August 29, 2013

Had something of a chance encounter with someone who sees a couple of classic show tunes the way I do. So now I’ve the urge to shout “See? I’m not so weird!” But I won’t. For that would be weird.

Marlon & Wally

I was subbing as accompanist at a famous acting school. My head filled with thoughts of the pre-eminent performers who traipsed these hallways early in their careers. Brando lived nearby, and his roommate was Wally Cox. Wally Cox! A true thespian. As well as the voice of Underdog. And I went up a steep (but not so narrow) staircase to a dance studio and wondered how Marilyn Monroe kept her balance on such an incline. There were only four students, affording the voice teacher (from the opera world) ample opportunity to talk. Mostly he discoursed on technical aspects of singing, but when, back-to-back, there were two familiar numbers from Fiddler on the Roof, he started pointing out the sorts of things I like to point out.In Far From the Home I Love, composer Jerry Bock keeps switching between minor and major. This colors the character’s dichotomy, as she’s tugged in two directions, between love of family and devotion to her fiancé, who’s been sent to Siberia. The minor key section chords are traditionally associated with Judaism. Fiddler on the Roof depicts a younger generation breaking off from old restrictions and customs. Hodel, the daughter who’s departing, expresses a sincere affection for all that she’s abandoning. Her love for the modern-thinking husband-to-be is expressed with modern chords: a major seventh, a passing thirteenth. In the bridge, she gets a little carried away, talking about him. Since it’s in the key of C, pianists can’t help but notice her ecstatic expression is all on white notes. But no tonality lasts for long here. In just a moment we’re back to the rich and ancient minor. The voice teacher offered that Hodel is saying she is able to experience romantic love because her parents gave her such a firm foundation in family love. When I coach the song, I focus on the daughter’s understanding of how her words are landing on Tevye.  She knows she’s breaking his heart, so she darts back to familial love whenever she gets close to being sappy about the boy.  In my song, Home, I also address this notion that “home” means one thing to an unmarried daughter living with her family, and quite another to a bride.  And Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick makes this shift in definitions the final dagger hurled at the dad: “Yet, there with my love, I’m home.”  Bock sets this on that most difficult of intervals, the tritone, because it is such a difficult thing for this girl, who loves both groom and papa, to say.

Far simpler, but positively eloquent, is the surpassingly popular Sunrise Sunset.  Staring at the sheet music during our conversation about it, I thought back to a childhood memory.  Visiting a family friend’s back yard, I saw a row of sunflowers that must have been six feet tall.  I’d never seen flowers so big, and they were more than a little frightening to the young me.  So, Sheldon Harnick wrote “seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers” – a perfect image of the world turning so fast, little things can be come tall very quickly.  It’s not set up as a simile, and he doesn’t use the words “seems like.”  We understand it as a poetic comparison even as it’s stated just like a fact.  Bock uses the first two measures over and over again, at one point this phrase is heard a fourth up from where it’s first heard.  So it’s something of an ear-worm. What’s always struck me about the music is the delightful arpeggio on eighth notes, rather reminiscent of the octatonic scale frequently utilized by Igor Stravinski, the Russian composer who based a lot of his work on the folk music he knew as a child.  In a sense, given Fiddler’s setting, he and Bock were drawing from the same well.  As the lyric extols aspects of the life cycle, the setting of the title line evokes breathing out and breathing in.

The immortality of Sunrise Sunset must be related to the universality of the emotions it expresses.  Bock and Harnick were experts at coming up with songs that are extremely specific to their show’s setting while being general enough that all sorts of people could sing them at all sorts of times.  (Well, mostly at weddings.)  And I think that’s because they began their careers in the 1950s, when it was still expected that show music could produce the most-sung songs in the land.  Today, it’s unusual that songwriters are thinking about the commerciality of what they’re writing for the stage.  But all the things I’ve mentioned here, these bits of brilliance in the crafting of two numbers, are what Bock and Harnick regularly thought about.  A way of thinking, alas, that hasn’t been commonly employed since the team split in 1970.


