Too old for this

January 27, 2011

Good songs. Well sung. In a Broadway theatre. You’d think I’d be happy.

American Idiot is a show with a tall, TV-filled set, and the occasional stunning visual. Most impressively, everyone in the cast appears to play the guitar. But most of the lyrics are incomprehensible. As far as I can tell, there’s no story. The characters are alarmingly similar to one another: complaining slackers who recline on ugly couches, downing beers. There’s no reason to like them, or to follow what happens to them.

Perhaps I came to the St. James Theatre with an unreasonable expectation: that there’d be a plot, that I’d feel something, that it would be something more than a live procession of music videos. It’s not that I dislike music videos – some are a lot of fun – but it would never occur to me to watch them for 90 minutes without getting up.

I must sound really old, locked in my outmoded 20th Century way of thinking. Back when dates began with 19, a musical was something that entertained with songs connected to a story and characters. Now, Broadway hosts a number of shows that bear a much closer resemblance to rock concerts than the musicals I write, or the musicals we all grew up with.

Much of the audience around me was pretty thrilled to see Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong performing some of his compositions. At the end, he came back out to do an encore, and couldn’t stop from laughing – apparently he thinks there’s something risible about turning a phenomenally successful rock album into a Broadway entertainment.

As recent rock albums go, Green Day‘s American Idiot earns its huge sales: it’s excellent – likable melodies with energy, power, and tons of attitude. When they come up on your iPod shuffle, you go “Now this is a good song.” But, for the first third of the stage show, every number had the same tempo and volume. Despite all the strobe lights flashed in my face, I found myself falling asleep.

This will sound incredibly nit-picky: The second line of the title song is sung with two slightly different lyrics. The first time, a soloist wails “under the new media” with a false accent. Later, a group sings “controlled by the media” and the words fit on the tune perfectly. I mention this because I’m thinking about why so many of the lyrics were incomprehensible. In life, if someone says to you “Don’t want a nation under the new media” you’re not confused; your mind focuses on an interesting point. But native speakers don’t mis-stress words. “Under the new media” didn’t register with me, because “under” is a word that is never accented on its second syllable. So, this seemingly minor instance of bad craft stopped my brain from turning to the concept I should have been thinking about. Much of the show sounded like gobbledy-gook.

Sometimes you don’t understand lyrics because they’re too dense, like a lot of modern poetry. Sometimes, the performer has muddy articulation. Sometimes, the sound system’s getting in the way, or the band is too loud. As I songwriter, I’m most troubled by times in which errors of craft get in the way of communication.

Which brings me to a particularly ridiculous bit of staging. Picture, if you will, in the distant future, a class of fourth graders singing a concert of popular songs from the early 21st Century. Rather then just standing there, they’re given hand movements as their standing-in-place choreography. Every time they sing the words “21 guns” they do three hand gestures: a peace sign to indicate the number 2, the forefinger pointing to indicate 1, and then the hand making the shape of a pistol for “guns.” Clever? Cute? Now imagine a massed chorus of adults standing in a line at the rear of a stage doing that hand-ography.

Idiot, indeed.

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My Dad

January 21, 2011

Today is my father’s birthday (he’s 83).  But this is not a personal blog.  As you know, all I ever talk about is musical comedy writing.  So anything I say about him is going to have to relate to the topic at hand.

You know the lyric in Funny Girl that goes “All day, the records play.”  This can certainly be said of my father, who goes through his huge classical collection (a lot of which is walls filled with vinyl) in a systematic way, so he doesn’t repeat the same piece before hearing everything else he’s got.  For the last five years or so, classical has been the style of music I prefer listening to, although I don’t listen to music nearly as often as most people.  Obviously, composers for the stage should have a certain familiarity with classical repertory.  Andrew Lloyd Webber clearly does, as three of his biggest hits (I Don’t Know How To Love Him, Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and The Music of the Night) contain direct thefts from Mendelssohn, Bach and Puccini, respectively.

When I was a small child, I had limited understanding of what my father did for a living.  I recalled my confusion to write a duet in which boys whose fathers work in television struggle to describe what daddy does, with a certain amount of one-upsmanship.  Or is that one-upboyship?  Spell-check doesn’t like that  either.

