If only I could clone you

August 29, 2012

We can get all wonky, dissecting the intricacies of craft most folks never see. But what would that get us? The reality is that one can be a perfect craftsman and still write a less-than-successful musical. Shows work when the audience is intrigued, involved (emotionally) and interested (in what’s going to happen next). “Mere” craft is not going to get you there, although errors in craft can be so distracting, it’s hard to achieve any of the good stuff.

It’s tempting to focus on craft here. (The 1776 line “Sing me no sad elegy,” defended by the songwriter’s son, prompted this muse.) It’s easier to discuss craft than it is to describe the set of happy happenstances that make a show a hit. I’ve spoken about this before using a phrase I hope doesn’t sound mystical, “the Knack.”

Writers often ask themselves, “Is this a good idea for a musical?” My inclination is to ask “Is this a good idea for a song?” If there’s no workable premise, if characters aren’t going to change somehow by song’s end, if the song’s been written before, chances are I don’t want to write it.

George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was a property that floated around for a number of years. Various writing teams thought it over, asked  “Is this a good idea for a show?” and found it lacking.  It’s not a love story; it’s more like a long theoretical argument between a handful of people on the subject of class. And class tends to be a subject the British are more frequently aware of than us “classless” Yanks. How could you fit a chorus into a Wimpole Street townhouse?

With the advantage of hindsight, knowing how Lerner and Loewe answered those questions to create the longest running show of all time (a record that’s since been eclipsed), it’s hard to imagine how vexing the musicalization of Pygmalion once seemed. So, without getting all wonky, let’s simply admit Lerner and Loewe had the Knack. In Brigadoon, they managed to mix American cynicism with the flightiest of fantasies to create a great setting for love songs and comedy. I’ve raved before about how chameleon composer Fritz Loewe invented authentic-sounding folk songs for Paint Your Wagon. MGM had them adapt Gigi, winning nine Oscars. Then Camelot tossed classic romance with Enlightenment principles. The pressure of getting the last one on took a toll on Loewe’s heart, and he retired for health reasons. Lerner sans Loewe was never remotely as successful in the theatre.  The combination of these collaborators = the Knack.

Over roughly the same years, my favorite songwriter Frank Loesser also had four Broadway hits with a brief detour to write a Hollywood classic (score-wise).  What a genius he had for coming up with original and theatrical ideas for songs. Take Make a Miracle. A Victorian couple discusses the future. He’s proposing marriage but she keeps changing the subject to the upcoming great inventions of the nascent twentieth century: “horseless carriages that fly,” “breakfast cereals that explode. (I’m reminded of the title of a comedy show friends did a few years ago: We Were Supposed To Have Flying Cars By Now.) Or the opening number of Guys and Dolls, in which three touts give horse racing tips in counterpoint. Who but Loesser would have thought of such a thing?  And I feel like I’ve talked about the brilliance of The Most Happy Fella and How To Succeed way too many times.
But you get the idea: you’re going to need the Knack, and need to know what ideas for songs and shows are likely to fly. How do you get the Knack?  Well, start by becoming familiar with the work of knack-possessors like Loesser, Lerner & Loewe, Comden & Green, and especially Bock & Harnick. They wrote the shows that made the whole world smile. And the smiling never stopped: In Summer Stock companies today their shows are performed with impressive ubiquity. And obviously, seeing them is more illuminating than reading them, playing through their scores, listening to cast albums or suffering through disappointingly unfaithful film adaptations.

Which brings me back to 1776, a show with an admirably faithful cinematic rendering.  It’s a marvelous musical, mostly due to its excellent book.  The score is full of false accents, such as the one on the final syllable of “America” in the opening number and “elegy” in “He Plays the Violin.”  A case can be made that songwriter Sherman Edwards intentionally uses an old-fashioned (I’d say operetta-like) style to give us a feel for colonial PhiladelphiAAAAAAAA (sorry – another false accent there).  But to my ears, it just sounds like sloppy craft.  It can be reasonably assumed that the Founding Fathers spoke somewhat differently than we do today, but accents that off are just … off-putting.

But that last point’s just for the wonks.

