Don’t say no

April 29, 2016

I see that it’s been a very round number of years since I got my first job in show business. I noticed this weeks, or maybe months ago, but wasn’t anxious to post about it. I don’t like sounding wise, or venerable.

But then out of the blue I heard from an old friend of mine. He’s been an aspiring writer as long as I’ve known him – since his teens – and yet he never seems to complete a draft of anything. Many years ago, I gave him a prescription:

Choose a unit of time – I’ll use an hour for this example – spend one hour each day writing, and one hour each day networking. For those are the two rather basic things I’ve gleaned.

Obviously, to be a writer, you have to write. (You’d be amazed at the number of people I encounter who haven’t figured this out.)

But now I’m reminded of Billy Rose. There’s a research floor of the Library For the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center named for him. When it opened, Very Important People made speeches about how Rose would spend time in New York public libraries, and what he learned there led him to be the great lyricist he was. And I had to laugh. Rose invested in A. T. & T. early in its existence, and made a fortune. He then decided to conquer Broadway, and he paid good lyricists to write songs and let him have the credit, on the sheet music, “Lyrics by Billy Rose.” As far as I know, he never wrote anything other than a check.

So that’s one way of becoming a writer – pay someone to do it for you. We who are not among the 1% have to do it the old-fashioned way. And then, as with almost any business. you’re going to have to get to know folks-in-a-position-to-help-you and get them familiar with your abilities.

I was rather fortunate in this regard. I was born in Manhattan. My parents were in show business, and their friends in show business were a big part of my childhood. One funny fellow, Stu Hample, actually wrote Broadway musicals, but I knew him as the creator of something called The Silly Book, and its natural outgrowth, The Silly Record. One Saturday morning I was watching a TV show, and heard a song that sounded remarkably similar to one on The Silly Record. I had, as a child, an outsized sense of justice;  I’d get outraged over unfairness. And the thought that Stu’s song was stolen led me to raise alarms, as well as a kid under the age of 9 could do. This led to a lawsuit, and a cash settlement, and Stu wrote me a check for some small percentage of what he got as a thank you for bringing it to his attention. This was quite the bonding experience between a grown man and a small boy: we remained lifelong friends, and he set me up with some theatrical connections when I was a young man, writing musicals.

I’d started at the tender age of 14. I wrote an original show, and then a musical based on an old play, and then one based on a classic novel, and then one based on a famous play I thought could be improved. That’s how I spent my teens. It’s also how Sondheim spent his, a prescription he got from his best friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein: Write a show based on a play you admire, another show based on a play you think could be improved by musicalization, one based on something that’s not in dramatic form, and then an original. I didn’t go in that order, but by twenty, I’d done it.

My belief is that you can learn more from the experience of writing a musical than anything else. Books, workshops, seminars, that grad program that exists: fine, but ain’t nothing like the real thing. But I’ve always been an autodidact.

In adolescence, I’d check out scores to shows from the library and play through every note. I was fascinated by how musicals were put together. The finale of Fiorello, for example, quotes a lovely ballad, Where Do I Go From Here, which had been cut by the time the show opened – love that sort of stuff. The music to that song is in the Vocal Selections. Why was it cut? Because director George Abbott couldn’t stand to come so close to self-pity. He ordered Bock and Harnick to get the same point across in a joke-filled, upbeat duet, which they did.

That all-encompassing investigation of Broadway scores meant I’d be pounding out show tunes the moment I got home from school. One day, a secretary in the office where my father worked was talking about this improv group she was in. She said that two cast members strummed guitars, and there was a piano in the performance space going unplayed. My father responded “My son can play anything.” Next thing I knew, I was working Friday and Saturday nights, which saved me from all the pressures of teen dating.

Could I really “play anything?” Nope. That was inaccurate, or a father’s boast. I could play a couple of songs I had memorized, where I could picture the sheet music in my memory. I could not play by ear. And the improv troupe needed an ear-player. So, picture this scenario: The host would take a suggestion for a scene. The cast would need a moment to decide who was going to be in the scene, and to put on some costume piece, usually a funny hat. During this moment, I’d play music. Naturally, I’d want the music to relate, in some humorous way, to the suggestion. We’d be asked to do a scene about a transvestite, and I’d know, right away, that I wanted to play I Enjoy Being a Girl, but, unfortunately, I did not know how to play I Enjoy Being a Girl. I’d concentrate on the keyboard, and start on middle C: What’s the first interval? A fifth? Something bigger? I’d play my second note, a fifth higher, instantly knew I was wrong, then try a different note, until I found the familiar major sixth. The audience, at first, didn’t know what they were hearing. But, eventually, they’d figure it out, and laugh. Over time, with that audience behind me, I improved my playing-by-ear skills. Eventually, I was able to work Greenwich Village piano bars, handling any request, never any music in front of me.

