Lullaby for two

November 28, 2015

Today’s my daughter’s fourth birthday. Don’t fret: I’m still going to talk about writing musicals. But there’s no denying my focus is split. In my childless days, I had the sole goal of changing the world through musical comedy. Now there’s the added ambition of being The Greatest Freakin’ Father In The History Of The Earth, as my song goes. That’s become my priority, although, in a way, it’s the same, as I’m grooming my daughter to change the world.

Whoa, that sounds lofty and high-minded. You know I recoil from shows that exhort us to be better people. This season, so far, has seen two musicals you couldn’t drag me to. Amazing Grace, based on a true story, showed a slave-trader apprehending the surprising truth, SLAVERY IS BAD and I’m sure it was such an effective piece of theatre, everyone in the audience went home and immediately freed their slaves.

More recently, Allegiance opened to remind us that, during World War Two, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps. When it opened, I was all set to ridicule the notion that anyone needed to be convinced that banishing an ethnic group is wrong.

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Showing solidarity with headdress-wearers

Alas, some anti-Islam rhetoric in recent days proves that some people need to see this musical. Maybe they should run a “Know a bigot? Buy them a ticket!” promotion.

Both shows mark the debuts of their writers. I admit to some cynicism: Seems odd, to me, that crafting entertainments at this scale and ticket-price is given to first-timers. You gotta start somewhere, I guess. And we’re generally comfortable with the idea that people become parents with no previous experience being parents. Since my head is so full of show tunes, I like to think I’ve been guided by Camelot:

The way to handle a woman
Is to love her
Simply love her
Merely love her
Love her
Love her

We who know musical theatre literature – and God, I hope this season’s Broadway debutants are among us – converse in a language all our own. And I’m reminded that, back before my little one could talk, 90% of my Facebook statuses were quotes from show tunes. So, what follows is a bit of nostalgia, but also a pop quiz. Can you identify what shows they come from? (answers below)

Safe at home with our beautiful prize

A kind of neat and petite little tintype of her mother

Doesn’t faze me if you grow up to be pony or poodle or sheep.
You’re my own, whatever you are: Sleep, sleep, sleep

Mexican hills, Florida skies, tropical seas: here in your eyes
When I hold you, I hold the world right here in my arms

I’m feeling like a baby, alive with brand-new feeling, like life has just begun
Helpless. I don’t know what I am yet. I only know your arms are as warm as the sun

Shoot bullets through me, I love you

All my wildest dreams, multiplied by two

Beats me all to heck how I’ll ever tend the farm
Ever tend the farm when I want to keep my arm about you

Two months old, she looks up at you
How her smile melts your heart
You want to say, “Stop, time.
Don’t move on.”
Even as you watch that look is gone

On occasion it says “goo”

Regretful-happy

I must have been thinking of my split focus when I quoted regretful-happy. IMG_0236There are times when I long for the days I spent hours on end, concentrating on creating a musical. But there are a far greater number of times I’m delighted, startled and thoroughly entertained by something my daughter has said or done. She’ll burst out into song, all of a sudden. I’ll write dialogue where the passion increases until mere words won’t do it, and then the characters sing.

One could get jealous of the child: She doesn’t need a reason to sing; she just sings: long arias that sometimes express what she’s feeling, and sometimes morph into a medley that always includes Let It Go somewhere. That impulse to entertain – is it something we’re born with? Do we lose it somewhere as we grow? Long ago, I lost the desire to perform on stage, but writing musicals to entertain people comes from a spark I’ve never lost.

She entertains me; I entertain her. The life of a father of a pre-schooler is one that’s full of silliness. And I confront my script (whenever I get the chance) with an eye towards adding comedy, the madcap moments that will save it from being mundane. With The Music Playing, it’s an unusual process, because every marital spat, every disagreement about parenting, and every footfall on the road to raising our child is possible fodder for the show. So, we may have endured some awful episode, one that engenders awful feelings. Sooner or later I’ll be back to work on my script about the hardships new parents go through. And I’ve got to find what’s entertaining. It’s not enough to be just truthful; the scenes you depict have to amuse.

