Riding on a shark

August 23, 2017

Circumstances – some unforeseen, none about health – have led me to consider the topic of retirement. What if – and this is a big

WHAT IF

– I didn’t write musicals any more? Some of my favorite writers stopped, at some point: Jerry Herman, Harvey Schmidt, Craig Carnelia. They’re alive. Late masters like Irving Berlin, Frederick Loewe and Cole Porter put down their pens many years before dying. Do we view it as a great shame that Loewe wrote so little after Camelot and Herman nothing after La Cage aux Folles? Well, yes, actually, we do.
But I’m not them. No legions of fans are shuffling on their feet, biding their time until my next work hits the boards. I’m known by few, and that can certainly be viewed as a failing of some sort. I’ve failed to make such a mark of The World of Musical Comedy that a significant coterie feels any sort of anticipation for a new Noel Katz show. So, that’s a thing: If you’re not particularly wanted, leave and you won’t be missed.

Readers of this blog know I too often celebrate the rounder anniversaries of my past musicals’ openings. Every production has led some to exclaim “I love what you do! I love your writing!” Those cheers ring in my ears, feeding my fragile ego years and years after the fact.

Having just visited a relative who is a horse-racing maven, I have this analogy for my career: Very fast start, then petered off toward the end. Thoroughbreds who do that are exciting but ultimately disappointing. So, I look back on the six shows I got to see on stage in my twenties and think, well, those were really fabulous times. The past ten years, though, well, nobody would call them fabulous. I spent a lot of time and energy rewriting my award-winning 2007 show, Such Good Friends. Then I started a project, which I decided to abandon. There was a trunk song cabaret, which then got revived. The first draft of one of my current projects was done in a private reading in 2014. That means that, at this turn, the amount of positive reinforcement has seemed comparatively small.

My natural bent is to soldier on. I realize I lived a charmed life in my twenties. Projects don’t always pan out. Sometimes you have an idea for a show and it turns out to be the wrong idea for you – which is why I abandoned Haven. But starting to write a theatre piece is a huge leap of faith. You’re going to put words on paper and hold on to this shred of hope that says that someday, maybe years from now, actors will do this on a stage for an audience. If you’re very lucky, you might have a project that’s definitely going to be produced by a specific date. This was true for me on The Heavenly Theatre, The New U. and The Pirate Captains. I also had strong reasons to believe The Christmas Bride and Area 51 would get done because my collaborators had the wherewithal to produce and that’s what eventually happened. As I said, that’s leading a charmed life, and, these days, my life seems a lot less charmed.

Merely writing this has pointed to a paradox: To write musicals, one must be extremely optimistic. At this time in my life, lacking those cheering affirmations, I’m extremely pessimistic. It doesn’t seem like I can take a leap of faith when I’ve so little faith I’ll get through August.

For me, though, the way I get through anything is, usually, by writing. Not sure how healthy this is, but when I’m stressed I often shut myself away and just concentrate on creating songs. Which leaves me with a bunch of songs, unheard, and what are you going to do with those? If the way I get through a day is by retreating to my writing pad, then stopping writing musicals is eliminating my primary coping mechanism. (Or blogging, to use the current moment.)

A relative is having a brain surgery, and a good friend had brain surgery last summer. So, what keeps coming to my mind is a metaphorical image, that part of the brain is being cut away. Here I am with tons of experience writing musicals. Stuff I put on paper gets all the way to a paying audience and from this comes a certain amount of “smarts.” And if I’m not using this chunk of know-how, it’s as if a huge concatenation of brain cells is being surgically removed. How can I stop now? It’s tantamount to a self-mutilation.

As this blog approaches 400 essays, I sometimes think, well, at least I’ve put a lot of this knowledge down on a web page. That’s nearly half a million words, and, if you’re interested in knowing my opinion, methodology, and experience, a lot of it is contained here. So many pages, so much information, that the blog doesn’t really need the additional wisdom I’ll glean working on more shows. This blog will go on – I’m unable to kick the habit of sharing thoughts about the writing of musicals. So, you readers will be fine. But you gotta keep me away from knives, O.K.?


