Positive Publicity

October 25, 2010

When I get impatient with a show I’m watching, I sometimes feel an urge to yell, “Tell me something I don’t already know!”  The song or scene that restates what we’ve learned, or merely understand, emotionally, is bound to bore.  Theatre requires surprise, rocking audience expectations on a fairly frequent basis.

(sung in German)

Click to hear (in German)

Two well-regarded musicals show wives of famous people confronting questions from pestering members of the press: My Husband Makes Movies (Nine) and You Don’t Know This Man (Parade). They provide a study in contrasts.The wife of the international superstar of Italian cinema is hounded because the film-going public demands to know about the personal life of its favorite director.  We, in the audience, have just met Guido Contini: he’s charismatic and handsome and so we want to know about him, too.  But what’s his wife going to say about him?  Clearly, he’s sexually voracious: will his fickleness cause her to slip up and say something negative to the reporters?

“My husband makes movies.  To make them he lives a kind of dream in which his actions aren’t always what they seem”

I find this intriguing because it reveals something of Guido’s artistic process.  In order to make fantastic films, he divorces himself from reality.  What he does cannot be read at face value.  And the paparazzi may have been fooled by the face he shows to the public.  As his wife, she knows the real Guido.

“When he was working on the film on ancient Rome, he made the slave girls take the gladiators home.”

This is a funny line, and makes us love the guy, as, like Dionysus, he’s encouraging carnality.  Since his wife is saying this, we surmise it’s a reason she loves him, too.

Then, surprisingly, she dips into her own memory, no longer literally addressing the press:

“Twenty years ago: Once the names were Guido Contini, Luisa Del Forno, actress with dreams and a life of her own.  Passionate, wild and in love in Livorno, singing with Guido all night on the phone.  Long ago, someone else ago”

This is an example of how a good song about love gives the audience an experience that’s like love; we feel the ardor.  Singing on the phone all night: it feels like I’ve been that person, in my happiest romantic moments.  In terms of the whole of the musical, Nine, it foreshadows a different kind of telecommunication Guido has later in the show.

Luisa goes back to the reporters, but now it’s fraught with the frustration over how her relationship has changed:

“My husband makes movies.  To make them, he makes himself obsessed. He goes for weeks on end without a bit of rest”

Note how songwriter Maury Yeston has the music rise, to a more fraught place in the voice, compared to similar lines earlier (“gives them to you all”).  Great musical dramatists use such devices to emphasize important points.  Here, the song is far less pretty than its lush beginning.

“My husband only rarely comes to bed.  My husband makes movies instead.”

Uh-oh: She’s let too much slip.  She’s revealed something we didn’t expect: that it’s not the adultery that bothers her, it’s being alone in bed too often.  I find this utterly heartbreaking.

Lucille Frank

click to hear OLC

Leo Frank never intended to be famous, but he was falsely accused of murdering a young girl in his employ.  As in Nine, we don’t know a lot about him or his wife when she’s surrounded by reporters in Parade.  In order to surprise an audience, you have to estimate what an audience is thinking at the start of the scene.  Leo certainly looks innocent: small and meek, polite, and taking very little interest in his employees.  Naturally, we assume his wife supports him, and will proclaim he’s decent, honest and good.  Will songwriter Jason Robert Brown surprise us, or will he reiterate what we already know?

“When a man writes his mother every Sunday, pays his bills before they’re due, works so hard to feed his family, there’s your murderer for you.”

Gee, she’s sounding like every other wife who’s ever defending her falsely accused husband, saying exactly the same things.

“Wise and good, he is a decent man.  He is an honest man.”

O.K., everyone; yell with me: “Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know.”

Practically everything in Parade was a lengthy recap of stuff I already knew.  The South, in 1913, contained bigots – thanks for telling me, Parade.  I’ve known political folk who decry theatre that reinforces attitudes the audience already holds.  I wouldn’t go as far as that: I just think it’s boring.


This shouldn’t be

October 17, 2010

Just heard an interview with a first-time musical writer: “All of my songs, they were all written before the story.  Everyone always said all along how theatrical my pop songs were.  So I decided to thread them into a story…so it sort of seemed the obvious thing to do in the end: to sew them all together into a plot.”

Ah, yes: the ol’ Recipe For Disaster.  This is how bad musicals get written.  (There are other ways, too.)  Key to this songwriter’s self-delusion is a misunderstanding of the term “theatrical.”  When someone (or “everyone”) compliments a pop song by saying it was theatrical (if it was a compliment) they probably mean that it shares some superficial qualities with musical theatre songs.  Maybe a character in a situation is depicted; maybe there’s an emotional change.  But, to work in the theatre, songs have to do much more – OK, let’s be less judgmental and just say that, in a show, songs have to do different things than pop songs do.  Things that this songwriter never considered.

The [title of show] boys have it right: “You’ve got a story to tell…” because, ideally, it all starts with the plot.  Virtually all the great musical were written when collaborators got together to tell a story, and figured out how to tell that story using a combination of dialogue, song, and probably dance.  If you take songs that weren’t written to tell a story, and force them into service of a stage narrative, you’re mucking up a process that’s already difficult to get right.  Mamma Mia is the most famous example.  ABBA had a string of hits back in the disco age.  The story of a young woman interacting with three men who were her mother’s lovers nine months before her birth, and therefore may be her father, comes from an old movie, Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell, which was made into a musical before, Carmelina.  It’s an icky plot, to my taste, but the creators of Mamma Mia have so inelegantly shoe-horned ABBA hits in, well, the extreme clunkiness is part of the joke.  People are amused by how bad it is, it seems.

