In these times

January 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My chiropractor’s hands

January 17, 2020

So, yes, my birthday. The tradition, here on this long-running blog, is for me to get insufferably self-indulgent and express pride in my accomplishments. Such an activity stands in marked contrast to what Facebook would have you do, name some charity and beg people for money because it’s your birthday. Hell’s to the no right there. My natal day shouldn’t be used to guilt you out of cash, no matter how noble the cause. Asking people for money was, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in this life in musical theatre, but the demise of NYMF is subject for another day.

I wrote my first musical the month before I turned 15. And the third musical I wrote in my teens actually got produced. I’m not going to tell you these were pieces of high quality, but I will say this: The mere act of writing a show teaches one more about writing a show than any workshop or educational program. You’ll make mistakes – that’s a given – but the recognition of these rookie blunders is what leads you to not make so many in the future. Learn by doing.

And therein lies a homonym, as my wife’s last name is Dewing. Her high standards and professionalism revolutionized the New York casting community. She’s so widely-loved that I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that I loved her before anyone else did.

In college, I persuaded a student-run performance group that they ought to produce a musical I had not yet written. The Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society had only done – you guessed it – Gilbert and Sullivan. But I convinced them to do a Katz by assuring them that every note and word I came up with would be so drenched in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, audience members would be fooled. Indeed, that’s what happened, and the show – now called Murder at the Savoy – has been produced many times in Great Britain, where people still enjoy that sort of thing.

After college I worked with a brilliant young playwright who was attracted by my ability to write in the style of Brecht and Weill. But our musical was set in medieval France, and so I researched the harmonies and techniques to evoke the time and place. Because that’s what good composers do, Frederick Loewe is the sterling example: the Edwardian England of his My Fair Lady sounding nothing like the Wild West of his Paint Your Wagon, et al.

My daughter’s now doing a musical that mentions the famously expensive family eatery, Rumplemeyers, and I wrote a number that mentions it as well. This musical scene was inspired by a handsome young man whom young women kept getting crushes on, only to discover he’s gay. The audience was so delighted, the big reveal was greeted with gales of guffaws, sustained applause, and literally stopped the show. The notion that you can take true bits from real life, spin them the right way, and wow a crowd is a well I’ve returned to again and again. An entrepreneur in attendance bankrolled my next show in a tiny theatre near Lincoln Center.

A block away was ASCAP, so I invited a kind old lady who worked there to see the show, since it wouldn’t be inconvenient. I was stunned when she showed up. Before Act One began, she said she’s supportive of young writers but always, ALWAYS, leaves after the first act. When the curtain came down, she rushed up to me, saying she broke her rule about leaving since she was so charmed by the work.

ASCAP’s musical theatre writing workshop was held in a room decorated with a poster of all the Tony-winning shows created by the organization’s authors and composers. The most recent row was practically all Stephen Sondheim and indeed I once rode the elevator with him. Which doesn’t explain how he came to attend my Dickensian romance, The Christmas Bride, but, lo and behold, he was there. I’m particularly proud of a huge musical scene, covering several locations and turns of events, to a propulsive push-beat. My friend Eric was so energized by it, he started bouncing up and down in his seat. Another audience member admonished him, “Simmer down!” but it was that exciting.

I tend to see these large ensembles as the thing I do best. The Seeing Stars sequence in Area 51 reminded people of Les MiserablesOne Day More but that’s unfair since mine is completely humorous and includes tap-dancing underground paratroopers while that French epic has its masses marching in box steps. Others tend to see me as particularly adept with comedy songs, and I’ve been working on one this week that will go in front of audiences in June. Sometimes you have to wait for the laugh.

“Not to pin laurels on myself” is a line from my second musical, but on this immodest day I gotta say that if you’ve failed to put an effective comedy song in your musical, you’ve failed. Period. Now, you can argue that your show is so serious it can’t afford to crack a smile. But life is rarely mirthless, and why you got to be so dramatic? These things have got to be fun or they’re not worth doing.

My most famous creation is the show in which I married Joy. When people hear about it, they leap to the conclusion it’s terribly romantic. But people who’ve actually heard the musical – and I’m happy to sell you the CD for $20 – is that it’s chock full of solid comedy songs. Our guests, who filled the Soho Playhouse, were surprised and delighted to find themselves laughing throughout.

I’m not saying musicals shouldn’t cover serious subjects. For years, I wanted to write something about what McCarthyism did to people in the entertainment industry. The key to making this dour history palatable was to deal with comedians, quipping through the pain.

