Janey

November 18, 2019

History, unlike perfectly rhymed stanzas, doesn’t come in neat little packages. You can’t assume that a decade, say, will contain shared characteristics, because we’re not going to turn over the etch-a-sketch and shake vigorously the moment Barbara Walters announces “This is 2020.” So, when we talk about eras, epochs, and periods, we rush to use the word “roughly.” I’ll try to restrain myself from using that here.

So, 100 years ago today, the thing we’d recognize as a Musical Comedy began, with the opening of Irene.And, as long as we’re allowing a certain degree of inaccuracy, let’s say that 50 years ago, the thing changed into something else. The first half of this century of musicals might be called Old School, while, for some strange reason, the second half is often called Contemporary Musical Theatre. It’s also tempting to break this into quarters: I’ve been known to use Golden Era to refer to the period that starts with Oklahoma! (1943) and dies out roughly 25 years later with Hair. Another handy demarcation point is Rent (1996) so I might use these smash hits to divide into four parts. (Boy, the temptation to use “roughly” is strong!)

I don’t remember much about Irene, but it might be the oldest Broadway musical I’ve seen, albeit in a much monkeyed-with revisal. It involves social climbing, a character we root for, and songs that have a certain amount of charm. These have tunes you can hum, and instantly understandable words that relate to the sound of the characters and their emotions. Some are funny; others, poignant. Songwriters Harry Tierney and Joseph McCarthy weren’t great artists. It’s unlikely they thought of themselves as such. Their hope was that the public would like the songs well enough to buy copies of the sheet music, because that’s where the real money was for songwriters, then. Stage-works, and royalties derived from other productions, weren’t the main source of lucre. Commercial records didn’t exist; nor were there ASCAP payments for radio play. Of course, a few years later into this first era, vinyl sales and airplay did become a big deal. But, throughout this earliest quarter, it was more important, to songwriters, to get that extractable hit song than it was to tell a story effectively.

With very few exceptions, the pre-Oklahoma! musicals had disposable plots. The audience wasn’t looking for an interesting story. They liked the star turns. That is, there were specific Broadway performers they were turning out to see – picture Fred Astaire – and, certainly, the songs stars put across needed to be attractive, immediately delightful.

I just remembered that I’m going to be quizzing kids later today on what they know about George Gershwin. And his Broadway songs exemplify this type of entertainment. The lyrics, usually by his brother Ira, are intricately rhymed. Never a false rhyme, and if there’s a near-rhyme, it’s called out. That is, it’s put across in such a way that the lyricist is acknowledging it’s forced. An example by Ira’s friend Yip Harburg:

Dorothy: Not even a rhinoceros?
Cowardly Lion: Imp-oceros!
Tin Man: How about a hippopotamus?
Cowardly Lion: Why, I’d thrash him from top to bottom-us!
Dorothy: Supposing you met an elephant?
Cowardly Lion: I’d knot him up in cellophant!

Wrapping an elephant up in cellophane is a rather odd threat – do lions work with clear plastic? – when you think about it. But you don’t think about it, because the attempts to rhyme are so amusing.

I’ve written on other occasions how Oklahoma! changed everything. In the second quarter of our history, audiences cared more about the story, and the writers crafted numbers to move that story, no longer prioritizing creating a hit song. And yet, the majority of chart toppers came from Broadway musicals. Songs still rhymed; tunes were hummable. Ballads were pretty, and up tempos got you tapping your toes. Show tunes defined popular song. Until they didn’t. By the sixties, Baby Boomers spent enough on 45s, rock began to edge theatre tunes off the charts. A torch was passed when The Beatles knocked Hello Dolly off the Number One spot. Don’t let it be forgot that, earlier, the fab four had recorded a Broadway ballad, Till There Was You.

The revolution of a half-century ago threw out the craft baby with a torrent of bathwater. Hair had no coherent book, but it did have an impressive number of Top 40 hits, and often the radio listeners had no idea they were enjoying songs from a musical. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice joined the fray by releasing a cast album of a show that had never been produced, Jesus Christ Superstar, which was, Jesus Christ, a super-hit. Rock musicals had that callow iconoclasm that says the old ways are bad. Why write Old School musicals if a new day has dawned? And so, out went the rhyming. In the past fifty years, most scores have contained false rhymes and nobody’s having fun with forcing. Dramaturgically, it seems less attention is paid to effective storytelling. So there are a host of plots that make no sense, or fail to engage an audience’s emotions. Melodies lost their sweetness, as if a mellifluous tune was something your mother might go for, but not you.

