Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.

 

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Edgard

June 11, 2017

It was pointed out, somewhere, that in this year’s Tony nominations, a lot of inexperienced musical theatre writers edged out the veterans who’ve given us solid work in the past. And to this I say: Good. It’s about time.

I admit that I often harbor a suspicion, or skepticism, about novices. Experience is a great teacher, and first efforts frequently are riddled with holes an older and wiser creator would have filled. But I also like to think that the long process of taking a show to Broadway involves something of a quality filter. A lot of people – the multitudinous producers and their large battalions of investors – have to believe the show is good, that it will succeed. Think like an angel: If a show has veterans doing the score, is based on a well-loved book that’s already had two film adaptations, well, that seems like a sure bet, no? Compare that to a show written by nobodies – and I use that term politely – set in a particularly frazzled time in recent history, one that no fun-seeking theatre-goer wants to dwell upon. That seems a less safe wager. Writers with no track record vs. The Names You Know and might have seen on countless movie credits and one of the century’s biggest musical comedy hits.

This year I’ll be cheering for the newcomers. It’s a sign of a healthy industry when new faces prodigiously out-achieve the old. Step aside, those who already have a mantle filled with shiny objects; if a younger generation is a knock-knock-knocking at the door, that’s a good thing. The Tony presentation that comes to mind, for me, is the one in 1960. The Old Guard had a show: Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Lindsay & Crouse had been Broadway’s most successful playwriting pair. They’d won a Pulitzer already, for State of the Union, and their Life With Father is the longest running Broadway play of all time. Rodgers & Hammerstein, I assume you’ve heard of. But what’s this? Here come a pair of songwriters from the Midwest, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Bock’s third Broadway musical and Harnick’s second involves some fairly recent history, and, with no major stars, is an unlikely hit. Who will win in the battle of the Old Guard versus the New Guard?

And it’s… It’s a tie. An equal amount of votes went to the Mary Martin vehicle, The Sound of Music, as to the biography featuring newcomer Tom Bosley, Fiorello. Left in the dust was Gypsy, but more on that later. Martin and Bosley both won awards, but his was in the Featured category. If that sounds odd, consider how few songs in Fiorello involve singing by the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In fact, it’s always a good day to consider Fiorello, as it’s a rather extraordinary show. And I wouldn’t say the same of The Sound of Music.

Now a lot of people, looking back, think all the awards should have gone to Gypsy. And a lot of those people view Broadway through the odd prism of Stephen Sondheim’s career. But what’s important to remember is that that Sondheim had just turned 30, and so the (then just-) lyricist represented youth; in fact, he’d learned much, when he was just a boy, from his best friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein.

Suppose, back then, you had the mind-set of those today who dislike seeing the Old Guard supplanted. Twenty-twenty hindsight reveals that it was Bock and Harnick who went on to write the best scores of the new decade – Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, and my personal favorite, The Apple Tree. The Old Guard – well, Hammerstein died later that year, but Rodgers went on to write No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Two By Two. Not nearly as good, right?

So, because I don’t wish to sound cryptic, I suppose I should name the players:

The Old Guard

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the show that got the worst reviews of any musical to open this season. By far. Shaiman’s scored many a comedy film, and the team also did the songs for Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and the first season of the television abomination known as Smash.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are best known for Broadway shows such as Ragtime, the soon-to-be-revived Once On This Island (a particular favorite of mine) and Seussical, the most-produced musical of the century. This year, they adapted their movie musical Anastasia for the stage. If you’ve seen media stories about Russians, it probably isn’t this.

Alan Menken (Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) doubled the number of shows they’ve currently running on Broadway with A Bronx Tale. I predict they’ll soon be back to one each.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie wrote about actual ladies-of-note in Grey Gardens and now have War Paint about actual ladies-of-note Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. They’ve also done two comparatively major off-Broadway shows, Far From Heaven and Happiness. My wife was particularly underwhelmed by their work here.

The New Guard

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the best-reviewed musical of the season, Come From Away, about a small Canadian town that embraced airline passengers who were forced to land there on 9/11. Their previous work was a Fringe Festival favorite called, I kid you not, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were both born in 1985. Let that sink in a moment. Now, perhaps its unfair to list them as neophytes, since Dear Evan Hansen is their fourth musical to make something of a splash, and they’ve already picked up an Oscar this year for their lyrics to a long rambling song towards the end of the second hour of La La Land. We know how Hollywood makes people rich and famous; I think their stage work makes them more worthy of fame and acclaim.

Tim Minchin had fame from another sphere – comedy – before he started writing musicals. You may recall his audacious debut with Matilda and this year his sophomore effort is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy called Groundhog’s Day.

Dave Malloy writes songs that don’t quite sound like anybody else’s. He’s worked his way up from avant garde and off-Broadway venues to a reconstituted Great White Way house. Three nominations. That’s a route that’s gratifying to see. The title makes it sound long, but it’s based on only a tiny passage of War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

To go through the BMI workshop and then get a show on Broadway is another path that cheers me, as a BMI vet. In Transit introduced Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, one of whom already has an Oscar.

Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor are unfamiliar names to me. My wife quite liked their Broadway debut, Bandstand. Not a lot of nominations for these last two (nor the quick-closing Amélie by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen). But I have to celebrate a season so crowded with good new work that good old writers can’t get a nod. Do better next time, venerable ones!

 

 

 


Facets of you

June 3, 2017

So, I was watching a play that purported to be about the nature of love and thought to myself, “Nah, this isn’t it.” The playwright had failed to make me feel anything, and I’m pretty picky that way, demanding that romantic entertainments (usually musicals) capture my heart, not just my mind. Once upon a time, every musical was, to a certain extent, about love. Today, some writers manage to avoid it – but I think they’re all running away from something. Face it, we’re in the domaine d’amour.

Twenty years ago today Joy Dewing walked into my life and hit my heart in such a way that my thoughts about love were utterly metamorphosed. The young, intrepid bundle of gorgeousness knocked on my door, having driven up from Washington just to meet me. And instantly there seemed no more natural place for my arms to be than around her. There’d previously been a meeting of the minds, as we communicated through countless e-mails and some chats, but here, in the flesh, was a warm and driven talent, a quick wit, and a thinker wise beyond her years. Which was a good thing, because I was well beyond her years.The First Dance

After I’d gained that new understanding of love, there soon arose opportunities to write songs on the subject. You have to do that a lot when you create musicals, but also, in my life, there are occasional songs. Like Joy’s birthday. Or Valentine’s Day. Or our wedding anniversary. Or this, our meet-iversary. And no matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to the same thought: “Nah, I didn’t quite capture it.”

Seems as if the extraordinary set of amorous feelings can’t quite be captured in words and music; I’m chasing a rainbow. Or maybe I’m not good enough, just as insufficiently articulate as Mee. (For that is the name of the playwright referenced at the beginning.) But I’ve a more positive theory about this: It’s Joy. She’s too marvelous for words and tunes. And I’m reminded, now, that I once expressed something like that in a song I wrote to sing to her: “You’re too wonderful for empty cliché.”

So this week I took our daughter to buy Joy a gift to commemorate the two decades of face-to-face passion and instantly thought I’d muddled it. In our living room, there’s this huge unopened box that is her gift to me, and I’m sure it’s far more fabulous, even though I got her something she said she needs. My underwhelming gift fits a cliché of husbandry: we give bad presents. And I’ll again remind you I’ve a sign that reads “Eschew cliché.” But sometimes it occurs to me that I’ve hit upon a widely-experienced situation. There are many lovers who come up with insufficient tokens of their affection. And if something’s that common, maybe it ought to be a song.

I may have mentioned here that I’m working on a show about married people, Baby Makes Three. Some believe that it’s a musical à clef, but the characters are markedly different from us. Such a project, though, allows me to draw on my experience as a husband, and one song steals from that large set of songs I’ve written for Joy. Here’s the bridge:

I’m well aware there are words you long to hear
What the hell is scaring me? Do I fear
Whatever words I say
Can never quite convey
The magnitude of all I feel?

Musicals, of course, get rewritten countless times. Right now the floor of my office is literally littered with the many numbers I’ve cut from the show. So, frequently, I deem my songs not good enough to stay in a score. If I’m writing a song for a particular day, well, that’s a deadline: Comes the time to give, I give. And I instantly think, “That wasn’t it. That’s not good enough.”

Rather randomly, I’ve found an example of all this:

In a world full of irritations
That crop up out of nowhere
Like a horde of ants when you lift a stone,
It takes guts, holding it together
You can’t yell at stupid tourists
Or be rude to every pollster on the phone.
So we all develop ways we can bear
With catastrophes that spring up when we’re least aware

I have a wife who loves me
Loves me well
And with a wife who loves me
I can get through hell
Arms that provide such comfort
So caring
So tender
I have a wife who’ll love me
Till the end

When I can’t avoid a puddle that, at first, seems to be shallow
But it’s so deep it muddies halfway up my slacks;
When I know I made a bookmark of a receipt I should have saved
And I don’t remember which book when it’s time to file the tax;
When a bus goes intentionally slow
Or whizzes past as I frantically wave in the snow

I think I’ve a wife who loves me
Long and deep
I have a wife who snuggles
As I sleep
Kisses that work a wonder
Refreshing
They warm me
I have a wife who gets me through each storm.

When some stranger smacks their gum or talks with their mouth full
Or does that loathsome sucky sound that you hate;
When the brand new expensive iron spits out white glop instead of steam
Destroying your pants and making you late;
When the cable company screws up your show
When you work a long day and then have to fly into snow

Remember that I love you
And hold you dear
Knowing your husband loves you
Persevere
Whatever it is that bugs you
Forget it
Remember
I’ve written you a love song
You are loved.

Nope, not nearly good enough. (This post, I fear, isn’t good enough either.) But at least it has the word “glop” in it. And more I cannot wish you than to wish you twenty years of love. With some glop.