Polka

August 12, 2017

As the musical theatre community grieves the loss, at 89, of the finest soprano ever, Barbara Cook, much is said about the beauty of her voice, the clarity of her tone, the warmth of her sound. Yes, all of that is so, but I feel every bit of praise for her vocal gifts somehow misses the point. You can possess fantastic vocal cords, you can train your ass off, as opera singers do, in quest of perfection, you still wouldn’t come close to her accomplishments. She wasn’t merely the Voice; she was the Actress, the Personality.

Barbara Cook, it is said, had two careers: leading lady in Broadway musicals, and then the doyenne of the cabaret world. That’s a natural progression for someone whose specialty was acting lyrics with meaning and intent. In musicals, roles are more plentiful for the young and the thin. Once she was neither – and most mark The Grass Harp (1971) as the end of the beginning – she took her gifts to the venue where audiences give the most concentration to lyrics. Rooms with fewer than 100 seats get listeners to prick up their ears. (Of course, Cook was so successful, the rooms included Carnegie Hall.) There aren’t those musical theatre distractions like sets, dancers, book scenes, a story to tell. I’m among the lucky ones, who got to sit in rapt attention at the Carlyle one night, her warmth delivering happiness to everyone in the room.

Mostly, though, like most of you, my understanding of Barbara Cook is based on cast recordings. Since I’m often talking about how those twelve inches of vinyl make misleading impressions, I’m going to have to ask: “What am I missing here?” The most obvious omission is the acting, and Cook was a good enough actress to appear in two of Broadway’s more notable comedies in the 1960s, Little Murders and Any Wednesday. I find this remarkable, aware of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between performers in musicals and thespians in plays. Records and videos give glimpses of what the lady can do with lines. Take that most popular of American arias, butchered by many an opera diva, Glitter and Be Gay. The original Broadway cast album of Candide – which has to be the most glorious capture of a flop musical, ever – has her speaking

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets…lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

I’ve heard too many sopranos with no idea how to put the right spin on those words to make them funny. Cunegonde has been forced into whoredom – that’s the “awful cost” – but she’s so tickled by endearing trinkets, she’s not certain she got the bad end of the bargain. Nobody would write such a concept today, in our increased-sensitivity-to-sexual-slavery times. But 61 years ago (and ever since), Cook’s interpretive gifts made this hysterically funny and fun.

When considering what we love about her signature song, Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me, is it the gloriousness of the penultimate high B, or is it that we’re reacting to a grounded-in-reality character sorting through a bunch of emotions and discoveries in a recognizably human way? Amalia’s numbers in She Loves Me inspire love in all but the coldest-hearted listener. Since I’m always thinking about songwriters, I usually marvel about Sheldon Harnick’s humorous, charming text and Jerry Bock’s delightful near-classical setting. Collaborator Cook got the whole thing to fly; it could never have worked without her fully-formed character. In a little gem called No More Candy, her would-be shop clerk is forced to improvise a defense of how a small box with a lock on it is “functional” and delicately mentions a “slight tendency to overweight.” Now, there are plenty of observers who believe that Cook’s life story is that she went from thin leading lady to plus-size cabaret star due to a notable change in girth. But this ignores something (I’m clearly straining to avoid saying “the elephant in the room.” Sorry.):

Barbara Cook – the young and thin edition – was not astoundingly pretty. This separates her from many, if not all, of the ingénues who burst on the scene in the mid-fifties. Here was a new kind of star. Not dazzling in appearance, she got us to focus on her characters’ hearts, what they were feeling in every breath. This, to me, is the musical theatre ideal: At its best, we’re living the emotional life of the people we’re watching. And, as they fall in love “Vanilla ice cream: imagine that!” we do the same. So, a classical beauty finding love, by 1955, was old news. Of course hot stuff succeeds in getting male attention. It’s harder for us mere mortals. And I think this is key to why I find Something You’ve Never Had Before the most moving of her numbers. She offers a heart that’s true, not a face that could launch a thousand ships, and I tear up at the idea that the man’s too dense to notice her inner beauty.

