I ought to tell them

December 28, 2012

Seems like, by now, there’s enough perspective on the aughts to say a little something about the decade where zero was the third digit of every year.  I’m trying to avoid over-complicating, here: Folks discuss the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s and it only makes sense to follow those up with something called the “aughts” and refer to the years 2000-2009.  Of course we could call them something besides the “aughts” but I don’t thing we oughtta; naught but the “aughts” will do for me.

And I guess we’re only talking Broadway musicals.  In part, this is because off-Broadway kind of dried up.  It’s a place new musicals aren’t often done anymore.  That’s due to an unfortunate array of economic issues.  It’s no longer profitable to play beyond The Boulevard.  The Adding Machine didn’t tot up a positive figure.  Sadder still, shows that don’t really belong on Broadway fizzle after fiscal vicissitudes force them to move on up.  Passing Strange, indeed.

The late eighties, speaking of money, were a time when a weak dollar made New York an attractive place for Europeans and Japanese to visit.  Playing to an audience that, to an increasing extent, spoke little or no English, had a profound effect on the types of shows that were produced.  For instance, musical comedy – the type with jokes based on verbal wit – became a rarity.  I think of the 90s as That Mirthless Decade.  The supposition was being made that a show with funny lyrics would not be understood by enough of the paying customers.

Hooray and Hallelujah, the new century saw the restoration of the second part of the genre’s name, musical comedy.  The mega-tragedies, mostly from Europe, that had dominated The Main Stem for years began to seem like old hat, and faded from view.  In their stead were shows that, even if I don’t admire their craft, I admire what they attempted to do: make ‘em laugh.

Terrence McNally and David Yazbek took a depressing tale of laid-off blue collar workers stripping for cash and filled it with so many solid jokes, it seemed like a cloudburst after years of drought.  The Full Monty has two numbers that tickle me every time: Big Ass Rock, about how friends don’t let friends commit suicide alone; and Man, which contains these droll (if forced) rhymes:

When the beef comes out you do the carvin’
You hate Tom Cruise but you love Lee Marvin
You’re a man and thats a bonus
‘Cause when your swinging your cajones
You’ll show ’em what testosterone is
‘Cause you’re a boot-wearing, beer-drinking, Chevy-driving man

There was another musical soon after that I loved, A Class Act.  Oops, I almost made a Freudian typo and wrote “lived” instead of “loved” for the show’s about a short, bald, neurotic New Yorker composer-lyricist with a girlfriend in Philadelphia who attends Columbia and Lehman Engel’s workshop.  This was a show that truly belonged off-Broadway, another casualty of the drive to transfer.  A remarkably similar show that didn’t transfer, Tick Tick Boom, gets done more often and is considered more of a success.  I recommend them both.

Around that time came the musical comedy that was such a huge hit, it, more often than any other show, is credited with bringing back mirth.  The Producers managed to pack more yuk-yuks per minute than any show since City of Angels.  There was one performer in it I particularly loved, Brad Oscar, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when he originated a role in my musical Such Good Friends five years ago. 

Urinetown and Hairspray are two shows that attempted to bring the funny, and while I didn’t chuckle much at either, I truly appreciate that attempt.  I had fun musical directing Urinetown a few years ago, as its more complex numbers are cagily done.  We were at the Westside, on the main floor, a theatre with support columns that are on the stage.  So, as a scene in which various characters are scared was being staged, I suggested one try to escape by shimmying up the pole.  And it got incorporated, a sign of a good collaboration in which employable ideas can come from any corner.

Another show that was sized just right for off-Broadway was Avenue Q, which has a unique concept: what if the cuss-filled frustrations of 20-somethings were depicted in the style of Sesame Street?  Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez’s songs are so hysterical, the show managed to run many many years on Broadway, and then switched back to off-Broadway for many more.

At Spamalot, I actually laughed more at the Playbill than the show itself.  Some of the jokes (on stage) were familiar from the film source, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Another asset was the choreography by Casey Nicholaw, who later directed two of the musicals I’m about to mention.

But first a hand for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show close to my heart because improvisation was part of its development and it ran at The Circle in the Square.  The songs are by William Finn, whom I greatly admire, but the book’s even funnier.  The same season came Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with more hysterical songs by David Yazbek.  Another show where the book far outshines the score is The Drowsy Chaperone; there, the songs are intentionally bad, but the Casey Nicholaw staging and book writer/star Bob Martin’s performance kept things hysterical.

