The friends’ thanksgiving

January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger, who died this week at 94, was a titan of American music who, at first glance, would seem to have had nothing to do with musical theatre. But through my personal prism, considering the huge and profound influence he had on me, it seems like he did. Folk music was the first music I knew, and I can recall with surprising clarity a time in my life when I connected song and storytelling. Seems to me like Pete Seeger showed the way, in a way.

My father, when I was very young, liked to play a guitar and sing folk songs. The music you hear a parent singing, at an early age, sticks with you: It seems the genre that’s most in your bones. Dad’s enormous record collection was 99% classical music, but there were Pete Seeger albums, and other folksingers, that held a place in his heart and just about the entire non-classical shelf.

When I was a toddler, there was a rather small room adjoining my bedroom, and in it was one of those record players with an automatic changer, the arm that came out like something off a robot, dropping one LP after another. That’s what would play me to sleep: the folk albums of Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Limelighters and Tom Glazer. Guthrie came first, bringing folk music to the nation’s attention, and his activism and persona inspired the lead character in the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Seeger was a far more energetic supporter of a wide range of causes that shared the goal of making people’s lives better, and, of course, he lived a lot longer. Some of these albums were live recordings of concerts for children, so young me got a sense of what goes on in a concert hall. (And I actually got to see Glazer.)

When I was old enough to walk to school without adult supervision – at 8 or 9, I often accompanied the Ulansee brothers, who lived on the next block. Now, I know you’re shocked: What were our parents thinking? You don’t let a child that young go, alone, to school. One of those Ulansee brothers was even younger. But we moved a few blocks away when I was nine, which is how I’m certain I was going to Third Grade. To pass the travel time, I told them a story, a folk tale that included a folk song called Abiyoyo. It’s the sort of tale one might find in kid lit, but I knew it because I’d memorized that Pete Seeger album.

My fellow musical theatre writers: What are we all doing if not telling tales that include songs? Six years before I wrote my first musical, I was entertaining some boys with a song-filled narrative. So there doesn’t seem, to me, to be that much of a chasm between folk-singing and creating shows.

My toddler daughter listens to a lot of Katy Perry and I’m always cringing at the false accents I overhear.“We got matching tattoos,” for instance, emphasizes “ching,” of all syllables. My wife has no idea that the song that keeps repeating the word “unconditionally” is reiterating that word, because it keeps hitting the fifth syllable and extending it. In the theatre, where songs must convey meaning, usually, the first time they’re heard, an unnatural emphasis is ruinous. To a large extent, songs need to sound like speech.

Which brings me back to Pete Seeger. There’s a clarity to his voice that was a key component of his success. Band there’s clarity in the way the lyrics sit on the music. In a Seeger performance, he places great importance in getting the message of the words across. In his songwriting, he always displayed the craft you so often hear me yammering about.

The day before Pete Seeger died, a good friend of mine, whom I’ve never thought of as very political, published a polemic in The Daily Beast. And it got me thinking how much I admire the act of assembling words that are meant to persuade people, in a political sense. Seeger was a master at this, but his medium was song. When a popular entertainment figure died, we tend to think of our own reactions to their art, and sometimes consider how many others had their lives brightened by experiencing it. With Seeger, one thinks of all the minds that were changed. A great many of those opposed to armed conflict over the past half-century may have been awakened to the cause by the sounds of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Standing up and singing what you think can have unintended consequences. As I learned when researching Such Good Friends, my musical depicting the government’s persecution of entertainers for their political beliefs, I read of Seeger getting censured by Congress after refusing to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The very name of that official band of witch-hunters seems ironic now, for what could be more un-American then making trouble for those you disagree with? And who, in the end, was ever more American than Seeger, who spent a long lifetime seeking social change through song?

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Kate, how can I say this?

