Don’t call me child

May 21, 2015

I can’t say how many years ago it was, because that would be telling a lady’s age, but a very round number of years ago, I saw a show called Lost In Place by Alexa Junge (I talked about her a few weeks ago) and Jeanine Tesori. All these years later Jeanine has gone on to be the best theatre composer of the 21st Century and nobody could be less surprised than I. Yes, I said it way back then, when nobody knew her, and I’ll repeat it now: Jeanine is a musical creator of the highest magnitude.

All those raves for Fun Home sing her praises, and similar excitement greeted her Violet the year before. I’m betting you can read dozens of analyses of the pre-eminent stage composer of our time all over the Internet but here’s the only appraisal that will reference Lost In Place.

This was the second Columbia Varsity Show of the current consecutive string. The annual student-created musical, where Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart cut their teeth had ceased being an annual in the 60s. The Herculean efforts of Adam Belanoff and Steve Gee had reignited the kindling the year before – text by Belanoff, Gee, Junge and me; musical direction by Jeanine – but would the flame stay lit? It did, in no small part due to the brilliant songwriting of Tesori and Junge. Notably, what could have been unrelenting wackiness was given a touch of heart:

Breeze blows cold from the river
There’s no one that you know in Tom’s
Hit the hay or hit the books
Give the bag men vacant looks
And wonder where their kids are
Who their kids are

The plaintive strains of Jeanine’s tune came out of nowhere, surprisingly slapping you like a burst of Hudson spray. The main character faced an existential crisis and, suddenly, the voices of campus statues come to life give the guy a lift. Moving and stunning and funny at the same time.

I was even more taken with a solo about a former rabble-rouser returning to the site of her finest hour. Jeanine did words and music, and employed a very energetic phrase starting with two quick triplets. Much of the song consists of long sustained notes as the character indulges in nostalgia, but during these the rhythm continues in the accompaniment. In this way, we hear the older character and her former self simultaneously, a woman at once both young and old.

That’s smart writing, and intelligent composition is the hallmark of Tesori’s better-known musicals. There’s an exactitude, a way of finding precisely the music that characterizes the time, place and emotion. Violet’s an odyssey through the American South in the 1960’s, and the score carefully delineates the differences between black people’s music and white folks’ music. Since two soldiers of different races are part of a triangle, the sound sometimes goes back and forth within the same song. Her Caroline, or Change also depicts African-Americans of that era. Working with acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner, Jeanine learned of his upbringing in Louisiana and how his parents were orchestral woodwind players. You hear a clarinet, and, thrillingly, the scene shifts from living room to laundry room and there’s this fantastic overlap between a Jewish sound and a bit of R & B.

Broadway success came with Thoroughly Modern Millie. More performers have songs from this score in their books than any other. Ubiquity, thy name is Gimme Gimme (for girls) or What Do I Need with Love? (for fellas). I far prefer Forget About the Boy, with its start-to-finish energy and drive. It surprised me, in the best possible way, when it runs in counterpoint to Jimmy, a number from the 1967 movie version. In fact, Millie is an amalgam from many sources: numbers from the movie, standards from the 1920s and a couple of “light classics” from the 19th century. Tesori’s songs manage to weave them all together in a way that makes sense, and performers never glom onto the tunes she didn’t write. When idiots (I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to call them) whine that “Nobody writes musicals the way they used to” Millie is the most obvious refutation. It’s a star vehicle, like they used to write, and yet was cast with an unknown, Sutton Foster. The vehicle made the star, and no year of the first decade of this century went by without Foster appearing in a Broadway show. No fool she, Foster went on to star in two other Jeanine Tesori musicals.

One of those is Shrek, which I feel is Jeanine’s weakest. It, like Millie, lives or dies by how funny its jokes are, and I find the David Lindsay-Abaire lyrics to be practically laugh-free, which is troublesome in a comedy song. But there’s a nice bit of music when we see a trio of Fionas – kid, teen and adult. Gee, the same heroine portrayed by three actresses at different ages: remind anyone else of Fun Home? If Shrek is too childish and simple for your tastes, you couldn’t find a more emotionally complex tuner than the current smash hit. It’s a musical for grown-ups, as was Caroline or Change, as was Violet.

And yet they all have children in key roles. Which is really hard to pull off. Young Violet, and Noah and Young Alison have to seem real to us; if they’re the least bit cutesy, we’d be taken out of the story. Somehow, the young people in Jeanine’s shows are natural, wholly free of shtick. And I believe this has something to do with how the vocal parts are written.

Something else all of her shows have in common: They represent the first professional efforts of their lyricists. Think about that one. Most first-time lyricists fall flat on their faces. Working with Jeanine, they win Klebans and Obies and Tonys. This can only have to do with their collaborator holding them up to the highest possible standards. Which really should happen with everyone, but doesn’t.


This is your lucky day

May 11, 2015

A while ago, this blog received its 25,000th view. And that’s something to celebrate. And I usually use any excuse to celebrate. But, around the time my meter ticked past that rather round number, this comment was posted to my blog:

Well, you come across as having an ax to grind. I think you won’t grind it with success, because – whether it is or not – it also comes across as sour grapes, which is just not a good calling card.

which prompts me to self-examine. I’ve always hoped this blog could be a good calling card. But is it a dish of sour grapes? Do I have an ax to grind?