I like to think of that struggle to play by ear as a microcosm of my whole career. Just like I didn’t know how to play that song, I didn’t really know how to write musicals. Yet, the moment I hit a wrong note, I’d instantly correct myself, resulting in a laughing and satisfied audience. I look at the draft of the musical I’ve been working on for the past two or three years and think, God, there’s so much wrong with it. But I’m going to fix all those problems, I swear, until an audience cheers.

A revue of my songs from all these decades, The Things We Do For Love, plays in New York at the Duplex May 25 and Los Angeles at the Gardenia on June 13, if you’d like to join the cheering throng for that. I’ll be at the piano for those shows, making mistakes but instantly correcting myself so fast you won’t notice.


The fight

April 22, 2016

Peter Filichia’s column last week argued in favor of perfect rhyming. I’ve written about the issue before and often find myself debating with those who feel false rhyming is somehow more authentic, or modern, or not so necessary for audiences today. The question inevitably boils down to comprehension: If you want your audience to have an easier time understanding words that are sung, you’ll help them out by using words that truly rhyme.

I’m busy, these days, preparing a new production of my revue, The Things We Do For Love for an upcoming national tour. So, I hope you’ll excuse my taking the course of least resistance, creating a post made up of old notes that were drafted on my phone. I look at them and wonder what point I was rebutting. You might, too.

But here’s what I hear:

  • That rhyming correctly is a “mode” that worked in the twentieth century, but no longer.
  • Today’s audiences, accustomed to the assonances of pop songs, don’t need perfect rhymes in order to enjoy a show.
  • The success of jukebox musicals made up of old rock songs is proof that misrhymed material engages viewers.
  • That my insistence that the craft used by Sondheim, Hammerstein, Harnick, et al continue to be employed will inevitably bring about the death of musical theatre.

I wish I was making any of this up. I’m not.

Here are some of my responses:

All the great lyricists – Loesser, Hammerstein, Harnick, Sondheim – used perfect rhyme and had at least four Broadway hits. Perfect rhyme, demonstrably, aids comprehension; it makes a new score more understandable on first hearing. Pop writers don’t get this because they’ve had success, with false rhymes, in a field where repeated listenings are common. Once you’ve rhymed badly, the audience can’t trust you’ll ever rhyme well again and so is forced to listen harder. And can you name an American misrhymer who’s had four shows on Broadway?

There’s a distinction between lyrics that call attention to themselves and those that flow out of the mouths of characters just as naturally as dialogue would. I’ve been talking about the latter. I’m in complete agreement about the squabble rhyme — (Sondheim: Should there be a marital squabble/Available Bob’ll/Be there) –sounding more like a lyricist showing he’s clever than birthday party guests communicating organically. One can (and I’d say one should) utilize perfect rhymes in a way that the audience is never thinking about the writer because they’re totally engaged by what the character has to say. Good writing isn’t noticeable as such. But bad rhyming usually makes me wince: I’m taken out of the play, thinking about some creator who couldn’t bother to do another draft.

Rap is a genre in which slant rhymes and assonance are employed and the listener does think, admiringly, about the cleverness of the lyricist. Fans of hip hop are used to listening with a greater degree of concentration than typical theatre-goers because they derive enjoyment from the rhymes. Stage shows don’t do that much anymore, and the heyday of that sort of thing was the 1930s. After Rodgers & Hart amused with cleverness, Rodgers & Hammerstein taught the world to react to personages on stage, not behind the scenes.

Hamilton is positively a perfect storm of different genres. Like no musical in recent memory, we prick up our ears and appreciate rhyming and verbal wit. There’s also a meta component: In a freestyle rap performance you cheer for the clever improviser. Here, you watch brilliant lines pour forth from various Founding Fathers and applaud Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s right there on stage. The cabinet rap battle is explicitly a contest: Which character can rhyme with greater wit, brains?

