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.

 


Edgard

June 11, 2017

It was pointed out, somewhere, that in this year’s Tony nominations, a lot of inexperienced musical theatre writers edged out the veterans who’ve given us solid work in the past. And to this I say: Good. It’s about time.

I admit that I often harbor a suspicion, or skepticism, about novices. Experience is a great teacher, and first efforts frequently are riddled with holes an older and wiser creator would have filled. But I also like to think that the long process of taking a show to Broadway involves something of a quality filter. A lot of people – the multitudinous producers and their large battalions of investors – have to believe the show is good, that it will succeed. Think like an angel: If a show has veterans doing the score, is based on a well-loved book that’s already had two film adaptations, well, that seems like a sure bet, no? Compare that to a show written by nobodies – and I use that term politely – set in a particularly frazzled time in recent history, one that no fun-seeking theatre-goer wants to dwell upon. That seems a less safe wager. Writers with no track record vs. The Names You Know and might have seen on countless movie credits and one of the century’s biggest musical comedy hits.

This year I’ll be cheering for the newcomers. It’s a sign of a healthy industry when new faces prodigiously out-achieve the old. Step aside, those who already have a mantle filled with shiny objects; if a younger generation is a knock-knock-knocking at the door, that’s a good thing. The Tony presentation that comes to mind, for me, is the one in 1960. The Old Guard had a show: Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Lindsay & Crouse had been Broadway’s most successful playwriting pair. They’d won a Pulitzer already, for State of the Union, and their Life With Father is the longest running Broadway play of all time. Rodgers & Hammerstein, I assume you’ve heard of. But what’s this? Here come a pair of songwriters from the Midwest, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Bock’s third Broadway musical and Harnick’s second involves some fairly recent history, and, with no major stars, is an unlikely hit. Who will win in the battle of the Old Guard versus the New Guard?

And it’s… It’s a tie. An equal amount of votes went to the Mary Martin vehicle, The Sound of Music, as to the biography featuring newcomer Tom Bosley, Fiorello. Left in the dust was Gypsy, but more on that later. Martin and Bosley both won awards, but his was in the Featured category. If that sounds odd, consider how few songs in Fiorello involve singing by the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In fact, it’s always a good day to consider Fiorello, as it’s a rather extraordinary show. And I wouldn’t say the same of The Sound of Music.

Now a lot of people, looking back, think all the awards should have gone to Gypsy. And a lot of those people view Broadway through the odd prism of Stephen Sondheim’s career. But what’s important to remember is that that Sondheim had just turned 30, and so the (then just-) lyricist represented youth; in fact, he’d learned much, when he was just a boy, from his best friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein.

Suppose, back then, you had the mind-set of those today who dislike seeing the Old Guard supplanted. Twenty-twenty hindsight reveals that it was Bock and Harnick who went on to write the best scores of the new decade – Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, and my personal favorite, The Apple Tree. The Old Guard – well, Hammerstein died later that year, but Rodgers went on to write No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Two By Two. Not nearly as good, right?

So, because I don’t wish to sound cryptic, I suppose I should name the players:

The Old Guard

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the show that got the worst reviews of any musical to open this season. By far. Shaiman’s scored many a comedy film, and the team also did the songs for Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and the first season of the television abomination known as Smash.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are best known for Broadway shows such as Ragtime, the soon-to-be-revived Once On This Island (a particular favorite of mine) and Seussical, the most-produced musical of the century. This year, they adapted their movie musical Anastasia for the stage. If you’ve seen media stories about Russians, it probably isn’t this.

Alan Menken (Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) doubled the number of shows they’ve currently running on Broadway with A Bronx Tale. I predict they’ll soon be back to one each.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie wrote about actual ladies-of-note in Grey Gardens and now have War Paint about actual ladies-of-note Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. They’ve also done two comparatively major off-Broadway shows, Far From Heaven and Happiness. My wife was particularly underwhelmed by their work here.