Good news!  You get to decide what sort of musical writer you want to be.  You can be like 99% of the Tony winners, and go forward.  When it’s time to write that song, you’re going to know who the character is, what needs to be accomplished in the song, what emotional change the character is going through, what effect it will have on the listener, what the moment before is, and where the show is going after.  Or, you can go about it bass-ackward.  You can take a song that’s already written, and start contriving the character that might sing it, and their arc, and what’s got to happen before, and after, and fashion some plot that, hopefully, progresses during this song.  And if that’s the path you choose to take, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

For a Lifetime

October 11, 2010


The First Dance

The First Dance


October 12, 2003, at the Soho Playhouse in Greenwich Village, played the musical that changed my life.  Literally.  (And I’m not one of those people who uses “literally” when I mean “figuratively.”)

The wonderful Joy Dewing, in a made-for-her dress, and I, in my cutaway, made our entrances as single people.  By the end of the show, we were married.

Our Wedding was an original musical.  The only spoken line was the preacher’s “I now pronounce you married; you may kiss.”  It was a real wedding as well as a real musical, filled with laughter and tears.  Our Wedding, as far as I know, is unique in the history of musicals and the history of weddings.  The Original Cast Recording sells at http://www.weddingmusical.com/

The question I get most often is: How did you convince your parents to sing?  Our folks aren’t performers, singers, or hams, but a bride and groom have considerable sway, one time in their lives, to get people to do anything.  And it helped that both sets of parents are divorced, so they don’t communicate with each other that often.  So I could say “Dad, will you sing an original song I tailor to your abilities at our wedding?”  And he could demur and I could say “That’s too bad, because Mom and Joy’s folks already said yes, so you’ll be conspicuous by your absence.”  And then Joy could say “Mom, will you sing an original song Noel tailors to your abilities at our wedding?”  And she could demur and Joy could say “That’s too bad, because Daddy and Noel’s folks already said yes, so you’ll be conspicuous by your absence.”  And so on, until all four had agreed.

It was easier to convince the Bridesmaids, who’d all performed with Joy in college.  And my Best Man, a woman who performs in musicals and plays in San Francisco.  Most remarkably, my niece sang her way down the aisle as Flower Girl, at the ripe old age of four.


Would You Like To Have a Flower?


In writing lyrics, you always want to know as much about the character you’re writing for as possible.  Here, in writing for my sister and my closest friend, I had a huge stock of personal history to draw upon.  Their songs are stuffed with anecdotes that actually happened.  Taking ample time to write, and with Joy’s help, I could anticipate jokes that could be made about the event – “Why does it have to be a musical?” and the triple-entendre of Dewing-Katz.  And I’ve found it’s extremely valuable to know your audience: How often to you get to exert total control over who comes to see your show?

These included The New York Times‘ James Barron, who wrote a page-long article with photos for The Paper of Record. (On the backside was a small blurb about the wedding of two rather famous musical theatre writers.) Jeffrey Sweet was moved to write an article for Dramatics and Peter Filichia raved about the cast album in his Theatremania diary. While this was a show that could only be performed once, the good news is that the marriage continues, joyously: all those sung vows were kept.

To sing a simple song

October 7, 2010

If you’re curious about what my philosophy of writing musicals is, I’m sorry: I don’t have one.

I try to make all my musicals as different from all my other musicals as possible.  There’s no theme I come back to again and again.

It’s all about the audience.  Making sure they’re having a good time.  It’s never about me.  I don’t write these things as a form of self-expression.

An imperfect rhyme is like fingernails on a blackboard.  I’ve been known to visibly wince.  It’s not just that bad rhymes make the characters sound stupid; they make the lyricists sound stupid.  And the composer, for not saying “Hey, you’ve got a near rhyme here, Don.  Go back and fix that!”

Here’s the technical definition.  Look at the last accented syllable in the metrical foot.  The accented syllable in Diana is “an.”  In coalesce it’s “lesce” and in flattery it’s “flat.”  In the rhyme, the last accented syllable and everything that follows it (in the foot) must sound exactly the same except for the first consonant.  So flattery rhymes with battery, but it would be wrong to rhyme it with Battersea.  I know a less offensive way of rhyming coalesce: Success, or stress – since only the last stressed syllable should rhyme (“know a less” therefore doesn’t rhyme with coalesce).  Diana rhymes with Urbana but not Joanna: the stressed syllable and what follows in Diana and Joanna are both “anna.”  That’s called an identity, and it’s not a rhyme.

There’s a sign on my desk that reads “Eschew cliché.”  I suppose if it read “Embrace cliché” I’d be Frank Wildhorn.

Here’s a musical cliché I’ve been seeing a lot of lately: piano accompaniments in which the right hand just bangs four unchanging quarter-note chords while the bass plays off-beats.  Hard to imagine anything more boring.

Sitting on my desk now, for some odd reason, is Empty Pockets Filled With Love, and also One Step.  Reminds me that I love counterpoint to distraction.   It’s possible that I’ve now written more quodlibets than Irving Berlin.

And now I suppose I should define quodlibet.  In musicals, it’s when one character sings one song “I hear singing and there’s no one there” and another sings another song “You don’t need analyzing…You’re just in love” and then they both sing their songs simultaneously.  It’s a simple trick that’s usually thrilling for audiences.

Which is the name of the game: thrilling audiences.

Something that we’ve never had before

October 3, 2010

Here’s a first step on the road to creating a website for myself.

It’s long been obvious I need a website, if not a blog.  I write musicals.  I’ve been doing so, obsessively, for more years than I should probably mention.  I’ve been lucky enough to see 12 of my shows performed for paying audiences – there was another one I didn’t get to see.  Hopefully, I learned a little something from each experience.

What I’ve never been good at is self-promotion.  I suck at it, actually.  And so, there are tons of people who are much better at self-promotion, but not-as-good songwriters, who are far more famous.  That’s got to change.  We start today.