So I chose

May 30, 2011

A former collaborator of mine was recently interviewed in our college alumni magazine. (Yes, I’m strenuously trying to avoid dropping names here. Strenuously.) He and I took many of the same classes and he fondly recalled one professor’s explanation of Shakespeare’s artistry as a sort of dialectic. Audiences love seeing characters with multiple facets, and it’s effective when authors show both sides of an argument rather than just saying something is good or bad.

So, I’m rehearsing a production of Cabaret – the original 1966 Broadway version by Joe Masteroff, John Kander & Fred Ebb – and there’s an emotionally-wrenching scene in the second act where a lovable old landlady tells the leads she’s broken off her engagement to a Jewish greengrocer. At first, we’re horrified by her cowardice and the protagonist, an American who is the prism through which the audience sees events in Berlin, circa 1930, blurts out his disapproval. But it’s not as black and white as it would first seem. In a song and monologue, the old lady articulates what’s led to her decision. 

Our first impulse is to recoil at her action; now, it’s a manifestation of a palpable fear, and therefore sympathetic. I find this one of the most moving scenes in all of musical theatre, and went for something similar in Such Good Friends, having my heroine convince her closest friend, a blacklisted writer, that he should go back to the HUAC and name names. It’s a horrible thing to suggest, giving in to the devils, bringing pain to other innocents, but as her playful seduction has its effects, we come to see the other side, that she’s doing this out of love and genuine concern for her friend.

In Cabaret many characters steadfastly avoid thinking about politics, until the political insinuates its way into their lives and there’s no longer any way to avoid the subject. Fred Ebb’s lyric has the character repeat words for emphasis, when she maintains that she “isn’t at war with anyone, not anyone.” Soon after, Joe Masteroff’s monologue has her go through a litany of difficulties she’s survived in the past, as she claims she’ll survive the Nazis too. But I think it’s even more remarkable what John Kander’s doing with the music here.

The score is too easily dismissed as a gloss on Kurt Weill, and certainly the rhythmic block chords of Wilkommen’s infectious vamp bring the most popular composer of that time and place to mind. But outside the Kit Kat Klub, in the non-diagetic numbers, Kander leans towards the more experimental harmonies one associates with Richard Strauss or Alban Berg. He makes very clever use of the flatted fifth, long associated with evil (or, quite literally, the devil) in music. In the landlady’s first song, the flat fifth of the scale is the distinguishing note of a rather breezy waltz. It’s as if the note is wholly under her control, the devilish gleam in her eye. In the middle of the show, the hero sings a love ballad, Why Should I Wake Up, which compares the joys of love to sleepwalking. After the words “Drifting in this euphoric state” the orchestra flats the fifth, suggesting the undercurrent of Hitler’s rise that the lovebirds are then ignoring. In the finale, he remembers the sights and sounds of Berlin, but this time the familiar Wilkommen has added dissonances. This way, a song we experienced as a friendly and blithe introduction to the show has been tarnished in memory. The audience, listening to the show, therefore feels that something wonderful has been lost, as a man’s mind and a new, poisonous context, rewrite recently-experienced joys.

Listen to What Would You Do with an ear out for the flat fifth: it’s prominent on the second and third beat of the first two measures, and again in between many of the lines. In this song, the effect of the Nazi rise to power is topic A. The character who corralled the flat fifth into a happy waltz in the first act is now unable to do the brave thing; dissonance has won out. Early on, on the line “But imagine if you were me” Kander does something I’ve never seen anywhere else. He modulates, not in between sections but right before the section is over. It’s so subtle, you don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it. And – getting a little technical here – there’s an unusual use of an enharmonic, as the G# we’ve heard so much of in the key of E becomes an A-flat to give a minor cadence to the end of the line (“were”) in the new key of F major. Next comes a surprisingly short bridge in which the long notes step up. She sings a seventh to start it off, then climbs to an octave. Then she cuts herself off, too wracked with pain to finish her thought after “even so” and the section’s over sooner than we’d expect. (In the score I’m looking at, “even so” is followed by a comma, leaving the impression she’s cut off her sentence.) The second bridge is a recognizable return to the earlier bridge’s theme, but this time, it goes longer, stepping up from seventh, to octave, to ninth. Jumps of a ninth are exceedingly rare in musical theatre. But the climax is the biggest surprise of all: Kander modulates down to E and the character is silent as the orchestra plays fortissimo. The music is expressing what the character can’t, at the moment. The effect is devastating.

