Sittin’ around

September 25, 2015

This is one of those days in which I was pretty disappointed in myself, in my productivity. I finally managed to scrape together six hours to get some work done. And there are three songs I’ve poked at, for months, like a not-hungry kid with a plate of unappealing food. And maybe they’re just not ready to be written.

This is not to justify my own slow progress. But I’m wondering if you’ve ever been at a point where it’s seemed that a key component is missing, and, without it, you can’t satisfactorily complete a song. Each of the three has something different that just wasn’t there, yet:

For the slow-tempo duet, which I started literally years ago, what’s lacking is an evolution. The lyric says something that should resound with audiences, that needs to be said. But the problem is that, at the end of the song, nothing’s happened. It’s just saying the same poignant thing. And that’s a problem with so many songs I know – and dislike.

Then there’s an up-tempo duet, a list song. On this, there was something strange in my approach: I decided to come up with the tune first. Now, like many a melody, it began with my setting the title, and then composing music that naturally led to that hook at the end. I’ve worried, too much, that the tune owes too much to some pop song and I don’t know which. But the omitted element here is a sense of what’s happening, in the play, after the song is over. I could end big and just black out the lights, but that seems like cheating. This couple’s in the middle of an argument; fidelity to the truth dictates that some sort of resolution be shown. Even if it’s characters slamming a door shut.

I think outlining might have helped with this. Right now, on my plate, there’s more than one musical contretemps, and I’m uncertain the show can bear that many. The audience needs to see how songs change the situation. You’ve heard me be highly critical of musicals that present a situation that doesn’t evolve in any way. I think that’s unsatisfying. So, I’m unwilling to do it, and this unwillingness may be stopping me from completing a song that has quite a few other elements already in place.

And then the heroine’s charm song. It’s serving its purpose, making the character lovable, but it’s not building to an effective ending, yet. I’ve no idea what that might be. As I write this paragraph, it occurs to me that I could transition into another song, and not play this one for applause. It seems a cheat, but if the second song leads to a big hand, the audience will subconsciously feel they’re acknowledging the two songs at once.

Wind just tipped one of my whiteboards forward, as if Mother Nature herself was saying “Don’t stop to blog about this. You’ve storyboarding to do!”

So, I did a little of that: My tiny office has no fewer than three dry-erase boards, and one of them’s filled with post-it notes from about fifteen months ago (yes, for this show). I fear redundancy. Let me say that again: I fear redundancy. O.K.: now I’m terrified.

This might explain why so many of my musicals are shorter than other people’s shows. I want a lean, mean, entertaining machine. I get so annoyed with pieces in which I can tell, in advance, what the next song is going to be about, what will be said in it. I know I’ve told this story before, about why the word, surprise, is so important to me.

Many years ago, Stephen Sondheim came to one of my shows, and I was convinced I should write him a letter asking his opinion of it. My letter to him referenced a callous character in his Merrily We Roll Along who tells young writers not to be so clever. In his response, Sondheim seemed not to get the reference! He hadn’t found my show particularly clever, and wrote: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise, and imagination.” And it struck me that whatever my musical’s qualities, surprise certainly wasn’t one of them. Surprise, I’ve thought from that day forward, is an essential element of what makes a work entertaining.

So, if I send my characters into one argument after another, as the Department of Redundancy Department would have me do, the show will be predictable. It will lack surprise – at least during the section with all the arguments.

So, there’s plenty of architecture that could use repairing. And those structural flaws are impeding my progress on a bunch of songs at present. One of my odd theories of creativity is that when enough elements are in place, things suddenly sort of write themselves. When it’s a struggle, conversely, it’s likely that too few elements are in place.

It takes a long time to write a musical. And seeing six hours elapse without getting much closer to finishing anything shouldn’t be viewed as a tragedy. Recently, near where I live, there were these Tibetan monks who were creating a piece of art made with colored sand. The grains of sand were put in place, one grain at a time. Multiple monks completed their picture within a week. Some of my shows were written over long periods of time, with tiny bits of daily progress over the course of months or years. Today, I placed a grain or two. It’s not as if I did nothing. And when the whole thing’s in performable form, this day I was given six hours and accomplished very little will be a tiny blip on a trajectory of accomplishment.



September 19, 2015

It’s rare that I write something here that isn’t addressed specifically to musical theatre writers. But I’m pretty excited about something, a class I’m co-teaching for musical theatre performers. If I describe what goes on there, well, you might get excited, too. And, God knows, a lot of performers are also writers.

