With a quickly racing pulse

August 26, 2016

Twenty years ago I traveled to a place I’d never been for a performing arts festival I knew little about. It was the fiftieth annual Edinburgh Festival, which, every year, blows up a quaint little Scottish city into a crowded metropolis four times its normal size. What could draw that many people to the top of the earth? What drew me? The chance to see an incredible amount of plays from all over the world.

Well, something else drew ME, but I’ll get to that later.

I was there for a little over a week, in the middle of the three weeks it’s on. Having traveled all this way, I felt a certain pressure to see as many theatre pieces as possible. It was a familiar feeling because, as a teen, I’d taken a two-week trip to New York during which I managed to cram in seventeen shows. But that sort of cramming is for amateurs. Edinburgh had more than 2000 offerings. There may have been thirty or forty venues. And the thing about the venues is that they’re not just theatres. A church converts quite easily. A hillside strewn with pillows. Auditoriums in schools and clubs. Pubs. Each venue had a chalkboard showing that day’s offerings. They started early and ended late.

8:00 Burns For Breakfast
9:30 Paddington!
11:00 No Exit
12:30 The Miser
15:30 The Real Inspector Hound
17:00 The Gondoliers
20:30 Oedipus Rex
23:30 The Rocky Horror Show

If one wanted to, one could sit at one venue and catch eight shows in a day. But one didn’t want to. You plan your day, calculating travel time from venue to venue. (Edinburgh’s small size is an asset.) And one needs breaks for meals, museums and palaces.)

Actually, Burns For Breakfast, unlike some of those others, was a real show I actually saw – first thing one weekday morning. It was a one-man show in which a fellow costumed as Scottish bard Robert Burns joked with the crowd, recited a few poems, and then, the moment of truth, we all got on a line to taste haggis. This famously awful concoction, served cold, was not for the faint of heart. But I was a brave heart. And hungry. And when else was I going to try it? But the ante was really upped when I saw that there was no beverage to be had, no water fountain. Nothing to wash it down until I arrived at the next venue across town, for a Japanese Noh play.

I know; this sounds like a song:

I’ll know just what haggis tastes like, with no drink till the Noh play / Like no business I know

OK, not quite Robbie Burns there.

Consider this: There are a million theatre fans, from all over the world, trudging from venue to venue from dawn till past midnight, every day. Is this not madness?

Now consider the challenge of planning each show-catching day. You’ve over 2000 choices. Winnowing those down to the six or seven you can see on one day is enormously difficult. This was long before the internet was in our hands. Back in the last century, the smartest course was to pick up an actual newspaper, The Scotsman.

The Scotsman, helpfully, published short reviews of everything that opened. And for those scanning lists, who didn’t have time to read, they had a rating system. A three-star attraction was worth seeing. Four stars meant very good. Five stars was awarded to fewer than 1% of the productions. Good luck nabbing tickets to those. The moment one of those very rare five star reviews came out, the entire run of a show would sell out.

This is because the masses of theatre-goers truly relied upon The Scotsman to glean what was good. The truly clever figured out the time and place The Scotsman first hit the stands. It’s a point that gets lost in arenas dominated by God-I-Hate-Critics kvetches. When a 2000-item smorgasbord is spread before you, a bit of professional guidance is a valuable thing.

Earlier, I hinted something else drew me to Scotland and it was this. Students from the University of Edinburgh were performing one of my musicals, Murder At the Savoy. This was a gloriously no-sweat-off-my-back boon. I merely sent off the script and score, and they produced and performed it as written. I just showed up, this ambassador from the west, collecting compliments and plaudits.

The reason they had the wherewithal to do my Murder, and the reason it was of interest to them, is that they were the campus Gilbert & Sullivan Society. A lot of schools had such a thing back in the day, especially in Britain. They tend to do G & S and nothing but. However, the Festival Fringe forces groups to think small. Gilbert and Sullivan only wrote one one-act, their reputation-establishing Trial By Jury. Back when my college Savoy group wanted to do Trial By Jury, I wrote them a piece to fill out the evening. Now, these Edinburghers, tired of the travail of Trial every summer, seized on my backstage whodunnit, which is written entirely in the same vocabulary.

It was a great pleasure to see how they brought my characters to life, and, of course, they knew more about the reality of a British bobby than I ever did. For one thing, no police officer refers to himself as a bobby, though my Detective Pulley of the Yard did. And there were many other locutions I got wrong. Yet, nobody seemed to mind, so tickled were they by the humor throughout the operetta.

There’s a famous precedent. American Alan Jay Lerner adapted a Shaw play, set in London, for the Broadway stage. One of the most famous songs used an Americanism no Englishman would ever utter, On the Street Where You Live. Brits say In the Street Where You Live. But, for American audiences, that conjures up images of Eliza having no roof over her head, sleeping in Covert Garden, and the song comes later in My Fair Lady, when she’s respectably ensconced in Mayfair. Lerner was writing for a New York audience, and when the hit was produced across the pond, the English politely tolerated what the young American lad got wrong. Just as they did with me, I like to think.

