Maybe he wouldn’t have left me

July 19, 2019

      A coloring book picture of Rosie the Riveter was going around and, given the way my mind works, I immediately thought of two musicals that were smashes in the late forties but only make brief appearances in my Subjective History of Musical Theatre because I don’t have time for everything.

     To see what I do have time for, attend the two parts next month: New Musicals Inc. is hosting in North Hollywood, California, Part One 8/7; Part Two 8/8; both parts, 8/10. The presentation flies by, because I don’t believe in going on too long, I zip through the last 153 years at breakneck speed.

     But back to Rosie: she stands for all the women who worked during World War Two while the men-folk were overseas doing the combat thing. Before the war career gals were relatively rare, but the country had a need so pressing, patriarchy was supplanted for a time. Winning the war sounds like a wonderful happy ending, but where you choose to drop your curtain can make a world of difference. All those troops returned from the battlefields and, naturally, wanted their jobs back. But their feminine replacements in the work force, why should they have to give up their positions? And what if they’d done the job better than the men? There’s a conflict.

     Good musicals have been built on far less. Translating this into musical comedy terms let a Broadway product exorcise a societal demon, the work war between the sexes. Imagine seeing a gal in a traditional male field, out-competing a blustery prideful male. Might be fun. And then throw in the obvious plot twist and have them fall in love. But first establish that they’re total opposites. You could even have the title subtly reference the war experience the nation had just been through. Not Johnny Get Your Gun, but Annie Get Your Gun.

     Rodgers and Hammerstein, after the revolutionary success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, decided to venture into producing. They booked Broadway’s biggest star, Ethel Merman, and who better to compose than Jerome Kern, who’d written Show Boat with Hammerstein? In later years he’d collaborated with the pre-eminent female lyricst, Dorothy Fields. And she and her brother Herbert, who’d been responsible for the libretto of some early Rodgers shows, would do the book. This seemed a perfect plan until Kern died.

     That led Rodgers and Hammerstein to call Irving Berlin, but there were a couple of problems. One was that Berlin was his own lyricist; Dorothy Fields would have to give up that role – Berlin was nice enough to compensate her, though. Everybody respected Berlin; except, it seemed, Berlin. He realized that Rodgers and Hammerstein had revolutionized the form, and wasn’t sure he could write their new style of show. But the innovators themselves would be standing by to the guide them through it, and before long, Irving Berlin came up with the best set of songs that had ever been written for one score.

     This sublime entertainment, created for 1946 audiences, has to come up with some sort of resolution of the conflict. Rosie the Riveter left her job at the factory. Annie Oakley perceives that she can’t retain Frank Butler’s affection if she bests him in a shooting contest. No refrain of “I’m not throwing away my shot” for her. Although we know she’s the superior marksman, she intentionally misses the target to shoot an arrow through Frank’s heart. Disappointing by today’s standards, but embraced by practically everyone in its time.

     Currently revived on Broadway is a post-war smash with a host of similarities, Kiss Me Kate. When its original producer was a stage manager, he observed the Lunts, the married pair of non-musical actors then considered America’s best. In some play in which they played a loving couple, backstage on-lookers were surprised to see them bicker – unhappily married people – as soon as they weren’t in front of the lights. There’s clearly a musical comedy in this, and the producer came to Cole Porter to write the songs. But Cole felt exactly what his friend Irving did: he thought he’d been supplanted by Rodgers and Hammerstein and their new-fangled “integrated” musical. To take the pressure off Porter, the idea became to do show a divorced couple working on a musical version of a Shakespeare play – and not a particularly good one. So, the show-within-the-show has a lower barre set for it: it really didn’t have to be good. And it could be as Porter-esque as anything the Indiana scion had written before the aforementioned revolution.

     Book writer Bella Spewack has my admiration for making this work. Unfortunately, she shares credit with her husband Sam, who did very little. They’d long been a team, but were now divorcing. (She didn’t need to rely on her imagination re Splitsville.) The libretto milks the premise: When we watch Petruchio spank Katherine in the show-within-the-show, we don’t know if we’re seeing Fred slapping the butt of ex-wife Lili a little too hard, out of spite. By the show’s conclusion Katherine sings Shakespeare’s words,

I am ashamed the women a so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.

Is this how Lili truly feels? Kiss Me Kate, like Annie Get Your Gun, exists in that pre-feminism period where musicals couldn’t risk upsetting “the tired businessman” who paid for the tickets. In recent decades, the Bard’s monologue has rubbed many the wrong way. Often, the actress will wink to show she’s not sincere. “Ah, there’s a wench!”

tickets/info about my subjective history

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Get you hence

July 9, 2019

August 7 – 10 I’m performing my Subjective History of Musical Theatre again, in Los Angeles.

When I tell people about it, I tend to sound egotistical – “Yeah, I do this thing and it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” People who’ve already attended the thing tell me I’ve undersold it. “It’s so much better than sliced bread, sliced bread isn’t a proper comparison.” I’m trapped between two camps: one suspects I’m being immodest; the other believes I’ve been way too modest.

Promoting one’s shows is just a fact of life in the theatre, something we all must do. I’ve never been comfortable with it. But here on the blog, at least I don’t have to look in your faces, seeing your “Oh, come on!” while I do it – this alleviates my embarrassment.

After my show, people inevitably come up to me and say they’ve never been so thoroughly entertained by anything of an educational nature. And “lecture” seems the wrong word for it, connoting the imparting of facts for students who might be taking notes, or falling asleep. The word I used in my first sentence today – performing – gets at it a bit more. I sing songs. I run to the piano to play illustrative pieces. I execute a Fosse move (!). But a lot of time, I ask my audience questions, such as “If you lived in Victorian England and wanted to gamble, legally, where would you go?” There’s a lot of improvisation as I deal with wrong answers. And, in a way, a light bulb goes on, as people connect that seemingly silly gambling question with a key moment in the development of musical comedy.

Just yesterday I asked a bunch of children if they knew the meaning of chip-on-my-shoulder. And this might have seemed too schoolteacher-y if there wasn’t a spirit of fun; no penalty for giving a wrong answer. Grown-ups don’t mind being teased in my lecture. It’s mock school. Learning happens, but we all know there are no grades given.

I’ve performed this every year since, I think, 2001. So, certain punch lines have hit enough audience’s ears that I know exactly how they’ll land. But what’s the opposite of a punch line? A cry line? People are quite surprised how moving at all is. Jokes are easy; I take more pride in getting tears to fall.

Some history lessons are a bunch of dates, easy to forget or dismiss. Others are a bunch of names. So, you’ve heard of Gilbert & Sullivan, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim and probably you know their music. By the end of my lecture, you’ll know them as a bunch of people, some of whom hated each other so much they couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. Another guy had to literally lock his collaborator in a room to get him to write. And I dramatize that story in a way that gets my audience to gasp.

Plus, there’s music. We tend to prefer the musical versions of plays – My Fair Lady over Pygmalion, for example – because music enhances the tale, gives us something extra to enjoy. So this is a far cry from college because how many college professors break out into song all the time?

I don’t mean to give anyone SAT flashbacks here, but there’s an Is To analogy that fits: My Fair Lady is to Pygmalion what my lecture is to other people’s lectures – worlds more entertaining because it’s chock full of song.

A lot of writers, I’ve noticed, wish to teach their audience something. I’ve a pretty low opinion of this ambition, because the shows often seem preachy, too school-like to effectively entertain me. My show’s the reverse. From the trappings, it seems to be an educational experience, but it’s more show than lesson. And I see an overlap between giving a riveting talk and creating a riveting musical.

It’s all about the storytelling. Picture cavemen around a campfire, captivating each other with accounts of their days. The one champion, the raconteur everyone most loved listening to, was Mel Brooks. Yes, he’s that old. (He’s the 2000 Year Old Man, after all.)

This sets me off on a tangent: His earliest professional credit I know of – billed as Melvin Brooks – was a sketch he contributed to the Broadway revue, New Faces of 1952. The best thing in that show was a song by Sheldon Harnick – also his first professional credit – and they’re both alive today. Pretty impressive. Who expects two members of a writing team to be around 67 years after opening night?

