Dreamland

May 28, 2014

It may come as some surprise that I didn’t like Frozen, despite a very fine score by EGOT winner Bobby Lopez (he wrote two of my favorite recent-vintage musical comedies, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who was another songwriter the year I was included in the NEO concert at the York). I heard most of the songs before catching the film and was particularly taken with Do You Want To Build a Snowman? in which a little girl grows up, knocking on her older sister’s door, not knowing why her once-close playmate refuses to play with her anymore. I was moved. And I really wanted to know, just like that girl, what was causing the rift.

Could be I got over-excited about a story about sisters and expected too much. Seems to me there’s much to be mined: the love, the admiration, the rivalries and jealousies, petty or large. In Frozen, what’s keeping the girls apart is a bit of BS, made up by the writer: nothing to do with anyone’s real experience of when their sister refuses to play with them.

And therein lies the first problem I have with the whole sci-fi/fantasy genre. I’ve little patience for made-up piffle. There are so many moving stories that can be told with human beings acting like human beings. Once a creative writer starts doling out superpowers or whatever para-normality, I’m unmoored. Usually the story comes to a dead halt so the “rules” of the made-up elements can be explained to us, the mere mortals in the audience. (Sometimes by an old codger named Mr. Lundie.) Then, if the tale doesn’t stick to these rules, or a new rule springs up as a dues ex machina, I feel cheated. Dorothy could have always returned to Kansas just by clicking her heels and repeating “There’s no place like home?” I’m pissed off!

And I’m not writing this to criticize Frozen. You want to make an emotional investment in a problem caused by magical powers and run the risk the problem will be solved, out of nowhere, by yet more magic, fine. But a lot of people write musicals where characters defy the laws of nature – I’ve penned two or three – and, when you do that, well, there are inherent problems worth mulling over.

And who, you might ask, is this Mr. Lundie? Probably the least-loved character in the history of musicals, he exists merely to explain the supernatural mumbo-jumbo the author made up. In Brigadoon, the action comes to a dead halt so that a town elder (Mr. Lundie) can inform two outsiders about the specific permutations of how the town disappears every night and wakes up one century later the next day. In one of the dullest scenes ever to clog up a famous musical, time is taken to define the “rules” governing this piece of unreal estate. A visitor may enter, but if you don’t leave before sundown, you’re stuck in Brigadoon forever. And if you do leave, you can’t come back. The not-at-all bright hero, helpfully named Tommy Albright, opts to leave, regrets his choice, tries to find the town again and – inconsequential spoiler alert – the power of love breaks the rule; a heretofore unknown bit of magic saves the day.

That’s shoddy plotting, there. Not the sort of thing I think we ought to emulate. But, in the playing, the biggest problem is the length of Mr. Lundie’s scene. And I find the time spent going over the rules of fantasies always hampers my enjoyment.

So, back when Not a Lion was called Popsicle Power, my collaborator had a kindly old creature explain the magic spell that needed to be lifted and how that could be accomplished. I explained the sad history of Mr. Lundie scenes and how I didn’t think our audience would sit still for it. But he refused to shorten the scene. We opened and everything played like gangbusters except that Mr. Lundie scene. The audience rustled, ran to the concession stand or bathrooms. After my collaborator saw how they wouldn’t sit still for that scene, he told me I’d been right and he’d been wrong. Satisfying, I guess, but I’d much rather have a show where everything plays like gangbusters.

Some fantasies manage to minimize the amount of time given to rules and therefore have time to devote to entertaining stuff. In the first act of Big, a boy wakes up as a grown-up, sans explanation. We don’t get bogged down in thinking about what magic steps he’ll have to take to return to boyhood. So, there’s room for romance and some brilliant songs (I Want To Go Home, Dancing All the Time, and, especially, Stop Time) before Act Two gets bogged down with abracadabra babble. I had a better time at Big than I had at Into the Woods, where I tired of hearing that list of four things the Bakers needed to find.

Another thing, very common in sci-fi, that annoys me no end is profundity. The ever-wise author makes grandiose statements about the Great Questions of Life and I throw up in my mouth a little. When Rodgers and Hammerstein have something profound to say, they dramatize it using realistic and relatable characters. That’s moving to me in a way that trekking up a mountain just to hear the slowly-intoned wisdom of some unworldly shaman can never be.

