This is what I do all day

June 21, 2015

Today, a peek inside what my life is like these days. It’s apropos for Father’s Day since, this month, so much of my time is spent as Stay-At-Home-Dad to Adelaide, now three-and-a-half. She’s fearless and rambunctious, jumping all over the place and often on me. That requires a lot of attention: There’s stopping her from hurting herself, stopping her from hurting me, feeding her (although there’s stuff she helps herself to), cleaning up after her, and making sure she wipes. There’s also more fun parental things, like asking and answering questions, reading to her, blowing dandelions, playing any number of games, holding a doll and doing its voice in conversation, tea parties, dress-up, trips to the zoo. Adelaide doesn’t sleep as many hours as other children; for me, that means a lot of focus, keeping my mind on her as well as my eyes for long stretches.

Picture a switch: One side is labeled “interaction with daughter” and the other, like this blog, is labeled “musings on musicals.” Whenever there’s a moment when my little girl doesn’t need my full attention, my mind is instantly on musicals. Sometimes, it’s the ones I’m writing. Often, it’s a point brought up on a musical theatre message board. And, as you might have guessed, there’s coming up with what to say on this blog, or the other.

Rodgers & Rodgers

Does this sound weird to you? It does to me! Thursday, for instance, I thought I’d have Adelaide all day. Then my mother-in-law said she’d left something at our house and, the next thing I knew, there was an impromptu granddaughter-grandmother outing. The moment they were gone I snapped into action, running to the piano. I discovered Adelaide had scribbled on many pages of my music notebook, but I wrote around them. And that image sums up my whole existence: I get creative stuff in, when I can and where I can, around Adelaide.

I’m also writing this Thursday afternoon.

This makes me something of a musical minuteman. If my break from fathering comes unexpectedly, the creativity must instantly start. And end. Although, somehow, I’m always grateful for an excuse to stop writing. When I’m alone in the house, it’s my one chance to get at the piano. (A piano is not essential to my compositional process, but it’s nice to have the opportunity to have fingers on keys.) When Adelaide finally falls asleep, after nine most nights, I silently work on a lyric. Of course I’m pretty sleepy by then. Actually, I’m pretty sleepy now, so the next couple of segués might seem forced.

Turning it on like a faucet brings to mind the quip that Richard Rodgers pissed melody, attributed to Noel Coward. Does that sound like Coward to you? Both created a massive amount of work for the stage, and I think people tend to forget the discipline that requires.

In the last several years, Richard Rodgers’ daughters said all sorts of horrible things about him. They considered him cold and distant, not focused enough on his family. This is so disturbing to me. We who appreciate musical theatre hold Rodgers in the highest regard. No writer did more to innovate and advance the form; no composer was more successful and influential. His artistic accomplishment is so gargantuan, this accusation – and it’s about being uninvolved, nothing untoward – seems piddling, picayune. Mary Rodgers, who composed Once Upon a Mattress, passed away a year ago at age 83, and I must confess a certain relief that this put an end to her saying things like

There is a home movie of Daddy with me when I was 10 months old or so out in Hollywood. There’s a really handsome, loving, funny guy lying in a pair of swimming trunks on the grass playing with this baby, with a kind of good-natured, silly joy that I had never seen in my life because I was too young to remember that. And I looked at it and thought, God, where did that man go and why did I never see him? That charming-looking handsome kid turned into a wizened, sad, deer-in-the-headlights person.

On Father’s Day, I naturally think about what it is to be a father. I recommit to staying fully engaged in my daughter’s life, for the rest of my life. Like the switch I described above, there’s an effort to be like Richard Rodgers as a musical theatre writer, and to not be like Richard Rodgers as a dad.

The three of us just watched Mary Poppins, and we parents were particularly moved by the father’s realization that he’d been flipping the switch with too much emphasis on career, too little on children. This is what I’ve been writing about over the past year, and my hat’s off to the Sherman Brothers and screenwriter Don DaGradi for putting it out there so movingly. When the film came out, over 50 years ago, families with two working parents were uncommon; it’s the norm today. More people feel pulled in both directions. I’m hoping to tap into the zeitgeist around this – it’s certainly very emotional – and it’s surprising to me that there hasn’t yet been a musical addressing working moms and stay-at-home-dads.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a favorite show tune to sing to Adelaide at bedtime. It is, in fact, the first song I ever sang to her, during that time they take the newborn away from the new mom to bathe her. It’s called Sleepy Man, from The Robber Bridegroom, and I always switch genders. There’s a line in it that particularly moves me, particularly feels true to my life.

