Calliope

April 29, 2013

It seems high time I weigh in one on of the great controversies concerning a classic musical.  The recent broadcast of the New York Philharmonic’s concert staging of Carousel keeps the show, what it says, and how it says it, on my mind.  Perhaps on your mind, too.  It’s rare that we get old musicals on television these days, and, while one might quibble with this or that, nothing in this production got in the way of the text.  We can accept that the four leads were far too old and focus on the genius of the show Time named the twentieth century’s best musical.  Yes, I, like many, preferred the theatricality of Jason Danieley and Jesse Mueller as the Snows to Nathan Gunn and Kelli O’Hara’s Bigelows, but the acting and singing certainly got the emotion across, and shines light on the age-old controversy.

To wit: People believe Carousel excuses, romanticizes or condones wife-beating.

What should be said to those people?

Before we get to that, there’s something else that has been on my mind – also controversial, also about New England – and I think I can mention it without breaking my “no politics” rule.  On The New Yorker web site, John Cassidy drew interesting comparisons between how the nation reacted to last December’s tragedy in Newtown and the more recent bombing at the Boston marathon.  The public associates bombs in crowds with international terrorism, and associates the shooting of innocents with automatic rifles with mentally-disturbed Americans.  Bills designed to make it harder for people with mental problems to get access to rifles that shoot off forty-five rounds a minute have stalled in Congress. I find the different responses to the two tragedies instructive, fascinating.

But now let’s talk about armed robbery.  Two lugs plan to mug an old man they know will be carrying a lot of cash, and if he has to be killed in the process, that’s OK with them.  As Strindburg wrote (in a play title), “There Are Crimes and Crimes.” Our reaction to a thief who’s willing to kill is, I think, different than our reaction to a man who hits his wife.

And yet I’ve never heard anyone complain that Carousel is a musical that excuses or condones armed robbery.  Have you?

Obviously, the evolving reactions to Carousel since its 1945 debut have to do with our increased awareness of the scourge of spousal abuse.  It’s a national tragedy, and we hear of masochistic wives and girlfriends who keep returning to the miscreants who lay hands on them.  We keep a sober eye on this situation, and recoil against romanticizing a situation that would seem the polar opposite of love.

Prior to Carousel, I’d say about 99% of musicals were fluff.  That is, they didn’t explore the psychological underpinnings of human behavior.  We watched couples fall in love, some minor issue gets in their way, causing a rift that’s repaired before the happy ending.  Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, writing separately, were responsible for some of the great hits of the Twenties and Thirties.  The R & H ideal – and don’t forget this is the second example – was to take off the rose-colored glasses and look more closely at characters who, like real people, are less than perfect.

Billy Bigelow is a long way from perfect, and Carousel dramatizes the question of whether he deserves to go to heaven.  We witness a very bad man’s attempts at redemption.  One attempt is so off-the-mark, it’s nearly comical. Billy literally steals a star from heaven, returns to earth and tries to present it to his teenage daughter, without telling her who he is.  The girl has enough sense to reject a gift from a strange older man, and man, that’s one weird gift.  Billy, frustrated, slaps her hand and she runs away.  Earlier, we hear (but don’t see) that Billy has hit his wife, Julie.  But now we are witnessing what we previously only imagined as off-stage action.  The girl asks her mother if it’s possible for a hit to feel like a kiss and Julie says it is.  So, is Julie saying that, all those years ago, it felt like a kiss when Billy hit her?

Some people jump to the extremely odd conclusion that Hammerstein is saying that an abusive husband’s blows can feel like love.  But can we talk about ghosts for a minute?  What do we know about them, really?  Dead people return to the earth and sometimes we can see through them, and, in Carousel’s alternative reality, there’s a clunky process by which the dead can choose whether they’re seen or heard, but it takes a moment.  Julie catches sight of Billy, 15 years after his death, looking exactly as he did in life.  Pretty startling, no?  If the dear departed can materialize, then anything is possible: The worst pain you’ve ever experienced – emotionally, that is, being struck by your lover – can possibly feel like the pleasure of being kissed by your lover.  Not that it did at the time, all those years ago.  The daughter is asking “Is it possible?” and, having just seen a ghost, Julie’s mind is blown. Yes, it’s possible, because anything is possible in a world where the dead return.

(Also, there’s the question of what a slap from a ghost feels like. Does it hurt? If you’ve been hit by an apparition, get back to me.  Also, I urge you to join a Victims of Spectral Abuse support group.)