Alan Langdon, Justin Boccitto and I will teach Musical Theatre Scene Study, and this is the first time it’s been offered to the general public. For fifteen years or so, Alan and I have been teaching it together as part of the two-year conservatory program at Circle in the Square. It’s just given to second-year musical theatre track students. And they’re a rather committed bunch. They’re used to Alan’s high expectations, and also the somewhat less exacting little me. So, they work very hard to prepare every scene in advance of class. This includes a musical rehearsal with me.

The scenes they do come from a repertory list. Each must include both characters speaking and both characters singing. They almost always get in costumes; there are often props, furniture, or suggestion of a set. Quite often, the scene will involve actors besides the two who are going. For instance, if doing A Boy Like That from West Side Story, the scene begins with Maria and Tony in bed, Anita knocking, and Tony escaping through a window. They Were You, from The Fantasticks, would need a mime dropping confetti. And so on.

Before I get involved, the scenes are run without music, all lyrics spoken (which often involves simultaneous talking). Then comes the day we’re all together: We run the song to check that all musical elements are in place. Then, the actors “check in.” This usually involves (but doesn’t have to), students addressing the rest of the class, referencing emotional events in their past that help them key in to the emotions their character is going through. These need not be literal – Lord help us if the Next To Normal scenes were! Someone who’s endured a separation from a lover might use those feelings of longing to get into All the Wasted Time from Parade. Sometimes, players prefer to summon up their memories in a more private way, staring at a photograph or listening to ear buds. The check-ins can take a lot of time – we’ll have at least forty-five minutes per scene – they don’t go on to the actual scene until they’re truly ready.

And, even as it’s going, the scene doesn’t have to continue if the scene partners aren’t truly ready. Stopping in the middle of a scene or song and doing things again is encouraged. While we’ve stopped, actors can return to their check-in if they wish. Something feeling not quite right? Say what it is, work it out. This is Scene Study, not a performance; it’s like a lab where you can experiment, try things different ways.

It might seem like I’ve described this in such detail, readers can now start their own classes and experience the same mind-blowing magic. But as many hundreds of actors can tell you, there’s nobody quite like Alan Langdon. His observations of a scene-in-progress are sui generis. The performer has objectives to pursue, tactics to use, emotions to express. It’s challenging to accomplish all those goals, and the question of where you’ve succeeded or fallen short – well, first that’s put to you to answer. Then, I might pipe up: I’m staring at the score, and if I see a crescendo that didn’t grow, or a tenuto ignored, I’m likely to bring it up. When Alan finally speaks, you can hear a pin drop. He’ll have noticed something nobody else has seen. What surprises a lot of people is that he’ll say “You sang that too well” often. It’s about being truthful, and if you’ve thought too much about how you’re sounding and not what you’re expressing, it’s a significant flaw.

It’s uniquely satisfying to me to be around people who are working hard, giving their all. For a decade and a half, I’ve watched actors extend Herculean efforts in our Musical Scene Study classes. Alan inspires fear, in some, when they first meet him. But eventually what he inspires is the desire to be the strongest you, to do the best you are capable of. And, often, better than you ever thought. Year after year, I’ve marveled at the pairs attempting Adam Guettel’s fiendishly difficult and long Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. This is just about as hard a musical theatre scene as exists in the repertoire. That anyone’s able and eager to learn this virtuosic scene is utterly amazing to me.

The Things We Do For Love is the name of a revue of my songs directed and choreographed by my award-winning friend, Justin Boccitto. He, Alan and I have worked together on a number of unusually ambitious projects in the past, and it will be a thrill to see how expressive dance can be added to our process this time. The three of us are similarly passionate, but there’s huge differences in styles. I think of Justin as a limitless creator of fun. That’s a helpful contrast to Alan’s dogged pursuit of truth. Me, I’m probably too goofy for my own good, but, since I’m a writer, I may have a tad more focus on authorial intent. Are these performers getting across what the librettist, composer and lyricist intended?

And the mind-blowing thing I experience each class: Such intense focus on acting scenes and songs, the characters’ intentions – it’s motivation to write musical with meat to them. Write with the assumption that, someday, actors will pick over your words and music with such keen focus and intelligence.

Is this something you’d want to do, Thursday nights in New York? Drop me a line.

