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:
“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.