Take a gamble

September 26, 2011

Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all artistic enterprises. Yet, for me, there’s a stage in the process that’s just the opposite and more than a little lonely. 99% of the time, I’m writing both music and lyrics, and, at some point, I’ve a song in my hot little hands that nobody’s heard but me. So, beyond those internal struggles between the composing side of me and lyric-writing side of me, there’s been no collaboration, no synergy between disparate minds working to tell the same story.

Until there is.

I’m writing this in between two first-ever rehearsals of two songs that nobody’s ever worked on before.  It’s an unbearably exciting time, and the singer and musical director are applying their brilliance in ways that are both a great pleasure for me and a huge sigh of relief.  The relief has to do with my doubt that anyone would ever understand – and then be able to dramatize – the subtle nuances I packed into my plaintive ballad for a libidinous teen boy, Teach Me How To Love.


Boy do they get it!  Singer Kevin Michael Murphy has an unbelievable range, and ample vocal power, but I’m most impressed by his instinct of when to hold that power back.  He’s playing a character who’s shy, not sure of himself, and he and the musical director, James Olmstead, came up with marvelous modulations of strength and energy.  These lead the song to be simultaneously touching and comic, and also a treat for the ears.

Teach Me How To Love and Miracle, both from Haven are getting their premieres in a concert Thursday night by a group with the seemingly oxymoronic title, Contemporary Traditionalists.  I know very little about them beyond that name, but it’s always a great thing when someone decides to devote an evening to new work.  You can hear standards almost anywhere any night, but here’s a chance to hear songs you haven’t heard before.  It seems, more and more, that New York audiences prefer just that, to hear what they’ve heard before, like diners who trudge into the same diner night after night, ordering the same liver and onions.  Those who seek out the new are my kind of people, equivalent to the first-nighters at cutting-edge restaurants offering out-of-the ordinary cuisine.

I mean no disrespect to those liver-and-onions consumers, but the adventurous crowd is the life-blood of the theatre.  To a significant extent, theatre is a market-driven economy.  If people are flocking to shows that offer up non-new scores contained of “oldies” you can hear on certain radio stations, then producers are encouraged to present jukeboxes and retrospective revues.  If the masses showed the requisite interest in hearing songs they haven’t heard before, powers-that-be would pave Broadway with original shows.  When we talk about the “good old days” – and I’m about to use 1956 as an example – we usually think of a time when brilliant writers (Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, Lerner & Loewe, Johnny Mercer) created musicals.  It’s similarly significant that 55 years ago there was a sizable part of the population that craved hearing new work.

Candace LaRicci

Today, it seems, theatre-goers crave old work, so we get shows featuring “the songs you love” such as Mamma Mia, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Rain and Million Dollar Quartet.  1956 saw the premieres of Bells Are Ringing, Candide, The Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady and Li’l Abner, all filled to the brim with excellent songs not previously known.

If – and I’d stipulate this is a big if – we had composers toiling today of the caliber of Styne, Bernstein, Loesser and Loewe, how the hell would we know it?  The play-it-safe, give-’em-what-they-already-know attitude has led to the best minds of my generation getting no productions, and often fleeing the field.  That heartless tartless menace, the market is dictating that the songs of talented tunesmiths go largely unheard.

Thursday (9/29/11) you can take one small step for many musical-makers (Caleb Hoyer, Matt Walsh, Zach Redler, Sara Cooper, John Verderber, Chris Fitz, Jonathon Lynch, Greg Kenna, James Olmstead, Omri Schein and Katya Stanislavskaya) and attend the Contemporary Traditionalists concert at 7 at Broadway Comedy Club 318 W. 53 (you may have seen me playing the Chicago City Limits shows there), $10 + 2 drinks.

She smelled like chocolate

September 21, 2011

Two early-career songwriters – brothers, in fact – were hired to write a score by a powerful studio head. Every composition had to be played for the honcho on a piano in his office, for his approval. Time and again he didn’t like what he heard and would send “The Boys” (as they were called) back to the drawing board. Eventually this process yielded one of the best scores ever written for a movie musical. One of its haunting waltzes was so good, the boss periodically called The Boys into his office to sing it for him again. It brought tears to his eyes.

It brings tears to mine.

Mary Poppins – the film – is a shining example of a particular process. One sole non-musical pooh-bah thumbing up or down. Walt Disney, rather than the writer or director, shaped the movie: the paragon of this methodology.

Flip forward 40 years: The Disney Corporation had the bright idea of adapting the now-classic cinematic work for the stage. I recently got a chance to see it on Broadway, where it’s in the fifth year of a seemingly endless run. The creators, including an Oscar-winning (and, as of last Sunday, Emmy-winning)screenwriter, faced a significant challenge where, in the original, characters stepped into a cartoon world. (This was quite innovative when it debuted.) The stage musical, using traditional stagecraft, impressively finds a fitting equivalent. A drab set turns around in bursts of color, statues come to life, and there’s effusive dancing all over the stage. It’s a knock-out, with the positive consequence of knocking out memories of the movie for a while.

