I can talk to you

September 21, 2016

For two months, circumstances imposed a break from writing. Now I’m back assessing what needs to be done on my two-performer musical soon approaching completion of its second draft. For a short show, it’s currently got a whole lot of songs: twenty-five, which will be a lot for actors to learn. Half are duets, and the solos are divided evenly. I’m thinking about this, and it strikes me that fretting how difficult this will be for the players is neurotically premature.

But I’ll worry about almost anything. It’s what I do. It’s why I can’t sleep. I’m sketching out a ballet to cover a costume change. And that’s ridiculous. Because no designer has told me how long it will take to make this change. And there’s no choreographer giving input on what the dance will look like. Certainly, my second draft can say, in the script, “They dance.” And I could put any amount of music in the score, and the world will accept that as part of a second draft. Way down the road, when the choreographer and costumer and perhaps a dance arranger are on board, we’ll redo the moment.

I think I worry about such things because my mind desperately grasps for reasons not to write. A metaphor comes to mind – possibly based on the massive amount of swimming my daughter did this summer: You have to keep your head underwater to create. It requires a special sort of concentration. But your lungs need air, so there’s this pull towards the surface, and soon your arms and legs are flailing. I’m only here writing this because I jotted down a possible chorus for the twenty-fifth song and now I need the air.

I don’t even know where this new song goes. I know I just said I’ll do anything to take a break from writing songs; focusing on book is a greater problem. I know I’m supposed to sit down and come up with dialogue, but my brain keeps going to these little holes I see and I think the best way to plug them up is through songwriting. That comes easier to me. So, at some point, a few of the 25 numbers will seem superfluous. Which means cutting. Which means saying goodbye to your babies. It hurts, on some level, to cut a song.

Easiest to remember the process on this last one. It began as an idea for a ballad. But the last thing this show needs – any show needs? – is more ballads. So I figured out a way to express the same emotions in energetic rock, strings of eighth notes like you’d find in Billy Joel. (Now that I think of it, the current draft sounds like a cross between My Life and All For Leyna.)

Wondering where to place it, I stare at the storyboard. My eyes go to a section of six songs I’ve underlined and labeled “Ballads.” Could squeeze it in there.

About stepping back to look at the storyboard. It’s dangerous. You divide a massive project into little digestible bits. You can complete a bit by concentrating on it, but if you step back to look at the whole show, it seems gargantuan, unachievable. But that storyboard’s in bright colors, and my daughter’s drawn something on it. (Did I mention it’s a dry erase board festooned with different colored post-it notes?) At this late date, I find it hard to keep my eyes from the ginormous whole.

It’s evolved quite a bit over the past two years. People who saw the reading of the first draft probably won’t recognize it. You have to have faith that every change is an improvement. Somebody might come up and say “What happened to the quodlibet lullaby? I loved that.” and you have to remind yourself that you know best; it was slowing down the show. But then, you’re supposed to listen to your audience. Who’s the expert here, again?

The white post-its are for book scenes. Inexplicably, they all have “You bring the BBQ, I’ll bring the wine” printed on them. Ignore that. So many people write shows sans dialogue these days. Usually, the existence of two dozen songs clearly indicates a show without spoken words. My dialogue has to crackle. It has to be funny, seem real to the audience, and have building energy that will soon lead them back in to song. That’s a significant amount or pressure, right there.

Just as I was saying it’s premature to whip up a ballet without a choreographer, it’s daunting to me to write dialogue without actors on hand. These experts open their mouths, and things either sound natural or they sound stilted. In the first draft, I wrote a particularly unsayable sentence: “Somewhere we seem to have neglected our previous roles, as spouses.” Who talks like that?

Librettists working in a vacuum, that’s who. The sound of the dialogue is one of the many reasons musicals need to be workshopped, with good actors in front of a live audience, so often. As with anything, the more you do this the more you get a knack for how people actually talk. But, somewhere, I seem to have neglected my previous role, as a crafter of real-sounding dialogue. Oh, there I go again.

 

 


Otto Frank’s song

September 11, 2016

Today’s post is not about 9/11. But it’s inspired by a musical that takes place on 9/11. And things people said about it without the benefit of having seen it.

On a newsgroup called Cast Recordings, someone posted a link to an article about the Broadway-bound Come From Away. Even though it doesn’t (yet) have a cast recording. But some numb-nuts just can’t resist the opportunity for snark. “Doesn’t this sound like a bundle of joy?? Oy….” It soon became clear that the Original Poster hadn’t seen the show, which has already played some out-of-town tryouts and a NAMT presentation. “It looks like a scaled down version of ONCE. No thanks…”

He was reacting to one photograph and the following blurb: “In a heartbeat, 38 planes and 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, doubling the population of one small town on the edge of the world. On September 11, 2001 the world stopped. On September 12, their stories moved us all.”

FRANK: Let’s all judge this new original musical based on a three sentence premise and a partial cast list and then move to another thread where we complain that we have too many movie to musical adaptations running on Broadway.

