Joy shall be yours in the morning

December 29, 2010

It’s that time of year again, when we deal with Christmas leftovers. It occurred to me this year that a solo woman can’t sing Let It Snow.  No evolution of gender relations has yet changed the fact that these Sammy Cahn lines:

When we finally kiss goodnight

How I’ll hate going out in the storm!

But if you’ll really hold me tight

All the way home I’ll be warm

evoke an image of a man traveling home from his lady friend’s place through the cold.  If a female’s traveling through the snow, alone, well, it’s too pitiful to think about. On the other hand, in Frank Loesser’s Baby It’s Cold Outside, the Wolf (as he’s called in the sheet music) is using the weather as an excuse to get the Mouse (as she’s called in the sheet music) to stay.  “No cabs to be had out there” indeed! Loesser, my favorite songwriter, wrote that duet for him and his wife to perform at parties, later stuck it in a film and won an Oscar for it.  Having to do with cold (I guess – I really think it has to do with something else), it gets played at Christmastime.  But not as frequently as his What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?  That would frost him.  The whole idea behind the song was to do a joke about love at first sight.  A pair of characters meet in the springtime, and the guy instantly asks the gal what she’s doing New Year’s Eve, sure their romance will still be running hot on December 31.  If you sing the song in December, that idea goes unexpressed, and the song’s no longer funny. Loesser did write a haunting carol, Greenwillow Christmas, but no one ever plays that (besides me).  I’ve even heard one of his most famous songs, If I Were a Bell, on a Christmas album, just because of the mention of bells.  If you’re going to do that, you might as well throw in Maltby & Shire’s I Hear Bells Of musical theatre writers working today, Maltby & Shire are my favorites.  I hope the other writers reading this aren’t disappointed.  It would, of course, be a desecration to play their I Don’t Remember Christmas around the holidays.  It’s the angriest song I know. But speaking of desecrations, in rehearsing an appearance at the Bulgarian Embassy, my singer friend found this verse of God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen:

Now to the Lord sing praises,

All you within this place,

And with true love and brotherhood

Each other now embrace;

This holy tide of Christmas

All others doth deface

Oh really… (let me look this up) … Author Unknown?  Is that what you think those who don’t celebrate Christmas are doing on December 25? Hindis wake up that morning, see the big red 25 on their calendar and set about defacing Christmas?  I’m outraged.  I told the singer she should yell out “I’m looking at you, Bhuddists!” before “tidings of comfort and joy.” That Author Unknown guy really riles me. I wrote my first Christmas carol when I was 12, give or take a year, setting what’s called the Carol of the Field Mice from The Wind in the Willows.  And my latest, Christmas In O’Hare was the subject of a previous post.  My recording was part of an on-line holiday concert at the Citizen of the Month blog.  Another entry in that was a video scrapbook that moved me greatly.


She took away Christmas

December 22, 2010

Actor Christopher Tierney lies in a hospital bed, in serious condition, suffering from broken ribs and internal bleeding.  (I promise, I’ll lighten things up by the end of this post.)  So, that’s how he’ll spend his Christmas; he wanted to spend his Christmas performing on Broadway, doing the job he was hired to do, in the new musical, Spiderman.  Monday night, malfunctioning equipment caused him to fall 20 or 30 feet (reports vary).  The show has been in previews for a few weeks, and this is the fourth serious accident.

I’m pretty upset about this, and I don’t want to be one of those hotheads who gets all riled up and writes intemperate things on the internet.  Plus, I promised to keep leave you with a smile.

The idea of making a musical out of Spiderman is not a terrible one. Superman made for a fairly fun musical, and when I saw the Hollywood flick with Tobey Maguire (or was it Elijah Wood?  I can never tell those two apart), I thought, here’s a superhero story that uses nerdiness and romance.  If handled with charm and vision, witty writers could make a good show out of it.

But oh, that IF!  In no particular order, here are the top ten things I find disturbing about Spiderman.

1)   It isn’t called Spiderman.  It’s called “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” which, to me, is a turn-off, seemingly emphasizing dark elements of a hero’s twisted soul rather than the fun froth of that halting romance.

2)   At $65,000,000, it is the most expensive show in Broadway history.  The previous record, I believe, was $23,000,000, and of course that show didn’t make that money back.  On my last show, I managed to raise roughly $6,500, and I’m led to this yuletide analogy: Which is better for the environment, constructing the world’s tallest Christmas tree, or planting 10,000 seeds?  All I think when I hear that figure is how else that money might have been spent.

