Elephants

November 29, 2010

O.K., I admit I probably found this newsgroup post way more disturbing than I should:

1954

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 2010.

As someone who does not make it to the Great White Way very often, I rely on events like this annual parade to give me a glimpse of what’s current.

Memphis looks like a project possible only with the success of Hairspray. The white-person being-redeemed-by-black-music theme has been overplayed. The dancing was good, however.

A musical of the movie Elf? Speaking about your love of Santa Claus is one thing, singing about it is something else altogether.  For two hours.The movie was a sort of satire on the incorporation of Christmas. Nothing is more ironic than the musical version playing outside of Macy’s replete with corporate brand.

Million Dollar Quartet. It should have been a 13 year girl leaning on Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano. The guy playing Johnny Cash was successful in capturing Cash’s spirit. The guy playing Elvis fit his profile if not exactly his charisma. The guy playing Carl Perkins did not quite capture the great singer. A testament to the unique abilities of Carl Perkins.

Granted lip-synching outdoors in front of millions is a challenge and what I viewed were brief moments.

Not enough, I’m afraid to catch a flight and a show.

It appears we live in a world where some people decide whether or not to come to New York and attend a Broadway musical based on how three shows appeared amidst the elephants, marching bands and cartoon character balloons on the Thanksgiving Parade broadcast.

Should we now fashion our shows to look good on a TV snippet?

The skill it takes to create a flashy three-minute advertisement for a show is different than the skill it takes to engage an audience for an evening in the theatre.  Reading a single paragraph of Faulkner won’t give a remotely accurate impression of one of his novels.

I feel a similar annoyance each year after the Tony Award broadcast.  People who’ve not followed Broadway, except by watching this one TV presentation always give me their opinions of how various shows looked.  For example, I heard from all sorts of people that Next To Normal looked terrible.  Well, when you take three actors and chop up two songs to fit in the small screen in people’s living rooms, Next To Normal doesn’t look too impressive.  In the theatre, when you can wrap your mind and heart around a carefully unfolding story, acted and sung with shattering expertise, Next To Normal is very impressive.  A whole different ball of wax.

Makes me long for the day when people put a little effort into learning about what’s happening on Broadway.  You’d talk to friends.  You’d read reviews.  I know a lot of people like to complain that critics frequently get it wrong.  I disagree.  Read enough reviews, and a consensus emerges: valuable information when choosing what to see.

I think it was a clothing store that used the slogan,

An educated consumer is our best customer.


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Streetside serenade

November 24, 2010

Paul, in silly garb

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs…

I mentioned last week that I’m working on a silly doo-wop and I have to stop and ask: Is there some limit to how silly a song can be?  Because I think I may have crossed it.

I met a man from Katmandu

He kept his hair in a Batman “do”

This fella, like Ella, kept listeners in thrall

The pure bull he’d warble impressed most of all

Who knew a hep-cat could hail from Nepal

And do what the greatest of scatmen do?

I look at this stanza, of the song-in-progress and have this overwhelming impulse to point out all that’s wrong with it.  My friend Kimberly Vaughn would identify this as the Limiting Editor.  And as long as we’re defining terms, I’ve matched the Limiting Editor with something called the Spewer.

There are two parts of every creative person: the Spewer spits out a bunch of ideas, indiscriminately, and doesn’t get bogged down by any “Is this any good?” question.  Eventually, the Editor shows up to excise or fix whatever’s substandard about the creation.  For a lot of people, the Editor arrives prematurely, and cuts off the Spewing before enough good ideas have spun out of all this madness.

I try to maintain very high standards for my songs.  But I’m always worried I’m letting my Limiting Editor in too early, cutting off the madness before there’s enough wacky goodness on the page.  So, on the road to Katmandu, all I’ve got so far is a bunch of spew.  I’ll let you know how it turns out, and whether the part of me that edits leaves any of this in:

He asked if I’d read the Kama Su … (Tra!)

And I once knew a girl who majored in drama, Sue

In college, we had carnal knowledge – that’s sex

She turned fairly white when I showed her my pecs

But you’re sure to cause tension if you mention your ex

As fast as a French thief can palm a sou


Personality plus

November 20, 2010

A question that invariably comes up, whenever Encores does a good Golden Age musical, is “Why can’t they write ‘em like that any more?”  Sometimes, I take a little umbrage, since I’ve endeavored to make sure my shows are full of Golden Era virtues.  But this time the show is Bells Are Ringing, a Star Vehicle.

Sidney Chaplin, Judy Holiday

The star was Judy Holiday and ace musical comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green had known her for many years.  They’d created sketches for and with her early in their careers, so they were intimately acquainted with all the voices, characters and physical antics she could do.  I’ve written about Bells Are Ringing before (here).  After hearing On the Brink star Amanda Green discuss their talents, it’s clear Comden and Green were at their best when they were tailoring material for a specific idiosyncratic actor, someone whose abilities they knew well: Rosalind Russell, Carol Burnett, Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers and others.

