Alone in the night

March 30, 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (viewed last night at New Jersey’s Paper Mill) seems inevitably bound for Broadway. Because, as sure as all dogs go to heaven, all Disney properties beat a path to the Street. Now, the original form this musical took – a feature length cartoon (for adults, no less!) – is something I have quite a bit of fondness for. Few moviegoers can accept an animated drama filled with musical comedy conventions, but I’m one of the few: If I didn’t love it, who would?

Putting it on stage, though, robs it of the benefits of animation. This production has no color at all, and the outdoor scenes appear to be indoors, and barely lit. City of Lights? Not in 1482, I guess.

But more importantly, the animator’s palette has a wonderful way of telling a story through images, including various levels of abstraction. Two decades ago, songwriters Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz – probably the best composer and lyricist working today – sat down to create a terrifying moment for the villain. He’s a man of the cloth, consumed with lust. In the film, the magnificent number, Hellfire, is illustrated by, naturally, the fires of hell, but, within the swirling flames is a rendering of the sexy lust object, swiveling her hips. Did I mention that this flick is not for kids? It seemed to me at the time that the writers were trying to outdo Sondheim’s wisely-cut Sweeney Todd self-flagellation, Johanna Johanna, in which, at the climax, the ugly old guy literally climaxes (gross!). And they succeeded. But the success had a lot to do with the visual.

Alone on stage, we have Patrick Page, a very strong actor with formidable vocal gifts. He does a wonderful job with it, aided by a sound design that adds a bit of echo to all its cathedral scenes. But, it fails to land. We’ve nothing to look at, and the original concept for the song had everything to do with the accompanying reds and oranges. This needs to be a major dramatic moment, stirring and frightening but it fails to pack the requisite wallop.

The lyricist’s son, Scott Schwartz, is the director, and it’s clear he’s given some thought to the problem of finding a theatrical equivalent to the stuff animation does so easily. If he seems tied down by certain budgetary constraints, these clearly will be lifted when Disney injects money into a transfer to The Great White Way. Now, much of the cast wears religious robes much of the time. Movie critics derided the oh-so-Disney cute gargoyles, that like Cinderella’s mouse pals, are Quasimodo’s only friends. I was surprised to find the gargoyles still roam about, but they’re just people in robes. And they’ve lost their funny old-fashioned tuner tune, A Guy Like You. Here, they serve very little purpose. In the film, they added comedy and amplify the emotions of the poor little hunchback who thinks he has a chance with the girl. Was it overly cute? Or did it provide something to engage our feelings?

Of course, Menken and Schwartz came up with a good amount of new material and, if this show’s going to get fixed, a lot of attention needs to be focused on the bell-tower scene with Esmeralda. It’s her first time with a bird’s eye (gargoyle’s eye?) view of Paris, and that naturally stirs up some sort of excitement in her. She or the hunchback could conflate the breathtaking viewing with a sign of affection. As done here, it’s a missed opportunity. Quasimodo’s there but is hopelessly (and unhelpfully) inexpressive. If he has any sort of romantic soul, this is the time for him to let it out. Maybe his confinement to this tower has given him an unusual power of observation, and she’s charmed by his point of view. Maybe his stuttering his way through his first conversation with a woman is charming or disarming. It’s very important that we begin to root, from this scene forward, for these two pariahs to get together. Instead, it’s revealed he doesn’t hear very well and is practically unable to talk. She has reason to pity him, but no reason to love him, so we’re given no reason to buy into the possibility of them having a romance.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame relies on shorthand: we’re supposed to feel for the characters because of the situations, but we don’t. The show plays the pity card far too often: Pity the hunchback, so malformed a crowd throws fruit at his face, because it’s that ugly. Pity the gypsies, victims of racial bigotry. We’re even expected, I think, to pity the archbishop who’s not allowed, by his religion, to have lustful thoughts. Of course he loses our sympathy by so often offering Indecent Proposals – have sex with me and your lover won’t die; that sort of thing.

I swear I’m not making this sound any ickier than it is. This malformed musical presents unrelenting misery, unleavened by much joy, and it’s tiring rather than moving. If I’m not caring a whit about what happens next, I’m not likely to note wit in the lyrics. Or mellifluous tunes.

