Anything for a laugh

March 23, 2017

The New Yorkers, the Encores concoction at City Center this week, transports us to a world where nothing makes sense and, even better, nothing has to. While we in the twenty-first century labor strenuously to make sure everything’s motivated and logical in our musicals, it’s refreshing to be reminded that nearly 90 years ago, silliness reigned. Jokes that are unimaginably corny or improbably blue are thrown across the footlights with not an ounce of shame and a surprisingly high percentage land. A huge cast and a 29-piece orchestra (!) swinging out winsome orchestrations by Josh Clayton and Larry Moore do more than right by sixteen sumptuous Cole Porter songs, many of which you won’t know. And it’s all lunacy: It’s as if we’ve the great good fortune to be included in a bathtub gin-besodden soirée at a well-appointed speakeasy (laugh-out-loud funny sets by Allen Moyer) and we’re all drunk and, magically, everything’s funny and romantic.

But doesn’t the very name, Cole Porter, evoke all that? (You’d think it would bring to mind a menial dirty job in a never-coming-back energy industry, but no.) Like The Great Gatsby, he was a mysterious millionaire from the Midwest, and what he chose to do with his life was to entertain his friends with jokes about concupiscence (“I want you to holler ‘hooray!’ when first you see me in my so-to-speak”) and sinuous melodies. After Yale and military service, there was a dilettante period where he married someone even richer, resided in Europe and didn’t much care if his songs made it on Broadway. Once he did, The New Yorkers was his third creation for The Great White Way, the third of many; he was in his late thirties, but still early in his prodigious career. You may have heard me complain about comedy songs that go on and on and just aren’t funny. Here are masterpieces of the genre: clever 32-bar mirth-makers that actually make people laugh. And one gets the sense Cole is just tossing them off.

But, amidst this madness, there’s an extraordinary and utterly serious imagining of what a prostitute’s life is actually like. It stands out like a sore thumb, sure, but what a plum thumb Love For Sale is! The harmonies travel to unexpected places: listen to what’s happening during the line “Love that’s only slightly soiled; love for sale.” then go back and consider what an amazing thing to say that is.

The New Yorkers is frank and thoroughly unromantic about sex. A society woman with a psychological malaise keeps eagerly asking her doctor, “Shall I strip?” and the madcap highlight of this evening has a dancing chorus running around a bed with huge turkey legs while a couple tussles under the sheets. “A romp and a quickie is all little Dickie means when he mentions romance,” goes a song.

But it’s here where Porter nerds like me express appall. That line’s from Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love, written seven or eight years after The New Yorkers. What’s it doing in this show? What’s Night and Day doing in it? Or the patter song introduced by a young Danny Kaye in the forties, Let’s Not Talk About Love? The addition of these Porter evergreens to an already very good score makes absolutely no sense. Jack Viertel and his team at Encores, missing certain songs, arrangement and script pages, opted to jettison accuracy in order to give an impression of what musicals of the period were like. And then call attention to their prestidigitation by quipping “We’d sing Friendship now, but that’s from a different show.” The same show, in fact, that gave us Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love

This is, of course, a minor nitpick. If the move to stuff this evening with some other Cole classics makes no sense, well, not much in the show makes any sense in the first place. Take Wood, for instance, written by the show’s star comedian, Jimmy Durante. During it, the cast builds a barricade a la Les Misérables, for absolutely no reason at all. And the senselessness of this stage action astounds us into such fits of giggles, we don’t stop to ask if musicals were ever really this stupid.

My less minor nitpick is about jazz star Cyrille Aimée’s pitch accuracy on Love For Sale. This is a jazz number too brilliant to be played with. An audience new to the song wouldn’t be able to tell where Porter ends and the surreal (for that’s how her name is pronounced) begins. But mostly the songs are delivered with winning aplomb; the large cast includes all sorts of characters actors you’ve loved for years (Eddie Korbich, Kevin Chamberlin, Ruth Williamson) and the ace leading lady is the British phenomenon Scarlett Strallen.

