La casa del agua

Heard a rumor that there’s a film musical in development about Industrials. And since most rumors turn out to be false and the overwhelming number of movies “in development” never actually get filmed, it seems foolish to wait around for a flick not-yet-flickering to answer the question. I can tell you what an Industrial is, and commemorate my own experience working on one twenty years ago.

An Industrial is a musical that is created not for the general public to see. Some large company – not normally a purveyor of entertainment – wants to put on a show for a specific audience, usually at a convention. In the sixties, when, say, Milliken, wanted to display its new line of textiles for industry buyers, they’d do it with a song and a dance and top-flight Broadway talent (Tommy Tune, Chita Rivera, Bock & Harnick, Bob Fosse). Big business could pay significantly better than hit-or-miss Broadway, and there’s been many a year when the bulk of Jason Robert Brown’s annual income has derived from his work for State Farm.

Just as you’re unlikely to hear anything from a Kander & Ebb industrial, I’m not at liberty to play you songs from my industrials. The client paid for them, and the client owns them. And I’m happy with the money I received. But, since twenty years have gone by, and one of the companies that hired me no longer exists, I suspect nobody will mind if I describe my experiences with The Making of “Larry: The Musical.”

In the late nineties, I spent much of my time working with improv groups; I also taught improv. I got to know a lot of performers in what was then a fairly small community (it’s now enormous). A particularly close friend was a manic and driven young talent named Michael Bridenstine. And, from doing countless shows together, we had a great deal of trust in one another. So, when he told me he was working with Rafi Reguer, who’d been one of my improv students, on a special project, I instantly knew to say yes.  And.

Rafi worked for a company, a discount brokerage called Waterhouse Securities. Every year, it held an annual convention for its employees, and part of that was some silly piece of entertainment. Rafi was responsible for making the assembled conventioneers laugh, and this year, the beloved founder, Larry Waterhouse, was retiring. This meant that Rafi and some executives faced the problem of outdoing their previous efforts. He and Bridenstine decided to put this problem – How do we give Larry a proper send-off? – front and center. They created a video mockumentary about the company entertainment committee commissioning a Broadway-style musical commemorating Waterhouse’s career. It would show the behind-the-scenes preparation, including auditions and rehearsals, and the task of writing a Broadway-style score fell to me.

Rafi collaborated with me on the lyrics, and here we were on unequal footing. As I’ve mentioned countless times here, the key component of effective comedy is knowing your audience. Rafi knew his fellow employees. I knew squat about what a discount brokerage does. So, Rafi would say things like “if this lady says the words ‘she’ll do’ it will get a big laugh” and I was forced to trust him. We were also on unequal footing since Rafi had hired me with company money: In that sense, he was my boss. And that’s the thing about Industrials: you, the artist, must please the executives. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Happily, we had a great deal of trust in each other, and each brought a different element to the table. I know from musical comedies. Michael knows from funny videos. Rafi knew what the hell a brokerage is. As the piece evolved, I found my collaborators admirably receptive to my ideas. There was a place for a ballad that would be so sentimental, it might make people cry. There was an opening number that could also have served as a jingle for the company. And, when I heard the employees included the boss’ sons, identical triplets, I had the idea to have them come into the screen one at a time in a line. So, during Three Heads Are Better Than One you see one identical triplet, followed by a second identical triplet, followed by a black performer who didn’t look like the first two but could clearly out-sing them. The video shows the third triplet’s disappointment in not getting cast as himself.

Rafi and Michael wouldn’t remember this, but the best time I had on the project was recording the music with a sound engineer. He had one electric keyboard, and we kept creating new tracks in which I’d add sounds until we got something that sounded reasonably close to a Broadway orchestra. You could call that orchestration-on-the-fly because we didn’t take much time doing it. Rare is the chance to say “Let’s add a muted trumpet” and suddenly it’s there.

Rafi appreciated this enough to create and distribute a CD, which includes all those tracks, sans vocals, so you hear the score as sung and then you hear the score with just those synthetic instruments. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to, always bringing up warm memories, and Rafi wrote some extremely complimentary liner notes. So it’s just like a normal cast album.

Except, of course, that there’s nothing quite normal about an Industrial. Larry: The Musical never appeared on any stage. Nor was it intended to. The video, The Making of “Larry: the Musical” won three industry awards (I’ve a statue, a huge poster, and the CD framed in the manner of Golden Records) and this was screened for 500 Waterhouse employees in a Las Vegas ballroom. I didn’t get to attend, but, again, trust Rafi: “They laughed their heads off,” he told me soon after, “and during your sentimental ballad, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” I’m proud to have unleashed the Waterhouse waterworks twenty years ago.

(short trailer)

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One Response to La casa del agua

  1. Rafi Reguer says:

    I have many fond memories of the project and Noel’s enormous contribution.

    What Noel may not know is that our collaboration didn’t happen as planned. Michael and I agreed early on that we needed at least two songs for the illusion of a Broadway show being created. I knew I could do the lyrics, but I couldn’t write the music or play it. Michael suggested giving Noel that task. I figured Noel would come up with a couple of tunes to go with lyrics I suggested and he tweaked–maybe 90% of the lyrics from my pen and 10% from his. Not the way it happened, though I did get the percentages about right.

    After a couple of weeks, I asked about the songs and Michael said Noel was working on them. We had ridiculously tight deadlines, so I suggested we get together with Noel to at least plan out some of the lyrics and get going. I was informed Noel had left the city and was working on the songs somewhere in the country (Pennsylvania, perhaps) but I shouldn’t worry.

    When Noel returned to NYC, he didn’t have two tunes; he had more like eight. And they weren’t just tunes, they were full songs, lyrics and all. I couldn’t quite believe it. He had used some of my suggestions, but he had written it all himself. In a matter of weeks, he had essentially written the music and lyrics to an entire musical with a book that didn’t exist.. I didn’t know whether to be upset at being left out of the process or jealous of his talent. I think I was a little of both.

    The songs were amazing. As Noel alluded to, a catchy opening number, a ballad, a silly song, a song introducing the characters, a big dance number, a song about the first day the company was in business–it really lent credibility to the underlying premise, that this was a documentary about an actual Broadway show. It was all so much better than we originally thought it could be. Instead of stretching part of two songs over various scenes, we would up extending scenes in order to fit in all the musical numbers.

    A couple of quick notes:

    First, the company does still exist. After a merger, spinoff, re-merger, and subsequent merger, it’s called TD Ameritrade.

    Second, memories aren’t always 100% reliable. Though we did the work in 1997, the show went on in February 1998, so the 20th anniversary is next year. Sorry.

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