Birthday song

Samuel Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”  Thanks a lot, Sam: I resemble that blockhead.

To commemorate my birthday, I’m going to indulge my nostalgic side (again!), looking back to some career highlights, and times I did, and didn’t, earn Johnson’s epithet.

The first time I got paid to write anything, a television producer gave me a thousand dollars to write a treatment about a boy and a dolphin.  Like the overwhelming majority of treatments, it never got picked up by anyone who actually wanted to shoot it.

In order to scratch the itch of writing something that ended up on film, for no money, I wrote a short movie musical to be directed by a friend who was at the USC film school.  It was an assignment for a class in lighting.  Since he only had to demonstrate he could illuminate a scene properly for camera, he never recorded the sound.  Not a satisfying experience.

So, in 2010 – after quite a long wait – I finally achieved that dream of writing a short film musical, Learning Curve, as part of the most recent Ripfest.  At Ripfest, you’re given a short amount of time to create a short movie; I even had a short collaborator composing the music, the talented and tuneful Jihwan Kim.  A very satisfying experience.

Sometimes, though, a collaboration can be such hell, the quality of what you produce fades into a second tier of memory. I’m thinking of the one musical for which I only did music, not the lyrics or book. When I step back, and try to put the experience of the process out of my mind, I think “Damn, that was a good book!” It had the exact same sort of historical detail, and mining history for truly dramatic interpersonal conflict that you’ll find in the current film, Lincoln.

My favorite of all my experiences writing musicals was one in which I had no collaborator to fight with, Such Good Friends.  With the libretto chore up to nobody else but me, I attempted to find both the humor and pathos of a specific historical time and place. The project took a huge step forward when I met director Marc Bruni.  He questioned everything, with such intellectual rigor, that both the show, and me as a writer, were fully transformed.  It got raves at NYMF like no NYMF show had ever received before, such as “one of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years.”

It’s a sad fact of this business that the works of the greatest quality can get the least quantity of performances.  Such Good Friends was only seen six times.  Fear of Scaffolding, even fewer, although it’s fondly remembered by all who attended.  And I wish I had a list of those who saw it, because there’s the possibility that the young Barack Obama could have attended.  He lived nearby at the time.  Just saying.

But the show that contains what I consider my best score, The Company of Women, has been seen by no one.  It’s my only show, written as an adult, to never see a full production.  When I started the project, an exploration of the special nature of female friendships seemed a particularly commercial idea.  Submitted to roughly sixty theatres across the country, time has proven the opposite to be true.

So I guess that shows how little I know about what audiences are interested in.  That’s a blockhead, for you, knowing rather little. Thinking about my most lucrative productions, it seems that, for me, sidling up to the opera world leads to the most remuneration. My murder mystery in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, Murder at the Savoy, earned me nothing in its original New York production (when it was called Pulley of the Yard), but, many years later, led to many British productions that paid me royalties (in pounds!). Then, when I was commissioned to write an opera for children, I was paid a pittance. But over many years of playing in dozens of schools in four states, it added up to a modicum.

My first two musicals, written when I was 14 and 15, centered on characters who had a healthy egos.  When you don’t think that much of yourself, are you said to have an unhealthy ego?  Seems like flammable and inflammable: they mean the same thing.

Where was I?  Oh, yes: pinning laurels on myself.  The Best Music Prize, of my musicals, would probably go to The Christmas Bride.  It was a little over a year ago I got to see it performed in a sprightly production for which I created a new orchestration.  This was a time-consuming task, one I wouldn’t have taken on if I didn’t love the score.  Also, my wife was pregnant at the time.  Not sure what one fact has to do with another, but I started with the clarinet part and finished with the cello.

Best Lyrics is a tough one, but I’ll go with Area 51 because it was a tough assignment.  The wackiness of Tom Carrozza’s book required nothing but comedy songs.  Some musicals (I’m looking at you, Wild Party by Andrew Lippa), eke by with just one song that’s funny.  I had to write two dozen.  Which seems like a lot of pressure until you realize it took twenty months to finish the thing.Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Did I promise nostalgia and fail to deliver?  Then, damn it, I’m going to have to open the envelope for Best Musical I was a part of and utter the name On the Brink (not that that’s what’s on the card – you can never really trust those presenters, can you?).  You see, On the Brink was my first professional work, playing in an actual off-Broadway theatre people had heard of, for a paying audience, and I was the old man on the writing team at the ripe old age of 25.  Audiences saw this revue about young urbanites, adrift in many ways, and thought, These kids show a lot of promise.  It was the Edges or Songs for a New World of its time, only far, far funnier.  And that’s the one thing you can only do while you’re still young: get hailed as a prodigy.  I kinda miss that me.


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