The second act has the leading man dance 360 degrees around the proscenium, a coup-de-theatre so stunning, everything else pales in comparison. I love that a thrill is provided that has no filmic equivalent. We see the cords holding him up there, we know how it’s done, and it’s still heart-stopping. It hardly matters the character has no real motivation to perform this captivating stunt. 

Clearly, a lot of thought went into these highlights. It’s less clear, though, that the book writer knew what to do with the character of the uninvolved father, Mr. Banks. Much is made of the horrifying nanny he had as a child, and I suspect the creative team (which didn’t include The Boys, though they’re both alive) felt twenty-first century audiences would need an explanation of why he was so cold and distant. As a kid, Mary Poppins was one of the first films I ever experienced, and I needed no such explanation. He just was. Also, a British banker in the Edwardian period treating his family officiously seemed rooted in truth, easy to accept. The emotional arc of the film has to do with Banks learning to be a human being. Early on a big deal is made about whether his son will deposit twopence in the bank, or buy an indigent woman’s bread crumbs to feed birds. It’s a kid-sized struggle between filial duty and the sort of munificence that makes the saints smile. In the film’s finale, the father goes kite-flying with his children, having learned what’s important in life.

In the stage version, there’s no opposition between twopence for charity and twopence for savings. The father doesn’t sing the waltz about kites. As a result, the story has lost a lot of its soul.

Adapting movie musicals to the stage is a tricky business, in part because you’re fighting audience expectations. Mary Poppins is more successful than most. So many of its set-pieces work impressively well. One of the new songs, by Britain’s top team of musical-songsmiths, Stiles and Drewe, holds its own with The Boys’ old score (Practically Perfect, which bears a resemblance to the title song from Thoroughly Modern Millie, another Julie Andrews film that became a hit Broadway musical). Maybe it’s just where my head is these days, but I find the mis-handling of the key emotional element of the father’s conversion like a spoonful of medicine that doesn’t help the sugar go down.

Wait till next year

September 15, 2011

There’s something I do, with some regularity, in the world of musical comedy, that I do very badly.  Demonstrably badly.  With a success rate of zero percent.

The effort drives me crazy, too.  It’s the process of applying for the various grants earmarked for musical theatre writers.  They’re all funded by the estates of deceased musical theatre writers.  As their shows are still performed, those estates all earn more than a million dollars a year.  (None had children.)  So, it’s really a marvelous thing that they’re giving away money to worthy musical theatre writers on a regular basis.

To demonstrate worthiness, writers submit samples of their best work, and it’s here where my madness begins.  What are my eight best lyrics?  Which are my four best songs (music and lyrics)?  What script represents my best libretto-writing?  A smarter writer might come up with the exact same sample year after year, but not me.  I revisit the question, as if the contest were some puzzle that can be solved.  Sometimes, I attempt to inveigle others into helping me with the choosing, because it’s very clear I’m no judge of my own work.

I get desperate for tips, strategies.  A friend who won a few years ago thinks they like to see a bunch of songs from the same project.  I tried that in 1998 and 2006: all the entries came from one score (different shows each year).  Months and months go by, and then you receive a kindly-written notice in the mail, saying they’ve chosen someone else.

This year, I’ve done just the opposite.  Eight songs from eight shows.  I’m trying to demonstrate variety.  There’s a big opening number, a song that defines a character, a comedy song, a very big act one finale, a love song, a comic duet, the prototypical penultimate gospel and a soft kinda pop-py finale.  I don’t think it has much of a chance.

So why do I do it?  Because the awards are so great, it makes no sense not to do it.  I’m compelled.  It’s somewhat like the lottery: you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket.  While the applications take a great deal more work that a lottery purchase at your local bodega, the odds are considerably better.  Sometimes as few as 200 people enter in hopes of a $100,000 prize.  New York’s Numbers can never beat those numbers.

I know a writer who cynically believes that one has to be connected to the BMI workshop to win one of these things.  The lists of winners support his point.  Or one can draw a different conclusion: the best writers today are the ones who’ve honed their skills at BMI.  The entries are always read “blind.”  The judges do not know the names of the authors.

A few years ago, though, a lot of writers were outraged that one lyric-writing prize went to David Lindsay-Abaire, a playwright who’d written exactly one musical, Shrek, which, at that point, was Broadway-bound.  If the judges were aware of this, and the lyrics talked about what it’s like to be an ogre who’s friends with a donkey, it had to be obvious from reading them who the submitter was.

