Wet newspaper blues

July 28, 2012

Some quick thoughts on some items in the news.  I almost said “newspapers” which would have revealed me as some hopelessly out-of-date, stuck-in-the-past oldster.  What’s black and white and read all over?  A Twitter feed.

A Broadway actress named Morgan James saw the first preview of Into the Woods in the park, and was so horrified by what she saw, she tweeted her dismay with the hash-tag, #horrified.  An all-star cast (Donna Murphy, Amy Adams, et al.) butchering Sondheim?  She had a right to be pissed, given all the money she paid for tickets.  Let me look up how much that was.  I happen to have a newspaper handy.  Just a sec.  Oh: It was free.

Members of the theatrical community can’t go tweeting “This sucks” about shows.  Doing so shows a rude disregard for the hard work that other members of the theatrical community are putting in. Professional courtesy must trump honesty: how many of those involved with Into the Woods are going to want to work with Morgan James now?

I saw two shows Morgan James was in and thought they both sucked, but you didn’t read that here.  This incident serves as a reminder that there are limits as to how candid I can be with my cutting commentary on this blog.  Quite often, I find I have to talk about certain shows and certain writers without mentioning their names.

A while back, I complained about an inexplicably popular songwriter who’s never had a musical produced and literally cannot write music.  Let me be clear: the sheet music he’s personally distributed contains errors I’ve never seen any other composer make: notes on the wrong staves, for instance, or E-flats expressed as F-double flat, etc.  Playing his music, as my job sometimes requires, is an unpleasant adventure, even harder on the singer.  Then, there was a post about a rather dull three-character musical; the songwriters were competent on that one, the librettist, less so.  Many months later, I learned that the wholly incompetent songwriter and the less-than-proficient book writer had written a show together, and my wife was involved in casting it.  How embarrassing it might have been had I not used an obvious pseudonym for one and “neglected” to name the other.  The show has since lost its backing, and nobody’s faulting the cast.

A much higher-profile show has lost its songwriting team.  The stage adaptation of the late great Nora Ephron’s film, Sleepless In Seattle, has named Ben Toth and Sam Forman as their new composer and lyricist, eleven months before the scheduled world premiere in Pasadena.  “Who?” you’re going.  Even your faithful muser, who knows a lot of names and habitually memorizes credits was stumped by this one.  (Briefly, I confused Forman for Sam Carner, a good musical theatre writer who lives near me.)  There’s something extraordinary about a major project being given to a couple of unknowns.  My impulse is to say “Good for them!” but I’m too curious about the process that led the producer to pick them, of all people.  Famously, Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky had several up-and-coming songwriters audition, by writing a couple of songs, for his pet project, Ragtime.  And the best team won, Flaherty and Ahrens – hard to imagine anyone doing a better job.  But what happened here?  A careful perusal of a very detailed press release and I now know Toth had a song performed by actress Christina Hendricks, and, as they say in Semi-Tough, she’s got great lungs.

(Cole Porter)

He also worked with Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the creators of Spring AwakeningA theatre company I expressed disappointment in, in a recent entry, but didn’t name, La Jolla Playhouse, has gotten itself into hot water over the casting of Sater and Sheik’s China-set musical, Nightingale.  Only two Asians in a cast of twelve.  I first heard about this though the outrage of Deborah S. Craig.  She and Aaron Ramey sang my duet, Marry Me, in one of the NEO concerts, an annual benefit for (and at) the York Theatre.  There, these sexy and attractive people played lovers in the process of getting engaged, and no one took note that one was a beautiful Asian-American.  Now, the dearth of Asians in the cast of Nightingale seems to be the only thing about the show anyone’s taking note of.


Poor romantic you

July 22, 2012

Sondheim-firsters. That’s what they were called years ago on an old now-defunct newsgroup: those fanatics who feel musical theatre begins and ends with Stephen Sondheim. They’re oddly dismissive of the two hits Sondheim wrote the lyrics for in the 1950’s, West Side Story, and Gypsy. Even more oddly, they’re full of praise for his short-run bombs, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along. And they seem to wear blinders: The Most Happy Fella, She Loves Me, Once On This Island all draw blank stares. They haven’t bothered to learn much about musicals not created by their God, some of which are vastly more effective than anything in His oeuvre.

