I am a pirate

February 29, 2016

How often do I use this space to wish a happy birthday to a fictional character? Not often, since he was born on Leap Year Day. But everybody raise a glass for that old “Slave of Duty,” Frederick, from The Pirates of Penzance, turns 40 today!

Now, I ask you: Could you build a plot around this quirk of the calendar? You might have to be an attorney who relishes the absurdity of the way the law, and some people, value principles more than logic. And then you’d be W. S. Gilbert. Frederick has been indentured to a pirate ship until his twentieth birthday. He’s loved his time with his pirate mates – they’re a lovable lot – and bids them a fond farewell. But he warns them that once he’s no longer an apprentice pirate and becomes a law-abiding British subject his honor compels him to go to the police and turn them in. And that’s the plan until it’s pointed out to Frederick he won’t reach his twentieth birthday until his eightieth revolution around the sun. Are you following all this?

When you study Gilbert & Sullivan – as every musical writer should, just as every playwright should study Shakespeare and Moliere – you find they go a long way with surprisingly little plot. The “most ingenious paradox” of Frederick’s one birthday every four years is given a full musical sequence to explain: All that’s really needed is his realization “I am a little boy of five!” set to a declarative fanfare. G&S choose to amplify. And they want to be sure you get it.

Another key plot point involved a guardian of many marriageable young ladies lying about being an orphan. Most viewers recognize right away that a strategic fib is being deployed, but just in case we don’t, the character confesses to us, in an aside:

I’m telling a terrible story,
But it doesn’t diminish my glory;
For they would have taken my daughters
Over the billowy waters,
If I hadn’t, in elegant diction,
Indulged in an innocent fiction;
Which is not in the same category
As telling a regular terrible story.

Asides, of course, are a big deal in musical theatre, just as they are in Shakespeare. Here, the audience is like a priest in a confession box. And the pirate chorus answers with an aside that’s a little more frightening:

If he’s telling a story
He shall die by a death that is gory,
Yes, one of the cruelest slaughters
That ever were known in these waters;
It is easy, in elegant diction,
To call it an innocent fiction;
But it comes in the same category
As telling a regular terrible story.

Sound scary, that cruelest slaughter? Be not afraid! There’s a running gag in The Pirates of Penzance that these particular buccaneers are the politest set of tars to ever plow the waters. They appreciate poetry; they love their Queen. The band of far-from-scary criminals was much on my mind when I was commissioned to write a show for schoolchildren. The Pirate Captains also lacks frightening misbehavior, as it’s really about two people who aspire to be pirates, but never rob anyone.

Lehman Engel thought so much of the libretto, he once read the entire first act to us workshoppers out loud. In retrospect, that seems like schoolmarmish spoon-feeding. But when people are bringing in witless scripts that exhibit little understanding of how to create funny moments on stage, putting a paradigm front and center is called for. And there’s an obscure subliminal connection between the workshop and the origin of The Pirates of Penzance. After the unprecedented international success of the first three Gilbert and Sullivan comic operettas, they wanted to end the practice of overseas companies performing their works without paying them royalties.


There’s a word for that – when you steal artists’ works: piracy. (You’ve probably read an FBI warning about this.) So the choice to do a show about pirates was a slap on the wrist to the pirates who hadn’t paid them. In order to secure a copyright in America, they needed to premiere the work here. It played, one night, in upstate New York before the London opening. BMI, which sponsored and hosted Engel’s workshop, is the natural foe of piracy. They collect fees every time a member’s song is broadcast. And Penzance? Well, it may sound exotic to Americans, but to the English it’s the least likely place to find seaborne rapscallions, a little like, say, Perth Amboy, NJ.

I’ve declared this place a politics-free-zone, but I’ve a personal recollection which lies at the intersection of musical comedy and politics. When I was in high school, the brilliant team of director John Ingle and musical director Joel Pressman planned to do Pirates as a summer production. I was thrilled to be cast as the Major-General. But in June, there was an initiative on the ballot, a proposal to cut property taxes drastically. This meant there’d be no funding for summer school. Or a host of educational and other public-welfare programs. It was hard to believe people could be so selfish – that they’d rather reduce rates for owners of million-dollar mansions than fund schools, roads, parks and libraries. The proposal passed, and soon other states were slashing programs so the rich could keep more of their money. And so began the economic trend of reverse Robin Hood-ism, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. A so-called “nanny state” gets derided, as if taking care of people in need isn’t precisely what a benevolent government ought to be doing. I can only go back to the lines I didn’t get to say:

General. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?
King. Often!
General. Yes, orphan. Have you ever known what it is to be one?
King. I say, often.
Pirates. (disgusted) Often, often, often. (Turning away)
General. I don’t think we quite understand one another. I ask you, have you ever known what it is to be an orphan, and you say “orphan”. As I understand you, you are merely repeating the word “orphan” to show that you understand me.
King. I didn’t repeat the word often.
General. Pardon me, you did indeed.
King. I only repeated it once.
General. True, but you repeated it.
King. But not often.