You might not know: I love rap battles. Miranda has spoken in detail about different types of rhymes, when to employ them, and he’s written in many genres. He knows what he’s doing, and gets rewarded with full audiences ready, willing and able to really use their ears.

It’s likely that the topic comes up repeatedly because of our mass obsession with Hamilton. I’m often asked, by those who know my distaste for false rhymes, how I could have enjoyed (nay: loved) the latest Pulitzer Prize winner. My answer is that the boatload of bad rhymes in Hamilton is the flaw in the diamond. Lin-Manuel Miranda intended to draw a parallel between Founding Fathers and recent rap artists so he chose to include the sort of near-rhyme commonly used in rap. The result is a sort of a chore for the audience: We have to listen hard, with far greater than usual concentration to make sure we hear every word. We don’t get the familiar aid to comprehension real rhymes provide. But we’re rewarded for our attention. So much of the text is so brilliant in so many ways (other than rhyming), it’s worth pricking up your ears. Paradoxically, sometimes we’re even amused by the cleverness of a near rhyme:

lock up your daughters and horses; of course it’s hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets

But here’s the thing: Lyrics have to do a lot of things – fit on music, be “singable” by a human voice, forward the plot, convey subtext as well as text, sound natural coming out of the mouth of the character singing them, use vocabulary reflecting the show’s setting, eschew cliché for clichés are too easily dismissed, make the audience feel emotions, etc. – rhyming is merely one of them. We could talk about those other things (in other posts, when I’m less busy) but rhyming is so much easier to discuss. You can always tell when you’ve heard a false rhyme. Never, ever, in a song of mine.

A revue of my songs, The Things We Do For Love, plays the Duplex May 25, 2016.

You are so fair

April 14, 2016

It’s OK to disagree. I feel that Sheldon Harnick (of Fiddler on the Roof, and She Loves Me, now playing) is our greatest living lyricist. You probably think Stephen Sondheim is our greatest living lyricist. And that’s fine. We can agree to disagree. What’s not so fine is to hold these two titans to completely different standards.

So, remember the time that esteemed songwriter made a joke about domestic violence? I do. Now, you might believe that wife-beating is so horrifying it must NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT. And, God knows, I’ve encountered enough people who believe Carousel condones or excuses marital abuse – I’ve debunked that before – but at least Hammerstein doesn’t joke about that which must NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT. Brace yourselves, sensitive souls, I’m about to quote two lyrics.

The Very Next Man, from Fiorello:

I shall marry the very next man who asks me
You’ll see
Next time I feel
That a man’s about to kneel
He won’t have to plead or implore
I’ll say “Yes” before his knee hits the floor
No more waiting around
No more browsing through “True Romance”
I’ve seen the light
So, while there’s a chance
I’m going to marry the very next man who asks me
Start rehearsing the choir
Tie some shoes on my Chevrolet
Pelt me with rice and catch my bouquet
I’m going to marry the very next man
If he adores me
What does it matter if he bores me?
If I allow the man to carry me off
No more will people try to marry me off
No more living alone
No more cheating at solitaire
Holding my breath for one special man
Why, I could smother for all he’d care
I’m through being wary
I’ll marry the very next man
No more daydreams for me
Find the finest of bridal suites
Chill the champagne and warm up the sheets
I’m going to marry the very next man
And if he likes me
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.
New York papers, take note
Here’s a statement that you can quote:
Waiting for ships that never come in
A girl is likely to miss the boat
I’m through being wary
I’ll marry the very next man

We’re Gonna Be All Right, from Do I Hear a Waltz, “original” version as heard in Side By Side By Sondheim:

