Another big birthday has arrived, affording me the right to sit on my porch and yell at kids: “Get off my lawn!”
I know what you’re thinking: that, in effect, I’m already doing that here. Kids who dare to write new musicals are being screamed at by an old man: “That’s not how you do it! That’s not how we did it in my day!”
I used to feel we writers-of-musicals were part of a club where age truly didn’t matter. Back when I was the youngest member of Lehman Engel’s workshop at BMI, there were plenty of gray-hairs in the room and I didn’t feel a great generational divide. Now that I’m older than most musical writers, I’m sad to report I finally feel it.
Could be I’m encountering young people who don’t care about the same things I’ve always cared about. They heedlessly (and needlessly) make craft mistakes Lehman Engel would have balled them out for. They’re seemingly not bothered by music or slang that takes the listener out of the setting of the show. Oddest of all, there’s a de-emphasis on romance, as if they’re embarrassed by the emotion. Also, they’ve a markedly different belief into what sort of story is suited to musicalization.
Devaluing craft and rhyme
I grew up listening to my parents’ collection of original Broadway cast albums. These few dozen discs represented the very best of the Golden Age, from Oklahoma! to 1776. I wore out the vinyl, and – I know this is odd – didn’t listen to pop, or the radio, or American Bandstand. Even as a kid I was only interested in musicals. The lyrics, generally set to hummable melodies, hit the ear smoothly: Everything about them, the verbal tricks, the imagery, the intervals, the character’s subtext – could be instantly understood and enjoyed. In contrast, rock lyrics were something of a puzzle: they usually didn’t mean much the first time you heard them, but repeated spins on your turntable might reveal layers of meaning, as in poetry. Broadway tunesmiths were more interested in telling a story, in being witty, in moving an audience. They utilized tools such as perfect rhyme, ear-friendly melody, and a consideration of how quickly hearers could comprehend concepts and phrases. Popsmiths had a different agenda: Could you dance to it? or, Did it reflect the alienation of youth?
When I hear younger musical-writers who don’t use perfect rhymes, who emphasize rhythm over accessibility, who hurl concepts like hailstones, I think, “Well, they can’t have grown up listening to musicals. This sounds more like pop.” Stuff you hear on the radio can always get away with false rhymes, nonsensical su-su-pseudo-words, and overly dense ideas. And I just realized how much I sound like an old man by saying “hear on the radio” as nobody listens to radio any more. But consider: I limited myself to fewer than fifty albums representing the best of Golden Age musicals. With Spotify and YouTube today, I doubt anybody’s curtailing their playlist to that.
Music of a place and time
Good theatre composers are like chameleons, really. Sure, everybody has a style, but the pre-eminent practitioners change their skins, in a way, when meeting the challenge of telling tales in different settings. My composition teacher admiringly pointed to Frederick Loewe, who sounded oh-so-Edwardian-England in My Fair Lady, sacre bleu!-so-fin-de-siècle-French in Gigi and so Wild West in Paint Your Wagon, you imagine tumbleweeds getting caught on staves.
So, do you love a good reggae? Who doesn’t love a good reggae? 25 years ago, there was this musical, set on a Caribbean isle, and a vivacious young woman gets introduced with a bright reggae.
Makes sense to me. Stephen Flaherty, perhaps the pre-eminent composer of this era, often writes with an eye towards what harmonic, rhythmic and orchestral colors set a score in a particular time and place. For some reason I cannot fathom, he’s not nearly as famous or known as Jason Robert Brown, whose music and lyrics have graced nothing but flops. His song title I Can Do Better Than That often comes to mind when I think of him. And it, too, happens to be a reggae:
Who doesn’t love a good reggae, right? Because if your character’s from the Caribbean, it makes sense that… Wait a minute! Cathy’s not from the Caribbean. She’s a white chick struggling to learn which Central Park West buildings contain which celebrities. Brown’s choice of a reggae for this character in this particular time and place seems totally arbitrary. Almost as arbitrary as giving a peppy salsa to a Jewish character.
Younger people never seem to be bothered by this.
A little romance
While I’m thinking of The Last 5 Years: Did you ever notice how its stronger moments depict disharmony within a relationship? There’s very little of the lovers saying “I love you.” And it’s not just The Last 5 Years: the inability to give soaring expression to amorous feelings is a wide-spread problem in this strange new world we live in. There was a time – LONG BEFORE I WAS BORN, thank you – when people naturally looked to musicals for passionate outpourings. If Rodgers, Berlin, Porter or Gershwin saw the musicals of today, I think they’d find the lack of love songs the most surprising change of all.
I’m tempted to lay this at the feet of Stephen Sondheim. In the 45 years since he became widely-admired, he’s given us precious few celebrations of amity, along with many searing portrayals of enmity, of love gone wrong. Those who consider Sondheim The Great One often aspire to follow his every move; their output has been long on hate songs, short on love songs. So, where once shows celebrated happy romance, now they excoriate and criticize. You’ll note my latest musical, The Music Playing, details a married couple’s successful ascent out of tough times. And yes, I’m dreadfully old fashioned in my insistence that musicals should contain, somewhere, an un-ironic positive romance.
What’s the show about?
Many a younger person thinks me mighty strange for creating a show in which people love each other. Well, the feeling is mutual: If you’re working on something truly tragic or relentlessly sad, I scratch my head. This month, a Broadway revival of a Broadway flop closed deep in the red. And a lot of people sound surprised that not enough people wanted to buy tickets to see the sad lot of Siamese Twin sisters during the depression. If you think that’s a good idea for a show, you’re probably younger than me.
I’ve actually sat through a cutting of a musical based on Schindler’s List, heard several songs from one about the Lindbergh kidnapping, and my taste led me to avoid shows about Leopold and Loeb, Kitty Genovese, Columbine and tons of others. The truly tragic “sings” to a lot of novice writers. Me, I feel that musicals have an idiosyncratic knack for celebration, for boosting joy.
But, some of you who know my work might say, didn’t you take on a very depressing subject by writing about McCarthyism? Good point: I’ve long suspected Such Good Friends has limited appeal because so few people want to see anything about the scoundrel time, and they don’t look beyond the setting. If they did, they’d see I’d told my tragic story in the most entertaining way conceivable, with lots of jokes and instantly lovable tunes. I guess one of the indulgences one is allowed on one’s birthday is to quote a review, so here’s a bit from Michael Dale: