I gotta fly

August 28, 2011

I take it you haven’t navigated your way to my Musings On Musicals in search of porn. But you never know. A previous post, on writing incidental music for non-musical plays, mentioned male nudity in passing and generated an unusual amount of traffic to this site…I do not judge.

I do, however, have a surprisingly salacious video for you to feast your eyes on. So, thrill-seeker, it turns out you have come to the right place! And it’s perfectly germane to a discussion of how musicals are promoted in this day and age.

The musical, Catch Me If You Can, ends its Broadway run September 4. I didn’t go out and see it, mainly because of my aversion to the workmanlike but uninspired oeuvre of its songwriters. I became familiar with two of its songs through playing them: both state things in their lyrics over and over again, at length, without a clever turn of phrase or interesting expression. One sounds very much like an early 80’s pop song, which would be all right, I guess, if the show wasn’t set in the 1960’s. So, getting to know these songs proved a disincentive for me to go.

But, these days, producers seek to innovate new ways of capturing an audience. Those viral videos are all the rage, and distribution can be cost-free. Catch Me If You Can took the unusual step of selling itself through a nearly pornographic song and dance video:

Stewardesses sexing up a young pilot: Me likey. And I also like that song, Rumor Has It. So, should I now buy a ticket to Catch Me If You Can?

Holy bait-and-switch, Batman! Rumor Has It, sung by Adele on her chart-topping album, is not a song from Catch Me If You Can. Here, for the first time ever, a new Broadway musical has taken the extraordinary step of advertising itself by using a Top 40 hit that has nothing to do with the show. It’s as if those clever producers read my mind, and could see that using the show’s songs would turn people away.

Should we all get upset about this? File a complaint? I’m not sure… So, I think I’ll just watch that video a few more times.

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All I can offer you

August 22, 2011

The other week some questions came up over at the Yahoo group known as MusicalMakers, and I found myself giving a long-winded lecture on theatre economics.

I know nothing about economics.

I need a vacation. The good news is, I’m on vacation now, writing blog posts in advance so it doesn’t seem to you, reader, like I’m slacking off.

Except I am slacking off by repurposing some of the economics thread from the other group.

First, a writer named Whitney asked for thoughts on her travails finding a director. Apparently, what she termed “a top director in L.A.” loved her show but wanted $3,000 to direct its first staged reading and some claim of copyright. I nearly screamed. In fact, I did the internet version of screaming, I pressed my “caps lock” button:

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD A WRITER EVER PAY A DIRECTOR

I then examined the pros-and-cons of signing a Right of First Refusal with a director. It’s one thing a writer can give that doesn’t cost the writer money. 

This prompted a question from another writer, Shelley, who understood, she said, the principle of writers not paying directors for a staged reading, but couldn’t see what was wrong with paying them for the first production. “Please tell me what I should have done instead.”

The answer seems simple enough: find a producer. A producer is responsible for raising money, negotiating contracts, and spending money. Shelley, claiming she lives in some distant backwater where she’d never be able to find a producer, said that, looking back on the experience, she’s satisfied with the course of action she took: spending money to produce the show herself.

Eek: I thought this post would be a retread, and yet everything I’ve written so far is original. Grrr.

We writers usually write on spec: that is, we do our work without immediate compensation. Often, there’s never any compensation. The beginning stages of most musicals involve years of us doing work for free.

I bow to no one in my appreciation of directors. There are zillions of good directors who aren’t evil, and a great many of them are willing to work for free, in the early stages of a project (or their careers) just as we do. Good non-evil directors know (and value!) the difference between writing and staging. Like us, they’re longing for compensation for the valuable creative service they provide.

The early stage of a career in the arts – all sorts of arts – often involves doing jobs for free. It’s a sorry state of affairs when so many writers and directors do so much uncompensated labor. But we’re in the same boat.

Now let’s talk about getting screwed. If Whitney’d paid that Californian viper $3000, the amount she would have earned from that musical would be negative $3000. If she’d allowed a copyright agreement that surrendered part of your royalties to the director, she’d be screwed in perpetuity.

Shelley’s response to this point indicated that she was fine with the idea of spending money to see her musical on stage. One imagines a madcap heiress from a screwball comedy, with money to burn, realizing her dream of writing a musical and putting it on stage. Sounds harmless, when you put it that way. To understand the iniquity and inequity of it all, you need to think like an economist.

In a world…[spoken in the stentorian tones of a trailer narrator] … in which many talented people are willing to do a lot of creative work for free. $0, I think we’d all agree, is small compensation for all the hard work it takes to write a musical, or to direct a musical.

There are some people who settle for even less. They’re willing to do hard work for a negative amount; to them, less-than-zero seems adequate reward.

