Finale – Act Two

July 20, 2020

Here she is, boys: the 500th post on this blog, which is not quite ten years old.

500?

That’s WAY too many.

Some may view this as an impressive accomplishment. You’re welcome to your opinion. But I’m sure we can agree that I have a lot to say about this world of musicals. At this point, I feel like I’ve run out of words. And, since I know the average length of a post, I can reveal that I’ve put more than half a million words on this site.

That’s WAY too many.

But there was no one to stop me once I started. And that makes blogging markedly different than musical writing. The late great Mark Sutton-Smith got me a free website, and off I went. Writing musicals, you always need collaborators, such as a producer and a theatre willing to put your piece on. They make their determinations – to present or not to present – based on an assessment of the quality and marketability of your work. No gatekeeper exists in the blogging world. Any idiot can put words up on the internet. Half a million, in this idiot’s case.

That’s WAY too many.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past four months about the things we give away for free. You don’t pay to read this, and I don’t earn anything from writing it. In the fevered world of Facebook, an unhappy cacophony of worry and outrage, I decided to counter-program. Every day, I put up a song of mine. Every week, I live-stream a free concert devoted to a different Broadway songwriter. I feel good about entertaining Facebook readers that way, but it’s yet more giving away my art for free.

And that devalues everything. If my songs and concerts are any good, then, the theory goes, I deserve compensation for my work. From the consumer’s point of view, there’s all sorts of musical material you can enjoy for free, or for the price of watching a brief advertisement. We who create musicals aren’t being paid for the huge amount of work we do, generally. In a world where theatres are open, a tiny percentage earn a share of ticket prices, but that’s not happening as I write this. It’s as if the world is telling me “That thing you do, musical theatre writing, well, we think it’s worthless. You’re being paid (not!) accordingly.”

So, now that I’ve done my 500th post here – 

That’s WAY too many.

it’s time I put down my pen. I’ve given you, dear reader, quite a lot to read, and the site will remain up: Read posts you haven’t read before, or revisit ones you have. You can also listen to my three SoundCloud pages – 

and search my name on YouTube. If I had my druthers, you’d enjoy my writing the way it was intended to be enjoyed – live in a theatre, and you’d have to pay for a ticket.

And I suspect you already know this, but here goes again: musical theatre is a living art, meant to be experienced live. Sounds created by singers, musicians, orchestrators and sound designers are supposed to bounce off the walls of an auditorium into living ears. And if you applaud, or perceptibly react, the performers will take that in. You’ll feed their performance, with energy flowing across the footlights in both directions. That’s the way it ought to be.

Much as we all enjoyed the Disney+ video of Hamilton, there’s no denying that the energy of the viewing audience had no effect on the cast, who did their work many years ago. You may feel like you got away with a bargain, having spent less than ten dollars so your whole household could see it again and again. Liveness is so important to me, I feel I got a bargain when I paid $150 to see it in a New York theatre

Of course, no one has that option now. But there’s a couple fears I can’t help expressing. One is that in a world where everybody gets used to paying next to nothing for a how, it will become increasingly harder to convince people to see live theatre. The nature of liveness, so important to me, isn’t so important to other people.  

The other fear is broader, about performing arts in general. The revenue stream has been turned off at the spigot. When will it get turned on again? Relatedly, when will audiences feel confident about assembling in a theatre? Will I live to see the day?

Instead of blogging, I’ll be concentrating on ways I can eke out some income through my art. It’s something I’ve been doing all my life, and it’s hard to accept that the opportunity to squeeze some lucre from my artistic activities has ended before my life did. “The theatre is dying,” we often say. I’ve been working with a think tank of sort, attempting to innovate answers for this strange new world.

And this website, I suspect, will evolve into more of a demonstration of what I’ve done, what I can do. Look for pages to pop up about most of my shows. Perhaps I’ll offer dramaturgical services. And look, in the real world, for more musicals by me. I’m not giving up writing those. I really don’t expect that, when my 25th show is produced, I’ll say,

That’s WAY too many.


The beauty of your eyes

July 9, 2020

So, how’d it go?

The Influencer had two public zoom performances in late June and was seen by roughly 500 people worldwide, from Haiti to Hong Kong. Instead of the roar of a standing ovation, we got a lot of this – 👏👏👏👏👏👏  – in the chat column. For people who do live theatre, that’s nice, certainly, but a little disconcerting. Ghostly. Lee Adams, in a show tune called Applause, called it “the sound that says love.” Here it was, iconic but silent.

I can’t help it – morose sort that I am – I focus on all that was lost. We turned a full-length stage musical into a half-hour video and had to jettison things that, in my mind, were essential to making The Influencer work. Yet, everyone tells me they loved this abbreviated version. I may be the only one experiencing loss now. And maybe writing down these “Lord, what might have been” items is a sort of self-therapy.

Back when we were meeting in person, I was asked to come up with an opening number that would introduce various communities and then come together in glorious counterpoint. The model was Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof. You hear from the poppas and the mommas, the sons and daughters, and then they all reprise their tunes simultaneously. Our opening had an added element: each number would be written in a completely different musical style. Company member Nick Guzman provided a tune we used for the family driving from the Midwest. Their car pulls up to a corporation, where a new employee is greeted in a techno style, Then, the youngest of the family gets shown around her new high school. On this we were conscious that the opening number to Mean Girls does exactly that, but mine is actually funny. When these disparate numbers are reprised together, there’d be thunderous applause.

Nobody watching the video gets the idea that this is one number. In between each song is dialogue with no underscoring. The songs are never heard in counterpoint and, of course, no applause.

