What now?

May 29, 2012

I can hardly believe it, and I just double-checked to be sure: This past Broadway season I didn’t attend a single new musical.  I feel chock full of chagrin.  Some of the new efforts continue to run, so I might be able to catch them later.  But many are gone, which is a shame, because I’m inspired by something a stranger said on Facebook to talk about one of them.  Now, if you read carefully, you’ll see that what I have to say about it is not an opinion about the quality of the show.  I’m talking about a broader issue.  But, for the sake of this discussion, we need to assume that it’s not a good show.

I know, I know.  This is all terribly convoluted and you’re going “What’s next?  Is he going to scramble the show’s initials just to have a handy way of referring to it?”  Well, yes.  Can we just move on?  Here’s what the Facebook stranger said:

Listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of ABC … Gorgeous.  This should have a SPECTACULAR licensing life and tons of productions everywhere! 🙂

Now, while I haven’t heard ABC‘s album, let’s change things up and assume it’s just what the stranger said it is, gorgeous.  This Facebook fellow says sooth.

So, the next thing that happens, when a new cast album is gorgeous, is that it gets bought by that very special subset of humanity that loves to listen to show tunes.  Within that subset is a smaller subset, the people who have something to say about what musicals get done in theatres across the country.  And a certain proportion of them are going to decide to produce ABC.  And audiences will attend, and see a new musical that’s not very good at all.

Once burned; twice shy.  Some of those theatre-goers may leap to the conclusion that new musicals are all awful, and never risk seeing one again.  Similarly, some theatres, having burned their patrons with ABC, may be very hesitant to produce a new musical again.  After all, there are so many old (say, more than 25 years) shows that have proved very popular with audiences.  Reviving a classic is the safest move, and these are risk-averse times.  If ABC has a spectacular licensing life and tons of productions everywhere, it might not be such a good thing.

Because ABC isn’t good.  Let’s do the opposite what-if: Suppose ABC is excellent.  Then, the whole story has a happy ending.  A show that Broadway didn’t embrace (it closed quite quickly) but is high quality goes on to find productions around the country.  That’s something that actually happened to the 1978 revue, Working, based on the Studs Terkel oral history.  Didn’t last a month on Broadway, but I find the cast album very enjoyable.  The project had multiple songwriters, one of which was the famous folk-rock star, James Taylor.  This led a lot of people to pick up the album, which contains even better songs by Craig Carnelia and Stephen Schwartz.

And so, an unsuccessful Broadway musical became very, very successful, with tons of productions.

And there’s one other scenario.  Suppose a show, for one reason or another, doesn’t get a cast album out to those theatre powers-that-be.  One show I particularly loved, A…My Name Is Alice, is particularly easy to produce.  The cast of five is all female, and the set requirements are few.  But, for many years after its opening, companies beyond New York hadn’t heard of it; there was no original cast recording.  It was rarely done.  The same can be said for other unrecorded musicals, of varying quality: Something For the Boys, Love Life, Mademoiselle Colombe, Three Postcards.  They’re little-known.

And I must admit: I resemble that remark.  Many of my musicals are relatively obscure, and it’s logical to draw the conclusion that their lack of recording is a factor that accounts for that obscurity.  (Two were recorded: The Pirate Captains and Our Wedding.)  From time to time, I worry that readers here think I’ve some personal ax to grind in my musings.  In this case, you’ve kinda caught me: the thought of a bad musical getting a recording and that recording leading to productions upsets me, a little, on some level.  Some ego within me believes my shows are better than ABC, which, I hasten to repeat, I never got to see.


They’re right. I don’t feel sad

May 23, 2012

“Walks into a room and boom! her smile is everything I see.”

Marcy Heisler’s line, with its ornament of an internal rhyme, could describe herself. I met her many years ago when she first came to New York and she looked like what a caricaturist might draw if you said “world’s biggest smile framed with a shock of curly hair.” We had a safe professional coffee date, but when a lyricist meets a composer-lyricist… What I really kick myself about is that a friend of my sister’s, Zina Goldrich, had recently arrived in New York, looking to compose musicals, and I failed to introduce her to Marcy Heisler. Thank God they found each other, for they’re a fabulous songwriting team, universally admired, won the Fred Ebb Award a few years ago, and, this month, Marcy won the Kleban Prize, the largest cash award annually given to American writers. (It’s for lyric-writing.)

