Fingers and toes

October 22, 2015

While my last blog entry celebrated our twelve years of marriage on October 12, over at Jason Robert Brown’s blog, he was celebrating 20 years since his tiny revue, Songs for a New World, put him on the map. Indeed, when you look at the past two decades, you think of this as The Age of Jason Robert Brown. His songs are immensely popular with performers, and who else’s era might it be? Quick, name a Sondheim song from the last 20 years. Fail? Now try to name a Lloyd Webber.

Playing piano for young adults, as I do, means I’ve encountered JRB sheet music with cringe-inducing frequency. And hundreds who’ve gotten to know me know that I generally and genuinely don’t like Brown songs, so I hope you’ll pardon the negativity as I elucidate a few of the reasons.

The most obvious complaint most pianists have is that his scores are devilishly hard to play. But that’s pretty petty compared to the effect of employing wild licks requiring acrobatic finger-work. I’ve seen this happen too many times: some singer pours her heart into performing I’m Not Afraid of Anything. It’s exceedingly difficult to sing and act – very challenging to get the audience to understand what this epic is about, and get them to feel anything about the character. People I’ve played for have worked very hard on it, and then, in performance, my hands run around the keyboard like a mad man. There’s that machine gun-like ostinato in the left hand, the dazzling string of twenty-fourth notes in one bar of the treble, loud and percussive – all of these elements, if done correctly, upstage the hard-working singer. It’s as if Brown is more interested in showing off his mad virtuoso skills than letting the audience get emotionally engaged with an industrious actor. This breaks my heart every time I have to play it.

I think it’s better when the audience’s heart breaks, and that’s a matter of understanding drama and giving good actors meaty material with subtext and subtlety. If a musical halts action for a song, and then the lyric repeats and repeats in my ear exactly the emotion I already understood from the scene – well, I can’t help it: I get bored. The tune might be pleasant, the singing might be glorious, but slowly-stating-the-obvious, to me, is a waste of time.

There are different standards that apply to show tunes and pop tunes. Brown’s very accomplished, I think, as a pop writer. When I consider Someone To Fall Back On as “just” a song on an album, I’m attracted to it: I don’t require character development when I’m listening to a song that isn’t part of a story. When I’m playing a Christmas party, JRB’s Christmas Lullaby is often the prettiest recently-composed number you’ll hear. Twenty years ago, the revue seemed his ideal format since he wasn’t burdened with having to further a narrative.

My first awareness of Brown came with Audra McDonald’s album, Way Back To Paradise. There was a soaring melody, positively brimming with emotion, You Don’t Know This Man. I thought it was pretty successful, and then I saw the song in the show it’s from, Parade. There, it’s a familiar press conference response. The character’s husband has been falsely accused of murder and she meets the press, who predictably hound her like jackals. Everything she says, everything she feels is exactly what you’d think a wife in her position would say and think. Watching, listening, I sank into my seat: a song I once admired was dramatically inert, told me nothing I didn’t know, moved me not a whit.

Speaking of being unmoved, I gotta tell you about the worst opening number to a musical I’ve ever seen. An attractive woman stood alone on stage, lamenting a lost love: “I’m Still Hurting.” Expressions of self-pity are anathema to me. In fact, they’re very rare in the Golden Age of musicals. But here’s a stranger (in that, so far, I’ve learned nothing about her) going on and on about emotional pain caused by someone named Jamie who I haven’t yet met. She’s so sorry for herself, I can’t possibly feel for her: she’s done all the work. Now, the presentation of an emotional doormat early in a show might possibly work if she goes on to heal, to pull herself out of this lachrymose funk. Alas, that doesn’t happen.

Instead we met an attractive fellow with an odd fetish about a girl who isn’t Jewish. How I hoped this wasn’t Jamie describing the aforementioned depressed woman. (No such luck: it was.) But at least it was peppy – Latin, because…? – and it was, ostensibly, a comedy song, albeit one containing no jokes anybody laughed at. But the lyric certainly piled up the usual clichés about Jewishness. Similarly, Mr. Brown (who is Jewish), traded on anti-Semitic slurs in a horrid piece called Just One Step. It’s a depiction of a middle-aged woman threatening suicide if she isn’t bought a fur coat. I wanted to push her off that ledge after 16 bars; unfortunately, she went on for about 160.

Oh, I could go on and on, making this piece overly long. But doing so would repeat one of Brown’s biggest problems. His songs make whatever point they make and then continue to gargantuan lengths. I recently played one epic and heard the comment “That song was so endless, I wanted to slit my wrists.”

Brevity is the soul of wit…and a concept JRB is unfamiliar with. A Summer In Ohio cracks a few solid jokes, and then goes on for a whole extra season. Everything he says in the massive Stars and the Moon, Sondheim previously said in the first minute of his lovely So Many People. How many times does a lyricist have to repeat “It all fades away” before the audience gets the point? (I’d have said thrice, max; Brown says: 16.)