In Carousel, there is much talk, and a whole song, about those who judge our actions after we die.  In high school, I played the Heavenly Friend, a minion who accompanies Billy to a waiting room that’s outside heaven’s gates, and also back to earth.  When he sees Billy hit the girl on the hand, he makes it very clear this is a bar-you-from-heaven offense:

“Failure!  You struck out blindly again.  All you ever do to get out of a difficulty – hit someone you love!  Failure!”

In my real-life role as a dad to a daughter (17 months!), I must make mention of the Soliloquy, that stupendous song in which we all identify with Billy Bigelow.  He’s just learned Julie is pregnant, and goes through all sorts of emotions I went through two years ago.  The thing is, I always identified with that song.  I worked on it in high school, considering every interpretive and expressive nuance, knowing that all parents-to-be have many of the same thoughts and feelings. This is Carousel’s great humanizing moment.

So Rodgers and Hammerstein accomplished a remarkable thing: they make us root for an often-evil man to redeem himself and get into heaven.  We see we have something in common with Billy while we recoil at his contemptible actions.  Carousel successfully engages us in a sinner’s efforts to act nobly.  Everything about the show is extremely moving, partly due to its insistence that we examine three-dimensional characters, warts and all.

You got a problem with that?  Then stick to fluff: plenty of shows feature two-dimensional characters, wart-free.

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I see a rainbow

April 24, 2013

The subject of storyboarding came up in three different contexts, which, I suppose, is a sign I should say something about it. First, I mentioned it here – I write these things in advance, so it might not seem like this was first to you. When Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were hired by Disney to write The Little Mermaid, the studio either introduced them to or imposed upon them the old animators’ trick of pinning cards with story beats on a cork board. Stephen Schwartz was favorably impressed by this method when he did time at Disney, and has been spreading the gospel (oops, almost wrote Godspell) at the ASCAP workshop he moderates. Finally, a scene depicting this turned up on Smash, a rare moment of the TV soap showing anything that actually ever happens in the development of a musical.

I couldn’t find the time to attend the ASCAP workshop this year, but it’s usually a highlight of my spring. I was a participant in its inaugural year, back when it was run by Charles Strouse. I take copious notes, guess what the panelists will say, and learn a little something. There’s no substitute for being there, but, this year, a friend forwarded his copious notes. As has happened in many previous years, Stephen Schwartz went into some detail about the storyboarding process.

New to me was the information that Disney developed this in his studio’s early days so that various departments on a feature-length cartoon could make sure they were on the same page. On a show I wrote book, music and lyrics for, there was no one to keep on the same page, but I still found it valuable. I lacked a bulletin board and tacks, so I used post-it notes on a dry erase board.

Here’s what you do. Every individual event that happens in your show gets expressed on an index card in one or two sentences. A different colored card is used for songs. Attach these, in order, on a board, in lines.

Now you’ve got something to stare at, fodder for thought and discussion about structure. And you might ask yourself certain questions:

Does each beat follow naturally from the beat before, and/or lead, organically, to the next one?
Are there cards you can remove and tell the story more efficiently?
Have you built tension into your act break? During intermission, some of your audience may have fifteen minutes to mull over your characters’ situation. Plus, people have to return for Act Two remembering where we are in the story.
Does it seem like you’re going too long between songs?
Do you have too many songs in a row? The part of the brain that takes in music may need a break.
Are there too many ballads, or ballads in a row? This is so often an important question, you might want to use white cards for songless beats, blue cards for ballads, pink for up-tempo, etc.

There are times when back-to-back songs have worked. In The Christmas Bride, my song Fluttering is followed by Turn Around (a scene change) and it’s a quick way of checking in with the emotional lives of the two leads. In She Loves Me, the title song follows Vanilla Ice Cream, similarly. (I’m not usually moved by dialogue-free musicals, because the switch to and from spoken words is an exciting sound, to my ears.)

Cards tacked to a board are easy to adjust, and don’t forget your creative team isn’t solely writers. The director and set designer will make decisions based in the storyboard. A costume designer will see when an actor needs a quick change. You, the writer, can be good to your actors, making sure no one’s stuck on stage for ungodly gobs of time.

Speaking of that, don’t go wasting ungodly gobs of time staring at this thing: It’s just a tool, you know.


I want to &#%! you

April 18, 2013

In a way, I was a witness (standing way, way on the side) to a key moment in the popularization of one of the most basic tenets of musical-writing, the proper use of the I Want song.

