The end of us all

October 30, 2012

For some, the mere fact that people on stage are singing and, perhaps – horrors! – dancing is scary in and of itself. But you, dear reader, accept such things as next to normal. In the spirit if the season, I thought we might take a look at some frightening musicals.

A childhood memory: I was taken to Hänsel & Gretel, ostensibly an opera for the entire family by a fellow named Engelbert Humperdinck (no, not that one). The special effects, the darkness of the woods, and the general creepiness of the plot, at times scared the hell out of me. The music, influenced by Wagner, is frightening in its power. The methods behind making music menacing are well worth exploring.

Also in the 19th century, Arthur Sullivan made delicious use of frightening devices in Ruddigore. Every Halloween I play and sing When the Night Wind Howls from that score. In a sense, this aria spoofs Wagner, and W. S. Gilbert’s libretto is a full-scale send-up of horror melodramas. It’s supposed to be staged with spooky special effects as the full-body portraits in a gallery come to life. But from this early date, it seems, musicals were more comfortable making fun of scary theatre than actually spooking people.

In trying to think of a musical that takes Halloween seriously, my mind lands on the curious case of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, a show I don’t remember particularly well. It boasts Arthur Schwartz’s best score, and some excellent Dorothy Fields lyrics, but oh, that book. The main character of the first act, a diffident lass, is reduced, in Act Two, to the role of noble and overly-worried mother, with no songs all act long. Is that weird, or what? The protagonist of the second act is a 12 year-old with an alcoholic father, and, for them, Halloween is a terrifying event on three levels: of course there are children who feel that, one night a year, at least, it’s O.K. to be evil; the harrowing night is a spirit-sodden stupor for the bad dad; it’s also a foreboding nightmare presaging the tragedy to come. Serious stuff, that.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a prime example of a musical that sounds wonderful on record, but surprisingly is a chore to sit through live in a theatre. Huge gobs of the book are given to an annoying comic relief character, who, in one of the most excruciating would-be funny sequences I’ve ever seen, fakes childbirth. Yes, the man she’s with knows she’s fat (although she doesn’t bother to know his real name) and she sends him out of the room, screams a lot, and then shows him a baby. It boggles the mind that this ever passed for humor. Scary, no?

Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and Harold Prince set out to frighten the audience in Sweeney Todd. The music references scores from classic horror films, as well as the dies irae. The original Broadway production kept us an arm’s length from the terror by presenting the violence in Grand Guignol form – so stylized you couldn’t take it seriously. But, the best part of Wheeler’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics, the close shave involving the song, Pretty Women, more effectively portrays nail-biting suspense than anything in the musical theatre canon. The creators wisely understood a rarely-discussed principle, that it’s best to let the air out of a pressure valve with a bit of humor. So the sequence winds up the first act with the delicious music hall turn, A Little Priest.

I often find myself disagreeing with those that claim that Sondheim has been very influential on more recent generations of show-writers. Where, exactly, are these shows that, in any way, resemble his oeuvre? Instead, the past three decades have been splattered with a bunch of bloody musicals that attempt to have fun with their frights in the manner of Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors. Some of them actually shoot red-colored liquid into the audience, and provide the first few rows of customers with rain-wear to protect their clothing. That’s not my idea of fun. I loved Little Shop of Horrors because it was constantly funny. I couldn’t abide Toxic Avenger because so many of its gags fell so flat. I had a similar sense of I-should-be-laughing-but-I’m-not at Bat Boy, although the songs in that one exhibited an admirable level of craft. If you found these funny, good for you. But my question is, did they frighten you?

I’ll tell you what musical frightened me, and how it did it: Night of the Hunter. The protagonist was a 12-year-old boy who bravely protects his little sister. They had a secret stash of money. And their mother gets romanced by an ex-con (also, a current con man) with a history of marrying women in order to kill them and steal their money. It’s a situation that’s suspenseful, but also one that particularly lends itself to musicalization as there are strong emotions at play: motherly and brotherly love, and the false love of the villain. There are some genuinely gorgeous tunes by Claibe Richardson and Stephen Cole’s book and lyrics effectively keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m biting my nails just thinking about it. But then, I often bite my nails.

