Marion

December 25, 2016

‘Twas five years ago, during chilly December

I flew to New England – how well I remember

The frost hit my lungs as my chest swelled with pride

To see a production of my lovely Bride

No, I don’t mean Joy, then the newest of mothers

My fictional Bride, which surpasses all others

 

You might say “What? The Dickens?” and there you’d be right

On his tale of two sisters we’d based our delight

From The Battle of Life sprang the seed of our plot

You might say “What? That’s Dickens?” for most have forgot

His least-heralded story, of sisterly duty

We changed several plot points, retained all its beauty.

Our unfaithful revision seems Charles Dickens’ fulf-

Illment; here credit is due to librettist M.K. Wolfe.

(Excuse the enjambment. This would be pristine

If only she’d kept the name, Margit Ahlin.)

 

I jump hurdles, sometimes, to rhyme a tough word

But on Christmas Bride something different occurred:

It cried out for romance, the ardor you gush

No score I’ve composed’s more enticingly lush

No lyrics more passionate; each song – it sears!

Stoic New Englanders: mugs streaked with tears.

And the best part? The narrative: T.C.B.’s text

Got patrons to contemplate what happens next.

When scripts keep ‘em guessing, attention is paid

And that’s half The Battle (of Life) as conveyed

In a tiny production, in the smallest of halls

Spanking new orchestrations, they bounced off the walls

‘Twas my maiden endeavor – arranging for reeds

A band – teeny tiny – it met all our needs.

One tooter played flute, English Horn, bassoon, oboe,

Clarinet, piccolo – he looked like a hobo

So ragged ran he, switching quick back and forth

Plus pianist and cellist – all we had there up North.

And that cast, how they sparkled, each player a “playa”

Directed, precisely, by Al D’Andrea.

Maine’s Snowlion Rep the producer, so sage

The Victorian world, gamely stuffed on that stage

And fine choreography, like you don’t see much now:

Country reels! Horseback riding! Even milking a cow

We conjured, precisely, Victorian past

On the wings of commitment by talented cast

One Marissa Sheltra, fantastically she’d

Warble her heart out (I’ve buried the lead)

And Brian McAloon, so dashing a cupid!

One vixen! One dancer! One – wait, this is stupid

The cast was perfection that Providence sent

Like Fran Page, graced our stage at that Maine event.

 

Now time flips its pages, and stages seem wan

Five years since I’ve seen a book musical on

I’m wishing this Christmas one more might be seen

On the boards near to you in Two-Ought-Seventeen

But I made the same wish back in Two-Thousand-Ten

And had no idea what the future held then

So, I keep my tradition each Christmas, I dream

Of a new show production by a fabulous team.

 

 

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Juliette

December 15, 2016

The room was pitch black, the light from the cracks under three doors not illuminating the dozen faces or so within. There was a gentle knock on the door, and a tiny gasp as someone moved from the middle of the room to open the door. When she saw who it was, she flipped on the light and I could see the music in front of me: about as harmonically complex a duet as I have ever seen. In parts, chords change on every eighth note. This may be the “constantly surprising refrain” Hart wrote about but Sondheim denies exists. But, at that moment, I leaned in to take in the dialogue. A girl from the South was inviting an Italian boy into her hotel room, where she’d been sleeping alone. He wasn’t sure he should enter, and kept flipping between Italian and heavily accented broken English. She insisted she understands him. And I got my cue and started playing the thick quarter note chords.

This is Musical Theatre Scene Study class, the highlight of my work week. This particular scene is the midway point in The Light In the Piazza, by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas. A third actor is involved, silently: the girl’s mother opening the door, catching them in flagrante delicto – that ends the scene.

In preparation for this class, I’d rehearsed with the singing pair for about an hour. This was one of the later steps in their process. One of the song’s many unusual challenges is that a lot of it is wordless singing. The performers endeavored to bring particular meaning to a long span of “ah.” There are also unusual rhythms and false accents; perhaps the latter is inspired by Fabrizio’s lack of facility with English. In fact, the inability to express with words is the main subject of the song, which is called Say It Somehow. I feel it’s among the most gorgeous pieces in contemporary musical theatre.

(n.b.: these are not our students)

     If ’tis the season for counting blessings, let’s pause to list a few. For one, this is my day job. I actually get paid to rehearse and explore this rapturous duet with very hard-working and adept singing actors. And, as I just said, I appreciate the gorgeous song. Some acquaintances know me as a music teacher, but that sounds so wrong. Together, we’re exploring aspects of a great scene. I figure out how best to accompany them – such as sticking to the straight beats rather than doubling vocals. As I listen, I discern the tiniest of imperfections, and point out things they miss. Then, that day that started in the dark, we expand our circle: ten others join us to observe the performing work-in-progress. All eyes go to the laconic teacher, Alan Langdon – but is “teacher” the right word for him, really? He says what he’s observed. Rarely, he’ll give a directorial suggestion. In the case of Say It Somehow, the first words out of Alan’s mouth were exactly the words that were in my head: that Fabrizio had a strong accent when he talked but hardly any when he sang. Then Alan had a question about his entering her room: “What is the metaphoric meaning?” The actors were unable to answer this, and their inability relates to the main element that was lacking that first time they did it that day. Before their redo, I was asked to speak.

     “I love when there’s a number where I notice something new each time I play it. What’s the first line of this lyric?”
— Why don’t you trace it on my hand?
     “But that’s not how it comes out with the music. It’s not a succession of eighth notes. I think we’re missing a joke here.”
— Why don’t you trace it on … my hand.
     “So, when she started that sentence, she may have had a different part of her body in mind.”

