I can’t marry you

October 30, 2011

Perhaps the most popular comedy song of the twenty-first century, Shiksa Goddess, by Jason Robert Brown, is a puzzlement to me. I don’t find it effective or amusing. It doesn’t offend me, although it could be considered offensive to Jewish women. I figure if I detail my reactions to the song, perhaps the analysis will help define what a comedy song should and shouldn’t do. Or maybe you can tell me why the song tickles you.

It’s the first time we meet the character of Jamie in The Last Five Years. In the previous number we’ve heard about Jamie: he’s broken the heart of a woman of Irish descent. (We know of her Irishness from an otherwise pointless musical interlude, referencing The Emerald Isle, in the middle of her self-pitying ballad) and he’s been clearly defined as a callous asshole. As this is a two-character musical, the fellow entering can only be Jamie, so we’re predisposed to hate him.

But lively Latin music strikes up. So Jamie must be hispanic. On comes a charming young man,

your Hebrew slave

Norbert Leo Butz. But he’s not hispanic. He doesn’t appear to be Jewish, either. You might assume, at this point, that I’m inexplicably obsessed with ethnic identification. Don’t blame me. The music and lyrics are sending strong signals, ordering the audience to think about these things. The previous song was a depressing dirge about a depressed person that broke off to play an Irish jig. That’s such a curious thing to do, we need to understand the rationale. Now comes a cheerful salsa beat and the lyric refers to some difficulty about a Jewish man dating a Christian girl. Why the Spanish music? Is Jamie supposed to be Sephardic (Jewish, but from Spain or Portugal)? Why the non-Jewish actor?

I’ll admit that casting a character who’s specifically written as Jewish can be a tricky proposition. I’ve been there before, and opted for a wonderful actor who’s “only” half-Jewish. (This year, he became an award-winning playwright.) But let’s face it: in a 200-seat house, perception matters.

I’m breaking my mother’s heart.

The longer I stand looking at you,

The more I hear it splinter and crack

OK, so this might seem to support the idea that Jamie is an asshole – here, to his mother. And we wonder, at this point, what Mommy could disapprove of.

 The J.C.C. of Spring Valley is shaking

And crumbling to the ground,

And my grandfather’s rolling,

Rolling in his grave.

Now we have a clue but I wonder what percentage of the audience gets it. Is J.C.C. a commonly-known abbreviation? And where’s Spring Valley? In an arch way, the lyricist is talking in code, a code far more likely to be understood by Jews and those aware of New York City suburbs.

A critic once said of one of my shows that I was writing for an audience that understands cultural references from 60 years ago. Guilty as charged, I’m concentrating on this problem in writing lyrics for another show set in the same era. Jason Robert Brown, here, seems content to alienate the non-Jewish, non-New York area part of his audience by making references they do not understand.

But I was one of the lucky ones who knew J.C.C. stands for Jewish Community Center and Spring Valley is in nearby Rockland County, not far from where my grandfather lived. So, I deduce, there’s a Jewish community there who might be upset that Jamie’s dating this girl.

If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter.

If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.

If you came from Spain or Japan

Or the back of a van –

These things would matter to a lot of people, and their families, but not Jamie. He’d happily accept a whole host of quirks, but then comes a qualifier:

 Just as long as you’re not from Hebrew school –

Am I interpreting this right? Jamie’s O.K. with bald chicks but not Jewish girls? Clearly, this is supposed to be funny, but I’m taken back to the first line. The character seems gleeful about breaking his mother’s heart. And all theses “ifs” are describing what the object of his affection isn’t, not what she is. The “ifs” lead to an expectation that we’re going to get to a “but” or the end of some syllogism. O.K., I can be patient.

I’d say “Now I’m getting somewhere!

I’m finally breaking through!”

I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!

I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

That’s how the verse concludes. And I’m mystified as to what all those “ifs” were about. He’s barely said anything about what Cathy is, just that title. So let’s consider that:

Shiksa” is a word some Jews use to describe a woman who isn’t Jewish. It is considered mildly derisive. Of course, “Goddess” makes up for that. The two-word phrase might be used for someone like Miss America, a beauty who, from the looks of her, clearly isn’t Jewish. So Cathy fits into a cliché; is telling her this, using this phrase, supposed to be some sort of a compliment?