There was a brush with musical theatre greatness.  My father produced an off-Broadway play, The Infantry, and two of the actors in it had written a musical.  Naturally, they showed it to him, to see if he might be interested in producing it.  But, as the script was a mess about a bunch of hippies wandering around doing various hippie things – no real story – my father passed on Hair.  As one of our favorite old jokes goes, I’d have over $100 today …

People – particularly parents – are amazed to hear that I was a recalcitrant piano student as a child.  I’d never practice, which put my father in a constant bind.  Should my piano lessons be discontinued?  Whenever they were, I’d campaign to get them restored, and once ran away from home, called him up, and demanded more lessons.  Dad didn’t want to subject me to the torture he suffered as a child struggling to learn piano.  His mother had been a professional pianist and whenever he hit a wrong note, he instantly heard her, from any part of the house, saying “Uh-uh, Joel!”

So, one fateful day, he taught me how to read a few chord symbols, thereby enabling me to play show tunes by pounding the chord in my left hand, the melody in the right.  Suddenly, this was all I wanted to do, and I spent hours and hours playing any song (with chord symbols) I could get my hands on.  The public library had scores of scores of musicals.  I eventually compared what my left hand was playing to the actual music written, and improved my chord-reading accompaniment.  And my fascination with chords became an obsession, in early adolescence.  Why did certain sequences of chords keep reappearing?  In essence, I learned about harmony by studying the sequences used by Rodgers, Kern, Gershwin and Porter.  Eventually, I started writing down chord symbols to songs I didn’t know, and composed new melodies to fit the purloined sequences.  (My creations veered far further from the originals than Lloyd Webber’s.) My father realized I’d found my calling, and switched me from piano lessons to composition lessons.

An inevitable oedipal moment centered on the question of who should accompany our family’s favorite pastime, singing show tunes around the piano.  Around the time I was about to surpass him in accompaniment abilities, he was playing a romantic ballad for my mother to sing and she was getting the rhythm wrong.  He was impatient with her, upsetting her, and you might say this was an epiphany for me, the moment I knew I had to be an especially sensitive player, one who’d never jump down the throat of a singer making an error.  When you play for people, you experience what they experience, and this has had a huge influence over the way I write songs: spaces to breathe, moments to think, words that flow off the tongue and intervals that don’t tax the voice.

And that song my mother was flubbing?  Well, it’s all about loving a man even though you know he’s got a lot of flaws.


If this were an improv

January 15, 2011

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time improvising.  (I spoke about my parallel career in improv in a previous post.)  So, yesterday, I sat down at the piano, turned on a recorder, and ad-libbed an up-tempo.

This is one method of composing, and it can be useful to spark a certain type of tune.  For one thing, it’s likely to be singable: if you’ve used your voice to come up with the tune, it’s proof your voice, at least, can wrap your vocal cords around it.  The jagged odd intervals that make certain modern music difficult on the singer aren’t likely to appear here.  Simpler lines are likely to emerge, and, sometimes, simple’s the way to go.

Of course this is just the kernel: you’re going to need to refine and rewrite it a thousand times before it comes to full flower.  (Am I mixing a metaphor?  I don’t know enough about plants.)  Another use of improvisation is to generate a harmonic palette, the set of chord combinations that you can draw on when writing the music the traditional way.  Alone, with no one listening, I’ll test out various unusual sequences and take mental notes on what emotional qualities they appear to contain.  Surprising combinations can make pieces fresh.  I’m very critical of composers who keep going to the same obvious places, utilizing sets of chords we’ve heard a million times.

In describing the process of writing music, I find I use the word “appropriateness” a lot.  A musical theatre score must make some reference to the stylistic elements of the time and place of its setting.  For The Heavenly Theatre, set in medieval France, I did a little research and found a wealth of interesting sounds in the modal scales that were utilized then (but rarely today).  They “said” medieval France to me.  For Area 51, we hit upon the idea of having much of the score sound like a Las Vegas lounge act, since the fabled Area’s located in Nevada.  That meant a different set of chords on the palette.

