All rolled into one

September 25, 2014

Fifty years ago this week, the greatest musical ever opened on Broadway. That show, in case you didn’t know, is Fiddler on the Roof. And before anybody argues that Fiddler on the Roof isn’t the greatest musical ever, allow me to provide some support for my claim. Then have at me. What, really, are we looking for in a musical? Some might answer “entertainment;” others, “great music.” To my mind, what we’re looking for is an emotional experience. The more feels we feel, the better. And usually when I talk about this concept, I tie in Aristotle’s notion that human beings have a need to go through a catharsis every now and then. So, the theory goes, the world would be a better place if more of us went to the theatre and watched good shows that provide all that good stuff, the empathy, the release. Now, when you come back at me with your claim that some other musical should be thought of as the greatest ever, you’ll check to see whether the audience goes through more peaks and valleys of the spirit than it does at Fiddler. I realize that personal taste is involved, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone seeing a good, true-to-the-creators’-intentions production of Fiddler and not weeping buckets and laughing belly laughs. And that last bit is very important: Fiddler on the Roof is a musical comedy. There are shows that are supposedly emotional – Miss Saigon, Parade and The Secret Garden come to mind – where one never cracks a smile. Attending humorless shows is a punishing experience: Not my idea of fun, or entertainment (that first criterion mentioned above). I once joked that the perpetrators of such sob-fests should merely present Juvenile Cancer Ward – The Musical!, have characters die, and achieve the same effect. (That seemed like a joke some years ago. Of course, at times, jokes go on to become reality, and I’m sorry if you’ve had to sit through that juvenile cancer musical by a writing team that’s unaccountably won some major awards. Shudder.) Fiddler’s style of humor is old fashioned: deliberately, I think. The book writer, Joseph Stein, was an old-style mirth-maker – he, like many of the great 1960s librettists, had written for Sid Caesar’s television show in the 1950s. The show is set in the past, in a fairly exotic place (rural Russia) and the jokes combat alienation; they’re familiar to us. They’re also character-based. Tevye feels like an amiable slogger, like someone we’ve known and liked all our lives, mostly because of his humorous way of looking at the world. Stein’s tone for Tevye continues in Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. It’s hard to find as great an agreement in a character’s diction in any other show with different lyricists and book writers. “I see her putting on airs and strutting like a peacock. Oy, what a happy mood she’s in.” is right in line with “As the Good Book says, if you spit in the air, it lands in your face.” I’ve seen If I Were a Rich Man mischaracterized as Tevye’s I Want Song. If that were true, then we have the least effectual guy in the history of Broadway leads, since he takes no active steps towards that goal. Chances are, though, that Harnick and composer Jerry Bock at one point thought it sufficed. That was back when, pre-Broadway, the opening number involved frantic preparation of the dinner table, a number called We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet. Director Jerome Robbins (I’d argue the greatest director of musicals, but that’s another blog) pestered Bock & Harnick to answer, “What’s this show about?” There were a lot of responses put forward: Jews being expelled from their little town, a father trying to marry off his many daughters, a marriage like our grandparents had. Robbins kept shaking his head no until he heard the answer “It’s about the dissolution of deeply-loved traditions.” It seems obvious in retrospect, but once this theme was identified, the songwriters toiled with a new sense of purpose, and came up with Tradition, an opening number that, while setting up the world of the play, inherently expresses Tevye’s primary desire. He wants these traditions to continue.

Marc Chagall

It came as a surprise to some that Fiddler on the Roof would be embraced by groups besides Jews. But when it played Japan, the authors were asked how it was possible they understood Japanese people so well. You see, it’s true of every culture: an older generation wants certain things to go on the way they long have; tragically, circumstances get in the way of that. Tevye wants his daughters to marry well, and live on in Anatevka. We see his thrill at getting a rich butcher for a son-in-law, and then his willful eldest insists she marry a poor tailor instead. The second oldest marries a poor man too, one who takes a noble political stand that gets him sent to Siberia, meaning that Dad and daughter will be permanently separated. The third marries out of the religion, which, tradition requires, means that her father may never speak to her or look at her again; he must deny her existence. Then the Jews are expelled from Anatevka, innocent victims of the tsar’s arbitrary whim. All of this, happening to a character we love, is unspeakably sad. Yet Robbins, Stein, Bock & Harnick leaven the pain with constant humor. Had this tale been musicalized twenty or thirty years ago, lesser creators would have fashioned three hours or more of unrelenting misery. One of my first blog posts memorialized Jerry Bock, whom I always thought of, throughout my adulthood, as the theatre’s greatest living composer. If you’re looking for the ultimate textbook on how to write for character and situation, study Fiddler on the Roof’s score. Through his choice of harmonies, as well as a lot of evocative rhythms, Bock paints the setting of the play. Here’s a world where seventh chords with flat ninths abound, where it’s OK to stay in a minor key, where some form of dance is ever-waiting to be summoned. Look at the first nine notes of Sunrise Sunset. The phrase comes up again, and then another time up a fourth. That means it’s going to get stuck in your head, and you’ll feel like you’re hearing something familiar when you’re not. Now, that’s a traditional songwriting trick, but there’s innovation elsewhere. Sabbath Prayer imitates chants one might hear in a synagogue. Do You Love Me is, for the most part, impressively close to recitative, allowing the comedians in the duet to utilize their personal sense of timing. Fifty years ago, when Fiddler on the Roof began its journey to becoming the longest running Broadway musical ever, it was not uncommon for songs from shows to become popular hits. There’s a wide variety of reasons for this, a discussion for another day, but I think there’s something in the quality of Bock & Harnick’s way with a song that led so many of them to be so popular. I know it’s a silly sort of barometer, but when you come back to me with your argument that some other musical is better than Fiddler on the Roof, can I ask how many weddings a song from the score has been played at? As the Good Book says, don’t end with a preposition.