But Noel, some of you are saying, what about Area 51, your science fiction musical? When Tom Carrozza brought me 5 pages, proposing we write a musical comedy, it was immediately apparent the approach was to take it as UNseriously as possible, and any rule would be a hysterically funny joke. He had a non-threatening alien creature complain of a headache, ask for an aspirin. When one is produced, he looks at the humans incredulously. “And a cup of water! Whoever heard of taking an aspirin without water?” Indeed. We expect outer-space creatures to act differently than us; this one doesn’t. And thus our expectations are subverted: we anticipated learning something strange about the stranger-to-earth. Now we know everything’s going to be silly, not a drop of earnestness.

But whenever I see science fiction, I have to take along a pill. Which, of course, I grind into my forehead.

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Getting through

May 23, 2014

This week, folks, I’m doing something I haven’t done in the over two and a half years I’ve written this blog: I’m letting someone else write it! Busy times necessitate. So, I turn you over to special guest-blogger, Jake Lloyd.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending two concerts, both at 54 below, and both celebrating 30 years of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. For those of us in our 30s, we were young teenagers – and just getting into musical theatre – when Flaherty and Ahrens were making a name for themselves. I remember the day when I went browsing at my local Borders (remember Borders? and remember browsing through CDs in stores?) when I stumbled upon Ragtime. I was starving for musical theatre exposure and purchased it, no questions asked. I went home, put the CD on, and when I heard those first few notes, I was swept away. I went back later that day and purchased the three other recordings of their work I could get at the time: Lucky Stiff, Once On This Island and My Favorite Year; I devoured them that evening. (I often liken that day to Sondheim’s famous afternoon with Hammerstein, where he learned “everything” there was to know about writing theatre. Certainly I, nor he, hadn’t learned everything, but that experience would form the basis of knowledge that I would return to time and time again.)

And now, seventeen years later, as I was watching their life’s work performed, I’m reminded of it. But this time I return to it as a seasoned writer who is immersed at the ground level in the NYC theatre scene. As I see what is currently being written/produced – and know that I speak in broad generalities – I offer these few thoughts from that early education.

A Score That Does Its Research, or Why Genericness Kills a Show

Nothing disappoints me more than when I go see a new show and the score comes across immediately as generic: bland and familiar chords, set to unassuming rhythms, repeating itself endlessly and without further arrangement or development. (And before you get all judgmental on me, this is not just true of rock-influenced scores.) The score neither evokes the world, nor the character. And in some cases, worse yet, the score is so anachronistic that it makes Joseph…Dreamcoat seem accurate. The first six melodic notes of Ragtime immediately sweep you into the world. They give you a sense of history, set the tone for the whole evening and invite you into the story. All in six notes! And as much as it is clearly ragtime music, it is unmistakably Stephen Flaherty. It is a beautiful blend of the authentic traits of ragtime, with a sense of contemporary harmony, all filtered through the preferences, inspirations and influences of one composer. Similarly, take the opening trumpet solo to the overture of My Favorite Year, followed by the percussive insistence all welcoming you to 1950s New York City; again, told through Flaherty’s filter. Or take the entire score to Once On This Island; at its core made up of a few notes that reference an “island” feel, delivering on the expected but told through the lens of the specific. Recently, as I was preparing to write a score set in the early 1940s that was not going to have a Big Band feel to it (save a few pastiche numbers), I had to develop a palette that sounded authentic to its time. I started by listening to musicals written in that era and jotted down a few musical traits that kept appearing; I moved on to pop and classical music. I took my list and began to improvise selecting harmonies, rhythms and colors at random until I felt comfortable with the musical vocabulary. Instead of sounding pastiche, the score now hints at typical traits of the 40s, expressed in my own personal vocabulary.

The Opening Number, or Why Should I Care About Your Show?

