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.)