Shine it on

May 27, 2017

Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?

As you’ve probably heard, the estate of Edward Albee did something horrifying this month, something that ensures his masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be far less commonly produced in our land. Upon hearing that an Oregon troupe had cast an African-American actor as Nick, they pulled the rights to do the play. A slew of editorials and articles condemned this, and it’s redundant for me to add to the chorus now.

But it’s a reminder that performers-of-color very frequently get a raw deal in the theatre biz. There’s a preponderance of white people in positions of power who perpetrate the myth that audiences won’t accept anything but a white person in this or that role. And, if you didn’t know, you’d likely suspect there’s nobody out there trying to do anything about this loathsome attitude.

Good news for the fair-minded and not-fair-complected: I know somebody. I’m married to her. Joy Dewing, who started her casting business five years ago June 1, is on the Diversity Committee of the Casting Society of America. She’s been actively involved in addressing theatre’s long hoped-for metamorphosis into a place where all types can play. And Joy Dewing Casting has been at the forefront of opening up the eyes of directors and producers who’d previously envisioned an all-white cast.

This thing about vision reminds me of the time Joy cast a touring production that needed an expert tap-dancing tenor. The guy who gave the best audition demonstrated extraordinary ability, but he also had an out-of-the-ordinary disability: He suffered from a degenerative eye disease that was gradually robbing him of his vision. The tour would go to dozens of theatres, each configured a little differently – the size of the stage, where the lights shone, where the set would be. Every player needed time to orientate himself to each new space. Imagine how hard this would be if you were legally blind. Many producers wouldn’t have bothered to ask whether it was possible; they’d have passed on the diminishing-vision tapper and moved on to someone else. Joy worked tirelessly with all parties and what emerged was a big ball of Yes. Yes, the actor could do it. Yes, there’d be enough time to get him safe and comfortable on each new stage. Yes, the producers could cast the best person for the role. Yes, he had the time of his life. Audiences were thrilled – and nobody in the seats had any inkling of any issue.

Joy’s championing of performers with unconventional abilities led her to be filmed for a documentary about an actress who uses a wheelchair this month. The two of them were in front of the cameras on a weekend in a third-story studio and everything was going fine until the fire alarm went off. Which meant the building’s elevators automatically got sent to the first floor, fire department use only. Joy phoned 911 to deal with the problem of getting a wheelchair-bound person out of a possibly burning building. It turned out there was no fire, but one can view this as a metaphor for Joy’s career.

Go with me, here: In a way, there’s always a fire. When you’re putting on a show, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get the best possible people to be in it. This involves considerable imagination. You may know an actor’s work in other roles, but how would he be in your markedly different part? Auditions are so brief – what do they really tell you? An auditioner may have prepared a terrific 32 bars, but how will they be over the long haul, the weeks of rehearsal and the run of your show? Only a casting director can unravel these knotty questions. After five years on her own, preceded by many years of apprenticeship and then partnership with Dave Clemmons, Joy’s been there many times before.

Sure, I’ve got a Google News Alert set for Joy Dewing. It’s a window to how the world is reacting to my wife and her shows. Many things she’s cast are national tours, which means they come to new towns constantly and get new reviews from local critics. Is Rent captivating Chicago? Is Cinderella enchanting Phoenix? Is Forty-Second Street a big deal on Beale Street? I bask in the reflected glory, reading rave after rave. Specifically, they praise the discovery of new talent. That’s a specialty of Joy’s. Nobody knows more about the up-and-comers and what they can do. She goes to countless showcases and gives workshops at countless colleges. Nobody, over this period of time, has more often uttered these magical words: “Congratulations: You’ve just gotten your first job in show business.

(In this case, Joy delivered the good news to a parent, who told her daughter in her own way)

It takes a bit of sleuthing to access the on-line forums in which actors bitch and moan – er, discuss – their gig-seeking travails. But it only takes a casual investigation to reveal that Joy Dewing is, by far, the favorite casting director of the community in New York. The auditioning process can be grueling and soul-killing – it’s nobody’s favorite thing. But when Joy runs things, it’s far more palatable. Hopefuls feel they’ve gotten a fair hearing, and they’ve been treated well. This means that the talent pool’s a little larger – people want to get in front of Joy; they’re less likely to turn up when CDs of lesser repute are at the helm.

Did that sound like stalking? I really don’t spend much time scanning the internet to see how the world sees my wife: I know her. I see the kindness and compassion daily. I get a sense of what frustrates her, and those golden moments in which a new face shows up and blossoms. I think she’s grossly underpaid (doesn’t every spouse think this?) for the wonderful work she does. Joy Dewing Casting’s experience and ways of working is a godsend to any production. And that’s not just an uxorious brag. You can ask anybody.