I take perverse delight in doing the reverse: An audience expecting something hysterical gets served up a heart-felt ballad and tears burst forth. I turned that trick towards the end of an all-silly Industrial, stunning conventioneers in Las Vegas: You know, the place you go for poignant emotions.

Scene change 1 to 2

January 10, 2020

The teens are over, the teens are over; let’s celebrate the teens!

Writing this on the first day of a new decade, I’m taking the path of least resistance by highlighting some notable musicals of the twenty-teens. For me, it’s a break from writing my first musical of the Twenties. And, of course, it’s a little silly to characterize a decade. But I’ve done this sort of thing before: The Eighties saw a sad quantity of geniuses literally die off, and this certainly changed musical theatre for the worse. The Nineties saw a dearth of comedy – all those stultifyingly earnest sob-fests. God, I was glad to see the millennium turn, a resurgence of laughter.

The best musicals of the last ten years had me saying, again and again, “Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Creators blew things up, and sometimes it feels like we’re standing in a deserted battlefield, trying to make sense of what we’ve all been through. But I mean this in a good way: It’s disconcerting, but more than a little thrilling.

In 2010, Kander and Ebb made us feel uncomfortable. And I mean that in a good way. The Scottsboro Boys presented a horrifying chapter in American racial history in a style – the minstrel show – that is lost to time. The stage was filled with black men singing and dancing for our delectation. Snappy movements and razzmatazz melodies combined with a moving story of innocents railroaded by a cruel system of so-called Criminal Justice that is anything but. Many Kander & Ebb works attempt to serve up a cocktail of sweet bright tunes with scabrous social commentary. This one worked. Naturally, its Broadway run was brief, and the show is largely forgotten today.

The most Broadway performances racked up by a musical opening in the Teens was one that utilized offensiveness but played everything for laughs. The Book of Mormon is the mega-hit it is because audiences can barely catch their breath from all the guffawing. This is no small feat. I can think of a lot of long-running musicals that don’t bother to crack a single solid joke. To survive this long on silly humor is an admirable accomplishment.

As you know, I’m persistently focussed on craft, particularly in lyric writing. There was, I’m glad to report, a Tony-winner by two newcomers that is so finely-wrought, I could find nothing to reproach. But, let’s face it, what made A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder a surprise hit is the lead performance of Jefferson Mays as a series of related murder-victims. (I’m compelled to mention my backstage murder mystery in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, Murder at the Savoy: somewhat similar goals. And now I’ve used the word “murder” five times in the same paragraph.)

The musical-writing debut of librettist-lyricist Lisa Kron, Fun Home, weaved quite a spell with Jeanine Tesori’s haunting music. It’s a memory play that probes questions with no easy answers, a unique experience in the theatre, more unsettling than uplifting.

A boy comes to New York, attends Columbia, becomes one of those obsessive writers who wants to spend every hour with his pen, even neglecting his family to do so. Am I talking about myself again? Or am I describing just a little bit of the incredibly compelling entertainment known as Hamilton? Riveting in the extreme, it’s not controversial to call this phenomenon the outstanding piece of theatre of the past four decades.

I’m wary of describing The Band’s Visit, because I can never quite find the words to make it sound good. And it’s wonderful. And it’s wholly unlike any musical I can think of. It’s a small, intimate play in which people make tiny gestures. You’re used to musicals being larger than life; this is decidedly smaller. Music is central, but its glorious David Yazbek songs don’t make much of an impression out of context. (Answer Me, though, is my choice for most beautiful song of the decade.) You simply have to see it, hopefully in a small house where you can read the actors’ faces.

When I give my musical theatre history lecture these days, I mention that the Tony has gone to five game-changers in a row, each rather unlike anything that has gone before: Fun Home, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Band’s Visit, Hadestown. So, I’m going to close this list with a traditional musical comedy that’s very much like things we’ve seen before. It’s called The Prom and, when you come down to it, not everything has to be revolutionary. If a show has heart, and tells its story reasonably well, that’s a good time, and why should we care if it’s reminiscent of good times we’ve had before?

Let the good times roll, I say.