Which reminds me to point out that before improvising that song yesterday, a whole bunch of parameters were in place.  I knew it would be

* energetic
* celebratory
* involve a few hard-strumming acoustic guitars
* sung by a group, with some characters having solo lines
* a big choral finish, possibly a cappella

Before I sat down to play, I knew I wanted to use a suspended chord on the tonic, perhaps resolving to the triad for the second bar.  It’s the sort of thing used in a lot of rock – it’s all over Pinball Wizard, and also the opening number of Falsettos, Four Jews In a Room Bitching.  (Now that I think of it, the situation in my song is A Dozen or More Jews, NOT In a Room, Doing the Opposite of Bitching.)  The suspension/resolution pairing was probably on my mind because I recently recorded my song that uses Chopsticks in its preliminary section, to introduce a very energetic, excited child: 

So here I’m sharing a tossed-off ditty before it’s 24 hours old.  It’s in such an embryonic state, God knows how it will evolve, or whether I’ll end up using it.  But, however good it is (or isn’t), it’s one more tune than I had yesterday morning: a step in the right direction. 

And I thought I’d end with an old improv I kinda like.  I spontaneously created a theme for a TV sitcom using a familiar title. 


In the army

January 10, 2011

My Christmas card this year was an unmitigated disaster.

Every year I create a card that’s intended for a quick look that will make the recipient smile.  Whether it’s a drawing, a photograph, or a graphic, it’s essential that the image be instantly readable.  You’re not supposed to have to puzzle out what it means.  (Sort of like a theatre lyric, which must be immediately comprehensible.)

My last couple of cards had gone over very well.  Two years ago, I’d drawn Santa and his reindeer coming in for a landing on the White House, only Santa had the face of Obama, and this brought a smile to his supporters.  Last year, my wife and I had dressed in silly costumes for a photo entitled “Don we now our gay apparel.”  Friends said “I thought there was no way you could top last year’s card, but you did.  Can’t wait for next year’s card.”

Er, yes… What to do?  December rolled around and I was still at a loss for an idea.  Until there was a news event that, in a way, combined the themes of the last two cards: the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  If I could come up with an image that referenced that happy event, people looking at the card would feel a surge of joy over the good news.

So my idea was to have same-sex soldiers celebrating with a kiss.  And the caption would read “Merry Merry” which would reinforce what the drawing was saying in two ways: “merry” and “gay” are synonyms, and “merry” and “Mary” are nearly homonyms.  The next step was to draw two merry Marys kissing.  (Though not preparing to marry, which is a third near-homonym but not yet legal, nationally.)

To look at models for my artwork, I turned to the internet.  Would you believe that if you google “women kissing” you can see 6,670,000 pictures?  So, I stared at those for a while.  But the pose I liked best was actually a heterosexual couple 

and I figured I could simply lengthen the man’s hair.  Next, I carefully looked at uniforms soldiers wear, copying insignia on sleeves, etc.

Holiday travels took me through four airports, and, at each, I happened to see armed forces females and was struck by how accurate my drawing was.  I was tempted to whip out my card and show it to a pair of them, but worried they’d think I’d assumed they were lesbians.  You see, in my mind, the card was abundantly clear: same-sex soldiers kissing to celebrate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Unfortunately, it was received with abject puzzlement.  Nobody could tell what the hell my drawing was about.  People assumed one of the kissers was a man with long hair.  Or they took the camouflage fabric as an artistic abstraction.  One friend wrote

“I have enjoyed every Christmas card you have ever sent – even shared the humor with friends.  This year’s card reminds me of paintings in a museum – what does it say to you – and it doesn’t matter who else it speaks to.”

Unmitigated disaster.  The image was supposed to read, instantly, like a magazine ad.

How does this relate to musical theatre writing?

There’s a difference between verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, and documentary truth.  My airport experience led me to believe I’d accurately depicted female soldiers.  But what my card required was a recognizable rendering, not actuality.

Which brings me to my research for Such Good Friends.  I had a scene in which a famous comedienne appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  I looked at what really happened.  Here’s Judy Holliday testifying:

Senator Watkins: Did you not have any friends that were Communists?