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Already I’m laughing

May 21, 2017

So, I did a silly thing. And by that I mean a musical comedy project so completely crazy, my remembrance is bound to seem like a fever dream. But I swear, it actually happened. Twenty years ago this month was Tom Carrozza’s appearance at Moonwork, which occurred on Lafayette Street, in what was then part of the Stella Adler studio space. And I suppose one could be rather misleading and call it a cabaret act, but, despite the surface resemblance, this was a skewering of the art form, an anti-cabaret act, if you will.

In a normal cabaret act, a small audience (double digits) files into an intimate space, is forced to order some drinks, and out comes a singer who thinks he sings well, accompanied by an expressionless pianist. He’ll sing some favorite songs, often showing off vocal prowess; he’ll talk – probably about the songs, possibly revealing autobiographical anecdotes. Hopefully, the set contains some variety and it’s all over in 50 minutes, max.

(Yes, that’s a reminder to my friend, Max, who’s liable to run over an hour. Don’t do it, Max!)

I was Carrozza’s one-man band, Corrosion, and the huge room downtown was anything but intimate. It might have served as a cafeteria by day: large tables that could fold, I think. The acoustics were terrible – and cabaret fans love hearing every word in swankier boîtes. And Tom, I think (although I guess there’s a doubt here), has no illusion that he can actually sing mellifluously. But he had the requisite confidence that if he did an act in which he sang old songs, it would be fun and funny, and by God it was.

We wrote some astoundingly ridiculous songs together. Sometimes, he’d give me lyrics; more often, I’d write words and music with his peculiar talents in mind. Once, he handed me an entire screenplay – something along the lines of Airplane but set in a hospital. He asked me to create the theme that goes over the final credits. Minus Tom’s lyric, It Coursed Through Our Veins was used as the overture at Moonwork.

The rest of the program consisted of original songs, odd numbers out of my trunk, even odd numbers out of Tom’s trunk, pop medleys that made no sense, and great comedy songs that nobody’s ever heard. Tom found something Eddie Cantor once had done called She Turned Out To Be the Girlfriend of a Boyfriend of Mine, which, as you might imagine, hit the ears with a different set of associations in 1997 than it had originally. I got him to do You, a musical list of song titles from a show once called So Long, 174th Street. And the piece of resistance – or maybe that’s not quite the right term – a German piece from the late 30s. And now you’re thinking: What? A Nazi anthem? Well, no and yes: Years earlier, I’d done an extremely loose translation of a wannabe Dietrich number probably only performed by a Dietrich wannabe. Tom seized on the opportunity to spoof a Teutonic popular song. He performed the first half in German and to try to get the audience to sing along, with the loony expectation that everyone knows the song. And German.

I like your physique and your jawline
The way you looked wounded, just now
It matters not if you’re a Fräulein
Or a faithless philandering Frau

I’m sorry, young duck, to upset you…
Honestly, though, I’ll forget you
With someone new tomorrow night.

As they later said in Avenue Q, “That is German!”


Another send-up of the cabaret world concerned how, in autobiographical sections, a certain hyper-emotionalism tends to rear its ugly head. So, during a medley of the overdone rock ballads of our youth – Knights In White Satin, Stairway To Heaven  – this decidedly unhip crooner breaks down in tears, as if those classics were simply too moving to him. Then, striking a truer if still hysterical note, Tom reminisced about his time with the avant garde sketch troupe, Mental Furniture. When he set up a song from their work for the two of us to sing, it became a lampoon of songwriters explaining where their songs fit in musicals – the sort of thing I suspect most readers of this blog are mighty familiar with. Tons of characters appear in What’s That Smell? and then, out of practically nowhere, came the single dirtiest lyric I’ve ever warbled. And it just rushes by. The audience may have been shocked, but they were immediately focused on what the next punch line would be. For me, the greater challenge was playing it with no music. I visited the late great Doug Nervik in his squooshed apartment (practically a walk-in closet) in the East Village, to be shown how he’d remembered it going. Far more difficult than singing a four-letter word that today turns my face a bright fuchsia.

(Later, when Tom went into a studio to record the song, a less salacious substitution was sung, probably because the engineer’s wife was around.)

The attempt to make every moment in this one-man one-night bit of lunancy wild enough to provoke laughter is one in which we succeeded with flying colors. (Who’s this “we,” white man? The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Tom.) I learned a good deal about humor working with an experienced funnyman, and, to my great good fortune, Tom had a brilliant idea about what we should do next. Write an entire musical, with a plot and characters and a chorus, in which everything was unspeakably silly. He’d do book; I’d do music and lyrics. And so begat Area 51: The Musical! But that’s another silly thing, to be talked about on another silly day.