One could view the third quarter – from Hair to Rent – as something of a culture war between traditional values (La Cage Aux Folles’ brassy cheese is an example) and shows that have similarities to rock concerts (Dream Girls is one). There was an Old Guard that complained about the rock kids taking over, as well as a New Guard who felt the Broadway musical audience would die out if scores didn’t embrace the aesthetics of tunes you could hear on the radio. (Remember radio?)

Successful pop-inflected musicals were a fairly rare thing prior to Rent, but now they’re so common, the more traditional show-tuney scores stand out as unusual. In retrospect, that rock vs. old-fashioned schism seems quaint and unnecessary. Why can’t musicals embrace contemporary sounds while still utilizing the traditional mechanics of good story-telling and lyric-crafting? Does it spoil the rock aesthetic to rhyme? Why shouldn’t plots make sense and deliver emotional peaks and valleys? We all seem to agree that the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution improved storytelling in our form. The rejection of so many of their innovations can seem like a step forward, but sloppily written shows? That’s the oldest fashion of all. 


Near dark

November 8, 2019

Prompted by a preternaturally expert tween-age production of The Addams Family, and in the midst of the hangover that follows one abnormal night in which my family was Gomez, Morticia and Wednesday, I’ve a couple thoughts about the surprisingly popular musical version.

Ten years ago, a Broadway actress hired me to accompany her audition for Grandma at the Telsey office on West 43rd. An impressively large crowd watched some finely-tuned shtick without reacting, and the moment we were out the door, the comedienne said “They’ll probably give it to Jackie Hoffman.” Indeed, that’s what happened.

Perhaps ten years seems like long ago, but the Addams’ road to the Main Stem was the traditional twisted path that commonly occurred fifty or more years ago. Big budget, packed with stars, and not quite clicking in its out-of-town pre-Broadway run. The producers understood some drastic action needed to be taken, so they fired the directors (there were two, avant garde guys) and brought in the most experienced and Tony-honored helmer of comedies they could find, the zany Jerry Zaks.

The buzz on the Street was that The Addams Family would change from a cutting-edge parade of creepy thrills into a laugh-a-minute joke-fest. The writing team, comprised of hit-makers, would seem to be more appropriate for the funnier take. Marshall Brickman, decades earlier, had written some of the most hysterical screenplays of the time, such as Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan, in collaboration with someone too controversial to name. His collaborator on stage musicals, Rick Elice, had penned the very amusing play, Peter and the Starcatcher, and together they’d written the most successful of American jukeboxes, Jersey Boys. The Addams Family has music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa; more on him later.

The show opened to lukewarm reviews, but ran more than a year and a half. And then… its popularity exploded. Schools and community theatres ate it up; it became one of the most-produced musicals in the United States. And this prompts me to make an unfair comparison to a recent musical about an unusual family, whose house is a museum, and they literally live in a funeral home. That would be Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s high-quality memory musical, Fun Home. Now, say you’re running a theatre some place where nobody reads New York theatre reviews. You consider Fun Home a hard sell, because your audience hasn’t heard the title, is unaware it won the Tony Award and might possibly find the subject matter a little discomfiting. In contrast, The Addams Family seems an easy sell: people know the title, already love the characters, can picture it’s good and funny, and are unaware of the tepid critical reception and lack of Tonys. Quality is totally beside the point.

It seems we’ve stood and talked like this before. But it sticks in my craw, as a writer who strives for quality, that a mediocre musical can rake in the chips while an admirable one gets seen less.

Speaking of sticky things, this sustained note in the opening number kept replaying in my mind. Where had I heard if before? “Poison in your DAY.” A clue arrived with Halloween, when I read the fivethirtyeight.com “scientific” ranking of candies. I thought of this lyric line,

More addictive than Reese’s Pieces
Here the party never ceases

And the note that precedes this, held for the same length of time and with the same harmony was the one I couldn’t place. Oh, and the song, another Latin up-tempo, written ten years earlier than the Addams one: I wrote it. It’s The Cave from Area 51.