Bad dad

February 21, 2016

A fortuitous scheduling quirk gave me a week last month in which I had some extra time at the piano. My lot in life – and I may have complained about this far too much – is that when my daughter’s in the house Daddy can’t touch his piano. Truth is, my four-year-old doesn’t let me sing. If I break out into song (as all mentally healthy people are prone to do), she instantly puts her hand over my mouth. She’s associated my singing with my nightly struggles to get her to go to sleep; so she halts me with “That’s for bed.”

Today I saw a meme: “I am a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.” Don’t I know it!

Pre-school started a week before my winter work break finished, affording me three mornings home alone. I was determined to finish one of my argument songs. That’s not some arcane term I coined: I literally mean duets in which characters argue. Before this boon-of-a-week, I’d have said I was about 3/4 done with this one, which just shows you how little we know. I’d had the man rant, wrote “key change” on the score, and started the woman’s response. The plan was for each to have equal time.

Which reminds me: I caught a glimpse of CNN this week and I hate CNN precisely because they make a virtue of equal time. They’ll talk to someone who thinks the earth is flat and devote exactly as many minutes to some scientist who maintains Columbus was right: it’s round. Seems wrong to me, as well as artificial.

So, as I continued work on the argument song it struck me that my bent for equal time was getting it too far from reality. As a songwriter, I love structure: structure makes things easier. But Do It the Hard Way, as Rodgers and Hart wrote, and you can keep an audience on its toes. The equal time stratagem is all too predictable.

The song has a lot of eighth notes. It’s rock that chugs along quickly. I’d come to think of it as something Sara Bareilles might write. Its frenetic power derives, in part, from chords that shift off the beat. That is, new harmonies don’t start on the beats you count, but in-between: 3-and-four-SHIFT-One-and-two-SHIFT. The idea is to keep the audience on edge, just like the warring characters.

But it’s all rather relentless. I didn’t appreciate this until getting to the piano on Tuesday. It seemed a little tiring to play, and that might mean it’s tiring to listen to. Contrast was needed, something a little lyrical, with sustained notes. The energy won’t drop if I continue the eighth note chords in the accompaniment.

I’m thinking, as I write this, about the word “sustain” since it made it into the lyric. My baby’s smile sustains me. I’m wondering whether I would have thought of that verb if “sustain” hadn’t been part of my musical process. Probably, I’ll rewrite the line, as it contains too many S’s, but that’s what I have now. The lyric says something, here, that needed to be said because I’d stated something rather strongly in filling out the woman’s lyric earlier. Her rant tops his, but she’s a tad too insulting and this section serves to humanize her.

Or at least I hope. Throughout writing this show I’ve had one eye on an imaginary likability meter. It’s a two-character musical, in the audience must enjoy being in their presence for the full length of the piece. But there’s bound to be friction, arguing, and times they’re less than pleasant company. I worry I worry about this too much.

Broadway, about fifty years ago, saw another two-character musical about a married couple, I Do, I Do. Not one I’ve seen, but it strikes me they cast the two most charming, inherently lovable stars that could be found: Mary Martin and Robert Preston. More recently came The Last Five Years, an off-Broadway flop that cast the magnetic Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. I saw this show twice and had great difficulty sympathizing with either of the characters. The woman, when introduced, indulged in self-pity, the worst of all possible first impressions. The man, towards the end, did something that destroyed whatever affection the audience built towards him. It’s incumbent on me to learn from the mistakes Jason Robert Brown made in creating his two-character show about a marriage. (I realize, of course, that a lot of people love this show.)

Not sure I’ve ever mentioned my mosaic metaphor. A work can be made up of a ton of tiny pieces. Right now there are 28 cards on my storyboard. This duet is just one of them. The current task is to craft the best tile possible – 1/28 of the whole – and not to worry about how the whole thing works. There will be plenty of time for that later, and audiences – at readings, backer’s auditions and previews – will help

My incessant phobia about whether my characters are likable inspired a new idea for where the lyric could go. Here they are, arguing passionately, a picture of discord. What if, after the release (described above) they find something in common? They share similar frustrations, and perhaps there’s a way to celebrate the fact that they’re sharing. This would justify them singing lines alternately, in harmony, and finally switching to the pronoun, “we” in a unison button.

