Not a lion

June 28, 2012

Several times a week I take my baby daughter to play on the lawns of Columbia University.  I shouldn’t let June go by without acknowledging that it’s one of those big anniversaries of my graduation from the college. 

Columbia was the place where Oscar Hammerstein introduced Richard Rodgers to Lorenz Hart.  These three alums alone would be enough to make me want to go there.  The story goes that, as a teen, Rodgers wasn’t particularly interested in musical theatre.  Then he attended Columbia’s Varsity Show, the annual student-created musical comedy, and instantly knew this was what he wanted to do.  He got to meet the show’s leading lady and blurted out his intention to attend, just so he could write the music to Varsity Shows.  Who was that leading lady?  In those days, Columbia was a male-only institution and so was the Varsity Show.  The leading lady, in drag, was the man Rodgers would collaborate with 25 years later, Oscar Hammerstein.

As years went by, they eventually let women appear in the show, and the writers included lyricist Howard Dietz and a couple of Hermans who didn’t go into musical theatre: Wouk (who wrote about his V-show experience in more than one novel) and Mankiewicz, who’d go on to pen Citizen Kane.  When I was applying for college, Mankiewicz’s son was a frequent visitor to our home.  He recalled writing a letter to his father, overseas on a film, to report he’d gotten the highest possible score on the Acheivement Test.  Herman instantly cabled back “Good thing they didn’t ask you to spell ‘achievement.’”

During the tumultuous sixties, when Columbia led the nation in student riots, they stopped doing The Varsity Show.  But, the year I was applying, they’d managed to put one up for the first time in more than a decade.  Some recruiter pointed me to a New York Times article about it, assuring me the revue would once again be an annual event.  It was a false lie.  The years I was at Columbia, they didn’t do Varsity Shows.  The unfeeling graduate school spent a boat-load of money on reviving Rodgers & Hart’s 1920 edition, which, to me, was like rubbing salt in a wound.  Luckily, the enterprising Adam Belanoff felt just as I did, and began a series of manipulations (read: administration ass-kissing) that led to the permanent restoration.  After my graduation, he invited me to contribute to Fear of Scaffolding, and then collaborate on the entire score to The New U.

The New U. also featured writing by Alexa Junge (later a television comedy writer), humorist David Rakoff, and, Stephen Gee, whose actual experiences in a dorm provided fodder for our most successful song and scene.  The big punch-line actually stopped the show.  The crowd would not stop laughing and musical director Jeanine Tesori had to lift her hands from the piano keyboard to wait for the audience to let her continue.  Adam’s oldest brother was heard to utter the magic words: “I bet if you guys did something similar that wasn’t about Columbia, it could run off-Broadway and make some money.”

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

He meant that literally.  He put up the money for us to do a professional commercial musical the following year, and, indeed, turned a profit.

So one of the things I’m saying about Columbia was that meeting smart, talented and destined-to-be-successful people was a particularly valuable part of the experience.  Over the years, the college has consistently ranked in the nation’s top ten.  Few places are harder to get into.  You can just tell that fellow students are going places, even if you never actually shake their hands and say hello.  For instance, I’ve no recollection of casting my eyes on this tall, dark and thin guy with an afro, but he was there: Barack Obama.

A school is more than its potential for connectivity, what’s being taught matters greatly.  Columbia has something called a core curriculum: a set of classes, on philosophy, literature, music and art.  Every student’s required to take them.  And, I recall, they were taught in small sections, so we could have a roundtable discussion re whether David Hume could out consume Schopenhauer and Hegel.  I majored in English, ostensibly searching for public domain properties I could turn into musicals.  I never found a thing, but that’s partly due to my being more fascinated by poetry than prose.  It’s fair to say I improved as a lyricist by becoming familiar with the various poetic forms that have been used over time.

During the same four years I was at Columbia, I made weekly excursions to the BMI workshop under Lehman Engel.  This had nothing to do with Columbia, but if I’d been stuck in the middle of nowhere (the location of many a great university), I might not have made the trip.  Being located in New York is an obvious boon: that art we studied, we actually saw at MOMA, the Guggenheim, and the Met.  That music we studied, we’d hear at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center.  I went across the street to Barnard for a course in urban politics.  Yep: we got that.