January 23, 2014

My father is alive and kicking, turned 86 the other day, and I’m continuing to honor his request not to write about him. Instead, I’m going to write about someone else’s father, a man I met exactly once, and he left this world just the other day. But the story of our encounter, decades ago, and how he inadvertently ruined what I considered a golden opportunity – just by being nice! – is a tale worth telling. And I don’t think his daughter, Kate (not her real name), is likely to read this.

There are times in the life of a musical theatre writer when you surmise that what you really need, more than anything, is a staged reading of a show you’ve been developing, and plan to continue developing. This is a perfectly natural feeling. You’ve written a draft, think it’s possibly good, possibly not, but, for far too long, it’s been words-on-a-page. You need to hear those words read by actors, and for them to sing the songs. You need, most particularly, a live audience to react to what you’ve written.

My musical, The Company of Women had been languishing in a developmental limbo. A director who’d been instrumental in setting out the course of what it was to be had moved to California. A librettist and I had irreconcilable differences about what we wanted the show to be – she wanted to send the characters to outer space, literally, while I liked them earth-bound – so we broke it off. A replacement director/librettist made important improvements, then moved to Florida. What is it about proximity to fresh oranges with these people? I soldiered on, alone, and reached that point where I was dying for a reading.

Luckily, my compadres at The Third Step Theatre Company were assembling a festival of readings of new plays and musicals. At the perfect time, that golden opportunity came a-knocking. (Is that a mixed metaphor? I guess thinking about ladies in Florida and California has brought up thoughts of golden knockers.) I’d have the reading I’d need. And it was one of those where people stay afterwards for a moderated discussion of what they liked about the show, or were puzzled by, or felt didn’t land.

My reading would go on exactly once, but there was a substantial amount of preparation that was needed. The Company of Women is a score full of counterpoint. We had to get those interweaving melodies in perfect tune, and, naturally, the director wanted various acting beats worked out in advance. I’m not complaining about this – I live for this stuff – but want you to know what went into this.

Kate (not her real name) – remember her? – was in the cast and Kate’s father was in the audience. The theatre space was small and bright; I don’t recall the house lights being on dimmers. So, when it came time for the post-performance discussion, the moderator asked those in attendance for their honest reactions. First to speak was Kate’s father, grinning from ear to ear. “Well, I thought it was wonderful!” he fairly gushed.

“Is there any part of it you felt could benefit from any sort of revision?”

“No!” the broadly beaming gentlemen responded. “I thought it was wonderful!”

As I remember it, there was something positively infectious about his enthusiasm. The moderator tried to elicit other responses, but Kate’s father had set the tone. Nobody there seemed willing to utter anything even remotely negative: to do so would have rained on the most happy fella’s parade. And so we folded up the chairs and went home, having received not a shred of guidance as to what needed to be done next.

In marked contrast to the man I’d so entertained, I was depressed by what had transpired. This audience was saying that The Company of Women was unimpeachable, the most perfect musical since Fiddler on the Roof, and offered no ideas as to how it could be any better. Now what the hell was I supposed to do? All that work we put in seemed for naught.

The late dad-of-Kate wasn’t someone you could be mad at; he was charming and ingenuous. But, in my woebegone state, I couldn’t help focus on how he’d marred my moment. After a series of conversations with folks that were there, in which I never revealed my feelings, I discovered something: Kate had nothing on her resume. Now, it seemed to me I’d known Kate for quite some time, as I know a lot of people: young and constantly auditioning. It hadn’t occurred to me that she had struck out at every audition. This little reading of mine was her first time on stage in New York. And that uncritical response was a loving dad, struck inarticulate because he was beside himself with pride. Kate was performing, and that’s all he saw. He could find no flaw in The Company of Women because his perception was clouded by the pleasure of seeing his daughter perform.

Or maybe my perception is clouded by self-doubt, and The Company of Women is the greatest musical written in the past half-century. I went on, wallowing in the thought the whole enterprise had been a waste.

Until…

Someone with a large amount of experience developing musicals, who’d been there, but had to leave before the discussion, sent a letter. He made it clear he doesn’t usually type up notes and send them in a few days later, but The Company of Women had fascinated him, and stuck with him. At last, I got some views I could use, in glorious detail. The Third Step mucky mucks asked how I felt about the letter.  I said “To my way of thinking there’ve been great documents over the years: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the five pages of notes on The Company of Women.”


