Hello, my name is Skip

July 30, 2011

The acting students looked a little stunned and the teacher realized her harangue had gone over the top, but consciously continued her banshee tone: “Do you hear my voice is rising because I’m passionate about this?  Your résumés MUST be cut down to the size of your picture …”  Then she softened: “…if you want to be taken seriously in this business.”  I piped up, hoping to take us away from Awkwardville:  “The problem is, with the mismatched pic and résumé, you’re outing yourself as an amateur.”

Later that day, a little old lady asked me some basic questions about a demo for her musical and I was hit with a sinking realization.  Just as the different-size picture and résumé outs aspiring actors as amateurs, a musical writer’s demo could out you as inexperienced or un-serious.

What errors taint you thus?

Have I made these mistakes?  All my life, I fear.

So let’s be clear: the most important thing is that your songs are clear.  The listener should not wonder, for even a moment, what word’s been heard in a lyric.  A demo singer should be acting the song as expressively as a 1940s radio drama, or the best book-on-tape.  Accompaniment should never drown out the elocution.

If clarity’s so important, does that mean we all have to go out and book a professional studio with an awesome audio engineer?  I wish I knew!  One could spend a fortune, a prospect that always frightens me, or one can do something on the cheap, my personal path of least resistance.  Some days, I think musical theatre writing has become exclusively the pursuit of the wealthy.  As a man of modest means, it’s rare that I see the inside of a studio.

So, the alternative I’ve used most often in recent years, is sticking an old microphone in my computer, and convincing top talents to come over to my apartment.  I do not have a home studio.  There are no pieces of foam anywhere to block out street noise.  And yet this frugal option sometimes yields gold:

A good argument can be made that it’s better to use live recordings of shows in production.  After all, the performers have been rehearsing/performing for a substantial period of time.  Assumedly, they’ve got a better idea of how the song should be played.  But be careful: the art of the demo performer is distinctly different from the art of engaging a live audience.  A stage performance involves other elements: dance, visuals, facial expressions, gestures, the focus of their eyes, projection, etc.   And theatres aren’t wired for sound.  Plus, the audience may react in a way that distracts the listener.  One of my early recordings is more memorable for the guy sneezing during the introduction than the song itself.

Still, I like to write songs for large ensembles, and when they’re too many to fit in my apartment, what else can I do?

Another question that gets posed is, do these pieces need to be heard with orchestras (probably synthesized) or will “just” piano accompaniment do?  Again, I wish I knew.  Most show businesspeople say there’s not much point in orchestrating.  On the other hand, I’ve a recurring nightmare that my demo is being listened to right after a fully orchestrated one and sounds particularly puny.  Usually, I wake up in a cold sweat at that point, so I don’t know what happens next.

The little old lady (remember her?) wanted to know if it’s O.K. to use a performer of the wrong gender, and I’m reminded of an odd moment in the creation of the revue of my songs last May, The Things We Do For Love.  We came up with the unusual idea of choosing songs from my trunk after casting the show, so material could be specifically geared to the talents of every performer.  The producer, director and musical director listened to a huge number of my songs, including one that’s meant to be sung by six women. The only recording I had of that distaff sextet was one in which I sang all the parts.  The creative team, taking in a huge amount of material, had made little notes to themselves, and wanted to do the song.  But, along the way, they’d lost sight of the idea that it could only be sung by women.

The song lists a number of chores that they wish someone could do for them.  Go to the gym, call mother, and so on, ending with the punch line “to visit the gynecologist for me.”  On the day we met to pick the songs for the performers, it was suggested that the song be performed as a solo by Brad Siebeking.  To which I asked “Why would Brad even have a gynecological appointment?”   I wish I knew…  Strike that: I’m glad I don’t.

