The open cocoon

July 30, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about energy. It’s a word that’s hard to define. But I think it’s clear all musicals need a certain amount of energy, wind in their sails, just to keep them afloat.

A vague memory: in college, studying Ibsen, I learned an obscure foreign word that sounded something like liefsgleedje. That wasn’t the word, mind you; it was just how my friends and I misheard it. There’s a young female character in The Master Builder with great gobs of liefsgleedje and she inspires a suicidal old architect to design again. Why am I telling you this? Probably because I like saying liefsgleedje.

On both a macro and micro level, your musical is going to need liefsgleedje. And I’m now reminded of an Irving Berlin song title, Something To Dance About and a Cole Porter film title, Something To Shout About. This may seem obvious, but shows consistently need something to sing about. Often, I’m bothered listening to a number where the character has insufficient justification for singing. In the BMI Workshop, we used to call such things “Please pass the salt” songs.

I’ve probably told this story before, but, in the waning days of Jule Styne’s life, and the early days of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, the veteran Broadway composer (Gypsy, Funny Girl, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) was brought in to take a look at what students were working on.  He was shocked – and not in a good way – to find they didn’t quite know what to musicalize.  To Styne, this was second nature.  With his experience, he had the knack for knowing which moments in a show might make a good song.

For some reason, certain friends of mine have started calling this The Katz Rule: When emotions are so strong, mere spoken words will not suffice, a character should sing. (And if sung words won’t do, go into your dance.) I’m sorry they named that for me, because I can think of plenty of examples in which unsung speech was used to brilliant effect in good musicals. Today I heard tell that Frank Loesser’s earlier draft of The Most Happy Fella contained no dialogue, so he went back and added some. The ear needs a break, sometimes.

And it struck me that musicals can accommodate fairly long stretches of songlessness if the energy of the spoken words supports it.  In musical comedies (three leap to mind: Promises Promises, Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down, The Drowsy Chaperone), energy arrives in the form of solid punchlines.  We’re laughing so much, we’re not the least bit impatient for the next song.

I recently had a conversation about King Arthur’s big speech of resolutions in Camelot.  If I remember correctly, it’s a monologue that brings the curtain down on Act One.  And it’s easy to imagine Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe deciding they didn’t need to end the act with a number since they had Richard Burton, the captivating master of fine acting, delivering a big speech.  Surely that would get the applause necessary to send them into intermission.  Another example is the long stretch of congressional debate found in 1776.  Written with flowery flare by Peter Stone, an unusually long amount of time goes by between the rather weaker Sherman Edwards songs.

Hmmm… Two musicals about creating a government based on principles of the Enlightenment.  Well, other shows can go song-free for a while, too.  My favorite speech in any musical is Adam’s monologue at the end of The Apple Tree‘s Adam & Eve segment:

Eve died today. I knew she would, of course. Well, at least her prayer was answered – she went first. Now that she’s gone, I realize something I didn’t realize before. I used to think it was a terrible tragedy when Eve and I had to leave the Garden. Now I know it really didn’t matter. Because, wheresoever she was, there was Eden. And now, I have to go water her flowers. She loved them, you know.

The energy of an audience crying can be just as potent as the energy of an audience laughing.

But what was this “macro” thing I referred to?  Oh, yes.  The whole subject matter of your show has to contain the kind of energy that will draw an audience in.  I worry, from time to time, that certain topics may be too mundane to make a musical of, the full-length equivalent of Please Pass the Salt.  Shows require a certain bigness, even if they’ve a small cast size.  And I’ll tell you about a musical I never made it to – and it had a decent Broadway run.  The subject matter of two old ladies, relatives of Jackie Kennedy, who’d gone batty in an incredibly cluttered, cat-filled and dilapidated Long Island mansion – to say this didn’t appeal to me is putting it lightly.  Grey Gardens was, originally, a documentary film.  And I had a lot of trouble sitting through that.  But the score and performances were so widely admired, I’ve the sinking feeling I missed out on something special.  Eventually I got to hear some of the songs – I’ve a pitiful story about rehearsing Around the World like crazy only to be lifted for a substitute pianist minutes before the show – and they’re great show tunes, superbly crafted.  But during its run, I never wanted to get out and see the thing.