But by now I’m sure you’ve guessed how this happy memoir ends. The Scotsman came out with its review – the critic was inspired by my rhyming to render his verdict in verse – and, for those too busy to read, the show garnered five stars. Instant sell-out. Thunderous ovations. Twenty years later, the laughter still rings in my ears.

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Rondo

August 18, 2016

If my thoughts about Fun Home are sort of a jumble, it’s perhaps a reflection of the show itself. The 2015 Tony winner – I caught it off-Broadway and recently, on Broadway at The Circle in the Square, where it plays until September 10 – boldly presents a situation that is so true to life, it’s almost too complex to talk about. It keeps bringing up intriguing questions and, more often than not, refusing to answer them. Because life itself has no easy answers, and the show is based on the formative years of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In an attempt to come to terms with her upbringing, she recounted events in the form of a graphic novel. Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (composer) adapted this into a 100-minute chamber piece.

And I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It is never dull, constantly fascinating. You, the viewer, search for answers just as Bechdel does, and there she is, on stage at her drawing board, wondering. (And there your fellow observers are, in the background, as it’s staged in the round.) Why did her father do the things he did? What went on inside his controlling, quick-to-temper mind? What traits did he pass on to his daughter, and how did the discovery that his daughter is a lesbian affect him? Even the arrival of an old French novel in a dorm room is shrouded in mystery.

Given my somewhat ambiguous reaction to a show that embraces a certain amount of ambiguity, it makes more sense to discuss Fun Home’s methods here than to write a long overdue review. (And, considering that Jeanine musical-directed my Varsity Show, The New U. many years ago, I can’t legitimately claim to be impartial.) Fun Home seamlessly transitions between four types of expression, which I’ll define, yet is all of a piece. You don’t notice these; you’re too busy reacting emotionally to the characters and their plight.

The first is dialogue. Kron’s previous experience is in songless theatre. I’ve gotten tired, I must admit, of sung-through shows, because I appreciate the shift in energy involved in moving from spoken material to sung. So many writers overemphasize the importance of songs in a musical, relegating interstitial speaking to the status of filler. In Fun Home, we’re all on a mission to solve a mystery, so we carefully attend the words, as each might contain a clue. Bruce examines yard sale junk, pondering its value while we examine Bruce, pondering whether his actions might hold a key to his character.

And then, in song, what we get might fall into three categories. There are refrains with hooks, as shows have always contained. I walked out humming Days and Days and Days but you might fall for the unexpected rests that make Ring of Keys such an unusual waltz. Note, also, that Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold, is rather sparing in its use of applause buttons. When we give a performer a hand, we can see, across the stage, other people clapping; so, we’re taken out of the moment. Wise creators think long and hard about where and how often to let that happen.

Recitative and verse are two different things, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with Fun Home, I’m going to draw on South Pacific for examples. You know these lines –

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother
There is one particular thing that nothing whatsoever in any way shape or form like any other

Essentially, that’s chanted on a single note, with no bar lines, while the orchestra holds a chord. You hear this sort of thing in a lot of opera, and personally I’m more conversant in the Gilbert & Sullivan lampoon of opera:

I am not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes

In contemporary musicals, though, recitative is rarely employed. But Jeanine Tesori, throughout her career, has gone beyond the bounds of “what’s done” drawing on a wealth of knowledge of others forms of music. And the surprise benefit is that it allows the performer to deliver “Oh, my God” over and over again in a charming way that reveals a lot about her personality. (Plus, she’s talking about sex – always a piquant topic.)

Speaking of which, a classic musical theatre example of a verse:

I touch your hands and my arms grow strong

That has a tune to it – Rodgers comes close to religioso, and I think the accompaniment’s on sixths – but it’s not the main tune. You hear it and you know this, that you’re in the verse rather than the refrain.

After our college freshman heroine bursts out with all those omigods, Tesori subtly brings in a little tune that, just like in South Pacific, is clearly not the main tune. It runs quickly around the scale on lines like “I just have to trust that you don’t think I’m an idiot.” We’re tickled, we laugh, but we know we’re not in the main part yet, and then comes a simple but impassioned waltz.

This is so full of joy, discovery, and, yes, sex, that I knew upon first hearing that here was one of the best show tunes of the decade. It’s magical.

Something that always strikes me about Jeanine Tesori is that she usually works with first-time lyricists. It’s as if each collaboration reinvents the wheel, and, the obvious consequence: no composer I can think of is more varied. Violet sounds nothing like Caroline Or Change sounds nothing like Thoroughly Modern Millie sounds nothing like Shrek. Fun Home, the innovation with Lisa Kron is, I think, something none of us was quite prepared for. Every element (including, or especially, set design) combines to tell a compelling and emotional story. Which is what we all want to do: And if we’re ever going to achieve that goal, it behooves us to carefully examine what Tesori and Kron hath wrought.