Magic time

May 15, 2017

Around the beginning of May this here blog passed the 35,000 view mark and I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another opportunity for Noel to pat himself on the back. I hate when this becomes an ego trip.” Ever-sensitive to your wishes, I’m not going to talk about this blog here and now. I don’t need to: I just got back from an ego trip.

At my alma mater – and yes, for me, this is one of those anniversary years when you’re supposed­ to go back – there was a three-part celebration of my friend Adam Belanoff, with whom I wrote The New U. and On the Brink, and a couple of other projects. The folks who present the annual Varsity Show were giving him an award, which seems long overdue since he’s the progenitor of the modern version of the student-crafted entertainment. He’s had a long career writing for television, a wildly impressive quantity of years gainfully employed, and is immensely popular as a person. If I say I consider him one of my best friends, I must acknowledge that I’m one of many people who’d say that. This meant, on a recent Saturday, that a huge circle of chums showed up for the party he threw, and then the official reception bestowing a statue, and finally this year’s Varsity Show.

For me, there’s little point in attending the Official Reunion of my college class; that’s interacting with strangers who’ve lived very different lives, not likely to understand mine. The Adam-a-thon, however, was a large turn-out assembly of folks who remembered The New U., On the Brink, and the “Junior Varsity Show” I wrote two songs for, Fear of Scaffolding. Our conversations tended to center on how marvelous those shows were, and, since I wrote music and lyrics, how good the songs were, in particular.

This gets me questioning whether the songs were as good as so many seem to think they were. Also, what was I doing then that I should be doing now? Have my creative methods altered over the years? Did I lose something as I aged?

It’s hard to observe oneself objectively. The time machine that would take me back to the work on my early shows is hampered by nostalgia. I’m an unreliable narrator, so take all this with a grain of salt.

I think I saw to it that songs generally contained three elements I considered essential. One is a great premise for a song. In other words, I could say to my collaborators: I think there should be a song that’s about this, or does this. And they’d respond with enthusiasm, because, just from hearing that premise they could see how it might turn out to be an effective piece. Then, naturally, there’d come a title. A good title is never chosen arbitrarily. You have to winnow down what you’re saying in a song to a very brief thesis statement. This gets supported by other lines that provide evidence that the thesis is true, much in the manner we’re all taught to write non-fiction papers in school. Many old-time songwriters believed coming up with a title was the most important part of the process. If it’s inspiring enough, the rest of the lyric’s pieces can just fall together, naturally cropping up as supporting material for your main point. Similarly, traditional composers place a lot of value on coming up with a musical hook. Just more glue that’s going to hold the creation together.

So those celebrants mentioned various titles they’d recalled over the many years: The Sweetest Guy in the Suite, Most Embarrassing Moments, Something That We’ve Never Had Before, and the mere fact that they’d remembered them tells you something. The last of these was a slight steal of a song from an obscure musical that has since become one of my all-time favorite melodies (Something that You’ve Never Had Before, from The Gay Life). There’s a further thievery involved, as I took the hook from an accompaniment figure in an obscure Rupert Holmes pop song called Adventure. Maybe he wasn’t being truthful, but Holmes told me that nobody remembers his early pop efforts (besides the ubiquitous Pina Colada Song) and yet here I was, face to face with those who remember my gloss on it.

The most-remembered moment in The New U. was The Sweetest Guy in the Suite; everyone seems to agree. It was part of a sequence concerning the lovelorn inhabitants of a dormitory floor. The guy played by Adam pines away for the girl next door. She, in turn, pines for the boy residing on the other side of her. And this boy, in the big reveal, turns out to have a same-sex crush on Adam. They’re all equally unrequited. Five years later, I found out that my favorite songwriting team, Richard Maltby and David Shire, used the same premise. Which shows you it’s a good premise. And here I can truthfully brag that our song got a much bigger reaction than theirs ever did.

Many weeks ago, I had someone take a look at the latest draft of a musical I’m currently working on and she was particularly taken with a traditionally-structured number; that is, one that had a solid title and a hook, not to mention AABA stanzas. This reaction served as a wake-up call. My wild experiments in form hadn’t gone over as well. Better to employ the modus operandi I was using so many years ago.

Being among folk who remember The New U. is also a reminder that what we do, in theatre, is ephemeral. A live performance, capturing the zeitgeist, can never be repeated, later, in quite the same way. What have I done since college? Essentially the same thing I did in college: created entertainments that exist for a short dazzling moment and then don’t, like an art-work on flash paper.


