Dirge for a dying theatre

January 31, 2012

Some of those that were stunned about my thoughts on Sondheim & Goldman’s Follies persist in the presumption that I just haven’t seen a good production.  The original staging, a co-creation of Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, is legendary.  Missed that one.  But I’ve seen five others – I doubt there’s any other show I can say I’ve seen five different mountings of.  But the grain of truth here is that the one I just saw, that just closed on Broadway, didn’t make a good case for the show.  So here I’ll discuss some of the confusing and un-Follies-like aspects of the recent revival.

But I’ll start with positives: Jan Maxwell is fairly fascinating as Phyllis.  For most of the show, you wish she was given something to do other than to bitch about her enviable(-to-anyone-else) existence.  When her big number finally comes, it’s a high point, for she’s sexy and in command, celebratory rather than castigating.  Danny Burstein is likable as Buddy, standing out since this is a show in which so few people get to be likable.  Casting these veterans enlivens the evening – not enough to save it, but enough to edge it above “poor” and a bit towards “fair.”  I also liked Jayne Houdyshell’s lumpen take on Broadway Baby: that she isn’t remotely like most of the other personages at this party only makes her more welcome.

Chief among this Follies’ cornucopia of imperfections is the silly Sally of Bernadette Peters.  If a pitch-perfect performance is one in which every note is right, this is a tone-deaf one, the rare true moments seeming like accidents.  From the moment she enters, she fairly reels with desperation.  It’s as if the only fuel she runs on is self-pity.  These qualities are so unattractive, that it makes no sense at all that Ben even gives her a look.  On the other hand, Peters possesses surface attractiveness, so we can surmise that Ben might feel a little lust for her.  As played by soap star Ron Raines, though, Ben is wooden.  Many of his line-readings lack meaning.  One can discern no real emotions so the longing contained in an oddly-structured duet called Too Many Mornings is like an ill-fitting suit of clothes on him.

Speaking of ill-fitting, there are multiple lines in which Saliy refers to how fat she is.  Bernadette Peters is a wisp of a thing, but the irony is lost.  We don’t take these references as indicative of Sally’s self-delusion; Raines has no reaction: could he possibly agree that this 100-pound woman is fat?  Elsewhere on the stage, there are older women who are actually overweight, so ignoring Sally’s unreal self-deprecation seems the worst way to go.  The area where we’re really through the looking glass, here, is the world’s assumption that Bernadette Peters is a good singer.  Have you ever plugged an external speaker into a radio that was already on?  As the plug goes in, the ear hears an array of sound qualities: the not-so-good speaker that comes with the radio, the higher fidelity of the one you’re plugging in, and sometimes there’s an in-between sound that’s neither sound, nor pleasant.  Well, that’s the current Peters sound on pretty numbers like In Buddy’s Eyes.  (I’ll cheerfully admit I’m spoiled by Barbara Cook’s renditions on the album, Follies In Concert.) 

Cook, 1985

By the time we get to her unfortunately literal Losing My Mind, the star is doubling over with sobs she’s shedding for herself, making it extraordinarily difficult to feel for her.  And then she indulges in singing her final note a full octave higher than the score.

I wonder if tastes have changed since Follies’ 1971 debut.  Used to be, you’d never see self-pity on stage; characters would bravely fight against it, which would be the effective way to perform Losing My Mind. It’s supposed to work like a classic dry-eyed torch song, at least on some level.  The main development of the intervening years was the ascendency of the Eurotrash musical, in which pitying oneself is not only okay, it’s applauded.  As it happens, the second biggest star in this muddle is the original leading lady from three of the top British poperettas, Evita, Cats, and Chess.  Elaine Paige has lived through all that, but not Reno, nor Beverly Hills.  She plays Carlotta as if she were Debbie Reynolds, still-alluring in middle age, all brass and smiles.  But this means her number, I’m Still Here seems inappropriately over-positive.  Good times, she’s lived; bum times, she’s paying lip service to.  When you hear a good rendition of this pop culture laundry list, you feel in the presence of someone who’s truly experienced the downside as well as the up.  Paige, freed of the Eurotrash insistence on giving voice to depression, hits the other extreme, and the song loses its emotional weight.