I had the good fortune of seeing A Man of No Importance in its Lincoln Center premiere and again, ten years later, at the Gallery Players where, at the latter, I sat in front of the authors. At the Q&A talkback, Lynn remarked, “After the show started, I thought to myself, that is a damned good opening number.” And she’s right. It weaves together the tapestry of the world, the major and minor characters and sets you going down the right road (which is helpful, since the show is about a bus conductor). By the end of the number you are so rooted in the story, it is hard to escape. Ragtime sets up its story in a similar manner (both it and Importance have a libretto by Terrance McNally). But Flaherty and Ahrens have not stuck to one method to push us into their story-world. Take We Dance or Something Funny’s Going On (from Once On This Island and Lucky Stiff, respectively). Both paint in broad strokes the world in which you are entering (the specifics of the story to follow). And some of their shows set up a philosophical point-of-view: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think (Seussical), The Glorious Ones (show of the same name) and We Are Descended (Dessa Rose). Whatever the approach, all of their openings (coupled with a well-researched score) clearly outline the evening ahead.

Where Do Songs Go?, or Why Is This Person Still Singing?

This is a topic for a much larger discussion than there is room for here today. I will say that selecting the moment in the show where the songs go is a problem of late (even in one of the shows by the esteemed team written about here): the emotional or plot-driven moment has often passed us by the time the song has begun. And so we sit, sometimes not-too-patiently, and politely applaud while we wait for the set change. I encourage you to look at their shows and discover how the songs are used. Some of my favorite that both carry the plot and emotion forward are: Rita’s Confession (Lucky Stiff); Forever Yours (Once On This Island); Funny/The Duck Joke (My Favorite Year); Going Up (A Man of No Importance); Wheels of a Dream (Ragtime).

I feel fortunate that the CD I finally decided to buy that day in 1997 was from a team of such high craft. 30 years from now, if I have the fortune of looking back on a writing career in the musical theatre, I hope it is said that the next generation is descended from me. What I think can be best said of Ahrens and Flaherty is summed up in a line from Dessa Rose, “…and we are handin’ you down a story….”


Subtexts in the stacks

May 18, 2014

Certain grads-to-be might be thinking to themselves: “This is it. The end of my schooling. I’ll never have to study for another test, write another term paper, hit the books for research.” And we alums (Who Know Better) can only shake our heads and chuckle. Life brings all sorts of situations you have to cram for, and, in many professions, research.

Take musical theatre creation, for example. (And when aren’t we?) In John Lahr’s profile of the doyenne of Broadway directors, Susan Stroman, there’s this:

A stickler for research, Stroman had prepared a twelve-page information packet for the dancers who had been called for Day 1. In the packet was a glossary of terms, including “Greenwich Village,” “bohemian,” “Prohibition,” “gangster,” and “flappers,” along with citations for the show’s visual influences. To give the cast a taste of the playground of New York in the twenties, Stroman had inserted a couple of pages from the May 23, 1929, issue of The New Yorker: “A Conscientious Calendar of Events Worth While.”

For me, this touched off a nostalgic recollection to Day 1 of rehearsals of Such Good Friends, where wunderkind director Marc Bruni presented a similar packet about my setting. Brad Oscar, Tony-nominated for a Stro show, must have found this idea familiar. And all our very bright performers ate it up. Ace comic choreographer Wendy Seyb had investigated the dances performed on early television. Costumer Lisa Zinni brought magazine clippings of the sort of clothes my characters might wear. We even had a dramaturg who could have raised an alarm about any anachronism in my script.

I’m embarrassed to admit we missed one: one of my lyrics mentioned the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that didn’t exist in the 1950s. A well-known critic approached me at intermission, with a “gotcha” look on his face. And he was the second football fan I’d heard from! So I told him I’d just learned of my error and already had a replacement lyric ready to go. This so impressed him, he wrote a column praising me as one of the few writers these days who cares about getting details right.

I’ve an entire shelf of books I read, boning up on McCarthyism, in my preparation for writing Such Good Friends. The show is not a true story, but I wanted to show how the blacklist actually worked and affected people. So, I pored through stories of the Red Scare’s many victims. I was particularly inspired by the story of two old friends who had sons who were best friends. When one appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee and named names, the other told his son he could no longer see the other man’s son. And, some time later, he succumbed to the pressure to name names himself. So dramatic. And I wrote it up for my musical, although eventually the piece evolved in ways that I didn’t need it, and cut it.