Be safe this Halloween. Use condoms. For trick-or-treat bags. That way you’ll limit your intake of candy.

How do you know that you’re a cat?

October 24, 2012

For all sorts of unrelated reasons, I find myself thinking a lot about Flaherty & Ahrens recently.

This time of the year, I’m frequently queried “What song should I sing in my winter showcase?” Faced with a rich-voiced, young, handsome and black questioner, I instantly thought of Some Girls.

Some Girls, for me, was the gateway drug to the amazing oeuvre of Flaherty & Ahrens. I kept hearing that a great team had emerged from the post-Lehman Engel BMI workshop (I left when Lehman left…this mortal coil).  Word had it they’d written a heartbreaker about a dog and a waltz called Some Girls. With no YouTube or Spotify to refer to, I patiently waited for the songs to magically appear on my piano. (Accompanying classes and piano bars, I could count on that sort of thing.) The day it did, I thought “Wow: this waltz exceeds its hype.”

some girls

The tune employs ascending intervals you don’t often hear, and they lend freshness and surprise to a fairly traditional harmonic structure. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics are the paragon of specificity. In combination with the music, deeply-felt emotion comes through. And there’s a genuine surprise at the ending, one that revises everything we’ve felt about the character before.

Sometimes, specificity elicits a huge response in me, and there’s an example in Flaherty & Ahrens’ At Times Like This:

Give me a quiet night, a stack of books, a tuna melt on rye.

For some strange reason, I burst into tears upon hearing that.  Why?  Because Ahrens was able to come up with something specific that perfectly captures what would make this particular character happy.  The telling example is the Holy Grail, something we lyricists are always looking for, and my hat’s off to her.

The Cat in the Hat, for a time, seemed to be the character so hard to cast, it was threatening to be the team’s undoing.  When Flaherty and Ahrens’ Seussical opened on Broadway, it was widely panned.  The pans got me to stay away, but they talked about production design being overwrought and the libretto trying to tie together too many Dr. Seuss stories. The producers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to fire David Shiner, who was playing The Cat in the Hat, and replace him with Rosie O’Donnell, the widely-loved comedienne and talk-show host.  Can we examine this move for a moment?  David Shiner, who, some time earlier, had worked with my improv buddies, The Chainsaw Boys, is a dazzling physical comedian with a modest but serviceable voice.  He’s comfortable interacting with audiences, ad-libbing, and being generally charming.  Rosie O’Donnell is an aggressively obnoxious and often foul-mouthed comedian, one who loves Broadway but has the singing voice of a rampaging bull.  Physical grace, she ain’t got.  So, the substitution didn’t make a lot of sense to this outside observer.  But I was also struck that the critics had never said “This show needs a better Cat in the Hat, one who’s a star.” The producers took actions as if they had.

All of that’s water under the bridge as Seussical, post-Broadway, has gone on to become the new century’s most-produced musical.  I stumbled across a blog that talks about the score from a musical director’s point of view:

Stephen Flaherty is a tremendous pianist, and his excellent pianism shines through every measure of vocal score of his music. The piano is the strong voice of his accompaniment, and the voicings of his chords are without exception beautifully spaced, crystal clear, and fall under the hand very naturally. If you are a pianist MD, take a little time to work out the score ahead of time. There are some tricky spots…but Flaherty is more a Chopin than a Liszt; you will find that whatever’s bothering you is very playable once you get your head around it. Nothing is written awkwardly for its own sake; it’s all clearly written TO BE PLAYED. It’s really a joy.

