Why did Stella pick a Polack?

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.

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