But I don’t mean to imply there aren’t a lot of things the self-taped truncation does very well. One of my better-loved numbers, Give Me a Like, shows an online influencer seducing her audience into liking and subscribing. It was conceived as a solo and we were to see other characters watching. Then, we were to see this group following her recommendations of things to buy in a comic production number called Clio Says. As assembled by the brilliant young filmmaker Justin Long, hearts and thumbs-up icons float from the bottom of the screen. The viewer understands that Clio is having an outsized effect without the second number, and it’s no longer a solo.

I wrote a song in which a country singer influences an urban rock band with his softer sound. As he sings, the band members pick up their instruments and join in. This would have proved a bit complex for us to film, so it never went in front of cameras. Disappointing, and the scene, as shot, doesn’t illustrate what we intended originally.

Puzzling to the audience, as well, are references to squirrels. The payoff was supposed to be a comedic chorale we also didn’t have time to film, but some dialogue remains.

When you compress a ninety-minute work into one third of its length, it’s natural that certain things happen too quickly to make sense. In the final week of filming, we discovered a major plot point was rushing by rapidly, sewing confusion. I’ve been credited with coming up with the idea of a character’s inadvertent viral video. The thing I’m proud of here is that it’s a cinematic idea, not something that would have been thought of had we produced this for the stage. There, the climax would have involved several strains of plot coming together all at once: the new sound of the urban band that added the country kid utilized as a publicity jingle by his older brother’s employer. A crisis of conscience leading to an idea about using influence for positive change.

The conversion to on-line presentation giveth and it taketh away. Back when we were rehearsing live, choreographer Marina Munoz was having a field day with a number called Buy Buy Buy. She was using a large chorus, spreading them out in three dimensions over a fairly large stage. The switch to screen flattened her work to two dimensions. She ably instructed dancers as to what to do in their individual boxes, but that couldn’t involve moving forward and back like one does in the theatre. Compensating for this was Justin Long’s visual effects, which moved the self-created boxes against a background film of a shopping mall. It’s eye-popping. But what I like best about this number is the orchestration of Adin Boyer, who created the wacky and funkalicious feel I wanted in the music. Truly, I never would have been able to figure out how to do this, and here’s the unexpected gift. Had we done this at the Wallis-Annenberg Performing Arts Complex, I would have had a teeny tiny band. And my handful of players would only have been able to make a limited variety of sounds. In the movie, though, a virtual orchestra of unlimited size allows each song to have a completely different feel. If I wanted to use a harp for half a bar – and I did – I could, because it didn’t involve hiring a real harpist to lug her heavy instrument all the way to Beverly Hills to play for less than two seconds.

So that’s a saving grace. And I’m particularly pleased that the performers stepped up and acted for the camera so well. That’s what knocked out the audience the most. If you were not among our viewers those two times in June, I’m really sorry you missed it.


I’ll show them

June 30, 2020

It’s been a hell of a month, hasn’t it?

This blog has a strict No Politics Rule. I try to keep things light, and relate everything to musical theatre writing. So, I’ll start with this embarrassing story. There was a rare opportunity for my wife and I to watch something on television together, and she said she wanted to see 13. And I thought, great, there’s a presentation of a Jason Robert Brown musical I’ve never seen. Well, I thought Parade was depressing, but this took the cake: It was Ava DuVernay’s documentary about how the criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates black people. We learned a disturbing history of justice injudiciously applied.

So, that’s a bit of a mea culpa, and June has become a month full of confessionals. I’ve read many people of color talk about horrific experiences in the theatre, and some white people have called themselves out on their own past behavior. The hope is that the theatre biz evolves into something with far less bigotry, but, as one white dude noted, “I’m a casting director; it’s my job to discriminate.”

My wife Joy, as you may know, has led by example, casting people of color and opening minds. Me, I’m a writer, and the very least we writers can do is to stop insisting that our characters must be caucasian when there’s no legitimate need. “Whiteness” – a word I pointed included in a translation of a musical theatre lyric once – is rarely essential. Leo Frank, in that depressing JRB show, is one of the few characters I can think of whom the audience needs to believe is pale. And Hamilton succeeds marvelously in casting people of color as America’s white Founding Fathers. But now I feel myself delaying launching into my mea culpa.

One of Lehman Engel’s assignments, in the first year of his BMI workshop, was to create a comedy song based on something in a newspaper. In the late 1980s, the Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea. Now, every Olympics faces a delicate problem: some of the foods commonly eaten in the host country are occasionally considered, well, gross, by visitors from other places. I read an article about one such delicacy. In Korea, the newspaper said, people eat dogs. Something clicked. My New York neighborhood, at the time, was filled with restaurants serving cuisine of all the major Asian nations, but not Korea. Why was that? And might there be a possible subject for a comedy song? That’s often my main question.

Gleefully, I ran to my encyclopedia (for this was still the 80s) for a list of dog breeds. And then I poured on the puns and trick rhymes, with an eye towards coming up with sort of a comic jingle for a Korean restaurant.

We’ll serve ’em Seoul food…
If the food’s a bit too spicy, don’t start to pout
Dalmatian will put the fire out
Should a Boxer hit you and you feel hung over
Take the hair of the dog that bit you and swallow some of Rover

We’ll serve ’em Seoul food and sell it with beer
That delicately peppered German shepherd pie
Or some Beagle on a bagel, I mean, it is to die
Served with a cream cheese schmeer

Collie tamale and poodle-filled strudel
Dachshund au gratin and shi-tsu with noodle

When I played Seoul Food for friends and relatives, they howled with laughter. Which leads a writer to believe he’s done something right. My father (who died a year ago today) was a huge fan of the song, and so was a friend who practically doubled over with enthusiasm. A couple of years later, she and I were in a room with a piano, for the developmental sessions for The Company of Women. The assembled improvisers were all female, but an effort had been made to work with a diverse group: they were young and old, rich and struggling, black, white and hispanic. The show, and its unusual first step towards creation, had been my idea, and my old friend wanted me to share an original song to introduce my songwriting abilities to the company. And she had a specific song in mind: Seoul Food.