But they’re there. In spades. Alan Menken is the master tunesmith of our age, dressing up the simplest of musical ideas in devilishly attractive ways. Go down seven notes of the major scale in three-quarter time and you’ve got an amazingly catchy and stirring ballad. Build your I-want song on a two-note motif, a descending seventh, and it comes out gutsy and exciting. Stephen Schwartz effectively utilizes rhymes of individual syllables – if I were in their skin/I’d treasure every instant – and I don’t mind it when he’s a bit forced: merlot is paired with furlough and he makes Notre Dame rhyme with a bunch of things it really shouldn’t, like a beggar receiving an alm.

However, if they don’t fix all the botched emotions of the story, Notre Dame will end up rhyming with bomb.

Cryptic greeting

March 23, 2015

The usual encomiums from the usual suspects came out in full force yesterday for Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday. He was declared the greatest genius the world of musical theatre has ever known. I’ve waited a day, not wanting to rain on an old man’s parade, but I’ve got to call shenanigans.

Folks, if you believe Sondheim’s musical theatre’s greatest genius, you don’t know musical theatre, or, (and, possibly, and) you’ve the blindness of a frothing fan who’s so impressed by the best of your idol, you fail to see the flaws, the clay feet, the no-longer-speakable-epithet-for-Chinese in his armor.

I’m not maintaining the man hasn’t done some real good work. I’m very moved by two of his shows. You read that right: Two. Each has longueurs. I am maintaining, though, that such widespread idolatry can’t be a good thing.
You want geniuses? Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, George Abbott, Jerome Robbins and one who’s alive, Harold Prince. Each innovated – one might say most of them remade the form – and had a far greater role in shaping our beloved genre. All of them created works of enduring popularity – that is, shows that people loved then and love now. The first three were songwriters who crafted tunes the world adores.

Sondheim has a slew of Tony Awards and here I’ll say most of them were deserved. From 1970 to 1987, with impressive frequency, he created the best show or best score of the Broadway season. That’s a great accomplishment, but it’s instructive to look up what the competition was. Passion bested Beauty and the Beast, A Grand Night For Singing, and Cyrano. That’s a pretty lean season in my book.

People in the theatre love Sondheim. His work radiates intelligence, while some other songwriters seem dumb or dumber. One of the things I like about his writing – the fact that there’s usually a lot of subtext behind what’s being sung – naturally makes actors love him. It’s a treat to have something to play, beyond the surface, particularly after you’ve been stuck singing Wildhorn or Lloyd Webber songs in which characters say exactly what they mean.

There’s quite a bit to admire about him, but you know what? Fans, performers and collaborators have been trumpeting tributes for days, so it’s time for me, the day after, to cut to the chase.

Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico’s in America.

Say that line out loud, like an actor would, to make sure the listener understands. What syllables do you stress? Where do you pause? I pause after “knows” and “America” and stress the “Ri” in “Rico” and the rather important “in.” And then the line’s comprehensible. Unfortunately, Sondheim wrote these words to Leonard Bernstein’s rapid-fire eighth notes. It zips by, with half the speed on the final three syllables of the first “America” and accents the final “Ri” …in “America.” The “s” in the rhyme works differently, first for verb agreement, then for contracting “is.” The line has something pithy to say, but no audience has ever gotten it. Or laughed.

Crazy business this, this life we live in

The middle part is set on successive quarter notes. One can’t easily hear the comma, which aids your ability to read it on the page. Perhaps you don’t agree with me that the short “i” sound is an ugly one, but the other day I found myself asking “Did Sigrid admit it’s still winter?” and blanched with the harshness of the utterance. Would a genius really write “this” two words in a row?

I know it’s a nitpick. (Ew! Again!) The trouble is, so many show-folk nowadays are so utterly convinced of Sondheim’s genius they fail to see the man’s output for what it is – occasionally accomplished, sometimes banal or uninvolving. I purposely picked the period, 1970 to 1987, his fertile years, because I think the work he’s turned out since then represents a huge drop in quality. If his reputation rested on the past 27 years, we’d be discussing one of the most boring shows I’ve ever seen on Broadway, Passion, and two off-Broadway flops, Assassins and Road Show. He’s wondered, out loud, about whether talent fizzles as we age. Well, let’s see what musicals John Kander’s composed since he turned 58:

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Steel Pier
The Scottsboro Boys
The Landing
Kid Victory
The Visit

When I hear Dear One or Go Back Home – and I know this is a matter of personal taste – I feel Kander’s the greater genius of the two. Considering all the songs heard in Sondheim’s scores, I can’t think of a tune he wrote that’s nearly as moving.

