Finale – Act One

May 28, 2013

In my recent zoo post, I said something I very rarely say here: that I thought I’d written a good song.  The infrequency of my crowing is related to my lack of a good video or audio of so many of my songs. Foolish to say what’s good that you’ve done if you can’t show it and prove it. And I’m often struck by a paradox: the songs I’ve written I tend to think are the best are the really complex ones, usually involving impressive heaps of counterpoint, quodlibets up the wazoo, and a whirlwind of crisscrossing plot points. But try getting a good audio or video of that!  It’s exponentially harder, with all those people, holding different melodies, needing to stand near microphones.  So, I can talk about my large ensembles, but words will seem insufficient to relate what’s good about them.

Here’s an example: there’s a musical scene that concludes the first act of Area 51. The villain, who camouflages his perfidy as a Las Vegas lounge act, convinces our hero to repair an unusual weapon by convincing him it’s a telescope. He sings a seductive song about the night sky, Seeing Stars. This meets with resistance until he gets a sexy movie star to coo and croon. Our hero is enraptured, seeing stars of the celebrity sort.  All three repeat their tunes simultaneously as the weapon becomes operational.  This touches off an American military response and an ambitious member of the Army brass sings of seeing stars (as in four-star general) on her sleeve.  Observing all of this is a cub reporter, who pictures her headline surrounded with stars.  Plus there’s a chorus of American military and a chorus of evil Nevadans. So, effectively, we hear from seven different parties, all with their own definitions of the title, Seeing Stars.  Wow. I’m exhausted just describing all of that.

But the audience wasn’t exhausted; they were exhilarated. So many dramatic conflicts were in play, the intermission had them on tenterhooks: What would happen next? And now I must say something I’ve said too many times before: You had to be there. You had to see the plot unfolding up to this point. You had to see how it was performed, staged, danced (yes, there’s a section of tap dancing…by the soldiers!). So words on a web page can’t convey what’s wonderful about a sequence in a musical.

So maybe it makes more sense to talk about first act finales in a general way. To my way of thinking, it’s essential that you get the audience so involved in what’s going to happen next, suspense is sustained during the entire intermission. Musically, this will probably necessitate a large ensemble, dealing with various conflicts. The sound is likely going to be big.

But of all three collaborators, the onus of making the first act finale work, in my view, is on the book writer. Getting a lot of dramatic balls in the air is tough work. Ideally, the librettist should have the audience wondering what’s going to happen next on every page of the script. But the requirement’s even greater going into intermission; the audience has time to do a lot of wondering as it’s wandering around the lobby.

Arthur Laurents’ book for Gypsy is widely praised as a paradigm of musical script-writing.  The show’s first act ends with a solo, one you’ve all heard a thousand times. Now, Jule Styne wrote a lively show tune in the grand tradition. Stephen Sondheim’s words, I think, are fine, although a character not known as a baseball fan is certainly fond of baseball imagery. But Laurents has set up the drama at the train depot at a brilliant emotional pitch (no, that’s not baseball imagery, fan that I am). A stage mother’s one talented daughter has run away from home, and is old and smart enough to stay away. That’s going to knock the remaining trio out of show business, which is fine with the boyfriend and even finer with the untalented daughter, who deeply craves a normal life.  And we wonder how the controlling matriarch is going to react to this devastation.  And, in the sunniest possible fashion, she sings a peppy uplifting piece as she seizes the remaining daughter, her new project.  All of our hopes for the characters are being dashed before our eyes, and the brightness of the tune sets it spinning in contrast.  I can’t think of this scene without tearing up.

Oddly, a lot of those Sondheim nuts are more likely to point to one of three of his other first act finales as the exemplar. There’s the marvelously entertaining A Weekend in the Country from A Little Night Music, which has all sorts of characters headed for a collision – after intermission – in a particular place.  I think that’s a very good one, but it takes a huge drop in energy every time the little girl talks to the grandmother: too sage, too much observation, for my taste.I was far more thrilled by A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd, as characters found their peculiar joy in a comic way. Since the trading of occupational quips is drawing the pair closer together, we’re getting our first taste of a true emotional connection between characters who like each other: it should evolve from like to lust to love during the long song. And then there’s Sunday, from Sunday in the Park With George, which seems the perfect way to end the act about the creation of a painting.  Unfortunately, it gives us no reason to return after intermission.  It appears to close a book, not just a chapter.  Interestingly, the exact same number works marvelously well as the second act closer, when every character in the painting has gained more meaning, and our interest.