Gales of laughter rocked the rehearsal room, but Julie, our black actress, didn’t crack a smile. “Thank God I’m not Korean,” she said, “but then, if I was, you probably wouldn’t have played it.” There ensued some discussion in which people disagreed as to whether the song is offensive, but Julie’s words made me see my silly tune in a whole new way. There was no getting around it: Seoul Food was poking fun at an entire ethnic group for a specific cultural practice. Before long, I’d rewritten the song so there were no references to Korea. The revised Dog Food was a context-free advertisement for a restaurant of no particular ethnicity where, if you couldn’t finish all your Toto tofu, they send you home with a doggie bag.

My father was disappointed, thinking I’d caved to political correctness. He often told me how much he liked the song, in its earlier draft. Our actress from Puerto Rico included the revised number in her next show, a revue of my songs.

In a way, today, I’m bowing to the industry-wide pressure to confess my sins. One part of me thinks there’s little value to this admission of something I did more than three decades ago. I’m wary of virtue signaling, or for it to seem like I’m some wonderful person who got woke and you should follow my example.

I was trying to be funny, and maturing involves an awareness of how certain jokes might hit certain ears. Back in college, I had a tone-deaf moment, alone with my black roommate. He was a couple of years younger, and our dorm room was the first time he’d lived away from home. So, he asked me how to do laundry and I said I didn’t know much. “First, I separate; then, I add a half-cup of bleach when I’m doing my whites. But I’m never certain how to handle the coloreds.” He glared at me, hard.


That’s the price I have to pay

June 18, 2020

click above for tickets

My latest musical, The Influencer, will have what passes for a premiere these days on Thursday, June 25 @ 5PDT/8EDT & Sunday, June 28 @ 4PDT/7 EDT. I’ll be present for a Zoom talkback both dates. What you’ll see is a video abbreviation of the show that was supposed to play live in the Wallis-Annenberg in Beverly Hills.

So there’s a lot to unpack here.

You’ll hear about two thirds of the score, but, of course, not as intended. You see, everything I write is designed to have a great amount of give-and-take between accompanying musicians and actors. Vamps, fermatas, things where the band follows the voice and things that are supposed to be sung as quickly or slowly as the performer is feeling it, in the moment. But for this taped presentation, I had to create accompaniment tracks with NO give-and-take. Vocals added later. I’m the one choosing exactly how fast every line/note goes – removing the initial impulse behind writing all the songs.

It’s a thing I’ve often written about on this blog, liveness. In live theatre, a variety of factors have an impact on the speed in which things are performed. One famous example of this is called Holding for the Laugh. Songwriter writes a joke. Actor figures out how best to deliver it. Audience laughs for a length of time. As the laughter begins to subside, the conductor and performer look at each other and decide it’s time they continue the song. This moment of hilarity lasts for different counts every time it’s done. A small matinee crowd doesn’t guffaw for the duration of a packed house of nighttime theatre-goers, naturally. We adjust accordingly.

Turning a stage musical into a filmed property is deeply problematic. Taped thespians aren’t taking in the input of reactive listeners. Timing is set in stone. For The Influencer, I was tasked with coming up with tempos for everything. And it’s all a wild guess. For instance, I wrote a joke about an executive’s sudden urge to run to a vending machine during a business meeting. During a normal rehearsal process, we’d fine-tune that business. And then the singer and I would launch into the next note when the audience is prepared to listen. Now we have actors self-taping in their homes, not around a boardroom table, and I don’t know, and will never know, how long a viewer will laugh, if at all. We choose when to go on, regardless.

When one watches a movie, eyes take in the entire screen. Filmmakers talk about shots being “composed” and I’ll point out the obvious and say it’s very different in the theatre. That boardroom table might be a flat piece of cardboard. Actors might have blackness behind them, not an office interior, and the audience would use its imagination in a way no one’s used to doing while watching a screen. Of course the players would be sitting on just one side of the table, so they don’t block each other. And here in spring of 2020, we don’t have thespians in the same space. Everyone’s self-taping in their own homes. This poses a huge challenge – creating a visual out of utterly different videos.

Step back and consider the wide variety of things one can see on the internet. The greatest Hollywood musicals – say, Gigi, or The Wizard of Oz – are just one click away. Those glorious shots were composed by famous directors over far longer periods of time than we’ve spent on The Influencer. The viewer who isn’t thoroughly enraptured can “turn the channel” to a Hollywood classic at any point, and it’s daunting to think of the ever-present competition of entertainments.

So, instead, step back and think about the creative process here. Eight months ago, about thirty people got together in a room at the Wallis and all we had was a title. Many of the people in the room were teenagers, and roughly half of them were somewhere on the autism spectrum. Everybody addressed the question of what is meant by the word, Influencer, and how such leaders affect society at large. Over months, our weekly talks led to discussions of certain themes: how teenagers today are often swayed, how corporations get us to spend, how the fabric of a family can be torn asunder by a move from a rural area to the big city. One wild idea emerged, about a shopping mall where a sort of aromatherapy wackily induces people to buy more. It was pointed out to me that this relates to the sort of hyper-sensitivity to certain stimuli that some autistic people experience. So now there was something to write about that had some relevance, but was also, potentially, very funny.