Which reminds me to question: How did “the mirror song” lose its mirrors?  In Who’s That Woman? ladies seem not to be confronting their younger selves, but merely competing against them in a challenge dance that ends in a tie.  And it’s not the only time the choreography distracts from Sondheim’s ambitions for a song: The Story of Lucy and Jessie has Maxwell dance away from the chorus boys, as if she doesn’t know they’re there.  Speaking of being unaware someone’s there, in the theatre, we’re supposed to ignore the presence of the conductor.  In Follies’ final number, the character of Ben forgets his lyrics, which, ideally, should stop hearts in the audience: has the actor forgotten?  The conductor feeds him his next lyric, shattering the illusion he’s invisible.  And then, as written, there’s a moment where the chorus perks up and continues the song, in ironic cheerful counterpoint to Ben’s breakdown.  That moment is supposed to be punctuated by two rim-shots, or a loud baton on the conductor’s podium, coming like gunshots, waking everyone up: it’s a stunning coup de theatre in the midst of an otherwise sub-par song.  In this revival, however, the rim-shot sounds don’t blast through; Ron Raines is in the middle of a line and continues; it’s merely more mess on top of a mess.

Which, in a nutshell, is this particular production.  So much gets missed.  I complained in my last post that, in Follies’ writing, there’s not enough there there.  This season’s restaging didn’t make the most of the moments that are.

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One of these mornings

January 26, 2012

I got suckered in again, by all those musical theatre mavens who insist:

it’s a wonderful show
I just haven’t seen the right production,
but once I see this production, I’ll surely see the merit in it.

I’ve read the script.  I’ve played through every note of the score.  I’ve now seen five different productions, including two on Broadway and one in the West End.  And I hereby declare something bound to ruffle feathers: Follies is not a very good musical. 

It seems to be the show that, more than any other, musical theatre people think is, somehow, the best.  And there’s a disconnect, there, with the general public, which has always seemed indifferent to it.  I wouldn’t deny it possesses a pretty good score; there are some very fine numbers.  But as an evening in the theatre – and shouldn’t that be the mark of merit for a musical? – it’s decidedly dreary.

Observing Aristotelian unities, James Goldman’s book is set at a reunion for people (seemingly all are female) who appeared in a set of Broadway revues between the wars.  At the party, most amusingly, the gray-hairs perform some of the songs they performed in their youth.  Other songs are non-diegetic, concerning the middle-agers’ feelings in the now.  And then there’s a fantasy section in which four characters perform Follies-style showstoppers that have some relation to their true feelings about their lot in life.  It’s Stephen Sondheim’s most entertaining score because he’s bound, by the premise, to write in the crowd-pleasing styles of yore.  The contemporary reality songs, in marked contrast, aren’t crowd-pleasing at all.

It’s worthwhile, I think, to look at musicals and ask the question “What’s happening here?”  What is the principal action the main character is doing in most of the show?  Professor Harold Hill is actively involved in bamboozling River City, Iowa, to sell band instruments.  Professor Henry Higgins is trying to pass off a Cockney as a princess.  And that’s just characters who answer to “Professor H.H.” In Follies, two couples, mired in loveless marriages, reminisce (a little bit) and mistreat their beleaguered spouses, either attempting affairs or confessing to them.  As actions go, well, I think the apt word is “unpleasant.”  And those marital lacerations hardly constitute an “action” per se.  The four Follies characters comprise a veritable portrait of stasis.

That flaw, the rotten core of Goldman’s book, is something the creative team made great efforts to distract us from.  Whenever the non-action between the four “savaged by regret” leads becomes too much to bear, on comes a diegetic song or, quite literally, a ghost.  Here, it’s probably important to remember that most people experience musicals by listening to cast albums over and over again.  So, when a lot of people say they love Follies, what they really love is the score, those lovingly-crafted numbers that take attention away from that repugnant plot.  Seeing the show, one impatiently drums fingers on the armrest, longing for the next number to begin already.  Certain minor characters seem far more interesting than the major ones.  Old Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben: these are not people we care about, or have any real reason to like.  One of them, it turns out, is mentally unbalanced.  But that’s a very mildly surprising revelation, not something worthy of our pity.  I’d say that none of the things the quartet does affect our emotions at all.  And so, most of the songs they sing seem oddly hollow.

Speaking of oddly hollow, how about those ghosts?  They seem so much like a director’s conceit.  They’re not shedding much light on the proceedings.  I suppose we’re supposed to view the younger versions of these well-preserved (or not-well-preserved) matrons as sad, somehow, but they seem merely like manifestations of ironic detachment in a show that’s already long on ironic detachment.

