I can never get enough

May 31, 2016

A long time ago, a good friend told me I was attracted to talent. The women I dated tended to be musical theatre performers with mad skills. But I’ve often wondered if there was some hidden message behind the comment. Is it good to be attracted to talent? Is it better to be attracted to the industrious, or those with a social conscience?

The first week of June, 1997, I met Joy Dewing. I was wowed. There were so many things I found exciting about her, but among them was her way with a song. Her voice, captivating, powerful, rich and very versatile – something I (and many many others) admired about her. But my friend’s long ago comment about my tendency to be attracted to talent persistently kept its place in the back of my mind. What if that’s a surface distraction, blinding one from understanding a person on a deeper level? What if she gives up singing?

When I started work at a theatre conservatory, also in the late nineties, it meant I’d often encounter fabulously talented actors. I felt the familiar attraction to talent fairly often. One could call me a junkie of it. I began to wonder if I’d outgrown my old attraction to talent because I was seeing so much of it. Eventually, I recognized that there was a different quality getting my heart to flutter: industriousness. You work hard, and I catch myself staring at you like a love-struck youth. (And here it seems appropriate to mention winsome Clara Regula – I’m playing a show she’s doing with three others back at The Duplex June 7 – and her industriousness and talent have me smitten.)

The hardest-working person I’ve ever known is the one I married, Joy Dewing. Four years ago she started a company, Joy Dewing Casting, that has quickly become the most respected boutique shop in the theatre industry. This is due to Joy upholding impressively high standards, exerting more effort than anyone else to ensure her clients find performers they’re happy with. She’s done this on Broadway; she’s done this for plays; mostly, though, her shows are national tours of big musicals.

That means they’re rarely near New York, but I got to catch the massive 42nd Street in New Brunswick. Well over thirty players danced over that stage in perfect tap precision. And anyone would wonder: Where’d they find these multitudes of talented people?

The process began with hiring Joy Dewing Casting. JDC has the experience and expertise to know how many auditions would be needed, where they should be held, and what rigors aspirants would need to be put through to prove they could maintain this high level of precision six days a week, in dozens of cities, over many, many months. Getting truly talented people into the room isn’t easy. An open call merely gets a bunch of people into the room who think they can do it, the self-selected phenoms. Joy oversees a winnowing down of the field in which each auditioner is treated with respect and fairness. She’s the performers’ favorite casting director, as a result of her attention to creating an environment that ensures everybody involved has a reasonably good time.

There are way too many casting situations in which too little attention is paid to all of this, leading to unhappy auditioners and far less than wonderful casts. One of the most foolish things you’ll hear in a pre-production meeting is “We don’t need a casting director. I can cast this myself.” The hubris there is that the fool making the statement knows the talent pool well enough to fill every role with the best person who’s ready, willing, and able. Cutting this corner almost inevitably leads to a bad production. Writing this blog, I always assume I’ve musical theatre writers reading. So, here’s the advice of the week: When you hear that Icarus-worthy sentiment, speak up and answer “I trust that you can do a great job at everything you’re here to do, but casting requires a specialist and we need to hire someone specifically to handle auditions.”

When it’s Joy, the thinking will go beyond the box. She’s been at the forefront of a movement towards diversity. Through the Casting Society of America, she’s innovated pathways towards inclusion. Someone outside the theatre biz asked me if there are any African-Americans among those dancing feet. But, of course. But something you’d never be able to tell from seeing the show is that one of the leads is legally blind. Much was made, last fall, of a performer in a wheelchair in the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. It was falsely trumpeted as the first time a wheelchair-using singer/actor had appeared on Broadway (which can be refuted At the Drop of Another Hat). But of course Joy had discovered the fabulous Ali Stroker years before.

OK, I know this is out of left field – or, perhaps, more precisely, la rive gauche – but did you see how France banned after-hours work e-mails? Joy chuckled at that one. A huge percentage of her work is done via e-mail and text well after “normal” working hours. Suppose it’s an open call day. That can mean eight or nine hours of watching auditions. So, when is there going to be any discussion of the people various members of the creative team liked? After hours. Or late at night: Part of the plot of 42nd Street involves the star of a show (Kaitlin Lawrence) breaking her ankle. This tour is going to Asia, and if anyone breaks an ankle over there, Joy is going to get a call in the middle of the night. Much as I’d like it to, the business can’t relocate to France.