So, what makes Marcy such a wonderful lyricist? Several things come to mind: Attention to detail, outstanding humor, word-choices that ring true as the way people actually speak, and a connection to the sort of emotions we all experience. Just yesterday, I eavesdropped on a rehearsal of a musical in which all the characters are hyper-articulate, and, since they’re from different classes and professions, that rings false to me. In Taylor, the Latte Boy, Goldrich and Heisler’s most famous song, the character is flummoxed, and – what’s the word? – under-articulate. Hear how she repeats phrases like “very inspirational” and this continues into vagueness “because of many things.” These things help define the character, giving her such charm, we’re pulling for her (hoping against hope – as she is – that Taylor requites her feelings, despite lack of any indication he does).

It was recently announced that Marcy & Zina’s musical, Ever After, is headed to Broadway. And this news needs a little context. It’s been decades that the world of insiders have known that these ladies write better songs than just about anybody. And yet New York has seen only two of their musicals, and both of those were for young audiences. That shows me that even if a lot of people, especially a lot of songwriters, consider you top-notch, the Broadway powers-that-be might not catch on for years and years and years. Honestly, I can remember feeling a tinge of jealousy over the fact that Minnesota was getting to see a Goldrich & Heisler revue while we in New York were starved for good new musical theatre. And of course I’ve attended those musicals-for-kids without a kid by my side, relishing the great music and lyrics. My favorite of their songs, Hola Lola, comes from one.

Notice how the chorus consists of nothing but the title, repeated backwards and forwards. It’s close to being mellifluous nonsense, and yet it’s so filled with emotion, I cry every time. (Could this have something to do with my lifelong shyness? No self-psychoanalyzing here! – it embarrasses me so.) And then there’s one tiny detail that knocks me out every time: Marcy figured out what gets served at children’s parties in Hawaii. Pineapple pie. Whether in children’s material or more adult fare, one gets the feeling the writer loves her characters. And so we all love Lola and company.

Since Marcy & Zina have written a lot of cabaret tunes, and they both perform them splendidly, it’s easy to just take the leap and admit that what you’re feeling is love for the authors themselves. After you read the following lyric, I ask you: How is it possible not to love Marcy Heisler?

Some people wish for romance on a Gable-Lombard scale
Or for money that can buy their richest dreams
But I don’t wish for seas to sail, or mountain tops to climb
I close my eyes at night, and wish for time
Let me grow old, let me grow wise,
Let lines of laughter crease my eyes
Let me spin stories as I hold court in my chair
Let me knit yards and yards of yesterdays to gather round my knees
And woven in the pattern is a message: I was there.
Some people thirst for knowledge, or a framed advanced degree
That can trumpet I’m important, can’t you tell
But I don’t wish for accolades for insights so sublime
I close my eyes at night and wish for time
Let me grow old, let me grow wise, let lines of laughter crease my eyes
Let me quilt memories, every one a vibrant square
Each one a friend I’ve known and cherished, or a love I’ve won or lost
And embroidered in the blanket is a message: I was there
Before you paint a painting, you need a surface clean
Before you write a book, you need a page
Before your picture dances on the canvas that is life
You must paint the picture with the brush of age
Oh, and some crave admiration, acknowledgment of wit
They revel in the turning of a phrase,
And though the poet in me, yearns to find that perfect rhyme
I close my eyes at night, and wish for time
Let me grow old, let me grow wise, let lines of laughter crease my eyes
Let me hold children as they clutch my wintry hair
Let me knit yards and yards of yesterdays, so when the last comes round
I’ll take the yards and yards of yesterdays and lay them on the ground
And in some faraway tomorrow, when my cast-off scarf is found,
Unwind it and you’ll find there is a message:
I was there

Finally, I only very rarely show myself performing on this blog. This isn’t my favorite M&Z song, but I like to kid myself and believe I inspired it:

There ought to be diamonds

May 17, 2012

And now it seems a fair enough time to assess the score Julia Houston and Tom Levitt have been writing for their Marilyn Monroe bio-musical, Bombshell.  True, we’ve heard some of these songs in brief excerpts, but enough notes have passed before our ears to say P-U! There’s some truly horrific songwriting going on here. 

The first song held some promise: Let Me Be Your Star is a power ballad with an impressively catchy hook.  The musical style, however, is pure 1980’s, a decade neither Monroe or her would-be portrayer, Karen Cartwright, was alive for.  The lyric leads one to believe Marilyn’s career is at an early stage, but Tom’s music is out of sync with the 1940s.  Without an allusion to a specific time and place, the song becomes an anthem of Everygirl, which is O.K. only if that’s the point the authors wish to make about Marilyn.