The New Yorkers doesn’t invite serious analysis – the sort of thing I’m used to doing here. And a disclosure is needed: In the company of 31 lunatics on stage is a close friend of mine, Matthew Griffin, making his professional debut. It strikes me as a perfect match: he’s delightful and ridiculous just like the show is. And there’s a line towards the end about things that can only happen in New York. Like 60 people, actors and musicians, on a huge stage in a huge theatre, performing this totally forgotten bit of whimsy from 1930. I Happen To Like New York is the finale, and tears streamed down all our faces, in part, because we know nothing like this could ever happen anywhere else.

Advertisements

A song that shows range

March 18, 2017

One of the musical theatre’s greatest living composers celebrates his 90th birthday today. So, a few words about John Kander. We’ve met on many occasions, and working with him, playing his piano in his home is one of my most cherished memories. He is kind and generous, gentlemanly and humble. But the most amazing thing, I think, is that he keeps going. There’s a new Kander musical playing in New York right now (Kid Victory) and I’m hard pressed to think of another Broadway composer who’s created new work at this age. God knows what he’ll write in his nineties, but I’m looking forward to it.

There are a couple of things everybody says about Kander & Ebb and I hate restating the obvious. But Kander and his brilliant lyrical collaborator Fred Ebb had no fear: They were willing to take on topics nobody else would think of turning into a musical. Unpleasant parts of history get combined with sprightly old-fashioned Broadway tunes and somehow, sometimes, the combination works. Of course, there’s their masterpiece, Cabaret. We’re instantly charmed by the razzmatazz of the Kit Kat Klub, and, over the course of the show, that seductive music works on us. As Hitler gains power, we feel what the characters feel, that this evil has snuck up on us while we were enjoying a merry dance. Similarly audacious was using the trappings of a minstrel show to tell the appalling tragedy of The Scottsboro Boys. Think how easily that idea could have gone south, using a form now considered offensive to add energy and humor to an expressionist depiction of a miscarriage of justice. Prisons are prominent in a number of Kander & Ebb productions: Kiss of the Spiderwoman is set entirely in a South American cell. But the characters keep their sanity by recalling the music of their lives outside.

The other thing is that Kander is the vamp king. The introductions to his refrains are infectious, and convey delight. Think of Wilkommen or When You’re Good To Mama; the first bars of All I Care About Is Love could be a song in itself.

One of the hardest of his vamps to play, in my experience, is the sixteenth-note riot leading into Colored Lights. That’s one of the songs I had to play on his piano as he coached one of my students. He couldn’t have been more gracious in helping me with my struggle, playing it himself, saying, just run your fingers over those keys with a little swell, like waves coming in from the ocean.

Allow me to clear up a myth about the American musical with more Broadway performance than any other: Chicago was a hit the first time around. It opened the same season as A Chorus Line – one of those dancers chose to ditch the Michael Bennett project for the Bob Fosse – so it didn’t win at the Tonys, though there were eleven nominations. Still, it was a very hot ticket, and ran for a long time, yet, for some reason a lot of people believe it was some sort of a flop. Of course, everything seems like a flop compared to the revival, which has been running more than twenty years on Broadway and counting. I saw the original production: a flower thrown by Gwen Verdon landed in the lap of my friend sitting next to me. In high school, a bunch of friends wanted to perform Cell Block Tango but couldn’t acquire the music, so I transcribed the whole thing – a painstaking process that I’d only undergo for a song I dearly loved.

My favorite Kander tune has always been Why Should I Wake Up? At first glance, it seems a plain 1960s ballad, alternating between a major seventh on the tonic and a minor seventh on the second note of the scale, like a lot of tunes of the era. But after the lyric “euphoric state” the accompaniment surprises with a flat fifth. The music tells us there’s an evil undercurrent beneath this romantic fantasy. And it’s subtle enough that listeners don’t recognize what’s happening. Another ballad that uses the flat fifth, If You Leave Me Now, got cut before The Happy Time opened. It’s gorgeous – I cry every time I play it – but, I suppose, had too little to do with the show’s Quebec setting.

