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.