My wife’s favorite of the Bombshell songs she’s heard is the joyful History Is Made At Night.  The first sixteen notes are all on the same pitch, but Tom smartly dresses this up with a backing choir doing Modernaires-type chords.  That’s a good idea: when your melody’s going nowhere, make sure your harmony’s going somewhere, at least.  And a hit Gene DePaul song from the period, Teach Me Tonight, also starts with the same note seven times, and is exactly the sort of song Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe might have made love to.  So, at first glance, History Is Made At Night seems like an apt invention for this spot.  At second glance, though, the original and its simulacrum seem far too similar.  Both use teaching as a metaphor for sex, but the Sammy Cahn lyric has a blithe jocularity to it, and a bunch of three-syllable rhymes.  Julia’s lyric makes very little of the metaphor.  It says next to nothing, and then says it again and again.


Did I see producer Eileen Rand openly dabbing her eyes at Second-Hand White Baby Grand?  Wow: somebody thinks this is a good number.  Certainly, there’s a place for metaphor in musical theatre.  What I don’t buy, for a moment, is that Marilyn would express such a metaphor.  Julia’s lyric sounds more like one of the zillion Monroe biographers, making an arty pronouncement about her.

In a similar ilk is the way-too-serious DiMaggio cri de coeur, Lexington and Fifty-Second.  Does anybody believe the Yankee Clipper would really talk this way, or think this way?  Or know that address?  Chorus boy Sam Strickland surely could have said something about this to Tom, especially since his first words to him, before romance bloomed, assumed he was a fellow gay sports nut.  Yeah: gay sports nuts think other gay men are into sports all the time; that’s why they’re called nuts.

The dead giveaway that Tom and Julia know nothing about baseball is a kitschy and witless number called National Pastime.  The best thing it can do is make reference to the best comedy song Monroe ever sang, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.

Joltin’ Joe and the blonde bombshell share a quiet moment in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, about the romantic pursuit of anonymity.  I’m no expert on these icons, but the idea of Marilyn Monroe aspiring to be an ordinary person sounds so wrong to me, it’s laughable. A shame.  In a different context, with different characters, this might be a lovely song.

If Bombshell is content to play fast and loose with biographical facts, then maybe the intention is to serve up yet another campy portrait of an idol.  If so, there shouldn’t be three women vying for the lead role; all it takes is one good drag queen.  That might justify Darryl Zanuck, of all people, getting a snappy patter in his steam bath, surrounded by unclothed chorus boys.  Pure hokum, but a way to go now that we live in an age where Marilyn Monroe is no longer turning men on.

Julia and Tom’s main mistake was starting with a flimsy idea for a show, and then writing songs for various spots in Monroe’s life, rather than starting with an effective story outline and letting the plot’s emotional hills and valleys motivate book-driven songs.  Assuming they might need, at some point, something akin to Marilyn’s Heat Wave, they serve up clichés of Latin music in Twentieth Century Fox Mambo.  Is nobody bothered by the fact that this song is not a mambo?  “Mambo,” here, sounds like a nonsense word merely tacked on to the end of lines.  It’s Twentieth Century Fox that serves as the title of this song, and it might sound like a good pun to those who are unaware that sexy women weren’t called foxes during Marilyn’s life.

I have trouble keeping that song straight from the appropriately-titled Let’s Be Bad and I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love To Howl. I can’t help wincing at false rhymes, and gotcha/Sinatra has to be the nadir of Julia’s career.  (Also wrong: fiery/hire me.) But now I’m reminded of their awful angels-on-a-staircase number from Heaven On Earth.  It’s a song that’s rather similar to the same actor’s big number in Catch Me If You Can, utilizing all sorts of anecdotal examples from the earth’s long history, none of them surprising or amusing.


The higher you get, the farther the fall
Now I’m kicking butt and taking names
‘Cause even St. Joan went down in flames
Napoleon Waterlooed and Genghis Khan sure hit a slump
I might say “You’re fired”
When you have expired,
Donald Trump


 It started back with Moses when he led around the Jews
And climbed way up that mountain to pick up God’s Daily News
He schlepped up Mt. Sinai – cried and begged on their behalf
He almost dropped those tablets when he saw that golden calf
Now we teach the Ten Commandments every Sunday in our schools
Cause the game ain’t worth winning if you’re breaking all the rules
I guess the constitution to some is too complex
They think our founding fathers fought so they can forge some checks
They see themselves as Robin Hood stealing from the rich
Paying back the things they take; well, payback is a bitch
Cause the world ain’t Sherwood Forest
You can’t give away those jewels

There’s only so long one can wait around, hoping a song like that will get funny.