In any beginning playwriting class (or story-writing class), you’re told to give your protagonist some burning desire.  And then you throw some wrenches in his way, probably including some villain poised to stop him.  In extremely basic musical theatre writing, the character’s intentions are baldly stated in a song, the I Want and, often, it’s too honest and obvious.  As I write this, I’m listening to a recording of George Gershwin playing Looking for a Boy from a 1925 musical called Tip Toes. “I am just a little girl who’s looking for a little boy who’s looking for a girl to love.”  We get it.

By the Golden Era’s heyday – and did any year have more great shows open than 1956? – authors like Lerner & Loewe were using the device in a subtler fashion.  Eliza Doolittle – “All I want is a room somewhere far away from the cold night air” meets Henry Higgins – “Why can’t the English learn to set a good example to people whose English is painful to your ears?” The goals of the two leads are accomplished fairly quickly.  Higgins works his magic on Eliza, transforming her cockney into something that sounds acceptable at Ascot.  Eliza gets her room.  But notice she never gets the goal from the end of her song “someone’s head resting on my knee, warm and tender as he can be, who takes good care of me.”  Of course if she’d married Freddy…  Ha!

at right: Kleban, Menken

In the 60s, Broadway conductor Lehman Engel started the BMI workshop, and taught a generation of would-be musical theatre writers a set of principles, including the I Want song.

I was his youngest student (by some stretch of years) and his star pupils – Ed Kleban, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken created musicals that were hugely influential.  That is, writers saw Kleban’s A Chorus Line or Yeston’s Nine and, with those examples, the Gospel according to Lehman was spread.  The largest influence was the work of Alan Menken, since he’s written smash hits for the theatre and a set of animated movies that everyone (under a certain age) knows intimately.

Many theatre fans are aware of Part of Your World’s similarity to Menken and Ashman’s earlier I Want song, Somewhere That’s Green.  The tag’s almost identical, but what’s most similar is the song’s function in the story.  One of my most cherished memories of early adulthood was the day Menken and Ashman brought in several songs from Little Shop of Horrors to the BMI workshop.  Lehman particularly loved Somewhere That’s Green, the very model of an I Want song.  It has clear AABA’ structure, each A ending with the title.  The title has a second meaning later in the show, when the character ends up in a green place that had nothing to do with her dream.  (There was a third meaning in the name of the actress who originated the role on stage and then on screen, Ellen Greene.)  That ability to be simultaneously poignant and funny, to my ears, is the best thing about it.

But not everyone in the room that day was convinced of Little Shop’s viability.  Carol Hall, songwriter of the then still-running Broadway hit, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, drawled “Why would you boys want to write a musical based on a crummy ‘B’ horror movie?” (At 2,209 performances, the show became the most performed of all American musicals from the 1980s.)

And so ends the small bit I witnessed, from the side of the room.  Menken and Ashman eventually found themselves at Disney, where the studio was engaged in a new and concerted effort to do animated musicals right.  They drew on their long history of story-boarding, while Menken drew on the teachings of Engel and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were the most successful Disney features, artistically and financially, in many a year.  After Ashman’s death, Menken was stuck with sub-par lyricist Tim Rice, but, happily, moved on to team with Stephen Schwartz and then Glenn Slater, who certainly knows what’s what.

In thinking about my I Want songs, I’m struck by the fact that I’ve two shows in which the main characters have everything they want at the top of the show … and then things go to hell.  The main character in Area 51 is ecstatic with his lot in life.  “I don’t ever wanna leave, never wanna leave this place.”  (Another character has a more traditional I Want.)  For Such Good Friends, I felt I had to create a flashback in order to give the protagonist her I Want; we’d then have a greater understanding of the emotional cost of losing it.

I’VE GOTTA BE PART OF THIS CLUB, DANNY
THEN I’LL NO LONGER BE A SCHLUB, DANNY
THANKS TO YOU, I’VE FOUND MY DREAM:
I’M GONNA BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
PICTURE IT! ME:
THE BELLE OF THE BALL
PEOPLE WILL SMILE
THE MOMENT I ENTER
CLEARING AN AISLE
FOR ME STAGE CENTER
MESMERIZED WHILE
MY STORIES HOLD THEM IN THRALL
IF I COULD BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
THEN YOU WOULD SEE
A GIRL IN HER PRIME
JOKING AND JAZZ
TO MAKE THEM CHUCKLE
WATCHING THEM AS
THEIR KNEES ALL BUCKLE
EVERYONE HAS A MARVELOUS TIME.

Like Somewhere That’s Green, the tune repeats in dramatic contrasts later in the show.  One of them I’ve previously quoted here.

But I don’t want to leave you with me.  Instead, here’s another of those 1956 premieres, the ultimate want-free dude, Li’l Abner, wanly warbling If I Had My Druthers
And then, of course, all hell breaks loose.