The New Guard

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the best-reviewed musical of the season, Come From Away, about a small Canadian town that embraced airline passengers who were forced to land there on 9/11. Their previous work was a Fringe Festival favorite called, I kid you not, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were both born in 1985. Let that sink in a moment. Now, perhaps its unfair to list them as neophytes, since Dear Evan Hansen is their fourth musical to make something of a splash, and they’ve already picked up an Oscar this year for their lyrics to a long rambling song towards the end of the second hour of La La Land. We know how Hollywood makes people rich and famous; I think their stage work makes them more worthy of fame and acclaim.

Tim Minchin had fame from another sphere – comedy – before he started writing musicals. You may recall his audacious debut with Matilda and this year his sophomore effort is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy called Groundhog’s Day.

Dave Malloy writes songs that don’t quite sound like anybody else’s. He’s worked his way up from avant garde and off-Broadway venues to a reconstituted Great White Way house. Three nominations. That’s a route that’s gratifying to see. The title makes it sound long, but it’s based on only a tiny passage of War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

To go through the BMI workshop and then get a show on Broadway is another path that cheers me, as a BMI vet. In Transit introduced Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, one of whom already has an Oscar.

Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor are unfamiliar names to me. My wife quite liked their Broadway debut, Bandstand. Not a lot of nominations for these last two (nor the quick-closing Amélie by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen). But I have to celebrate a season so crowded with good new work that good old writers can’t get a nod. Do better next time, venerable ones!

 

 

 


Facets of you

June 3, 2017

So, I was watching a play that purported to be about the nature of love and thought to myself, “Nah, this isn’t it.” The playwright had failed to make me feel anything, and I’m pretty picky that way, demanding that romantic entertainments (usually musicals) capture my heart, not just my mind. Once upon a time, every musical was, to a certain extent, about love. Today, some writers manage to avoid it – but I think they’re all running away from something. Face it, we’re in the domaine d’amour.

Twenty years ago today Joy Dewing walked into my life and hit my heart in such a way that my thoughts about love were utterly metamorphosed. The young, intrepid bundle of gorgeousness knocked on my door, having driven up from Washington just to meet me. And instantly there seemed no more natural place for my arms to be than around her. There’d previously been a meeting of the minds, as we communicated through countless e-mails and some chats, but here, in the flesh, was a warm and driven talent, a quick wit, and a thinker wise beyond her years. Which was a good thing, because I was well beyond her years.The First Dance

After I’d gained that new understanding of love, there soon arose opportunities to write songs on the subject. You have to do that a lot when you create musicals, but also, in my life, there are occasional songs. Like Joy’s birthday. Or Valentine’s Day. Or our wedding anniversary. Or this, our meet-iversary. And no matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to the same thought: “Nah, I didn’t quite capture it.”

Seems as if the extraordinary set of amorous feelings can’t quite be captured in words and music; I’m chasing a rainbow. Or maybe I’m not good enough, just as insufficiently articulate as Mee. (For that is the name of the playwright referenced at the beginning.) But I’ve a more positive theory about this: It’s Joy. She’s too marvelous for words and tunes. And I’m reminded, now, that I once expressed something like that in a song I wrote to sing to her: “You’re too wonderful for empty cliché.”

So this week I took our daughter to buy Joy a gift to commemorate the two decades of face-to-face passion and instantly thought I’d muddled it. In our living room, there’s this huge unopened box that is her gift to me, and I’m sure it’s far more fabulous, even though I got her something she said she needs. My underwhelming gift fits a cliché of husbandry: we give bad presents. And I’ll again remind you I’ve a sign that reads “Eschew cliché.” But sometimes it occurs to me that I’ve hit upon a widely-experienced situation. There are many lovers who come up with insufficient tokens of their affection. And if something’s that common, maybe it ought to be a song.

I may have mentioned here that I’m working on a show about married people, Baby Makes Three. Some believe that it’s a musical à clef, but the characters are markedly different from us. Such a project, though, allows me to draw on my experience as a husband, and one song steals from that large set of songs I’ve written for Joy. Here’s the bridge:

I’m well aware there are words you long to hear
What the hell is scaring me? Do I fear
Whatever words I say
Can never quite convey
The magnitude of all I feel?

