A molecular biologist

December 25, 2015

I swear, this won’t be another one of those articles telling you how wonderful Hamilton is. So, so many of those have been written: It’s fair to say no new musical has created this much critical acclaim and excitement in four decades. I weighed in on the show way back in early April. So, this Christmas morning, I want to talk about something entirely different.

It’s the best present I received all year, and it’s something my sister sent and … why prolong the suspense? It’s Hamilton, the Genius Annotation!

Wait a minute – wasn’t there just a promise that this wouldn’t be about Hamilton?

Nope, I’m not going to talk about the show, now. But you might not know that some unusually intelligent fans of the show have put up an annotated libretto:


That means you can read all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, and, every few words, certain phrases are clickable. Clicking leads to a discussion of various aspects of the writing. Most obviously, since Hamilton is based on true events occurring around the American Revolution, there is commentary from historians. And you know how historians are, they’re apt to argue, amongst themselves, over minuscule details. There’s a limited amount of certainty as to everything that happened in the 18th century, so, in nerdy manner (and I don’t use “nerdy” as a pejorative), details get batted back and forth.

Readers of this blog, I hope, embrace the nerdiness involved in picking apart the fine points of musical theatre writing. We are all nerds: we love this stuff. And that’s the gift from Genius.com: a complete musical being picked apart by fellow nerds. Sometimes, the notes have to do with rhyming, word-choice, orchestration choices, and a wide range of issues of craft. It’s my impression that this resource has been formed through the wiki process. That is, all visitors are invited to comment, and, nerdily, comments are commented on, assessed for their validity.

The greatest treat of all is when information about the writing of Hamilton comes from Hamilton’s writer himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Anyone can speculate about what he was thinking of, what inspired him, what he’s referring to. And that’s fun. But to get the real answer: more fun.

For instance, there’s a note that Miranda’s use of the word, “fraught” may have been inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s song, Impossible, which also uses it. I find this highly doubtful. But, I’m always willing to admit that large parts of my vocabulary were borne of encountering words in show tunes. Here’s an example:

I used to be a hoyden
Boys were my hate,
I was a lady hermit
I couldn’t be annoyed in
Making a date
“Silly,” I would term it
You seemed so daring my heart grew frail,
Now I like wearing my coat of male.
– Lorenz Hart

That was my favorite song for many years (I Feel At Home With You).

The web resource on Hamilton seems a huge gift to me for another reason. I may know a few things about American history, but all I know is that I know nothing about the recent cultural phenomenon of rap and hip-hop. Now, I’ve long admired rap, from afar, because it’s the only popular example I can think of where ears are fully tuned into lyrics, enjoying the wit and cleverness of what’s being said. I’m not denying that there are plenty of popular songs with interesting lyrics, but the rap fan is someone who’s so fascinated by words and what they can do, appreciation of the music is truly secondary. I get impatient with the reverse – when music is interesting but lyrics are deadly dull.

Lin-Manuel Miranda occupies a unique place among writers: He’s a musical theatre creator with an admirably broad appreciation of musicals from the past century. He’s also a huge aficionado of rap. His mostly-rapped musical, Hamilton, makes a huge number of allusions to important rap and hip hop artists. And, me, I’m the damn fool who doesn’t know anything about this history. If only there was a place I could go to get a sense of what rap-master LMM is alluding to.

And that’s the gift of the site once known as Rap Genius. When a character in Hamilton uses the phrase “carefully taught” I have no trouble getting the reference to South Pacific. But when a song implicitly riffs on Ten Crack Commandments by The Notorious B.I.G., well, that’s bound to sail over my head.

So, for me, reading the annotation is a fascinating discovery. The popular music antecedents were previously unknown to me. The true history of Alexander Hamilton is interesting because there’s some disagreement. Also, since Miranda’s writing a show to entertain, and not an academic dissertation, there are some divergences from actual events. These changes illustrate how the musical writer’s job involves compression, dramatizing, but not necessarily fidelity to the truth (whatever that is). And, whenever the comments concern the craft of musical-writing and references to other musicals, it’s nice to find that there’s a whole community out of there, thinking about the sorts of things that obsess me.

So, Merry Christmas, fellow nerds! Pour yourself a cup of Hamilton Genius Annotation and nerd out!



The rooms

December 19, 2015

There’s a book, Off Broadway Musicals, 1910-2007, and my Such Good Friends is in it, and the title got me thinking: That must be a sad book. If you read it from start to finish, you might see the growth of Manhattan’s less-than-500-seat houses as places where interesting work emerged. By the 1960s, the Less Great Less White Way was a laboratory for bold experiments, works that broke with tradition, such as The Fantasticks and Man of La Mancha. True, that last one migrated to Broadway, but there have been times in which such a move hasn’t been the ultimate goal. And it’s there you get some fascinating smaller shows, meant to be heard in a pint-size house. By the 1980s, The Shubert Organization joined the fray, producing Little Shop of Horrors slight spoiler alert: the plant grew all around the walls, enveloping the audience – and Sondheim launched Sunday in the Park With George and Assassins at Playwrights Horizons.