3)    The New York Times’ economics editor estimates that it will be about 4 years before the show even begins to make up its initial investment: ‘Spider-Man’ Economics

4)    Director Julie Taymor is better known for spectacle than story-telling.  Spectacle is the fool’s gold of theatre.  Audiences are used to the special effects of big-budget movies.  Shows that invest in stage magic ape the “wow factor” of an incomparable medium.  It’s much more important that the story be told in a compelling way.  On stage (Juan Darien) and on film (Across the Universe), story-telling appears, to me, to be Taymor’s weak suit.

Juan Darien

5)    I’ll let you in on a not-so-well-guarded secret: Performers in Taymor’s shows are often in pain.  They’re often carrying huge contraptions, and her other Broadway show keeps a team of masseuses in constant employ to heal the players whose bodies are crumbling under their weight.

6)    The actors have a union, one that was formed to ensure its membership is not mistreated or injured at the worksplace.  First, there was an accident in which an actor broke his feet.  I don’t know that the union was informed, but they let the show go on.  The same stunt then caused another accident in which an actor broke both his wrists.  Two injuries from the same stunt?  Could that be really bad luck?  Then, an actress suffered a concussion.  Is the word “accident” really applicable?  By this point, New York’s Department of Labor and the actors’ union both said they were looking into it.  And also The Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  They’re all allowing the show to go on tonight.  What in hell are they waiting for?

7)    The opening night has been pushed back many times, which means Spiderman previews, to full houses at full prices, for more than two months.  Nowhere in their publicity do they inform the public that they’re seeing an unfinished product.

8)    The public doesn’t care.  A cynic would say that some attend with a bloodlust akin to those who go to auto races hoping to see gory accidents.  But I keep encountering people who are going because they’ve always loved the character or Spiderman, or they’re looking forward to seeing actors fly.  On visible ropes.  Maybe they don’t know they’re visible.

9)    The 1966 musical It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane….It’s Superman! had experienced hands on its creative team.  The director was Harold Prince, who knows a thing or two about refining new musicals.  The score was by Strouse & Adams, who’d had a hit with Bye Bye Birdie and also penned one of my favorite scores, Golden Boy.  Spiderman’s songwriters are extremely famous, but not because they’ve ever done anything on Broadway, or in any theatre at all.  They’re Bono and The Edge, the hit-makers for the wildly popular rock band, U2.  I don’t know why anyone ever makes the assumption that someone who’s successfully written rock music can write a musical.  But this has happened a lot in recent years.  Stars such as Larry Gatlin, Dolly Parton, Stewart Copeland, Randy Newman, Jimmy Buffet, Dennis De Young, The Pet Shop Boys, Paul Simon, Holland-Dozier-and-Holland, Boy George and Jim Steinman “slum” in theatre-land, and folks often go “Cool! I really like their hit songs. I bet they could write a great musical.”

10)  During the preview period for any new musical, writers make tweaks and adjustments.  Songs get cut at the last minute.  Or added at the last minute, as Sondheim’s two most famous numbers, Send in the Clowns and Comedy Tonight, were.  This involves sitting in the audience and seeing how things land, how the people in the seats react.  Bono and the Edge are in Australia right now, performing.  They’ve yet to see their show before a live audience.

Still want to go?  Then you’re just like one of these bears:  

Christmastime is here at last

December 17, 2010

You deserve some sort of a gift for reading this blog.  And so, I’ve an original Christmas song for you, one that’s unlike any other I’ve heard.  It’s supposed to capture a feeling many of us feel around this time of year.

Christmas In O’Hare

I wrote the music, not the lyric, and it’s exceedingly rare that I collaborate with lyricists.  But this has been an odd year in that respect.  In April I was exhilarated to work on a very quick film project with composer Jihwan Kim.  Then I set Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night songs in two distinct musical styles – seven songs in all.  Only two got performed: Dixieland-flavored ones in an Ed Berkeley production set in New Orleans.  I got hired to set other people’s lyrics; one of these was for a drag act.  I also composed a song for DJ Salisbury‘s marvelous play, Perfect European Man, which was in the Fresh Fruit Festival.  Then when Tom Carrozza implored me to take another look at a lyric I’d declined to set years ago, it seems my collaborative wheels were already greased.  I wrote it fairly quickly, then forgot about it.

So, when studio time was being scheduled I said “What song?” because I’d literally forgotten I’d written it.