Smash! (the song), for a chorus of Marilyns (huh?) uses a growl-y motif that plays up and down a diminished chord.  It’s catchy because we’ve heard this sort of thing a thousand times before: boilerplate sexy.  What seals the song’s fate as a forgettable throwaway is the utterly generic lyric.  Julia could come up with nothing interesting to say here about the oft-written-of subject of lust.  (Maybe she should have a hot affair, or something.)  So the whole ditty exudes déjà vu.

Then she stretches out a metaphor over too great a length of time in the plaintive ballad, Never Give All Your Heart, a sentiment attributed to “the Irishman,” “Mr. Yeats.”  This may be literally true, but boy, does it feel wrong.  So many have given that advice, it’s odd for anyone to attribute it, albeit correctly.  But if that song’s too smart for its own good, what is one to make of the Bollywood number, A Thousand and One Nights?  The title’s Arabic, the style is Indian, and both cultures have every right to be offended that they’re being confused for the other.

Post-death, Marilyn is able to belt out, in a style that didn’t exist pre-death, a finale called Don’t Forget…Me. Ellipses must be inserted because Tom’s tune separates the final word as would never happen in normal speech. Makes it sound as if Marilyn wants us to forget somebody else (assumedly, Jayne Mansfield. Done.) but not her. Julia and Tom should be cut a break here because the song was written on such short notice, but the whole drama of the song’s creation is an example of why composers in the theatre virtually never orchestrate their own songs: there often isn’t time. Had composition and orchestration been handled by different people, the final result wouldn’t sound like generic 1990s elevator music. (The end of a genre, it seems: when’s the last time you heard music in an elevator?)

Years from now, when people talk of Bombshell (and they will talk of Bombshell), it’s obvious there’ll be added emphasis on the first syllable.

Dogs like us

May 13, 2012

I’m going to try to describe a project I’ve been working on. I say try because the process of creating this pièce de théâtre has been so extraordinary, it practically defies description.

Picture a company of equals, very little in the way of hierarchy.  There are two directors, one will also choreograph, and I’m responsible for the music.  But, at almost any point in the rehearsals, any company member might offer up an idea, a suggestion for a song, or, most often, a Personal Story.  In the latter, people speak from the heart about particularly emotional experiences they’ve had that somehow relate to their characters’ situation in the play.  Consequentially, it’s a slow, intense and impressively collaborative exploration.

At times I think this is something that could only happen in a theatre school (which, indeed, is where we’re doing this) because it’s an educational experience for every participant.  We’re all learning a great deal about the Great Depression, the power structures that existed in 1936, and the politics that swirl around a union considering calling a strike. The Stories stir up everyone’s passions, leading to passionate performances.  But also, the group gets involved in individuals’ feelings.  When one player announced she’d found a new place to live, a genuine celebration broke out.

The play is Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty and, while every word of the script will be there, we’re expanding our portrait of mid-thirties New York by adding songs and dances.  It’s too easy (and perhaps dismissive) to say we’re making it into a musical.  It’s a play with hot-blooded group scenes, tense dialogues, and a wide variety of Depression-era numbers.

Such individual components can be assembled in a variety of ways, like Scrabble tiles, and we on the creative team play around with various orders to maximize the drama and entertainment value.  A certain unmentionable TV show depicted writers reassembling index cards on a cork board, something that goes on all the time in fashioning revues, not so often in telling linear stories.  As I write this, we’re trying to find the right spot for a dance number from Pins and Needles, Doing the Reactionary.  It’s simultaneously defiant and silly. I’m sure we can use it, but I’m not quite sure what point in the play can bear such frivolity.  In essence, these are moods to be programmed.

At some point, while writing a musical, it’s helpful to step back and take a look at what types of songs you have in your score.  Too many ballads is a common problem.  Less recognized, but nearly as lethal: too many solos can destroy a show.  Mix in ensembles, duets, and other sizes.  I like to throw in a waltz somewhere.  And it’s questionable whether the public really wants to see a show without a love song.  A year ago, I was rehearsing Cabaret with some of these same people, and was very impressed with how its writers alternated diegetic and on-stage numbers. (I’m speaking of course of the original version; the movie and the radical revisal were far too timid to utilize many non-diegetic numbers.)

I’ll tell you how Waiting For Lefty is like a musical – and I mean a very good musical.  Every song is fully justified, inexorably connected to the truth the characters are facing.  No sugary icing masking a bitter cake, these.  That’s the aspect I’m personally most proud of.  The acting is stunning, too, and I’m moved at every rehearsal.

