Music to hear

March 27, 2014

Tonight at seven you can see the showcase I annually musical-direct (odd verb, that) for free at Alvin Ailey, 55th and 9th. One hour, performed just once, well over eighty hours of rehearsal. What do I think about during all that time?

The most germane thoughts I can share are those about the writing of the twenty-one numbers. For instance, the recent Oscar winner, Let It Go, from Frozen, pops into my head whenever I’m finishing up You and Me (But Mostly Me) from The Book of Mormon. There’s good reason for that, besides the amazing popularity of the newer song. Both were composed by Bobby Lopez: nobody’s stealing from anyone here; a composer has every right to sound like himself. (Cole Porter did all the time.) But here’s what strikes me. The big number for the pair of missionaries subtly spoofs Wicked‘s Defying Gravity. A decade ago Lopez’s previous Broadway score, Avenue Q, beat out box-office king Wicked for the Best Musical and Best Score Tony. I’ve personally heard Stephen Schwartz act the sore loser about it. The Book of Mormon satirizes many musicals, but I’m guessing razzing his old rival brought Lopez some pleasure. And, just as happened with Schwartz, Disney hired Lopez. He and his wife wrote a nifty score for the theme park live musical, Finding Nemo, and then got the plum assignment to write Frozen. In Frozen, a headstrong young woman decides to own her magic powers, rather similar to Elphaba’s big moment that leads to Defying Gravity. The voice of Elsa in Frozen is provided by the original, Tony-winning Elphaba, Idina Menzel, and the song for the similar turning point is Let It Go. So, in a few short years, the latest EGOT honoree went from sending up Idina’s iconic number to writing her another one.

Other heralded composers of our time have utilized a cliché I find tiresome. (Well, you know me: I find all clichés tiresome.) This is the habit of repeating the same chord in the right hand on every quarter beat while the bass hits a few notes off the beat. Usually, the chord’s not a particularly mellifluous one. Songs I’ve been rehearsing of this ilk include Pasek & Paul’s Boy With Dreams, Andrew Lippa’s Two of a Kind, Adam Gwon’s Fine and Jason Robert Brown’s It’s Hard To Speak My Heart (which we decided not to do, but after it had been rehearsed). Textually, all of these songs are very different from each other, with wildly varied emotional content, so why the same device? Are they trying to write in some trendy way they hear other composers writing? Are they lacking in imagination? Is it just easier to write four-to-the-bar accompaniments? These are things I wonder about. And to my ears, there’s something annoying about these ostinatos, which makes Gwon’s use perfectly appropriate, since his Fine is about a couple annoying each other.

Happily, not all of the songs are contemporary. So, like a palette cleanser that’s better than the entrées, I get to play ballads by Gershwin and Weill. They’re endlessly inventive with their chord progressions, and I marvel at the swiftness with which they bring us to a new harmonic landing point. In the verse to They Can’t Take That Away From Me, on the words “the melody lingers on” the listener anticipates a return to the tonic, but, somehow, pivoting on a flat fifth in the bass, we end up on a sixth chord built on the third note in the scale. And that’s not a blue note: it’s what my composition teacher would have called a vanilla chord. But with all the tension-increasing moves towards sevenths, this vanilla surprises us by coming at a place where we expected rocky road. OK: sometimes I get really hungry during a 14-hour rehearsal day.

And that’s not an exaggeration; I do get hungry. And it may have led me to slip a little music theory into the last paragraph. So now, something for lyricists. First, you should know that, because we’re trying to give twenty-two performers equal time and end before an hour’s up, most of the songs have been cut down to size. Sometimes, the sense of words intended to unspool over four or five minutes gets sacrificed, and then I’m called upon to make some minor lyric changes. This year, I had to replace a line in a song that features false rhymes in the original. My substitution, if rhymed correctly, would stand out like a healthy thumb. I found it particularly difficult to think of near rhymes for my substitution. It’s as if I had some aversion therapy and deep within me there’s a sharp pain if ever I think of a false rhyme. I eventually succeeded, but, because sloppy craft makes me wince, I can’t say I’m proud of it. I seriously doubt anyone will notice the change, anyway.

