Folk

October 21, 2016

Bob Dylan’s Nobel laurels leave me vaguely discomfited. Maybe a blog exploring these feelings will help us evolve our view of what we do, just as those Swedish solons have evolved their definition of Literature.

There’s an expectation in the air. I’m supposed to be elated, or elevated in some way, by the idea that a songwriter’s oeuvre is here considered Literature. It’s not big news when the Prize goes to a novelist. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Morrison – to name some Americans – easily get us to nod and say, yes: they deserve it. Poets like Yeats? Sure, that’s Literature; nobody would deny it. And I didn’t cry fie! over Fo. Like O’Neill before him and Pinter later, it’s not a radical idea to honor creators of Dramatic Literature.

But Dylan? Without casting aspersions, I think we can all acknowledge that what Dylan does is significantly different than what all the other Laureates did. One pictures him – and for all I know this could be a false vision – strumming a guitar, humming a simple tune, deciding what he wants to say. In my imagination, he doesn’t even write lyrics on paper. Like the bards prior to papyrus, he could sing his song so often, words get committed to memory, not to the page.

In this scenario, Literature is not a thing that’s written down and read. And the word “Bard” connotes a poet who is often appreciated separately from being published. Homer was a Bard; Shakespeare’s the Bard. Now that the printing press exists, we’ve come to think of Literature as a thing widely appreciated by readers. And, all of a-sudden this month, it’s something else. Sure, you can find Bob Dylan lyrics in a book, but his fans are listeners.

Of course, if you’re listening, there’s no separating lyrics from music. And certainly the Nobel folk have heard the tunes. Doesn’t that give a songwriter an unfair advantage? On my bookshelf are all those huge Robert Kimball volumes, The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, of Oscar Hammerstein, etc. I treasure them – hell, I study them. But always keep in mind that these are words meant to be heard with tunes. So, if we read

Lay, lady, lay-
Lay across my big brass bed

the lines have limited power; when sung, they’re far more potent.

Here non-fans of Bob Dylan might interject that some of his melodies are too dull to help propel a lyric to eloquence. Like a Rolling Stone starts as a quick chant on one note – little help there.

Songwriting is unique in that way. Music and lyrics work together to get an emotion across. So it feels odd to consider Dylan’s lyrics independent of his music. And what about that voice? Bob Dylan has often been criticized for muddy articulation or an unpleasant – even grating – sound. Surely the Nobel folk aren’t rewarding that. But we listeners usually take Dylan’s words, music and voice as one inextricably interconnected bundle.

Rather than unraveling that ball of interconnection let’s talk about one of my favorite authors, Newark’s own wunderkind, Philip Roth. The man’s written so many of my most-loved novels – they’re often very funny and sometimes political – that each year I hope the Nobel Laurels will be his. But ’twas not to be, because while he turns out book after book with stunning prolificacy, some folksinger swipes his prize.

Of course, nobody really thinks that way. Except a character in a musical: Dr. Abner Sedgewick in It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman! is a mad scientist and by “mad,” I mean angry. And what riles him is that he never wins a Nobel. This leads him to such evil actions, it takes Superman to stop him.

Well, I managed to circle back to musicals. (Were you worried I wouldn’t?) If you’re in the mood, you could hear the words of another Nobel Laureate on Broadway, snarled and hissed at you (by a cast led by my Area 51 ingénue, Mamie Parris). This, if you haven’t guessed yet, is Cats, which takes doggerel by T.S. Eliot and slaps on some eclectic melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which can be cute for ten minutes or so. I mean, I’ll admit it: There are times I feel like watching a cat video. I see the cuteness. But I can’t understand the felinophiles who make an evening of it. For well over two hours. For well over a hundred dollars.

Poor Tom (I’m talking about Eliot here). He didn’t mean for these silly rhymes to be heard in a theatre. And not sung to what used to be thought of as rock. When he wanted his words heard in the theatre, he wrote plays. Like you do.

But that ugly fate of a Laureate’s output not quite working in a Broadway musical has already beset Bob Dylan. A show created from his songs, The Times They Are A-Changing, flopped ten years ago. The principal creative force behind it, Twyla Tharp, had done something similar a few seasons earlier, Movin’ Out, based on the songs of Billy Joel, and that ran for many years. I’d venture a guess that Billy Joel’s songs work better in a theatrical context because they tend to tell stories, sometimes about interesting characters, using direct and straightforward language.

