The rain it raineth every day

June 22, 2016

A few quick notes about my trip to California.

My show, The Things We Do For Love, I must honestly if immodestly report, thoroughly knocked out Angelinos. They bubbled over with enthusiasm, seemingly startled that an hour of songs in a boîte could be so entertaining. The cast was particularly “on” for both shows, putting across my lyrics and music with aplomb and intention. What I’m marveling over, this week after, is the frequency of the laughter. People had just recovered from their last paroxysm of mirth when the next joke rattled their being. And that went for whole songs, too. We’d launch into the next number on the next breath. No dialogue or scenery changes. And you may know I create shorter pieces than anybody. Listeners knew that if they didn’t care for one number, they’d merely need to wait two minutes for the next one. No falling down the rabbit hole of an interminable ballad. Plus, Justin Boccitto’s staging kept it all visually interesting.

Before the trip, I wondered how Tinseltown would respond to my material. As luck would have it, an old friend of mine posted some videos of an original revue he just did at a school there. I’m pretty sure it was meant to be funny, but there was so much time between chuckles you could drive a train through. Not that Californians know from trains. And I have a number set on a subway. How was anybody going to get that? Or the one mentioning Gansevoort Street and Noho! God, Noho has a completely different meaning in the City of Angels. And they don’t know the meaning of bodega and- Yes, I worked up a bit of anxiety prior.

The night before I’d been at a party of five watching the Tonys.

Tape-delay is a weird thing: “Live from New York, it’s something that happened three hours ago!” Even eerier was leaving the party and seeing nobody on the street. I mean, I know the results weren’t surprising, but you’d think neighbors would strike up conversations, like about how two of the runners-up for Lead Actress in a musical accepted marriage proposals from heartthrob Stephen Pasquale.

Theatre folk occupy a small and insular world. Just as political types value getting beyond the Beltway, it can be a refreshing respite to be around people who don’t breathe Broadway. A hotel room magazine described the tour of Cabaret as being the creation of two film directors, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall. They’d directed and choreographed before becoming film directors and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why someone would say a stage piece was birthed by moviemakers as if that were a good thing.

Forget it, Jake: it’s Hollywood. And Friday night I returned to the belly of the beast to see… actual theatre. Three short plays written by teenagers and performed by professionals. Astonishingly successful, fully realized, they shook off my cynicism like dust from a beaten rug. If you’re focused enough, and have your nose to the grindstone, you can conjure up marvelous material for the Fabulous Invalid anywhere you are.

I was told the author of the funny play is interested in writing musicals. My thoughts naturally shifted to what I’ll tell him when, inevitably, we sit down for a conversation about it. And, somehow, my thoughts didn’t shift to my adolescence as a theatre kid stuck in L.A. I’d write musicals and submit them to my high school drama teacher. I investigated the feasibility of renting a little theatre and mounting a revue. Not very. Naturally, what seemed like limited opportunity to do new work out west drew me home to New York. New work/New York: six out of seven letters are the same.

I’ve got some time until that prodigy comes east – he starts Yale in the fall – but here are some ideas about what I might say.

We are all storytellers. If you’re just the composer, and others are doing book and lyrics, you’re still a storyteller. Costume designers think of themselves as storytellers, and they’re right. Filmmakers are storytellers. And cavemen, around an open fire, listened to some raconteur.

Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms. That’s because so many specialists come together, trying to tell the same story. The orchestrator, the vocal arranger, the set designer: It’s a huge team.

I’m Ivy League-educated, too, and there I tried to be a sponge, sopping up as many unfamiliar ideas as possible. It’s great to be a prodigy, because nobody expects all that much of young people, and you can make a permanent positive impression as you exceed expectations. One of the greatest advantages of going to a really good school is that you can cultivate connections. Individuals don’t create musicals; groups do. And you’re going to want to align yourself with the finest fellow travelers. I visited a good friend in college at Wesleyan, which happens to be the place where, later, Lin-Manuel Miranda met director Thomas Kail.

It takes a lot of time to write a musical. Make sure the story you’re telling is one you’re willing to spend years on. I had a terrible time a few years ago: Working utterly alone, with no idea who to network with, I started telling a story I was rather unenthusiastic about telling. Abandoning that project was like being released from a ball and chain.

Some things you’ll get right almost by accident. Other times, you’ll do everything as you intended and find the audience isn’t interested in what you’re writing about or how you’ve approached it. One year, I saw two musicals about singing Siamese Twins. People laughed their heads off at both of them. But Side Show wasn’t meant to be funny; it was trying to exploit the pathos in people’s pity for freaks. From the Hip was closer to camp – broad comedy that sought laughs and thoroughly succeeded.