Even more dear to my heart, but definitely dwarfed by its Broadway house was [title of show] about guys writing a show, applying to NYMF and transferring to Broadway.  If you’re writing musicals, it’s a good idea to sit down and listen to its Die Vampire Die every day.

It saddens me to note that you can’t see any of the above musicals on Broadway right now, but of course it’s way to soon to discuss the teens.  (But bookmark this blog; I’ll get to it!)  What you can see is The Book of Mormon, a brilliantly funny confection whipped up by the men behind South Park and the aforementioned Bobby Lopez and Casey Nicholaw.  (Great; it’s beginning to sound like his agent is paying me to write this.)


God bless you, Ronald Reagan

December 22, 2012

One of the truly fun and funny experiences I had in 2012 was composing a song for money. My client, an aging drag queen who, by his own admission, has put on a lot of weight, had hired me previously on a similar number. This time, it was a rush job, and the performance would be accompanied by live piano. The first time, my music was sent off to an arranger who orchestrated it for an orchestra that existed inside his computer. I never got to see how large a computer this was, but it accommodated a sizable tuba section.

Both times, I didn’t get to see the final performances. But it’s here I must make a shocking confession: I don’t like drag. Men lampooning female behavior holds no appeal. Now, years ago, I played a drag show in Greenwich Village; the performer was delightfully affable – a good experience. But I don’t know that I would have loved being in his audience. Er, her audience.KitKat

About a year and a half ago I had to don a dress myself in order to lead the all-girl band in a production of Cabaret.  It would have made no sense for “Even the orchestra is beautiful” to refer to an ensemble led by a bald man.  Hard to believe it, but I actually fooled quite a few people.

Writing the drag song this year was a good experience partly because the client had a high level of respect for my opinion. He’d written a lyric, loosely based on his life since coming to New York, and invited me to make suggestions as how it could be improved. The first time I read it, I focused on nothing but the question of whether it could be easily set. Was there a discernable form? A title that came back at regular intervals? Did the scansion of lines in one stanza match the scansion of the corresponding lines in stanzas that were supposed to match? On those fronts it passed with flying colors.

I said I’d do it, agreed to terms (figuring in a discount for a repeat customer, but upping the price for the rush job) and then read it through for sense. It was here things got murky. Some concepts puzzled me because they were poorly stated. Others were probably double entendres, but I could only figure out half the meanings. Challenging to set lines you can’t quite comprehend. So, we had to have a conversation in which I confessed there were phrases I couldn’t fathom. He’d either fix them (my preference) or explain them.

As our schedules would have it, this conversation took place while I was on a commuter train. Yes, I had to be that obnoxious guy on a business call on a cell phone, with everyone forced to listen to my end.  So, picture yourself a weary train traveler, minding your own business, when suddenly you hear:

“In the next paragraph are a whole bunch of verbs, and I’m not quite sure I understand you.  What, exactly, do you mean by ‘Wanking and tossing and rubbing and torquing, torturing, strangling, punishing, polishing, spanking, slapping, pulling, punching and, er – making salt water taffy?”

The lyricist explained his euphemisms.  I needed one further clarification.

“Really?  O.K., and do we mean somebody does these things to you, or are we talking about something you do to yourself, home alone?  … O.K., then.  I needed to know.  Now I do.”

This collaboration involved a lot of back and forth, with my suggesting areas where the lyric could be stronger, and him making sure bits of comic timing he wanted to do were codified in the score.  And that’s how collaborations should go, with each side willing to bend, each side stepping over the line between the crafts of composition and lyric-writing.

But the most satisfying part of all was reading the client’s account of how well it had gone over, in a packed auditorium holding about 1200.

The masturbation section was great.  The music came to a complete stop while I “climaxed” at the line about the bigger pat of that.  You know, all eyes closed, grimacy, index finger up indicating, “just a minute, please.”  There was a lot of laughter and then coming out of it “salt water taffy” worked. Then the guys came out for the last verse looking like this with the confetti cannons as ‘canes.’ The cutie on my right had a problem with his cannon and it didn’t shoot off on time, so I ad libbed, “Oh honey, it happens to the best of us,” to much laughter.

Working for hire is never art, really.  You’re there to please a client.  But I took a lot of pleasure in his enthusiasm for my work, the respect he had for my views on his lyric, and the raucous description of how it went.

And now I’ll never look at one of those taffy pulling machines the same way again.

Hannukah song

December 16, 2012

This here blog has now passed the ten-thousand “hit” mark. Five-figured visitations! If you’d told me, when I began in 2010, that this thing would be read 10,000 times before the end of 2012, I’d have thought: “That can’t be right. Don’t you mean a million?”  I was certain there’d be world domination by now.