So, could we write ‘em like that, today?  One problem is that today, when a funny person has achieved star status, the last thing they want to do is eight shows a week on Broadway for the better part of a year or more.  For example: Amy Poehler is someone who performed a song I co-wrote especially for her long before she was famous.  Today, she has her own TV series, one that pays her far more than Broadway could.  It’s inconceivable that she’d return to the stage at this point in her career.

And what star could sell tickets?  In the Golden Age, you could put Mary Martin or Carol Channing in a show and people would stand on lines around the block to buy tickets.  The past few Broadway seasons have seen some sure-to-sell-out movie stars appear in limited runs, but never in a musical.  For pampered Hollywood personalities, singing and dancing is hard work … too hard.

a 2000 Vehicle

In 2000, I had the wonderful experience of writing for three comediennes I knew well: Tom Carrozza, Mary Denmead, and Gail Dennison.  They’re not household names, so only a passel of fans would buy tickets just to see them.  Area 51 was therefore produced in a very small theatre for a rather limited run.  For me, it was an especially valuable and joyous experience, because I got to do what Comden & Green used to do: fashion gags for the specific shtick I knew Tom, Mary and Gail could do.  The process builds confidence: it’s easier to write a comedy song knowing you’ve got the clowns who’ll knock each punch line out of the park.

I thought I’d quote a bit of Gail and Mary’s duet, Work Your Wiles, but on second thought, it seems unwise: Without them doing it, with their fierce comic skills and crazy characters, a line like “you have room to go with your gut/so go perfume the crack of your butt” just sounds gross.

Instead, here’s a song from Bells Are Ringing with me on piano:


Be what I know I can be

November 17, 2010

click for video

Last night I saw Avenue Q and had many a hardy laugh and a surprising number of tears.  Proud to say I discovered and championed the show long before the rest of the world – about ten years ago.  This was my first time seeing it in its finished form.

It seems to me songwriters Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx happened on a terrific idea – to depict the indignities of unmoored young people using the format of Sesame Street – and this set up certain parameters that allowed their fine songwriting wit to shine.  The characters talk like contemporary twenty-somethings, and the tunes mimic the simple pop you hear in America’s most-admired children’s show.  It’s a felicitous combination, and, naturally, the human-puppet interaction also gives rise to a lot of humor (and some ribaldry).

The importance of parameters cannot be overstated.  It’s difficult to write in a vacuum.  I’m currently struggling to write a silly doo-wop song, and the struggle is tied to the fact I’ve been given only one parameter: it’s got to be doo-wop.  But Lopez & Marx had a mold to use, and came up with great didactic songs about racism, acceptance of homosexuals, and what to do when you get a jury summons (Tear It Up and Throw It Away – since cut).

Jeff Marx and friend

Many singers I know are attracted to the lovelorn ballad, It’s a Fine Fine Line but there are many similar tunes out there that I think are stronger.  For me, the highlights of the score are truly unique ideas for songs, like You Can Be Loud As the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love), The Internet Is For Porn and Schadenfreude.  I can’t think of anything that compares with those.

The more I think about Avenue Q, the more I think it illustrates the idea that if you have really strong ideas for songs, execution is almost secondary.  Perhaps better songs could have been made out of Purpose or that fund-raising number, but, as I was drying my eyes after I Wish I Could Go Back To College, it struck me that this is just about as good a score as we’ve seen in the past 25 years.  Sure, we’re only a tenth of the way through, but I’ve no trouble calling Avenue Q the best musical comedy of the 21st Century, so far.


Last night I had the strangest dream

November 10, 2010

dreamt of Madonna, as men of a certain age do

It’s been an odd week, and Monday and Tuesday nights I had dreams in which I was performing. Don’t worry: I’m not going to use this blog for self-analysis. But I guess what’s on my mind (day and night; night and day) is that when you’re a musical theatre writer, there are times you have to do things that aren’t writing.

Such as performing. You can be like so many people who say “I can’t sing. I’ve a voice that could stop a clock” but too bad: you have to sing. At some point, you’re going to have to communicate what the singer is supposed to do. This week, I was in a recording studio, ostensibly to lay down an accompaniment track. The singer hadn’t yet learned the song, so I was asked to provide a vocal track. Eventually, the singer will add his voice, and the wizard of an engineer exclaimed, more than once “I can’t wait to orchestrate this.” And he’ll do that through the magic of software.

