I’m getting self-conscious about my incessant name-dropping. Will try to curtail.
So, up in Westchester, there’s a community where a certain Secretary of State and her husband, a former President, have a home. The local high school was attended by three of my closest friends, and also someone who became Miss America, then lost her crown, then became far more famous as a performer (including Broadway musicals) than any pageant-winner I’ve ever heard of. Every year, the students wrote a revue, satirizing school life. And their methodology including writing and rehearsing many more sketches than they wanted to end up with. So, they’d do a rough run-through, take a look at the whole thing, and cut out anything deemed to be a turkey; hence the event’s name, Turkey Day.
My friend Adam (I use his name because he’s kind of the progenitor of this story) took the idea of Turkey Day and applied it to the Columbia Varsity Show, which he, nearly single-handedly, resurrected out of many years of dormancy. Also at Columbia around that time were me and a fellow from Hawaii (or so it is claimed; I never saw his birth certificate) who went on to become President – not the one who lives in Westchester. (Must not drop names! Must not drop names!) Since then, every year, the creation of the Varsity Show involves a huge Turkey Day in which a very large number of alums looks at what they’ve got, and then has a long and incredibly detailed discussion of how it might be better. Since there’s nothing I like better than helping make a musical better, I look forward to this rite of spring, and have attended more of them than anyone ever.
The collective wisdom of the crowd is wondrous to behold. The critique goes on for hours, and people say truly smart things. I usually tell them that nobody attends the Varsity Show for the plot, so, as far as I’m concerned, the less plot, the better. The writers occasionally run adrift concentrating too much on story. The audience is looking for something a revue can give them – potshots at different aspects of campus life. I also preach in favor of a short show, knowing that the Varsity Show I wrote the score to (along with some guy who just won a prestigious prize for humorists and a woman who’s written for Friends and The West Wing) failed to fill both sides of the ninety minute cassette tape I recorded it on. (Yes, I’m that old.) It’s been reported (by a journalist who sometimes writes for The New York Times) that whenever the question comes up of whether the show’s too offensive, I always tell them what those people can do if they can’t take a joke.
The Varsity Show (its 118th year’s edition opens tonight) benefits from having an audience with a common and specific knowledge base. It’s by the students, for the students, and it helps the humor when a similar perspective is shared by folks on both sides of the footlights. One thing I remember about writing shows in college was that I could count on a very smart audience. Nowhere else could I have gotten away with:
Don’t take secret glee in
The fact they’re plebeian
Or act like Marie An-
“Plebian” is a five-dollar word, usually utilized by patricians.
This year I piped up about structure in comedy songs. First, AS WITH ALL SONGS, you need a workable title. Then, it helps as if you think of this title as being akin to the thesis sentence in an expository paragraph. The other sentences support the thesis, give little examples of why the title is true. Sticking to a strict template (as you probably should, in a comedy song), a good number is three supports, possibly ending with the thesis. The hardest part? Making sure each of those three lines is a funny one.
So, in case I haven’t made this clear enough, I’ve a couple of stanzas examples from my own work. This is from the duet I wrote for my mother and my bride’s mother to sing at our wedding. (The entire lyric is HERE.)
Say, can you teach me how to be the perfect meddler?
How to insinuate I’ve noted every flaw?
How do I firmly stand my ground?
How do I throw my weight around?
What is the way to be the greatest mother-in-law?
If you articulate complaints and criticism
And never let an unkind word get stuck in your craw
Whether you’re taking down a hem
Or simply making fun of them
You’ll be the mother of all mothers-in-law
It’s a very ancient saying, (but a true and honest thought) that if you become a teacher, by your pupils, you’ll be taught. In attendance were two younger composers, and they’d impressed me when they were in the hot seat during their Turkey Days. One made the compositional suggestion that one can keep a song interesting by varying accompaniment figures. This was much on my mind a few days later when I was coaching an actress prior to a production of the other composer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. (God, now it sounds like I’m going out of my way to avoid dropping names.)
The lovely song, Maybe, begins with a quick arpeggio on sixteenth notes, that then calms down into slower notes. And I’ve only described one bar. I hear that, and get the sense that the character’s mind keeps racing, and yet she manages to calm it down, in the end of the measure. In the second A section, which is a bit longer, strings sneak in, adding warmth and refinement. For much of the show, Diana has been associated with frenetic and acerbic rock music (she may be the oldest major character in a musical ever to be depicted with rock, an innovation that makes sense since she’s someone who’s lived her entire life in the rock era). Now that she’s successfully gaining control over her mind, there’s an echo of the ordered respectability one hears in string quartets. Then there’s a third A section (unusual, that) where the rhythm kicks in, a sort of combination of driving pop played against bowed refinement, as if she’s comfortably residing in a harmonious place. On the line “a girl with a mother who just couldn’t cope” the rhythm drops out, and the violins ascend. Listening to this, one is in doubt whether Diana can continue to hold it together. The daughter finally chirps up, in the bridge, and the music has a steady rock feel. This character, Natalie, is peeved but articulate. Leading into a section where the women overlap, the accompaniment figures get very quick, although the pace of the song has only been upped subtly. Diana’s next solo section is sparely backed, with half-notes, sometimes pushed. The communication is too important to have much hit the ear besides her voice. When quarter note chords are played, the tempo trails off, which gives a certain halt to words she finds difficult to get across. Natalie’s answer is rhythmically similar, with chords on one, two and three but not four. And then, for the final rapprochement, chords hit just on one and two, and the harmonies do not resolve. Next To Normal smartly steers clear of pat endings.
I wish I could say those writers picked up their know-how at a Turkey Day, but I’d have to mention their names, so I can’t.