I just realized this is a rare blog entry in that I’m mentioning my day job. One really good thing about the things I do for money is that there’s a significant crossover with my real vocation, writing musicals. I get to work with talented people at the start of great careers. By watching the processes they use to act characters’ intentions in songs, I’m informed, more than I’d otherwise be, on what sort of meat, in music and lyrics, an actor needs to chew on. And nobody looks askance if my mind wanders to other issues of musical theatre writing, while a show tune’s sheet music is in front of my face.

Come see. You’ll be glad you did.

Beautiful brainy girls

March 22, 2014

Yet another big anniversary of yet another of my shows: The New U., which revived the Varsity Show tradition at Columbia. I worry it seems to you, dear reader, that I’m endlessly reliving former glories. But think of it this way: a successful musical springs from a certain set of creative circumstances. I can’t tell you how to go about constructing such an environment for yourself; all I can do is recall the breeding ground that birthed something magical.

It starts with smart people. Very smart people. Columbia only accepted the cream of the crop from a huge pool of applicants world-wide. And then there’s the core curriculum: It was required that we all take the same courses about foundational philosophy, arts and literature. So, we all knew our Socrates from our Sophocles and could joke about certain classics with the confidence that everyone in our audience would understand what we were ribbing. In the opening sequence, I dropped these names: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, B. F. Skinner and Cervantes. (And rhymed them all.)

Perhaps The New U. doesn’t sound like your cup of tea at this point. Understandable, but here’s an example of the importance of knowing your audience. We were collegians entertaining the university community, people who appreciate the odd Alexander Pope reference; there was no reason to believe the show would be seen by any others. The communication with our spectators was proscribed, helpfully: we knew just what we could joke about. Mass entertainment, like a network sitcom hoping to reach millions of viewers, doesn’t have this advantage.

But there was also an advantage we had in common with sitcoms: a large quantity of writers. That TV half-hour you see credited to one person is usually the product of a big boardroom table punching up, contributing jokes and, sometimes, entire scenes. As fate would have it, two of The New U. creators, Alexa Junge and Adam Belanoff, went on to long careers as staff TV writers. So, they continued to have their drafts rewritten by a staff, and were part of the process that improved other people’s scripts. Our modus operandi on The New U. welcomed contributions from the actors themselves. If they could figure out a funnier way of saying something, their version stuck. It seemed to me that Adam’s methodology didn’t involve writing per se, but rather performers improvising and re-improvising until they found the funniest lines. Whether this is the most efficient use of rehearsal time or not, it certainly resulted in hysterical scenes, more hilarious every time they were done.

It would be churlish to pick a favorite out of that cast, but I’ve previously mentioned the late great David Rakoff as a most valuable player. He went on to win all sorts of prestigious awards, publishing wonderfully droll books. His humor was particularly out there and The New U., to its credit, established a framework for many kinds of madness. One number provided an outlet for my Kurt Weill predilection: It depicted the labyrinthine class-registration rigmarole as a Dantean ring of hell, using Brechtian devices, constantly switching back and forth between acerbic dialogue and snatches of song. Writer Alexa Junge, director Stephen Gee and I worked closely together to send up experimental theatre while cracking wise about long lines and pitiless registrars. All of this was done, I must add, with no sets or costumes; a handful of lights on a pole or two. In the years since, the budget for the Varsity Show expanded exponentially. We were given a space but no cash. I vividly remember our little stage being hammered together and placed on a disused cafeteria floor. We had less than a shoestring budget: we had an aglet budget.

