Not that anyone’s asking me what I want for Father’s Day, but it’s the same thing I was hoping to get on Mother’s Day: a little time to myself. During which I would write some songs, maybe relieving me of this constant sense that I am way far behind on my latest project.
For weeks I kept staring at the calendar, loving the Mother’s Day plan. My wife was going to travel with our daughter to see her mother in Delaware, leaving me with time home alone. That would offer me the rare opportunity to compose at the piano, letting its din resound around the house, no neighbors to disturb. I relish such a time because I’ve lived my entire adult life in apartment buildings, only fleeing to the suburbs six months ago. What little composing I’ve since done usually happens on the tiny keyboard attached to my tiny computer, played pianissimo so as not to wake my daughter. Most days, I’m with her, and when she goes down for a nap, I rush to my office. So you see why the home alone scenario is so important to me.
Work – to be done – tends to pile up. When given a chance to be productive, I better produce, you know? And when too few chances are given…well, let’s just say I stared a lot at that date in May, really looked forward to Mother’s Day. And then, of course, my mother-in-law announced some home improvements she was having done weren’t completed on schedule, so there’s all sorts of nails and saws scattered about her house, making it an inappropriate place for our toddler to – er – toddle in. So, rather than having the three generations of women down in Delaware, she was coming up here. And who could object to that, right? Mother’s Day is about the moms, not the dad who’d carved out a certain amount of time to work on his musical and suddenly the crevice got filled in.
My daughter and I are used to seeing the big cats at the zoo lying around, asleep, because certain creatures do snooze an extraordinary number of hours. Without casting aspersions, I’ll just say I’m related to a lioness. And a good host knows to let sleeping cats lie, so there wasn’t a single opportunity to touch the piano Mother’s Day weekend. Or Memorial Day weekend, when the queen of the forest returned. But soft! What ray of hope appeared on the calendar in June? I read the words All Girl Party and knew, instantly, that I wasn’t expected to go. (I’m that smart.) Wife and daughter were expected to attend an afternoon fête a stone’s throw from South Street Seaport, thereby affording me some hours of alone time.
At this point, I was getting to be a bit of an asshole about keeping that time sacrosanct. Any suggestion of any chore I could accomplish while wife and child were gone was met with an overly sharp “No!” I had a set of lyrics ready to set. I’d hummed tons of motifs into my phone-recorder. I had a game plan for what I was going to write that day. It also happened to be the only day off, in the long final stretch leading to the June 8 opening of Bat Boy, which the smartest among you recently enjoyed. Now, mind you, I don’t go around talking about my job in a complain-y way, but some further context is needed. Songwriter Laurence O’Keefe was generous enough to visit with the cast before they went on Monday night, and he graciously answered their questions. If I were a kvetch, I’d have asked “What’s with all the impossible key changes?” There’s a point in the score where you’re chugging along in whatever key has six flats, only to turn the page and find you’re in whatever key has seven sharps. (Both in minor, by the way.) Suffice to say, a high degree of difficulty for me: I was the musical director and would be playing piano for the show.
But here too, there’d been a ray of hope. We decided our band would consist of me on a real piano, plus a keyboardist whose machine would produce a wide variety of fun and/or terrifying sounds. As I got to know the score, it seemed to me I had the less hard part. The difficult sixteenth note figures and runs go to the Key 2 player. So, that calmed me, knowing that we had a guy who was going to come in with his own keyboard, program it and could play it. And then, ten days before the opening, he dropped out.
And so began a mad scramble to get a replacement on short notice. We went through the heart rise-and-sink of thinking we’d found someone, only to learn a day or so later that there was a schedule conflict he couldn’t extract himself from. And you know, besides the pressure of saving the show, there was the pressure I’d imposed on myself to keep all those June 1 hours to myself. The day came: I played with my daughter all morning (wife wanted to sleep in on a Sunday morning) and managed to do laundry too. Since this was a party, there was a long period of sacrosanct dressing-and-putting-on-makeup time. I thought they’d never leave. But, once they did, I started flinging notes at staves as fast as I could. Get it down, get on with it: move this barge forward. And then, as luck would have it, South Street Seaport was closed for renovations, so my family returned earlier than they might have. When they did, I was on the phone with the keyboardist who eventually played the show. He explained, calmly, that he was just a keyboardist with a keyboard. We’d need someone else to program it. And we’d definitely need a sound person to deal with the volume of the amps. Well, we got the second guy to program, and I brought in an assistant musical director who made the show much better; he did what he could with the amps.
As I write this, I’ve yet to look back on whatever it was I composed during those fraught hours. And I’m telling you all this because it’s another window into the life of a musical theatre writer. Life gets in the way, sometimes, and you don’t have time to create much. During my twenties, when I wrote Murder at the Savoy (then called Pulley of the Yard), The Heavenly Theatre, The New U., On the Brink, Not a Lion (then called Popsicle Palace) and The Christmas Bride – all produced in New York – stuff rarely interfered. I’d stay home all day, writing, and some of those shows poured out in a short amount of time. During my teens, though, I’d stare at the appendix to the Cole Porter and Harold Arlen songbooks. They listed all the songs they’d composed every year, and, sometimes, for some reason, there’d come a year in which they’d come up with nothing or near-nothing. That’s something I keep reminding myself of.
This Father’s Day weekend I’m taking my daughter to visit my Dad. As my wife can’t be with us on Saturday, it’s a lot of work for me. If I compose a single measure I’ll consider myself lucky. And if I don’t… Well, I just reread the first sentence in this paragraph: I have a daughter; I have a wife: I have a father. We’ll all be together on Father’s Day. If I don’t compose a note I’ll consider myself lucky, too.