Up there

August 25, 2014

Some days ago this here blog passed the 20,000 visits mark. It would seem that my decision to post less frequently than the strict every-five-or-six-days I had going for three and a half years has led to greater interest in these little essays about the world of musical theatre. And I’m hearing from certain precincts that folks are appreciating the quality of the writing. Is blogging, then, my calling? I don’t imagine that 20,000 people attended all the productions of my fourteen musicals. The highest quantity saw The Pirate Captains, and you’re all grown now. And of course the highest quality ones, On the Brink, Our Wedding and Such Good Friends, were seen by the fewest. But then, it’s much easier to click your way on to this page than it is to see one of my shows. And it’s been a couple of years since you could catch one anywhere anyway.

And getting my shows in front of an audience is what it’s all about for me. I’m very excited that soon a selected few will take a gander at my newest creation. I’ve missed that; and this will end the longest new-work drought I’ve ever experienced – that is, the most years between premieres. Since the last one debuted, it seems a huge crop of so-called musical theatre writers have burst on to the scene. And they’ve managed to attract huge followings, including many singers clamoring to perform their songs, all without managing to put a musical on a stage somewhere. That’s really weird to me, although I appreciate that it’s hard to get produced.

Around the time I was writing my first musicals, there were a handful of rock stars (as we called them, then) writing rather interesting, theatrical songs. Some were like short stories set to music: Frank Zappa, the pre-Broadway Rupert Holmes, Randy Newman, Harry Chapin; you know the type. And I’m reminded of those old feelings of appreciating the pop song with wit, thoughtful lyrics that dramatize a situation, and mood changes within pieces when I hear contemporary composers like Joe Iconis. I’m intrigued enough to wonder about his abilities with the longer form. That is, stringing together a bunch of numbers, hopefully along with a good amount of dialogue, in order to tell a compelling story that will keep an audience interested over the course of an evening. Iconis has been called “the bad boy of musical theatre,” a title nobody would have thought of giving to Zappa.

So, now that my counter has ticked past 20,000, I’d like to ask all of you a question: Have you ever seen, live on stage, a musical by Joe Iconis, Scott Alan, Drew Gasparini, Kooman & Dimond, Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, Ryan Scott Oliver, Jonathan Reid Gealt or Katie Thompson? If so, did you like it?

The ability to come up with an appealing song is one thing. The ability to fashion a full evening’s entertainment is another. We show-writers focus on things like the balance of ballads and up-tempos, gauging where the audience’s sympathies lies, and doling out a steady stream of dramatic surprises. Without casting a value judgment, let’s just say that these are very different concerns than those that lead to coming up with just one number that will catch some traffic on YouTube. And the lines should not blur. Writing for a live audience that’s come to a theatre to share the experience of following a narrative told through many songs, dialogue and dance is very different from processing some cheese that will get a stranger in front of a screen to navigate their mouse to. But one of the things that worries me is that there seems to be a new generation of internet stars, widely clicked on, who are somehow thought of as musical theatre writers.

The honor you’ve done me – clicking on this page in such quantity, therefore seems something of a mixed blessing. If this blog is demonstrably popular, then I’ve become a ‘net sensation, but not for writing musical theatre – for writing about musical theatre. Plenty read these pieces without investigating my musicals. My maddest fantasy would be if the worldwide readership, lured in by what I have to say, then fell in love with Area 51, The Christmas Bride, or, more likely, Murder at the Savoy, and instigated a production at their local theatre. There are countless blogs out there that exist merely to sell you something. I look at the number of Our Wedding CDs I’ve sold and think that, for someone whose favorite musical is How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, I’ve certainly managed to fail in business. Without Really Trying.

Some baby steps have been taken in the direction of getting myself a website, but my primary focus this summer has been writing the dozen songs that so far make up my new musical. And working on that, I feel I’m in my element: not blog-writing, not cracking the conundrum of how to promote myself. And these recent months, since I freed myself of the commitment to come up with a new entry here every week, have lifted an unnecessary pressure. I used to stockpile ideas for essays; now I just blog when the mood strikes me, and I’ve a few minutes available.

If you’ve a few minutes available, you could, most obviously, read some of the previous 252 musings here. Or, there’s a scattering of audios at https://soundcloud.com/noelkatz/ and – my least favorite form – videos of some of my songs here and there. And if you’ve more than a few minutes available, you could take a crack at writing a musical, hopefully using some of the tips gleaned here. So I could see it and enjoy something, for a change.