Years ago, Follies fans would condescendingly tell me I wasn’t old enough to relate to the show.  Wait until you’re the characters’ ages, they said.  Well, the time has arrived, and today I can say that I find the idea of middle-aged kvetches regretting their life choices even more distasteful than I did before. Phyllis and Sally, in young adulthood, got to appear on a Broadway stage, for Chrissakes.  Most people I know are young and trying their darnedest to get on Broadway, unsuccessfully.  So my sympathy for four winners who’ve turned into whiners is rather limited.  I might have some feeling for Buddy, but he has a mistress he seems to enjoy.  His failure, either past or present, to dump Sally, is puzzling, a prime example of stasis, and God-there’s-a-microscope-at-Caltech-that-just-might-be-able-to-measure-how-little-I-care. The Stones are fabulously wealthy, owning two pianos, two residences, and paintings by famous modern artists.  I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?  Sorry.  Can’t.  I am the 99%.


Père et fils

January 21, 2012

For my father’s birthday, I’m honoring his request that I avoid writing about him here.  (Last year’s birthday blog inspired his appeal.)  But I recently mentioned this little musical improv game we played when I was a teen.  I’ve been told this game is extraordinary, but the more I think about it, the more I think it essential to the skill-set of any theatre composer or lyricist.

The game is very simple: you think of a classical composer, keep the name to yourself, go to the piano and improvise a piece in that composer’s style until your listeners guess the composer’s name.  I don’t have time to record an example, but, suppose you played a slow waltz, with half notes on the second beat in the right hand while the bass hits downbeats. But the “vanilla” harmonies (minor sevenths and such) don’t really lead anywhere; it’s utterly free of tension. By now, some of you have guessed that I’m describing how one might do Eric Satie.

Loewe, Lerner

Lest lyricists feel left out, I’m going to describe a similar game my teen friends and I would play, and it’s all about literary style.  We’d take a book off the shelf – preferably a not-so-famous novel by a well-known author.  Players would then write, on little slips of paper, a sentence that sounded as if it could be the book’s first sentence.  These were read out loud – along with the actual sentence – and we’d all vote for what we thought was the real entry.  The winner of the round is the fake that fools the most people.  Hours of fun, and it was relatively rare that anyone got injured.

Now that I’ve told you how to play these games, I’m going to tell you how to win.  Get to know a wide panoply of literary and musical styles.  Figure out what defines a style, what characteristics make, say, Ravel Ravel or Melville Melville.  As you’re doing this, begin to get a feel for time and place.  Satie and Ravel were Frenchmen in the same time period.  Figure out what makes them sound “French” and “early 20th century.”

Next, turn your attention to those masters of the apropos, Lerner & Loewe.  In the mid-fifties, they produced two musicals so wildly different in setting and feel, it makes the mind reel.  Vienna-born Loewe filled Paint Your Wagon with what feel like authentic folk songs of the American west.  He did this by utilizing all sorts of compositional techniques that those uncomposed classics (Streets of Laredo, etc.) used.  Throughout the world, the pentatonic scale is the building block to folk tunes.  In They Call the Wind Maria, Loewe builds the pentatonics into block chords in the accompaniment.  As if inspired by what amateur guitarists often do, the eight eighth notes have stresses on the off-beats.  In a wholly unsyncopated, non-poppy way that evokes Gold Rush days.

Thirty years later, Claude-Michel Schönberg stole one of Paint Your Wagon’s melodies, popped it up, and made it the release of Les MiserablesDo You Hear the People Sing?, an anthem meant to stand in for La Marseillaise.  What the revolutionary students of the Paris Commune have to do with Forty-Niners I’ll never know, but at least the time periods are similar.

Two years after Paint Your Wagon, Lerner and Loewe successfully convinced Broadway they were veddy veddy British with their nova-bright depiction of the high and low of Edwardian London, My Fair Lady.  Does any music ever written by an actual Englishman sound as English as Ascot Gavotte?  Or, for the Cockneys, the faux-genteel filigree that leads into the chorus of Wouldn’t It Be Loverly – seems fresh out of the Music Hall.  It’s the utter appropriateness, more than any other single trait, that makes Loewe one of the most masterful of Broadway composers.