To me, though, the bestowal served as confirmation that the award was going to a good set of lyrics.  After all, these were destined to be heard on Broadway.  More commonly, the victor never makes it to The Street.

When winners are announced, I’ve one of three feelings.  If it’s a songwriter I already admire, I’m glad the foundation has seen fit to reward their artistry.  If it’s some hack whose work I don’t respect, I’m irked.  But that happens very rarely.  And I’m self-aware enough to question whether the deadly sin of envy is influencing my emotion.  Frequently, though, it’s a “Who the hell is that?” reaction, and I must immediately satisfy my intense curiosity about the oeuvre of the unfamiliar name.  I’m never surprised I didn’t win; it’s what I’m used to.

Just the other week, I woke up with a brainstorm: I should include the complex musical scene, Seeing Stars, from Area 51.  The type of number I most enjoy writing is a large ensemble with lots going on, and this is one of those.  Trouble is, this is for a lyric-writing award, and what’s most impressive about it is all the counterpoint.  I’ll score no points for the score.  As I put together the application, I realized I was including a bit of lyric I’ve long thought was a mistake.  That is, after the show finished its run, it struck me that I’d used an image few in the audience can understand

In this part of a song, a sexy Vegas chanteuse has to convince a guy to look through a telescope.  So, she has to make star-gazing sound incredibly enticing:

Seeing stars
Makes you feel
There’s not anything you can’t do
Senses reel
I’m in the mood
Underneath a blanket of blue…
Want to feel like you’re somersaulting?
Check out nature’s barrel vaulting

See my mistake?  I’ve long been a fan of architecture, and here I used an architectural term, “barrel vaulting” that wouldn’t be in the vocabulary of the character singing it, the character listening to her, or, worse still, 98% of the audience.  (A previous post used a photo of some barrel vaulting, coincidentally.)

What to do?  Follow my original instinct and include the song, or go with this smarter thought and replace it with another one?  Today was the deadline, and, basically, I ran out of time.  Couldn’t waste more energy searching for the replacement.  I may have screwed myself.  Won’t know until spring, when the winner is announced.

The sky will still be here

September 9, 2011

Certainly feels obligatory. Across the blogosphere, everywhere you look, there are solemn and sober remembrances of that tragic Tuesday morning ten years ago. This, I can promise you, will be different, since our subject is the creation of musicals.

I was asked, last weekend, how I felt about musicals about the Holocaust. In earshot were friends who were unaware that there have been many shows on that harrowing topic, including one on Broadway last season. It seemed the wrong time to admit that, in college, I’d written one myself. As this was a party, not an academic dissection, I merely mentioned one of my beloved tenets of theatre. “I would never want to see a show that found no place to break out for moments of humor.” The funny people around me nodded their agreement.

That college kid musicalizing Jews hiding from the Nazis thought the same thing then: There’s got to be moments of levity, because life, even at its bleakest, always contains some amount of humor, somewhere. The trouble I have with a lot of today’s musical tragedies is that they never lighten their tone. Relentlessly sad pieces of theatre, therefore, don’t mirror life at all. They’re unreal in their refusal to let in a bit of laughter. That’s not the way humans act. While these shows sell themselves as being “realistic” (as musicals go), nothing could be further from the truth.

Jeffrey Sweet’s think-piece (in Dramatics) about another one of my shows discusses how musicals usually celebrate something, most often a value the audience already holds. That’s not a rule – but when most people think about musicals, they think about singing and dancing that’s joyful, spirits so high they move the characters’ feet. I scratch my head in wonder, sometimes, that so many people choose to write shows on sad subjects: death, cancer, children with cancer, AIDS, drug abuse, suicide, the Holocaust, and, yes, 9/11.

Kevin Scott

You thought I’d never get back to that subject, right? Well, I’ll tell you a funny story. Ten years ago, I was hired by Second City to create the score for a comedy revue. A couple of days after the attack, fearless director Kevin Scott assembled the cast and they talked about being funny in fearful times. They knew they had an audience that was more apt to burst into tears than to crack a smile, yet they took on the Herculean challenge of creating a very funny revue in New York, starting in September of 2001. I believe the show opened in December. It was called We Built This City On Rent Control. Hailed as the first post-9/11 comedy revue, it included a number called Terror Sex, which played with the idea that, in those fraught times, people were abandoning old inhibitions and becoming promiscuous.

