Only me

December 27, 2011

At the risk of sounding egotistical… 

Often, on this blog, I’ve illustrated writing principles by drawing on examples from real musicals.  From time to time, I’ve been unable to name certain shows, because they’re examples of what not to do and I don’t want to upset people I know who were involved with the show.  For an unusually long period of time, now, out of necessity, I’ve not been attending theatre.  The exception is the new production of my musical, The Christmas Bride and so, while it’s the freshest thing on my mind, I thought I’d describe some of the things we did, in the writing, to make it an effective and moving stage experience.

If I were in a self-flagellating mood, I’d spell out what we did wrong.  Then, I’d seem modest or self-deprecating.  But damn, those standing ovations are still ringing in my ears, so:

Music: Cohesive and Memorable

People hummed my melodies on the way out of the theatre, and kept humming them days later.  What accounts for that?

One thing is the simplicity of the tunes themselves.  There aren’t any dissonances, or particularly surprising intervals or rhythms.  They go where you expect them to go, so, if you’re attempting to recall them later, it’s not a question of remembering a bunch of jagged turns of phrase.

Some of the songs that are built on very simple motifs are enlivened by changing key for almost every section, a trick that adds interest but doesn’t get in the way of memory at all.

Then, there’s the traditional use of reprises.  The Act One ballad Keep Her Well, with its misdirected romanticism, returns in Act Two as a prayer – that is, literally directed towards God in a church – for four other characters.  The hero’s passionate imploration to Take a Gamble returns when he exhorts a drunken jailer to roll dice for his freedom.  And so on.

But there’s also something we might as well call embedded repetition, where a section of one tune is used again as a section of another.  In a trio towards the end of the show, the heroine sings a bit of her I Want song, Fluttering.  The much-used minor descent of the act one finale is restated in a major key when, later, the lovers recall what they felt that night.  And a phrase the leading lady uses to argue fidelity to home is then used by her sister, to argue the same thing to her: a musical equivalent of using one’s own words against one.

(There’s an example of embedded repetition in Sondheim: the more willy-nilly recapitulation of song sections in Merrily We Roll Along.) 

Plus – and, in retrospect, this is hard to believe – in my youth I had the idea than an entire score could stem from a single chord.  In the case of The Christmas Bride, I often came back to a suspended chord – one that uses the fourth instead of the third.  It creates a pleasant tension when resolved.  (I’d learned this as a teen, from, of all unrelated things, The Who’s Pinball Wizard.) By utilizing this harmonic tool again and again, some of the score instantly feels familiar to the listener; indeed, they’ve heard the resolution earlier in the score.

I’m not saying any of these devices is particularly brilliant, just that they help the audience to take in a lot of new music, and hum it on their way home from the theatre.

“Heavy Rhyming Is Not Cleverness”

In lyric-writing, I tend to worry a lot about my propensity to rhyme too cleverly and too often.  For the first of my shows I saw produced, Murder at the Savoy (then called Pulley of the Yard), I had a good excuse for verbal pyrotechnics: the piece was set backstage at a Gilbert & Sullivan company, and the entire show was written in G & S style.  But The Christmas Bride is populated by unsophisticated country folk, out of whose mouths dazzling verbiage would not naturally flow.  So I tried to tone down the cleverness.

And cleverness was a subject discussed in my exchange of letters with Stephen Sondheim.  The man who wrote “such lovely Blue Danube-y music, how can you be still?” told me “heavy rhyming is not cleverness” so of course I felt I’d failed to tone down the wordplay sufficiency.  A few years later, MK Wolfe and I embarked on a revision, and some of the new characters were to be big city quick-talkers we wanted to contrast with the rural yokels.  Two minor characters – a dishonest stevedore and a casino croupier – would be given parts of songs.  For them, at last, I felt I could create intricate rhymes.  The device jibed with what the inveigling the characters were doing in song.