Music and lyrics: Alan Chapman

What’s the harm in all of that idolatry? Well, I’ve noticed a few things that, depending on your definition of the word, might constitute “harm.”

One is the influence on young writers. Because Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd and, especially, Assassins ventured into dark subject matter, a whole generation believes audiences will cotton to retellings of the Lindburgh kidnapping, Leopold & Loeb, and that murder in Queens where neighbors heard screams but didn’t call the cops. I sometimes wonder how people today are defining a “good time at the theatre.” For instance, the show that effectively explained the Leo Frank case, for me, was a big So What?

I’m not saying writers should veer away from dark subjects, but I feel rather strongly that Sweeney Todd‘s success has been widely misinterpreted. It’s not a good show because it’s dark, because it’s full of killings. It’s a good show because it’s fun. Sweeney’s vengeance is not what grips us; it’s all the suspense surrounding his murderous quest: will the sailor ascend the stairs before the throat is slit? Will the pie-buying public take to the clever repurposing of the victims’ organs? Can you kidnap a lass from an insane asylum by asking to buy a specific color hair? Fun (and often funny) stuff. If you put similarly outlandish actions and gags in your musical, I’m likely to like it. But instead, many imitate the darkness, despair and desperation, leading to many a dreary evening.

Here’s something every Sondheim-firster disagrees with: Sondheim has his strengths and weaknesses. He’s best at depicting the inner thoughts of the slightly crazed. Think of Getting Married Today, Losing My Mind or Moments In the Woods. He’s weakest at writing successful love stories concerning comparatively normal people. I’ll helpfully list the great love songs with music and lyrics by Sondheim here:



So, among the manifestations of Sondheimian influence is that we tend to get very few happy romances involving people like us. I like to daydream about what the world of musical theatre would be like if Lerner and Loewe were as widely imitated. Then we might hear lush tunes that touch the heart, and great aha! moments, musicalized, when someone figures out they love someone. “Ah Gigi!” – haven’t seen a ardent discovery like that in years.

Here’s why it’s problematic if our world has become so love-averse. A sizable portion of the ticket-buying public likes to see boys and girls like you and me falling in love in a musical. Call me crass for keeping an eye on the commercial, but have you noticed Sondheim shows, and their countless revivals all seem to lose money? There’s a real but unfortunate disconnect between what theatre people think is good and what theatre-goers enjoy.

Since the last time a new Sondheim show opened on Broadway, the Street has seen:

  • Follies (twice)
  • A Little Night Music
  • West Side Story
  • Gypsy (twice)
  • Sunday in the Park with George
  • Company (twice)
  • Sweeney Todd
  • Pacific Overtures
  • The Frogs
  • Assassins
  • Into the Woods
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Plus, the two aforementioned bombs, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along, were at Encores; also, this summer, Into the Woods (again) in Central Park. I’ve not done the research to prove this, but it’s a safe bet these Sondheim regurgitations constitute a huge percentage of the period’s remountings.

That’s all very good for Sondheim, but not so good for the theatre in general. It was easy to find an empty seat at all these reproductions. The public (at large) has a demonstrable indifference to revues about the loons who shot at presidents, plotless examinations of commitment-phobic men, or the somber history of Japan’s non-consensual opening up to trade with the west. Any list of most profitable revivals (Chicago, Grease) wouldn’t include Sondheim.

But we love him so! True, if by “we” you mean theatre insiders. Probably we can all agree that nobody loves Sondheim more than actors. And for good reason. He always gives you meat: subtext and/or dramatic conflict you can sink your teeth into. (I must note that I have personally witnessed performers in a theatre school focusing on naught but Sondheim, then emerging able to play angst but unable to feign romantic passion.) When Sondheim-firsters get to run theatre companies, naturally they often revive what they like. The public be damned. (Damn, coal-burning dithering ding ding ding…)

In a more general sense, blind adoration isn’t good because it’s never good when people walk around with their eyes closed. Could be fans’ inability to acknowledge their hero’s flaws annoys me most of all. When I’m in a combative mood, I feel like using this blog to knock some sense in the Sondheim-firsters. So listen up, Steve-Adorers: you know the draft of the lyric We’re Gonna Be All Right that Richard Rodgers wouldn’t allow in Do I Hear a Waltz? Read the script: it would be totally out of character for either of them to say any of that stuff!