Not a man I know has a better deal than my life with you, sleepy girl.

The observations, the creative actions, the ways-to-play my daughter comes up with, regularly, inspire me each day. I’ve a new idea for a musical I never would have thought of if I were unaware of the things she’s passionate about. Now, how to make an audience passionate about it too?

What better time than carnival?

June 13, 2015

It happens every year: people ask me what I thought of the Tonys. And basically every year I think the same things. So I’m not going to spend much time on this. And maybe, in upcoming years, I’ll just point people in the direction of this post.

1. What you see on your screen is, of course, a deliberate misrepresentation of what actually occurs in Broadway shows. Tons of people who haven’t seen the shows in the theatre like to believe they’ve seen something like what happens on stage. This is specious for a host of reasons. Let’s quickly switch to a movie analogy. Have you ever sat through a trailer for an upcoming flick and thought “Gee, that looks great. I’m definitely going to see that.” Then, when you do, it’s horribly disappointing, not at all what you eagerly anticipated. Well, it’s no wonder why this is true. The people who cut together those ads cleverly find clips intricately engineered to pique an audience’s interest; they’re promotional people. The artists who make movies strive to tell a story that will stay interesting for two hours. That’s a completely different skill. The song on the Tony telecast is filmed by someone who isn’t the stage director with an eye towards selling tickets. An actual stage piece plays to a crowd who’s already bought their tickets. Those thousand viewers go on a journey together, a shared experience of discovering what this story’s about.

2. The TV viewer is staring at a fairly small box. The camera moves in for the close-up, or pulls back for the wide-shot; actors don’t turn their backs. The guy in a Broadway theatre has a fairly large area to look at. Now, the director may attempt to narrow his focus to something specific, but it’s really up to the audience member to choose what to look at. Most Broadway houses are proscenium auditoriums. My home base is a theatre-in-the-round, so, currently, the audience is surrounding a family’s living room. How is that remotely like television?

In what I’m certain is most people’s favorite number from this year’s telecast, a phenomenal child actress named Sydney Lucas sings about a woman she’s just seen and feels an attraction to. Her father sits not far as she sings her internal thoughts. Behind her, at a writing table, is the adult woman she will grow up to be. As the pubescent girl makes all these discoveries, staring at an unseen lesbian, she turns around to check in with her forty-year-old self. This face-to-face connection conveys a lot, as if she’s asking whether it’s all right to feel this way, whether she’ll turn out to be emotionally fit. The moment is so much more than a girl’s sexual awakening. But enough about Ring of Keys from Fun Home: Consider how the television camera interferes with our understanding. Seen alone on your TV screen, you can’t tell whether the girl is looking at the unseen lesbian or her grown-up self. Seen on your screen, it’s not clear that Beth Malone is giving reassuring looks to her younger self, rather than taking in the woman being sung about. In the theatre, you can glance at the father to try to figure out what he’s thinking, but on the telecast the director rarely chose to show Michael Cerveris, who won the Tony.

3. Here’s one minute and forty-two seconds CBS couldn’t find time to broadcast:

Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home composer, accepting the Tony, pointed out that when she was growing up she had no idea females could have a career in music. “You have to see it to be it.” and yet the vagaries of commercial television are such that little girls watching at home who might write great musicals forty years from now couldn’t see it, so there’s less chance they’ll be it. But, over three hours on the air, the show could find time for numbers from shows that hadn’t garnered a single nomination, and could find time for a number from a Tony-winning hit from several seasons ago, and could find time for a section in which dead people’s names were put on a hard-to-see screen while some guy who’s never been on Broadway sang an old standard. Now, I don’t wish to take an unfair swipe of wholly overlooked musicals. They may have their merits, but this clip

tries to send a message: that stars that you recognize from hit television shows sometimes appear on Broadway. Which is more valuable to publicize, the acceptance speech by the writers of this year’s Best Musical, or an incomprehensible and unentertaining number, twice as long, with stars in it?

4. There’s an assumption that viewers will only tune in to the show if they hear their favorite celebrities are appearing. This presents a problem, because Broadway obviously venerates those who continually do great work on Broadway and a broadcast network has no use for most of them. Screen time is instead given to people who’ve already made many appearances on what is charitably called the idiot box. So, at one point, on came a woman I’d never seen before, who’s never been on stage in New York, and she’s introducing a number from a show whose star is making her Broadway debut. Why was she there? Because a number of years ago the star and the introducer had both been in a TV movie together. Now that I think of it, there was no earthly reason the show should have had a clip from the show, since it wasn’t a nominee for the top awards.