 

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Off the wall

August 15, 2014

Since I knew and worked with Robin Williams before he was famous (pre-Mork), it seems incumbent on me to add a few words to the torrent that’s been written about him.

As a teen, I somehow landed a job playing piano for an improv troupe, Off the Wall. I’d play something to lead in to scenes, to button them, and we improvised a few songs in every show, all based, of course, on audience suggestions. Sometimes the audience was so sparse, I felt guilty for taking my tiny salary, as nobody else was getting paid. While the group had two or three stalwarts who never left, a lot of the cast floated in and out: some became stand-ups, some got hired to write sitcoms and some quit the business. As we were located on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood, all hoped that Someone of Importance would see them there and kick-start their careers. A certain desperation sets in – I think of Los Angeles as a place where everybody feels that desperation – we had to be funny, so that we’d get a reputation for witty work, so that more people would see us, and thus increase the likelihood of a connection with Someone of Importance.

One day, we were joined by a wry fellow in rainbow suspenders. Robin Williams was brand new to L.A., and so zany, he was the answer to all our prayers. He’d been Juilliard-trained, so he could send up any style of theatre when we’d call upon the audience to call out styles. Shakespeare was an easy one. Robin strode out, with a classical actor’s stance, looked up, and intoned, “Behold, the moon hangs like a testicle in the sky.” How’d we find Robin? He found us. Dee Marcus, our leader, taught improv classes, and one day, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him in the doorway. “Would you like to improvise with us?” she asked, because Robin looked like someone who could do that.

The rapid-fire brilliance we’re all accustomed to from countless performances and late-night talk show appearances is really best suited to the anything-goes creativity showcase that is improv. As many have commented, films always failed to capture what was so remarkable about Robin. It can be disappointing to see him stuck in one role when you know he could play a thousand. But films pay more than other forms of entertainment, and the man really made a pile of terrible movies. But they all came after I knew him. During the period he was at Off the Wall, television came a-biting: There was a revival of Laugh-In that quickly got canceled, and a propitious guest spot on Happy Days that led to the regular gig that took him from us, Mork and Mindy.

Improvising, he was in his element. We at Off the Wall viewed him as a savior. If two actors were stuck in a scene that was tanking, Robin would jump up from the sides, at any point, and do something brilliant. For example, a conversation at a bus stop plodded on. Robin ran across the front of the stage, like he was a passenger in a bus that was speeding pass. Less than five seconds from him produced long gales of laughter.

My good friend Adam, the funniest person I knew, had an interesting take on this. He felt what Robin was doing was shattering the reality of the improv scene, calling attention to himself, being a class clown who’d do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the other actors’ work. I saw his point, but knew that those other actors appreciated his ability to inject madness into any moment at any time. More laughter meant more audience, and now we were the “in” thing to see on stage in Hollywood. Adam had seen the show before Robin, and got increasingly enraged by his antics.

At the end of every show, we invited the audience to play Freeze Tag with us. The rules of the game are that, while an improv scene is in progress, anyone can yell “Freeze” and tag out and replace one of the actors, commencing a new scene using a different interpretation of what’s going on in the frozen positions. One night Adam, who could play this game with the best of them, decided to seize the opportunity to confront Robin. He called “Freeze” and, rather than beginning a new scene, just laid into him:

You are just a scene stealer! You yell and invade scenes and are really a pain in the ass! WHY DON’T YOU TRY BEING A STRAIGHT MAN FOR ONCE!” So all he says is “Okay” and he stands completely straight like a tin soldier and the audience erupts and I’m standing on stage and I’ve been destroyed. Luckily somebody yelled freeze and got me off stage but he killed me and it was effortless for him. Not my best moment but I learned a lesson that day. Talented actors can steal scenes and IT’S OKAY! LEAVE THEM ALONE.

As Adam’s friend, I empathized with his deflation. But I also appreciated that Robin, a 25-year-old doing improv, was encountered with a seemingly angry teen rather than a would-be performer, and, in improv lingo, accepted the offer. He got the laugh, which was his goal; his goal wasn’t to put Adam in his place. He was nice.

And it’s said that a lot of comedians are not nice, that their humor is a defense mechanism against deep psychological scars. That wasn’t my experience of Robin. He launched into scenes with gusto, and after a show he came up to me to acknowledge the success of our on-the-spot spot-on send-up of Chinese opera. “Success” seems the wrong word: he was acknowledging the fun of it.

Improvised comedy is ephemeral. You do it, it’s great for a moment, and it’s gone. And we all accept that that’s the nature of the beast. A lot of people have shed a lot of tears for Robin this week. A brilliant dynamo of hilarity has been yanked from the scene too quickly, many feel. But that’s just improv for you.