There’s a psychological concept called the Laughter of Recognition. When we see fictional bits that seem similar to what we’ve gone though, in life, we sometimes chuckle. The recognition that your life is up there on stage – that discovery – provokes a certain kind of laugh. It’s one of those Acting School principles that I’ve always applied to writing. Be truthful; reflect life as it is. The goal of verisimilitude, tied in with the childlike joy in entertaining – these are the elements that give me confidence I’m putting together a show people will love.

The baby in the play is played by dolls. This is an artificial element, and one that wouldn’t be used if I was writing for the screen. Dolls are immobile. They don’t suddenly jump on you, or run into your arms like lovers across a field: I’ve a daughter who is so remarkable that if I recorded exactly what she did and threw it up on stage, nobody would believe it. No pre-schooler says all those things, shows extraordinary empathy, acts like that, entertains all the time. Rewrite! – can’t possibly be true to life!

Into the Woods/Carousel/The Apple Tree/Hold On to Your Hats/Closer Than Ever/Guys & Dolls/The Fantasticks/Guys & Dolls/Big/The Apple Tree/Company
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Here’s a sticky wicket

November 19, 2015

Once upon a time, an antique Japanese sword fell off a wall, where it had been hanging as a decoration, in a world-famous musical theatre writer’s home. At the time, W. S. Gilbert had been stuck for an idea. You see, what he loved to do, and what he unquestionably did best, was to poke fun at British society, its institutions, its illogical laws, the dumb ways people act in the name of being polite. Some of his hits, such as Iolanthe and Patience, had been set in contemporary England. But he held an impulse I can relate to: the desire not to repeat himself. Mind you, he still wanted to satirize Brits, holding up a fun-house mirror to their foibles, but he feared his routine had grown tired. Then the sword fell.

And, legend has it, suddenly Gilbert knew what to write. At the time, the English had a big-time fad going on, for Japanese design. There was even a precursor to EPCOT, an amusement park created to give visitors the experience of walking through a Japanese village. Now, this might strike you as ridiculous – and I’m certain Gilbert would agree with you – but, when I was a boy, Orange County, California had, not far from Disneyland, an attraction built on the same premise, called Japanese Village and Deer Park. (If you grew up in New York, you’re now shouting “That’s good water!”) So, both the late 19th century Londoners and mid-20th century Los Angelinos had a fascination with Japan.

In Patience, an ever-in-vogue character admits he’s a fraud: “I do NOT long for all one sees that’s Japanese.” It’s funny to think that those who follow fads are doing it just to be trendy, not because of genuine feelings. And then there’s the issue of loving Japanese things with no real understanding or appreciation for the actual Japanese people and culture.

You can look at this mania as a serious problem, or, as Gilbert did, you can look at it as stuff to ridicule. And ridiculing the British craze is totally different than ridiculing the Japanese, right?

The show Gilbert wrote, with Arthur Sullivan, was his masterpiece, The Mikado. Gilbert was, originally, an attorney, and the main lampoon of The Mikado is that characters follow the law so precisely, the Lord High Executioner is unable to execute anyone because he’s the next person scheduled to have his head removed and suicide is illegal. Follow? Well, even if you don’t, I hope you can grasp that Gilbert is spoofing British insistence on legal procedure, not anything truly Japanese. And so the world took to The Mikado, laughing heartily at its jokes about the British, for well over a hundred years.

In recent months, though, troubling questions have been asked about this remarkably hysterical musical comedy. In countless productions over the years, Caucasian performers have donned black wigs and applied make-up to their eyes in order to convey the idea that the characters are Japanese. In the present century, there’s a critical mass: a large quantity of talented Asian performers. In New York, at least, one could easily fill the stage with great singing actors who’d need no make-up to convince the audience they’re gentlefolk of Japan. Unfortunately, players of Asian descent are often denied jobs by producers and directors who lack the imagination to see the roles traditionally cast with Caucasians any other way. Economic forces, I feel, inevitably would lead some to question why a show set in the Japanese town of Titipu is so frequently cast with people who resemble Gilbert and Sullivan rather than George Takei.