Adapting The Producers into a musical, Mel visited Jerry Herman, hoping to get him to write the score. Herman went to the piano and demonstrated that the perfect person to write the songs was right in that room – he played a medley of numbers Brooks had written for his films. Could Mel do it all? Not exactly, he needed a collaborator on the script, and the understanding of story structure Thomas Meehan brought to the piece proved a key ingredient in The Producers’ success.

Eventually, the pair published an explication, “The Producers: How We Did It.”

Now you know that this book exists, you naturally anticipate a fun time could be had reading it. You’re used to laughing at Mel Brooks material. I’m not comparing myself to Brooks here – who would do that?* – and this here blog is fairly dry: I don’t know that I get you to laugh all that often. So, it’s a bit of a stretch, imagining you’ll have the time of your life watching a manic raconteur detail the entire history of musical comedy. But… “It’s true! It’s true!”

Info/tickets

 


Stay (duet)

June 29, 2019

After Terrence McNally had traveled with John Steinbeck and his family as tutor to the kids, the novelist advised he write anything except for the theatre, because the theatre breaks your heart. Broadway isn’t fair; Broadway doesn’t care – I think we can all agree. A couple of songwriters this past season did some admirable work, and yet they’re left with broken hearts this month. Their shows have posted closing notices, and I feel for them.

Just a couple of decades ago, it was hard to find a funny musical on Broadway. I have my theories about why this era of bad feelings occurred, but, as a frequently disappointed theatregoer, I dreamed of a sunnier day. What if shows had original stories, or, if not entirely original, were based on books I hadn’t heard of? Rather than, say, movies? What if a new generation of songwriters came along who could create songs that made you laugh out loud? And wouldn’t it be great if the sound of their music seemed informed by recent innovations in pop? Was this too much to hope for?

My prayers, and the prayers of a whole bunch of people I know, were answered last November by The Prom, by Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar. Here’s an entertainment where the jokes keep sailing across the footlights, all the while providing a satisfying emotional experience. And the critics went crazy: The Times, The Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, New York, and here’s a brief quote from David Cote in the Observer:

Had The Prom‘s creative team…limited the frame to this story of intolerance and resistance, it would be spinachly worthy and Trumpily relevant. But they wrap an outrageous showbiz satire around the earnest center, and the result is the perfect blend of salt and sweet.

There was a time – maybe as recent as that dour decade, the nineties – when a set of reviews like The Prom’s would have guaranteed years of sold-out houses. But, a couple of weeks ago, it announced its end date this summer.

June has long been the time when the Grim Reaper swings his scythe on shows. In early June is that mammoth marketing tool, the Tony telecast. Shows that perform on TV hope to see a boost in ticket sales, and, if they don’t, they depart. We’re used to this. And now that we’re on the subject of dying, I must utter three spooky words: Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice. The musicalization of the oddly beloved movie saw a surge in ticket sales following the broadcast, despite winning zero Tony awards. One might surmise the excerpt looked good to people: Hold that thought. The Prom also aired a sequence, which included two teen girls kissing, a particularly joyous moment in the show when you see it. It didn’t see its sales increase, and so it goes.

But what if the Tony show includes a wonderfully humorous number, but nobody watching knows its from a currently running Broadway show that they can buy tickets to? When I said, a moment ago, that the Tonys live on CBS are a marketing tool, I wasn’t criticizing, just pointing out a fact. But here’s where I’m of the opinion that Be More Chill suffered a particularly cruel fate. Three years ago, in a New York cabaret show, I got to play a charming rendition of a song from the score, Michael in the Bathroom. I’d long admired the songwriter, Joe Iconis, for other amusing numbers I’d also played over the years, such as Blue Hair and Joey Is a Punk Rocker. Naturally, I was glad to see the author of Broadway, Here I Come come to Broadway and get nominated for a Tony.