After much soul-searching I hereby confess to privately holding something of a grudge against Happy Days. No, not the Beckett play. It’s a musical based on the old sitcom and it had its world premiere around the time my Such Good Friends opened seven and a half years ago. Such Good Friends, I’m proud to tell you, got unbelievably good reviews. Michael Dale called it the best musical comedy he’d seen in years, it was a critic’s pick in Backstage and Peter Filichia raved for paragraph after paragraph. Yes, I read reviews, and, just to make sure these critics weren’t pushovers, I also read their reviews of other shows that played around that time. The notices for Happy Days were as terrible as anything I’ve ever read. Critics said to steer clear of Happy Days on the same pages they said Such Good Friends was good enough to “move to Broadway right now.” And of course you know my show didn’t move to Broadway and Happy Days has gotten produced over and over again.

Am I beside myself with bitterness about this? I don’t think so, but you tell me.

I do tend to get cynical when famous and successful artists from other genres swoop down and try their hands at musical theatre. For instance, I’ve never seen Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and, for all I know, it could be wonderful. But I’ve a sneaking suspicion it’s gotten produced not because it’s a worthy, high-quality script and score, but because the libretto is by the popular and prolific novelist Stephen King, and the music and lyrics are by John Mellencamp, who used to be a cougar before the animal became synonymous with older women lusting after younger men. I’m not famous myself – although 25,000 people have read my name! – but I’ve the sinking feeling that if I’d written a musical with precisely the same proficiency as Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, it wouldn’t be produced on any stage.

Is that sour grapes? Do I imply that Ghost Brothers might not be good because I’ve an ax to grind, or suspect that axes go into people’s necks during the show? Producers understandably assume that a lot of people will buy tickets to a Stephen King/John Mellencamp show because they already have legions of fans. Just like the crowds who showed up to see Sting’s show last year, or Kathie Lee Gifford’s the year before, or that ridiculously expensive extravaganza by Bono and The Edge.

I wish more musicals got produced based on their merit, rather than on their creators’ reputations for creating something other than musical theatre; don’t you?

I’ve been luckier than most show-writers, as a couple dozen times or so, perspicacious producers have mounted my works. Not because I’ve some following, but because they believed an audience would be entertained. Frequently, the result of that faith was sold-out houses, extended runs, rave reviews and awards. People had a good time, were moved, thoroughly entertained. And that’s what matters most to me.

Here on this blog, I always aim to help fellow writers. I share my experience from many years of writing with the hope that others can learn a bit here. And I’m not afraid to call ’em as I see ’em. So, sometimes I’ll criticize a musical for what I see as shoddy writing. And, due to the irretractable law of chacun à son goût, you may love this show. You may think it’s perfect, unimpeachable, and here I am, impeaching. Should I apologize for that? Did you come here for unvarnished opinions, or varnished ones?

I’ve an example in mind, a show I think is howlingly terrible. Set during the Great Depression, the score is overloaded with power ballads and the sort of R & B one associates with the 1980s. The lyrics, rife with false rhymes, contain the sort of sentiments usually found on greeting cards. The libretto concerns sisters with a rather unusual and rare birth defect. How the world treats them is explicitly compared to how black people were treated in the 1930s. In a choice that is truly jaw-dropping, the authors focus on the difficulties involved in their having sex. There’s also one of those opening numbers which indicts the audience for treating less fortunate people so miserably. Sound like fun to you? Just last night friends were telling me how much they love this show.

So what happens if I state, on these pages, that a show you loved is poorly written? You’re welcome to argue with my points: I’d truly prefer this to be more of a dialogue, less of a monologue. But some see my willingness to knock some sacred cows as hubris. And before I make another mention of the man who coined the term “moo-cow,” let’s define a pejorative, fanboy.

A fanboy is someone who loves an artist so much, he’s immediately combative when anyone has the temerity to suggest his hero has ever done anything remotely wrong, or less-that-perfect. So, if I point out some minor failings – failings, I must add, that the artist-in-question has pointed out himself, the fanboy might retort,

What has YOUR contribution to the medium been, M. Katz?

And you know, you don’t need to have written any musicals (let alone 18) to have an opinion; the internet allows any schnook to have a blog. This one’s not for fanboys, although you can find plenty that are. Over the next 25,000 visits, I’m hoping to hear more and more from those who wish to seriously discuss musical theatre. And that has nothing to do with the bunch of Thompson seedless I just ate that lacked the expected sweetness.


The first dance

May 6, 2015

Encores is presenting a true flop this time, Zorbà (through Sunday). There’s plenty of attractive John Kander music for their wonderful 30-piece orchestra to play. But the take-away, for me, is a big What Not To Do, when writing a show.

Two men, of different generations, nationalities and educational level meet on the isle of Crete and take a shine to each other. The story then has them advising each other on romantic affairs. But the affairs themselves are severely under-developed. One of the ladies speaks so few lines, the title of her song, Why Can’t I Speak? is a question we’ve been asking about her all along. The other romance is mostly played for laughs but the jokes tend to be about an old woman’s extreme neediness. I found this rather difficult to sympathize with.