When I accompany a live singer, there’s always give-and-take with the tempo.  For dramatic effect, performers speed up or slow down, and I go with them.  On this, the singer hadn’t learned the song when we did the recording session, so there wasn’t a well-thought-out rendition with rhythmic freedom to adjust to.  So, to put down a living breathing accompaniment track, I had to provide a vocal.  Eventually, my vocal will be replaced and my accompaniment will turn into some wild orchestration.  But in time for this Christmas, you have me singing to my track.

Let me know how you like it.

Playing at the palace

December 11, 2010

The Times Square of my youth was a den of thieves: pick-pockets, three-card-monte sharks, bogus blind beggars and prostitutes.  Their victims were usually tourists.  Out to stop them were cops, some in plain-clothes, and churchy types, sometimes in uniform.  And there were horse-players, like my uncle, singing in counterpoint.

Times Square today is nothing like that.  It’s a pedestrian mall, jam-packed with tourists 24/7 and it’s the one neighborhood in New York I cannot stand visiting.  But my point is not to complain about the place.
The Times Square of my youth was filled with theatre-goers as 8 p.m. approached.  They braved this dodgy area because of a happy compulsion to see the work of performers like Gwen Verdon and Joel Grey, playwrights like Robert Anderson and Wendy Wasserstein, musical-writers like Jerry Herman and Bock & Harnick.  These hearty souls – let’s call them Metropolitan Theatre Fans, read the reviews (if Walter Kerr said “Go!” you went) and relied on word-of-mouth: that is, friends’ reports on whether shows were worth seeing.

Today, who’s going to Broadway?  Overwhelmingly, it’s tourists: they view coming to New York from across the country and around the world and seeing a Broadway show a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  They’re not likely to have read reviews, or even to know other people who’ve seen a Broadway show.  They don’t go on recommendations; they go on name recognition.  Transfixed by the bright lights of advertisements, they’re excited by the names they know: “FRANK SINATRA” read the marquis on the Marquis.  “JOHNNY CASH” reads another.
And it’s not just the names of dead singers: “SPIDERMAN” was a beloved character in their childhoods.  “ELF” – “liked that movie; want to see that!”  “AMERICAN IDIOT” – “my favorite album!  On stage!”

The quantity of tourists attending Broadway today is so much higher than the number of Metropolitan Theatre Fans, it’s gotten to the point where the latter are statistically insignificant.  Which means that the critics are insignificant, since so few theatre-goers bother to look up their assessment.  Currently, there’s a musical that got panned by virtually every newspaper, The Addams Family, and it rakes in a million dollars every week.  There’s an original musical – with a title the tourists haven’t heard of – that got across-the-board raves, multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, Next To Normal, and it doesn’t earn a quarter of that.

Broadway is a commercial enterprise, and shows that fail to fill enough seats close.  Composer John Kander, the most successful of living Broadway composers, worked on The Scottsboro Boys for so many years, his collaborator Fred Ebb died six years before the Broadway opening.  It’s an intelligent entertainment which got a lot of good reviews.  But the small cadre of Metropolitan Theatre Fans didn’t attend in enough numbers to make it profitable; in the parlance, it bombed.

A certain type of musical – original, finely-crafted, witty, emotionally complicated – can’t thrive in this environment.  That’s not what the tourists are coming to see.  When Backstage raved about a show of mine, the reviewer pointed out that I’d crafted something that seemed geared for those Metropolitan Theatre Fans, the vanishing breed:

A wily wizard with words, Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.

This made me think about name-dropping.  For purposes of my story, set in the middle of the twentieth century, I’d mentioned several people who were famous in the middle of the twentieth century: Cliff Odets, Bertolt Brecht, Lillian Hellman and others.  And then there’s Comden & Green’s lyric, “Drop That Name” which consists of nothing but names you could hear at Park Avenue parties in the 1950’s.  In the 1960 film version, many of the names had to be changed to that of movie stars.  Essentially, the song had been written to amuse Metropolitan Theatre Fans and then MGM, in creating a mass-market entertainment, had to dumb down the references.

(Comparison of the two versions)

The shows that were fashioned for those Metropolitan Theatre Fans were the best musicals ever, in part, because the writers could count upon, and knew intimately, those New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds.  Nowadays, Broadway musicals can’t find that crowd amidst the stampede of wide-eyed out-of-towners.

A sight so gory

December 6, 2010

Populism Yea Yea!