January 2, 2020

This is not about me; it’s about Jerry Herman, who passed away the day after Christmas, which he told us we need a little of, right this very minute. But I’m going to do the gauche thing and quote my own review. Fifteen years ago, a critic declared my tunes Jerry Hermanish, and I was thrilled by the specificity of the compliment. Herman strove to be like Irving Berlin and I’ve often emulated them both. The three of us can’t resist writing quodlibets. Berlin wrote the most famous one, You’re Just In Love, while Herman’s fantastic Tea Party counterpoint from Dear World is little known. Mine are the most obscure of all, but the point is I’ve long felt a kinship with Herman, a master of uncomplicated expressions, rousing choruses, and delineations of love.

Nothing of import happens, but a great lady lives by her own appealing philosophy. What show am I talking about? This describes three Herman musicals of the 1960s, two of which starred Angela Lansbury. I doubt it describes three of anyone else’s musicals, only Jerry’s girls do that sort of thing, live that way. Part of the enduring popularity of Hello Dolly and Mame is that shows too rarely revolve around brassy ladies of a certain age. The theatre produces wonderful young women, who then grow out of youthful parts, and then the audience wants to see them, larger than life.

When I was a young man, Jerry Herman’s goddaughter asked me to collaborate on a musical. Her mother had sung at all of Jerry’s backers’ auditions, only to be replaced, on Broadway, by the likes of Carol Channing and Bernadette Peters. My interest in this collaborator was solely based on who her godfather was, which, let’s face it, isn’t enough. We abandoned our project. Around the same time, one of my mentors at the BMI Workshop, Maury Yeston, was working on a New Orleans-based musical about a middle-aged gay couple who deal with their son’s engagement to a daughter of an arch-conservative politician. The producer wasn’t happy with Yeston’s work, probably preferring something with more hummable melodies. And so, Yeston was sent packing and in came Jerry Herman. It’s sad to see good writers replaced, but the proof is in the box office: La Cage Aux Folles became a huge hit, Herman’s final Broadway bow.

Are you reminded of the producer in Merrily We Roll Along who tells two young songwriters “There’s not a tune you can hum. There’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum?” Well, I suppose we have to talk about a perceived rivalry between Herman and composers of less-easily-grasped material. When he started writing, in the 1950s, show tunes generally sounded a certain way, easy on the ears, instantly apprehensible. Elsewhere, on jukeboxes and certain radio stations, young people were digging the less subtle strains of rock and roll. The dominance of popular culture flipped from one to the other. Herman’s Hello Dolly knocked The Beatles off Number One on the Billboard chart. Soon, Broadway material was off the chart for good.

By the seventies his new shows weren’t embraced by the public, and Stephen Sondheim kept winning the Tonys. Many people considered Sondheim’s music completely unhummable: it’s easy to imagine Herman feeling alienated from less melodic scores and Broadway rock by the likes of Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It all came to a head in 1984. Sondheim had cast a Herman leading lady in an avant garde musical with jagged untraditional tunes, Sunday in the Park With George. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but, at the Tony Awards it was up against Herman’s throwback hit, La Cage Aux Folles. And the Award for Best Score goes to…

Theatre wags viewed this speech as a big slap in the face to Sondheim. But one shouldn’t question Herman’s motives. They’re the building blocks Herman used to make his songs easy to hum and remember. He repeats uncomplicated phrases more frequently than most nursery rhymes do. These match each other in shape, rhythm and length. One verse might use nine restatements, and it’s rare his songs have just one verse. By the time you’re done hearing, for instance, Wherever He Ain’t, you may have heard the same phrase 18 times.

I seem to recall Forbidden Broadway skewering this with “The catchy song is now” but my memory is a bit foggy. But you never forget your first Broadway show and so I’ll recollect what my life was like when I was the age my daughter is now.

I cried. A lot. A great variety of things struck me as unfair, and weeping was part of my daily existence. Back in those days, every grown-up – including total strangers! – would tell a kid to stifle his tears. Big boys don’t cry! I heard it again and again, and cried about that. My parents were preparing to move our family away from New York, but knew they couldn’t go without introducing their son to Broadway. And so I watched in rapt attention this Jerry Herman musical about a boy’s relationship with his loving aunt. Their duet, My Best Girl, a waltz that lands on an unexpected note in its fourth bar, became my favorite song. And Young Patrick grows to adulthood and his aunt’s husband skis off an Alp and dies. Not-So-Young Patrick consoles Mame with their old song and I cried (I’m crying now) but I noticed something: People around me were crying too. Including the true big boys, grown men. This Winter Garden, this glittery palace, was a place where it was O.K. to cry. The theatre is a safe haven for lachrymose types like me.