All of this reminds me of a Sondheim song I never much cared for until I heard Barbara Cook’s rendition. In Buddy’s Eyes had always struck me as a rather plain and extended wifely paean, not quite dramatic enough to justify its length. But when Cook sings “I’m young; I’m beautiful” or “I don’t get older” you hear the heartbreak in the self-delusion. Ambivalence simmers underneath; the lady is kept alive by the lies she tells herself. You don’t think Sally is crazy, hearing the Follies In Concert album; you revel in a beautiful coping mechanism; you care.

Finally, let’s pivot back from the complex to the simplistic, and take in how she infused what’s essentially a plain (not fancy) lullaby with true longing. In The Music Man, it’s established that every night she sings a plaintive waltz to a little girl. We’re set up for something meaningless and dismissible. Cook colors her tones in a way that illuminates the touching reality that Marian the librarian truly depends on a wish and a star to bring her love.

Sweet dreams be yours, dear, if dreams there be
Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.
I wish they may and I wish they might.
Now goodnight, my someone, goodnight.

 


Rondo

August 4, 2017

It’s a big anniversary, ‘round about now, of my musical for children called Popsicle Palace. Except it’s no longer called Popsicle Palace. Merely because the owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, the show is now called Not a Lion. You’d think that, rather than telling us to cease and desist, they might have explored striking up a partnership to our mutual benefit. But good ideas tend to evaporate faster than frozen ade on a stick in the sun.

In a way, Not a Lion is based on another of my musicals that ran into a rights problem. There was a time when the estate of C. S. Lewis allowed anyone to adapt any of his Chronicles of Narnia to the stage. When I was a teenager, my friend Jodi Rogaway proposed that we musicalize The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of the songs I wrote were pretty childish – after all, I wasn’t a grown-up, and knew I was writing for children. But a handful were impressive: cassettes of these helped me get into college and the BMI workshop.

Years passed and Jodi and I lost touch. But then I heard that she’d spent a year studying children’s theatre in Birmingham, England. And there, for one performance, she produced and directed our Through the Wardrobe. I was not yet 20. So I accomplished the coup of getting a show in front of an audience while still in my teens, even if I wasn’t there to see it.

More years passed, and Jodi had married a writer named Lee Rooklin. They lived not far from a family-run theatre in-the-round in Los Angeles, and weekend matinees were musicals for children. Jodi again seized her opportunity and got the theatre all excited about doing Through the Wardrobe. But, after ten years, the rights issue became a big deal. The Lewis estate was no longer allowing adaptations willy-nilly. We thought all was lost.

But Jodi knew she had a hook in a fish. This theatre wanted to work with her, and really liked my songs in that score. Jodi and her husband came up with a completely different story that could utilize at least some of the old Wardrobe songs.

It’s a completely different animal when you’re adults fashioning an original story together. For me, it meant adding a half-dozen songs to the half-dozen we opted to keep from the old score. And I also got to tweak the old ones: a weak piece for a minor character got overhauled with a sort of tap break recitation-in-rhythm. Almost beat for beat, Frozen, decades later, employed the same idea in its best song, In Summer. The cast, and people who saw the production, couldn’t tell the old from the new. But I see them as Before-Lehman Engel and After Lehman-Engel. I knew so much more about moving a story through song.

The premise of our new tale is that an ordinary housecat gets whisked off to a land where the local animals all think he’s a lion. And I found a way of putting that identity crisis smack dab in the middle of a duet. A cat, claiming to be just a cat, points out certain characteristics that indicate his species. An observer – who happens to be a penguin – points out a bunch of things that are true of both lions and cats. Not a Lion became a title song long after the run, but it’s among my favorite things I’ve written.