ORIGINAL POSTER: yes, let’s…

OTTO: How much more than “a musical about people stranded on September 11”, do you need to hear before you realize it’s a lousy idea? “A gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden”.

FRANK: I’m not sure what seems lousy about that idea… I know nothing about this show but I’d rather wait until I know more than the basic setup of the story before damning it to oblivion.

OTTO: It’s a musical about a tragic time in the US, who wants to relive that in a musical?? I don’t. I lived through it once. That was enough for me!

FRANK: We’ve had plenty of musicals set during tragic times that have done quite well. Considering this musical is set at an airport quite far from the bulk of 9/11’s landmarks, I’m not sure there’s going to be a lot of tragedy in the story.

OTTO: It may be emotional, but it’s not the kind of thing people want to see on Broadway.

ORIGINAL POSTER: Exactly.

OTTO: Even the pitch makes it sound fringe-y. What about a musical that examines the thoughts of hostages while they’re waiting to be killed? It would be like A Chorus Line, but with beheadings, instead of headshots.

FRANK: This is not a musical about hostages waiting to be killed…are you mad? “Come From Away, the new rock musical that explores the lasting connection forged between a group of travelers whose planes were diverted to a small Newfoundland town on September 11, 2001.” Where does it say that?

SOMEONE ELSE: I haven’t seen it, but it seems many are missing the point: these are the lucky people of 9/11. They were stuck, feeling helpless, and burdened with survivor guilt — much like the rest of us on that horrible day — but they ended up making lifelong friendships and realizing how precious life is (in part because it is so tenuous). I think it could turn out to be a great healing show, much as Oklahoma! was for WWII audiences.

(my song, from A Time for Heroes and Hoagies, 2002)

Another had a similar memory to my own: When I read in the Times that Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler were preparing a show about a killer whose accomplice bakes his victim’s bodies into pies, who then gets caught when a customer bites into an ear. Sounded unlikely. But, intrepid theatre-goer that I am, I bought a ticket and saw Sweeney Todd from a great orchestra seat one month into its run.

NOEL KATZ: People who judge a show by its blurb are one of the biggest problems in the musical theatre biz today. (“You can’t judge a book by how literate it look.” – Sondheim)

Suppose someone writes an excellent musical that audiences love, BUT, the three sentences don’t make it sound good. Judgments based on blurbs stop it from getting produced. Look- you stepped on a hat.

OTTO: Sorry. That argument applies to a show that is badly summarized in the pitch. But this is enough to determine it’s a bad idea. Unless it has nothing to do with September 11, in which case, boy, what a confusing blurb.

NOEL KATZ: Continue to respond to blurbs, if that’s what amuses you. Me, I’ll continue to attend the wonderful new musicals you’ll never see because they sound like they might be bad.

OTTO: Sometimes, you have to pay attention to the warning signs. As Joe Queenan put it, he went to see Cats, which, much to his amazement, “turned out to be about a bunch of cats”.

NOEL KATZ: “Stage mom cows untalented daughter into becoming a stripper.” Ooh, that sounds awful. Can’t be good. Skip it.

OTTO: No, that sounds interesting.

FRANK: I cannot believe this

NOEL KATZ: “Ludicrous” isn’t quite the word for this plague of thinking shows are bad based on their blurbs. “Ruinous?” “Destructive?” Musical theater is a genre in which the audience has to take a leap of faith. Songs you’ve never heard. A plot you don’t know. If you’re unable to take the leap, you’re part of the problem

OTTO: Sorry, the problem is that producers are willing to waste $12 million of people’s money on shows that never looked like a good idea, based on that “You can’t tell from the pitch . . . or the reading . . . or the workshop. You can’t tell if it’s a good idea until you do a full production, on Broadway. ” Then it becomes even harder to get investors. Not good shows that never found their audience, like Ragtime, or Titanic, or Sideshow. Lousy ideas that someone should realize aren’t suitable for Broadway.

I didn’t say it on the thread, but I love that he brought up Sideshow. Its premise sounded terrible to me until I saw it done as a slapstick comedy with a cast of four called From the Hip.

NOEL KATZ: Judging shows by their blurbs, or books by their titles (The Catcher in the Rye – can’t be worth reading) is the scourge of our time. Today, there’d be instant rejection of

“Poor milkman arranges to have his daughter marry wealthy butcher, then reneges. Entire town forced to evacuate at end.”

Or…

“Tart with heart thinks she’s finally broken her cycle of dating men who abuse her. But she’s wrong.”

OTTO: You know, you’re just picking random things and writing bad blurbs, which entirely misses the point. The point is that, as a basis for a Broadway musical, the topic stinks, not the specific details of the story. It’s irrelevant that you can write a dopey description of a good show. We’re not basing our opinion on the blurb. All we need to hear is that it’s a musical about September 11. That’s not the blurb; that’s the topic.