From the first act curtain forward, all these melodramatic tragedies pop up. We’re treading through a minefield and BOOM! there’s something else to feel sad about. Except we don’t because none of the characters have earned our interest, engaged our hearts. Zorbà expects us to feel strong feelings and we never do.

Making matters worse is a framing device that practically screams “This is important!” The pretentious and portentous leader of a monochrome chorus commands “Listen!” Dutifully we lean forward, eager to scoop up pearls of philosophic wisdom. But then none come. Zorbà grabs life by the horns, which is a good idea since you never know when it will end. That’s wisdom?

There have been some successful musicals that are more about a way-of-looking-at-the-world than actual dramatic events. It’s the sort of thing Jerry Herman did very well. He could get a larger-than-life character to spout a philosophy that wasn’t particularly profound (It’s Today!) and you ate it up. Fred Ebb’s lustful peasant, here essayed by the thin-voiced John Turturro, espouses a motto, The First Time, that left me wholly uncharmed.

The book is by Joseph Stein, the prolific librettist who was most at home depicting unfamiliar ethnic communities. One thinks of the Amish of Plain and Fancy, the shtetl residents of Fiddler on the Roof, the bread-loving French villagers of The Baker’s Wife. So, what’s up with these Cretins? Well, sometimes they hang around like vultures when people are about to die so they can steal their possessions and, at other times, town-wide slut-shaming can go so far as to be murderous. Charming culture, really; glad I spent two and a half hours with them.

I try to be like her

May 2, 2015

Unaccustomed am I to public speaking. But today’s a rare day. I’m stepping in front of a crowd of strangers to introduce a long-ago collaborator of mine, Alexa Junge, as she receives an award named for I. A. L. Diamond. Diamond’s fame is based on his collaboration with screenwriter/director Billy Wilder on some wonderful movies, such as The Apartment and One Two Three. My current collaborator, Mike Bencivenga, had a very fine play produced at the Vineyard, Billy & Ray, showing what it was like to collaborate with Billy Wilder. One of Alexa’s earliest collaborators, Jeanine Tesori, is the most-praised composer of the Broadway season (Fun Home). And that, folks, is a new record for the most times “collaborator” has been used in one paragraph.

Writing a page for me to speak – an unusual task. It’s far more common, when I come up with prose, for me to be sharing it on this blog. And here, nobody’s imposing a word limit on me, so I thought I’d put a less-edited version of the speech here.

My audience will be aware of two things you might not know about. At Columbia University, there’s a 121-year-old tradition of students writing and producing an original musical about campus life. It’s where Rodgers first met Hammerstein (who soon introduced him to Hart). But, when school spirit tanked in the tumultuous 60s, they stopped doing shows. Reviving the Varsity Show tradition, and ensuring that, as before, one would be done every year, was the accomplishment of Adam Belanoff and Steven Gee. They’re owed gratitude from everyone involved ever since. The first year of the current consecutive string, they got a little help with the script and score from Alexa and me. The second year had Alexa as chief writer, with music by Jeanine Tesori.

I don’t think I need to detail Alexa’s career to the crowd. But I could be wrong. For a quarter century, she’s written some of the best television episodes and that happens to be a career a number of my friends have gone into. It’s said that sitcom-land is a bastion of sexism and ageism. Informally, but with some regularity, a group of female working writers got together to socialize, trade war stories, and support each other. While I lost touch with Alexa for a while, I kept hearing about her from other funny scribes at those get-togethers. (My imagining what these were like inspired, in part, my musical, The Company of Women.)

And now, the speech:

I imagine most of us in this room have some memory of seeing a Varsity Show. And that might be a basis, or a template for creating a new Varsity Show.

Now imagine it’s been six years since the last Varsity Show and 18 years since the one before that. Nobody you know has ever seen one of these things before. You face a blank page without any model of what to do.

Completely undaunted, Alexa Junge created a world where campus statues come to life, where a trip to the Bursar’s office resembles Dante’s Inferno and an infomercial presents the twisted lovechild of Cliff Notes and MTV.

Perhaps I should explain that MTV used to be a channel that showed nothing but music videos, a notion that seems as quaint today as CNN airing news.

But I’m not here to talk about TV – we’ve all seen Friends, The West Wing, Sex and the City and enjoyed the hell out of Alexa Junge-written episodes. I met her when she was 18 and enjoyed the hell out of her right away. Adam Belanoff and Steven Gee, had the quixotic notion that the cast could write the show, improvising scenes over and over again. Alexa and I, kindred spirits, grew impatient and put pen to paper. The bits she came up with drew on a reservoir of knowledge: stuff like The Group Theatre, Laurie Anderson, Wittgenstein and, yes, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. The honorees share a trait: their writing is so smart, it’s amazing Hollywood bought it.

All these years later, I still think of Alexa as my favorite person I’ve ever known. It’s apt, I think it that the title of my song that she  sang in our show sums up my feelings about her, I Try To Be Like Her.