Imagine you know some fairly funny history majors who are not geeks, and they get a little stoned, grab some electric guitars, and, without thinking too much about it, improvise a musical about the seventh president.  The rock has the usual brash infectious energy you find in the best of campus indies.  The dancing is all sexy.  The jokes are sophomoric, but hell, some of them are sophomores.  And you find yourself laughing, bopping along to the beat, stimulated by all the swaying or sashaying, and wishing you were as buzzed as they were.

A really good time can be had, for about an hour, at Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  Then there comes a point when the energy flags, and you tire of collegiate potshots and sketch comedian antics (comediantics?) and what’s worse: the show goes on for another half hour.  It’s as if they’ve thought of all the Jackson jokes they can think of, so they try to make a serious point, and it falls rather flat.

It should be noted that the creators know what they’re doing, here.  They’re not an actual frat, uninformed about theatre, spewing out scattershot amusement.  In interviews they speak of the Brechtian nature of the songs commenting upon, rather than propelling action.  The script itself jokes about whether Andrew Jackson’s life story really has an arc.  And there’s a mission statement, in the program, for Les Freres Corbusier, saying the group

“rejects the shy music, seamless dramaturgy and muted performance style of the 20th Century in favor of the anarchic, the rude, the juvenile, the spectacle.”

Pat on the back, brothers: Mission accomplished.

I imagine that a college frat house might be the best location to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  Charge ten bucks, pass out beer from a keg in plastic cups, and you’ve got something wonderful.  On Broadway, well, there’s an impressive renovation of the Jacobs Theatre: it looks like a Tennessee Roadhouse and I kept expecting the log lady from Twin Peaks to show up.

Rock Star (nsfw)

“Have I gone on too long?” This is a question that needs to be on the mind of every writer. In writing my all-silly all-the-time musical, Area 51, I was always concerned that we were running out of gas in the second act. Thanks to the creativity of director Gary Slavin, the act started with a funny visual reference to A Chorus Line. Then I piled on the duets: the two men using a broom and dustbin-on-a-stick as canes like song-and-dance men; the two women with a teaching song about seduction from the least likely source; old lovers reuniting to a brisk beguine; and then the inadvertent marriage proposal with Martians in glass tubes lighting up to provide back-up vocals. But was it all too much? Did the audience tire of this lunacy? These were questions that plagued me.

So, when I see an all-silly all-the-time show wear out its welcome, I wonder if its creators asked the same.

Any sentient human

December 3, 2010

I’ve long been fascinated by the audience reaction to the premiere of the play, The Diary of Anne Frank in Holland.

click photos for videos

The curtain came down and the audience didn’t applaud.  They were too moved, too involved in the story; clapping seemed a totally inappropriate reaction.

Last night at the end of The Scottsboro Boys I found myself unable to show my appreciation.  It was as if I’d been punched in the gut, causing me to burst out into tears.  It took time for me to compose myself, to get to the lobby where I greeted old friend Christian White, who’d done a fantastic job portraying one of the most evil women in American history.


Yes, Christian’s a man.  So now you know the musical includes drag.  It also includes racial caricature, tap-dancing, corny jokes, black men dressed in white beating tambourines – the meat and potatoes of the deservedly forgotten tradition of the minstrel show.

It’s an unusual mix: utilizing the entertaining elements of a style of theatre that embarrasses us to tell a very dramatic and tragic story out of history.  Quite often, the super-happy and the unbearably sad are played in juxtaposition.  At times, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  In some of the show’s weaker moments, you know you’re supposed to cry, but don’t, because your sensitivity meter has been played with.  Some things seem unreal; other things seem too real.

One scene involves a pile of dirt.  The moment it was spread, I naturally assumed someone would dance a soft shoe through the dirt.  It’s that kind of show, after all.  But I was wrong, and the emotions of the dialogue that followed caught me by surprise.  Many of the songs are excellent, truly lovable on first hearing – a rather rare quality.

Kander & Ebb

The lyricist, Fred Ebb, died several years ago.  Composer John Kander is in his eighties.  Has there ever been a good Broadway score by an octogenarian?  This may be the first.

When I think about the creators’ goals here, I feel a kinship.  To take a sad episode of true American history and present it in the most entertaining way possible – that’s what I tried to do in Such Good FriendsThe Scottsboro Boys, to me, is a particularly valuable example of what top-level, experienced professionals can do.

It closes December 12.  I’ll write about its difficulties filling a Broadway theatre soon.