Ideally, these jottings would inspire the creation of better musicals. And if you’ve found that musicals have gotten better over the past two years or so, I humbly accept your thanks.  But there’s little evidence shows are getting better, alas, and I’m beginning to feel responsible. Is the problem that too few writers are reading this, heeding my advice?

Recently, I’ve seen some signs that a number of would-be musical writers aren’t bothering to learn the craft. They figure it might be neat to come up with a show, launch in feet first (head last) with predictably puerile results.  We live in a world of dreamers.  The Broadway angel who hopes for return on her investment is one kind of dreamer.  The let’s-just-write-a-show-it-ought-to-be-easy type is another. An expression I like, “They don’t give these jobs to chimps.” applies to the show-writing crowd. It takes intelligence, talent, and a knowledge base.

But some days it seems like I’m stranded in the Planet of the Apes.  Now, I must admit I worry about negativity here: this blog shouldn’t be a harangue against bad craft, but a celebration of good craft. I hope you’ve read my recent survey of the dozen show writers I think you should know. Or, earlier, pieces I’m particularly proud of about award-winning contemporaries Jeff Blumenkrantz and Marcy Heisler. Today was a happy day as I got to play two Blumenkrantz songs I like. When I get a little low, I listen to the best of what’s being created today for musical theatre.

But I find it dispiriting to see neophytes defend their use of false rhymes, for instance. They’re like comically wrong-headed rebellious teens. “You’re stifling my creativity, Teach, saying I gots to spell good; artists gotta flow.”

(Seems like a good time for me to apologize for all the spelling mistakes those 20,000 eyes have seen.  It’s no excuse to say I often dash these things off very quickly.  Compared to a lot of other blogs I see, however, I’m pretty good.)

There are good reasons the great musicals are written the way they are. Songs with hooks, utilizing a good title, and a bridge, tend to be more effective that those that don’t, for example. One oft-reiterated theme of this blog is that it’s a good idea to examine the genre’s paradigms, not to devise constricting rules, but just to glean a sense of How They Did It.

Before people become auto mechanics, they spend a span of time under a lifted hood, just staring at the engine. They’re fascinated. A curious mind wonders how things work, and one might even find the internal combustion engine a thing if beauty. Often, on this blog, I’m pointing out what I’ve observed about the inner workings of a musical. Sometimes, I reveal How I Did It, or speculate How They Did It. I hope you find this stuff fascinating. And even beautiful.

But I keep encountering those who refuse to look at these things.  They’d rather run on instincts than reason.  Theirs are little engines that can’t.  If you’ve refused to connect spark plugs, finding it too constricting to do so, well, you’re not going anywhere.  I wish I could reach those people before they waste their time, and the time of any audience they reach.  I guess that, while I’m honestly grateful for the 10,000 hits, tonight I’m focusing on those who write shows but don’t read this blog.  And that’s just like me: I can’t see the forest for the forest fire nearby.

The ten-thousand mark should elate me.  It’s proof I’m reaching somebody.  But it’s not in my nature to shout yippee. It’s more in my nature to torture a metaphor, like those spark plugs that set off a forest fire in the previous paragraph.  I also use too much alliteration here.  But I do like the odd exhortation.  And so I ask you:

  • If you know someone who loves musicals who isn’t reading this blog, tell them about it.
  • And, what would make us all the happiest: Write a really good musical.

Will you do that for me?  It can’t be that hard.

Disco inferno

December 10, 2012

I spent a lot of time listening to songs by the young Turks Playbill dubbed Songwriters You Should Know. In writing about Michael Gioli’s subjective assessment previously, I pointed out a distinction between pop writers and show writers that may have left a false impression. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong about pop music. Nor am I saying theatre songs shouldn’t sound like pop songs. They must merely be theatrical, and a good number of composers have been able to accomplish this, writing in a pop mode.

“Pop” is one hell of a broadly-defined word, isn’t it? Covers so much. For instance, when a new artist records an album of songs she’s written, we tend to call that pop. Once the creator proclaims “These songs are part of a musical I’m writing!” she’s instantly in a different realm. Like it or not, show tunes are judged in different terms than pop. I take a hard line here, I know, but until you’ve put a musical on stage, in essence, you’re a pop writer.

Anybody else thinking about Tommy right now? Or the more recent American Idiot? In those, major rock stars got creative, admirably, and fashioned albums that tell a tale. Like musicals, in certain ways, but unlike, in others. For instance, a stage show often involves a large number of characters, a higher quantity of people than make up the typical rock band. So it follows that on cast albums you hear a wide variety of voices, whereas on pop albums, you usually don’t. But you knew all that.

