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.