The shopgirls’ song

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.

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