Something else that has changed for the better in the decades since. When I describe the moment that stopped the show, you have to think back to a time when some topics went unmentioned in most media. The Sweetest Guy In the Suite was a trio about dorm life that began with Adam wistfully warbling about his inability to impress the girl next door: unrequited love, writ with wit. Then we meet this neighbor, and she’s pining for a different boy on the floor. What was (then) cutting edge about her number is that she’s clearly expressing a sexual desire. (This was uncommon all those years ago; I’m not saying anyone was shocked, but it certainly made people smile.) Finally we meet the object of her affections and he, in turn, is hot for Adam. When this third point in the triangle had its big reveal the audience laughed so hard, the show couldn’t continue. The musical director was Jeanine Tesori (she later composed Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek, Fun Home and Violet) and I distinctly remember her hands lifted from the keys, patiently waiting for the audience to quiet down, to continue. Many years after The New U., I saw the wonderful Maltby & Shire revue, Closer Than Ever and one of its first numbers used the exact same structure and reveal. It garnered a few chuckles.

But then, in a by-students/for-students situation, some of the reaction can be based on people in the audience knowing the performers, personally. Perhaps part of the fun involved folks who knew that the actor playing the gay guy was straight. But the more in-the-know would have recognized that the creative team’s Steve Gee was the inspiration: girls developed crushes on him all the time. Which reminds me that another thing we spoofed could only be made fun of at that time. You see, MTV was a new phenomenon and – I know this is hard to believe – it once showed music videos. We came up with an ambitious scene combining this nascent “art-form” with a pitch for study aids: MTV Cliff Notes.

Does it seem like I’m pinning laurels on myself? I had nothing at all to do with MTV Cliff Notes. But I was the sole creator of a duet, Most Embarrassing Moments, that was chock full of specific punch lines about the Columbia campus. When the performers had polished it to the level that it could be shown to the rest of the company, I found the experience of sharing it so exciting, I could not keep still in my seat (on the floor). I’m probably the only one who remembers that moment. And I guess that’s because I’m recalling a feeling, a particular kind of ecstasy. Get it while you can.




The Pensacola rage

March 17, 2014

A student drew a picture of me. And you knew it was me because of the caption, “I Hate Revivals!” Rather than railing against revivals here today, I thought I’d think back to the origins of my antipathy.

It couldn’t be from pre-adolescence, because revivals were relatively rare in those days. But an experience from high school and an experience from college come to mind.

A delightful and headstrong girl drew me into a quixotic quest when I was 16 or so. She wanted to collaborate on an original musical and get the high school’s estimable drama department to do it. It was a long shot, but not without precedent. The summer prior, Jodi appeared in a revival of a show-for-kids created by students at our high school several years before. The powers-that-were wanted to continue presenting an annual children’s show. Our Through the Wardrobe was fashioned to the specific needs of the department we knew so well. And then came the day all interested parties gathered to hear the big announcement of the summer season: the play- The Madwoman of Chaillot; the grown-up musical- 110 in the Shade; the children’s show … (drumroll, please) … But, at this point, the handwriting was on the wall. With two obscure titles for the grown, the season would need a famous title sure to sell tickets: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Well, that’s a good show, too, we thought. And we got over our disappointment by being cast in roles in all of them. (My genial encounter with 110 in the Shade lyricist Tom Jones is stuff for Another Hot Day.) Jodi took a few years, but got our musical produced, one night, in England. And a couple of years after that, I finally got to witness my American debut – in my hometown, New York, New York.

Now, Noel, you’re going to say, that wasn’t a revival. Every high school does shows that previously were produced in New York. I was barking up an unclimbable tree. But I’m just bringing this up as a tiny blip on a long continuum, a time when a choice was made to do a pre-existing play rather than a premiere.

Clark Gesner created You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown in a time and place where new musicals were treasured, or eagerly anticipated, and revivals were few and far between. Eventually, the world turned over: revivals were the big events of the Broadway season, and new shows anticipated in the manner of dentist visits. And Gesner practically never got a musical produced again.

But enough about him, it’s time I get to college.