In that case, I researched for many years. In the case of The Pirate Captains, I had a fairly strict deadline. So I could only afford a few weeks nosing through dusty volumes. I did this in the picturesque Jefferson Market Library, a former jail in Greenwich Village. In studying these outlaws of the seas, I unearthed a buried treasure of fascinating lore. And no tale was more fascinating than that of Anne Bonney and Mary Read, the Atlantic Ocean’s cross-dressing pirate queens.

Here’s the tale as I remember it: Separately, and for different reasons, Bonney and Read dressed as men, and fooled everybody. Skilled swordswomen, they joined the crew of Calico Jack Rackham, and met on his ship, each thinking the other was a man. And, as is more likely to happen in a musical, or Shakespeare, than in life, they developed feelings for each other. Each thought these were heterosexual feelings, and had to find the right time to reveal their true gender. Once clothes were shed, though, it became clear that the lust they felt could only be manifested in Sapphic ways. Meanwhile, Captain Jack was becoming fonder and fonder of Bonney, and must have thought his attraction was homosexual. Eventually, both women’s secrets were revealed to him, leading them into a true sexual triangle. When the British captured the ship, all were convicted of piracy. Rackham was hanged but both women pleaded their bellies as both were pregnant and therefore could not be executed. That’s a mighty sexy story, as stories go. I’d previously encountered it in Erica Jong’s novel, Fanny (which was later adapted into a musical by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon) which is far less sexy than you’d expect a Jong book to be.

But there was a big problem in my using the tale in my musical. I’d been commissioned by a company looking to bring musical theatre to middle schools. Inspired as I was by Bonney and Read, I knew my commissioner would never accept a story about a pair of bisexual women. I settled, instead, for a comedy in which a young woman’s frustrations with the limitations imposed on 18th century girls leads her to become a pirate. And the passion she feels for her fellow pirate is instantly dashed when he’s revealed to be a she. It’s all very silly, far closer to The Pirates of Penzance than Boublil and Schönberg’s later flop, The Pirate Queen, which was inspired by the same story, and took it very seriously.

Speaking of not taking things too seriously, I just received the new CD by Tom Carrozza. (It includes our holiday collaboration, Christmas In O’Hare.”) In researching the musical we wrote together, Area 51, we learned about all sorts of incredible things people believe about the government base in Nevada where, supposedly, things that fall from outer space are brought. Everything in our show is completely silly, but it, too, has a basis in fact. Well, not fact, per se, but stuff we researched in books and journals.


Romantique

May 12, 2014

“Oh, you’ll feel such feels!” theatre-savvy friends assured me, upon learning I’d see The Bridges of Madison County. Hopeful, I was, but oh, I yawned such yawns.

The show may go down in history as the fascinating failure of 2014. There’s much to discuss, some of it positive. Stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale give stirring vocal performances. One can appreciate them like one appreciates opera stars in a tedious opera. Much of the music they sing, by Jason Robert Brown, is abundantly pretty. It’s a treat for the ears, if not the mind or heart.

The script is by Marsha Norman, who also wrote The Color Purple and The Secret Garden. Her dialogue sounds natural enough, but she fails to create any tension until well into the second act. It struck me as a stacked deck, methodically played: an unfulfilled Iowa farm-wife, a dashing stranger with a sympathetic ear, the ever-so-convenient husband-and-kids-out-of-town-for-a-few-days. Gee, what’s going to happen here?

And how long is this going to take? Look, I don’t ask that all the shows I see be stuffed to the brim with surprising and dramatic events. But Bridges is a slow dance with no serious impediments to the lovers’ consummation. It spends far too much time spinning its wheels, pretending something is standing in their way. And I mean that literally. The drifter mentions his ex-wife, and, in what feels like a directorial conceit if ever I’ve seen one, on comes a woman, crossing through the set, staring at him. This implies that the man is still holding a torch for his ex, and yet absolutely nothing in his actions nor dialogue supports this.