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Blue Caribbean

September 18, 2014

Finally kicking back with a beer 24 hours after the premiere reading of The Music Playing as I write this. And anyone would say I’ve earned this beer, what with all the stress that went into putting the show together, as outlined in my previous post. It was, I think, a wonderful night. Joy was truly surprised but more importantly everybody there was deeply moved by the musical I created, Joy in particular.

It was nothing but praise, nothing but positive reinforcement and so, quite naturally, I distrust it. That was a friendly crowd: the folks who were there were there because they were hand-picked, supportive people. If someone’s a friend of Joy, and she’s so clearly moved, well, they’re going to cheer the effect the piece had on her. Many have commented on what an extraordinary loving gesture it is, to write a musical for a spouse’s birthday, with close friends acting in it, and a close friend director. All of that involves a whole heap of feeling, and one could react to all the commitment and fondness for Joy and be moved by that, not the show itself.

I don’t think that’s it. But, at this point, I don’t know it’s not.

There’s a lot that must be sorted out. Without discounting, at all, the success of the September 10 reading, there’s a clear shift in focus. That night, the goal was to move Joy and a small number of our friends. Now the goal becomes moving an audience. The house the show played to, for instance, is aware that Joy’s a businesswoman, one who doesn’t spend the amount of time with her daughter that she’d like to. The heroine of The Music Playing, Lizzie, also works; husband Chuck is a stay-at-home-Dad. So one thing that’s unclear is how an audience of strangers will react to my fictional characters. People who know us and/or love us reacted to Lizzie and Chuck as if they were us, and so walked in with more than a little history with the characters. Most shows, of course, introduce us to people we’ve never met.

Another thing that may have gone on the other night is a certain fill-in-the-blank thinking. I introduced the show as a reading of an unfinished first draft. That meant the watchers accepted some untied loose ends. And I’m a little stuck on the metaphor of connective tissue. Five songs fly by before there’s any dialogue. Now, much as I admire the dialogue-free “Marvin” musicals of William Finn, my intention was always to write something closer to I Do, I Do, with a more traditional balance of spoken words and sung. I don’t think people were bothered by the presentation’s hopping from song to song, but it may be that they bought into a dialogue-free first quarter of the show because they knew they were attending a reading of something unfinished.

Generally, I love the sound of spoken words interspersed between songs. I hope to paint a picture of marital discord in which there are silences, and tense moments that do not prompt Lizzie and Chuck to sing. Instead, I depicted their spats in lyrics, the looks they exchange, the dissonances in the music. Plus, their squabbles are fairly petty: the smallness worked fine for a brief reading among friends, but a paying audience might require more conflict.

So I’m wondering about that, and it seems this is my personal most Frequently Asked Question: Who’s coming to see this show? With its cast of two and minimal set, the show’s not delivering the sort of big Broadway dazzle you’d expect in a Jerry Herman musical. The “draw” at a two-character musical often has to do with who the two performers are. It’s likely to be a pair that people really want to see. I recall, for instance, anticipating that The Last Five Years would let me get to know Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott really well, since they comprised the entire cast. And that was something positive about the experience. (Not the quantity of duets I was anticipating – they sang together just once – but that’s another matter.) One imagines the ticket-buyers for I Do, I Do eager to see stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston. It becomes incumbent on writers to utilize the aspects of the stars’ talents that the audience is most interesting in seeing.

Which makes it sound like I’ve painted myself into a corner. How can I finish this thing until I know who the players are? So here we have an example of an issue that, at this early stage, shouldn’t be on the writer’s mind. It’s up to me to create two characters that any actor would love to play, to flesh them out, and – I’ve already done this – to stop thinking of them as me and Joy. This musical needs to mirror the reality of many a marriage when partners become parents. The more specific I can get, the funnier, the more relatable, the more truthful it will be. Not every musical has to reflect reality, but that’s one of my many goals for The Music Playing. (Another one is: finding a better title. Sheesh!)