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Come now, pretty Polly

August 24, 2012

If I’m known for anything, it’s for taking intrinsically serious subjects and making light of them.  (Such as the first comedy revue created in New York after 9/11, We Built This City On Rent Control.)  Today, in a stunning reversal, I’m taking something written a few days ago just to be whimsical, and taking it for serious.

The Six Reasons People Don’t Go To Broadway Shows

It’s a fun little blog entry by long-time Village Voice man-about-town, Michael Musto.  For me, La Dolce Musto has long been one of the turn-to reads of the free weekly: bound to make me smile.  The Voice, in its arts section, has the dean of New York theatre critics, Michael Feingold.  I call him the dean because he’s been reviewing longer than anyone else, but also because he can take on a professorial tone, and, like me, wrote Columbia’s Varsity Show back in the day.  I mention Feingold to underscore the idea that the Voice has serious theatre coverage in a different part of the tabloid; Musto’s strictly for laughs.

As a member of a certain kind of community (should it be called café society?), Musto’s aware that there are people and there are people.  Broadway’s doing quite well in terms of number of tickets sold.  But a distinction often gets drawn between out-of-towners, who may not be into theatre but feel Broadway attendance is an essential part of a visit to New York, and those who reside in the New York metropolitan area.  Enough tourists are cramming into Broadway houses to make the comparative dearth of people-like-us seem unimportant.

“’Seems,’ Madame?”  I don’t wish to sound like a snob, but, I accept it: I’m gonna.  A Broadway designed for the tourist who’ll be visiting the city once a year or less is obviously going to be different than one fashioned for the more habitual stage aficionado.  And I can’t mention this distinction without thinking about the issue of why so many theatre district restaurants are so awful.Businesses, generally, are looking for repeat customers.  Eateries in my neighborhood do what they do as well as they can, in part, because they hope to see my face again.   Those Hell’s Kitchen kitchens who cater only to tourists have no reasonable hope of any repeat business.  Diners often choose them due to proximity to the theatre they’re going to that night.

Oh yes, the theatre: We’re supposed to be talking about Broadway shows here.  Like the hapless hash-slinger, a show that’s catering only to tourists needs elements to attract out-of-town customers: a star who’s famous due to television, a title Joe Visitor will recognize, usually a recent-vintage movie name, a certain amount of flash, a good logo.  In stark contrast, a show that caters to Metropolitan area theatre-goers must feature actors who are good rather than famous, intelligent writing that contains a fair portion of surprise, more subtext/less glitter.

Mining for punch-lines, Michael Musto quotes various New Yorkers on the subject of Broadway’s tourist trap shows.  The thing of it is, these shows manage to co-exist with more adventurous fare.  At a play, on Broadway, called Jerusalem, my mind reeled with the wide array of literary allusions.  Felt like I was back in college.  That’s not something many tourists are likely to appreciate.  Elsewhere on Broadway, there are long-running musicals like Wicked, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys that you don’t need a college education to get.  Musto’s second quote: “It’s hard to find really adventurous theater. So I’ll just stick to TV, thank you. And yes, I’m aware of my own ironies.” Whatever one thinks of Tony-winners Once, Next To Normal and Spring Awakening, it’s only fair to describe them as “adventurous.”

Since Broadway is a place where economics drives artistic decisions, the kind of audience that’s coming to The Street affects us all.  Over my lifetime, there’s been an evolution from a theatre designed for habitual show-attendees from the New York area to a show-land increasingly geared toured tourists.  For short-hand, let us say that the Baby Boomers became the first generation of New Yorkers with a certain amount of disposable income to opt to not go to the theatre.  My parents’ generation, when it wasn’t summer, barely a week went by without taking in a play.  My mother saved the Playbills to prove it.  The Boomers, though, liked doing other things.  Attending rock concerts became a much more common activity than listening to all kinds of live music had been before.  The meal-as-destination idea (there I go on restaurants, again) was a new creation – the idea that you and some friends would go out to eat and that’s all you’d do in a night.  Certainly, as Musto’s men and women point out, television replaced theatre-going in many people’s lives.