It won’t cost you a dime, so I highly recommend coming to see what Cecilia Şenocak does with What Would You Do in our production of Cabaret at Circle-in-the-Square Sunday, June 5th at 8 or Monday, June 6th 2011 at 2 & 8. No need for a reservation: walk in and grab a seat. One can talk about a masterful musical theatre number till the cows come home; you really have to see it in context to fully appreciate it. 


Standing by the cooler

May 25, 2011

Some of the heaps of praise I got for Things We Do For Love may have been the wrong kind of praise. To my surprise and somewhat temporary delight, many extolled the wordplay in my lyrics. And that’s very nice, but it may have outed me as an outlier.

You see, the use of rhyme that tickles the audience is now considered terribly passé, and I think this is rather unfortunate. Partly, lyric-writing that’s so clever it calls attention to itself has gone out of style because the masters of this craft thrived in a long bygone era. Roughly, the rhyme-for-pleasure craze began around 1925 with Lorenz Hart and dissipated, a bit, around the time Oklahoma! (1943) showed the world that well-constructed drama was more important to a show’s success than a lyricist’s cleverness. That same year, Ogden Nash wrote a musical in which the wordplay in the songs is the chief source of entertainment. It’s called One Touch of Venus and hardly anybody knows about it. (Oklahoma! we know.)

So, we tend to associate word wizardry with 1930’s wits: Hart, Harburg, Ira Gershwin, and others. Audiences seem to be conscious, nowadays, that they’re taking pleasure in something our grandparents took pleasure in. Shows seeking to feel contemporary often eschew this old-timey kind of enjoyment. Or maybe the lyricists just can’t hack it.

It also may be a matter of taste and appropriateness. Certainly, if you’re writing a musical about a brutal murder, that dazzling couplet’s going to seem out of place. But you’ve got to ask yourself: “Why are you writing a musical about a brutal murder?”

Rodgers once said Hart “didn’t know how not to be clever.” I’ve worried, time and again, that my verbal facility is making my shows feel decidedly musty. And yet I got the impression from the audience at Things We Do For Love that they really miss this kind of writing in the theatre they attend.

One guy – a science teacher – specifically complimented me on my apocopated rhymes. He didn’t use that term, of course. It’s a word I never would have known had I not read Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics On Several Occasions. In my view, this book is the first, and best, example of a first-rate lyricist explaining his craft. In an apocopated rhyme, one of the rhyming pairs is part of a word that continues. Ira wrote “If we’ve no butler, I’ll put the cutlery on the table” and that makes me smile. The apocopated rhyme of mine the teacher mentioned, “to share a meal, to share a feeling” comes from a poignant part of one of my songs. So, with my relentless self-critical bent, I wonder if showy dexterity was the right thing for that moment.

Another song in the show is full of this sort of thing. Written, melody first, as the opening number for a Second City comedy revue, the tune’s full of three-line stanzas in which the final line is a little longer than the first two. I decided it would be fun, and fresh, to rhyme the first line with the accented note in the middle of the third. The melody’s an earworm, catchy as anything I’ve ever written, and the listener quickly learns where the rhyme is going to fall. So, I played with that anticipation by rhyming the first syllable of multi-syllabic words here and there:

I need somebody who’s boss

Somebody who’s short

Some help with the crossword puzzle

I need somebody to flirt

Someone to caress

Somebody who’s thirty-seven

I need someone who is glam

Somebody to crush

Someone to sell Amway products

I should point out each line is sung by a different character, and that much of the song is far too obscene to post here. But it’s a number in which internal rhyming is not inappropriate. And do I get away with the ones near the end of each chorus of “How Could They Have Missed?” You tell me.

(Taking in the view,/all I see is beautiful and Those you left behind/were knocked out by the blinding view)

The showiest one in the show is properly ensconced in a patter song: “End your timidity!/Heaven forbid it evolves into something heated.” Barely saw that going by, did you?

There’s a conflict between the advice, “Listen to your audience” and the notion that praise can send one in the wrong direction. It’s a curious paradox: if I listen to people’s raves re rhyme I’d be led to create the sort of show that’s deemed hopelessly out-of-date by the theatre world’s powers-that-be.