And I’ll never forget the name of that professor, Fuchs.  But I also studied playwriting with Howard Teichmann (The Solid Gold Cadillac) and Arnold Weinstein (The Red Eye of Love).  Arnold, who would later write several well-regarded operas with composer William Bolcom, snagged me into something of an apprenticeship, which may or may not have been a good thing.  Among some other things, he taught me that a lyricist-librettist could be lazy, disheveled, and live in a very messy abode.  On its walls were paintings by his old drinking buddies, and whenever Arnold ran out of money, he’d sell one.  I thought it remarkable at the time that an actual grown-up could live this way.  Careful the things you do…

Tony-winning songwriter raps about a Columbia grad in front of Columbia grad
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Generation f’d

June 22, 2012

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness

Whenever I read the first phrase of Howl, the most famous poem of the second half of the 20th century, a crazily over-dramatic thought pops into my head.  

I think of some of the best minds of my generation of musical theatre writers, what happened to them, and how we all got screwed.  Royally.

Wow, that is over-dramatic.  But consider this:

When we were starting out, watching Franklin Shepherd meet Charlie Kringas, audiences still embraced the new.  They preferred seeing new musicals to old ones.  They didn’t need to have a title they’d heard before, or a very familiar plot from an oft-viewed movie.  They accepted that they’d be walking into a theatre and encountering a new score – a set of songs previously unheard.  Might be good numbers; might be bad: but certainly worth risking the price of a ticket.

Oh, those idyllic salad days!  Sure, I’m like any oldster looking back and waxing nostalgic when I say it seemed a world filled with possibility.  And it’s certainly possible that everybody feels this way about the era in which they were just starting out.  But consider what happened:

1. Invaders from foreign shores.  It will make me unpopular with my many international readers to admit this, but in those days we thought of musical theatre as a particularly American art form.  Sure, in the sixties, the globe-trotting David Merrick managed to sneak over a handful of West End hits, but people referred to “the Broadway musical” as if a good show could spring up nowhere else.  In the eighties, we were besieged by London imports, and, to my ears, none of these were nearly as good as our home-grown product.  I happen to be staring at the 1987 Tony nominations for Best Score.  French-written Les Miserables, with its endless procession of masculine couplets and power ballad chords, won out over Lloyd Webber’s horribly banal Starlight Express, Me and My Girl (an English show that had been written and produced in the 1930s; can’t fathom how it was deemed eligible) and the one American entry, a score I’m rather fond of, Strouse and Schwartz’s stirring Rags.  I’m not really arguing that Les Miserables didn’t deserve the nod; just pointing out the three-to-one ratio of foreign scores.

2. Revivals got mounted with exponentially increasing frequency.  And when that happens, a lot of resources – talent, money, theatre space – that might have otherwise gone to creating something new get squandered on recreating something old.  When people say “They sure don’t write them like they did in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s day” I want to yell at them “In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s day, writers didn’t have to compete with revivals of fondly-remembered shows.”  Remember, audiences back them clamored to see what they hadn’t seen before.

3. Jukeboxes.  I can distinctly recall my horror at seeing a Broadway musical with unoriginal music.  It was called The 1940s Radio Hour and its single set included a huge clock.  The hands seemed to move so slowly, I could swear it was rigged to make every minute 90 seconds or something like that.  I’d never seen anything quite so boring.  But let’s admit one thing: “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a marvelous song – I’m not so confident I could write a better ballad.

You see, all of a sudden it was fair game to produce a show, and call it “new” and fill it with great numbers from the past.  So, the truly new musicals had to vie for sales with ersatz new musicals that served up old hit after old hit.  Songwriters now faced a kind of competition that Rodgers and Hammerstein never had to deal with and couldn’t have dreamed of.  Seem unfair?  It got worse.