Besides, who would keep company with my 37 cats?


What would Gloria Steinem say?

July 24, 2013

There are few shows that ever actually inspired me to try to write a show on a similar theme, but Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road set my mind racing when I was young and impressionable.  A musical concerned with raising consciousness, as the feminists termed it: I loved that the show racked up such a long run.  Perhaps it changed minds while it entertained.

And that seemed intriguing to me.  Quite possibly it had a similar effect on Comden and Green, who filled their Doll’s House sequel, A Doll’s Life, with the exact jargon one might find in Ms. Magazine. In the mouth of Nora Helmer, these terms seemed ludicrous.  Plus, director Harold Prince returned to the device he’d used in Sweeney Todd, of bringing on a chorus to comment upon the action.  They go one step further and sing to Nora like they’re her conscious, again with that oh-so-70s language.  A Swedey Todd destined for obscurity.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road hasn’t been seen much in the past 30 years.  Producers (of revivals – the worst kind), must consider it too “of its time.”  But this is why it’s wonderful that the Encores! series gives us a chance to take another look.  Seeing it today forces us to consider the course feminism has taken.  Do men, like the buffoonish manager the show portrays, still not get it?  Is Feminism a term or concept younger women no longer embrace?  Did it become passé?  Whatever happened to Ms. Magazine? (Or magazines in general?) Once I suspected that my effort to mine musical entertainment out of the topic, The Company of Women, is the only show I’ve written that never got a full production because people didn’t want to hear about it any more.  Then, Sex and the City premiered, stealing my thunder.  (I invite the curious to do a side-by-side comparison and see if my show isn’t far funnier.)

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is, ultimately, a musical more interesting for what it has to say than its execution. Song after song appears, each one perfectly pleasant and competent. But it’s a little like a collage, the pieces hung on the spine of an argument that has too few surprising turns in it to be truly interesting. The songs are too similar to each other, especially in what they have to say. They tend not to amplify or intensify the emotions in the script. As a result, a short evening grows wearying.

Do you detect a tinge of condescension in my calling the songs “perfectly pleasant and competent?”  Sorry, but rock music is supposed to have some edge to it, a sense of danger, and more than a little sexiness. The creation of female songwriters, I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road has a score that fits into the unfortunate cliché of femme-created (womanufactured?) rock.  The songs are softer than most male-written rock from the period.  When there are jokes, the produce smiles not laughs.  A very dramatic off-stage action is played for humor’s sake.  It’s a nice show, and I hope you know The Price of Nice.

But the key trouble with I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is that it never gets dramatic enough to motivate a non-diegetic song.  It feels more like a play with a large number of songs performed by the performers who are characters in the play.  The band’s manager has the same reaction to so many of them, we can predict his every action.  Then, something very strange happens.  The main character, after lambasting him for the show’s entire length, sings an incredibly tender ballad about how much she appreciates his friendship.  And we go “His friendship?  But he’s an asshole.”  This is an example of a show tune that is absolutely wonderful when you’re hearing it divorced from its context.  In the show, it’s puzzling and a tad uncomfortable.

Speaking of which, this show concludes the Encores! summer season devoted to off-Broadway musicals.  It was curated by my old friend Jeanine Tesori, who, one suspects, feels a kinship with Cryer and Ford.  Tesori, I think, is the first female composer to have two shows playing on Broadway at the same time.  She also presented a one-night-only reading of her masterpiece, Violet, one of the best recent-vintage shows I can think of.  So, it’s great that people got the chance to see these three shows (the first was The Cradle Will Rock) but I’ll go ahead and state the obvious: Musicals designed for tiny theatres simply don’t look comfortable in City Center, an auditorium with more seats than any Broadway house.  I was very taken with Derek McLane’s set, but you can’t simulate intimacy in a Masonic temple.


After all these years

July 18, 2013

The New York Musical Theatre Festival, currently underway, is celebrating its tenth annual occurrence.  I think it’s old enough to countenance a little criticism, which you’ll find below, but, more than most people, I’m full of praise and gratitude for its existence.

