Gavotte

April 30, 2017

Sure, spring is a time of change, but was anyone fully prepared for the tumultuous transformation of New York’s community of critics? I sure wasn’t. Each alteration (and altercation?) came as a complete surprise to me, and since I’ve never been fond of change, I got a little sad over every move.

The spring of our discontent actually started in winter (say, there’s a better phrase) when the Times let go of long-time second-stringer Charles Isherwood. His was a voice we’d gotten used to hearing, as, over the years, an increasing number of notable shows weren’t reviewed by Chief Drama Critic Ben Brantley. The longstanding tradition is to believe that the Chief Drama Critic is the Most Powerful Man on Broadway. Which breeds considerable fear. And antipathy. Understudy Isherwood never garnered the same dread.

I grew up reading Walter Kerr in the Times every Sunday. Kerr’s early career included the writing of a couple of Broadway musicals, so there was never any doubt he was my kind of guy. Those were created with his wife, Jean Kerr, and when Walter became a critic, Jean wrote far more successful plays on her own. What would happen if a husband was put in the position of having to review his wife’s play? This Frequently Asked Question became the basis for a hit comedy by Ira Levin, Critic’s Choice.

The word, “recuse” keeps popping up these days, doesn’t it? But I digress. As a kid, I ate up Kerr’s columns. These weren’t reviews, per se, but think pieces on shows he’d seen – what made them entertaining, or how they could have been better. And that sort of analysis is what fascinated me. (It still does.) A former college professor, Walter Kerr was wonderfully articulate; hell, they named a theatre after him – a move I cheered.

The twenty-first century New York Times hasn’t provided space for Kerr-like wisdom. Luckily, there have been a handful of critics, writing for other organs, that pay attention to the machinations of theatre writing in their regular reviews. The one I’ve read most often, for the past sixteen years, is my old friend Matthew Murray at a website called Talkin’ Broadway. Every time a review of his came out, there’d be a blurb on the site’s theatre chat board, and this meant chatters were apt to respond. In effect, Matthew’s reviews were often the start of an argument. It should not surprise you to learn I like a good debate about theatre.

Murray’s no Kerr, but the connecting tissue is that from childhood to now, I’ve turned to critiques to learn more about writing for the theatre. And I should have already pointed out that it’s wholly unnecessary to agree with an opinion if you’re looking to learn from it. So, here we are, wondering what to make of the phenomenal success of Hamilton. What does it mean for us as musical theatre writers? Well, I found reading those rave reviews tiring after a while. The only naysayer I could find: Matthew Murray. Now, don’t jump to the conclusion that he’s some sort of idiot due to his immunity to the show’s many charms. Read what he has to say. It’s fascinating to learn why all the things that clicked for you didn’t click for him. That’s an education.

Ten years ago, my show, Such Good Friends, was chosen for presentation in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Would Matthew review my show, risking a rift like the one in Critic’s Choice? Nope. This wasn’t the first time Matthew had dealt with a friend on the other end of his microscope. He’d recuse himself, but would make sure another critic covered my show. He’d also write a feature about the show before it opened. Privately, he told me that he’d very much enjoyed. Then, at the end of the year, the Talkin’ Broadway reviewers named the best musicals they’d seen in any festival that year. And the winners were:

  • Bash’d – Awarded by Dan Bacalzo
  • The Seven-Year B*tch – Awarded by Peter Filichia
  • Unlock’d – Awarded by Matthew Murray
  • Such Good Friends – Awarded by Linda Tullberg

Talk about win-win! Matthew (and Peter Filichia) honored friends of mine, and I got the same honor from a stranger.

If the past few paragraphs have seemed like a valedictory, it’s because my astute old friend has decided to exit, to give up his position as reviewer of theatre for something that (I assume) pays a whole lot better. His last review posted a couple days ago. And what comes to mind is a news story I recently read about a public library somewhere in the northwest closing its doors. This great wealth of knowledge will no longer be part of my ongoing schooling. (I’ll also miss David Cote in Time Out New York.)

