Thoughts in transit

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.”


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