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….”