In a wild and wooly process like ours, everyone in the company must stay flexible.  At times, it seems like we’re rehearsing a completely different show on any given day.  And where will the spinning wheel stop?  Come see what we’ve wrought May 14 & 16.

Circle in the Square Theatre School presents: 
Monday, May 14th 2012 at 2:00pm & 7:30pm
Wednesday, May 16th 2012 at 7:30pm
1633 Broadway – 50th Street between Broadway & 8th Ave.

FREE – no reservations or tickets, just walk in and grab a seat

Sugar daddies

May 9, 2012

I’ve been going to the Encores series a long time, and I can’t recall having a better time than I did at their current offering, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Every minute made me deliriously happy.  Several of the Leo Robin-Jule Styne songs were so good, I had tears rolling down my face, just because they were so well written.  Encores has a notoriously short rehearsal schedule, yet, under the helm of John Rando, all the performers gave top-notch performances.  And the Randy Skinner dances were spectacular and entertaining.

Lorelei Lee is embodied (with an emphasis on the body) by Megan Hilty and her take on the character bears no resemblance to the old movie take of Marilyn Monroe.  I mention this because Hilty’s fame and fan-base has very little to do with her two Broadway appearances: replacement Glinda in Wicked and the Dolly Parton role in the Dolly Parton flop musical, 9 to 5. This Encores is selling out the incredibly large City Center because Miss Hilty appears on a television program in which she plays an actress vying to star in a musical biography of Marilyn Monroe.  Low-rated though the series is, it’s created significant interest in what Hilty will do with what’s seen as Marilyn Monroe iconic role.  But one of the first things you notice is what a very different beast the stage show is from the movie: Lorelei was originally Carol Channing, and it’s not a star vehicle. There’s vast amounts of time when the preferred blonde is not on stage.

So it’s a good thing the other comediennes are similarly engaging. Rachel York brings warmth and panache to her many numbers, including Sunshine, which blithely switches back and forth between English and first-semester French.  (It’s a song I often find myself humming, when the weather is nice.) Megan Sikora is a tap-dancing fiend, while Deborah Rush and Sandra Shipley knock their punch lines out of the park.  Did I mix a metaphor there?  It’s easy to mix up the men, because they’re interchangeable. (Aren’t we all?)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is lyricist Leo Robin’s only notable Broadway musical, and, more than any other element, the wit of his lyrics is what makes this a great evening.  The two hits from the score are multiple-verse comedy solos for Lorelei: Little Girl From Little Rock and Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.  Encores winks, a bit, at the convention of the encore verse, but we welcome Hilty’s every return, confident that Robin can top himself.  Lyric joke after lyric joke lands, all in a fixed structure, as I described in a recent post.  Little Rock is a series of anecdotes from the blonde life, while Diamonds is a great example of title-as-thesis getting a long series of rhetorical supports.

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
A kiss may be grand, but it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat
Or help you at the automat.
Men grow cold as girls grow old,
And we all lose our charm in the end.
But square cut or pear shape
These rocks don’t lose their shape!
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

I’ve heard of affairs that are strictly platonic,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
And I think affairs that you must keep Masonic
Are the better bets
If little pets get big baguettes.
Time rolls on, and youth is gone,
And you can’t straighten up when you bend.
But stiff back or stiff knees,
You stand straight at Tiff’ny’s!
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

There may come a time when a lass needs a lawyer,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
There may come a time when a hard-boiled employer
Thinks you’re awful nice,
But get that ice or else no dice.
He’s your guy when stocks are high,
But beware when they start to descend,
It’s then that those louses
Go back to their spouses!
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Romance is divine, and I’m not one to knock it,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
Romance is divine, yes, but where can you hock it?
When the flame is gone,
Just try and pawn a tired Don Juan.
Some men buy, and some just sigh
That to make you their bride they intend.
But buyers or sighers
They’re such goddamn liars!
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

At Yale there’s a lad whose appeal I acknowledge,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
I might like his dad, but when I meet a college boy,
The thing to say
Is ‘ray, ‘ray, ‘ray for Cartier!
Some girls find some piece of mind
In a trust fund that banks recommend.
But if you are busty
Your trustee gets lusty!
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Stash those rocks in your strongbox
For on them you can always depend.
It’s not compensation,
It’s self-preservation!
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

“Showstopper” is not a euphemism.  Early in the second act, there is a number so fabulous thunderous applause delays the furtherance of the action.  It’s a diegetic song, involving two tap-dancers we’ve never met before.  The subject of the lyric is obviously Josephine Baker, who came from humble America to become the biggest star in France.  Robin changes the name to protect the guilty pleasure: Her name was Mame, to France she came.  Now Mamie is Mimi, the toast of the Rue de la Paix.  I’m particularly tickled by “the baby who’s now a bébé.”  But what knocks the audience out is the amazing dance ability of Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes.

