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.