Advertisements

Like butter

July 24, 2011

My definition of a well-written number is colored by my repugnance at certain currently-popular compositions that make their way onto my piano-stand with far more frequency than they deserve.  I’m tempted to say, for example, “A well-written number is the polar opposite of Astonishing” that tuneless formless abomination that consistently misaccents its title as if the character was struggling to learn English.  So, let me here acknowledge, there are plenty of older show tunes that nobody sings that really aren’t very good. Twenty-Four Hours a Day is pretty bad.

So, first, just because it’s on my mind, the well-crafted number is reasonably succinct.  The ideal would be not a word wasted, not one unnecessary note.  Get to a point and don’t let the song outwear its welcome.  A lot of people love Stephen Schwartz’s Meadowlark, but to me it’s the sort of bedtime story that puts me to sleep.  It’s an unfamiliar fairy tale that’s supposed to have a parallel in the lives of the characters.  While I get who the old king must be, the turns in the tale are stated over such a long period of time, it’s an allegory that’s nearly impossible to follow.  Leave aside the fact that it’s the character’s self-justification for doing something horrible to the one character we love at the end of Act One.  The proper reaction is to boo and hiss, although people generally applaud because they appreciate the stamina of the singer, getting through such a long song.

Repeating the title is pretty important, but Jason Robert Brown goes overboard in a four-minute number called I’m a Part of That.  It’s a pretty good name for a song, I think, exactly what the character is thinking, as she desperately grasps at straws about what’s good about her relationship.  I like the Doritos joke.  But twelve times?  Does she have to say “I’m a part of that” twelve times?  It’s eating up a lot of stage time.

This will seem pretty simple, but the music and lyrics should feel like they go together.  One of my least-favorite musicals, Miss Saigon, set up a fairly dramatic situation when the wife of a Vietnam veteran meets the woman he loved while at war.  In Now That I’ve Seen Her, Claude-Michel Schönberg provides a rinky-dink melody, going up and down the first three notes of the major scale in a catchy dotted quarter-dotted quarter-quarter rhythm.  Its lightness and levity befits juvenile joy, not such an adult problem.  Try the tune with the lyric “Going to nurs’ry school” and you’ve got a better match.

Is it too much to ask that a song tells-me-something-I-don’t-already-know?  Be a little fresh and avoid stating the obvious. Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman are nothing if not traditional in their approach to writing songs.  There’s a troubling line in Without Love (a title they use seventeen times, which seems to be a magic number for them, since, in the same score, they use another title seventeen times): I’m in love with you no matter what you weigh.  The feeling, and the objection the character has overcome, have already been stated in the script.  Why would he be saying “no matter what you weigh” to her again?  The audience already understands this, and so does the girl.

If you’re going to write a comedy song (and I pray that you do), the jokes should provoke laughter.  Andrew Lippa’s Pulled is catchy, energetic, emotional, and just lays there because so many of its punch lines lack, well, punch.  I’m a little bemused by his using the title three times in one measure: It’s as if he knows he’s got a bad title and thinks that repeating it will ironically show up second rate writing in a humorous way.  Nope, it’s just bad times three.

My composition teacher – perhaps quoting his composition teacher, Aaron Copland – said the highest praise that can be applied to music is “It holds together well.”  Now, it’s hard to talk about music, because it’s an abstract art, and people’s reactions to tunes have so much to do with individual taste.  I like melodies that soar and go to unexpected places.  I get impatient with repeated riffs, or energy for the sake of energy.  Performers love Pasek & Paul’s Monticello, I think, because they can show a lot of fire and power.  To me, though, it’s a chore to listen to.

Lest it seem I don’t like anything from recent musicals, I’m going to list ten that are well-enough crafted to move me, just off the top of my head.  I suggest you get to know them, perhaps by playing through the sheet music, or, the best way: see the shows they’re from.

  • The “I Love You” Song by William Finn
  • One White Dress by John Bucchino
  • Sensitive Song by Larry O’Keefe
  • How Can I Lose You? by Adam Guettel
  • The Next Best Thing To Love by Ed Kleban
  • Venice by William Finn
  • Why? by Jonathan Larson
  • You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez
  • Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True by David Yazbek
  • I Won’t Mind by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler, and Libby Saines

The shopgirls’ song

July 19, 2011

All the names herein are changed to protect the guilty.

