Get out of my way

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.

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2 Responses to Get out of my way

  1. Though the last couple of sentences are a great moral to the tale, the long list of your cut songs isn’t all that illuminating because I don’t know the show. I assume that’s true for most of us. The same list for any classic show would be fascinating, simply because we would know what the context of each song is/was. Not that I doubt “Christmas Bride” has every chance to become a classic, knowing the quality of your work.

  2. Noel Katz says:

    Then you’ll like tomorrow’s post, which, I swear, I wrote before your comment. In this one, I hoped general wisdom could be gleaned from the specifics herein.

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