Moving out of the apartment on Broadway where I’ve lived for longer than most of the unaccountably popular proto-musical-theatre composers have been alive, I’m of course awash with sentiment. But you know I feel this blog is not a proper arena for my cris-de-coeur; rather, it’s a dry-eyed (though hopefully not dry) discussion of the creation of musicals. I feel honor-bound to relate anything I say about the old apartment to the unchanging topic at hand.
I guess that begs the question, did the apartment inspire me to write the ten or so scores I wrote there? Did having a window on Broadway precipitate my Broadway sound?
One silly thing is that, sometimes, people not from New York were impressed that I actually had an address on the actual Street. They didn’t realize that Broadway is the city’s longest avenue, going from the bottom tip of Manhattan to well beyond the Bronx. Or that most if Broadway’s theaters aren’t on the actual boulevard. But, I must admit, I’ve found having an ear on Broadway means a greater understanding of the way a wide variety of types of people talk. And not just New Yorkers, as my neighborhood gets a huge number of tourists.
I’m a great believer in the idea that one picks up the energy of New York. Half a block away from Broadway means half a block of a tranquil side street. I’m aware that many of you reading this don’t live on as boisterous a boulevard. And that’s fine: there are other sources of energy. I’m just expressing appreciation for the old Broadway block in which I could breeze past the big windows of the Indian cafe where poets and playwrights regularly have readings and suddenly duck into the lair where I create musical works for the stage.
But, for me, there’s no need to be at home to write. I can take out a pad anywhere and go. Or not even a pad, sometimes. I’m Happiest At Christmas, for example, involved me drawing a staff on a paper napkin while riding the subway. Lest that seem too improbably magical, I should point out that much groundwork is laid before I begin composing the piece. I knew I wanted to start in minor and end in major, as God Bless You Merry Gentlemen does. I may have already decided to write a waltz, but the parameters of the story let me know I should create a traditional English carol. Now, the elements that make up the sound of U.K. Yule songs comprise an impression I picked up from playing many holiday parties over the years. My mind wanders to these issues; useless knowledge in a corner of my brain eventually became useful.
Where was I? Oh, yes: the west side of Broadway. I spent very little time staring out at the street, so I can’t claim I was inspired by the view. “Inspiration” is a word non-writers often ask about. Sometimes, we kindly indulge their fantasy, telling a little white lie about feeling a flash of inspiration. Since I may have swiped too many notes from the old song Little White Lies for a song in The Pirate Captains, my mind goes back to the research I did in Greenwich Village’s library for that. There, I read about a cross-dressing incident in the picaresque life of lady pirate Anne Bonny. That research birthed the basic plot of The Pirate Captains. So, as with Einstein’s axiom, it was the perspiration of doing that research that led to the story, hardly the storied “inspiration.”
I got a kick out of living in an abode constructed in the 19th century, but it’s specious to claim this factoid helped me write the Victorian era-set The Christmas Bride. (The new place is only four years younger, but that puts it over the line.) I’m reminded of the spec songs I wrote, probably in my teens, as an audition for a project set in the 1800s. The producer gently pointed out that my use of the word, “guy,” didn’t sound true to the period. I recognized then and there that this was a valuable lesson about the appropriateness of vocabulary in lyrics. And since I was just a teen it was neither surprising nor disappointing that the job went to someone else. It was disappointing that the someone else they chose was a very famous actor and sometime composer, who, it turned out, proved unable to complete the project. Then, I remembered this line by the 19th century’s best lyricist, W.S. Gilbert, The lady from the provinces who dresses like a guy. So some in the 1800s did use “guy,” but, as I’ve pointed out before, reality isn’t as important as verisimilitude.
The song going through my head right now is My Apartment, by Ben Schaechter and Dan Kael. I came across an interview with them that brought back a memory from long ago. A first-time producer, who happened to live on the next block, contacted several songwriters about contributing to a revue about the newspaper. We discussed several ideas: something about the gobbledygook of the financial pages, a guy trying to improve his mind by reading the magazine but getting thrown off track by the lingerie ads, and a blues sung by a discarded newspaper itself. From time to time, he’d check in with me, for, at that stage, he saw it as his primary duty to make sure no two songwriting teams tackled the same idea. Living a block apart, I delivered a progress report face to face. Stock Quotes would be a talking fugue, a spoken-in-rhythm pitchless choral piece a la The Music Man‘s opening on the train. A Date with Angela, I had two different melody ideas for, and he expressed a preference that tipped the scale. Then, when I started to talk about Wet Newspaper Blues, his face turned white. Schaechter and Kael were working on a very similar idea, and, from the interview, I now know they were proud of coming up with the idea of creating a torch song to be sung by the newspaper itself. The producer felt so bad that he failed at his primary goal, and that he liked Ben and Dan’s song better. But when I heard their torch song, well, my hat went off to them. Their take is so much more amusing than mine.It’s not a tragedy when a song gets thrown away. On the other hand, I seem to have lost the music and lyrics for A Date With Angela, which seems a shame. It’s as if the disorganized sinkhole that was my apartment swallowed it up, somehow. Which reminds me to plug the latest off-Broadway musical my wife cast, Forever Dusty. Somehow that title seems an apt description of our old apartment.