Now, the argument is sometimes made that a writer benefits, in non-monetary ways, from having work on a stage. She learns a great deal, both from the nuts-and-bolts of putting on the show, and  especially from the audience reaction. She derives pleasure, and maybe even a good reputation, from the run, which may be positively reviewed. And, obviously, a track record of mountings and good reviews is helpful to one’s career.

So, we’re left with a set of economic questions on which reasonable minds may differ. The benefits set out in the last paragraph: How much are they worth? Should an artist work for free? What about Less Than Free? In what other field is Pay-To-Play acceptable? Should I have charged my dentist $2000 for the privilege of fixing my teeth?

In the situation Shelley described, it sounds like she decided that substantially less-than-zero was acceptable compensation for her hard work. Her director decided that acceptable compensation was some positive amount of money. Like Shelley, the director got to add another line to his resume, learn from the experience of putting the show on, enjoy and learn from the audience reaction, and enhance his reputation, possibly with critical raves. Who do you think got the better deal?

It’s been ages since I used a “greater-than” sign, so I can’t resist:

Some Compensation > No Compensation > Negative compensation (losing money)

One can try to look at this situation dispassionately, like a disinterested economist, but people tend to get rather passionate about getting screwed. First, picture a world in which nobody does any work for less than $2000. That would be a world like those legendary Good Old Days, and a limited amount of new work could get done. Second, picture a world where people are willing to work for free, the All-Volunteer Corps. Not as nice a world, since every party is undervalued. Finally, picture a world in which people are willing to work for Less Than Zero, and Pay For Play enterprises become common. Seems to me the worst world of all. The more people who accept Less Than Zero, the more we evolve into that very worst world. Economics dictates that payers naturally seek to pay the lowest price. It follows that the mere existence of artists who accept Less Than Zero makes it more difficult for the willing-to-work-for-free crowd to find work. And the writers who won’t work for less than $2000 are a vanishing breed. Like the dodo.


A hurricane

August 16, 2011

So much has been written about the current Porgy and Bess controversy, I feel I’ve little to add.  And I’m ever-hesitant to say anything about a production I’ve not seen.

For those needing the back-story, I’ll try to cram it into this paragraph.  A white author from Charleston, SC, DuBose Heyward, wrote a novel about a black community there, Porgy, in 1925.  With his wife Dorothy, he adapted it into a hit Broadway play, also called Porgy.  George Gershwin, whose career bridged the classical music and popular entertainment fields, spent many years working with DuBose Heyward on an opera version, Porgy and Bess.  Eventually, they called in George’s brother Ira to contribute some lyrics to the second and third act.  The opera was produced on Broadway, but was not particularly successful.  After George’s untimely death, Porgy and Bess was embraced as the greatest of all American operas, almost universally admired.  Currently, The American Repertory Theatre in Boston is mounting a musical version of the opera, substantially revised by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Obie Award-winning composer Diedre Murray under the direction of Diane Paulus.  It boasts an all-star cast of musical comedy veterans, and is eying Broadway.  After the creative team and certain cast members spoke to the press about what makes their version, now called The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess, better and more to the taste of today’s audiences, Stephen Sondheim voiced his objection to their attitude, and that wildly inappropriate title, in The New York Times.  Boston Globe articleSondheim’s in The Times.

Let’s begin with the ridiculous.  Some have asserted that a change is needed because Porgy and Bess has not been successful in a financial sense.  Well, I don’t have any figures in front of me, but the show’s played on Broadway seven times, has toured nationally more than once, has been done by countless opera companies (including The Metropolitan Opera), has been recorded many times, and became a Hollywood movie.  It can be argued that one aria, heard right at the beginning, Summertime, is the most successful song of all time.  Like many an opera, it’s large, and therefore costly to produce.  It’s a difficult opera to do because it requires a great quantity of black opera singers.  There’s a comparatively small community of singers to choose from, and yet, despite all these difficulties, it gets done again and again.

It’s not cynical to suggest, however, that this new, shorter concoction is fashioned with one eye on the bottom line.  Broadway, as ever, is a commercial venture.  It’s easier to sell seats to a musical with a running time shorter than three hours, or one with a cast of players who have musical comedy voices rather than opera ones – after all, nowadays there are not black opera singers who’d sell a lot of seats on The Great White Way – or one with a happy ending.

Far more ridiculous is the more controversial assertion that the original Porgy and Bess is somehow racist.  The characters in the all-black fishing community of Catfish Row aren’t terribly sophisticated, and believe in a number of superstitions.  They use the n-word.

Let’s think about that one.  A white Charlestonian writes about an all-black community using the n-word when no whites are around.  Is that inaccurate?  Is it racist?  Get over it, for chrissakes.  One of the things that makes Porgy and Bess one of the greatest pieces of American art is the way it illuminates, with verisimilitude, a part of the world opera-goers are unlikely to see.  What Heyward and Gershwin wrote was the result of a substantial amount of research into what’s called “Gullah” culture.