My good friend Jocko, fried by too much summer sun, summed up how he feels about the quality of first-effort musicals.  Too frequently, it’s as if the writers are proudly proclaiming “Look, I made a rhyme!” 

He’s right.  I’ve seen countless early endeavors in which the creators have managed to put tune to words and think they’ve got something.  Except they don’t have a working musical, which is a more advanced accomplishment.  Think of ballet dancers: yes, there’s some sense of pride in doing your first pirouette, but a whole ballet, it ain’t.

Under the influence of too much sun myself, I started thinking about the issue of how we know when the work is done.  When do we put down our pens?  For me, it’s the sad moment near the opening of a show when the director puts his foot down and announces the show is frozen: For the sake of the actors, no more changes may go in.

But the neophytes Jocko was thinking about are so thrilled to have written 32 bars, they freeze it themselves, declare themselves done, and now I’m thinking of some nursery rhyme character who announces “What a good boy am I!”  I’d change his name to protect the guilty, but I don’t remember it. 

When I was a teenager, I wrote several musicals.  And, because I was only a kid, there was praise just for the fact that I’d completed one, which is not the same as praise because it was good.  It took some years, some maturity, to learn to be really hard on myself.  And you’ll never be nearly hard enough on yourself if you’re busy congratulating yourself.  “Look, I made a rhyme!”

One can only be a prodigy for so long.  When I turned 29, the days of “He’s so good for a lad of his age” were behind me.  And I know that 29 seems a little high.  In my youth, it was rather unusual for 20-somethings to get musicals produced.  Today, it’s very common.

Plus the internet and ever-evolving mass media make it far easier for a young person to announce the world “Hey!  I write musicals!” and people believe.  Take the curious case of Peter Panko.  If I say poor Peter literally cannot write a song, I’m not one of the throng who confuses “literally” for “figuratively.” On his sheet music, he’ll put notes on the wrong clef, having nothing to do with which hand is supposed to play them. The rhythm he’s notated misaccents words and clearly isn’t what he intends. Which creates a huge headache for a musical director, and since that’s what I’m doing this summer, the ongoing migraine is causing me to loathe him more and more.

I always suspect someone will accuse me of the deadly sin of envy, for Peter Panko is widely loved, especially by young performers. He’s one of the best known musical theatre writers in the land. And yet… I can find only the scantest of evidence that he’s ever done a musical anywhere. His own website mentions a show that played in a tiny west coast storefront (I’ve been unable to find independent confirmation of this) and then talks, for several paragraphs, about a musical he’s been writing for 8 years, Place. He’s doing a great job of distributing his sheet music, however impossible to read it is (one has to assume he’s musically illiterate), and, on the top of each page, he lists what show the song is from. This fools a lot of people, especially since he’s changed the name of Place, making it seem as if he’s written a higher quantity of musicals.

But my hat’s off to Panko in the area of networking. He must have a particularly ingratiating personality. Some years ago, he got a lot of hot young musical theatre stars to record a bunch of his songs. Fans of the hot stars got to know his songs, and his fame spread. I think it’s unfortunate, in a way, when young performers get to know material only through the recordings of contemporary stars they admire. They’re missing the good stuff – which hasn’t necessarily been recorded by anybody of note – and they’re missing seeing how the songs work in the context of a musical. Nobody I’ve ever met has seen a Panko musical. And I can think of many a young Broadway star (I’m looking at you, Hosanna Legume!) who have yet to record a particularly well-written number.

I suppose that raises the question of how to define a well-written number. I’ll address that in subsequent posts, but, for the time being: If you’ve finished your first draft of a song, feel all proud of yourself, and can’t resist exclaiming “What a good boy am I” you probably haven’t written one.


