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