Musical-writing, ideally, is an act of concision. That is, what might take four pages of dialogue in a straight play to convey, you shrink into a one page lyric. The opposite is the act of expansion, an emotion a play would put across in two lines becomes a five minute mini-opera. Or more. And that sort of thing tests my patience.

Which is what the much-admired Mr. Brown has been doing for twenty years.

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Picture perfect marriage

October 12, 2015

Twelve years ago, at the Soho Playhouse, you could see an original musical I wrote and also see a wedding, mine to Joy Dewing. For they were one and the same: an actual, legal wedding and an actual, entertaining musical comedy. Our guests were treated to the sort of pleasure we were most adept at creating. In a phrase I find myself using way too often these days, we were playing to our strong suits. Joy’s rapturous voice served as the pièce de resistance; my easy way with lyrics and music on display throughout.

I just read David Sedaris on weddings:

guilt-tripping friends and relatives into giving up their weekends so they could sit on hard church pews or folding chairs in August, listening as the couple mewled vows at each other, watching as they’re force-fed cake, standing on the sidelines, bored and sweating, as they danced, misty-eyed, to a Foreigner song.

I’m reminded that the genesis of Our Wedding – The Musical was a list of things neither of us wanted in nuptials. The hurled uncooked rice: painful, wasteful, bad for birds. Stuffing cake down the bride’s mouth: the deadly sin of gluttony, the ruination of a paragon of beauty. Even religion: the great disuniter, alienating those with different traditions. We’d have none of that.

A successful musical unites us. We’re a crowd, brought together in assembly, laughing and crying and reacting as one. The storyteller modulates his tale with the needs and expectations of the audience in mind. Sitting next to us at Hamilton was an older couple, and I wondered how they’d react to genius Lin-Manuel Miranda’s irreverent and dense raps. Somewhere in the middle of the first act, the man exclaimed “No show should be this good!”

And a few days later, after the cast album came out, I took Joy on a car tour of Upper Manhattan to show her where Washington had his headquarters and the still-standing homes of Hamilton and Burr. Of course, she played the appropriate tracks on the car’s speakers. We considered hitting Weehawken on the way back, but she was worried about whether I could drive with tears in my eyes.

It’s common interests like that – and most would find these geeky in the extreme – that form a basis for a marriage, a romance, an enduring passion. And really, who but Joy, all those years ago, would agree to the unusual idea of creating an original musical to get married in? I think it’s key that we both had this litany we didn’t want in a wedding. The emphasis became: how best to entertain our guests? Many were traveling to New York, a place they rarely visited. Naturally, they associated it with The Theatre, and here we were, two theatre people, strutting our stuff.

The closest friends, and just about all the blood relatives, would perform my songs in the show. The parents flew in from Phoenix, Los Angeles, Bethlehem, and I honestly can’t remember where my mother-in-law was living at the time, maybe Kansas. The friends from Hartford, Washington, D.C., Oakland, Baltimore and another place I’m not remembering. (What’s happening to my mind?) Each had musical comedy material specifically tailored to their talents. My niece, the flower girl, was four years old. So her solo didn’t last all that long, nor did it have great range. It had wordplay, but it’s not clear she understood it.

Our Wedding, as a piece of writing, had a tremendous head start. Most musicals get performed for strangers. We’d put together a guest list. Which means that everybody in the audience knew us really well. But now I’m remembering that some of the most enthusiastic compliments came from professionals who didn’t. James Barron, reporter for The New York Times hadn’t previously met me, and I barely knew the recording engineer for the original cast CD. Both bubbled over with elation at what they’d seen. And the CD – still available for $20, free shipping – is treasured by so many total strangers. Buy it, now, before you trash your old CD player! The First DanceBut back to the challenge of creating it. There was no need to build up sympathy for the characters: I could rely upon a certain amount of good feelings coming across the footlights. Friends and family love you. And they’re going to be fascinated to meet your parents, and greet them with open arms, ready to applaud.

Also, we’ve all been to weddings, and know something of what goes on in them. I knew that those in attendance would have certain expectations, and reveled in the opportunity to play with those expectations. So, the four bridesmaids began a canon of traditional advice. Before the audience could settle in, thinking they’d heard this sort of thing before, and tune us out, the vaguely classical music breaks off into sixties rock and the quartet got down and dirty. What do I mean by that? Well, I’m not going to spill the beans here. Buy the CD!

But I’ll share some of the solo I wrote for myself since it deals with that list of expected nuptial traditions:

Rice and shoes and borrowed blues – what do they say?
You’re too wonderful for empty cliché
No “Here Comes the Bride” on wedding band…
We’re not going to start with a hollow token
“Till death do us part” need not be spoken
If a wedding must entail
The breaking of a glass, the lifting of a veil
Then I can’t marry you
So toss ‘em out – The crinoline and crepe
Contracts, pre-nuptials – all that red tape
Don’t toss a bouquet, it leads to spats.
And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take the name, Joy Katz…
I won’t marry you in the tired, traditional way
Who could ask you to honor me?
And you sure as hell won’t obey.