One bit of wisdom I’d picked up from Matthew is that Jesse Green, of New York Magazine, is another really good critic. And here you don’t have to take my word for it, or Matthew’s. The New York Times chose Green to replace Isherwood, which is good news for those of us who like good writing. The Times, “The Paper of Record,” sees itself as a meritocracy. Only the best get to work there. And yet, there was something of a hue and cry over the Green appointment. For quite a while, theatre criticism at The Times has come from white men, and there were those who’d been hoping the job would go to someone not white or not male. Before this teapot tempest, it hadn’t occurred to me Jesse Green was a white dude. (Jesse is a female character name in one of my shows.) I merely knew he was good – from reading him.

On the other hand, there’s another critic who consistently writes perplexing sentences. The kind I read over and over, trying to figure out their meaning, and only succeed half the time. The critic’s name doesn’t reveal gender, or any particular ethnicity. The most recent review, of Hello Dolly!, spends paragraph after paragraph telling the oft-told biography of Bette Midler, as if we needed to be introduced to one of the biggest stars of our time. Had this critic been chosen by the Times, they would have gotten that much hoped-for Person of Color. But a far worse choice, I think. But what do I know? This spring this abstruse scribbler won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

 

 

Advertisements

What would Rosie O’Donnell do?

April 17, 2017

That Facebook meme: I suppose I’m supposed to be gratified that so many people took a few seconds out of their day to name some musicals they like and loathe. I mean: I can’t deny that I wish people more people would think about musicals more. And here’s evidence that many are thinking about musicals some. But the listing of titles after the redundant categories – Musical I love, Musical I cherish – seems so meaningless, reductive to the point of being absurd.

And old news. If you say (as many did), Cats is the show you hate and Les Misérables is overrated, aren’t you saying something that’s been said thousands of times over the past thirty-plus years? Cineastes eventually stopped blasting Heaven’s Gate. Way to state the obvious, people.

(nsfw)

But I immediately began to question what musicals the poster has and hasn’t seen. If nobody listed one of my most-loathed sleepy nights in the theatre, The 1940s Radio Hour, it’s likely because nobody else had the great displeasure of seeing it. I searched in vain for any friend whose favorite show is Finian’s Rainbow, which, I began to assume, too few people have seen.

We live in an age of lists, or perhaps I should say, a listing age. And here it bothers me that folks weren’t telling the world why they cherish Assassins or what’s so wonderful about Urinetown. It’s not my disagreement with choices; it’s that I’d really like to hear the rationales.

As it happens, American Theatre has an interesting article by Diep Tran explaining her considerable troubles with Miss Saigon, which is the worst of the financially successful Broadway musicals I’ve ever seen. At the risk of sounding ancient, I’ll say that I remember a time when the mere mention of Vietnam made Americans wince, so troubling were our actions there, and the politics of that not-too-distant age. But leave it to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, creators of the far more effective sobfest, Les Misérables, to present a love story that’s merely set during our withdrawal from Vietnam, with nary a mention of the politics involved, or any condemnation of America seeing itself as the Great White Savior of the distant Asian country. The icing on this urinal cake is a scene co-opting a real-life tragedy with footage of Amerasian orphans like one would see in a telethon. The cherry on top is the thievery of a Richard Rodgers hit, There’s a Small Hotel for an affectless cri de coeur.

Facebook is supposed to draw us together, I guess, so it’s disappointing I didn’t find a lot fellow Frank Loesser fans through this. Just last Thursday I found myself laughing out loud at a scene from his 1950 collaboration with Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls. I know it’s my uncle’s favorite musical, and his train stopped at Saratoga every summer for the exact same reason Nathan Detroit’s did. But he’s 90, so perhaps loving truly funny shows is a generational thing. I prefer How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, also by Loesser and Burrows (both shows have other credited book writers who seem not to have done much), in which every song and every scene provokes audience laughter. That’s quite an accomplishment, but Loesser did something even more impressive: He wrote book, music and lyrics to a musical through which I sob uncontrollably, The Most Happy Fella. And, to have his Italian-American characters sound convincing, he taught himself Italian. Gotta love it.