NOEL KATZ: This attitude, of judging by topic rather than by the quality of music, lyrics or book is a significant impediment to the progress of musicals today. “Berliners during Nazis’ rise.” sounds like an unlikely topic for a musical, and yet…

Could be I took such umbrage at Otto’s rush to judgment because some of my shows have been hard sells. I can entertain an audience for an evening. Generating interest with a three-sentence description: a much tougher nut to crack.

(names changed and lightly edited)

I’m your friend

September 3, 2016

Had an idle thought – and I swear this is not about politics: When the second Bush ascended to the presidency, the first Bush got referred to as “41.” If, next year, we have our second Clinton, will the first be referred to as “42?”

Speaking of accomplished women, it’s my wife’s birthday. She runs her own business, Joy Dewing Casting, at the tender age of – well, I won’t say but it may or may not have been hidden in the previous paragraph. And I bet you’re breathing a sigh of relief that this isn’t about politics.

Au contraire, it’s about radical change! Joy has, almost single-handedly, changed the way theatre is cast in America today. I’ve observed this from a safe remove, so perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about, or am biased, but hear me out:

The revolution began before Joy started her company in 2012. Last decade, when Joy started interning for Dave Clemmons Casting, she joined a heady conversation every gin-and-tonic Friday with the likes of Rachel Hoffman and Geoff Josselson (who’d go on to cast my Such Good Friends). Ideas about the state of the casting process were passed back and forth. Joy had been on the side of the table where one is watched, and imagined a world in which performers didn’t feel like slabs of meat. Any aspirant can be the answer to a problem the creative team has, and so should be treated with respect, given a real chance to shine.

As Joy rose in that company, eventually guiding all its operations, she engineered new methods of looking at the talent that exists, giving increasingly higher quantities of players their fair shake. Where once there were paper sign-up sheets (open to the chicanery of people not present, being signed in by a friend), Joy helped innovate the system of on-line scheduling so common today. The shows Joy casts go all over the country. Back in the day, they only auditioned in New York. Joy was among the first to encourage and enable video submissions. Plus, she travels all over the country to see up-and-comers, new to the scene but not yet in New York.

Casting a wider net (sorry to reuse that verb) has been something of an obsession. I’m never sure I’m using the proper terminology, but there are differently-abled people who have something to contribute to the musical theatre stage. Joy’s at the forefront of getting them seen, expanding the minds of creative teams. Earlier this year, I saw a fantastic singer-dancer tap his heart out in a leading role. It was quite the surprise to learn that he’s legally blind..

Casting directors have a professional association, and Joy’s a bigwig on its Diversity Committee. You’re probably aware that Broadway shows are usually populated by white people  – one of last season’s new shows specified “Caucasian only” in its casting call. Joy’s Committee explores ways to upset that status quo. There was no legitimate reason the leads in Mamma Mia needed to be all-white. When Joy took over the casting the barrier broke. And I happened to be present for the first audition of the little phenom who’ll soon play Annie; she’ll be the professional stage’s first Annie-of-color.

These may be the first raindrops in an oncoming storm. Hey, I told you I was writing about radical change! Part of Joy’s genius is behind-the-scene conversations with producers, directors and choreographers. Most are white, and most start with a vision of how their show should look – possibly like the lily-white casts from the days of yore. Elsewhere, there are people of color who’ve seen so many lily-white casts performing musicals, some naturally assume that musical theatre might not be an option for them. In the slow march towards the meritocracy the arts should be, Joy opens minds on both sides.

This month, in Boston, a play will open that posed a unique challenge to its casting director, Joy. Everybody in the audience already associates specific actors with all the characters, and has a fully-formed sense of how they should all be played. Sounds impossible, no? But here comes Cheers, a new play based on the first season of one of the best-loved television shows of all times. Imagine the difficulty in seeking actors who are brilliant comedians here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, playing Sam and Diane and Carla and Norm and Coach and Cliff, characters who made an indelible impression way back in the second-to-last decade of the twentieth century. Everybody knows your name, indeed. And your inflection, body language, look, voice, accent. I get nervous just thinking about it.

 

But musical theatre fans might be used to this in two different forms. First, think of all the musicals based on familiar movies. Today, folks walk in to the Winter Garden fully expecting Jack Black in School of Rock because they remember his film portrayal so well. I know the cover in the role – that is, the guy who takes over any time the lead is out – and think: he’s nothing like Jack Black; he’s up against an expectation that wouldn’t be there if he were doing an original. But then I think back to how wonderful he was in The Wedding Singer at NJPAC, where he wasn’t remotely like Adam Sandler but was thoroughly amusing in his own way.

And then we’ve got iconic musicals. Buoyed by a film that used most of the original cast, Rentheads have opinions about how the Rent characters should be played. Touring soon will be the 20th Anniversary production, cast by Joy, where you’ll be dazzled by the gifts a new generation brings to those East Villagers. Today, of course, the best ass below 14th Street would belong to someone rich enough to pay for surgical sculpting, but we can remember when.

Which reminds me: Happy birthday, honey.