Really, in the theatre, what we’re looking for is emotion.  And when the joy of a peasant wedding is interrupted by the horror of armed soldiers turning over tables and trashing the place, acting on orders borne of ethnic prejudice, that turns one’s heart around.  It’s Fiddler on the Roof, and at that point I need an intermission.  All of intermission, spent heavily sobbing.

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By a baboon

May 22, 2013

Taking my little girl to the Los Angeles Zoo, I realized so many years had gone by since I’d last been there, I had virtually no memories of the place.  Did it always smell like that?  And I thought of a song I wrote so many years ago, I’ve no idea where the sheet music might be.  Should this blog be a repository for my songs that only exist in memory?  Luckily, there’s a story that goes with the song.

During the period we were writing On the Brink – in a way, my first professional work – my collaborator’s cousins came to us with a business proposition we had to seriously consider.  (This story happened so many years ago, I’m a little foggy on the details. So, this is another example of my jotting down something before I forget more of it.) The cousins, identical twins, were starting a company that would bring shows to schools. They wanted us to write a show that would introduce children to orchestral instruments. Now that I think of it, there must have also been talk of an idea to merely introduce children to theatre-going.

Although I’d previously written a children’s show that had been produced in England, Through the Wardrobe, I wasn’t certain I could alter my then overly-articulate style into something kids of all ages could appreciate. So, I wrote a few songs to prove to myself that I could do it, and that I liked doing it. One of these involved a lyrical collaboration, and that song was never completed. It’s been my experience – and I know this is very different from most people’s – that collaborating slows the process down.  I often end up waiting an uncomfortably long span of time for someone else to come up with their contribution. When I write alone, I can wake in the middle of the night and finish a draft, nobody to run anything by.

The other two songs, though, sounded pretty good to me.  One, I felt, was among my ten best creations.  The other, to the best of my recollection, goes:

Did you ever stick around after closing time at the zoo?

After everyone was gone, did you ever linger on at the zoo?

Well, I did

And I’m going to

Describe to you

The musical entertainment that’s provided

By a baboon

With a bassoon

Playing a melancholy tune

While he was playing

All the animals were swaying,

Saying

“My, how that monk can croon!”

On a bassoon

That talented baboon

Charmed every creature from rhinoceros to raccoon

I wish I had a tape

Of that marvelous ape

Playing on his big bassoon

Playing on his big bassoon

The style adjustment, the enjoyment of creating songs for kids – all of that was there.  Could the twins pay us enough to divert us from our long path of putting together our musical comedy revue, On the Brink? My collaborator felt that, since these were his relatives, it would be discomforting for him to handle the financial negotiations.  He also knew that I was the son of an executive who frequently hammered out contracts with artists in the TV industry.  Had I inherited the right stuff to get us a good deal on this youth theatre project?

I tried to come up with a price related to what it would mean to us, wage-wise, to take time off from On the Brink.  I came up with two figures: the amount we’d ask for ($1,000), and the amount we’d accept if they countered with a lower offer.  At times like these, it’s helpful to have an experienced agent, but, as creators, we’re all going to face moments like this, figuring out what’s a fair price for our services.  I made the call to the twins, told them the number I had in mind, and they said the number they had in mind was $200, far lower than the minimum I thought we should accept.  Two-hundred dollars to write a show? This hardly seemed the monetary value of our time and efforts.  So, I decided to hold fast and said “I’m sorry, but we can’t do it for that kind of money.”