A widely-performed show that ended up in different categories – hate, love, overrated, underrated, I sob through – is Jason Robert Brown’s time-bender, The Last 5 Years. I wish somebody could explain to me what all the crying’s about. There’s this doormat woman who’s Still Hurting after her marriage is over, and she’s so busy feeling sorry for herself, I feel absolutely nothing. Also at the top of the show is a completely unfunny comedy song about a man whose Judaism is I important to him, dating a gentile is some huge deal. You know, like in Abie’s Irish Rose, the hit play of 1922! If only meme-answerers could explain why they liked it, I’d find it valuable.

But hey, it’s just a meme: a throwaway thing with little or no inherent value. I get that. As I’m writing this, my wife and child are off seeing a new musical on Broadway. It’s the third new musical my wife has seen this week. And it’s mere coincidence that all this attendance is happening while so many people are sharing titles of shows they’ve liked and loathed. But it leads me to muse: What if, instead of jotting down the names of favorites and un-favorites you saw years and years ago, you went out and explored? Go to shows you haven’t seen before. And then your answers, the next time this meme comes up, might be totally different.


Kate’s brother’s story

April 11, 2017

Twenty years ago, a book was published, and even though it’s specifically about screenwriting, it’s a good time to discuss it here. Story, by Robert McKee, is more famous for the influence it’s had – often mocked – than what it actually says. The author held costly seminars for many years, widely attended by a whole generation of Hollywood scribes. Critics sometimes claim he’s the main reason Hollywood output is so awful. But little of what McKee writes about film isn’t applicable to musicals. His title is apt. Don’t you want your musical to have an effective story?

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps what draws you to musicals is the fact that many succeed without adhering to any particular structure or set of rules. I’m one who’s always been fascinated with departures from our traditions. An example leaps to mind. A bunch of improvisers developed characters who embodied the varying anxieties of kids at a Spelling Bee. Eventually, a songwriter and bookwriter were called in to shape the improvisation into a musical with a set script. And the next thing you know, the libretto wins a Tony Award.

That’s an unusual situation, to be sure. If you’re doing that traditional thing, of sitting down to a blank page and writing a narrative for the stage, at some point you better think about the art of storytelling. Regular readers of this blog know that the craft of how the tale gets told is an obsession of mine. Usually, when I see a show that’s failed to entertain me, there’s something out of kilter in this important area. So, stumbling on the information that Story got published in 1997, I think back to the time a smart musical-writing friend insisted I read what McKee had to say.

If I say this changed my life, or altered the course of my career, I’ll sound like a brainwashed McKee acolyte. In reality, I would never urge anybody to follow McKee’s prescriptions. But what I’d say, to anyone interested in narrative in dramatic form, is: read the book, because it will get you thinking about cause and effect in plot points.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I’ll use my own work to paint a little before-and-after picture. For many years, I’d toiled on an original musical. It was missing a certain something and I couldn’t tell what. I’d created characters, set down a sequence of amusing or entertaining events, resolved everything at the end. Individual moments were engaging people – various songs from the score had gotten big hands in many cabaret shows. But nobody wanted to produce the whole musical; it just didn’t seem exciting enough.

McKee defines an inciting incident that comes early on, propelling the hero into action, perhaps putting him on a quest. Now, without drinking the kool-aid – without buying in the notion that every musical needs a protagonist questing due to some incitement – I couldn’t help noticing my musical had none of that. There wasn’t a single hero. Nobody had any sort of a quest (unless you count an unemployed character who was looking for a job). And I merely had characters meet each other in lieu of any sort of incident. I put down my pen. And pondered.

Eventually, I fashioned a whole new original story, one in which every action had a consequence. Such Good Friends hardly McKee-ian. The hero has no greater goal than preserving a happy status quo. I wouldn’t claim there’s an inciting incident, as Story defines it. The first act includes a flashback to how the characters met, but only one. But the show was a gripping experience for the audience, to a certain extent, because McKee got my thinking about the elements of tale-telling. Events lead to other events, sometimes in unexpected ways. Characters always have motivations, but they evolve over time. When I compare Such Good Friends, with all its narrative thrust, to my unproduced musical, with its lack thereof, it’s hard to escape the notion that reading Story had something to do with my evolution.