And then – the thing I find sad – it all sort of came to a halt. A variety of financial obstacles made it less and less likely that new work would be done in that downtown incubator. New York, which had always been the city that contained the most musical theatre writers, became the locale least likely to do new or avant garde work. I’m not expert enough to know who to blame for this, but think about what happened to downtown real estate. Another likely culprit: the outrageous rates charged by The New York Times for listing space in their arts section. And as the community of producers changed, risk-averseness spread like a plague.

In time for the season, I bring you good cheer. Off-Broadway, I’m gradually noticing, has been putting on a number of new musicals in recent years. The Fortress of Solitude, Here Lies Love, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Murder For Two, the huge quantity of musicals by the amazingly prolific Michael John LaChiusa. I can’t tell you whether anybody’s making a profit, but, the fact that a show has gotten produced in New York has positive implications. You see, there are regional theatres that frequently market off-Broadway shows as if they’ve been on The Street. Yes, that’s incorrect, and may even be a deliberate lie. But, for writers, the upshot is that your show needn’t actually play on Broadway to get itself known, to have a future life. A good thing for us, as long as off-Broadway continues to do new shows.

Many times, or most often, the new musicals are being done in not-for-profit or non-commercial theatres. If a company has raised enough money to pursue a mission of presenting new musicals, then ticket sales paying for the whole production might not be as big an issue as it once was. A friend of mine is currently in Gigantic, produced by The Vineyard at The Acorn. (I know, this sounds confusing, but The Acorn is an off-Broadway house you can rent and The Vineyard, which has produced such hysterical shows as Avenue Q and Billy & Ray, has its own theatre near Union Square, but isn’t doing Gigantic there. I know: still confusing. Let’s move on.) That has a cast of fifteen and a limited run. For many years, writers have been advised to limit their cast sizes, but this one is all about going overboard in more ways than one.

Another issue comes to mind: the off-Broadway musical can be experimental, but doesn’t have to be. There’s a wide stylistic range between Far From Heaven or The Great American Trailer Park Musical, and Adding Machine or Murder Ballad. There may have been a time when you had to be noticeably different to get your show done off-Broadway, but now it takes all kinds.

One thing that hasn’t changed (yet) is that the original cast recording is an absolute necessity. The way the decision-makers at theatres around the world are going to get to know your show is not by seeing it in its little house in New York, it’s by listening, hopefully in their cars, hopefully more than once. As advances (?) in technology change the way music is delivered, it’s not clear how much longer it will be necessary to find a record company to release an album. Right now, though, the expenses of recording necessitate a large investment in that all-important element that can lead to future profit. The way I see it: record sales themselves don’t account for much income, but a large number of productions might.

I’ve a current example on my mind, Heathers. This ran roughly four months off-Broadway in 2014, and I suspect they didn’t clean up there. (Cast size: 16) Given the high cost of making an album, I’m skeptical that record sales have more than covered the price. But, will the nation see many productions of Heathers in upcoming years? Very! I think it’s a foregone conclusion. Composer Lawrence O’Keefe writes big-cast shows about young people, and that’s led to countless mountings of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde. (Perversely, perhaps, I far prefer his lesser-known Cam Jansen and The Mice.)

I lack the knack O’Keefe has, for finding stories that troupes far and wide are eager to tell. And I don’t know how big a role commercial considerations should play in the shows you choose to write. But, when it comes time to find a place to play, it’s good to know good ol’ Off-Broadway might be open to the idea.

The French wheel

December 12, 2015

Today, a tale of two Franks: Sinatra, who’s being written about a lot, due to his being born a century ago today; and then there’s Loesser, whom I need no excuse to write about, as he’s my favorite songwriter. And when the two Franks met…kaboom!

But first, a digression related to “two franks.” “Two franks” is usually what I have for lunch on Thursdays. (As a child, I often made it a Three Dog Night, and the eponymous rock group was indeed an influence. A vinyl disc of theirs, and one by the Beatles, were the only rock albums I had as a kid. When called upon to write rock, as sometimes happens, I go to that well.) Such is my love of the tubular meatstuff, recently announced to be a carcinogen. In fact, when my doctor pronounces me healthy at the conclusion of my annual physical, I’m always in shock: “Wait: I DON’T have cancer? How could that be?” Seems like I’m the beneficiary of some cruel cosmic joke: younger friends of mine, proponents and exemplars of healthy eating and exercise, are now fighting the disease.

