What can you do on a rainy afternoon?

August 31, 2015

When half the cast of your musical goes on to appear on Broadway, well, that’s bound to be the thing everyone remembers. Today marks the tenth anniversary of Lunatics and Lovers and I’ll struggle to recall something other than the “then these guys went on to…” stuff as well.

But I won’t bury the lead: Eric William Morris went on to take over the role of Sky, the groom, in a little-known musical called Mamma Mia. Michael Wartella later became Bok in an obscure Broadway effort by the name of Wicked. Go to the current revival of Les Misérables and you can hear Alan Shaw singing the songs of angry men.

Ten years ago they were all singing my songs. Thirteen numbers I’d written for various shows, delighting a big crowd at The Triad (yes, a lot were in the balcony). And it all happened because of the ingenuity and industry of a young actress named Rachel Broadwell. Over the years she’s racked up an impressive number of regional credits, but in the summer of 2005, she was a student in a conservatory. Thinking ahead to the “What did you do on your summer vacation?” query, she devised a project for her and five fellow students. She booked The Triad for the last day of August. And then set about putting together a show.

All six were flatteringly enthusiastic about doing a revue of my songs. Each would have a solo; they’re be three pairings for duets, each gender would get a trio, and the whole group would sing an opening number and a closing number. Rachel got rehearsal space, made sure everybody showed up at appointed times, and, effectively, directed the entire show. I don’t remember there being any dialogue. The two of us sifted through my trunk, finding apt songs for people and combinations of people. We used two songs from the musical I was then writing, Such Good Friends, and they went over like gangbusters more than two years before the show got produced. The physicality of the title song from Not a Lion suited the expressive movement abilities of Mike Wartella and Tamara Laine. If her name is familiar, you’ve probably seen her on your local TV newscast. The mature ire of my rant called Stuff was in the wheelhouse of Eric Morris. Kristin Scafuri and Alan Shaw soared the heights of A Tenor, A Soprano.

I wish I had a video of them to show you. (Above are some Brits I’ve never met.) From the present perspective, it’s puzzling we didn’t have a camera running. But these were the days before YouTube, and the pleasure of seeing a half-dozen students warbling a baker’s dozen of my songs was limited to those who paid to get in. I can’t imagine the cover was more than $10, but it was enough for the project to turn a profit. It therefore counts as one of many musicals of mine to take in more than was spent.

But focusing on profit and loss is as unhealthy as focusing on who went on to Broadway. What matters most, to me, at least, is how well the material connects with the audience. Over the years, I’ve played a very large number of cabaret shows at The Triad, including another revue of my songs, back when it had its previous name. Some of these have gone over exceedingly well. And it’s certainly possible that I have a false perspective – it’s obviously different when you’re responsible for all the music and lyrics than when you’re “mere” musical director, accompanying other people’s songs. But I’ve never heard an audience reaction like the one that greeted Lunatics and Lovers. The paroxysms of delighted that greeted Mike Wartella on She Smelled Like Chocolate, for instance, were a combination of a lovable performer, serving up punch line after punch line, getting an audience to eat out of the palm of his hand.

He bounded on stage with the sort of magnetic energy that compels a crowd’s attention. He looked to two sides, as if he had an amazing secret to spill. His grin was not plastered-on pleasantry, but the grin of a fellow with a sexy secret. And you could feel well over a hundred people lean forward, wondering what it could be. “I had a date: …She smelled… like chocolate!” The accompanying beguine would come to sudden stops and starts, so that each punch line could be put across with the timing Mike chose. We could also hold for audience laughter. The song goes through various implications and consequences of dating someone who smells like chocolate, and not all of them are positive. In writing it, I thought of Sheldon Harnick (the Greatest Living Lyricist) and how his comedy songs list so many humorous connections to their premises (such as Fish, from The Apple Tree, or When the Sea Is All Around Us).