Around and around and around

May 20, 2011

Seems like I’ve been in rehearsal, for one thing or another, for roughly four months now. (This busy period will end with three free performances, June 5 & 6). At times, one’s mind wanders, particularly during the countless reiterations that are part of practicing choreography. So, what am I thinking about?

This will sound self-congratulatory, but when I played my song Breaking the Rules, I often thought about how well I weirded up the harmonies. You may ask: “Weirding up? What’s that?” I’ll try to put this in terms that everybody (not just musicians) can understand. Just as there are clichés in prose, there are clichés in composition. Among these are a set of chords so common one could play them over and over as accompaniment and sing songs as disparate as Heart and Soul, At Last, Perfidia and Try To Remember without sounding wrong.

Everybody familiar with the most performed American musical, Grease, knows the secret: Early in the show, it’s explicitly stated that just about all 1950’s rock boils down to four chords: C, A-minor, F, G7. When I’m playing for first-time vocal improvisers, I’ll often choose this set of chords because it throws them no curves. They’re what one naturally expects to hear, for the simple reason that we’ve all already heard a zillion songs that use this template.

Some years ago, I got a call from a clarinetist, someone I’ve known all my life. In fact, my earliest memory of live instrumental music was when he’d come over and play classical duets with my father on piano. Now he wanted us to play popular music: old standards. For the enjoyment (or maybe there was a gig, I don’t remember), we put together a trio with an upright bassist who was far more experienced at this sort of thing than either of us. We distributed piles of sheet music but, to my surprise, the bassist said he didn’t need any. He told me that the bass part of old standards was so predictable to him, he could play the most obvious notes and always be right.

That off-hand statement had quite an influence on my composition. From that day forward I didn’t want to write anything so obvious, a bass player wouldn’t need to read it. But, just as Sondheim can’t imagine a dance to a constantly surprising refrain, those ever-unpredictable bass-lines can go too far, can be too challenging to the ear. In writing a musical, creating the harmonic sequence no one’s ever heard before is going to be the least important of goals. There’s too much else a song should be doing.

In a way, my goal of avoiding cliché is at war with my desire for tunes to seem natural coming out of the mouths of characters, or to color, dramatically, the emotions being expressed, or to be embraced by a delighted audience on first hearing, or…(the list goes on and on). So, here’s something I do: When I recognize that I’ve written a commonly overused sequence of chords, I look for ways of making the music a bit stranger. I might use alternative chords, or unusual chord voicings, or an unexpected rhythm. This is what I mean by weirding up my music.

Breaking the Rules is a quodlibet in which a bi-curious woman tries to seduce a lesbian friend who has a rule about sleeping with bi-curious women or friends. In a quodlibet, you hear one tune, followed by another that seems to be completely different, and then the two tunes are repeated simultaneously. That last bit, the counterpoint, is going to sound very complicated, so I found it desirable to start composing with those ever-popular changes. As we rehearsed the song in April, I often noticed the various ways I’d weirded it up. The first chord (in C) isn’t just a C, it’s a C with an added major seventh and ninth; next comes that A-minor but it also has a ninth and, eventually, a seventh. The D from the first chord reappears in the second one. The third chord isn’t an F but a D-minor (which has a lot in common) but with a ninth added, and eventually a sixth. The fourth chord has that G that bassist would have expected, but on top is an F Major Seventh; on the last beat of its measure, the third and the seventh get flatted.

I’m sorry if that last paragraph put you to sleep, but at least it included “to seduce a lesbian.” What I’m saying is, the harmonies ended up rather unusual once my weirding up process was through. By the sixth and seventh measures, I went to places the bassist wouldn’t have predicted. Have a listen to the song and tell me if A) the tune kept going to predictable places, or B) the places it went to were so outré, you couldn’t wrap your ears about it. Seems to me I may have found a happy medium.

A new fairy tale

May 14, 2011

Doing some spring cleaning, came across three Playbills, from new musicals I really didn’t like. I’m not going to name them, because it’s too dickish to go to a friend’s show and carp about it on the internet. But I’ll talk, in a more general way, about what makes a musical theatre story work; or not work at all.