I know, I know: it’s a comedy song. And maybe Jamie’s so smitten, he’s not making sense, but it’s leading to one very confused audience member. If Jamie’s been waiting for a great goy girl; did he go on Non-J-Date?

I’ve been waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss
And the Handelman twins.
I’ve been waiting through Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus,
Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz.
And Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein.
I’ve had Shabbas dinners on Friday nights
With every Shapiro in Washington Heights

Ouch, this makes me wince. These previous dates he’s “waited” through all have stereotypical Jewish names. And that’s what’s supposed to be funny about this passage. He doesn’t say anything about them, just that two of them were twins. We all know the Anti-Defamation League has made a stink over less. The impression is left that Jamie didn’t like any of these ladies because of their ethnicity. Therefore, it seems he likes Cathy because she’s not of his faith. If I were Cathy, I’d slap him. There’s gotta be more to Cathy than her religious affiliation, no?

But the minute I first met you 
I could barely catch my breath.

I’ve been standing for days with the phone in my hand,
 like an idiot, scared to death.

At last, something positive about his feelings for the person he’s singing to. Kinda.

I’ve been wand’ring through the desert!
I’ve been beaten, I’ve been hit!
My people have suffered for thousands of years
And I don’t give a shit!

Here’s some fun references to Jewish history; appreciate the effort to be clever. There’s an implication here that I think we’re supposed to ignore: that if he ends up with Christian Cathy it will add to the suffering of the long-suffering Chosen People.

So let’s ignore that.

If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.
If you once were in jail or you once were a man,
If your mother and your brother had “relations” with each other
And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,
I’d say, “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
It’s tragic but it’s true.
I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

So we’re back to listing “ifs” and it’s a fine, fun list but it still doesn’t logically lead to anything. Cathy assumedly doesn’t fit any of the “if” descriptions, but if she did, Jamie’d utter the same concluding sorta compliment.

You, breaking the circle

I have no idea what that means. The music, here, is gentler, more romantic, so maybe it’s a good thing. If I had time to think about it, which I don’t, I might conclude that there’s a circle involved in continuing the tradition of marrying within one’s religion.

You, taking the light.

I put a similar line in a lyric, once, “The way your features capture the light” which was specific and clear; Brown’s more nebulous.

You are the story I should write –
I have to write!

This is a double-edged sword. I admire John Guare’s lyric for a love song called Symphony – “I’m planning to write a very good book. Would you mind if the heroine is very much like you?” There’s an out-of-the-ordinary honor in putting a loved one in a work of art. (It’s why I’m so moved by Sondheim’s line “Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.“) The other side of the sword is that there’s a popular philosophical metaphor that we all write the stories of our own lives, if we’re fully in control, as we should be. Jamie’s plan (threat?) to write Cathy’s story implies he wants to control her.

But time out for some praise: the groove of the music is catchy and lively and I do think there’s something interesting afoot.  It would seem that the plot of The Last Five Years is going to involve two significant perils to the central romance: the fact that they come from two different religious backgrounds, and this potential problem that he has some desire to control her. Those reading this who’ve seen the whole show (I’ve seen it twice) can answer whether the writing follows through with these particular plot knots.

I don’t want to open the can of worms of how I feel about The Last Five Years as a whole, but I’ll tell you what I was feeling at this point in the show: dread. It’s a two-character musical, and after each character has a solo I wasn’t looking forward to a love story involving a complaining, self-pitying doormat and an asshole who disses his mom and enthuses over a woman’s non-Jewishness.

If you drove an R.V., that wouldn’t matter!
If you like to drink blood, I think it’s cute.
If you’ve got a powerful connection to your firearm collection,
I say, Draw a bead and shoot!
I’m your Hebrew slave, at your service!
Just tell me what to do!
I say, Hey hey hey hey!
I’ve been waiting for someone,
I’ve been praying for someone,
I think that I could be in love with someone
Like you!

