I’m happiest at Christmas

December 24, 2014

“Credit where credit’s due” has always been a big deal for me. So, when I point out I’m only responsible for the music of Christmas In O’Hare, I hope it doesn’t sound like I’d be embarrassed if you thought I’d written the words. Those are by Tom Carrozza, whose vocal is on the video, and I assume he assembled the images himself. But I wasn’t there. Nor was I there when the recording engineer “orchestrated” my music on computer: The only human accompaniment, I think, was me playing into a keyboard. And now the word that comes to mind is “beehive.” Not just because Tom appreciates a good sculptural hair-do, but I’m compelled to remind you we are all just worker bees – it’s easier to picture ants, actually – each doing our small part to create a transcendent whole.

And do you know about the beehive curtain? When you entered the theatre to see the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, you encountered a huge illustration, black ink on cloth, suspended where a curtain might normally be, but on ropes. It defined the Beehive as the connected set of professions that defined London life: the tinker, the tailor, the hooker, the hustler (oops, drifted into the wrong song there). An organ played a somber fugue, implying there was something blessed about this network. And then, all of a sudden, an ear-piercing steam whistle, like from the world’s noisiest factory, shook you to your core. The beehive drop was yanked down to reveal a colorless street, where dour people moved around like zombies.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because every subsequent production of Sweeney Todd that I know of did away with this prologue. The audience didn’t start the show considering the connectivity of various professions. And, as the evening wore on, they watched a madman exact murderous revenge on tinkers, tailors, shepherds and fops for no particular reason. His sad lot in life led him to lose his mind and so he became a serial killer. Which isn’t nearly as chilling and thought-provoking as Sweeney as emblem of a corrupt system. Society, with its morals not worth what a pig can spit, created its dark avenger.

The cautionary tale I’m mulling over is the trouble directors of revivals inevitably get into when they restage a piece in a different way. Something gets lost – something important. In 1979, Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince (I believe the beehive curtain was Prince’s idea) fashioned an interesting musical that had something to say. Sondheim, Prince and Wheeler were no slouches. Three decades later, John Doyle sets his staging of Sweeney Todd in an insane asylum where all the inmates play musical instruments, and not discordantly. When the chorus snarls “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” we don’t feel indicted in the slightest because we know we aren’t inmate musicians: we’re at a safe remove. Currently Doyle’s mounting a vastly truncated Allegro, a 1947 musical nobody ever complained was too long, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, directed and choreographed by Agnes DeMille. No slouches either. Once again, the actors are the musicians. I shall not attend.

I also don’t plan to go to the recently announced star-studded staging of Parade. (What is this, a blog about shows I’m not going to?) Parade‘s a sad historical drama that a lot of perspicacious people seem to admire, leading me to wonder, “Did they see the same show I saw?” I suspect a lot of them didn’t. If you saw that original production, directed by I-remind-you-again-No-Slouch Harold Prince, you were bombarded for more than two hours with a single overly-emphatic message: Southerners, a century ago, were unintelligent belligerent bigots. Now, I suppose if you’d never heard that message before, two hours of hearing it loudly stated over and over again (to pleasant tunes), might be your cup of sweet tea. But for those of us who’d already heard about prejudiced whites down in Dixie, well, pass the bourbon. The theatre was at least one third empty the night I saw it. But those who stayed for the third hour were rewarded by a moving conclusion.

Take Jason Robert Brown’s songs out of context and they play like gangbusters. When tasked with moving Parade’s turgid tale, they sludge along like rotting molasses. So, those who’ve only heard the cast album, or have only encountered those melodies unmoored from Alfred Uhry’s libretto, get a distinctly different impression. When I listened to You Don’t Know This Man on Audra McDonald’s CD, I liked its soaring melody and piqued tone. But when you see a quiet Jewish gentlemen falsely accused of murder and his wife comes out to meet the press, you expect her to say certain things. And, in this song, she says them – exactly what you’d expect her to say. Which is rather dull in the theatre.

I probably seem obsessed by this point. But, in my life, I keep encountering people who assume shows are wonderful because they love the scores they’ve merely listened to. In the theatre, our first responsibility is to entertain the audience that’s in the seats. If we don’t interest them, we’ve failed. If a song, out of context, affects people, well, that’s good news, but it wasn’t the goal. I think there’s many a Brown number that people love, without benefit of seeing it in context, and You Don’t Know This Song.

And why am I writing all this on Christmas? Well, I was recalling all the Christmas songs I’ve written, starting with Joy Will Be Yours In the Morning, a setting of a lyric found in The Wind In the Willows, when I was 12 or 13. As a writer of shows, I’ve frequently had to come up with carols characters might sing, and, for The Christmas Bride, two yuletide tunes employed dramatic irony. I’m Happiest At Christmas, in context, is about the difficult emotion of being forced to feel merry when one really isn’t. For the heroine, the title is ironic. Out of context, though, everybody tells me I’ve written a wonderfully evocative Victorian holiday waltz. Who am I to argue?