Music should direct our imaginations to a specific time and place. The opening strain of Zorba transports us to Greece. A measure of Steel Pier gets us to the Atlantic City boardwalk during the depression. Or the pounding organ waltz of The Rink and we’re on a different pier on the other coast. In thinking about Kander’s amazing career, I’m reminded of his song, Don’t Leave, which mentions so many places around the world. Not to be confused with Don’t Go, which is rapturous, and was created for a long-forgotten revisal of Cabaret.

Since the original Cabaret is such a brilliant and moving entertainment, the mere existence of a revisal sticks in my craw. To me, it’s a horrible shame that most people know Cabaret from the strange rewrite where the American bumpkin is more into Sally Bowles’ green nail polish than her erogenous zones, making an abortion far less emotional than it had been previously. The only saving grace is the score. And you get to hear I Don’t Care Much.

I’m a sucker for minor key waltzes, and sitting on the second note of the minor scale is a form of harmonic propulsion that’s catnip to me. Once, at a party, Kander & Ebb were challenged to improvise a song. “What should the song be called?” Ebb asked. “I Don’t Care Much” was the response, and, legend has it, Kander instantly launched into a minor oom-pah-pah. Amazingly, they later wrote this down as the first draft of a song they intended for Sally, around the time of that abortion. That was cut from the original. The hit revisal robs it of its piquancy, weirdly giving it to a male narrator.

My inability to embrace Cabaret Redux makes me seem old and out of touch, like someone who’d carp “They don’t write ‘em like they used to.” But Kander does. Here in the twenty-first century, Kander still gives us melodies as hummable as anything from the Golden Era.

And, of course, he’s one of the great composers of the tail end of that era. So, my happy birthday wish quotes Ebb, and one of the first songs he and Kander wrote together:

It’s a fact you can quote
Best old goat is good old goat
Happy New Year
My dear friend


Processional: oohs and ahhs

March 14, 2017

Currently, in New York, you can see the two Sondheim-composed shows I most enjoy, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George. While I haven’t caught these particular revivals, I’ve seen other revivals, as well as the Broadway originals, and this year I’m hell-bent on saying something positive about Sondheim for a change. You see, two years ago, I waited until the day after his birthday to voice a handful of criticisms, and members of his cultish coterie of fans got up in arms. It strikes me as remarkable, and not good for anyone, that so many Steve-adorers can’t abide any criticism of their God. But that’s not Sondheim’s fault; he, in fact, is happy to condemn mistakes he’s made. If he says Welcome To Kanagawa isn’t funny, that’s considered humility. If I say I sat through Welcome To Kanagawa and nary a laugh was heard, I’m some blasphemer.

There was a famous disagreement between the songwriter and director of Sweeney Todd, as they developed it nearly 40 years ago. Hal Prince kept pushing for a sort of harangue, a Brechtian indictment of the audience. We were supposed to feel culpable, somehow, for being part of the society that could produce a mass murderer. And so we stared at that beehive drop, delineating the hierarchy of Victorian professions and got pointed to when the chorus, at show’s end, hissed “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” All, I’m disappointed to report, to little effect. Sondheim had a different goal, engaging us in the fun and furious Grand Guignol of a bloody revenge melodrama. In this, the show succeeds in spades (also, with spades, wielded by gravediggers). I can think of no show more Wagnerian in its marshaling of compositional devices to rattle us with powerful thrills.