No, Joy’s business continues to thrive in that nest of vipers known as Little Old New York. Sure, you can call me biased, but, based on seeing a lot of Joy Dewing cast shows with brilliant assemblages of talent, I have to say its continuing success is a testament to how well Joy Dewing Casting does what it does. Joy may not sing any more, but each day I revel in her incredible industriousness, her forward-thinking social conscience and a different sort of talent: casting.


Six members of the cast of 42nd Street will perform 18 of my songs June 13 at 7 & 9 at the Gardenia, 7066 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Reserve now for The Things We Do For Love: (323) 467-7444

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Hold me

May 25, 2016

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweet Charity lately, and started before The New Group made its surprising announcement that it will revive it in a small off-Broadway theatre with one of musical theatre’s biggest stars, Sutton Foster. Why off-Broadway? Foster has a lot of fans, and the show’s a big star vehicle, one that doesn’t obviously lend itself to a small presentation. I musical directed a production many years ago, where a large company danced on a stage that had been constructed on top of a swimming pool, in a Broadway house, no less. Weird, sure, but less weird than the New tiny theatre idea.

No, the reason I’ve been thinking about Sweet Charity is because a couple dozen friends of mine are doing it. Their performances are coinciding with the Los Angeles shows of my revue, The Things We Do For Love, so, I, alas, must miss it. My musing about my favorite tart-with-heart musical shouldn’t be construed as me telling them all how to do it. They’re capable people in capable hands.

There’s a story about how Sweet Charity got its book writer that I dearly love. It involves carrying a really large tape recorder to Italy. Why really large? Well, this was more than fifty years ago, and there was no such thing as a small tape recorder. It was a big reel-to-reel player, and you had to thread the tape through, kind of like with a movie projector. But if you’re old enough to remember threading a movie projector, you might be old enough to remember reel to reels and if you’re not I’m just speaking Greek.

Where was I? Oh, Italy. Neil Simon had written a movie and it was shooting there. The married couple traveling all the way to see him was Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. They’d been working on a musicalization of a coincidentally Italian film, Nights of Cabiria and wanted to convince Simon to do the book. At this point, they had a bunch of songs by Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, along with choreographic ideas about how they’d be staged. Bob & Gwen set up that machine, played the songs as Gwen performed some of the steps and Bob described what the audience would see. Simon knew Nights of Cabiria and now he was being presented with something no writer has ever been presented with: a fully-realized show that merely needed some funny dialogue to lead from fantastic number to fantastic number. Or that’s how it seemed at the time. Later, of course, further structuring was needed. What convinced Simon to join wasn’t the ease of the assignment, it was the fabulousness of the numbers: a club scene with rows of dancers holding their fists as if they were sparring with punching bags, a moment so exciting for the protagonist that a marching band in uniform appears out of nowhere, the aspirations of three down-on-their-luck females expressed as a fiery rooftop dance, the dead-eyed look of rent-a-dancers confronting yet another set of customers.

To fully appreciate that last one, Big Spender, check out an obscure early Stanley Kubrick film called Killer’s Kiss. It’s a black-and-white from the fifties, filmed on location in Times Square. The camera follows the characters up the stairs over a store and there’s a room where strangers dance with a cashier booth. Lonely men in suits buy a ticket, give it to a “professional” dancer, and then get to hold them tight as at least one pair of feet moves to the music. Now, we jaded moderns take the whole scene as a stand-in for sex with prostitutes. But not every rent-a-pas-de-deux led to a “happy ending.” Take the scene at face value, and the city is crawling with men so lonely, they long to have any sort of physical contact with a young woman.

The inherent sadness subtly pervades Sweet Charity. Yes, men seek sex. But some men are desperate for the less salacious touch you find on a dance floor. And, most extraordinary of all, there’s a girl on that floor who wants love and marriage and to get the hell out of that life. Pre-feminism, it seems to her that her options are few. Explicitly, she’s told she couldn’t be a secretary or even a hat check girl, and the pair that can envision themselves in those careers goes on to mock Charity’s dreams. The idea that she can marry her way out of the sordid life she lives has a certain logic to it – what else can she do? – and her middle name is Hope.