It seems, to me, that I’ve recently been hammering the same point over and over. It’s the notion that a great show is made up of more than just great songs. There’s a certain number of songwriters out there who are able to craft an impressive quantity of high quality numbers. Far fewer are the craftsmen who are able to create great musicals. That’s because there’s a real difference between show-writers and “mere” songwriters.
It’s understandable that individual songs get the scrutiny in our society. If a piece is short enough, it comes at us in a digestible morsel. In a way, people imagine themselves as the panelists on a TV competition, passing judgment on 32 bars. “Ooh, that’s got a kicky groove; I could dance to it.” So, when musical theatre creators are praised, it’s usually for fashioning individual songs that bear the traits of what we think of as good songs.
Praise is nice. But are we being misled? I recently ran into an old friend, someone who didn’t get serious about writing musical comedies until he’d reach middle age. When I listen to his songs as individual numbers, I’m underwhelmed. But when I saw his musical at NYMF, I thought, What an entertaining evening; funny and moving and fast-paced. The man knows how to write a show. Might never have got an inkling of this from listening to any one of its songs.
Is it because I think he named his child Jenga that I have this image in my mind of a Jenga tower? First, I must confess I’ve never played the game. So, already I don’t know what I’m talking about. In my mind, the tower is made of different pieces, some of which might have odd or particularly beautiful shapes. OK, this may be a tortured analogy, but a good song can sometimes be a particularly beautiful odd-shaped piece, bound to make the tower tumble. And then you don’t have a tower; you’ve a collection of pieces in a heap.
Often, I see that a neophyte has assembled songs into a cycle, or concept album, or a themed revue. At some point, they’ve gotten praise that goes “Your songs are so theatrical, they ought to be on stage in a show.” And the songs may indeed sound like they’re stage-worthy, but the final project turns out to be a heap of interesting pieces, not a tower of entertainment. I’ve gotten stuck in the audience too many times, yawning at yet another heap.
What I wish, what I’m urging, is that contemporary creators start as our cavemen ancestors did, gathering around a campfire. An adept raconteur thinks about the story he’s about to tell, and the best way to tell it, before launching in. Then, to get back to that analogy, thought is given to the architecture of the tower, the skeletal frame. One event followed by another. And the consideration of how to tell the story inspires the ideas for songs.
Last post omitted mention of John Bucchino, a widely-admired composer-lyricist who’s won both the Kleban and the very first Fred Ebb Award. I’m crazy about his songs, and when he won those awards I wasn’t surprised or dismayed by the choice. After all, the award judges looked at just a selection of his songs, not the whole musicals they come from. Seeing his musical Lavender Girl was an eye-opener to me. A song that seemed so emotional and dramatic sung by Patti Lupone on his album, Grateful, just sat there on stage (directed by Harold Prince – no slouch). It moved me not a whit in the theatre. The good-on-record and good-on-stage songs are truly different animals.
Earlier I mentioned a mass of judges, assessing individual songs. Far smaller is the set of people looking at the whole musicals being written. This, of course, is perfectly understandable, given the time and cost (and, sometimes, traveling distance) necessary to take a look at new shows being done. They’re larger-than-bite-size, which I guess makes them what the candy-makers call fun size. Or do they? (Sorry, too much Halloween candy has taken a toll on my brain. But I may have a wrapper I could check laying around here.) Chances are, if someone’s come up with a great musical, you haven’t heard of it. But a great song instantly gets done a lot.
And the renown of songs spreads, in part, because so many performers are looking for new material. (Sometimes I think that relative newness is the main thing some care about.) In a recent conversation with a pair of young talents, I expressed my loathing for Scott Alan’s formless number, Watch Me Soar. And that prompted the question, “Do you also hate Ryan Scott Oliver?” And I don’t, really, but I bring up this exchange because neither Scott nor Ryan Scott have had musicals produced in Manhattan, where I live. So, it’s not as if I’ve an informed opinion of whether they can sustain an evening. It’s a mystery to me. But the RSO tunes I’ve heard are attractively kicky; I could dance to them. Scott Alan, the polar opposite. Whether either can tell an interesting story, in the theatre, only time (perhaps a lot of time) will tell.
