Me and my daughter

November 28, 2013

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.IMG_1449

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.

Let’s go to the restaurant

November 22, 2013

A little over 20 years ago, a little show of mine, Spilt Milk, had to end its many-times-extended run because the woman who’d conceived it…um, conceived. And there was no way we could replace her.

You see, Spilt Milk was Laura’s idea; she led it, produced it, constructed the props and was one quarter of the cast. We’d met at The Third Step Theatre Company, one of those rare entities devoted to new work. Both of us had put in a lot of time there: I learned a lot reading the material submitted for their annual festival of staged readings. When Third Step sponsored the extraordinary process that led to the creation of my musical, The Company of Women, Laura was one of the performers who improvised scenes meant to serve as my inspiration. So, she got to know my songwriting abilities pretty well.

In college, she delighted in being part of an all-woman a cappella group. At thirty, or thereabouts, she understood that artists can’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring; the good ones make their own opportunities. So she came up with a terrific notion: there ought to be a close-harmony quartet, getting bookings in New York cabarets. And what would make it really stand out is doing an evening of my comedy songs.

This was most flattering to me, and, at the time, I was only occupied with waiting around for the phone to ring. Sometimes, people would hire me to play their cabaret acts, so I knew something of the scene. I presented Laura with all sorts of song possibilities. And was flexible enough to change lyrics to fit a concept, a quartet, and our setting. I even managed to slip in a couple of numbers that were completely serious.

For a time, the act was a female trio. But when our mezzo left us for the wilds of songless theatre, Laura replaced her with a woman and a man. My material came from six different shows. When we started assigning solos, the songs played to the strengths of each performer. So, in a way, they created characters. The audience finally saw something of a hybrid: part music act, part revue.

Before we found the right audience for such an oddity, we did a very odd thing ourselves, and premiered a couple numbers at CB’s 313 Gallery. That venue name may be long forgotten, but nobody who knows any rock music history could forget CBGB’s. 313 was the space next door, with art on the walls, and a cleaner vibe. Of course, Spilt Milk was a far cry from cutting edge rock, but Laura chose our most “out there” number, Dog Food, which detailed what might be on the menu if a restaurant served pooches. And this is where the props came in. Laura made up menus to hand out, listing “consommé of Snoopy” and “Asta anti-pasta” and the like. You know, it’s hard to out-strange those hallucinogenic acts at CBGB’s – we didn’t – but I have to say this was the weirdest form I’ve ever seen one of my songs in.

I knew a journalist who felt he could pitch a piece to The New Yorker about us. He interviewed us long before we booked Don’t Tell Mama for our run. But that’s where we were packing them in when the magazine came out with this in a box within the Goings On About Town section:

Camp Songs

“Spilt Milk,” a three-girl-and-gone-guy revue offered on Mondays this month at Don’t Tell Mama, got its name from a dinner-table accident that occurred while the group was brainstorming for title ideas. “We’re picturing a claustrophobic, sloshed crowd,” says Noel Katz, the composer, reckoning that such an audience would best appreciate his twisted tunes. Mr. Katz, who supplied the music for playwright Tony Kushner’s N.Y.U. master’s project, is a devotee of the Tom Lehrer school of songwriting: “I Don’t Want to See the Pope (I Want to See You)” is rendered by genuflecting supplicants; “My Baby” praises the glowing woman from Three Mile Island who “melts me to the core”; and “Tom’s,” a song about the Upper Broadway greasy spoon featured in the “Seinfeld” sitcom, is a near-libelous assessment of the eatery’s menu.

These and other equally improbable sentiments are given sophisticated credence by the close, Manhattan Transfer-like harmony of the quartet and the smart staging and arrangements of former Whiffenpoof Rob Tate. For all the cynicism, an unabashed romantic streak keeps surfacing in songs like “Thoughts in Transit,” a bittersweet peek at the flustered feelings of two shy types on a bus. But no mere ballad stands a chance against “My Chiropractor’s Hands,” the hero of which Carol Spencer extols as she writhes in ecstasy: “I like a man who knows his scoliosis from sciatica. When he makes his diagnosis, he is so simpatico.”

Thrilling as it was to be featured in the nation’s foremost literary magazine, I had to run to Sidney Myer to apologize. When I’d said “claustrophobic, sloshed crowd,” I wasn’t thinking we’d be at Don’t Tell Mama; now an aspersion had been cast. Sidney blew up. Wait, I put the period in the wrong place.  Sidney blew up the clipping and put it in a frame on the wall, understanding that any publicity is good publicity.