Who’s your little girlfriend

July 16, 2012

My last entry, detailing songs cut from The Christmas Bride, ran so long I doubt many got to the end of it.  But those who did saw my point that the road to fashioning a great score involves cutting many songs along the way.  There exists no better example of this than Sondheim’s Follies: As a set of songs, I enjoy the discards a bit more than what was kept in.

But another post on Follies?  Among musical theatre mavens, Follies is the meat we enjoy picking over most.  Some believe the show’s a masterpiece, as is.  Others see it as a near-miss, loving it for its ambition and potential.  I’m one who doesn’t love it all: middle-aged rich people downing alcohol as they regret life-choices from their fabulous pasts is not my idea of fun.  But, the many numbers that Sondheim fashioned in the style of 1930’s numbers are among his best, as if the parameters of that form forced him to be more melodious, structurally simpler, and appropriately witty with wordplay and rhyme.

One of the challenges in writing for older characters (as I learned in composing Such Good Friends) is that they move about the stage with a certain energy, one which the music must match. Gypsy’s Mamma Rose is, of course, a dynamo, and Jule Styne’s tunes convey this power.  But the quartet in Follies is in a wistful reflective mood most of the time.  What they’re doing, the actions they take, is a far cry from Rose’s drive.  Sondheim, during his most brilliant decade (the 1970s), had a taste for the frenetic.  His accompaniment figures are often like machine-gun fire, a barrage of eighth notes: think Another Hundred People or Getting Married Today.  I’ve always found this style ill-suited to Ben, Sally and Buddy.  More settled than Company‘s sirens, what have they got to sound all angsty about?

The cut song, Pleasant Little Kingdom, for Sally and Ben to catch up with, is an example of this sort of perpetual motion.  I get that the stakes are high for Sally; by this point Don’t Look At Me has already depicted her fluttering.  If, at a reunion, someone yaps your ear off excitedly filling you in on insignificant details about their life, your first reaction is to flee. Ben and Sally don’t, somehow, and their sort-of love story progresses better without this duet.

It Wasn’t Meant to Happen, though, gets the tone of boozy half-regret exactly right.  Its speed and harmonic structure seem the product of too many martinis.  In Follies‘ development, at some point the decision was made to suspend the plot so a series of entertaining numbers could be presented, with no dialogue in-between.  This might be one of the reasons a low-energy ballad landed on the scrap heap.  (Confession: I stole the title motif, upped the tempo and altered it a bit for the first measure of my song, Who’s Your Little Girlfriend: hardly one of my best, either.)

Think stealing is criminal?  Then don’t listen to Gershwin’s I Don’t Think I’ll Fall In Love Today and Sondheim’s Can That Boy Fox Trot back to back.  The first phrase of the former’s chorus is the first phrase of the latter’s verse.  While I’ve never seen this tour-de-force get the laughs it should, I find a lot to admire in Fox Trot, appropriately peppered, as it is, with Harburgian wordplay.  “He may be full of hokum, but I’ve no complaint” makes me shiver with glee, as well as “Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?” – just the sort of cleverness you find in the period’s funniest songs.

Speaking of internal rhymes, did you know Sondheim threw one in on Bring On the Girls just to razz his old friend, the infinitely superior lyricist, Sheldon Harnick?  Many years earlier, Harnick had rhymed “feminine” with “You’re a cup of tea with honey or lemon in.”  Now what makes that great is the way it mimics they way people (well, New Yorkers) actually talk, especially when ordering a beverage.  Sondheim had told Harnick it was slightly off, since the middle syllables – the “mon” of “lemon” and the “min” of “feminine” don’t quite match.  What a wonky nitpick!  So Sondheim wrote

Painters have tried, with all of their skill
To catch the grace
Of the feminine
Form and face.
Poets have tried, but try as they will
They waste their time
Painting them in in-
Ternal rhyme

That’s not cleverness.  That’s the awful din of a lyricist straining for cleverness, like the Larry Hart-on-a-bad-day turns-of-phrase Sondheim delights in deriding.  And precisely the opposite of Harnick’s smile-producing colloquialism.