For NYMF was a particularly great experience for me.  Just the other week, my baby girl climbed out of her high chair, on to a tall table, reached up to a counter, grabbed my NYMF Award and smashed it against the table.  So there are all these little pieces of plastic I keep finding.  And I think: It was always just a Xeroxed certificate in a cheap curved frame.

But these things are not meaningless.  I know both the runners-up for Best Lyrics, Sam Carner and Frank Evans, and I’m sure they’d rather have the prize, chipped plastic and all.  (Carner’s Best-of-the-Fest show, Unlock’d, is currently playing.)  I was one of three winners for Such Good Friends, along with director Marc Bruni and leading lady Liz Larsen.  Liz and the show also earned Talkin’ Broadway Citations, as best performance and best show in any festival that year.

And there’s another prize you can’t hold in your hand: Being selected as a Next LinkNext Link selections have been submitted blind: that is, the selectors don’t know the names of the authors.  They don’t know if the show has any previous performance history.  They won’t be considering whether a show might sell a lot of tickets.  Their only concern is quality.

So, when Such Good Friends got chosen, it meant that NYMF’s panel of industry professionals found it to be among the very best of hundreds of submissions.  It also meant that I’d have a slot.  I wished to go to the festival, and so I did.

However, for economic reasons, NYMF fills only half its slate of full productions with Next Link picks.  NYMF administrators let their friends have slots, or famous people, or people who’ve done admirable work in the past – even if the current work isn’t quite up to snuff.  If a production is likely to sell tickets, maybe because it has some intriguing title, or a star attached, on it goes.  It’s rather maddening that the audience can’t easily tell whether they’re seeing something that’s there because those blind readers thought it was good, or because the NYMF powers-that-be want it there.  This smacks of cronyism, and delegitimatizes the enterprise.

It’s said that NYMF had its best year its first year.  To understand why, think how things were before the Festival was born.  New shows were getting written, but not mounted.  Or, when they were mounted, the “right” people wouldn’t come to see them, or didn’t know about them, leading to many a stillborn enterprise.  There existed, ten years ago, a huge quantity of great unproduced musicals sitting around, waiting for – no, needing – a platform like NYMF to get them to the next level.  And so the witty boy band send-up, Altar Boyz was seen by young producer Ken Davenport.  He mounted the show off-Broadway and it was a huge hit, running for many years.

Also wowing the crowds that year was the ultimate meta experience, [title of show], a musical about two guys writing a show that they submit to the New York Musical Theatre Festival.  If you’re reading this blog, chances are you can relate to this hysterical little theatre piece.  And, if you’re writing a musical, I heartily suggest you listen to one of its songs, Die Vampire Die, every day.

Even more truthful was The Big Voice: God, Or Merman?, the dual autobiography of a couple who meet and deal with religious backgrounds and a greater love for musical theatre and each other.  More traditional musicals, based on solid, dying-to-be-musicalized sources, were Like You Like It and Meet John Doe.

As years went by, alas, the pool of really good unproduced musicals began to be depleted.  NYMF makes a key mistake by believing that festivals require a certain size in order to sustain themselves.  Each year, there are too many shows for any one fan to catch, and, honestly, a lot of shows that aren’t yet ready for public consumption.  This has led to a bad reputation: Many believe the average NYMF show simply isn’t very good.  (A major producer called Such Good Friends the best NYMF show she’d ever seen; I took that as something of a back-handed compliment.)

NYMF likes to think of itself as the musical theatre equivalent of what Sundance is to film.  They’ve pointed this out to me when I asked why the costs of putting these shows on are borne, usually, by the writers themselves.  Sundance screens films that have already been financed.  Now, admirably, NYMF does a host of things to keep the costs as low as possible.  They rent theatres, and stuff them full of several shows every day.  Shows sharing a theatre can split the fees for spotlights, synthesizers and curtains, if they decide to.  NYMF facilitates this, and provides box office, venue managers, a casting director, and some behind-the-scenes staff. But putting on a show for six performances often eats up twenty to thirty thousand dollars. This is not a meritocracy, also, because only the well-off can afford to play.