But Dylan’s not that sort of songwriter. He’s willing to be a bit cryptic, or opaque – qualities that, I hasten to remind you, stop a theatre song dead in its tracks. Show-goers insist on immediate appreciation. But, as many a poem-reader knows, there’s much pleasure to be derived from meanings that slowly unravel. Especially – it must be said – if you’re high, man. Which brings me back to the decision-making in Scandinavia: What were they smoking?

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Madison Avenue is calling me

October 12, 2016

“What’s it like to be married to a casting director?” seems a fair topic for my 13th wedding anniversary.

Of course, Joy wasn’t a casting director back then. Back then she was a performer. She was in the middle of a national tour when I proposed, and, as I’m writing this, she’s on a conference call in the next room saying, “As long as the actors are treated with RESPECT…” and that’s just how she said it: all caps. And this is not unrelated. Experiences she had as a performer, touring and auditioning, color her every move as casting director. And a lot of what she casts are national tours. So, first and foremost, she ensures that auditioning actors are well-treated. And that’s how she earned her reputation as the casting director people most love being in front of.

But now I’m thinking of Betty Draper. She’s a fictional character, a suburban housewife in the 1960s, married to an adman on Mad Men. Imagine the ad agency putting together an audition in which they seek a sexy woman. In a conference room in a Madison Avenue skyscraper, a parade of attractive females would be paraded in front of Don Draper and as many leering male colleagues as the room would accommodate.

Sound icky to you? How would you like to be in Betty’s position? Well, pleased to meet you: I am Betty Draper. I’m in a suburb making lunches for my child’s lunchbox while my spouse sets up a parade of hunks auditioning for a stage show called Magic Mike. Two ladies I’ve told this story to – one around 20, one around 80 – have informed me that they don’t find terribly muscular men sexy at all. And that’s fine. But Joy does!

Those ladies doth protest too much, a little like how Diane claimed not to find Sam Malone attractive when first they met on Cheers. Cheers comes to mind because Boston and Chicago recently saw a stage adaptation of the classic TV sitcom. And the job of finding the actor who could personify irresistible Mayday Malone went to you-know-who. And also Diane, and Coach, and Carla and Cliff and NORM! (I put that in capitals in case you felt compelled to shout along.) Consider how viewers feel about those actors from so many decades ago. How could an audience, today, ever accept different players, even if the set looked exactly the same? That’s quite a casting challenge, and, since I didn’t get to see the show, I’ll take a Chicago Tribune critic’s word for it:

These are different actors in “Cheers Live.” That’s Grayson Powell as Sam, Jillian Louis as Diane, Barry Pearl as Coach, Buzz Roddy as Cliff, Sarah Sirota as Carla and Paul Vogt as Norm. And you know what? It does not matter a jot. What more could any writer desire than to watch an audience so embrace fictional characters, fully apart from the actors who played them? Amazing.

And a tribute, actually, to these particular actors, who have a tough collective assignment. For “Cheers Live On Stage” actually is a much better show than you likely are expecting me to say.

There are several factors in its favor. One is a full Equity cast of performers with mostly Broadway credits (although you likely will recognize Pearl from the 1978 movie version of “Grease“). These are not nobodies, these are skilled character players and I found all of them very funny and, to a person, exceptionally adept at walking that tricky line between impersonation — Norm has to be Wendt-like to some extent, lest the audience riot — and original interpretation. Louis makes the boldest choices as Diane, and it’s quite the inspired comic performance, although Vogt dispenses those famous Norm bon mots with real aplomb, and at a faster pace. Pearl, meanwhile, is hilarious. I preferred him to Colasanto, and I was a great fan of that late actor.

Once, at 7 o’clock on a Friday night, a director demanded a list of available actors of a particular ethnicity by Monday morning. Two things about that: Joy had already created a huge list of actors that the director had seen a day or so before and had apparently ignored. But the more obvious thing: the director felt it was fine to ask Joy to drop weekend plans and work instead. As a spouse of a casting director, I can get pretty steamed at a thing like this, but have to hold my tongue. Running her own business that provides a service, Joy comes to decisions about how to respond without flying off the handle. The customer is always right, right?

So here I am, a bit befuddled, trying to explain this life to you. And it’s much harder to understand if you’re four-years-old. What must our daughter think of the many business trips that take Mommy away? She craves time together, just the two of them. And there’s this current TV ad that drove home a point.

