The music playing

February 27, 2014

I can’t let February go by without acknowledging that it’s the 100th birthday of ASCAP, the only organization in existence that considers me a member.  It has sent me checks annually for most of my life, and even though it’s actually a direct deposit into my bank account, there’s a psychological perk to holding that check in your hand, tangible proof you’re a professional songwriter.

The spelled-out name is American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and it’s always struck me as cool that the word “author” is used to mean “lyricist,” somehow putting us on the same plane as Ernest Hemingway. It strikes ASCAP as cool that publishers are present on equal footing. We don’t work for them; they don’t work for us. The money collected by ASCAP from broadcasters and other “users” of music is split, 50-50, between songwriters and publishers. Many writers have figured out you can declare yourself the publisher of your own songs, so you can collect both halves.

The legitimate theatre, though, isn’t considered a user, and ASCAP doesn’t collect from them. It is assumed that musical theatre writers are being paid by producers out of ticket sales. Now, in the old days, show tunes were regularly heard on the radio, and each radio play meant paying ASCAP to pay the writers and publisher. When show tunes disappeared from radio and television, ASCAP and its rival, BMI, felt bad that we composers for the stage were getting the smallest piece of pie.  BMI, which is not yet 75 years old, had the “We’re Avis; we try harder” spirit and provided a home for Lehman Engel to lead his musical theatre writing workshop.  It didn’t cost a dime to be in it – BMI’s gift back.  Around 1980, ASCAP followed suit with a musical theatre workshop in a different format, run by the great Broadway composer, Charles Strouse.  I was in both workshops, and treasure them muchly.

The four years I was in college, the BMI workshop was the place where I learned the most. I loved Lehman Engel, warts and all.  It was far more valuable to my development than the ASCAP workshop was, so why did I join ASCAP?  Well, it all has to do with a wonderfully warm white-haired lady named Bernice Cohen.  I’d met her when I was in ASCAP’s workshop – she basically ran the thing, allowing Charles to just be Charles. When my first professional musical, On the Brink, booked its theatre, I realized it was about a block away from ASCAP’s building at Lincoln Center. Seemed possible Bernice would like to stop by after work and catch the show.  To my surprise and delight, she showed up.  We chatted before the show and she told me that she likes to see the work of young writers, when she can, but, after a long day of work, she had a strict policy of only staying for the first act; I should not be offended if I saw her dart out of there the moment intermission began. I told her I understood. Well, Bernice moved quickly once the house lights went up – in my direction. “Noel, this show is so wonderful, I’m staying for the second act. Truth is, I tell writers of my one-act-only policy because I almost never want to see more than one act. But now I’m dying to see what else you have in store in Act Two.”

There was also business to discuss. “Have you joined ASCAP, Noel?” I hadn’t. So far, there was no “use” of any of my music that would have entitled me to any royalties. Bernice explained that ASCAP, understanding that theatre is the one genre that goes uncompensated, had set up something called Popular Awards. If you demonstrate to ASCAP that a significant number of your songs have been heard in theatres, it pays you out of the huge reserve of royalties never claimed by publishers. (Remember the writers only get half the money collected, and many songs have no publishers to collect the other half.) Since BMI didn’t do the same, it made financial sense for me to become an ASCAP writer. And these were the days before Direct Deposit: I actually held that affirming check in my hand, then.

And when the day came when a song of mine was heard on national television, it was very exciting to call up ASCAP and tell them “Hey, that song on ABC, This Is a Workplace, is mine.  Pay me, please.” ASCAP literally counted the seconds my number was on air, and they figured the rate per second for the author (me) and the publisher (also me). This wasn’t the big old organization taking pity on musical theatre creators; it was the way it’s supposed to work.

In fact, I hope this little anecdote explains the main purpose of ASCAP. Music is heard on broadcast media, and ASCAP sees to it that funds are collected from the broadcaster and distributed to the creators and publishers.  Beyond that main purpose, there’s also what might be called political advocacy. When congress considers tweaking copyright laws in ways that are detrimental for us creators, ASCAP raises a hue and cry. New media, such as Pandora and Spotify, require a new bargain to be forged. Songwriters don’t have a union, per se, but we do have ASCAP looking out for us. And for a hundred years now. I’d suggest we all sing Happy Birthday To You to them but we couldn’t let it be broadcast without paying a hefty fee to the ladies who wrote Happy Birthday To You.

Thanks, ASCAP!