We invest, emotionally, in Charity’s dream. We want her to marry that respectable fellow (the second Neil Simon character named Oscar). To me, this pulling for the heroine is the most important component in Sweet Charity’s success. Yes, there are tons of fabulous Fosse production numbers, Doc Simon punchlines and the sexiness of the milieu, but caring for the character trumps all.

Dorothy Fields’ lyrics do most of the work here. They may be as good a set of lyrics as were ever written, filled with slang expressions that are so particular, they just feel right. “Tonight I landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam.” I don’t think any other lyricist could have come up with that, and there were doubts, when she took on the project, that a sweet and respectable little old Jewish lady could write for contemporary urban bar-girls. “Let me get right to the point: I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.

But they do, you know. People misinterpret Big Spender as merely a song in which women get to be sexy. As staged by Bob Fosse (repeated in his debut film), it’s more about the boredom of having to sing this feigned come-on night after night.

It’s been fifty years since the show premiered, and sexual politics have altered so much, it can be hard to recall that many musicals had fun with the idea that some women have such shapely bodies, men’s knees turn to jelly. This was very much at the center of the previous Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Bob Fosse collaboration, Little Me, which used a different female lyricist, Carolyn Leigh. That played the concept for laughs. Here Charity is said to be built for everything but talking, a line that doesn’t quite tickle my funny bone, but sure tugs at my heartstrings.

See what I mean for free at Circle in the Square, 50th between Broadway & 8th, June 12 & 13. 8pm both nights and also a 2pm matinee on Monday, the 13th. Just walk in the joint and grab a seat, no ticket required.


Back in the big time

May 16, 2016

This week, a respite from the intricate inspection of other people’s musicals, because I’ve one of my own coming up. The Things We Do For Love is a cabaret show of eighteen songs from my trunk, playing May 25 at The Duplex in New York and June 13 at The Gardenia in Los Angeles. The show sold out at The Duplex five years ago, and now five new performers join Steven Bidwell on the intimate stage, again directed by Justin Boccitto.

Here’s what’s highly unusual: the performers are all on tour with Forty-Second Street, traveling from city to city, across the country. Only when they’re near enough to me do I get to work with them. In a way, The Things We Do For Love is on a national tour, hitching a ride on a show five times its size, directed by its librettist Mark Bramble and choreographed by current Tony-nominee Randy Skinner. A few nights ago, I saw their show and it’s pretty fantastic. The leading lady, Kaitlin Lawrence, is funny and delicious and already I feel blessed to have her talents turned to my numbers. Wacky as hell in the roles based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green are Britte Steele and Steven Bidwell, and I’m very excited to see their comic chops on my joke-filled ditties. Britte gets to premiere I Wouldn’t Wish That On a Dog – the one change from the 2011 incarnation – and it’ll be fun to see how its first-ever audience receives it.

The other seventeen songs are proven applause-getters. The proof’s in the reception our Duplex shows got five years ago, and also all but a few of the numbers were heard in other musicals and revues of mine. So, when I tell you, confidently, that audiences love them, that isn’t a boast or brag. Just the facts, ma’am.

My last few posts here have ended with a tiny plug. It hardly seems out of line to promote one’s own shows on one’s own blog. But, last week, some Sondheim-firsters cried foul, as some Steve-Adores tend to do. I’d seen a bunch of comedy songs play in a 2,750 seat house and receive barely a chuckle. Using an asterisk, which used to be universally accepted as indicative of humor, I linked my weekly “humble” plug with my report on how such beloved (?) comic show tunes as This Week Americans and What Do We Do We Fly had fizzled. That got a blogger to carp that my 1100-word piece on Do I Hear a Waltz was all an excuse to promote The Things We Do For Love. So, let’s uncouple two concepts: Do I Hear a Waltz, lyrics by Sondheim, music by Richard Rodgers, book by Arthur Laurents, is a rarely-performed chamber musical with a lot of comedy songs that – last week, at least – didn’t quite land. Totally unrelated to that, you can hear more than a dozen comedy songs that people have laughed hysterically at this month and next at my cabaret show, The Things We Do For Love. There you go: Just the facts.

