March 30, 2016

Can’t get tickets to Hamilton? 1776, now through Sunday at City Center, offers some of the same pleasures. Most obviously, it dramatizes a key part of the American Revolution in a way that makes the individual story-beats deeply emotional. Tempting as it is to compare and contrast the 47-year old show with this century’s blockbuster, I’m more of a mood to temporarily lift my No Politics Rule today. To a far greater extent than Hamilton, 1776 comments on contemporary governance. It responded to the Vietnam War in Nixon’s first year, but manages to speak to us in 2016. And that’s what had me weeping throughout the show.

Take this exchange:

Hancock: Fortunately, there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy.

Dickinson: Perhaps not, but don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that is why they will follow us.

Gee, what “men of property” come to mind? A certain owner of many properties now vying for the presidency? His proposals do nothing for the poor but hand a hefty tax break to millionaires like him. And yet his supporters tend to be lower-income, less-educated men who dream of the day when capital gains taxes are a big (or not big) deal in their lives.

This is in the middle of a song that was called Cool Cool Conservative Men until producer Stuart Ostrow got cold feet about possibly offending some of his audience; it was changed to Cool Cool Considerate Men. (“Considerate” is never a pejorative.) But I don’t mean to knock a famously bold and innovative producer: The country had just been through a tumultuous president election – one of the closest ever. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, once known as a liberal lion, was seen by some on the Left as insufficiently strong in his opposition to the war. After all, he’d been part of the Johnson administration. Conservative Richard Nixon promised to pull our troops out of Vietnam, but failed to keep that promise.

As we’ve learned too many times, the decision to send soldiers into harm’s way is a momentous one. John Dickinson, in 1776, reminds the Continental Congress that boys will die. He doesn’t consider severing ties with Britain a worthy enough cause to spill blood over. So, like candidate Nixon, he’s a right-winger and a dove. But, as Americans watching the show, we naturally believe independency was worth fighting for. Keeping Southeast Asia out of the hands of the communists seemed a less worthy cause. And the poignancy of a dirge-like waltz, Momma Look Sharp, brings us away from ideals to the unshakeable reality of the young who die in war.

Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?

As was brought up in a recent conversation between Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda and original 1776 star William Daniels, the cast felt they were going into the belly of the beast when they were invited to perform at the White House. It’s possible, though, to overlook the parallel. Nixon and his coterie likely thought themselves descendants of Adams, Jefferson and Franklin. The production this week plays up the connection to our times by putting the players in modern dress and casting African-Americans as the white proto-Americans we know from the famous engraving. Anyone fearing that this staging (directed by Garry Hynes) would imitate Hamilton can rest easy. Colorblind casting merely ensures theatre is a meritocracy, the best person of any color in any role. Suspend disbelief! Stephen Hopkins was white and didn’t sing. Here he’s Andre DeShields (and if ever a wonderful Wiz there was, that Andre DeShields’ the one because because because because because because…).

But that’s just like Encores, getting musical masters to take roles in their mountings of rarely-done lesser-known musicals. Wait a minute! Doing 1776 is not just like Encores at all. This is an oft-performed classic, far more renowned for its book (by Peter Stone) than its score (by Sherman Edwards). And an unusually high percentage of the show is dialogue. Clearly, they desired a “conversation” with the megahit nine blocks south. And I’m not going to chide them for temporarily abandoning their original mission statement when they assembled such glorious performers. Santino Fontana gets every note right as John Adams – especially acting-wise. But his singing opposite Christiane Noll is a time for conductor Ben Whiteley to indulge in a drawn-out tempo: it’s cake, so let’s eat it slowly. Bryce Pinkham is a worthy foe, even if the two men look alike. John Behlmann is a towering Jefferson (the original, Ken Howard, died last week), but you know I want to talk about the writing of this marvelous show, rather than how well it’s being done.

1776 is a very unusual – dare I say “revolutionary?” – in that it’s unlike other musicals but can more easily be compared to historical dramas like Sidney Kingsley’s The Patriots or Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner. In these (and also Hamilton), the authors have to deal with the audience’s foreknowledge. We know how the story turns out: America declares independence on July 4. And yet Stone keeps so many dramatic balls in the air, there’s quite a bit of suspense. Success seems ever improbable. It’s not a whodunit, it’s a howtheydunit.

Stone adds considerable humor to all the Bartlett quotations. He treats the characters not as gods on a pedestal but as funny and ordinary human beings. From time to time, they have to pee, or have to use the same appendage for something far more fun. Some have foul breath; one is dying of cancer. We come to know our Founders as lovable characters, distinct from each other (nearly two dozen). Famously, the show contains one of the longest stretches of time between musical moments in a musical, and yet it’s all fascinating and fun.