Walk like an Egyptian

February 21, 2014

Writing this on yet another snowy day, so I’m reminded of these words from Sunday in the Park with George. White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.

Too many, if you ask me. If given an assignment, “write a song!” I wouldn’t know where to begin. I need parameters, some guidance, some chipping away of the marble. There’s a pop song that’s much on my mind, as my daughter constantly plays it: “I’m not going to write you a love song.” Songwriters smile at the difficulty of cutting our cloth to order; when a music biz maven asked Sara Bareilles to write a love song, the request is so vague, it’s humorously frustrating.

Your musical gives you a time and a place. Each character has a “voice” in the Creative Writing sense of the word. She’s going to have her own particular way of expressing herself. Idioms – God, I love idioms. If this isn’t the first song in your score, you might consider how this new composition relates to the others. Orchestration is something worth contemplating. And so’s the set of expectations and information that’s in your audience’s head at the time your song starts.

Not such a blank page, or canvas, now, is it?

I’m in the mood to talk about process. Picture, if you will, that you’re composing a lyrics-first song for a musical. (One of my current projects is entirely lyrics-first, so this particular m.o. is fresh in my mind.) The lyricist has handed you a pretty polished lyric, one he feels is ready for your contribution.

1 So, the first step is to examine that question. Is this lyric ready to be set? Collaborators all understand that there will be many changes along the way, but on the one musical I was the composer on and nothing else, the lyric-and-book guy would frequently hand me formless, unmetered verse. I had to communicate – in the nicest way possible – that the lyric needed revision before music-creation could commence. (That guy did not take it well, accusing me of hating him for his politics, of all things.)

2 Take a look at the lyric like a grad student doing a dissertation on poetic form might. What are the metrical feet? Where are the rhymes? Most important: what sections match each other, in terms of general meter and rhyme scheme; which don’t? What’s the title and where does it come up? Now, it’s not a bad idea for the collaborators to have a conversation about title and form in advance. Certainly, you should have talked about the placement of the song in the story, what’s going on with the character in this number, how they’ve changed by the end of it. Sometimes, with some lyricists, form will be obvious.

Which reminds me of how Rodgers and Hammerstein worked.  In his previous collaboration with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’ music almost always came first. Hammerstein preferred words-first. In order to put well-constructed lyrics on Rodgers’ plate, Hammerstein would write new words to existing songs, and of course never tell his partner the melody he used. In this odd way, Hammerstein was both a tune-first guy and a lyrics-first guy. And he loved idioms.

3 Auditioning actors sometimes are required to do cold readings. They’re handed a text they’ve never seen, and are asked to instantly perform it with expression, emphasizing certain words for maximal dramatic effect. Make you glad you’re not an actor? Well, sorry, bub: You are!

Because now you’re going to read the lyric out loud, summoning every thespian technique you never knew you had, to insert every possible dramatic pause and emphasis. Luckily, no one’s hurrying you, and you can repeat your performance as many times as you need. Each time, you will gain an understanding of how best to communicate the lyric, where the stresses naturally fall. And I always look for where there might be opportunities to extend singable syllables and create space between words. There is no one “right” answer. So come up with several.

4 In the recent HBO documentary, Stephen Sondheim ascribed a method to Cole Porter. Write out the lyric under a staff and then notate the rhythm – that is, stems only – as you feel it works best in speech. One thing to keep in mind, at this point, is that, in real life, people don’t speak as if they’re schoolchildren reciting poetry. Try to follow the cadences of the way people actually talk. And if you know your character well enough to understand her diction, even the better.

5 Compose music for the title and anything else that might work as a hook. Think of these little motifs as telephone poles you’ll later string wires across. In essence, they’re the most important parts of your structure, and the things your listener will hear again and again. So the ante’s up: these better be interesting.

6 For me, it’s fairly simultaneous to create a harmonic structure that’s going to push the tune along. Sometimes, I come up with chords before the “telephone wire” of the remaining notes. Once you’ve done that you have a complete lead sheet – all the notes and chord symbols.

7 It’s now time to deal with accompaniment. But, for the lazier among you, I should point out that a number of famous musical theatre composers go no farther than lead sheets. They hand their song over to others to deal with how those chords are going to be expressed on the piano, or by the band. Seems to me such shirkers are putting a huge amount of trust in others to do the rest of the work. There’s a story going around about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first love song, People Will Say We’re In Love. Rodgers certainly went well beyond the lead sheet stage: he wrote out a full piano accompaniment. But there’s a five note descending phrase you hear between the lines. “Don’t throw bouquets at me” Dum-duh-duh-dum-dum. “Don’t please my folks too much.” Dum-duh-duh-dum-dum. I’m told that this was the creation of orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. I think that phrase is key to making People Will Say… a great song. Compose the in-between stuff, or delegate the task to someone else at your own peril.