And, really, don’t we all go to the theatre to be moved? Or do you go to the theatre to expand your vocabulary, so you can hear words like reticule and rampion for the first time? I actually read a quote from some star thanking Sondheim for introducing him to the word, reticule, as if it’s a good thing, in popular commercial theatre, to use terms your audience doesn’t know. Someone cited “her withers wither with her” as proof of his genius, and to me that’s a prime example of cleverness that works only when you read it, not in the theatre.

But these are minor details compared to my biggest trouble with the Sondheim oeuvre, the failure to move me in any way.

So, after watching the commitment-phobic guy observe five marriages, he makes a climactic change, to want somebody to sit in his chair. And I go, big deal, because the music’s telling me this is Dramatic and Important, and I simply don’t care. Or the lawyer with the virgin bride who consistently has bad timing trying to get more serious with his long-time mistress. I’d actually prefer to see clowns. Or the middle-aged quartet, two of whom are super rich, all regretting the life choices they’ve made long ago. I don’t sympathize. Or how about the revue depicting the nuts who’ve shot at presidents? Interesting, maybe, but not moving, in any way. And yet people consider this artist who shies away from ardor the Second Coming. Every year with the birthday accolades:

It’s what I call March Madness.


Hootenanny tonight

March 19, 2015

This week in New York you can see your choice of two musicals depicting Mormons and your choice of two musicals using the same jaunty minor-key bridge. (Many know this with the words “will you join in our parade?” but the superior 1951 version goes “when I learned to talk the word they taught me was goodbye.”) I recommend you opt for Paint Your Wagon, beautifully staged for City Center’s Encores by Marc Bruni.

The focus, as it’s supposed to be, is on the music of a rarely-seen musical. And that’s where the evening’s strengths lie. Conductor Rob Berman gets glorious sonic splendor out of 31 (!) instrumentalists. A male chorus of 17 (!) puts out a gorgeous macho sound. And there’s this guy,

Nathaniel Hackmann,  who manages to be powerful and plaintive, the sort of strength some complain is lacking in voices today.

While Keith Carradine and Justin Guarini are names you might know (from television), the true star of Paint Your Wagon is one Alexandra Socha. I’ve praised her in the past – she introduced the wonderful Majoring In Joan in Fun Home off-Broadway. But I was wholly unprepared for the fabulousness – playing another female lead who’s the daughter of the protagonist – of her portrayal here. Fun Home‘s a contemporary musical, and, as you’d expect, Socha acted and sang in an utterly “today” way. Paint Your Wagon‘s a mid-twentieth-century Broadway show and Socha uses all the devices of the great performers of the 1950s.

To quote a quote Alan Jay Lerner quoted in a different show, Socha’s star-making turn beggars all description. In her first verse she sings the word “on” over two bars. Today’s belters would loudly blare all eight beats.  Socha starts quietly and lets the note grow, her face registering the enjoyment of steadily turning up the volume. She also prioritizes comedy over mere sound: if cutting a note short will help a joke land, that’s the way it’s going to be. She’s also a physical actress, imbuing a dance with a man’s shirt with heart and humor. The audience slumps down a little when the plot sends her offstage.

That plot, an Alan Jay Lerner original, is the Achilles Heel. There are jokes, thankfully, but the gold rush town being depicted is subject to a force of nature: there’s either gold in the river or there isn’t. So the story feels arbitrary. There’s no villain standing in anyone’s way. Prejudice (against a Mexican) is mentioned, but has no discernible effect on the characters. One might credit the show for featuring an “interracial” romance, but bigotry, here, is no impediment to the lovers.