This is no accusation of theft. It’s an indication that Andrew Lippa and I occasionally have intersecting sensibilities. We’re similarly old, write music and lyrics, and, more frequently than most of our contemporaries, we’ve gotten people to laugh at our comedy songs. I’m not saying I’m like Lippa, but I am saying I like Lippa. I find it puzzling whenever people don’t.

Suppose, twenty years ago, you were making wishes for the new millennium. You might envision a musical theatre writer who wasn’t afraid to be romantic…

You’d hope he had a way with comedy…

And that, when appropriate, his tunes would have a contemporary feel…

Given that set of talents, Lippa always seemed to me a perfect pick to write The Addams Family score. That was a good move. The chock-full-of-jokes book by Elice and Brickman was a good move. Going with Voice of Experience Zaks over a couple of off-Broadway tyros with no Broadway experience – seems fine. And yet The Addams Family is not nearly the sum of its parts. The daughter, Wednesday, is saddled with a desire for normalcy – completely out-of-character. Another personage is defined mostly by her predilection for speaking in rhymes, a weird quirk in a musical, where everybody rhymes when they break into song. Marital problems between Morticia and Gomez? Unthinkable! The plot gets tied up and then we hear a ballad from the laconic butler. Huh?

Long ago, I saw kids similar ages essay another musical that started as drawings, Li’l Abner, it was hysterical. Charles Addams’s inky creations seem resistant to the emotionality musicalization naturally provides. I can recall nothing particularly moving in the old TV sitcom, nor the three films about them. So, when Lippa provides a sentimental dad-to-daughter waltz, the choice is a bit weirder than the ooky clan itself.

Of course, my daughter and I dressed as Wednesday and Gomez for Halloween and naturally I fell for this moment of poignancy. Others may be less taken. But I take this touching bit as further proof that Lippa fires on all cylinders, and someday I predict the elements will come together and he’ll write a show everyone, including critics, will embrace.


Toccata

October 30, 2019

‘Tis the season.

New York and Los Angeles are currently regaled by totally separate revivals of Little Shop of Horrors. Is there something in the air? Mischief! Mischief! I probably read a little too much in the casting: New York’s off-Broadway production features people who’ve made their mark in musicals, such as Jonathan Groff and Christian Borle while Pasadena Playhouse uses television stars MJ Rodriguez and Amber Riley, although you won’t see the latter. The show holds a special place in my heart because I got to know it pretty well before the rest of the world. I heard Ellen Greene’s Somewhere That’s Green on the radio, recorded it, and then transcribed it for my girlfriend’s audition for a college show. So, I can claim to be the first person ever to play that beloved “I Want” number at an amateur audition.

The composer, a young man named Alan Menken, and I were both in Lehman Engel’s writing workshop at BMI. As the show was being developed, Alan insisted on bringing in the numbers, dragging along his seemingly aggrieved collaborator, Howard Ashman. Howard hated Lehman, didn’t want to hear what the old man had to say; he was indulging Alan. Something similar had happened a few years before, prior to my arrival at BMI. Ed Kleban dragged his collaborator Marvin Hamlisch along because Ed respected Lehman’s views. That helped to shape A Chorus Line.

Mighty proud to say it: I was there as Alan and Howard sang Now (It’s Just the Gas) – which had many more verses then, A Little Dental Music – eventually cut, Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green. Lehman was delighted, encouraging. But Carol Hall, whose Best Little Whorehouse In Texas was then in its umpteenth year on Broadway, didn’t get it. “Why would you boys want to make a musical out of a B horror movie?” she drawled in the best little accent from Texas you ever heard. Her assessment brings to mind another negative reaction by another Texas belle. When Lerner and Loewe played their score to My Fair Lady for Mary Martin – hoping she’d play Eliza Doolittle (!) – she listened and said “You boys have lost your talent.”

Beware of Broadway luminaries calling you “boys.” Better to avoid the all-male collaborative team altogether, I guess.

My developmental group was recently asked to name genres of musicals and one answer surprised me: “Horror.” That got me thinking of Sweeney Todd’s desire to serve up nail-biting terror. Just a few years before Little Shop, Hal Prince had an iron factory moved to Broadway’s biggest stage. The sheer size of this set made us in the audience feel tiny, vulnerable. In previews, there was a large light attached to one of the higher catwalks. Or, should I say, just barely attached, because it came crashing down to the stage during a quiet moment in the second act. Angela Lansbury looked behind her, ascertained that nobody had been injured, amazingly, and then sung her next line, “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.”

