Here’s where you belong

February 27, 2013

A near-future conversation I’m rather dreading goes like this:

“You write musicals? Like, on Broadway?”

“Off-Broadway, actually.”

“They do those there?”

Once a dynamo of musical experimentation and activity, Off-Broadway’s tuner output has been diminished to next-to-nothing. I’ve long heard producers and others who’ve run the numbers gripe that the economic model no longer works. That’s something that sticks in my head, if not in my craw. What do they mean by that?

There was a time when you could make a killing off-Broadway. Now, it’s where angels fear to tread. For some reason, I recently found myself staring at this Wikipedia paragraph:

The 1954 Marc Blitzstein adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, which ran for six years, showed that musicals could be profitable off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format. This was confirmed in 1959 when a revival of Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Jane ran for more than two years. The 1959–1960 Off-Broadway season included a dozen musicals and revues including Little Mary Sunshine, The Fantasticks, which ran for over 40 years, and Ernest in Love, a musicalization of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 hit The Importance of Being Earnest.

Off-Broadway, as a concept, as a type of theatre, as an alternative to Broadway, barely existed prior to that famous production of Threepenny Opera (which, surprisingly to some, landed on my list from last week of Shows You Should Know).  In its infancy – and even more so with straight plays – Off-Broadway was home to astounding and rather profitable pieces.  And could these musicals possibly be more different from each other?  Threepenny Opera is harsh and caustic.  Avarice, not love, makes the world go round and the actors face front to harangue the audience.  The polar opposite would have to be Leave It To Jane, a silly tale from (and for) a simpler time.  Little Mary Sunshine is a full-blown spoof of those operettas everyone began to consider silly, post-Oklahoma!  The Fantasticks celebrates its elemental smallness, with innovative and pretty music, on the subject of love and maturation.  Ernest In Love is entirely conventional, like many a Broadway show, but, with no chorus, smaller in size.  Its lyricist was very kind to me at a low point in my career.

But this sets me thinking how my oeuvre is somewhat similar, and, one might say, belongs Off-Broadway rather than On.  Murder at the Savoy spoofs Gilbert and Sullivan operettas the way Little Mary Sunshine spoofs American and Continental operettas.  Such Good Friends is a musical dramedy sans chorus: We did it with ten players at the Julia Miles but I’ve since rewritten it to be done by nine.  The Heavenly Theatre is every bit as caustic as Threepenny Opera.  The Christmas Bride doesn’t sound anything like The Fantasticks, but similarly puts the spotlight on love and family.

But the devil lies in the differences.  My shows all played limited runs: a theatre was booked for a certain period of time, and that theatre had something else booked to come in as soon as we were over.  The five from over fifty years ago were all commercial enterprises, set up to run as long as they could find an audience – and boy, could they!  With the revival of The Fantasticks running for so many years now at the Snapple Center, it’s hard for me to recall the brief period of time when it wasn’t playing in New York.

What we have today that we didn’t have before I was born are theatre companies that produce a season, largely for a fair number of subscribers.  Examples are Playwrights Horizons (Floyd Collins), New York Shakespeare Festival (Giant), and Manhattan Theatre Club (Murder Ballad). Sometimes, when a show has to close because the next one’s coming in, they’ve their own selves to blame. But, ever since The New York Shakespeare Festival’s experience with Hair, in the late Sixties, shows have been produced Off-Broadway in the hope that they’ll move on to Broadway. If enough money is raised, the Off-Broadway run can serve as the pre-Broadway try-out, and play at a financial loss.  When I saw In the Heights on 37th Street, there were empty seats all around me. And such a big cast! Probably not profitable until it came to Broadway.

Producers can rent Off-Broadway spaces – if they’ve got the dough – indefinitely.  But advertising costs are tremendous.  Unions set different pay scales for Off- and On- Broadway.  And there’s a substantial portion of the ticket-buying public that doesn’t want to figure out where Minetta Lane or Lafayette Street are.  These issues all act as pressure to bring shows to Broadway.

But what if you’ve written a tiny show? I was rather taken with [title of show] but boy did its cast of four seem dwarfed by their big Broadway theatre. Passing Strange got a lot of raves, but didn’t sell a lot of seats since what could have been an extended cabaret auto-biography felt out-of-place to some audiences. A walk around the theatre district sometimes seems surreal: large cast shows with big sets (I’m thinking 42nd Street) co-exist with intimate revues (like Ain’t Misbehavin’) and I spend way too much time fretting that those who pay over $100 for a seat want to see where that money’s going.

