That chorus of approval for Hamilton, which I joined, gets me thinking about other musicals with book, music and lyrics by just one person. Of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda is performing more than the hat trick, since he’s also performing as that guy on the Ten. This might lead one to think of George M. Cohan at the beginning of the last century, or, a couple of decades later, Britain’s Noel Coward, the Union Jack of All Theatrical Trades. And if, generations before me, a fellow named Noel could do it, so could I. There were plans (which fizzled) to do my first musical, How To Be Happy, with book, music and lyrics by me, with me in the lead role of a guy who writes book, music and lyrics for a Broadway show which he stars in. Ah, youth.
And if a guy with a consecutive T-Z in his name could – well, that would be Marc Blitzstein who penned the unusual but affecting agitprop, The Cradle Will Rock. In the fun film about the creation of the show, also called The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein often looks haunted, hungry, or mildly disturbed. And there’s many who’d call crazy those of us who face the massive task of fashioning these things sans collaborator. I’ve been told another Brit, Lionel Bart, was loony tunes, with an emphasis on the latter. He’s only remembered for the best of all U.K. shows, Oliver! It certainly helped that he could lean on the plot structure of one of Charles Dickens’ best-loved novels. But I think the score’s a knock-out, combining of-the-period styled ditties with contemporary ballads that tap into the time-tested pathos of Oliver Twist. I had to play Where Is Love? over and over again recently, and marveled at this triple-rhyme:
Will I ever know
The sweet “hello”
That’s meant for o-
I doubt I would have ever thought of that, because I assume the first syllable of “only” is “own.” But, when sung, especially by a kid, the damn thing works.
Dickens was also the source of Rupert Holmes’ Tony-winning triple threat debut, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He’d previously been a chart-topping pop songwriter, and I think the show’s success is more based on its cast and gimmick than the quality of the score, but one song, Moonfall, is a wonderful exploration of Victorian weirdness I wish I’d written. (Apparently, Cy Coleman felt the same way, for his With Every Breath I Take is largely a rip-off.)
Meredith Willson was even more well-known in another field (radio) before he turned his attention to the theatre. He initially had a collaborator, whom he eventually dropped, in his attempt to idealize his small town memories in a show about an autistic child. It took him years of rewrites, and some mentoring by Frank Loesser before he was convinced to severely curtail the severity of the little boy’s illness. So, in The Music Man, little Winthrop merely has a stutter, and Willson had a hit so irresistible, it won the Tony over the far more avant garde West Side Story.
I mentioned that his mentor was Frank Loesser, my favorite songwriter, and the publisher of the score. A year or so prior, he created, all by himself, an amazingly emotional three-act, The Most Happy Fella. It boasts an extraordinary high proportion of singing to speech, and my belief is that Loesser felt most comfortable musicalizing moments than writing dialogue. Forty years later, a thirty-something diner waiter felt so uncomfortable with spoken words, he rhymed everything and had characters sing all the time. The most successful part of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is its use of rock and other then-rarely-heard-in-theatres-but-often-on-the-radio styles. I find the storytelling problematic, but admire many of the songs, and, sadly, it’s an unfinished work, as the author died as the off-Broadway premiere was happening. Good writers – and I believe he was one – listen to their audiences and rewrite like crazy. Had he lived, I’m confident Larson would have fashioned a revolutionary rock musical. As it happened, he posthumously won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize without making the final fixes.
A generation earlier, there was another solo effort that used popular music not previously heard, much, in the theatre. Micki Grant appeared in her own Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. It ran more than 1000 performances, and I don’t understand why so few people know this show nor why Grant never had another hit. So that’s, perhaps, another odd distinction, to start off with a long-running hit written without collaborators, but subsequent work doesn’t set the world on fire. I think of another Englishman, Sandy Wilson and another American who died young, Rick Besoyan. Their hit shows do similar things, sending up genres that existed in the 1920s. Wilson’s The Boy Friend is a delightful parody of how British musicals used to be: It makes dramatic hay out of the tiny tragedies in the romantic life of a lass named Polly. Besoyan’s Little Mary Sunshine lampoons the conventions of operetta. These days, musical theatre wonks have coined a new term of derision, spoofsical, and argue about what degree of respect the creators have for their targets (as if Something’s Rotten about this practice) .
Well, perhaps I can speak to this. When I was 21, I was a Savoyard, that is, someone who loves Gilbert and Sullivan. A college campus Gilbert and Sullivan group was looking to do their one-act, Trial By Jury, but potential companion pieces, by one or the other without the other, were of a much lower quality. So, I seized the opportunity to write a short G & S-ish piece over summer vacation, then called Pulley of the Yard (later retitled Murder at the Savoy. Adding take-off on top of take-off, I wrote a backstage who-done-it exactly as I thought the Victorian pair might have. It was an unprecedented success for the Gilbert and Sullivan troupe, and has since been produced several times in England and Scotland. It’s most loved among G & S aficionados, who understand no derision of the genre is implied.