From these suggestions, I came up with a complete score, and, with input from collaborators, a first draft of a script. The best part of this stage in the process was working with a 15-year-old who has a particular genius for storytelling. His uncommon knack for plotting influenced The Influencer in ways I’ve not experienced in my previous shows.

The folks who filled our development room then filled the roles in our cast of characters. And when you’re working with actors before the final text is set, there’s another sort of influence: players helped shape their characters. Three songwriters in our group contributed in three different ways: a lyricist handed me a lyric to set, a composer-lyricist came up with a whole song by himself, and a composer’s tune got a new lyric from me. Then, I wrote two countermelodies to it so we could have a massive counterpoint number. (This, alas, didn’t get into our video preview.)

When we do this show live, somewhere in our uncertain future, it ought to be something to see. What’s on display June 25 and 28 is an amazing transformation to an utterly different medium, and I think you’ll be very surprised and a bit captivated by what we’ve done.


One of you believers

June 11, 2020

June 11 has loomed large on my calendar for around nine months as the day my new musical, The Influencer, opens at the Wallis-Annenberg in Beverly Hills. The show will soon resurface in a completely different form. But the delay got me thinking about my shows that never got to be seen. And I’m embarrassed to confess I’ve been very, very lucky. Everything I’ve written as an adult has gone before an audience; the applause gave me life. So much life, I’m able to sustain myself through the disappointment of missing out on the applause I expected on this day.

Roughly ten years ago, though, a musical I was working on was cancelled because I no longer wanted to work on it. I no longer thought the show was a viable idea. And, in some ways, I never did.

One summer week, I got an unusual out-of-town gig. I’d be teaching musical theatre, and maybe musical improv, at a religious retreat upstate. Immediately, the mere mention of religion put me in an anxious state of extreme alienation. At the time, I had what amounted to a phobia. I have no spiritual beliefs. None. But, more important to this story, I had a deep distrust of anyone who did. And that’s a lot of people. And that would be everybody at the retreat.

To my great surprise, my time at the retreat was delightful and disarming. These people weren’t nuts. They may have shared a faith, but everyone had a different background, a different reason for being there – a swath of humanity that turned my head around. My prejudice – against religious people – evaporated.

When I came back from the retreat, I wanted to write about my experiences there. My normal format for such a thing, would be a long letter. But music seemed so integral to any account that I invented a new form. It was an autobiographical essay illustrated with show tunes. One could do this, we now know, far easier on a blog. All I had was a handful of pages with footnote numbers that corresponded to tracks on a CD. When you hit that moment in your reading, you were supposed to push play on a CD player. Sounds crazy, in retrospect. But, at the time, it seemed the best way to tell the story.

Readers/listeners reacted favorably. My little account entertained them, and they all had the same reaction: You really ought to turn this into a musical. I resisted, feeling that this memoir with soundtrack was the ultimate form. Yet, people kept insisting. And a little known fact about Sondheim was in the back of my mind: For most of his projects, he had to be dragged in to the collaboration. If he could get over his resistance and create a Tony-winning show, well, who was I to ignore the chorus of encouragement?

Autobiographical stories are fraught with many perils. I’d been talking to friends about something that happened to me. In the theatre, we’re talking to strangers, strangers who don’t already have an emotional connection to the storyteller. So, I set about fictionalizing until the thing became an original musical set at a Catskills religious retreat. The protagonist was still a faith-averse music teacher, but other than that, most everything was made up.

Many an etiquette book, back in the good old days when such things were published, warned against discussions of religion. It’s a problematic topic because most people have a pre-existing opinion, and usually that opinion boils down to “My sect is better that yours.” And there’s something offensive about that.
As I said earlier, I’m a man of no faith whatsoever, and yet 95% of my characters were believers. I came to feel that I was the wrong person to be writing this show.

And I was particularly hung up on defining the spiritual philosophy the show should be expressing. I wanted it both ways, or, I should say, all ways. I tried to have different characters articulate a panoply of concepts of God. This would be so difficult for my friend who majored in Comparative Religions. But I was way over my head.

Writing a musical can occupy five years of your life or more. You need to have a passion for telling that story that will sustain over time. My struggles to come up with a first draft of Haven were so great, the curmudgeon in me once again reared its ugly head. At that point, the problem wasn’t just that I didn’t understand the philosophy of those who pray. I no longer wanted to celebrate the diversity of opinions I’d witnessed at the retreat. Yes, there was something wonderful there in the woods, but I couldn’t find a way of communicating this with an audience of strangers. And so, Haven bit the dust, unheard and unseen.


Great adventure

June 3, 2020

Today’s the day I met my wife Joy, and I usually mark the occasion by saying a bunch of wonderful things about her, but this year I thought I’d broaden the topic a bit to talk about a career in the arts, using Joy as an example.

Joy was very young when we met, a year or two out of college. She possessed an extraordinary voice – at one point her screen name was Belter2000 – and there was a widely-shared view that its beauty and power could translate into a successful career in performing.

And so it began. The big move to New York. The getting up at 5 a.m. to get ready for an audition. The standing outside a midtown office building in the snow at dawn, waiting for the doors to open. I’m sure this story is familiar to many of you.

Most outsiders are unaware of what being a performer is like. It’s hard work, and yet, a lot of people don’t see it as Real Work at all. They think you open up your mouth, beautiful sounds come out, an audience is thrilled, and you’re well-compensated. Real Work is thought to be more difficult, no matter what it is. You know the phrase, “It’s not brain surgery?” It’s fair: brain surgery requires a lot of concentration, and standing, and wearing a mask, which, I keep hearing, is the hardest thing a lot of privileged people have ever had to do.