Yesterday, at a rehearsal for a benefit, I had to sing half of a duet because one of my singers wasn’t present. A friend stood in for the missing player, miming as I sang, so that the number could be lit. The director and tech person couldn’t have gotten the idea of what the song should sound like without me.

click to hear "Marry Me"

My participation in the benefit involved rehearsing two of my duets. I chose the performers; there was no director. The fund-raiser was for Artistic New Directions, a company that helps shows to happen; they’d sponsored the 2006 private reading of Such Good Friends. As I left the stage, I got a broad appreciative smile from Karen Ziemba. One of the tasks of a writer is to get your work out there, to let the world know you exist, and I’ve never been particularly good at this task.

Which brings to mind Gilbert & Sullivan (the fathers of us all):

If you wish in this world to advance…
You must blow your own trumpet
Or, trust me, you haven’t a chance


Good night, good rest

November 3, 2010

1928-2010 What did Eve hum to the world’s first baby?

What’s the march of a family of European bankers?

A well-loved sewing machine emits what waltz?

What’s the tread of the diaspora? When Jews were forced to evacuate their shtetl, feet would trudge slowly but steadily for three steps, but the fourth was a killer. Weighed down by possessions and memories, the foot would go down a little harder, a little lower.

I just learned that Jerry Bock, the greatest composer born after World War One, died today. When I was fresh out of college, we met, in his office, and he was cordial and encouraging. Over the course of a mere 14 years, Bock provided music for Broadway that no one’s come close to matching, for quality and effectiveness, ever since.

So now I’m listening to Eve’s lullaby, and it’s a deceptively simple tune that keeps changing key, keeping it interesting, and making the whole scenario seem magical. Which it is, in a way: How did Eve know what she was doing? It was instinctive, and our greatest living lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, found the perfect title, “Go To Sleep, Whatever You Are.”

Those bankers, Rothschild and Sons, march with a certain squareness, precise, full of ambition, in major four-part chords, parallel fifths and all. I stole the basic rhythm for an early minor-key song about a businessman remembering his World War One service. I was unaware then, that Bock switched his delicate music-box No More Candy, into minor for the stirring rallying cry of the Russian Revolution, Any Day Now.

I keep thinking of more examples of Bock’s coloring, always so right for the time and place setting of his shows, and how it enhances emotion. If you’re a poor dairyman, pulling your own milk cart, wearing heavy boots, and stop to indulge in a fantasy of wealth, your feet will hit the downbeats hard while you clap or snap, hands high, on the off-beats: two times on beat two, once on beat four. It seems so inevitable. “If I Were a Rich Man” is the paragon of show tunes, and the composer managed to make nonsense words (Digguh digguh deedle daidle dum) fly.

Now I’m listening to Barbara Harris and Alan Alda sing about running away to Gaul, and Bock parodies French popular song, making this previously-exotic story suddenly mundane and middle class. Then he zags back to the melodrama, creating a duet that’s funny because of clever musical choices.

The machinery of the eighth notes in the sewing waltz occasionally slows down, just like, when you’re powering one of those things by pedal, it gets hard to push before it gets easier.

Keely Smith sings

Keely Smith sings

As a child I got to see Bil Baird’s Marionettes doing an original Bock & Harnick musical, The Man in the Moon. Over the years, it’s struck me as the greatest-ever theatre score for kids, because it never talks down to them. The title character has a scary song; his daughter, a delightful ballad that plays on major sevenths. This respect for young people’s ears was much on my mind as I wrote Popsicle Palace (now retitled Not a Lion) and stole the outro from Miracle of Miracles.

Of course, one of the first musicals I ever saw was Fiddler on the Roof and, in second grade, or so, Eydie Gorme came to my classroom and sang Matchmaker Matchmaker. Little me loved waltzes, and Bock must be considered the waltz king of the 1960s: My Gentle Young Johnny, Sunrise Sunset, Gorgeous, Dear Friend, Artificial Flowers, Where’s My Shoe? Funny thing is, if you take Matchmaker and add a quarter note to every bar to make it 4/4, as Lucy Simon did for her puerile ballad, The Girl I Mean To Be, you take the spring out of its step: The Secret Garden does talk down to children.

Somewhere in childhood, it occurred to me I loved The Apple Tree even more than Fiddler on the Roof, although I still consider the latter the greatest musical ever written. Fiddler’s unmatched success has made it as familiar as chicken soup. I’m far fonder of Fiorello. And many people I know consider She Loves Me a masterpiece.

I’m not sure about that, but boy is it full of fantastic music. Consider the quiet bolero that colors a lustful lass’s trip to the library. It’s quiet, because you can’t get loud in a library, but one feels the passion is heating to the boiling-over point, and fortissimo ecstasy can’t be far away. Or the more obvious example: you’re trying to write an apologetic note but the ecstasy of last night’s gift of a frozen dessert (and all it represents) keeps forcing you to break out into a slow building polka.

One of my most-treasured possessions is a score Bock wrote after the disastrous split with Harnick in 1970. It’s utterly charming, but we couldn’t find room to use any of it seven years ago, when Sara Lazarus and I fashioned a full-length Bock and Harnick revue. It was called Grand Knowing You. Jerry Bock: it’s been grand, perfectly grand.