Here’s the lying longshoreman:

I KNOW A CRONE, MRS. HAYES
WHO’S IN NEED OF A HELPER
SHE’S ALONE, BUT SHE PAYS
OH, INDEED, PRETTY WELL PER
DAY – A FRIEND OF THE AUNT
OF THE WIFE OF MY COUSIN
AND I’LL TELL YOU WHERE SHE LIVES…
FIRST TRAVEL EAST, LEAVE THE DOCKS
TILL YOU COME TO A COURT
THEN GO AT LEAST TWENTY BLOCKS
SHE’S AT NUMBER SIX-FORT-
Y ON A ROAD THEY CALL UTOPIA

I’m proud of the internal rhymes you don’t hear every day, ones that use the first syllables of two-syllable words like “forty” and “number” – common words not commonly rhymed.  It’s intended to have a dizzying effect, for The Christmas Bride herself is fooled by this flim-flam.

The leading man gets convinced to try his hand at roulette in a lightning-speed patter:

STEP RIGHT UP,  BET A SHILLING
TAKE A TURN, AIN’T YOU WILLING?
BETTER AMBLE OVER HERE
AND LEARN YOUR FATE
AT THE LATEST THING FROM FRANCE
TAKE A TRY, MAKE A KILLING
AT ROULETTE, AIN’T IT THRILLING?
TAKE A GAMBLE, GATHER NEAR
AND BET A CROWN
PUT IT DOWN AND TAKE A CHANCE

Scammers are clever, and the abundant rhymes serve the purpose of taking the lead characters in, and all of us in the audience as well.

The Most Dickensian Story Dickens Never Wrote

If you read the fine print, you discover that The Christmas Bride is based on an unheralded novella by Charles Dickens called The Battle of Life.  If you see our musical first, and then read the story, you’re bound for disappointment.  The Dickens tale is notably lacking in plot.  Too little happens – that is, too little to provide the story of a musical.  So MK Wolfe took in the tropes readers have always associated with Dickens and created a new plot filled with melodramatic incident, chance meetings, duals, deceptions and desertion.  It feels very much like Dickens, but the reality is, it’s the creation of Wolfe alone.

As the musical evolved, we’d be asked what the show is about, thematically .  Usually the questioner was director Al D’Andrea, who took a Jerome Robbins-like interest in making sure the libretto was shaped for optimal emotional power.  MK Wolfe had various ideas about love, duty and family that she hoped to illustrate.  The story needed to be fashioned and refashioned, run by audiences to see what was landing (we held many readings to this purpose) and eventually much of what had once been expressed in speeches came out through the machinations of plot.  The audiences in Maine had tears in their eyes.  I daresay they were far more impressed with The Christmas Bride than they’d been with The Marvelous Wonderettes the month before, because here was a show that abounded in melody, reveled in wit, and touched the heart.

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A girl like that

December 21, 2011

You can start kicking yourself now.

Those of you who found yourselves unable to make it to Portland to see The Christmas Bride missed a fantastic, moving production, directed with pace and acumen by Al D’Andrea.  Of course, you can consider the source and assume I’m biased because I wrote the lyrics, music and the fantastically effective new orchestration.  But I pity the fools who recently sought good musical theatre in its traditional breeding ground, New York, New York.

(You might have been stuck at Bonnie and Clyde, Lysistrata Jones or the wacked-out overhaul of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.) This past week, a well-wrought show’s shooting stars fell plainly on the Maine.

Let’s start with the girl of the title.  Marissa Sheltra is an ingenue with such spine, you can’t help instantly falling in love with her (just like most of the male characters).  She’s got such life to her, such a way with MK Wolfe’s dialogue, that you look forward to seeing what will happen with her in each scene.  And care what’s going to happen to her, which is the most important thing of all.  (Many a troubled tuner is brought down by the audience not caring about people’s plights.) Feisty and fun, rarely at rest, the performance has a wondrous arc to it, as Sheltra’s physicality evolves from the girlishness of the first scenes to the assertiveness that blooms at the piece’s climax.