As the applause is going on and on and on, you’re wondering “How in he’ll are they going to follow that?” Out sashays Megan Hilty, commanding the stage alone through five and a half wondrous verses of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.  It could be argued that this is the greatest comedy song ever written, and I got very upset with a movie called Moulin Rouge a few years ago, because it sucked all the humor out of the song, and a new generation had no idea it was funny.  Hilty’s got the comedy chops, and understands that the show celebrates Lorelei’s power.  This is not just a show about some dumb blonde a procession of men fall for, it’s about a smart girl who understands how to use her assets.  So we’re always laughing with her, sharing in the celebration, never laughing at her.  The sexiness of Hilty’s Lorelei is an outrageous joke: she moves in ways that gets the audience to double over with laughter, rather than drool with lust. And her shape: If an adolescent boy was doodling a sexy woman, she’d look like Hilty does here.  Those lips, those hips, that butt, that bust: all are in motion, wiggling in ways that support the comedy.  Now that’s what I call acting!

You don’t seem to get it

May 7, 2012

A hue and cry was heard throughout the land, and the powers-that-be responded, making the clamored-for change.  Good news, indeed.

But a very small part of that relatable righteous hue was an incidental insult to a couple of musical theatre writers, and, coming from another musical theatre writer, it needs to be addressed. 

But first, the victory: An organization of modest size presents, annually, Drama Desk awards to theatre people.  For decades, there’s been a prize for best orchestrations, but, this year, they decided not to give the award.  Which led to a lot of outrage, from past recipients, from composers, from orchestrators.  Happily, they reversed themselves, and, after a few days, announced nominees.

Over the past year, I taught myself to orchestrate.  The December production of The Christmas Bride in Portland required a new orchestration.  Previously, I’d orchestrated my Popsicle Palace, but the premiere run, in Glendale, California, used it on a pre-recorded accompaniment track: a somewhat different task.  In becoming a composer who also orchestrates, I joined a very exclusive club.  Most composers haven’t learned this specialized craft.  I can think of only one Broadway composer who regularly orchestrated his own work, Kurt Weill, and he came out of the serious classical training tradition in Germany at the beginning of the century.  Leonard Bernstein could orchestrate; Andrew Lloyd Webber has received credit for orchestrating some of his works; Jason Robert Brown has served in both capacities.

Brown devoted a blog post to the Drama Desk’s egregious omission, and said a lot of nice things about orchestrators.  But one passage gave me pause:

I doubt that most non-musicians are aware of the extent to which the music directors and orchestrators shape the scores of shows. In the case of Bonnie and Clyde and Once, for example, the composers of those shows cannot (to the best of my knowledge) read or notate music. They do not have the language to communicate with an orchestra how to play their songs. They don’t have any vocabulary about building a cohesive musical universe on stage. There is a vast reservoir of technical and theatrical information that the music staff brings to bear on the songs those composers write in order to make a “score” out of them.

This may not have been his intention, but it certainly sounds, here, as if Brown is maintaining that, among his other duties, the orchestrator has something to do with the process of putting the non-notating composer’s notes on a page.  This is absolutely not something any orchestrator is supposed to be doing, and it certainly has no bearing on whether his work deserves a award.  In the two sentences beginning with “They” Brown tells outright lies, which certainly doesn’t bolster his argument, and insults the many non-notating composers who’ve managed to create wonderful scores for the theatre.

Boy, it’s a pain in the neck to keep typing “non-notating composer” so, I hope it’s OK if I call such people naifs.  In choosing a term from the art world, I’m not making a value judgment – as you’ll see, this gets to be a big issue.  A scribe, for our purposes, is one who notates music for a naif, who cannot.  I’ll also delineate arrangers and orchestrators.

