Come away death

April 19, 2019

There’s no doubt in my mind what the strangest thing I’ve ever seen on Broadway is: It’s the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Some of you, reading this, are understandably scratching your heads right now. Just about the least strange thing that could possibly be would be yet another mounting of the much-produced 76-year-old classic. Oklahoma! – as I often explain – set the template; that is, the bunch of conventions that, to a fair extent, all Golden Age musicals conformed to. We fans of musicals have all seen this rousing love letter to the pioneer spirit countless times. And it’s always the same.

So why do it that way again?

Director Daniel Fish, without altering a line of text, has re-imagined the familiar classic as a meditation on America’s addiction to firearms. As you enter the barn (for that’s what The Circle in the Square has been transformed into), you pass rows and rows of rifle racks. And this was – excuse the pun – triggering to me. After moving, for the first time, to a place where people keep guns in their homes, my wife asked about the practice on a community on-line message board, and was met with hostility. One miscreant posted a picture of about 100 rifles on a garage wall. I’ve always kept this blog a politics-free zone, so I’m just sayin’ this particular Oklahoma! explores the tragedy of our violent past and present.

In saying my mind was blown, I’m not reaching for a pun. Fish’s staging gets you thinking. Practically everything that happens in the play leads to new revelations. About race. About so-called “disability.” About the fine lines between a social outcast and a true creep. About the circumstances that lead to shootings. About injustice and misjudgments. And about one of my favorite topics (as those who’ve seen The Christmas Bride know), the times when people sing happy songs at unhappy people in an effort to force cheer.

I’d heard about this production’s earlier incarnations at Bard College and, more recently, a Brooklyn church. I knew I was in for a radical interpretation, and was ready to enjoy this Fish feast with two caveats: the text, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, needed to be respected, and, as always, I needed to feel something. Boy, did I feel. I was emotionally drained, totally caught up in the tragedy of what, on paper, looks like a happy ending. In the weeks since seeing it, I’ve hardly let it go. The events turn over in my head and the stun of it all has barely dissipated.

People disagree about what respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein means. During the dark days of World War II, when audiences needed to feel good, the masters didn’t produce a cautionary tale about the violence of the Wild West. Originally, civilizing forces, taming the Wild West, prove the Oklahoma territory worthy of inclusion as a brand new state. Much time is spent on a trial in which minor characters make a concerted effort to follow the letter of the law. A lass who lacks the monogamy gene is reformed, readied for marriage. A libertine traveling salesman is saddled with a wife.

Fish upends our expectations of Oklahoma! in a host of fascinating ways. There’s a contemporary bluegrass band, mostly female players. In 1943, those slide guitars we’re so used to from country music didn’t exist. So, does doing it this way denigrate Rodgers? It ignores orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and if you care about a thing like that, stay away. The Hammerstein words get new interpretations by admirably committed actors. One glare one character gives another was particularly devastating to me. I think the authors are being honored, here: a small company of performers are taking every word seriously. And, suddenly, old Oklahoma! is the talk of Broadway.

One disappointment is the lack of a narrative ballet. Think of how 1940s audiences must have reacted to Agnes DeMille’s long dance sequence, entitled Laurey Makes Up Her Mind. Here’s a virginal ingénue who’s bought a hallucinogenic drug from a shady peddler. She sniffs it, and we see what she dreams, and what she dreams is far from her prairie experience. There are the high-kicking French postcard girls in black stockings; there’s the rivals for her affection facing off in a duel. Like much of mid-century theatre, this owes a lot to Freud, the id as rendered by Terpsichore. Heady stuff.

When we come back from eating our chili and cornbread at intermission, we expect some movement to tell us what’s on Laurey’s mind, but do we really need to know? There’s nothing novel, any more, in pointing out the sexual underpinning of a woman’s attraction. So John Heginbotham’s choreography gives us something unexpected, to blaring pre-recorded electric guitars, distortion and all. A little of this goes a long way and I only wish it was only a little of this. It was a lot, too long, too meaningless; a big flaw in the diamond.

And while we’re on negatives, I had some problems with the singing abilities of the two leads. Let’s face it: that’s a strange thing to say. It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein show and the voices were less than top-notch; how could that be good? The answer becomes a question: Did I attend this thing in order to hear People Will Say We’re In Love sweetly sung? Broadway has seen five previous productions that served up that. This is a very different experience.

