At war with artificial men

(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.

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