High praise indeed, and it got me thinking about how I react to composers from a pianist’s perspective.  It’s possible that the difficulty I have negotiating Michael John LaChiusa’s jagged accompaniments lead me to appreciate him less than I otherwise might.  Jason Robert Brown’s Liszt-like piano parts, to my mind, inevitably require the accompanist to steal focus from the performer; there’s nothing I loathe more.  Adam Guettel often writes for far more accomplished players than me.  But what I’m really saying here is that I wish more composers wrote like Flaherty: the melodies are clear and singable; they always support the lyrics; and, as that musical director’s comments confirm, they feel good in your fingers.  Something to think about.

Recently, I accompanied a rather glorious rendition of Back To Before from Ragtime.  There followed a discussion of the emotional frame of mind the character is in.  The singer needed to dial back her anger, because, the more we looked at the song, the less ire we could find.  It struck me that if a different songwriting team had won the job of writing Ragtime, they would have made the character angry.  (Indeed, the producer had various teams write songs on spec before choosing Flaherty & Ahrens.)  Too many writers feel anger is dramatic gold on stage.  Ahrens knows that someone who manages to avoid getting mad is far more interesting.
Due to their keen grip on what makes a song theatrical, Flaherty & Ahrens don’t have their characters bleat one thought from start to finish. Rather, they make sure their characters go through stuff, evolve, make discoveries. This, I think, is the key to what makes them the pre-eminent showtune writers of the past quarter century, a period in which Sondheim’s given us Assassins, Passion and Road Show, and Lloyd Webber, Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game, The Woman In White and Love Never Dies. At times like this, we sure could use…more Flaherty & Ahrens.

I guess I missed that day in school

October 18, 2012

When I look back through the years of excellent lyric-writing, I often marvel at the expected level of audience education and sophistication the writers counted upon.

In W.S. Gilbert’s day, the Mikado name-drops “Bach interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” Assumedly we all still know two of the three Bs, but Spohr? Who the hell was Spohr? You could listen to WQXR all day long (as I’ve been known to do), or frequent Carnegie Hall and still draw a blank. But Gilbert’s 19th Century audience got it. This may be hard to believe, but in those days, J.S. Bach was the most obscure of the three.

As a child, I much admired Rodgers and Hart’s 1927 hit, My Heart Stood Still. It contains one proper noun, in “But since your kiss, I’m reading Missus Glyn.” So, I dragged out our family’s enormous encyclopedia and figured out who the hell Mrs. Glyn was.

There’s something mildly depressing about this whole issue. In the Victorian Age, Gilbert wrote for an audience savvy enough to giggle at the mere mention of Spohr. In the Twenties, Larry Hart’s audience emitted knowing smiles at Mrs. Glyn. And then in the 1960s, Alan Jay Lerner could quip “If a date waits below, let him wait for Godot” conjuring a vivid image for the cognoscenti. (Not a vivid image of Godot himself, of course, but the date.)

The thing about those three references is that they were contemporary. As time went by, people forgot who Spohr and Mrs. Glyn were. I feel a certain sadness about that, because the lyricists did a perfectly fine job and the years have not been kind. We now have an audience ill-equipped to appreciate their good work

Back to The Mikado, for a moment. The libretto has a line “My father, the Lucius Junius Brutus of his race” which I think is very funny (and not just because I’ve a very close friend named Junius). This is a non-contemporary reference; we’re expected to know Lucius Junius Brutus from our school studies of history.

Cole Porter was the master of the reference: topical, historical, mythic and biblical. Part of his success lies in his knowledge of his audience, his keen awareness of what they knew. And if you didn’t get the reference, well, you’re screwed, not in on the joke. My head reels over Cole’s expectations of understanding of:

When Salome got John the B. and by the head,
It appears he wasn’t kosher in the bed.
But today who’d be the goy she’d like to land?
Why, the leader of a big-time band.