So, the song came true. I’ve spent a dozen years not honored and not obeyed. Nevertheless, I confess: I love my wife.


Stay

October 3, 2015

Let’s raise a glass to the last five years. (No, not that Jason Robert Brown musical I twice suffered through.) Five years ago, this blog began. And this is my 300th post. So, a double celebration.

I’ve slacked off on the pace. Used to be, I’d post every five or six days, like clockwork. There was a belief that posting that regularly builds up a regular audience. Here in the clickbait era, habitual viewers are harder to find. People scroll Facebook feeds, clicking on what they find interesting from the title and picture. In essence, these musings of mine are 1000-word think-pieces on various aspects of musical theatre writing. They’re not designed as clickbait.

But, this summer, I experimented with writing for another blog, stepping up to the challenge of attracting readers through my titles alone. The powers-that-be at that blog would choose an accompanying picture, and excerpt a bit. Sometimes, these were phenomenally successful at getting clicks, likes and shares. The one listing songs I don’t mind hearing at auditions is, I believe, their most-shared article ever. I enjoyed the experience of going viral.

But having an eye on the audience means pressure to be interesting, clickable. Your thought process is inevitably colored by “What can I write that people will want to read?” You can set yourself on fire to attract attention, which is OUCH!

Now that I’ve slathered myself with balm, I must thank you for reading this blog in all its anything-but-clickbait glory. We realize, you and I, that this is wonky stuff, of interest to few. And there are days I wonder whether all of this applies to the musicals we write.

In the past year, you may have seen a number of “announcements” of new musicals that don’t really exist. They sound interesting: so interesting, in fact, that fans go on to read articles about them. The clickbait has succeeded. No actual show is ever written or produced. Anyone can write a press release; far fewer can write musicals. But the scary thing, here, is the mentality behind “That sounds like a good show.” Because you could write something absolutely brilliant that doesn’t sound like a good show, and it will get no traction. Or you could write something horrid that, at first glance, seems exciting. And then resources get squandered on dreck.

There’s some logic here, when producers decide to mount shows that ticket-buyers get excited about. To minimize risk, you want an idea for a show that leads to sales. What’s worrisome is that sometimes the seat-purchaser or the producer hasn’t investigated a musical’s quality enough. Things can sound good, but, on deeper reflection, turn out to be duds. As some lyricist, not having his finest hour, put it: “You can’t judge a book by how literate it look.”

Flipping that around, I wonder if I’m the sort of writer whose shows, from the “elevator pitch” descriptions, don’t rope in enough ticket buyers. A backstage murder mystery at a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Putting on TV comedy in the medium’s early days, three old friends get called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A cub reporter discovers an underground lab where the government secretly studies things dropped by extra-terrestials and it’s not far from Vegas in more ways than one. A Victorian country girl flees from marrying the boy next door for a mad adventure. Writing those half-sentences, they don’t sound any good to me, and I’ve vivid and fond memories of how audiences responded to them.

Some shows, it seems, are written with an eye towards making money, not because the creators have a compelling need to tell the story. One looks at Flaherty and Ahrens’ prodigious career, filled with unusual tales they clearly loved telling. But then there’s also Seussical and Rocky which both flopped on Broadway, and, to my ears, aren’t as good as Once On This Island or Ragtime. But maybe I’m making too big of an assumption here.

I remember thinking, as I came up with a show about the nature of female friendships, that I was writing something with, for a change, real commercial potential. And it went on to become my only show to fail to get produced. So what do I know?

Not much, perhaps, but I’ve been filling this blog with thoughts for so many years, if this was printed out in book form, it would be a mighty long book. 300 posts at roughly 1000 words each. Lehman Engel, who ran the workshop where I spent my formative years, published numerous books about musicals and how they’re written. But I’m not sure they add up to 300,000 words.

When I had that “viral” experience this summer, it was a dollop of notoriety. And I have to wonder whether I’ve become more famous for my essays on musicals than my musicals themselves. But this has to do with the nature of theatre. A run tends to be seen by a limited number of people, especially when presented in a house with a limited quantity of seats, and shows don’t get a lot of press coverage. But there’s no limit to the quantities of those who click, read and share. Now, of course what I’d most want is for all of you to see my shows. I have this hunch that the example of my writing conveys more than these composed musings do. But that’s not always possible, I don’t have anything playing now, and so many of you readers are all over the world. So, let’s toast to how it is, with me writing and you reading. I look forward to your comments, should you want to chime in, and I look forward to your continued clicks this way.