And yet they do manage to keep costs far lower than they’d otherwise be.  And sometimes a shoestring budget is a virtue.  Gutenburg had a cast of two (including the then-unknown Christopher Fitzgerald) and no set, and how they made an entertaining musical out of a backer’s audition for a not-entertaining musical about the inventor of movable type – well, it’s a little miraculous.  Speaking of miracles, I laughed my head off at The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun before it took itself seriously.  And speaking of that, Next To Normal, the last musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, was seen at NYMF under the title, Feeling Electric.  All of these shows arrived at the festival in years prior to my own.  Would it be too self-serving to point out Such Good Friends got better reviews than all of them?

Well, that’s not a note to end on, so instead I’ll leave you with a ride based on a song first heard at NYMF.


March

July 12, 2013

The Cradle Will Rock, the one-and-only agitprop musical masterpiece, now in a positively perverse staging at Encores, is a stacked deck. The heavy, Mister Mister, is pure evil. The hero, who only arrives half way through, might as well be wearing a white hat. The crudely-wrought scenes don’t paint in shades of gray; the black and white are writ large, as on a hastily assembled placard. As a result, the plot, in and of itself, doesn’t engage your emotions.

But the music does. Wild harmonies, octaves pounded at the lower notes of the piano, processions of minor chords pepped up with jazz age rhythms: all of these combine to grab at your heart with rough-hewn power. This masterful display of what mildly dissonant music can do owes less to Kurt Weill than Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. In both works, the text is painfully obvious: we know exactly how the authors want us to feel. But the music is strong enough to overcome this.

What can I tell you about a 76-year-old musical whose plot doesn’t work, whose dialogue is leaden but still manages to move and to stir? I could encourage you to catch it at Encores, where a who’s who of New York character actors is demonstrating what political vaudeville used to sound like: Anika Noni Rose, Danny Burstein, Raúl Esparza, Peter Friedman, David Margulies, Martin Moran and, strongest of all, Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Unfortunately, certain casting decisions were made that make a weird piece even weirder, assuring the alienation of an even higher percentage of the audience than the Cradle would normally rock.

And there’s a new orchestration, for fourteen players, breaking with Encores’ tradition of presenting a score exactly as it was heard on opening night. As my old acquaintance John Houseman will tell you in this video, there was only a hastily-rented piano accompanying on opening night, as the government had padlocked the theatre where it was supposed to open. Such was the fear of its message.
It’s difficult to imagine theatre striking fear in the hearts of Washington bureaucrats today, isn’t it? I find the ability to make a political statement within an entertaining play to be a fascinating quality that was in flower during the late 1930s. A little over a year ago, I worked on a massive production of Odets’ Waiting For Lefty to which we added a number of songs, and then got the audience to rise up and follow us out of the theatre. The climax, emotionally, was Paula Buresh’s rendition of Joe Worker, from The Cradle Will Rock. This, along with the title song and Nickel Under the Foot, proves author Marc Blitzstein’s ability to craft a rabble-rousing indictment in song-form. If the whole of The Cradle Will Rock is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, at least some of those parts are choice.

I feel a personal connection to some of the people behind the famous pro-union musicals of the 1930s. I knew its original conductor, Lehman Engel, very well; producer John Houseman was someone I knew and worked with, and as a kid I met star Howard Da Silva. Also, as a kid, I met Harold Rome, who wrote the songs to Pins and Needles, the longest running musical of the 1930s – yes, another celebration of the labor movement. In a recent post, I criticized the actors’ union, and so must point out a rich irony behind the story of Cradle’s opening night.

Blitzstein

The show is decidedly pro-union, but it was the actors’ union that insisted the cast couldn’t step on the stage of the quickly-rented theatre. Philosophically, I usually stand with workers over bosses, but this is an odd case.

And an agitprop musical is decidedly an odd bird. There’s no room for romance in The Cradle Will Rock. No real moments of beauty. It’s a bleak portrayal of a town run by evil industrialists; decent pillars of society get corrupted right and left. Fans of 21st century musicals should recognize that this is exactly the sort of thing Urinetown is spoofing. I’m no great admirer of that musical comedy, and can’t help noting that many of its young fans have no idea what’s being sent up.