There’s a general principle of story-making that has been often stated: Take a protagonist we like and can relate to, give her a goal we can understand and root for, throw some troubles in her way, and, for a happy ending, have her succeed. That may seem a little simplistic, but hey, the whole thing’s condensed to one sentence. To expand: the protagonist must do something, that is, take actions in pursuit of her goal. Among the troubles in her way, there should probably be an antagonist, a character who, for whatever reason, tries to stop the heroine from achieving her pursuit. Furthermore, both the protagonist and antagonist must employ various tactics to do what they’re trying to do. Show us the same tactics over and over again, we’re bound to get bored. And a three-word phrase you’ve known all your life has particular meaning here: “Actions have consequences.”
In a good plot, things happen due to another thing happening. It’s also important to properly define “action” in this context. Your characters must regularly do stuff that affects other people.

I recently had a conversation where someone argued that, in Cats, Grizabella is the protagonist. Maybe, but if so, what actions does she take? In what ways do these actions have consequences, affect other people? Effective storytelling is not among the merits of Cats. I’ve had trouble staying awake every time I’ve seen it. The astounding success of this feline revue is attributable to other factors.

But I meant to discuss three new musicals I encountered this year. Show One had a protagonist I could relate to very well. He was appealing: quick-on-his-feet as well as quick-with-a-joke. And, early on, something truly amazing happens to him. I can tell you that it’s something I wish would happen to me, but the real problem here is that fate has put him in a fraught situation. He’s buffeted on the seas of outrageous fortune, not the captain of his own fate. While there’s some humorous scrambling to adjust to his new circumstances, we never see him take any action that has any affect on any other character. A protagonist shouldn’t be acted upon, all the time; he should act.

Show One had a glimmer of a good idea but chose not to pursue it. A female character develops a romantic interest in the unheroic hero, a feeling he does not requite. I kept hoping he’d use her somehow, leading her on in order to get her assistance in achieving his goal. That might be a little immoral, but at least he’d be doing something, not just standing there. Plus, it’s very often a good idea, in a musical, to explore and dramatize feelings of desire, love.

Show Two was a play of revelations. I learned the term “play of revelations” many years ago, seeing the first national tour of That Championship Season, currently in an all-star revival on Broadway. It’s a hard sort of drama to pull off: actions that happened in the characters’ past are kept hidden from the audience, until they’re not. We’re presented with a present and ask ourselves why people are behaving in a certain way. The big reveal comes, and then we understand; this is supposed to be satisfying.

In Show Two precious little is going on in the present. Two friends have no apparent goals: I guess one could say they’re both trying to clear their minds, but is that a pursuit worthy of dramatization? Through a great many flashbacks, it is revealed they both loved the same girl, and now she’s dead. But these revelations do not answer any question that we in the audience might have wondered about. The present the men share is placid, free of compelling drama. The past is certainly very dramatic, and I guess the authors hope there’d be tension involving our wondering when and how a revelation would upset the current calm. I must admit that, for me, the main tension was when the damn thing would be over. Plus, a light rain had started when I entered the theatre, and I kept wondering whether it would be pouring when I got out. Boom! Suddenly, in the present, one friend revealed to the other a very upsetting fact about the past. For no good reason. The only motivation I could ascertain is that the authors needed something dramatic to happen around the two-hour mark. I credit them for knowing that, but when a character’s blurting out something merely because the authors need him to, I’m no longer involved in the story: I’m thinking about the writers and their misbegotten process.

Show Three took a totally generic protagonist and plopped her down in Unreal Estate. (Someday, I’ll devote a whole post to the perils of fantasy settings with their own made-up “rules” that generally have to be explained by an otherwise-useless character named Mr. Lundie.) Naturally, her immediate goal was to get the hell out of there. But she was stuck in a place where she often couldn’t take any actions that brought her close to success. As if by chance, she keeps encountering characters who appear to be able to help her, but then it turns out they don’t. It’s a world with no if-then: there’s no point where it’s clear that IF you take a certain action THEN there’ll be a certain consequence. This sort of thing wears out its welcome very fast. We keep meeting characters who sing reasonably catchy songs about themselves. It’s an endless introduction, like the narration in the first part of a beauty pageant. I found the lyric-writing significantly worse than the plotting (can you imagine?). Each song had so little to say, and repeated itself so frequently, I could barely pay attention to them. I was more interested in the dialogue, which attempted to crack a joke every now and then. B for effort; D for execution.