A question comes up about both Tommy and American Idiot: did the creators actually ever intend they be on a Broadway stage? Seems highly unlikely to me. In any case, rock-writing is the creators’ strong suit, the machination of effective drama is not.

But what I didn’t mean to imply is that pop should be unwelcome in the theatre. Since the birth of rock, for too many years, far too frequently, Broadway has seemed inhospitable to rock, and to pop writers. It was as if the powers-that-be wished to maintain a sharp distinction between their music and our music. Hair came along and several of its riveting rock songs got on the Top 40 charts. Which, you’d think, would have opened up the floodgates. We’re used to Hollywood rip-offs of anything that sells. Perplexingly, Broadway remained resistant to rock. When a popular British TV interviewer teamed up with a teenager to use pop to retell Biblical stories, no stage producer realized they were on to something. So, the chat show host called some record industry connections to get their rock opera recorded and released even though it had never been done on stage. The tele-journalist was Tim Rice; the teen phenom was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Their show, Jesus Christ Superstar became a huge top-selling album and then (and only then) did stage impresarios wake up and produce the damn thing.

So, then, were the rest of the 70s filled with rock musicals? Hardly. The Great White Way is tradition-bound, deeply suspicious of the new. Lloyd Webber and Rice went the same odd route a decade later: album first, followed by the staging of Evita. A big hit, but, again, few copycats took to the catnip. When Jonathan Larson’s Rent came along in 1996, it felt like barren ground had been rained upon. At long last, a moving American rock musical, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a mega-hit. I’d say the show seemed fresh because it was rock; its dated setting (the Tompkins Square riots) seemed comparatively square.

Post-Rent, the schism ceased to exist. Broadway producers and audiences alike became – finally! – comfortable with a wide array of pop sounds. The pernicious blight on all this is the growth of popstar bios (Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Fela) and jukebox abominations (Mamma Mia, All Shook Up, Rock of Ages). A new kind of theatre-goer flocks to these: They care not a whit if a score is freshly minted. They’d actually prefer to hear nothing but the classic rock hits they’ve known for years and years. Philistines, someone (Tim Rice, perhaps ?) once called them.

I’m that odd bird that actually prefers Broadway rock to the rock you can hear on the radio. ITunes tells me my most listened-to album over the past five years has been High Fidelity, a quick-closing bomb starring Will Chase. ITunes’ counter tells no lies: I really dig those Tom Kitt tunes.

High Fidelity was set in the present, and I tend to prefer when rock is used to tell a contemporary story. Jesus Christ Superstar excepted, and accepted as a choice to draw a parallel between the long-haired, warm and loving apostles and the hippies of (what was then) today. For the exact same reason, I embrace Godspell‘s melange of (then-)current pop styles for its street-performing Jesus freaks. But when Tim Rice and Elton John got around to their retelling of Aida, the choice of musical style lacked any discernable justification. Worse, the score’s closest thing to a hit, My Strongest Suit, is the closest thing imaginable to Elton John’s early hit, Crocodile Rock, which is a pastiche of a far earlier rock style. Forget justifying using rock to depict ancient Egypt; tell me why it should involve a 1970s gloss on 1950s music.

One other that bothers me: Miss Saigon, naturally utilizes rock, but, curiously, it doesn’t use the more acidic guitar-based strains of the mid-seventies. Go see any movie about Vietnam and you’ll hear The Doors, The Rolling Stones, et al. If you’re stuck watching the skin-deep refashioning of Madame Butterfly, you’ll hear some bits that sound like Billy Joel and “a song played on a solo saxophone” even though they’re wrong for the period.

When Jeanine Tesori composes a score set in the South in the 60s, she pays careful attention to the sound. Research leads to a verisimilitude I admire greatly. Or, for funny references to the way 80s hits sounded, try Matt Sklar’s The Wedding Singer or Dan Acquisto’s Like You Like It. These composers (along with Larry O’Keefe and Tom Kitt) are contemporary masters at harnessing the power of rock to tell a story in the theatre.

Now, something else I need explained to me: in The Paris Opera House, back in the 1800s, in its smoky basement, was there really a disco?

I love to see you smile

December 4, 2012

Believe it or not, every now and then I get too busy to write down another musing on musical theatre.  So, like the can of clam chowder stuck in the back of my larder, I stockpile something I didn’t create to put up when I can’t get around to blogging.

More?  You want more, you say?