I chose to go to the college I went to partly because students created an annual Varsity Show, and the roster of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of writing: Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Herman Wouk, Terrance McNally, et al. While turbulent times had suspended the tradition, various school representatives personally assured me the Varsity Show would rise again. And I kept waiting. One day, I was playing in a class room and in walked that formidable gentleman-of-the-arts, Schuyler Chapin. He asked whether I was planning of getting involved with the Varsity Show and detailed plans to revive the 1920 edition, Rodgers and Hart’s Fly With Me with a full orchestra, full sets (and, it turned out, a cast recording). There was every reason, then and there, to get my Irish up (obligatory St. Patrick’s Day reference). Rather than providing an opportunity to future Rodgers and Harts, the University expended a great deal of resources and money on reminding the world Rodgers and Hart were among its student creatives many decades before. Fly With Me generated a good deal of press, but, the following year, there was still no student-written show. Having blown its wad reviving a 1920 spoof of student life, the school had nothing left over to do something for the students now attending (and living).

As if to add further insult to those in the student body with an itch to write musicals (not just me: the phenomenally successful composer Jeanine Tesori was then there. If you missed her Fun Home off-Broadway last fall, be sure to catch her Violet on Broadway starting next week – one of the great shows of our time), they decided to do a revue, A College On Broadway, of various songs from Varsity Shows long past. That production got a theatre and a budget and turned my stomach. I was not alone. Similarly queasy were my friends Adam Belanoff and Stephen Gee, but they had the fire in their bellies to do something about it.

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Unlike me, Belanoff and Gee knew how to noodge. Whatever entreaties needed to be made, to whatever administrator, they made, and somehow were allowed to have access to a hallway in the student center. They cajoled their way into a few dozen chairs, some floodlights, and a keyboard, and for a few nights that spring, original musical theatre was heard in the halls (well, one) of Columbia. Emboldened by the ecstatic response, they next assembled a revue they called “the Junior Varsity Show,” and this was so wonderful, they then got access to a no-longer-used cafeteria for an actual Varsity Show. I’ll write more about that next week.

Just saw a Facebook status from a younger friend in our business: “I would have liked to have moved to New York as a 22 year old in 1981, and stayed until 1989, when I would have left, disappointed at how it had all changed.” I’ve no idea what he means by that, really, but I do know he’s all about original musicals. And when you look at Broadway in the 80s, you see more and more revivals booked into theatres that might otherwise have been used for original shows. The decade started with some promise – Barnum, Nine, Dream Girls, Drood, La cage aux folles, Sunday in the Park With George, Baby, Big River, and then, as the remountings of old shows proliferated, there came a ten year period in which no new American musical passed the 1,000 performance mark. Now, Broadway isn’t really a single entity like a high school or university, but the transformation of the Main Stem from a place where audiences and producers eagerly greeted new musicals with new scores to one in which folks flock to what they’ve heard before, well, it’s enough to make you want to say “folks flock” five times fast to possibly misspeak.

To the victors go the spoils

March 11, 2014

Jono J. Travanti

When John Travolta, the other night at the Oscars, butchered Idina Menzel’s name beyond all recognition, it was as if you could hear the entire theatrical community smite its forehead. The quips ran fast and furious, one being that the incident eviscerates long-standing rumors that Travolta is gay. The implication being that no gay man could possibly be unfamiliar with Menzel’s monicker.

I appreciate the mirth, but can’t help thinking that a blind spot is revealed in all of this. We’re an insular bunch, we musical theatre mavens. There’s quite much, it seems, that is well-known to us, but genuinely obscure to those outside our merry band.

Idina Menzel – and let’s admit right off the bat, the name’s a bit of a weird one – starred in two of the most successful musicals of the past 20 years, Rent and Wicked. But note that Rent‘s something of an ensemble piece: she didn’t have one of the three biggest roles. The same could be said about the character, Collins, and his original interpreter, Jesse L. Martin, is the most famous person to have emerged from that company. While Idina earned a Tony for Wicked, the show’s other lead, Kristin Chenoweth, is far better known as well. This, of course, has little to do with their talents and accomplishments and everything to with the power of television. Martin, for many years, played a detective on Law & Order and never essayed a stage musical again. Chenoweth had her own flop series, Pushing Daisies, and over the years has seized every opportunity to use her impressive singing voice. She’ll sing on talk shows, headline revivals on Broadway, release albums. One more thing about Cheno: she’s a character, engagingly quirky. One other thing about Martin: he’s handsome, with a cool vibe, sexy.