The minor-key music moves at a fairly swift clip. And the biblical names come at us not only rapid-fire but in unusual ways. Salome, in my experience, is three syllables. I’ve heard it accented on both the first and the second. Porter stuffs her into two quick notes with an accent on the second. It barely registers. Then, humorously, John the Baptist gets abbreviated to John the B. Now, as we know from our familiarity with the bible, Salome and John the Baptist go together, but boy Cole Porter expects us to apprehend things quickly. Though this is a New Testament story, the song now makes a surprising turn towards Jewish terminology. “Kosher in the bed” sets the dirty mind racing. “Goy” – a term used only by Jews to refer to Christians, is particularly wry. (Or rye, if we’re thinking of a bread you don’t have to be Jewish to love.)

Need I point out that Porter was the one top-tier Golden Era songwriter who wasn’t Jewish? Oy!

I like to think we live in a world in which tales from the Bible are still familiar. Alas, Cole Porter’s name-dropping of celebrities give his songs a shorter shelf-life. Take this witty ditty:

Don’t inquire of Georgie Raft
Why his cow has never calfed,
Georgie’s bull is beautiful, but he’s gay!

Let me confess there are two things I don’t know here:

  • I’m unaware of any earlier use of gay to mean homosexual. The lyric, elsewhere, uses it in the old-fashioned happy sense
  • I’m not aware of George Raft being called Georgie. By anyone. At any time.

But here’s the thing: I’m well aware of who Raft was, can picture him, his toughness, his gruffness. And it’s that image that makes the gag so funny.

Those digging through Cole Porter songs who can’t picture George Raft are missing out on some of the good humor here. And I’ve an impulse to make a joke about Good Humor ice cream here, but, alas, few of my readers are old enough to recall that summer delight. Mmm.

Now that this memory has put me into something of a good humor, I’m disinclined to rail against the comparative stupidity of today’s audiences. Before you go and appreciate Golden Era musical theatre – and I hope you do – it might be necessary to, I don’t know, read a book. But I admit you’d have to read quite a few books before discovering what sort of literature Mrs. Glyn wrote.

And if you’re writing – and I hope you are – you’re going to have to have an idea of what references your audience is likely to recognize. When I was writing a show at Columbia, I wrote, “They’ve all studied Skinner” safe in the knowledge that students in the seats would know behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner enough to get the joke. And five years ago, my show Such Good Friends got a rave in Backstage, which noted:

A wily wizard with words, Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.

While the critic was amazed and delighted I could drop a reference to Wiley Post (drop like Post himself), this might be an ominous oracle about the show’s future. Producers and artistic directors beyond New York seemingly surmise their patrons are nothing like “New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.”  And that’s a shame.  For a lot of reasons. One of which is, I’d travel anywhere to see Such Good Friends performed again, and, if it was done in a lot of places, then, at long last, I could earn the right to be called peripatetic.

Peripatetic: a word I learned as a kid, when Ed Kleban used it in A Chorus Line.

Marrying you

October 12, 2012

The musical I wrote which I get asked the most about played nine years ago today, Our Wedding.  In other words, it’s also our wedding anniversary.  For the musical was our wedding, and our wedding was a musical.  People seem tickled by the mere idea, an act both romantic and ridiculous; audacious, unusual, and, most of all, entertaining.

While we may have succeeded in having extraordinary nuptials, the onus on me as writer was to make sure that the text was just as extraordinary.  There have been zillions of love songs over the ages, and probably a thousand or more songs having to do with getting married.  That’s a crowded target on which to shoot a new arrow.  Furthermore, many of these songs resonate in the audience’s collective minds.  Picture people rushing to a church, fearful of tardiness, and not thinking of Get Me To the Church On Time.  I can’t; can you?

When I attend a show, I tend to be bothered by whatever’s utterly predictable.  So, in order to write the sort of show I would enjoy attending, I had to come up with a goodly number of numbers that had something new to say.  For instance, for the principal love song Joy and I were to sing to each other, I had us refer to the past romances, the fools who failed to appreciate (or conjugally matrimonify, as W.S. Gilbert would put it) our traits and talents.  So, what could have been a dull list of good qualities takes on a tinge of melancholy, referencing those “idiots” and employing the flat fifth.