But let’s digress for a moment.  Recently, I was momentarily excited to learn that the esteemed Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota was doing a musical of Roman Holiday.  Thinking that’s a fairly fun idea for a show, I was eager to learn who was writing the songs.  Some fellow named Cole Porter.  He’s been dead about fifty years and various numbers he wrote for other musicals are here being repurposed to tell a different story.  Learning this, what seemed like a good idea at first glance now seems like a terrible one.  Repurposing songs, to me, is a bit like grave-robbing.  Since Cole Porter wrote them for other characters in other situations, shoehorning them into the Roman Holiday plot isn’t going to do his reputation any favors.  Could be a new generation will hear these songs for the first time and not get what’s so wonderful about him, because there’s a disconnect between what the songs are doing and what the book is doing.  They could have avoided this disconnect with an original score.

But, mamma mia, did things take an awful turn!  Producers discovered that you could sell the public on a musical using a score of old pop hits that were never meant to be heard inside a theatre, never meant to tell a linear story.  Mamma Mia, using the catchy but brainless oeuvre of the Swedish sensation known as ABBA, sometimes tries to make fun of its own deficiency.  It’s supposed to be funny how the songs don’t fit the situation, such as a character singing Knowing You Knowing Me to someone he’s just met.  Of course, I didn’t find it funny at all.  And, as I never tire of pointing out, the exact same plot, of a young woman inviting three of her mother’s old lovers to a Mediterranean paradise in hopes of discovering which is her father, had been used in a previous musical, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s Carmelina.

4. And then there’s the epidemic of movie adaptations.  Shows come to Broadway (Ghost, anyone?) on the hopes that they’ll succeed just because ticket-buyers already have a fondness for the films on which they’re based.  For about sixty years, there have been shows wrought of flicks.  Some of my favorites: The King and I, Fanny, Sweet Charity and Nine.  Certainly, a lot of screenplays contain the sort of plot, and maybe even dialogue that could work well on the musical stage.  But none of the four shows I mentioned in admiration really traded on their titles.  The French film, Fanny, wasn’t widely known.  The others didn’t use the titles of the cinematic versions.  Nowhere on the poster for Nine could you discover that it was based on .  Might lead one to joke that they merely added ½.

More broadly, what it really leads to is a scrambling to purchase adaptation rights.  Just about any film you can name that could be a musical has already been optioned.  The laws of supply and demand are such that the options are prohibitively expensive.  In many cases, it’s the film studios themselves who are initiating the projects, going out and hiring the writers who’ll adapt their material for the stage.

5. And who do they hire?  Professional musical theatre writers?  The best minds of my generation?  Nah: over-the-hill rock stars.  (See previous post.)


Torture rock

June 16, 2012

Rock stars are attractive people.  Or perhaps the way the media works, and effective promotion, result in pop music stars becoming the most widely-admired segment of society.  Theirs is a specialized talent: they write (or, sometimes, simply perform) the songs the highest quantity of people want to hear, again and again.  I don’t knock that ability, or think they don’t deserve the massive riches derived. 

I’m sure you’ve noticed what so many have commented on, that rock is the music of the young.  Sometimes, the young-and-uninhibited; often, the young-and-angry.  Assuming the star isn’t one of the many who overdose at the age of 27, eventually he becomes too old to be young-and-anything.  Now, what are they going to do?

I’m not going to make fun of the geriatric rockers who still tour.  I mean, that’s one reasonable response to the situation they find themselves in, and a great quantity of concert-goers eat it up.  No, this is another of my acidulous musings on musicals.  I have to ask why must the past-prime pop stars traipse on my pasture, the world of theatre.

There was a time in which just about everyone in the rock world made fun of musical comedy as square, their parents’ idea of entertainment.  Regrettably, it took the theatre a long time to wake up to the idea that the Baby Boomers’ music had a place on the stage.  Can it be that it’s now been 16 years since Jonathan Larson’s Rent?  The contemporary feel of that music had been so rarely heard on Broadway, the retelling of La bohème in the era of the Tompkins Square riots seemed bold and fresh.  Happily, since then, there seems to have been less of a schism.  Tom Kitt’s exceptional score, Next To Normal (2009), didn’t seem like an exception, a step in an untried direction at all.