Be More Chill arrived in 2019 but had already gained an impressive number of fans, which explains how a young man thought of doing it three years prior to its opening. Iconis gets his songs out there, and while very few have seen his shows on stage, millions have enjoyed his songs which have a knack for the vernacular. His award-winning lyrics capture adolescent vocabulary with verisimilitude. His always-catchy tunes gibe with that, a young person’s music.

Lorenz Hart wrote that Radio City Music Hall is “where the ladies’ room is bigger than a palace” but the small screen revealed James Corden sitting on a toilet, singing a familiar tune. The lyric was different – specific to the anxiety of hosting the Tonys – and soon he was joined by last year’s hosts, Sara Bareilles & Josh Groban. Droll? I suppose. But when nobody mentioned that the song was a parody of the aforementioned Be More Chill number, my smile turned to disgust. I later discovered that Joe Iconis was totally surprised by this lampoon; nobody had bothered to tell him in advance.

Two weeks later, Be More Chill announced its terminal date. Television viewers might have loved that number; they wouldn’t have known what show to buy tickets for.

While I very much enjoyed Be More Chill’s recording, I haven’t seen the show and it didn’t get great reviews. Neither did Beetlejuice, which received this knock from The Wrap in a review titled “Tim Burton’s Ghosts Turn Scarily Uncomic in Musical Misfire”

Elaine Stritch once visited Nathan Lane backstage at the “Addams Family” musical and famously told him, “They’re not paying you enough.” They’re not paying Alex Brightman enough to star in the ghost ship of a new musical called “Beetlejuice.”

Maybe I sound too fixated on what critics have to say, but this has to do with my remembering a time when reviews mattered. Theatergoers used to educate themselves before buying a ticket. If you trusted, say, John Lahr, you’d want to go to whatever he said to see. This may sound like ceding to much power to critics, but consider the alternative: You don’t read reviews, hear no word of mouth, fail to familiarize yourself with behind-the-scene names, nothing. You just scan names of shows: Be More Chill, The Prom, Hadestown – you haven’t heard of these. Beetlejuice, Pretty Woman, Tootsie – you know these titles, and probably have fond (if vague) memories of the hit film comedies from years ago. That’s where the money of the willfully ignorant ticket-buyer goes.

June gloom, practically every year. Broadway, that heartbreaker, will do it to ya.


Animal family

June 18, 2019

You know that thing about a large-enough quantity of monkeys sitting at typewriters writing all of Shakespeare? This isn’t that.

Suppose, instead, a hundred musical theatre writers were forced to come up with shows based on the common scourge of bullying at school. 99 of those hundred would include lachrymose ballads about how sad you feel when mean kids pick on you. It’s like an open manhole cover that a parade of creators would fall into. The exception, the one-out-of-a-hundred who avoids the trap, is Michael Gordon Shapiro.

His wholly original musical, The Bully Problem, now at the Broadwater near Santa Monica Blvd. & Vine as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, is the sort of relentless delight that musicals used to be but rarely are any more. It refuses to wallow. It delivers jokes and events at an impressive pace that never flags. It keeps the entertainment balloon aloft, rather than getting stuck in the manhole labeled Life Can Be Cruel.

I’m honor-bound to disclose Mike is a friend, and this means some readers will disregard the praise here. But I’m writing to illuminate certain issues of show construction, not to convince you to go. But here’s a handy link for tickets.

You might think bullying is no laughing matter. As a former bullied kid myself, I can understand that line of thinking. But my mind goes to Kander & Ebb. The rise of the Nazis is a dark subject, but we enjoy their fabulously entertaining diegetic pieces in Cabaret. Years later, their Kiss of the Spiderwoman found glimmers of brightness in a dank and hopeless Latin American prison. Even more extraordinary was their subversive high-kicking minstrel show about The Scottsboro Boys. Why haven’t more people learned from them? They juxtaposed serious subjects with razzmatazz, toe-tapping tunes and gut-punch punch lines more than once.