Generally, folks who care about dulcet tones gravitate towards the opera house. They’re OK with glorious vocals even if their minds are not engaged. I’m not trying to sound superior, here, but I prefer to think. Your run-of-the-mill revival of Oklahoma! is unlikely to affect your intellect, to stick with you weeks afterward, to stir your compassion and, in my case, a revulsion of lethal weapons. But this is something else, an extraordinary reconsideration that surprises and shocks in many a new way (pun intended).

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Jewish girls

April 8, 2019

Last Sunday one of the most extraordinary musicals I have ever seen ended its Broadway run. I apologize for being so late to the party, but, if you’ve seen anybody’s reaction to The Band’s Visit, you’ve heard similar awestruck commendation. I don’t like being redundant because it renders me redundant, you know? So, I’ll briefly describe the show, discuss a commercial aspect, and tell you that if you’ve missed it, you’re plum out of luck. (This reminds me: I’m out of plums and must run to a market later.)

What was that?

Much as I don’t like being wrong about things, I have to start with a confession that I had an idea about The Band’s Visit before seeing it that turned out to be totally off-base. It’s set in an obscure part of Israel and many of the characters are Egyptians. This description led me to believe the show would touch on the much-commented-on Arab-Israeli conflict. I thought, somehow, that the shared language of music would somehow draw a group of people together who are normally across a political divide, mellifluous sounds overcoming prejudice.

It’s not expressing a political opinion that a lot of people have a lot of strong feelings about Israel, and I found it a challenge to get myself into the mood to see a show on that subject. Wondrously, The Band’s Visit stays true to its setting, depicts differences between Israelis and Egyptians, and yet makes no comment on any “hot button” issue. What a relief! I’ve complained, in the past, about “spinach musicals” – shows that are supposed to be good for you, but don’t provide the comforts of unhealthy vittles. I think of a line Carolyn Leigh wrote, “Sermonize and preach to me; make your sanctimonious little speech to me.” Who wants that?

Theatrically speaking, I prefer candy. But I don’t mean to say I don’t like serious musicals. The Band’s Visit is one. And feels, somehow, like an intriguing straight play. Characters rarely burst out in song. One particularly important number has no lyrics – it’s on clarinet and doesn’t build to an applause button. There were plenty of times I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, what the show was communicating to me.

And then, in one of the most infectious and beautiful ballads of Broadway’s past half-century, the meaning of everything that had gone before came into focus, like I was adjusting binoculars.

Extraordinary enough for you? The Band’s Visit has very little action. “The band” – that is, a set of uniformed male musicians that have gotten lost on their way to a gig – is, essentially, a main character. But, unlike most characters in musicals, they take almost no actions. And yet, when they make music, they have a catalytic effect on all who hear them.

Director David Cromer, one of those MacArthur geniuses, is experienced with straight plays, not musicals. His attention to detail, on a stark Scott Pask set (say that three times fast), allows us to concentrate on a succession of quiet moments. These amount to a meditation on the human need to connect, and how music nudges us in that direction.

And what music! The songs by David Yazbek are varied, sometimes exotic, often rapturous. So, if I say The Band’s Visit feels like a play (by Itamar Moses) it shouldn’t sound like I’m denigrating a perfectly wonderful score. It’s just that the show often uses music in a way most musicals rarely do.

Here’s something that strikes me about contemporary musical theatre: Four years in a row, the Tony has gone to a work that, in certain ways, is wholly unlike anything that has gone before. That’s an exciting transformation, if off-putting to traditionalists. It’s been a hell of a time: Fun Home, a memory play that never offers up easy answers; Hamilton, which is Hamilton; Dear Evan Hansen, which beat two other extraordinary musicals for the prize, Come From Away and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and The Band’s Visit. Usually, you need a few years of perspective to declare an era transformative. But come on! Those are six shows none of us could have dreamed of a decade ago.

Shekels?

The Band’s Visit, I’m pleased to report, recouped its entire $8.75 million investment. But here we are, less than a year after it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and it’s closed. Something’s Rotten…had more performances. I find something disturbing about the shortness of The Band’s Visit compared to other Tony laureates.

But I embody the problem. Glance back at my second paragraph. The Band’s Visit is not only hard to describe and not anything like what I expected, it doesn’t sound wonderful. Not in the way, say, a comedy about silly missionaries in Africa sounds wonderful. (And there the magic words “South Park” get many TV-viewers interested in attending.) Commercial Broadway requires something of a crave factor. That is, when someone first hears about a show, there’s got to be some reason they want to go. Cyndi Lauper score about a drag queen saving a shoemaker – people want to see that. The Band’s Visit is very much like a dream. And if I start telling you about this dream I had, your eyes are likely to glaze over. In fact, I’m surprised you’ve read this far.