My memories burn in my head with a steady glow
So if, my friend, if Jerry’s dead
I don’t want to know.

The Ryan connection

December 25, 2019

The annual inundation of Christmas carols sets my mind a-spinning. As you know, songwriting mistakes bother me greatly, way more than they should. Trying to keep this positive, I’ll start by saying a few things about a show tune that’s two, two, two carols in one.

Long before the success of The Music Man, its creator, Meredith Willson, was a famous man of music. He conducted an orchestra on the radio back in the days in which that sort of thing conferred fame. His best-known creation as songwriter was the delightfully blithe It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas. It is only appropriate to play this song early in the season, so, if you’re hearing it now, it’s overripe.

A dozen years after its release, Willson was writing his third Broadway musical, Here’s Love, based on Miracle on 34th Street. With Santa Claus as a character, there was a definite need for a Yuletide carol, and here Willson did a clever thing. The song composed for Here’s Love, Pine Cones and Holly Berries is heard. Then, it’s repeated in counterpoint with an existing holiday song we all know. And that song is the old Willson standard, It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas.

In those days, it was exceedingly rare for an already-written well-known tune to appear in a new musical.


Sorry to shout. When the 1963 audience heard It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas in the surprising position of the second half of a quodlibet, it was like meeting an old friend. The characters in Here’s Love seemed to be singing a traditional carol. Now, today, as you listen to Christmas music – often against your will – you hear a mixture of songs composed in the last century and “classics” by Handel, Mendelssohn and the like. Few make the distinction. Willson, by using his composed carol as if it’s a classic, solidified the song’s acceptance as part of the canon. Strikes me as a clever self-promotion.

In a quodlibet, we hear one song, then another song, and we think the second song is unrelated. Then – surprise – both songs are sung at the same time, and fit together nicely. Willson performs this trick in The Music Man with two pairs: Lida Rose plays against Will I Ever Tell You and Pick a Little Talk a Little is countered by Goodnight Ladies. But wait: Willson didn’t write Goodnight Ladies. It was a traditional song from long ago, familiar to the audience. Rather like how It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas hits our ears.

This quodlibet trick is one I’ve turned countless times in my musicals. It seems to be the weapon in my arsenal I use more than any other. In fact, one of the things I’m doing over Christmas vacation is creating an opening number with different groups singing in counterpoint, somewhat like the four family contingents in Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve been asked to write this by collaborators who are aware of my bag of tricks.

It seems like I’ve used the word “tricks” way too often and I’m getting tired of typing it. If I may be so bold, I’d like to present to you this bit of advice as a Christmas gift, dear reader. Know your devices. Composers and lyricists alike need to be aware of the various ways songs can be structured. Tricks are there to be used, and it’s good to understand the reasons one might employ them.

A nice fellow I work with surprised us by announcing he was moving on to a new job in a different city. His last day would coincide with a little performance by a class I teach. We were preparing to sing The Rainbow Connection, and I’d done a little choral arrangement of it. Now, with very little notice, we needed to whip up some sort of a send-off to our friend. There was very little time to rehearse, no time to introduce something completely new, and the ability of this particular class to apprehend the unfamiliar in a short period of time was a legitimate concern. So, I thought of a trick.

The altos in the class had already learned a harmony line to The Rainbow Connection. The rest of the class had listened as I taught this line to them. In fact, when accompanying the song, I’d always brought out the alto line, as everyone else was on melody at that point. So, I took that alto part, wrote new lyrics to it, completely reharmonized it (in the piano) and wrote a Christmas-y minor key introduction.

Now, our little last-day concert would seem to be over once we got to The Rainbow Connection. But then, it was announced we had a surprise parting gift. I launched into that unfamiliar intro. The whole group sang the alto part with the new words, and the audience was unaware that what they were hearing had any connection to The Rainbow Connection. In the final few bars, I revealed the trick, by ending the way the Kermit classic does. You ever see a grown man cry?

Rehearsing this little surprise involved stealing time from other numbers, and making sure the man of the hour was unaware. So, we were very careful about scheduling our time to go over it. But there was a significant wrench thrown into that plan. Nobody had told the students their pal was moving on. So, during the prescribed time, everyone started crying. Not over what I’d written but over the news we’d no longer have this good guy in our lives on a regular basis. They struggled to learn my little composition while they struggled with the blow to their hearts. Nobody had warned me that the singers didn’t know the news. I’d run into an emotional buzzsaw.