Finally, the best way to learn to write a musical is to write a musical. And then write another one. There’s no need to be depressed if your early efforts don’t set the world on fire. They’re just educational stepping stones on the path to doing this better.

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I’m always smiling

June 14, 2016

Those adoring and enchanted audiences at The Things We Do For Love in New York and Los Angeles were interested in knowing a little more. Were these songs written specifically for this show? No, none of them were. So, what were they from?

Fugue for Cell Phones and Need Somebody were the opening numbers of  revues I did with Second City in the early 2000s. Some of the lyrics were devised out of improvisations. When cell phones were new, it seemed to me people used them, most often, to give their locations. Yes, those are actual Manhattan streets. Computer hook-ups were new when Need Somebody was first heard and the entire cast held keyboards made of styrofoam.

Thoughts In Transit is the oldest of the bunch, written for Fear of Scaffolding (where it was called Subtexts in the Stacks), and revised for On the Brink. I set completely new lyrics to an obscure Sondheim duet, Two Fairy Tales, because I liked the format: near-constant eighth notes divided between two singers.

A half dozen tunes were, at some point, in The Company of Women, my only show that never got produced: Mount Paradiso, They’re Good in the Winter, Working Out, Breaking the Rules, Stuff (intended for On the Brink), and Marry Me. Yes, there’s a small quote from Hamlisch & Kleban’s The Music and the Mirror at the end of the gym number. It’s the sort of pounding ostinato I, with my limited knowledge of gyms, assumed gets played there.

A Song In My Pants was written for Tom Carrozza, who wrote the book to Area 51, from where Inside Of Me comes. In context, Inside of Me is a Vegas lounge act intended to seduce a scientist, which is why the chaste part of the double entendre involves seeing into somebody through a microscope.

Years ago, I was hired to write an industrial. A company had written a musical using famous show tunes and then hatched a plan to distribute a video version. To do that, they needed songs that weren’t under copyright, so I was tasked with replacing some of the greatest show tunes ever written. The Mushy Stuff and Why Do I Do What I Do come from this unusual project. The latter replaced You’re Just In Love/I Hear Singing and I think it’s kind of neat to hit upon a title with so many words ending in open vowels. The audience doesn’t have to wait until the final consonant to comprehend and I could put syllables on longer notes.

The one number making its debut in The Things We Do For Love is I Wouldn’t Wish That on a Dog, written on spec for a project I didn’t ultimately get. I have to keep the name of the show a secret but I’ll tell you another: Part of the fun I had in writing a song endorsing the wearing of animal fur was remembering my grandfather, who worked in the fur biz long before anybody objected to it.

She Smelled Like Chocolate was inspired by real life. A friend of mine took off her coat and started sniffing herself, unable to figure out why she smelled like a Cadbury Egg. “There’s gotta be a song in that,” I thought. I cringe at my own false rhyme on the strongest punch line. Once, I asked Stephen Schwartz what to do about this, and he pointed out that when an audience is laughing really hard, they don’t notice “mistakes.”

She Smelled Like Chocolate is probably my most famous song, and, of my shows, the one I’m most often asked about is Our Wedding. The Things We Do For Love includes two from that, How Could They Have Missed? and This Man Loves Me. It’s really nice to hear the former without concentrating on how to sing it.

Finally, there’s the odd journey of the title song. In The Christmas Bride, we knew we’d have a scene in which the two rivals, searching for the Victorian lass who’s lost somewhere in London, meet each other and don’t know that they’re both looking for the same girl. In early drafts, we tried various ways to milk the comedy of this situation. One of the men was a bit of a dolt, and we thought there’d be some comic mileage in his lack of appreciation for romance. So, I wrote him a song filled with – I thought – the most old-fashioned clichés. This was quickly discarded when we hit upon a better idea. The men would give physical descriptions of the lady in question, and it would be funny that the two of them see her entirely differently. The earlier song would languish in my trunk for many years.

In putting together Spilt Milk, the first cabaret revue made up of my songs, the producer asked whether there was anything from The Christmas Bride that might work. At first, I answered no, because everything in the score is so firmly grounded in its time and place, none could possibly work in a contemporary cabaret setting. Except…just maybe…the one that never worked in the Victorian setting. A new arrangement for an oohing and ahhing quartet brought out the silliness one associates with 60s pop. It was as if the influence of Burt Bacharach on me was magically unearthed.