Tiny country; tiny town; tiny company

There are no production numbers. Nothing is big; everything is small, intimate. The Band’s Visit began at the rather small off-Broadway Atlantic Theatre. I saw it from the first row of the mezzanine at the Ethel Barrymore, one of Broadway’s smaller houses (about 1000 seats). Call me a snob about these things, but it was very important to me to see it in New York. Soon, the show will be off on a national tour, where it will play some theatres with more than 4000 seats and that’s just horrifying to me. Being close enough to see actors’ faces is essential to the experience.

Now, after the big house tour, it’s possible small theatres will start mounting it in more appropriate spaces. Try to imagine you’re in the modest abode of a couple who’ve recently had a baby. And the baby won’t sleep. And the couple’s relationship seems frayed by parental struggles. (So far, this is very similar to the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three.) In comes a quiet gentleman, carrying my favorite musical instrument – the clarinet, which I loved from the time one was played in my childhood apartment. He plays directly into the crib, lulling the baby to sleep. And this draws its parents closer together.

I told you it was like a dream. But what a happy one.


You be you

March 26, 2019

Now that Stephen Sondheim’s entered his 90th year (I’m writing this a day after his 89th birthday), a few thoughts on what he learned from Oscar Hammerstein during his second sixth of life. They met when he was roughly 15. Before meeting the old master, Sondheim hadn’t even considered writing musicals. The year the protégé turned 30, and had two wonderful musicals running (lyrics only), Hammerstein died at the age of 65. Also that year, there were two Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway.

And I might as well name them: Gypsy was playing, and West Side Story had returned from the road; Flower Drum Song, a funnier-than-most R&H piece, ended its run, and The Sound of Music opened and was a hot ticket. Of this quartet, I far prefer the innovative shows with Sondheim lyrics; both have scripts by Arthur Laurents and direction by the estimable Jerome Robbins.

It is, of course, tragic that Hammerstein died so young: think of what more he might have given us! On the flip side, it’s wonderful that Sondheim has lived so long. So, there’s no what-might-have-he-given-us if he lived past 65. He did, and gave us exactly two off-Broadway musicals, Assassins and Road Show. No debilitating diseases slowed him; it’s just been a rather fallow quarter century. The shows he created from age 40-65 were so excellent – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George among them – I, for one, can’t help feeling disappointment that his productivity knob has turned down so drastically.

Better to picture him as a teenager soaking up wisdom from his Bucks County neighbor. It’s always fascinated me that little Steve presented a script for his friend’s dad to comment on and boy, did he comment! This was the greatest single lesson in musical theatre writing ever given, and what I’d give to have been a fly on that wall. We have information about Hammerstein’s understanding of theatre from his essential forward to his book of lyrics; of course, the shows themselves exemplify his aesthetic, although there were usually collaborators (besides Richard Rodgers) adding their own great thoughts.

Hammerstein cared about structure, and you may have noticed there’s usually a main couple (such as the Bigelows) and a contrasting pair (like the Snows). If one is serious, the other is likely to be comic. His lyrics abound in well-chosen nature imagery. (Busy as a spider spinning daydreams.) And the aspect most on my mind these days is concision, the notion that when you tell your story through song, things move faster than they would in unsung dialogue.

Sondheim has also peppered his published volumes of lyrics with fascinating commentary. And he mentions an “oedipal thrill” of criticizing his mentor’s lyrics when he was a successful adult. One can only imagine his reaction to “like a lark who is learning to pray” although I’ve always felt it plausible that Hammerstein meant “prey” – on little worms, or whatever larks eat.

And when the cat’s away, the mice are at play. Once the mentor’s watchful eyes were shut for good, the mentee wrote substantively different musicals, as if he at last felt free to rebel.

Short & Sweet/Long & Sour

The first of the Sondheim shows to open in the sixties was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and that long title lived up to its one adjective. The book, by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, speeds along splaying jokes across the footlights. You never stop laughing until…the songs. They attempt to be funny, but manage to slow things down, evoking smiles (sometimes pained: “irascible!”) rather that guffaws. Had Oscar lived to comment, he might have restated the lesson about concision. Just when the second act is hurtling forward like a dislodged Ferris wheel, a battleaxe takes stage and diverts us from all that’s good with an ungainly and mirthless scena. I wanted this show to be over without the fat lady singing, thank you very much. To his credit, Sondheim’s repeated his teacher’s point about concision many times since, rather concisely.