I’d say that brought down the house, but I don’t want to confuse the figurative and the literal. What impresses me about Sweeney Todd is the large variety of devices used to scare the audience. Is there anything more effective at putting an audience on edge than a dissonant organ? Then, suddenly, from directly overhead (I had a good seat), the factory steam whistle, triple fortissimo. Dark-clad men ripped down the huge beehive drop. A 12/8 toccata began, in a minor key, eventually punctuated by piercing high reeds. I mention this grisly start with some nostalgic sense of loss. Many subsequent productions cut the prelude, or don’t have an organ, or a steam whistle, and it’s been forty years since I saw the beehive drop drop. It’s a horror.

The size of a theatre means so much. When I saw the first Broadway revival, commonly called “Teeney Todd,” the theatre-in-the-round couldn’t produce those effects. Similarly, I saw Little Shop of Horrors in what was once a Yiddish theatre in the East Village. At the end, when the plant is taking over the world, the side walls of the auditorium were illuminated and you could seen green tentacles all around you, previously unnoticed. If the Little Shop’s actually a big shop, well, it ain’t no horror.

It would be interesting to know if Little Shop of Horrors was written in reaction to Sweeney Todd. Certainly, Ashman and Menken must have seen the Wheeler and Sondheim frightfest. But their aim wasn’t to scare, per se. They used the trappings of a B horror movie as the setting for a musical comedy, one with a certain amount of heart. (To quote another Faustian musical, “You gotta have heart.”) So that’s why, Carol: there’s fun to be had here, and most of the songs are effectively humorous.

Some of Sondheim’s best comedy is in Sweeney Todd, but there the laughter sets off the solemnity. The second act isn’t as effective as the first because the creators infrequently hit the funny bone. They truncated some amusing business with a man who can’t resist singing songs at Mrs. Lovett’s harmonium. I never thought these were particularly funny, but it’s helpful, dramatically, to relieve the considerable tension.

It’s fair to say that Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors have had a huge influence on the past four decades of musical writing. For instance, Jekyll and Hyde was a famous public domain novel for about a century before Frank Wildhorn, Steve Cuden and Leslie Bricusse converted it into mirthless mush. Some shows attempt to scare (fruitlessly) and forget about the value of laughter. I’ve little regard for such dreck.

But, yes, I’m conscious of how often I complain about bad musicals. Remember, you, the audience, can add a ghostly element to any lousy show…just by yelling “Boo!”

 


Trio

October 21, 2019

1

Back in the 90s I saw two musicals on exactly the same subject. One was hysterical, had the audience convulsing with laughter at every turn. I can still remember some of the jokes. The other didn’t resonate with the audience at all, and whatever laughter there was consisted of stifled giggles at how ridiculous the show was. It quickly fizzled on Broadway, running fewer than a hundred performances.

You can tell where this is going, can’t you? The excellent romp, From the Hip, is completely forgotten, having garnered no fame. The deathly serious show that was unintentionally funny has legions of fans, got revived on Broadway, and you’ve probably heard of it: Side Show.

Two decades have gone by, and I don’t put much stock in my memory. But what’s never left my mind is a puzzlement. I am consistently mystified that so many people find so much to admire in Side Show, although its leading ladies, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, were delightful “finds” at the time.

And the 1990s saw the flowering of a type of musical that has always revolted me. Ones in which the audience is supposed to be moved by woebegone characters expressing how awful they feel. To my way of thinking, if you, the character, are busy pitying yourself, you don’t get my pity; you’re already doing it. You get my sympathy if you refuse to pity yourself when life throws you a curve.

It seems a perverse reversal (a perversal?) of what musicals do best. Great Golden Era shows tended to celebrate life’s brighter moments. Think of the joy in She Loves Me’s title song or If My Friends Could See Me Now. Lachrymose shows outdo each other in the heaps of sadness they throw on stage: the abandoned pregnant prostitute in Miss Saigon or that falsely-accused-of-child-murder dude in Parade.