Six by nine

January 17, 2014

Since it’s my birthday, I get to think about presents. Anyone have a problem with that? And I recently had the experience of giving a present, an original song, And thereby hangs a tale.

With the immense task of settling in to the new house, it was one week before Christmas when I bought the last gift. To my horror, I discovered a few days later that it would take eleven business days for the thing to arrive. Christmas day, a special someone had nothing under the tree. But I’d been working on a song, for a few months, and it was just about done. When I was given an hour to myself, I rushed to the computer, flinging some notes at the final dozen bars, printed it out and put a ribbon on it. Now, I’d have to play and sing the song with no rehearsal, having never played and sung it before.

Somewhere in the middle of this world premiere, it hit me: This song is a dog. It starts promisingly, then fizzles. It accomplishes none of what I’d hoped it would. Underbaked; not “done.”

Now, you might think that mad dash to finish it did me in. But what I wanted to talk about is “When is a song truly finished?” In this case, Christmas arrived, and so the song-gift had to be done. Of course now I’ll rewrite it and try to fix it. But for that premiere, it was what it was. In my last post I talked about rewriting Such Good Friends until it was almost opening night; then I resumed rewriting it after the run. It’s been my experience, on several occasions, that the deadline of opening night imposes a date at which the whole show must freeze. Without the opening, one might rewrite forever. In 1989 – gee, do I really get to say “25 years ago” now? – I started work on the only musical I’ve completed as an adult that never got a full production, The Company of Women. Lacking that freeze-point, I rewrote it again and again, roughly ten drafts, until the characters and situations seemed too dated to continue with. Actually, the premiere of a popular television show covering some of the same themes spelled the project’s doom.

Putting down your pencil can be a dangerous act. When you say “I’m done” are you confessing you can’t possibly make the song or show any better? Are you just tired of writing that particular piece? And then there’s a danger when you start letting others hear it. Some listeners – the evil bastards – are going to like it. They’re going to tell you it’s good. And hearing something’s good can knock what you previously knew out of your head. Like when you knew there was a treading water going on, dramatically speaking. Or that there’s a lyrical pivot that requires a different understanding of the title that only you seem to get. Or that an accompaniment figure you planned to keep going failed to return after the bridge.

Your work must be unimpeachable because, somewhere, somehow, somebody’s going to try to impeach it. And I’m not talking about the theatre community’s nattering naysayers who flock to first previews just to find fault. The problem isn’t overly critical folk, it’s that these tiny imperfections tend to manifest themselves into audiences enjoying themselves less than they could have/should have. I guess I’m saying that, on some level, you need to trust your inner voice saying there are bits that need to be revised over those cheering voices, the roar of the crowd.

Now, you can drive yourself crazy with this sort of thing, but writing musicals is a crazy-making business. My career is full of examples of me digging in my heels when collaborators maintained some song of mine wasn’t up to snuff. I’m stubborn. I get defensive. And this sometimes leads me to defend something I’ve written rather than flipping down my hypercritical lens and start searching for a way to make something better. Some of my shows were written without collaborators, so I was free of such self-defeating debate. But the trick is to learn to be as hard on yourself as you possibly can.

If your collaborator isn’t being hard on you, that’s a problem. I worry about this all the time.

When I think about the low quality of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals over the past quarter century, I imagine a poisonous collaborative environment. Nobody’s sending Lord Andrew back to the drawing board, and it doesn’t seem to be his m.o. for him to send his collaborators back to the drawing board, to get the best texts, (many of them have done far superior work paired with others). Since I tend to be more experienced than most people I work with, it’s far too rare that my feet get held to the fire. Which leaves me with cold feet.

Well, I don’t think I’ve made myself clear, in this post, at all. This entry needs rethinking, revision. But it’s time I get it up and move on to other things. It is my birthday, you know.