Of course, some of my songs have have longer histories than others. Brady Miller may (or may not) propose to Britte Steele in a duet that wowed in one of those Bound For Broadway concerts, the Noel Katz night at the Donnell Library, Musical Writers Playground’s half-hour presentation of The Company of Women, and countless cabarets in London by A Stage Kindly.

But when Stephanie Brooks regales us about the true purpose of a ski trip, that’s a song that’s only been heard in The Things We Do For Love. It was written for an early draft of The Company of Women, but we found that the character singing it wasn’t necessary to the plot, so her and her song were cut. So, it’s particularly pleasurable to me to see the tune find a home after all these years.

And if I get nostalgic watching Steven Bidwell and Tommy Joscelyn doing Why Do I Do What I Do, it’s because this particular number sparked the whole idea for the show. Some years ago, I was asked to put up a song of mine at a benefit. I can’t recall why I thought of this two-man quodlibet from The Love Contract, but thought of Steven, I think, because of his resemblance to the original performer. Steven and Jayson Kerr knocked ‘em dead at the benefit, and, soon after that Steven found himself running a monthly concert series at a theatre district bar. He’d feature a different songwriter or theme each time, and singing my duet gave him the idea to devote a night to Noel Katz material.

And you know what I said? No. Don’t do it.

This was a boisterous and noisy bar, and, for many patrons, the live singing was just background music. I knew, from my experiences playing in bars, and the successes of Spilt Milk and Lunatics & Lovers, that my songs go over best in venues where listeners can concentrate on the lyrics. Steven’s bar wasn’t such a conducive environment and I told him so.

This demurral gave him an idea: What if he produced a show of my songs in a cabaret in Greenwich Village, the type of place where ears are fully open? Well, that’s what he did and that’s what he’s doing again. It’s very gratifying to get my work in front of new ears, acted by new singers. One of the 2011 players, Stephen Mitchell Brown, went on to appear on Broadway so if you catch the current cast perhaps you can say you saw them before their Broadway debut. Also, catch them in Forty-Second Street: They’re really good in that, too.

 


Ninth waltz

May 11, 2016

Sometimes what a musical needs is alchemy. You can have the greatest living composer pouring out gorgeous melodies. You can have the playwright responsible for the books to Gypsy and West Side Story adapting his own fairly solid play. For lyrics, you can have Stephen Sondheim. But if there’s no alchemy, no magic, no secret sauce, all you’re left with is a tasteless muddle.

Do I Hear a Waltz? is now playing at City Center. The fine folks at Encores occasionally slip up, and they miss the mark as badly as they did last time they mounted a Rodgers-post-Hammerstein (No Strings). Music is their specialty, so it’s no surprise Richard Rodgers comes off best. Richard Troxell delivers a delicious performance of the big ballad, Take the Moment, unquestionably the highlight of the evening. And one of my favorite female trios, Moon In My Window, was sumptuous enough. Outside of those, the songs were a string of disappointments.

Stephen Sondheim, one must admit, was simply the wrong lyricist for this project. It required him to write large quantities of comedy songs, and what I’ll call Happy-Love love songs. If I say these are the worst lyrics of his career, that’s taking in the context of the rest of his oeuvre: show after show with excellent lyrics. Do I Hear a Waltz? isn’t bad, lyrically, but comedy songs and Happy-Love just aren’t his strong suits and that’s what he dutifully churned out here. There are plenty of Sondheim songs that make me laugh – Pour le Sport, Instructions To the Audience, that Hail Brooklyn chorale – but, as someone who writes songs that get audiences cackling, I’ve little use for songs that merely get audiences to smile: This Week Americans, What Do We Do We Fly, Bargaining, No Understand, We’re Going To Be All Right – many attempts; none score.*

A song in which someone expresses love for another and is actually happy about it: that’s Rodgers’ thing, not Sondheim. Unhappy love songs he does well. In the title song, “roses are dancing with peonies” which, to my ears, sounds like an attempt at poetry by someone with no real experience of love.

One romantic ballad is even sung from the point of view of a middle-aged shopkeeper and a wine goblet, both lonely, both looking for a mate. “We waited for someone” – “we” being a guy and his glass. Who’s responsible for such a ridiculous idea? One can enjoy the melody but I sure couldn’t feel anything and my heart’s not made of glass.