Matching him stride for stride is Alan Jay Lerner, who gave considerable thought to the verbal devices that enliven his lyrics.  In Henry Higgins, he had the ideal character to write for, an aficionado of the glories of the English language.  But two years prior, for the uneducated prospectors of Paint Your Wagon, he used shorter words, straight-forward structures, and no clever rhymes at all.  That’s dazzling versatility, and one feels he would have done very well in that First Sentence game I used to play.

This might sound like an egotistical juxtaposition, but I can use my own work as an exemplar of properly-applied manifestations of style.  In Murder at the Savoy, I had occasion to create one of those duets one often finds in Gilbert and Sullivan, where one character finishes the others’ lines.

 Percy, you’re –

 — too ill-prepared to

Sing the score!

 — I’m much too scared to

Do the role

Oh, stop this drivel!

 — On the whole –

You’d rather snivel

I matched this with jaunty 6/8 music, as Sullivan would have, starting in minor and ending in major.  And the happy result of all this is that I actually convinced some audience members that Gilbert and Sullivan had written the show.  Which pleased my producer even more than it pleased me.

The other week, I was a little startled to read critic Peter Filichia taking Alan Jay Lerner to task for a lyric that didn’t sound appropriate coming out of the mouth of the character he created.

However, the way Lerner wrote Daisy in his book – as a flibbertigibbet – was very different from the way he wrote her in his intelligent and incisive lyrics. Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here, in which Daisy sings to her plants and flowers, is full of delicious wordplay and puns that are beyond the ken of the Daisy who speaks.

Nice to know I’m not the only guy who thinks about this stuff.

Click here to read Peter Filichia on one of my shows.


Hello, I’m Pulley of the Yard

January 14, 2012

With all the comings and goings, commemorations and celebrations, I just realized that I’ve missed a big anniversary, of the premiere of the first of my musicals I ever saw produced, Murder at the Savoy – then called Pulley of the Yard.

Another show of mine had been produced, Through the Wardrobe, but I didn’t get to see it, as it was in England.

Coincidentally, Britain’s taken to Murder at the Savoy in a big way over the past 16 years, with three mountings at the Edinburgh Fringe Festval and two in nearby Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. I caught some, but not all, of those productions, and it was quite an eye-opener seeing what actual Brits did with a young New Yorker’s (mis-)conception of what Englishmen talk like.

The college I chose to attend I chose to attend, in part, because of a bait-and-switch. I’d been (mis-)led to believe that, after many years of dormancy, the school had revived its hallowed tradition of an annual student-written musical revue.  It hadn’t. So I was forced to beg and plead with the handful of student-run theatre groups if I were to ever get an original musical on the boards.

The only outfit on campus that did musicals with any regularity was The Gilbert and Sullivan Society and, unsurprisingly, they did nothing but Gilbert and Sullivan.  If you’re picturing priggish, tradition-bound Philistines who break out in hives over the mere mention of anything new, you’re right.  They were firmly committed to performing the same operettas, over and over again, like a pit bull with a postman’s leg locked in its teeth.  And I refer, of course, to their performance style.

But Gilbert and Sullivan, God bless ’em, left a loophole.  They wrote a one-act opera, Trial By Jury, and the group couldn’t fill an evening with so short a show.  I asked how long it had been since they’d done Trial, and they said “Five years!” longingly, as if that had been an annoying long period of time.  So, I made my pitch: I’d write them a companion piece, that is, one that could play on the same bill with Trial By Jury: that way they could get to perform their heroes’ earliest surviving collaboration, and I could get an original show on the boards.  They admitted, with clear-eyed honesty, that their players were only used to playing certain kinds of characters, the archetypes from the Savoy operas.  I responded that I would write those sorts of people into my show.  They warned that they couldn’t invest in a separate set or costumes; I said my piece would work on the set they build for Trial and use the same costumes.  They said their voices couldn’t handle modern music; I assured them that everything I wrote would be exactly in the same style as Sullivan.  Convincing the Board – or whatever the controlling coven of the Society called itself – was the great act of politicking of my life.  I cajoled, I flattered, I said precisely what they needed me to say.  They agreed to produce my then-unwritten show.