And Frank Loesser died of cancer at 59. (Gee, when will he stop talking about cancer?) His wonderfully personable widow, Jo Sullivan, has extended some effort to removing positive references to cigarettes in his lyrics. The other night I felt conflicted singing Two Sleepy People to my daughter – “Here we are, out of cigarettes” – and went subito pianissimo on the word.

Frank Sinatra loved cigarettes, too, and you’d think, the two men having that in common, they’d be good friends. Or: Sinatra certainly loved good songwriters, a more obvious reason to bond. But the two Franks hated each other. And this had much to do with the thing everyone mentions as Sinatra’s greatest strength: his phrasing. Now, here I’m going to tell you what anybody would tell you: If you’re interested in knowing how to sing, get to know Ol’ Blue Eyes and pay particular attention to what he emphasizes, where he puts pauses, which notes get a heap of gorgeousness and how silence is used. There’s your master class. Sure, it’s a delicious sound he produces, but I’m more impressed by how he acts the lyric, the emotional truth, how words get played for meaning.

When it came time to film Loesser’s career-making hit, Guys and Dolls, Sinatra should have been a dream come true as Nathan Detroit. After all, he had a good sense of humor, and something of a smart aleck persona. My uncle, who just turned 89 (and Guys and Dolls is his favorite show) told me that the Damon Runyon stories on which the show is based were thinly (or thickly) disguised portraits of actual gangsters Runyon observed in organized crime syndicates like Murder, Incorporated. Runyon cleaned up their actions – they’re just gamblers, even if Big Jule’s kind of scary – and added a lot of humor and style. And the Broadway musical is a further, entirely successful, effort to make gamblers-based-on-killers palatable to a Broadway audience. Sinatra’s storied connection makes him perfect casting.

But shouldn’t he have been Sky Masterson? Sky has the soaring ballads, I’ll Know, I’ve Never Been In Love Before and My Time of Day. That role was given to a bigger star, the biggest, then, Marlon Brando. Loesser had to scrap two of the songs and replace them with one, easier-to-sing, and decidedly Brandoesque (“crazily gaze”) ballad, A Woman In Love. My father tells me Sinatra was thought to have less sex appeal at the time, but film historians – a group given to exaggeration – tell us that Sinatra was very upset he’d been given the smaller role. He was in a foul mood during filming.

Now let’s look at the history of Nathan Detroit through Loesser eyes. In the design of the musical, both male leads are equal parts, and Nathan was given a wonderful introductory number called Traveling Light.

I love the line at the end of the bridge, “Guess I left my heart in my other suit.” The world doesn’t know this song because the stage show, directed by George S. Kaufman, cast Sam Levene as Nathan and he couldn’t sing the song. The film reversed the problem – a Sky who couldn’t sing, a Nathan who could – and I’m sure Loesser looked forward to Sinatra at last giving voice to his Nathan Detroit.

But Frank Loesser was rather particular about how he liked his songs to be sung. He was so frustrated in his efforts to get soprano Isabel Bigley, the original Broadway Sarah Brown, to sing the way he wanted, he slapped her in the face. Realizing he’d done something awful, he apologized and soon presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Neither party spoke of it again. Now, on the film, he was dealing with a bigger singing star with a bigger ego who may have had mafia connections. And he didn’t like Sinatra’s phrasing! There could be no slapping, to be Frank, but there were so many heated arguments that Loesser never bothered to see the film and Sinatra vowed never to sing a Loesser song again.

As you may already know, there is no one on earth who has sung the film’s new song for Nathan, Adelaide, more than I. When I listen to Sinatra do it, I hear the little mistakes that would drive a Loesser man crazy. But don’t forget he already had a chip on his shoulder for being cast in the smaller part. (This, too, is an ego-fed misconception: the parts are equal.)

Eventually, though, Sinatra lifted his Loesser ban and recorded Sky’s number, as if to stick it to the movie-makers, as if to say “Here’s what you missed out on by not casting me as Sky.” The recording, Luck, Be a Lady, is so associated with Sinatra that music fans are stunned to find he doesn’t sing it in the film. But it’s gotten a lot of airplay, making a fortune for both Franks.

It isn’t fair; it isn’t nice

Show me a fantasy

December 6, 2015

NBC’s broadcast of The Wiz got me thinking about live-ness. That is, the specific pieces of enjoyment we get from viewing a live event that we can’t get from viewing a dead event. Or not dead, exactly, but we’re not in the room where it happens, breathing the same air. And there’s no using the phrase a filmmaker pal tells me is so common in his medium, “We’ll fix it in post.”

