A little love

November 28, 2016

Five years ago today, I took on a new role, that of father. It is so encompassing, so overwhelming, and so tiring, I don’t quite know what to say about it. I can’t deny that it’s impinged on my musical-writing time. And you might have noticed new entries on this blog appear less frequently. I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you, but for me these little shortfalls are far outweighed by the wonderfulness of my daughter, Adelaide.

She’s a one-girl show, constantly entertaining people with songs, dances, acrobatics, jokes, even routines. She’s everyone’s favorite child, and “everyone” includes her schoolmates, all of whom vie for time with her. But through great good scheduling luck, I’m the one who gets to spend more time with her than anyone.

No, the sentiment of one of her most widely-enjoyed original songs is not lost on me. It’s called Enjoy Your Family and Adelaide enthusiastically exhorts us to have fun with our kin while they’re still alive. One of my songs contains the line “My daughter makes me dance with glee.” So, apparently we share this habit of musicalizing the things we actually feel. “Actually” – by the way – seems to be the word she most frequently utters.


You’re probably thinking, “But of course she turns her emotions into songs; like father, like daughter.” But actually, she never observes me writing and it’s relatively rare she sees me playing piano. Her favorite piece of shtick is to clap her hand over my mouth the moment I start to sing. My niece, when she was slightly younger than Adelaide is today, sang a solo in Our Wedding – The Musical. Had Adelaide been around then, I wouldn’t have been allowed to sing my vows. Perhaps this is why so many people believe in marriage before children.

And, a decade apart, I’ve moved from writing a wedding musical, filled with true stuff, to a musical about the struggles of long-married couple with child, a work of fiction.And here I hear the skeptics: “How can you call The Music Playing fiction when it’s about a couple struggling to keep their ardor up as they raise a baby girl?” This might be asked of a lot of people. Are Philip Roth novels about Philip Roth? Are Neil Simon’s four plays featuring a pair of brothers memories of things as they were? And when will you people stop prying into writers’ lives and just enjoy the work? What’s happened here is that I saw emotional and comedic possibilities inherent in the situation. It seemed to me that there’s something wonderful, crying out to be turned into a musical. And then I created these characters, who, to my way of thinking, are very different than me and my wife. They deal with different things in different ways, and it’s all very entertaining. And the little girl? Not anything like Adelaide.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t contributed to the show. One thing she uttered in her second year, “Mommy is yummy” became the title of a song. Songwriters are always on the look-out for titles, and these three words encapsulate something that’s on my character’s mind; he needs to express it. In the show, he hears his daughter say these words, and launches into something of a rhapsody. In real life, Adelaide said those words and I tucked them away in the back of my mind, thinking they could be a song some day. Now, it’s quite possible that, over the five years, other stuff got tucked and emerged, but such is the stuff of all art.

And I’ve made new use of the song I used to sing when pushing her in her stroller on Riverside Drive. Adelaide’s the only one who ever heard that song, and, since no one can remember things they heard before they’re two, has surely forgotten it. In The Music Playing, there’s a scene that sets up a stark contrast between the lives of the two parents. The father’s in a serene state, as I was, pushing that stroller on a nice day. The mother’s stressed out by delays in her commute home. So, I took my old strolling song and wrote an anxious counter-melody, setting them up as a quodlibet. The hope is that this earns a big round of applause. And you know, that’s the motivator for many an entertaining tot. My daughter takes these wonderful bows when she finally comes to the end of her songs and dances. And if she doesn’t hear clapping, she’ll yell “Clap!”

Musical-writers usually button songs to trigger applause. But, in thinking back on the plethora of draining, depressing musical tragedies I’ve watched, concentrating on stopping my fidgeting from bothering other patrons, I sometimes think more of us need to pick up on my daughter’s aesthetic. Be a dynamo. Put a seemingly inexhaustible amount of energy into showing your audience a good time. Dare to be goofy. Go too far. Curtsy and bow. I tend to think only two of my shows live up to this, The New U. and Area 51. Recently, Adelaide and I attended a party in which I saw cast members from one of those shows for the first time in many, many years. Everybody spoke of how the audience howled, how it was the wackiest thing they’d done in their lives. Little did they know that my current inspiration to be surpassingly zany was dancing underfoot.


Let’s join the army

November 20, 2016

I’ve been really good about keeping this page politics-free, but Mike Pence’s visit to Hamilton combines my two favorite worlds. You need not fear that you’re reading a polemic; if you’re anything like me, you’ve already read too much on the subject. I’ll be brief. The Vice-President-Elect attended the megahit show about the founding of our country, enjoyed himself. Then, as he was hustling out, the actor who’d played Vice-President Aaron Burr addressed Pence with a speech penned in collaboration with the show’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, its producer and director:

“Thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of ALL of us. Thank you.”

The Left and the Right predictably split into their usual corners. On one side, the Hamilton company was praised for delivering an important message of peace in such a classy way. On the other, led by the President-Elect in a tweet (of course), outrage and consternation. But the audience, as always, played its part, too. Some booed Pence when they saw him entering the theatre, and part of the outrage from the Right is at the booing of a (just-) elected official.