On the plus side, the Latino lover inspires some beautiful beguines from composer Frederick Loewe. I could feel the influence of Copland’s El Salón México. But really, when music captures the spirit of the Wild West, can thoughts of Copland ever be far behind? What Lerner & Loewe wrought is the best set of show tunes ever to be set in this time and place. Many are structured like folk songs, with repeated lyric lines and a minimum of rhymes. (There’s even a glaring false rhyme, not that that’s ever a good thing.)

This is the first time Encores has done a Lerner and Loewe show, and this Broadway season will also see their Gigi on the boards. When you listen to that score, you could swear it had to be written by a Frenchman. When you listen to the songs for two disparate classes in Edwardian London in My Fair Lady, it seems the most British of compositions, ever. Brigadoon gives jazz to its contemporary American hero but the 18th century Scots are chock full of burrs in Loewe’s music. Was there ever a better musical chameleon that Vienna-born Frederick Loewe? It’s my feeling that every theatre composer ought to study the panoply of devices he used to get his scores to sound so different, so true to their settings. The verisimilitude of Paint Your Wagon may be the most impressive accomplishment of them all.

How I wish his collaborator had come close to matching his brilliance. The plodding plot, as aimless as a tumbleweed, has nothing much to say about the Gold Rush, and manages to say a number of rather unpleasant things along the way. Alan Jay Lerner dreamed up a situation rife with musical comedy possibilities: A remote mining town populated by men and the only female is the mayor’s daughter. One trouble is she’s 16, and nobody’s told her about the birds and the bees. So, the men can’t make advances, there’s no humor in the possible rape of a minor, and, in 1951, you couldn’t do a lot of gags about what outlets men might seek for their sexual urges. Then, as luck would have it, a Mormon man arrives in town, and he has two bickering wives. The townspeople force him to auction off one of them, as if she’s his property, or a slave. Does the top bidder get a sexual partner? It’s a rather awful question. Musicals – especially 64 years ago – must have a certain amount of charm to survive.

Alan Jay Lerner, sequentially (of course), married eight women. Some of his heroines, like the one here, come off as painfully naive. But the more disturbing thing, to my mind, is that he frequently likes to explore misogyny. Henry Higgins expresses contempt for women in dazzling diction:

Their heads are full of cotton, hay and rags
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating

Calculating, agitating, maddening, and infuriating hags

and somehow we don’t recoil from his sexism. In the Lerner and Loewe musical that came just before My Fair Lady, Paint Your Wagon, a girl goes off to finishing school and returns us to tell us the trivial lessons she’s learned she’s learned “all for him” as if women’s education has no value other than making one better wife material. It’s a little hard to applaud a song like that.

So, as I said at the start, there are two musicals depicting Mormons in town. But the other one, the musical comedy that actively tries to offend people, doesn’t seem as offensive as Paint Your Wagon, which didn’t.

Sigh no more, ladies

March 10, 2015

I’ve another show anniversary to celebrate. But this time it’s not about a production I’m describing, it’s a process. And a rather unusual one at that.

The Company of Women was developed under the auspices of The Third Step Theatre Company. I’d previously created The Christmas Bride with them, a conventional musical developed with conventional methods. On that, my collaborator and I took a novella by Charles Dickens, came up with a different but not unrelated plot, outlined, drafted, held private readings and public readings, rewriting constantly until and beyond opening night.

The Company of Women started with an idea that there ought to be an original musical about contemporary female friendships. As many have observed before and after us, the talent pool of truly wonderful women is noticeably larger than the pool of talented men, and yet, in show after show, breakdown after breakdown, there’s a great deal more roles for males. So, initially, there was the notion that a show with seven great parts for women would be greeted by the theatre world with open arms.

But the subject of female-female friendships wasn’t one I knew about experientially, and we all put our minds to innovating a development technique that would compensate for this. We were aware of the unique road that led to the creation of A Chorus Line. Michael Bennett, with tape recorders running, held long “rap sessions” with Broadway dancers, asking questions about their lives, the individual roads that led them to The Main Stem. Writers then used the tapes as the basis for an excellent text with near-constant music. (That is, underscoring; there’s plenty of spoken material as well as the usual number of songs.) The result of this mad experiment, in my view, was more wonderful than anyone might have hoped.