Sherman Edwards chose to mimic operetta and other classical-sounding forms. In this, he’s the polar opposite of Miranda, giving us a sense of period. Some lines are taken directly from the John and Abigail Adams correspondence, and I’ve always been fond of a comic quintet, But Mr. Adams, which uses a bunch of triple-rhymed triple syllables to good effect. However, it strikes me as a tad uncreative that he so frequently quotes Americana, like Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

But, after the stretch of dialogue I quoted above, the conservative minuet (a variation on Angels We Have Heard On High) gets played against stunning dissonance in the accompaniment, as if to say Something Is Terribly Wrong Here. And it is. Is America going to let the rich dictate policy? The final notes of the song proclaim the awful answer by trumpeting the first six notes of The Star-Spangled Banner.

I say “vote!”


Don’t hang up

March 22, 2016

Today is the birthday of the musical theatre’s two most famous composers, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Last year, I made some criticisms of Sondheim the day after his 85th birthday that greatly upset some people. And this reaction, I think, is evidence that the man has some rabid fans. Of course, every artist has fans of many a type: These two have written musicals that have entertained a whole lot of people over the years. They’ve earned a certain amount of adulation. But a rabid fan is one who sees red when even a small critique is heard. And that’s not using the old noggin. It simply can’t be that each and every thing any artist has done is automatically wonderful.

This year, Andrew Lloyd Webber has a new hit musical on Broadway, School of Rock. Good for him: I congratulate him on this accomplishment because it’s been 22 years since he had a new hit in New York, and 22 years is quite a long time. And 29 years is an even longer time: That’s the number of years since the last new Sondheim success.

And yet, to much of the world, Lloyd Webber and Sondheim are the big deal creative forces; everybody else is obscure, small potatoes. And that’s so, so… 1980s. Looking back, there was a 17-year stretch where Sondheim spoiled us all by producing eight really interesting shows. (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods) It’s very disappointing that the 29 years after Into the Woods we got to see so little from a formerly prolific artist. One show on Broadway, and two off-Broadway, one of which was later remounted by a subsidized theatre on Broadway. And here I’ll throw in an opinion: the two shows that played The Great White Way were less than great and a little dim, Passion and Assassins.

I don’t think Lloyd Webber’s nearly as good as Sondheim, but at least he kept trying. The second richest of all British composers, he could have sat at home in his palatial estate counting royalty checks. Instead, he made the effort to premiere a number of new shows since Sunset Boulevard:

  • Whistle Down the Wind
  • The Beautiful Game
  • The Woman In White
  • Love Never Dies
  • Stephen Ward

Heard of them? His blockbusters of the 1980s – Evita, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera – had a lot of us believing he might come up with another hit far sooner than he did. Many cattily assert that these efforts failing to catch fire have a lot to do with the Lord Lloyd Webber’s talent. And yet very few criticize Sondheim for not giving us more to see for so many years. I am shocked – shocked, I say! – that the rest of the world lets him off the hook. As I jocularly like to put it, “Hey Stephen Sondheim: Whatcha done for us lately?”

We’ve got nothing like “publish or perish” in the theatre, but at what point does your inaction mean you deserve to get your poetic license revoked? And is someone’s 86th birthday an inappropriate time to ask this question? Ach, I’m in more of a mood to look at who are the true leaders of the last three decades, and also who influenced me.

The dominant show-writers of the 1990s were Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. While Flaherty often reveals a pop sensibility in his repeated accompaniment figures (oo-la, oo-la), the team’s strong suit is their theatricality. While the level of craft is exceptionally high, what impresses me is their ability to dig into the dramatic core of the story. This leads to some of the most emotional songs I know, such as Princess, Ti Moune and Our Children.

Ahrens also collaborated with Alan Menken, a musical Midas who writes the songs the whole world loves. Now, you might attribute Menken’s stunning success to having highly-promoted Disney films to write for. But his songs keep charting, and, yes, there’s an inevitable drive to bring these properties to Broadway, where, owing to the fact that today’s audiences love a familiar title and score, they run for quite some time.

A generation younger is Bobby Lopez, who’s also had chart-topping success for Disney, and, for the stage, wrote the two funniest musicals of the century, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. I’m proud to have been aware of Bobby’s work years before others were, and can say the same about Jeanine Tesori – a much higher number of years in her case. It pleases me, but doesn’t surprise me, that the world has finally caught on the impressively varied brilliance of Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home.