8 Dynamic marks, and all those Italian adverbs go in last. My belief is that you haven’t done your job until you have a full piano-vocal three-staff score of what you want your composition to sound like. 99% of composers let someone else do the orchestration, which is good enough for me.

9 But, sooner or later, you’re going to have conversations with your orchestrator, and also musical director, in which you must communicate what you intend for the “feel” of your piece. They’re your collaborators, too. Which reminds me that I’ve not yet mentioned that you’re going to let your lyricist hear what you’ve done and his reaction is of paramount importance. The two of you are going to go back and forth, suggesting changes to each other, and making those changes without grumbling.

Unless you can’t stand his politics. Then stamp your foot, dig in your heels, and stonewall.


February 15, 2014

I know. I know. Nobody wants to read about love the day after Valentine’s Day. We’re all a little sick of it, no?

But here’s the deal: As a musical writer, you’re often going to have to write about love when love is the last thing you want on your mind. Because your musical’s going to contain a romance. And if it doesn’t, why the hell doesn’t it? The shows I loved in my youth were musical comedies, which always meant they’d contain un peu d’amour and more than a little wit. In adulthood, it’s come as a major disappointment that so many musicals nowadays contain not a shred of wit and have oddly omitted the love part.

The love part. Now I’m reminded of Woody Allen saying “My brain? That’s my second favorite organ.”

Honestly, I have to wonder what’s motivated all those who’ve chosen to write musicals but shy away from romance and comedy. Go draw a comic book, for crissakes, and nobody will be disappointed. You’re using songs to tell a story, and music has gone hand in hand (and sometimes much further) with romance since… since…

Now I’m thinking about Adam and Eve, the two original humans who appear in the first act of Bock and Harnick’s excellent musical comedy, The Apple Tree. They spend most of their time arguing. Silly bickering about what to call things, and decorating their hut. What doesn’t happen – and it doesn’t need to happen – is Adam and Eve staring into each other’s eyes, expressing ardor and devotion. I suppose other, less creative musical theatre writers would have handled it that way. And yet, as the playlet draws to a close, the audience is wholly invested in their passion for one another. Eve sings a lullaby-like ballad about loving Adam despite his many obvious flaws. She leaves the stage but the melody continues playing as Adam delivers the final diary entry.

Eve died today. I knew she would, of course. Well, at least her prayer was answered – she went first. Now that she’s gone, I realize something I didn’t realize before. I used to think it was a terrible tragedy when Eve and I had to leave the Garden. Now I know it really didn’t matter. Because, wheresoever she was, there was Eden. And now, I have to go water her flowers. She loved them, you know.

I don’t believe there’s a more moving speech in all of musical theatre. And it’s a speech, of all things. Certain schmaltzy songwriters would have had Adam sing a song called I’m Sad Eve Died and the audience wouldn’t have been half as moved. The choice to go with underscored dialogue – well, there’s no topping Bock and Harnick.

It’s a very common mistake for early-career musical theatre writers: stating the obvious. The audience has come to your show with an open mind, and they know nothing when the overture starts. (That’s another thing: why’d you have to omit the overture? What would a Jule Styne show be like without one?) You tell them things, and they’re interested. You re-tell them things, you’re in trouble. Too many songs I hear tell the audience something it already knows, stopping the show – in the bad way.

That’s not to say there aren’t particles of plot that bear repeating. I’m talking about listeners being in an emotional place in which they fully understand something, and then comes a song reemphasizing what they already know. If they’re seats are comfortable, that’ll put ’em to sleep faster than Lunesta.

I Sleep Easier Now is a Cole Porter song title (not one of my favorites). It’s only on my mind because it’s true: I wake up, better rested than I’ve ever been, and look above half-shutters out into a dream of a suburb, with snow on the trees and roofs. (Yes, I seem to be continuing this recent trend of writing these when there’s snow on the ground). People keep asking me if I miss living in Manhattan, and my mind keeps coming back to Adam’s speech. Just replace “Eve” with “Joy” and “the Garden” with Manhattan. (“Eden” can remain a synonym for “paradise.”)

I used to think it was a terrible tragedy when Eve and I had to leave the Garden. Now I know it really didn’t matter. Because, wheresoever she was, there was Eden.