Still, the Tony telecast is substantially better than other televised award shows. And given the fact that musical theatre is so difficult to capture on camera, this year’s edition did a pretty good job. And it’s not like I missed CBS’ regularly-scheduled Sunday night program. You know, the one with Tony host Alan Cumming and Tony winner Michael Cerveris. Win-win!

I know I’m in love with you

June 3, 2015

On a bright afternoon 18 years ago today, I first cast my eyes on Joy Dewing and my world was altered, for the better, and I soon knew I’d never be alone again.

In writing musicals, it’s more than likely a song will be needed that expresses what it’s like to be in love. Along with that, it’s also more than likely some song will depict what it’s like to be lonely. I don’t claim expertise on a lot of things, but I wrote the book (& music & lyrics) on solitude.

But Joy wasn’t just fodder for romantic songs. The happy metamorphosis also meant that, at some point, a sharp theatrical eye – Joy’s (the right one) – would be cast on my work in some state of development. I can’t quite relate how valuable I find this, but it’s awesome in the original sense of the word: worthy of awe. There have been times we’ve broken out in uncontrollable giggles about our mutual musical theatre geekiness. Beyond our home, Joy’s also well-loved as a part of the creative team of many a musical and play. Too many to name, by the way. When I’m asked what my wife is working on, I find myself unable to answer: there’s way too many shows she’s cast for me to keep their titles in my head. Throughout the industry, her wise counsel is sought. I may have lost count, but I think this week marked the finish of the third year of her highly-regarded company, Joy Dewing Casting.

Recently, I coached a young performer on an audition, and the people behind the table had failed to make clear the material they wanted to hear, rudely snapping at my coachee for not knowing it. That was at a major casting office. 10506949_10152655729825350_2207334286046412683_oJoy’s auditions are just the opposite. She makes it abundantly clear what people are expected to prepare, and she sees to it that each aspirant has a good experience in the room. Actors love auditioning for her, and those that hire have the sense that they’ve gotten to see the best everyone has to offer.

Rookies make rookie mistakes. A lot of first-time creators believe they can go it alone, that they can field a fine cast using just players they know. Well, way too many times, I’ve seen the result of this error: a second-rate company that fails to illuminate the strengths and nuances of the writing. Don’t be the boneheaded novice: get yourself a casting director. And if you want the very best, get yourself Joy.

I look at what I wrote above and immediately think I blew it. Didn’t convey nearly enough of what’s great about her. My words come up short, insufficient. As it happens, I’ve been writing a love song at the same time I’ve been writing this post. And I play it through and immediately think I blew it. Didn’t convey nearly enough of the passion, the emotion. My words and music come up short, insufficient. And I’m wondering if that’s how it is with you. These songs we whip up: Are they up to our usual standards? (Were our usual standards ever good enough?) What’s my spouse going to think? What will Ben Brantley say? Will my feelings about my creation evolve, as they often do? I can remember a time when this number seemed pretty thrilling. Was I kidding myself?

Shows are rewritten more than they’re written. As much hell as it can be to get down that first draft, more time will be spent making it better in subsequent drafts. What leads one to put down the pen?

  • Sometimes we get tired, lose the energy required for revisiting the work for the umpteenth time. I tend to think stamina is a very important ability for writers.
  • Sometimes, there’s a deadline. I had a producer commission a show for me and she wanted to see a complete draft six weeks later. Well, those songs didn’t get the usual number of rewrites. Opening night looms, and you hand the power to stop the amendment process over to the director, who has to look out for the cast, and how many changes they can absorb.
  • Sometimes a collaborator hears your latest draft and exclaims “That’s perfect! Just. Like. That. Don’t change a thing!”
  • Sometimes a new solution occurs to you, and it’s one that requires wadding up what you’ve written into a ball and hurling it at the waste basket.

I’m struck by the common problem with this blog post and the love song. They’re both gifts to Joy, and Joy’s so wonderful, they don’t seem to be worthy. Once again, as before, I’m experiencing déjà vu because I hoped to present Joy with a whole musical for our tenth wedding anniversary. And missed the deadline! That set me scrambling for other plans. And, the next year, she had a big birthday to celebrate, on which I presented The Music Playing. And you know how I felt. That it wasn’t nearly good enough. So, here I am, nine months later, rewriting the show, making it better. And if it never quite matches the wonderfulness of Joy, I’m sure I can entertain an audience with it.

You just have to go forward, you know? I opened my door eighteen years ago and there was this girl who didn’t look like her picture, but better, actually. And it crossed my mind that I’d never be good enough to keep her interested. I’d surely come up short, insufficient. But by some miracle, she stayed.