Speaking of spending way too much time, I’ll wrap this up with some modest proposals. The New York Times, in their print edition, should feature a comprehensive listing of Off-Broadway productions, like they used to.  It also seems unfair that a tiny ad in what’s called The ABCs costs so much more than similarly-sized ads in other parts of the paper. New York City should value Off-Broadway’s proven ability for creating new art by reducing taxes on Off-Broadway venues. Actors Equity and the other unions should reassess the question of whether they’ve set salary rates so high, too few members are getting work. And those companies that produce new musicals should set up contingency plans so that if audience demand is such that they could run forever Off-Broadway, they can stay Off- and do just that.

Generation to generation

February 21, 2013

On what would have been my mother’s 80th birthday, I’m of course thinking about her legacy to me. But stick with me here. This prompted a thought about the wide array of musical theatre aspirants: performers and designers as well as writers.

She saved, in ugly brown binders, every Playbill from every Broadway show she attended, from roughly 1945 (Oklahoma) to 1958 (A Party with Betty Comden & Adolph Green).  As a child, I spent countless hours staring at every page; in some cases, memorizing them. I could rattle off the credits of every mid-century theatre luminary. I’d see patterns, e. g., this Inge fellow unleashed one great drama after another: Picnic, Bus Stop, Come Back Little Sheba, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. And, speaking of Sheba, I’d start tracing the career paths of Broadway stars like Shirley Booth. (Heck, she even played the maid in a sitcom I watched.) From Inge play to Schwartz & Fields musical, to another Schwartz & Fields musical, to The Matchmaker, to Blitzstein musical tragedy, and yet never did the musical of The Matchmaker, Hello Dolly. Remember, with no Internet, child me had to figure this stuff out: Playbills and reference books, or Playbills as reference books. Each had an ad for the stolid but un-fancy store, Rogers Peet, so I had a more informed appreciation of Marry the Man Today from Guys and Dolls than most kids my age.

These days my life is liberally peppered with young adults who know precious little of theatre history. And wouldn’t know Rogers Peet from Peet’s Coffee. (A friend of mine who blogs frequently mentions the idea that if you mention a product you can get a free sample. And I really like Peet’s Coffee – House Blend, ground, thanks.) Sometimes, I play for pairs of twenty-somethings doing Marry the Man Today who are wholly unfamiliar with Rogers Peet, Guy Lombardo and galoshes. Pisses me off. And now with Readers Digest filing for bankruptcy.

But, to bring this back to my mother, for a minute, we once were posed an interesting question: If you could boil down all the messages you heard from your parents growing up, what would it be? My response “How could you possibly not know that?”

There’s a Brian Lasser song that has such a great premise, I’ve long considered stealing the title: I’m Becoming My Mother. Nobody likes to hear themselves uttering their parents’ catchphrases, but in the finals of the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, when three boys failed to identify the play that includes “To be or not to be,” I may have transmogrified.

Readers of this blog, of course, are not among the oblivious.  You’re reading this, in part, to become more informed. But I’ve been thinking of compiling a little list, the shows one must be familiar with in order to consider oneself literate in musical theatre. Seems to me opera fans have a firmer idea of what constitutes the Standard Repertory than we do.

I’d have to start with the final three masterworks shaped by Jerome Robbins: West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof.  The first two of those have Stephen Sondheim lyrics; do we need a couple more? Add Company and Sweeney Todd.  Next, more than double the list with the output of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein: Show Boat and the five smashes with Richard Rodgers: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Bring it to a dozen with one Rodgers sans-Hammerstein, Pal Joey. Gershwin, Porter and Berlin must get at least one each: Porgy & Bess, Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun.  One other from the 1940s, Finian’s Rainbow. And now, to tackle the fabulous Fifties: Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, The Music Man and since Comden and Green can’t be omitted, Bells Are Ringing.

Time out. Bells Are Ringing is a show which I didn’t have a recording of growing up. And a collection of vinyl cast albums is a far more common legacy from parents who lived in the great years of Broadway LPs. Of course I wore down the grooves playing these records too many times. But many young theatre fans did that. Reading those liner notes that told the story and how the songs fit in was a valuable lesson. Today’s download crowd is missing the low-down on how scores illuminate plot points.

My mother didn’t save Playbills after the 1950s, so, in a sense, I’m flying blind.  The Fantasticks is the longest running musical of all time.  Can one afford to not know it?  By that logic, the list must include Phantom of the Opera, and others that held the Longest Broadway Run crown, Cats, A Chorus Line and Grease. (Note I didn’t say Best Musicals of All Time; this is just the shows one needs to know.) Back to the 60s: Oliver!, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret.