How to be happy (reprise)

December 16, 2019

    Just got back from taking a tour of an Arts Magnet elementary school we’re considering for our daughter. It’s two miles away, and so the difficulty of bicycling there is a drawback. When I was a kid, I biked a half mile. And so did Holly. And Holly was – is – very pretty.

     You all know what the title, Spring Awakening, refers to. In life, at some point, you feel the first stirrings of attraction. In all likelihood, you feel crippling shyness about it. Rare is the pubescent lad who can utter, “Holly, I like you,” and so…

     I did the bravest thing I could. I bicycled about fifty feet behind her. And I sang. I sang original songs at the top of my lungs. One went, “Who looks at you the way I do?” Don’t get the wrong impression. Holly never heard any of these songs. When you’re riding downhill, wind rushes by your ears, and the cracking voice of the boy singing into the wind behind you is a wave of sound stilled by circumstance.

     By Ninth Grade, I’d written a good number of songs. This was a fairly round number of years ago, which is why we all had a reunion last year and I was able, at long last, to relate all of this to the still-gorgeous Holly. (I turned red, but I did it.) As a 14-year-old, I embraced the notion that songwriting needs a purpose. I loved musicals, show tunes and standards. I searched for opportunities to write. Then Ms. Steele, our sometimes shockingly progressive English teacher, gave our class an assignment: Write a few pages in dramatic form. A short play, or skit. Eureka! Opportunity had knocked.

     A few pages? That was for other kids, not for me. I wrote an entire musical, with intermission; book, music and lyrics. The pieces were to be read out loud in class, so, I recorded the accompaniment on cassette tape, brought in a portable player, and entertained the whole class, singing at them.

     Everyone was dumbfounded. Friends began planning to produce the show at school. We cast it, and I made a poster with everyone’s name. Because a friend’s older brother played the trumpet, I wrote a trumpet part. Eventually, the plan fell through, but the mere fact that anyone wanted to do it was quite a compliment at the time. Our would-be leading lady died in the past year, and so did Hal Prince. The latter was a character in the show.

     You see, my original musical was based on my Walter Mitty-like fantasies of what my life could be. How To Be Happy was about a teen boy who writes a musical that attracts the attention of Hal Prince and Jerome Robbins, becomes a smash hit on Broadway, starring the kid. The dramatic conflict, inspired by the old play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, had to do with whether the kid would write a second hit Broadway musical. He’s lonely at the top, and Prince and Robbins have the bright idea of paying a girl to fall in love with him. Ew.

Robbins, Abbott

Adolescent scribblings, of course, usually look ridiculous in the cold light of adulthood. But How To Be Happy was the first link in a long chain. Encouraged by the classroom response, I began a more ambitious musical, based on a truly ancient play. It had been co-authored by George Abbott when he was a young man, and, as any Broadway old-time will tell you, Mr. Abbott was never a young man; he was always old. So, at 15, I was playing my new score for anyone who’d listen. Since the piece was set in the Roaring Twenties, it didn’t sound like a new score at all. But among those that learned of my musical-writing – what’s the word? Talent? Passion? Proclivity? – was a bright girl of similar interests. She asked me to collaborate on a show.

     The idea was for her to do the book, but I didn’t get to see the script until a few days before we were to present it to the drama teacher. And, it wasn’t good. Dialogue from our source novel was simply stuck around my songs, and as a result, I felt, the characters didn’t sound like real people. So, I hurried to a manual typewriter and rewrote the whole thing. At that point, it didn’t seem like having a collaborator had saved me from doing much work.

     I was encouraged, through a lady I met in the improv world, to apply for Lehman Engel’s BMI musical-writing workshop. And, once again, I recorded on cassette. I was, by far, the youngest person accepted that year. Whether these teenage efforts were any good or not, there was no denying that, by the age of 17, I’d written three musicals. And the mere act of writing musicals is the best lesson in how to write them. My fourth show, Pulley of the Yard, or, Murder at the Savoy (the subtitle has taken over as the title) got produced in New York a couple of times, then at the Edinburgh Festival three times, and also elsewhere in Britain.

     It wasn’t my U.K. debut, however. Because the collaborator on that third show, without telling me in advance, got it produced in England. The audience, she told me, consisted of people with what were then termed “mental problems” which closes a circle, as I’m now creating musicals co-written and performed by autistic youth. That collaborator who once seemed valueless was, in fact, indispensable in getting my first show produced.