Whither structure?

The era when all shows needed to resemble the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics couldn’t last forever. The many Broadway flops of the late sixties made many feel it was time for something new and Sondheim’s 1970 hit, Company, shattered perceptions of what a musical should and could be. It’s refreshingly different, the first of many innovative entertainments fashioned with director Hal Prince. And we can celebrate this busting of the mold but must acknowledge that what’s being undone was the template Oscar created.

Company doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s a set of scenes about marriages, bemusedly witness by a swinging bachelor named Bobby. What happens to Bobby is not something we ever care much about, and his decision to connect seems a tacked-on ending. We don’t really track his feelings; his actions are few. Later, two works in collaboration with librettist John Weidman similarly present scenes that don’t tell the story of characters: Pacific Overtures and Assassins. It might be fair to call these “revuesicals.”

“A musical play” was under the title of the Rodgers and Hammerstein genre-busters. For them it was of primary importance to tell a moving story about realistic people, presented as seriously and cogently as any play.

An un-love story

But the most obvious hallmark of the Golden Era was that, without exception, musicals concerned love. One went with the expectation that love songs would be sung, and, it was to be hoped, you’d be moved by the ups and downs of romances.

It’s here where I believe ol’ Oscar would have been most surprised and dismayed by what his pupil hath wrought. Bobby doesn’t love anyone, and Follies and A Little Night Music center on unhappy marriages. Into the Woods has the temerity to show fairy tale characters commit adultery. The Sondheim musicals, so rarely showing love, contain very few love songs. He denies audiences one of the main things they used to come to musicals for – an odd omission, probably willful.

Hammerstein & Sondheim shared a collaborator: Richard Rodgers, desperate to replace his late partner, glommed on the supposed protégé for Do I Hear a Waltz? It was an unhappy experience for them both, probably owing to Sondheim’s discomfort or distaste for writing lyrics about love.


La ravachole

March 16, 2019

Every time I see my friends who have a child in an Ivy League school, looking to make a career for himself writing musical comedies, I naturally think back to when I fit that description. So, it occurs to me that this semester marks a big anniversary: my first paid job musical directing a show in New York.

It was a strange show, an anthology evening called Bertolt Brecht: Masks of Evil, and it was a presentation of Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts. Somewhere, I imagine, eyebrows were raised over the gig going to a college freshman, but, somehow, I’d managed to impress some key powers-that-be with my piano-playing abilities. And it’s true I had a certain affinity for Brecht’s idiosyncratic corner of the musical theatre world. He used songs to make political points, criticizing the establishment. As an impressionable youth, I found agitprop and leftist politics more than a bit intoxicating. I loved Kurt Weill, and wondered what other composers Brecht collaborated with. I attended Mahogonny at the Met. Harsh sounds in jazz rhythms? Catnip to me. Soon, I started a musical where I could exercise that muscle, and, a few years later, wrote an extended parody with Alexa Junge called A Clearance Line. And my most famous song, in those early years, quoted Alabama Song.

The most memorable aspect of Masks of Evil was Chrysis, the singer of Alabama Song and whatever other songs I played. And Chrysis had a habit of parading around the green room totally topless, the first pair of naked breasts I’d seen. But – you knew there’d be a but here – their round perfection didn’t have the effect on me you might expect, because Chrysis was transgender. Altering the parts normally hidden by clothes is much discussed now, but extremely rare back then. 19-year-old me didn’t quite know whether to be excited. I recall thinking that I ought not to have my mind on the process of transitioning from him to her, and I was doing fairly well taking this in stride until we got around to staging her numbers. Like Sally Bowles, Chrysis wore fishnet stockings and was placed on top of the upright piano I was playing, my back to the audience. She put one high-heel on the space above my treble keys, the other below my bass. At eye level, then, was a crotch that may or may not have been the creation of a cutting edge surgeon. I suppose a good dance belt is a great equalizer, but wouldn’t you have wondered what, precisely, you were staring at?