Thursday, I discussed this list with a young guy who knows he needs to know the Standard Repertory but doesn’t yet.  He’s eager to get familiar, but wondered how many shows we were talking about and I predicted I’d list about thirty.  Good prediction, as I think I counted 29, so I guess I’ve room for one outlier, not written in English, but a huge off-Broadway hit in Marc Blitzstein’s translation, The Threepenny Opera.  That lets me end:

– 30 –

Valentine’s day

February 14, 2013

Whatever happened to love?

It used to be the stuff of every musical: people went to shows expecting a romantic experience, and to hear a new love song. If Oscar Hammerstein were to return to earth, years after his death (like his character, Billy Bigelow), he’d be shocked, more than anything else, by the lack of love on our current stages.

On the progress-related side, part of what’s changed is that, nowadays, musicals can focus on a variety of subjects. They needn’t depict love, and there was a long chunk of the last century when they had to.

A couple of years ago, a young commenter on this blog alerted me to a pervasive issue:

There’s another consideration to be had in any discussion of romanticism in lyrics: the audience’s perception. Most people who make love in song come across to most people as either unschooled doe-eyed ninnies or total bullshitters. What would be your reaction if you saw a teenaged boy in real life say to his girlfriend, “Today, the world was just an address” or “Tonight there will be no morning star”? You’d think he was a bullshitter, because the falseness of those lines would convey exactly that.

The frightening implication is that a generational shift has taken place. Newer theatre-goers aren’t just uninterested in romance, they don’t buy a certain amount of poetry in romantic expressions. Everything the musical once was, then, it can no longer be.

I call this frightening, in part, because love songs are a thing I can do; I hate to see the devaluing of an important weapon in my arsenal. Also, as a fan of new musicals, I get tired of seeing a string of loveless plots. And the skill set of Stephen Sondheim comes to mind: it’s been about 55 years since he successfully depicted characters struck by Cupid, not that that’s impeded his stunning success.

So now let’s get down to the brass tacks of gold hearts:

Exactly what my commenter objected to, those poetical flights of fancy, made for many a great number in the past. I think they still can. It’s part and parcel of the disbelief we suspend in musical theatre. Characters can break out in song – we accept this – and they can also get a bit – is “lyrical” the word? – in lyrics. In The Fantasticks, there’s a meta level, a certain self-consciousness, but I’ve never had any trouble accepting the teen boy earnestly expressing

If I were in the desert deep in sand,
And the sun was burning like a hot pomegranate,
Walking through a nightmare in the heat of a summer day,
Until my mind was parched!
Then you are water…
Cool, clear water…
A refreshing glass of water!

Man, that pomegranate simile is something else. And written back when you couldn’t find its juice in stores.

Speaking of which, did you ever consider that when lovers in a musical are singing a duet, in some alternate reality, they’re having sex? Think of the old giggle-inducing film cliché. Amorous travelers shoot each other intense looks, move towards each other, the music swells…and the film cuts to a shot of a train entering a tunnel. When we next see the couple, they’re in a state of dishabille, smoking cigarettes. In a musical, on the other hand, the doing-the-nasty is handled like this:

I made fun of this convention in a show involving concupiscent scientists:

We should take an anti-biotic

So we can imbibe this erotic air

And then swap spit with not a care

I know, I know: Something wrong with the rhyme there, as the sound of “a” doesn’t match the middle syllable if “biotic” and “erotic.”  Luckily, the performers got such a response on “swap spit,” nobody heard my error. Pshew. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Note, though, that they sound like scientists.  Show tunes, unlike pop songs, have the specifics of character, time and place setting to draw upon.  If a character is singing to a huckster who blew into a prosaic Iowa town and revealed the music in things (the clucking of gossips, marbles on a library floor, wheels turning on a train or the Wells Fargo wagon), she can warble “And there was music…but I never heard it singing…till there was you.”  A great love song, totally connected to The Music Man’s plot.

There’s also a connection to the overall harmonic structure Meredith Willson set up for his setting.  (I can’t believe I’ve gone on this long without mentioning music.) Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Younger Than Springtime employs a musical idea that owes a lot to Tchaikovsky’s famous Romeo and Juliet love theme.  In the accompaniment, there’s a repeated two note figure, descending over and over again.  This, to my ears, is something like sighing. So, whatever Romeo and Juliet (or South Pacific’s Cable and Liat) are doing, there must be a lot of sighing going on.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  May your night be filled with that two note accompaniment figure, over and over again.


