This is your lucky day

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.

 

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One Response to This is your lucky day

  1. Peter J Casey says:

    For what it’s worth, the only axe I’ve seen you wield has been within the thickets and brambles (oh, metaphor!) of bad writing, regardless of author or show.

    (Oh, and I think “moo-cow” predates him. It’s in the opening sentence of ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.)

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