I play, Hananel Edri sings


On the brink

November 1, 2010

On the brink of the big anniversary of On the Brink, my first professionally-produced musical, I’ll indulge my nostalgic streak (and then promise not to do it again for a while).

My two collaborators, Adam Belanoff and Stephen Gee, and I had written a show in school, and Adam’s oldest brother saw it, and, filled with entrepreneurial zeal, bet that we could successfully entertain an off-Broadway audience. The bet paid off, as the show turned a profit: particularly amazing in light of the ticket price – six dollars.

Following the write-what-you-know dictum, we fashioned a show about young people, just out of school, who haven’t quite found themselves yet. (Back then, this was fairly novel.) There was a lot of topical humor, including an opening sequence based on subway gunman Bernhard Goetz, and references to Bhopal, Tofutti, Leo Buscaglia and EST that mean the show can never be revived.

And yet, even today, people are still doing my number about Three Mile Island at auditions. I guess that’s proof people still find it funny.

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

(click picture to hear song)

My favorite of all of my songs, Madison Avenue Is Calling Me, was based on my personal experiences, and it’s very rare I draw on my life. But I was intimately acquainted with the experience of running from interview to interview, looking for a job in advertising, all the time loathing the idea of becoming a copywriter. In the song, the character is a visual artist, and that’s what he really wants to be, but lack of commercial success force him to consider that “a picture’s worth a thousand dollars on Madison Avenue.”

When the piece still wasn’t fully formed, I played the song-in-progress for Stephen Gee, improvising the verses, which rambled on formlessly. I quickly assured him I’d fit it into uniform lines, give it a strict structure and he blurted “No! Don’t do that. What’s great about the song is the way it’s unpredictable.” And I thought about how form had been so important to me, in all my writing up to then, and guessed that Steve was requesting I break out of that rut. So, the beginnings of each of the four verses start the same, and mention Washington in the first line (Washington Square, Washington Heights, Washington State, Washington Bridge) but after a few bars, each veers off in a different direction. Much of the song has no rhythmic pulse, making the character seem rudderless, until the climax when he makes a firm commitment. The four choruses contain a recognizable hook on the title, and then a sudden quickening of notes on “I remain strong-willed” before drifting back into that resigned slowness. Eventually, Steve asked for a few bars before the final verse, which give the actor, and the audience, time to think and reflect – a breather.

Adam Belanoff remains one of my closest friends to this day, but our relationship was rather strained by the pressures of On the Brink. One thing he was always unhappy about was the way the show ended quietly, with the wistful title song. I thought the song was one of the best things in the show, and a perfect ending. It bears some resemblance to Sondheim’s Our Time, but strikes me as more genuine, more felt. One day, I got a call from Adam’s brother:

“Noel, as you know, I’ve all along stayed out of the creative process. But Adam’s concerned about the finale you’ve been rehearsing, and I’m sure that, with all the songwriting talent you’ve shown, it must be within your powers to write another one.”

I appreciated that he’d never bothered me before, but told him that Adam and Steve hadn’t proposed a subject matter for a new song.

“This is just off the top of my head, but did you see how the Mets played, with Strawberry and all those young players, and came so close to first place. Maybe there’s something in that.”

I was thrilled to write a number about my beloved Mets called Wait Till Next Year. I played it for him over the phone and he was thrilled to hear his idea turned into a spirited tune. I’d followed orders, and only had to wait a day before getting the result I wanted, when Steve called to say we’d be using the quiet chorale, On the Brink. After all, by November, nobody would want to hear about baseball.

Coffee and toast
Pasta and Cheese
Dreaming of Easy Street
I gave a bum a dime today
And he gave me back a receipt
Taking a chance
Placing a bet
Nothing can get you down
Now you can swim or sink
Or take on this whole town
Look where you are:
You’re on the brink
Out of all the craziness, the view becomes clear
Answers that eluded you before now appear
The dawn is breaking!
Now is the time
This is the start
Look through the parting clouds
Now you can take the whole world on
While joining the infinite crowds
Seizing the day
Greeting the night
Earning the right to crow
Everything makes you think
Anywhere you want to go, you’ll go
We’re getting warm
We’re on the…
Brink of something fabulous, or near the abyss
Why do I feel optimistic on nights like this?
Your dream seems closer
Reach for the stars
Take it all in
Know that you’ll win the race
Hop on the shuttle as it soars to do some repairs up in space.
Brimming with hope
Out of the blue
Knowing it’s “do or die”
Skyscrapers make you think
You, too, can touch the sky
Maybe you can
You’re on the brink
Everything lets you know
Anywhere you want to go you’ll go
We’re almost there:
We’re on the brink