And Idina Menzel? Well, her strong suit is high and powerful belting, and it’s a very impressive gift. But not the sort of gift the camera loves. She’s not the cute pixie Chenoweth is nor the suave charmer Martin is. And so she’s infrequently seen on screens. She’s admirably continued to do original musicals, and is now headlining If/Then, by Yorkey and Kitt, on Broadway. But no TV series.

I’ve read of plans to revive Funny Girl, that most-demanding-of-star-vehicles, with Lea Michele. She, too, appeared in two well-regarded musicals on Broadway, Ragtime and Spring Awakening. But her notoriety derives from leading the cast of a TV show, Glee. As all of my in-the-know compadres can’t help pointing out, she doesn’t have half as powerful voice as Menzel. And Funny Girl demands power.

But a revival of Funny Girl demands a star the ticket-buying public has a keen interest in seeing. So, I’ve long said, Lea Michele is the natural choice to carry such an expensive venture. Now, if theatre were a meritocracy, we’d more likely see Leslie Kritzer in the role. She could do it well; she’s a truly funny girl. Michele’s never proven comedy bona fides; she’s just far more famous. And more likely to sell more tickets.

And on it goes, this disconnect between talent and ability-to-put-butts-in-seats. There was a time when television didn’t selectively skyrocket certain performers to stardom. The Broadway audience could see a newcomer make a splash one season, and buy enough tickets for a new-name-in-a-leading-role the next. The original Funny Girl was like that: people bought seats to see Barbra Streisand because they’d been impressed by her Broadway debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Success on stage led to an enormous opportunity on stage. Such a thing is unimaginable today. But TV stars are whisked onto the Broadway stage and sell seats fast (like Bryan Cranston in the new play, All the Way).

Of course, Streisand made some TV appearances as well. And for some reason I’m reminded of Irene Bordoni, a stage star from about 85 years ago. Cole Porter could write “You’re the eyes of Irene Bordoni” and his audience knew exactly what he meant. This despite the fact that Bordoni had no fame from movies or the not-yet-existent television. In a way, I must admit, I long for this: being able, in a lyric, to name-drop someone who’s known only for stage work, like Philip Bosco or Carolee Carmello. Hmm, two names ordinary people associate with chocolate. Yum.

But that would be cliquish, somehow. We, the insiders, love our Bosco with a Cherry Jones on top. But the uninitiated would feel alienated by references to stars they’ve never heard of. And are we writing shows just for insiders? A specific audience with a certain knowledge base? These questions, it seems, are frequently on my mind.

Some seconds after the Travolta gaffe, a website appeared that purported to tell you how John Travolta would pronounce any name entered. Facebook lit up with friends’ hysterical Travolta-ized appellations. A musical theatre writer I’ve known for many years, Tom Toce, said he entered his name and it came back Travolta-ized as Idina Menzel.

No no no

March 6, 2014

In November we moved and the November before that we moved. A couple of dry-erase boards I haven’t seen since 2012 have been recently unearthed. I wiped down one and let my toddler have her way with the other. Whatever I had on those boards went unseen for more than a year and I suffered no ill-effects.

But I thought you might want to know what was on them, since it’s a peek into a musical theatre writer’s life and process.

