Symphony of wind-up toys

January 27, 2017

Having one of those faintly rhapsodic moments. The midwinter sun is pouring through my office windows, and my office actually has windows on four sides, counting the one in the door to the living room. And so, a tiny space feels much bigger, as if a desk had been set up out of doors. Around me is a well-illuminated partly cloudy sky.

I’m listening to a bunch of instrumental pieces I’ve written over the years. I’ve been thinking of putting them on a CD for my daughter to fall asleep to. One piece was written specifically for that purpose a month or so ago. When composing wordless music, a certain pressure is lifted. In musical theatre songwriting, making sure the audience understands every word is a primary goal. Sans language, that ceases to be a major concern. Even if a piece tells a story (“program music”), the audience isn’t expecting to get it, exactly.

The newest piece – my first composition of 2017 – marks the culmination of a good amount of thinking before a note was written; daydreaming, one might say. And I’ve just reminded myself that this blog is called “There’s Gotta Be a Song” which resembles a song title of mine, There Oughta Be a Song. So, this musical I’m working on should begin with warmth, and there oughta be an overture that puts the audience into a certain frame of mind. The first communication, non-verbally, should get them thinking about a sleeping baby. Then, the first scene of the show is morning: the baby is awake, the father’s feeding it, the mother frenetically gets ready for a day at the office. It’s an anxious and contentious scene and it should be a little startling coming out of the tranquility of a depiction of a sleeping child.

Looking back over my life over the past years, I know that my most harried hours have been spent on the nightly struggle to get my daughter to sleep. But that’s reality, not my fictional musical. So, here’s the program for my program music: A child is gently lulled to sleep with wind-up toys. (I can remember that I, as a child, had one that played To Each His Own, and another that played Tenderly. I can hear neither song today without thinking about childhood.) The first draft of my show had a quodlibet in three-quarter time, with different tunes for each parent. For my overture, I knew I’d start one waltz, which would keep repeating; then, a few bars later, I’d start another one, which would keep repeating. Eventually, there’d be so many, going in counterpoint, the listener would picture a crib with way too many stuffed animals making music – and some cacophony. Eventually, the themes should slow and fade out. (Note: I didn’t quite achieve that goal, yet.)

Speaking of non-verbal communication, I also thought about lighting. Overtures often involve darkening the auditorium. I want lights to gradually come up, as dawn breaks, and end up in a harsh glare of the family’s fraught morning. So, instead of that slow-and-fade thing, I’ve written a segue into the opening number, which is eight-eighth-notes-to-the-bar ostinato rock. And if that’s not what my audience is expecting, all the better. I’m a great believer in rattling expectations.

I’ve talked before about how valuable it is to know the parameters of the piece you’re composing – the more, the merrier. So, what tunes to write for wind-up toys? This may not be true any more, but when I was a kid, music boxes and toys had a tendency to go out of tune. This may have led me to the thought that I could use a wrong-sounding interval, such as the flat fifth. Now, an ascending flat fifth makes everyone think of West Side Story: Bernstein uses it again and again, in that whistle the gang uses, as well as Cool and Maria. So, stay away from that. Start with a descending flat fifth and quickly resolve it because, don’t forget, this theme is not about stress. I repeated the first two bars, and the fifth bar is a rather normal ascending major triad. It was time to go an interesting place, so I chose an unexpected chord, and did a little dance with the minor third of the scale. With much repetition leading to a cadence, I now had my first sixteen-bar theme.

A second theme should contrast. The first involved quarter notes, so now a smattering of eighth notes is called for. If the first danced around the third note of the minor scale on its sixth and fourteenth bars, this could dance around the tonic any place but. By “dance around” I mean fluttering around a note using others close to it. I also went up and down in an arpeggio covering a wider range than a human voice could do. One of the freeing things about writing instrumental music is that you’re not stuck with just what can be sung.

Wondering which should be played first led me to decide on neither. For something introductory I thought of a piece I get unaccountably emotional about, Henry Mancini’s opening credit theme for Two For the Road, a wonderful film depicting the highs and lows of a struggling marriage (something my musical does as well).

