don’t know Flo.) It’s from an amazingly romantic musical called Fanny, book by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan:

Think of this: Each night there’s a woman who would love to lie down next to you, smell your hair, and fall asleep in the warmth of your body.

1954, folks. If you think of the 1950s, and the musical theatre of the time as prudish or sexless, how come couples in Fanny and The Most Happy Fella are busy having babies without wedlock? And those dames are sopranos!

Some time after Henderson famously mothered The Brady Bunch, there was a seemingly out-of-touch comedian on another sitcom who’d feign befuddlement with the younger generation’s slang, asking “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” with a wink. As language evolves, people keep coming up with new euphemisms. One generation’s “doing the nasty” is another’s “Netflix and chill.” (And here I just have to say: Awesome product placement, Netflix!) And if there’s a limitless supply of ways to say “it,” there should similarly be infinite ways to express love.

I used to point out to my musical theatre students that love songs in musicals hit the audience as stand-ins for sex. We don’t see Lancelot and Guinevere in bed together, but when we hear If Ever I Would Leave You, we just know they’ve made, er, sheet music. And, not to knock another genre, but if you were making a film about that Camelot couple, assumedly rated R, you’d probably show them in bed. Isn’t the Lerner & Loewe love song more passionate, more moving than any dimly-lit filmic tussling? Musicals come up with something sublime to depict what other genres make prosaic, or even embarrassing.

Now, as it happens, the last love song I wrote (about a month ago) makes sport of far-flung phrases of ardor, butchering eight different languages in the process:

I exclaimed “Sacre bleu! You are one pot au feu!”
I asked if you spoke Esperanto
You gave a curt wave with your hand
Interpreting that as “Don’t want to”
I ceded my Sudetenland

You zip-a-dee-doo-dahed my trousers
I ripped your Versace chemise

That might be too silly for its own good, but I’m assured it’s getting recorded. No assurance, of any sort, greets my new musical, Baby Makes Three, but it seems appropriate to share a more serious love song from it. This was inspired by that rarest of things, a real-life emotional moment between strangers I observed on more than one occasion.

At a suburban rail station, greeting the evening rush, stood a father with a small child on his shoulders. They’d look into the sea of incoming faces – petals on a wet, black bough, per Pound – until, spotting the working mother, their two faces would light up. It was so adorable, I decided it had to be part of my show about similar characters.

Kiss me like you haven’t seen me
For a long long time
It’s been a long long time
As far as I’m concerned

When you kiss me
Show me how you miss me
Over all that time
It’s a joyous time
Now that you’ve returned

Hold me and never let me go

Now, you might ask, is that the child singing, or the Dad? In effect, it’s supposed to be both; he’s singing both his feelings and the feelings of their kid.

Years have passed, and I no longer see anyone commuting via train. I don’t catch glances of families reuniting. My daughter’s twice the age of the silent kid on the stranger’s shoulders, and doesn’t need me to communicate for her any more. (Did she ever?)

I just looked down on my desk, as one does, and saw my daughter has left four post-it notes, still stuck together. On the fourth page, she has drawn her and me. On the third page is a heart. On the second page is a combination of the other two: we’re holding hands, and our names with arrows pointing to the portraits. And the cover says “Book I love you Daddy.”


Changing my spots

February 6, 2018

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Cabaret lately. And when I think about Cabaret, I’m talking about the original Broadway musical that came out in the 1960s, not the famous Bob Fosse movie, which has a different plot, and not the 1990s revisal, which also has a different plot and uses songs written for the movie plus most of the songs written for the original Broadway show, and one of those songs (written for Sally) was cut from the original for good reasons but is here given to a male character because male characters can tell us so much about how it feels to have an abortion.

Stop. Let’s move back to a simpler time, and a simpler show. (And a quick reminder that this blog has a No Politics Rule.) It struck me that the original Hal Prince-helmed Cabaret deftly deceives the audience about what it’s about. I recently wrote a synopsis of what the show I’m writing is about, and started wondering about the usefulness of shifting answers to that question.

Man, I think I’m being unclear. Try it this way: Imagine tapping an audience member’s shoulder every ten minutes and whispering, “What’s this show about?”