Musicals, of course, get rewritten countless times. Right now the floor of my office is literally littered with the many numbers I’ve cut from the show. So, frequently, I deem my songs not good enough to stay in a score. If I’m writing a song for a particular day, well, that’s a deadline: Comes the time to give, I give. And I instantly think, “That wasn’t it. That’s not good enough.”

Rather randomly, I’ve found an example of all this:

In a world full of irritations
That crop up out of nowhere
Like a horde of ants when you lift a stone,
It takes guts, holding it together
You can’t yell at stupid tourists
Or be rude to every pollster on the phone.
So we all develop ways we can bear
With catastrophes that spring up when we’re least aware

I have a wife who loves me
Loves me well
And with a wife who loves me
I can get through hell
Arms that provide such comfort
So caring
So tender
I have a wife who’ll love me
Till the end

When I can’t avoid a puddle that, at first, seems to be shallow
But it’s so deep it muddies halfway up my slacks;
When I know I made a bookmark of a receipt I should have saved
And I don’t remember which book when it’s time to file the tax;
When a bus goes intentionally slow
Or whizzes past as I frantically wave in the snow

I think I’ve a wife who loves me
Long and deep
I have a wife who snuggles
As I sleep
Kisses that work a wonder
Refreshing
They warm me
I have a wife who gets me through each storm.

When some stranger smacks their gum or talks with their mouth full
Or does that loathsome sucky sound that you hate;
When the brand new expensive iron spits out white glop instead of steam
Destroying your pants and making you late;
When the cable company screws up your show
When you work a long day and then have to fly into snow

Remember that I love you
And hold you dear
Knowing your husband loves you
Persevere
Whatever it is that bugs you
Forget it
Remember
I’ve written you a love song
You are loved.

Nope, not nearly good enough. (This post, I fear, isn’t good enough either.) But at least it has the word “glop” in it. And more I cannot wish you than to wish you twenty years of love. With some glop.


Shine it on

May 27, 2017

Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?

As you’ve probably heard, the estate of Edward Albee did something horrifying this month, something that ensures his masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be far less commonly produced in our land. Upon hearing that an Oregon troupe had cast an African-American actor as Nick, they pulled the rights to do the play. A slew of editorials and articles condemned this, and it’s redundant for me to add to the chorus now.

But it’s a reminder that performers-of-color very frequently get a raw deal in the theatre biz. There’s a preponderance of white people in positions of power who perpetrate the myth that audiences won’t accept anything but a white person in this or that role. And, if you didn’t know, you’d likely suspect there’s nobody out there trying to do anything about this loathsome attitude.

Good news for the fair-minded and not-fair-complected: I know somebody. I’m married to her. Joy Dewing, who started her casting business five years ago June 1, is on the Diversity Committee of the Casting Society of America. She’s been actively involved in addressing theatre’s long hoped-for metamorphosis into a place where all types can play. And Joy Dewing Casting has been at the forefront of opening up the eyes of directors and producers who’d previously envisioned an all-white cast.

This thing about vision reminds me of the time Joy cast a touring production that needed an expert tap-dancing tenor. The guy who gave the best audition demonstrated extraordinary ability, but he also had an out-of-the-ordinary disability: He suffered from a degenerative eye disease that was gradually robbing him of his vision. The tour would go to dozens of theatres, each configured a little differently – the size of the stage, where the lights shone, where the set would be. Every player needed time to orientate himself to each new space. Imagine how hard this would be if you were legally blind. Many producers wouldn’t have bothered to ask whether it was possible; they’d have passed on the diminishing-vision tapper and moved on to someone else. Joy worked tirelessly with all parties and what emerged was a big ball of Yes. Yes, the actor could do it. Yes, there’d be enough time to get him safe and comfortable on each new stage. Yes, the producers could cast the best person for the role. Yes, he had the time of his life. Audiences were thrilled – and nobody in the seats had any inkling of any issue.

Joy’s championing of performers with unconventional abilities led her to be filmed for a documentary about an actress who uses a wheelchair this month. The two of them were in front of the cameras on a weekend in a third-story studio and everything was going fine until the fire alarm went off. Which meant the building’s elevators automatically got sent to the first floor, fire department use only. Joy phoned 911 to deal with the problem of getting a wheelchair-bound person out of a possibly burning building. It turned out there was no fire, but one can view this as a metaphor for Joy’s career.