The score’s full of fun forms: there’s a four-part quodlibet, a round, something of a fugue, and, while I was coming up with this stuff, my mind went back to a song I’d enjoyed as a boy, I Am a Fine Musician. In it, different “bandsmen” – that is, singers imitating various instruments, add their sounds to a brief little chorus.

I stole the form but used clashing swords, fife, drum and the sound of an otter whacking its tail against the ground. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I spent that summer in L.A. to orchestrate and musical direct. At the time, my father was moving out of a chalet-like house in the hills, and I got to house-sit for a time, which was good living. The show was so successful, it often got sold out, and the finite run was extended several times. And I recall the company of actors as being particularly warm to me. Which prompts me to quote the finale, which could have been written about them:

I feel warm. Warm. Warm!
Warm as a fire
Or warm as alphabet soup
Warm as a choir
That huddles, like this, in a group
So warm that a snowball
Is no ball in no time at all
We’ve just begun the season
That comes before the fall
And it’s all
Because of you
You humans from beyond the border
Figment’s order is restored
And, speaking of the border, I see the way back home
Home. Home!
Home is where it’s warm as a canyon
That runs through hot desert sands
Warm, my companion
As we’re warmly holding hands
Life here was an igloo
A big losing battle it seemed
But now our home is warmer than we ever dreamed it would be
Warm. Warm. Warm.


Bows

July 24, 2017

The audience basically sat there with their jaws dropped. The reaction wasn’t “This is great.” The reaction was “Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything so marvelous.” You could feel this energy throughout the theatre, the entire building was abuzz with how fantastic the performance was.

You know, it has never been my intention to make this blog the place where I brag. So I’m going to try, today, to accurately reflect and reflect upon what happened in Connecticut at the beginning of July. As usual, I hope to be interesting and useful to creators of musicals. But, let’s face it, some of this is going to sound like boasting. Deal.

The occasion was a presentation of a portion of The Christmas Bride. I am responsible for its music and lyrics and circumstances landed me in the director’s chair. To my surprise, it’s not a tall wood-and-canvas thing with a title on the back. It fell upon me to select a cast of eight, rehearse them and tell them where to move. We had an extremely short amount of time to put this together, and the lion’s share was spent getting the notes right. An exorbitant number of minutes were lost to laughter, as a couple of players found a bit of business so funny, they were unable to get it together and deliver the material with a straight face.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

But when they were on, they were ON. I’ve never encountered a crowd so titillated. The tongue-in-cheek machismo of leading man Matthew Griffin had the effect of literally turning a lot of women on. And, you know, my wife cast Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, so now we’re both used to having that effect.

I really think the best thing I did in this fraught process was choosing the performers I got. Six had worked together for two years as students of mine. Solid and stolid David Arthur Bachrach is a veteran of two previous Christmas Bride productions, this time essaying a new role. One day I had a brainstorm that my current student Megan Poulos had all the right stuff to be the title character. I took a leap of faith that she’d play well off of Matthew Griffin, who’d made such a great impression earlier this year in Encores’ The New Yorkers at City Center. He’s got the looks, the voice, the goofy swagger; could they project the chemistry of illicit lovers taking a leap of faith on each other?

In a word, yes. This was the thing that thrilled me most. Book writer MK Wolfe and I had always hoped for a certain sexually charged energy between our leads. Previous productions had come up a little short, I think, as the lines and lyrics have to bounce off the pair in a way that sizzles. It’s that old saw that casting a show right is more than half the battle. Here was the proof of that pudding (made of plum?), a very fortunate happenstance. Players with a similar background was a felicitous shortcut: They all knew how to get behind the energy of the piece. MK Wolfe’s book effectively keeps the stakes high, and the players played them for all they’re worth.