I attend new musicals with every hope that I’ll be entertained by them. I share these ideas about musical-writing in the hopes that creators will wise up and fashion shows that won’t bore me like these three did. They’re not supposed to be sedatives, kids.

Goodbye, viornia

May 8, 2011

Seems you can’t just jump off a plugmobile; you have to wait for it to slow down before disembarking.

May 2 & 3 it was at full speed, as I wanted everybody to know they’d a chance to see an hour that contained 19 songs, music and lyrics by me, brilliantly performed by 6 lovable lunatics under the sterling guidance of director Justin Boccitto. May 8 & 9, you’ve the opportunity to hear some incidental music I’ve written for a couple of straight plays. But the play’s the thing. Most of the audience will be unaware there was original music anywhere at all.

This therefore seems as good a time as any to say a little about the process of contributing music to non-musical plays. And a disturbing memory just popped up in my brain. The only time I collaborated on a musical in which I was responsible for just music and not lyrics, my collaborator, in a fit of pique, yelled at me “Let’s face it: This is not a collaboration. You are merely providing music for MY play.” To put too nice a spin on that, there was an implication that what had started as a musical had turned into a straight play with a large bunch of incidental songs, incidental dance music, and therefore I, as composer, was not an equal partner (any more) but his subordinate. My role was to support the drama.

There’s a true point buried within that. A musical is a collaborative expression of a librettist, composer and lyricist, all of whom must be considered equals. A straight play is, to a far greater extent, the expression of a playwright. Obviously, there’s a staff of artists who endeavor to support her vision: costumer, set designer, lighting designer and composer. Not to belittle what any of us do, I must say it’s a welcome change, every now and then, to not be the center of attention. I’m just another worker ant on the ant farm. If you come to Perfect European Man Monday, May 9, at the Jan Hus, you’ll walk away impressed by the author, DJ Salisbury, and might not even remember that, at one point, a character sang a music hall song which I composed. Warning: there’s full male nudity in the play, and if you’re offended by that sort of thing, stay home. (Many years ago, a good friend of mine took his not-too-culturally-savvy brother to a Terrence McNally play. When a naked man suddenly appeared, the brother reflexively registered his disgust, exclaiming “Oh my god” loud enough for all to hear.)

Sunday, May 8th at 8pm and Monday, May 9th at 2pm & 8pm, for free at Circle-in-the-Square, you can hear a larger amount of my music in a fully clothed production of The Cherry Orchard. (At least I think it’s fully clothed. I haven’t been to rehearsals. One can always hope.) For this, I dashed off some quick pieces for a violin or two, and wrote a little song that off-stage characters repeat incessantly in the distance. I had very little time to devote to this, and had to pass off much responsibility to the wonderful woman you’ll hear on first violin.

For Perfect European Man, I was presented with a lyric and told the time period and setting of the play. “Music Hall” was the description that would guide my compositional choices. A famous Music Hall entertainer is describing the actions of a famous wrestler. She, and the audience she’s singing to, admire his muscles, but the song is sung by a male actor who’s quickly transformed himself into a famous chanteuse. Is any of this making any sense? Well, there was enough information, within that, to suggest a harmonic palette. I knew I’d use dotted rhythms, as British Music Hall songs often do. I also knew that I’d make use of diminished seventh chords, and maybe a few sixths. I think of these as The Elements of Style.

When I’m accompanying improv shows, I never know what’s coming in terms of a scene’s setting. If the actors jump to Victorian England, I’m going to have to immediately play music of that time and place. Knowing those Elements of Style, I’ll instantly start putting together the sixths, the diminished, the dotted rhythms and other little sounds that color that setting for me. For this Music Hall song, I had time to think about these things. The lyric started with two words (Up jumped) that demanded a rising interval and I chose a major sixth. The word “jumped” I put on the third note of the scale, in part, because that note is something both a sixth chord and a diminished chord of the next highest root have in common. Sorry if this all sounds a little technical: I’m just trying to convey how many music-writing decisions suggested themselves to me. Setting, character, the lyric: all, in a sense, forced my hand.