Something greater

January 12, 2014

Tonight marks the Broadway debut of director Marc Bruni. I thought I’d seize the opportunity to say a few things about him. So this little billet-doux might go unnoticed, given the number of reviews there will be to read (of Beautiful, the Carole King bio). Which is just as well, because it’s going to be embarrassing.

For there is no one in my career I’m gladder I met, gladder I worked with, who was better for me in the sense that he made me a better writer. And also his grace under pressure made me a better person, just having that example around. I’m thrilled my wife got to work with him some years after I did.  And I revel in his subsequent successes, such as his stunning Encores stagings of Fanny and Pipe Dream and the two funniest off-Broadway shows (non-musical) of recent years, Old Jews Telling Jokes and The Explorer’s Club.

perspiration bespangled his brow

But let’s go back to the year 2007, BM (before Marc). BM, well, those were crappy times. I had an unwieldy musical heading towards production, and was blindly interviewing possible directors, unsure of how to pick. An agent I know insisted I meet Marc Bruni, who read my script, listened to my barely listenable demo, and arrived at some uncomfortable coffee bar with notes. The other candidates sold themselves; Marc was only interested in talking about how my show might be improved. At the end of our first meeting, he said “Well, I didn’t finish giving these notes, and I know you’ll want to pick someone soon. But, whomever you choose, I’d love to meet again to finish my thoughts.” I put off choosing so we could have our second meeting, which was in Riverside Park. It was a sunny day, and we found ourselves sitting under tall trees that provided much-needed shade. Except where they didn’t: there was a space between the leaves that left a pinpoint of sunlight hitting Marc’s forehead. Now, I didn’t take this as a sign from the heavens I should choose Marc: rather, I focused on a more practical matter. He was starting to sweat, and could have easily suggested we move to a shadier spot, but he didn’t. That’s because he was so intent on talking about the show, he didn’t notice his own discomfort. If a 95-degree beam of sun didn’t deter him from making brilliant suggestions about how my show could be better, imagine how he’d be in air conditioning! I couldn’t afford to imagine; I had to have Marc Bruni direct Such Good Friends. And yes, the brilliance kept flowing.

Marc is wicked smart, not authoritarian. There are some people who get into directing because they like ordering people around. I have the feeling Marc became a director because of the satisfaction that comes from making a show demonstrably better every day. And so those few months of preparing and rehearsing Such Good Friends were the time of my life. I had hitched myself to a genius who asked questions, and who told me what the audience might be thinking at any given second. At his urging, I threw out heaps of unnecessary pages and characters, cut songs I always thought I’d keep but clearly weren’t working, and wrote new and better songs for the new moments in the show that overflowed with truly justified emotion. Our actors included seasoned veterans with Tony nominations, and they instantly stepped into a similar mutual admiration society with this baby-faced kid. (He turned 30 during rehearsals, but looked far younger.) One had a degree from Yale. I went to Columbia and Marc went to Dartmouth: the Ivy League was putting on an original musical comedy, and nobody had any question who the smartest guy in the room was.

Working with someone as bright as Marc emboldens you. During late rewrites, we hit upon the idea that we’d need a silent montage showing nine performers doing various tasks. I didn’t know what to write in the scene description. Marc told me not to worry about that, just to come up with the music that would play during this. In a way, we both got to express something without words. I came up with a peppy Gershwin-esque little tune; he came up with a set of stage pictures that were amusing, understandable and engaging. Never experienced anything quite like that. After Marc staged it, I typed up a description to go into the finished script. So I look like the genius.

producer, author, star, director

Another thing we collaborated on was the tag-line we needed to put on the poster. What could be said about Such Good Friends in one short sentence? We had to convey that it was both a comedy and a drama, that it portrays the fraught fun of doing a live television variety show, and also the soul-defeating ravages of blacklisting. We tossed around ideas for a long time, before it occurred to us that colors link the show’s themes: “When comedy came in black and white, some saw red.