Well-played melodrama knocks out an audience – the fraught sense that everything that’s happening is of great importance, has huge consequences for the characters. One could tell from the opening minutes that people were thunderstruck by what they were seeing.

And it was more than my cast of New Yorkers. I also believe the quality of the writing stunned the crowd. The little that is arbitrary never seemed arbitrary because viewers got used to being rewarded for their concentration. In a plot sense, little clues are often dropped as to what might happen next, and these kept people’s ears particularly wide open.

That led, in turn, to a different kind of hearing. The singers sounded so great, you could sense the listeners relaxing, taking in a new and enjoyable tune. This is hard to describe, but there’s just a different feeling in a room when melodies hit ears and the hearers savor right away. Far too often, I’ve witnessed the opposite, when oddly-crafted tunes get taken in with a bit of befuddlement. This was more like love-at-first-sight, an instant attraction.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

It’d been five and half years since I’ve seen The Christmas Bride. So, in an odd way, I was reacquainting myself with old themes, and rediscovering what’s good about them. The long sustained notes in Fluttering and Turn Around give time for the vocalist to open up. The sweetness of Megan and Matthew’s sounds delighted. Marion and Alone in the Night are two larger pieces I’ve always thought were among my best. But the main song for the romantic leads, Take a Gamble – well, I’d previously thought of it as a little disappointing. A romantic musical calls for a big I-love-you statement, and this argumentative duet has its eyes on the plot. Megan and Matthew revised my self-assessment. Rather than park-and-bark sentiment, I’d given two actors fully motivated moments to snipe at each other. In their hands, it became a beautiful thing, and, at long last, I found myself enjoying the song.

A friend and fellow musical theatre writer was there, and he’d never previously heard any of my work. He was particularly taken with my dense rhyming and how they gave spring to the meanings of the sung lines. We plan to meet for a drink and discuss it some more.

Songs rhyme for a reason. When the brain knows it’s going to receive sounds that match at regular intervals, listening is enhanced. It might be harder to come up with a clever rhyme structure and stick to it, but it’s surely a lot easier for the hearer. Our brains take in well-rhymed words much quicker than unrhymed or – horrors! – badly rhymed verse.

An example comes to mind because Connor Coughlin applied an echt and charming accent to it:

Furbelows and frocks
Herbal teas and boxes full of gifts for that special she
For my bonnie bride to be

Connor sounded the “H” on “herbal” and then the frocks/box rhyme sped the line forward. It traveled blithely from an unfamiliar word (“furbelows”) to a familiar and understandable concept. Had this been fully staged, he would have been holding a huge pile of presents. Instead, a good rhyme drawing attention to meaning got everyone to picture what they could not see.

Immodestly, perhaps, I’ve unveiled some of the little details that garnered such a huge reaction. There was a moment towards the end where a twenty-second ovation broke out, literally stopping the show. The actor could not continue until the audience obeyed his hand-signal command to simmer down. The Connecticut crowd had never seen anything like it.


Where the bee sucks

July 13, 2017

One of my favorite cans of worms has been opened! And by no less than the recently-appointed co-chief drama critic of The New York Times, Jesse Green. He states something that, to me, is obvious, but very few musical theatre fans seem to understand. That the elements that make for a good listening experience to the consumer of an Original Cast Album are markedly different than what makes good theatre.

It started, as so much does these days, with a tweet. This came from the composer-lyricist of a score Green didn’t much care for, Groundhog Day. It challenged him to listen to the cast album three times and see if his opinion wasn’t altered. And it was. Green had a more positive view of the show’s songs after hearing the album.

There’s something inherently unfair about that challenge, though. Theatre-goers pay between $100 and $200 for a ticket to witness a performance once. At those prices, they ought to enjoy it the first time. Over the years I’ve talked to countless people who’ve admitted they didn’t like a show until they’d heard the recording a few times. To which I’ve said, “Then the songwriter has failed in what he set out to do.”

