On the brink

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

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