But what a corner I’d painted myself into.  No set?  No costumes?  Pre-defined characters? Every word must be Gilbertian; every note Sullivanesque.  This was a tall order for a young writer.  But having strict parameters can be freeing.  As can the adoption of someone else’s style.  All these years later, I’m flashing on a memory of a college course in modern poetry taught by the estimable Kenneth Koch.  After every section dealing with an individual poet (say, T.S. Eliot), he’d assign us to prove we understood by creating a poem in the poet’s style.  And now another memory has flashed in my head: in high school I wrote a long line-by-line parody of Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock set around the Sunset Strip music scene, called The Love Song of J. Alfred Punk Rock.  So, I had some experience writing in the style of other writers, from the Koch class and previously.  Composing, too.  My unusual composition teacher would have me write chorales in the style of Bach, and explained where I’d done particularly Bach-like things and where I hadn’t.  At social events, my father and I would take turns at the piano, improvising in the styles of various classical composers.

And all those improv shows I played: I’ve spoken before of how useful it is to investigate The Elements of Style of a particular creative artist.  Knowing about Hemingway’s unembellished short sentences or Aaron Copland’s fondness for open fifths: this is the stuff that comes up in musical theatre writing all the time.  Think of how the pastiche songs in Follies are modeled on particular between-the-wars songwriters.  (Compare Losing My Mind to Gershwin’s The Man I Love, for instance.)  Of the musicals I wrote before Murder at the Savoy, one was set in the 1920’s, and I went wild with shuffle rhythms and augmented chords; another is set in Europe during World War Two and is heavily influenced by Kurt Weill.

In setting out to write a backstage murder mystery in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, I had before me a large set of tropes.  Most obviously, I’d need a patter song.  Sometimes, in G & S, such songs handle exposition, so I wrote

The day we started our company

We said we’d be willing

To pay out a shilling

And offer top billing

To stars

Then we soon decided we’d dump any

Who slurred the libretto

Or sang in falsetto

Or drank amaretto

In bars

Why amaretto?  For the rhyme of course.  Vodka would have made just as much sense but would have spoiled the fluidity.  Luckily, making a lot of sense wasn’t important to Gilbert.  His shows abound in strange points of law and twisted logic.  So, I incorporated similar silliness into my plot.

While I had many bright ideas about spoofing Gilbert and Sullivan, I didn’t know much about murder mysteries.  I’d recently seen Tom Stoppard’s spoof, The Real Inspector Hound and was familiar with Sleuth.  These had much influence on my plotting.  But it had to be a short show.  All I had time to do was introduce the various suspects and their motivations, and then bring on a detective.  It’s not a serious mystery in any sense, but I’ve never encountered anyone who figured out who the murderer was before the big reveal.

In Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan has a character confess something in a soliloquy song, and of course that sort of song would be useful in a mystery.  And once I brought my detective on stage, he’d be able to deduce using Gilbertian logic and hideout on stage (the Trial By Jury set, if you remember) to eavesdrop on people.  This video is not from a production (although it is from England).  But the lines “the listeners respond with sighs and tremble in each joint” are there to give the eavesdroppers a funny bit of business, which doesn’t happen on this video.

Speaking of singing in counterpoint, I of course utilized quodlibets.  (Can’t help it.)  There’s one in the opening number, and I’ve five counter-melodies simultaneously running in It’s So Simple in which each suspect comes on to divert suspicion by ascribing a motivation to another character.  Such as:

Yesterday I overheard a heated spat

Maud and Dapple arguing; the matter was financial.

Maud declared “I’ll kill you if you ask for that.”

Just a bit of evidence I hope you find substantial.

But back to school.  At the time, I was taking some advanced course in Modern World Drama, taught by my faculty advisor, Martin Meisel.  But with all the rehearsals (and somehow I was also cast as the lead in Trial By Jury), I could barely keep up with the reading, all plays by obscure Europeans, like Vaclav Havel (and how likely was I ever to hear that name again?).  So, I feared I’d get a bad grade and bring down my Grade Point Average.  Luckily, the school had something of a chicken exit option – you could switch, by a certain date, to pass/fail.  If you did this, you’d eventually find out what grade your professor gave you, but it would only say “pass” on your record.  Chicken, I was.  But a busy chicken.  And it’s not as if I wasn’t learning while I wasn’t doing the homework.  Opening night, to my surprise, Professor Meisel was seated right behind me.  As soon as the curtain came down he clamped his hand on my shoulder and said “That was marvelous!”  Wonderful as his reaction was, I knew then and there that I never should have opted for pass/fail, for, at the end of the term, he rewarded me with an A, despite my shoddy work in his class, because he so appreciated Murder at the Savoy, or, Pulley of the Yard.  But my record merely says “pass” and the A didn’t count on my GPA.  Oh well: there goes grad school.