To a great extent – larger than anyone’s giving it credit for – situation dictates compositional content. Chekhov calls for a lot of music in The Cherry Orchard. Characters sing snatches of songs, there’s a lullaby, and there are references to a “Jewish Orchestra” playing specific dances. Reading the play, and knowing a small amount of cultural history, I faced an interesting set of parameters. Once-wealthy people down on their luck suggests a certain refinement, along with the obvious melancholy. Russians were Francophiles, so I thought about adding touches of French flavoring. I don’t think these characters would have known the work of the famous composers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, so I avoided drawing on them. Thinking the only musician I’d get would be a violinist (eventually, a second materialized), my mind was filled with the harmonic schemes one associates with gypsy fiddlers, and Jewish folk music. Some lyrics are quoted, so, again, I had those to suggest rhythms. I also wrote a lyric that is supposed to be the sort of old sentimental song everyone knows and has something to do with how all things die, how all good things must come to an end. It’s called Nothing Can Last Forever, a minor-key waltz influenced by Sunrise, Sunset by Jerry Bock.

If only Anton Chekhov was available to discuss this with, like Perfect European Man‘s playwright was. Whenever I think of Chekhov, indeed, whenever I’m in Union Square, I always think of the time a set of pranksters took over Barnes & Noble and presented a “meet the author” event with a live, fake, but convincingly bearded Anton Chekhov that eventually moved to Union Square Park. A line formed so that the gullible could buy copies of The Cherry Orchard autographed right in front of their eyes. More about that on Page 74 of this e-book.

This thing of ours

May 2, 2011

I call Things We Do For Love this thing of ours because it’s truly the result of eight hysterical knuckle-heads’ magnificent creativity and talent. These artists all showed up at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning for rehearsal, made time for an extra rehearsal Wednesday scheduled just two days earlier, and also endured a thirteen-hour day of rehearsal without grumbling. They’re all intent on getting it right, whatever it is: strenuous dance moves, a cappella tri-tones, subtle and not-so-subtle hip thrusts, and razor-sharp comic timing.

The cast has reacted to my songs as if they’ve been given a gold mine of material. Of course, I take that as a huge compliment. But, like every working actor in New York, they’re looking for songs that show off their sense of humor, and yet aren’t done too often. Sure, they could audition with Larry O’Keefe’s Sensitive Song, which I think is funnier than anything I’ve ever written, but chances are the people behind the table have heard that one before. That day. That hour.

While most auditions involve one song, in a cabaret act, the performer gets several, and so can show versatility. When I say Stephen Mitchell Brown has an amazing range, I’m not talking about the more than two octaves I’ve heard him sing since meeting him at our auditions: The man can be romantic, in either a contemporary duet or a plaintive waltz, but he can also be wildly funny. Our auditions were also my first time meeting irrepressible Rebecca Kubaska, who probably had no idea she’d be asked to do so many sexy things in one hour-long show. Whether as the hunter or the hunted, she’s delightful, gamin and game; and then she knocks a love duet out of the park. The rest of the cast I knew before, that doesn’t mean they didn’t surprise me with the depth of their abilities. I knew of Vanessa Dunleavy‘s deliciously playful knack for being sexy but not her intense soulfulness. Christine de Frece is more than a lovable goof-ball: she’s got dramatic fire that’s conveyed in crescendos and soprano strength, a paradigm of acting in song. There’s a little less breadth to the types of things Brad Siebeking and Steven Bidwell do in the show, but that’s because, in one hour, we didn’t have time to exhibit the wide array of emotional colors they can portray. Yet Brad adeptly plays insecure, angry and smarmy, which are very different things even if they’re all abundantly funny. Steven graciously agreed to have one of his solos cut, when we were running long and the poignancy of his ebullient optimism seemed out of place amidst the wacky string of numbers that start the show. I was touched by the way he took one for the team, but also was always touched by the brilliant way he was doing the song.

(That’s me singing it. Steven did it much better.)

Musical theatre writers out there, I’ve a suggestion for you: Use these people. They’re industrious, prodigious and multi-faceted. And do yourself a favor and hitch your wagon to the rising star of director/choreographer Justin Boccitto. I’m thrilled to be working on another project with him and Christine de Frece over the next month. Also, in coming weeks, I’ll try to relate some of the many things I learned from working on this thing of ours, Things We Do For Love.