Over the next decade and a half, there were more productions of musicals I’d written than those with me as musical director. My reputation, such as it was, was as a guy who wrote songs, not as a piano-player. Of course one might have assumed a composer must be a competent musician. And you know what they say about “assume” – it turns you and me into a musical director. I got some odd gigs, such as playing rehearsals for an original musical celebrating Italian culture called Wine In My Blood. It was so poorly written, my mind wandered to a silly What If. What if a mafia don had such a love for musicals that he decided to commission and produce one? It would either be exactly like Wine In My Blood, or, perhaps based on mob rub-out experiences, Blood In My Wine.

MD-ing, 2011

I musical directed another original show no one’s heard of, The Big Orange Splot, at the York Theatre, and this one was so good I think of it practically every week. It’s about a town with legally-imposed conformity; all the houses must be the same color. Until the titular bucket of paint falls from the sky. I frequently find myself in neighborhoods where all the homes look exactly the same, and cast my eyes skyward in hopes that an illicit color will fall. Alas, that never happens.

But that premise was on my mind as I wrote a song called This Thing Fell Out of the Sky for the musical I wrote with Tom Carrozza. I met the master improviser when I was part of The White Horse Experiment, New York’s first long-form troupe. They insisted I appear on stage, not behind the piano, and, for a while, I kept it a secret that I even knew how to play. Tom and I ran into each other at some show, each of us with no date. So we talked long enough for Tom to confess, in something of a whisper, that he secretly loves singing obscure old comedy songs and was looking to replace his musical director. Well, if he was going to reveal such a secret about himself, I certainly wasn’t going to keep my light under a bushel. Which led to an extraordinary cabaret act and our sci-fi musical comedy, Area 51. Soon, the whole New York improv community knew me as a top tier improv player, and I was hired for countless shows and teaching gigs.

Of course there are huge differences between spontaneous theatre and thoroughly-rehearsed musicals. The former requires complete flexibility; you have to be so “in the moment” that if an actor sings a less-than-mellifluous note, you adjust what you’re playing to make him sound good. Conducting shows requires precision, attention to detail, and countless tiny adjustments to wrest the maximal emotional power out of every measure of music. I was thinking about this contrast in rehearsing a part of Identity – where I’m both songwriter and musical director – involving a bit of rhythm-less recitative. The performer, learning the piece, is intent on getting it right. But, the goal of the music is to have the band adjust to whatever rhythm he chooses, and that could differ from performance to performance. I have to slake his thirst to get it “right” before he feels the freedom to do it in a way that seems “wrong.” Composers use the adverb “freely” to give performers power to make their own idiosyncratic choices about the rhythms they act their lines with. As I write this, I’ve no idea whether we’ll ever achieve the goal of true rhythmic freedom, but you can come see May 23.

 


The nun

March 5, 2019

It’s my sister’s birthday and I ran some numbers. It’s been 38 years since she graduated high school, and, then, the Golden Age of musical theatre had begun 38 years earlier. So, today, I thought I’d use 1981 is a point of demarcation, and examine the differences between Golden Age musicals and – what to call the more recent ones? – Copper Age musicals, proving, now and forever, that I know precious little about precious metals.

In the wake of Rent’s TV fizzle and Hair’s TV cancellation, some oldsters have mentioned how musicals on television were so much more successful in the 1950s. I thought of the broadcast of Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, which gave eager viewers a taste of what they could have seen on Broadway. Far fewer tuned in to recent attempts like Jesus Christ Superstar and A Christmas Story; this gets me thinking about stars and star power.

Rosalind Russell was primarily known as a movie star and her Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday created an indelible impression. Smart, fast-talking, loud, a bit abrasive, not lovey-dovey or sentimental. And the Broadway musical, Wonderful Town – book by Chodorov and Fields, lyrics by Comden and Green, music by Leonard Bernstein – let Roz be Roz. So, the TV-viewer in 1958 knew what they would be getting. Rosalind Russell shtick, with songs and dances. Skip ahead sixty years. What percentage of television viewers have any idea what watching Jesus Christ Superstar or Rent will be like?

This has less to do with musical theatre’s place on the crowded cultural landscape than it does with how those shows were created. Copper Age musicals aren’t built around popular stars and what they do best. The public doesn’t love particular performers for a set of abilities they could do eight times a week on Broadway, and the actors, if they’ve done film and television, are used to getting a much larger paycheck than the theatre offers. Copper Age creators, therefore, don’t build shows around stars. We write with the hope that some other element will put people in the seats

List great Golden Age musicals and you’ll come up with many examples of shows designed to be performed by particular people. Gypsy gives audiences Ethel Merman doing Merman-esque things, as does Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun. Kismet and Kiss Me Kate were tailored to Alfred Drake’s prodigious talents, and one contains all the letters of the other. Mary Martin singing Rodgers & Hammerstein? Who’s going to care she’s too old for her roles. Broadway, as a commercial engine serving up beloved stars, shaped its productions to let those stars shine.