Sad to be those people. Isn’t it painfully obvious? Side Show and From the Hip are about Siamese twin sisters in show business. That’s a difficult row to hoe, certainly, but there’s a dramaturgical problem in giving expression to something an audience already knows. So, when Daisy and Violet Hilton lament,

I am lonely pondering
Who would want to join this madness?
Who would change my monogram?
Who will be part of my circus?
Who will live me as I am?
Who will ever call to say ‘I love you’?
Send me flowers or a telegram?

I don’t feel for them; I’m impatient. I’m waiting for the show to tell me something I don’t know. In stark relief – and boy, am I relieved! – Sissy and Sassy Sheraton are told by a producer, “You two are a hard sell with that stuck-together thing.” I love how this is phrased almost as much as I abhor those badly-accented “gram” rhymes.

An on-line discussion yielded a nice point about Side Show’s opener, Come Look at the Freaks: “couldn’t tell if it was a parody. It wanted to have the gravitas of ‘Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd,’ but felt like the opening sequence of ‘Streetcar!’ on The Simpsons.”

Both Sweeney and Side Show featured the same actor, Ken Jennings. Sweeney Todd earns its somber power with an organ prelude, the tearing down of the huge “beehive” drop, and, most startlingly, the factory whistle. When serious is unearned, it strikes some of us as ludicrous.

From the Hip creators Blair Fell and Maggie Moore were unaware of the mega-serious take when they were writing lines like “Slow down with the Scotch, Sissy! I’m the one with the liver.” And “Mother told us we shouldn’t fool around with romance unless it was with another set of Siamese Twins.” “With our luck, we’d probably fall in love diagonal.”

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A guy I know lives in one of those cities where everyone would like to live, but there’s ample reason to be annoyed at the powers-that-be who present national tours of musicals there. They’re charging the same hefty price for the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen that they are for Waitress, which won none. His beef isn’t that Waitress has a smaller cast, but that it’s a non-union tour, while Dear Evan’s Equity. I can sympathize with his dismay over finding this out after purchasing the tickets. But his anger at the producers of non-union tours is misplaced. I’m sure they’re proud of their production, and it’s not going to help them sell tickets if they trumpet the fact they’re putting performers on stage who haven’t joined Equity.

Actor’s Equity often tries to convince the public that the shows populated with their players are somehow better. And this isn’t always the reality. I can think of many examples of tours where the non-union talent out-performed the card-holders. It’s a very common complaint, saying that ticket prices are too high. But, to a great extent, they’re set by economic forces. Honda would love to sell Civics for $50k. Instead, they sell a huge number of them for less than half that. The price of anything is what a critical mass of people are willing to pay.

Waitress is soon ending its Broadway run. After its first year, producers filled the seats in its modest-sized theatre with a variety of people famous for things other than theatre: Sara Bareilles, Katharine McPhee, Jordin Sparks, Jason Mraz, Joey McIntyre, Colleen Ballinger, Todrick Hall, and Al Roker. Yes, that Al Roker.

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Also closing soon, after over 2400 performances, is the previous Jesse Mueller-led show, Beautiful, the jukebox biography of Carole King. I tend to get cynical about the success of any show featuring songs the ticket-buyers already know and love. (My seven-year-old once called them “juice-box shows.”)

But I like to think a lot of credit is due to director Marc Bruni, who previously helmed my 2007 show, Such Good Friends. Marc was so helpful to me, getting transitions to flow, encouraging me to get scenes and songs to make their point and move on. It’s a point of pride to say I thought he was brilliant years before the Broadway community caught on. Choosing a director can be a harrowingly difficult decision; my pick was, in a word, beautiful.


The star-spangled banner

October 12, 2019

My baby is Sweet 16 today. No, not my daughter. My most famous musical, Our Wedding, the one with full-page coverage in The New York Times – which means this is also my 16th wedding anniversary. Yes, Joy and I got married in an original musical, on stage at an off-Broadway theatre, and that’s remarkable. Notable. So it’s the thing most people seem to know about me.

Fame Becomes Me. No, that’s not me complimenting myself. It’s the name of a Broadway musical that’s been on my mind as the last of a now-dead breed. In Broadway’s Golden Age, every season contained Star Vehicles, and fans of that star would buy tickets with the not-unreasonable expectation that they’d get to see the star doing what the star was best at. That might mean Phil Silvers perpetrating some crazy scheme. Or Carol Burnett being loud and aggressive but simultaneously charming. Ray Bolger with his lanky legwork or Ethel Merman blowing the roof off the place.