Playbill On-Line, last month, bestowed a gift on 15 young writers, highlighting them in a two-part feature, Songwriters You Should Know. It’s a lovely honor. At first glance, it might seem that the knowledgeable staff of Playbill writers and editors made the selection, but it turns out to be the opinion of exactly one Playbill reporter, Michael Gioia. He’s unearthed some names I didn’t know, and you know I like to know what’s out there. And I, too, am exactly one scribe. Except when I’m at the barber shop and there are mirrors facing each other around me; then, I’m a crowd. This individual’s idiosyncratic opinion, naturally, differs a little with Mr. Gioia’s.
A few posts back, I discussed the current fad of YouTubing new show tunes. I mentioned some writers whose fame derives not from having narrative musicals produced in New York theaters, but just from posting videos of their songs on line. Playbill‘s list came out after my blog entry, and voila! named five guys I named. If I were naming new theatre songwriters you should know (and I will, below), I’d only feel comfortable recommending those whose whole stage works I’d seen. If these are good musical theatre writers – and they may be – I would hope the selector saw their songs on stage, in the context of furthering a story.
The unfortunate fact is, Mr. Gioia couldn’t have seen some of the writers’ songs in context because they’ve never had a musical produced on stage. And the article doesn’t disguise the fact.
Their music is brought to life at New York City nightclubs such as Joe’s Pub, (le) Poisson Rouge and Birdland, developmental spots like Ars Nova, on songwriter websites and internet platforms like YouTube. Their work is being developed in New York and around the country, their music is materializing on iTunes and fans are demanding their sheet music.
There’s a page about each writer or writing team, pointing out what they’ve done. Jonathan Reid Gealt, for example, has released an album. Some of these songs may come from as-yet unproduced musicals. I’ve had his Quiet rolling around in my head the past few days, but I don’t have any idea if it works on stage.
Seems I know a lot of people who are crazy for Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond. I recently recommended one of their songs to someone who’s very happy to be working on it. But who among us has seen their musicals? (I’ll slowly and slyly raise my hand half way up, as years ago I caught their presentation of a show about kids with cancer at the ASCAP workshop. I’ll say no more.) But that’s the thing I wrote about a few weeks ago: increasingly, it seems, it doesn’t matter so much how your song works on stage, the video or audio excerpt has become of greater importance. This can lead to rather dull evenings in the theatre, where shows don’t tell compelling stories, but ineptly string together a bunch of songs that people “liked” on websites.
If I’m skeptical that Mr. Gioia happened to be in the tiny Los Angeles theatre years ago where Scott Alan had his one musical performed, I’m not crying foul. He’s honestly conveyed how he’s heard the songs. I just question the theatricality and, frankly, quality, of Mr. Alan’s material. His songs generally blare out the same troubled emotion over and over again, sans character development or discovery, never utilizing a title, good rhyme, or rhythmic hook. I have him on my list of Songwriters You Should Know To Stay Away From.
On the other hand, there are some good choices here. Joe Iconis and Adam Gwon have created interesting works for off-Broadway. It’s one thing, though, to shed light on relative unknowns like Deborah Abramson, Katie Thompson and Will Van Dyke, and another to tell readers they ought to know writers who’ve won as many awards as Gwon (the Kleban, the Ebb, and the Second Stage Theatre Donna Perret Rosen prize). Anyone who has attended auditions (on the hiring side of the table) has certainly heard Iconis’ Blue Hair, and, every hour at least, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk’s Run Away With Me. I guess that the title Songwriters You Should Know is meant to be met with “I do!”
But enough with complaining about this other guy’s selection; here’s my own list of contemporary theatre songwriters I think you should know.
It was Ryan Cunningham who wrote the Huffington Post piece about the YouTubing of musicals. So it seems the most glaring omission that he and partner Joshua Salzman aren’t part of the Playbill dozen. In songs like Just Not Now from their off-Broadway hit, I Love You Because, they crystallize feelings actual people might feel today, and the diction precisely captures the way people express themselves. In an odd reversal in the history of musical theatre, a whole generation seems skittish about writing about love. Not Ryan and Josh: they take it head on, with delightfully moving results.
It probably annoys Sammy Buck and Dan Acquisto that I keep forgetting the titles of their musicals. I’ve seen three of them, I think, and it’s clear they focus on storytelling. I’ll state it again: the well-wrought song can be a shiny flash in the pan; the well-told story intrigues you for an evening. I don’t think I’m asking too much of musicals when I say I need to wonder what’s going to happen next to characters. Buck’s book to Like You Like It reassembles farcical elements from Shakespeare’s As You Like It in ways that keep you guessing. I thought I knew the Bard’s original pretty well, but this musical version got me to focus, instead, on adolescent love and the games we play. Bucquisto, as they sometimes call themselves, is far ahead of the featured-in-Playbill dozen in narrative proficiency.