I felt a bit of pride that I didn’t cave and accept an unreasonable deal, just to be able to brag that I was now a writer who’d been commissioned.  And if anyone could appreciate steadfastness in money talks, it was my father.  So, I called him and said “You would have been proud of me.  I held to my figure, and rejected a low-ball offer.”  Dad chuckled and joked “Well, as you know, I’ve never been proud of you.”  I thought this was pretty amusing, him saying just the opposite of what he felt, for humor’s sake.  So, my father’s quip became part of the story when I told friends the tale of the fruitless negotiation.  One friend, for years, echoed the joke, repeating that my father has never been proud of me.  When Dad heard that this line was being quoted many years later, he denied that he ever said it.

Which just goes to show what memory can do.  Sometimes you have to write things down somewhere just to remember them.  Anecdotes, and songs.


Anything can happen in the theatre

May 16, 2013

Ding-Dong! The Smash is dead. And I could join the throng that reveled in writing about how awful it was, in practically every way. But what’s the point of adding one more voice to a choir of a thousand? You all know in your hearts that Smash was one of the worst series in the history of television. The writing was particularly poor, but also the acting and direction stunk so badly, flowers on my TV stand wilted. The problem was not, as many have maintained, that the show frequently depicted behind-the-scenes outrageousness that would never really happen behind-the-scenes of a musical aborning. It’s that it generally had human beings acting like no human being ever acted. True to our world of musicals? Of course not. True to the experience of being a person on this earth? Even further off.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy (I’m not one) accept not-quite-human behavior all the time. But those cyborgs, zombies, vampires, and extra-terrestrials tend to follow a consistent logic. Smash‘s Broadway babies acted less logically than most mutants. One appears pantless in a private late-night audition in a cushy bachelor pad, yet can’t bear her new flame punching his evil brother, and puts off responding to a marriage proposal with the immortal excuse, “I’m in tech.” The other, hopped up on pills, performs so unprofessionally she’d surely be thrown out of the union, yet quickly returns to deftly play a lead. Pills make you do crazy things, apparently, but at least they’re easy to quit.

With Smash teaching the viewer that drugs are eminently kickable, the calumnies it spreads about the making of musicals seem relatively benign. Makes one wonder if a new flock of musical-makers will think you can write new songs all night long and see them fully staged by next sundown. There were occasional dream sequences but we were supposed to take it as real when a tiny East 4th Street theatre suddenly could hoist Krysta Rodriguez into the air on silk straps. Pulled, pulled, pulled, indeed.

But among Smash‘s many problems was too little time spent in musical flights of fancy while too much time was spent on mundane issues like who’s sleeping with whom. In this, the colossal miscalculation compares unfavorably with the legendary flop musical TV show of years ago, Cop Rock. Cop Rock more wisely found the fun in how unexpected it always is when police break out into song. It embraced its own absurdity while Smash, tonally, was merely a procedural about people putting on a show that had songs in it.

I’ve griped before about the low quality of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and, back in Cop Rock‘s brief shining moment, I complained bitterly that the producers, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to let people who’d never written a musical before write the songs. Smash should have been better, given that it added true up-and-comers like Joe Iconis and Pasek & Paul. But nobody demonstrated a proficiency at writing an actual show tune, or a tune that could work on TV (a tube tune?). It’s easy for me to imagine a party where friends sit around a piano, improvising silly songs for bad musicals. Been there and done that countless times. The thing is, if you came up with intentionally bad improvised ditties about Marilyn Monroe they’d be indistinguishable from the show-within-the-show tunes Shaiman and Wittman came up with (with no shame and no wit). Now, before anyone leaps to their defense with the claim that it’s difficult to come up with an amusing original song every week on television, I’ve got an 85-year-old to throw back at you: Tom Lehrer.

Long before The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, there was That Was the Week That Was, a news satire variety show.  A mathematician, Tom Lehrer was hired for the-job-I’d-most-like-to-have-in-the-history-of-jobs: Every week, Lehrer had to come up with music and lyrics for a comedy song based on something in the news. And every week he made America laugh. The most famous example was The Vatican Rag, which I remember enjoying on radio’s Dr. Demento show: Its premise was that if the Catholic Church decided to promote itself using Madison Avenue techniques, it might come up with a peppy jingle that would begin

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin' the Vatican Rag.