And today… not so much. Economic forces have killed the star vehicle. A bona fide star, with a following, won’t commit to enough months doing a musical for the show to recoup. And it takes a certain amount of bravery today’s stars don’t possess – that an original musical will provide worthy material. The last example I can think of is when Martin Short brought his shtick to Broadway, entrusting the Hairspray team of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman to do the songs. (This is, in my opinion, their best work. Nobody agrees with me.) I never saw Fame Becomes Me – not that big of a Short fan, but now I celebrate it as the final example of a glorious sub-genre.

Album still sells for $20

Growing up, I had an ambition to write a star vehicle. Recently, a friend was fascinated by an old paperback I had on my shelf of tomes related to my musicals, produced an un-. This was something a well-connected friend proposed we adapt as a vehicle for Carol Channing long ago. Looking back, I’m struck by what a terrible idea for a musical this was, but the idea of writing for a major musical comedy star was catnip to me. When we abandoned it, my desire to fashion material for a star was left an unscratched itch.

Jump to 2003, and the creation of Our Wedding: The Musical. The cast contained no stars you would have heard of, but, in that specialized subset of a community known as “wedding guests,” there are certain individuals everyone wants to see. We gasp at brides. We might look forward to a Best Man’s toast, or see the pride of the Father of the Bride. In a way, most members of a wedding party are celebrities-for-a-day, and it’s no great stretch to say my writing of our wedding show gave me the chance I always wanted to write to the particular talents of people whose “fans” have built-in interest in what they’ll do.

My task became to let each one shine in their own idiosyncratic way. My best man could give a rambling toast that covered tons of personal history not only because that’s the expectation of best men, but because I knew Sandy Schlechter could run on with a torrent of words in an amusing way. Father of the Bride embodied Classic Rock, so his genre was an easy call, and I could make use of his size – much bigger than me – and so we acted out a mock threat of violence. Another burst of energy came from my sister, who’d done musicals in her youth. So, her exposition had shifting tempos, and jokes I knew she could put across. Joy had four bridesmaids, all from college, and I felt this was too high a quantity for the audience to keep distinct, so I treated them as one, a choral quartet that did danced, here and there. And when the new wife and husband dance for the first time, all eyes are on them. I wasn’t quite comfortable with this, so I split the focus with my father, who sang a sentimental instructional waltz as I galumphed and Joy gracefully twirled.

In old Hollywood, studios would sometimes put a wide array of famous performers in one film and then promote it as a cavalcade of stars. Our Wedding gave me so many singers to fashion material for, my work cut out for me in the best possible way. So, my four-year-old niece as flower girl would need something short and simple, because how much can you expect someone to handle at that age? I had to trust her parents, in California, to rehearse her and make sure she was ready to go. We only had time for one rehearsal in New York, and people were coming in from all over the country – Baltimore, Oakland, Phoenix, Florida. All flew in to New York, we rehearsed on Saturday and performed on Sunday at the Soho Playhouse. So, not just my little niece, I needed everyone to self-rehearse, get ready to go. Our officiant was one of the few New Yorkers, and an experienced musical theatre professional, so the least worries about him. Of far greater concern was our mothers, and for them I’d fashioned a duet.

I explained and re-explained to my mother that I’d only write notes she could sing, bits of business she could do. It took her a while, but she came to believe me. And she was fully prepared when she arrived at rehearsal, ready to at last bounce these lines off her duet partner. But where was Bea? My mother-in-law-elect was the only person late for their rehearsal time, and she was extremely late, causing us all great stress. I don’t think she had a cell phone in 2003, and she had no sense of time. She decided to take a walk around New York, then come back and take a bath, never glancing at a clock. The rehearsal space was near her hotel, and eventually a team of bridal party stalwarts got her there. Exactly the sort of bad behavior some difficult stars are known for.

This anniversary, Bea’s the only parent left to recall performing that night. And she and my mother indeed landed their jokes, to everyone’s delight and my profound relief. The chief anxiety of the wedding weekend was whether she’d be able to pull it off, but she did, and whether my mother could ever forgive her for waltzing in so late for their rehearsal slot, but she did (I think). Amazing how that turned out, and amazing that Joy and I, the musically consecrated couple, are still enjoying marriage after sixteen years.