The men who love her include Brian McAloon, who undergoes a different maturing process, coming to take responsibility for the first time in his life. His face conveys swagger, boasts, the inexorable pull of a gambling addiction, lust and the sort of love that understands the importance of commitment.  His dulcet baritone combines beautifully on his duets with Sheltra, blending – never overpowering, and also with romantic rival Fran Page.  In previous productions, the character of Alfred Heathfield felt a bit too bumpkin-like to be true.  But you might say Page wrote the book on how to play this comically earnest bumbler.  The audience cares about him as never before.

Brian McAloon, David Arthur Bachrach/Photo by Michael Eric Berube

Besides the fascination of seeing characters evolve, there’s also the tour-de-force of seeing actors play more than one character.  Bill Vaughan plays twin brothers: one who’s mild-mannered and avuncular, the other evil, powerful and charming.  MK Wolfe’s script has fun with the two characters appearing in the same scene, seconds apart.  This is quite a quick-change trick but here the characters were so distinct, I don’t think anyone in the audience knew they were the same actor.  In fact, an audience member was heard to complain that it was unfair the policemen didn’t get a curtain call.  David Arthur Bachrach’s characters don’t appear so close together in time, but he transformed himself from an upright fuddy-duddy to a (literally) twisted drunken lech.  Intelligence poured out of him as one character, while as the other, you could constantly see the wheels in his head rolling, trying to figure things out.

So of course I eavesdropped on the audience at the three sold-out performances I was able to attend.  At the end of Act One, someone exclaimed “What’s going to happen next?” This thrilled me, because keeping the audience guessing, and caring, is the high watermark of theatre.  You have to get them to ask questions, and here some stranger was articulating suspense out loud.  People loved the singing, and I take particular pride in their enjoyment of my new orchestrations.  There are many songs in The Christmas Bride, and I managed to give each a distinct sonic color.

Brian McAloon, Marissa Sheltra, Bill Vaughan/Photo by Michael Eric Berube

Like a very large percentage of my musicals, the production turned a profit.  I met people who’d flown up to see it from New York and Connecticut – three states away, if I’ve read my map right.  But you who didn’t make it are saddled with the regret of missing it.  So, get The Christmas Bride to a theatre near you by convincing local powers-that-be audiences crave a rapturous Dickensian romance.  And, certainly, don’t take my word for it; click here to read the review in Portland’s largest newspaper.

Portland Press Herald


The greatest lover

December 15, 2011

Savings bonds, they used to say, are the gifts that keep on giving.  If you write them well enough, too, musicals keep on giving – giving you the joy of being a writer whose work is performed more than once.

But not always: a topical revue, such as On the Brink, can’t really have a second life because it requires an audience familiar with then-current events that have since been forgotten (the novelty of banking on a home computer, Sean Penn marrying Madonna, etc.).  One of my musicals is based on a book and we got the rights to perform it once, but never again.  And the annual Varsity Show at Columbia can’t get done again because each year brings new students creating their own original.

So, how excited am I to be traveling to Portland to see a new production of The Christmas Bride It’s like a reunion with a long-lost love; nay: a booty call.  It’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen my rapturous Bride and the cast contains two people I’ve not seen in over a decade as well.  It’ll be fascinating to see how audiences in 2011 react to the show MK Wolfe and I wrote way back in 1988,  And it’s also the first time I’ll be present for a New England performance of my work.  What will the princes and princesses of Maine think of it?  I’m from New York, where cynicism abounds.  Will this venue accept The Christmas Bride’s unabashed romanticism?  I can’t say I know anything about Portlanders, and I’ve spoken before of the importance of knowing one’s audience.  In a “Critic’s Pick” review in Backstage, I was praised for fashioning an entertainment for urbane intelligentsia.  Fortunately, that was in a different show.

Of course, I’ve changed.  I don’t recall considering the levels of passion and melodrama our original New York audience was likely to embrace.  I do remember a friend of mine was so excited by Alone in the Night, he bounced up and down in his chair, causing a stranger in front of him to turn around and whisper “Simmer down!” to his great surprise and embarrassment.

But his was an honest reaction.  So, too, was the reaction of Stephen Sondheim, who sent off a donation, unbidden, to the producing theatre company, and exchanged letters with me offering encouragement and sage advice.  I picture him there, in the audience of our little theatre, and how we succeeded in looking nonchalant and avoiding staring at him: a celebrity treated just like anyone else.  Years later, I invited another famous composer-lyricist to another show of mine, and he demurred:

I generally don’t go see people’s stuff in settings like this – it’s too distracting trying to determine what would work if the production were better or the actors knew their lines or the chair I was in were more comfortable, and meanwhile the actors are all watching me to see if I laughed.

Isn’t it amazing how some people think they’re far more famous than they are?  Like you’d know this guy by his three initials or something!

Hope I’m not guilty of a similarly dopey over-estimation when I think that I, as writer, may have built up a certain amount of mystique for the as-yet-unmet performers and musicians.  Scheduling conflicts have kept me from attending any of the rehearsals.  So here’s a bunch of people who’ve worked very hard, for many weeks, on my score.  They open and play another performance before getting to meet me.  I’m inordinately fond of the notion that these theatre people only know me through my work.  I hope meeting me, face to face, won’t disappoint.  What I say, off the cuff, is often dumb compared to what I’ve written, and then rewritten and then rewritten a dozen times.

But that’s a fun thing, and this is the sort of journey I most enjoy taking: a trip somewhere, previously unseen, to see a production of my work.  I took similar sojourns to such exotic locales as Edinburgh, Scotland; Newcastle, England; and Detroit, Michigan.  And had a ball each time.  I wasn’t around long enough to learn the name of every cast and crew member, but mine they knew.  At least for a while.  More important to me – they knew my tunes, and hummed them again and again to themselves over the years, like an old lover still carrying a torch.


A small song

December 10, 2011

As Dorothy Parker once said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

Which, in turn, is a turn on “Brevity is the soul of wit” and, while I could talk about lingerie all day, I thought I’d offer a few words about brevity in comedy songs.  (Finding illustrations for lingerie might prove distracting.)

Shaggy dog story is defined as a tale (or a tail?) that goes on and on, only to reach a disappointingly small punch line.  Seems like everywhere I turn, I come face to face with the musical equivalent of a shaggy dog, a comedy song that rambles on at such length, you end up sorry you started listening in the first place.  The Hypochondriac’s Song, by Ryan Scott Oliver, actually makes reference, at one point, to going on and on and on.  But I’m not sure there’s any irony there.  It merely outwears its welcome.

If you asked musical theatre performers under 30 to name a song that makes them laugh, it’s likely A Summer In Ohio would be the most-mentioned title.  And sure, it starts off with some hearty chuckles.  But after we hear the humorous name, Wayne, it ceases to be amusing, as if the lyricist suddenly ran out of jokes.  Great writers of comedy songs, such as Frank Loesser or Sheldon Harnick, structure in a way that makes each punch line stronger an the last.  I consider Harnick the greatest living lyricist, particularly for having the ability to milk a good premise for all it’s worth.  A masterpiece of the genre, like Larry O’Keefe’s Sensitive Song, gets increasingly outrageous.  And David Yasbek, in songs such as Man and Here I Am has an understanding that comic energy can come from the music as well.  I particularly admire Man‘s musical quote, of The Magnificent Seven, music that’s funny in and of itself.

Of course a musical quote is decidedly different from a musical theft.  Drew Gasparini’s catchy chorus to My Year appealed to me until I realized its similarity to the 60s hit, Tracks of My Tears.

Overlong songs don’t eat away at my soul because I’ve the cathartic experience of pruning them down to fit into time-limited showcases I musical direct.  And with many a modern funny song, once you trim the fat, you’re left with a pretty good piece of meat.

I may have mixed metaphors just now, but what’s with the songwriters of today?  Why didn’t they cut to a reasonable size themselves? The compulsion to write taxingly long songs is a mystery to me.  Sometimes I think writers have forgotten about the audience.  A gargantuan piece might be embraced by performers looking to impress with their vocal stamina.  But when you think of a favorite vocalist, and what you like about them, the ability to sing 300 measures seems very much besides the point.