December 9, 2019

It was December, in New York, in a year ending with 9. I had an idea for a musical, a theatre company that could offer me space, a director I trusted and a book writer I didn’t quite trust. But the more remarkable thing is that I conceived of an entirely radical new way of developing a musical.

The Company of Women was designed to celebrate female friendships, but I, a male, could claim no first-hand knowledge of the subject. I’d need to do research, and came up with the notion that my investigation could take the form of a troupe of players – all women – improvising scenes that, in some way, related to their actual experiences. I’ve a near-religious faith in improv, and here it was the secret sauce that, we all hoped, could develop an interesting show in an innovative way.

The actresses we cast were a diverse bunch: that was our intention. I think there were about a dozen. Two were friends. Two were named Sara, and they were the youngest and the oldest of our ensemble. One African-American, and one who’d grown up in Puerto Rico. One was so patrician, a rumor started that she had lots of money. At least one clearly didn’t. What we had them do was to write premises for scenes on index cards. The premises were true things that had happened to them. The people improvising were never the card-contributors, so, individuals had the fun of watching how other players were acting out events from their own lives.

I watched, fairly silently, and took notes. Ideas for songs occurred to me. Somebody humorously dismissed the male gender with a line, “They’re good in the winter,” that struck me as a great song title. And this suggested a context. If a bunch of gal pals became aware they were sitting around, drinks in hand, ragging on men, they might challenge themselves to speak in positive terms. And struggle with it … the premise of my song.

My grandfather’s wife had once been an actress, and, hearing about the project, she pooh-poohed it as if I were doing something immoral. “What’s in it for them?” she demanded. The couple who ran the theatre company had the opposite view: Our participants were gaining valuable experience in developmental improvisation. Their improv skills improved and they had the satisfaction of contributing to a new musical. No money flowed in any direction.

In the 1970s, Michael Bennett recorded rap sessions with working Broadway dancers, known of whom were stars. The show that evolved from these, A Chorus Line, cast its contributors and became the longest-running Broadway show of all time. With all that profit, there developed a problem: how to adequately compensate those that provided the fodder for the writers? We should all have such problems!

While I was aware of A Chorus Line, I knew nothing of a then-not-popular sitcom that was running on HBO. It focused on the man troubles of four upper class urban white girls. It seemed the characters barely had a thought that wasn’t connected to dating. Shoes, clothes, cocktails, and tales-of-cock – these were its concerns. Since cable networks didn’t live and die based on ratings, the show was given many seasons to develop an audience, and, eventually, it did.

The Company of Women, we all felt, shouldn’t show females as dependent on males for emotional well-being. Our lesbian character wouldn’t derive self-worth from a girlfriend, either. There’d be no supply of disposable income magically coming from nowhere. This would be a musical that would reflect contemporary reality.

But the untrusted librettist wasn’t quite down with that last goal. She kept talking about having our characters receive mylar envelopes in the mail, inviting them to hop a spaceship to a far-off planet. Why mylar? I don’t know, but it was very important to my partner.

How real to make the show was a collaborative disagreement that couldn’t quite be settled. I kept writing songs that were inspired by the improvs. Pat kept writing scenes that were products of her wild imagination. I got increasingly annoyed by this. The producing pair called a meeting for us to settle our differences. I anticipated this with a great level of intensity. The longer we kept on divergent paths, the more likely the show would end up a mess. Were we not cut out to be collaborators?

I had something of a head of steam as I reached for the doorknob. This thing had to be resolved, and communication had to be repaired. I entered the space and a roomful of people yelled “Surprise!” It was my 30th birthday, and everyone – including Pat – wanted to celebrate. Indeed, I was surprised, but that hoped-for resolution had to wait. I could barely enjoy the party, cake and gifts.

Two months later, we presented a draft to the gang that had inspired us. They cold-read the script and I sang all the songs. And then we all parted ways. Pat went on to write a musical about women journeying to a distant planet. And I went on to work with a new librettist who shared my vision of keeping things as real as possible. When she moved from New York, I soldiered on, alone.

All these experiences, that journey of learning-through-improv, led to a script with an impressive amount of verisimilitude. Its commercial prospects, though, were completely hamstrung by the existence of that homogenous television entertainment. It had captured the zeitgeist and become extremely popular. My six women, of various ages, races, and social status who’d go out drinking together were no match for the four white clotheshorses sipping cosmos America fell in love with.