So, that’s a positive change.  Broadway now caters to aging Baby Boomers and next to no one looks askance if show tunes don’t sound wildly dissimilar to what can be heard on the radio.  But what’s not-so-positive to us trained-and-prepped-for-this musical theatre writers, is that so many theatre powers-that-be go ape over the idea of doing a musical with a score by a well-known rocker.  They follow two false assumptions: that the theatre-going public is more likely to buy a ticket to a show by a famous pop composer, and that the score will be good.

Is there a living American songwriter more widely admired than Paul Simon?  Well, his legions of fans stayed away from his Broadway musical, The Capeman, in droves.  Randy Newman was a top 40 singer-songwriter who, as he aged, took up his uncle’s profession, writing scores for movies.  Over the past 30 years, he’s been nominated for Academy Awards 20 times, winning his second just last year.  But his musical for the theatre, Faust, languished on the road and never made it to New York, even after David Mamet came in to rewrite the book.  And some other day, I’ll talk about a show for the entire family by a member of the not-for-the-entire-family band, Styx, that truncated its road tour due to low box office.

Now, I can understand a producer’s assumption that big name music celebrities will lead to filled seats.  What I can’t understand is why so many people believe that a score by a pop writer, trying his or her hand at the stage for the first time, will be any good at all.  It simply makes no sense.  And I’ve an analogy that’s a little faulty, but I can’t get it out of my head.  (When that happens, I put it on this blog and forget about it.)

Two decades apart, the actors who played the villains in two of my musicals were housepainters.  Let’s use one’s name, Dennis.  And, because I’m in an odd mood, let’s use Chaim Soutine as an example of an artist who had an extremely successful career. Take a good look at his beef carcass.  Make your mouth water?  Never mind.

So, say your house needs painting: Who are you going to call?  Both Dennis and Soutine are certainly painters.  They know about color, applying paint permanently with a brush; they’ve an understanding of how different hues reflect light.  Dennis, I should have already pointed out, has been doing this for years.  He apprenticed, learned his craft, got better at it, perfected it.  And Soutine?  Well, he’s hung in every major art museum.  Don’t argue this point: he’s a great painter.

But, of course, there’s painting and there’s painting.  A canvas, or work of art, is wholly different from a home, or living space.  If you ignore that difference, and get Chaim Soutine to cover the walls of your dining room, you could end up with unsavory butchered meat on your walls; guests might find it frightening and not stay for dinner.

OK, that’s a crazy analogy, but welcome to my reality: There’s a major regional theatre, in a sunny climate, that, over the years, has produced premieres of many musicals.  This season, they’ve got an entire season of first efforts – by well-known rock composers.  It’s as if they’ve hired Soutine and Pollack and Bosch to paint their walls, rather than Dennis who knows from walls.  The theatre company is abandoning what it knows from years of producing new musicals – that the best are those that are written by musical theatre specialists who’ve honed their craft – and glommed on to a sort of false logic a lot of us are guilty of.

We hear a pop song and admire certain things about it.  Maybe the lyric tells a story.  Maybe the tune is every bit as hummable as something by Jerry Herman.  Maybe the composer has a history of delineating different characters in her songs.  These maybes lead some to jump to the conclusion that this particular pop songwriter would be good at writing musicals.  Which makes exactly as much sense as the idea that Soutine might be good at painting a house.


Valse

June 10, 2012

I have some thoughts to share about A Little Night Music, having just seen a sumptuous production at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. The students were admirably able to illuminate the show’s strengths, which only put the flaw at its core in clearer contrast. 

From Ingmar Bergman, who more famously presented a chess-playing Death, A Little Night Music delineates a large number of game-playing characters: We see a wisdom-spouting old courtesan, who resists her granddaughter’s exhortation to cheat at solitaire.  The generation in between them is an actress whose idea of fun is to invite various foes to a party and see what mischief gets stirred up.  There’s a virgin bride (sexless marriage as a different sort of game) who paws at the bosom of her sexually-active servant.  And on and on.