Just the other week, I saw a different piece of sui generis theatre, the long-running immersive experience, Sleep No More. This is another case of I Can’t Describe It To You Because It’s Better You Discover It Yourself. I will say that I had a very good time, and music was used to good effect, using a number of songs I’m fond of. Wear comfortable shoes.


The Broad-a-way Charleston

July 7, 2013

When the League of Broadway Producers shuffles some numbers and proudly proclaims we just had a great and lucrative season, I greet that news with half a smile, half a smirk. But yes: these are good times to be peddling dreck.

Yes, I’m aware of the snobbery of that statement, but I’m prepared to defend it. I’ll also acknowledge the inherent stink of sour grapes, because I’d certainly like a show on Broadway. I’m certainly not saying my shows are too good for The Boulevard. And one more acknowledgement: for musicals, this was a far better season than most years in the past quarter century: five shows premiered that are likely to be done again. I’m not complaining about Kinky Boots, Matilda, A Christmas Story, Bring It On and Hands on a Hardbody entering the repertory.

You have to look beyond the headline here to get the pertinent news.  This year continued a trend: seats on Broadway, to an increasing extent, were filled by tourists.  Now, I’m not about to launch yet another tirade about tourists – you know, those people who stop at the end of sidewalks, like Notre Dame linemen, refusing to let the natives cross the street.  Or when they ask cops for directions, as if I’d ever go to their towns and distract a police officer from keeping people safe.  No, I realize they bring a lot of money into the city.  Gotta appreciate, especially, the influx of simoleons into our fabulous invalid.  And today I stared at a box office sign that read “General seats: $135; Premium seats: $200.” Keep paying that, and the theatres will hire private cops to make up for the ones you distract.  (This actually happens.)

Allow me to cop to a personal weakness: Practically everything I know about writing musicals is based on Broadway’s old model. I’ve studied the twentieth century musicals that get performed across the country, again and again. But we’re in a new century now, and Broadway has a new audience.

Used to be, writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Comden and Green, Harnick and Bock, and the esteemed Stephen Sondheim tailored their musicals for a community of habitual theatre-goers, living in the New York Metropolitan area. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to them as the New York Mets. Also because I like the New York Mets.)

Now, industry statistics tell us, the Mets have been displaced by the tourist trade: people from all over the country, all over the world, who don’t regularly go to the theatre. They figure, they’re visiting New York, they might as well take in a show. And, given how scarce the Mets have become, it’s not so much do as the New Yorkers do as it is do as the New Yorkers did.

When the great musicals were written, writers understood what the New York Mets understood. They knew the language, the idioms, the allusions you could make. If shows were smarter then, it’s because they were written for a smarter audience.

I don’t mean to imply that people attending Broadway today are idiots. But a geographically diverse audience naturally doesn’t speak the same language. Idioms are greeted with blank stares. Allusions are lost. New shows are fashioned to meet the expectations of people from Peoria.

Which reminds me of the origin of the phrase “the lady from Dubuque.”  Way back when The New Yorker was born, the founders positioned their weekly as being the polar opposite of Time, the national magazine geared for all Americans.  They vowed to provide a higher quality of writing, a brilliance synonymous with the City, and stated that their magazine was not for the lady from Dubuque.

I wander around the theatre district today and find a lot of shows Dubuquers would find delightful, but not so much for New Yorkers. In musicals, that translates to a lot of familiar-sounding tunes, cliché-filled lyrics, and stories that are already familiar because we all remember that movie we sort of enjoyed a few years ago. Sure, this is a matter of taste, but as a New Yorker, I expect to be surprised every now and then: by a turn of plot, by a musical phrase taking an unexpected turn, by a wordsmith finding a fresh way of saying things.