Sondheim singing Bring on the Girls

Perhaps The World’s Full of Girls was expunged for insufficient cleverness, but it’s a tune I find myself humming often.  So simple and bright, you’d never guess it was Sondheim.

For his score for a French film, Stavisky, Sondheim reused three melodies cut from Follies: thse last two numbers and Who Could Be Blue. To my ears, Who Could Be Blue is the most beautiful melody Sondheim has ever come up with.  It’s touching, soft, and its 1920s-esque simplicity seems positively eloquent.  The lyric’s conclusion “the only thing blue is the sky” is cadged from a period number, but, furthering its appeal to me, it’s half a quodlibet with Little White House.  As I suggested earlier, the second half of Follies could only contain a low quantity of quiet moments, and it was replaced with a wonderful high-energy quodlibet that, for my money, is the best song in the score that made it to Broadway.

Two other cut melodies are very familiar to Follies fans since, sans lyrics, they’re still part of the opening music.  All Things Bright and Beautiful is a wistful romantic waltz, at times rapturous, and its arpeggios float upward like ignited amaretti wrappers.  It’s the sort of emotional color the creators must have thought, at an earlier stage of development, the show would surely need.

Then, the admirably energetic That Old Piano Roll is better heard without words, since the lyrics have so little to say and spend so much time saying it.  Its bridge sets long notes over a charmingly rhythmic and busy accompaniment, a technique I employed on Notes, a duet that recently brought down the house in a London concert.

Of the Follies numbers that were kept in Follies, I can’t abide The Story of Lucy and Jessie, the “very messy” patter that confuses audiences on first hearing.  (Later, when people replay the recording countless times, it begins to make some sense and they like it.) For the London production, Sondheim penned a sexy replacement.  But originally, in this spot, he had a near-perfect expression of the same dramatic idea, a tale of a woman not quite at home in either of two opposite worlds.  It’s called Uptown Downtown, and its ideas unfurl slowly enough for a first-time listener to appreciate.  I leave you with my all-time favorite Sondheim stanza, the song’s bridge…

She sits at the Ritz with her splits of Mumm’s
And starts to pine for a stein with her village chums
But with a Schlitz in her mitts down at Fitzroy’s bar
She thinks of the Ritz.
Oh, it’s so

Get out of my way

July 10, 2012

Another scrap of paper, spring-cleaned off my desk, brings to mind a baker’s dozen songs I rarely think about.  (What has this become, the Noel-describes-junk-in-his-office-before-discarding blog?)

It’s an ugly green xeroxed beer list from a Portland pub.  There, one wintry evening, some of the cast of The Christmas Bride asked me about the songs I’d written that were cut on the road to the final draft.  (Not literally on the road – The Christmas Bride went through all its development in New York, including a staged reading at The Actors and Directors Lab when it was called A Candle in the Window.)  I took out a pen and started writing titles on the beer list.  The more I jotted, the more other titles came to mind.  It was a long beer list, including something called Oxbow Noel as well as Rising Tide Tide Ursa Minor Weizen Stout (“Ask for it by name”) but my list threatened to grow longer.

1. If It Hadn’t Been For Me – a comic duet for two funny characters, this was cut after the initial New York production.  We needed their humor, but, as the script was revamped, it became clear the couple’s risible interaction could serve us better spread throughout the evening, as a running gag.

2. Marrying You – One of the issues we grappled with is that one character has to appear comparatively dull and unromantic.  This was my attempt to write the man’s marriage proposal; I’d hoped it could be funny and sweet.  But the mere act of having the man sing his proposal made him too expressive and passionate for our purposes.  In the rewrite he gets pushed into place while low strings tremolo and can only manage to utter “Will you…?” before his proposal is accepted.  Then, his visible relief is another comedy bit.  Having a song there risked tipping the balance: we didn’t want the audience to root for him too much.