Eddie: Honeybunch,
Sad to say, but I have a hunch,
Screen romances went out to lunch,
That’s no reason to pout.
Don’t look bleak,
Happy endings can spring a leak,
“Ever after” can mean one week,
We’re just having a drought.
Smile and sweat it out.
If we can just hang on,
We’ll have compatibility.
No need to worry,
We’re gonna be all right.
One day the ache is gone,
There’s nothing like senility.
So what’s your hurry?
We’re gonna be all right.
Meanwhile, relax!
I’ll take a lover, you take a lover.
When that’s played out,
They’ll get the axe,
We can retire,
Sit by the fire,
Fade out.
We’ll build our house upon
The rock of my virility.
You better scurry,
We’re gonna be all night,
Oh, boy! we’re gonna be all right.
Jennifer: I was told
“Just be faithful and never scold,”
Sounded easy, so I was sold.
I’ve been miserable since.
I was taught
When the prince and the dragon fought,
That the dragon was always caught.
Now I don’t even wince
When it eats the prince.
I know the perfect pair
Their lives are at the pinnacle.
But how do we know
They’re gonna be all right?
The bride is slightly square,
The groom is slightly cynical.
A little vino,
They’re gonna be all right.
She aims to please,
She has a baby,
Then, though they may be
Having fine times,
When there’s a crease,
She has another,
Now she’s a mother
Nine times!
It all went wrong, but where?
Details are strictly clinical.
She’s out in Reno,
The kids adored the flight,
Hey ho, they’re gonna be all right.
Eddie: Things will heal.
I know couples who look ideal,
They no longer know what they feel,
They’ve been practicing charm.
All is well,
‘Least as far as their friends can tell.
Please ignore the peculiar smell,
There’s no cause for alarm.
Mildew will do harm.
Jennifer: What if her brain is dead?
Eddie: What if he’s ineffectual?
Both: They look delicious,
They’re gonna be all right.
They both go right to bed
When they feel intellectual.
No one’s suspicious,
They’re gonna be all right.
Jennifer: Who’s on the skids?
She’ll go to night school–
Eddie: If it’s the right school,
He’ll permit her.
Jennifer: They love their kids,
They love their friends, too–
Eddie: Lately, he tends to
Hit her.
Jennifer: Sometimes she drinks in bed,
Eddie: Sometimes he’s homosexual.
Both: But why be vicious?
They keep it out of sight!
Good show!
They’re gonna be all right.
And so,
We’re gonna be all right.
Hey ho!
We’re gonna be all right!

Now, with the disinterest of a Supreme Court justice or a Solomon the Wise, try to apply a principle as fairly as you can. Is one acceptable and the other not?

Sondheim mavens know the checkered history of We’re Gonna Be All Right. In a brash and somewhat shocking manner, for 1965, Sondheim’s lyric wittily depicts an unhappy married couple. Composer Richard Rodgers, legend tells us, played it for his wife of 35 years and then told his collaborator all the cynical stuff had to be cut. I know a lot of people who are outraged by this. They take Rodgers refusal to include “sometimes he’s homosexual” as evidence of the composer’s homophobia.

(Rodgers, of course, spent two and a half decades collaborating with Lorenz Hart, and their workday often began with Rodgers finding Hart in the men’s room of a seedy bar, asleep on the floor where he’d had gay sex the night before. Rodgers fed him coffee until he was sober and awake enough to write. Sound like a homophobe to you?)

At this point in their careers, though, nobody knew more about writing musicals than Richard Rodgers. No one had done more to revolutionize the form. Sondheim had three hits behind him, and West Side Story was certainly an innovation, but not for its lyrics, the one aspect he was responsible for. I see the cutting of the sardonic stanzas as evidence that Rodgers was a brilliant musical dramatist, and these mockeries just didn’t fit how these characters were portrayed in the rest of the show.

But the Steve-adores insist that they’re brilliant, as they insist that all Sondheim lyrics are brilliant. Day after day after day after day after day after day after day. (“Brilliant!”) And they knock Richard Rodgers as an old fogie – he was 62 – who couldn’t recognize the genius of “Lately he tends to hit her.”

Whup! – there it is: The thing that NEVER BE JOKED ABOUT, joked about. Except here rabid fans nudge each other, “Oh, that Steve! He’s such a card.”

Around the time of Do I Hear a Waltz, female stand-up comedians started to appear on television. Early Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller routines routinely featured self-deprecating humor. In real life, there exist gals who are desperate for dates, and maintain they’re not pretty enough to attract men. Distaff stand-ups asserted themselves by making such jokes themselves: “I’d date anyone with a pulse!” “Is he breathing? I’ll marry him!”

Here in the twenty-first century, that type of humor seems, I don’t know, hoary. (Look it up!) But one era’s comedy often seems not-so-funny a half-century afterwards. And it’s not as if we go around asking writers to rewrite their old jokes for an evolved sensibility.