A magazine annually publishes the salaries for various professions. The average theatre artist earns less than any worker I can think of. It’s not brain surgery, certainly, but it pays about 1% of what the scalpel wielders get.

So, Joy got herself a Day Job. That paid her enough to make rent on a crappy apartment. When she took a national tour, that meant she’d have to sublet the apartment and earn less money than she would have had she kept her Day Job. Success equals financial failure. I’m reminded of the time I coached a stage veteran on a Broadway audition. He confided in me, sheepishly, that his Day Job paid him more than a Broadway salary would, and, therefore, he couldn’t really afford to take the job should he be lucky enough to get it.

Publications like Entertainment Weekly sometimes report what movie and music superstars are earning, and readers misinterpret this. Stage actors generally don’t make a decent wage. As the years went by, Joy reassessed. Was her love of performing enough to continue this unsustainable poverty? No, she decided, about 15 years ago. But there was a different aspect of the theatre biz that truly intrigued her: casting.

To get into casting, she took an unpaid internship in a boutique casting office. Read that sentence again. She left the performing profession that was condemning her to penury in order to work for free. Learn as you earn…nothing. But there’s no denying she was absorbing the casting business. One of the young casting directors there, Rachel Hoffman, went on to become one of Broadway’s top casters. She left for greener pastures, and so did many others that Joy loved being with, learning from. The boss recognized that she deserved a salary. Raises followed. Promotions, titles: Joy was soon doing all the work.

That’s not hyperbole. As the boss was off to rehab, Joy minded the store, did all the casting, calmed the clients – the sole paid employee. When the boss returned, Joy was rewarded by getting her name on the shingle. And then, eight years ago, the boss moved away to the fields of academe. Joy cared too much about their clients to let them go to strangers. And so, Joy Dewing Casting was born.

We bought a house in the suburbs, a more spacious place to raise our child. But here’s the unglamorous truth: Joy’s company and my career didn’t pay us enough to keep up this idyllic existence. So, three years ago, Joy won a job casting at Disneyland. This meant selling our house and becoming renters. Does that sound like a cost-saving move? It is not. In order to live reasonably near Disneyland, we pay more than we ever did as homeowners. And, as you may already know, an April furlough meant a suspension of salary.


We scratch, we claw, we pick up pennies on the street. And by “we” I don’t mean the Katz family, I mean all of us who toil in performing arts. We take gigs that take so much of our time and energy, the compensation works out to be less than burger-flippers get. And now I’m going to use myself as an example, because today’s I-Met-Joy day, and I… am in there somewhere.

In the waning days of last summer, I negotiated a contract to write a musical. That’s the sort of thing one uses an agent for, but I can’t afford an agent. Still, I’ve been around arts contracts all my life – negotiating them was a big part of my father’s career. The contract laid out specifically what I’d do – there were aspects beyond the writing – and, for simplicity’s sake, I sold my services for one lump sum.

The band accompanying the show would have three or four players. I’d be musical director, manning the keyboard, and would tell others what to play. Which, I guess, could be called orchestration. When the Wallis-Annenberg Theatre in Beverly Hills took the responsible step of shutting down, it was decided we’d rehearse via Zoom and create a Sneak Preview video, showing our cast singing half the songs, conveying a bit of the plot. I think I’ll leave a description of what it’s like to rehearse 30 performers over Zoom for a different essay. But consider accompaniment. I’m not getting three or four players; I’m not getting any live player. It is now my duty to provide tracks that people sing to. These shouldn’t sound like the teeny tiny band we anticipated having in the theatre. Now that music was being created digitally, there’s no limitation to the number of players in a virtual orchestra.

Send in the flugelhorn! For months now I’ve been orchestrating for whatever instruments I please. In the theatre, orchestrators are concerned with utilizing players efficiently. You don’t hire a harpist to play exactly a half of a measure. But that’s what I’ve done here, with the synthesized harp.

My point – and I do have one – is that each song has required ten times the labor. I’ve been working like a dog for months. And the lump sum I negotiated hasn’t magically increased. I’ve been very busy, not getting rich.

And that, broadly speaking, is the life of a theatre artist in these United States. We grasp at straws; we beg for crumbs. No, it’s not brain surgery. It’s something that takes a lot more time for a hundredth of the compensation. 


A new Sioux-ciety

May 26, 2020

One year ago today was the final performance of my most recent musical, Identity. This show was extraordinary in so many ways, posed so many unique challenges, I barely no where to begin. When you first hear about this endeavor, you’ll leap to conclusions as to what those challenges were, and you’ll be wrong.

For instance, when I say this took place in a fancy performing arts complex in the heart of Beverly Hills, you might instantly imagine pampered and fancy people on both sides of the footlights. Then, if I tell you 90% of these people are part of families dealing with “special needs” kids, a different image emerges. Or what if I told you Identity is set in a near-future dystopia? Your mind might go to The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games and the reality is, it’s a funny musical comedy.

Throw out all your expectations.

The Miracle Project is an organization that uses performing arts to assist autistic people in their transition to adulthood. You’ve heard the term, “autism spectrum” and this carries an implication: There’s a wide range of abilities. Bill Gates, it’s been said, is on the Spectrum, and who’s more accomplished than him? Suppose his talent wasn’t software entrepreneurship, but singing-dancing-acting. Is your head turned around yet?

Like every essay in this blog, I’m going to talk about musical theatre writing. For that is my job. The summer before last, The Miracle Project hired me because, every year, they create and perform an original musical based on input from an elite set of talented folks. The show must entertain, of course, and it also has to be performable by autistic thespians and others. An experienced show-writer like myself could obviously come in handy. I have no experience working with the differently-abled.

