Today’s my daughter’s second birthday and those of you stuffing yourselves, (or risking immolating yourselves) are simply celebrating the wrong thing. I know you come here for tips about writing musicals, trusting I’ll keep my promise to keep this from being yet another parent-crowing blog. So, let me say this: You can learn a hell of a lot about creating shows by hanging around Adelaide Katz.
As in musicals, there’s a whole lot of singing going on. Usually initiated by Adelaide. Like a lot of kids, she’s big on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Often she’ll segue to the ABC song (at this point, she only skips J) as if she fully understands the two numbers have the same melody. Let’s see: same tune with different lyrics that have different purposes: sounds like something you could use in your show.
But she also knows the Lewis Carroll parody –
Twinkle, twinkle little bat
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly
Like a tea-tray in the sky.
She’s quite amused by that, and I’m historically-minded enough to point out that, in Carroll’s time, taking an existing ditty and altering its lyric was a major form of amusement. It’s also how many of the great lyricists started. Lorenz Hart spoofed Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band for some family event when he was a kid. (They later knew each other. I wonder if Larry mentioned it.) Learning to pen a perfect parody, rhyme-for-rhyme, meter-for-meter, can be a valuable part of a songwriter’s education. You’ll get a greater understanding of the craft behind a successful song. And, if you do it well, you’ll have written something very amusing.
Now, before you retort that this bit of advice didn’t really come from Adelaide, consider that she’ll frequently point at things she sees and starts the song with a new word replacing “star” or “bat.” The first time she did this, it was one of those times when you can see the moon during the day, so she sang “Twinkle twinkle little moon” and looked at me for the next line. It was clearly a challenge, one I know well from my song improv days. I had to come up with the rest on the spot –
Twinkle twinkle little moon
I will see you far too soon
Up above the earth you fly
Like a headlamp in the sky.
Usually, I remember to explain that the moon’s not flying around us on a daily orbit; the earth is turning. I keep hoping she’ll find this fascinating, igniting a life-long obsession with science and she won’t be stuck in the arts with a lot of bums like me. Sorry to call you bums.
The word she throws me usually isn’t as easy to rhyme as “moon.” It’s been “subway,” “playground,” “sandwich” and “camel.” Toddlers can get impatient, so I don’t have a lot of time to come up with the rest of the couplet. And, as in any improvisation, I spend the rest of my time justifying that first pair of phrases. Now, I think anyone could do this. It’s a little like an exercise. But, as with anything, you exercise enough, you’re bound to develop a facility. Your process involves thinking of so many issues, rhyme shouldn’t be a struggle. Justification, too, is going to be valuable.
I often quote Elaine May, “An actor’s job is to justify.” It’s a musical writer’s, too. For a thousand reasons, there are bound to be lumps in the batter, and if you make your collaborators look good, including the performers, you’ll look even better.
Adelaide insists I sing her the “Adelaide song” whenever I’m putting her to sleep, bouncing on a yoga ball. It was added to the Guys and Dolls movie to give Frank Sinatra something to sing. On Broadway, his character, Nathan Detroit, was played by an actor of next-to-no vocal prowess, and his Act One number had been cut. Since the world contains so few Adelaides, and so few Dadelaides know the song, it’s fair to say I’ve now sung the song more than anyone in history. It’s a good thing Frank Loesser is my favorite songwriter – but then, if he weren’t, would we have chosen her name? It’s got the sort of specificity that’s a hallmark of brilliant lyric-writing. Nathan runs a floating crap game, and, if you know how to play craps, it’s just delicious to hear him sing “She wants five children to start. Five’s a difficult point to make.”
To bounce from the specific to the general, you know, of course, that young children take in everything around them with a sense of curiosity and wonder. “What’s that?” my daughter repeats, and I’m knocked out by how quickly she learns the answer. E.g., on the corner, she’ll excitedly exclaim “liquor store” as if she’s dying to go in and pick up a bottle (of a different sort). You know how Native Americans are said to have called liquor “fire water?” I’m reminded that I once gave her a cup that hadn’t completely been rinsed of dish soap, and she scowled, put it down, and called it “spicy water.” But my point here isn’t to tell a lot of cute stories about Adelaide. I’m reminding you to be as observant as a baby on a swing, and notice every ingredient that goes into making a musical entertaining. And I’m only reminding you because she reminds me. To fully see.
OK – one more story. Last week we had the following exchange:
Adelaide, do you know you’re going to be two years old in a few days?
So what are you going to say when people ask you how old you are?
(She pondered a moment, then lit up, like a brilliant idea had just occurred to her.)
“What’s happening, Dude?”
That’s my girl.