One thing I’ve never seen at a wedding is any mention at all of sex.  Oh, I guess there might have been a drunk-out-of-his-mind Best Man who toasted with something mildly off-color, but, let’s face it, for centuries the joy of getting married had everything to do with the joy of having sex.  So, years before the trend of potty-mouthed gal pals hit the big screen in films such as Bridesmaids, I wrote an old-fashioned girl-group-rock quartet for Joy’s maids of honor.  In The Wedding Night, they give the bride cosmopolitan (small c, if you please!) advice on how to please the groom (me) in bed.  All of this got a lot of laughs and I was able to use a triple-entendre I can guarantee you has never been used before or since.  (Hint: it involves our names.)

To set up The Wedding Night, I had the bridesmaids offer traditional advice in the form of a madrigal.  This quadruple quodlibet ends abruptly when one of them interrupts the number to call it lame.  She tells the pianist to kick it and the new groove begins.  This was the sort of surprise the evening demanded.

In any musical, the writer must pay attention to whether the audience might be ahead of the material.  You can’t tell people stuff they already know and expect to get a hand.  So, at some point in the show, it becomes frighteningly apparent that we’re listening to a progression of views about this marriage from different vantage points: sister-of-the-groom, father-of-the-bride, flower girl and preacher.  And we also know that there are certain lines (mostly from the preacher) that most any wedding will include.  So, I combined these two problems – the parade of perspectives and the obligatory recitations, into one sung punchline: “If there’s anybody here who knows any reason why these two should not be married …” and here our officiant friend paused, looked around, and then an impish grin broke out on his face; “…you’d better have a damn good song ready.”

Now it seems I’m spoiling a lot of the surprises.  (Note to self: DON’T let readers know about the part of the processional when the singers start talking like pirates.)  But it’s not as if you can ever see this show.  Our Wedding was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  If you missed it, I’m sorry you did.  There is an original cast album for sale.  A mere $20 to me at PayPal gets you a CD in the mail.  And I promise you it’s full of surprises.

If there’s one word that has been a touchstone for me in all my writing, it’s “surprise.”  I can’t stand to serve up the expected.  The thing you didn’t see coming is what makes great theatre.  And a funny punch-line.

But it also might seem like the whole show was a laugh-riot.  Our Wedding, like any good wedding, is a romantic occasion.  We could have fun with the traditional components of knot-tying, but the message that I love Joy had to shine through.  Genuine expressions of the heart abound: in her solo and mine, in my Best Man’s history of our long friendship, in my father’s halting waltz

plus a surprisingly touching moment at the end of the comic duet for our mothers.  I think, there, I managed to tap in to what any mom, deep down inside, would like to communicate to their child’s spouse’s mother: Don’t make my baby’s life a living hell by being an awful mother-in-law!  Seems like a funny thought, at first, but real tears fell on many a cheek when it was delivered.  I can vouch for my two.

I love you, Joy.  I miss you, Mom.

A glimmer of you

October 7, 2012

A young theatre songwriter I very much admire, Ryan Cunningham, has written a perfectly fair article for The Huffington Post about what might as well be called The You-Tubing of Our Industry. He accurately describes the contemporary process of writing a song, uploading a video, people see it and like it (or, perhaps, “like” it). Then you’ve got more people familiar with your work, more singers who want to perform that song, and, the ultimate goal, interesting producers in the musical from whence it came.

Sounds like a sure hit, does it not? – the musical From Whence It Came.

So that’s what it’s come to, here in the second decade of the 21st Century. At the risk of sounding troglodytically mired in 20th Century ways of thinking, I’d like to point out a few problems with our Brave New World.