Except that’s exactly what happened to Sheldon Harnick. Someone he knew had a daughter in high school, doing a production of Fiorello. (And it’s here I stop to exclaim: “A high school doing Fiorello? I want to go to there!”)

In a new era, with a new sensibility, the humor of a World War One-era spinster quipping that she’d happily marry a wife-beater, seemed wrong, and Harnick wrote this replacement:

When he proposes

I’ll have him bring me tons of roses

Sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour

Why should I wait around for one little flower?

Which is significantly less funny. And rather show-specific, as you have to understand that Fiorello LaGuardia was known as The Little Flower. The people over at Encores, who have twice done Fiorello (with the new politically-correct line) are now preparing to do Do I Hear a Waltz. Will they include Sondheim’s “Lately he tends to hit her?” Should they? What do you say?

The jury’s still out.


April 3, 2016

The Hamilton casting notice brouhaha is no even-handed controversy. It’s childish carping by callous and prejudiced people railing against people of color who’ve been mistreated far too often for far too long. I don’t really want to waste a post railing against the railers. So let’s talk about Brigadoon.

Brigadoon is about a magic town in Scotland that disappears and reappears every hundred years. It’s stumbled on by two post-war Americans, and this prompts some excellent songs. I particularly admire how composer Frederick Loewe gets the best-known tune, Almost Like Being In Love, to fit both the contemporary vernacular and also 18th century Great Britain. I played the lead in this show when I was in Eighth Grade. The following year, my high school did it. And, unsurprisingly, every production I’ve ever seen of Brigadoon has used an all-white cast.

Now, why is that? Well, in the theatre, we blithely accept the idea that a director has a vision for a show. Most directors want to cast their 18th century Scottish town with nothing but white folks, because that’s how Scotland really was. And they don’t trust that the audience will accept Anglo-Saxons played by People of Color.

Yet, they do trust that the audience will accept that a town has a magic curse placed on it, which involves everybody going to sleep and waking up in the next century. Because, you see, that sort of thing happens all the time.

As does people breaking out in song.

But, yeah, we respect that “director’s vision” thing. And we’re fine with directors casting whomever they want. It’s not as if we require that directors cast the most talented performers that can be found. Some, it seems, would rather see an all-white Brigadoon than a Brigadoon cast with the most talented performers available: a certain percentage of those are minorities. If theatre were a meritocracy, the magical hamlet in the highlands would have a multi-racial population.

actual casting notice for Bright Star

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Performers of Color truly encounter casting notices that say “only Caucasians will be considered” both literally and in effect, all the time. We writers look at this situation and sometimes respond by creating characters that either CAN be cast non-white, or MUST be cast non-white. Two of my shows starred the rich-voiced actor Jay Aubrey Jones. In one he played a character written as black; in the other he played a character with no race designated. He was wonderful in both roles.

Suppose you’ve written a musical filled with MUST-be-minority roles. And it’s a smash hit. As a result every young performer really really wants to be in it. Your casting notice for replacements for those roles might be totally upfront and honestly state that, this time, no whites will be considered. The writer, in this case, had a vision, and the director shares it, telling a story with ethnic minorities. Who’s going to complain about this want ad?

Only a beneficiary of White Privilege who is blind to the realities Performers of Color face. A typical day in the life of a non-white actor involves auditioning for white directors who don’t, can’t or won’t imagine any dark faces in the cast. This season’s two most notable musicals, Hamilton and Shuffle Along, represent a rare reversal of the status quo. They’re celebrations of not-so-pale talent. If you’re going to complain about that, you’re an asshole.

The so-called “civil rights attorney” who started the current kerfuffle is right in line with bigots you hear calling in to right wing talk radio, shouting about white folks’ rights being taken away. As if fair treatment of other ethnicities will lessen their white privilege somehow. I long ago gave up listening to talk radio in disgust. I’m incensed to read about something similar in theatre-related media.

But here’s another problem. So-called “theatre journalists” aren’t really doing their job. They print press releases as truth; they don’t take the trouble to figure out whether a story’s worth reporting. This one was not, and only served to make a lot of people angry and give publicity to an undeserving asshole lawyer. [Insert joke here.]

It’s easy to imagine this on a broader scale: What if national journalists gave free media exposure to an asshole plutocrat who regularly made racist statements?

Nah: That could never happen here.