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.
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.