Somehow, it’s even right when it’s wrong. (Warning: I’m going to get a little technical and critical here.) A young swain has an adagio ballad, with grandly slow arepeggiated chords. That makes him seem a little larger than life, but I’m OK with that so far. Then, on the word “dream” the minor of the scale is played against the major in accompaniment. This clash is the sort of thing one hears in twentieth century blues, never in London during Victoria’s reign. Luckily, this anachronistic chord adds creepiness to the song, as if suggesting the tenor is some sort of a stalker. He’s not, it turns out, but, at the time, we appreciate the composer bringing up the question. One of the happier themes we hear more than once is a sort of an advertising jingle, and is stolen, note for note, from Harvey Schmidt’s Texas-set 110 in the Shade. That Sondheim is a Schmidt fan – there are other examples – is actually endearing, and I don’t call The Worst Pies In London a steal from Charles Strouse’s Tomorrow because the feels of the two seem farther afield.

My favorite moment in Sweeney Todd includes a pretty waltz that alternates between a major seventh and a whole tone scale, a mixture I love and have used often in my own writing. It’s cool jazz, but it sure ain’t nineteenth century England. What Pretty Women is, however, is an expert building up of pressure that always gets me to squirm in my seat. Sweeney’s about to give the closest shave he’s ever given to the very miscreant who ruined his life sixteen years earlier. Given the injustice he’s suffered under, we want him to succeed, but know the longer he waits the more likely he’ll be interrupted. Victim and murderer have this sweet duet and it’s extraordinarily tense. That scene may be my favorite of everything written in the past forty years.

Yet, since I’m not all that malevolent and more of a tortured artist, I found myself more moved by Sunday in the Park With George. Ask me to name my favorite Sondheim song, and I blurt out Children and Art. Perhaps it’s because I take it so personally. My long-suffering girlfriend who’d witnessed how obsessed I get while creating musicals shattered me when she dumped me a few weeks before I saw this show, about an obsessed artist whose long-suffering girlfriend dumps him. In a way, I was putty in Sondheim’s hands. But how he worked that putty!

As you can probably tell, I’m one of those who prefers Sunday’s second act to its somewhat less-deeply-felt Act One. And yet, for a lot of folks, including my smart friend Rachel, the first act seems like a complete evening of theatre. And the same is often said of Into the Woods. Citing these two 1980s collaborations with James Lapine, she asked me why this is so. I responded:

Intermission is a big deal. It gives an audience a chance to spend time reflecting on the first act, and perhaps build up a few expectations for the second. Neil LaBute once wrote a play and specified that very loud rock music be played throughout the theatre during the intermission because he didn’t want anybody thinking too hard about what they’d just seen. When a musical written to be intermission-less, such as A Chorus Line, Passion or Follies, gets one, something is ruined because the authors didn’t build up to the act break, or write their way into the second one.

So, Sondheim had spent his entire career in commercial musical theatre working with experienced Broadway writers and directors. After the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, he decided to go a different route, collaborating with a visually-oriented experimental writer-director who’d never worked on Broadway. That meant trying new things in his mid-fifties. They must have discussed what they found dissatisfying about commercial theatre imperatives. One of those might have been the need for a happy ending. SO many Sondheim shows don’t have happy endings, so he’d already broken free of that. But I bet Lapine said “What if we gave them a happy ending … at the end of Act One?” Then would come that ten minutes of audience reflection and Act Two could upend their expectations. That would have seemed a plan worth trying.

So, Seurat, left alone, finishes his masterpiece and it’s a stunner and we all applaud. If we have a thought at intermission, it might be that Georges is one of those tortured artists who is so obsessed with art-making that he’s unable to love. Maybe he’ll learn to love in Act Two. Except Act Two’s in a completely different century. And the putative great-grandson doesn’t make pretty things. He massages the egos of donors in order to get more commissions but seems to have no passion. But as he learns more about great-grandpa’s painting, he and we discover that placing the girlfriend all over the canvas was a loving act, bestowing immortality. (“Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.”) Then a ghost tries to convince him to create something new. She and we share the hope that he will learn to put a little love into future creations. We don’t know whether he’ll succeed, and this doubt stops it from being a truly happy ending.