Miss Holliday: Never.

Mr. Arens: Alvin Hammer, however, refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee as to whether or not he was a Communist?

Miss Holliday: That is correct.

Mr. Arens: Adolph Green and Betty Comden, with whom you were associated in the Revuers, have Communist-front records; do they not?

Miss Holliday: No.

Senator Watkins: Are you sure of that?

Miss Holliday: I am as sure of that as I can be of anybody that isn’t me.

Senator Watkins: You know them well?

Miss Holliday: I know them well, and I know them to be completely unpolitical people. They are terrific hard workers, and that is their life.

Mr. Arens: Adolph Green, your friend, was a sponsor of the Committee for the Reelection of Benjamin Davis?

Miss Holliday: I certainly never knew that.

Mr. Arens: Betty Comden, your friend, was reported to be a sponsor of the Committee for the Reelection of Benjamin Davis; was she not?

Miss Holliday: I never knew that, and I really doubt it. I don’t know whether I am supposed to say that, but I doubt it.

Mr. Arens: Betty Comden was one of the entertainers at the Madison Square Garden rally of the Spanish Refugee Appeal of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, September 24, 1945, as shown in the Daily Worker for September 24, 1945?

Miss Holliday: To my knowledge she was not.

Mr. Rifkind: To your knowledge, you mean as far as you know.

Miss Holliday: As far as I know, she was not.

Senator Watkins: You were intimate at that time, were you not, with her?

Miss Holliday: Yes.

Senator Watkins: Had been for years?

Miss Holliday: Yes.

Mr. Arens: Betty Comden was one of the sponsors of the Communist May Day Parade in 1946, which was the annual mobilization of Communist strength?

Miss Holliday: I am sure she didn’t.

Mr. Arens: And Betty Comden also has signed at least one statement of the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions; has she not?

Miss Holliday: She may have. That sounds much more possible than any of these other things. I know this woman, she has no interest in things like that.

Mr. Arens: You also signed some other statements by this Committee, the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions; did you not?

Miss Holliday: Yes.

Mr. Arens: You signed an ad about “We are for Wallace”; did you not?

Miss Holliday: Yes.

Mr. Arens: That was in 1948?

Miss Holliday: Yes.

Mr. Arens: That was subsequent to the time that the National Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions had been officially found to be a Communist-front organization; was it not?

Miss Holliday: You mean that was before that; is that what you mean?

Mr. Arens: No, it was after that.

Miss Holliday: And it was public knowledge?

Mr. Arens: Let us strike that from the record and start over again. I put it to you as a fact that on October 28, 1948, you were a signer of an ad “We are for Wallace,” sponsored by the Communist-front organization of the Arts, Sciences and Professions?

Miss Holliday: I was a signer of an ad sponsored by the organization, which I did not know was a Communist front

And here’s what I wrote – something that seems real and feels real, but isn’t.

CONGRESSMAN

You know why we asked to see you here today?

DOTTIE

Of course!  You’re fans of the Dottie Francis Show and you wanted to meet me.

CONGRESSMAN

Well, of course we’re aware of your accomplishments –

DOTTIE

Oh, Congressman! –  Can I call you “Congressman?” – You flatter me so.

CONGRESSMAN

Are you now, or have you ever been, a member –

DOTTIE

There’s just one thing that I ever was a member of.  A club for comedians called The Pranksters.  On East 19th Street.

CONGRESSMAN

Miss Francis –

DOTTIE

You can call me Dottie.

CONGRESSMAN

Miss Francis, this committee has heard testimony that you were present at a fund-raiser for an organization called Committee for the Negro in the Arts. Do you recall attending?

DOTTIE

Can’t say that I do.

CONGRESSMAN

Or at the Relief Fund for Russian Orphans meeting, also on East 19th Street?

DOTTIE

People see a star and remember forever.  A star can’t remember every single show, every party she’s been to.

CONGRESSMAN

But you’d go to different parties and entertain?

DOTTIE

(Sings:)

I HAD TO BE

THE LIFE OF THE PARTY

CONGRESSMAN

You wouldn’t even know if these were political gatherings.