By Wednesday’s school pick-up time, I had a complete piano score. Feels really good to reach this milestone. While my daughter amused herself, I snuck a peak at my storyboard. The new song brings fire and conflict to an early point in the show, and the next card is a sweet duet. The idea is that one of their parents will call, ask how things are going, and this check-in from the outside world leads both characters to perspective on their plight. Thursday, I got back to the song for that spot. And now I could see I didn’t need the intro that set up the main motif like an eighties pop song. Instead I’ll use whole notes, sort of like the way church bells stop the action in the first scene of My Fair Lady. (“A reminder.”)

Friday there were suddenly two new projects, that will pay me to write, and these will take me away from my musical for a while. But this week seemed like a great leap forward. (And, as you can tell, I got a little ahead on this blog.)

My funny valentine

February 14, 2016

Every Valentine’s Day an imagined scenario comes to mind, involving what is widely considered the greatest love song of all time.

I picture Richard Rodgers at the piano, noodling with a minor scale. A-B-C B-C-B. It’s a plain little motif, but bears repeating. And then he gets the A-B-C to launch up to a more surprising place, G, followed by a downward resolution, F-E-D. At this point, Rodgers is eight bars in, a quarter of a song, as such things were defined back then. I imagine he found the tune a little sad, perhaps too Jewish. So he replays it in the relative major, a third up. It’s a nice noodle that way, too, and for the final A section, Rodgers decides to have it both ways: Two bars in minor, two bars up the third in minor, and then a climax consisting of the first two bars an octave higher, but landing on the C. This lets him end the song in major, using the second pair of bars again.

Rodgers played with scales a lot. We all know Doh, a Deer, but I also think of Dancing on the Ceiling, which goes straight up six notes of the major scale, or Blue Room, which climbs up every third note. He does something similar to Blue Room in the bridge of this minor-to-major ballad. The landing note of each phrase ascends the dominant scale. Next, he stitches together the quilt with chords that lead from one place to another. He’s got something: a quiet half-sad melody. It’s time to wake up his collaborator.

I do mean that literally. At this point in the Rodgers and Hart partnership, Lorenz Hart spent much of his time drinking. It’s here where biographers pretend to be psychoanalysts, offering a diagnosis without having met the subject. But it must be noted that Hart stood about five feet tall, and had a large balding head. It’s said he thought of himself as ugly. And cultural historians point out how difficult it was to be a homosexual in the 1930s. Sex life might involve going into certain seedy bars, nursing a whisky and looking around for a like-minded man. Glances are exchanged and the couple gravitates towards the men’s room. Hart’s attractiveness, self-regard, and love of alcohol combined, many nights, to leave him passed out on the bathroom floor.

So, Richard Rodgers, traditional heterosexual husband and father, would start the workday searching for his partner. (The “workday” was sacrosanct: business-like, he kept regular hours while writing shows.) He’d visit the seediest bars in New York, look under the stall doors in the bathrooms, and eventually would find Hart sleeping off his drunk. He grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into a room where there was a piano, a coffee urn, and a door that locked with a key. Rodgers wouldn’t let Hart out of the room until he’d come up with that day’s lyric. He’d pour umpteen cups of coffee, while Larry begged for a hair of the dog that bit him. Dick replayed his tune, put a pad and pencil in front of him. That was how they worked, how they wrote the most successful musicals of the late 1930s.

Picture Hart slowly regaining his faculties. Pumped up with coffee, the previous night’s bacchanal behind him, he listens to the plaintive air. And he thinks of a fellow he’s fond of, who, like himself, lacks classic good looks. Now, I have it on good authority (my mother), that the man Hart was thinking of headed the drama department at the University of Michigan when she was there, about 65 years ago. Since I’m the one telling this story, I can rely on her as a source. Hart muses on loving someone who’s full of physical imperfections: figure – less than Greek; mouth – a little weak; looks – laughable and unphotographable. Then, what are the compensations; that is, what are the lovable qualities? Funny, sweet, comic, makes me smile. These thoughts coalesce into a love letter:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day

The song done, Rodgers turned the key in the door, releasing Hart for another night of the same.