The larger board contained many things, but mostly it served as the storyboard for Such Good Friends. (I wrote about the storyboarding process a while ago.) Along with a list of songs and scenes using different colored pens, there were a couple of phrases about the general theme of the work. One was “Someday, we’ll look back at all this fondly, and chuckle.” There was a note to myself saying the flashback to how-they-met should be as revelatory as the one on The West Wing, where Josh sends a signal through a glass boardroom and Sam walks out of a lucrative career to join the presidential campaign. How I wish Such Good Friends’ flashback contained such an emotional moment! But comparing a less-than-two-hour musical to a TV series beyond its initial season is a fool’s errand. Aaron Sorkin had already built up our feelings for those characters over at least 26 one-hour episodes over the course of a year. My characters were in their first fifteen minutes of being in front of an audience, and suddenly Brad Oscar was wearing a toupee to look like how he’d looked 17 year prior. Pack an emotional wallop? Nah, but at least two of my better songs are part of the sequence.

The big board also had a list of possible songs for a project I’d hoped to steal. Once, I got wind that a new musical with a Tony-winning director was unhappy with its songwriter, a rock-and-roll legend with little theatrical experience. If I could demonstrate I could write better songs based on the same property, maybe, just maybe, they’d dump the rockstar for me. So, on the board went ideas for songs. I wrote most of these, slapped together a home recording with some top Broadway talent, and mailed it off to the producer. Now, you don’t often hear me making great claims for my songs, but these were real winners in comparison with the score they had. And kept. And lost millions of dollars with. The producer glumly told me how much money the show had lost at a post-show party in New York. (They’d already posted their closing notice.)

I guess staring at those song titles for years was a form of self-appreciation. It’s a really good album that I can’t share with the public. The dry-erase board, or this segment of it, served as a reminder that I’d written something I liked. And, I’ll always believe, the producer regretted not scooping up when he had the chance.

Similarly, that Such Good Friends storyboard memorializes a particular point in the show’s development. All sorts of songs and scenes that seemed the linchpins of the structure, then, never made it into the draft that was performed. There was this real-life incident I’d read about, in which the father of a twelve-year-old boy had been betrayed (named in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee) by his best friend, who had a son, age 12, that was his son’s best friend. He had to explain to the kid why they couldn’t be friends any more. And then, some time later, he named names himself. It was a story I was sure I wanted to include in Such Good Friends; I’d gone through countless drafts of the father-son scene. In preparing the show for its 2007 production, it was pointed out to me that the kids were superfluous, since, as the title indicates, the plot is about friendships and betrayals. I’ve never regretted losing those characters and their songs: it made for a leaner and more emotionally effective piece. But I never erased that storyboard, I guess, because I wanted to be reminded how far any list-of-events can get altered.

The smaller board, though, was a wall of shame. Here’s something about musical theatre writing that nobody ever tells you. When I got the smaller dry-erase board I decided to use a column to jot down the names of places I’d sent my shows. I could look up and see who was reading them, and, when they got back to me, I’d erase the name. My wife, seeing this board as I unpacked it, said “You’ve a dead man’s name on that list.” Good, I thought. Names’ existence on the board meant that they’d been sent scripts and had never responded. Very few of these were examples of me shoving materials under a locked door. The conversation usually goes something like this: “Hey, Noel, I’d absolutely love to take a look at that show of yours. Really sounds up my alley, the kind of thing I’m dying to produce. If you’ll do me the favor of sending it to me, I promise on my life I’ll get back to you within a week or two, yea or nay.” AND THEN I NEVER HEAR FROM THEM AGAIN. When that producer died, I thought, well, that’s a better excuse than most for not getting back to me. And he did swear ON HIS LIFE that he would. Karma, no?

That people and organizations are rude enough to not respond, all the time, when they’ve promised to do so, is the dirty little secret of our little corner of show business. If I add up the quantity of yes responses and no-we’re-not-interested responses they don’t nearly come up to the quantity of no responses at all. And this is not something I want to be reminded of any more, so I’m taking a sponge to the board, forgetting the names on the vanishing wall-of-shame. My new windows-on-all-sides office doesn’t have any walls that can accommodate these boards. So I’m starting over – and you just knew I was going to use this one – with a clean slate.