To conflate the premeditated actions of a cast with the spontaneous jeering of a well-heeled crowd of theatre-goers – well, who would do such a thing? Oh: Donald Trump. For the (presidential) record, here are his tweets:

“Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!”

“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

Curtain speeches, of a political sort, are a long and respected tradition in the theatre. The performances before and after the Veep’s attendance ended with appeals for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Some suggest that there’s an important distinction when the comments are addressed to one individual. But Pence is no ordinary citizen. He is a prominent politician with – more than anyone I can think of – a record of governmental actions aimed at making life worse for homosexuals. His anti-gay actions, it could be argued, make him inherently unworthy of respect. The speech aimed at him, however, was astonishingly calm in tone; “anti-inflammatory” seems a good word for it.

To call this “very rude” or to say the cast “harassed” him is to be out of grip with reality.

What to do when the incoming Chief Executive is so thin-skinned, he seems to be living in an alternative universe? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. The election results have a lot of us more than a little shell-shocked, unsure of how to proceed. The Hamilton company was given a golden opportunity to say a few words, from their hearts, to the person a heartbeat away from the presidency (and head of the transition team). Far from throwing away their shot, they spoke with eloquence and dignity.

There are those who believe art should speak for itself, that no further oratory is needed. Hamilton makes a ton of salient points about the founding of our country and how politics is practiced. One applause-getting line is a timely swipe at today’s anti-immigrant fervor. Alexander Hamilton has long been highly-regarded by the conservative movement. It was Miranda’s unusual choice to lionize him while making liberal favorite Thomas Jefferson the villain. Had he dramatized one of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton’s defense of the Electoral College, his show might be the thing getting boos today. For it is the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that awards the White House to the tweeter of these words:

The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

There are some people who find Hamilton highly overrated. I happen to know both of them, and neither has talked to Trump. Laughably, a BoycottHamilton movement has cropped up out of this tempest in a teapot (dome). Hamilton is completely sold out, a year in advance, but if this makes tickets available to those who want to see it… Well, I’ll be gobsmacked: He did make America great again!

Doing the raging bull

November 12, 2016

I’ve been reading exhortations to artists to do what we do in light of our current governmental miasma as if we’re needed now more than ever and my reflex is to find them petty. But if I’m going to muse on something, here and now, it can’t be a quick dismissal.

And I’m aware you come to this page for amusement concerning musical theatre creation and history, not for politics, so let’s start with some little-known history: Once upon a time there was a celebrity who was sworn in as president. That same winter, an old friend of his, also a celebrity, put on a musical. The name of the show struck some as a comment on the new direction our ship of state was being steered to, Step To the Right. The show opened in Beverly Hills, California in a theatre I know pretty well from its movie-showing days. The show got nothing but terrible reviews, including one from the estimable Dan Sullivan in The Los Angeles Times. The star of the show was understandably distraught. He’d finished his second long-running (if undistinguished) television show and hoped fans would turn out to see his return to his musical roots. Many years earlier, MGM wanted to cast him as the Tin Man but an adverse reaction to silver paint, er, tarnished the plan.

I’ve gone on too long without naming names: The seventy-something song-and-dance man was Buddy Ebsen and he called his buddy in the White House and before you could say “crony capitalist” Ronald Reagan phoned Dan Sullivan in an attempt to coax him to say something positive about Step To the Right. Well, someone knew about the ethics of the job he held, and the critic refused. For some reason, the pressure-exerting failure went on to be known as The Great Communicator, although his best-known quote is not “Mr. Sullivan, take down that review!”

I’ve told this before, but hanging on a wall in the place where one of my shows rehearsed was a quote from Bertolt Brecht. “In the bad times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the bad times.” So, is that what we’re all supposed to do now, channel our grief and fear into some musical? Writing this so soon after the election, that seems, to me, like mighty weak tea.

It’s true I concur with Aristotle that theatre provides needed catharsis to a pained populace. But, by the time any musical I write today gets on the boards, we’ll be on to the 46th president, if not the 47th. I’m reminded of California’s infamous Proposition 8 some years back, an initiative designed to strip gay people of their civil rights. It passed, and, some weeks afterward, Marc Shaiman released an entertaining musical comedy number on YouTube. It was the sort of thing that might have changed a lot of voters’ minds had they only seen it before voting.

Thursday night I happened to see a new Broadway musical that had a developmental reading back when George W. Bush was president. I wish I had a greater understanding of why these things take so long. And what happens during those eight years? Are there daily improvements? Does the script spend a certain amount of time preserved in amber? Why are other shows rushed to Broadway with comparatively little pickling?

The day after the election I made a minor change in a lyric that had been bothering me for some time. I still don’t think I’ve fixed the song, but five words replaced five not-so-wonderful words and that’s something. It’s possible, though, that I’m making too big a deal of this minor adjustment.

But I can’t help seeing this in terms of those exhortations to artists to make art. You see, having voted and then bitterly crumpled up that “I Voted” sticker, we all feel pathetically powerless right now. It didn’t soothe me to read “You are empathizers and listeners and powerful agents of change.” – not one bit. What we do, when we get to do it, takes years of tinkering, sweating details to get things just right. It’s a long, slow process.

