Need somebody

Reading press about a so-called “new” Broadway musical that recently opened has left me hopping mad. So it’s time for a rant. About a subject that cuts close to the bone: musicals that are concocted using pre-existing songs. The hubris and idiocy involved are too appalling to go without comment. It’s a wonder I don’t write these screeds more often.

Picture, if you will, the creation of any great musical, from Show Boat to Nine. Who do you see? Certainly a composer, filling staves with tunes that fit the characters, situations, the time and place. And you can picture a lyricist, rendering some of the most dramatic moments of the show in flawless rhyme. And don’t forget the librettist, structuring the story, defining the voice of the characters, and, I’d hope, packing in some punch lines. If picturing a hit from the more recent end of the spectrum, you might include the director, so instrumental in how the story gets told, often sending the three writers back to the drawing board.

That close-knit group has been the well-spring of every good musical I can think of, and probably your favorites as well. Because – and this can’t be restated enough – musical theatre is the most collaborative of art forms. There aren’t a lot of auteurs here. (Yes, I’ve been responsible for book, music and lyrics all by myself several times, but I can’t bring myself to talk about Such Good Friends without crediting director Marc Bruni.) And I’m not getting all Kumbaya on you when I say that most of us believe that what makes musicals great is that they’re the product of several fine minds at work. If you don’t buy into that concept, you probably shouldn’t be allowed near the creation of a musical.

And yet such myopic twerps are; it happens all them time. We live in an age littered with so-called “original musicals with unoriginal scores.” And that’s indicative of a horrifying skittishness, a lack of faith in the time-tested collaborative process.

“He hates the music for shows, the new composers,’ one of the lead producers explained. “So, I said ‘Look, we can use the existing music of the time.’” Then, “A light bulb went off.”

The coward being talked about is Woody Allen. The most prolific movie director and writer, someone who’s used to being an auteur, fought against adapting Bullets Over Broadway for the stage for years. But when his sister pointed out he wouldn’t have to collaborate with pesky songwriters, his resistance evaporated. The popular and esteemed director-choreographer Susan Stroman is, in essence, Woody’s collaborator, but a living breathing person who can throw notes on a staff, rhymes on a page: Who needs ‘em?

With wedding invitations all over my refrigerator, I find myself thinking, more than I usually do, about bridal dresses. If you saw the budget for Our Wedding: The Musical, the big-ticket item that would leap out at you is Joy’s dress, which she had made for her. Because that’s what you do. If you care about your appearance, to a certain degree, you don’t just pick something off the rack and call it your wedding dress, do you? This is really beyond my area of expertise and this whole paragraph is just an excuse to include a photo of Joy in that dress.

In crafting a musical, you can go to true artists for the score, or just make do with whatever songs you find hanging on a rack. The latter choice invariably involves shoehorning. That’s the word for trying to make something fit when it really doesn’t. Here it is used in a sentence:

The poor choice at the center of this jukebox musical: Instead of coming up with new tunes, Allen shoehorned period songs into the existing plot. But all this does is throw the show into neutral whenever the orchestra swells. Even well-performed, the oldies simply underline what’s going on.

That’s Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News on Bullets Over Broadway. Here’s The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout:

All that’s missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the 1920s and ’30s. Does that matter? It did to me—a lot

Me, too, Terry, and I find myself indulging in a little fantasy that goes like this: Suppose the Ford Motor Company decided to fire all the welders on their assembly line, keeping important car parts together with glue. You know what would happen: The cars would fall apart, people would stop buying them, bankrupting the company. But before that day came, the Welders Union would cry loud and hard. “You can’t manufacture autos without welders. That’s just stupid. And unsafe. Welders are valuable, damn it.” Just goes to show how show business is unlike big business. Composers and lyricists are valuable, don’t you think? We don’t have a union, though. And there’s no hew and cry when producers put out a product without songwriter input. There should be a hew and cry. Consider this the start.

Obligatory admission: I haven’t seen Bullets Over Broadway, and, for all I know, I might find it enjoyable. But the mere fact that Woody rejected working with living, breathing, intelligent and creative songwriters (a slap in the face to a large community of talented folks) is more offensive to me than anything he’s ever done.

I haven’t yet caught If/Then, either, but I look forward to it. And, to end this on a positive note, I’ll quote Jesse Green in New York Magazine:

Every single thing that happens in If/Then is new… We keep clamoring for smart musicals that don’t just rehash some well-known property or lard it with songs we heard 30 years ago. At the same time we want stories that speak to something we feel now, whose developments we don’t anticipate ten or 120 minutes ahead of their arrival, or indeed before we enter the theater. If/Then surely answers all those needs. You absolutely never know what is going to happen, right up to the last, surprisingly moving beat.

Which notice would you rather receive?

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