Quality time

I’ve never been more thrilled to lose a competition.

The other week, a major songwriting prize went to one of my favorite songwriters, Jeff Blumenkrantz.  The week before that, a twenty-something actor, searching for contemporary material, asked me to name a current writer I admired.  You see, he’d heard me disparage quite a few of today’s over-exposed tunesmiths.  Without giving it a moment’s thought, I told him to check out Blumenkrantz.  Which he did; now he’s another fan. 

And, I must say, it feels good to be writing about music I like after the firestorm I set off last week expressing my bewilderment at a certain overdone song. Jeff Blumenkrantz songs deserve to be sung more often, as they’re shining examples of wit, craft, and the effective use of emotion.

Take his most famous song, I Won’t Mind, which has a lyric by Libby Saines and Annie Kessler. Blumenkrantz utilizes what I’d call old American harmonies – a set of sounds that feel like they might have existed in 18th Century Not-Yet-United States. (Whether they actually existed is immaterial; verisimilitude is all.) As the song is addressed to a baby, the melody often trips down the first five notes in the scale, sol-fa-mi-re-do, as a lot of nursery songs do. But these runs run into each other, as unexpected changes in time signature constantly shake things up, mirroring the unpredictability of interacting with a young child.  I could write for reams, but instead I’ll let the song speak for itself.

I’ve always been unable to listen, play or sing I Won’t Mind without crying.

The song became known (to the extent it is) starting with its appearance on Audra McDonald’s second album.  In this and her previous record, the Broadway star did an admirable thing: she chose songs by theatre composers that, really, only insiders knew.  This exposure catapulted four to fame (Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon and Jason Robert Brown), and the press began to write about them as “Sondheim’s children” or “post-modern'” – two terms so woefully inaccurate I could spit.  But that’s a subject for another day.

Blumenkrantz, to my taste, is far superior to the Exalted Four.  Their work often leaves me cold, while Blumenkrantz successfully mines each dramatic situation for maximum emotional power.  His story-song, Toll, has a simple premise, but the lyric reveals an impressive imagination.  He’s clearly given a lot of good thought to the plight of a toll-taker and what might be funny and/or touching about her.  In fact, his ability to wring what seems like every possible good joke out of this topic reminds me of the greatest living lyricist, Sheldon Harnick.  But what knocks me out is his ability to be simultaneously moving and hysterical, as in the line about babies.  You burst out in tears exactly as you burst out in gales of guffaws.

Listening to Blumenkrantz music, you get a sense of what the man’s listened to.  And one certainly suspects he knows his show tunes.  He’s adept with old-timey jazz and razzmatazz.  But hearing his setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems, I get a very strong impression he’s heard plenty of classical music in his life.  And thought about it.  I mean, it’s one thing to have WQXR playing in the background as you floss your teeth; it’s another to really investigate what gives Ravel, Copland and Prokofiev their unique sounds. By sheer coincidence I found the first video, an arrangement for voice, piano, cello and clarinet, while I was working on a piece for the exact same combination.  And my hat’s off to the superior composer and orchestrator.

So many other songwriters today sound as if they’ve only listened to pop songs.  And you know who else has usually only listened to pop songs?  Pop writers you can hear on any radio station (but WQXR).  In order to write for the theatre, it’s important to have a wide variety of influences and observations of various compositional techniques.  Just knowing rock is not enough, if you’re ever going to be able to delineate a variety of characters and dramatic situations.

Lyrically, I keep hearing young writers straining to appear wise and profound, as if profundity is what an audience is looking for in a song.  Seems to me the Jeff Blumenkrantz forays into poetry settings have taught him the power of a single well-chosen word, such as “trick” and “chump” in Hold My Hand – tiny bits that make your heart explode.  The audience immediately cares, passionately and compassionately, for the character singing, in part because he’s opted to use such a heartbreaking locution.  And that’s a sign of exquisite craft.

For five or six years, I feel I’ve learned more from Jeff Blumenkrantz about writing musical theatre than any other source.  In the relatively new field of podcasting, he’s contributed hours of songs and interviews with top performers and other writers.  And whenever I play his sheet music (I had a devil of a time learning My Book – another story for another day), it’s a lesson in the interplay of harmonies, the voicing of chords, the skill of writing for the voice, etc.  The panel giving the recent award got it right: this guy’s the master.  And I hope I’m the best of the rest and can win it next year.

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