October 30, 2014

While it’s still somewhat fresh in my mind, I thought I’d jot down some notes on my process in writing The Music Playing. And, since someone just accused me of loving structure more than I should, I thought I’d start with an instance where having an imposed and imposing framework seemingly forced some writing choices on me.

It’s the title song. And might that title ring a bell? Thirty years ago or so there was a “light listening” hit by Michel Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman called How Do You Keep the Music Playing? It addressed the same topic I wanted my show to address: preserving the passion in a marriage as the years go by. To me, The Music Playing refers to the amorous happiness that endures once the wedding gifts have all broken. (Side note to my friend Julie: I still use the coffee-maker every day.)

I thought and thought but couldn’t come up with a better phrase, describing this phenomenon, than the Bergmans’ – can it be coincidence that they, too, have been married for many years? So, there was nothing to do but steal it. The next step in creating this lyric was to compose some music. I set the purloined title to a simple waltz. The third bar, where the word “music” appears, involves a traditional musical idea, that of tension and release. My moment of dissonance utilizes a minor second, that is, a clash between a note and the note right next to it. I liked this sound so much, I decided to do it again two bars later, a bit lower, and then do it again. Then, to clear the air of this crafted ugliness, I ran up the major scale to a nice-sounding high phrase mirroring the shape of the fraught ones. That immediately suggested the lyric could use synonyms for “the music playing” to sit on all those descending tension-release snatches I just described.

But, as I also said above, it wasn’t easy to come up with easily-understood catch-phrases that mean something similar. Here, my knowledge of a zillion songs proved my savior. In the World War One era, there was a popular song, Keep the Home Fires Burning. I knew it from the cast album of Oh What a Lovely War – another example of how everything I know I know from show records. Home fires burning may have been meant literally, referencing a time when ovens were always lit, but it soon took on the figurative meaning. Keep feeling that warmth you feel in your heart for me. So, “fires burning” could be one of my synonyms, and, now that I had that image, “embers glowing” suggested itself.

How to put these three in an order? I knew my hearth images were similar, so thought it better to separate them. And all the “-ing” words are easy feminine rhymes. Choosing which of them to rhyme would dictate their placement.

I often worry about being led by rhyme, but had earlier decided that the only way to progress on this project was to throw my worries aside. Looking at the potential rhymes for playing, burning and glowing, the literal statement of what I wanted to say leaped out at me: How do you keep a marriage going? I knew I had to put this in a prominent place in the stanza, lest anyone misconstrue the three figures if speech.

But there was another problem: trading in clichés. This is such a fear of mine, I actually made a sign for my office, “Eschew cliché.” I fretted I was going against my framed (and famed) admonition. Again, would I let myself be governed by fears? Might as well own up to it:

How do you keep the fires burning?
The music playing?
The embers glowing?
All are clichés but it’s well worth knowing
How do you keep a marriage going?

Somehow, I managed to sneak an extra rhyme in there.

That stanza, with the length of music I composed for it, would comprise what’s called an A Section, roughly one-quarter of the final song. The overall structure of this song, I safely assumed, would end up being A-A-B-A. Most theatre songs use this, and I like it. The subsequent A Sections allow the listener to hear a tune he’s heard before, and the B, or bridge, can go some contrasting place. So, the next step was to decide what would be the subject matter of the later parts. Now, those –ing words suggest that the lines have a certain similarity to each other. So, for the second A, I decided the characters might look at how their relationship has progressed over the years, with three lines that have similar weight.

The first thing I thought of was “We two have gone from rice to quinoa.”

Pretty silly, I know. But it’s something I thought of in considering the changes in the world since Joy and I met. Back then, quinoa wasn’t a food I’d heard of. It’s fancier than rice, and our lives are fancier. But I suspected the audience wouldn’t immediately grasp the fanciness of one grain over another. So, I thought of some phrases that kept the same structure, but make more sense:

We two have gone from hot to tepid
From tight to loose-knit
From strong to dwindling

And, if the couple’s going to come to a resolution, the final A Section might involved a vow to get back to the earlier passion in their lives:

Let’s bring this back from pecks to smooches
From safe to daring
Polite to doting

To make my bridge a true contrast, I thought I’d have the couple scratch their heads a bit. With the standard minim-crotchet combo used in so many measures of the A, I knew I wanted long notes in the bridge. So, I wrote a few short sentences that made sense for the middle of their exploration of the problem.