Let’s break this down. Are you writing your show for the one-time live person in your theatre’s seat, or are you writing for the repeat listener of a record, someone you hope will grow to enjoy it? I get that hearing something over and over and again can add to your appreciation – that’s fine – but theatre writers are trying to entertain ticket-buyers. Recording artists – a wholly different breed – are fashioning albums that they hope will yield more on iteration.

Green then looks at last season’s new musicals, and places them in three categories:

Those that are more enjoyable on record than in the theatre

Groundhog Day
In Transit
Amélie
Bandstand
War Paint

Those that make a better impression live on Broadway than on an album

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Come From Away
as well as the revivals of Falsettos and Hello Dolly

Those he couldn’t abide in either format

Paramour
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Bronx Tale
Holiday Inn
Anastasia

And what did he say of the Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen? Equally good both ways.

What I find exciting about this article is that, at last, someone’s delineating the different process we go through reacting to live theatre versus reacting to something through speakers.

Minchin’s challenge forced me to consider not only how his songs for “Groundhog Day” sounded after repeat exposure but also how listening to them in a nontheatrical context altered their texture.

Among other things, I realized that a lot of the rhymes I hadn’t liked onstage seemed harmless when I no longer needed to get information from them. But I still feel, and songwriters I spoke to agreed, that a show with such satirical heft would have benefited from the clean ping of exactly matched sounds.

On the other hand, the songs whose musical structure I’d found “baggy” now seemed more compelling than they did in the theater, where the intensity of the action interfered with their reception.

Theatre is a live art form. And our reactions to what we see enacted before our eyes – well, that’s what matters most. We take in a score in a significantly different way if we only use our ears.

And yet we cast judgments based on hearing alone. We open our ears to cast recordings and, naturally and inevitably, come up with some assessment as to whether a show is good or not. But we are being intentionally misled. And I don’t mean to make it sound evil. Creators of cast albums obviously want to make the things sound as good as possible. But let’s look at some specifics.

One of my favorite albums – as a listening experience – is A New Brain, by William Finn. Yes, my friend Liz Larsen is on it, as well as the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth, and I’d Rather Be Sailing is justifiably hailed as one of the greatest romantic show tunes of our time. You take in this record and go, “My God, this is great.” In the theatre, however, it was more than a tad less compelling. The annoying protagonist undergoes brain surgery and this leads to a long and abstruse hallucination. The viewer loses his bearings and tedium sets in. I’d rather be sailing than be so adrift again.

Ask most of the people I know to name the best musical they ever saw, and you hear Follies a lot. The original production, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, was, I keep getting told, particularly fabulous. The original cast album, however, is severely truncated. It’s widely regarded as botched, a hatchet job, and I think everyone agrees it was better to be there than to listen to that piece of…vinyl.

Another record that comes to mind is House of Flowers. Listening to those sophisticated Harold Arlen melodies, you begin to fantasize that it had to have been quite a treat to see. (Peter Brook was the director. In the cast: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder.) But House of Flowers, I hate to report, is a witless tale of bickering whorehouse madams and an ingénue so gullible, she’s too stupid for us to care what happens to her.

The world of musical comedy is filled with people who know shows only through their albums, and that leads to an odd sort of tunnel vision. One can appreciate A New Brain on CD and House of Flowers on disc and have no inkling what a chore they are to sit through. And, if you’re a producer or director, a good album gives rise to a little fantasy that if you put it on you’ll lick all those problems that Peter Brook couldn’t. But A) you’re not better than Peter Brook and B), it’s still about a bordello competition and an idiotic child-woman.


A cat can look at a king

July 3, 2017

Richard Rodgers’ birthday was June 28, which means it’s the anniversary of the extraordinary birthday party I threw him, in absentia, a large and even number of years ago. He was alive then, and I saw he was turning a round number, so I did the thing that seemed perfectly natural to me: I invited all my friends over and checked out as many Rodgers scores as I could find from the library. We would all stand around the piano, singing as many of his songs as we knew, which was quite a few. I made a reel-to-reel tape recording, and we gleefully sang for hours and hours.