February 7, 2013

Our Gods have clay feet.

Wait! What happened? Did I misplace that sign on my desk which reads “Eschew cliché?” Well, yes, that’s literally so.

As we all know, songs in musicals are supposed to be written with all the show-specific parameters in mind. These might include the time and place setting, the diction and sound of the character and the song’s place as part of an emotional journey. The requirements for every song are so different, you’re never going to get the opportunity to reuse any part of a song from one score in another. Right?

Now picture you’re Stephen Sondheim, still in your twenties, during the pre-Broadway tryout of Gypsy. You’ve been collaborating with the experienced Broadway composer, Jule Styne. Someone holding a vinyl record says, “Steve, I got the recording of the overture here” and places the disc on a turntable. Now you’re fairly certain there’s been no time to record Gypsy yet, but you’re hearing the familiar strains of You’ll Never Get Away From Me, played by a lush orchestra. Sondheim was miffed. He realized, then and there, that Styne had recycled Get Away From Me‘s tune from some score that had already been recorded. The original title was I’m In Pursuit of Happiness, from a musical for television, Ruggles of Red Gap, where it had been sung by Peter Lawford. He later learned Everything’s Coming Up Roses had a previous life as well.

Had Sondheim run crying to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, he would have met a similarly guilty party. He and Richard Rodgers had discarded a song written for Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific, Suddenly Lucky, and refashioned it for the Welsh schoolmarm to sing to Siamese children in The King and I, Getting To Know You. Bringing this full circle, the forty-something Sondheim filled his film score for Alain Resnais, Staviski, with themes that hadn’t made it to the opening night of Follies.

It’s not just composers, refusing to let a good tune go to waste. Alan Jay Lerner adapted old lyrics of his to better effect. Frederick Loewe was upset to find the delightful duet for the old lovers in Gigi, I Remember It Well had already played Broadway with a Kurt Weill melody. That score, Love Life, hadn’t been recorded, due to a musicians’ strike (you’d think somebody would have released a full recording by now).

Confession time: my score to On the Brink contained one retread, and another song that I later tried to reuse.  My collaborators had worked with me on previous revues and particularly loved a duet called Subtexts in the Stacks.  Now, that number was specific to its setting, a college library, and it made no sense to keep that locale in a show about life after graduation.  So, the resurrection involved placing the song on a city bus, when you recognize someone you went to college with, admired, but never had the nerve to talk to: a far more rich area of emotion to mine.  Had to lose that title, though; the new one is Thoughts In Transit.  As should be obvious, this is one of those titles the lyric doesn’t utilize.  More awkwardly placed in On the Brink was Getting Through a sensitive post-breakup ballad.  It contains a set of chords in the bridge I was particularly fond of.  I tried to fit it into the show I wrote five years later, The Company of Women.  But there are a couple of problems.  One is that the singer has been having an affair with a married man, so getting through lonely nights must be something that she’s used to.  Secondly, the character is black and nothing in the score makes any reference or use of African-American musical idioms.  Seems a missed opportunity, and one I’ll rectify if the show ever gets produced.

But back to the sins of the saints: A blog by Diana Bertolini of The New York Public Library alerted me to the existence of a Lerner and Loewe song, What Do the Other Folk Do, cut from Paint Your Wagon. I’ve yet to hear this song, but know well its revamp, What Do the Simple Folk Do from Camelot. I’m amazed that the latter number wasn’t specifically fashioned for Camelot: The assemblage of chords evoke medieval England – or the popular misconception of it – so aptly, as much of Camelot does. It’s hard to conceive how it could have fit in Paint Your Wagon, set in the American West of the Gold Rush era. There, the blog tells me, it was a father-daughter duet. That’s mind-blowing to me. The Camelot version derives its dramatic power from poignant subtext related to the story’s romantic arc. These are characters we’ve watched fall in love, deal with powerful forces tearing them apart and now they’d like nothing better than to recapture the lighthearted feelings from the early part of their relationship. Can non-royal folk do such a thing? Certainly, Paint Your Wagon‘s father and daughter mean a lot to each other, but they don’t share Arthur and Gueneviere’s kind of history.

It would be fair to say Lerner & Loewe had the germ of an idea for a good song, couldn’t make it work in Paint Your Wagon, and then had the perfect opportunity to bring seed to flower in Camelot. But now I’ve used yet another cliché so I’ll drop this to start searching for that missing sign.