3. Never Take Your Eye Off the Highway – The man we did want the audience rooting for was a picaresque gambler with an easy charm.  So, I thought we had to have a song where he’d charm our heroine by telling tales of his adventures.  A perfectly legitimate reason to sing, but the audience grasped the point of the song a long time before it was over.  At that point, they’re waiting around for the action to resume.  Should this be spoken material as well?  We stepped back and looked at our story.  The character who’d been given the least to sing actually had the most heightened dramatic stakes at this point.  Shouldn’t she sing?  So, we came up with Dear Alfred, which cuts back and forth between the sister’s increasing panic and the rake’s increasingly sexy stories, now done as dialogue.  So, the audience sees what the singing character sings about, and everyone gets to be humorous.  Win-win.

4. Here’s Where You Belong – A lullaby is a dangerous thing in a musical.  You risk putting the audience to sleep.  (One from the film of Mary Poppins, a favorite in my house these days, was jettisoned for the stage version.)  This title, by the way, was something I stole from the name of a flop musical.  Those visits to Joe Allen’s leave residue in your subconscious.  In this draft, a mother figure is singing to the heroine, who, it seems, is drifting off to sleep.  I replaced it with an emotional duet, closer to the theme of The Christmas Bride as a whole, and they sing fortissimo together at one point.  So nobody’s asleep.

5. A Thimbleful of Good Advice – Nearly as dangerous as a lullaby is to have a parent-type spout a helpful philosophy.  Now, I know we all love Something Wonderful from The King and I.  But what an audience requires of a musical has changed in the sixty-plus years since that was written.  This was a hard fact for me to discover and accept.  If it worked for Rodgers and Hammerstein, damn it, it ought to work for me.  But in development we consider speed.  We wonder if the audience is restless, and I eventually sensed they weren’t happy to invest so much time in a minor character slowly articulating an aphorism.  I replaced it with a peppy, quick and hysterical counterpoint number, in which various characters pour on to the stage and give a bit of bad advice.  The wisdom they share helps define each individual, and then all the individual songs are repeated simultaneously (a quodlibet) while we focus on the advisee’s befuddlement.  I’m proud of this solution, a septet that occupies around three minutes of stage time.

6. Whodathunkit – Recently, I was debating story-songs and their perils.  To be effective, it’s necessary for the composer to give the listener a chance to breathe, as Jerry Bock does in his brilliant collaboration with Sheldon Harnick, A Trip to the Library.  My Hindenburg of a comic narrative duet didn’t give anyone a chance to breathe – not the audience, not the performers.  It’s all energy, no substance, and details off-stage action of secondary characters.  Nobody needed to know that information, so, although our second act needed comedy, both our buffoons’ duets had to go.

7. Content At Last – This epistolary second act solo for the heroine was too subtle for its own good.  The character is not content at all, and the audience senses this.  But is she deluding herself, or deluding the recipient of her letter?  Confusing the folks in the seats is a huge peril, the death knell of many a number.

8. At Wit’s End – Back to “If it was good enough for Rodgers and Hammerstein…”  This was a narrative ballet.  Ideally, such things are created in conjunction with a choreographer, but ours arrived a little late in our process.  In the next draft we decided to depict the same series of events more simply, with dialogue and a bunch of short songs.

9. A Little Bit of Beauty – At the risk of seeming to be a legend in my own mind, this song and its fate reminds me of the judge’s version of Johanna from Sweeney Todd.  Both are minor-key rhapsodies for villains, the only point of which is to convince the audience that they’re truly evil.  The audience knows this.  I’ve seen productions of Sweeney Todd that have reinstated the number, which was cut prior to the original Broadway opening, and it always just sits there.  Telling us stuff we already know.  Don’t do that.

10. Tonight, You’ll Be Dancing – This waltz served to make our villain charming, romantic, and a little sympathetic.  Ultimately, we decided it didn’t feel right to have the character sing much of anything.