And that’s how I write.  I write as if everyone who attends my shows will be one of those New York Mets, who attends theatre with some regularity.  Back when Backstage included theatre criticism (remember those days?), the following was written about one of my shows, a Critic’s Pick:

The show, however, feels far less like a period piece than a straightforward revival of an actual musical from Broadway’s Golden Age.
A wily wizard with words, Katz has created a show that, despite his tuneful, toe-tapping music, derives its primary entertainment value from verbal humor. This is the kind of musical that’s not been made for Broadway in a long time. With its witty references to literary figures and historical events, Such Good Friends not only emulates the creative techniques of musical makers of the past but seems written for Broadway audiences of a bygone era — those more homogenous, midcentury New York theatre audiences who possessed a common body of knowledge, a certain level of education, and shared cultural backgrounds and attitudes.

In a way, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for that kind of audience. And I’m sad to report that those smart New Yorkers have been given their walking papers. How does one fashion live entertainment for the tourist trade?  I’ve no idea.

And in one wacky irony, there’s a guy in Dubuque who’s trying to convince me I can find my kind of people there.


Shall I drift away with the sea?

July 2, 2013

Six months ago, I stated the reasons theatre lyricists must employ perfect rhymes.  Last week I sat across a table from a songwriter who defended the use of false rhymes to me, saying there are times when a theatre song needs to sound like a pop song.  And now I’m trying to imagine the situation in which a song with false rhymes would be preferable.  I suppose if you had characters on a road trip run out of gas, and they walk into a scary gas station mini-mart, and you successfully set up that the attendant is a crazed murderer, and the air is so full of foreboding, nobody in the theatre is going to notice what sort of hillbilly music is playing on the radio…

The theatre is a place where people pay attention to the lyrics.  But in the scene I just described, they wouldn’t be.  So, go ahead and go sloppy.  If you’ve made every element of a scene so fascinating, you’re absolutely sure the words of a song aren’t going to be heard, feel free to slip in a home/phone rhyme.  But if you haven’t done that, then you’re just lazy.  And deep down you know you’re lazy, and whatever excuse you’ve conjured up for yourself as to why you’re rhyming badly is just that – a paltry excuse.

Look, I know writing musicals is hard.  I understand the impulse to make it easier.  I also understand that musicals sail off like leaky vessels.  You’ve got to plug up all sorts of holes that threaten to sink the thing.  None are perfect, but the writer must be a perfectionist.  The more minor flaws you let by, the more the audience is likely to think the whole thing is flawed, too leaky to enjoy.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t consider imperfect rhyming a minor flaw.

Because it’s a stupid flaw, one that could have been easily avoided.  A minor flaw is when you’ve written a joke that makes a character seem callous, and you need them to be lovable.  And all along you thought you had a fine joke, but it took getting the entire piece in front of an audience to reveal how it’s truly going over.  Replace the joke; plug that leak.  Move on.

Five weeks ago, prior to the Tonys, a writer I very much admire named Jaime Weinman wrote, in Maclean’s, about this issue.  He wonders whether the Broadway musical has changed, at the end of a season full of not-quite-rhymes. So I’ll acknowledge something: in recent years, shows have succeeded despite atrocious rhyming.  The Book of Mormon, for one, is a phenomenon because it delivers an unusually high quantity of seriously funny jokes, coming at you every few seconds. Imagine laughing so hard, your body isn’t bothered by the sound of fingernails scraped across a blackboard.  Well, that was my experience at the show: As I’ve long said, false rhymes are fingernails on a blackboard to me.

But every show that succeeds despite its live mine of nigh rhyme (see how annoying that is?) has some other factor propelling it forward.  You chug forward fast enough, a small hole in the bow won’t sink you, and if you compensate with children dancing or some other impressive spectacle, the customers are more likely to remember that than your shortcoming.

The great musicals of the past, of course, (as well as the higher quality musicals of today) used perfect rhymes.  Audiences unfamiliar with their stories took in all this previously-unheard music, lyrics, dialogue and story, and apprehended it with glee. Good rhyme, ultimately, aids comprehension; it helps the ear. The false rhyme crowd isn’t giving their audience any help.  To my mind, they don’t respect the audience.

And where were they, as children, the day they taught the tale of the three little pigs?  It’s harder to build a house of bricks than a house of straw, but only one is going to stand up to the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf.

Also known as the critic for the Times.