Some weeks later, Kevin and I began another Second City project, with a new cast that included the future Broadway star Mary Faber, A Time For Heroes and Hoagies. Emboldened by the successful Rent Control experience, we chose to take the subject head on: The revue kept returning to what was now called Ground Zero. We satirized the various types of people who visited there, early in 2002. I wrote a trio positing that the workers tirelessly sifting through the rubble might be turning on some of those ogling from above. Faber played an old Floridian running off at the mouth about how the anchors on The Today Show reacted that fatal morning while her beleaguered husband sang about the weariness of the overextended tourist. And our finale involved a father dragging a toddler to Ground Zero. “It looks like a big sandbox.” He then struggles to explain why he’s brought her there.

That finale certainly wasn’t a laugh riot, but both shows had a stunning cumulative effect: It provided catharsis, in part by demonstrating to New Yorkers that it was O.K. to laugh again. It felt good, after all the serious speechifying of the time. And the secret of the song’s success was its specificity. The lyric dramatizes the young father’s struggle to find kid-friendly terms, ideas and images, all justifying the visit to Ground Zero. I remember feeling, for years after the attack, a certain umbrage over how the site had become New York’s number one tourist attraction. As a lifelong New Yorker, I take pride in the things the people of Gotham have built: The Chrysler Building, Lincoln Center, The High Line, etc. The World Trade Center was there no more, and it bothered me that this had become tourists’ must-see. I guess one could say I worked out my issue by creating a song about it.

I have a wife

September 3, 2011

If you were to ask me what’s the best thing I’ve ever done, to help myself with this sisyphean career in musical comedy, I’d unhesitatingly say, “Marry Joy Dewing.”

I’m not sure what you, dear reader, can do with this information.  You can’t marry Joy Dewing; I already have.  I suppose you can wait until I’m dead, and then make your move. But now I’ve violated one of the first rules of blogging: Never invite your readership to kill you.

Today is her birthday, but we’re rather more focused on an upcoming birth day, when Joy brings our first child into the world.  But, again, what use is this information to you?

Professionally, it’s a very good idea to get Joy to cast your show.  Her company, Clemmons Dewing Casting, had three shows simultaneously playing on Broadway last season, but is also particularly adept and experienced at casting musicals in earlier stages of development.  The producer of one of my shows has hired her repeatedly, and that’s no quid pro quo: it’s simply because she’s the best casting director around.  And those auditioning actors love her: You rarely hear about actors having a positive experience of casting directors, yet Joy appears to be their favorite.

Surprisingly, when I had a show to cast, Joy handed off the project to a colleague in her office who was more adept at casting the particular kind of show I was doing.  And, before I knew it, we had ten amazing performers, including two Tony nominees, folks I idolized and long wanted to work with.  The dream came true.

In recent days, I found myself telling about a letter she wrote me, early in our relationship, describing a triumphant oral presentation in a college music theory class.  Surrounded by a bunch of hoity-toity classical music snobs, she won the class over, demonstrating various complex compositional techniques playing examples from Broadway musicals.  When I read the letter, I thought to myself that if any of my friends read it, they’d predict this was the woman I’d someday marry.

But the news you can use is, by all means, get to know various compositional techniques.  And here’s the shocker: even if you’re not the composer.  I understand that a lot of people find music complicated and mysterious, but, if you’re in any aspect of the musical theatre creation business, there are things you should know, terms you should be familiar with.  Joy knew them, and she’s not a songwriter.  Similarly, at the beginning of Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary, there’s a long description of poetic forms, and various devices and rhyme schemes. Even if you’re not the lyricist, you should assimilate that.

Have I made it seem like we’re two musical theatre wonks, endlessly dissecting shows? That’s hardly the case, but I’m trying to stick to the subject here. Which is not “how wonderful Joy is.” Although, over the years, her beauty, talent and general way-of-dealing-with-the-world have inspired many a song. One of my favorite songwriting experiences was coming up with special material for her cabaret act, a song full of specific biographical details, I Can Do This. Lyricists often endeavor to use specifics. Fiction is harder than non, and Joy at various ages had done interesting things I could incorporate into the song.

And, of course, no other wife in the world would have agreed to a musical wedding. For the song for my Best Man, I was able to incorporate all sorts of things that have occurred over our three decades of friendship. Joy and I worked on our (sung-through) Vows together, naturally, as well as the lyric to How Could They Have Missed?  I wrote songs for the bridesmaids, the 4-year-old flower girl, all our parents; the hardest one to write was the one for Joy.  The sentiment had to be just right, for the bride’s statement would be the climax of the show.  My first three songs were rejected – they were complex, rambling art-songy things. With the time pressure on, inspired by the Gospel timbres in her voice, I came up with something very simple, This Man Loves Me, and she brought down the house.

Now seems the proper time for a reminder that Our Wedding: The Musical has a CD available for sale at www.WeddingMusical.com.  As it’s not a show that can ever be revived, the only way you can experience it is through the live original cast album, which demonstrates many of the song- and show-writing principles I yammer on about here.  Best of all, you get to hear Joy’s voice.