Some romantic gesture

September 10, 2014

A little of the rocky road to the first presentation of my new musical, The Music Playing. It’s happening as I post this, but, as you know, I write these musings in advance. So I can only talk about the trouble getting here, not how it went.

I’d initially set myself a deadline, that the piece would be in some performable form eleven months ago. But if you ask me what the show’s about, you’ll understand a main reason I missed it by such a wide mark. It’s a two-performer musical about what it’s like to be first-time parents. While the work is entirely fictional, it can’t be denied that my duties as primary caregiver for my two-year-old daughter impeded my progress. And another odd thing is that I kept the project a secret – had no collaborator, told nobody about it, basically, until July. At that point, I contacted a director and hatched a scheme to present the show as a birthday surprise for my wife, a sort of surprise-party-with-reading-of-a-new-musical in the way our wedding was the premiere of a new Noel Katz musical in 2003.

Sounds crazy, no? Well, yes, this seems a necessity: there must be some touch of madness in any creation for the theatre. And my setting (actually, resetting) a deadline seemed just what I needed to get the writing going. My previous project, a show called Haven, had no self-set schedule, and I could never get my nose to the grindstone. Eventually, I lost all desire to complete it. But The Music Playing would be a Big Birthday Gift extraordinaire. And one of the ways there’s a bit of a release on the pressure valve is that, for this private party, there was no need for a truly finished draft. Something would be presented in early September, maybe just a handful of songs from an upcoming project. I’m proud to say a dozen numbers are done and a script that tells a story. It’s sort of a short-form telling of the tale I sought to tell. And many of the songs, at this early point, are a little bit of all right.

So, I think it must be terribly common among writers that time management is something of an issue. You hear of successful wordsmiths regularly devoting themselves to labor at all sorts of odd hours, keeping to a strict schedule, and that’s how they get things done. As the father of a rambunctious two-year-old, the only time I get to allocate towards creation is when she sleeps. And, many’s the day she utterly refuses to nap. Plus, since this is a musical, of course you’re picturing me pounding a piano for a certain number of hours. Except she’s asleep, so I can’t. Those occasions in which my wife takes our daughter out of the house – those become my only opportunities to compose at the spinet. I don’t tell you all these things as a complaint; just setting up the story.

Tasks that don’t require a piano, like coming up with dialogue for this show, of course are more doable. At some point, I looked at the list of songs I was confident I could finish by September, and, adjusting my outline on my dry-erase board, ordered them into a story I could tell. But I was long on ballads, short on comedy songs, and I’d always hoped for a higher percentage of duets. Now, I had what I thought were some pretty good ideas for energetic and funny songs for my pair of characters to sing together. Two appealing numbers were intended to end the show, one an emotional conclusion to the story, the other, a humorous and surprising epilogue. Late in the game I hit upon another idea for a piece involving one-upmanship that would play to my strengths in a Kander and Ebb mode. It’s fair to say I was fairly salivating to get to these pieces.

And there it was, on our family calendar, an early August mother-daughter business trip. It would be my time alone in the house, my time to bang the keys, all night long if need be. My assurance that my girls would be gone and I could get to it then were what kept me going all summer long: time specifically set aside for the wacky stuff the piece requires. So, the day I woke at 4:30 in the morning to take them to the airport was unusually gleeful. They made it on to their plane, and I was back in bed by 6, peacefully slumbering with the knowledge that I would have the rest of the day, and the four days following, to myself. I got up at 7:30, ready to start my pounding, and my wife texts that the flight’s been cancelled. US Air couldn’t get them to that night’s event. From a business perspective, it only made sense for her to go two days later, sans kid. I trudged back to the airport, face smeared with tears.

Nadia Vynnytsky, Andy White

Soon the project picked up a producer, a co-host, a musical director, and, of course, a cast. These helpful souls led to a performance venue we’d get for free, right on Joy’s birthday. If the show couldn’t be the lyrical laugh riot I’d conceived of, at least I could stuff the libretto with gags, and now I had a good team toiling on a night with a lot of heart. The performers needed some scratch tapes from me, and my daughter stayed quiet enough as I recorded the rather brief score. All was right on track for a glorious surprise musical reading on September Third.

Six days before the main event, Joy experienced a headache so awful her doctor ordered up a trip to the Emergency Room. A team of doctors performed a wide variety of scary tests. They took some days to come up with a diagnosis, and, by the First still hadn’t come up with any real prognosis. So, as nurses entered the hospital room in an approximation of a hazmat suit, I had to call off the birthday surprise. Finding a new time to do it, that worked for the entire team, was very difficult, and two fine places who love Joy so much they were going to donate space, had none to give on the only day that worked for us all. There’s a moment in the film, All That Jazz when a beleaguered musical-maker looks to the Heavens and says “What’s the matter?  Don’t you like musical comedy?”