Fantasia

April 12, 2013

A minor controversy has arisen in the Broadway community about an issue of infinitesimal importance: Whether this season’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella should be considered under the Best Musical category, or Best Musical Revival.  Since I haven’t seen the show, I probably shouldn’t weigh in at all.  Plus, I’ve an unaccountably incendiary viewpoint; one I probably shouldn’t share.  So read on.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein never intended their Cinderella to appear on any stage.  This was their chance to write for that then fairly-new medium, television, where their friend Mary Martin had made a big splash with Peter Pan.  It’s fair to surmise they took the parameters and limitations of the small screen very seriously.  The show is about 75 minutes long.  The production values and special effects are rather sparse.  R & H knew they could rely on the camera capturing the charm of Broadway stars Julie Andrews, Edith (Edie) Adams, Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostly.  The songs tend to be intimate moments, not stage-filling spectacles.  Most of America’s TV-viewers had never seen Andrews before, and this was her first role post-My Fair Lady.  The whole enterprise was considered a great success, even though none of the numbers became “hits” of the magnitude that the now-standards from their four major smashes did.

In 1965, long after Hammerstein’s death, the decision was made to mount a new production and preserve it on videotape for annual re-airings. 32 years later, long after Rodgers’ death, a network filmed a version with a multi-racial cast. Both the 1965 and the 1997 added other not-particularly-well-known Rodgers & Hammerstein numbers. Since R & H were masters at coming up with the perfect form of expression for idiosyncratic characters in particular times and places, one can only imagine them shuddering at, say, the air-lifting of songs from their authentically Californian-sounding Pipe Dream into the fairyland of Cinderella.

Also, a stage version cropped up – not sure if Rodgers was alive then – that got performed in all sorts of schools and church basements. As such, it became a very familiar property. But it never played Broadway.

Until…

Humorous librettist Douglas Carter Beane was brought in to provide a completely new script for this year’s Broadway debut. It utilizes the original TV songs plus a different set of obscure additions Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote for other characters, other settings, other situations. Since contemporary revisions of fairy tales must emphasize female empowerment, this Cinderella doesn’t accidentally lose her glass slipper, she hands it over, like a yuppie proffering her business card.

There is a Tony Rules Committee, made up mostly of producers, that had to grapple with this question of whether Cinderella should be considered new (enough) to compete for what’s considered the top prize, Best Musical. Or whether to pervert language and put it in the Best Revival. You’re thinking the term “revival” refers to new stagings of shows that have been on Broadway before. And you’re right. But that Tony committee don’t speak English that good.

While other Tonys go to individuals, it’s the shows themselves, and their producers, that benefit from the Best Play, Best Musical and Best Revival honors.  A decision made by producers that will benefit producers: sound like foxes guarding the hen-house to you?

So, I’ve this modest proposal: Declare Cinderella ineligible for both. Let the Tonys reward creativity, not grave-robbing. Taking the fine work of Tony-winning writers, decades after their death, and reassembling it into something they never intended is something of an artistic crime, no? Barring the perpetrators from the annual laurels is, to my way of thinking, too small a punishment.

Because, damn it, theatre ought to be original. You put in the time to make a hat where there never was a hat, you risk your millions to put on something no one has ever seen before, you’re worthy of an award. That’s how it’s worked most seasons since the Tonys began. (One overlooked aspect is that awards and nominations encourage writers to try again, do better next time – well, living writers.) And revivals? Personally, I’ve little use for them. But I understand the spirit that says there ought to be some honor for UN-original pieces of theatre. This year’s Pippin, apparently, involves ample heaps of creativity and differs significantly from the Bob Fosse original. You want to venerate a new coat of paint on a fine old house, knock yourself out.

Cinderella is neither this nor that. The main element that makes a musical good, the score, was created for another medium 56 years ago. Is it at all fair that twenty-first century show-writers find themselves competing with Rodgers & Hammerstein? It has found its way to Broadway because business people see an opportunity to make money. I accept that this sort of dollars-signs-in-their-eyes action goes on all the time. But giving an award for such a thing? Shouldn’t happen anytime.


Thoughts in transit

April 6, 2013

I donned my grooviest threads to head off to some too-hip-for-words section of Brooklyn. This involved three trains, with a block-long transfer tunnel between the last two. Platform musicians snuck a little sunshine underground. Even being on an unfamiliar subway line added to the sense of adventure.