Librettist Hugh Wheeler gives everyone fabulously witty lines to say, and the dialogue crackles.  The plot has a good sense of actions leading to consequences, a quality missing from many lesser musicals.  There’s even that rarity, a palpable sense of magic, as if the summer night were compelling such moonstruck characters as an overly sensitive (literally and figuratively) divinity student to do crazy things.

Musically, this is my favorite of Stephen Sondheim’s scores, the only one for which the word “gorgeous” seems appropriate.  To honor its Scandinavian setting, the harmonic palette is largely drawn from one of my favorite classical composers, Edvard Grieg.  And, since the show references operetta, many of the waltzes “hum,” by which I mean the notes follow each other in smooth and unsurprising ways.  And that adds to the sense of magic – how pretty it all is.

Sondheim himself is famous for collecting and playing games, which would lead one to believe he sees himself in these characters. Like the lyricist himself, sometimes these lyrics are too clever by half. It’s perfectly appropriate to have a lawyer puzzle out a problem in dense Gilbertian patter, but an uneducated maid? Who talks like this?

It’s a wink and a wiggle and a giggle in the grass
And I’ll trip the light fandango,
A pinch and a diddle in the middle of what passes by.
It’s a very short road
From the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch
And the pension.

I’ll tell you who talks like that: intellectuals with graduate degrees.  Now, this is an eleven o’clock number, given to a character who, previously, hasn’t had much to sing.  So it’s a surprise that she’s wise (or wiser) than her schooled employer.  But it’s not a good sort of surprise.  It just sets up an excess character to spout wisdom (we already have the grandmother) and the dazzling patter trick is not something that can be pulled off twice.  Of course, an inveterate game-player would be blind to this problem. 

What A Little Night Music has to say about life and liaisons reminds me of the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical, Pal Joey.  Both present an environment where love doesn’t make the world go round, sex does.  Pal Joey’s milieu is the Chicago cabaret scene, where jazz clubs seem to billow out cynicism along with smoke.  The provincial Sweden of Night Music, where it’s always twilight, is a more rapturous place to live.  Ideally, the show is produced with swirling curtains of birch trees, and, indeed, the original logo hid nudes in a tree’s branches.  And there’s a quintet of formally dressed singers, who appear to be former lovers, but you can’t quite comprehend in what combination.

Let’s state the obvious: It’s all very romantic.  For Sondheim, who’d been accused of being over-cerebral and never writing about feeling, here was a chance to play on his mentor Oscar Hammerstein’s turf.  For director Harold Prince, it was a chance to marshall a design team’s considerable forces to express a love story, as he’d be able to do more successfully (financially!) some years later with Phantom of the Opera.  For some odd reason, Sondheim decided to pose himself the added challenge of building the meter of every song on a multiple of three.  Man, that man loves puzzles!  But this also serves as a subtle reference to the operetta era.

By entrancing us with the trappings of romantic operettas – the lush waltzes, the nostalgic choruses, the characters who find metaphorical meanings in moonlight – Wheeler and Sondheim perform the ultimate bait-and-switch.  There’s no love in this musical at all, just lust.  It isn’t an evening that makes you snuggle closer to your honey.  And it’s a little like promising to serve a delicious cake, and out it comes on its round pedestal, the cover is lifted and voila! – there’s an excellent pâté.  At this point it doesn’t really matter if the pâté is superbly crafted, I was looking forward to cake!

I love to play games.  I love to watch sports.  But watching arch and artificial characters playing games for over two hours is not nearly as involving as watching romances in which people actually feel things for each other.  So, towards the end, you check your watch thinking “All right already.  I’ve had enough of this.”  Then, on comes that evergreen, Send In the Clowns.  All of a sudden, A Little Night Music is asking us to take the romantic foibles seriously.  But it’s too little, too late.  We’ve eaten the gin-sodden bon bons for too long, and the abrupt turn, asking us to care about callous gamesters, can’t easily be accepted by hardened hearts.