When I capture Cali

August 23, 2013

I was going to celebrate the silver anniversary of one of my shows, but have just checked my math and find I’m one year late to the party. Popsicle Palace had a long, profitable, many-times-extended, sell-out run. It attracted lots of attention, not just from the Times but from the owner of the trademark, Popsicle, who insisted we call it something else. So the subsequent productions called it Not a Lion, which I don’t think is as good as the rechristening I suggested, Not a Popsicle.

The show was borne of a completely different rights problem. My first produced musical, Through the Wardrobe, was based on C.S.Lewis’ first chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. At the time, the rights-owner (I think the Anglican Church), was allowing shows based on the book to be performed willy-nilly. Nine years after Through the Wardrobe played in England, a theatre in California wanted to do it. But, by then, another adaptor had tied up the rights. Knowing the theatre had been favorably impressed by the songs, we pitched the idea of a completely new plot, one designed to retain as many of the Through the Wardrobe songs as possible. (Six, if I recall.)

Bass-ackwards alert!  When you write a story with the goal of including any number of pre-existing numbers, you’re handcuffing yourself. It can be done, but it’s a little like tying a ball and chain to the leg of a racehorse: might make it around the track, but it certainly won’t win.

Don’t do as I did, kids. Do as I say. Find the story you wish to tell. Then figure out how songs could put it across. You’ll save yourself a host of trouble.

As our new fairy tale was fashioned, we found all sorts of new points that needed to be expressed in song. And (I swear I don’t say this much), I’m particularly proud of these new songs. Not a Lion, the piece that eventually became our title song, expresses an existential crisis in blithe terms a child can understand. Ordinary housecat Calico is mistaken for a lion; others’ expectations make him a reluctant hero. I was able to mine this for comedy, as all the characteristics he points out that prove he’s a cat are the same sorts of things a stranger feels prove he’s a lion.  It’s a short song with relatively few words in it — long my aesthetic. Or should I say “Short’s my aesthetic.”?

Both the old Wardrobe songs and the new ones contain counterpoint and quodlibets. I daresay no musical-for-the-entire family has so many. (It’s particularly astonishing to me that, long after the initial Los Angeles run, productions in Detroit, Greenwich Village and Queens used juvenile performers who were able to apprehend and put across my music.)  In a type of theatre where most tunesmiths would come up with something that errs on the simple side, I relished the opportunity to revel in the sound of three or more people singing rather different tunes at the same time. What was I thinking?

That counterpoint equals fun. Do it right, and audience enjoyment increases exponentially. But, Noel, there were children in the audience: Isn’t this a case of caviar to the general? No, fictional green font person I’m pretending is inserting himself into a conversation. Let me prove something to you. Long ago, on the old Dick Van Dyke Show, on a Christmas-themed show, Rob, Laura, Sally and Buddy did I Am a Fine Musician. Kids ate it up.

And the script had a moment in which three kids and an otter rally an army of animals, affording me the opportunity to write:

In the battle that is coming

We are going to need some drumming

And I hereby volunteer to play the drums

I will keep the rhythm steady

So our fearless army’s ready

For the battle that is coming when it comes.

The boy then imitates a snare-drum part.  His brother steps up:

In the battle that’s commencing

We are going to need some fencing

I’m prepared to take a blow although it’s hard

Though my armor isn’t shiny

And my sword is kind of tiny

When it comes to fiery fencing I’m en garde

What is the sung nonsense syllable that imitates clashing swords? All Gilbert and Sullivan fans know: Tzing!

Their sister offers:

Well, as long as you’re recruiting

We are going to need some tooting

On a military-sounding sort of fife

Any army prone to griping

Will refrain when they hear piping

And here’s someone who’s been tooting all her life

The cast thought that was hysterical. I’d been thinking of that illustration of the revolutionary war, with kids bearing a flag, drum and fife. “Tooting ” seemed, when I wrote it, to be the only possible verb for what you do with a fife. I had no idea it was a possible verb fir, er, a substantially lower sound. As Woody Allen recently admitted, he just says stuff, never knowing whether it’s funny until someone laughs.