Emerging from the ground, I immediately got the feeling I was about to step off of the ends of the earth. I had to walk under a highway, and before I reached it, stores, traffic, pedestrians and buildings all seemed to disappear. The other side was devoid of people, that spooky post-neutron bomb look. There were construction sites, and empty buildings. No garbage cans, and I’d finished my Snapple. Down an unlit side street, I saw what looked to be a receptacle, and, it turned out, this was the theatre: a warehouse with an unfinished ceiling, and weird art on the walls.  Plus some uncomfortable couches.  In a corner, a goth girl sold Brooklyn Lagers, which, I guess, were reasonably fresh.  But I wasn’t thirsty.  The playbill was as devoid of information as the street was of people, but helpfully pointed to where info could be found on-line.

Eventually, an audience of about thirty people was led “inside” to more uncomfortable couches; on stage, a band was setting up.  One musician looked out to us, acknowledging some difficulty she was having with her microphone.  They struck up a tune, not unpretty, with a gentle folksy quality.  The words came from Shakespeare.  The style of the music seemed to indicate something profound was being communicated.  But the Bard’s words hit my ears too slowly for me to follow what was being said.

Next, some twenty-somethings performed, rather indifferently, a scene from a Shakespeare comedy.  Then another song; then another scene.  I should mention that all the performers were the musicians.  Sometimes, they only came alive when they were playing a song; my actor friend in it, though, was just the opposite: he had presence during the scenes, but faded into the background when he played his sax.  If the evening felt more like a concert than a stage show, it was partly because of the lack of visuals.  We were always staring at a band: no sets or lights or character-based costumes.  For a concert, it was very long; for a stage show, it was short on meaning.

Boy, I seem to be using the semi-colon/colon button a lot today…  Sorry.

When I finally made it home, I was struck by how much more interesting the journey had been – peppered with musical numbers from underground buskers – than that rather alienating show.  The creator has a nice way with folk rock settings of Shakespeare, but no sense of story, or how to make this more than an odd concert.  I feel a certain pride in the fact that I’d ventured forth into untraveled streets in the trendiest borough, just to catch a new musical.

It was the first of three unusual experiences I had in late March.

The second involved teaching a visiting arts high school class from Edmonton, Canada, how to improvise songs.  Larry Rosen and I have been doing this together for sixteen years, with adults, and, every time, participants surprise themselves by coming up with piquant and poignant numbers that have something to do with real feelings they’ve experienced.  These students didn’t really seem like teens to me; many had a swagger missing from the comparatively callow Brooklyn hipsters from a few nights before.  One fellow set himself up for a rhyme involving a dirty word and amusingly put an unrhyming but cleaner alternative in the rhyming spot.  And when Larry asked how bridges differ from A sections, one gave a wonderfully articulated response.

There’s something about doing improv: When songs seem to flow easily out of people you’ve just started to instruct, the whole process of creating a musical seems easier.

So of course, what makes the process of creating musicals seem difficult is when you see people struggling with the task. Last Saturday, a friend set up a sort of mock ASCAP workshop.  Apparently, the real ASCAP workshop didn’t have room for strangers to observe this year, and five writing teams were coming to New York, their hopes of attendance thwarted. So, they presented in front of a panel consisting of me and an accomplished producer/writer.

Called upon to articulate my usual frighteningly high standards, I realized that there the world of musical theatre is so large, there may no longer be universal truths. A group of college students from England flew in to present a segment of a show that will be produced, there at their school, later this spring. The idea of the show is just about the least commercially viable one I’ve ever heard. If I were to describe it here, you readers would laugh (“I can’t believe anybody’s foolish enough to believe anyone would want to see a musical about that!”) But what really surprised me is when they mentioned there are 35 performers in their cast. “How large is your theatre?” I asked, and found it contained 120 seats, so, if every cast member reels in three or four patrons per night, they’ll sell out. Suddenly, how commercial the subject matter was seemed beside the point.

The second show, the author announced, was designed for the “church audience.” And my mind reeled. What does that mean for the writing? Is there a different set of expectations for such a thing? And what could I say about the show? It was described as having a very depressing subject matter, but the authors found a spot for some moments of infectious joy, which I very much appreciated. But the prevalence of clichés was a big problem for me, and also the repetitiveness. As I was talking about this, though, it occurred to me that the “church audience” likes to hear what it’s heard before. Phrases from the Bible get iterated frequently there. And, the author told me, “Some find it a comfort.”

I mentioned the sign on my desk that says “Eschew cliché.” Other writers, fashioning material for other audiences, think just the opposite.  For weeks now, I’ve been meaning to pass along this quote from Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote the English-language lyrics to Les Misérables: “I tried to play by the rules: no false rhymes, and avoid a cliché like the plague.”