Go with me, here: In a way, there’s always a fire. When you’re putting on a show, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get the best possible people to be in it. This involves considerable imagination. You may know an actor’s work in other roles, but how would he be in your markedly different part? Auditions are so brief – what do they really tell you? An auditioner may have prepared a terrific 32 bars, but how will they be over the long haul, the weeks of rehearsal and the run of your show? Only a casting director can unravel these knotty questions. After five years on her own, preceded by many years of apprenticeship and then partnership with Dave Clemmons, Joy’s been there many times before.

Sure, I’ve got a Google News Alert set for Joy Dewing. It’s a window to how the world is reacting to my wife and her shows. Many things she’s cast are national tours, which means they come to new towns constantly and get new reviews from local critics. Is Rent captivating Chicago? Is Cinderella enchanting Phoenix? Is Forty-Second Street a big deal on Beale Street? I bask in the reflected glory, reading rave after rave. Specifically, they praise the discovery of new talent. That’s a specialty of Joy’s. Nobody knows more about the up-and-comers and what they can do. She goes to countless showcases and gives workshops at countless colleges. Nobody, over this period of time, has more often uttered these magical words: “Congratulations: You’ve just gotten your first job in show business.

(In this case, Joy delivered the good news to a parent, who told her daughter in her own way)

It takes a bit of sleuthing to access the on-line forums in which actors bitch and moan – er, discuss – their gig-seeking travails. But it only takes a casual investigation to reveal that Joy Dewing is, by far, the favorite casting director of the community in New York. The auditioning process can be grueling and soul-killing – it’s nobody’s favorite thing. But when Joy runs things, it’s far more palatable. Hopefuls feel they’ve gotten a fair hearing, and they’ve been treated well. This means that the talent pool’s a little larger – people want to get in front of Joy; they’re less likely to turn up when CDs of lesser repute are at the helm.

Did that sound like stalking? I really don’t spend much time scanning the internet to see how the world sees my wife: I know her. I see the kindness and compassion daily. I get a sense of what frustrates her, and those golden moments in which a new face shows up and blossoms. I think she’s grossly underpaid (doesn’t every spouse think this?) for the wonderful work she does. Joy Dewing Casting’s experience and ways of working is a godsend to any production. And that’s not just an uxorious brag. You can ask anybody.


Already I’m laughing

May 21, 2017

So, I did a silly thing. And by that I mean a musical comedy project so completely crazy, my remembrance is bound to seem like a fever dream. But I swear, it actually happened. Twenty years ago this month was Tom Carrozza’s appearance at Moonwork, which occurred on Lafayette Street, in what was then part of the Stella Adler studio space. And I suppose one could be rather misleading and call it a cabaret act, but, despite the surface resemblance, this was a skewering of the art form, an anti-cabaret act, if you will.

In a normal cabaret act, a small audience (double digits) files into an intimate space, is forced to order some drinks, and out comes a singer who thinks he sings well, accompanied by an expressionless pianist. He’ll sing some favorite songs, often showing off vocal prowess; he’ll talk – probably about the songs, possibly revealing autobiographical anecdotes. Hopefully, the set contains some variety and it’s all over in 50 minutes, max.

(Yes, that’s a reminder to my friend, Max, who’s liable to run over an hour. Don’t do it, Max!)

I was Carrozza’s one-man band, Corrosion, and the huge room downtown was anything but intimate. It might have served as a cafeteria by day: large tables that could fold, I think. The acoustics were terrible – and cabaret fans love hearing every word in swankier boîtes. And Tom, I think (although I guess there’s a doubt here), has no illusion that he can actually sing mellifluously. But he had the requisite confidence that if he did an act in which he sang old songs, it would be fun and funny, and by God it was.

We wrote some astoundingly ridiculous songs together. Sometimes, he’d give me lyrics; more often, I’d write words and music with his peculiar talents in mind. Once, he handed me an entire screenplay – something along the lines of Airplane but set in a hospital. He asked me to create the theme that goes over the final credits. Minus Tom’s lyric, It Coursed Through Our Veins was used as the overture at Moonwork.