Morning star

February 10, 2014

Two nights in a row I saw new stagings of shows originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Big (dancing) shoes to fill, and the directors, for the most part, avoided Fosse-esque filigrees. But Diane Paulus’ reimagining of Pippin denuded what was originally an avant garde and even somewhat dangerous entertainment. The new concept is to do it as a circus, and many of the stunts are impressive. The musical it most resembles is another 1970s hit with a Stephen Schwartz score, The Magic Show. One could argue that this production more resembles Barnum, but all the stunts in that served a purpose, telling the life story of a renowned showman. In this Pippin, the stunts serve the purpose of distracting us from the hollowness of the material.

Indeed, Fosse’s production used tricks, amazing sets and fantastic dance episodes to divert us from the story’s lack of drive as well. But it was all of a piece: Ben Vereen’s character, called the Leading Player, keeps hinting of some unnamed daredevil excitement. He’s a sexy Mephistopheles, and we think Pippin, an aimless young man, will be easy prey. Their relationship – and you never know when the Leading Player will pop up – provides the only tension in the musical, plotted with as much aimlessness as its title character. I’m also reminded of Candide, the learning-journey of a naïf who, in the end, embraces the simple peasant life; that show doesn’t quite work either.

The Paulus production is a sort of Cirque du Roi du Soleil (yeah, I know that’s a different French king, but this show is set in a tent, not a place in history). Patina Miller, a pretty woman, is now the Leading Player and there’s absolutely nothing remotely dangerous about her; she’s more angel than devil. So, that one bit of tension I mentioned is nowhere to be found. In the original, the company sings “We’ve got magic to do…miracle plays.” This time we get no miracle plays, nothing even vaguely medieval, and “magic” is broadly defined to include hanging down from trapezes. Is there a point to this? Is Pippin buffeted on the trapeze of life, somehow? You go to a circus, of course, and don’t demand meaning. But theatre like this is obviously heavy with metaphor, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask that the metaphor make some sense. Pippin’s grandmother’s on a trapeze, and is charmingly self-assured. Charlemagne rides a unicycle at one point; is he in danger of tipping over?

Well, yes, I guess. Regicide rears its ugly head, and, annoyingly, has no emotional impact. We feel no horror, sadness, nor the joy associated with toppling a tyrant. And then the libretto employs a different sort of magic and brings him back to life, teaching the audience that nothing matters in this show: anything that’s done can be undone.

And, in the second act, the Leading Player starts arguing with someone else, which is weird. For a long stretch, Pippin is not even spoken to. The show has claimed to be an “anecdotic revue” but the farm episode, involving no fewer than four songs, is far longer than everything else, with a new central character. At this point, the non-leading players get to don masks and do funny imitations of farm animals, which can seem a creative use of a company of dancers. But, in this revival, filled with actual circus strongmen and strongwomen, it’s a let down that they’ve gone from balancing on boards to clucking like chickens.

But that’s a good example of the perils of coming up with a totally new concept for a show originally conceived by a genius. Many things that made sense in the original are rendered senseless under this big top. I suppose if I loved circuses, I might have been happy rather than antsy. But, you know what I love is storytelling, and all those acrobats inhibited the story from getting across, landing.

You rarely hear me complain about a musical director, but boy some of those songs went by quickly. All sorts of lyrical jokes went unappreciated by the audience. I think Pippin’s score is one of Schwartz’s best, far superior to Wicked and his forgotten long-runner, The Magic Show. What he achieved here is a musical idiom firmly grounded in then-current rock that also managed to include enough ancient ornaments to feel simultaneously medieval. A product of the Vietnam War era, we’re meant to see Pippin as typical of the unable-to-find-myself generation. But I love the trills in the intro to With You, the quick harpsichord waltz that leads into Spread a Little Sunshine (unheard here), and the unusual time signature of Love Song. It’s a score worth examining, filled with smart ideas. Some of the singers – Matthew James Thomas and Rachel Bay Jones in particular, do nicely by them.

I hope Schwartz is happy.  I would have been miserable had I written a hit Broadway musical in a certain style, telling a story, and, forty years later, a revival adopts a completely different style and doesn’t tell the story. But, of course, the first thing has to happen before the second.

Teach me how to love

February 5, 2014

Little Me (now at Encores!) is a marvelous example of a type of musical comedy that was common in the Golden Age, but is sadly rarer in recent years. It has no point to make, no social ill to examine, no ax to grind: It merely exists to entertain.

