Look, here’s Whittleby

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!



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