So I asked about that. Would I have to know anything about autism to contribute, to musical direct, to run classes? To my bemused surprise, I was told not to worry about it. In the room, at all times, would be a set of people called the Co-Actors. They have the tools necessary to deal with any issue that comes up, so I was told I could do all the things I did with the students at the Broadway conservatory that was for twenty years my home. This seemed unlikely. So, I asked how will I know the co-actors from the autistic. Again, I was told not to worry about that. I wouldn’t know which was which. I was to treat everyone the same. And the Co-Actors would take up roughly half the roles in the show.

This was not what I was expecting. As time went by, I learned a few things about the neuro-diverse community. Being loud can cause problems for some. So, I could never call for fortissimo singing, and, instead of applauding, we wave our hands, using the sign language equivalent of clapping. Identity wasn’t greeted by thunderous noise of approval. The audience was wildly enthusiastic but knew to express it without a din.

For months, the weekly developmental sessions were group discussions that would frequently go off into tangents. I head a lot about anime characters, and one balding fellow obsessively spoke about Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The thing that seemed so unlikely when it was told to me, that I wouldn’t be able to tell the Co-Actors from the autistic, was true for me for months, and definitely for our audience. I learned that it’s a waste of time to think about the who-is/who-isn’t question.

What mattered was the fodder. Ideas about what should go into a show called Identity eventually emerged. But, for the longest time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a wildly improbable endeavor, doomed to failure. Sure, every artistic enterprise involves a leap of faith, but the stuff I was hearing couldn’t possibly be transmogrified into a coherent musical comedy.

Until it could. Near Thanksgiving (2018), I played around with a storyboard and I assembled ideas into elements of plot. IF the group wants to do this, THEN we’re going to need a song that does this. Then I’d write the song. There was also a desire to utilize particular talents people had. So, an operatic soprano needed a reason to sing a bit of Puccini. And the Sioux City fan was an accomplished rap artist. I think you can see how the input I received was challengingly wild. What original story could embrace an aria and a rap about a random Great Plains town?

My collaborators and I figured all that out. The cast was heavily involved in creating their own characters and rehearsal time was often spent improvising scenes. So, more input to embrace. Honestly, the biggest jolt to the process was when the director announced that our rap star would create a number that wasn’t about Sioux Falls. So the show had to be retooled to omit mention of what was once central.

I rolled with those punches. The script went through countless drafts. Many songs were cut. Cast members added songs, in wildly different styles. Another unusual aspect is that the auditions were held before the script was completed. So each new draft (and there were many) dealt with the strong suits and limitations of individual performers. An actor’s discomfort with romantic embraces meant finding a way to convey feelings between characters without a traditional physical manifestation, such as a kiss.

We seek freedom. But, often, it’s the parameters we’re given to deal with that focus our creative thinking and bring out our best work. The stunning success of Identity, it seems to me, is a little like one of those cooking game shows in which chefs are given a bunch of disparate elements and told to make a gourmet meal. Here’s a turnip, pickled herring, lemongrass and boysenberries. Go! I got a Sioux City-loving rapper, an opera diva and a newlywed who doesn’t like to be touched. Go! 


Whatever

May 17, 2020

This may have happened on March 17, not May 17, a very round number of years ago. And it’s a key moment in my musical-writing career. In some ways, a success, but, mostly, a catastrophe. And I think of it as a turning point. Before that day, my life was full of new musicals – every year or two. Afterwards, it was a slog to get anything done. But, I’m not sure there’s causality. It was half my lifetime ago. You’re only young once, and, before this, I could be viewed as something of a prodigy.

Careers are built on a chain of connections. In the cast of my first musical to play New York, Pulley of the Yard, or, Murder at the Savoy, was a lass who became a long-term live-in girlfriend. She had two friends from high school, Margit and Adam.With Adam, I wrote The New U. and On the Brink. Margit didn’t attend either, but soon invited me to join her in a new theatre company devoted to developing new works. We wrote The Christmas Bride together. And then, I got a wild idea.

I wanted to create a musical about the way women support each other through friendships with other women. But, as a man, I’d be seen as an illegitimate vessel for telling that story. So, I thought of a novel idea. What if we gathered a bunch of actresses to improvise scenes from their lives? This could generate material on which I could base a show with a certain amount of verisimilitude – a word I use here so often, it gets its own tag.

There were a couple of antecedents. One was A Chorus Line, which began as a series of “rap sessions” in which Broadway ensemble performers talked about things that had happened in their lives. A script and score was fashioned by Nicholas Dante, James Kirkwood, Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban. Most of them weren’t dancers, just like I’m not a woman, but the basis on actual choristers’ lives meant nobody questioned their bona fides. In my career, I’d worked on two shows with Adam that were based on improvisations, and another that was supposed to be, but we couldn’t find actors willing to spend that much time on such a process. Later, I worked on seven other shows that used improv in their development, most of them with Second City.

Margit’s theatre company would provide us with space, which, in New York, is likely to be the most expensive part of a production. We were given a free playground, and so had the luxury of time. The workshop went on for many weeks, and the performers enjoyed improvising, discussing, being part of something new. The company insisted a team up with an established playwright. I’m calling her Pookie to protect her identity. At first, she and I seemed to be on the same page, wanting to create a piece that was true to the lives of our participants. Funny urban women, grounded in reality.

