(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!
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.
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.