Appassionata

January 8, 2012

My last post, about the unstoppable compulsion to tinker with old, flawed musicals, ran a little long.  I try to keep these things to about 1000 words.  Still, it seems that I was too brief, because I need to expound upon the process I assume led Lerner & Lane to create the song, She Wasn’t You.

It’s this section that requires explication:

Lane fashioned a passionate ballad for a faithless Regency rake, in 6/4 time, no less, and now it’s given to Harry Connick, Jr. to sing as the 20th Century analyst.  Why would a modern widower sing in 6/4?  Why would he have a lyric like “Why did champagne lose its year for me?”  Who talks like that anymore?  The effect of this revisal is to make Lerner and Lane look like second rate hacks, since 18th Century Edward’s overblown calumny is now put into the mouth of a shrink who sincerely mourns his dead wife.  Good writing becomes bad writing.

Lerner & Lane seized upon the plot’s only opportunity for an I-Love-You Song, sung by one character to another.  N.B., a substantial portion of the musical theatre audiences lives for such moments.  You might want to see to it your show contains an unabashed romantic expression.  The lack of such, I believe, is why Sondheim-composed shows have such limited popularity with the general public.  On a Clear Day You Can See Forever‘s story throws a lot of hurdles in the way of achieving this goal.  Unrequited feelings abound.  So, in the 18th century section, we meet the fellow who was the great love of Melinda’s life.  (Similarly, I found I had to employ a flashback to a time when my characters truly desired each other in Such Good Friends.)

The musical introduction, in Robert Russell Bennett’s fetching orchestration, sounds like a plaintive passage from a string quartet.  Then there are these arpeggios on harpsichord, the last of which is taken freely.  It’s gorgeous, and particularly successful in conveying that we’re in 18th century England.  The singer has a powerful voice and is seemingly singing from the heart.  But, in a way, it’s all too beautiful to be believed.  The listener, like Melinda, gets caught up in a romantic fantasy, only to be later crushed.

Why did each love melt away before?

Heaven above turn to clay before?

She wasn’t you – She wasn’t you.

Why did champagne lose its year for me?

Love’s haunting strain disappear for me?

What could I do?

She wasn’t you.

She wasn’t you, and no vows ever chained me.

No, she wasn’t you, and goodbyes never pained me.

Now I know why each affair always faded so fast!

Only with you was I born to live;

Only to you is the love I give,

Love for as long as a lifetime can last.

Lerner’s lyrics are densely rhymed, with the precision we associate with the poetry of the period.  Lines end in three-syllable rhymes, an unusual thing for a love song to do, but this also gives the sense of Long Ago.  Lane accommodates these by using a rather rare time signature, 6/4; it’s somewhat languorous, imbued with sensual yearning.  The drawn-out nature of passion is further embellished by the surprising triplets in the bridge, the lead-ins to the “chained me/pained me” rhyme.

Lerner & Lane

And don’t you just love how “Why did champagne lose its year for me?” depicts the character’s class?  Lerner’s earlier My Fair Lady dealt with the ardor of an upper-class man for a lower-class girl; Lerner’s earlier Brigadoon featured an impossible relationship between a 20th century American and an 18th century Brit.  In this song, he returns to those themes but brings even more of a lyricist’s expressive tools into play.

I feel terribly guilty commenting on a show I haven’t seen.  Crooner Harry Connick Jr., as a 20th century man of science (typecasting? I think not) is now performing the song on Broadway.  And that bothers me, maybe more than it should, because it seems all the songwriters’ choices I just described must be going to waste.  If Lerner and Lane set out to write about a contemporary widower, they would have gone with different options in musical palette, rhythm, harmony, word choice and rhyming.  That’s what I meant when I said that the repurposing of their songs makes them look like hacks.

I don’t know for certain Lerner and Lane consciously considered all these intricacies.  All I’m saying is: good musical theatre writers, which they certainly were, often think about this stuff.  You should too, if you hope to come up with a ballad as luscious as She Wasn’t You.  And then, years after you’re dead, someone can come along and make you look bad.


