I would tell you, but…

July 31, 2016

Is it OK if I share something? “NOOO!!!” I hear you bellow, reflexively. The last thing you want to hear is yet more personal revelation because we live in the Age of the Overshare. It’s easy to point a finger at those timesuck conduits, Facebook and Twitter but they are us. It’s human beings, in astounding quantities, who somehow feel compelled to reveal to the world all sorts of insignificant details, expecting that some reader out there will care.

How much to share has become a frequently asked question in those conversations I hold with myself. Of course, this blog can be a platform. I could jot down recollections of the times I met the recently departed Marni Nixon and some might be interested. I’ve tried to limit Facebook statuses to witty bits about my daughter, even though I’m a politics junkie and could bloviate for hours about the election. But the only medium for sharing it feels appropriate to discuss here is, as usual, musical theatre.

Writers can’t help sharing something of themselves in what they write, and the projects they choose to work on. For some, a musical is an autobiographical expression. Two of my favorite off-Broadway musicals told me a whole bunch about their creators. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin didn’t state it was autobiography, allowing author Kirsten Childs to take more liberties for drama’s sake; The Big Voice: God Or Merman? presented itself as “a musical comedy in two lives” by and starring Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin and I embraced them like good friends after the show (it just felt like we were good friends, due to the warmth coming across the footlights).

So what’s going on there? Is it the old saw, “write what you know” or some egotistic impulse motivating the creation of whole shows? Or a third possibility: Certain musicals start out as cabaret acts, and cabaret is usually about a performer telling the audience about himself. It’s a fine, fine line that separates a revelatory boîte show from a theatre piece and I’ve known people who’ve helped innovate ways of transforming stuff that happens in people’s lives into solo shows they perform to great effect.

But what about you, Noel? Isn’t it true that you’ve worked on four different musicals that are about you?

Well, my most famous production, Our Wedding, was indeed a musical in which a guy named Noel got hitched to a goddess named Joy. It’s certainly long on true feelings and biographical details. But consider the parameters. Everyone in the audience knew the bride, groom, or both. The performance could only be given once, and it had to serve as an actual wedding ceremony. The idea of having our wedding take the form of a musical grew from Joy and my negative feelings about stuff you find in most weddings. That stuffing wedding cake in each other’s faces, for instance. “I love you and want to commit to keep loving you” seems, more naturally, to be a private expression between two people. But, if one has to be private in public, we felt the least we could do is make sure our assembled guest had a good time. And the best way we knew of doing that is to perform an original musical comedy.

And buy the CD, won’t you? I know nobody buys CDs anymore, but they’re cluttering up our basement. It’s a collector’s item. Remember those?

My first attempt at a musical, How To Be Happy, was a fantasy about a guy very much like me who’s written and starred in a hit Broadway show. I wasn’t particularly good inventing characters, in those days, but my task was made easier by having a protagonist who was so similar to me. None of the plot points are things that had happened to me, but I knew how it felt to deal with the ambitions and disappointments the show depicts. So, it had the virtue of verisimilitude.

Ten or twelve years ago, I had an experience that I thought could make an amusing personal essay. Writing that up, I thought, this thing could use a soundtrack. And so, friends of mine were treated to a bunch of pages with an accompanying CD. (Remember CDs? Oh – I already asked.) Practically everybody who read it said “You have to turn this into a musical comedy” thus pushing me down the rabbit hole that became Haven. In adapting, I felt that the story would work better with a female protagonist, and those viewing the finished product wouldn’t suspect that Dinah was based on me. But there never was a finished product: I got tired of telling that story. It wasn’t a subject that interested me, really, and it had taken its perfect form in that short story with CD combo.

But the experience of trying to transform the thing from my life into a fictional musical taught me much about inventing believable and relatable characters. Dinah wasn’t me, just as Robert of How To Be Happy wasn’t me. They were invented people who happened to feel and experience things I’d actually felt and experienced. This gave me a jumping off point, a key into the piece, which can be valuable.

So now I’m working on a show about a married couple trying to keep it together as they face the challenges of adjusting to being parents. Yes, Joy and I are live this situation every day. As such, I’m in touch with the delights and difficulties, the stuff that elates you, the frustrations and disappointments. The process transmogrifies our lives into a work of fiction: I have to view my characters objectively, put no one on a pedestal, heap no scorn; they can’t be villains or saints. At this point, I think of them as rather different from me and Joy. But the emotions I’m getting down on the page, well, there’s no denying I know them well.


