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.