Ten minutes into Cabaret, she’d answer “It’s about this night club in Berlin, and it’s sort of weird and sexy, with an all-girl band.” Twenty minutes into Cabaret, the response would be different: “It’s about a naïve American writer from the Midwest and he’s fascinated with this promiscuous Englishwoman. They’re sharing a narrow bed, with all that implies.” Thirty minutes: “Intrigue involving smuggling across German borders.” And later, “Anti-Semitism threatens to derail an interfaith romance between older people.”

Maybe I’m exaggerating but you get the idea. Cabaret – book by Joe Masteroff based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – is a gripping entertainment, in part, because the audience never knows quite what to expect. From moment to moment, what the show seems to be about changes again and again.

A lot of musicals do the opposite. Barnum comes to mind. Tap that audience member at any point, and she’ll say “It’s about this fast-talking huckster collecting sideshow acts to present.” Call it a shiftless musical. To me, that’s far less interesting. I never wonder what will happen next.

And that’s something of a Gold Standard for me. Perhaps I, in my theatre seat, want to see something in a musical that Barnum’s many fans don’t care about. It’s this: I want to wonder what will happen next. I’ve got to care enough about the characters to be invested in unfolding plot points. These must be surprising enough so that the action doesn’t seem clichéd, expected.

So it’s the early days of television, and all sorts of calamities spring up in the effort of broadcasting a live variety show. And then it turns out the main characters have a long history together; a flashback reveals two once had a romance. The star of the TV shows tries to get another old friend, her Broadway mentor, booked as a guest, but there’s some trouble with this. Then, it’s a little like the old Dick Van Dyke Show, with writers subverting the watchful eye of an unhip authority figure. Then, boom! – subpoenas arrive from the House Un-American Activities Committee and we wonder, throughout intermission, how the old friends will be affected by being forced to testify.

Those shifting perceptions are what I set up in my musical, Such Good Friends. I didn’t think about this ten years ago, but that what’s-this-about evolution follows the model of the original Cabaret. And now I’m wondering about the wisdom of how Stephen Schwartz explains the storyboarding process in the ASCAP workshop. He said that his work at Disney taught him that every card on your corkboard (that is, story beats and songs) should relate to a central theme, a what’s-this-show-about. Certainly, that’s one way of doing it. But there are other ways.

Here’s a question I enjoy: What functions as the I Want song in Fiddler on the Roof? A lot of people think this is easy. The protagonist, Tevye, has a big number, early in the show, explicitly saying that he wants to be rich. On the other hand, Fiddler is certainly not a show about one man’s attempts to acquire wealth. (Barnum is.) Arranging his daughter’s marriage to a well-off butcher is not something Tevye uses his wiles to pursue; it’s very good fortune that falls into his lap. So, let’s go back to the question director Jerome Robbins asked the creators before they got the idea for a new opening number: What’s this show about? That, I can tell you in one word: Tradition! It’s about the dissolution of long-held traditions. These are very important to practically every character. (Not those defiant daughters. Their I Want is romantic, to make a matchless match.) In Fiddler on the Roof, the opening number is the protagonist’s I Want song. He wants to uphold his traditions because without them, life would be as shaky as… as… I can’t remember what.

It’s no coincidence that the preservation of the status quo is also the central goal in my Such Good Friends. “I want”…things to stay this good forever. So, in my best show, just as in the best show ever written, humor and romance masks the basic sadness of a well-loved world falling apart.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just me. Me with my lifelong aversion to change. Maybe that’s just a theme I find particularly moving. We had a good thing going…going…gone.


Tell me where is fancy bred?

January 30, 2018

The Boy Wonder of Broadway turns 90 today. Harold Prince, known as Hal. His name is a subliminal reference to Shakespeare’s Boy Wonder, Prince Hal, but the diminutive is really endearment, as he’s beloved by the entire community. After grabbing an Ivy League degree, he worked as a stage manager on shows like Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game – an apprenticeship, of sorts, under the Great Old Man, George Abbott, who, a generation earlier, had made a similar transition from stage manager to producer and director. At 27, Prince was a name-over-the-title producer of a big hit, Damn Yankees. And then New Girl in Town (a Tony-winner), West Side Story, and Fiorello!, By then he was 31.