Washington discount

May 10, 2017

I’ve long felt a certain kinship with John LaTouche, my fellow Columbia Varsity Show veteran, who wrote the single greatest lyric about the passing of a venereal disease. (Sorry, I Got It From Agnes fans.) It was written for, and cut from, Candide (1956), which explains the heightened language:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
‘Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She’d forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn’t sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

LaTouche’s now having his second musical in as many years done at Encores, the all-sung epic, The Golden Apple. Seeing this Holy Grail of rarely-revived musicals, I’m thinking about whimsy and wit: How a little of it goes a long way, and how too much of it makes for a long evening.

Ber, Ber, Ber! It’s chilly in my office this morning. But I’m also thinking of the Encores troika of musical director Rob BERman, choreographer Joshua BERgasse and direcor Michael BERresse. They gave this Apple a fine polish, but you know me: I care about how shows are written. And I got a problem with that.

It’s said that the authors never stopped for dialogue because they conceived their musical as an incessant series of show-stoppers. The music by Jerome Moross is unfailingly energetic: I’m a particular fan of the overture, which ratchets up excitement. Every lyric contains showy rhyming, that is, they call attention to themselves. We don’t react to Ulysses and Penelope as people; we react, favorably or un-, to LaTouche. God love him, he gets a laugh rhyming “cobra” with “no bra” and I’m tickled by that kind of stuff. Been known to do it myself.

The Golden Apple was first produced in the 1950s, a decade in which clever rhymes were appreciated. That time is long behind us. But the problem isn’t so much that tastes have changed and the show has aged, it’s that the whole idea of a procession of show-stoppers is wearying. The Homeric epics on which the show is based are, indeed, episodic. But do you really want to see a musical that’s a long chain of pointless episodes, even if they’re individually entertaining?

We long for emotional connection to the characters. Instead, we witness vignettes that somehow relate to ancient Greek lore, but they add up to nothing. There are a huge number of characters, but let’s focus on two: Ulysses and Helen. Ulysses returns from the Spanish-American War, which allows LaTouche to rhyme “Theodore, the Roosevelt that we adore.” There’s a reunion with Penelope, expressed in a ballad called It’s the Going Home Together. So, early in the show, they’ve played the inherent emotion of long-separated lovers returning to each other’s arms. Hold that thought.

For reasons that are never made clear, Ulysses decides to leave with his war buddies on a mission to the big city. LaTouche actually plays the pointlessness for humor, as they’re asked the principal of the thing they’re fighting for and can’t name it. So no one knows. Cut to poor Penelope, pining away that she’s not with Ulysses. In the big city, the big lug gets tempted by sirens and such, but then returns for the happy ending. And I’m feeling nothing. Ulysses’ abandoning Penelope seemed so arbitrary; how are we to trust he won’t do that again?

The marriage between Helen and Menelaus is even worse. Their trouble – and what a stuck-in-the-1950’s idea this is – is that Helen likes sex. Since her husband (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz) is portrayed as not-very-virile, she’s bound to stray. And I suppose we’re supposed to get behind this, emotionally. The only hit song to emerge from this score, Lazy Afternoon, is how she seduces Paris:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And my rocking chair will fit you
And my cake was never richer
And I’ve made a tasty pitcher
Of tea
So, spend this lazy afternoon with me.

A few problems with all this. LaTouche forces rhymes in a playful “look at me! I’m clever!” way and we’re not quite invested in this seduction working. Paris is completely silent – lanky Barton Cowperthwaite gyrates very impressively – but, given what’s happened to left-behind Penelope, do we really want Menelaus left-behind, too?

Jerome Moross was in Aaron Copland’s circle, and boy, can you hear it. There’s that familiar jumbling of arpeggiated major triads, and all manner of rhythmic tropes evoking the turn-of-the-century. And you don’t get a sense of “here’s a serious composer writing classical-sounding music” because the harmonic palette is never overly elevated. These are show tunes, and fine ones.

I heard riffs that turn up in later scores: a bit of West Side Story’s dance music, Sondheim’s incidental music to Invitation to a March. The big ballad in William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s Dynamite Tonite is a clear echo. And I caught a rhyme I used once myself: graduate/glad you ate. That ended the first act of my Varsity Show, but even then I knew that clever rhymes are a special sauce, best used sparingly.

But something positive deterred me from remembering the most prominent homage of all. You see, Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Silverman deliver, dazzlingly, the sound of fine 1950s musical comedy stars. She’s a clarion, jazzy and fun. He’s powerfully masculine. They’re such pros, I nearly forgot Christopher Guest’s celebration of amateur theatre, Waiting For Guffman. It has a intentionally bad number called Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine, perhaps inspired by Nothing Ever Happens In Angel’s Roost, the inauspicious opener to The Golden Apple.