The rest of the program consisted of original songs, odd numbers out of my trunk, even odd numbers out of Tom’s trunk, pop medleys that made no sense, and great comedy songs that nobody’s ever heard. Tom found something Eddie Cantor once had done called She Turned Out To Be the Girlfriend of a Boyfriend of Mine, which, as you might imagine, hit the ears with a different set of associations in 1997 than it had originally. I got him to do You, a musical list of song titles from a show once called So Long, 174th Street. And the piece of resistance – or maybe that’s not quite the right term – a German piece from the late 30s. And now you’re thinking: What? A Nazi anthem? Well, no and yes: Years earlier, I’d done an extremely loose translation of a wannabe Dietrich number probably only performed by a Dietrich wannabe. Tom seized on the opportunity to spoof a Teutonic popular song. He performed the first half in German and to try to get the audience to sing along, with the loony expectation that everyone knows the song. And German.

I like your physique and your jawline
The way you looked wounded, just now
It matters not if you’re a Fräulein
Or a faithless philandering Frau

I’m sorry, young duck, to upset you…
Honestly, though, I’ll forget you
With someone new tomorrow night.

As they later said in Avenue Q, “That is German!”


Another send-up of the cabaret world concerned how, in autobiographical sections, a certain hyper-emotionalism tends to rear its ugly head. So, during a medley of the overdone rock ballads of our youth – Knights In White Satin, Stairway To Heaven  – this decidedly unhip crooner breaks down in tears, as if those classics were simply too moving to him. Then, striking a truer if still hysterical note, Tom reminisced about his time with the avant garde sketch troupe, Mental Furniture. When he set up a song from their work for the two of us to sing, it became a lampoon of songwriters explaining where their songs fit in musicals – the sort of thing I suspect most readers of this blog are mighty familiar with. Tons of characters appear in What’s That Smell? and then, out of practically nowhere, came the single dirtiest lyric I’ve ever warbled. And it just rushes by. The audience may have been shocked, but they were immediately focused on what the next punch line would be. For me, the greater challenge was playing it with no music. I visited the late great Doug Nervik in his squooshed apartment (practically a walk-in closet) in the East Village, to be shown how he’d remembered it going. Far more difficult than singing a four-letter word that today turns my face a bright fuchsia.

(Later, when Tom went into a studio to record the song, a less salacious substitution was sung, probably because the engineer’s wife was around.)

The attempt to make every moment in this one-man one-night bit of lunancy wild enough to provoke laughter is one in which we succeeded with flying colors. (Who’s this “we,” white man? The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Tom.) I learned a good deal about humor working with an experienced funnyman, and, to my great good fortune, Tom had a brilliant idea about what we should do next. Write an entire musical, with a plot and characters and a chorus, in which everything was unspeakably silly. He’d do book; I’d do music and lyrics. And so begat Area 51: The Musical! But that’s another silly thing, to be talked about on another silly day.


Magic time

May 15, 2017

Around the beginning of May this here blog passed the 35,000 view mark and I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another opportunity for Noel to pat himself on the back. I hate when this becomes an ego trip.” Ever-sensitive to your wishes, I’m not going to talk about this blog here and now. I don’t need to: I just got back from an ego trip.

At my alma mater – and yes, for me, this is one of those anniversary years when you’re supposed­ to go back – there was a three-part celebration of my friend Adam Belanoff, with whom I wrote The New U. and On the Brink, and a couple of other projects. The folks who present the annual Varsity Show were giving him an award, which seems long overdue since he’s the progenitor of the modern version of the student-crafted entertainment. He’s had a long career writing for television, a wildly impressive quantity of years gainfully employed, and is immensely popular as a person. If I say I consider him one of my best friends, I must acknowledge that I’m one of many people who’d say that. This meant, on a recent Saturday, that a huge circle of chums showed up for the party he threw, and then the official reception bestowing a statue, and finally this year’s Varsity Show.