There’s another dirty little secret about Spilt Milk, and I trust enough years have gone by that nobody’s upset to read this. They couldn’t hold their harmonies. Everyone worked very hard, and they spent a huge amount of time with the musician behind Laura’s college choir. The score’s most difficult arrangements were simply beyond their capabilities. But we knew enough to shift the emphasis of the show from spectacular vocal precision to more individual comedy turns. I think we ended up with only three or four a cappella selections, and they were sandwiched in between enough funny solos to make everyone forget the flaws.

The little girl Laura gave birth to must be in college now, having grown up in the same suburb I’m moving to today, with my wife and little girl.

Grown-up world

November 17, 2013

Musical theater by, for and about grown-ups; there’s little room for that on Broadway these days.

So reads the last line of the Times rave of one of my favorite musicals, currently playing in Connecticut.  And it got me thinking.  For one thing, I was instantly reminded of a line from the Backstage rave for my Such Good Friends a few years back:

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.

The critical and audience reception that Such Good Friends met with might lead one to wonder why nobody brought it to Broadway.  This opinion that’s fit to print in the Times suggests something disturbing: that The Main Stem, as it operates today, is not the right place for shows geared towards adults (and I don’t mean in the x-rated sense).

There’s an old musical, you know, that’s getting mentioned in a lot of blogs here in late November. It’s Camelot. And I’ll use it as a point of departure not to talk about President Kennedy, but rather a whole type of Broadway musical that died far too early. Lerner and Loewe’s final stage original is full of wit, word-play, and, to a very large extent, is a play about ideas and ideals. In a wild anachronism that only bothers pedants, King Arthur dreams up a government based on some of those great inventions of the Enlightenment. His Knights of the Round Table will get a say in how he rules, there’s going to be trials by jury, and military strength used as a force of good. Then, due to Queen Guinevere’s inability to prioritize duty over lust, all of Arthur’s fine notions get shattered. None of this is kid stuff. The audience must have a certain level of intellect in order to feel Arthur’s pain. Not to mention understanding Lerner’s linguistic twists, such as “You’ll never find a virtue unstatusing my quo.” It’s heady stuff, as well as very romantic.

And, being all of that, it could never get produced today. Theatre’s powers-that-be don’t believe there’s an audience for seriously-felt tempestuous romances that reference political philosophies, and use English cleverly.  It’s not that nobody is writing shows like Lerner and Loewe did any more – I am, for one – it’s that there’s a pervasive and wide-spread belief that there’s no audience for this kind of thing any more.

And don’t you bring up Sondheim to me.  Sure, he can be heady, and play with words as well as Lerner.  (He’s wholly unable to depict real romance, but that’s beside the point.)  This is the twentieth Broadway season in a row with no new Sondheim show.  Perhaps he shares this frustration.  Way too many of The Great White Way’s offerings today involve music the audience is previously familiar with.  Those who aren’t interested in songs they haven’t heard before can catch A Night With Janis Joplin, Motown, Beautiful (Carole King hits), After Midnight or Bullets Over Broadway. Seems to me I’ve decried unoriginal scores before. But there’s a parallel problem with shows being, well, dumbed down to a sub-adult level. The long-running Mamma Mia doesn’t have a thought in its head. Newsies? Spider-Man?

That show in Connecticut is the best romantic musical I know, The Most Happy Fella, by Frank Loesser. It follows a hash-house waitress who’s “helped a few fellows prove they were fellows” through an epistolary courtship. There’s an ill-considered one-night stand, as well as a plea for post-marital sex from a wife, amazingly explicit when you consider the show premiered in 1956. Fella never fails to move its audience (it’s at Goodspeed now, and Dicapo Opera did it off-Broadway last year) because it’s written with such passion, we feel all the powerful emotions the characters feel. You’ve heard the phrase “bring lots of Kleenex.”  Well, I suggest carrying buckets for all the tears you’ll shed.

I should mention that the leading lady up in Connecticut is Mamie Parris, who was so delightful in my Area 51 several years ago. That’s what led me to read a regional review (the critic loved her, too).

What can be done about the scourge of silly and juvenile fare? I’ve a modest proposal: Vote with your pocketbooks.  If enough people run out and purchase tickets to the smarter shows, and avoid seeing the stupid ones, Broadway will eventually wise up and produce the kind of work the Lerners and Loewes of today are creating. It’s a common canard to say “Nobody writes shows the way they used to” but the reality is, some do: we’re just not getting them produced in the big houses near Times Square.


November 11, 2013

And you have your eye on the Rabbi’s son.

— Well, why not? We have only one Rabbi and he has only one son. Why shouldn’t I want the best?