But what about the contention that the shows are no damn good?  My parents saw Williams and Miller plays, plus musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Williams, Miller, R&H and L&L were able to thrive because they had a relatively homogenous cadre of smart repeat customers.  Where are their likes today?  Well, as Miller and Lerner lived to learn, the audience for their admirably intelligent works dried up.  In order to make money, a smart writer has to look towards other media.  I’ve mentioned before that writers of my generation who’d demonstrated a real talent for writing musical theatre, Joe Keenan and the team of Marta Kauffman and David Crane, chose to go out to Hollywood to write television.  Their combined incomes over the years are roughly half a billion dollars, so it seems a wise choice.

Economic issues, such as the weak(-er) dollar, led to an increase in New York’s tourist population.  Too much of the credit, about the revitalization of Times Square, has gone to credit-grabbing former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.  But no one can deny the Theatre District has become a tourist-friendly Disneyland, complete with a store that sells nothing but M&Ms.  And so the number of visitors is way up.  And the number of tickets sold to Broadway shows is way up.  Even if the prices are too damn high.  As long as enough people keep paying those prices, there will be no market pressure to lower them.


There

August 19, 2012

On Jason Robert Brown’s blog, he reminisces on how Maltby and Shire’s revue Closer Than Ever was the inspiration behind his revue Songs for a New World. (Both, in revival, are sharing the same theatre, the York, this month.)

I’ll start with the positive: You couldn’t pick a better show to be inspired by. I know of no score to premiere in the past quarter century that’s as consistently moving, inventive, listenable and well-crafted as Closer Than Ever. If there’s ever been a better dialogue-free revue, it could only be the earlier Maltby & Shire collection, Starting Here Starting Now. That show aimed most of its focus on the romantic foibles of young people. Closer Than Ever, fashioned when the writers had entered middle age, hits a wider range, the things that are on middle aged people’s minds. That might be a dying parent, or sexual activity among those you’d least suspect; second marriages, or child-care in two-career homes. The characters tend to be extremely smart, and we feel smart watching following their thought processes.

I think Maltby & Shire’s greatest talent lies in finding subjects for songs, things commonly felt that are just dying to be expressed in song, yet nobody’s done that before. In One of the Good Guys, we hear from a husband who’s never had an adulterous affair, although he’s thought about it and come perilously close:

I’m one of the good guys
One of the smart ones, whose virtue survives
Firm as a tree, one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat to build a warmer fire
Denies himself a treat to shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know

In If I Sing, (grown) child expresses appreciation to moribund father about the legacy of a love of music. Who else would think about writing a song on this subject? Or, to choose a more obviously-apt-for-musicalization moment, the new dad staring at his newborn baby, with the awkwardness of self-doubt. Can you think of another song on that subject? Why isn’t there one?

In a very intelligent revue by established professionals (Shire had an Oscar; Maltby a Tony), the life lessons, epiphanies and bits of wisdom are far easier to accept than if some 20-something tyro is busy telling various things he’s learned over the not-so-many years. So when the green-around-the-edges Jason Robert Brown writes a five and a half minute story song like The World Was Dancing and it’s supposed to be profound, well, it’s anything but. I want to giggle. Looking at these songs from the new world (is the title ironic or some pun on Dvorak’s symphony I’m not getting?), it seems as if Brown imitated all the wrong things in his wonderful model.

For example, showy pianism. In the quodlibet arrangement of two Shire tunes from different eras, It’s Never That Easy and I’ve Been Here Before, the keys fly in cascading eighth notes. Now, that’s virtuosic stuff, but it can’t steal attention from the powerhouse ladies singing two different melodies at once. (Right now, I can’t think of a more fantastic female duet.)

Brown’s accompaniments are filled with rococo intricacies worthy of Liszt, and every time they upstage the singer. Listen to I’m Not Afraid Of Anything and be afraid, very afraid, of how all eyes go to the poor shnook on the piano bench. (I’ve been there before.)

The weakest songs in Closer Than Ever are the attempts at comedy for multiple characters. But that’s OK: something had to be weakest. The weakest numbers in Songs for a New World are the attempts at comedy; both are for obnoxious solo women. Surabaya Santa is, for no apparent reason, supposed to sound like Kurt Weill. In it Mrs. Santa Claus bitterly complains about her plight, at one point accusing St. Nick of bestiality. Supposed to be funny. Isn’t. But it’s far better than Just One Step, which is for a middle-aged harridan, threatening to commit suicide if her husband doesn’t let her buy a fur. As I wrote some months ago about the same author’s Shiksa Goddess, the whole thing treads awfully close to anti-semitism. The one thing it doesn’t get close to is humor.

