Some kind of hero

June 26, 2013

Jean Stapleton

The last six months saw the deaths of two fine character actors. Both were 90. Both were best-known for TV sitcom roles in the 70s. But I bristle at that, as both had roles in wonderful Jule Styne musicals on Broadway. And the more important (to me) thing they had in common: both attended my musical, Such Good Friends.

Neither Jack Klugman nor Jean Stapleton could be expected to perceive I’d written the music by asking myself, “What would Jule Styne do?” What was more important was that they had lived through the era Such Good Friends depicts, the “scoundrel time” of blacklisting, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. As such, they knew people – fellow actors, or behind-the-camera folks – who’d been forced into the horrible choice my characters face: Do I testify that certain old friends and acquaintances attended a meeting or a function a couple of decades ago?
When I started work on Such Good Friends, back in the 90s, I foolishly assumed everyone has a certain familiarity with the Witch Hunt. Years went by, and I found more and more young people who knew next-to-nothing about what so many of our entertainers had experienced. It was as if, in school, they’d studied American history, but they’d only gotten up to World War Two as time ran out in the school year. So Such Good Friends, for certain audiences, became something I’d never intended: a history lesson.

Jack Klugman had previously appeared in a Jeffrey Sweet play about blacklisting with my leading lady, Liz Larsen. As Jeff has been a friend for many years, I won’t even hint as to which show the two liked better. But I get the feeling that both Klugman and Stapleton had experienced, with a certain horror, that same ignorance of the period among the young. So, when Jean Stapleton leaned in towards me to tell me my show was not only wonderful but “important,” it felt like she had, on her mind, the memories of so many show biz friends whose lives were ruined or ended by the Red Scare.

You know, I met Klugman and Stapleton exactly the way I like to meet people. They’d seen my work before casting their eyes on me. (Such Good Friends is the show I’m most proud of.) And both envisioned a happy future for it. It only would be “important” if it reached a large audience of those who need to know about the McCarthy Era. And neither lived to see that happen.
I think, in aspect, when you’re considering what musical to put on, an “important” musical, or a history lesson about a troubled time, seems eminently less appealing than other types of shows. For instance, shows that are very funny. Or shows that show the craziness that happens behind the scenes in some odd corner of the entertainment world. Or even shows that explore the dynamics of long-standing friendships. I didn’t write Such Good Friends to alert audiences to the scourge of witch-hunting; I wrote it to entertain. For years, I’d been interested in the period, and what led friends to betray friends. But I didn’t start writing a show about it until it struck me that if I could focus on truly funny people going about their business of putting on a variety show in the early days of television, then, and only then, I could create something so entertaining that a little consciousness-raising about McCarthyism could be palatable. We go to school to learn history, and, for many, history isn’t their favorite school subject.

And I’ve sat through countless theatrical explorations of important issues, bored out of my skull. Some call it “spinach theatre” – stuff you’re supposed to swallow cause it’s good for you, but is really ick. And hell, I’ll name names: Wallenberg, a musical about – you guessed it – Raoul Wallenberg, one of those ever-so-noble Jew-saving daredevils of World War II. Each scene shows him doing something heroic, and you walk away thinking Wallenberg was certainly a terrific fellow. You’ve consumed the spinach, but you haven’t been entertained.

The problem I encounter with Such Good Friends is that people hear “a musical about blacklisting” and instantly assume it’s spinach. It’s why I prefer to say it’s the story of old friends struggling to create comedy in the early days of live television. It’s very funny, shows the craziness that happens behind the scenes and mines emotion from the dynamics of long-standing friendships. Its main love song is about the feeling one gets working side-by-side with platonic pals one truly cares for, Like Love.

The late great Jack Klugman and Jean Stapleton took the leap of faith that they’d be seeing a new musical that would be fun, not good-for-you. And they had loads of fun, and were highly complimentary. The world needs more people like them. And I’m not talking about warm and wonderful character actors who can enchant audience both on the small screen and the Broadway stage. I’m talking about folks willing to take a gamble that a funny musical that depicts what the House Un-American Activities Committee did to people doesn’t taste like spinach at all.


June 21, 2013

To quote one of the few fairy tales not referenced in Into the Woods, the emperor has no clothes. Yes, here’s another post in which I point out the deficiencies in a Sondheim show. Why do I do this? One reason is the prevalence of unquestioning Sondheim-worshippers, unaware their God ever nods. More positively, there are flawed shows that are saved by the quality of the songwriting, and it’s interesting to see where good songs do and do not lift us up from the sludge of turgid storytelling. Also, if we must place Sondheim on a pedestal, it’s a respite, a reality check, to observe the swing-and-a-miss.

