Just another lazy summer day

June 27, 2011

NOT the young artist's drawing (his was better)

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks, pouring countless hours into score preparation for something that’s six months away. I’m hunched over my keyboards, painstakingly creating precise and legible sheet music using software. This is so a score can be distributed that’s not in my indecipherable handwriting. So, not creative work, but it had to be done.

One of the few breaks I took during this time was an informal first-time get-together with a group of musical theatre writers who’d connected over the internet. They seemed a nice enough bunch, and they told of the musicals they’d written: One had written a one-act. Another had been turning her life into a musical for many years. One had written one piece for children. And we all could have broken into a chorus of “Which one of these is not like the others?” when I spoke of my eighteen musicals.

One guy (who’d written two musicals and was working on a revue) seemed fixated on what he termed my “financial success” and I gotta say if I had a dime for every time someone’s been fixated on my financial success writing musicals I’d have more money than I’ve made from writing musicals.

On the way home, very tired from the day’s many hours of transcribing, I became fixated on a conclusion my depleted brain jumped to: that the main difference between these writers and myself had to do with how hard we’re working. These weren’t kids, just starting out. They were middle-aged people who hadn’t done all that much. And I immediately felt guilty for thinking it (and here, days later, saying it) but isn’t this what defines a dilettante?  Someone (and, God help me, an image of Margaret Dumont just popped into my head) who merely dabbles in the arts because she thinks it might be a fun thing to try

Know any of these types of people?  Are you one?

I certainly don’t mean to offend anybody, but writing musical comedies is serious business.  To do it, you’re going to have to work hard.  And if you don’t give it your all, you’re likely to do it badly.

I’m reminded of a child I know who has Asperger’s syndrome.  He has the super-human concentration to do incredibly intricate drawings with miniscule details such as individual hairs on the neck of a speeding horse.  I find his works of art compelling and fascinating.  Looking at them, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that there’s something extraordinary about the mind that can apply that amount of time and energy into forming so many individual hairs.

When we enjoy a musical, we’re not always aware of the effort it took to get all those moving parts to run smoothly.  Some say “That looks fun; I think I’ll write one of those.”  But shows are the result of thousands of finely-drawn horse-hairs.

No, you don’t need to have Asperger’s, but you probably have to be somewhat obsessive, and enjoy the process of writing and rewriting every little thing a hundred times or more.  I think Craig Carnelia put it best in this song from Working:

He builds a house

With his hands

Thirty years go by, it stands

It stands where nothing stood

A house of stone

The mason sleeps real good

He does his work

His workday flies

Quitting time’s a big surprise

And then it’s one more stone

To get just right

It’s always one more stone

Before the night

Every house he builds

Every stone he lays

It’s not just making money

And counting off the days

He builds a house

With his hands

A hundred years go by, it stands

It tells you who he was

A life goes fast

But the work a mason does

It’s made to last


Beautiful in green

June 21, 2011

Something that bothers me way more than it should, I know, is when people think they’ve seen a musical but they haven’t seen it live; they’ve merely seen a video.

Now, it’s true there are some aspects of musicals that an accurate video can convey.  The writing is one.  One could, I suppose, come up with a reasonable assessment of a show’s book, music and lyrics by watching a video.  But, of course, the writers were creating words and music for the specific purpose of having them heard by a live audience in a theatre.  And it’s all of a piece: writers’ work succeeds (or doesn’t) in conjunction with staging, design and performances.

This topic recently sent me into a reverie about a theatre-going experience from my youth.  And it’s possible the haze of memory has distorted the truth.  But picture, if you will:

he DID go on to be famous

Much-younger-me was excited to be seeing a musical at the Orpheum on Second Avenue for this intimate hall, I knew, had been part of the Yiddish Theatre’s heyday early in the 20thCentury.  The following year, I would have a musical produced on the same thoroughfare, but, that night, traveling down St. Mark’s Place and turning to see an old-fashioned marquis was a big part of my enjoyment.

The sound of the leading lady’s voice was very sexy, clearly a rock singer’s voice.  Now, I’ve not attended many live rock concerts in my life, but there was a similar thrill going on here: an almost-but-not-quite damaged­ sound, a voice stretched over barbed wire.  The composer – someone I expected would go on to be very successful – made particularly good use of her unique quality.  And I’m describing this in such detail because hearing that voice, live, was an important element in a night of many positives.

The leading man sang very well, too, beneath his mop-top, which, at a key moment, was yanked off to surprise the audience with his baldness.

The show had a prop like you’d see in any show: a totally ordinary one. But then, it moved suddenly, causing everyone to laugh. Not the plain property we’d assumed it was, but a puppet, operated, seemingly, by someone hidden under a table.