What I find in most new musicals – and it depresses me – is that the miserable shows are so damn depressing. Too many creators are overly attracted to the shiny bauble that is the Moving Ballad. They see shows and shed tears during a song and decide they want to write something that will get their audience to cry. Sixty years ago, a revue made fun of this, with an up-tempo showing songwriters excited to serve up Man’s Inhumanity To Man. Nowadays, we get dragged into the theatre to see kids with cancer – I’m not kidding, although I wish I were – and it’s a fine though unfunny mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

photo: Matt Kamimura

What a blast of fresh air is The Bully Problem, with its myriad witticisms, actions and events coming at a pace that puts you at the edge of your seat. I’m not saying I loved every moment, but when story beats keep hurtling at you, a confidence grows that the next moment will be one you’ll like or love. When I say it doesn’t wallow, the word, “wallow” has two senses. One is to amplify depressing emotions; the other is to do that… really… slowly.

This, more than the refusal to play up the sad, seems to me the secret of the show’s success. The Bully Problem zips along. Punch lines land like a boxing champion’s punches. Things happen – I imagine an outline of this might make it seem like a three-hour epic, but it’s actually half that. There are surprises along the way. And also something you might not realize if you’re not a music nerd: the meters and feels of the songs are varied enough to create their own subtle propulsion. In any good show, audiences look forward to the next song (sorry, book-writers), but this score manages, almost magically, to kick us into a new gear every time. There’s actually a song called Off Balance, an apt title because that’s how we feel taking in its jagged rhythm.

Torpor can set in when a musical keeps a steady tempo, keeps feeding us new blips of information at regular intervals. The adrenaline rush of The Bully Problem is connected to an irregular fusillade of surprises. And some weeks before I saw this fairly slick production, Mike said something on a similar wave-length:

“Writing for stage requires an intuition about the pacing of human speech, and an ability to imagine a real-time performance. Otherwise a scene that looks reasonable in text can actually feel interminable when performed. Time is the most valuable resource on stage, and each word hogs some.”

It’s particularly satisfying to discover he’s kept the hogs at bay.

Now I suspect there are some people reading this who firmly believe that for a musical about a serious subject must musicalize the pain of a victim’s plight. How, you wonder, can The Bully Problem provide catharsis without some gloriously-sung It’s Sad To Be Bullied cri de coeur? Maybe you’d have to see it to believe it. But sitting next to me was someone who’s recently dealt with a Mean Girl and she shed some tears over what was happening to these characters and felt better after the show was over. You will too.

 

 


Fun parent

June 10, 2019

Generally I don’t talk about television programs here where our subject is writing musicals for the stage. But, when famous musical theatre creators make a miniseries about creating musicals, well, it’s fodder for contemplation. And, as I’ve said before, television is a great equalizer. We all have one in our home, whereas relatively few of you have seen, say, The Prom, at this point. There’s a greater chance, with TV, that reader and writer have experienced the same entertainment.

But haven’t we been here before? Yes, there was that time a bunch of theatre people were cast in a show about creating musicals and the result was … a colossal bore called Smash. I had to say a few words. And it wasn’t just joining a chorus of disapproval. I particularly disliked the synthetic songs by the experienced Broadway team of Shaiman and Wittman, but it’s easier to recall the total lack of realism. Everything seemed false, filled with incidents that never really happen.

So now the Hamilton quartet has teamed up with Dear Evan Hansen’s librettist to bring us Fosse/Verdon and in many ways it is Smash’s polar opposite. It’s a dual biography of Broadway’s greatest married pair of talents, and there’s admirable verisimilitude in every frame. All the incidents seem like they could have happened, and many of them did. The songs, of course, are the terrific show tunes from actual musicals by Adler & Ross, Coleman & Fields, Stephen Schwartz, and Kander & Ebb. Beloved Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz has a major role, one in which, amusingly, he refuses to sing. But the other leads are Terpsichores, so Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell have to pass themselves off as brilliant dancers, and it’s pretty amazing how well they do.

Smash made me apoplectic and dyspeptic just thinking about how the network-viewing world was getting such a patently false impression of the things we do. Fosse/Verdon doesn’t bother me, partly because it’s set in the past, and present-day audiences know some things have changed. Bob Fosse’s attention to detail – which made him such an extraordinary choreographer, stage director and then movie director – is echoed in Thomas Kail’s endeavor to get the tiny things right. There’s something inherently fascinating about a top Tony-winning musical theatre director shedding light on the musical-making process.

