Head on a pike

February 22, 2015

A gaggle of professional jokesters go about their business, the business of making people laugh. Something they create, which is laughed at by many, manages to offend some powerful forces of malevolence. The retaliation leads to a very fraught situation, and, tragically, death.

No, I’m not talking about the massacre in Paris last month; I’m talking about what happens in my musical, Such Good Friends. While my show is a work of fiction, I based it on real events that happened in American show business in the 1950s. Entertainers, folks that are far sillier than most people, found themselves in some serious trouble. No one should think that insane reactions to comedy can’t happen here, because it did. Nobody should get comfortable with the idea that a stamping down on wits and clowns is a thing of the past, because we just saw how it’s part of our present.

But wait, this is beginning to sound sanctimonious, like the preponderance of blogs and op-eds inspired by the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. You don’t want to read that, and I refuse to go there. But more on avoiding a preachy tone later.

Blacklisting is a blight on our history that has always fascinated me. A Senator, Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, ignited malignant hysteria when he announced he had a list of dozens of Communists employed by the U.S. Department of State. The most successful fear-monger in our history never named those names, but soon the House of Representatives started an investigation into the entertainment industry in which subpoenaed witnesses were forced to name names of people they thought were once or present Communists. If they didn’t, they could be cited for Contempt of Congress and hauled off to jail. If they did, old friends and acquaintances could suffer due to the fear and loathing America had for “friends” of the evil foe, the Soviet Union. And we’re not talking about actual Russian spies. There were very few of those, and none in movies or television. If someone remembered you attending a gathering in which a leftist sang a song, that could bring about the end of your career.

In writing a musical about the persecution of innocent mirth-makers, I sure as hell didn’t want sanctimony to rear its ugly head. The way I see it, a show isn’t a sermon, or a political speech, an exhortation, or a history lecture. I endeavored to show, truthfully, how the blacklist worked, in the most entertaining way possible. For years, I considered writing about the Scoundrel Time, but put off the project until I conceive of a way of making it truly enjoyable for the audience. This isn’t school, or church: Fun is more important than a lesson learned.

Research kept revealing story after story of old friend betraying old friend by naming him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. That led amity to turn to enmity, and the action of informing led to more guilty feelings than any former Communist was likely to have experienced. When people killed themselves, it was sometimes because they were unable to find work, and other times because they couldn’t live with themselves after fingering others.

Well, what can you do with this unhappy information? One positive emotion that any tale of the era would need is the feeling of camaraderie, the love old friends have for each other. That gave me my title, and I knew I’d need a song celebrating that feeling (my title song). Also, something kept striking me in my research: One of the more famous suicide victims was Philip Loeb, who’d been the leading man on The Goldbergs, one of the most popular situation comedies on television. In addition, I was fascinated to learn how Lucille Ball was accused of being a Red, and the clever way the most popular comedienne on the new medium of TV salvaged her reputation. Comedians, beloved television stars, adored by the masses who were watching every week.

I figured if I focused on funny people, I could allay the seriousness of the situation, and remain true to the history of the 1950s. As I read more, another humorous theme cropped up: they were involved in doing something rather extraordinary, broadcasting live television at a time when the medium was new. There’s plenty of hilarity in that. Now, you could point out that the musical, My Favorite Year, had already depicted the process of putting on a variety show at that time. But, for reasons I’ve never understood, it makes no mention of McCarthy, shows nobody’s name being cleared or not cleared. Over the years, I’ve intentionally averted my eyes from this musical, not wanting it to influence me. Perhaps there are good reasons it omits blacklisting that I don’t know about. Or perhaps this omission limited its success.

Finding enough goofy building blocks to leaven the sadness of personal betrayal and suicide stoked my creativity. I’d have funny folk, involved in an entertaining pursuit, facing humorous technological obstacles, and then the cloud of suspicion and moral quandaries would slowly sneak in. My characters, ever busy coming up with the next hysterical sketch, don’t initially grasp the danger posed by the red-baiting. They think their audience won’t be rubbed the wrong way if they create a number about a court jester who, long ago, jested for another country that’s currently an enemy. And then the subpoenas come. The curtain falls on Act One.

Then we see three wits sinking or swimming in front of the HUAC, and how, once you’re on the blacklist, the only way to work again is to name names to the inquisitors. And if that sounds depressing, rest assured that my characters keep their humor even when the chips are down.

What bothers me about most musical tragedies is that every ounce of humor has been removed from them, as if the audience can’t be trusted to take away a serious point if they’ve spent any time smiling. But life isn’t like that: People often keep their senses of humor through troubling times. If, someday – and I think it’s inevitable – someone writes a musical about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I hope they remember to include lots of jokes. It’ll be truer to the lives the late French wags led, and will make for a better show.



This Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2015

Today, naturally, another look at what makes a great love song. Your musical, most likely, needs to have one. I’m not going to go into all the reasons but I can think of only one successful musical theatre writer who’s written shows sans love songs. That, of course, is that perverse model-buster, Stephen Sondheim. And I get that you admire Sondheim, and might want to write shows just like Sondheim. But this is not an aspect of what he does that’s worthy of emulation. Your audience wants a bit of ardor. Your audience isn’t gaga over Into the Woods and Company. Your audience is looking for love.

Speaking of which…

I recently got to work on a 1950s ballad by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh that was once named Most Romantic Song About New York. Many years ago New York Magazine decided to name The Most Romantic New York this or that: novel, street, bar, film. In selecting I Walk a Little Faster, they pointed out that you really wouldn’t know it’s about New York if you don’t know the rarely-heard verse, which name-drops Madison and Park. Leigh’s lyric presents the metropolis as a cornucopia of romantic possibilities. Every corner you turn – and God knows there are a lot of them – you may bump into the one who’ll be the love of your life. And, playing the odds, that’s more likely to happen in Manhattan, with its dense, overpopulated sidewalks. You can’t picture such a serendipitous meeting in San Francisco, for example.

But enough knocking Not New York. The brilliant part is treating the crowded street – a million faces pass before your eye – as the locus of infinite romantic possibilities. I Walk a Little Faster is an apostrophe – that is, a communication with someone who is not there – it addresses a future lover. With unshakable confidence: thinking you’ll be there – nay, knowing it.

This may seem unrelated, but Comden & Green once described Bells Are Ringing as the story of a woman who treated New York as if it were a small town. A pretty good premise for a show, but I Walk a Little Faster, from the same era, goes it one further with its idea that Gotham is cupid’s slot machine, ready to blow.

Maybe, though, I’ve a sentimental attachment to this song because, for so many years, I was this single New Yorker who never went on dates. That sounds depressing, I suspect, and yet I, too, viewed my home town somewhat the way I Walk a Little Faster does. Eventually, that dry spell was broken, and when Joy reached my doorstep, I knew I’d never be lonely again.

Musical writers go through dry spells too, and there have been a couple of periods in which Joy doubted I’d ever write a musical again. Yet I did, and Joy’s been the inspiration for many a song, and, now, two whole shows. But, in case you don’t have someone like Joy to inspire you, back to the method of operations for creating a great love ballad: familiarity with the genius of I Walk a Little Faster has often spurred me to search for the expression of ardor I’ve never heard before. And, as should be obvious, I know a really large number of numbers. So, what can I think of that others haven’t?

In writing Our Wedding: The Musical, I felt it imperative that Joy and I sing about our feelings for each other, and this should be separate from our vows. (The vows, after all, would clearly be a trio with the preacher.) A lyricist naturally pores through source materials, things that could be points of departure for the writing. I knew Joy’s romantic history, but, even more clearly, I knew of my own long string of lonely years. (This had once been put, if you’ll excuse a little ribaldry, as “During the Bush years, you didn’t see any.”) But a depiction of privation seemed out of place. Joy would roll her eyes at my long-lasting famine. Didn’t she understand?

And, in that question, I found my grail. I’ve never heard a romantic duet in which people are incredulous that previous flirts and flings failed to appreciate the person. And so, with the even-handedness that audiences seem to want in duets, I set about answering the question “How could they have missed…?” Your beauty, your wisdom, etc. Once I’d come up with a list of attributes for us both, the song sort of wrote itself.

Of course, the whole thing is very sincere, but, if you can be truthful, nine times out of ten you can find something funny to undercut all that earnestness. “I pity those idiots” doesn’t quite pass as an internal rhyme, but it got a laugh when Joy sang it, as did my spin on “them thighs,” which works because the slight grammar lapse is so unexpected. And lest you think the success of the song has something to do with our performing abilities, or the fact that we were truly singing about our own lives and loves, the duet’s gotten the same reaction in two revues of my work. And the men who stepped into my shoes later went on to step into roles in Broadway shows. Could be coincidence, but I manage to feel inordinately proud about that.

That can’t be the goal, of course, to provide a springboard for performers’ careers. No, the way I see it, the goal of any love song in a musical is to get the audience to experience the passion your characters feel. That’s what the great Golden Era Broadway romantic numbers managed to do. I’ve the feeling I seem tremendously old-fashioned when I urge you to keep your eyes on that particular prize. But then, I love the moonlight, I love the old-fashioned things, the sound of rain upon a window pane…

Mr. and Mrs. Us

February 4, 2015

Encores!, the age-old series of musicals-in-concert at City Center, is most in its element when it can serve as a time machine. Through February 8 they’re mounting Lady Be Good, the oldest show they’ve ever done – 90 years young. And, effectively, we’re transported back to 1924. Earlier this year, George Gershwin premiered his Rhapsody In Blue and now comes a musical comedy with lyrics by his brother Ira, starring three of the top stars of the day, Fred Astaire, his more impressive sister Adele Astaire, and the uniquely talented Cliff Edwards, known as Ukulele Ike.