Brain surgery – the musical!

July 18, 2016

A bit of musical comedy madness known as The Chainsaw Boys is reuniting July 26 because a big birthday is being celebrated by one of the instigators, Mike Bencivenga, and that’s how he chooses to commemorate the milestone. So I’m going to tell you some things about The Chainsaw Boys (that will surely make you want to attend) and a little about Mike, with whom I’ve been collaborating for many years.

To start this story twenty years before it truly begins, when I was a kid, not yet able to drive, I got a job accompanying an improv troupe in Hollywood. This was a fantastic introduction to show business, and Robin Williams was in the show at the time he got discovered. I learned how to play by ear with an audience behind me, and also how to underscore scenes of all styles, get in sync with actors on spontaneously birthed songs, and there on Fairfax Avenue I honed my knack for knowing what’s likely to work, comically. Improvisational theatre is a great playground in which to learn, because you can try the craziest stuff and the audience will forgive you if it fails (they appreciate how hard it is to succeed).

After two-and-a-half years of this sort of education, I toddled off to college and also the BMI workshop, leaving improv behind. It was part of my past, not my present, until, like Al Pacino in God-knows-what Godfather sequel, it sucked me back in. Before long, I was teaching funny folk to improvise musicals and doing shows with the original Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City. My best friends in this business called themselves The Chainsaw Boys. The first thing they had me do utilized the song, We Are Family and no title could be more apt.

Before long, we switched to original music, and we worked together to innovate and refine forms. This, it seems to me, is an imperative for contemporary musical theatre creators. I’m someone who could talk for hours about the brilliance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein template. But that was set 73 years ago and today’s most successful shows bear little resemblance. So we mad scientists go back to the lab, mix things up, and see what we can invent.

So of course you find me nostalgic for the years of wild experimentation with The Chainsaw Boys. We’d do almost anything and go almost anywhere to make people laugh. For the opening number, I had to craft a way to introduce every player quickly and with equal portions of time. My first attempt was a parody of Rent called I’m Dying. This was before the film Team America began with the similarly energetic Everybody Has AIDS but remember: my composition had no lyrics because those would be newly-wrought by the cast of crazies every night.

Eventually, the Rent craze passed (take heart, those who are sick of hearing about Hamilton) and it was time for a new opener. My natural bent is to turn to counterpoint. It’s a time-efficient way of introducing a disparate half-dozen idiosyncratic characters. I’d done this early in The Christmas Bride. One I admire is Tower of Babel from Godspell. For The Chainsaw Boys, I fashioned a quodlibet in which each “boy” (one’s a girl) needed to come up with one rhyme and a minimum of one joke. They’d fill the stage one at a time and repeat their verses simultaneously, in counterpoint. For the counterpoint to work, they have to come up with different melodies: There’s no “right” tune, and I knew I could count on some of them to get it “wrong.”

Repetition is anathema to me, usually. But because so many songs repeat themselves, iteration makes the improvised song sound more like a real song. (This is also the argument in favor of using rhyme.) The least I could do was keep them short, as when Miriam Sirota vocalizes “no” up and down a minor scale in response to pick-up lines.  When an improv troupe’s singing what they’ve sung before, their minds have time to think of lyrics for the next original verse. The audience doesn’t notice, as so many pop songs repeat; this tends to be accepted.

During that chorus that you’ve sung before, the listener’s ear gets a break, rather literally tuning out before refreshed enough to take in more. It’s a fairly common mistake new lyricists make, packing too much information, too densely, for an audience to apprehend.

This issue has been much on my mind in the musical I’m writing with Mike Bencivenga. The lyrics are by William Shakespeare, and I find myself spacing out some of the more difficult concepts and vocabulary so 21st century brains can comprehend it all. At this point, that’s my measure of success: Is the audience truly grasping the meaning of the text?

And when, you may ask, are you going to get to hear this musical? Probably not any time soon. That’s because a bevy of other playwriting projects demand Mike’s attention, leaving our chamber piece on the back burner. His plays, such as Bad Hearts and Billy and Ray, keep winning awards. I can’t yell at him “Don’t run off and pick up another statuette for your mantelpiece, we’ve got a show to write!” I’ve hitched my wagon to a rising star. Once he flew off to visit a famous theatre in the Midwest, where he pitched his pitch-perfect political farce, Summer On Fire. And they didn’t bite. But Mike was so clearly talented, so engaging in conversation, they decided to commission a new play from him then and there.