Those improvisations inspired some exciting songs. And, over at Pookie’s loft, a set of book scenes came into being. These, unfortunately, had very little to do with my songs. You see, Pookie was a very imaginative downtown artiste, and she literally wanted to send our characters to outer space. So, our initial shared vision of a realistic contemporary musical splinted into two visions. Pookie’s involved going to another planet. Mine didn’t.

And so came the 17th of some month that begins with M, and all sorts of people connected to the theatre company showed up to listen to what we had wrought. Our developing actresses read the characters loosely based on them. Of course, none of them were astronauts, so I can’t claim the book scenes had anything to do with them. And that’s why the reading revealed we had a huge mess on our hands, a book and score at cross-purposes.

Pookie and I wisely decided to split up. I continued to develop the show for years, for a while in collaboration with a very smart female playwright. She then moved to Florida and somehow ran afoul of a theatre union. I wish I knew more of that story. Also, the developmental director moved to California. Orange-producing states have drawn too many talented ladies from me and the project.

The chain of connections, in my career, started reaching their ends. One of our improvising actresses put together a close-harmony quartet. This was seen by an impresario he commissioned me to write an opera. But that was the end. Subsequent shows were not built upon the network I’d built before. Of course, everyone grows out of being perceived as a prodigy. And maybe it’s wrong of me to make that disastrous reading a point of demarcation. But I do.


Three heads are better than one

May 8, 2020

My fourth impromptu Facebook Live concert is devoted to Jule Styne, so I’ve been thinking about him and this piece can serve two purposes. I can share some Styne thoughts as I get ready to sing. The first three concerts were devoted to far-more-famous writers of an earlier era: Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, and the brothers Gershwin. But when we think of the sound of Broadway, the fortissimo brass excitement, it’s probably a Styne score that comes to mind.

A pun I can’t resist

In one way, they all belong to a distant era, when songwriters wrote with one eye on the prize of getting a hit song to emerge from the score. Late in his life, Jule Styne met the grad students at NYU’s then-new program for musical theatre writing. And he was shocked to find the young people seemed unaware which moments in their stories needed to be put into song. Over the years, I’ve overanalyzed this exchange between the generations. Styne would have focused on bits of story that could have become extractable hits; the students, having grown up in a world where show tunes never made it to the Top 40, wouldn’t have bothered.

There was a memorable (to me, at least) essay years ago in Dramatics Magazine by Jeffrey Sweet. Ostensibly reporting on my musical comedy wedding, he discussed the idea that one of the things musicals tend to do is celebrate. They take little moments of happiness and magnify them into the delirious, and the audience catches the joy. In Bells Are Ringing, our heroine wonders what it would be like if strangers said hello to each other on a subway. This quickly explodes into a massive carnival of conviviality. It’s typical Styne.

A more famous moment occurs at the end of the first act of Gypsy, which I think we can all agree is his masterpiece. Rose’s talented daughter has run away to Hollywood and it’s devastating. All her work, for years and years, has been to make June a star and now she’s got no one except her completely untalented and klutzy other daughter who can’t sing, who mainly sews sequins on costumes. We all wonder how Rose will deal with the annihilation of her dream. Other songwriters – foolish ones, perhaps like that NYU class – would provide Rose with a lament, so she can express her pain in mournful melody. Styne turns the tables on that expectation with the peppiest bit of extreme brightness the theatre has ever produced, Everything’s Coming Up Roses.

In reality, Styne had written the tune years before for a forgotten project. But he played it at the piano for his young collaborator, Stephen Sondheim, and never informed him he’d be setting lyrics to a recycled tune. This wasn’t the only Gypsy tune that was repurposed. So, long before the cast album came out, someone surprised the twenty-something lyricist by saying “Hey, the cast album’s ready” and put on an overture that included You’ll Never Get Away From Me and Everything’s Coming Up Roses and only then did Sondheim understand the subterfuge.

Jule Styne was the last member added to Gypsy’s collaborative team. And that’s because he had the sort of experience a star can trust. After the success of West Side Story, master producer David Merrick swooped in with a brilliant notion. He’d purchased the rights to Gypsy Rose Lee’s show-busy memoir and wanted to hire as much of the West Side team as he could. The composer, Leonard Bernstein, was too busy, as America’s pre-eminent orchestra conductor, to sign on for his fourth show of the 1950s. But wait, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim was a trained composer, and, once again, the masterful Jerome Robbins would direct and choreograph, with the redoubtable Arthur Laurents taking care of the book. And, to play Gypsy’s mother, Merrick got the biggest star of them all, Ethel Merman. But there was a problem. Merman’s last show was an embarrassing flop and she naturally blamed the inexperience of its songwriters. At this point, Sondheim had one show on Broadway, as lyricist alone, and the queen from Queens wasn’t going to risk singing a score by a first-time composer. She demanded a music-writer with a proven capacity for creating hit songs, and, naturally, Styne’s name emerged. But Sondheim was unhappy to be robbed of the compositional role. He went to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, to ask advice. The older sage pointed out that one learns a lot from dealing with a major star – West Side Story had none; Gypsy would be worth doing just for the experience.

I shudder to think how the project would have turned out with Sondheim’s jagged harmonies. The Broadway fable needed an evocative and entertaining sound, and Styne came through in spades. It’s impossible to listen to Gypsy’s overture without getting your spirits lifted.

It’s hard to believe this, but Styne didn’t consider Gypsy his masterpiece. He preferred Funny Girl, and I think on that one, he’s the true hero of the creative team. Much of the book had to be tossed out; many of Bob Merrill’s lyrics are incoherent – does anyone brag they have ten American beauty toes? – and genius director Jerome Robbins abandoned the project. But everyone knew that Barbra Streisand was a once-in-a-lifetime star. Give her a good tune to warble, and you’re golden. Styne did just that.