In his book, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim describes the freedom he felt working with James Lapine on Sunday in the Park With George. It was a new experience to collaborate with a director-librettist with something of an Off-Broadway aesthetic. That meant a reduced reliance on plot-driven structure, ample time for flights of fancy, magical conversations with dead people, and stage images that are merely beautiful rather than forwarding a narrative.

I think this meeting of two very different minds was largely successful. A story unfolded gradually, and you had time to ascribe meaning to the seemingly trivial events you’d seen an hour earlier.

Into the Woods, the second Lapine-Sondheim collaboration, does just the opposite. It’s fairly bursting with plot, tons of trivial events that mean much to the characters but never become meaningful to us. Children’s Theatre is a familiar genre, and its best shows charm and amuse, wittily. Into the Woods seems to want to eschew charm, and there isn’t enough comedy to keep us engaged. It’s no surprise the Forbidden Broadway parody was called Into the Words because, during its inexcusably long first act, dense and intricate lyrics keep shooting at us like a military machine gun. There’s rarely time for the performers to take a breather, but what’s worse is that our ears get too few chances to relax. It’s exhausting for us all.

These tongue-twisters come in service of several stories we’ve heard before, plus one we haven’t. Among them is Little Red Riding Hood, and after she’s freed from the wolf’s stomach, she proceeds to recap the entire tale we’ve just seen, the tale we all know from childhood. Sans pause.

I’ve an intense aversion to attempts at profundity. It’s been a struggle I’ve grappled with in writing a musical involving epiphanies of a religious nature. If it weren’t bad enough that Little Red is wasting my time re-telling a tale I’ve known from childhood and in fact have just seen, she then proceeds to try to get all philosophical about it. “I know things now, many valuable things,” she claims: “Flowers have their dangers…nice is different than good.” Let me ask you something: Is that profound? Is it funny? Is it funny that a child thinks these lessons have value? Does anybody give a damn?

At another point, a parade of characters recite various fairy-tale morals and one is clearly funny: “A slotted spoon won’t hold much soup.” At that juncture, the show seems to be reveling in the meaninglessness of morals. Good. But you can’t have it both ways. Profundity or silliness: can’t be and; must be or.

Meaninglessness rears its ugly head again in the storyline that’s original, about an unnamed baker and his wife. A rapping witch with an outsize vocabulary (rampion?) sets them on a quest. They have to collect four odd items and she promises to end their infertility. Why they believe she’ll keep her word is anybody’s guess: are rappers seen as particularly trustworthy? In a seemingly endless procession of scenes, they acquire then lose then acquire again these four things. Yes, fairy tales are sometimes as dull as this. Some are crafted to put children asleep. Others teach ethical lessons. Neither is a particularly good goal for a musical. We don’t like being preached to and being put to sleep in the theatre is never considered a positive thing.

Much of the music is jagged, dissonant: plum ugly. That combats the soporific effect and separates Into the Woods from Children’s Theatre. My favorite melodies in the score, though, both happen to be lullabies. Sondheim had stolen bits of melody from Leslie Bricusse before, and here robs him more blatantly. In the 70s, believe it or not, Bricusse had a chart-topping hit song from a movie musical for children. Sondheim slows and quiets down The Candy Man for a second act gem called No One Is Alone. Music geeks might recognize that, as the lyric philosophizes its way through unresolved questions, the song ends with an unresolved chord. Neat. I also like the gentle sway of the barcarole he uses for a comic male duet. It’s quite welcome after the pages of frenetic 6/8 that reminds parents of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. It contains a delicious pun (“you cry on their biers”) and builds to one of those tense juxtapositions of a chord and a melody note right above it. Sounds agonizing, I know, but it’s apt – the lyric and the song’s title are “Agony.”

In Sondheim’s stronger shows, such as Sweeney Todd and Company, immoral or amoral actions happen and, thank God, nobody sits around moralizing about them. His lesser shows, such as this and Merrily We Roll Along, are old-fashioned morality plays in which choruses or characters explicitly spell out ethical lessons for us. So our minds aren’t engaged in the usual fun of drawing our own conclusions. It’s every bit as didactic as agitprop, and agitprop, at least, is passionately and earnestly felt.