I know I’m being far too literal here. It’s a comedy song: I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But at the start of a show, I need to learn a lot about the characters, and all I know is that Jamie has had a long-held fetish for Christians. Weird stuff like that can make for a funny song.

But the songwriter has left out the jokes. Humor is obviously in the funny bone of the beholder. Maybe the song’s countless fans are finding stuff to laugh at in this lyric. I see nothing laughable, and only a few things that provoke a smile. And, really, I’m the ideal audience for this song. Born Jewish in New York, dated Christians and Jews, ending up marrying a Catholic. My life experience is close enough to Jamie’s for me to get everything, and yet I don’t get any of it. Can anyone help a brother out?


How to be happy

October 24, 2011

I’ve been really good so far about getting a new post up every five or six days, but life’s a little complicated right now, so I refer you to:



Talk amongst yourselves.

If you got faith

October 18, 2011

At the risk of damaging my reputation for being hard to please, I must add my voice to the chorus of approval for this year’s best Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon.  If Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive today, and teamed with some hysterically wacky librettist (I don’t know – Larry Gelbart?), they’d have written The Book of Mormon.  And then they’d have another huge hit, the one show every visitor to New York is dying to see.

Prodigious jokesters Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Bobby Lopez clearly know and love the great musicals – especially Rodgers and Hammerstein – and their show is liberally peppered with references that work on various levels.  Some are obvious; some are so hidden they go unnoticed by 99% of the audience.  The most noticeable parody is that of The Lion King.  The famous opening wail is used, in costume, for a short joke.  Better is the spoof of Hakuna Matata, The Lion King‘s annoyingly repetitious phrase that, in the grand Disney tradition of nonsense words, gets defined and celebrated.  Then, on a larger structural level, The Book of Mormon models itself on the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition of cultural clash.  Like the Welsh schoolmarm confronting a third world potentate in The King and I, we follow well-meaning Utahans to Uganda, and the two sides learn from each other.  Key in the plot of both is a public amateur performance by the non-Westerners, a fun-house mirror of a familiar Western style of show.  This strikes me as neither a steal from The King and I nor a lampoon of The King and I.  It’s funny, and furthers the narrative: Evidence, then, of a lesson learned from The King and I.

It seems we stood and talked like this before.  Have I repeated myself too much? Know your Rodgers and HammersteinWould an aspiring playwright not have studied Shakespeare?

Yikes!  Got on my high horse there for a moment.  Whoa.  Dismount.

There’s another kind of reference that most of The Book of Mormon‘s audience won’t get – an Easter egg, if you will.  These are the subtle nods to songs from musicals such as the opening number’s use of a lyrical device found in Bock and Harnick’s Sounds While Selling from She Loves Me.  In effect, these are sly winks to the insider, but I take it as another indication that Lopez, Parker and Stone know their stuff.  My guess is that the long recitative-like verse of I Believe began as a parody of the long recitative-like beginning of Richard Rodgers’ I Have Confidence.  Book-wise, the characters are in similar situations, steeling their nerves, reconfirming their faith-based assurance that they can succeed.  Musically, the songs both utilize the high-low tinkly octaves on eighth notes I used to begin Such Good Friends.  Lyrically, there’s a direct quote, “What’s so fearsome about that?”  The result is a song that’s hysterical on its own terms.  Andrew Rannells gets gales of laughter, and hardly anyone recognizes they’ve heard much of the song before.

Now you know.

Subtle are the differences between an homage and a steal.  I Believe succeeds, but not due to its antecedent.  The song, and the whole show, work so well because the authors understand the genre, and, when needed, they model moments on effective bits of other musicals.

Wedding song

October 12, 2011

Wedding anniversary today. Which means it’s also the anniversary of my best-loved musical, Our Wedding.

Yes, Our Wedding was a musical comedy, performed in a New York theatre, with songs for the bride and groom, preacher (with his gospel choir), best man, bridesmaids, four-year-old flower girl, and our parents. “Your parents?” I hear you ask, for this, indeed, is the most frequently asked question; “How’d you get them to do that?” 