Stay as sweet as you are

September 10, 2015

Today, a progress report, rather than a celebration. It’s the one-year anniversary of the first time anyone saw The Music Playing. But The Music Playing wasn’t finished a year ago; it was just time to put a draft in front of an audience and see how it went over. The invited attendees loved it, laughed at all the jokes, and soaked the floor with a puddle of tears. Everything, it seemed, was going right. And I saw this success as a decent start, a first step.

And so began a year – and counting – of rewriting. Taking a cold, hard look at every moment in the piece, including those that had clearly enraptured the crowd, and figuring out ways to make it better. It’s easy to be seduced by a positive reaction into thinking something can be left as it is. There are reasons to distrust the cheers.

The main thing is that the September 10, 2014 reading played for a room full of friends. There’s a huge difference between entertaining strangers and putting on a show for those you know. On one rather important level, that night was a surprise birthday celebration for my wife. She didn’t know where I was taking her, and hadn’t an inkling she was about to see friends perform an original musical that, in many ways, was a reflection of our life. Now, the guests who filled the other seats did know what they were about to see. But a huge part of their emotional experience, watching the show, was watching Joy watch the show. How was the birthday girl reacting to pal Nadia Vinnytsky playing a wife-and-mother very much like her? The Music Playing is about a pair of new parents finding ways to keep and kindle the love in their marriage. As the audience thought about this, they could look to where Joy and I were sitting and think about this novel romantic gesture of mine.

That’s a very different experience than the one that will be had by assemblies of strangers. I’m reminded that one of the current century’s funniest musicals was written as a gift from husband to wife, too. If I tell you the recipient’s name is Janet van der Graaf, many of you will instantly recall The Drowsy Chaperone with a smile. And while you were enjoying it, it probably never crossed your mind that the bride who didn’t want to show off no more had the same name, and some character traits, of a real person.

Future audiences taking in The Music Playing must accept Lizzie and Chuck without any familiarity with my family. If written well, of course, we accept fictional characters as real, at least for the time we’re watching the piece. My family isn’t fictional, although my daughter keeps saying things that nobody would accept as real coming out of the mouth of a made-up three-year-old.

So – how can I avoid this? – another mention of that really long word I find I drop way too often: verisimilitude. What my daughter says actually comes out of her mouth, but no paying audience would ever believe it. Stuff that Abigail says in the show has to be accepted by the audience as plausible, can’t get them thinking “no one would say that.” And my actress pointed out to me that I’d ended a lyric with a fast string of words, including “shnook,” that, to her, didn’t sound like something Joy would say. She’s right. But I must now ask myself, will the audience feel the character of Lizzie could plausibly verbalize that way? It’s imperative that writers get into audience members’ heads, picturing how they’re going to take in every word they hear, every image they see.

More broadly, the main thing I’m obsessing about is my unmet audience’s feelings about Lizzie and Chuck, whom they’ll never think have anything to do with Joy and me. Is my fictional couple interesting enough, sympathetic enough, for a house full of strangers to make an emotional investment in? In last year’s premiere, I feel, the characters are a little too nice, a little too perfect for strangers to care about. It’s like I’m tasting some cooking-in-progress and saying it needs a little something, a little tartness, more acidity. And the thought crosses my mind that if Lizzie somehow gets rewritten into an unpleasant person, Joy will be insulted. Perish the thought! It’s all about the audience, and always must be.

For my money, Jason Robert Brown went a bit overboard in making a character based on himself too much of an asshole in the denouement of The Last Five Years. I remember watching that master-of-charm, Norbert Leo Butz, getting through this extremely long, slow waltz and thinking “Well, that’s it. I don’t care about this character at all. The two hours spent watching this romance seems a waste of time.”

But when I think about it today, I wonder if Brown was dealing with a similar problem. He, too, was writing book, music and lyrics based on a romantic relationship he’d lived through. The woman, legendarily, was not happy about his turning stuff they’d lived into a musical. I think he wanted to be fair, didn’t want the play to seem like an act of revenge. So, he doesn’t paint himself as the good guy.

Which, I guess, is a good argument for steering clear of autobiographical works. So, let me advocate for the devil: You’re living life, seeing real stuff happen. Sometimes, you can see that a certain time period makes up an interesting story. As you’re living your life, there are jokes. People joke about a situation, or you do, and you might even have a storehouse of funny things to say that you never actually said. And that’s enough quality material, perhaps, to make a good show out of. It just might take a little tweaking. Or a lot of tweaking. Until any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Mommy is yummy

September 3, 2015

She’s out there, tending the garden, my wife. And, perversely, I don’t think about the beauty of the garden, with its incredible array of morning glories (I dutifully ask them if they’ve heard about Hugo and Kim) or the incredible beauty of Joy. These wonders get taken for granted. I think, instead, about the word, “tending.”