There’s a huge problem with spending so much time (Brown is always overlong) with detestable characters who go about hating on things. We get tired of them; they outstay their welcome. Maltby’s characters tend to be delightful people you’d love to get to know over time, particularly Miss Byrd, the real estate agent nobody ever notices and nobody would guess that five minutes ago she “was not wearing clothes, …in someone’s arms, in someone’s bed.” His sympathy for the lovelorn young man stuck on a roof has us sticking with him until we see he’s not the poor sap we first thought he was. No such surprise or turn exists in Brown. People, who are often dickish, remain exactly the same at the end of songs as they are at the beginning.

Shire’s had hits on the pop charts. Brown’s clearly more influenced by songs on the pop charts than actual show tunes. The best of his melodies have catchy hooks, effectively used, particularly Christmas Lullaby and a passably romantic duet, I’d Give It All For You. In the blog, Brown reveals that Maltby felt Brown’s most popular song, Stars and the Moon bears a distinct resemblance to Closer Than Ever‘s Life Story. I’ve always felt Stars and the Moon, in its message, owes a lot to Sondheim’s verse to his best love song, So Many People:

I said the man for me must have a castle
A man of means he’d be, a man of fame.
And then I met a man who hadn’t any, without a penny to his name.
I had to go and fall for so much less than what I had planned from all the magazines
I should be good and sore
What am I happy for?
I guess the man means more than the means

That takes one and a half minutes to Stars and the Moon‘s four and a half. Plus, it charmingly plays up and down the thirds of a minor ninth chord, while Stars and the Moon insists on hitting the same damn note over and over again. But it and the Maltby & Shire opus are truly polar opposites: Life Story has a woman going through the various chapters of her life, refusing to be defined by a romantic relationship. The long-winded lass of Stars and Moon only describes various men and what they offer her.  And yes, she is complaining.


This thing fell out of the sky

August 13, 2012

Two obits in a row?  Seems like bad programming, but this time it was someone I knew.  And if less related to musical theatre per se, you know I’ll figure out some way of tying it in.

Winner of the 2011 Thurber Prize for American Humor, David Rakoff (a Canadian) was the first contemporary of mine to get cancer. He was about 20 years old; it was Hodgkin’s. And now he’s the first of my contemporaries to die from cancer. God, that sounded spooky, like I’m expressing some psychic premonition of upcoming tragedies. I need a joke here to deflate the tension. Which is exactly what David would come up with in this situation.

The revue we worked on together was credited to four writers, not him, but he co-wrote two sketches he had a major role in. One was called The Laurie Anderson Christmas Special and indeed David played Laurie. I wouldn’t call this drag: David didn’t put on women’s clothing because Anderson didn’t put on women’s clothing. Martian attire, sure, but no women’s clothing.

This sketch was, by some stretch, the strangest thing ever to appear in any of the shows I’ve written songs for. David sat in yoga position in a high chair. Beneath him were his two androgynous children: of vastly different heights, they nevertheless spoke in unison. Then, as if he were Merv Griffin, he introduced a series of famous Barnard alumnae: Erica Jong, Joan Rivers, Reagan bulldog Jeane Kirkpatrick, etc. Towards the end, he looked like a wind-up doll at the end of its wind, slumped over, and then slowly began Anderson’s signature rhythmic panting. This was so weird, you could hear a pin drop – until the audience recognized they were hearing an exquisitely odd rendition of Jingle Bells and laughter peeled. As I’m describing this, I realize it sounds more outré than humorous, but David’s blithe precision made it sublimely weird, hysterical.

The script that I have of this show is a transcription of an audio cassette.  Before the sketch, there’s a “transcriber’s note” –

It is as difficult to describe David Rakoff’s impersonation of Laurie Anderson as it is to describe the performance artist herself.  Every line is delivered with a wild and seemingly inappropriate arm gesture.  The voice changes pitches quite often, and unexpectedly.  The posture of sitting in a chair is varied and abnormal.  The manic smile is fairly constant.