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Jog on, jog on

December 15, 2014

Another big anniversary to celebrate, and this one’s really big: a rather round number, the number of years since I completed my first musical.

I was in ninth grade, in Mrs. Steele’s Honors English class. I hadn’t started the year in Honors English, but when I heard that Mrs. Steele had let her students see topless pictures of herself on vacation, I knew this was the teacher for me. And it was, because before I knew it, we were all asked to write something in dramatic form. And my fellow Honors English students all turned in three-page sketches, or really short plays and I wrote a two-act musical. I think I was asked to perform this opus for the class, so I went to the piano and recorded accompaniment to all the songs on cassette. Then, in December of a year ending in “4,” I read the whole thing out loud to the class, pushing “play” and singing all the songs. I was a teenage boy who’d written a musical…about a teenage boy who’d written a musical. That succeeds on Broadway. And his producer’s efforts to get him over the sophomore slump so he could write another one. The name of the producer was Hal Prince.

Wipe that smile off your face! The important part of the story is that I impressed a lot of people with what I did, and some of these people helped me continue this pursuit. Plans were formed to perform the show at school, but they didn’t pan out. The would-be producer’s brother played trumpet, so I learned something about writing a trumpet part. And I decided to write another musical, basing it on an old George Abbott play that seemed to cry out for music. When this was done, my effort to get it produced at my high school involved me singing the entire score for the drama teacher, who listened attentively. My Roaring Twenties tale of gangsters and chorines didn’t strike him as the right thing to put on, but he left the door open to hear anything else I wrote. At this point, a librettist materialized, and we figured we had a better shot writing a musical based on a well-known children’s book. The drama teacher patiently listened to our adaptation, and again politely and encouragingly turned us down. My collaborator took a copy of the script with her to college, and was studying abroad her sophomore year when she got a chance to direct anything she wanted. This is how, at the age of 18, I joined the lucky throng of those who’ve had a musical produced. In jolly old England of all jolly old places.

The other prodigious accomplishment of my teens was playing piano for an improv troupe. Someone there, knowing I’d be heading to New York for college and had a passion for writing musicals, insisted I apply for Lehman Engel’s free musical writers’ workshop at BMI. Really, I thought I was a longshot to get in, but, at this point, I’d written three musicals, and my little cassette tape must have impressed somebody over there, for I was accepted, by far the youngest person in the workshop. My education there coincided with my education at Columbia, where I also impressed people enough to get more opportunities to get more shows produced. At the BMI workshop, I decided to adapt a play I thought was deeply flawed. Why? Well, at this point I’d learned that Oscar Hammerstein had challenged the teenaged Stephen Sondheim to teach himself about writing musicals by writing four shows:

  • One based on a play you admire
  • One based on a play whose flaws you think you can fix in your adaptation
  • One based on something not yet in dramatic form
  • One completely original

That fourth project completed the quartet. But let’s consider Hammerstein’s assignment, for a moment. He certainly told young Stephen a lot of helpful things about writing musicals (and, as you know, on this blog, I try to share helpful things I’ve gleaned about writing musicals). But the real education, of course, is going through the experience of writing those four shows. So, sure, read this blog and take in what I have to say. But, more importantly, write a musical, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

On the Brink’s writers

Don’t worry if you don’t get these maiden efforts produced – I got one; Sondheim got none. I swear you’ll improve with each one and your fifth just might be worthy.

My senior year at Columbia I finally got to see a show I’d written produced on campus. It was then called Pulley of the Yard, but when British people discovered it, they took its alternative title, Murder at the Savoy, and produced it again and again, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival. Right after graduation I started collaborating with a guy whose faith in me was based, in part, on the Kurt Weill-like harmonies I’d used in the fourth “apprentice” project. Then Columbia called again, needing a songwriter for the Varsity Show, and the success of this led to the off-Broadway hit, On the Brink, which turned a profit when I was the ripe old age of 25. Next, that first show that had been produced got rewritten into something wholly other, and ran a long time when I was 27. And who should attend my next effort but the aforementioned Mr. Sondheim, who sent a note in response suggesting what I should focus on in my next musical.

My Next Musical” – my how those words have a nice ring to them! You can never know whether it’s going to be a commercial success (as many of my shows have) or win you some awards (as three of my shows have) or multiple productions. The only thing you can be certain of is that you’ll learn from the experience. Exactly what it takes to get better at it.


