Magic time

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.

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