Similarly, we hear quite a bit about the leading lady’s past, in Italy in the mid-forties. There was a fiancé who didn’t return from the war, and a sister who embraced slatternliness as a strategy. These, too, are just the stuff of small talk; I couldn’t glean any influence on her present life or current actions. It might have made more sense to unearth a high school book report she’d written on The Scarlet Letter.

One gets the sense that the creators have nothing to say. They bought the rights to a best-seller, one that had been filmed with famous stars, and assumed that musicalization would lead to big ticket sales. It did not. Over the course of its run, The Bridges of Madison County regularly sold about a third of its available seats, and rarely for full price. Opinions may divide about its quality, but there’s no denying its total failure to catch fire at the box office.

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown are, to me, a pair of writers who inspire a certain amount of faith. She’s got a Pulitzer Prize, he, a Kleban. Both have Tonys. Now, those who know me are probably aware of how much I disliked their past work: I found both The Secret Garden and Parade mind-numbingly boring. But so many people I respect had said such wonderful things about this effort, I’m actually stunned by how stilted the storytelling is.

An example of this really-pretty-inertia is the leading man’s big song towards the end, It All Fades Away But You. A hefty chunk of the running time has these lyrics:

It all fades away but you
It all fades away
It all fades away
It all fades away but you

during which you might be saying to yourself “This is a real pretty tune.” or “Man, he’s got a pretty voice.” or even “Man, that’s a pretty man.” And I’d be inclined to agree with you, but, there in my fifth-row-center seat, I’m a bit overwhelmed by boredom. Part of my mind is going “I got it; now, can we get on?”

And here’s the thing: Brown may have written a very good pop song, but he fails to understand the difference between a pop song and a theatre song. Good musical theatre thrives on compression; flabbier shows get mired in expansion. The glacial pace of The Bridges of Madison County is due to its authors’ insistence on taking certain emotional moments in the story and expanding them. And these tend to be the stronger numbers in the score. But there’s no conflict, very few times when you wonder what will happen next, and so we get a procession of would-be achingly beautiful songs that are indeed beautiful but oddly lacking in ache.

Music, I maintain, needs to be more than just pretty. And – to mention a positive – Brown shakes things up, utilizing a mélange of styles. We hear what sounds like an exercise on a solo cello. I’m still not sure why we do, but at least it’s different. At another point, strings serve up thick chords that remind one of Copland; seems appropriate for rural Iowa in 1965. And some of these country locals sing country songs, which is fine except they sound way too modern for 1965. There’s a piano theme that sounds like a classical piano piece that gets associated with the heroine’s memories of Italy. Except the piece doesn’t sound Italian. And that ghost of an ex-wife gets a number that’s wonderfully evocative of Joni Mitchell. I liked that song quite a bit, really. Took me right back to the mid-seventies, but the kitchen has no microwave because, oh yeah, it’s 1965.

I’ve two friends in the ensemble, and they take seats on the sides of the stage and watch intimate two-character scenes. What’s that about? Does society’s condemnation of adulterers ever come into play in this piece? There’s a nosy neighbor, a phone that keeps ringing at inappropriate moments, and a couple of eminently unlovable teens. Because the lead lovers have such great voices, you grow to resent every time these stock characters make an incursion.

With director Bartlett Sher reunited with the pre-eminent musical theatre star Kelli O’Hara, one can’t help thinking of their infinitely superior collaboration, The Light in the Piazza – a very romantic musical in which interesting stuff keeps happening! As in Piazza’s brilliant duet, Say It Somehow, O’Hara gets a bit of wordless birdsong and I smiled at the recollection of a show that made me feel feels in spades.

She also gets something of an art song in the second act. By this I mean that it tells its story over five minutes without a hook on its title, and requires a huge (two octaves, I think) vocal range. I can’t imagine anyone besides Kelli O’Hara who could handle it as well. It made me think, OK, I can’t muster much interest in this eventless romance, but at least there’s something really good going on for consolation: I’m hearing an extraordinary piece of music warbled with extraordinary panache. At least that’s something.