So, one leaves the theatre, worn down by all the sermonizing and says “What the hell was that?” Later on, one might wonder what prompted Sondheim and Lapine to write something so antithetical to Lapine’s Off-Broadway aesthetic. Was it to make a lot of money? Well, they succeeded there. Into the Woods is the most produced of Sondheim shows. It’s thought of as his most accessible, containing familiar characters like Cinderella and Rapunzel, thus presaging this horrid epoch of jukebox scores containing The Names You Know. Perhaps it’s reading too much into it, but of course there was a scourge randomly killing off people as the show was written, AIDS. Subconsciously, we experience the tragic parallel of loved ones lost in real life and fairy tale people senselessly dispatched. And so we might look again at that baldly-stated moral. In the face of a widespread catastrophe, we must all stick together. Rather cold comfort to those affected by AIDS, where the true need is for brilliant solutions from scientists, more than community and connectivity. In light of that, No One Is Alone seems more hollow than The Candy Man.

Working out

June 15, 2013

The other weekend it was the hundredth anniversary of Actors Equity and many a member posted on Facebook happy remembrances of how, where and when they card their cards. This was something of an affront to those who don’t have their cards yet. “You’re a member…whoop-ti-effing-do!”

And I think there’s a pack mentality to human nature. Something within us compels us to join a clique or a club simply so we can say “I’m a member…and you’re not.”

Of course that’s not why Equity was formed. In the early part of the last century there was widespread exploitation of actors. Like almost any trade union, it was created to protect workers. Some might argue that AEA has now outlived its initial rationale, as all the protections it initially sought are now a part of the nation’s laws. But on they go, offering health insurance, and, in New York shows, requiring a casting call that only members can attend. “I’m a member…and you’re not — even allowed to try out for this role.”

For those of us who aren’t actors but are attempting to create new work (and, therefore, new shows for performers to act in), Equity too often seems like a ball and chain, the thing that keeps us from speeding forward with our creations. We love actors, appreciate all they do. We don’t love their union.

I have been staring at something called The Production Rulebook. It’s 199 pages long. There are all sorts of arcane regulations that make using Equity actors at various stages of the development process prohibitively difficult. The union places limits on the number of hours a show may be rehearsed, which is particularly galling for songwriters like me who like to write complicated numbers. Imagine the artistic director attending two readings two nights in a row and they’re both rehearsed for 29 hours. (Why 29? It’s a number Actors Equity pulled out of the air.) The show with the less complicated music is bound to look more polished. Is that fair? Nope: it’s Equity.

Is that a butt?

Many of my shows had ticket prices and number of performances limited by Equity. On Broadway and Off-, there’s a variety of unions in cahoots with Equity. So no union player can appear in a show without a union electrician running the wires, a Teamster loading in the set, and there’s even a requirement that a union curtain-puller be paid, including on those Broadway shows where there is no curtain.

Across the country, you can find a lot of non-union theatre that’s every bit as good as Equity theatre. This must strike fear in the hearts of those who run the union for, over the many years I can remember, they’ve been involved in active disinformation campaigns trying to convince the ticket-buyer this isn’t so. You’d think they’d have the confidence to let the public make up its own mind about who’s a quality actor and who isn’t. But, let’s face it, some actors are under-confident people.

Let me tell you a fantasy of mine, and as I do you can guess why it’s a fantasy. One day I’d like to convene an assemblage of performers with both musical skills, and improvisational ability. We’ll take some public domain work of literature, all read it, and a developmental director would guide improvisations dramatizing scenes from the book. A writing team (including me) would attend and, inspired by the improvs, would write up scenes and songs. These would be tried on for size by the company of actors, leading to more improvs, back-and-forth with rewrites. In short, an organically group-created musical would spring forth over time. Sound fun? It’s in the realm of fantasy because the union won’t allow anything like what I describe. Sometimes I think they should have a slogan: “You can’t do that.”

Loving actors, though, writers are of course glad they’re not exploited. It’s a hard enough arena to land a job in in the first place. Which reminds me of the luckiest gentlemen I’ve ever stared at in the theatre. There was a revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. On stage, throughout the play (which is in the form of a trial), sat six men in uniforms. They were stone-faced, and didn’t display any reaction to the dramatic testimony presented to them. They had no lines; they didn’t move. I found out that, due to Equity minimums for silent players, they each earned $600 per week. This was in the 80s.

Now Equity has turned 100, and you can’t buy a ticket to a Broadway musical for less than $100. Hmmm… How to put this? We’ve got a union to thank!

The nicer side of me

June 9, 2013

I wonder if this just-ended Broadway season will go down in history as The Year of the Celebrity. It’s not the first time I’ve thought this, but, again, the economics of The Street seem beholden to The Big Name.