I built a little opera troupe

July 14, 2011

For some strange reason, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times decided to write an article about the differences between musicals and operas. To me, it’s an unimportant matter, a question of semantics, and I’ll cheerfully admit my prejudice here: I’m anti-semantic.

But maybe there’s some good reason to define the terms: if it’s good enough for The Times’ readership, it’s good enough for mine, too.  So: are you of the mind that the existence of dialogue means it’s a musical? Then you haven’t seen the word-filled Carmen, The Magic Flute or Fidelio, three of the more famous operas, or musicals like Miss Saigon, Falsettos, or Our Wedding, which lack dialogue. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. (Sorry, I started thinking about words Our Wedding didn’t contain.)

1. In a musical, the composer usually does not do the orchestrations; opera composers most often do. Kurt Weill found time to orchestrate his musicals, but the true reason Broadway requires professional orchestrators is that there’s often last minute composing to be done, and the composer doesn’t have time.

2. Which reminds me that opera composers tend to think about writing for the full orchestra, while musical writers more often think in terms of piano and voice. Now, I’m trying to expand beyond that in the show I’m writing now, but the sad truth is creators of musicals are rarely sure their shows will ever be done with full orchestras. A different sort of mind-frame applies.

3. Operas require, and are conceived for, operatic singing. I suppose I could define “operatic singing” but I’m sure you all know it when you hear it.

4. Is the show conceived of for the opera stage, or the less lofty realm of theatre? There are a zillion subtle differences between operas and musicals in how the musicianship is handled.

5. Operas, for more than a century, have a level of musical complexity and sophistication that musicals lack. There are plenty of naifs with no musical training who’ve written good musicals.

6. An opera is, for the most part, a musical expression by the composer, and the composer is always more important than the librettist. Musicals are theatrical expressions in which all collaborators must be considered equally important.

7. The audience for opera is attending in hopes of hearing great voices. People who go to musicals go for a greater variety of things: the story, the dancing, the wit of the lyrics, e.g.; rare is the opera-goer who attends for these reasons.

8. Every writer of a musical hopes to see the work performed night after night. Operas are so demanding they tend to be done in just a few performances, usually not consecutively. And think of Broadway stars compared to opera stars. Sutton Foster gave eight performances a week in The Drowsy Chaperone for an entire year before deciding not to show off no more for real. Diva Renee Fleming, in a year’s time, does 21 concerts and 33 performances of 5 operas for a total of 54 performances and no one thinks she’s a slouch.

9. The approach of the performers makes a difference. In singing an opera, the most important thing is that you sound wonderful. Many masterful performers of musicals don’t sound all that beautiful, but they act their lyrics effectively, which is more important in the realm of the stage. Tony-winners like Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and John McMartin have instruments that affect but could hardly be called mellifluous.

10. Broadway, the home of the musical, must present new works with a certain amount of frequency. Many of the world’s great opera companies go for years without presenting a newly-minted opera. I must admit I find that very sad.

It’s a little like Jeff Foxworthy’s catch-phrase, “You may be a redneck if…” Applying these ten delineators won’t always work. Think of a doctor reading a set of test results, proclaiming, “Well, we have several indicators, here, that seem to suggest the patient is …[dramatic pause]… a musical!”

But what can be said of the works that seem to fall in between the cracks?

Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway, doing the usual regimen of night-after-night that musicals do. Criterion 4 is telling us it’s a musical. But George Gershwin told everyone he was writing an opera, studied the craft of orchestration in order to orchestrate it himself, and took many years to do so. There was also a long search for black singers with operatic voices. Fine as the libretto is – and Sondheim feels the first act is the greatest set of lyrics ever written for the stage (they’re by DuBose Heyward) – the world thought of it as Gershwin’s musical expression, rightly, and not an even steven collaboration. Even Stephen would agree: opera.