The biggest one may be the hardest thing to convince you about. There are important differences between the qualities necessary for a song to score on YouTube and what flies theatrically in the context of a story for the stage. These differences were apparent to some, forty years ago, when the musical Pippin pioneered the use of television advertising for Broadway. The show had a smart producer, Stuart Ostrow and the brilliant director-choreographer Bob Fosse as its chief creative force. They took a long hard look at how Stephen Schwartz’s songs might play on the small screen and decided to present a dance with no singing.  What makes Pippin a successful entertainment is not stuff a camera could capture.

But surely music, if it’s good, will shine on a video.  And also the lyrics, especially if they’re witty. Could be, but finely crafted words and tune might just sit there, like so much lox, in the context of a show’s narrative. I was recently discussing one of Cy Coleman’s best ballads, with a piquant David Zippel lyric, With Every Breath I Take. The rangy and haunting tune, while bearing certain similarities to Rupert Holmes’ Moonfall, from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, seems overflowing with emotion, like an effective jazz standard. I love the song, but watching the show it’s from, City of Angels, I almost didn’t notice it. The scenery was moving during the song; a narrator spoke during the intro. What’s worse, it wasn’t a character we care about expressing herself: it was merely a jazz singer setting the scene, a 1940s night club.  The show gives us no reason to pay enough attention to the song that we get any inkling how good it is. Had City of Angels used this gem in TV ads, the lured-in audience would have been outraged.

Imagine Cy and David were writing this today and put this number on YouTube. They’d build an interested and excited viewership but it’s rather deceptive. If one were to list the virtues of City of Angels (and there are many) the emotionality of its torch song wouldn’t bear a mention.

Of course, that’s the age-old problem with excerpts. Like those blind men feeling up that elephant, we can’t quite get a handle on how the song propels the story (if it does).  Nowadays there are quite a few songwriters with considerable reputations who have yet to demonstrate that they can move an audience in the theatre with pieces that are pieces of narrative. Why are they renowned musical theatre writers, then?  Their videos.

Look, I’m not saying these guys are bad. And I’m not maintaining New York is the be-all and the end-all. But just to make myself clear:

Scott Alan
Jonathan Reid Gealt
Kooman and Dimond
Ryan Scott Oliver

have yet to demonstrate to New York audiences that they can write a book musical.  For many singers, usually under a certain age, they’re the go-to guys.  It’s puzzling to me that prolific show-writers like Peter Mills or Douglas J. Cohen aren’t.  But then, I’m puzzled by a lot of things.  Illuminate me.  I’m just putting this out there.

Speaking of putting it out there, remember Rebecca Black?  Or is this teen video star already forgotten, her name only known to trivia contestants?  Story goes, she borrowed $4000 from her parents to put up a cheerfully jejune song on YouTube, Friday, and became an overnight sensation, the very personification of going viral.  She was lucky her parents had the money to loan: I’m reminded of a political candidate who recently suggested young would-be entrepreneurs can borrow start-up funds from their parents.  I won’t say which candidate said this but must note that his father was a very rich auto executive and governor. (Vote, people!)  But who was I talking about?  Oh, yes: some young girl: I didn’t hear her name mentioned in the Grammy nominations, because, even in pop, the things that make a video eminently clickable are not confused for the qualities of, er, quality.

I don’t talk about pop on this blog.  My concern is musical theatre, and the increasingly widespread practice of YouTubing threatens to propel our genre’s equivalent of Rebecca Black into the spotlight, stealing attention from writers with great craft but not-so-great videos.

And maybe their videos aren’t wonderful because there’s something in the nature of musical theatre that even an expensively produced video can never put across.  Our songs are written for live performance, in which a live actor sends something across the footlights that’s received by an audience.  The audience, in turn, sends an energy back, often as laughter, or applause, or tears hitting the arms of their chairs.  This is received by the performer, who will adjust what she’s doing in response to the response.  And so it goes.  When musical theatre is firing on all cylinders.  And no video can ever relate that.