On tinkly eighth notes, broken chords are played in an unusual sequence, and the harmonic changes are subtle. I’ve used similar figures with some frequency in instrumental pieces, and also Mommy Is Yummy in the show.

Traditional overtures present themes that will later be heard as songs in the show. At this point, my score has one waltz, and I thought it worth featuring. But it has a different set of harmonies. If I introduce it, there would be clashes. But wasn’t cacophony part of my original plan? The song could enter last and before too long the conflicting wind-up toys could fade out.

Now I had a new idea, one that I didn’t start with. This one theme would emerge from the overlapping counterpoint, and the audience would suspect it’s a tune they’ll hear later in the show. (And they’d be right.) Clarity would emerge from the noise of the seven countermelodies. And, I found, I could use some of those previously stated themes as accompaniment.

Since the song and the newly-composed themes have different chord progressions, those conflicting bars guided my hand in coming up with some of the other melodies. There’s a set of dotted half notes that emerged from looking at what notes are common to the two clashing chords.

I’m a bit self-conscious, now, that I’ve gotten too technical. Certainly, listeners won’t be thinking about any of this inner architecture when they hear the piece. Except you will. Because I just told you.

 

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I’ve got my suspicions

January 17, 2017

Oh, boy! My birthday is here, and here’s my chance to say a few nice things about my shows. Because who’s going to stop me? (Actually, there’s self-restraint: I try to avoid bragging the other 364 days of the year.)

You meet new people, they wonder what you do, and, in my case, I often feel there’s no good way of explaining. I write musicals. If there isn’t one playing, then there really isn’t a good way of getting an inkling of what they’re like. (Plus, I see to it that no two of my shows resemble each other.) Sure, one could whip out an audio or video excerpt, but consider: All these songs were written in service of a story. If you’re just looking at one song, you’ve no idea how it propels the tale it’s attached to. I suppose I could set it up, laying out where we are in the story, but that’s me talking, not the show’s characters interacting, evolving.

Certainly, there are times in which you can take a single tile out of a great big mosaic, and folks can appreciate that single tile for what it is. I think audiences appreciate my duet involving singers singing about how their vocal ranges make beautiful music together without knowing that they’re suspects in a backstage mystery, Murder at the Savoy. Yet there’s a bit of theatrical tension in the bridge that gets lost –

When their voices harmonize
Or sing in counterpoint
The listeners respond with sighs
And tremble in each joint

In the show, the audience sees that they’re being eavesdropped on. The over-hearers indeed sigh, and there’s a question of whether they’ll be discovered in their hiding place. Without that staging, the lyric’s not nearly as interesting.

The book to Murder at the Savoy is not very complicated – I can say that since I wrote it. The book to The Christmas Bride is MK Wolfe’s creation, and it’s filled with those twists and turns found in melodramas and old novels. Our source material, ironically, was an old Charles Dickens novella notably free of twists and turns. So, I greatly appreciated having all sorts of dramatic balls in the air when I wrote large musical scenes. Good Advice is a massive quodlibet with four or five different parts. (I truly can’t recall the number, because it was rewritten so many times, I’m not sure how many we ended up with.) There are twelve parts to Alone In the Night, the first act finale, and nearly as many pages in the act two opener. I swear, I don’t generally write long songs, but you’ll think me very verbose if I try to set up all the story you need to know to comprehend the tension inherent in The French Wheel. So I won’t.

Maybe I go overboard with my suspicion that “you had to be there” applies so often. But when I fondly remember how the audience at Area 51 howled with laughter at a tough-as-nails army general’s rather crass how-to-be-sexy lesson, Work Your Wiles, I tend to think only Gail Dennison and Mary Denmead could possibly make it so hysterical. Tom Carrozza and I had these two in mind when we wrote the show, and Tom created characters that played to their idiosyncratic strengths. We’d all been part of New York’s comedy scene in the 1990s, and I’d witnessed, more than once, Gail’s fulminating power and Mary’s wacky Ethel Merman impression. Somehow, I managed to utilize both in their duet, and the cascades of cackles throughout the Sanford Meisner Theatre were ignited, in part, by the joy inherent of two old friends performing together.