Wish I knew
What can we do?
Don’t have a clue
When I say “I love you”
It appears
It falls on deaf ears

The last note of the second A became the first note of the B, but with a fresh and unexpected chord. This little section of long notes became my favorite passage in the whole score, especially as sung by Andy White and Nadia Vynnytsky.

One of my fears, in writing about this, is that I’ll come off as conceited somehow. But I’ll continue to ignore the things I’m usually afraid of and remind you that there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about my process here. I let traditional structures guide my hand. You can be the judge of the result:

Court jester

October 20, 2014

The process by which a writer tells a story in dramatic form is frequently discussed here. And I try to throw in a few jokes, keep it amusing. Now at the Vineyard off Union Square, Mike Bencivenga’s play Billy & Ray does something I don’t think has ever been done before: depicting writers coming up with a masterpiece of popular dramatic art. I’ll have more things to say about my own process, creating non-masterpiece musicals, in upcoming entries. But don’t wait around for that: Get thee to the Vineyard!

Amazingly, it’s based on a true story. In 1943, a potboiler by James M. Cain was adapted into the breakthrough film noir Double Indemnity by a delightfully odd couple, Hollywood insider Billy Wilder and the pulp novelist Raymond Chandler, who knew nothing about cinema. There they are, forced to deal with each other, forced to meet a deadline. There’s a fretful producer, a doubting Thomas of a studio exec, and, worst of all, censors to deal with. For Billy and Ray, though, the hardest thing to deal with is each other’s personality: they get under each other’s skin.

That reminds me of a song, but not the one you’d suspect. In 1940, Larry Hart’s Take Him lyric (from Pal Joey) includes the line “I know a movie executive who’s twice as bright.” That’s a hell of an insult, I always thought, especially back when my father was a network television executive. I’m also reminded that I once considered making a Cain story into a musical. But, since I don’t recall anything about that, back to the play:

Collaborators Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler meet every weekday in Wilder’s studio office. This, naturally, puts the partners on unequal footing. Billy’s in his lair, comfortable enough to carry on conversations through the bathroom door while he’s using it. Chandler’s used to pounding his Underwood home alone, but, for the hefty weekly salary Paramount is offering, he’ll try it this way. So, already you can see that the big difference between this situation and musical writing isn’t the lack of piano, it’s the fact that these lucky ducks get paid to do it.

Early on, the idea that Billy and Ray will manage to work together seems so impossible, people literally bet against it. But Wilder ascribed to the principle, “If another person’s going to agree with me on everything, I don’t need him in the room.” It’s very amusing to watch polar opposites make the necessary accommodations enabling them to reach their common goal. Speaking as someone who’s suffered through a number of insufferable collaborative situations, and yet lived to tell the tale and got a number of shows on the boards, it’s telling that Wilder and Chandler don’t disagree about what they want their movie to be at its core. Murder, avarice and truly sexual lust: these elements are the essence of Double Indemnity and both pairs of eyes stay on that prize. (Once, when writing a piece about contemporary reality, I had to part company with a collaborator who wanted to send all seven characters on a trip to outer space together. I’m not kidding. Wish I was.)

Spending so much time in a room together means unraveling each other’s mysteries. Chandler, a detective story-writer, has a natural inclination to sleuth. Wilder wants to know what makes his partner tick not as a would-be gumshoe, but as someone so interested in character, he’s fascinated by motivation. And, of course, all these themes and discoveries find their way into the finished film. But Billy and Ray don’t seem aware of this process. The audience is captivated, seeing something the characters don’t see, and that’s the stuff of great drama.

And, here, great comedy. Wilder is something of an unstoppable force of mayhem, with an eye towards finding the fun to be had in any situation. Stuck with a serious-minded confederate, he pokes fun and goes to great lengths to loosen Ray up. Since we fans of stage comedies are rooting for frivolity to carry the day, we cheer the effort, and feel complicit in its darker complications. But I don’t want to give away too much.

But wait, you say, we all know how this story ends: They succeeded in making Double Indemnity, widely acknowledged as one of the screen’s greatest dramas. Funny you should say that, because in Double Indemnity (as well as Wilder’s other serious masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard), we also know the ending at the beginning. The question of how, exactly, did they get to that ending, spurs our interest every minute of the movie, and every minute of this play.