Some of my favorite Broadway shows, and, I’ll bet, some of your favorite Broadway shows, were written by naifs.  Like the Beatles?  They were naifs.  From Irving Berlin to Willian Finn, naifs abound. My father’s favorite Broadway show, Take Me Along, was written by Bob Merrill on a toy xylophone. I kid you not. Merrill’s method was to figure out the notes he wanted on a child’s xylophone, which had letters (A-G#) on the keys. He’d write down the letters of the notes and hand it off to a scribe who turned it into either a lead sheet or a full piano score, I know not which. The next part of the process is to arrange the piece, and you don’t have to know how to notate to formulate good ideas about arrangements. Arrangers deal with the structure of the score. Once the score has been arranged, it’s handed off to the orchestrator, who decides which instruments will play the various notes in the score. Complicating this whole thing is that people’s roles often overlap. Composers arrange, or maybe the scribe can do it, and a lot of orchestrators know a great deal about arranging. But orchestration, and any award given for it, has to do with the craft of getting various sonic colors out of a musical ensemble, whether it’s orchestra-sized or not.

The top dog in the hierarchy is always the composer. If she doesn’t like what she hears – and she’ll likely hear everything at every stage of development – she can send the other members of the music staff back to the drawing board. Typically, when a naif is in a rock band, there’s a truly collaborative effort to develop a sound, which is why Brown’s statements about what naifs can’t do are so ridiculous.

They do not have the language to communicate with an orchestra how to play their songs. They don’t have any vocabulary about building a cohesive musical universe on stage.

One gets a sense that he’s jealous of Frank Wildhorn (who, many years ago, wrote such pop hits as Where Do Broken Hearts Go?) and the Oscar-winning (for Best Song) creators of the very well-received new Broadway musical, Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Or perhaps he’s mad that he had to study to learn the rudiments of music and the skill of orchestration, while naifs succeed sans education.

There’s a whole lot of things you probably ought to know in order to create a musical. But you don’t have to know the whole lot in order to become very successful. And that’s a wonderful thing about this business of musicals. It’s something we all should celebrate. Just like we should celebrate the fine work of this season’s orchestrators.

For goodness sake

May 2, 2012

In my last entry, I recalled suggesting an extremely strict structure to college students looking to create a score with nothing but comedy songs. That sort of precision isn’t de rigueur for every song, or every writer.  Yet when the masters of musical comedy writing make the audience laugh, a hard-and-fast form is most often adhered to, so it can’t be coincidence. 

A rhyme scheme, faithfully used, for example, gives the audience something to listen for.  You can fulfill expectations, or better yet exceed expectations. But, for heaven’s sake don’t deny expectations. That’s bound to be disappointing. Many great comedy songs have something that might be called a joke scheme. Take Cole Porter’s Brush Up Your Shakespeare. It’s clear that each verse will contain three couplets, all using a Shakespeare title in a silly rhyme. The audience quickly catches on to the game, and we listen, assured that Cole Porter will provide new jokes of this type at these regular intervals.

Just declaim a few lines from “Othella”
And they’ll think you’re a helluva fella.
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
What are clothes? “Much Ado About Nussing.”
Brush up your Shakespeare
And they’ll all kowtow.

With the wife of the British embessida
Try a crack out of “Troilus and Cressida,”
If she says she won’t buy it or tike it
Make her tike it, what’s more, “As You Like It.”
If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the “Coriolanus.”

Cole Porter’s strict adherence to the joke scheme has a host of ramifications.  One is that it cuts out his work for him: Go through the list of the Bard’s play titles and see what you can make of them.  (Two Gentlemen of Verona?  Nothing there.  Anthony and Cleopatra? Gold.) Secondly, things with good form are things of beauty.  There’s an aesthetic pleasure in the construction.  More importantly, the format focuses the audience’s attention.  We listen extra carefully to places in a song where we know the joke is coming.  During the repeated title, we might even play along, trying to think of what he’s going to do with Pericles or Romeo & Juliet (nothing, it turns out).  Porter outplays us, coming up with cleverer lines than us mere mortals – who else could have come up with the quip for Coriolanus?  Sticking to an unbending structure makes Brush Up Your Shakespeare the perfect joke-delivery system.

Or perhaps you think the whole thing is old-fashioned.  Unspontaneous. Arch.  Most artists want to be mad experimenters, wild and free.  Is form anathema to you?  Do those sonneteers, from centuries long over, filling out verse after verse in immaculately rhymed and metered fourteen line patterns seem like your polar opposite?  Do you long for a more organic-seeming, free-flowing expression?  It’s natural to feel this way.

I often marvel at the architecture of those new buildings hanging over the High Line at Twenty-Third Street. Seems wildly creative to fashion structures that don’t rise straight up, but rather up and out, like a tree.  A lot of us aspire to such innovation, but you know the cliché: In order to get to the level of proficiency required for such bulging weirdness, the architect had to demonstrate, over and over again, that he could design a building the normal way, with regular vertical lines.