I hate showers

August 8, 2016

I’m anti-semantic.

Yeah, you read that right: I, Noel Katz, can’t stand semantics. I don’t care if your show christens itself a musical play, a musical comedy, a rock opera or a happening with songs. If you entertain me, I’ll like it; don’t and I won’t.

But over there on the other side of the bed, my wife, the much-esteemed casting director, recently asked the mythical “hive mind” to coin a better term. You see, if she puts out a notice asking for “contemporary Broadway,” some addlepated aspirant will show up with Easy To Be Hard. Yes, that’s a rock ballad you can wail on, it was on the pop charts and in the musical Hair. And it was written about fifty years ago. So two things: How can you call it contemporary? and God, I hate semantics.

I’m fond of musical theatre history, though, so perhaps this will put me in a better mood. For a very long time, people fretted about a schism between the sound of show tunes, which once dominated the airwaves, and the sound of rock, which wasn’t often heard on Broadway. This hysteria didn’t quite jibe with reality. As I pointed out in an essay I wrote earlier this year, Charles Strouse put rock in most of his musicals, sometimes lampooning the genre, sometimes not. But as the demographics of Broadway-attendees skewed older and older, many wished show scores would someday sound just like music you could hear on the radio.

And they got their wish. Have you heard this past season’s original scores? You got some classic rock from the undisputed king of the rock musical, country music from a bona fide pop star, bluegrass from a bona fide comedy star (but it wasn’t funny!), 1980s techno-I’mNotSureWhatToCallItButIHateSemantics, and I think there may have been a show that used a little hip hop.

Yet, many shows shoot themselves in the foot by explicitly telling auditioners not to bring in show tunes. That hearkens back to the rock side of that schism I described a couple paragraphs ago. It’s the manifestation of an unfair prejudice that says a show tune is bound to be hackneyed or clichéd. Whereas non-theatre songs won’t be. They’re more pure, somehow. I’ve never claimed to be an expert on rock, but let’s talk Next To Normal. Isn’t that rock? Is it ever remotely hackneyed? Now – confess it – you know of rock hits with lyrics that make no sense whatsoever. You’ve your own unfavorites, as do I. And I’m not going to spend time listing them lest I turn a whiter shade of pale.

So a shooting gallery of singers pass before a creative team’s eyes, and they’re putting all their efforts into singing and they often seem indistinguishable from each other. That’s often because they’re not paying any attention to the acting of the lyric. And, in certain cases, you can hardly blame them. Some rock lyrics are so stupid they defy all efforts to act them. But rock songs from Broadway shows I admire, such as Two Gentlemen of Verona, Next To Normal and Hamilton, well, those require a great deal of acting. In your audition, you’re not just a singer, you’re a singing actor, which is what wins the role the overwhelming majority of times.

Performers, when faced with that No Show Tunes! decree, make sure you pick a pop/rock song with an actable text.

Writers, feel free to use rock, if the setting of your show calls for it (n.b., Titanic isn’t a rock score, for obvious reasons). But don’t be so imitative of contemporary hits that you forget to fashion an actable text. And now my mind is flashing back to something a critic I know wrote about one of this year’s hit musicals.

…suffers from inexperienced hands treating musical-making as if it’s no different from any other writing form… a justified indie-pop sensation…treats plot and character writing with the same limited scope and reach she does a pop single. She’s not interested in plumbing feelings, particularizing people, or testing the boundaries of how music lands on the ear; she sticks with what she knows and squishes the show around to match.

This all should be obvious, but somehow isn’t: The things that make a rock hit a rock hit are markedly different from the things that make a song work in the theatre. So, like the wishers I referred to earlier, you may have the understandable ambition to have your stage score sound like the songs you love on the radio. But the reasons you love those songs have a lot to do with sound and groove, and hooks and, often, studio-created sounds not easily replicated in a theatre’s orchestra pit. Get your songs, in any style, to particularize character and further your story.

Or, to put it another way, inert songs amplify emotions and these emotions are already present in the story. Her heart is broken, so she sings about how her heart is broken. When Adele does that, it’s fabulous. In the theatre, it’s leaden. Avoid telling us stuff we already know.

And your librettist is an accomplice in this effort. The book’s got to take you to an area in which whatever the lyric says comes as some sort of a surprise. Otherwise, the audience will tune out. It’s a worthy goal to see to it your song takes the singing characters from one emotional place to another. They don’t feel, or even believe, the same things they felt and believed from beginning to end.

Which is why I used the word “inert” just now. Ineffective songs in musicals frequently suffer from a crippling inertia. Be on the look-out for this as you’re fashioning numbers that seem to be simulacrums of pop hits.

But now I feel guilty that I just explained why I used a term. Semantics! – you’ll be the death of me.