There’s wisdom in that. Mike’s a raconteur extraordinaire. Chat with him and you’ll hear the most fascinating and funny stories. The ability to hold a listener’s attention – in person or on paper or on stage – well, that’s why he’s a collaborator worth waiting for. And, at this point, it’s been years.

Next week, you can attend whatever he and four equally hysterical loons spin off the top of their heads at The People’s Improvisational Theatre. I’ll be leading an improvisational band that will have not rehearsed. That may sound scary, but it’s not – I’ve been doing this for years, reacting to the scenes I see before me with music that enhances the situation. Good practice for composing musicals, of course. Come see.

Tuesday, July 26; 8:00pm, 123 E 24th St NYC, $10.00

Click here for tickets


Alone in the night (reprise)

July 7, 2016

I wish I could tell you I enjoyed myself at Encores Off-Center’s Runaways (now through Sunday at City Center) because its only asset, a cast made up of teens mostly found by combing New York City high schools, is impressive, singing and dancing and acting their hearts out. You gotta love ’em. But then there’s that show.

I’ve railed against spinach musicals before. Like one of those long pathetic Sunday infomercials that ask you to give all you can. A good cause is a good cause: I don’t dispute that. But, usually, the illumination of a societal problem doesn’t make for good entertainment. Audiences are looking to be moved, sure, and the plight of runaway children is undeniably sad. But why should the show last longer than an infomercial? After one number made the point, “It’s tough to be a homeless teen,” on came another number, convincingly stating, “It’s tough to be a homeless teen.” And then another. And then another.

I got the feeling I got at Cats. Some human in a big fur costume did some cute shpiel. And then another. And then another. And then I started checking my watch. Reductio ad absurdum.

Like Cats, which came later, auteur Elizabeth Swados wisely utilized an ever-changing mish-mash of styles. This fends off boredom, to an extent. And it goes beyond musical styles. Here, monologues are delivered in different cadences, some of the show is in Spanish, and some in sign language. You hear a passel of rap. (Just so you don’t think last season’s shows were doing something totally new.) I found myself admiring how Swados overlaps different sounds and songs. One of the more amusing numbers is called Where Are All the People Who Did ‘Hair?’ and you want to check your program because the music is so reminiscent of that hit from the previous decade. On the way out of the theatre, I found myself humming the Hair song that mentions “emancipator of the slaves.”

Maybe, though, this was my way of celebrating my emancipation from that theatre. Relentless adolescent angst wears pretty thin, pretty fast. Spring Awakening, Bare, 13 – can we grow up already? At least Runaways came before.

But unlike those others, there is no plot, no named characters. Telling us that it’s hard to be a teen is telling us we all already know from experience. Telling us that it’s hard to be a homeless teen – well, does anyone think their life is cushy? And why do nursery rhymes keep getting quoted: listen for Catch a Tiger By the Toe and the tune to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Seems like there must be a point to all this. The opposite of Peter Pan, here are kids who are forced to grow up before their time. I give it points for verisimilitude, but you can score a few points and still lose.

As you know, I tend to focus on the writing of shows. (Really, I could rave about the performers, but I suspect you didn’t come here for that.) Runaways has book, music, lyrics and was originally directed by Elizabeth Swados, who died earlier this year. It’s an impressive accomplishment, but I wonder if that much control in the hands of one young person meant that nobody ever said to her “Liz, we get it. Make another point, now.” And one could toast to the show’s uniqueness. “She’s an original!” is a thing you might say, as gallery-goers utter in the second act of Sunday in the Park With George. But, that’s a line someone says when they can’t quite bring themselves to praise an artist. Original doesn’t necessarily equal good. And Runaways doesn’t necessarily equal entertainment.


A seeker

July 4, 2016

Some weeks ago a couple of media outlets fired their critics. And didn’t replace them. No more reviews of theatre for them. And some of you may be saying “Good. I hate critics.” But think further: The stage community needs criticism, publicity, and a wide array of views expressed for all to see. Taking away “merely” two of the throng damages us. We can perpetrate dreck, unchecked, and then never find an audience. No theatre practitioner is an island; our art depends on connections.