In between acts at Into the Woods, we’re thoroughly satisfied that we’ve seen a rather breathless piece of children’s theatre. Things are neatly tied up, leaving some to feel that’s enough. But Lapine and Sondheim want to upend this satisfaction, by delving into all the moral compromises made to get those items-as-colorful-as-similes. Act Two is, of course, a commentary on the specter of AIDS: people die willy-nilly and society panics. But wait! Weren’t we just watching a kiddie show? It’s rather adult and depressing stuff, particularly in 1987.

One other idea: Lapine, as a downtown theatre artist, was probably used to people leaving at intermission, if they weren’t digging it. But now he was collaborating with a songwriter so famous, nobody was likely to give up at the interval. Unlike before, Lapine could play with our expectations about the second act, reasonably sure we’d return to see it.

In advance of March 22, I’m wishing Stephen Sondheim a happy birthday. That’s also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s birthday, so I’ll say something good about him, too: Jesus Christ Superstar is the paradigm of rock operas.


Up jumped Sandow

March 7, 2017

This week, I’m expanding a circle. That’s a rare event, and an essential step forward in the life of a new musical.

My collaborator, a successful playwright here adapting his own play into a libretto, and I have been working, on and off, for years. Even though we both work in Manhattan, we’re not in the same room very often; it’s a lot of texts. When I finish a draft of a song, I record it and he’ll listen with his wife. So, the circle – the number of people who know what the thing sounds like – is 3. Me, my collaborator, and his wife.

Now, we’re at a point where we want to hear the songs sung by professionals. And if you’re wondering where my wife is in all this, it’s here she enters. A renowned casting director, she helped us to find performers. This meant my collaborator had to write descriptions of the characters. For the first time, I was being asked about vocal ranges. I hadn’t previously considered this question. I’ve formulated no opinion along the lines of “This character should be an alto.” I’m not there yet. Any range will do, this week, as long as it’s wide enough to encompass all the notes in the songs.

There are 12. I had to write up little descriptions of them, and this is another issue I hadn’t previously thought about. So, expanding our circle to include six singers meant contemplating certain questions for the first time. One song gets reprised in a completely different style, so that’s thirteen descriptions. Or not, since two songs are so similar I wrote the same words about them.

(And is that a problem? I’m thinking about The Music Man and how I’d describe Marian’s numbers. Or Eliza Doolittle’s.)

Putting songs in the capable hands of singers unveils a host of discoveries about each number. A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. Now, the performers’ apprehension and investigation of material comes into play. Just a few days ago, this whole show was something of a secret. As three becomes nine, the circle triples in size.

And then hearing them live, sounds from good throats passing through the air into our ears. It’s how they’re meant to be heard.

That seemingly obvious fact is easy to lose sight of. These days, I can compose a tune in my mind, enter it straight into software using a midi which I can use without the volume up, and post the thing on SoundCloud – all without utilizing ears. Out here on the internet, we compare and contrast songs that exist as videos or audios. But theatre writing involves live actors, in the presence of a live audience, communicating; this communication is affected and altered by audience response. How often do we fool ourselves into thinking listening to recorded theatre numbers is remotely similar?

Besides my excitement about hearing all the songs live, over one evening, there’s much anticipation about how they’ll all sound together. This show has been a slow process and various numbers were written very far apart in time. If I can believe my own copyright notices, thirteen years separate the oldest song and the most recent. We’re not dealing with dialogue this time, so it’s something like taking in a cast album: do this disparate pieces hang together well?

Another image comes to mind: Imagine an inventor toiling and toodling in a hermetically sealed chamber. The invention has been engineered to a certain pristine perfection, but how will it hold up in the actual atmosphere? My stuff looks good on paper, but hitting live ears is a whole other thing.

The energy it’s taken to put this sing-through together has robbed me of time I’d normally be devoting to this blog, and I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me the time off. Sometimes, on this page, I feel like I’m teaching you all something. What I really crave is a chance to learn more. While opening up the circle on this show, I’m expanding my mind.

Sound deep? Fear not. I’m sure I’ll get back to going all lesson-y on you in a week or so.