Our folks are not performers; they don’t crave the spotlight. So, getting them to appear in Our Wedding – The Musical was something of a stretch.  Divorced decades ago, they were not in regular communication with each other, which we used to our advantage. The first conversation may have gone something like this:

“We want you, Mom, and Joy’s parents to perform on stage in the wedding, doing numbers I’ll tailor specifically for you and what you can do.”

“But I can’t possibly stand up in front of all those people, and sing: I don’t sing! You’ll have to do it without me.”

“You’ll be conspicuous in your absence, because Mom, and Joy’s parents have already said ‘yes.'”

“They have? Oh, well, I guess I can try.”

It was a little white lie we had to repeat:

“We want you, Daddy and Noel’s parents to perform on stage in the wedding, doing numbers tailored specifically for you and what you can do.”

“But I can’t possibly stand up in front of all those people, and sing: I don’t sing! You’ll have to do it without me.”

“You’ll be conspicuous in your absence, because Daddy, and Noel’s parents have already said ‘yes.'”

“They have? Oh, well, I guess I can try.”

And so on, till all had agreed.

They soon discovered I wasn’t lying about the specific tailoring to their strengths.  Or, as they saw it, their weaknesses.  I’m reminded of the legendary story of how Rosalind Russell told Comden and Green she had a vocal range that goes from A to B and needed a number that goes “Duh-da, duh-da, duh-da joke; duh-da, duh-da, duh-da joke” so they wrote her one of the great comedy songs of all time, 100 Easy Ways To Lose a Man from Wonderful Town.

It’s at 9:20 in this video.

So, I wrote my father a sentimental waltz with limited range, our mothers a comedy duet that capitalized on their physical differences, and my father-in-law – well, I knew he was a big fan of The Moody Blues, so I set out to use a classic rock style.

One of the challenges of Our Wedding: The Musical was the fact that so many cast members (of the wedding) lived in far-off locales.  One bridesmaid, and the preacher, lived in New York, like us, but everyone else flew in a couple of days before the wedding from all parts of the country.  So, we could only rehearse, together, the day before and the day of the big show.  Everybody was sent a recording of their music, and all went about learning it in different ways.  In Phoenix, Arizona, Joy’s father went the extra mile and actually hired a vocal coach.  It was that important to him, that he sound good in front of a New York audience.  And he found that he enjoyed singing lessons so much, he said he’d continue them after the wedding, maybe record a few songs.

You might not believe it, but his newly-kindled interest in singing moved me more than any other aspect of our wedding.  It revealed an unintended consequence of forcing friends and family to perform in a musical: they had to walk in our shoes, for a while, and everybody learned more about the process of putting on a show.  Sometimes it seems to me that my wife and I both have careers in musical theatre that few outsiders can comprehend.  Those close relatives who performed on stage with us grew closer to us by sharing an experience that isn’t often shared.  And Randy Dewing’s desire to continue with singing communicated his appreciation of the process better than the words “That was fun; I’m glad you forced me to participate.”

Speaking of outsiders not understanding, I’m often surprised when people ask if the show will ever be performed again.  Do people have a second wedding to each other, repeating everything that happened in the first ceremony?  What an odd question, but I guess it often comes from those who wished they were there to see it.  (You can content yourself with the live original cast album, just $20, free shipping in the USA.)  And how could we ever assemble that cast again?  Force them to fly from all over?  And is a 12-year-old Flower Girl ever as cute as a 4-year-old Flower Girl?

The wedding musical, like any marriage ceremony, is frozen in time, a wonderful memory.  Years go by, and, inevitably, people grow old and die.  This is the first year in which our anniversary is celebrated with one original cast member gone.  And I keep seeing his adorable performance of that Moody Blues-ish song, endearing and funny, and hope he’s pursuing great voice lessons in the sky.