In the other sketch, David was an entrepreneur, effusively describing his invention, MTV Cliff Notes. While more conventional than Laurie Anderson’s Christmas Special, in a huge scene with tons of characters, you wouldn’t expect someone who’s essentially a narrator to steal the scene. But that’s what happened.  David donned the enthusiasm of a Project Runway contestant, long before there were “reality” competitions on TV.

We lost touch after college, but “what happened with David” as narrated by the man himself became his calling, his brilliant career. Like David Sedaris, to whom he bore certain similarities and crossed paths with many times, he was a master of the autobiographical essay.  He only lived to age 47, and there was much time spent fighting cancer, but reading him you find yourself envying the notion that he lived in such a funny world.

But I come not to bury David Rakoff, nor to praise him, but to puzzle out what of his life and work might apply to this business of musical comedy creation.

  1. Embrace the insane.  Once, a collaborator of mine told me he was going to have all the characters free from our titular locale by having someone yell “The marshmallow fluff machine has gone kerflooey.  It’s spilling out everywhere.  Run for your lives!”  To which I could have said “That’s utterly crazy.  We can’t do that!”  Instead, in a moment of confidence that be termed Rakoffian, I said it sounded pretty funny.  Our audience agreed.
  2. Nothing is more natural than amusing others by describing things that actually happened to you.  Cavemen did it.  Also, your chatty aunt.  It might be said David was a professional raconteur.  His pieces on NPR’s This American Life had listeners rolling around on the floor, laughing.  (Just realized that everything I know about working on a kibbutz, I know from David’s memoir of his experience.  And I hear his voice in my head.)  In Our Wedding, the Musical, I packed tons of personal history into the songs, There Ought To Be a Song and There.  I must admit I’ve heard plenty of dull autobiographical numbers by singer-songwriters who are too focused on recalling their feelings, rather than depicting events.  It’s more important to be amusing than accurate.
  3. Ironic detachment must be handled carefully.  When you listen to Rakoff read, there’s a sense of rueful melancholy, as if he really didn’t enjoy the experiences he’s detailing.  Somehow, you never tire of listening to him, because he’s invested in the telling of the tale.  It’s as if he’s asserting “This awful thing I went through will definitely be interesting to hear about.”  This was a comedian who could be very funny about his battles with cancer.

Finding the right tone is key.  One musical a lot of people love but I can barely abide is Urinetown.  It spoofs Brecht – a sardonic polemicist who loved American musicals – by adopting the attitude that musicals are stupid.  While some of its songs impress as sophisticated Brecht & Weill or Eisler pastiche, there’s something self-defeating about writing a musical that continually derides the genre. Contrast The Drowsy Chaperone, which literally says, time and time again, that 1920s musicals were wonderful in many ways.  It accentuates the positive, which is appealing.  The show-within-the-show is entirely awful.  Intentionally, none of the songs are any good.  We listen, a little appalled, very much looking forward to what the fey fan-of-old-musicals will say about them.  He comes to praise.

Sometimes, I suspect I’ve readers out there who think I’m a bit like Drowsy‘s lonely aficionado.  But I don’t just love old musicals.  I enjoy a really funny essay every now and then, like the outrageous output of David Rakoff.  (Phew.  Didn’t think I’d be able to tie this back to him for a moment there.)

Perhaps he’ll make a duct-tape wallet for God.


The things we do for love

August 8, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch, who died this week, always had the persona of a nerdy little boy, energetically eager to please.  You can hear it in his tunes, how delighted he’d be if you enjoyed them.

And the more I think about it, the more I think this is an essential quality of Broadway songs.  The best scores are written with the hope that the audience will instantly embrace them.  Of course, there are those who fashion complex works that seem to defy the principle of like-me-on-first-hearing: Michael John LaChiusa, Elizabeth Swados, Stephen Sondheim.  In this important area, Marvin Hamlisch was the opposite.