Which reminds me that I might not have remembered the tenth anniversary of Lunatics and Lovers were it not for the massive media coverage about the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We went to some other bar to toast our achievement, and, in the background on TV screens, barely noticed, were horrific images of flooded wards. It seems callous, but we were in a show business bubble, our minds directed towards entertaining an audience. And, for that hour, everyone was laughing, enjoying tunes and rhymes, minds a thousand miles away. Quite the contrast. I’m reminded of the Cole Porter line,

Mere folk who give distraction are we

Down there

August 20, 2015

While on vacation in Florida, I naturally think of previous trips here. And one, about twenty years ago, was for this business of show. I’d heard rumors that the state contained a number of forward-thinking theatres that, more often than most, took a chance on a new or not-famous show. I had this wacky idea – now it seems so naive! – that I could travel around the state, meet artistic directors in person, and pitch my latest musical. Why I believed this hare-brained scheme might work, I do not know, but it seemed worth a try, a way of being proactive about my career.

The Company of Women was a musical that you would have thought would be catnip to theatre companies. It was about the bonds of friendship between six diverse females. There were also two men in the cast, with decidedly smaller parts. Original and contemporary, and, to my mind, containing my best music and lyrics. What’s not to love?

Plus, the show had an unusual development process: in face-to-face conversation, this might prove intriguing. Somewhat like A Chorus Line, The Company of Women was developed through a series of rap sessions. In the famous hit of forty years ago, Michael Bennett asked Broadway choristers to talk honestly about their lives. For my project, actresses were cast for a creative workshop involving improvisations. They wrote down, on index cards, little scenarios of things that had happened to them, things that had something to do with being a woman, could only happen to a female, or merely touched the subject of the war between the sexes. The cards were then used as the basis for an improvised scene, the one rule being that nobody was acting out their own card. I and a librettist watched and took notes. And these were used as an inspirational spark for songs, characters, and plot points.

Did this unusual crucible bear extraordinary fruit? Yes and no. Certainly, the regard I have for the songs is a positive, and I wouldn’t have been able to write with so much verisimilitude if the distaff dozen hadn’t been so open with their lives. My book writer and I, it must be admitted, were wholly unable to get on the same page. We’d started with a clearly articulated goal of presenting contemporary ladies as they actually live; my collaborator wanted to send them into outer space, literally. And those of you reading this who are the daughters of Sally Ride are now nodding, saying “Yes, that’s my life.” But that ain’t a lot of you.

There was also a triple abandonment: A brilliant and inspirational director decided to move to California a few months in. The replacement librettist also relocated, and the producing organization, that had sponsored the workshops, eventually folded up shop. It was left to me to write the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh drafts of the script – I may have also written the second – and, disreputably, a piece about feminine friendships eventually bore the credit of a single man.

Encouragingly, every woman who read the thing told me that it was remarkably true, and bore no traces of a male point of view. One of the developing dozen was so impressed, she decided to produce a revue of my songs, Spilt Milk. This is an example of the career connection I often talk about: You do good work on one production and it plants seeds for another to grow.

click to read Orlando Sentinel article

In the Sunshine State, I thought of myself as a distant relative of Willy Loman, a sampler case under my arm, going from town to town, trying to interest strangers in The Company of Women. Gainesville, Orlando, Lake County and Sarasota: The artistic directors seemed fairly intrigued. But were they intrigued by the prospect of doing the show itself, or just amused that a New York writer had come a-calling down there?

The idea of musical-writer as traveling-salesman was noteworthy enough for one of the state’s biggest newspapers, The Orlando Sentinel to devote a whole article to me and my unusual exploit. So, I can’t say I walked away with nothing, exactly. But the artistic directors I met with could only go so far. They had an audience to please, and ultimately all felt they couldn’t sell enough tickets to a show-of-no-repute on this subject matter. My notion of what might be commercial, what the powers-that-be of Florida theatre might by, was proven wrong.

So my Florida fishing trip produced some nibbles but no bites. The Company of Women remains my only musical to never get produced for a paying audience. One reason might be, it’s just not very good. It’s gentler than most shows; no larger-than-life characters. But, some iota of ego in me compels me to offer an alternative theory. Each Sunshine State honcho had the same question in mind: Why hasn’t this show been produced in New York? To their way of thinking, a show needs the imprimatur of a Gotham production before they can sell it to their audiences, “Direct from Broadway” or even off-Broadway.