Some view me as a New York-centric chauvinist, lording it over those who don’t see live theatre with my “You had to be there.” I’m sorry to be rude but all my collected understanding of how musicals are created points to the fact that writers design work to be heard and seen live. Sure, some musicals have been written for television. (I’ve written two that were designed to be videos, and won three awards.) There have been a great many original musical films, one of the best of which is 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, which used a completely original plot, unrelated to the stage musical of the same books some decades before. More on that later.

Picture Stephen Sondheim writing his television musical, Evening Primrose. He knows that the bulky camera can hold steady on a face, giving the viewer enough concentration to grasp a song like I Remember. Picture Richard Rodgers writing music and lyrics for I Have Confidence, knowing that director Robert Wise will fill the screen with beautiful images of Salzburg, Austria. When they or anyone are writing for Broadway, there’s a whole different set of parameters. The face that looks so big on a screen looks tiny within a proscenium. Your stage picture won’t include sunshine reflecting off of snowy Alps, or thirty pianos and ten thousand shoes. Your orchestra will be limited in size. But here’s a good thing: voices will bounce off the walls of the theatre, and you can hear singers from different parts of the stage. One of the most stunning aural experiences I’ve had was listening to the people strolling though the park in the first act finale of Sunday in the Park With George.

You know, I usually try to illustrate my points on this blog with a video. But how could I? You’d hear that chorus coming from one or two speakers, and I’ll wager you don’t have them set up as wide as the stage of the Booth Theatre. There’s stuff that inevitably gets lost when you watch a video or listen to a recording. And that stuff is what we pay the big bucks for.

It’s here I put on my Old Man Fedora and try to remember things I saw many decades ago. The Wiz, I think, was most extraordinary in its bursts of color. It’s the only musical I can think of where the director, Geoffrey Holder, also designed the costumes. They were fantastic, and I use that word in the sense of “the stuff of fantasies.” The Tharon Musser lights played around a cyc and what seemed like twister-like swirls of smoke turned out to be dancers. Of course, we all remember the special effect from the 1939 film, but this was so fresh, so different, so inherently theatrical, the wordless tornado number got one of the biggest hands of the night.

Of course, a lot of the songs were showstoppers. The Dorothy I saw was Ren Woods, and there was something magical in the way this powerful instrument, on such a small and young girl, hit your ears. Then it became a cavalcade of impressive vocals from Ted Ross, André De Shields, Ella Mitchell and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The bass and drums rocked the house as their mouths opened and stirring sounds filled the air.

So, for the third year in a row, NBC has broadcast a Broadway musical live. And they’d like you to believe that your experience, at home watching your screen, is “just like” being there, in a big theatre. After all, it’s live: Things can go wrong. Isn’t that fun?

Well, not for me. I was rather bored by the whole thing. Sure it was light years ahead of their previous two efforts, a wooden and unconvincing The Sound of Music and a totally misconceived and poorly-acted expansion of Peter Pan. But that stuff, the stuff that made The Wiz a wonderful experience in the theatre was missing Thursday night. The costumes were appalling. The choreography was uninspired, and the dancers didn’t sing. Perhaps I shouldn’t make a big deal about this, but when I go to a show and see people move, precisely and strenuously, plus they sing, in tune and all – that’s a thrill. NBC used a combination of pre-recorded choir and singers who weren’t on camera. That’s not impressive.

Television regularly delivers special effects at a certain level. This production had the now-common use of moving images on screens, but that seems like weak tea compared to Holder’s original staging in which you felt anything could happen because dancers grew like poppies out of the set. Our nation’s beloved expert on black gay culture, Harvey Fierstein, substantially rewrote the book. Only a few jokes landed, but then, only a few of the performers have any experience with comedy. Most of the numbers were sung quite well, and I say, with no cynicism, that a certain number of viewers tuned in just to hear their favorite music stars: truly, no disappointment there. It surprises me that I longed for better choreography and costuming, because those bits aren’t usually my thing.

The original Broadway show had an element that just can’t be recaptured 40 years later: audaciousness. Clever and creative people come along and put a whole new spin on a familiar tale: The Wizard of Oz, the Afro-American version. How fresh is it today to put on an alternative version of The Wizard of Oz? My TV station cagily included an ad for Wicked, just in case this left you hankering for another one. Now, I’m no more an expert on African-American culture than Fierstein is, but, it seems to me that whites know a little bit more about black humor, music and points of view than they did in the 70s. You could be something of a tourist, back then, peering in on a world you never knew. Thursday, it all seemed familiar somehow. Now, in a way, that’s progress, but it sure ain’t audaciousness.