But haven’t we been here before? Why, yes: 1979, to be precise. Bob Fosse released All That Jazz, a film revealing his process creating Chicago at the same time he was editing his movie, Lenny, a pressure cooker that landed him in a hospital. So, you have dynamic cinematography of a choreographer hard at work, irresponsibly self-medicating, flirting with death both literally and figuratively, fantasy numbers, one-night-stands with chorus dancers, sex on a hospital bed and the idea that razzle-dazzle can mask the depressing realities of life. Am I talking about All That Jazz or Fosse/Verdon here? Well, both, and that’s a problem.

On F/X, F/V is showing us nearly exactly what we’ve seen before. Fosse’s teetering-on-the-edge life intercut with black and white footage of a stand-up act getting too few chuckles? We know this isn’t an accidental steal because the show depicts the filming of Lenny and All That Jazz. I could complain that too little is revealed of Fosse’s art but, truthfully, All That Jazz revealed enough for me.

Despite the “mini” in its title, a miniseries is a comparatively long form. That self-lacerating auto-bio flick runs two hours and is set in the 70s, when a songwriter worries Sinatra won’t record his laughably corny number. Fosse/Verdon has all this extra time and we get one delightful flashback to Damn Yankees and then the next fourteen years go unexamined. So, let’s shift to that period.

In 1956, that best-year-for-musicals-ever, Fosse teamed once last time with his mentor, the first hyphenate director-choreographer Jerome Robbins on a hit, Bells Are Ringing. The next year he choreographed New Girl In Town, a show based on a play by Eugene O’Neill, and the Tony for Best Actress went to both its stars, Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon (her third Tony). Then Verdon used her clout to insist her future husband be hired as both director and choreographer on Redhead. The show and the pair all won Tonys

Now’s when I get to talk about my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It contains a musical number that’s intentionally awful, part of a televised game show. Producer Cy Feuer (played by Paul Reiser in the series) hired an inept choreographer and then had to bring in Fosse to fix the dances. Fosse insisted they leave the risibly bad game show number exactly as it was, let the original choreographer keep his credit, and came up with hysterically funny steps for all the other songs, including the famous slumping chorus line.

Physical humor was, back then, the hallmark of Fosse’s style – movements making mirth. Naturally, he teamed up with Neil Simon on the Sid Caesar vehicle, Little Me. On that, a textual disagreement with lyricist Carolyn Leigh prompted her to run outside, grab a policeman, and yell at him to arrest Fosse. But the cop was far too amused.

For the next Verdon vehicle – one in which she only left the stage for one scene – Fosse used Little Me’s composer, Cy Coleman and Redhead’s lyricist, Dorothy Fields to adapt a rather melodramatic Fellini film. They decided an extra helping of laughter was needed and Fosse and Verdon flew off to Italy where Doc Simon was doing a movie. They traveled with a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder so they could play Simon the songs and explain/dance what would happen in the numbers. He said yes, and Sweet Charity became a smash hit, one that catapulted Fosse into moviemaking.

That, folks, is my favorite episode in the lives of Fosse and Verdon. You’d think a moment of sheer delight might be part of a show about them, but, alas, there’s an emphasis on the dour rather than the razzle-dazzle.

 


Searching

June 3, 2019

Today’s the anniversary of the day I first met my wife, ace casting director Joy Dewing.

After a recent performance of Identity, Joy met my work wife, Elaine Hall.

Identity

Wife met wife. Are we confused yet?

A Work Wife is a female collaborator, someone you work with so intensively on a project (in this case, an original musical), that you find you’re spending more time with the Work Wife than your actual spouse.

Larry Hart, the best lyricist who ever was, depicted romance as including a “conversation with the flying plates,” but musical writers rarely have plates handy. We painstakingly iron out disagreements, negotiate, find new ways of doing things that is neither’s original idea but somehow acceptable to both.