Today, of course, a musical can be almost anything. Except not a star vehicle because stars today don’t commit to appearing on Broadway for a period of time long enough for investors to recoup. When a musical can be almost anything, it can also miss the mark in a great many ways.

We’ve all seen the sad image of a forlorn polar bear floating off on a tiny island of ice. The Broadway musical lost its connection to the mainland. Your income and exposure, writing musicals, didn’t just come from performances on stage. There were record sales – on unbreakable (but scratchable) vinyl. There were radio shows and then television shows dying to play the latest Cole Porter numbers from Broadway. The Ed Sullivan Show, any many others, regularly invited New York shows to do scenes for its viewers. It broadcast from the theatre where Stephen Colbert is today, so the sets and stars only had to move a few blocks. After appearing, lines for tickets would go around the block.

Golden Age songwriters weren’t just writing for characters in situations, they were writing for the masses. An extractable hit, like Hey There from The Pajama Game, would be embraced by millions, sell all sorts of records to people who never knew (or cared) that this was sung by an anti-union factory foreman in Iowa, to himself, using a dictograph machine; eventually the live John Raitt and his recording of himself would harmonize together.

The hope that your song would be heard beyond Broadway created its own set of imperatives. The music would have to have recognizable form, the harmonies couldn’t be wildly unexpected, the lyrics would have to rhyme so that they could be instantly understood.

These imperatives no longer exist, and nobody expects a show tune to ever make it to the Top 40, to ever be heard outside of the theatre. Our concentration is on characters and situation, and so melodies needn’t be hummable, and so they often aren’t.

If musicals and musical-writers are only making money from live performances of the whole show, well, naturally this changes the nature of the beast. Economics forces some realities on us. The musical-writer will not make a lot of money, compared to the Golden Days. Maybe that’s why I chose Copper to contrast with Gold! And business-people take a look at the marketability of shows, rather than the quality itself. So, I’ll admit it, a romance centering on a strike in an Iowan pajama factory doesn’t sound like a great idea to me; no way it would be produced today. But I treasure The Pajama Game for the quality of its songwriting, the spirit and dazzle of its Bob Fosse dances, and the strength of John Raitt’s voice.

And what a different world we’re in today. If shows succeed it’s in spite of their low-quality songwriting, dances don’t dazzle in ways that sell tickets, and it’s hard to find a booming baritone. I’m not judging, by the way. It is what it is. But I’ve noticed a lot of people who have familiarity with Golden Age classics who think anything new is automatically inferior. That’s another vicious circle: Audiences, nostalgic for the time when musicals did something different, stay away from Copper Age shows, and so these shows have trouble finding an audience. Comparisons are invidious; it’s a different beast.


I want to go home

February 23, 2019

Forbes, that source for business information, reported, earlier this month, Musicals Make More Money on the Road than on Broadway and that would certainly seem to be good news. Some days later came the not-so-good news that last year’s Tony-winning musical, The Band’s Visit, has posted its closing notice. The Forbes story had already troubled me, and I found myself in a conversation with a lady from Phoenix (like Sally Durant) about Rent, which, she informed me, is now greeted with audience participation, people on the wrong side of the footlights shouting things, or singing along.

There’s a lot to digest, here. The Band’s Visit, I’m happy to tell you, recouped its investment on Broadway. Whatever road money it makes may be considered gravy. But we can all recall a time when winning the Tony for Best Musical meant you’d run for years. The Band’s Visiting for a little over a year, despite universal rave reviews and excellent word-of-mouth. Its closing is a reminder that high quality doesn’t necessarily mean high profit.

And we can turn this into a trivia game: Which musicals got raves, the top Tonys, were widely loved by audiences and yet didn’t have substantial runs? Redhead? Less trivially, did Fun Home find an audience on the road?