Like Adam Gwon, Marcy Heisler’s captured both the Kleban and the Ebb. (Ebb also bestowed her collaborator Zina Goldrich). I’ve written about her before. Many a savvy auditioner scores with a Goldrich & Heisler number, and that’s because they’re eminently actable. If you give performers something to do, there’s less chance they’ll park-and-bark, uninterestingly. Something these gals are particularly adept at, more than others mentioned here and there: comedy songs. Remember when shows were called musical comedies?
Peter Mills also won both the Ebb and the Kleban, is stunningly prolific, but it’s the high level of craft he brings to every project has earned my everlasting admiration. It was fascinating to watch him, in his twenties, in conversation with a clearly impressed Stephen Sondheim; a moment of “Past, meet Future” if ever there was one. In the lovely ballad for multiple lovelorn characters, Save One, from Illyria, Mills employs what might be called a traditional songwriter’s turn of title. A title we’ve heard throughout the song takes on a fresh meaning at the conclusion of the song. This is something Golden Era lyricists did all the time. Today, it seems, an important part of the songwriter’s arsenal of devices has been forgotten by all. Save one.
On my rare sanguine days, I like to think I write like Douglas J. Cohen. We have a lot in common: similar age, hirsuteness, both fathers. And Doug’s done book, lyrics and music on different projects as well. When I heard his amazing duet, So Far So Good, (from No Way To Treat a Lady), I thought we choose similar harmonies, too. But this guy has a lot more on the ball than I do, and holds his own work to higher standards. Plus, he’s taller.
A kid I went to elementary school with, collaborating with a guy I was in BMI with 13 years later, has written some of the funniest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s Doug Bernstein, and he’s written side-splitting material with Denis Markell. For a wonderful Julius Monk-type show called Upstairs At O’Neals, Doug played Mr. Karp, the High School of Performing Arts Teacher complained about in A Chorus Line. His perfectly timed rant against “that little bitch,” Morales, from beyond the grave, is quite possibly the most hysterical number written in the past 50 years. I kid you not.
It seems possible that Playbill was looking to only feature voices under a certain age. To which I say, take a listen to Daniel Maté. Earlier this year I was going to devote a whole post to him. Gathering nuts for winter, I’m not going to say a lot now, except to tell you some of his characters are truly nuts. In a good way.
That last paragraph contains “I’m not” which happens to be the title of a particularly wonderful song by Brad Ross. He’s a composer who’s written with a wide array of lyricists, and his music usually conveys good old-fashioned theatricality. I worried, for a while, that my song, Mountain Air was a bit reminiscent of one of his; then I decided I’d succeeded in coming up with a Broadway melody circa 1950, an area Ross has more than passing familiarity with.
But it’s harder to write about why one likes music than words, no? I think I like John Mercurio’s music because it frequently takes me to harmonic places I wasn’t quite expecting. I might say the same about Michael John LaChiusa, but Mercurio’s melodies aren’t so jagged I can’t grasp them right away. In this aspect, one might call him a Gershwin for our time, simultaneously experimental and accessible. We could use more writers like him.
Having named two composers, I’ll now name a lyricist, Brian Crawley. He’s responsible for lyrics and libretto to one of the great not-widely-known off-Broadway musicals of our time, Violet. I could go on and on about how fascinating that show is, but I see I’m in danger of making this my longest post ever.
I’ve only gotten to see one of David Kirshenbaum’s musicals, but I had such a great time at Party Come Here, I’ve confidence I’d like Vanities and Summer of ’42. He understands what most of the Playbill picks do not, that different characters speak in different ways. The words they choose to use, the sound and style of the music they sing – these essential facets are brilliantly delineated in Kirshenbaum’s sprightly songs.
One of Kirshenbaum’s librettists, Hunter Foster, has also collaborated with Rick Crom. Long before last season’s Bonnie and Clyde fizzled and flopped, a Crom-Foster telling of the same tale showed that effective theatre can be made out of this true crime story. It bothers me that the Frank Wildhorn version got fast-tracked to Broadway while a better version languishes. Show business can be a bitch. Meanwhile, during a time Wildhorn has put on flop after flop, Crom’s churned out countless editions of his off-Broadway long-run, Newsical.
But then, life’s not fair. The crème de la crème persevere in obscurity while the callow and the fallow get featured in Playbill.
A blog can be a bully pulpit, and many’s the time I’ve fought the temptation to talk about another favorite subject of mine, politics.
Also, I know I’ve a large international readership, which presumably won’t understand all or much of this video.
I had nothing to do with this video, but the main guy, the first singer you hear, is Sean Smith, who starred in my Industrial, The Love Contract. Industrials are work-for-hire, and I got hired to write a score, not to attend rehearsals. So I never met Smith. But he did a damn good job as a character named Robert Redford.
I have a tendency to get self-righteous about certain things. To wit: If you don’t care what happens to you, you deserve the fate you get. Those who don’t vote are saying, rather literally, that they don’t care what happens to them. So vote, damn it!
I’ll get off the soapbox for my next entry.