Another shock ran through the audience when the thing spoke. Very amusingly, it had the voice of a big, sardonic soul singer, a basso profundo that literally rattled the floorboards. Remember, this was an old theatre, and this was a big sound that came from speakers in all corners of the theatre, a quadraphonic effect, like we were in his mouth!

I was also impressed with the utility man, a versatile actor who utterly transformed himself as he came back again and again to play several minor characters in the show. You looked forward to seeing him return, but you could never quite guess when he would, or what he’d look like.

Once they pulled off the trick of fooling us into believing the puppet was just a prop, they couldn’t surprise us any more, could they? Well, they did with a huge puppet that contained several cast members: you could see them singing from different mesh areas. By the finale, the scenic design had spilled out into the audience area, as green shoots sprung forth from the walls – this being a small theatre, no wall was very far away from anyone.

One other aspect of the experience is something I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past: an energy flowing both ways across the footlights. I was part of a sold-out, very demonstrative audience. We laughed, loudly and often, and the talented players responded to us, adjusting their timing and delivery to maximize the comedy. We all had a good time that night, and I mean the cast, too.

Now picture the poor fool who’s sitting in front of a TV screen or computer monitor, watching a video of this show. He’s probably at home, perhaps wearing ratty underwear; he’s certainly not in a historic East Village theatre. The rock chick’s voice would hit his ears through tiny speakers, not providing the palpable electricity that whisky-burnt vocals can only bring live. Pulling off the man’s toupee wouldn’t amuse much if, on camera, we could tell it was a rug. The “special effect” of the prop moving would hardly seem special on media such as television, where we’re used to seeing Superman take off and fly or Samantha twitch her nose. The loud bass wouldn’t rattle any part of an apartment, and would emanate from just one place. The quick changes of the actor-of-a-thousand-faces would seem unremarkable. The big puppet containing most of the cast would likely look cumbersome. And certainly there’d be no equivalent to suddenly realizing that the walls on either side of you were embracing you like the tentacles of a giant green squid.

Every June, it seems, I encounter people who’ve developed some opinion on some musical they haven’t seen, usually based on a snippet on the Tony broadcast. I grin and bear it, but, on some level, I’m upset a work of art is being judged by an often false simulacrum that appears on a tiny tube.

A hand-made song

June 15, 2011

Lin-Manuel Miranda has helpfully provided a peek into his process with this video showing him coming up with the freestyle rap(-up) that closed last Sunday’s Tony Award telecast. 

It’s rare we get a glimpse of a musical theatre writer at work.  Obviously, Miranda was under a great deal of pressure.  During the three-hour broadcast, he had to come up with a lyric that cracked jokes about all that had transpired.  Some writers work best under pressure, and I described how I spewed out some lyrics in record time last February in a previous post.  Lin-Manuel Miranda won his Tony for In the Heights, a score he worked on and refined and rewrote a thousand times over the course of many years.  Although the Tony broadcast is the lowest-rated television show to appear on a major network in any given year, and the song was aired after the 11 o’clock cut-off time when many affiliates switch off the national feed, more people heard this freshly-minted ditty than have ever or will ever see In the Heights.  Such is the reach of television.

So, the pressure was on.  Many notable and unpredictable things happened in those three hours, starting with Brooke Shields’ stunning incompetency performing a brief couplet in a comedy song.  At one point, Miranda says he’s got nothing about John Larroquette.  Luckily, in his acceptance speech, Larroquette mentioned he was used to watching the Tonys at home in his underwear, which inspired this:

John Larroquette brought an eloquent mood to the room

I’m still imagining him at home in his Fruit-of-the-Looms

For this task, it was particularly important that the recap contained good jokes; low-quality rhymes would be forgiven, since there was too little time to refine.  It’s particularly interesting that Miranda, in the video, struggles with the title of the winning play, War Horse, because it doesn’t flow from the lips with any percussiveness.  Hard to say, hard to rap.

But hip-hop offers a certain amount of rhythmic freedom.  There’s no tune the words must fit.  There’s also no particular structure.  Rhymes come quickly, but don’t need to come at any particular interval.  The free-styler, in effect, makes the rhythm with the words he chooses to emphasize.

Andrew Rannells sang “I Believe” and he landed it

So well now he’s Mitt Romney’s V.P. candidate

Here’s the happy concurrence of a great rhyme and a great joke.  Miranda trusts the listener to be politically-aware enough to know that presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and the Rannells performance, from The Book of Mormon, enthusiastically affirms tenets of the creed.  A similar joke, matching the musical with the politician, was Newsweek‘s recent cover, which planted Romney’s head on Rannells’ body from the musical’s poster: 

Newsweek was making a joke few would get, since it’s mostly our tiny brood, the musical theatre aficionados, who recognize the image.

