The actor’s song

April 27, 2011

Rehearsing Things We Do For Love has made this an especially happy time in my life. There have actually been moments in which I’ve been able to stop worrying, lean back, and think “Damn, that’s good!” But don’t take my word for it: come Monday or Tuesday and see for yourself.

Last Thursday I had a revelation of sorts, about what makes a particular lyric so effective. I hope it won’t seem too boastful if I use it to illustrate the principle that lyricists should be – make that must be – dramatists. When a good playwright creates a monologue, it doesn’t restate the same thought again and again. The character goes through a thought process, something of a dialectic, weighing the pros and cons of an action. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles. We in the audience are often uncertain of what the monologuist will finally choose to do, and we watch in rapt fascination at the thinking on display.

Performers Christine De Frece and Steven Bidwell ran their songs by their old acting teacher, who, as part of the coaching process, had them speak their lyrics as monologues. This gives the actor time to explore and elucidate every moment, and it was quite revealing. In Christine’s solo, Fluttering, the character considers the affections of two very different men, and she’s constantly pulled in two different directions. It’s duty versus passion:

I‘M LIKE A STARLING

FLITTING AROUND

AND EMITTING A SOUND

THAT’S A BEACON TO BIRDS

HE CALLED ME “DARLING”

AND GAVE ME A KISS

I’M NOT TREATED LIKE THIS

THAT IS, NOT TILL TODAY

HE HAS SUCH A WAY WITH HIS WORDS.

First, she marvels at the unusual sensations that appear to have robbed her of her customary mooring. Then, she refers to her new-found concupiscence with a comparison to the animal kingdom that’s far politer (and therefore, more properly Victorian) than being like a cat in heat. But quickly she’s romanticizing a term of endearment and a kiss on the forehead that might not have seemed like much to the audience a few seconds ago. Next, she’s back to the reality of the passion-free existence, celebrates her emancipation from that, and finally finds something loving to say about the man who stirred her.

The spoken exploration led Christine to make fascinating choices in the way she moved, gestured, focused her eyes, emphasized various words and notes, and colored her musical phrasing. A glorious interpretation was being crafted before my eyes: I’ve never seen the song done with so much attention to detail. It was if I was hearing it for the first time.

As musical theatre writers, we frequently must dramatize moments in which a character’s alone on stage. Fluttering is popular with sopranos, I think, because it gives them so much to play. You really must see what Christine does with it May 2 & 3 at the Duplex.

Click here to reserve for Monday May 2 at 9:30

Click here to reserve for Tuesday May 3 at 7:00

Click here for the complete lyric to Fluttering and the Joanne Lessner demo recording.

Hearing it, Michael Reidel exclaimed “You certainly have a way with melody, Noel.” Michael Reidel of the Post! He’s notoriously hard to please.

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A song in my pants

April 22, 2011

these are the things we do for love

I sat on the toilet, a little longer than I might have, and wept.

Congratulations on reading on to the second paragraph.  I know I wouldn’t have.  I swear this isn’t one of those blogs that’s all about the author’s emotions.  And the subject is certainly not anyone’s digestive system.  It’s all about writing musicals.  So how can the toilet sentence possibly relate?

Monday we’d somehow scheduled 13 hours of rehearsal for the new revue of my songs, Things We Do For Love.  Naturally, during such a marathon, nature calls, but rehearsing needn’t stop, since cast member Brad Siebeking is always able to fill in for me on the keys.  Where we rehearse, the men’s room is right next door so, if you’re perched on the throne and quiet, you can hear pretty well through the shared wall.  Every few seconds, a huge burst of laughter came from the rehearsal room.  Like the film cliché where an uproarious reaction emanates, with steady frequency, through closed theatre doors.

This made me so happy, I started to cry.

The euphoric, creative, and hysterical process of rehearsing Things We Do For Love is due to the personnel involved.  The six performers are all very funny people, but the tone is set by director Justin Boccitto.  He creates an atmosphere where all feel free to contribute excellent ideas about how to make things funnier.  So, as the minutes fly (and it really didn’t feel like that many hours), the humor quotient goes up and up.  The business they came up with while I was in the can had to do with using belts as a plucked string bass.  It may not sound brilliant in the description, but when you see it, it’s hysterical.