Making matters worse was the venerable New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, known by its acronym, NYGASP. They, too, had the relatable desire not to repeat themselves. Over the decades, their productions of The Mikado evolved to include the addition of a character Gilbert never would have dreamed of. It was a little girl dressed in male garb, and called “The Axe Coolie” who ran around the stage yelling “high-ya.” I haven’t seen their production, but if that description is remotely accurate, it’s not in keeping, at all, with the original intent. And it led, understandably, to the accusation known as Yellowface.

We hear that term and are supposed to think of the more familiar Blackface, when whites would don burnt cork and hyperbolically racist stereotypes. In Blackface, the humor is derived from expounding on certain white folks’ belief that African-Americans act certain ways. And that’s about the most troubling form of entertainment America has known: humor built on prejudice.

So, NYGASP scrapped their production, uttered a mea culpa, and fights for survival in a world that seems to have turned against them. In my view, the addition of Axe-Coolie was not only racist, it was wholly unnecessary. Savoyards understand that The Mikado is funny enough to thoroughly entertain an audience without adding a single prejudiced trope. What kind of G & S company feels the need to add shtick to the most humorous operettas ever written? (Many, apparently.) There ought to be a way of mounting a bit of Victorian silliness in a way that gives no offense.

But it can’t be denied, either, that certain people live to be offended. Yes, bigotry exists in the world, and you may have suffered traumas and indignities: that’s sad but true. But if you can’t see the humor in what a Victorian English satirist did 130 years ago, setting a silly story in a distant country nobody knew much about, well, nobody’s forcing you to attend. The existence of The Mikado and the audiences who enjoy it is no insult to the Japanese.

Similarly, there’s a stunning quantity who get deeply offended by Carousel. Many months ago, I wrote a piece for another blog suggesting that those who see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 masterpiece as somehow excusing or sentimentalizing wife-beating are ignoring much of the script, perhaps willfully. Hammerstein is musical theatre’s greatest humanist, and he wrote musical plays for adults. If you can’t stand a show about a three-dimensional character who does some truly awful things (besides hitting his spouse, armed robbery leads to his death) as well as some good things, don’t go to Carousel. Leave it and The Mikado to those who have the ability to understand historical context and evolving sensibilities.


At war with artificial men

November 10, 2015
(Second part of a two-part post. Part One is here.)

The previous post commemorated the anniversary of On the Brink, my commercial debut and one of its season’s very few new musicals to turn a profit. That fact is a tribute to its producer, Adam Belanoff, and I fear that my other reminiscence didn’t give him his due. You see, when I remember the process of creating our maiden effort, I tend to recall a bunch of silly arguments with Adam. But stepping back, I have to acknowledge that he did a lot of things – truly difficult tasks – very well, and then went on to be one of my closest friends.otb3

Also, let’s not forget, a certain amount of friction with a collaborator can lead to positive competitive creation. Many’s the time I ran off in a huff muttering “I’ll show him” and my pencil tore the page coming up with a lyric that turned out to be a highlight of the show. On the musicals I write all by myself, I sometimes miss the combativeness and one-upmanship that spurred my best work. Plus, having someone to answer to motivates like an artificial deadline.

Here’s something that was never acknowledged out loud: Two of the songs were inspired by a touching situation in my life. Years earlier, Adam introduced me to my first big romance, someone I dated for years who eventually became my live-in girlfriend. Then, while studying abroad, she cheated on me, and called around Valentine’s Day to declare us over. A year later, Adam and I met in the apartment she and I had shared, still filled with a good number of her things. He looked around with empathy and then suggested we write a comedy song:

It’s very clear, we’re through.
You agreed; I agreed, too
But somehow I thought I would be rid of you
But when I walk in to the bathroom, I see your lemon and mango shampoo
Cherry lip gloss, oatmeal soap, and a thing called “mousse”
I want to vomit
In your enlarging mirror, I see a face filled with despair
Not growing hair since I tried your Midol
Balls!
You got a lot of… Cotton balls under the sink
You made me think I could forget you…