How well I remember playing the album of A Chorus Line (pre-release, “FOR PROMOTIONAL PURPOSES ONLY“) for the first time.  Hamlisch’s name was the one I recognized.  I hadn’t heard of Kleban, Kirkwood, Dante, or Michael Bennett.  How thrillingly contemporary it sounded, and it’s full of clever ideas, such as the way the rehearsal of One “cuts” between the actual song and things the dancers are saying to themselves.  And in the show’s first crescendo, there’s an insider joke: the assistant choreographer yells “5-6-7-8” and we hear a theme in six-four time (in other words, he’s counted in as no dancer would).  And the theme that follows has (on beat five) unexpected notes that sound like mistakes.  Were these inspired by the out-of-tune pianos in audition halls?  The sequence culminates in a thick chord that adds the flatted fifth along with the perfect fifth: I’d never heard anything like that before, and how I loved it.  Instantly.  Just like Hamlisch wanted me to.

But then, I’d been a fan of Hamlisch for years before that, years before he became famous.  I love Woody Allen, and a couple of his “earlier funny films” boasted Hamlisch scores.  Hard to believe, but Take the Money and Run has a love theme.  It runs up four notes of the scale quickly and then repeats, very much like that awful zither theme from The Third Man.  But this is lush and pretty.  The theme for Bananas, a raucous romp through a Central American revolution, goes down the scale, and is scored for – what else? – gunshots!  It sounds like this:

Deedle-deedle
Deedle-deedle
Deedle-deedle
Dee
BANG! BANG!

and goes on to sound very much like one of those ditties mariachi bands play.  Just hysterical – perhaps the funniest movie theme I can think of.

I’m sure Marvin Hamlisch will be called the last of a certain breed, and that’s celebrity songwriters.  Here was a personality engaging enough to sit down with Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin, in the grand tradition of Johnny Mercer and Sammy Cahn.  I’ve another distinct memory of him coming on a talk show to play a song from the new Broadway musical he was working on, Smile, about a beauty pageant.  He explained that during the talent competition, one contestant plays classical piano while we hear the thoughts of another:

I know that I should like classical music
Play on, little girl, play on.

This wonderfully witty piece was right up Hamlisch’s alley.  It was easy for him to write faux Mozart, and also to play up the inherent comedy of the situation.  The lyric was by Carolyn Leigh, who died before she could complete the project.  “Classical Music” died with her.  The replacement lyricist, Howard Ashman, insisted on starting from scratch, as was his right.  The trouble was that, after coming off a huge hit, Little Shop of Horrors, Ashman wanted to show he could write more serious fare, and his lyrics for Smile lack the playfulness Leigh brought to it.  The show bombed, and is best known today as the source of a wonderfully lush power ballad of teen angst called Disneyland.  This serious number contained nothing to offend the Disney studio, which soon after hired Ashman to write The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  While completing the latter, Ashman died.  But I seem to have gotten off the subject of Hamlisch’s death.

Well, while I’m here, I should also note the death of librettist Mark O’Donnell, who co-wrote two musicals based on John Waters films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. I’ve always disliked the score of Hairspray, but the book’s admirably full of solid jokes.  And there’s about an hour-long stretch of Cry-Baby that’s very good, better than any of Hairspray; but just that hour, not the whole thing.

Did you know that Marvin Hamlisch not only wrote musicals, he’s a character in one of my favorite musicals (A Class Act) and actually inspired another one?  He’d gotten together with Neil Simon to collaborate on an adaptation of Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady.  Hamlisch would tell Simon about his romance with a ditzy lyricist, Carol Bayer Sager.  The Gingerbread project no longer seemed as good an idea as making a musical about the couple’s lives.  And so, They’re Playing Our Song was born.  I saw it and enjoyed it before it arrived on Broadway; it had a very long run.

The other musicals were less fortunate: Smile, The Goodbye Girl and The Sweet Smell of Success.  All had different lyricists, top-tier ones.  I was very disappointed by Sweet Smell, because the book gave all sorts of back-story meant to build up sympathy for the unlovable heel  at its center.  But there’s some wonderful music in it, reminiscent of Gershwin.  The Goodbye Girl, with another book by Neil Simon, has a rather familiar moment for me: it’s called Paula (An Improvised Love Song).  For many years, I’ve taught song improvisation, so I’m bemused to take in the composition that’s supposed to feel like it’s off the cuff.  Which reminds me that the first improv group I ever worked with, Off the Wall, appears as the improv group Richard Dreyfus is part of in the original, song-free film.  It’s the only film I’ve ever seen in a foreign country, where it was called La chica del adiós.