One of my early successes was a comedy song based on a news event, My Baby (inspired by Three Mile Island). A lot of people told me it was the sort of thing Lehrer used to write. A nice compliment, to be sure, but, unfortunately, comedy songs that are actually funny are so rare nowadays, anything that produces a chuckle gets compared to Lehrer’s hysterical numbers from the 1960s. It’s disappointing – puzzling, even – that Smash didn’t even attempt to be humorous. Its creators  clearly forgot that “musical” used to have a last name, “comedy” and, back when it did, a whole lot of people liked them. Instead, we got a soapy drama about the making of two mirthless musicals, and, according to Nielsen, nobody liked it.


God bless America

May 11, 2013

Greetings from Southern California, where they talk about film far more frequently than musicals. And yet, Irving Berlin’s been on my mind, and now I find it’s the 125th anniversary of his birth. This crept up on me, as things tend to do when you’re on vacation. And wasn’t it just yesterday that he died? Well, in a way, yes: He lived to 101. I knew where he lived, near Beekman Place, and often got a thrill just being near. “How far would I travel to be where you are?”

So these Hollywood types keep comparing the new Great Gatsby movie to the one with Robert Redford. I really thought the previous adaptation was largely forgotten, but folks are fondly recalling the luscious score, which made great use of Irving Berlin’s waltz, What’ll I Do? What I’m taking away from this is that people truly appreciate that wonderful song; anything else that film was is not what’s being lovingly recalled.

We see history as a great march forward, sometimes. We think each generation improves on the last. I have the highest regard for what I like to call the Class of ’25, the songwriters who made a mark for themselves during the Roaring Twenties, and they were all inspired by, and often emulated, Irving Berlin, who seemed to have been around forever. Cole Porter, E.Y.Harburg, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwin brothers, to my mind, were somewhat better than Berlin, but Berlin was miles and miles better than the generation before. It can be argued that he invented songwriting as we know it. The blithe and singable melody that sits so naturally on words that are truly conversational – that’s his stock and trade. But not at all what was going on with older songsmiths.

We live in a time where octogenarians such as John Kander, Stephen Sondheim, and Charles Strouse create new musicals. Berlin hung up his writing pen (or broke his magic wand) in his late seventies, so that quarter century or so he lived on, post-retirement, didn’t matter much to us fans. The tragedy of that comes home to me when I think of some of the songs I love from his final Broadway effort, Mr. President. There’s a marvelous comedy song about what it’s like to have a dating life when your father is the president:

The President’s daughter must drink water

No drink of Scotch, she might do what she hadn’t oughter

The internal rhyme there is of a type that particularly tickles me. “Scotch” and “what” don’t normally rhyme, but when each is followed by “she,” in the way English is actually spoken, they do. Rare is the songwriter who comes up with stuff like that. Many lyricists think in lists of words: the list of what rhymes with “Scotch” and what rhymes with “what” don’t overlap.

We’re not too many years away from Malia Obama finding herself in the same predicament of dating with the Secret Service following her around. I think of this song every time I catch sight of the tall and stunning teen. And there’s another song from Mr. President I’ve foisted on groups of students many a time: Empty Pockets Filled With Love. It’s one of Berlin’s wonderful quodlibets, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, I’ll describe a few. In Empty Pockets, a man sings a romantic number about how he loves a woman but has no money and hopes that’s O.K. She sings back to him a cynical up-tempo about how you can’t eat love or wear love, a funny anti-romantic number. Then the two different songs are sung again, simultaneously, and they fit together like cogs in a gear. You can barely believe your ears, you’re hearing two reprises at once, each perfectly clear, a little like a double-exposed motion picture but even clearer.

Berlin performed this feat a number of times.  One early example is called Play a Simple Melody, which reveals, in part, the trick of how he did it so well.  His last released-to-the-public composition, An Old-Fashioned Wedding, has the same feel as Empty Pockets, with the man being romantic on long notes while the rip-roaring Ethel Merman character spouts back a bunch of eighth notes.  Of course, Merman was half of the best-known quodlibet of all, You’re Just In Love.