My favorite Styne score, though, is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which he wrote with the not-so-famous Leo Robin, a lyricist greatly admired by other lyricists. Robin would get the tune in his head and start walking the perimeter of Central Park. Styne would hail a cab, tell it to go down Fifth, across Central Park South, up Central Park West and complete the circle around Central Park North. Eventually, he’d find Robin who’d say “A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Styne was no hack, but he sure could take a ride in one and find gems.


Abortion

April 29, 2020

Upright Citizens Brigade has closed the doors on its theatre and training center in New York and since I was there at the very beginning, it seems high time – did the news come on 4/20? – I tell the story. This might not seem specific to our world of musicals, but sit tight and I’ll draw the connections towards the end.

See what I did there? Anyone who’s done a Harold is nodding right now. A Harold is a type of long-form improvised play. Towards the beginning there are three seemingly separate plots, with no apparent relationship to each other. Towards the dénouement, connections emerge, and the audience comes to understand the three threads as part of a larger theme. And did I mention it’s all hysterically funny?

For this story to make any sense at all – and I don’t know it will – you have to know what a Harold is.

A quarter century ago, it’s fair to say, nobody in New York knew about the Harold. None had been performed on our stages. Improvised shows existed, but these were revue-like: individual scenes that each began with a suggestion from the audience. Part of the experience was an understanding of how challenging it is to be an improvisor, to make something of the suggestions, which were often intentionally difficult.

I’d been dragged, kicking and screaming, into New York’s improv community by a tall redhead named Karen Herr and she had an old friend named Ian Roberts. Roberts was doing improv in Chicago, performing at Second City and the ImprovOlympic and learning from master improv-teacher Del Close. When Del died, a few years later, it was revealed he’d bequeathed his skull to a theatre to be used as poor Yorrick in productions of Hamlet. But I digress.

Ian Roberts, along with two guys named Matt and the girlfriend of one of them, Amy Poehler, was regularly performing Harolds in Chicago. Del Close had invented the form. The quartet gave themselves a name and a logo that seemed to refer to a political movement, but did it? They were the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Karen got wind of what they were doing.

At the White Horse Tavern, Karen told me she was starting an improv group and I had to be a part of it. I told her that playing piano for improv was something I’d done as a teenager, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again. She said she wasn’t interested in my playing piano; I needed to be on stage, improvising this thing that nobody had ever done in New York, the Harold. Among the other players would be the cue card holder at Saturday Night Live. Seemed legit. I joined what became known as The White Horse Experiment.

Our group took what amounted to a class field trip to Chicago, where we saw shows at ImprovOlympic and Second City, attended a party at The Annoyance, and, most memorably, spent a lot of time with UCB. The fab four were considering moving to New York. They dipped their toe into the Croton aqueduct-supplied water by spending a month teaching free classes, just to see whether they could convey the wonders of the Harold to New Yorkers. And what New Yorkers did they use as Guinea pigs? The White Horse Experiment.

At the end of our Chicago visit, UCB told us of their intention to move and Karen said, “Great! We’ll prepare the way.” But here’s where things get really crazy. What did “prepare the way” really mean? UCB had no website, no mailing list, no publicity staff. Karen and I and comedian Bill Chott stood on a Greenwich Village street corner, with the busker’s typical open guitar case at our feet. We may have had a bullhorn.

“People of New York! Prepare yourselves! The Upright Citizens Brigade is coming! Enjoy a free Scooter Pie!”

The guitar case contained no coins. Just Scooter Pies. Until we gave them all out. For this was how we prepared the way.

Once Ian, Amy, Matt and Matt arrived, word got around a lot quicker. Something funny was going on. It was improvised, but only involved one audience suggestion, right at the beginning. It had intricately-drawn characters doing improbable but risible things. And, by the end, things tied together in a satisfying way.

UCB, before long, had an inexhaustible supply of students, young people dying to learn the ways of the Harold. And they converted a tiny strip joint into their own theatre in Chelsea. Every Sunday night, they filled their stage with funny people for improvised mayhem. This helped word get around. They were a “happening” – the thing cool young people would attend every week.

The funny people who joined these shows were not household names – then. They were geniuses who’d not yet been discovered. Tina Fey. Stephen Colbert. Other people you’d see on TV a few years later. Of course that could be said of my UCB pals. Amy went to Saturday Night Live and on to Parks and Recreation. Matt Walsh went on to Veep. Matt Besser and Ian Roberts went on to countless other appearances in front of the camera. One night I showed up at the Red Room to run lights for them, but those numerous other gigs had prevented all four from appearing. So, knowing I knew the Harold, they threw me on stage. So I can proudly state I was on stage as an actor in a UCB show.

At The Ballroom, though, I was on stage as a musician when a short-form improv host told the audience they were going to improvise a song based on something that happened to an audience member that day. Unfortunately, the person chosen had an awful experience, one that couldn’t possibly be made fun of. So, the host picked someone else, and the audience could see why. However, the someone else had also undergone a particularly tragic day. The host said, “Folks, I don’t think you want to hear a song based on that, so I’m going to go with one more person, and I promise you, we’ll make a song out of it, whatever it is.” By now, I suspect you see where this is going. The third person had an even-more-impossible to songify occurrence that day (the title of this piece), and yet we sang. But the whole thing was fake; I’d pre-written the song with Matt Walsh, hoping to fool people. We did.

I’m proud to have been one of the very first students UCB taught in New York. Over the years, their school trained an entire generation of mirth-makers. Kate McKinnon, Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, for starters. Who’s like them? Damn few.