In my oeuvre, you can find all sorts of Hamlisch influences.  It amazes me that Smile, before it opened, was famous enough for us to make a reference to it in On the Brink.  Amanda Green, on her way to audition for the new Hamlisch musical, doesn’t name Smile, she merely says “My teeth will be the star of his new show.”  My song Working Out, which first went in front of a paying audience last year, ends with some pulsating eighth note chords that are right out of A Chorus Line.  And now I’m reminded that the first time a large group of people heard anything I’d done, it was a choral arrangement of a Hamlisch tune. In high school, our choir started rehearsing a medley of songs from A Chorus Line.  I thought it faintly ridiculous that two dozen singers would harmonize I Can Do That and said so.  The choral director said “Think you can do better, Katz?” and, without really knowing what I was doing, I came up with a tight version of The Music and the Mirror.  We performed it all over Southern California and even all over Mexico, where, one night off, we all went to see a film.  Now what was the name of that film?

So, it’s the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember Marvin Hamlisch.


Most embarrassing moments

August 3, 2012

Heard the same complaint about two 2012 musicals (they happen to have the same choreographer, but the fault lies elsewhere).  They’re period pieces, yet something a character says sounded so contemporary, the viewer was completely taken out of the period. Which is a shame, since the rest of creative team successfully applied themselves to the task of transporting us to a certain distant time and place.

But what if they didn’t?  What if they slacked off and didn’t pay attention to detail?

So now I’m picturing courtiers, gliding around a French palace before the revolution. The costumer dazzles us with lacy gowns and frilly cutaways. Abruptly, on comes a guy in a hoodie and those low-riding jeans that reveal way too much butt crack. Almost as one, the audience’s eyebrows shoot up, mouths gape and brains exclaim “Whuck?” 

It’s hard to imagine that ever happening, because costumers are customarily competent.  They look at everything they’ve designed with a meticulous eye that questions whether a thread or button might possibly take a watcher out of the moment.

Writers, however, are all too frequently incompetent. When I hear a blatant anachronism, I want to a call a cop and get the author’s poetic license revoked. And I include composers: I can clearly remember hearing a song by Andrew Lloyd Webber that plays on the major seventh, alternating with the minor seventh chord on the second note in the scale.  Lovely stuff, and very 1960s, just the harmonic world his countrymen Bricusse and Newley used to live in…


… The trouble here, is that ALW was supposed to be depicting 1950s Hollywood, a time and place where major sevenths were rarely played upon. (By the way, that’s the milieu I’m working in now.)

If I’m enjoying a show, set in the past, I don’t like to be whisked back to 2012 unnecessarily, or 1965. And I admit it: I sometimes get pissed at writers who aren’t working as hard as I am, yet managed to get a show on stage anyway. The slackers.

Physician: Heal thyself.Once, I wrote a musical set in 1950 and had a production number about the various ways one could get accused, back in those days, of being soft on Communism.

If you rooted for the Redskins, not the Bengals

Hold some liberal thought inside your head

If you’ve studied Marx or heard of Friedrich Engels…

You could be a red

(Listen to You’re a Red)

Now, I’d gone over my script with a fine tooth comb, and never found the egregious error contained within those lines.  You’d really have to be a serious pro football fan of a certain age to know this, but the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t exist, yet, in 1950.  I’m not old enough to remember a football season without the Bengals.  I’m much more of a baseball fan, and know the Cincinnati Reds have been around a long, long time, so naturally I assumed that…

Which is what makes an ass of you and me.

Nobody noticed my error until the paying audience came in.  And the brother of a good friend of mine, a lifelong football fan (my age) delivered the bad news that the Bengals were born in the 1960s.  Immediately, I thought of the best of the stanzas I’d cut from the song on our way to opening, choosing it to replace the offended paragraph.  And then I spotted critic Peter Filichia coming towards me.

Peter’s older than I am.  But is he a football fan?  I held my breath, and he gave me a look that said “I caught you.”  And then he said “The Bengals…?” and I stammered “I know, I know.  Just learned of their later origin a moment ago.  I already have a stanza to substitute.”

A few weeks later, he wrote a column about anachronisms in shows he’d recently seen, and reported our whole conversation.  But he was so impressed that I already had a replacement line at the ready, he said this was an indication I was a good writer.

Unlike those other bums who’d used anachronisms.