The last time I saw a collaboration between three writers of such esteem was when Laurents hamstrung Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Nick & Nora – even more lacking in alchemy). Here he’s the source of most of the problems, giving his characters way too little to endear themselves to us. But the more major problem is that there’s nothing major happening in the show. A romance hits a few roadblocks, then the show ends. Good musicals tend to be about larger-than-life characters; here, everyone’s rather smaller-than-life. Someone drinks too much at a party and spills some secrets, threatening a marriage. Big deal.

Now it happens I’m working on a musical about ordinary people and there’s nothing extraordinary about most of the roadblocks along their way. So, it’s my job to make a big deal of things, to rev up the emotion until they burst out in song. What Laurents, Sondheim and Rodgers fail to do is to ratchet up any moment’s feeling in a way that singing seems natural. An example occurs to me: the unseen character who’s the other leg in a triangle: What does the heroine feel about her, imagine about her? Why isn’t there a song there?

For this Encores staging, we get to hear an eleven o’clock number, Everybody Loves Leona, that was cut before the Broadway opening. One can see why – it lands with a thud. There’s a natural tendency to want to write another Rose’s Turn (from a previous Laurents-Sondheim collaboration) but, for a character to have a great big emotional eruption, we have to care about her. We, in the audience, don’t love Leona enough to justify that moment.

I wrote a bit about We’re Gonna Be Alright in a recent post. I liked Sarah Hunt as Mrs. Yeager so much, I was happy to see her get more to do; but the rest of the show doesn’t have these characters expressing sharp-witted cynicism as they do in the song. It’s a sore thumb, though fairly piquant as sore thumbs go. Another performer, Sarah Stiles, enlivened the usually drab No Understand, and, again, I was glad to be in her presence.

But Rodgers sets the would-be wit to some of his dullest melodies. Bargaining keeps banging the same note as if it’s a Jason Robert Brown song. The creator of Do-Re-Mi settles for Mi-Re-Mi in the verses to the song about air travel, which seems awfully uncreative. A lively ensemble late in the show is brought down by a descending chromatic scale interspersed with the tonic – presaging his I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You a few years later. It seems like he knew a day when he was out of good ideas.

I see I’ve said not a word about the leading lady, Melissa Errico. To say she is completely wrong for this role is to indulge in understatement. Her persona is that of an alabaster princess, not a New York noodge. She over-articulates everything like she’s been to finishing school. The script has her calling everyone “Cookie” but it seemed wrong every time she said it. “Petit four,” I’d believe, not “Cookie.” Opera star Richard Troxell gets referred to as “molto bello” umpteen times in the script, but is he? His body language is stodgy and unsexy; his line readings are dreary. His Italian accent is believable, unsurprisingly, but it was never clear why Leona found him irresistible.

Do I Hear a Waltz? was a sad experience for its creators, recalled fondly by none. But the idea of an unsophisticated American falling in love with a native in Italy: there could be something truly romantic and dramatic about that. I know: I saw The Light in the Piazza with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers’ grandson.

*If you want to hear comedy songs that cause paroxysms of laughter, I humbly suggest you attend The Things We Do For Love, a collection of my songs May 25 at the Duplex in New York, June 13 at the Gardenia in Los Angeles.


Sounds of the city

May 4, 2016

Much is being made of the twentieth anniversary of Rent‘s opening on Broadway. My wife is casting a national tour. The Pulitzer Prize going to Hamilton reminds many of the similar stir created by the 1996 winner. Rent, too, was the creation – book, music and lyrics – of one multi-talented thirtysomething, but in the tragic case of Jonathan Larson, he did not live to see his masterpiece completed. He died on the eve of the first off-Broadway performance. And I believe that everything that’s wrong with Rent is something he could have and would have fixed on the three month road to Broadway.

Yes, once again, you’re detecting I hold an opinion that’s different from much of the rest of the world. Practically everybody loves Rent, thinks it brilliant, even flawless. Such praise, twenty years ago, seemed a natural reaction in the wake of the horrid tragedy of Larson’s death. But perhaps we can now view his famous chef d’oeuvre with dispassionate objectivity. There isn’t a whole lot of “there” there.