Great as those five are, I personally feel I’m more influenced by William Finn and the smart team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. Here on my desk are complex numbers I’ve been working on in which people argue. It’s the sort of thing Finn does brilliantly. His songs have fire and energy, but never seem to be far away from a touch of madness. I also love how his songs rarely outlive their welcome. They make a point, and end, and the show moves on – the brevity I aspire to. Maltby & Shire, I’d argue, are the best lyricist and best composer working today. Those tunes make turns: the melodies travel to unexpected places; the lyrics tickle and delight and pack an emotional wallop. When I hear What Could Be Better?, or One of the Good Guys, or, nowadays, Stop Time, I think, my God: these guys are writing the story of my life.

Flaherty, Ahrens, Menken, Lopez, Tesori, Finn, Maltby & Shire, I guess, are the great eight, far more important and influential (and, damn it, better) than today’s birthday boys. But let’s wish Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim many happy returns. …To the theatre!

Employee of the day

March 14, 2016

Last month this blog received its 30,000th visit and I wonder if that’s a good enough excuse to talk about the blog a bit.

If I think the goal here is to get readers to write better musicals, the upshot is when I see an inept new musical, I’m likely to think “Arrrgh: I wish they’d read my blog.” And it should be just the opposite; I should see a really good new musical and the authors say “Thanks, Noel. We got a lot out of reading your musings.”

Ah, well. I’m only half-serious about that goal. There are other places to go, if you want to learn to write musicals. And if I were fully serious, I’d write a book. The original idea here – and it came from the late, great Mark Sutton-Smith – is that I have so many thoughts about musical theatre, they just ought to be jotted down somewhere. That 60,000 eyes have been cast upon them is just stunning to me. That nobody seems to have figured out why posts here get inappropriate titles is stunning, too, but less so. And the Easter Egg thing – that clicking any photo leads to an illustrative video: few are aware.

But those are the quirks. The big themes I keep getting back to:

Storytelling is everything.

Sittin’ around
I see a rainbow
Dirge for a dying theatre
The path not taken

Craft is important, exists for a reason.

Shall I drift away with the sea?
Sasha says woof
Turn around
Walk like an Egyptian

Stephen Sondheim is not quite as brilliant as people seem to think he is.

Cryptic greeting
Content at last
With friends like you
Poor romantic you

Now, there’s something about that less sentiment: it bothers a lot of people. And what irks sometimes gets people to read more. In the current on-line environment, the subject of a piece gets called “clickbait” when it provokes like an itch, drawing eyeballs (fingernails?) in.

(The internet’s filled with oddballs. Recently, one guy reacted to my insistence that perfect rhymes be employed by saying my exhortation would inevitably bring about the death of musical theatre.)100-0063EA22

I’ve been experimenting with clickbait in stuff written for other blogs. Two pieces were widely read and distributed: Notes On Notes: Talking To Your Audition Accompanist and Ten Songs I Never Mind Hearing At Auditions. And I kind of think there’s a broader lesson to be drawn. Here, I come up with pieces with little regard to whether anybody wants to read them. There, there’s an imperative and the title itself has to draw people in.

So, what kind of musical are you writing? Are you compelled to toil for ages on a show because of some artistic impulse within you? I’m sure we all know a writer – perhaps a poet – who fills pages without any expectation that anyone will read it. The opposite would be the creator who cares about pleasing the audience, not himself. And that’s just a bad place to be: “I don’t like this crap, but the public will.” A few years ago, a lot of wise folks encouraged me to write a show about a subject I’ve always found a bit icky. Others don’t find it icky, though, and there’s reason to believe there’d be a market for such a show. Dutifully I wrote, until my lack of love for telling the story stayed my hand.

I can’t think of an example of the other, of me writing a musical out of an uncontrollable urge to sing from my soul. The ideal is a combination of the two, a tale you’ll enjoy telling which you believe an audience will embrace. Of course you can misestimate the public. And then you have a flop. An earnestly believed-in, authors-poured-their-heart-in, flop.

The path not taken

March 5, 2016

If I share a few thoughts about the writing of Grease, The Wiz, Peter Pan and The Sound of Music, don’t misconstrue this as yet another critique of the live television broadcasts of those shows. That’s old news, foul water long under the bridge.

But I noticed something, staring at the small screen, which might be of value to those who create for the stage. It has to do with something I’m going to call narrative thrust. Now, what do I mean by narrative thrust? It’s a plot with a set of events that move logically from one to another. Nothing is arbitrary, out of left field, or a deus ex machina. Characters in conflict lead to events. A character’s flaws or quirks lead to something happening. These events are, in and of themselves, somewhat interesting. The true test of an effective plot involves the question, “Is the audience wondering what’s going to happen next?”