Now, why do I do that? How is it I miss the forest for the lexicographical trees? Perhaps it’s evidence of my obsession, as a lyricist, with words – what they mean, how they’re used, what effect they have when you choose to use them. And it may have been a while since I’ve thought about the word, “tending.”

Does it relate to “tendency” and “tender?” What is the origin of the phrase, “legal tender?” And Tenderly. That’s a lovely song. I suggested it be the song for the first dance at our wedding. Which brings me back to Joy.

It’s her birthday today. (This time, I buried the lead.) And she’s tender in everything she does. Tending to our daughter. Tending to the actors who come to her auditions. Tending to the clients – theatre companies/producers who sagely have the tendency to hire Joy Dewing Casting, her three-and-a-half-year-old company. Tending to the garden. Tending, oh so tenderly, to me. O.K., now I’ve tired of that word and its offshoots. Moving on.10506949_10152655729825350_2207334286046412683_o

I overheard her on a work call, recently, and was struck that we’ve a similar obsession. She and her interlocutor were working on a press release or perhaps a mass e-mail and Joy was the eagle-eyed editor, rephrasing bits, here and there, for maximum effect. That obsession with the mot juste – a proclivity we share.

Which leads me to get a little self-conscious about what I’m writing here. Was “proclivity” really the right word, there? And I think, more broadly, of all the times I’ve tried to capture Joy in words (such as blog entries on previous birthdays, the anniversary of the day we met and our wedding anniversary) or song and face the sinking feeling that I’ve failed to come close to relating how great she is. It’s a Sisyphean pursuit: she can’t be adequately rendered in any art.

There’s an Ingres portrait at the Frick that strikes me as looking a little like her, though. And I was delighted to learn that Mrs. Henry Frick had the same first name as our three-year-old, who happened to do four or five paintings today. Perhaps there’s a point about diligence to be made here. Some great artists work on a single painting for years. You have to wonder what a typical day’s workload was like. Some time in the last decade, I kept a little diary, listing my creative activity every day. Many days the entry consisted of what seems like the world’s most minor change – like a “but” to a “still.” Pre-schoolers can dab a couple of colors here or there and declare, “I’m done.” One might surmise that genius has something to do with stick-to-it-iveness. If we could spend a year improving a song every day, it stands to reason that song might be 365 times better than a ditty tossed off in a day. As you work, are you in a rush to declare, “I’m done?”

Which is why deadlines box us in. Some external force is saying “No more changes! You have to be done, now!” and, effectively, that can keep you from potchkeying incessantly. So, as I write this, I know I’ll post the latest draft on Joy’s birthday. And the musical I’ve been writing for more than two years, sans deadline, seems, at this point, like pushing a big rock up a hill. And one looks at a pre-school kid’s attitude towards creation with a touch of envy. Wouldn’t we all like to daub and dab and poof! it’s done?480552_10151038323550350_1129632993_n

My attraction to improv, which I think of as a completely different skill, is partly based on the appeal of instant creativity. No sweat and strain of rewriting, there. For many years, I taught song improv for a couple different outfits, including Second City. It struck me that my role as teacher was to get grown-ups to spew out an open fire hydrant of truth. (If I’ve time, I certainly need to rewrite that last phrase.) You tell a child to be Superman and boom! he becomes Superman. He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t consider how to be Superman. It’s an immediate investment in the character, accepted all around. I got adults to do this.

And the day I met Joy, she’d driven up from Washington to meet me, but I had a song improv class to teach, kind of like a long rain-delay in the middle of our date. So, during the hours when she wasn’t around, I got older folk to act like young ‘uns. Then, back to the date, I consciously tried to act younger than my age, since we had a significant age difference back then.

Now she’s older than I was when we met, but she manages to retain so much of the youthful zeal she had at 22. It’s a reason she relates so well to young performers, in her classes, workshops and auditions. It’s fair to say (and say it I often do) that no casting director working today has said to more actors, “Congratulations: You’ve landed your first job in show business.” Such news, usually received by the young, gets greeted with hoops and hollers. And Joy gives it right back – Joy sharing the joy, one might say. And a moment those first-timers will remember the rest of their lives.

I may not be lucky in a lot of things – one could say I’m hexed in that the hard work I’ve put into my writing has led to so little lucre and notoriety – but getting to have Joy in my life, every day: Nothing could be luckier than that.