They’re good in the winter

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.

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