Miranda was fashioning a lyric for those with a certain amount of knowledge about Broadway goings-on. For instance, he refers to the widely-discussed topic of who could possibly star in the upcoming planned revival of Funny Girl:

Mark Rylance runs at fences, he’s won the Tony twice

That guy can do it all, his follow-up is “Fanny Brice.”

In comedy, it’s essential to know your audience, to have a sense of what they already understand.  This is a smart reference that rewards the viewer for knowing about the quest to cast Brice and that there seems to be no limit to what Mark Rylance can do.

But let’s clarify that.  Rylance didn’t write his crazy acceptance speeches.  And it peeves me a bit that Neil Patrick Harris gets credit, in certain quadrants, for the witty work of fine lyricists like Lin-Manuel Miranda and David Javerbaum, who wrote the even funnier opening number.  (Javerbaum had more time to do it.)  I suspect that public confusion about who was responsible for the end-credit freestyle led Miranda to put this video up on YouTube.  For those of us who want to learn about a musical-creator’s process, it’s a rare boon.

Have we got an area for you!

June 10, 2011


Just heard a recent interview with John Kander in which he mentioned that part of his process is to steep himself in the time period and place the show’s set in. He’ll listen to music of the era and setting, in hopes that some of the characteristics will emerge in the score he composes. One can hear the proof of this pudding in those Kurt Weill touches in Cabaret, the echt Greek spirit of Zorba, or the cheery minstrelsy of The Scottsboro Boys.

It seems to me good composers do this and careless composers don’t. I’ve always been particularly impressed with Berlin-born Frederick Loewe. Does anything yell Edwardian England better than those frilly bars leading into Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? Now think of that twang of a banjo that introduces They Call the Wind Maria, the burr of Down on MacConnachy Square, and the utter Gaul of Gigi. In a previous post, I praised Jerry Bock’s knack for such delineation in scores like Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me and Tenderloin. And here’s a contemporary example: Jeanine Tesori, with her lovable flapper tunes for Thoroughly Modern Millie. More remarkably, in two excellent shows set in the south in the 1960’s, Violet and Caroline, or, Change, she makes a distinction between the sound of black characters, the sound of whites, and the audience can hear exactly where these styles overlap.

So who’s being careless? France’s “gift” to recent musical theatre, Claude-Michel Schönberg, for one. Years ago, I heard a radio interview in which he talked about the pressure of coming up with a patriotic march for the students of the Paris Uprising. He knew he had to write a tune to stand in for his own country’s national anthem, as the actual students sang La Marseillaise. Schönberg’s rouser, Do You Hear the People Sing? uses dotted rhythms mixed in with the odd triplet, giving it a Scottish quality that is as out of place as biting into haggis when you’re expecting pâté. The bridge of the song is a direct steal from Wanderin’ Star, Frederick Loewe’s veritable vagabond folk song of the American West. Les Misérables also contains a British music-hall number, Master of the House, for a French country innkeeper. The tune would be far more suited for another Loewe character, the cockney Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

In some scores, it’s clear the composer is intentionally using a technically “wrong” style on purpose. The emo rock of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson perversely makes a connection between the 7th president and young people today. In Spring Awakening, dialogue scenes are true-to-the-time and then lights flash on for Duncan Sheik’s appealing contemporary score. Clearly, there’s a method behind this madness. But Elton John’s score for Aida is contemporary rock for no apparent reason. And, sometimes, the 1999 score isn’t all that contemporary: the witless nonsense, My Strongest Suit, sounding awfully similar to Elton John’s early hit, Crocodile Rock, which, itself, harkened back to an earlier age in pop when it came out in 1972.

Which reminds me of how much I enjoy the music of the Vietnam era. Hearing The Doors and The Stones et al. is always a highlight, for me, of attending movies set in Vietnam during the war, and these usually aspire to and achieve a certain degree of verisimilitude. But Schönberg’s musical set there, Miss Saigon, is, to my ears, far too modern and therefore wrong-sounding. Why God Why? is littered with Billy Joel licks, even if the main theme is pilfered from Rodgers & Hart’s There’s a Small Hotel (1936). And that song played on a solo saxophone? Really? Does this have anything to do with Miss Saigon‘s locale? Is the composer alarmingly lazy? Does anyone besides me care?