I get perversely perturbed about certain things related to show business. A few years ago, a show bombed on Broadway: got pans, played roughly 100 performances, word-of-mouth was pretty poor. Yet it toured. And this had nothing to do with its quality or how it was received. It had everything to do with the celebrity status of one of its authors, someone who’d never written a musical before, but is beloved for an affable personality and good humor in a completely unrelated field. The same show, written by someone who isn’t famous, wouldn’t have ever been seen again – maddening.

There’s another sort of show mentioned in the Forbes article. Imagine a musical that the New York community of critics and theatre-goers don’t consider good enough for New York. It may play in Peoria, where, it’s said, people don’t have the same standards for quality that we do in the Apple. That doesn’t bother me at all.

This notion recalls Arthur Laurents’ great exchange in Gypsy: “New York is the center of everything!” “New York is the center of New York!” Here’s what I wonder: If the rest of the country has different requirements of entertainment, there should be plenty of examples of musicals that have cleaned up without ever playing The Great White Way. And I’m just going to leave that there as another trivia question for you.

The New York production serves as a de facto imprimatur. Ooh! This show played in New York! It must be good! It must be better than this show that never played New York! This ludicrous proposition is widely believed by theatre people everywhere. On the road, people buy tickets to shows “fresh from Broadway” even if the show was only there a few weeks. I know writers who create fine musicals in different parts of the country who always aspire to get their work seen in Manhattan. And I’m writing this knowing that my next show will play in Los Angeles but not in New York, where I’ve had about a dozen works done in the past.

Rent, which had a partially live TV broadcast last month, has been much on a lot of people’s minds.Here’s what I said to that Phoenician: I feel for Jonathan Larson, who, like me, toiled for years writing little musicals that very few people have ever heard of. His rock amalgam of La Bohème and the Tompkins Square Park riot attracted the attention of what would seem the perfect theatre for it: The New York Theatre Workshop is a grungy little space on East Fourth Street, just a couple of blocks away from where the action takes place. When you create a musical for off-off-Broadway, you consider the audience experience. Attendees would have to be brave enough to walk a stretch of the Bowery, enter a storefront not known for musicals, and then listen to rockers bouncing sounds off of near walls. This wasn’t your parents’ musical comedy, but something different, cutting edge. And then, its sole creator died, days from his 36th birthday. He doesn’t live to ride the skyrocket of the show’s success. Soon, the pressure’s on to bring it to Broadway.

Cagily, the producers sought to retain some of that off-off experience on-on Broadway. They renovated the only Broadway theatre south of 42nd Street, a rarely-used 1,232 seat house and did something truly clever: The renovation didn’t make it look new, it made it look old. Dirty, grungy, positively redolent of the East Village setting. I saw Rent there and had more fun finding my seat than at most of the show. The environment was apt: I felt like I was in one of those lofts, with the characters, their voices – including Idina Menzel – bouncing off the nearby walls.

Twenty years later, I saw the touring production (cast by my wife, Joy Dewing) in the least apt environment imaginable: Orange County, California. The theatre was cavernous, with 1700 non-fixed seats – that is, they weren’t even screwed in to the floor. While the show was amplified, it seemed oddly remote, as there were no walls for the sound to bounce off of. The ceiling was so high, I wondered if this was a converted sports arena.

If you saw Rent on TV (I’m not one of the few), you missed the thrill of rock ricocheting off thick walls from performers who breathe the same air you do. But don’t get me started on televised musicals. Consider, instead, how far we all are from Larson’s vision. He created an intimate musical for a couple hundred brave souls to see together. Unless you took yourself to a grunge club for the telecast, you got nothing like that.

A highly-regarded little musical is on the road as I write this, in a 3000-seat theatre. It’s the first time its creators are making money, and I’m happy for them. But I wonder if history has repeated itself: They fashioned something with a certain level of intimacy, and then, in the provinces, it’s placed in a monstrous edifice larger than an airplane hangar. And I don’t care that the setting of the show is an airplane hangar; that just seems wrong to me.


Love is stronger than bureaucracy

February 14, 2019

Thought I’d seize the day to describe my process in writing my latest love song, in as much detail as I can remember. I hope you find it valuable, and not too annoying that I don’t, at this point, have a recording I can share.

Identity, a new musical that will open in May, has a plot point that cried out for a tragic romantic duet. In the show, set in a future dystopia, when youths come of age, they are assigned spouses and professions. One job is at the top of a hierarchy, but the downside is you’re not allowed to mate.