We billed On the Brink as “a musical comedy revue” and yet allowed ourselves a surprising number of serious moments. Adam liked a tune I was noodling out and called it That Time of the Morning by which he meant the nightly bout of sleeplessness when you just can’t help thinking of the recently-ended romance and what went wrong. Now, I ask you: How long is a reasonable amount of time to wait around for a collaborator’s contribution? Weeks? Months? I might have turned my impatience into negative energy by yelling at Adam, but I decided to take a positive step, and wrote up the lyric he’d been describing for more than half a year

Though the day…
Hundreds of distractions take my mind away from you
And I’m all right
Getting through the night’s a different story
Often, I awake at three or four
No matter how I try, I can’t restrain my foolish brain
From thinking

I shouldn’t make it sound like Adam was the only collaborator. Stephen Gee, the Switzerland in so many of my wars with Adam, was someone we both trusted implicitly. Once I decided to present to him a work-in-progress. It was a long (for me) story-song, and I’d composed the chorus but hadn’t yet come up with a set form for the four verses. That was on my to-do list, making the verses match, metrically, and composing music to it. Before I got around to that, I improvised the four verses with different lengths and meters, so Steve could get a sense of the story. After playing it once, I quickly assured him I’d soon iron out the lumps, rewriting the verses into something regular. Steve urged me not to. He liked the song as he’d just heard it, and felt the character had every reason to ramble, no real reason to repeat rhythms. It was a sage suggestion, and led me to depart from my well-ordered ways to create Madison Avenue Is Calling Me, the best song I’ve ever written. Its formlessness its unique virtue.

When asked why On the Brink can never be revived, I respond that it’s a topical revue, making mention of many things that nobody remembers – plutonium water and Philadelphia’s rooftop fire, for instance. Those two show up in one of my weaker numbers, but, in rehearsal, musical director Michael Lavine and the cast were given free rein to come up with back-up material like Gladys Knight’s Pips, and these were somewhat funnier than the song itself. When the lead singer mentioned Ed Koch, the men behind her all said “Ed” in unison as if that non-mellifluous name was a piece of doo-wop, and therefore a not-funny-enough line became hysterical.

But what really doesn’t age well is a reticence to embrace new technology. This was another difference between Adam and me, and I was the troglodyte. And what grew out of our disagreements about whether everyone really needed their own computer (!) was a love song called Just Plain Paul. In essence, I created an ode to a fellow who doesn’t need technology. On some subconscious level, this was me sticking it to Adam, but I don’t think he ever caught on. That is, I don’t recall him objecting to putting the song in the show.

No computer – he uses his brain.

What a world we lived in then, when this line resonated with an audience. But you know what’s more remarkable about those times? That a bunch of fresh-out-of-college kids could create a revue and put it on for a reasonable price. Those were the days.


Like love

November 1, 2015
(First part of a two-part post. Part Two is here.)

With all this recent talk of time travel, I can’t help but join the fray and take you back to the November night a very round and large number of years ago. There you could see On the Brink, my first off-Broadway musical. Prior, you could have seen shows of mine at four different colleges: Columbia, Barnard, NYU, and one in England. But this was my first time creating something truly commercial, in that there was an investor who hoped to be paid back. And he was!

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

Katz, Belanoff, Gee

Man, we were young. In a real sense we were flying blind, because, like many young people, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. Not old enough to know better, we threw stuff on stage without questioning ourselves, trusting that the audience would find our songs and sketches entertaining. And they did.

Many fresh-out-of-college folks dream of doing something similar, and the overwhelming majority crash and burn. So, all these years later, I find myself still proud of these accomplishments:

  • We finished writing a whole show
  • We put it on and sold out several performances
  • Some of the songs were really good

A Brother Makes a Bet

A year and a half before On the Brink, Adam Belanoff, Stephen Gee and I had written Columbia’s Varsity Show (along with Alexa Junge and David Rakoff, who were still in college and didn’t join us on our off-Broadway exploit). That project also involved Adam and Steve doing something that hadn’t been done before, namely cajoling the administration to fund the revival of a long-dormant institution. They’d proven they could produce and direct (our musical director was Jeanine Tesori) and we’d all proven we could write funny. It was enough to make an older brother say “I bet if you guys created something similar, it could run off-Broadway and make money.” And he meant it.