No other composer could have been feted this way. A large group of kids, singing one man’s songs for that much time – could only be Rodgers. In my house, we owned the Rodgers and Hammerstein Song Book and the Rodgers and Hart Song Book and they both got a lot of play every day of the week. My trip to the library filled out the repertoire with scores he wrote after those books had been published: Flower Drum Song, Cinderella, The Sound of Music, No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz and, I think, Two By Two. (Here I must note what a windfall it is to have a library with so many Broadway scores to check out.) Our school had recently done Allegro, meaning that my friends knew all the songs from a show that’s obscure to many. We had also just done Carousel. The soprano who’d just played Julie Jordan sang more songs than anybody, but when we came to that score, she decided to sing Carrie Pipperidge’s song, and “Carrie” sang hers.

I sang only the songs no one else knew. Like Like a God, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, The Man I Used To Be. And I never left the piano. It was up to others to answer the door, get snacks – anything a host does. Which reminds me of the many marathon piano-playing sessions throughout my life. My first regular job was playing piano bar from 11pm to 4am. I was encouraged to take breaks, but never did. I’d also hosted a cast party during the run of Carousel, in which we served a huge pot of clam chowder. Bellies were full; hearts were warm. They all had a real good time.

Did I have any friends who didn’t sing? Yes: the guys I played poker with. They accepted the idea I was throwing a party that wasn’t for them. Late in the evening, one called with the devastating news that another of the boys’ mother had killed herself. So, when I think back on that mostly magical night, my memory always goes to the inherent emotional roller coaster.

I know: you didn’t come here to read of personal tragedies of my friends. Back to Rodgers, and when I think of roller coasters, I often think of It’s a Grand Night For Singing, from the film, State Fair. Fun rides at fairs: there’s my train of thought. And the time I went over to Julie’s house and sat down at the piano and played a medley of Richard Rodgers waltzes. So often they have this infectious fun quality – bright and brisk. Done right, they seem to radiate joy: Falling In Love With Love With Love, I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy, Money Isn’t Everything, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Out of My Dreams, and, of course, Lover. There’s a legend that when Rodgers met Peggy Lee, who had recorded a jazzy version of Lover that robbed it of this sense of giddy joy, he told her “It’s a waltz, you know.”

That makes him sound a little prickly. Certainly, enough of the world appreciates a Rodgers waltz. People might list them as one of their Favorite Things. There are stories about him not being a very nice man. And, when I tried to recapture the magic of that party on the Rodgers centennial, I made the mistake of inviting a friend who was rather close to Lorenz Hart’s relatives. This group of heirs, he told us, were hopping mad that Rodgers had used his business acumen, during the years when Hart was drunk practically all the time, to set up an unfair contract that unevenly distributed the many millions they’d earned in their collaboration. This was a different sort of downer at what should have been a Rodgers celebration.

His musical-writing daughter Mary, toward the end of her life, publicly carped about what a distant father he’d been. (Adelaide, if you’re reading this, do not do the same.) But I’ve a different tale to tell about Rodgers as a human being.

My mother had never written a letter to a celebrity in her life. But, watching her son and all of his friends toasting Richard Rodgers this way, she felt he had to be told. Nowadays, every celebrity has someone handling fan mail, and communicating with artists we admire is a common thing. Rodgers was of a different age, an age when the famous person never wrote back. And I guess that also makes him sound a bit inhuman from our twenty-first century perspective.

But my mother’s account of my little party caught his eye. And he wrote back – something he practically never did – and pointed out that there’d been a recent Carousel concert at the White House where the president had praised his contribution to American culture.

Wonderful as it was, it brought me no more pleasure than hearing of your son Noel’s evening in my honor.

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.

 


Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.