In between those shows, though, I wrote a musical which, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, uses a specific non-theatrical format as a model, and there’s no real narrative. This was Our Wedding: The Musical! Guests at a wedding know what they’re in for, and don’t require a story that goes somewhere. Similarly, there are successful movies that completely eschew the McKee paradigm. Your musical can be totally unconventional and do very well. But being exposed to his fairly rigorous and often amusing analysis will inspire you to concentrate more on narrative. And that’s something I wish many more new musicals would do.

 


I’m working

April 1, 2017

End of the first quarter; might be time for some sort of report. And, I’m not sure how this happened, but the past three months have been more productive than any quarter I can recall in the past decade. And it’s not as if I’ve written a lot. I think there’s just one new song, Happy Show. It’s rare for me to be so pleased with a composition. It breaks new ground, in that I’ve never seen anything like it on stage. I’m very much looking forward to how the audience will react to a bit of business we all know happens in real life, just not under a proscenium.

Sorry to be so cryptic – is there a blog equivalent of “vaguebooking?” The real reveal shouldn’t be me, here, telling you what it is; rather, it should be in a musical, with an audience following what’s happening to two characters, and then comes this surprise that’s fun and funny. And this issue of how people first hear songs is a major obsession with me. Theatre songs are written for a specific context. Obviously, they’re parts of stories, and the audience has some emotional investment in the characters singing. Many good songs contain action, moving a plot from one point to another. But if you said to me “Play me that new song you seem so proud of” and I do – you’d come to it with no knowledge of the plot, character, setting, what just happened in the story, and what the action of the song is likely to mean for the show’s next scenes. But that’s the world we live in. Is there any form more likely to trickle out in dribs and drabs than the musical? Do filmmakers get asked to reveal two minute bits as often as we do? Would you ever ask a painter to show just a square inch of a canvas-in-progress?

The unusual accomplishment of this quarter is that I submitted for six things. Contests, workshops, residencies, grants. This takes a lot of effort, and part of that is deciding which square inches of my canvas to enclose. Often, it feels like I’m playing some elaborate game where I don’t quite understand the rules. On the surface, the application rules seem simple enough: “Enclose four songs from your musical” – that sort of thing. This becomes the main work of a musical theatre writer. Not telling the story, not actually writing the thing, but figuring out how to choose excerpts. And that’s a completely different art. One I don’t think I’m good at, at all.

Ten years ago (and God knows how many applications ago), the wise folks at the New York Musical Theatre Festival said yes. Such Good Friends would be one of a dozen or so Next Link shows that year. I celebrate this watershed, perhaps a little too much, but that’s how I roll. When submissions are rejected, the best thing to do is forget about them, move on. When they succeed, crow about it for a decade or so. Since I work so often with actors who are working their butts off to get that first job, I tend to think we have similar experiences. Most auditions are a swing and a miss; most applications lead to naught. It’s not healthy to dwell on the rejection, or even to think as these as failures. While the expression goes “It’s all a crap shoot.” I, as the creator of a musical scene about playing roulette, prefer the analogy of an enormous roulette table. There’s not just 38 numbers; there are hundreds of places to place a chip. And our task, either as writers or out-of-work actors, is to get into the game, put chips on the table.

The ridiculous part of all of this is that sometimes I find myself too busy working on a new musical to find the time to apply to new works festivals, contests and grants. Creative work taking precedence? That can’t happen! You’ve got to be in it to win it, obviously. The writer who makes no effort to get his shows seen, produced somewhere, is like those unfortunate souls who call themselves actors but never audition for anything, and, therefore, never act.

My amazing March, in fact, involved two giant leaps forward on two new musicals, and neither involved my writing anything new. On fairly short notice, I managed to throw together a private reading of a new score, which my collaborator wanted to hear live (and not sung by me). Finding six eager performers, getting them their music, rehearsing and recording – all of this was a huge endeavor, not something I do often. Simultaneously, I showed another show to a director I trust and received detailed and mind-blowing notes. These were so savvy, I now have a focus for a new draft. Knowing the “holes” in the work – that is, elements identified as missing – has already spurred a couple of new ideas for songs. And – you can tell this is important to me – they’ve premises I haven’t seen elsewhere.

I guess all of this is a circuitous way of explaining how a three month period in which I managed to churn out only one new song can seem like such an accomplishment. I got the job done: the job of applying to things. And even if those things say no, it can’t be denied I placed six chips on the table.