Still, the Heywards and the Gershwins were white, and some have lauded the fact that the women rewriting the dialogue and music are both black.  To which I say: It’s high time we get some actual Italians to rewrite Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare, an Englishman, lacked the proper ethnicity to accurately depict life in Europe’s Boot.  It’ll take a true Veronan or Venitian, rewriting the Bard, to provide a legitimate portrait.

Paulus and Parks maintain they’re adding dimension to the characters.  But has the opera been criticized for Bess’ or Porgy’s lack of depth?  Porgy’s most famous song, I Got Plenty of Nothing, seems, to them, like “a happy darky song,” one in which, unbidden, a beset-upon black character sings about the joy of living.  They’re a little gleeful about the solution they found, writing new lines for a “nudge-nudge” suggestion that “nothing” in this case, means sex.  How dense they must be, to have missed the implication, in any production of the opera, that Porgy is joyful because he’s sharing his tiny hut, which clearly has room for just one bed, with Bess.  I first saw Porgy and Bess when I was a small boy, and I got that.   It was never an unmotivated “coon song” about getting a high out of life; but they felt the need to fix it lest anyone in the audience get the false impression that their sensitive souls got out of nowhere.

I don’t wish to spoil the two plots for anyone.  These versions end differently.  I’ll only say that the opera’s original ending is astoundingly moving.  It’s tragic, and yet affirmative.  We’re moved by a character’s faith in God while we can see ahead to the future events that will happen after the curtain falls.  I believe it’s one of the best endings in all of musical theatre.

And Sondheim has said for years the Heyward’s lyrics are the best in all of musical theatre.  So, naturally, he’s irked at the decision to title the new show, “The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’.”  It’s nice to see the author of “he made his home in that fish’s abdomen” get some unaccustomed credit, but not while leaving out mention of the man who created the characters, knew the fishing community, and wrote the original novel, the play version, the plot of the opera and all of the opera’s first act lyrics.  (Sondheim doesn’t care for Ira’s contribution, natch.)

Credit where credit is due.  The new work is not what George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward (with an assist from Ira Gershwin) wrought.  I really wouldn’t mind if the producers called this musical “Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘Porgy and Bess’” because that’s whose it is, and I’m sure there are plenty of Suzan-Lori Parks fans who are dying to see it.


Anything is possible

August 10, 2011

Some of my friends are embroiled in the Edinburgh experience, reminding me that it’s been fifteen years since my first triumph there.  My memory, as always, is a little hazy.  But the Festival – the largest performing arts festival in the world, by far – is worth describing, however inaccurately, because it’s one of the places in the world where new musicals get done, reviewed, and, most importantly, seen.

One of the most astounding things about the Festival has to do with numbers.  Edinburgh, the rest of the year, is quaint, a livable city with a small town feel.  Around three quarters of a million call it home.  For three weeks every August, one million visitors show up.  It’s hard to imagine how this happens: How many cities in the world could deal with more than doubling in size in the dead of summer?  My suspicion is a great number of Edinburghers get the hell out and rent all their floor space to theatre people.  Myself, I stayed on a friend’s couch.  The other number to think about is 2000.  There are over 2000 different performances: mostly theatre, but a lot of comedy, as well as concerts, operas, dance.  It’s safe to say every visitor sees more than one show, and probably a wide variety.

So, if you’ve got a show there, you’ve stepped into an incredibly competitive publicity market.  How are you going to get people to come to your show, instead of the 2000 other choices?  Leafleting is a common practice.  Shows print up thousands of mini-posters, and post them on every available wall space.  The entry-way to every pub is plastered with hundreds of them.  Sound ineffective?  Well, there’s also the handout process.  Leafleters crowd the Royal Mile, passing out papers to everyone passing by.  As a tourist, walking from the Castle to Holyrood Park, you’ll easily pick up hundreds of these pesky sheets.  (Naturally, I misread the name “Holyrood Park” every time I looked at a map, and reflexively thought there was horse-racing there.)

More fun are the shows that parade about town, doing sample numbers.  I feel I saw a Youth Theatre production of The Boy Friend in its entirety, without ever entering its venue.  Trying to be a good, informed theatre consumer, I talked to a lot of people about what they’d seen and enjoyed.  I also tended to rely upon The Scotsman, the country’s newspaper, which helpfully utilizes a five-star rating system with every review.  Shows that got the highest rating instantly sold out, because the paper was such a widely-valued source of guidance. 

It could happen to you.  It happened to me: Five stars from The Scotsman.  The critic was so inspired by the dense Gilbertian rhyming of my Murder at the Savoy, he decided put his rave in verse:

THE Savoy comic Larry Dapple’s

last show will be in the chapel

for some cad has blown his head off

down among the props.