But there’s plenty of death, or (seemingly) fatal illness. Two of the three creators of the vastly more effective The Book of Mormon put it best in their send-up, Everybody Has AIDS.

No, there’s nothing funny about AIDS, per se. But there’s something positively wacky about building an entertainment around HIV+ characters. Rent says all the obvious things: that death is sad, that we must live each day we’re given to the fullest, that we must be kind to each other. The message is weak tea compared to the more truth-to-life and heart-felt Falsettoland, which takes one extended family – where everyone’s far more quirky and endearing than anyone in Rent – and shows, specifically, how the new disease upends them.

Rent commits the cardinal sin of musical tragedies: it is moving, at times, simply because AIDS is sad. We cry because AIDS kills, and, for most of us, has killed someone we cared for. Key to Rent’s initial success, of course, was the news story, telling of its author’s death from an aortic aneurysm. A talented young man, taken from us long before his time: that’s truly tragic. Angel in the show is a talented young man, and I’ve always wondered whom the tears are falling for as we mourn him; Larson? And then we have Catwoman, er. Mimi, who dies before our eyes, just as in the opera the show is based on. And then she doesn’t. This is perhaps the falsest ending in all of musical theatre. We weep over a girl’s death, and then – poof! – she lives. How could you not feel cheated by that?

Mimi happens to be the character I cared about least. She’s sexy, all right, in a contemporary way, but she takes far too few actions that engender my sympathy. The romance with Roger is not one I root for. They meet, hit it off, and then I’m supposed to care about their romance as if they’ve had a wealth of experiences together? This plotline is the least interesting aspect of Rent, and you’d think I, a songwriter, would empathize, since I’ve often struggled, like Roger, to create the perfect song for the object of my affections. Now, I like his first act solo, One Song Glory, but the completed product, a cliché-ridden ode to Mimi’s eyes, is a musical low point. “You blew it, man!” I wanted to say to Roger. But really I wanted to say the same thing to Larson after Mimi’s amazingly boring ballad, Without You. It’s monotonous and uninteresting, and I feel quite certain that had Larson lived to shepherd Rent to Broadway, both second act stage-weights would have been replaced.

His posthumously produced Tick Tick Boom has a score that does a number of effective things. It has comedy songs that actually get laughs, for instance. Rent has a duet, The Tango Maureen, which has a set-up that seems likely to yield yocks, but not a single solid joke in the entire lyric. (Some interstitial dialogue lands, thank God). Then, there’s La Vie Bohème, an energetic list song for the full company. It does little more than name-drop beloved artists from different disciplines. I found it kind of fun, but wholly implausible. Here we have a bunch of young East Villagers who know their Neruda from their Sontag from their Merce Cunningham. I’ve got to call shenanigans on this. There simply don’t exist all that many people who are aware of each name in that hall of little-fame.

And one of them, a would-be filmmaker named Mark, is a true idiot. Fans of the show don’t seem to recognize how stupid he is, but let’s take a look: He wants a career in cinema. He is offered a job as a camera-man on a TV show. Anybody with half a brain would jump at that chance. Work there and you’ll make connections, get experience, and be off on the road to achieving your dreams, right? Mark’s main drama is that he’s conflicted about whether to take the job.

Which brings us to entitlement. These artistes are squatters near Tompkins Square Park. They either can’t pay, won’t pay, or are scrambling to pay rent in the Village. They’re in no position to turn town a decent-paying job, or are they? Seems to me they’re pretending to be like the poor people. Which is really offensive to those who care about the plight of the actual poor.

Now, I think there’s a wonderful point to be made about young artists who turn down opportunities, staking some claim to nobility, who intentionally live like they’re poor. That’s an interesting idea for a show. Unfortunately, Rent is not that show. But I’ll always believe that, had its creator lived, the late-period incubation would have produced a work worthy of all that praise and those prizes.

A friend of mine linked to this blog with the quip, “Noel Katz, doing what he does best, eloquently shitting on things you thought you liked.” Hmmm. He’ll revise that once he sees the revue of my songs playing May 25 at The Duplex in Greenwich Village and then June 13 as The Gardenia in Hollywood, The Things We Do For Love.