Ten years ago played the musical of mine that changed my life the most. As the opening number played, I was still a bachelor. Somewhere towards the end, I became a husband. And during the finale, everybody in the audience sang a snatch of song.
This rather ecstatic musical comedy was Our Wedding: The Musical, which means this is our tenth wedding anniversary. That night, I married the talented actress Joy Dewing. Today, she’s Broadway casting director Joy Dewing, responsible for finding those unfamiliar talents who grace the stage of Soul Doctor.
For Our Wedding, I got to do something just about every pop songwriter does, but writers for the stage rarely do: Taking the emotions you’re truly feeling and expressing them in song. Why do so many rock stars founder so miserably when they attempt theatre pieces? They often fail to sound and think like their characters, persons who are decidedly different from them. Everybody who writes songs, I think, starts out by making lyrics out of their own joys and travails. But I’ve been writing shows since I was 14, so it’s unusual that I’m in that self-expressive mode.
Creating Our Wedding, I hit upon the idea of including family members and the wedding party, each giving their own perspective on the same event. It’s somewhat like Wallace Stevens’ poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Our friend, the preacher, had his view. The father of the bride, another. The Best Man gave her view towards the end; my sister’s perspective came early. And the four-year-old flower girl got a solo, too, conveying the idea that weddings are all about the flower girl.
Writing for characters who are not me is my comfort zone. Coming up with lyrics I’d actually sing to Joy on stage at The Soho Playhouse in front of all those people upped the ante considerably. Now, one of the things that I’ve often said (and it’s also said by Stephen Sondheim in his praise of my favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser) is that coming up with a great idea for a song is somewhat more important than the execution, what you actually put in them. The Guys and Dolls opener, with the three touts singing about their horse-race picks in counterpoint, is far more brilliant as a concept than “If he says the horse can do, can do, can do” is. So, all these years later, these lines I sang to Joy strike me as a little less vivid than they should be:
Your wisdom: The way you wrap your mind around a problem or a pain
The infinite surprises of your brain
I see stunning talent: resplendent, resilient
Few could be as brilliant as you
But I’m still proud of the idea for the song, and it’s one I still haven’t seen elsewhere. All of us who don’t marry our first loves have romantic histories, other people we dated but didn’t stick with. So, the song questions How Could They Have Missed this or that wonderful quality.
I hope I haven’t implied this is the only from-the-heart musical message Joy has ever gotten from me. Various birthdays and anniversaries have led me to write many numbers telling her how wonderful I think she is. But these are played privately. As I write this, I don’t think anybody but Joy has heard this year’s birthday present.
Which reminds me of one of my complaints about weddings: In essence, they’re public pronouncements of a private thought (I love you and want to be united with you forever). I recoil a bit at that aspect. But, really, there were a host of things either Joy or I didn’t like about nuptials: throwing rice, that disgusting stuffing of wedding cake into the bride’s mouth, a long parade of relatives coming down the aisle, solemnity or mirthlessness. These negatives helped define the parameters of what we should do, like having the four bridesmaids give advice about wedding-night sex, or the father of the groom sing during the first dance (thus splitting the focus between him and us).
A friend recently asked me how much dance can be found in my musicals. Boy, when you’re the one rehearsing the steps, it can seem like way too much. Our devilish dervish was created by Tara Jeanne Vallee, who later went on to choreograph on Broadway. And, in our chorus was Lauren Elder, who later appeared on Broadway. But someday I’ll probably devote a post to the Broadway folk who did my shows before reaching The Street. I’m not sure if it constitutes bragging.
Must banish that last thought from my head if I’m going to say a word about Joy. Sixteen months ago, she hung her shingle as an independent casting director, and now she’s among the select few who’ve cast for Broadway. That’s extraordinary success, but what’s even more extraordinary is her commitment to making her auditions a process where actors are treated well. You know, we all use the term “cattle call” without thinking about it, but if we did, we might admit there’s often situations in which performers are handled, like steer. Joy makes me feel loved every day; the aspirants she sees feel more like kobe beef – not exactly loved, but certainly respected.
And, for her big solo at the end of Our Wedding, I had to come up with the words Joy would sing about me. This was, by far, the biggest struggle in writing the nuptial show. (The cast album‘s for sale; contact me.) My self-regard is not such that I can easily come up with good things to say about myself. Everyone else in the cast accepted their songs, and started learning them. Joy kept sending me back to the drawing board. Through three drafts I couldn’t get the sentiment right. For the fourth, I decided to play to Joy’s strong suit – singing in a quasi gospel style. And I realized the rejected lyrics ran aground because they were way too wordy (I ran out of good things to say about myself). Fewer words, longer notes; repetitions and melismas: let her voice convey the meaning, not the words.
You know how Georges Seurat, in the musical about him, repeats certain words to himself as he paints? I should say that sentence to myself every time I write.