A question often posed is “Do you need to be in New York in order to write musicals?” My experience down south would seem to indicate you do. Of course, good musical theatre can be created anywhere, and it’s foolish prejudice to think a show’s not good merely because it hasn’t played The Big Apple. Unfortunately, there are regional artistic directors who take to heart Fred Ebb’s line if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. They’re putting way too much faith in Manhattan’s powers-that-be; they’re not always wise, either.

The Company of Women failed to catch fire in New York and in Florida. While that could likely be my failing, I did succeed in trying something new. New in the way the show was created. New in the method of marketing. Being proactive in getting work out there: always worth doing.

A lovely day for a stroll

August 10, 2015

Random thoughts while writing a song

Right before lights come up, quote Daisy Daisy so the audience can quickly grasp that they’re on a bicycle.

Previous note said “One shuffles or Sing” – indicating a plan to use the rhythm of one of their intros for this intro. I wrote up one to One but now think using Sing will be better. Thicker chords than Raposo used, hitting just about every white note.

“Vagaries:” Can I use this word? I’m aware that I’ve a larger vocabulary than a lot of people. It’s OK for me to sound like an egghead but this character shouldn’t. Can I use the word “egghead?” I don’t hear other people say it much. What does that say about me? Do I resemble an egg? Dislike. Anyway, I’ve one line of music to mention how weather can change quickly. “Vicissitudes?” I’ll stick with “the vagaries of the weather” until something better occurs to me.

In what ways has she changed from the start of the song to the finish?

This needs to build up audience sympathy for the character. God knows I’ll be spending that capital of good feeling elsewhere.

I’m currently loving the bridge. Very much sounds like something I’d write. Steven, upon hearing most of the score, said he was impressed by how the music went well beyond what he expected of me. A great compliment, that. So maybe I can afford to sound like me in this one.

Is “Birds of a feather” such a tired cliché it will take the listener out of the song?

Too much time between 8-bar sections: Cut final bar in half. A 2/4 bar here will keep listeners on their toes. Great solution!

As usual, the whole thing sounds like Dubussy’s Clouds to me.

Percussion part should imitate bicycle spokes.

“Girlfriend” is a word weighted down by many connotations. “Lover?” “Bosom buddy?”

I’m tired of writing this now. Switching back to a different song I never finished and haven’t touched for a year.

That one looks like it’s going to be good. This one may have too much space between the lines: How will an actress fill all that? I don’t want to makes this a challenge. Drop more beats?

Here’s an idea: If I gradually drop the number of beats between phrases, it might seem like the bike is going faster. Then, the ending might involve increasing the time between the lines. Lyric must support all this.

That other song – the one I took a break from this one to write – has an undeniable universality. Many people, and most of my audience, will have felt exactly the same way at some point in their lives. And this element is a quality that makes Maltby and Shire so great. The write the feelings everybody’s had, but somehow never made it into song before. Stop, Time

Our Story Goes On; One of the Good Guys. This bicycle song I’m working on, I think, will live or die on whether people in the audience feel what Lizzie is feeling. And my fear that the character might come off as unsympathetic – well, this is the time to address it. She’s imperfect, with some negative qualities, but if the audience feels “That’s me up on stage” they’re going to invest in her journey. Once I thought it was essential that this song gets the audience to love her. Now, I think the standard is, will they recognize themselves in her?

If I’d written this song earlier, before so many of her other songs were done, I don’t know that I’d be thinking about this degree-of-empathy issue. The first songs were written with a lot of confidence that the audience would love her. And the planned changes in the book chip away at the affection.

Time well spent. Is sitting through this song time well spent? Does it require an interesting visual that I’m relying on the director and set designer to provide? These questions are pre-mature. They can’t be answered until there’s a reading of the whole thing, in front of some people who haven’t seen it before.

That measure with the B-over-C chord. I’m going to put some chromatic bits in the accompaniment, like my favorite interstitial phrase – Stay With Me, Nora from A Doll’s Life. It’s a little steal from an obscure show tune nobody will ever catch. That is, unless I’m foolish enough to admit it in my blog.