What fascinates me is how different the world of musicals, and entertainment in general, was back then. Audiences didn’t look to shows to tell a good story, but they did require good tunes they’d never heard before. How far we’ve come! Audiences today insist on a story they’ve seen before, usually as a movie, and don’t care if they get new tunes, hits from the oldies station will do. If audiences today prized originality, we’d get a higher percentage of original shows.

The brothers Gershwin never thought Lady Be Good particularly important or ground-breaking. It accomplished the goals of every musical of the era: providing ample opportunity for its marquee stars to do what they were so good at doing, run for a healthy length of time and also in London, and produce a couple of hit songs. Both looked back recalling the struggle to create Fascinating Rhythm, one of those hits, as they’d argued about where the stresses should go. Do writers today even discuss where the stresses should go? I hear so many contemporary theatre songs with acCENTS on the wrong sylLAble, I have my doubts.

With Encores’ original full-time conductor, Rob Fisher, back at the podium, we’ve the opportunity to relish the sound of a 30-piece orchestra, and luxuriate in the invigorating syncopations and ever-surprising harmonies of Gershwin’s music. There seems to be no limit to his inventiveness. And Ira is very often up to the challenges the score throws his way. Imagine having to find words for a tune in which every two bars contain exactly three notes. And remember, you have to keep it amusing:

When I leave-

Will you sigh?

I shall grieve-

So shall I…

Hope we meet by and by-

Funny thing–So do I…

I am poor-Me oh my!

That’s all right- So am I.

Adele & Fred|Murin & Gardner

In one line, he can’t quite fit the sentiment into three, so there’s a funny truncation: “Don’t be sil- So am I!

The song I’ve always admired most from this score is I’ve Got the You Don’t Know the Half Of It Dearie Blues, which spoofs how many song titles are just this or that blues (St. Louis, Basin Street, etc.). The verse is jam packed with quadruple rhymes:

Each time you trill a song with Bill or look at Will

I get a chill, I’m gloomy

I won’t recall the names of all the men who fall

It’s all appalling to me

Of course, I really cannot blame them a bit

For you’re a hit wher-e’er you flit

I know it’s so, but dearie, oh!

You’ll never know the blues that go right through me…


To Bill and Ben I’d pay attention now and then

But really men would bore me

When I’d begun to think I’d run and be a nun

I met the one man for me

And now just when the sun is starting to beam

Along comes a girl, zip goes a dream!

What will I do away from you?

I feel the future will be blue and stormy

Dense and dazzling rhyming like that has virtually disappeared from our theatre during my lifetime. And to say I’m miffed would be an understatement.

But you know what’s come back recently? Novelty ukulele-playing. This relatively easy-to-play instrument sounds and seems perilously close to being a child’s toy. And yet, delightfully, it’s showing up in pop music. So, that’s something to celebrate.

In 1924, one of the biggest stars on Broadway was a guy who played the ukulele like a virtuoso. He had a strange (to my ears) and high voice, and, on any recording, spends a lot of time using it to imitate other instruments. Think of a less cool Bobby McFerrin, full of homespun personality and charm. Cliff Edwards is most likely remembered today as Disney’s voice of Jiminy Cricket, but that was long after his period of stardom. The Gershwins, along with book-writers Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, knew the audience loved the Astaires and Edwards. So, Lady Be Good is constructed (if you can use that verb) to give a brother-and-sister dancing pair plenty of chances to dance, and Ukulele Ike a couple of chances to dazzle, alone on stage.

And, alas, here’s where Encores! makes a critical mistake. The sibling dancers are played by Danny Gardner and Patti Murin (she was Lysistrata Jones a few years ago) and they’re fine. But instead of a ukuleleist, they got the idiosyncratic tap star of yesteryear, Tommy Tune. So, you’re watching a show in which song after song is an opportunity for a spirited pas-de-deux, and, then, to break up the potential monotony, we get an older gentleman doing a low-energy tap. Look: I appreciate Tommy Tune as much as the next guy, but, to me, watching one tall man dancing doesn’t really provide any respite from watching normal-sized people dancing. As a result, the Encores! version of a show few of us are ever likely to see again, lags where it ought to soar. In the second act the plot (such as it is) stops so that the three stars can do two specialty numbers; with so little contrast between the two “specials” the charm fizzles, and you know 90 years ago it would have been just the opposite.

My mild rebuke: no charming kook who strums a uke could grace their nuclear fam’ly.