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.