The title perfectly expresses affection for someone who’s nobody’s ideal. A valentine, in other people’s songs, is like an Adonis. Funny, in a sense, refers to how unusual it is to depict a “work of art” who’s short of perfection. It’s more realistic, truer to most people’s experience of romance. And so many years before plastic surgery became big business, there’s a reference to changing, the idea that the somewhat-less-than-beautiful might want to reshape themselves somehow.

The final step for Rodgers and Hart was to fashion the musical comedy in which this love letter song might fit. It seemed illogical to have a man sing it to a woman, because female vanity was believed to be such that expressing “Your looks are laughable” would be greeted with a slap. Hart thought the male professor would be flattered, and so it was decided that Babes In Arms would have a young man by the name of Valentine – he’s called Val for short – so that a young woman could sing it to him.

If “each day is Valentine’s Day” then it makes more sense to sing it any day of the year that’s not February 14. (See also, Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? which was meant to be sung in spring, love-at-first-sight style.) But, naturally, when the holiday of hearts is upon us, we more often think of this masterpiece of Rodgers and Hart’s.


February 10, 2016

Cabin In the Sky, the Encores reconstruction at City Center is a cheerful earful from 1940 that speaks to our fraught present in some intriguing ways. Composer Vernon Duke had some initial doubts that he, a Russian émigré, was the right writer for the project. And you think about his reticence and you might go, damn straight: This is a musical about black people, and religion is an important element, and the story would be best told by black artists – the one Duke who should be on this project is Ellington.

75 years later, we don’t particularly want to hear what white people have to say about the African-American experience. We, as a theatre community, sometimes bend over backwards to ensure the authenticity of shows about minorities. I can now reveal that I once thought of writing an opera about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. One thing that stopped me was that it’s considered wrong, in certain circles, for a white guy to give voice to black characters. Years later, I was writing a musical about Jewish characters at a religious retreat. Something nagged inside of me: I’m not a religious person; I have no spiritual beliefs. Ergo, I’m the wrong guy to write this show.

But let’s consider the alternate universe in which nothing held me back and Clarence and Anita got produced at New York City Opera. Then the title roles would be filled by black performers who’d get raves, adulation and career propulsion. Here in the real world, there are tons of performers-of-color who are underused, and get typed out at auditions for The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. And New York City Opera ceased to exist.

If you’re miffed that the world of musical comedy is not a meritocracy, seeing an all-black cast can be cathartic. LaChanze is one of the outstanding performers of our time but the opportunities to see her are far too few. (Compare Mary Testa, for instance.) Norm Lewis has the voice that melts, a honeyed resonance. Chuck Cooper can still bring it. I’m not an expert on dance, but the original Cabin in the Sky had Katherine Dunham and it’s easy to imagine a dancer in this ensemble going on to change the world. Nine blocks downtown, audiences accept people of color cast as the faces you see on money. We don’t flinch when characters break out into song. And yet a black Henry Higgins or Asian Dolly Levi – well, that’s just not done.

The Motion Picture Academy has been under heavy criticism for the lack of black nominees in the acting award categories. A black friend tweeted, during the big blizzard: “It looks like the Oscars out there.” One observation about all of this: Artists thrive on freedom. We need fewer unwritten rules about what we can’t do. And, sometimes, a bunch of white dudes writing about black people can produce a wholly positive piece of entertainment. The history of race relations in this country is harrowing, disturbing in the extreme. But it hasn’t been 100% bad, and, in the rarely-seen musical Cabin in the Sky, well, nab yourself a ticket and see for yourself.

First and foremost is Vernon Duke’s music. When he was young, George Gershwin took him under his wing. In this score, song after song makes use of jazz, just as George might have. (He died a few years before it was written, but he saw brother Ira collaborate with Duke, most notably on the standard, I Can’t Get Started.) Melodies like these constantly surprise us. We can’t predict where they’re going, when the next blue note will pop up. I’m reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s criticism of my favorite song, which mentions a constantly surprising refrain. Sondheim says there’s no such thing. Well, he’s wrong and Duke’s achievement here is the perfect rebuttal.

One odd thing: The score is not wholly original. There are a couple of traditional numbers for gospel choirs. The Duke songs (with lyrics by John LaTouche) stand side by side with The Real Thing and manage to hold there own. I was particularly taken with a duet about a Virginia home on the Nile, but every unfamiliar number tickles with its unpredictability.

As I was appreciating this, God help me, I thought of the current shlockmeister Frank Wildhorn. His tunes are so obvious, I can predict most of the notes before they arrive. As a result, I’m bored, uninterested and unengaged. Duke, like Gershwin, employs the element of surprise to most pleasing effect. At Encores, the songs are put across by brilliant vocalists such as LaChanze and Norm Lewis. The large orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman, is in shimmering Big Band Era form. And the dances are especially entertaining: Camille A. Brown’s responsible for these, as no evidence remains of what George Balanchine did originally.