I don’t know why more of us aren’t engaged in writing “mere” whimsy. So many shows are created, it seems, as acts of social activism. Which may be fine for the cause, good for the wordsmith’s soul, but not so fun for the audience. Such shows are often a chore to sit through. At Little Me, you sit back, relax, and wacky goings-on make you howl with laughter.

York, Borle

I’ve mused before about star vehicles, which can be a dicey proposition for Encores!, which can’t always attract major stars and then affords them only a week and a half of rehearsal. Little Me was created for Sid Caesar by Neil Simon, who’d penned countless great sketches for Caesar’s TV show in the 1950s. The show is episodic, and plays like a series of sketches in which the star dresses up as seven different characters, ages 16-88, with different wigs and accents. Given Simon’s experience doing something so similar, Little Me seems like a show that might have been easy to write.

And it was originally directed (a shared credit) and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Fosse had many talents, but the most pertinent one here is his ability to shape a show, to get writers to put their ideas into a form audiences will eat up. So, one thing I noticed at Little Me is that many or most of the songs are extremely short. (Not Goodbye, which makes a joke out of going on too long, explicitly.) I sense Fosse used his sixth sense for an audience’s attention span. And all the creators understood that, with Caesar’s name over the title, they had an audience that came to laugh. They were not of a mood to take in a serious moment.

And yet the score, by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, sneaks in a couple of emotions that manage to get to you, amidst all that laughter. These are the two best songs in the show, which is no coincidence. The young heroine, early on, discovers an intense desire to escape her impoverished circumstances. Her I-Want-song, On the Other Side of the Tracks is a masterpiece of the song. Coleman’s music, while sitting on one note for an unusually long stretch, builds rhythmic drive and forward-hurtling harmonies into the accompaniment. It’s exciting to hear. (And even exciting to play.) Carolyn Leigh’s densely-rhymed words sparkle with fresh turns of phrase.

I can’t afford to relax
‘Cause the whole caboodle commences
On the other side of the tracks.
So I’m off and running
Over the rail
I’m going gunning
After the quail.
Off and running
Send me my mail
To that great big world on the other side

“Send me my mail!” is a particularly winsome example, and isn’t there something delicious about the word “caboodle” in there?

What got to me more was the far-sillier doughboy waltz, Real Live Girl.

Gotta give a little broader context here. Little Me is about a woman so sexy, various males’ desire for her gets them to do crazy things. They take one look at her – hell, WE take one look at her, and understand that blinding lust is present in every inter-gender interaction. But when we meet a hayseed with no experience with women whatsoever, the songwriters amplify his feelings in a way that’s both funny and touching. That’s a hell of a hard thing to pull off, an example of musical comedy heaven. Then, amazingly, they top the whole thing by introducing a chorus of wounded soldiers. (I know what you’re thinking: what are wounded soldiers doing in a comedy?) They take up the song, expressing something similar to South Pacific’s There Is Nothing Like a Dame, but far more tender. Is this too sweet a moment? No, because it’s undercut by the surprisingly hysterical sight of soldiers in casts, crutches and slings attempting to waltz.

Encores! throws this star vehicle on the shoulders of Christian Borle, one of the most experienced and adept musical comedians of his generation. I was lucky enough to catch him over a decade ago opposite his then-squeeze Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, where he was thoroughly engaged and thoroughly winning. (And now I’m tired of typing “thoroughly.”) He’s wildly funny on stage (Elegies, Legally Blonde, and Peter and the Starcatcher, which won him the Tony) making it deeply disappointing that his television role in the awful nighttime soap, Smash, gave him so few opportunities to be remotely humorous. In Little Me, he’s truly in his element, a versatile entertainer in the grand tradition. Also enormously appealing (although playing only two roles) is Rachel York as the protagonist. She and another Smash veteran, Megan Hilty, were the two ladies at the center of Encores’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which leads one to draw a comparison between the two shows. Each was the second Broadway score of a composer who went on to an amazing career – Cy Coleman, and Blondes’ Jule Styne. Each involves men going weak-kneed over the sight of a blonde bombshell. But what’s smarter about Little Me is that each man is so distinct, so wonderfully wacky as a character. (In other aspects, I prefer Blondes.)

Little Me is so successfully silly, I suggest you hustle over to City Center – and, with this weather, seats can be had. You’ll learn quite a bit about what makes a truly funny musical comedy work, what a star vehicle looks and feels like, and if even you don’t learn anything, your sides will ache from laughing so hard: a good ache to have.