Miraculously, by September 2, Joy recovered from all that had ailed her. She was good to go, too, but doctors wouldn’t release her until one last test result came in, from a lab that hadn’t been open Labor Day weekend. So she was finally sprung on her birthday, and perfectly energetic and non-contagious enough to see a show, but, by then, the postponement was on.

The course of true love never runs smooth, and that’s the inspiration for many a good musical. The course of getting this surprise musical on could barely have run rockier.

 

 


Keep her well

September 3, 2014

It’s my wife’s birthday, and you know I try to write these things a few days in advance. Which means, this time, I’m writing from her hospital room. Now, she’s on the road to a full recovery from a scary illness that laid her low six days ago; we’ve been told she’ll be out of here by the time this posts. Worry, and, for her, pain, is all behind us.

It’s been my custom to write about how wonderful she is on her birthday. And that’s not unrelated to our topic, as she’s a casting director, running her own company, and they do mostly musicals. So, writers, picture the process you go through when you create a character. I’m reminded of the time I wrote a play, before I had a computer, and I picked all these short names: Amy, Meg, Flo, Ned and somebody read it and said “What’s with the names from Little Women?” Now, I’d merely wanted to save time, writing their names so many times; I smiled at the realization that Alcott may have had the same idea.

But then you’re fleshing out your characters, giving them specific traits, quirks, tics and, most essentially, diction – the vocabulary they choose to use. In a musical, you might think about voice range or type; it would be possible to associate them with leitmotifs or accompaniment figures. And, at some point, you’ll reach “The End” and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking you’re done with the character-creation process.

How foolish.

99 times out of 100, your musical will continue to evolve up to a little before opening night, when the director decides it’s necessary to freeze the script and blocking. To me, this no-more-changes order is inevitably devastating. But then I thrive on fixing things and don’t like to be told my work is done.10506949_10152655729825350_2207334286046412683_o

But let’s step back to the earlier moment when plans were put into effect that reveal your creation to the public. If you’re wise, you’ll hire a casting director. And if you want the best, you’ll get Joy Dewing.

Now begins a new chapter in the evolution of your characters. First, you’ll attempt to be articulate about who these creations of yours are. How are they different from each other? What makes them tick? What information about their attitudes and background is not explicitly laid out in the script? Joy will quickly come up with names that could easily bring that role to life. But then there may be some more creative suggestions, actors who’d bring something different to the part.

Can we talk about race for a minute? If you’re a white person, chances are you were picturing white people when you wrote. But a reader with an open mind might imagine painting with all the colors of the rainbow, and if there’s no particular need for a character to be white, the potential talent pool can be expanded.

At auditions, a wide array of talent will parade before you. You’re the kid in the candy store, since every one is likely to seem scrumptious. But the thing you’ll observe is that every actor does it slightly differently. And this expands everyone’s take on who this personage in your play is. So, now, you’re considering a creative “what if” that would never have been there if Joy hadn’t put particular performers in the room.

And it’s not her job to choose the best approach; that’s the director’s job, with your approval. It’s Joy’s job to get an array of interesting talent in front of you, people you’ll be glad you saw audition.

Once your chosen cast starts rehearsals, your characters get refined, utilizing the idiosyncratic spins each actor puts on your words and music. For me, this is my favorite part: the work of bringing my script to life. Those times I’ve had to miss rehearsals of my shows, well, were like biting into a cherry cordial only to find it missing the cherry.

Now, I don’t mean to imply Joy is the only casting director who will carry you through those wonderful character evolutions. Actually, I do mean to imply just that – I don’t have a lot of experience with mere mortal casting people. But I’ll tell you this: a mere mortal would be dead by now, as Joy contracted an often-deadly disease last week and is currently fit as a fiddle. The overcoming of adversity is something of a running theme in Joy’s life. There was that time she lived in a trailer park and the trailer burned down. Or the fire that engulfed the hotel the cast was staying in when she was on tour. Or the time her boss suddenly had to go into rehab and, with no business experience, she had to run the company, keeping it afloat and, in fact, making it a whole lot better. I also think of her previous hospital stay – giving birth to our daughter – another near-death experience.

I’m her husband, so, of course I value her. I get to witness daily what nobody else sees: how she’s a brilliant, caring and insouciant mother to our little genius (and I’m not using any of these words lightly). But, with the “get wells” and “happy birthdays” pouring in, one can’t help but get the idea that she is widely loved, widely appreciated for everything she does. If you haven’t worked with her yet, give Joy Dewing Casting a call and discover all this wondrousness. If you have worked with her, you already know.