We want to thank you

October 2, 2012

Ooh, it’s the dreaded blogaversary – marking two years of churning out essays every five or six days – which means I have to talk about the blog, review highlights and pat myself on the back.  And I’ve always had some trouble patting myself on the back. It’s awkward. I get pains in my elbows.

We get some conflicting messages about back-patting. “Don’t keep your light under a bushel,” it is said, as if a bushel is some opaque blocking device and not some obscure measurement. On the other hand, we’re taught to be modest. Ugly Americans (and men, in general) get criticized for talking about themselves too much. And when you add to this conflict the nature of a blog, that editor-free place where people often talk about themselves and there’s no one to stop them. May I quote Kleban? “It’s a mess; it’s a mess.”

Something within me rebels against the notion that every five or six days I should go on Facebook and yell “Hey! I wrote another blog entry! Read it!” The whole idea of it makes me think of the time in my teens I had the score to Threepenny Opera out from the library. As I was struggling through the overture, a minor key march in 3/4, my father came in with a friend of his to listen. In the small talk that followed I said that this piece was a particularly large influence on my writing. The next thing I knew, my father uttered some caustic comment about my swelled head, as if citing a relatively obscure and not-widely-loved inspiration was an act of immodesty. This stung so much, I still worry I brag too much today. (“Adolesce, adolesce.”)

Still, I hope I’m attracting readers here, and promoting interest in my musicals. (2012 was pretty fallow.) Just the other week readers came in record numbers to read my reminiscences about my main mentor, John Ingle. Right before that, many read my review of the New Notes concert of show tunes by The Contemporary Traditionalists. One thing that’s pleasing about this is that both posts were dashed off in a hurry – something of a “Stop the presses!” flurry – I hadn’t intended to critique that cabaret; it was just so good, I felt suddenly inspired.

Usually, though, these things are written in advance, affording me more time to rephrase things, or scrap a post completely. Earlier this year, an esteemed colleague of mine died but I decided not to eulogize on this blog as I couldn’t think of anything positive to say.

Similarly, there are times when fellow musical-makers invite me to look at their works and I think “There are so many fascinating flaws here, it could make a great post on what not to do.” But I can’t do that, of course. Blogging isn’t How To Lose Friends and Influence People.

But there’s the rub. My goal here, usually, is to encourage people to create better shows, so we all can enjoy more. It’s narrowcasting so extreme we need a smaller word than narrowcasting to describe it. While I hope to help librettists, lyricists and composers, I don’t kid myself that many of that ilk are reading.

But judging by which entries are read most, a lot of you tune in to see what I have to say about the widely-derided TV drama, Smash. It’s emblematic of how theatre struggles to compete with mass media. While its ratings are low, many more have seen Smash than two fascinating original musicals, both about somewhat obscure episodes in American history, that I wrote about in 2010: The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Innovative creations that might push the fabulous invalid forward a little: that’s what I like musing about, and I hope you enjoy reading about. There are “Smash sucks” pieces all over the Internet.

typical Daddyblog illustration

I prefer praising to deriding but this is what gets people to this space. Perhaps I ought to write about Glee, a far-more-interesting musical TV series that’s a high-rated phenomenon.

Which reminds me to reveal that I’ve got a little list of blog ideas. (I’m open to suggestions for topics.) And I fight back the temptation to write about other things. I’m passionate about politics, very excited about this election but God knows there are a zillion political blogs out there. Who wants to add a voice to an already deafening din? And my ten months of being a father: there is no bigger cliché in the blogosphere than sharing hair-raising child-raising tales. I’ve a sign on my desk that reads “Eschew cliché” and whenever I read it I’ve an urge to say “Gesundheit!”

I guess I take pride in this blog’s uniqueness. Where else can you learn how to write a musical?  While it’s disappointing that I still don’t have a website where you can hear my songs and learn about my musicals, at least my essay-writing light isn’t kept under a bushel. Or a peck. Or a cubic decameter.