This spirit of innovation, this playground where wild ideas can be explored and wild business invented, is also part of the nature of shows that are being created for the first time.  Things We Do For Love, the cabaret containing more than twenty songs out of my trunk, is being formed before my eyes.  We can put anything we want into it.  But I tend to attribute our feeling like giddy mad scientists to Justin, since I’ve worked with him on several already-written musicals, and a similar ethos has dominated.  While songwriters can always show you their work, usually on a recording, sometimes on the page, and I’m always up for singing at a piano, directors’ work must be seen, in the theatre, for you to understand its true quality.  So, when I urge you to attend, it’s not just so you can see what I can do; I’d hate for you to miss Justin’s brilliant work.

And I had another thought this week (not on the toilet).  The show tune isn’t done when the songwriter dots the final half note or crosses the final T.  It’s got to be staged to become a piece of theatre, something the audience experiences.  Not just words and music, but actors’ interpretations, choreography, staging, what intentions are being played, what notes are being spun by the voice.  Most of the songs in Things We Do For Love, in fact, have been staged in the past, but as Justin Boccitto newly fashions each one of them, it feels like we’ve just given birth to something new.


Be funny

April 17, 2011

At the risk of turning this blog into the stereotypical plugmobile, I can’t fight the compulsion to tell you about the reunion show, Monday and Tuesday, of The Chainsaw Boys, my best pals in the wacky world of improvisation. 

Can’t promise it will be good, because it’s totally made up on the spot, nobody can predict what will happen, how wonderful it might be.  I can tell you that in the late nineties, theirs was the show to see, wowing audiences in all sorts of venues in downtown Manhattan as well as festivals in Austin and Boston.  (You knew I’d manage to sneak a rhyme in here somehow.)  A very high percentage of the time, they managed to be extremely funny; transcendent at times.  And now we’re getting the old band back together for a benefit for the ASPCA.

Some of what I did for them certainly relates to musical theatre writing.  It’s a rather specialized skill, creating song forms for performers to improvise new lyrics for every time.  At their first rehearsal with me, the task was to figure out how to turn the Sister Sledge classic We Are Family into an opening number for them.  This was so many years ago, I honestly don’t recall how we did it, but in retrospect it seems prophetic, because no quintet is more like family to me than Matthew Ostrom, Miriam Sirota, Michael Bridenstine, Leo Byrne Jenicek and especially Mike Bencivenga.

As the group evolved, they wanted to do original musical numbers, so I was tasked with coming up with a rock opening that would be even more energetic than We Are Family.  Rent was then the rage, and I came up with a driving opener called I’m Dying (long before the Parker & Stone masterpiece Everyone Has AIDS). We’d take a suggestion from the audience for an obscure object of desire, and on they’d bound, singing, “I’m dying for…” whatever the suggestion was.  It really soared due to the energy and attitude of the cast, as well as some choreography.  Matt Ostrom tended to slide in on his knees, in classic rock star fashion, and the audience ate him up and never focused on his singing abilities, to our mutual delight.

When I teach people to improvise songs, I shift focus away from the voice and concentrate on playing the character, selling the song, and expressing, in the made-up lyrics, what the character is feeling in the scene.  When done well, the effect of discovering something clever and apt, immediately putting it out to the audience and having them delight in what’s been found with you – it’s all rather magical.  99% of that magic evaporates when the spontaneous creation is put on video, but I need some way of illustrating this, so here they are improvising lyrics off the suggestion “ding-dong” twelve years ago:

Monday, April 18th at 8PM and Tuesday, April 19th at 9:30PM we’ll be doing No No No as well as my Gospel and my most frequently-performed tune, Cabaret of Despair.  Only 5 simoleons, at the new People’s Improv Theatre, 123 E 24.  Might be hysterical; might not.  You won’t know unless you’re there.


I wanna wow

April 12, 2011

I’ve something very exciting to announce.  On May 2 & 3, you can attend a cabaret made up of two dozen of my songs.

It’s called Things We Do For Love, features a cast of six, and plays in Greenwich Village at The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street, corner of Seventh Avenue South, NY, NY (212) 255-5438

Show-times are:

Monday May 2, 2011 at 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday May 3, 2011 at 7:00 p.m.

Tickets are $12, and there is a two-drink minimum.

I can assure you of one thing: You will laugh your ass off.