In the battle, while attacking

We could use some good tail-whacking

So on whom but Mrs. Otter would you call?

Any enemy is wary

Of a battle cry that’s scary

When they hear my loud tail-whacking they will fall.

Unlike I Am a Fine Musician, in which the contrapuntal lines play against each other in a mellifluous way, besides that tooting, I had merely a bunch of noises. But Mrs. Otter did these hysterical rhythmic squats to whack her tail in rhythms. As some Hollywood star of a superhero flick once said, the main thing you do is work the costume.

Evil queen, you should skedaddle

When you hear the mighty rattle

Of the sword, the whacking tail, the fife and drums

Winter witch, we’re going to catch you

You have made your final statue

We are going to win the battle when it comes

There have times, in writing shows, when my predilection for clever rhyming has gotten me in trouble. A serious moment can be ruined with a too-fancy pair. In the magical world of Popsicle Palace, though, I had carte blanche to be clever. And when warmth thaws out a once-frozen land, the inhabitants sing

Life here was an igloo

A big losing battle it seemed

I’m kind of glad I got to do that.

This is a workplace

August 17, 2013

Had a wild time a few days ago laying down tracks in a recording studio. A singer is making an album and will do my Jobim send-up, Timid Samba, along with a new Jule Styne medley I just completed.

The tiny part of the recording process I was involved with was playing the accompaniment into an electric keyboard. Rick, the recording engineer, was fairly obsessive in trying to understand the right “feel” the singer and I want. He listened to a few Jobim numbers, and at least one Styne. Then he created a loop by recording himself shaking some maracas. After about six times through, repeating the two-bar groove, he selected the measures he’d played best to loop. This means a small bit of percussion recording, around two seconds or so, would be repeated over and over again. This was used instead of a click-track for me to keep a steady beat to in my playing.

Sound elaborate? Well, I may have just described the easiest part. The hard parts come later: If I made any mistakes in my playing (and God knows I did), Rick will go back and fix them. He does this in a manner not unlike removing a blemish on a headshot utilizing Photoshop. If I was supposed to play, say, an inverted A major triad, but failed, he’ll find an inverted A major triad elsewhere in the piece, copy it and paste it where I was supposed to play it.

But that’s not all: He’s going to orchestrate the thing. The Styne songs may end up sounding like a Broadway orchestra, and I called for a trumpet solo in my score. Timid Samba may come out sounding like Brazil 66. (If I remember correctly, at some point, Brazil 66 renamed itself Brazil 77, changing with the times.) Through some alchemy I don’t quite understand, what I played into a small keyboard will change into guitars, brass, strings, and reeds.

Rick and the singer have worked on two prior albums together, and I had a number of songs on both. The collaborators indulge each other’s craziest ideas. Many years ago, I wrote a simple pop song that was presented at Moonwork, in the old Stella Adler Studio on Lafayette Street, as if it was the number you heard during the final credits of a horror film named Ax Camp 3. Then they turned this into something of a radio play. You hear a young guy nervously treading through dried leaves, muttering about how the other campers have left him alone in the night. Then you hear the slashing of a knife, several times in quick succession, like what one might hear at Benihana. And then in comes my sappy romantic music.

Creepy? Sure, but funny, which is all these songs are ever meant to be. I was knocked out by what Rick had made of my little number. All I can recall of my contribution was that I hadn’t played it very well, but you can’t tell that from the finished product.

For the Styne medley, the singer wanted two of his favorite show-tunes patched together. I recognized that the two could probably be sung against each other in counterpoint. Since the singer wasn’t looking to make it a duet, my mind raced towards the idea that he could sing both parts of the quodlibet, dueting with himself. Which reminded me of another Styne number, Talking To Yourself. So, now I had three lyrics to shape into a story. You don’t know, at first, who he’s singing about. Then it becomes a merry paean to self-love. Ultimately, it made Rick laugh every time he heard it.

In my career, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the act of recording music. You know how, in school, if you misbehave, school officials threaten to put something down in your Permanent Record? For kids under a certain age, that’s pretty scary. When I’m recording one of my songs, I’m rather nervous at the thought that this will be the Permanent Record, the one rendition I’ll hear again and again. And, of course, others will hear and perhaps it gets remembered this way. In many cases, the only recordings of my songs are ones that have been done on hand-held devices, live in the theatre as the show was playing. And so, during one of the melodramatic pauses in A Sight So Gory, an audience member lets out a big sneeze. Those hearing this for the first time aren’t aware the sneeze isn’t a thing I wrote.

It’s often an expensive process: I must admit to you, all expensive things frighten me. It’s not so much that I’m a cheapskate; it’s an unnatural fear I’ll land in the poor house. In fact, there’s a bar in my neighborhood called The Pour House and I shudder a little each time I see it.

Musical theatre, as an entertainment experience, is one night in an auditorium. You remember what you remember, and forget a lot. But a cast album can be listened to again and again; nothing on those need be forgotten. I always write for that live audience, but, sooner or later, there’s going to be somebody who didn’t see the show, but will become familiar with my work just by listening to it. And that’s not so comfortable to me. What just flashed into my mind – probably because I recently did a show with the performer – is a teaching number I wrote where a three-star general takes off her bullet belt and starts using it as a dominatrix would use a whip. This visual helped to make my song fly. But a recording doesn’t give you that hysterical image, leaving it earthbound.

I guess that’s why I’m so appreciative of what Rick did with Dripping. Using a sonic bag of tricks, he aurally created an Ax Camp 3 so real, you can almost smell the blood.

When that I was and a little tiny boy

August 10, 2013

Eydie Gormé died today.

Normally, I wouldn’t be writing about the passing of a musical comedy star on the blog, but Eydie Gormé was someone I knew when I was very young.  In a celebrity version of “Parents come in to their kid’s classroom and talk about what they do for a living,” she performed, right in front of me and a couple dozen other awestruck first or second graders.  I don’t think I knew her name: She was “David’s mommy.”

We went back far longer ago than First Grade.  When my mother was in labor with me, she hoped to get the corner room at Doctors’ Hospital, overlooking Gracie Mansion and the East River.  As luck would have it, Eydie Gormé was in the room at the time, and David Lawrence and I believe we met in the nursery, our bassinets next to each other.  We all lived on Central Park West, and I was attending one of those incredibly-hard-to-get-into schools, also on Central Park West.  Steve Lawrence reached out to my father, hoping to get his boys in.  And soon we were buddies.  Indeed, most of my memories of Eydie Gormé are as the parent of a friend.

Eventually, my family moved to California, and, a few years later, so did the Lawrences.  David and I had a reunion on the Little League field.  In high school he aced me out of getting the role I most wanted in the world, Ponty in my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.  And we both ended up writing musicals – David contributed to High School Musical.  But enough about him.

Picture beautiful Eydie Gormé belting out Matchmaker Matchmaker to a bunch of children.  She was so sunny and appealing, it’s fair to say my desire to create musicals, and to be near musical theatre performers, formed then and there.  For me, the move 3000 miles away from my beloved Broadway was a devastating blow.  As a consolation prize (for I was nearly inconsolable), my parents took me to see Mame.  It’s safe to say that trip to the Winter Garden had a earth-shattering influence on me.  How I identified with young Patrick!  And was very moved when Mame sang “What a shame I never really found the boy before I lost him.”

Mame’s one hit song you could hear on the radio, If He Walked Into My Life was that one, sung by Eydie Gormé, a Mame-like figure in my life.  Of course when she does it, and when the general public heard it, this was not a song about the dissolution of an aunt-nephew relationship at all; rather, it was a torch song about an adult romance.  And so, at an early age, I got a sense of how show tunes can mean one thing within the shows they come from, and something else entirely when extracted.

