Don’t say no

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.


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