Because you’re a girl from a poor family. So whatever Yente brings, you’ll take. Right? Of course right!

My school district had enough rich families for us to expect, demand, and receive the best. A new vocal/choral music teacher was needed, and some Yente or another literally brought us the rabbi’s son. And boy was he young. Fresh out of grad school, though he’d taken time to appear on Broadway in the chorus of Gigi, Joel Pressman had never taught snotty teens but he’d very recently been one at the same school.

As one of his first disrespectful students, I can convey (but not excuse) that we all had a great deal of trouble taking him seriously.  And he wanted us to take him seriously so much – come on! – and held out some hope we’d ever call him Mr. Pressman. Like that ever would have happened.  But imagine my surprise when, just a few years later, every student called him that.

But the more I think about this, the more I think that his musicianship commanded respect.  As more students heard his brilliant choirs, more wanted to be in them, upping the already fierce competition to be one of the elite Madrigal Singers.  Kids would do anything to become a Madrigal, including using an honorific.

Again, not excusing anything, there was also a soupçon of immaturity in the young man: snarky remarks, jokes that were groaners, and I saw both Joel and his wife stick their tongues out at teens who’d annoyed them. One imagines he grew out of that sort of behavior, but I kind of like imagining he didn’t.

For that way I can remember a particular snapshot of him in time, when he was inexperienced and could make rookie mistakes here and there.  It’s nice to have an unshakable memory of someone as young, particularly when they’re reaching life’s end.

It’s Veterans Day, which, admittedly, I always confuse with Memorial Day, as people do.  Instead of thinking of a fallen soldier, I find my mind is on a small-v veteran of student-teacher battles who’s not dead, but is in hospice, having laid down his arms against an unbeatable disease after a long fight. And two years ago, many of us thought he had just weeks to live, but there were new diagnoses and treatments, and all sorts of opportunities for former students to pipe up and express their appreciation and love.  As I often say, this isn’t a personal blog, and my aim here is to tell you something about music, not just about one extraordinary high school music teacher.

If you’ve never sung show tunes in a choir, you wouldn’t know that there were medleys made out of all the famous musicals for choruses to perform.  I can recall the thrill when A Chorus Line – a score I knew before all my classmates – had its Harry Simeone arrangement come out, and Joel, of course, started rehearsals right away.  It began with the cheerful song-and-dance, I Can Do That.  And I thought this selection quite strange.  What were we supposed to do, standing on risers during the dance break music?  Having no respect for the teacher, I spoke out of turn to voice my displeasure. To which Joel shut me up with “Think you can do better, Katz?”  And a gauntlet had been thrown. I didn’t know very much about choral writing, but proceeded to arrange The Music and the Mirror, with its then-cutting edge tight triads and flat fifths. Joel liked it and suddenly my arrangement became something we regularly performed. And we performed all over town, and, right after graduation, all over Mexico. It was, in essence, my gateway drug to a lifetime of writing musical theatre, getting appreciated, internationally!, for something I’d put on music paper at such an early age.

Among those early opportunities to get my work heard was Joel’s wedding. I wrote an unaccompanied madrigal as my gift, and got fellow students-singers-wedding guests to perform it at the reception.

Back to the present.  You know that I write much of this blog when I’m traveling to a gig on the subway. Well, as they often do, three or four middle aged men just passed through the car singing Stand By Me in amazingly resonant a cappella harmony.  The guy passing the hat couldn’t see that the passenger right across from me pulled out a dollar to give, and, as I pointed to her, so did the person to the right of me and the person to the left of me, as if we were Gladys Knight’s Pips. Seems a sign that I’ve something to say about the power of vocal harmony.

When a cappella harmonists succeed in holding their pitches, it’s a demonstration of how humans can lean on each other like a successful house of cards. Each singer tunes to every other, and we’re right, in part, because we know others are leaning upon us. Flat choirs bother our ears because they illustrate people at war with each other. Harmony reassures us that, well, we can live in harmony.

Thinking of the thousands of former Pressman choristers coming out of the woodwork to say thank you and testify as to how Joel changed their lives: the whole enormous demonstration of support is a demonstration of what happens, on a smaller level, within choirs. Those who didn’t sing for Joel – parents, friends of singers, or mere fans – may miss that this outpouring is a communal expression of what choral singing is all about, an illustration of just what he taught us all.

High school was a long time ago for me. But some things stick with you. And it probably helps that our school song was a madrigal with this text:

My heart doth beg you’ll not forget
My heavy heart, with sorrow aching
And spite of jealous eyes e’en yet,
One last farewell we might be taking!
Once, smiles my lips were ever curving
And gracious words were all they knew.
Now alone for cursing they’re serving
Those who banish me, love, from you.