Steve and Eydie, in the 1970s, devolved from being hip to unhip.  As one of the final non-pop acts to maintain a certain level of popularity, they became the singers your parents would listen you.  I couldn’t confess to friends I enjoy them.  I remember them going on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and promoting the songs from a new musical I’d liked, They’re Playing Our Song.  And when I saw that it was getting the Steve and Eydie imprimatur, my heart sank a little, for it meant that younger generation I was a part of was unlikely to embrace the show like it had the previous Marvin Hamlisch musical, A Chorus Line.  Still, it ran a long time, assumedly selling tickets to older people.

In David’s high school yearbook, I wrote that we’d known each other since the maternity ward, through two schools on two coasts, and then: “I wonder who will die first.”  Seemed like an OK joke at the time, but just a few years later, the younger Lawrence brother, Michael, suddenly died.  That Steve and Eydie were ever able to sing again is a testament to their dedication to their art and their fans.

And there are a great many fans mourning this loss.  I think so many of us loved Eydie because of her life-loving spirit, a quality amply on display that day so many years ago in a schoolroom on Central Park West.

A diary

August 5, 2013

It’s tough to talk about composing music, (as I’ve admitted before).  But I thought it might be valuable if I just jotted down a list of random thoughts that pop into my head as I’m writing a piece, a setting of a Shakespeare sonnet.

Librettist has taken what appears to be a bridge, and put it at the beginning, middle and end.  But he’s encouraging me to switch things around however I see fit.  I’m thinking of leaving out a couple of lines the audience won’t understand.

And maybe at the end, leave out more words, so the audience recognizes a lyric phrase it’s heard before, but now has a new meaning and impact.

The A sections are rather even in their scansion.  It suggests a simple 4/4, although that could prove dull over a whole song.  Accompaniment should utilize open fifths, perhaps over different bass notes.  If the right-hand fifths are an ostinato, an interesting bass line could get the harmony to move a bit.

I seem to be humming a phrase in C, so I’ll stick with C, and the simplicity it carries with it.

The character is contemplating the state of her romance, while looking in a mirror.  So I’ll need some touching chords.  I like the way a sustained C sounds over an A-minor going into F minor sixth.  But is this something I’ve employed elsewhere in the score?  If so, how close will the two ballads be?

Already I’m worried about too many ballads.  Perhaps Good Night Good Rest could be done faster, with more doo-wop back-up vocals giving it more energy.  Check with librettist.

Second and final stanzas could use a cadence similar to Billy Joel’s And So It Goes.

“Curse my fate” – extend length of notes.  Shouldn’t be quarter notes.  Break the pattern.

Back when I was rehearsing Jonathan Reid Gealt’s Quiet, I kept thinking how strong the first phrase is, and how dull what follows it is.  What if I took that phrase for the title, and followed it with something more interesting?

Speaking of more interesting: get the bridge in a far-off sharp key.  Too few accidentals (in C) = too vanilla.

Uh-oh.  I played Hamlisch’s How Can I Win? for the first time in years yesterday, and a phrase from it has crept into the second bridge.  I’ll weird this up later.

Coming out of that bridge I was able to use that A-minor going into F minor sixth.

Want to print out what I’ve got so far, but there’s no paper and very little printer ink. So, it’s going on the back of a copy of On the Steps of the Palace I’m no longer using.

The ending of the bridge of Somewhere Out There.  But this brings up a question: the show is set in 1959, so the harmonic progressions need to resemble those that were used 54 years ago.

Just did a scratch recording: God, it’s long!  Nearly four minutes.  How is the audience ever going to sit still?

Collaborator addressing some of my concerns.  Always a good sign.

I’ve screwed up the rhythm of that bridge somehow.

I need a nap.

O.K., now I’m at the point where I think the song is absolutely awful.  This sinking feeling is likely to lift when others hear it.  Also, I ate some chicken that may have gone bad.  So it could be that.

First draft done.  I’m very tired, but I can’t nap since the baby has napped for three hours now and is unlikely to continue.

My concentration is not what it should be.  Way too much procrastination, such as jotting down these notes, as a way of avoiding jotting down those notes.