He is Ohioan

October 3, 2019

Early in September, and then late in September, I made small talk with a nice-enough guy I know. He scrunched his face a bit in the second conversation, accessing his memory, and asked if I’d filmed my screenplay. I concealed my shock and tried to explain that I do theatre, and a new project had just begun. He admitted, sheepishly, that he didn’t understand the difference. 

(Not the photo Prince showed.)

A week earlier, two twenty-something friends and I took in the Hal Prince exhibition at the Lincoln Center Library. I wondered, out loud, whether they’d have the magazine photo of an angry white mob which Prince had displayed at the first rehearsal of Cabaret. Since the assembled company knew they’d come to rehearse a show about the rise of the Nazis, they assumed the scowling faces in the picture were Germans. But Prince revealed these were contemporary Americans protesting desegregation. It’s happening again, here. Which is a sobering thought.

I mention this because my friend already knew the story. She has a wealth of knowledge about the theatre, and I’m struck by the contrast with the dude who admitted to knowing nothing about theatre. And I’m now reminded of my previous trip to the same exhibition hall last spring. Ran into an old friend I’d met in the improv world. He’s familiar with my songwriting and I’m familiar with his. And there’s something to be said for an environment in which you run into people you haven’t seen for years and they know exactly who you are and much of what you can do.

There’s an analogy about a seed in fertile ground. It comes from the Bible. And I only know it comes from the Bible because it’s part of a musical based on the Book of Matthew, Godspell. You can have a perfectly good seed, but if you plop it down in some desert where rain is a rarity, it’s unlikely to grow into a tree. New York is rich soil, a nurturing environment to hundreds of musical theatre writers. And the other little bromide that applies is “It takes a village.” To get your musical to grow, you’re going to need to connect with a dozen or more like-minded artists. Together, you’re working to tell a story using songs, one that entertains at every turn.

I’m bemused that my daughter has homework to do before she auditions for a community theatre production of Annie. She’s 7, and the company wants her to learn terms like “down right” and “playing the sweep.” There’s an implication that kids who are unfamiliar with theatre terms are less likely to be given leads to which I say “Good! She downright better play the sweep!” But what I’ve discovered with my child’s forays into performing arts programs is that they’re like metal detectors running over sand. They’re a magnet of sorts, gathering seeds that have been plopped in a desert, binding the breed known as “theatre people” together. It’s a happy thing to see my kid find like-minded friends.

Which reminds me that her mother and I found each other in an internet chatroom devoted to theatre. These things don’t exist anymore, but there was a time when AOL and others provided spaces where people from all over the world could share thoughts about shows with each other by typing in boxes. One could be the only Broadway fan in some cultural wasteland, and go online to interact with other stage enthusiasts.

For some months now, I’ve been moderating a musical theatre writers’ group. Far-flung people from three different countries share their work, and we “meet” for a  monthly videoconference. I wonder, sometimes, whether our confabs provide respite for the alienation that comes with being the only theatre person for miles around.

So, I’ve once again managed to bury the lead. Today marks the ninth anniversary of this here blog. One of the unanticipated perks of having a blog is that WordPress shows you a map of the world so you can see where your page’s “visitors” are coming from. These essays about musical theatre have been looked at by people all over the world and that’s awesome in the original sense of the word – something that produces awe. It’s hard to believe 26 Uruguayans or 61 Indonesians are really interested in what I have to say. Could be that they’ve clicked here by mistake, or just to see a photo I’ve put up. Or it could be there’s a seed in the Sahara, using the internet to look around for similar seeds, feeling less alone in the universe.

The map shades the countries various degrees of pink, depending on the quantity of visits. Five continents and the major unshaded area is Greenland. So, just putting this out there: I’d like to buy Greenland. Do you hear, you 21 visitors from Denmark? Sell! Or I shan’t visit any time soon.


Jewish orchestra

September 24, 2019

Is there any musical more perfect than Fiddler on the Roof? This month I saw the bare-bones off-Broadway production, now in its second year, in a language I speak not a word of. Force me to read a projected translation all the way through and I’m still loving it: it’s just that good.