Over the holidays – and shouldn’t I consider my birthday one? – I’ve been cleaning out some old boxes and came across a treasure trove of DVDs I’d long thought lost. It was quite a treat to see Vanessa Dunleavy’s rendition of Inside of Me from Area 51 performed at the old Donnell Library. For that concert, knowing that I wouldn’t have the lunacy of Carrozza’s sci-fi spoof to set it up, I wrote her a monologue to speak over what I’d originally written as a dance break. The audience believed they were seeing a young lady who is rather turned on by meeting a molecular biologist, thus justifying the lyric, which is chock full of double entendres. In the actual musical, the character’s seduction is part of an evil Vegas-esque floor show: the character doesn’t really find the scientist attractive at all. Vanessa’s take, which she reprised in the 2011 cabaret retrospective, Things We Do For Love, is seriously sexy and wildly risible. At present, I don’t have the hardware to upload that video, so, instead, here’s something else I wrote in which a woman’s hot and bothered over someone in a different profession.

So, is this mining silliness out of lust something of a theme with me? Well, I can see how it looks that way. But there’s something else. When I started out writing this little piece of self-praise I didn’t intend to find a theme in what I’ve been writing all these years. But the common bond I now see is dramatic tension. Libido’s a kind of tension. So is the fellow who can’t resist the roulette wheel when we know the malevolent policeman is trying to ensnare him. Or that couple listening to the canoodling of a tenor and a soprano.

Everybody’s favorite writer on the subject of musical theatre, Peter Filichia, once praised my building up tension in Such Good Friends, for which I wrote book, music and lyrics. Now, I know how icky it is to go about quoting your own rave reviews, but, since that’s the sort of indulgence one is only allowed on one’s birthday, I’m going to give him the last word:

For a show that started out like a lark and lulled the audience into thinking this would be one long nostalgia trip, Such Good Friends offered astonishing tension in the second act, where Katz perfectly came to grips with his material, often in unexpected ways, and occasionally having its characters surprise and/or disappoint us. It’s one thing to write an apt, craft-filled, melodious score, which Katz did, but we all know the book is the hardest part, and his work there was just as accomplished. Never in the entire festival did I feel an audience so rapt with attention. Afterwards, someone said, “It’s not that you could hear a pin drop; you could hear a tear drop.” That person must have heard mine, for I wept – partly at the plight of the characters, but partly because I’m so moved when I encounter an all-too-rare work of quality. Thanks, Noel, and everyone else with Such Good Friends.


One day we dance

January 9, 2017

People – good people – are steadfastly ignoring the reality of the life of Rockettes.

This here blog steadfastly steers clear of politics, but, currently, the world of musical comedy, of which the Rockettes are a part, overlaps with the political sphere, of which the Inaugural is a part. (My fear is, should I start discussing politics, I might unleash a torrent of sphere words.)

It shouldn’t be too controversial to point out that a lot of people hate Donald Trump. Looking ahead at his presidency, I predict there will be times to call for his impeachment, times to call for a filibuster of some horrible legislation he pushes for, times to march in various protests. The aim might be removing him from office, or stopping a bad law from passage, or affecting policy. I’ll be there.

But the Inaugural is a little different. Taking a stand as Trump’s sworn in will not effect change. No law will be stopped; no policy could possibly be altered; Chief Justice Roberts will administer that oath no matter how unhappy the majority of voters are.

In the weeks since the election, various music superstars have publicly refused their invitation to perform at Trump’s installation ceremony. Good for you, Elton John! You’re already a multi-millionaire with a huge income (including musical comedies) and nothing bad will happen to you by declining to sing outdoors in Washington, DC in the middle of January.

But Rockettes aren’t millionaires. Far from it. For some reason, nobody’s addressed the brass tacks economic issues faced by New York’s dancers. The competition to get jobs is fierce. To be in that world-famous kick line, you have to be a certain size. Also, dancers have notably short careers. Rockettes must live close enough to Radio City Music Hall to work there, and apartments ain’t cheap.