But so’s governing. I like the ship of state analogy, since it takes quite a bit of work to turn a ship in a different direction. Sure, candidates promise to do all sorts of things, “in the first hundred days” to reverse the policies of the previous office-holder. As we quake in fear that some of the wonderful advancements of the past eight years may get overturned, remember that most changes come slowly over time. Those “hundred day” promises are pie-in-the-sky and the alterations are likely to be incremental. It’s taken me two years to come up with a second draft of my current front-burner musical; I believe it’s radically different. The radical difference in the way the government does things might take as many years, at which point we get another chance to repopulate the houses of Congress.

Look, here’s Whittleby

November 1, 2016

Celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the first show of mine I saw performed, Murder at the Savoy, which was, way back then, called Pulley of the Yard. It was some multiple of five years ago, making this a “big” anniversary, I suppose. But, since this blog is more than five years old, I’ve noted the same event here before.

So if that’s not too fresh in your mind, let’s discuss Pulley as an essential stepping stone in my growth as a writer. In my teens, I wrote four musicals, following the suggested course of learning-by-doing study Oscar Hammerstein had given the teen Stephen Sondheim: one based on a play you admire, one based on a play you think could be improved, one based on something not in dramatic form, and one original. After I finished those, I found myself at a college that didn’t regularly put on musicals. At the same time, I was the youngest member of Lehman Engel’s Workshop at BMI. And, right across the street – and that street is Broadway – another college, our “sister school” had a group that regularly did Gilbert and Sullivan. So, if I wanted to see a work of mine done during my college years, it would have to be a piece entirely in their style.

I’d floundered, considerably, on those four apprentice musicals. The plots didn’t make the audience wonder what would happen next; many of the songs amplified feelings that any viewer would have already been aware of. So, what were they doing for the show? But now, for my fifth creation, I had a very specific model. Or two, really, because the who-done-it is something of a set genre; we all know certain things will happen in them. For instance, the detective will interview various suspects who all have various motives to kill the deceased. It’s something we expect to see in Agatha Christie or her imitators.

Now, when you know what your fans expect, require, or want, a path is laid out for you. You’re going to have to write that sequence and it soon struck me that I deal with the de rigueur quickly and efficiently by staging a quodlibet. In It’s So Simple, Detective Pulley brags that gathering the information to solve the case is easy because every suspect will come to him to implicate someone else, casting off the shroud of suspicion. I merely had to rhymify the motives of five possible murderers. Each would individually draw Pulley to one side of the stage, to have a private conversation. After verses gets added, all get repeated in counterpoint. The whole thing takes two minutes.

The floundering of my teen-written shows ceased, too, because of the fine examples of musical comedy writing by Gilbert and Sullivan. I got to know all their operettas pretty well. Nowadays, it’s very rare that young people know their works. But in the good old days – I’m really talking about before I was born here – every single musical theatre writer knew all of Gilbert and Sullivan intimately. Furthermore, the audience did, too. For example, there’s this Mikado quote in Lady in the Dark:

Our object all sublime
We shall achieve in time
To let the melody fit the rhyme!

This leads a judge to tell a jury,

This is all immaterial and irrelevant
What do you think this is, Gilbert and Sellivant?

Today, I’d say, there are plenty of writers who know the complete works of Stephen Sondheim and nothing of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sondheim’s works tend to be too idiosyncratic to imitate. And I’m not knocking him when I suggest it’s more valuable to look at G&S for paradigms.

Which is just what circumstances forced me to do all those years ago. And, the next thing I knew, I was getting fan mail. People thought it the perfect introduction to the world of Gilbert & Sullivan. The Englishmen writing in the Victorian age naturally used words we no longer use today. Jokes referred to things that no longer exist. For example, in The Mikado, “Knightsbridge” was a big punch-line that got a huge laugh. The Japanese exhibition there closed in 1887 and some of these young whippersnappers have already forgotten about it.

In Murder at the Savoy, I steered clear of outdated terms and references, so it’s a more easily-apprehended Gilbert and Sullivan piece than anything Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote. To my amazement, fans of detective stories loved it, too. And the even bigger surprise: It was embraced by the British. There have been five productions over there in the past two decades. When pressed, actors will tell me where I wrote things Brits never say – but the 21-year-old me did a better job depicting Londoners’ language than the far older Alan Jay Lerner who, they tell me, should have written, “No, it’s just in the street where you live.

On the street where I live, Broadway, four admirable musical-makers used the same premise ten seasons ago. We see the backstage world of a musical production; the lead performer gets murdered; a detective arrives – himself a big fan of musicals – and asks suspects questions to solve the crime. All of this takes three times the length of Murder at the Savoy, and I know of no mystery fan who liked, or was ever mystified by, Curtains, by John Kander and Rupert Holmes. The other half of the collaborative team, Fred Ebb and Peter Stone, died some years before the opening. For them to contribute to rewrites, a Ouija board had to be consulted, which is a rather slow way to go. But I’ve had slower collaborators. But not on Murder at the Savoy, which I wrote all by myself one summer umpteen years ago.

Here’s to umpteen years!