In a sense, I realize, this is classic sour grapes. We No-Names who toil away for years, perfecting our pieces, are apt to turn green when a Familiar Face pens a musical in her spare time and suddenly it’s on a rocket headed for The Main Stem. I’m referring of course to Kathie Lee Gifford, who is famous for… I don’t know what, exactly; being married to Frank Gifford? Her day job, as a personable interviewer of fellow celebrities, yields her some quantity of fans. Enough of these people had enough faith in her writing to invest in Scandalous, a musical biography of Aimee Semple McPherson. But the Giffordettes were too scarce to fill the theatre for very long; it bombed last fall.

The historically-minded (both of you) might have noted that Tim Rice was a chat show host before Jesus Christ Superstar came out. It took him years of effort to get his first musical produced, and that only happened after a studio album of the score topped the pop charts. Is it a better world now that notoriety greases the wheels for the ride to Broadway?

I think it was about fourteen years ago, at an early reading of Avenue Q, when I heard jokes about Phish, a popular rock band I hadn’t previously been aware of.  Phish tunesmith Trey Anastasio collaborated with Amanda Green on the score to Hands on a Hardbody, an intentionally static little show that failed to find an audience on The Big Street.  This was one of many shows I had my eye on when they opened outside of New York.  I was curious about the reception, what the critics said.  Correctly or not (I’ve never seen the show), people weren’t saying “This is so good, it ought to go to Broadway!”  So why did it?  There were plenty of other shows around the country (and world!) greeted with far more enthusiasm.  The difference here, I suspect, is that Anastasio is well-known in the rock world.  I like to think Amanda Green’s well-known because of her New York musical theatre performance debut in my revue, On the Brink.  Don’t shatter my illusions, please: let me persist in believing I made her famous. It would be positively churlish to point out that her father was the masterful lyricist and librettist Adolph Green and her mother’s the delightful actress Phyllis Newman.  That can’t account for anything.  Or can we agree to disagree and attribute her notoriety to her two previous Broadway musicals? Some good songwriting can be found in those.

Look, I don’t write these essays with a view towards making you like me.  If I did, I might think back on whose essays I ever read and, with every line, I loved the author more and more.  Which would bring Nora Ephron to mind.  Daughter of famous Hollywood screenwriters, she acquired considerable fame from activities beyond dramatic writing.  First, she married Carl Bernstein, of the eminent investigative journalist team of Woodward and Bernstein, which broke the Watergate story.  Many years later, Ephron became the top director of romantic comedies, such as Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. She died about a year ago, alas, but this season saw her second Broadway play arrive and boy, did it sell a lot of tickets. I’ve been unable to snag one, so I don’t know if Lucky Guy deserves its Tony nomination for Best Play. When last I mentioned this year’s Tonys, I took a knock at Douglas Carter Beane, but here, concerning Best Play nods, I’ve sympathy for the fact that all the reviews I’ve read far preferred his writing (The Nance, not nominated) to Ephron’s.  Would Lucky Guy have made it to Broadway if Nora were unknown? Well, it wasn’t very likely to get a movie star, Tom Hanks, star of those RomComs I mentioned she did, in the lead role. Of course that’s a name that sells a lot of tickets.

Somewhere, some obscure party has written a brilliant show and no star will sign on to do it, no producer will corral her angels to produce it, and ticket-buyers won’t beat a path to the box office.  Because in this day and age, it’s more important to be famous than it is to be brilliant.

But I don’t wish to leave you on such a bleak note, because then you won’t like me.  What if a person of considerable fame is given the chance to write a musical and they actually do a good enough job that critics and audiences dub it a smash? Surely, that’s something to celebrate – celebrities doing well in their debut stage efforts.  And this season we have not one but two examples.  For Kinky Boots, based on a relatively obscure 2005 film, 1980s pop diva Cyndi Lauper wrote a score, teamed with veteran librettist Harvey Fierstein, who has more than a little fame in his own right.  Success!  A hit!  Congratulate them!  Over in Great Britain, there’s a comedian named Tim Minchin whose act primarily consists of hysterical and sometimes scabrous songs he’s written. London’s most important theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, gave him the task of writing music and lyrics to an adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel, and Matilda is this Broadway season’s biggest hit musical, both in terms of reviews and ticket sales. If we’re going to have to have a theatre where the celebs get the plum assignments, it’s good when they’re good, you know?

