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.
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.