For me, there’s little point in attending the Official Reunion of my college class; that’s interacting with strangers who’ve lived very different lives, not likely to understand mine. The Adam-a-thon, however, was a large turn-out assembly of folks who remembered The New U., On the Brink, and the “Junior Varsity Show” I wrote two songs for, Fear of Scaffolding. Our conversations tended to center on how marvelous those shows were, and, since I wrote music and lyrics, how good the songs were, in particular.

This gets me questioning whether the songs were as good as so many seem to think they were. Also, what was I doing then that I should be doing now? Have my creative methods altered over the years? Did I lose something as I aged?

It’s hard to observe oneself objectively. The time machine that would take me back to the work on my early shows is hampered by nostalgia. I’m an unreliable narrator, so take all this with a grain of salt.

I think I saw to it that songs generally contained three elements I considered essential. One is a great premise for a song. In other words, I could say to my collaborators: I think there should be a song that’s about this, or does this. And they’d respond with enthusiasm, because, just from hearing that premise they could see how it might turn out to be an effective piece. Then, naturally, there’d come a title. A good title is never chosen arbitrarily. You have to winnow down what you’re saying in a song to a very brief thesis statement. This gets supported by other lines that provide evidence that the thesis is true, much in the manner we’re all taught to write non-fiction papers in school. Many old-time songwriters believed coming up with a title was the most important part of the process. If it’s inspiring enough, the rest of the lyric’s pieces can just fall together, naturally cropping up as supporting material for your main point. Similarly, traditional composers place a lot of value on coming up with a musical hook. Just more glue that’s going to hold the creation together.

So those celebrants mentioned various titles they’d recalled over the many years: The Sweetest Guy in the Suite, Most Embarrassing Moments, Something That We’ve Never Had Before, and the mere fact that they’d remembered them tells you something. The last of these was a slight steal of a song from an obscure musical that has since become one of my all-time favorite melodies (Something that You’ve Never Had Before, from The Gay Life). There’s a further thievery involved, as I took the hook from an accompaniment figure in an obscure Rupert Holmes pop song called Adventure. Maybe he wasn’t being truthful, but Holmes told me that nobody remembers his early pop efforts (besides the ubiquitous Pina Colada Song) and yet here I was, face to face with those who remember my gloss on it.

The most-remembered moment in The New U. was The Sweetest Guy in the Suite; everyone seems to agree. It was part of a sequence concerning the lovelorn inhabitants of a dormitory floor. The guy played by Adam pines away for the girl next door. She, in turn, pines for the boy residing on the other side of her. And this boy, in the big reveal, turns out to have a same-sex crush on Adam. They’re all equally unrequited. Five years later, I found out that my favorite songwriting team, Richard Maltby and David Shire, used the same premise. Which shows you it’s a good premise. And here I can truthfully brag that our song got a much bigger reaction than theirs ever did.

Many weeks ago, I had someone take a look at the latest draft of a musical I’m currently working on and she was particularly taken with a traditionally-structured number; that is, one that had a solid title and a hook, not to mention AABA stanzas. This reaction served as a wake-up call. My wild experiments in form hadn’t gone over as well. Better to employ the modus operandi I was using so many years ago.

Being among folk who remember The New U. is also a reminder that what we do, in theatre, is ephemeral. A live performance, capturing the zeitgeist, can never be repeated, later, in quite the same way. What have I done since college? Essentially the same thing I did in college: created entertainments that exist for a short dazzling moment and then don’t, like an art-work on flash paper.


Washington discount

May 10, 2017

I’ve long felt a certain kinship with John LaTouche, my fellow Columbia Varsity Show veteran, who wrote the single greatest lyric about the passing of a venereal disease. (Sorry, I Got It From Agnes fans.) It was written for, and cut from, Candide (1956), which explains the heightened language:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
‘Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She’d forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn’t sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

LaTouche’s now having his second musical in as many years done at Encores, the all-sung epic, The Golden Apple. Seeing this Holy Grail of rarely-revived musicals, I’m thinking about whimsy and wit: How a little of it goes a long way, and how too much of it makes for a long evening.