Writing songs in 32-bar AABA format may seem terribly stifling, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.  And then tried it again, literally hundreds of times. Those who’ve ample experience with structured songwriting understand that this sort of precision, no matter how uncomfortable and inorganic it seems, leads to more effective songwriting.  We all want to move our audiences, and the masters succeed with careful fidelity to architectural principles.

In my notebook, I jotted down an idea for this blog about comparing two Broadway love songs with unusual structures.  It’s taken me all this time to get to it.  Two of our greatest living composers:  Charles Strouse in 1966; Stephen Sondheim in 1971.  After much study (Strouse at Eastman; Sondheim with Milton Babbitt) and much experience writing hit Broadway musicals, each decided to take a creative leap with the architecture of the principle love songs in musicals they were writing (Golden Boy and Follies).

In Golden Boy, a black prizefighter has started a relationship with his white manager’s white girlfriend.  The stakes are extremely high when they finally give voice to their feelings about each other.  The accompaniment starts with a long tremolo on a tense, suspended chord. Clearly, something major’s about to be said:

Lorna and Joe
Somehow, it feels so right
Somehow, you feel what I feel too

These lines play up the notes of that fraught chord, ascending higher with each line.  It’s as if Joe’s getting bolder or bolder (and Lorna must react in an encouraging way).  This intro has no set rhythm, so it’s a little like recitative, but the effect is that words seem to be bursting forth from a heart that can no longer hold its peace.

Then comes the title, assumedly the inspiration of lyricist Lee Adams: I Want To Be With You.  The words carry a subtle extra meaning, as “be with you” has a sexual sense.  This ups the stakes, and makes the entire song seem dangerous.  (I’d bet this musical didn’t tour in the deep south.) Strouse sets this on six notes that repeat, frequently, as a motif. Sometimes with the same words; sometimes with others.  The phrase is so strong, not only can it bear repetition, but, repeated twice, it serves as the A section of the song.  This is extremely out of the ordinary for a show tune.  The B section, in tempo, echoes the intro, building up various suspended chords.  Then there’s a C section (I have a feeling some readers who are new mothers just uttered “ouch”) in which the voices ring out on long notes.  Adams provides syllables that don’t end in consonants see/how/me/now.  Little wonder so many musical theatre writers named him as their favorite lyricist when the Dramatist Guild Quarterly took a survey forty years ago.

In Follies, two former flames, now unhappily married to others, reunite for the first time in a quarter century.  The possibility of their hooking up means a lot to Sally; it’s not clear, at this point in the play, how much such a liaison would mean to Ben.

So, sans intro, Ben expresses the romantic notion that too many mornings over those twenty-five years were spent pretending he was reaching for Sally in bed.  The music here uses what I like to call the vanilla chords, a major ninth and peacefully related harmonies.  There’s very little tension, so we have to believe Ben is earnest.  A B section starts with a phrase we’ll hear again later, but the B section won’t be heard again.  It neatly brings us back to the opening harmony, and the A is heard again.  Now the C utilizes scales, but fights the routine nature of this by going into different harmonic places.  The D section is passionate and bold, almost like something you’d find in an operetta.

With the A section underscoring, Sally speaks, asking for a kiss.  Then, it seems she’s starting the B section, but she’s not calm enough to use it, breaking off into a variant involving the same dance-like rhythm Richard Rodgers used – too often for my taste – in a comic trio with words by Sondheim, No Understand.  Then there’s something of a climax on the words “You remembered, and my fears were wrong!” Next comes a quieter sentimental theme, and, if you’ve been following this very carefully, you’ll recognize it uses the same rhythm as I Want To Be With You‘s C section (no one would call this a steal; it’s just coincidence).  Then Ben restates the theme as Sally’s self-recriminative nature gets the better of her.  She sings a countermelody that plays on chromatically descending thirds.  On the word “happy” both characters trail off as the orchestra plays a set of eighth notes.  These sound, to me, like musically treading water, but it gives the characters time to look into each other’s eyes, commune and decide to sing together.  They do, a truncated restatement of the song, and, rather than cuing the audience to applaud, on the final sung note the sentimental theme returns on a solo violin.

It’s probably no secret which of these two duets I prefer, but both are very sophisticated approaches to going beyond the standard construction of the Broadway love song.  And I hope every writer reading this aspires to that level of non-standard sophistication.  Someday.  When you’re ready.