In the battle

January 2, 2012

“Man has three basic drives,” Broadway composer Charles Strouse quipped: “For food, for sex, and to rewrite somebody else’s musical.”  I heard him say it with my own ears (this was way back during the Carter administration).  Now, in those days, the scenario in which people eagerly proffered revision ideas might be at an out-of-town tryout, when strangers would buttonhole creators with “brilliant” ideas for improvement.  Or, there might have been a workshop, held for the express purpose of gathering advice from wise fellow toilers in the field.  Sometimes, shows had long periods of previews on Broadway, such as Strouse’s Nick and Nora (not long enough, apparently).  I kept his quip in mind when I met him backstage during a preview of Rags and merely assured him it would be a huge hit.  It wasn’t.

But here’s the thing: While there’s still time to fix a new musical, the collective wisdom of all those who feel compelled to exercise their basic drive is a positive force.  Shows all need help aborning, and no well-wisher’s advice should be completely ignored.  And there’s no glory in doing it all yourself.  Some of the best musicals of all time needed doctoring.  We know, for instance, that Neil Simon came in to add a few jokes to A Chorus Line, including the line about suicide being redundant in Buffalo, New York.  I later put this gag into a song about Bayonne, New Jersey.  But now I’m all over the map.

Many a musical theatre fan has another sort of compulsion.  You hear a cast album and love, simply love, the songs.  And you think, now there’s a wonderful musical.  Except when you hear those songs in context, actually seeing the show (or reading its script), they just lay there, a boring muddle.  So, this intense desire emerges to rewrite the woebegone tuner, giving it a workable book and letting those wonderful songs shine.

click to hear Wait Till We're 65

I’ve not had a chance to see the current “revisal” of Lerner & Lane’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but gather it’s the product of this sort of compulsion.  Having not seen it, I must restrain myself from commenting about what’s been done.  But I’ll use it to make a point about the sort of energy that leads to a “new” version of an old, flawed musical.  Because – and again I refer to the days of Jimmy Carter – we’ve got a big fat energy crisis on our hands.

But first, a few words about Alan Jay Lerner: When he was good, he was very good: My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Gigi, Paint Your Wagon, Camelot.  All of those hits had music by Frederick Loewe.  Lerner without Loewe, nine times out of ten, is not so good: Love Life, Coco, Lolita My Love, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Dance a Little Closer – all with different composers.  (One is left to puzzle over how and why Loewe brought out the best in him.)  Lerner’s genius, I feel, was for getting lyrics and libretto to work together.  No one since Hammerstein did this nearly so well.  He crafted his shows like a fine dramatist, seeing to it that the plots led to dramatic high points that would burst forth in song.  Unlike many a Johnny-Come-Lately, he was comfortable with being romantic.  It’s ironic that My Fair Lady, his biggest hit, lacks expression of love in its central relationship.  Oh, and one more thing: His abilities at plotting led to him winning two Academy Awards for screenwriting – both were also Best Pictures: Gigi, and An American In Paris.  The man knew his stuff.

Frederick Loewe was in such poor health, his doctor advised him to give up writing musicals – can you imagine such a terrible prescription? – leaving Lerner to flail about looking for a new project and a new partner. In these years, Lerner sought help for psychological malaise where a lot of high society New Yorkers did: an Upper East Side doctor who gave injections that made you happy.  (Anyone else reminded of the second act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro here?)  Sound suspicious?  It was.  The shots were amphetamines, highly addictive, and clearly had the effect of zonking out Alan Jay Lerner.  It was under this “diminished capacity” that he wrote On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

How weird is it?  Given the mind of its lyricist-librettist, it’s not half bad.  It’s a star vehicle: Barbara Harris played Daisy, a kooky Jersey girl who seeks the help of a psychologist to help her quit smoking.  When he hypnotizes her, another personality emerges, Melinda, who lives in 18th Century London.  Daisy is her reincarnation, and the curious shrink is excited to find proof of past lives and other E.S.P. phenomena.  But he’s most captivated by Melinda, and falls in love with her.  Twentieth Century Daisy, however, doesn’t appeal to him at all.  She’s engaged to a stereotypical businessman who gets excited about his company’s retirement plan (“Wait Till We’re 65!”) but begins to fall for Dr. Bruckner.  When she discovers he doesn’t love her, but merely her previous incarnation, she sings the greatest torch song Broadway’s ever produced, What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?