Now, though his denouement’s messy,

luckily the lovely Jessie’s

able to describe the scene

and to alert the cops.

Here’s Detective Peter Pulley

swift, incisive, and quite fully

cognisant of what’s occurred and who the suspects are:

Maud (tight-fisted company boss

Percy (husband – a dead loss)

Mrs Dapple’s paramour (the tenor) and a rising star.

Lastly there’s the widow Polly,

strangely lacking melancholy,

but why does the detective cry

when she breaks into song? See the show and find the truths

as they’re revealed by singing youths;

it’s fast, it’s fun, it’s quickly done

and doesn’t run for long.

The next thing we knew, every seat was sold.  Which meant the production turned a profit, which is pretty rare for a large cast show with a low ticket price.  The show’s reception led to four subsequent British productions, including two more trips to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Of course it’s a truly international gathering, and a great deal of the fun is being part of the community that’s made its way to Edinburgh from all over the world.  Seeing vastly different styles of theatre, naturally, is fascinating.  I remember a wordless puppet piece so vividly, the recollection of its pathos can bring a tear to my eye.  And then you go to a pub and meet fellow theatre-people with a mélange of accents.  I spent some time getting to know someone who’d long ago become very famous in a different field – the oldest profession, but that’s a story for another day.

Instead, I’ll recall a conversation I had with a Scottish actor in my cast.  He used a phrase I often use, “Everything I know I know from musicals” and went on to point out that few in Britain are familiar with the name of the obscure American president, Gerald Ford.  But, due to his familiarity with a certain Sondheim musical, he boasted, “I not only knew his name, but also the names of the two women who tried to assassinate him: Squeaky Fromme and Mary Tyler Moore.”

Our Mary?  I guess it’s always the ones you least expect.


The funniest show on the air

August 5, 2011

For the Lucille Ball centennial, I thought I’d recount a biographical story about Lucille Ball that means more to me than any of her on-screen shenanigans.  I heard it about ten years ago, so you can count on me to get details wrong.

The height of the redhead’s TV popularity was also the height of the Red Scare.  Columnists like Walter Winchell wielded tremendous power by publicly announcing who’d ever been a Communist, and all hell broke loose when he besmirched Ball.  She and husband Desi Arnaz smartly assessed that the public could turn on them quickly – after all, wasn’t he a Spanish-speaking immigrant, theirs a marriage of mixed ethnicities? – and hired a masterful publicist.  Lucy met with the House Un-American Activities Committee and told a tale about her family life before she was married.

It was three generations sharing one household, and everybody loved and respected an old relative whose mind was withering away.  One day, in a moment of madness, he said he was joining the Communist Party and insisted this was something they should all do, as a family.  The Balls didn’t care about leftist politics; they only cared about keeping the old codger content.  So, they all joined.

Lucy’s warm and loving account of doing something for a dear and daffy old forbear succeeded in charming the Committee and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.  The potential publicity disaster was averted, and Desi told I Love Lucy’s in-studio audience and attending press, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate.”

Do you think, perhaps, that this charming tale might have been concocted by the publicist?  Sounds too good to be true, no?

To me, what it really sounds like is the basis for a musical.  McCarthyism destroyed lives, and it might be wonderfully cathartic to see a top TV comedienne win over the HUAC with the humor and charm she’d learned from years of performing.

Another well-known sitcom star of the era, Phillip Loeb, lost his livelihood due to blacklisting, and committed suicide.  I can’t recall ever seeing a Loeb performance, but I began to wonder if the difference between him and Ball had to do with how she was extremely charming and he, not so much.  What would happen if someone had insufficient charm to get a pass from the Committee?

I took elements of both as the basis for Such Good Friends, a musical comedy that starts by depicting the humorous backstage calamities that befall funny people doing live television in its early days.  They’re so involved with getting a hit show on, they barely notice red paranoia creeping in.  When called before the Committee, they have different strategies to give the scurrilous inquisitors a literal song and dance.  With different results.

Yes, you read that right, I said musical comedy.  The McCarthy era was tragic for everyone involved, but I feel that the best way to move an audience is to use ample heaps of humor.  The characters, obviously, are funny people – going about the amusing endeavor of entertaining America on live television every week.  And when unhappy circumstances find them unable to work, they’re able to amuse each other, keep their spirits up:

Lucille Ball explaining away her Communist Party membership was a point of departure for me.   I let my imagine run wild, and created something that felt right, using a reprise of a first act song with some new lyrics in a different tempo and feel. (In my previous post about verisimilitude, I quoted the dialogue I ended up using in the draft that was performed at The New York Musical Theatre Festival.)  Lucy’s basic situation, of charming the Committee in order to save her career, was there.  But not the tale about the family appeasing the relative who’d lost his mind: these days, who is credulous enough to believe that?