And by “our” I mean, in particular, those who are interested in the process of how entertainments are created: I’m looking at you, readers-of-this-blog. Have the fun of peeking in on a mismatched pair hammering out a highly-regarded script, as imagined by Mike Bencivenga. The man’s a great entertainer himself and here proves himself such an expert on collaboration, I have to say I can’t wait to collaborate with him.

But I’ll let Wilder have the last word:

  1. The audience is fickle.
  2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
  3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  4. Know where you’re going.
  5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.


Love like nothing you’ve known

October 12, 2014

October 12, The Wedding Anniversary, for me, is the anniversary of my most famous musical’s one and only performance. Eleven years ago, me, Joy, our friends and family performed for an audience consisting of friends and family – an incredibly joyful experience. I’ve described on past anniversaries how the key element propelling the writing was knowing my audience unusually well. Imagine that you’re going to tell a joke to a room of 200 people. That will surely be less daunting if the 200 are all people you’ve met before, and are well acquainted with; right? Naturally, an obscure show tune comes to mind: We Speak the Same Language, from All American. It’s so much easier communicating, telling a story, to those you’re accustomed to talking to.

I’d hoped, for our tenth anniversary, to create a new musical as a gift to Joy, re-creating those advantageous parameters. My half-serious self-observation was that it had taken the better part of ten years to write Such Good Friends, because I did the amount of research on the blacklist that a grad student might on a dissertation. For a bit of more instant gratification, I could write another musical in which there were no questions I needed to look in books to answer.

How instant? Well, the whole creation of The Music Playing took so much longer than anticipated, I completely missed the deadline a year ago. Had to come up with a new idea for celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary, and pushed the plans back eleven months: It finally materialized as a birthday gift last month when Joy reached a round number. Slowing my progress last year were little things like buying a house, planning the big move from city to suburb, and the usual stuff of life. This summer I put my pedal to the metal, all along keeping the project secret.

The writer, cloistered in some secret place, stealing minutes to create a work of art: sounds romantic, no? I’m reminded of a legendary writing course at Yale where one of the assignments was “Write a love letter from a burning building.” This has long set my mind racing. I’d probably turn in an unfinished missive with a singed end. Would the letter take in the notion that the author’s about to die? Or were there just be immediacy – “must finish before I’m engulfed in flames?” I think there might be a greater depth of ardor, a sense of “this is how I really feel about you.”

I like to think – and perhaps I’m kidding myself – that The Music Playing, written on the sly during portions of my daughter’s sometimes fitful afternoon naps – has something akin to that artificial burning building set-up. And, since I didn’t think of the Yale assignment until just now, the dire circumstance – we’re about to die, so what do we say to each other? – may have inspired a plot point in the show. Perhaps the professor who thought of the exercise wanted the students to write that way throughout their lives, as if every word could be their last.

Which brings me to a more obvious thing Our Wedding and The Music Playing have in common. They had to be surpassingly romantic. Just as the soon-to-burn scribe hasn’t time to pussyfoot around, the marriage ceremony musical and the recent gift would have to express passion effectively, convincingly: that’s what’s expected with nuptials and husband-to-wife presents. For some audiences, in fact, romance is a key ingredient of every good musical. I know I tend to be disappointed in shows like Assassins or Wicked, which, for whatever reason, fail to involve me in a love story.

But the more I think about this, the more I realize I’ve got it easy. You see, in a way, I’m living a love story every day. Joy is a muse without even trying to be. In two shows, now, I’ve gotten to tap into my feelings about her and the inspiration for love songs and love stories magically appears. Or, to put it as an iamb bard might, “Is this the face that launched a couple shows? It is!”

Joy’s just one of those people who is universally admired. A lot of performers consider her their favorite casting director, or their best and most important friend in the business. She will give the honest answer – tell you what she thinks – in an industry known for stone-faced non-communication. I can trace the major precept of Joy Dewing Casting back to Joy’s experience as a performer. Making the rounds, for actors, can be a dispiriting experience. In the first and most obvious place, auditioners are rejected an astoundingly high percentage of the time. But back in the day, bad was lumped upon bad by uncaring casting directors who treated performers shabbily. Which prompted the thought, “There’s got to be a better way.” And when Joy switched from the acting business to the casting business, she began revolutionizing the industry for the better. In her auditions, aspirants are treated as well as possible. The thank-yous flow like floods; apologies, whenever warranted, are issued loudly and sincerely. No actor is made to feel like the people behind the table were doing him a favor by seeing him: it’s the opposite.