Could we start with rap sessions, too? Well, in a word: no. We weren’t interested in sitting around talking. And chorus liners are a special and inherently interesting part of the population. Women are half the population, far more familiar than show dancers. At Third Step we shared an interest in developing characters and even plot lines improvisationally. So, we found a dozen female improvisors, and my librettist and I watched as they ad libbed scenes that were based on actual episodes from their lives. All the episodes were true, although nobody improvised their own story. The cast was diverse: straight and lesbian, black and white, younger and older. Early on I had a hypothesis that these differences might lead to some sort of dramatic conflict. But the experiment demonstrated that gal pals bond across racial, age and sexuality lines; the flash-point that recurred has to do with adultery. If a friend commits it, that can cause a rift.

So there was something: one of the characters would cheat. And that led me to ideas for songs for the beginning, middle and end of an affair. But, at this early stage, the Elevator Pitch for the show would be “There’s a bunch of female friends, but one sleeps with a married man, straining her relationship with the friends.” And that doesn’t sound very good. Certainly not a show I’d want to see. So, it became apparent that this was way too little to build a show around. We needed to see multiple plots, and keep coming back to ladies-around-a-booth-at-a-bar, showing how the group was a resource of support and comfort, or not, for each individual. My book writer and I would have to create a few things, hopefully just as plausible, right in line with the reality depicted in the improvs.

And then my librettist came up with the obvious suggestion that the friends should hop in a spaceship and travel off to a distant planet. Now, I’ve promised myself never to make this blog about ragging on my former collaborators, but I hope you can see how soon she became just that, a former collaborator. While I talked of the need to reflect contemporary reality, she talked of the need for them to receive invitations to their interstellar flight in shiny mylar envelopes.

Replacing her with a reality-based collaborator ate up some time. But I was very happy with the second book-writer. Unfortunately, she wasn’t very happy with life in New York and, after a time and a full draft, she skipped town for Florida, never to return. I like to imagine that her summons to head south arrived in a shiny mylar envelope.

Next, Third Step folded its tent to head for warmer climes. People have been complaining, a lot, about the cold winter of 2015. I can only think back to a time when Jack Frost robbed The Company of Women of two directors, a producer and a librettist.

And another temperature-related thing: With contemporary material, you have to strike while the iron is hot. Many of The Company of Women’s components may have once seemed cutting-edge, but as time went by they seemed notably passé. For instance, the show depicted a liaison between a bi-curious friend and a committed lesbian, with the various reactions, from supportive to shocked, of their buddies. Society evolved to a place where nobody would bat an eye at such a thing, and, if they did, they’d be roundly condemned.

There was also the oldest character, a new widow entering the work force for the first time, struggling to use a computer. With time, The Company of Women became as far from reality as its discarded idea of the space flight for female friends only.

Time can be a bastard, that way. But the true destroyer of its chances was a popular television show. Over the course of something like 100 half-hours, one laugh-light sitcom did just about everything The Company of Women did, and so, there were inevitable comparisons. My show never put love-life at the center of anyone’s ambitions; it rarely shows ladies discussing the gentlemen in their lives. And yet, it’s likely all the theatres considering mounting the show couldn’t shake the memory of the four upper class beauties they’d seen on cable the night before doing just that.

Or, maybe, the show just isn’t any good. It’s the only thing I’ve written that never got a full production, so that tells you something.

Heartless floozie

March 2, 2015

Sometimes you write a musical just because you’re sure it’ll be fun to do so. Then the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Today’s the anniversary of the opening of my wackiest musical comedy, Area 51. I recall the giddy good time we all had – the audience, certainly, but also Tom Carrozza and me, alone in a room, for 21 months of creation.

One thing we were able to do – and more I cannot wish you – is to keep it all surpassing silly every step of the way. Tom and I would meet in a small rented practice room. Some amount of time, each session, was given over to gossip. But, eventually, goofy ideas would emerge. And though this isn’t the exact wording, each inspiration could have begun with “I think it might be funny if…” And then, given our backgrounds in improvisational comedy, we’d proceed to coming up with a justification for every wacky thing we wanted to happen.