So, those of you who like to laugh.  Or those of you who have asses you’d like to have off, make reservations as soon as possible.  Here be links:

Monday May 2 at 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday May 3 at 7:00 p.m.

There are those who use their blogs for nothing but self-promotion, and I realize anything I say about the show might therefore be greeted with some skepticism.  But you’ve come to this page because you’re interested in what I have to say about musical theatre writing.  Shouldn’t it pique your curiosity about whether I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk?  And even if you disagree with everything I say here – perhaps you love Be Prepared and You Don’t Know This Man; American Idiot and Lost in the Stars, and are horrified by my critiques – doesn’t it make you say “Wonder if he could do better?”

And my songs – no matter how good they are – were created to be heard live.  I don’t think it’s egotistical to point out that you haven’t heard what I can do unless you’ve heard one of my counterpoint ensembles with five or six different melodies simultaneously hitting your ears from different positions in the performance space.  Like many a laughter-provoking experience, the phrase “You had to be there” applies.

She’s in it

You have to be here.  Come to the cabaret.

So's he


Percy, you’re too ill-prepared

April 6, 2011

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but most of my fellow musical theatre writers have something I barely have: a collection of videos of their songs, viewable on YouTube.  It’s a fact that bothers me quite a bit, a clear impediment to fame and perhaps even fortune.  In order to compete, I’m going to have to put samples of my work out there, viewable on computer or, God forbid, SmartPhone.

There are plenty of tunesmiths who’ve amassed considerable fame, calling themselves musical theatre writers, but somehow they’ve never had a musical produced.  They’ve never done that basic thing: moving a live audience in the context of a full-length story being told on a stage.  Some of them have dozens of songs on the internet, being listened to, or, more frequently, watched, every day.  I’ll admit it: I envy their success.  All I’ve ever done is entertained people on the boards, where performers and viewers breathe the same air.  My shows often play tiny houses – one had a four-week run in a 79-seat venue.  In stark contrast, whenever I see something on YouTube, there’s that “views” number – a quantity inevitably greater than the total audience for most of my shows.

I have no comment, here, about Friday, but it’s been seen, according to YouTube, a mere 86,806,194 times since its release about a month ago.  (Well over a million pressed the “dislike” button.)

It’s been pointed out I sound like a very old man whenever I begin a sentence with “Used to be…”  But, in this case, the used-to-be time I refer to is roughly five years ago.  I clearly remember telling various performers they should look into performing certain songs, like John Forster and Michael Leeds’ Cancun, and they’d somehow get a hold of the sheet music, play it through (perhaps with me) and make a decision about whether the tune would work for them.  These days, when I recommend a song, the performer immediately YouTubes it.  (Yes, that’s a verb.)  The videos give him a wholly false impression of the song, usually because the videos that exist are of awful amateurs doing the song very badly, and so they reject the number without really trying it on for size.

Of course, some songs have very good versions on the internet.  But, to my way of thinking, the video camera inevitably waters down the effectiveness of musical theatre material.  What makes theatre unique is the live connection between players and audience, an energy that flows back and forth across the footlights.  I was once so moved by a Bernadette Peters solo in a musical, my sniffles and snobs were audible.  A friend in the front row was sure she could hear me.  And ever since then I’ve pondered how hearing the audience react (more often with laughter) subtly alters what the performer is doing.  Watching a video of that same song, I’m barely moved at all.  I’m not in the space with her.  The camera makes the actor-audience connection impossible.

Another problem with videos has to do with the nature of an excerpt.  Good theatre writers these days write songs that propel a story forward.  Frequently, when a song is taken out of context, you can’t tell how effective it is.  Situational writing involves taking a character from a moment before, to a completely different emotional place afterward.  There’s a subtext, a backstory, there may be lying – and often none of these things come out when just the song is presented.

While the viewing is still free, the making of a good film costs a lot of money, and what we have on the internet is a lot of cheaply-made home-movies with poor sound quality.  (In fact, that’s a good way to describe most of my audio files: For one show, I placed a cheap cassette recorder on the floor, and the turning of its capstans added an odd rhythmic sound.  The cast assumed it was my heartbeat.) In order to get one’s work out there, nowadays, a considerable investment is required.  Call it “keeping up with the Spielbergs.”