“Pregnant”

It occurred to me that a certain number of people marry their high school sweethearts. What if high school sweethearts are broken up by the System? What if one half of a couple is assigned a different person to marry, and the other can’t, by law? Would they continue their romance in secret? Or would they be duty-bound to accept that they can no longer be together?

Pretty dramatic stuff, right? Do you hear a song cue? It struck me that the question the young lovers must address is whether their love is more important than the bureaucracy that imposes a different mate on one and no mate on the other. So, before I knew what the characters would decide to do, I had a title, Love Is Stronger Than Bureaucracy.

There’s something faintly ridiculous about that title. “Bureaucracy” is not a term you’d expect to hear in the title of a love song. Nor are its rhymes likely to be found in any sweet sonnet: hypocrisy and autocracy. At first blush, these words seem alarmingly prosaic. Had I gotten off on the wrong tack?

For much of the score to Identity, there’s a question of tone. I think the moment the piece becomes too earnest, we risk tripping over clichés, alienating the audience. In context, I hope, that faint ridiculousness is going to work in our favor. People who see it should buy into the situation, and realize that ardor expressed in an unromantic society can use less flowery language; it’s fun rather than sweet. But the situation the couple is in requires a certain amount of passion. When I think of love duets that didn’t quite land because of excessive seriousness, I’m reminded of some of the Eurotrash musicals. Hold that thought.

“Love is stronger than bureaucracy” – I stared at these words, investigating where the stresses fall, and what syllables might sound best on sustained notes. This might be stating the obvious, but “love” is a word we’re used to taking up a lot of beats. Love, ageless and evergreen. Love is but a moment’s madness. Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. The rest of my unwieldy title seemed to necessitate short notes. And that’s how I gravitated towards 6/8. “Love” could take up nearly two measures, to be followed by quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth and then three eighth notes for the rhyming syllables. The moment I came up with this rhythm I knew that the song might seem oddly uncontemporary if I rhymed the title. That’s something Gilbert and Sullivan do, and this thing is set in a future century, not their Nineteenth. I wanted to retain, though, the sense of structure, of predictability, that rhymes provide. This led me to repeat the line:

Love is stronger than bureaucracy
Our love is stronger than bureaucracy

Don’t know if you’ve been keeping track. But that’s eight bars right there. A chunk to build on.

If my character – marked as “She” in my notebook – maintains that love is stronger than bureaucracy, then she must be up against someone who maintains the opposite (marked as “He” in my notebook, although genders kept changing and they weren’t always a heterosexual pair). So, now I had a notion about structure. She wants to continue seeing each other. He is a slave of duty (Uh oh, Gilbert and Sullivan rear their ugly heads again!). So, like a formal debate, we have a proposition stated, and then there’s a second section in which the opposite is stated.

Our love can’t justify hypocrisy
Although you well may be the perfect mate
I’m sworn to uphold the state

Musically, I knew I needed something pretty, but off-kilter, to take in the strangeness of a future dystopia. As stated above, the length of notes was dictated by the lyric.

The weird bit I inserted into the chord progression was  “the seventh of the Seventh” every fourth bar. I know that sounds confusing, so I’ll restate this simply. There is an incredibly common pattern of chords we’ve all heard in countless tunes: I, VI minor, II minor, V7. Nothing futuristic about that; you could hear it in Heart and Soul in the 1930s. I used the first three chords, leading the listener to expect the V7 and then – surprise – comes the VII7, which has two notes in common with the obvious one.

Maury Yeston, Pat Cook, Alan Menken

The contours of the melody lead to something of a climax on the tenth bar, of “mate” in the “He” lyric I just quoted. For this I needed something soaring, and fairly big. I thought this was a good time to have the singer open up on a high note – the sixth in the scale – over one of my favorite chords, which I guess might be known as the ninth of the Second. I like to invert this so that the bottom note is a tritone away from the tonic, harmonically, as far as you can travel.The two songwriting heroes of mine from my days in the BMI workshop, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken both used it to good effect in songs mentioning religion. Yeston’s glorious Bells of St. Sebastian puts it at the end of “In tones well-rounded they sounded down the nave” while Menken’s A Little Dental Music humorously underscores “Hark, the Mormon Tabernacle sings!” with it.

To contrast with the choruses, the verses have the free-flowing motion of real dialogue, but the triplets remain. So, who here held that thought about Eurotrash duets? You and I? Yes, it’s a little bit like You and I from Chess, but without the excessive seriousness. Your move! Opening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 23rd in Beverly Hills.