When Brady Miller sings The Things Wed Do For Love in The Things We Do For Love, it’s quite touching. After singing Marry Me, he’s comically beleaguered, and now what was once a list of clichés comes off as a heart-felt reflection back on all the madness in the previous seventeen songs. The new context renders my old song sincere and a bit moving. And nobody could be more surprised than I.

 


The roving rose

June 7, 2016

“You’ve just given me so much to think about!” declared an actor, with a mixture of surprise and appreciation. The gratitude was directed to director Justin Boccitto, and I, the creator of the song being rehearsed. Due to unusual scheduling demands when you’re working with a cast moving from city to city on a national tour, my show, The Things We Do For Love did the lion’s share of rehearsing before ever meeting with the director. Don’t blame Boccitto. He’s a New Yorker, tending to a number of projects in the theatre, film and dance world. The group of roving players are literally in a different city every week. In May they had enough time in New York to rehearse just eight hours with Justin and then do the show at The Duplex in Greenwich Village.

Those were golden hours: everything was changed, for the better. By now you may have heard that the full house at the Duplex laughed uproariously at every joke, applauded their hands off, had a rip-roaring good time with barely a second to breathe, like a good roller-coaster. At the risk of skirting self-indulgence, I’ll point out some of the hows and whys, and perhaps there will be something that applies to your work.

Prior to that fateful meeting with Justin, the cast had learned his choreography off a video of the 2011 production under the able guidance of Stephanie Brooks. They knew their moves. But there’s a wide gap between knowing what to do and understanding why you’re doing it. After Justin fixed some minor missteps, focus turned to motivations. It was then the real work began. Justin gently asked questions that led the performers to call up aspects of their own lives and memories that relate to moments in their songs. If nothing related, they were encouraged to use imagination. Each aspect of a lyric has to seem like it’s there for a reason.

If you recognize this, as a songwriter, you’re never going to make an arbitrary choice about what your song is saying. Characters think, and what they sing clues the audience in on their thought process. Delineate that well, and your actors have something to sink their teeth into. This is why I took a little pride in those words of thanks quoted at the start of this. Yes, Justin, directing my song, fed the singer’s mind. But there was plenty of motivation to be mined in my lyric and music, and I couldn’t help taking this as a compliment.

A week or so before this rehearsal, I’d run into Broadway performer Michael Wartella, who’d introduced the song in my 2005 revue, Lunatics and Lovers. There were all sorts of things he did differently. Some have to do with differing personas. Mike projects as a scrappy urban street kid. In Things We Do For Love, the actor is twice as old, and being a man-of-the-world comes into play. The date being sung about is part of a longer history of romantic encounters. That’s better for the song, and reminds me that there’s always more than one way to do a number. Each actor brings different qualities, and one of the hidden glories of musical theatre is how new interpretations reveal new facets.

Not so with the Eurotrash hits of the 1980s. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and directors like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner sought sameness, so that audiences around the world seeing Les Miserables or Miss Saigon were seeing essentially the same show. From my mother’s Playbill collection, I know that, at some point in the run of Wonderful Town, Carol Channing took over the part of Ruth from Rosalind Russell. Could two performers be more different? The mind reels.

In rehearsal for The Things We Do For Love, I was often surprised and delighted by creative new interpretive ideas that emerged with this cast. Five out of six of them I met for the first time on May 13! – and saw them on stage in 42nd Street later that same day. Now their unfamiliar (to me) energy, applied to my familiar (to me) tunes, yielded fun surprises. One of the sexy solos, which had previously been played for full naughtiness, has been redone with near-lunatic desperation. It’s wild and aggressive, in a very funny way.

Familiar to me, of course, doesn’t mean familiar to you. The songs chosen for The Things We Do For Love were written for various projects over many decades of my career. While I see something revelatory in fresh presentations of songs from my trunk, you’ll encounter them for the first time. You’re unlikely to say to yourself “That’s new!” like I do. But you’ll experience the pleasure of being thoroughly entertained by sextets, trios, duets and solos you’ve never heard before.

Next stop on the national tour of The Things We Do For Love is Los Angeles, with shows at 7 & 9 at The Gardenia Monday, June 13. (Reservations: 323 467-7444) and there’s a leap of faith involved here. I haven’t lived in L.A. for many, many years. In New York, my home town, I’m familiar with a cabaret scene in which fans of songwriting and song interpretation come to intimate spaces to focus in on the deliciousness of songwriting craft, piano and vocal. Do Angelinos do something similar? I’ll find out next week.