Berceuse

December 5, 2014

While there’s little value in adding one small voice to a tremendous chorus of disapproval, I found myself referencing the recent Peter Pan on TV to my college students. And there wasn’t time to point out errors they could learn from. So I just hurriedly suggested they compare the Mary Martin broadcast.

A colleague was worried that, although her video recorder was set, her husband and son would likely turn the channel to some Knicks game. I assured her there’s no way they’d want to see the game, because the Knicks were replacing their center that night with an athlete who’d never played basketball before. And who the hell would want to see that?

She didn’t get the joke.

Like last year’s live The Sound of Music, NBC has again cast a live telecast of a musical with someone who’s never done a musical before, which makes exactly as much sense as a basketball team relying on a baseball player to lead. Allison Williams, whose father happens to be the network’s most famous face, was handed the role originally built around the very specific talents of the pre-eminent musical theatre star, Mary Martin. (Few have remarked that The Sound of Music was also a Martin vehicle, which might indicate that next year we’ll get Claire Danes in South Pacific.)

Peter Pan has a checkered history. Its pre-Broadway try-out was troubled enough that more experienced songwriters were called in for last-minute doctoring. When that happens, the doctors can rarely save the patient, but, in this case, they did. And, to my ears, the score doesn’t sound like the product of seven different creators: it’s all of a piece. This surely had something to do with the greatest genius to ever shape the writing of a show (without writing himself), director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. It takes considerable hubris to restage what Robbins wrought, but Rob Ashford, who’s previously supplanted choreography by Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, likes to roll the dice. (And often craps out.)

Certain choices were made back in the day, and you can be sure they were made for a good reason. Peter Pan would sing most of the show’s songs. Why? Because people loved to hear Mary Martin sing. Warmth was her long suit. She was, on stage, naturally lovable. Captain Hook needed to be a villain whose perfidy makes you laugh, and the decision was made to go for the high camp that was the long suit of Cyril Ritchard. Key to the emotional underpinning of a rather slight story was having Ritchard double as the father of the Darling kids. So, on Neverland, they’re battling a funhouse mirror image of their foe at home.

NBC, this time, had the actor playing Mr. Darling double as Hook’s assistant, Smee, whom the children barely see. (It’s Christian Borle, star of many a musical, who won a Tony Award for playing a character based on – guess if you don’t know! – Captain Hook.) Christopher Walken, the movie star who, early in his career, did theatre and musicals, was unable to summon the energy required to be a fun foe. I half expected him to answer “What tempo, Captain?” with “A dirge.”

But in a three-hour extravaganza that failed in almost every possible way, nothing was more damaging than the performance of Allison Williams. And, in opposition to Walken, you could tell she’d worked on it, practiced, had hopes of being good. She’s learned all the notes, never makes an unpleasant sound. But, to use the title of another Styne/Comden & Green song, being good isn’t good enough. This is a star vehicle, so let’s talk about star quality.

Mary Martin flashed an adorable smile. She knows she’s a star (and Peter Pan is charmingly conceited) and moves like she owns the stage. You love me, you came here to see me, and I will give my all to entertain you, she seems to say. Williams is the A student who couldn’t come close to winning Miss Congeniality. She never personalizes a line, or comes up with an interesting phrasing of the music. Strings of quarter notes sound like just that. Martin plays with rhythms to make lines like I think it’s sweet I have fingers and feet I can wiggle and wag utterly endearing. She’s actress enough to put a little wiggle into her wiggle. Williams, heretofore only known as an actress on a contemporary cable show, dutifully sings wiggle as two unadorned quarter notes. This means she has no particular color, no personality, nothing to make us love her. In the huge litany of things that made a three-hour TV program seem like six or ten, Williams inability to project lovability is Problem One.

Star Quality is not something everybody can learn. And a thought about Mary Martin that’s sticking with me is that the Texas gal had great warmth. When you write a Mary Martin musical, it makes perfect sense to build upon that warmth, to rely upon it, to feature it. So, last year’s NBC live debacle, The Sound of Music, was insufficiently warm: the non-actress in the lead role had not a whit of it. This year’s NBC live debacle shifts the burden of being warm on its Wendy, played by a young soprano who’s actually played the lead in a Broadway musical, Taylor Louderman. I thought the added love ballad for her was fairly fetching. (It’s a rewrite of Styne/Comden & Green’s I Know About Love with totally new lyrics by Green’s daughter, Amanda.) But back when Peter Pan was being patched together out of town, Styne was aware – from their Hollywood days – that Mary Martin possessed a coloratura soprano. And so they seized the opportunity to utilize it in a duet for the leads.

And that’s how you write a star vehicle, folks. (Of course this was omitted from NBC’s new-but-not-improved version.)