I suppose some might say I’ve such a positive view of critics because I’ve gotten so many raves in so many papers. What’s not to love? One major paper with a very wide circulation reviewed a work of mine in verse, of all things. The critic was so inspired by my clever rhymes, he felt compelled to join the fray. Another time, in another major paper, a show I worked on received a devastating pan. Everything in it was lambasted with the exception of my songs and the fellow who sang them, “a lark among clods.” Remarkably, everybody took that with bemused grace. Also, there was the time Peter Filichia praised my “production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW” as if to light a fire under producers. (Alas, they proved to be soggy wood.)

But the truth is, I’ve an addiction to input. From any source. Public or private. Positive or negative. My four formative years at the BMI workshop are fondly recalled, mostly, because I could play my new songs and hear what Lehman Engel and others thought. The reaction of others is of paramount importance to me. Look, we’re endeavoring to communicate with an audience, right? So, any chance to hear what that hearer is thinking is a golden opportunity.

I haven’t scanned mine so here’s one to someone else

Just a few days ago was Richard Rodgers’ birthday (114) and I was reminded of the party I threw him in absentia. When he heard about it, he sent a nice letter of appreciation – the sort of thing he did rather rarely. So, in a frame, I’ve this valuable thing, a letter from the most important of musical theatre composers. In another frame, I keep a letter from Stephen Sondheim, who writes back to writers rather more commonly. His letter I cherish because he offers a few thoughts – not particularly complimentary, by the way – about one of my shows, which he saw. Great to hear an experienced and esteemed musical theatre writer’s opinion. But a couple years later, I got a longer letter from someone you’ve never heard of and I value that even more.

The author was someone who’d worked for many years developing new musicals with an off-Broadway company that seems to specialize in that. He’d attended a staged reading of a show I’d been working on. During the many years and many drafts I’d devoted to it, I’d lost multiple collaborators. A director moved to California. A writer-director moved to Florida. A writer and I had such conflicting visions, we decided to part company, and she came up with her own show stemming from our initial idea. But, at this point, I’d been working alone for a long time.

And that meant that everything I wrote existed in a vacuum. No stranger was looking at the thing. I might think something was good, something was working, but I desperately needed the reality check of knowing whether somebody else thought it was good, working. At the staged reading, through a formal feedback chat with the audience, people were invited to speak up. But they kept saying positive things. Nobody named an element that was ineffective. This left me depressed. How was this piece going to improve? What did I need to do next?

Some days later, a five-page letter arrived from that stranger with development experience. He detailed areas that worked and areas where the show seemed unclear, ineffective. The people who mounted the reading, and delivered the letter to me, asked how I felt about this critique. I said “There’s the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and this document.”

Might be the wrong time of year to put anything on an equal plane with Jefferson’s great screed. But I find myself thinking of the broader implications of there being fewer critics. It would seem to be an indication that media powers-that-be don’t think there are enough people reading reviews, and I take them at their word. Today, more than, say, fifty years ago, there are people coming to New York, interested in catching some theatre, but they’re not considering what critical reaction has been. Let’s imagine there are three realities. One is whether a show is actually good: Forget how we define that, for the moment; just acknowledge that this reality exists. A second reality is that certain shows are widely praised by critics. A third reality is that there are productions that sound good to potential ticket-buyers. Let’s say there’s a TV personality, who is frequently funny on TV but has no playwriting experience, and he writes a play that he stars in. That’s your third reality, right there. This sort of thing sounds good to theatre-goers. Critics see this thing, and they all say the show is terrible, a waste of time and money, insufferable. Fifty years ago, universal pans would close a show on opening night. Now, of course, such a play would play to packed houses as long as the TV star wanted to do it. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel (lights on or off).

Say someone who isn’t famous writes a great show and the critics all agree it’s pretty great. But if too few people are reading reviews, and the show isn’t the third reality, too few tickets will sell, dooming the production.

I read reviews all the time. Not just of my shows. Learning what a critic thinks of anything is an education. These scribes see hundreds of stage-pieces a year, and I think that counts for something. Walter Kerr, for whom a Broadway theatre is named, used to pen think-pieces from the perspective of a professor imparting information that is specifically valuable for us creators. As a kid, I practically memorized a book he wrote: How Not To Write a Play. Yep: I want to know that.