It’s my birthday. An opportunity for self-indulgence that might be excused. Because it’s my birthday. Usually I tread with an eye towards modestly but maybe today – just today – I can go egotistical on you all.
When I was a teenager, it was my habit – nay, my addiction – to check out scores to musicals from the library and play every note. You can learn a lot: I may not have a degree in music, but know much of what I know though that kind of self-teaching. I was playing the overture to Threepenny Opera, a march in waltz time(!), when my father came home with a friend. The friend uttered something appreciative and I said that this particular piece was a big influence on my writing. Then my father said something about my ego. And that’s kind of puzzling: Is being influenced by this obscure Weill piece tantamount to claiming you’re great?
Things you’re told in adolescence can have an effect on you far greater than at other times of life. This off-hand and mildly stated accusation that I was full of myself haunted me for years and years. I’ve been so worried about coming off as conceited, I have a tendency to hide my light under a bushel. So, let’s not do that today.
Another major auto-didactic thing I did in my teens was following Oscar Hammerstein’s assignment for the young Stephen Sondheim. The Master told his apprentice to write four musicals with the idea that you learn a lot about writing musicals just by doing it. The four were to be
A totally original work, like my first effort, How To Be Happy
A show based on a play you admire, like my The Great White Way, based on a play called Broadway
A show based on something not in dramatic form, like my Through the Wardrobe, based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
A show based on a play you think flawed, where musicalization could improve it, and here my choice is a little odd: A Diary, based on The Diary of Anne Frank
Today, I don’t think that play has flaws, and I think Broadway is very flawed. But the point is I completed the assignment before I was old enough to drink.
Circumstances dictated that my fifth musical would be a genre spoof. Nowadays, a lot of people are tired of spoofsicals, but, coming right after the Hammerstein tutorial, this was a good way of teaching myself how a certain type of musical ticked. The only opportunity to get an original musical done at my college was across the street at The Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I pitched my Pulley of the Yard as an inexpensive companion piece to the duo’s Trial By Jury, and contrived a way of using the same set and costumes. My show would be a murder mystery, set backstage at a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. This gave me a whole other genre to lampoon. I put my murder during the overture, then came various reactions to the death, followed by the entrance of Detective Pulley of the Yard. He gathers clues quickly as each suspect supplies evidence to point suspicion to someone else. The mystery gets solved, there’s a j’accuse reveal, an arrest and, somehow, a deliriously happy ending.
To say the audience ate this up is to be, well, modest. I got fan letters. People who never liked Gilbert and Sullivan became lifelong fans. Some mistook my work for actual G & S, and, under the title Murder at the Savoy, the show has gone on to numerous sold-out productions in Great Britain. It’s fast, funny, and exactly what the two great Victorians might have written if they’d ever set their sights on backstage mysteries.
At 21, then, I’d made a name for myself, and this led to my next two shows: a medieval ghost story called The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns For Martyred Actors and then the first Columbia Varsity Show after a long drought, The New U. Yes, these were done in university settings, but there’s no way of measuring the value of a live audience reacting to your work. Not just applause, the calls of “author! author!” and rave reviews but the creative decisions you make along the way. What to cut. The power of orchestration. Timing. One joke in a lyric in The New U. literally stopped the show. The laughter went on and on and the pianist, Jeanine Tesori, took her hands off the keys, waiting for the audience to quiet down so we could go on.
Little wonder my collaborators and I were approached about creating a revue for a commercial production off-Broadway. On the Brink had some stormy collaborative issues, but I managed to channel the strife into my best work. “I’ll show him!” I’d say to myself, and rather furiously write songs like Madison Avenue Is Calling Me, Just Plain Paul and Thoughts In Transit.
My collaborator on Through the Wardrobe resurfaced to say we’d an opportunity to get the show done at a theatre in California. She’d gotten the rights to do the show many years prior in England, but we discovered they were no longer available. A pity, since the theatre loved the score. So, a new musical called Popsicle Palace was created, an attempt to make an original family show and keep as many of my songs as possible. Many were cut, and many new ones added. The show was such a success, the run kept getting extended. Eventually, owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, and the subsequent productions (Greenwich Village, Detroit, Queens) used our new title, Not a Lion.
My fifth musical to get produced in my twenties, The Christmas Bride, was lush and romantic, unlike the others. And that’s been a big deal with me: I want every new show to be a departure from places I’ve gone before. One night, who to my astonished eyes should appear but Stephen Sondheim, who soon thereafter dashed off a check to The Third Step Theatre Company, which developed and presented the piece.
A year later, Third Step shepherded my next project, The Company of Women, and I feel I did my best songwriting on this contemporary piece about female friendships. Several people told me it was hard to believe a man wrote the thing, so true was my ear. But the idea that a man could have something to say on the subject was kryptonite to producers, and, good as it may have been, it’s the only show I wrote as an adult that never saw a production.
Then, a performer involved with the two Third Step shows hit upon the flattering idea of creating a cabaret show out of the songs in my trunk. Spilt Milk was written up in The New Yorker, and, every few years, another assemblage of my material plays in a different cabaret. Here’s what’s odd about the honor. What if my best songs are those large ensembles that convey a lot of plot in a short amount of time? They’re not the sort that work with a small cast in a cabaret setting; none of the four revues therefore constitute a “best of” Noel Katz. What works best are self-contained comedy pieces. As a result, my loony tunes tend to be the ones I’m best known for.
And that’s what I was most frequently called upon to do. A traveling opera troupe commissioned The Pirate Captains and played it for six years. A couple of my pals from the improv world enlisted me to write songs for a goofy corporate video. And then came another. But the biggest creation with the improvisers was the all-funny-all-the-time Area 51.
I apologize for running long with this one, but hey: I’ve written a lot of shows. The most famous is surely Our Wedding, in which I actually wed Joy Dewing. We knew people come to marriage ceremonies with certain expectations, and I wondered how many I could stand upon their ears. Bridesmaids give the bride advice in hoary aphorisms; then decide to switch gears and offer sex tips for The Wedding Night. Father of the Bride threatens to kill groom. I entered singing a song called I Can’t Marry You. Absolutely everybody sang, from my dear old Dad to my 4-year-old niece, the flower girl.
Musical nuptials are easy to love. So next I set myself the challenge of taking a truly dark episode in American history, and leavening the drama with ample helpings of humor. In what has to be the ultimate in birthday self-indulgence, I’m just going to quote one of the many rave reviews to close this out, as Michael Dale said it better than I:
Noel Katz’s wonderfully funny and beautifully touching Such Good Friends, one of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years. It’s the story of an awkward 1930’s Broadway chorus girl (Liz Larsen), who eventually becomes the star of a popular 1950’s television variety show, with her buddies hired as director (Brad Oscar) and head writer (Jeff Talbott). A sketch lampooning Joe McCarthy earns the three of them subpoenas to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and the decisions they make while on the witness stand seriously affect their friendship and careers.
Though the story is a grim one in American history, Katz’s main characters are all funny people who use humor as both a defense mechanism and a weapon, so there is always a realistic lightness at the surface. The lively and hummable score easily blends the vaudevillian antics of the first act into the emotional heartache of the second with sharp lyrics and clever rhymes.