Carnival time

October 6, 2011

I can’t help noticing, from the tremendous onslaught on my electronic and snail mailboxes, that The New York Musical Festival is on again.  To paraphrase Chico Escuela: “NYMF been berry, berry good to me.”  It was four years ago – already! – that I had my greatest artistic success there, Marc Bruni’s shattering staging of Such Good Friends, which won all sorts of awards it couldn’t have won if not for NYMF.  Like a certain guy I went to college with, NYMF is best appreciated by considering what life would be like if it weren’t there.

NYMF began in 2004, so it’s not hard to recall the NYMF-free environment.  Dozens and dozens of new musicals played various venues, hoping to attract the interest of big-time producers, theatres and media.  Roughly 99% didn’t succeed in that goal of attention-grabbing and the reasons why are legion.  Let’s say you’re the Arts Editor of a newspaper and realize it’s been a while since you printed anything about a new musical.  Where to send a reporter or critic?  Well, there are a zillion postcards in your in-box and you’ve no time to go through them, so you send her to Elton John’s latest Broadway effort.  Or, say you’re an Artistic Director, and figure your theatre might want to do a new musical.  How will you choose among the postcards?  Some have wacky titles, or good graphics, but you’re a busy fellow and it’s hard to know which tuner to invest time in.  What show is worth your while?

Possibly, you’d flip through the cards to see if you spot a name you know.  If Terrence Mann and Kerry Butler are in a new musical, that would be one worth seeing, just for them.  Many of the musicals are self-produced or self-funded, so there’s no imprimatur saying they’re accomplished enough to deserve to be seen.  And you’re reading that newspaper where the damn Arts Editor has one “new musical” article and it’s about Elton John’s latest foray.  Might as well stay home.

New York is a loud and over-crowded marketplace.  If a hundred new shows are screaming to get noticed every year, well, that’s a lot of noise.  Are you going to scream louder than others?  Or, put less metaphorically, are you willing to shell out a couple of thousand to a publicist to get butts in your seats?  And let’s talk about the other costs.  Renting a theatre, and rehearsal space – extremely costly.  The Actors’ union is going to put you through hoops.  You’ll have to buy insurance, pay off the fire department, a trucker who’ll take your set away to a junkyard when it’s all done, and don’t forget the special lights you’ll have to rent.  All of this to put on a show those Arts Editors and Artistic Directors will likely opt not to see.

A group of young musical theatre people sat together and discussed the above.  It’s awfully hard for a musical writer to get her work seen.  What could be done?  They came up with the idea of a festival of new works, somewhat modeled on Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. Here are the basics:

  • NYMF would rent suitably-sized theatres in the Hell’s Kitchen area.
  • Into each theatre, they’d pack as many different shows as possible.  One show might play at one o’clock, another at 4:30, 8:00, midnight, etc.  Ergo, the shows would have to be compact, able to load out and load in quickly, with very limited space to store sets and props.
  • That special lighting fixture?  If six shows are sharing it, they’d each pay one sixth of the cost.
  • A special arrangement with the Actors’ union allows its membership to participate for a tiny fee.
  • Other unions, and designers, agreed to take the same tiny fee for their work.  (This is the so-called “Favored Nations” thing.)
  • Major Broadway stars could be coaxed to lend their talents, for the sake of new musicals in general, knowing that there’s a limited time commitment
  • A Blue Ribbon Panel of readers would pore over submitted scripts, hopefully ensuring that the best possible musicals, ones that are ready to be seen, fill the stages
  • The festival would handle publicity, ticketing, advertising and insurance.

One general principle should be emphasized: If you band together, as producers, you’re then a bigger consumer, and can haggle for a better price.  One show renting a light fixture won’t have the same economic clout as six shows sharing it.

Now that Arts Editor has something to cover!  What’s more, all NYMF shows generally get several reviews.  It was quite a thrill for me to get raves from Peter Filichia, Michael Dale, Lisa Jo Sagolla and others.  And a remarkable number of well-known Broadway veterans do these shows.  Indeed, I saw Terrence Mann and Kerry Butler in the hysterical Party Come Here.  But it’s not just “name” actors who get theatrical powers-that-be to come.  Being accepted into NYMF means that your show has been approved by that Blue Ribbon Panel (and NYMF publicizes the names, usually Tony-winners).  So, the postcard with the NYMF logo does carry a certain imprimatur.