Never take your eye off the highway

August 9, 2014

Call ‘em mantras, if you must, but during this present period of productivity there are certain phrases I say to myself over and over:

The more specific, the more universal.

My director uttered this phrase in our first conversation, which signaled me that I’d picked the right one. Rather than wasting time worrying that no audience will ever relate to the tale you want to tell, get particular about details, and excise anything that’s generic. When we criticize a super-successful writer, like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Alan Menken, “generic” might be used as an insult. But it’s foolish to draw the conclusion that writing generically will lead to applause from the masses. I think it’s all a crap shoot, and Lloyd Webber has been crapping out for twenty years.

Also, the more specific, the funnier.

There’s a whole bunch of stand-up comedians who get gales of laughter from talking about their lives in precise anecdotes. A friend of mine produced an off-Broadway show that consisted of one funnyman talking about his experiences, and the title always struck me as particularly wise: Only the Truth Is Funny. When I studied improv, the text we all bought and bought into was called Truth In Comedy. Sometimes it seems that humor is not a matter of writing jokes, but finding hysterical things that dwell in the details.

Here’s an example from my work. When I was writing the show that was also my wedding to Joy Dewing, I blew away the usual solemnity by having the four bridesmaids sing wedding night advice for Joy. One of the biggest punch-lines was so obvious, you could have read it on the wedding invitation:

I know you’ll be like acrobats
On your wedding night
And find out the true meaning of Dewing-Katz
On your wedding night

That didn’t involve thinking up a pun (as staged, it was a triple-entendre); it was just there. (Of course, had I married someone not named Dewing it wouldn’t be, but don’t believe those rumors I proposed just for the play on words.)

Let the spewer spew before the editor edits.

I think I’ve talked about this before, but not in a long while. The creative mind has two parts, one that spits out a zillion notions, words, tunes, concepts; one that limits, that says “that’s not very good” or “not worth sharing.” I have this tendency to come up with all sorts of reasons an idea can’t work. I must shove that aside while the outpouring of ideas is bursting out like an open hydrant. Get creative output down on paper; there will be plenty of time to edit later.

Don’t be ruled by rhyme

In lyrics, and not in life, you hear the phrase “on the shelf” an awful lot. The word “strife” is used far more often. That’s because the need to rhyme too often boxes lyricists into a corner. They want to use “self” or “life” or “wife” and there’s a limited number of words ending in an f sound. You need to tell the story, to express what the character is feeling, and if you use a word just because it rhymes, you’re in danger of getting off track. William Finn does this all the time – “easier than the recipe for making Jello” – and, charmingly, once had a character call himself out on it. (“Biblical times?”)

We have to use rhymes with some regularity, they can’t be false, but they also can’t be forced. I’ve a heretofore unused three-syllable rhyme staring at me, now, from my notebook, and the limiting editor side of me isn’t so sure the song can stand such cleverness. When I teach people to improvise songs, I point out that, when we speak, we’ve the entire dictionary of our vocabularies to pull from. If we’re rhyming, we can only pull from the specific column in Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary, and some sounds have damn few entries.

All this reminds me of a parody of But Not For Me I wrote in my teens:

As Linda Ronstadt says
To Jer, the Gov
Say, Jer, don’t run for Pres
Just take my love

So that particular column isn’t as small as you might first think.

 

Don’t get stuck in eight-bar phrases of four beats each

My love of order and structure is such that it can be very hard for me to get out of this four-square thinking. But, in life, people’s thoughts are rarely so ordered that they come out evenly. Your character, most likely, isn’t reciting some speech they’ve carefully written and memorized in advance. Last night in a cabaret I played Cy Coleman’s Lost and Found, which has two bridges, of different lengths. The second one’s the big surprise, as it’s truncated. On the words, “teasing lips, pleasing thighs” it rises to a new harmonic place, as many bridges do. The next line has the same shape, “easy on private eyes,” but the listener doesn’t realize, right away, that this is starting the final A section.

 

 

Go someplace.

Harmonically and textually. If the action of your play is in the same place it was before you started the song, there was no reason to sing it.

Don’t think I’ve the time to explain the musical sense of traveling, but boy, a lot of the contemporary songs placed in front of me stay exactly in the same place. Many of today’s young writers, with extensive followings, seem wholly unaware of the concept. And so we get a lot of overly verbose lyrics, set on uninteresting snatches of tune that repeat and repeat in my ear. Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win.