Suspense stories, mysteries, adventures are generally written with narrative thrust. The best television shows are, although an arc over a long season may hide the thrust of an individual episode. To give one example, the series, 24 always made me wonder what would happen next, and, sometimes, waiting an entire week for the next story beat was a kind of a torture.

Television viewers could literally change channels from a good example of narrative thrust to an utterly thrustless live musical, such as The Wiz or Grease. People often tell me how broadcasting musicals leads to wider interest in seeing live theatre, but, as Colonel Pickering says, “I’m afraid you’ve picked a poor example.” If someone unfamiliar with stage shows should flip from The Good Wife to Peter Pan, they couldn’t be blamed for thinking musicals are silly, that they sit there, dull due to lack of narrative thrust, occasionally enlivened by some barely-motivated dancing.

“Isn’t it great that they’re doing all these Broadway musicals live on television?” Well, no: Not if they’re The Rocky Horror Show or The Wiz. Both contain a procession of unusual events. We suddenly meet a purple haired rock chick, or a dancing man made of tin who busts moves after a dollop of Crisco or STP. These events have nothing to do with any character’s peccadilloes, and little to do with events before or after. They’re more than a little arbitrary.

Narrative thrust isn’t the only thing that makes a musical work. There can be compensating factors. The Wiz, on stage, assumes we all know the plot from the Judy Garland movie. What delights is how that plot is re-imagined for all-black setting. The original Geoffrey Holder production kept surprising us with wild designs and fresh stage pictures, including creative theatrical substitutions for the movie’s special effects (dancers with swirling silks for the tornado, for instance). Put all this on television and much of what’s good about The Wiz evaporates. Viewers are used to seeing special effects all the time: a tornado always looks like a tornado. Dancers with silks pale in comparison because we’re watching a medium that is usually literal. The translation of the story to African-American culture seemed far more fresh four decades ago; today it’s old hat. As a piece of television, I found The Wiz fairly boring, and I think this is more due to its lack of narrative thrust than anything else.

NBC and Fox have an annoying habit of shouting “Hey, look at us! We’re doing this LIVE. And it’s very hard to do live television!” Yeah, I know: I wrote a musical about that difficulty. Such Good Friends is set in the early 1950s when all television was live. Can you imagine a magician telling you, after every trick, how hard it was for him to do the slight-of-hand? In effect, Grease Live kept doing just that. Ooh, such a quick costume change! Actors had to run from soundstage to soundstage. Good for you, Fox. Here’s a pat on the head for your efforts. Now, leave me alone.

I previewed Grease, never reviewed it, and only wish to comment, that wasn’t Grease. Grease doesn’t contain an auto race, or malapropisms over a loudspeaker. What you saw was a television adaptation of the hit movie, from which all semblance of narrative thrust had been systematically removed. Is Danny Zuko the sort of kid who will exert all the effort needed to letter in track in order to impress a girl? Is Sandy’s decision to dress tough-and-sexy totally without motivation? Her name’s no longer Dumbrowsky, so Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee ceases to be a pun. Even the big dramatic moment, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, comes out of left field. Nothing leads to it, and I wasn’t moved one whit.

I understand how it makes commercial sense to adapt a popular film to the smaller screen. What’s harder for me to understand is why anyone would take a successful Jerome Robbins musical, one that had already worked famously well on the small screen, and add an hour to its running time. Peter Pan’s not one of the great musicals, in terms of dramatic thrust, but the 21st century adaptation added songs and scenes that turned a bright thing dreary. Peter Pan is the boy who doesn’t grow up, and the Darling children (yes, large D: that is their name) must be so enraptured by him, their inevitable journey towards adulthood has to feel poignant. Watching the TV Peter Pan, on its cheap sets with painted floors, I couldn’t wait for the kids to mature.

But the obvious missing element from Peter Pan and The Sound of Music: Mary Martin. Arguably the greatest star of Broadway musicals of all time, your spirits were lifted by every moment in her presence. So, when she starred in the far-shorter version of Peter Pan, and sung the hell out of I Gotta Crow and Mysterious Lady, you understood why Darlings and lost boys wanted to hang with Peter. Television’s Allison Williams has no such magnetism, and therefore the show seemed a fruitless exercise.

Lindsay & Crouse, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music is, thank God, a show with dramatic thrust. Not their best work by any measure, but good enough. It, like Peter Pan, was a Mary Martin-generated project built around her particular talents. The authors knew the audience would love Mary in every scene; this knowledge guided their writing. The show still works, on stage, when cast with a captivating Maria. The only way to destroy it is to put in some non-actress whose wooden line-readings rob the play of all verve. NBC cast Carrie Underwood. Need I say more?