I won’t bore you with specifics, but economics of the Bulk Buying and Favored Nations does result in shows being half as expensive to produce as they’d be outside of NYMF.

And yes, of course, there are problems.  But the good news is, they’re always seeking to improve.  I once sent them a detailed set of suggestions, and they responded appreciatively and then instituted some of the proffered alterations.  Someday, I might devote a post or two to how NYMF could do things better, but, here in their first week of their eighth season, this is not the time.

I just said “The good news is…” and let me take that back.  The real good news is that NYMF exists, providing a showplace for new musicals.  I wish every city had a new musical festival (Los Angeles, to the dismay of many, tried to copy NYMF but presented a majority of old – that is, previously produced – musicals.)  NYMF is one of the best options you have for getting your work out there.  I recommend it.  And, by all means, attend!  The more new shows you see, the more you learn.  And, the more you get entertained.

The day we started our company

October 1, 2011

One year ago this blog began, and I suppose, this must precipitate some reflection on the experience.

Jonathan Larson’s story-song, Why? (better known, perhaps, as Hey, What a Way To Spend the Day) climaxes with a vow to devote a life to musical theatre. I’ve long defined a good day as one filled with musical-related activities, and, in a way, this blog counts as one. For years, though, I kept a diary listing daily progress on getting my shows written and performed. The only point to it was to prove to myself that I’d inched forward, a bit, every day. The inherent tragicomedy was that many days would involve something laughably small, like the substitution of a single adverb for another. On this blog, new entries show up every five or six days. Though less than a thousand words, they take time to write, and even more time to come up with the pictures and their accompanying “Easter egg” videos. So, the past year has included much endeavor on this site.

But (if I were still keeping that diary), should the blog-work be counted as progress? What about accompanying a performance class? How should one define accomplishments? It’s tempting to categorize blogging as a waste of time, a distraction from the true calling of creating musicals. It’s also tempting to do just the opposite and say, well, although I didn’t do any writing or revising of my musical, I found a funny video for my blog and that’s something. Nettlesome are the ways we justify inaction.

The progress on a project is an obsession with me, and I’m perennially displeased by how it’s going. The blog becomes a scapegoat, a focal point for my anger at myself.  “I’d have this show done by now if I wasn’t futzing around with that stupid blog!”  But the reality of my time management issues has been pointed out to me thusly: long before the blog, a similar amount of time was consumed posting various musings on various musicals to various newsgroups. For good or ill, it’s a thing I do. Here on the blog, a year’s worth of thoughts are gathered in one place, illustrated with pictures, videos and audio.

The thing that’s preferable about newsgroups is that you’re entering into a conversation. Others, from all walks of life, will respond with their own opinions. There can be arguments.  The good kind.  But also the bad kind: my soberly-stated views on shows have engendered word wars in which strangers say all sorts of awful things about me. One obnoxious character reveled in spreading lies about me on well over 100 occasions. In a strange way, it felt like I was reliving my tweens, when bullies would beat me up every day after school. Got to adulthood, the internet gets invented, and I battled a bully ten years my senior, electronically. Plus ca change…

But the disappointing difference about blogging, at least so far, is that it’s not a dialogue; it’s a monologue.  I pontificate about various things, and while there are occasional comments, this never feels like a conventional hall where various views are being expressed.  Perhaps, when more people read and comment, this can become such a forum.

Another scenario is occurring frequently this autumn.  If I’m diligently struggling to complete a massive project, it can be annoying to have to put it aside for a while just because it’s time for another post here. As it happens, nowadays I’m hurling notes on staves at a dizzying pace, orchestrating an old show of mine for an upcoming production. Doing this involves my MIDI keyboard, which doesn’t travel from my desk. So the blogging gets done in between rehearsal or classes.  Seems like every waking moment is devoted to musical theatre.

Hey: What a way to spend the day.