Home and family

June 3, 2013

The Broadway director looked around to make sure no one was listening, and then told me “Your wife is amazing.  She is the rock that’s holding this whole production together.”  High praise for a “mere” casting director; but then, this was an audition day.  I’d brought the baby for a quick visit with her long-hour working Mom.  The director continued, “We really appreciate everything she does.  And everything you do, to allow Joy to do what she does.”

It was sixteen years ago today we first laid eyes on each other (any other body parts shall remain unnamed) and just about eight years ago that she entered the exciting world of casting.  Today she’s one of the power players of the musical theatre world (don’t trust me on this; trust Backstage), having cast for Broadway, Off-Broadway, a huge number of national tours, Equity and non-Equity, musicals and plays, seasons and unique theatrical experiences, for avant-garde dance companies and for Julie Andrews.

From my spousal perch, beneath the pedestal, it seems like few people have an informed sense of what casting directors really do.  Since most of the people I know are actors, I often hear the performer’s perspective. They tend to see the CD as standing in the way of them getting seen by the directors and choreographers who’ll get them work. But the CD works for the producer of the show. That’s going to mean discussions with the writers, director, musical director, choreographer and producer about a vision for every role. None of these people needs to sit through 10,000 auditions. A good CD can put them in a room with true contenders, each possessed of the skill set that will be required for the part.

Some actors think there’s nothing they can’t do, but let’s get real: beatbox – the verb (look it up).  On one show Joy had to get the best beatboxers in the nation to audition. You couldn’t just post a casting notice in the usual places and hope they would show up.  How’s your trapeze work? Joy once had to find amazingly athletic dancers who could fly through the air with the greatest of ease.  If you’re familiar with In the Heights, you know the show contains a wide array of styles of music.  Joy had to find people who could rap and salsa (again, the verb) and the usual pasty white people who audition for everything wouldn’t compete. Is trampoline a verb, too?

Joy’s had her own casting company, Joy Dewing Casting, for over a year now. She’s had some wonderful clients, like the long-running off-Broadway musical, Forever Dusty, and the new Broadway musical, Soul Doctor. They pay her. But there’s also a huge amount of unpaid work, as Joy attends a huge number of shows and student showcases, familiarizing herself with the talent pool. It’s a fairly common occurrence that she gets to call a young aspirant with the good news that they’ve gotten their first job. Much of the time, it’s someone Joy’s seen performing, right alongside other graduating students who are never going to make it. She invests the time to get to know the talent before the rest of the world knows the talent.

Some reading this are now humming “I should have gone to an acting school; that seems clear.” But there’s another misconception abounding about how casting directors get to know talented thespians. (I said “thespians.”  How you get to know talented lesbians in a completely different subject.) Show up at her open calls and audition well. Jaded old salts are cynical about open calls, but, when you pass in front of Joy’s eyes, even if you’re completely wrong for the role, your good performance leaves a positive impression. So, sometime later, she’ll be casting something else, remember you from the various times you’ve auditioned for her, and call you in. That’s a boost, to have the CD saying to the team behind the table, “Here’s someone I think you should have a look at.”

Some reading this write musicals, and are now wondering about the value of reading a blogger boasting about his wife. So, let’s see if I can relate this to our usual subject… I envy actors. There, I said it. Actors get to display their abilities, on a regular basis, in front of people in the position to give them jobs. As a writer, I very rarely get to show what I can do to anyone in any position to help my career in any way. This has something to do with the nature of being a writer, and also has to do with the fact that there are very few gigs for musical makers.  I’ve been very lucky to have been hired by businesses (the nation’s largest labor law firm, a well-known discount brokerage house, a motorcycle dealership) to create musical comedy material.  Getting hired involved word-of-mouth: I knew two – count ‘em: two – people familiar enough with my work to recommend me. Writers, generally, don’t have anything equivalent to the casting calls that exist, every day, for actors.

That’s why we dutifully submit our shows to places with panels of readers.  Some give prizes.  Some let you do a workshop.  Festivals give you slots in theatres, but you have to fund the production. When I got accepted into The New York Musical Theatre Festival (through their “Next Link,” which only looks at blind submissions), it was a tiny statement to the world that somebody, a set of professionals who didn’t know my name, thought my work worthy of production. In a way, it was like getting cast in a play – a boon an actor can enjoy any day of the week.

So I envy actors.  They regularly get a chance to impress a CD, who will then think of them for both present and future jobs. I guess what I’m saying is that I wish I had Joy Dewing in my life.

But wait a minute: I do!  For sixteen glorious years…  But you know what I mean.