If Fiddler on the Roof has long struck me as utterly without flaws, I’ve been bamboozled, in part, by the original Broadway cast album, that wisely omits the two weakest songs. Do The Rumor and Chavaleh constitute “flaws?” Not really. But I look at the impulse behind their creation. With so many heart-wrenching moments in the show’s second half, one can understand how the creators felt the need for a passel of humor and energy. The rest of the Bock & Harnick score is so excellent, The Rumor is only a comparative disappointment. It serves its purpose, and people pass through it and quickly forget they’ve been there.

Chavaleh is something else; I can’t think of anything remotely like it in the Golden Age canon. Fiddler was the last new show directed by Jerome Robbins, the master of choreographic storytelling. For the show’s protagonist, losing his daughter to an elopement outside his religious is so devastating, no traditional song could possibly express his pain. And so we’re briefly taken inside of Tevye’s mind for a glimpse of the memories he has of the third of his five daughters. The carefree dance of the girls is lovely and positive. Bock’s slow waltz with a surfeit of sixteenth notes has the feel of something that might be improvised on a clarinet. The father sings an air that seems to have no structure, so stunned and rocked to the core is he.

Little bird, little Chavaleh
I don’t understand what’s happening today
Everything is all a blur
All I can see is a happy child
What a sweet little bird you were
Chavaleh, Chavaleh

Little bird, little Chavaleh
You were always such a pretty little thing
Everybody’s favorite child
Gentle and kind and affectionate
What a sweet little bird you were
Chavaleh, Chavaleh.

It barely takes up a minute and the emotional punch comes in a monologue that follows the ballet. The quickness with which it makes its point is the sort of exemplary concision that’s all over Fiddler on the Roof. In our post-Golden Age, shows dwell on their emotional high points at such excessive length, the feelings outlive their welcome. Brevity is not just the soul of wit, it’s the soul of pathos. Scene after scene, song after song, Fiddler gets to the point, jabs you quickly in the heart, and moves on.

One can name dozens of reasons for its world-shaking success, but that’s what struck me throughout the Yiddish language revival, directed by Joel Grey. Move and move on; repeat. Fiddler on the Roof is musical theatre’s Hamlet, and we who make musicals need to study all those things it does so well. This tragedy is leavened with so much humor, there are nearly as many good jokes as in the other Hal Prince-produced hit Zero Mostel starred in in the early sixties, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (Little known fact: Joel Grey played Hero on its pre-Broadway run, but was fired.) When I think of Broadway smashes I’ve totally loathed, my mind goes to the horror that was Miss Saigon, a just-as-tragic tale with absolutely no funny jokes. But this is part and parcel of the Eurotrash aesthetic: Why provide humor when so many people in the audience don’t speak the language you’re singing in?

Which brings us to the problem that this Fiddler is presented in Yiddish, the language the characters actually spoke, and English is projected on each side. I assume that, somewhere in the audience, there’s gotta be at least one oldster who knows some Yiddish. But really, we’re all reading. And that gets in the way of appreciating the jokes. The cast, led by Steven Skybell, certainly seems to be putting the right spin on everything, but there’s a delay. We read the punch lines rather than experience them as we do when the show’s done in English.

And consider this: the words (by Joseph Stein and lyricist Sheldon Harnick) are not designed to be true to tsarist Russia. They trade on a style of Jewish humor familiar to 1964 audiences, sometimes known as Borscht Belt. The cadences of Catskills comedians long ago vanished from our cultural landscape, although I don’t believe the wit of Fiddler on the Roof is lost on today’s audience. But what’s funny to mid-century Americans is markedly different from the way shtetl Jews spoke at the beginning of the century. So, much as I loved this production, I have to say that doing it in Yiddish adds nothing to its effectiveness. Would any Broadway fan prefer to see Man of La Mancha or Kiss of the Spiderwoman done in Spanish? Is our appreciation of Pippin or Les Miserables lessened by not seeing these in French? Those whose ancestors spoke Yiddish in Russia (I am one) may get a small kick out of hearing Fiddler on the Roof in the language of its characters, but this is small compensation for having to read so much of the text on a side curtain. Ultimately, presenting this most familiar of English-language musicals in Yiddish seems like something of a gimmick.

Of course, there have now been more major revivals of Fiddler on the Roof than Tevye has daughters, and I suppose you’ve got to palm them off on us theatre-going “suitors” somehow. Better in Yiddish? Meh, I say.