Can you name a songwriter who created a higher quantity of quodlibets? Let me raise my hand.  Not because I know the answer, but because I am the answer.  And I guess I’m saying the chief influence of Berlin on my career is that I keep performing that counterpoint trick again and again. But, I also value natural-sounding, colloquial lyrics, and a simple melody. Looking up at my lovely wife as I write this (it’s her business trip that brings us to California), I’m reminded of a romantic occasion in our first months together when she had me listen to a lush ballad called And So Much More, by the seemingly unlikely team of Frank Wildhorn and Maury Yeston. She had a lot of emotional investment in my liking it, but all I could mutter was that its concept was stolen from the Irving Berlin classic, How Deep Is the Ocean. If I weren’t so aware of the beautifully-wrought standard, I’d surely appreciate the later copy. But that’s just Irving Berlin for you: he ruins you for all other songwriters.


Tell a Danny story

May 5, 2013

The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent. And everybody’s innocent. But I feel bad about stealing from the Facebook page of someone I don’t know, without permission. He’s a fellow musical theatre writer who’s just gotten some really good news, so I hope he’s in a mood to forgive the invasion of privacy.

I’ll call him Danny but our story begins with an earnest musical theatre performance student I’ll call Rick. Rick asked me to suggest a song he could perform in his Final Year Industry Showcase and I told him about a quirky number, written by Danny. All agreed it was a perfect match of performer to material and Rick diligently began his investigation of the lyric’s meaning. One of the advantages of attending school in New York – where so many songwriters live – is that you can invite them to performances of their songs and they might actually come.  In fact, Danny had, a few years earlier, attended a cabaret where two of his songs were done. So Rick and his classmates were encouraged to contact the authors of their numbers.

Rick’s the kind of young man who was raised to ask questions. Why assume anything, or let a bit of confusion persist, if there’s someone available to answer queries? So, when he wrote to Danny, he asked for guidance understanding the lyric. He also felt honor-bound to report that Rick’s massively-long song was being trimmed to roughly three minutes. Such is a common requirement of industry showcases. Professionals have come to see you and sixteen other aspirants; they don’t want to sit there forever. In this case, we all agreed to be severe in limiting everyone’s time on stage, so the night would not outwear its welcome.

Danny was surprised by Rick’s e-mail, on three levels. First, he’d never heard of Rick, and had no idea that he’d be performing his song. Second was Rick’s interpretive questions, on issues that seemed obvious to Danny. And then there’s the cutting affront of knowing your song has been tailored to less than half its length. By someone you do not know. (OK, I’ll name the guilty party: It was me.)

What to do? How to respond? Danny decided to consult his friends via Facebook.

Hey fellow theatre songwriters: when a college student you’ve never heard from before contacts you saying he’s singing a “three-minute cut” of one of your songs at an upcoming industry showcase (and you are certain he didn’t get said sheet music from you directly) and asks for a whole bunch of detailed advice, lyrical clarifications, and basically interpretation coaching, is it in bad taste to say, “Um, yes, but pay me first”? It’s not that I need the ten bucks. (Although.) It’s the principle of the thing. How would you approach this? Should I just be glad my stuff is getting out there? Do I go all JRB on his ass? Please advise.

To “Go all JRB on his ass” is a reference to the time popular songsmith Jason Robert Brown caustically admonished a teen looking for a free copy of one of his songs, a set of back-and-forth e-mails he eventually published on his website as a wake-up call to all the young people who might share copies of his songs with their friends without paying him. Brown earns a lot of money from his writing; Danny earns next-to-nothing.

Danny commented on his own post- (Oh, and I’ve never made — as in, prepared myself — a three-minute cut of this or any song. Not that I couldn’t or wouldn’t, but I did hear this song done in an abbreviated form by another student once, and it sounded awkwardly and sort of arbitrarily cut. To me.)