Elaine, one of three librettists, also directed the show, all the while running The Miracle Project, an organization serving the autistic community through performing arts. It’s fair to say we have different concerns, and experiences. And so now I’ll switch to large type to say something I’ve said a zillion times on this site:

Know Your Audience

My experience – writing musicals for New Yorkers – tells me to focus on the audience’s experience, how they’d take in all the characters and situations in our show. Elaine, on the other hand, has been enrapturing her organization’s audiences for years and years. She knew, far better than I, what would work for this particular population.

Elaine

But she had another concern: the baker’s dozen performers who are somewhere on the autism spectrum. The Miracle Project exists to provide a positive experience for this populace, presumably a therapeutic one. Me, I’m used to writing shows where I don’t worry about whether actors will have a good time, or even whether they can do what I’m asking them to do. In New York, where my other shows played, you can always find thespians who are willing and eager to do anything. Identity was the creation of two dozen people sitting in a room coming up with ideas about what should go into the show. Some created characters, and might inform us we were asking characters to do things that felt wrong: inconsistent or unmotivated. That’s not the way I’m used to working.

But the group-devised aspect of Identity’s creation was something I truly treasure. Our discussions always went to unexpected places. And now – perhaps because I’m hungry – I’m thinking of those TV cooking contests where chefs are given a bunch of odd ingredients and told to make something. There’s a joy in that. We took in a lot of input and mixed the batter into a coherent whole.

And succeeded: Identity turned out to be an extraordinary musical, one that thrilled audiences. Long, sustained applause for every number, sold-out houses, the crowd leaping to their feet as one at the end. Among these was my actual wife, Joy.

The dominant theme of Joy’s many years as a casting director is inclusiveness. She gives every aspiring performer a fair look, unlike so many rivals who commonly “type out” all sorts of talented people without seeing (or caring?) what they can do. So many things you see involve performers who are, you know, the so-called Majority. White, thin, of a certain height, fully mobile, good eyesight and hearing, and, the word I recently learned, neuro-typical.

Joy

Elaine, over a similar period, has worked tirelessly to get young adults who are not neuro-typical seen for various roles on stage and screen. Which explains why the working wife and the real wife have much to talk about.

To some extent, it appears some new doors are finally opening. Joy offered early encouragement to Ali Stroker, now Tony-nominated for her fantastic portrayal of Ado Annie in the multi-racial Oklahoma! now at Circle-in-the-Square, and I’ve also seen her at Paper Mill in a production helmed by Such Good Friends director Marc Bruni. Elaine has shepherded a number of youths with autism on to a Netflix series called Atypical. Atypical mucky mucks were among the attendees and honorees at Identity’s packed-to-the-rafters gala opening benefit.

Unlike Atypical, Identity isn’t about autistic people. But our production, naturally, served as a celebration of what the autistic can do. Thirteen shared the stage with nine who aren’t on the spectrum; nobody could tell which was which. But this wasn’t a game of who’s who. It was a moving, incident-packed, funny musical comedy, the product of about thirty varied and creative minds, aligned in a commitment towards doing something truly special.

Chief of my allies was Assistant Director and co-librettist Sandy Abramson, who efficiently sent out sixty different drafts, keeping us three on the same page. The other credited book writer was responsible for what we called the first draft, and did no further work on the project. We never met each other.

But this shifts my mind to the meeting that we commemorate today. I opened my door and there was this wonderful young lady in a sweatshirt, looking not at all like her picture. But better. A bewitching smile, a dancer-like ease of movement, a sparkle in those eyes that seem sculpted by a master artist. While writing that sentence – and is it a sentence? I can’t find the verb – she walked into the room, briefly. It’s been many years, but yeah, she’s still got it.


Dance

May 26, 2019

“They sure don’t write ‘em like that any more!” Words often heard when people appreciate a revival of some old musical. It’s utter crap, of course, an inadvertent display of ignorance.

There’s a new musical on Broadway now that’s chock full of Golden Era virtues. It’s very funny, but it also has a hell of a lot of heart. It makes you feel good, and you also get to experience the giddy joy of a teenager getting to dance with a loved one at her prom. In the film world, the term “RomCom” is used disparagingly, as if there’s something unworthy about making an audience laugh and feel the feels. Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciate musicals that deliver these old-fashioned goods; a RomCom, well-done, is a great thing to be.