A Gunmen Shoots Subway Riders; We Make Jokes

This is hard to imagine today. The three of us cooked up an opening number that made fun of a horrific act of domestic terrorism. Just the sort of insensitive lampoon you expect from new Ivy League alums, no? Recalling this, I’m struck that no self-censoring stopped us from presenting such a questionable spoof.

Then, at auditions, there was a young man with an absolutely frightening headshot, in which he looked like a killer. Was this the perfect actor for our opener, or was he, perhaps, an actual madman? We had to call him back to find out: He was no actor.

Something Wonderful, or Excellent?

I had, on my bookshelf, a copy of Jeffrey Sweet’s Something Wonderful Right Away. Adam glanced at it and had a brainstorm. “Our characters, they all think they’re on the brink of some sort of success, some fabulous thing happening to them. We should title this number, ‘Something Excellent Right Away.’” “How about ‘Something Wonderful Right Away’?” I countered, “It’s a far more singable word.” But Adam didn’t want to steal that Sweet title. And there ensued one of many tremendously time-consuming contretemps. Steve was constantly called upon to cast the deciding vote, and this time sided with Adam.

otb4

Chris Bensinger, Jeff Kaplak, Dominique Adair

Some months after On the Brink, I saw a musical about community theatre called Birds of Paradise. It contains a show-within-the-show that’s comically similar to My Fair Lady, in which an urchin sings, “Wouldn’t it be eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-excellent.” The inherent ugliness of singing the word “excellent” was the joke, and the audience laughed, and I felt vindicated.

Pistols At Dawn

Once, we argued all night, but it was about the important matter of what material to keep and what to cut. On the chopping block was a musical scene I’d written with Steve about a wife plagued by new technology. As the sun came up, it was still in, but after catching a few winks, Steve changed his mind. We presented our decision to the cast, and the girl who was featured in the scene – indeed, it was her only solo song – said “Then I quit.” We hated having our hand forced by a performer, but, I pointed out, during our “Turkey Day” conference, we’d agreed to keep it. And so we did. And nobody much liked it.

Oysters For All

Audiences went wild for On the Brink. I got the lady who ran the ASCAP workshop to come, as our theatre was right across the street (a tiny space next to Lincoln Center? Unimaginable today). She said “I usually don’t stay for a second act, but this is so good, so talented and amusing, I’m staying. And, I really want you to join ASCAP. We will give you a cash prize.”

People laughed their heads off at my song about a girlfriend who’s been strangely altered by her proximity to a nuclear power plant disaster. The ridiculousness of poetry slams was mocked, years before they became popular, in a sketch featuring future Broadway lyricist Amanda Green. (Yes, her parents, Phyllis Newman and Adolph Green attended.) And Steve held the audience spellbound doing my best-song-ever, Madison Avenue Is Calling Me. There was a particularly childish Julia Child joke that my wife still quotes. And we surprised the audience by going for poignancy with our finale, depicting young adults on the brink of success: a rather meta moment, before such things became common.

And Adam’s had a very successful career writing for television for many years, tons of episodes. His brother left Wall Street, attended medical school, and heads a bio-tech company dedicated to solving a huge mental health problem. But, as long as we’re back in our time machine, let’s go to Grand Central Station’s posh Oyster Bar.

There we met, to celebrate On the Brink’s success and to plan our next move. Our angel was willing to roll the dice again, and wanted to see whether we wanted to do an open-ended commercial run. He knew we’d had a tough time working together: Would we bury the hatchet and soldier on?

I spoke first, passionately making my case for continuing. This is what we worked so hard for, after all. Adam wanted to speak last, and so we looked at Steve.

“This has been a very tough process, and it’s left me exhausted. I was so looking forward to being finished with this, and returning home to my family in Ohio. I’m sorry, guys, but I really need a break.”

What wearied Steve, to a great extent, was being the intermediary in the various conflicts between me and Adam. He was always the calm negotiator, stuck between two hotheads. And we had to respect his wishes.

And where is he today? Why, he went on to be a professional diplomat, of course, working for the State Department at the United Nations.