Then came responses: Lucy– I think you should say, “I’m glad to offer any advice necessary to folks who purchase music directly from me. If you have, great. If you would like to purchase it, here’s a link.”

Mary– I’ve had students contact me for sheet music (since I haven’t gotten it together to have an e-commerce page) – I don’t mind giving tips, although I have never encountered the exact situation you’re describing. What I would do is this: if you don’t mind him singing the song, then answer the questions as best you can, and then say: in the future, you will build better relationships with writers such as myself if you buy from us (or from wherever we have our music being sold etc). Phrase it however you want – don’t quash his enthusiasm first – redirect it and make him your ally. If you feel he’s gone over the line, you could say, I know I can’t physically prevent you from singing the song, but I’d prefer you didn’t and here’s why… Do you have a place you sell the song? Because if so, Lucy’s advice is probably simplest.

DannyHi Mary (and all) — currently, emailing me with a request is the only official source for my tunes. I don’t mind him singing the song at all. I do want him to be more aware of the professional aspect of the relationship he’s assuming.

DannyThanks, all of you. Here’s what I said: “Hi Rick,

Thanks for writing! Glad to hear the song I wrote has made its way to you, and that you’ve chosen to perform it your industry showcase — no doubt, an important event in your development as a professional performer.

FYI, I’m always happy to provide advice and responses to questions about songs to anyone who’s purchased music directly from me. As far as I know, I’m the only direct source for my sheet music at this point. Since I don’t think I’ve heard from you until now, my assumption is you got a copy of the music from someone else — maybe a fellow or former student, or maybe an instructor? However you got it, that’s fine, and like I said, I’m very glad you’re singing it as part of what you might consider an important professional audition. At the same time, I hope you’ll consider contributing to my own efforts to make this MY profession, and not just a time-consuming and enjoyable hobby. I generally ask for $10 a song, which you can send via Paypal (my account name is danny@chessterms.com ) or check (let me know and I’ll send you my mailing address.)

all best,
Danny

AshThe conversation I would have with myself would be not so much the about the immediate value of “getting my stuff out there” in front of audiences as much as about the value of having advocates for my work. In the current media environment in which media is either free and/or instantly accessible on demand, the $10 for the sheet music is a vestige of an obsolete world. Now, that said, charging for lessons/coaching sessions is still perfectly viable.

MaryVery well worded response. It’s like … you’re a writer or something. Like, a *professional.*

DannyThanks. I sent it, and then on second thought sent him another email answering his questions. Basically separating the issues and still giving him the option to be a mensch.

LucyDude, if he wants a coaching, he should hire someone to do so. My rates are between $60-80/hour, and if he wants you to coach him on your material or any other material, you should charge at least the same!

In the end, Rick was the mensch, and got Danny his ten dollars.

Danny’s desire to school Rick about the “professional relationship” between singers and songwriters is certainly akin to Jason Robert Brown’s massive schooling of a far younger performer. But at least this was temperate and free of snark; he communicated in an un-pissed way and with admirable honesty. I admire Danny’s consulting scribes like him about how to respond. Rick was a little taken aback by Danny’s communiqué and questioned whether he should have asked so many questions, or mentioned the cut. But, when you think about it, Rick doesn’t need Danny; Danny doesn’t need Rick. That professional relationship, ultimately, is of little value.

Songwriters are in a tough financial bind. Very few derive significant income from selling their songs. It’s extremely common for copies to be made, and the Ricks of the world feel no obligation to look up authors and pay some fee when their musical director suggests running to the school’s library to get a copy of a song. It’s possible, though, that Rick asked too many questions, so that a writer feels a little beleaguered, doing so much (answering, allowing a cut to be performed) for free. I’d suggest that Danny’s better course of action would be to just clear up all the interpretive stuff, ask for no money, be glad his song is being done somewhere (even in a truncated form) – all with the goal of merely being a good citizen of the world.

This whole exchange happened well over a year ago, and, today, Danny has made an enviable amount off songwriting. And I hope Rick feels a little pride about performing a song long before the rest of our community discovered it.