You bring out the mother in me

June 3, 2012

In what’s always been my favorite musical, a window-washer charms everyone in a big corporation and, with amazing speed, ascends to the top position in the company.  Fifteen years ago today, I met a beautiful young woman who, with amazing speed, ascended from unpaid intern to head of a casting company.  Knowing a good thing when I see one, I married her. Tomorrow begins the life of her company, Joy Dewing Casting.  If I detail a bit of its history and heritage, it’s not uxorious crowing, but, I hope, news you can use.  All makers of musicals need an excellent casting director on their team, and if you can get one as good as Joy, you’re truly blessed.

We met because she was looking for advice, on-line, about what credits should and shouldn’t be on her résumé.  Of course, now, she’s the expert, having pored over literally thousands of résumés in her casting career.  She started off as a performer, and, making the rounds in New York, she encountered the full range of casting business people: the ones who treated you like dirt and the ones who treated you like a human being.  Her survival jobs, at the time, were in non-show businesses, and it used to bother her that not everybody else in the world insists on the highest standards of professional conduct, grammar, morals and creative thinking.  After too much time on the road, she took an internship with Dave Clemmons Casting, specifically because it was the company that treated actors the best.  It was a point of pride with them: performers are the lifeblood of the theatre.  They’re putting themselves out there, helping you solve the problem of finding the perfect acting company.  Why shouldn’t they be treated well?

In short order, Joy transformed the company, insisting everyone working with her live up to those top-tier standards.
For a substantial period, she ran the company alone. A year and a half ago, Dave Clemmons named her partner.  Often, in accounts of business comings and goings, “He’s moving on to pursue an exciting opportunity” is code for “was fired.”  But Clemmons, in giving up casting, is truly transmogrifying into the exciting world of producing.  He’s among the throng who produced this season’s best-received musical, Once.  And so this month begins Joy Dewing Casting, a new small business that will feature Joy’s fastidiousness and unparalleled empathy.

There are a lot of misapprehensions about what casting directors do: the ultimate picks for who will play any role are never theirs.  It’s usually the director who has the say; more rarely, producers.  But casting directors are responsible for finding talent and presenting a wide array of choices to the creative team.  Joy’s brilliant career has involved finding quite a few diamonds-in-the-rough and making that magical phone call that tells some young aspirant they’ve gotten their first paid job in the theatre.  Clemmons/Dewing had a reputation for matching the right kinds of voices to the specific types of musical scores.  My professional experience with the old company involved just that.  I’d written a musical, Such Good Friends, set in 1950, and endeavored to make my score as close as possible to what Jule Styne might have written at the time.  So, the casting director Geoff Josselson started compiling lists of extremely talented performers who can, if asked, sing with that mid-century panache.  And, as the writer, I learned about the need to refine my characters, both in the text and in the way they’re described – in either the dramatis personae or the breakdowns used in the casting notice.  For instance, there was one I’d once described as being like Mary Martin.  Yet, at another point, I’d described her as Ethel Merman. Joy gently pointed out this conflict, and, as I was busy reworking my description, Geoff came up with Lynne Wintersteller, who, indeed, is a direct cross between the two.

The ability to come up with the perfect performer for the role is no preternatural knack.  Joy and her staff attend an exhausting quantity of showcases, as well as the massive cattle calls such as the Southeastern Theatre Conference.  Getting to know what talent’s out there involves seeing a lot of auditions.  Actors often think it’s in their best interest to cozy up to casting directors, but the best way to impress one is to audition well, again and again.  They’re taking notice; they’re taking notes.

But now I’m getting self-conscious: This wasn’t supposed to be ad copy for Joy Dewing Casting. It’s more cogent to convey that your show is much better off with a casting director than without one. Sometimes a creative team will think they can cast a show on their own. It’s a natural enough assumption. But time and again these are the shows where a player or two just isn’t up to snuff. When a cast is great, well, I’m reminded of the long-running off-Broadway musical Voca People. It’s about visitors from outer space who do fabulous choral renditions of all sorts of earth music, instruments and sounds. Audiences leave the the theatre invigorated and amazed, invariably asking “How in the world did they find people like that?” I cannot lie: The answer is they had Joy Dewing. So, do what Tony-winners like Twyla Tharp, Jerry Zaks, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Julie Andrews do: work with Joy Dewing to cast your shows. (O.K., I lied: Julie Andrews never won a Tony.)