Respect for Mr. Pressman.

Thieves’ carnival

November 5, 2013

Here’s the trouble: I want to write something about two composers who were born 200 years ago and had a great deal of influence on the writing of musicals, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.  Trouble is, I’m not an opera fan, don’t attend very often. I saw Rigoletto some years ago; I give a lecture on the history of musical theatre. But there’s something ridiculous about a guy-who’s-not-into-opera telling musical theatre fans about the two titans of opera-writing born in 1813.

A number of Broadway composers love opera, but what runs through my mind are show tunes, often obscure ones. Right now it’s Cole Porter’s It Ain’t Etiquette, since it references Rigoletto:

When invited to hear from an opera box
Rigoletto’s divine quartet
Don’t bother your neighbors by throwing rocks
It ain’t etiquette.

Name drop alert! Speaking of musical comedy composers who love opera, I’ve been thinking a lot about John Kander recently. Some years ago we were rehearsing a couple of his numbers, and I asked whether he’d attend the performance. “When is it? Oh, there’s no way: I’ve tickets to Il travatore that night.” John just had a new musical open off-Broadway, at the age of 86, which leads to the question, “When’s the last time a fellow that old composed a show?” I don’t know the answer, but I do know that Verdi’s Falstaff premiered the year he turned 80. That’s seen as a remarkable achievement. (I recently chided Stephen Sondheim here for his plummeting productivity over the past 25 years. His last new musical opened when he was 78: Road Show – you remember Road Show?)

(A Kander number influenced by opera)

It’s surprising to me that musical comedy writers didn’t think of adapting Shakespeare until Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys From Syracuse in 1938. They surely knew Verdi had adapted the Bard’s plays brilliantly, and successfully. Here and there, he mixes the light and dark, which is something good musicals do. In Macbeth, King Duncan enters a castle where, we know, his hosts plan to have him killed. Things have been dark and forboding, but the entrance is accompanied by a sunny pesante little march: a ditty played against the mood, to creepy effect. You’ll find similar juxtapositions in many a musical, including the first act finale of my Such Good Friends, in which a celebratory number is interrupted by devastating news. A more familiar example is Gee Officer Krupke, which cuts into the tension of West Side Story’s killings and betrayals. Or I Made a Fist, a blithe comedy song amidst all sorts of very heavy goings-on towards the end of The Most Happy Fella.

You know I’m far more comfortable talking about The Most Happy Fella, by my favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, than I am about Verdi and Wagner. It’s a safe bet he had the old masters on his mind in writing music, lyrics and book for …Fella, the most effective romantic musical of them all. The score makes use of leitmotifs, those little bits of theme that get associated with a character, feeling, action or place. Those employing them are following the lead of Richard Wagner, who used a huge quantity in his Ring of the Nibelung (the original “one ring to rule them all”). And this is not an example of my blowing a dog whistle that can only be heard by a music nerd. They tend to work on our emotions subliminally, fully understood by the heart, if not the head, of the least knowledgeable listener.

In Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, leitmotifs are flowing frequently in the accompaniment.  There’s a few at the beginning of Finishing the Hat.

The jazzy bit in the bass has been associated with people enjoying the weekend on an island. Then it goes into the thick chords on long notes that come up at poignant points in the Georges-Dot relationship. Georges goes from thinking about the people he’s drawn to his main model and lover; we’re clued in to this by the shift of motifs. When he sings “I had thought she understood” we hear, on woodwinds, a legato version of the jumping eighth-note theme that has played whenever Georges is applying paint. Then, heading in to the refrain on “if anybody could” we hear the thirds on eighth notes theme that has to do with moving on. Nobody who hears Finishing the Hat thinks it’s merely a song about painting because the subtext, the thoughts about separating from Dot, resound as accompaniment throughout the chorus.

Seems a bit strange to be discussing a Wagnerian device in a score so strongly influenced by seven Frenchmen, Maurice Ravel and Les Six (who came later). But composers all regurgitate stuff that enters their mind. I’m quite partial to Ravel and Les Six myself, yet, when I was 19 and in Lehman Engel’s workshop in BMI, I presented a song called It’s a Mystery To Me and got criticized for Wagnerian chord sequences. Had no idea what those were.  It was a mystery to me. But I guess I’d listened to enough classical music for that influence to seep in.

I guess I’m recommending you listen to some Wagner and Verdi (that’s an alliteration, folks) before this bicentennial year’s out. If we’re all reconstituting things we hear, might as well put something good in your ear.