The Most Happy Fella also premiered on Broadway, and is something of an intentional hybrid. Yes, you hear operatic singing, but only from the characters who speak Italian. The characters of Herman and Cleo have a Broadway musical comedy sound. And the leading lady exists in both realms. She’s a tough dame, grounded in kitchen sink reality who eventually gets won over by the romantic Italian “fella” and begins to sing like him. The other man in the triangle, Joe, was originally cast with a pop singer.

Jesus Christ Superstar uses several sophisticated musical devices, but not ones you wouldn’t find in a Leonard Bernstein musical. The creators called their two-disc album a “rock opera” but this was somewhat tongue in cheek. It’s a completely sung rock musical and while some insist it’s an opera, I remain a Doubting Thomas.

Bernstein was that rare composer-of-musicals who thought in terms of full orchestras. He wasn’t solely responsible for the orchestrations, though. The work that seems to confuse people is Candide. Candide is an episodic musical comedy that spoofs opera in all its songs. You can see why folks would be confused by that.

Around the time of Candide, Gian-Carlo Menotti created some operas for Broadway. He certainly thought they were operas. Weill’s Street Scene is a similar case, operatic in its approach and its voices. But, because I haven’t seen it, I can’t categorize Jerry Springer: The Opera. I’ve played a few songs from it, and they revel in obscene outrageousness, but that doesn’t tell us much. I’ll get back to you when I finally see it.

You hear plenty of operatic singing in The Light in the Piazza, by both American and Italian characters. The unusually lush (read: classical-sounding) orchestrations are by composer Adam Guettel in collaboration with Ted Sperling. And there’s also a credit that reads “Additional Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin.” Scroll back to Criterion 5. This music has a level of harmonic sophistication unmatched by any Broadway musical written in my lifetime. And yet, in the second act, all the music stops and the lead character addresses us. It’s an incredibly important moment, a key plot point, revelatory, sad and dramatic. The monologue convinced me that I was seeing a musical simply because all the operas I know don’t come to a sudden halt to deliver a long unaccompanied speech of this magnitude. Get back to me if you can think of one.


Why did Stella pick a Polack?

July 8, 2011

My last post mocked the Play-Doh moulding school of musical writing training and, for all I know, those coloured-clay moulders will make fun of this one.

Thought I’d describe, to the best of my recollection, the writing exercises assigned by Lehman Engel in his musical theatre writing workshop at BMI.  The more you look into this field, the more you’ll hear widely divergent opinions about the BMI workshop and Lehman Engel himself.  To me, they’re one and the same: Lehman was that workshop; he started it, and decided what it should be.  But it’s now decades since his death, and I can’t comment on what the workshop has become, post mortem.

The first thing the old southern gentleman had us do was write a ballad for Blanche DuBois.  Don’t get the wrong idea, here: Lehman didn’t think A Streetcar Named Desire would make a good musical.  But the play is filled with strong emotional situations, sometimes rendered in poetic language.  The challenge of getting Blanche to sing was exactly the sort of thing we fledgling creators would face throughout our careers.

I was, by a stretch, the youngest member of the workshop back then, and I’d been given the key to a relative’s apartment with a piano.  In that odd and uncomfortable environment, I tried to echo Tennessee Williams’ language.  “Shall I drift away with the sea?” is the only line I remember.  At some point, I abandoned this draft: it was, like so much college poetry, meaningless, and without a title to regularly return to, I was adrift in formlessness.  I read the play again, this time looking for appealing prosaic moments.  I found an exchange in which Blanche complains that her sister married a Polish person.  In her attempt at respectability, she points to her French ancestry as somehow superior.  This gave me an idea.

And I ran a little wild with it.  In my song Why Did Stella Pick a Polack? Blanche piles on the epithets and bigoted characterizations.  It’s a bright Charleston, bearing a little more than a passing resemblance to John Kander’s If You Could See Her.  Others in the workshop laughed at every joke, but Lehman was pained.  I’d failed to follow the assignment: this wasn’t a ballad, it was a comedy song.  And I suspected he suspected I wasn’t taking the assignment seriously.  (Someone handed me a note: “Can I include your song in my show, ‘The Most Happy Stella‘?”)