The Prom has music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and book by Bob Martin and Beguelin, based on Jack Viertel’s inspiration, a decade ago, that there ought to be a show about a Midwestern high school banning gay couples from prom night. I wouldn’t call that a brilliant idea; in retrospect, it seems an obvious idea. But if you’re a writer wondering whether you have a good idea for a musical, think about the Sondheim canon. Bachelor observes friends’ marital squabbles; man with much younger virgin bride can’t quite connect with his mistress, revenge killer has an accomplice bake victims into pies; sickly ugly woman stalks a soldier. Premises, premises: I’m all through with premises premises now.

It’s how it’s handled. The Prom is rendered by experienced musical theatre writers who know a thing or two about time-tested craft. Sklar, Begulin and Martin wrote Elf, which I didn’t see, but I much admire their Broadway debuts: the songwriters did The Wedding Singer and Martin wrote book and starred in The Drowsy Chaperone. That hysterical love-letter to musical theatre nerds was the directing debut of Casey Nicholaw, who directed two musicals centering on high school girls last year, Mean Girls and The Prom. Without Sklar (my colleague at City Lights Youth Theatre), Begulin and Nicholaw have a monster hit in Aladdin. And now it seems like I’m just listing a lot of credits, but I’m thinking back to the Disney cartoon-to-stage adaptations that weren’t nearly as successful and surmise that these guys have some secret sauce that makes musical comedies successful.

In a different era, Casey Nicholaw would be a household name. If we venerated humor – and I believe we should – we might build a shrine to the master of making things funny. So, forgive me, more credits: Nicholaw choreographed Spamalot, an uproarious hit, and directed and choreographed The Book of Mormon and Something Rotten. The guy’s doing something right, and may hold the record for landing more jokes than any director alive.

Just last night a friend told me she knows all the songs in The Prom and I believe her. These strong and hummable tunes are put together well; they land their laughs and, when they need to, tug on the heart. A show-stopper called Zazz is so specifically crafted to chorine Angie Schworer’s amazing talents, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing it. Nicholaw here creates the rarest of things, a solo dance that actually provokes laughter.

But a good number of the numbers do this wonderful old school thing of playing up things the cast members do particularly well. So there’s that Drowsy Chaperone herself, Beth Leavel, ripping into a driving up-tempo that works both as a parody of what Leavel can do and an exemplar of it.

Similarly, Brooks Ashmanskas rips into a number that’s funny, fabulous and emotional. Too similarly, though, there’s Christopher Sieber. Nothing at all wrong with his performance, but somehow nobody noticed that his character is totally unnecessary, performing exactly the same function Ashmanskas performs in the show.

So that’s a qualm about The Prom. I thought it a very good musical. Glad I saw it, has a lot of heart. I don’t think The Prom is an excellent musical, though. There’s a level of predictability to the plot that might lead an East German judge to shave off a point on his card. And while the book and lyrics are very, very funny, I found myself wishing they were even more hysterical. Maybe three verys.

At times like this, I can’t avoid thinking about another Bob Martin creation, The Man In Chair. In The Drowsy Chaperone, he addresses the audience, conveying his enthusiasm for 1920s musicals with their creaky improbable plots and their shoehorned song cues. Then we see scenes from the show he’s describing, and it’s delightfully awful. Or wonderful. Or we’re meant to confront this confusion. Old musicals – awful, or wonderful? Both. There’s much that can be appreciated as well as much that’s disappeared with the era, like bathtub gin evaporating. (Does it even do that? I’ve never left a drop behind to see.)

So here, in the twenty-teens, we have a musical set in the twenty-teens, filled with the virtues and methods of musicals from the nineteen-fifties. Am I the only one who finds this odd, or ironic? Idea-generator Jack Viertel published a book a few years ago delineating things that make Golden Era musicals work. And The Prom, set in our time, seems not of our time. They sure do write ‘em like they used to! Would Man In Chair cheer?