The other thing that doesn’t remain: orchestrations. So who should Encores call upon to whip up new ones, but Jonathan Tunick. Both Brown and Tunick’s work enabled me to fantasize I was taking in what audiences did in 1940.

Do I have anything negative to say? I do. Something that the authors didn’t understand is that a character, alone on stage, expressing sadness about her love life is less than riveting. We’ve seen the story; we know she’s sad. We really don’t need to hear about it. That’s telling us something we already know, and no matter how mellifluous the tune, or how vibrant the singing, self-pity is bound to be uncompelling on stage. Shows like this, pre-Oklahoma!, didn’t know better. But we do today, so you can all stop writing those doormat dirges, O.K.?

But listen to Duke. Study the way he applied his classical Russian music education to the realm of jazz, and you’ll begin to understand the fascination of a well-wrought tune. The example’s on stage though Valentine’s Day. Go give that sweet gift to yourself.

Just sitting here

February 4, 2016

Monday, February 8, at 4 and 7, you can wander in to The Circle-in-the-Square, the Broadway theatre where Fun Home plays, and see an extraordinary hour of songs from musicals. It’s free, you don’t need a ticket, and while many will have reservations (212.307.0388), nobody without a reservation will be turned away. The 15 performers are students who will soon be handed a piece of paper and thrust into the real world. They’re a talented bunch and I have high expectations.

Here’s the complex part: I’ve been a key component in their training, and continue to be, but have only the slightest involvement in the showcase itself. So, I take pride in the consummate performers I’ve helped them to become, but I haven’t seen what they’re doing here. Some of them asked for my input about what songs to do, and Clara Regula and Michelle Bailey are doing just what I suggested. Mimi Pabon and Connor Coughlin will do, among other things, songs I thought of for them that nobody else would have thought of. So, naturally, I predict they’ll be wonderful. But the whole group is very strong, and likely to shine even in numbers I didn’t think of.

I’ve gotten a peek at the program, and counted four Tom Kitt songs but none from Next To Normal; three Andrew Lippa numbers not from The Wild Party; three Jeanine Tesoris; two Alan Menken tunes you don’t hear every day. So, one reason you might attend is to hear 21st century Broadway songwriting just in case, as I did, you missed First Date, Rocky, and It Shoulda Been You.

But it’s even more cutting edge than that when you consider the likelihood you’ll be seeing performers who will soon populate Broadway. It’s like getting a look at the 2025 season years ahead of time.

Ten years ago, at this truly tiny school, you could have seen Alan Shaw, now in Les Misérables; Michael Wartella, of the soon-to-open Tuck Everlasting; Christian Dante White, who just left The Book of Mormon to start rehearsals for Shuffle Along; Merritt David Janes, of School of Rock (he went on as the lead this week); Eric William Morris, one of two Circle grads recently in Songbird; Allison Guinn of the On the Town revival: she’ll soon be seen in a new musical in Bucks County, A Taste of Things To Come, which might as well be the title for Monday’s showcase.

Other schools do showcases and have grads on Broadway. But they’re usually much larger programs, connected to four-year colleges. We pack two years with more how-to, and you get to see them on a Broadway stage. And it’ll all be over in an hour.

For someone who sees puns in everything, “industry showcase” has a neat double meaning. Yes, casting directors, agents and producers are invited to catch a glimpse of singing, acting, and dancing talent. But “industry” can also refer to how hard you’re working and that’s what I get to see, behind the scenes, all the time. The nailing of a harmony, the sticking of a landing, the emotional shading. It all pays off in what the audience perceives as effortless and organic. The hard work – the industry – gets shown to great advantage.

When teachers get together, they often complain that kids today don’t work hard enough. I’ve witnessed plenty of that, but, at Circle, I get to interact with actors who are not quite kids (everyone’s over 18, last year we had one pushing 40) and I never see them shirk work. Gotta feel pretty lucky about that.

And I’m sure I’ve said this before: Watching actors justifying everything they say, every breath they take, every motion they make – well, it informs my writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about why the Broadway songwriters made all the choices they did, and then I come home to write and project into the future where somebody’s going to wonder at my reasons. As the song in Carnival goes, There’s Got To Be a Reason.

Monday, 50th between Broadway & Eighth. 4 & 7. Be there, at The Circle in the Square, or be…?