Even better, Joy’s been serving as a – actually, I’ve never heard her title – with the Casting Society of America, instituting changes that are creating a better audition environment for all.

One reflection of all this good work is the set of rave reviews Joy’s productions get all over the country. Usually, the casts don’t contain names you’d know, and critics are regularly dazzled by the talents of the new faces Joy has found. Her current national tour of Annie, for instance, got a write-up the other day in which the critic, who has seen many an Annie, went wild over practically every player. And yes, that includes the dog. (Full disclosure: Joy didn’t cast the dog, so to praise her for that would be barking up the wrong tree.)

Today is four years

October 3, 2014

This old blog has reached another birthday. It’s the length of a presidential term now. But it seems like I’ve spent too much time, too recently, celebrating milestones: the 250th post, the 20,000th visitor, and my wife’s birthday, which I commemorated with an original musical. I could, I suppose, reflect on how the world of musical theatre has changed in the past four years, but even that seems like an unhealthy activity, looking backward.

“Forward!” says a character in 1776, to his horse, ending a number. And now I’m thinking back to the time I wrote a song in which a rider communicated with his steed. In The Christmas Bride, the course of true love goes on a detour when the city fellow leaves the ingénue and her farm. I thought it might be fun to have him reconsider abandoning her while on the road, on the horse. He could sing a command to his horse that could also be, more broadly, something he’s vowing to do with his life. The song was called Turn Around and, since it’s brief and bursting with drive (horse hooves, of course), it’s one of my most-performed songs in auditions.

People respond as if this is an amazingly original idea, but that idea about singing commands to a horse that also make sense in the context of a soliloquy is one I stole from Rodgers & Hart’s 1932 film, Love Me Tonight. The song is called Lover, and the double entendres come at regular intervals, at the end of each stanza. So, you prick up your ears and learn to listen for the equine command jokes. This is songwriting of the highest order, which, alas, Stephen Sondheim can’t appreciate.

My point is not to knock Sondheim, although, God knows, I do that more than most people (merely wish he lived up to his own standards more of the time), but to demonstrate how knowledge of repertory yields ideas. My song is certainly nothing like the Rodgers & Hart waltz, but knowing of the existence of a rider-addressing-mount number was key to my coming up with an amusing piece.

I’ve another story about familiarity with Love Me Tonight, a film that always amazes me because, so early in the history of talking pictures, a musical manages to make use of the medium, moving the camera from locale to locale in creative and sophisticated ways. Some years ago I was part of this annual festival where artists from different disciplines came together to make short films. As an ice-breaker, they had everyone bring in a favorite film sequence. I went last. The dozen other people there all brought in modern film clips – nothing 40 years old, and I felt very much the oddball old geezer bringing in this black-and-white sequence from the first five years of musical moviemaking.

Once it was shown, everybody around the table bubbled over with enthusiasm – it had, indeed, broken the ice. The organizer, at the head of the table, was oddly sedate, though. So I asked him why he seemed ho-hum compared with everybody else. Was he familiar with the Isn’t It Romantic sequence? He said “Someone showed exactly the same clip last year at this thing. Guy named Stephen Cole.”

Cole (Night of the Hunter, The Road to Qatar), a Kleban Award Winner, and I go way back, and have much in common. Similar number of years in the business, similar number of shows produced. And, as that story illustrates, a similar awareness of what’s been done in musicals. Which reminds me of the title of a book about how The Music Man came to be: But He Doesn’t Know the Territory. Seems to me I frequently encounter, in the work of new theatre songwriters, songs that demonstrate a lack of awareness of show tune heritage. It’s like catching someone who hasn’t done their homework, in a way. Except homework isn’t fun, usually, so maybe that’s a bad comparison. For the better part of the last century, people like you have been making musicals. Getting to know them – what worked and what didn’t – is, I think, a rather fun endeavor. So, do that.

I’m sometimes amazed to discover what wonderful shows contemporary show-writers are wholly unaware of. Are there a large number of painters who don’t know Raphael, Rembrandt or Renoir? And now I’m wondering what good it does to complain about ignorance in this paragraph? You, by virtue of reading this blog, are one of the smart ones, someone who’s shown the interest to learn a bit more about musicals and how they’re written. I appreciate the readers here more than you’ll ever know.