The second assignment was to write a charm song for Frankie Addams from The Member of the Wedding.  Lehman had coined the term: A charm song is a small number in the first act of a musical that doesn’t pull a lot of narrative weight but tells the audience a good deal about a character.  A classic example is A Cock-Eyed Optimist.

I must have been thinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, because my attempt at a song for Frankie steals four notes from their Shall We Dance? (the word “dance” plus those three low notes “bump bump bump” that follow).  It wasn’t great, but nobody could think I was subverting the assignment: it’s certainly a charm song, as had been defined.  (Some wags quip “A charm song is a comedy song that doesn’t get any laughs.”  They’re wrong.)

I don’t remember what sort of song we were asked to write for Lola of Come Back Little Sheba, but this was the assignment that flummoxed me the most.  At the ripe old age of 19, I misread William Inge’s play, and completely misunderstood certain subtexts, motivations, and pre-curtain actions that weren’t explicitly spelled out.  The members of the workshop, struggling with the same assignment, all knew Lola far better than I did, and the jokes I had coming out of her mouth made no sense to anyone.  Now that I think of it, it’s possible the assignment was to write a comedy song.  But nobody laughed at mine: They just felt bad for a callow youth in over his ears.

Lehman Engel

A musical scene is one in which a lot is going on: dialogue, perhaps; characters coming in and out; multiple melodies, etc.  The fourth assignment was to create one involving Willy Loman, somewhere around Death of a Salemsan’s climax.  For some reason – probably because I knew I’d be performing the song for the workshop by myself – I had Willy do all the singing.  Again, my efforts were hampered by insufficient comprehension of the play.  But I wasn’t so off that people couldn’t understand it.  Lehman, at this point, had taken something of a shine to me, and was gentle in criticizing me for the song’s ultimately unsupported premise.  A successful song has characters saying and doing things that are, well, in character.

In a sense, I was 0 for 4.  Lehman was displeased, generally, with the whole group’s efforts.  I felt I was learning, but there was little evidence of that, and a real risk I wouldn’t be asked back for a second year.  His final assignment, though, didn’t involve a character from a mid-century stage drama.  He just told us to write a comedy song based on something in the newspaper.

This I could do, I felt.  Finally, an assignment where I wouldn’t be hampered by my basic misunderstanding of plays I read.  And the newspaper offered a world of possibilities.  Which to choose?

One morning in March, the headline in the Times told of a terrible tragedy in an obscure part of Pennsylvania.  And I knew immediately this would be a terrific subject for a comedy song.  (I was not just a callow youth, I was a callous one: didn’t give a thought to how people were suffering; I had a comedy song to write!)  I started listing various possible jokes about what it might be like to romance a woman who been through this disaster.  This time, I quoted another song (Brecht & Weill’s Alabama Song) for a specific reason.  My tune was original enough: the best thing about it is that it provided space between the jokes, giving listeners a chance to laugh out loud without worrying they’ll miss the next punch-line.  Many of my fellow workshoppers struggled with the assignment, finding it difficult to write jokes that are unrelated to character.  But boy did they laugh at mine.  If I’d gone 0 for 4, my fifth at bat was a homer, good enough to keep me on the team another year.  Lehman positively beamed.

My Baby-click to hear

Slots in the workshop are limited; it’s very difficult to get accepted in.  But nothing’s stopping anyone from working on Lehman’s assignments.  Whatever one thinks of the BMI experience, it’s clear these exercises have value.  Perhaps even more than Play-Doh sculpting.


Fireworks

July 2, 2011

You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan contains a phrase that’s always amused me – “Where there’s never a boast or brag.”  Really, now?  When I sing it, I often follow the line with “We’re the best!” shouted in rhythm.