11. Your Face – I’ll tell you why I prefer Oklahoma! to South Pacific.  Both depict two love tales.  In Oklahoma!, the subplot is played for laughs while South Pacific‘s second romance is very sexy but wholly lacking in wit.  In The Christmas Bride, early in development, I made the mistake of writing a serious romantic number for the secondaries.  The audience already knew this couple was right for each other, and the primary romance goes through very dramatic turns throughout the second act.  There was no time to stop for something serious and obvious.

12. The Things We Do For Love – I thought it might be funny to have the two romantic rivals meet, not knowing who the other was.  Then, the less romantic of the two would comically give advice about wooing.  It could consist of nothing of clichés since the joke would be understood that he really knows nothing about the subject.  Eventually, I hit upon a better idea: they both sing about their beloved, and offer totally opposite descriptions of her.  (One doesn’t really see her at all.)

13. A Finer Man You Couldn’t Find – I don’t remember anything about this number, just that it existed.  As with many shows, there was trouble fashioning an opening that would set the right tone.

Yikes: I’ve gone on longer than the name of Rising Tide Tide Ursa Minor Weizen Stout but I want to leave you with one more thimbleful of advice: The Christmas Bride is as good as it is because so many songs were discarded.  If you find you’ve reached opening night and haven’t lost a lot of songs along the way, you’re probably blind to the problems with some of your songs.  Make sure your trash container is filled to the brim.

Another summer

July 4, 2012

Yeesh!  It got to be July already and I still haven’t made much of a dent in my spring cleaning.  But I found a piece of paper that I’m going to copy here before throwing away, and it may be the most valuable thing I’ve ever shared on this blog.  It’s an itemized list of expenses for a NYMF show from 2006, The Tragic Horrible Life of the Singing Nun

As you read these numbers, keep in mind that six years have passed, and certain costs have skyrocketed.  Other costs are surprisingly low, and this has to do with the pooled resource concept behind NYMF.  The show shared The Theatre at St. Clements with several other festival entries.  Certain fixtures were shared, meaning that The Singing Nun paid substantially less for some things.  Plus, being part of a festival meant that the Festival would carry some of the burden of publicizing all its offerings.  I’ve a handwritten note on the sheet saying that the show also paid $2,500 for a press agent, about 12% of the total budget.  Also, those working on NYMF shows agreed to a Favored Nations clause, which meant that nobody was supposed to earn more than the actors, who each were paid a whopping $200.  You read that right: Everybody agreed to accept $200 for their work.

CATEGORY                    AMOUNT       % of Total
Advertising                 $1,539.90     7.6%  (full page in NYMF program)
Sets                        $2,563.59    12.7%  (simple)
Insurance                   $  450.00     2.2%   (NYMF)
Programs                    $  357.64     1.8%
Crew                        $  575.00     2.9%
Supplies                    $  104.71     0.5%
Postage                     $   22.22     0.1%
Music                       $2,182.66    10.8%
Application Fees            $1,795.00     8.9%
Logo                        $  275.95     1.4%
Auditions                   $  400.50     2.0%
Props                       $  119.44     0.6%
Rehearsal                   $1,724.58     8.6%    (Space)
Load In/Out                 $1,571.33     7.8%
Designers                   $  200.00     1.0%
Actors                      $1,600.00     7.9%
Makeup                      $   95.29     0.5%
Sound                       $  400.00     2.0%
Costumes & Wardrobe Related $2,168.18    10.8%
Director                    $  200.00     1.0%
Stage Manager               $  200.00     1.0%
Batteries & Condoms (Mics)  $  142.73     0.7%
Printing & Copying          $  175.04     0.9%
Projector                   $1,284.90 6.5%
                           $20,148.66   100.0%

Don’t ask me how they managed to spend what they spent.  I know less about budgeting than a novice in a nunnery.  But when you get to the point where you’re drawing up a budget for your show, these figures, actually spent by a very funny musical comedy, comprise a better template than you’re likely to find anywhere.

And, whatever you do, do make sure you’re spending at least $142.73 on condoms.