This time, they launched into the song with more instances of erotic play. Clothes came off. It was intimate, and more believable.

One of the things I often find myself saying, during rehearsals of love duets, is that musical theatre has a convention that singing a duet can be a substitute for sex. If a camera followed a romantic couple around, the film would be rated X. On some level, the audience in the theatre understands that the ahhing is a beautiful musical emblem for dirty doings going on. And then that mother walks in.

Speaking of opening doors, for many years, Alan Langdon and I have led (I won’t say taught) this amazing exploration, Musical Theatre Scene Study and it was only available to full-time students in the second of their two conservatory years studying at the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. But now, our door is open: You, too, can take this amazing class, separate from the school and its program. The good folks at WordPress warn me that I should never embed an e-mail address here, so you can’t click this, but send an e-mail to Sara at SaraCanter dot com. I’m warding off robots who spam by writing out the @ and the . – you know what I mean. The next round of classes starts next month. Do yourself a favor and join us.

You’ll learn a lot. Hell, I’ll learn a lot. Because we’re all in this together, collaborating, sweating the tiniest details, figuring out how to make scenes from musicals work. Since I’m not a performer, what I get out of it goes into my writing of musical scenes. I picture actors doing the sort of deep investigation of every word and note that goes on in our class. And, not to be bromidic (a word, one of my collaborators tells me, that only Oscar Hammerstein ever used), but I’m reminded of a line set to music by Adam Guettel’s grandfather 65 years ago:

A true and honest thought: If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.


Thoughts: in transit

December 11, 2016

“Please, God, please! Don’t let me be normal.”

This famous bit of a monologue from The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones, has been much on my mind because of a persistent worry: That my musical may be too ordinary. The characters are hardly larger than life; they face problems that all sorts of people face every day. So, is my show too mundane to entertain?

Perhaps you’re thinking, right now, “Of course not” – this is a silly fear to have. And yes, I’ll admit that quite a few of my fears fall on the silly side of things. But I’ve seen a new Broadway musical in which each iota of plot is so expected, so everyday, so the-sort-of-thing-we’ve-seen-a-million-times-before that it seems utterly doomed by its own lack of imagination. In Transit is an original musical that marks the Broadway debut of each of its four creators, Sara Wordsworth, Russ Kaplan, James-Allen Ford and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Of these, only the latter is famous, an Oscar-winner for her lyrics to the most-sung song of the current century, Let It Go. (If you don’t believe Let It Go is the most-sung song of the current century, you must not have a daughter under the age of 10.) I like the fact that these are musical theatre writers, who’ve honed their craft for many years, veterans of the BMI workshop, and not some neophytes from other fields. Many years ago at the York’s annual NEO Concert of songs from new works, they and I were each included. So, I was predisposed to like In Transit, think of them as kindred spirits, and it’s playing in the theatre where I work, Circle-in-the-Square.

So there’s a single woman who’s unable to get over the ex who dumped her months ago. She still e-mails, texts, contrives to bump into him. All of this is intelligently rendered, and would be fine IF WE HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. Luckily, that’s not the only plot line. There’s an actress who’s growing weary of waiting for her big break, working as a temp, and I might have sympathized with her IF I HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. There are certain things about In Transit that are fresh, haven’t been done on Broadway, but there’s also the gay groom who’s having trouble coming out to his mother. Say it with me, now: SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE.

What’s original? The fact that there’s no orchestra. A cappella vocals have become a hot genre over the past decade or so, and accompanying soloists with a collection of rhythmic Doos and Baos is something you haven’t seen on Broadway before. Off-Broadway, you have. My wife cast an amusing show called Voca People, and long before that there was Avenue X (1994), which shouldn’t be confused with Avenue Q, co-written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s husband. Pause to say something positive: It’s a neat trick. You don’t miss instrumentalists, but your ear quickly adjusts. After the opening number, you go, “Oh, that’s what this is going to be.” and then your focus goes back to the plot. And then you go “Oy.”

There’s a fourth plot, about a handsome Wall Street type who loses his job. This is far fresher than the other three plots, and I held out hope that the show would have something to say about White Privilege, that the good-looking guy has doors open to him that someone who looks different wouldn’t. The cast of In Transit is multi-ethnic; we even meet a black ice hockey fan. But nothing in Subplot Four had any sort of an edge. His phone is turned off when he can’t pay the bill, so he misses an important call. That is exactly as dramatic as it ever gets.

We who think about the effectiveness of theatre pieces often talk about unearned moments. One of the characters has a series of conversations with a kind and philosophical street musician. Towards the end of the show, he lays a rather common Zen concept on her and she looks at him as if all her life problems are suddenly fixed. Then the entire cast pops out to joyously warble an energetic setting of this precept. This is precisely what is meant by an unearned moment. The character hadn’t evolved, the wisdom being passed was far from profound, and so the hallelujah chorus rang hollow. In a ninety-minute show, sans intermission, you don’t have time to waste on hollow moments, and this wasn’t the only one during the denouement.

The shame, here, is that so many other elements of this show are competent, and even appealing. There were songs to admire, plenty of good performances, and one outlandish costume gets a hand. I found a video of its 2010 staging off-Broadway, and you get the sense that, for the prices charged by a little theatre way back then, In Transit might be a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half. For Broadway prices today, something more than a collection of clichés is needed. “Please God, please: I paid well over a hundred dollars. Don’t let it be normal.