So Joy recently took her to Disney World, where they stayed in the resort where animals roam right outside your window. An actual giraffe lit up our daughter’s eyes, just like in that commercial. And when they got back, and I picked them up at the airport, I asked “Did you miss me?” and she cocked her head, considering the question and said “…Sorta.”

Moral: It’s hard to compete with a giraffe.


That look to me

October 1, 2016

About six years ago I started this blog and I suppose the blogaversary compels me to reflect about blogging. And one thing I think is that the whole thing is way too big. 347 posts about musicals – sheesh! If you’re someone with an interest in how musicals are created, my unique take on things, etc. – you might come here and go “347 posts! When am I going to have time for this?” It’s as if someone expecting to be tossed a thin magazine had the O.E.D. hurled at them instead.

I’m not sure what to do about that. Posting less often has a certain appeal. At this point in my life as a writer of musicals and as a parent, this blog has been relegated to the back-burner. It’s getting harder to find the time to do it. But even if I posted every other week, before long it’ll be 350 posts and that’s still daunting to a new reader.

Galumphing hand and hand with this thought is the notion that I may be close to saying all I have to say about musical theatre writing. I find myself referring people to posts from five or six years ago; there’s that sense of “What’s left to say?” And I don’t want to repeat myself, but find I do: Musicals need to tell stories effectively, ideally engaging the audience’s minds in a way that makes them wonder what happened next. Craft is particularly important in lyric writing, and I take false rhymes as an indication that the creators don’t understand craft. Music is hardest to write about, because I know readers have different levels of understanding; repeating the overly familiar tropes of sixty years of pop-rock is a lazy way of composing. All elements need to be in concert with the narrative drive, which is why language and harmonies that clearly don’t belong in the time and setting of the show is so jarring.

Providing examples is always a problem. Quite often, I dislike musicals that other people love. So, if I devote a post to the many ways Evita is an awful and boring show, somebody’s going to react “No, it isn’t! I thought it was great!” and then discount all the examples I’ve given. I was just trying to illustrate a point. There’s this strange delusion I’ve encountered again and again: no matter how terrible the show, there’s somebody out there maintaining it’s wonderful. Ken Mandelbaum’s famous book about flops is called Not Since Carrie because, in a way, Ken is saying Carrie is the worst of them all. Just this week I met somebody who told me it’s a great musical. If we can’t agree on what’s awful, how can we discuss a cautionary model of ineptitude?

And then there’s the thorny thicket of using my own shows as examples. Few of you have seen any of them. And whatever video or audio I have always strikes me as a woefully inadequate representation. In writing about my own shows, I don’t want to pin laurels on myself like some guy I just saw in a debate. But the hope is that my experience getting 18 shows on the boards may yield some helpful tidbits. And I just reread that sentence and thought: Where else can you find a blog by a guy who’s written as many shows?

So, here am I writing this instead of writing more of the musical that’s consumed me since 2014. I like to hope that there’s something good about me setting down thoughts about my struggles with it while they’re happening. But it’s a little like opting to live in a fishbowl. It’s harder to do a thing when you know you’re being observed doing the thing. Sometimes I fear I’ve set out so many “don’t do this” prohibitions here that I’m hindered from writing. Fearing making a mistake is not a good place to be. So, my blogging about what not to do is an unpleasant bedfellow with my spewing out more and more of this musical.

And I use the word “spew” because it’s half of my favorite description of the writing process. The first step is spewing, because all kinds of music is pouring out of you and, ideally, you don’t hamper yourself by saying “Oh, this is terrible” or “I shouldn’t do it this way.” The later step is editing: taking a cold, hard, critical eye toward your creation, and then fixing it, and throwing out the bad stuff. When I regard the storyboard with two dozen songs before me, I try not to think that’s way too many songs and the piece will be way too long. It’s just spew, now.

Here’s something I said to a young friend yesterday: “I see the care you take, the energy you put in to getting everything right. Well, it’s paid off. So now’s the time to relax, take a deep breath, look at what you’ve accomplished and pat yourself on the back. Spend a moment of two acknowledging that you’ve done great work, restoring yourself before you go on to the next.”

It’s a common paradox: I wish I could take my own advice. I wish I could celebrate the six years of blogging, appreciate that there are some really helpful essays in there. (God knows how you’d find them, though. The tagging business befuddles me.) I usually remember to throw in a few jokes. Click on a picture and you’ll probably hear a song. And they said blogging was going out of fashion six years ago. And here I (still) am.