DOTTIE

NO ONE BUT ME

RIGHT THERE, CENTER STAGE

CONGRESSMAN

You would sing ‘em a song–

DOTTIE

I’D TELL ‘EM JOKES

BUT NOT STAY AFTER

BOW TO THE FOLKS

BEFORE THEIR LAUGHTER

DIED OUT

I’D SLIDE OUT.

I WAS QUITE THE RAGE

 

CONGRESSMAN

Miss Francis, what can you tell us about The Pranksters?

DOTTIE

IT WAS A CLUB

AND NOTHING SUBVERSIVE

CONGRESSMAN

We have, here, a list–

DOTTIE

PICTURE A PUB

POPULATED BY CLOWNS

CONGRESSMAN

Could you name some of these “clowns” you met at The Pranksters?

DOTTIE

DARTS WOULD FLY

AND SO WOULD QUIPS

CERTAINLY I

HAD RELATIONSHIPS

INNOCENT FUN–

CONGRESSMAN

What sort of relationships?

DOTTIE

A lady doesn’t tell such things.

CONGRESSMAN

Then can you explain how your signature landed on this petition calling for the unionization of—

DOTTIE

(Cutting him off)

Mr. Congressman, sir: You have my autograph! And I was planning to offer you one once this interview is over.

CONGRESSMAN

Miss Francis, I’m not––

DOTTIE

So many people want my autograph!  I come out of a stage door, and always find a big crowd shouting “Sign this!  Sign this!”  I try to give as many autographs as possible.  You’re saying one ended up on some political piece of paper?

CONGRESSMAN

Yes.

DOTTIE

I don’t know much about politics.  In those days, like clockwork, every four years I’d cast a ballot for Roosevelt, just like everyone else.

CONGRESSMAN

Well, I didn’t.

DOTTIE

That’s hardly patriotic of you.

(LAUGHTER is heard.  Gavel banging gets it to fade.)

CONGRESSMAN

Enough!  I’ve heard enough!

DOTTIE

This took much less time than I expected.  Thank you all so much for such a lovely conversation!


Something excellent right away

January 4, 2011
Since 1997 I’ve been actively involved in creating my own obsolescence.

A shocking admission, I know.

Usually (but not always) in partnership with Larry Rosen, I’ve been teaching people to improvise songs and musicals. At times they do it better than those who carefully plan, fashion, and rewrite their shows countless times. Those fools like me.

But a written musical is built to be seen again and again. Improvisations are like dandelion spores. They go out into the air just once, enchanting whoever’s watching, and are never seen again.

So there are different goals and parameters with this kind of creation. Coming up with songs on the spot uses a part of the brain that isn’t often exercised. Most of our teaching involves getting performers comfortable with this unusual task. They need to know the rudiments of song construction – form, rhyme, the proper use and reuse of a title, etc. We’ve devised all sorts of rehearsal methods to get these to seem like second nature. Then, the players can focus on exactly what their characters’ minds are on. This is the Holy Grail of acting: in the ideal, you want to think exactly what your character is thinking, and then react exactly as your character would. In the improvised musical, they burst forth in spontaneous song.

If you haven’t seen song improv, it’s hard to imagine. And if you’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway, you haven’t seen improvisation. That TV abonimation films roughly 14 hours for every half hour it puts on the air – it edits down the best 22 minutes from a long day of hard work – and, in television’s typical dishonest way, convinces the public it is seeing improvisation. It is not. When I work live on stage with an improv group (Off the Wall, The Chainsaw Boys, Upright Citizens Brigade, Centralia, etc.) what the audience is seeing is truly created of the top of our heads. It’s an amazing thing to behold, and the moment it happens, it’s gone – like those spores.

Our last class at The People’s Improv Theatre videoed their final performance. It’s very hard to watch, due to the typical problems of a static camera in a theatre that’s not a TV studio. But I love what happens from 5:30-7:30 of Part Two, when a guy is given a suggestion (“catheter”) and doesn’t know the meaning of the word. 

Our next classes, which run eight weeks, are about to start. Contact The People’s Improv Theatre right away and share the joy of spontaneous theatre.