Might this be an example of the tyranny of the marketplace? With singers looking for showpieces for their cabaret appearances, writers recognize a market for songs performers can show off with.  This leads to people getting reputations as good musical theatre writers before they’ve ever written a musical.  That’s messed up.  But worse still is the way self-indulgent performers and incapable-of-self-editing creators have left the audience out of the picture.  And what we’re looking for is songs that will keep entertaining us from start to finish, at any length.


I have watched you from afar

December 5, 2011

Different songs – usually obscure ones – are always rolling around in my head.  Recent extraordinary life changes have led a particular number to roll up quite often.  It’s called I Gaze In Your Eyes and you’ve probably never heard it (didn’t I just say it’s usually an obscure song?) and I think the story of its creation is worth telling: Fascinating, and might induce a little jealousy.
About twenty years ago a wonderful coffee table book came out.  Square and dense, the brainchild of musical theatre historian Robert Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter spawned a series.  Kimball and the publisher have done similar books for Berlin, Ira Gershwin, Hammerstein, Mercer, Loesser and Hart.  What makes the Porter volume, in particular, so fascinating, are the reproductions of pages from his notebooks, affording an intimate view of his process.

The cabaret singer Ann Hampton Callaway pored over the Porter book, as a lot of us did, and saw that the music had been lost to some of them.  She was rather taken with I Gaze In Your Eyes and decided to compose music to it.

A pause in our story for a moment: That’s a great exercise.  As a teenager, I got my hands on a book containing Lorenz Hart lyrics.  (I’ve since become friends with the young man who did the lion’s share of the work putting it together.)  I propped the book up on my piano’s music stand, and had the experience of setting music to several songs I didn’t know by the greatest lyricist who ever lived.  This helped me learn both about composition and the craft of lyric writing.  Eventually, I learned the Richard Rodgers tune for You Are So Fair, and was amused to discover it was pretty similar to my melody for the same words.

Callaway has long been a fixture in New York’s café society, and the oddly impish record producer Ben Bagley asked her to sing on one of his albums devoted to obscure songs by Cole Porter.  She played him her version of I Gaze In Your Eyes, and he generously recorded a track of her singing it.  She then contacted the trustees that run Porter’s estate, and they liked her setting of the Porter song with the un-findable tune so much, they granted permission for her (and others) to release the posthumous collaboration.  As far as they’re concerned, Callaway’s is the official, sanctioned musical setting of the lyric.

There’s a lot to admire here.  First, Callaway employs a couple of techniques that were Porter favorites.  One is his way of throwing in a triplet where one expects straight quarters or eighth notes, as in Begin the Beguine or I Get a Kick Out of You.  Another thing she does is to have the opening phrase more than once hit extended notes on the fifth of the scale, as happens in two wonderfully moving Cole Porter ballads, Why Shouldn’t I? and Goodbye Little Dream Goodbye.  (If you don’t know these two, I suggest you acquaint yourself.  The beauty of the latter once moved a movie executive to tears.  Coincidentally, his name was Katz.)

Now, knowing that Callaway cadged some of Cole’s quirks, you might assume that the finished product sounds Porter-esque.  But this beautiful ballad sounds fairly contemporary, not an imitation at all.  The harmony moves forward charmingly, on the words “Joy I find” leading the ear to new places in a manner rather unlike the Yalie tunesmith’s.  The song has a classic feel, and yet one doesn’t associate it with any particular decade.  It’s timeless in the best sense of the word.  The lyric barely sounds like Porter.  It’s simple, un-showy, not a bit urbane.  One gets the sense that it was written from the heart, while many famous Porter songs involve a mask of sorts, as if his cosmopolitan aesthetic was something of a put-on.

Too much dime-store psychoanalysis, I know, I know.  All I know for sure is, this song hits me where I live.

Michael Gott, vocal
The video images are weird, but at least you can hear the song