On record, this is one of the most appealing scores of all time.  Song after song is filled with amazing wit and lush, hummable melodies.  Composer Burton Lane seems to have had a ball coming up with music in two distinct styles: contemporary (it was 1965, so a lot of major sevenths) and Regency (arpeggios on harpsichords, etc.).  The title song was a bona fide hit, but the show wasn’t.  People went, mostly, to see the virtuosity of one of the 1960’s great comediennes, Barbara Harris.  Her first Broadway appearance got her a Tony nomination for performing in a musical, even though the show was a comedy revue with a couple of songs, not a musical at all.  After getting nominated for the dual role in On a Clear Day, she went on to win a Tony for playing multiple roles in The Apple Tree.

Here in the 21st Century director Michael Mayer is seized by that unstoppable compulsion I described earlier.  That cast album of On a Clear Day is so good, the songs are so strong, what must have stopped the show from being a bigger hit was Alan Jay Lerner’s hopped-up-on-uppers libretto, right?

So Mayer hires Peter Parnell, the author of such musicals as … Wait, he’s never written one.  He’s written a few plays, one of which is based on an old novel that was also the basis of a famous opera, Werther, but that’s it for his connection to musical theatre.  Does nobody else see a problem with this?  In the new plot, a gay man seeks psychological help and hypnosis reveals that he used to be a female jazz singer in the 1940s.  I may be reading way too much into this, but I find the notion that homosexual males are heterosexual females reincarnated deeply offensive.  It’s as if Parnell is suggesting that same-sex attraction is abnormal, but can be explained by people being different genders in past lives; so only opposite-sex attraction is normal.

Again, I haven’t seen the show; maybe this is not being suggested at all.  But with the gay man and the female singer played by different actors, it’s no longer a star vehicle.

If Melinda is now a 1940s chanteuse, what happens to all of Lane’s Regency material?  Some of it is cut; some is repurposed.  In order to give Melinda appropriate songs to sing, Lerner & Lane’s 1951 film score, Royal Wedding, is appropriated (but how appropriately?).  Am I the only one who sees a huge problem here?  Lane fashioned a passionate ballad for a faithless Regency rake, in 6/4 time, no less, and now it’s given to Harry Connick, Jr. to sing as the 20th Century analyst.  Why would a modern widower sing in 6/4?  Why would he have a lyric like “Why did champagne lose its year for me?”  Who talks like that anymore?  The effect of this revisal is to make Lerner and Lane look like second rate hacks, since 18th Century Edward’s overblown calumny is now put into the mouth of a shrink who sincerely mourns his dead wife.  Good writing becomes bad writing.  Thanks a bunch, Parnell and Mayer.

When the gay guy, upset that his straight shrink doesn’t love him, sings What Did I Have That I Don’t Have? I can’t imagine how the audience restrains itself from yelling “a vagina!”

The last thing I’ll carp on is that comic climber in the executive pool, Warren.  In the original, he was played by William Daniels (you can see him in a similar role opposite Barbara Harris in the film version of A Thousand Clowns), and it’s very funny that his idea of a romantic expression is to extol bonds maturing and “Blue Cross until you go.”  Of course, in the Parnell restructuring, set in 1964, Warren’s the committed boyfriend of Davey, the gay analysand.  So, in 1974, they’re singing of a rosy future with a great pension and health insurance and hold the phone there…

I don’t know where Parnell and Mayer have been, but most of us are aware of a huge political issue these days about how homosexuals are treated by state laws, private and public pension plans, and insurers.  To have a gay couple sing merrily about a future we, in 2012, have not yet achieved is offensive in the extreme.  Not to mention unbelievable, since, so soon after Stonewall, issues like gay parenthood and hospital visitation weren’t a gleam in many people’s eyes.

Now, it probably sounds like what I’m most upset about is On a Clear Day’s odd perspective on homosexuality.  But what really frosts me is what I earlier referred to as an energy crisis.  Here, and in other revisals, tons of creative energy are lavished on “fixing” old musicals that may or may not need fixing at all.  If these renovators are successful, at best, they’ve given an old musical new life.  But it’s a huge waste of energy. Suppose Mayer and Parnell had left a moderately successful old show alone and instead had created a new musical, with new songs.  Then, their creativity would have added something to the world, and maybe given us a new musical producers would be happy to revive again and again.  And isn’t it the height of hubris, to think that a dramatist can make his first musical script better than one by a multiple Oscar and Tony winner?

Oh, that compulsion to tinker with old shows, as if they were old jalopies – how it makes me burn!  Why do theatre people do this?  One can’t imagine, say, someone in the auto industry reviving the Edsel, believing it could be popular with the public if only the tail fins were streamlined a bit.