Roll back, for a moment, to the time before they were Rockettes. (It happens that I knew some Rockettes before they got the gig, so it’s easy for me to picture this.) They train – hard – to ascend to a level of proficiency that’s particularly difficult for me to imagine right now after all that holiday eating. But these young women aren’t starving themselves as a strategy, they’re near starving due to the economics inherent in their chosen profession. Gigs, when you can succeed at getting one, are usually brief, low-paying, and health benefits are nearly impossible to come by. They hold down survival jobs, frequently soul-crushing ones, just to pay the bills. And those bills include dance classes, gym time, and have you ever seen the price of LaDuca shoes?

Imagine, then, each Rockette’s thrill signing their first contract. At last, steady work! With benefits. Their parents will proudly tell everyone they know. It’s a plum credit on a resumé. You get to work in the gorgeous Radio City Music Hall, well taken-care-of by backstage staff. In these ways, it’s a dream assignment.

One might feel that, besides the many good things involved in being a Rockette, there are also some not-so-good things. That’s true of any job, no? You might not like the hours, for instance: an exhausting performance schedule during the Christmas season. Here’s where it gets a little complex: certain Rockettes aren’t allowed to turn down gigs; other assignments are voluntary. They performed at previous inaugurations, and many other patriotic displays. You weigh the pluses and minuses of any job, and if the pluses tip the scale, you take it.

People – good people – were initially upset with the idea that the Rockettes were being forced to perform. This seems to me a strange sort of thing to get upset about, especially compared to the large number of Trump proposals that will have a negative impact on ordinary innocent people all over the world. A worker, of any sort, signs a contract, agreeing to terms with a boss who has certain requirements of labor. How is that anyone else’s business? If the talented dancers didn’t want the job, which comes with certain requirements and restrictions, they didn’t have to sign the contract.

But then the hue and cry shifted slightly, from saying the high-kickers shouldn’t be forced to perform at the Inauguration to saying they simply shouldn’t perform at Donald Trump’s installment at all. The argument, here, is the same one we’ve heard for a year and a half: that Trump is an affront to human decency, that he spreads bigotry and fear, that he acts so childishly and unscrupulously he can’t be trusted with the Oval Office and nuclear codes. (I agree with all of that.) But there’s a big therefore coming:

THEREFORE

you, tall dancer, should not grace his stage on the 20th. Our feeds and, ironically, the Twitterverse, lit up with exhortations to the young ladies to sit this one out. As if it’s important. As if it’s the only proper response to the perfidy of the new Commander-in-Cheeto.

Good people: could you get off your high horse?

Yes, I realize how you feel about Trump, but what you fail to realize is how financially precarious the life of a dancer is. She Works Hard For the Money was a song in a film about a not-rich dancer for a reason. It’s one thing to pressure Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli to eschew the celebration – they’re very rich, but how dare you make a young professional performer feel bad about making a buck? Boycotting is a purely symbolic gesture – the sort only upper class people can afford. So save your liberal piety for the important stuff, coming soon, after January 20.


String quartet

January 1, 2017

Suppose you’re attending a show because an old friend is in it. And that old friend does great, but the writers of the show screwed up somehow, marring your experience as an audience member. Now, the writers aren’t greeting you at the stage door afterwards; the performers are, and you congratulate them on their fine work. The productions – sets, staging, musicianship – may be glorious, but you’re left with an unscratched itch, the nettlesome shortcomings that, then and there, you couldn’t comment on.

Now that we’re through with 2016, on this blog that looks at how musicals are made, I hope you’ll allow me to get some things off my chest. Five seasons ago, nobody was surprised when the Tony for Best Musical went to Once. I finally caught it about a month ago. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, were mostly written for the cute little film on which it’s based. The book is by Enda Walsh. And the show starts before the house lights go down. We see an Irish pub, and people are playing their own instruments. It seems an informal entertainment, supposedly impromptu Irish songs, filled with the usual mythic narratives and humor. When the houselights dim, these same folk are now playing the show’s songs, effectively setting us up for a whimsical tale-spinning, perhaps with a bit of magic thrown in.