Divertimento

May 7, 2014

Encores’ current offering, Irma La Douce, offered me the opportunity to see an old musical I knew virtually nothing about. So, there’s fun in discovery. And I’m glad to gain familiarity with a hit show from the 60s.

But sometimes you open up a package and inside is a musty pair of socks. Irma La Douce is a little-known oddity that deserves obscurity. It started life as a hit in Paris, then underwent a metamorphosis to make it fit for Brits; finally, David Merrick brought it over here. The master producer of the second half of the twentieth century, Merrick had a knack for figuring out what bits of European culture the Broadway crowd might flock to. Irma La Douce presents an oh-so-French café in Pigalle and we’re supposed to be fascinated by the land of l’amour and how things are different there.

Sound familiar? I suppose time and too many Paris-set shows have made the mise-en-scène overly familiar in the past half-century. But one looks to Irma La Douce for a little more authenticity, since it’s actually created by French writers Alexandre Breffort and Marguerite Monnot; adapted and translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. But all we get are clichés like “A lamppost in the rain.” Wow: Paris. Too bad my town doesn’t have anything like that. On comes a prostitute from Central Casting; she meets a naïve young man and they instantly fall in love. Now, love-at-first-sight certainly occurs in many a musical; here, I think we’re meant to see this trope as amusing. The show seems to be saying “This sort of thing happens in Paris all the time: helluva town, no?” And I can get with that, for a while, since the show is soufflé-light and peppered with a good amount of punch lines. But what I can’t do – notably during the big love song, called Our Language of Love – is feel anything.

No need to speak, no need to sing,
When just a glance means everything,
Not a word need be spoken,
In our language of love.

I’ll touch your cheek, you’ll hold my hand,
And only we will understand,
That the silence is broken,
By our language of love.

It’s clear to you, it’s clear to me,
This precious moment had to be,
Other moments outclassing,
Guardian angels are passing.

That’s crummy lyric-writing, folks. (I tend to blame the three – count ‘em: three – British translators.) This couple might be any couple. I learn nothing about them when I hear this song. It’s pleasant; it passes by.

Like many of the Eurotrash scores in the more-recent Eurotrash era, a handful of themes are repeated ad infinitum, repurposed for utterly different situations, as if composer Monnot couldn’t be bothered to come up with more than a half dozen tunes. The trouble with Irma La Douce that might be most instructive to us all has to do with Irma La Douce, the song. Taken out of context, it’s plenty powerful, the sort of pained threnody Piaf might sing, and Monnot previously penned a passel of Piaf hits. (O.K., I’ll give my P key a rest now.) When it comes up in the middle of Act Two, though, we’re not prepared to invest in Irma’s feelings because the show has been telling us, from the very beginning, not to take anything seriously. And, speaking of the very beginning, the opening number used the exact same tune.

Something else, not in the writing, gave me déjà vu. Three years ago, an Encores staging featured Rob McClure as a young man in love, forced by farcical circumstances to dress up as someone else. That show – also rarely done anymore – was Where’s Charley?, based on the old comedy, Charley’s Aunt, with a score by Frank Loesser. McClure’s impressive once again, but back then he was a total unknown to me, now he’s a rising star with a Tony nomination. But Loesser’s songs are superbly crafted to give you a rooting interest in all the romance enmeshed in cross-dressing silliness. Irma La Douce is droll and no more.

It is, I should note, highly unlikely that Breffot and Monnot, writing in France for a French audience, had any awareness of Where’s Charley? The chain of influence is endlessly fascinating to me: Artists’ output is inevitably shaped by things they’ve seen, even if it’s to say “I’m going to avoid doing that.” Irma La Douce may well have seemed fresh when it first came out (I’ve no way of knowing). But this week, at City Center, I suggest you see it simply to avoid doing anything like it.