Ber, Ber, Ber! It’s chilly in my office this morning. But I’m also thinking of the Encores troika of musical director Rob BERman, choreographer Joshua BERgasse and direcor Michael BERresse. They gave this Apple a fine polish, but you know me: I care about how shows are written. And I got a problem with that.

It’s said that the authors never stopped for dialogue because they conceived their musical as an incessant series of show-stoppers. The music by Jerome Moross is unfailingly energetic: I’m a particular fan of the overture, which ratchets up excitement. Every lyric contains showy rhyming, that is, they call attention to themselves. We don’t react to Ulysses and Penelope as people; we react, favorably or un-, to LaTouche. God love him, he gets a laugh rhyming “cobra” with “no bra” and I’m tickled by that kind of stuff. Been known to do it myself.

The Golden Apple was first produced in the 1950s, a decade in which clever rhymes were appreciated. That time is long behind us. But the problem isn’t so much that tastes have changed and the show has aged, it’s that the whole idea of a procession of show-stoppers is wearying. The Homeric epics on which the show is based are, indeed, episodic. But do you really want to see a musical that’s a long chain of pointless episodes, even if they’re individually entertaining?

We long for emotional connection to the characters. Instead, we witness vignettes that somehow relate to ancient Greek lore, but they add up to nothing. There are a huge number of characters, but let’s focus on two: Ulysses and Helen. Ulysses returns from the Spanish-American War, which allows LaTouche to rhyme “Theodore, the Roosevelt that we adore.” There’s a reunion with Penelope, expressed in a ballad called It’s the Going Home Together. So, early in the show, they’ve played the inherent emotion of long-separated lovers returning to each other’s arms. Hold that thought.

For reasons that are never made clear, Ulysses decides to leave with his war buddies on a mission to the big city. LaTouche actually plays the pointlessness for humor, as they’re asked the principal of the thing they’re fighting for and can’t name it. So no one knows. Cut to poor Penelope, pining away that she’s not with Ulysses. In the big city, the big lug gets tempted by sirens and such, but then returns for the happy ending. And I’m feeling nothing. Ulysses’ abandoning Penelope seemed so arbitrary; how are we to trust he won’t do that again?

The marriage between Helen and Menelaus is even worse. Their trouble – and what a stuck-in-the-1950’s idea this is – is that Helen likes sex. Since her husband (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz) is portrayed as not-very-virile, she’s bound to stray. And I suppose we’re supposed to get behind this, emotionally. The only hit song to emerge from this score, Lazy Afternoon, is how she seduces Paris:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And my rocking chair will fit you
And my cake was never richer
And I’ve made a tasty pitcher
Of tea
So, spend this lazy afternoon with me.

A few problems with all this. LaTouche forces rhymes in a playful “look at me! I’m clever!” way and we’re not quite invested in this seduction working. Paris is completely silent – lanky Barton Cowperthwaite gyrates very impressively – but, given what’s happened to left-behind Penelope, do we really want Menelaus left-behind, too?

Jerome Moross was in Aaron Copland’s circle, and boy, can you hear it. There’s that familiar jumbling of arpeggiated major triads, and all manner of rhythmic tropes evoking the turn-of-the-century. And you don’t get a sense of “here’s a serious composer writing classical-sounding music” because the harmonic palette is never overly elevated. These are show tunes, and fine ones.

I heard riffs that turn up in later scores: a bit of West Side Story’s dance music, Sondheim’s incidental music to Invitation to a March. The big ballad in William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s Dynamite Tonite is a clear echo. And I caught a rhyme I used once myself: graduate/glad you ate. That ended the first act of my Varsity Show, but even then I knew that clever rhymes are a special sauce, best used sparingly.

But something positive deterred me from remembering the most prominent homage of all. You see, Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Silverman deliver, dazzlingly, the sound of fine 1950s musical comedy stars. She’s a clarion, jazzy and fun. He’s powerfully masculine. They’re such pros, I nearly forgot Christopher Guest’s celebration of amateur theatre, Waiting For Guffman. It has a intentionally bad number called Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine, perhaps inspired by Nothing Ever Happens In Angel’s Roost, the inauspicious opener to The Golden Apple.