Seems to me boasting and bragging is a peculiarly American predilection.  But, I suppose, it’s a bit more excusable on July 4th weekend and I’ll try to address an old chauvinistic question:

Why is it that the U.S.A. seems to be the only country able to create great musicals?

Now I hear it (I hear it; I hear it!) – a hue and cry from other corners of the globe.  What about this or that non-American musical?  Is it not great?

I’ll immediately stipulate that Oliver! is a great musical.  It has one of those rare scores where every song has merit and the book moves things along efficiently.  Much as I enjoy The Boy Friend and Canada’s The Drowsy Chaperone, both feature scores that are parodies of the type of musical you’d commonly hear in the 1920’s.  While Britain’s The Boy Friend really nails it, and The Drowsy Chaperone has a consistently amusing book, both must be considered spoofsicals, although great examples of the genre.  Speaking of neologisms, I’ve a lot of admiration for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar, which was created as a record album.  I love that album.  On stage, though, it fails to transcend its origins.  It just sits there, like, well, the staged record album it is, so I can’t call it a great musical.  I would say that Germany’s Three Penny Opera is one of the all-time greats.  But what other musical from Germany qualifies?  Read the question again – “Why is it that the U.S.A. seems to be the only country able to create great musicals?”  You’ve got to have created more than one.

In the 19th century, Englanders Gilbert and Sullivan created terrific shows that we call operettas, not musicals.  Musicals, as we know them, began in America with the aforementioned George M. Cohan.  In the first few decades of the 20th century, musicals underwent a complete reversal in their treatment of ethnic groups.  And the idea of America as melting pot of various nationalities is one of our primary claims to uniqueness.  At first, nearly every musical utilized stereotyping as a chief source of humor.  These jokes are so offensive to contemporary sensibilities, virtually none of the pre-1925 American musicals are revivable in their original form.  Legend has it that in 1933, everything changed when Ethel Waters sang Irving Berlin’s Suppertime, about a black woman who has lost her husband to a lynch mob’s noose.  Here, the plight of a person of color is being dramatized in such a way that everyone in the audience can sympathize.  We’d evolved from laughing at minorities to crying with them.  If the modern American musical succeeds in exploring the emotions of widely disparate characters and making them vivid, felt, it might have something to do with this tradition. 

More obviously, American music is a melting pot.  One thinks of George Gershwin as a cultural explorer, traveling as far as South Carolina and as near as Harlem to listen to black music and to interact with jazz musicians.  He brought elements of what he experienced into Broadway shows, as did many others.  A generation later, theatre composers needed a knack for writing in all styles.  The late great Jerry Bock, for instance, could write supremely hip material for Sammy Davis Jr., or play the same theme in three styles: In The Name’s LaGuardia, a New York City mayoral candidate visits three distinct ethnic enclaves, and his song spelling his name is heard in the musical styles of three ethnicities.

It’s been said that the British are less comfortable with emotion.  (Just the other day someone was telling me of an Englishwoman so reserved she didn’t make a sound while giving birth.)  But I feel bad about suggesting that there’s a connection between the famous stiff upper lip and the paucity of good British musicals.  After all, in the past fifteen years, I’ve had more productions over there than here.  And my first-ever production was in England.  Plus, it’s not as if they’re not trying to improve.

A while ago, I got the rare opportunity to experience what the British are doing to hone their musical-writing skills.  Visiting New York was something of a guru: She travels around England giving workshops designed to expand the creative powers of composers, librettists and lyricists.  At a coffee shop, she gave a little sample of her teaching to me and two others.

She distributed small canisters of Play-Doh, like kindergarteners might be given.  We were instructed to mould a character with the clay.  (I use the British spelling of mold because she spoke with accent.)  Then, we had to pass our sculpture to our neighbor who would transform it into something else.  Since there were three of us, we then did it again.  She never said it explicitly, but I suppose this was supposed to give us a taste of how work gets changed by collaborators, directors and performers.

With intelligent and eminently practical exercises like that, I’m sure the Brits will catch up with us in no time.