June 4, 2011

Part of my enjoyment, these past several weeks, rehearsing the musical Cabaret, derives from getting a good close look on how the musical is constructed. We’re doing the original Broadway version, which is distinct, in many key ways, from Bob Fosse’s famous movie and Sam Mendes’ wacked-out revisal, which ran for many years starting in the late 90’s. The pedigree of the original creative team is impressive: Director Hal Prince had learned a lot about fashioning musicals from his experience as a producer (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof) gleaning much from the show-shaping experts, directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins. I’d say any education in musical theatre writing should begin with a careful examination of shows directed by Abbott, Robbins and Prince. Librettist Joe Masteroff had previously worked with Prince on the lovely chamber musical, She Loves Me. Cabaret is based on a play, I Am a Camera by one of the mid-century’s most successful playwrights, John Van Druten. Composer John Kander had worked on dance arrangements for Gypsy and scored Prince’s first show as director, A Family Affair. He and lyricist Fred Ebb had written the Liza Minelli vehicle, Flora the Red Menace, directed by Abbott.

Theirs was a unique meeting of minds. And Cabaret is the delicious result of the shared principles these fine chefs brought to the broth.

For instance, concision. Scenes get right to the point, alter the audience’s view, and quickly move on. All of the songs, by contemporary musical theatre standards, are short. (In the production I’m now working on, none are longer than three minutes.) While the disturbing elements of 1930 Berlin sneak up on you, the libretto doesn’t beat around the bush.

There’s also a mix of two realities, and this is a bit more complicated to explain. Among musical theatre wonks, the term “diegetic” is used for the sort of songs you hear, naturally, in life, where the singer is aware they’re singing a song, like when we sing carols around Christmas, or listen to a crooner in a night club. That suspension-of-disbelief event when someone communicates through song, with no awareness that they’ve begun to express themselves musically, as in most musical theatre, that’s “non-diegetic” singing. Cabaret utilizes both. When we’re in the Kit Kat Klub, the M.C. sings or introduces a set of songs that are clearly on-stage performances (“Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies“); when we’re in the real world of the pensione the characters break into song, unaware of the fact (“Perfectly Marvelous” “It Couldn’t Please Me More“). As I mentioned in my previous post, Kander composed different sorts of music for the two types of numbers: there’s Kurt Weill-pastiche on stage while the character songs (“Why Should I Wake Up?” “What Would You Do?“) use intense, even avant garde harmonic devices in depicting the true and complex emotions of characters in the story.

More obviously, Cabaret takes a page from the song-filled playwriting of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was not only famous in Berlin in 1930, he ended up becoming the most influential playwright of the 20th century. In several Brecht shows, actors step out of character, face the audience, and sing cynical songs that comment on the situation in the play’s plot. In Cabaret, the numbers in the Kit Kat Klub often comment on what we’ve just seen the characters go through. When Sally and Cliff get an unexpected financial windfall, we immediately see a Klub production number, “Sitting Pretty” about the joys of wealth. After the fruit shop owner in the “real” story tells a musical parable about beauty being skin-deep, the M.C. dances with a simian lady-love in “If You Could See Her.”

One note about the clip: the movie, in many important ways, is a repudiation of the principles Prince and his team brought to the project. It contains no non-diegetic numbers, and completely rewrites the plot (something about a bisexual and an heiress – I don’t remember). Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen adds a monologue to “If You Could See Her” that makes the slightly subtle glaringly clear, as if viewers were dolts, and stretches out the length of the song to way over three minutes. But I digress.

Cabaret‘s creators knew that musical comedy has a seductive charm: we tend to like people who sing at us, openly about their feelings, and if they joke and dance, we like them even more. So, we’re utterly disarmed by Sally Bowles, the M.C., the landlady and Cliff, like them and care for them; it becomes like a punch to the stomach when they do not-so-likable things. Our emotions are tumbled around, and the show is devastating to watch – although sprinkled with many fun numbers.

Perhaps the most common question asked about Nazism is “How could this happen?” Our society, as a whole, wants answers. Cabaret paints a portrait of a time and place and shows normal, likable going-about-their-business Germans slowly getting seduced by a toxic ideology. Simultaneously, the audience is taken in by the enchanting power of musical comedy. Not only do we get a taste of what it was like to live in Berlin before Hitler came to power, we’re implicated, in a way, the patsies who fall for funny cabaret entertainment, unaware (at least for a while) of the implications of our fall. Indicting the audience – nothing could be more Brechtian than that.

You’ve a rare opportunity to see, for free, a production of the original Broadway version of Cabaret. Nowadays, it’s far more common for theatres to mount the nonsensical sledgehammer Mendes revisal (which has something to do with a homosexual getting a girl pregnant and then she goes to the gas chamber – avoid!). My work as musical director involves leading an all-girl band, but more importantly I aided the shaping of some fine acting-in-song by Laurie Gardner, Aidan Sank, Sean Loftus, Cecilia Şenocak and Raphael Krasnow in concert with director Justin Boccitto. No need for reservations. Just walk in to Circle-in-the-Square, 50th between Broadway and Eighth, Sunday, June 5th at 8 and Monday, June 6th at 2 & 8 and see what I mean.