Such Good Friends won all sorts of awards, including one as Best Musical of the year, one for Marc’s direction, one for my lyrics, and two for leading lady Liz Larsen. I’m thrilled to note that Marc’s working with Liz again, on Beautiful. The performance they built together on my show was just stunning, a star turn of the highest magnitude. We all leaned on each other during rehearsal: Liz knew my jokes, songs and dramatic bits would work because Marc conveyed such confidence they would. I’d provide changes practically every night, based on new brainstorms Marc came up with based on how things looked in rehearsal. And, as our opening drew near, I began to dread the day Marc would say “Noel, put down your pen. I can’t ask the actors to learn anything else new. We have to freeze the show.” That would end the supreme fun of working with him.

Except it didn’t. After the production, I wrote three more drafts of Such Good Friends and brought them to Marc, who pored over every word offering sage reactions and suggestions, never aware of that laser beam from the sky, boring into his forehead.


A thimbleful of good advice

January 5, 2014

If you’re aware I write these things in advance, then you know that while the holidays are over for you, they’re actually going on as I write this. So I’m not going to come up with my usual thousand words this week. I’ll let Tracy Letts have the floor, and then add a few brief ideas of my own.

Helpful, wasn’t that?

I could never have given that talk, because I don’t have particularly good habits, haven’t figured out any sort of method of getting into the writing zone. There’s no warm-up exercise I turn to again and again.

But I do make lists sometimes. You could say these are lists of things that might go into the lyric. But sometimes they’re lists of rhymes. Or chord progressions. Or jokes.

I was thinking, today, about Sheldon Harnick, whom I consider the greatest lyricist alive. In some of his songs, I get the feeling he started with a list of jokes, turns of phrase, puns and double-meanings. For instance, in his torch song send-up, Garbage, part of the verse is a set of synonyms he could have found in a thesaurus. “You treated me like dirt. Like trash! Flotsam! Jetsam! Refuse…” Then, Harnick gets clever. “Behind my back you called me ‘garbage’ but I stayed calm, cool, and collected.” Seems to me the product of sitting with a pad and thinking of all the things one can say about garbage. And the bridge ends with a pun that, in context, is not a groaner, for the character is so distressed, it seems to be affecting her pronunciation: “You slandered me… Don’t think I wasn’t burned up by your incinerations.”

Another thing I do, sometimes, is ask myself if there’s an antecedent for the song I’m creating. When a book scene had a character waxing romantic about the lass he’s fallen for in the presence of his lawyers who are warning him about his dire financial state, it reminded me of the duet, To Look Upon My Love, from Kean. Now, I tweaked that idea considerably, bringing in the rival for the woman’s affection and not having the lawyers sing, but it helped to look at how something vaguely similar had been done before. And yes, I know To Look Upon My Love is a very obscure show tune: It helps to know really obscure show tunes.

I like to improvise within a pre-chosen harmonic palette.  Given the setting of the show and the mood of the scene, I’m bound to have a few ideas of what chord sequences I’m likely to utilize. So occasionally I’ll go to the piano and just play chords, and this leads to tune ideas.

Pure conjecture, and probably fantasy on my part, but since it’s part of the annual musical theatre history lecture I give I’ll mention it here: In preparing to write Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, where the show is set, to soak up the musical landscape. I picture him returning from the trip and remembering he’d heard a slowly alternating A-minor sixth chord and B-minor sixth chords. So maybe he went to the piano and played them slowly on half notes. Do that long enough, and, sooner or later the first line of Summertime is going to seem inevitable.

One last suggestion, and you may have heard it before: Raid the libretto. All sorts of dialogue in the book scene or source material would potentially work as a song title or just part of a lyric. Dale Wasserman came up with six words that he intended to have spoken, the credo of Don Quixote. Lyricist Joe Darion songified them, “To dream the impossible dream” and added a dozen matching phrases. The song became so popular, Wasserman regretted he’d ever written the phrase. But this is probably because he’s not paid royalties every time the song is played.