That Make-‘Em-Laugh motivation steered every move we made. I soon realized that my challenge was to come up with a score in which each and every song got laughs. Usually, a musical will be a mix of serious songs, songs-dealing-with-plot, scene-setters and comedy songs. Thinking about the history of musicals, it’s hard to think of many scores which contain nothing but funny songs. But the first that comes to mind is my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. And maybe that’s why it’s my favorite musical. Creating Area 51, I was treading in its footsteps.

Seems to me it’s less common, today, for writers to set out to write all-funny musicals. Yes, there are plenty of spoofs – one thinks of Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone, shows that spend most of their time mocking the genre – but rare is the show that embraces the musical comedy tradition rather than mocking it. As Spamalot was packing ‘em in a decade ago, people commented that it was drawing a new kind of audience to musicals, one that didn’t particularly like musicals, but loved Monty Python. I realize this is a subtle distinction, but a traditional musical comedy is one in which the audience laughs a lot, but still feels things about the characters and story. What to call this new-fangled variant? A yoksical is one that provides plenty of laughs, and the audience only cares about the next joke – not a sincere emotion nor a pretty melody.

Tom and I could have created a yoksical. But, loving the great musical comedies of the past, we challenged ourselves to go further. In fact, my description of what the musical comedy audience gets that the yoksical audience misses – You Feel Things – became the title of a sexy duet.

Have we tired of my neologism, yet? Another word that’s gotten bandied about over the past decade us spoofsical, with its implication that the musical theatre genre itself is being mocked. A lot of my fellow musical aficionados get offended by them. Area 51 spoofs a different genre – science fiction – and, I must confess, I’m no fan of sci-fi and fantasy. It wouldn’t bother me how savagely we ribbed inter-planetary travel and secret government scientists. Eventually, an on-line magazine devoted to science fiction interviewed us, and I felt like apologizing, knowing I was, there, addressing an audience that usually takes this mumbo jumbo in earnest.

As you may know, consideration of the audience is a big deal with me. I surmised we weren’t writing for sci-fi fans. Our ticket-buyers, for the most part, would be coming because of our following in New York’s improvisational comedy community. They’d be up for laughs, up for genre spoofs. And, since we knew we’d be casting two of the glorious ladies from the wonderful distaff improv troupe, Heartless Floozies, they’d be up for the character-based lunacy of Mary Denmead and Gail Dennison (think young Lily Tomlin). One of the great pleasures of the project, something that made it easier for me, was catering material to the specific talents of Mary and Gail. It was particularly heavenly to come up with a duet in which Gail, a career military officer, oozing machismo, gave Mary, an eager student, but incompetent, a lesson in seducing men. More on that later.

Mary’s character, a bumbling journalist who models herself on His Girl Friday and Meet John Doe, provided the emotional heart of the piece. (And who provides the emotional heart of Spamalot? Nobody. There isn’t one.) The klutzy ambition, in Mary’s rendition, was inherently lovable. We care what happens to her, and, in Tom’s plot, all sorts of odd things happen to her. We’re willing to go on the strangest of journeys because we’re emotionally invested in her every move. Unlike what happens in yoksicals. To use a television analogy, it’s the difference between The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which we always care about Mary and Seinfeld, in which we never care about anyone. (As I write this, I realize not everyone agrees with me that the former was the best sitcom ever – but you get the point.)

After more than a year and a half alone in a room with Tom, it was time to let our cat out of the bag and bring in other collaborators. The search for the right director was tough going: Whom could we work with? Who could be the right match for our comic sensibility? Selecting Gary Slavin catapulted the show forward. Here was someone with a wealth of hysterical staging ideas, adding even more humor to every scene and song. He possesses the same respect for the musical comedy tradition, ensuring that heartstrings be tugged as well as funny bone tickled. And I have to tell you about the bullet belt.

In the aforementioned duet in which Gail as a high-ranking general gave Mary lessons in sexiness, Gail, of course, was dressed like Norman Schwarzkopf on the battlefield. Wrapped around her, like a sash, was a long chain of bullets, side-by-side. The prop was made of rubber, which proved valuable. Gary choreographed Gail to take off the bullet belt and whip the ground like an erotic fantasy from the 1960s. The juxtaposition of a brawny soldier with S & M whipping brought down the house. It was beyond what Tom and I had thought of, but totally in line with our thinking. And that’s the value of a great director.