And what we get is: the exact opposite. We see the halting romance between a Guy and a Girl (that’s what the Playbill calls them) and it’s notably lacking in myth and magic. They communicate in a true-to-life way that I might have found admirable if I hadn’t been set up for just the opposite. For long stretches, Once plays like a solid two-character play, well grounded in contemporary reality. When a song comes in, it’s passionate pop. One of the things that struck me is that the Guy’s unusual singing voice is a big part of what’s entertaining about this musical. That’s impressive; so’s the hard strumming on guitars that seems an emotional expression by a character. Once is rather innovative in this.

But I was reminded of one of Lehman Engel’s Key Components: Subplot. In Engel’s view, the audience needs a distraction from the main characters and what they’re doing. (I worry about this, because I’m now writing a show with no subplot; it’s half as long as Once, though.) Guy and Girl take their realistic relationship baby steps, and the trouble is, there isn’t enough interesting plot for a whole musical. We get tired of watching them. I’ve never seen something that cried out more for a subplot.

There is also no subplot, and a songwriting central figure, in Tick Tick…Boom. The librettist is David Auburn, who, like Enda Walsh, is a major playwright with no musical theatre experience. The music and lyrics – and, in a sense, the first draft of the book – are by Jonathan Larson. It’s a posthumous work; he and Auburn didn’t work together. But back when Larson was a little-known musical theatre writer, he had the idea of depicting his life and struggles in the field. So, for readers of this blog, Tick Tick…Boom is something of a must-see. It is unusual in that Auburn expects the audience to know that Larson went on to write the biggest hit musical of the 1990s but died on the eve of its first performance. Poignantly, he didn’t live to see Rent succeed – the raves, the Tony, the Pulitzer. We watch Jonathan apply himself to writing musicals with no acclaim or recompense. Given that emotional backdrop, Auburn structures a plot (sans subplot) that we invest in, to an extent, because we know what will happen after the curtain drops.

You can’t say that about a lot of shows, although I’m just remembering seeing, as a small boy, a musical set in Illinois called Young Abe Lincoln – something of the same thing. In Tick Tick…Boom, Jonathan rewrites Come To Your Senses “over and over and over till I get it right.” It’s supposed to be the emotional climax when we finally hear the full song, but every time I hear it, I find its message hard to grasp. The concepts in the lyric come at the ear too quickly:

The fences inside are not for real
If we feel as we did, and I do
Can’t you recall when this all began
It was only you and me
It was only me and you
But now the air is
Filled with confusion

I’ll say it is.

In Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece, Rent, we also meet a songwriter, Roger, struggling to write the perfect song about his relationship. Turns out to be one of the weakest numbers in the score.

There’s something I should’ve have told you
When I looked into your eyes
Why does distance make us wise?
You were the song all along

This is, as another character in the show says, “less than brilliant.” Is the point supposed to be that Roger isn’t a particularly good writer? (I ask the same question about Mr. Holland’s Opus, when I hear that awful symphonic piece at the end.)

So, on my recent re-visit to Rent, I was most struck by how overly-rhymed it is. Larson famously bridged the rock and musical theatre worlds, but, even twenty-one years ago, good musicals no longer were littered with showy rhymes that call attention to themselves. Lesbians I knew at the time didn’t call each other “Pookie” but hey, a rhyme for “spooky” was needed and what are you going to do? At one point, the whole problem is summed up when a character says, of what he’s just said “That’s poetic. That’s pathetic.”

Any writing error in Rent, though, is one I suspect Larson would have fixed had he lived to shepherd it to Broadway. We don’t go to edgy musicals about East Village squatters in order to hear “control freak” paired with “droll geek” (I kid you not). We might go to children’s theatre for such alleged cleverness, but that’s a genre in which we can’t expect a plot to hold our attention for long. Which brings me to Seussical, by Eric Idle, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This is, I believe, the most-performed show of the new century, and everything that happens in it is so silly, so lacking in import, the show becomes a mere pageant of fanciful design. What Happens Next is so frequently arbitrary, you give up caring What Happens Next rather quickly. An elephant interacts with a tiny town smaller than a clover, then can’t find the clover on which it’s located, then a bird who loves him finds it off-stage. My four-year-old kept whispering in my ear “When is this going to be over?” which – don’t tell my friends in the cast! – was exactly what was on my mind, too.