Prince was so famous, he actually became a character in another Broadway show, Say Darling. This was based on a book about the creation of The Pajama Game, and all who saw it knew that Robert Morse’s character was based on the prodigious producer. I should note, here, that Hal Prince is also a character in the first musical I ever wrote. That was when I was 14, and didn’t think twice about putting living personages into my shows.

The shows I’ve mentioned so far were mostly crafted through a process in which the director exerts a great deal of influence over the writers, “shaping” the show without putting words on a page. I believe Prince is the last great practitioner of this. He became a director around the time Jerome Robbins stopped crafting shows for Broadway, and the torch was passed. Imagine how much Prince learned just from being in the room as Abbott and Robbins did their thing. All three were involved in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Abbott-directed farce starring Zero Mostel, Joel Grey and Karen Black was playing to mirthless near-empty houses in its out-of-town tryout. Time to call the doctor!– the show doctor, that is. Abbott, over his long career, had doctored many. But now he was so puzzled, he said “I like it; they don’t like it: We need to call in George Abbott.” Prince called in Robbins, who said “Nothing is wrong except the opening number.” (Love Is In the Air)

He sent Stephen Sondheim off to a room to write a new one, Comedy Tonight, staged it, and a hit was born. (They replaced Grey and Black, too.)

Nobody’s won more Tony Awards than Prince, and nobody has guided more masterpieces. An early example of what he did as a director is Cabaret, in which he came up with the idea that all the “on-stage” numbers at the Kit Kat Klub would comment on the rather realistic action in the rest of the play. So, the hero gets a financial windfall, but he doesn’t sing about it. Instead, there’s an incredibly energetic number about being suddenly rich. As the show goes on, the rise of the Nazis gets a twisted mirror reflection in increasingly sinister numbers such as If You Could See Her following an anti-Semitic incident. What once seemed charming has edged closer to evil. (More on this next essay.)

A character actor had written a handful of short plays about marriages and Prince thought they could be turned into a musical. But how? The writer had no idea. The largely-forgotten, then-rather-obscure songwriter Prince brought in didn’t know. But in talking with Hal, a notion emerged: to have a swinging bachelor observe these good and crazy people his married friends. Watching could lead to an epiphany. But is that a plot? Can you make a whole musical out of that? Only Hal Prince could. Fine as the Stephen Sondheim numbers are, it’s really the directorial magic that made Company a revolutionary hit.

So Prince and Sondheim continued to collaborate, and rack up Tonys, and each project was more audacious than the last. Follies, co-directed by Michael Bennett, added psychological underpinning to the type of songs their parents’ generation loved, so something obvious, like The Man I Love, is lampooned with something complex, Losing My Mind. A Little Night Music also took an outmoded form, operetta, and injected sexual subtext and Chekhovian wit. Pacific Overtures is a musical without a human protagonist (it’s about a country). And a melodramatic revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd, took on a veneer of Brechtian societal criticism at Hal’s behest.

Years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Lincoln Center Library about Prince. One thing that particularly fascinated me was a long set of very specific instructions about the staging of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. He had an idea about every gesture, every look, what it all means to the character. Now, since I am not a genius, I read Tim Rice’s lyric and think it’s meaningless prattle. But Prince was able to turn that song – music by Johann Sebastian Bach (but inexplicably credited to Andrew Lloyd Webber) – into a piece with dramatic depth. Cabaret and the Sondheim shows demonstrated what Prince could do with strong material. Evita and Phantom of the Opera may be terrible shows on paper, but the staging made them palatable; hell, more than palatable: huge hits.

The last Prince-helmed show I saw was about a crackpot inventor who ties so many helium balloons to his lawnchair, he’s lifted high enough to create a problem for airplanes. And therein lies a metaphor for Prince’s career. Musical theatre can effectively deal with earthbound subjects if we remember to leaven the misery with just enough lightness. Political despotism shows up in three Prince-directed Tony-winners and yet they’re not miserable experiences for their audiences. Rare is the chef with a knack for stirring just the right amount of sugar into the pot. And, today, rarer still is the director who’ll take such an active hand in fashioning how the show is written. Prince is the last of a glorious breed.