Just around the bend

May 1, 2014

Tuesday’s announcement of Tony Award nominations has unleashed a tidal wave of lamentations that sounds pretty silly to me. There are those who seem to see it as a sign of the apocalypse that the four Best Musical nominees, After Midnight, Aladdin, Beautiful and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder include just one 100% original score (the latter). Aladdin is more than half original material. The other two are packed with famous songs, as well as some obscure ones. So you hear “They was robbed!” a lot, referring to If/Then, The Bridges of Madison County, Big Fish and Rocky. People forget the many years the Tony folk couldn’t find four running shows to choose from. This season was extraordinarily large, in terms of new offerings – double figures, for once – and even the flops didn’t fold overnight. The most nominated of all the shows, A Gentleman’s Guide… has an original score by writers and a director making their Broadway debuts. View that as a sign of health, folks, and chill.

But even if you take the view that this was another awful year for new musicals on Broadway, there’s plenty of reasons for optimism. Yes, I said optimism. Now, usually, I’m a pessimist about just about everything. But there’s something I do every fall that you might think about doing this spring. I look at the farm system.

What? What the hell is he talking about? It’s a baseball analogy. I’m a lifelong fan of The New York Mets, a team that is frequently terrible. So, each fall, I look back on another season where the team didn’t make the playoffs, with the sort of disappointment you “the theatre is dying” types are feeling now. But, with rare exceptions, you don’t get to play Major League Baseball until you’ve played Minor League Baseball, and the clubs all have a set of Minor League teams whose players hope to get promoted to the big league. That’s known as the farm system, where young talent develops; the best of them will make it up, though most won’t. So, the fan of the losing team, seeking a ray of hope on the horizon, might look down at the farm clubs to see how the future team members are developing.

Modern Broadway has something of a farm system, too, in regional theatres. There are places around the country where plays play with a realistic hope that if they wow the crowd in Seattle, Chicago or San Diego, they’ll gather the steam and esteem necessary to make it to New York. Like minor league ballplayers, most won’t move on; even glowing reviews don’t guarantee “promotion.” But I find it fun to look around and see what’s being done there, knowing there’s that possibility the show will eventually be seen here.

One I’ve visited, catching a show before it came to Broadway and ran a long time, is La Jolla Playhouse in southern California. In a couple weeks, a run will begin of Chasing the Song, an original musical by the authors of the Tony Award-winning Memphis. That, to me, is encouraging news: a new original by a pair who’ve previously created an original that won the Tony laurel (and hardy handshake). Later in the year you can catch the new stage version of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which has a book by Peter Parnell, who wrote one of my favorite stage adaptations of one of my favorite novels. This would seem very likely to make it to Broadway. The animated movie Menken and Schwartz wrote some years ago was an odd bird from a marketing perspective. The story is too dark and sophisticated for most kids, and most adults don’t go to cartoons with singing gargoyles. But many of those songs are very effective, and Broadway tends to embrace dark tales based on famous tomes. I may have to travel across the country to see that.

But wait! I don’t have to travel more than a couple of miles. The Paper Mill is mounting it. Yes, long-time blog-readers, I left New York for suburbia – May is my sixth month – and Paper Mill’s town of Milburn is the town where the closest Trader Joe’s is. And they, too, are doing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, probably the last stop on the inexorable express train to Broadway. But wait, there’s more! Also on Paper Mill’s calendar is Ever After, by the exuberantly wonderful Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. Yes, I’ve known them longer than they’ve known each other, but you don’t have to take a friend’s word for it that they’re brilliant. Look to the Fred Ebb Award (for the team) or the Ed Kleban Award (for lyricists, Marcy). Plus, they wrote this:

which I’ve long maintained is a tribute to my head.

Speaking of places where stuff once regularly grew, it used to be you could count on off-Broadway to present shows that would, figuratively, come uptown to On. For a variety of economic reasons, it seemed off-Broadway musical production had come to a halt. But, recently, there have been a number of innovative new shows that have created quite a stir: Here Lies Love, Murder For Two, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812​ and Fun Home. While these might not come to Broadway any time soon, be patient. Two recent Broadway openings, each with a famous star, are shows you might have seen off-Broadway back in the ‘90s: Violet, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre (speaking of the birthplace of Hair), is doing many new musicals by interesting people this year. The Fortress of Solitude, The Winter’s Tale, The Total Bent, and the one I’m most excited about, Hamilton. I mean, how often do you pay cash for a ticket, and the guy the show’s about is right there, pictured on your money?

I hope you feel better now.