Bows

July 24, 2017

The audience basically sat there with their jaws dropped. The reaction wasn’t “This is great.” The reaction was “Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything so marvelous.” You could feel this energy throughout the theatre, the entire building was abuzz with how fantastic the performance was.

You know, it has never been my intention to make this blog the place where I brag. So I’m going to try, today, to accurately reflect and reflect upon what happened in Connecticut at the beginning of July. As usual, I hope to be interesting and useful to creators of musicals. But, let’s face it, some of this is going to sound like boasting. Deal.

The occasion was a presentation of a portion of The Christmas Bride. I am responsible for its music and lyrics and circumstances landed me in the director’s chair. To my surprise, it’s not a tall wood-and-canvas thing with a title on the back. It fell upon me to select a cast of eight, rehearse them and tell them where to move. We had an extremely short amount of time to put this together, and the lion’s share was spent getting the notes right. An exorbitant number of minutes were lost to laughter, as a couple of players found a bit of business so funny, they were unable to get it together and deliver the material with a straight face.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

But when they were on, they were ON. I’ve never encountered a crowd so titillated. The tongue-in-cheek machismo of leading man Matthew Griffin had the effect of literally turning a lot of women on. And, you know, my wife cast Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, so now we’re both used to having that effect.

I really think the best thing I did in this fraught process was choosing the performers I got. Six had worked together for two years as students of mine. Solid and stolid David Arthur Bachrach is a veteran of two previous Christmas Bride productions, this time essaying a new role. One day I had a brainstorm that my current student Megan Poulos had all the right stuff to be the title character. I took a leap of faith that she’d play well off of Matthew Griffin, who’d made such a great impression earlier this year in Encores’ The New Yorkers at City Center. He’s got the looks, the voice, the goofy swagger; could they project the chemistry of illicit lovers taking a leap of faith on each other?

In a word, yes. This was the thing that thrilled me most. Book writer MK Wolfe and I had always hoped for a certain sexually charged energy between our leads. Previous productions had come up a little short, I think, as the lines and lyrics have to bounce off the pair in a way that sizzles. It’s that old saw that casting a show right is more than half the battle. Here was the proof of that pudding (made of plum?), a very fortunate happenstance. Players with a similar background was a felicitous shortcut: They all knew how to get behind the energy of the piece. MK Wolfe’s book effectively keeps the stakes high, and the players played them for all they’re worth.

Well-played melodrama knocks out an audience – the fraught sense that everything that’s happening is of great importance, has huge consequences for the characters. One could tell from the opening minutes that people were thunderstruck by what they were seeing.

And it was more than my cast of New Yorkers. I also believe the quality of the writing stunned the crowd. The little that is arbitrary never seemed arbitrary because viewers got used to being rewarded for their concentration. In a plot sense, little clues are often dropped as to what might happen next, and these kept people’s ears particularly wide open.

That led, in turn, to a different kind of hearing. The singers sounded so great, you could sense the listeners relaxing, taking in a new and enjoyable tune. This is hard to describe, but there’s just a different feeling in a room when melodies hit ears and the hearers savor right away. Far too often, I’ve witnessed the opposite, when oddly-crafted tunes get taken in with a bit of befuddlement. This was more like love-at-first-sight, an instant attraction.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

It’d been five and half years since I’ve seen The Christmas Bride. So, in an odd way, I was reacquainting myself with old themes, and rediscovering what’s good about them. The long sustained notes in Fluttering and Turn Around give time for the vocalist to open up. The sweetness of Megan and Matthew’s sounds delighted. Marion and Alone in the Night are two larger pieces I’ve always thought were among my best. But the main song for the romantic leads, Take a Gamble – well, I’d previously thought of it as a little disappointing. A romantic musical calls for a big I-love-you statement, and this argumentative duet has its eyes on the plot. Megan and Matthew revised my self-assessment. Rather than park-and-bark sentiment, I’d given two actors fully motivated moments to snipe at each other. In their hands, it became a beautiful thing, and, at long last, I found myself enjoying the song.

A friend and fellow musical theatre writer was there, and he’d never previously heard any of my work. He was particularly taken with my dense rhyming and how they gave spring to the meanings of the sung lines. We plan to meet for a drink and discuss it some more.

Songs rhyme for a reason. When the brain knows it’s going to receive sounds that match at regular intervals, listening is enhanced. It might be harder to come up with a clever rhyme structure and stick to it, but it’s surely a lot easier for the hearer. Our brains take in well-rhymed words much quicker than unrhymed or – horrors! – badly rhymed verse.

An example comes to mind because Connor Coughlin applied an echt and charming accent to it:

Furbelows and frocks
Herbal teas and boxes full of gifts for that special she
For my bonnie bride to be

Connor sounded the “H” on “herbal” and then the frocks/box rhyme sped the line forward. It traveled blithely from an unfamiliar word (“furbelows”) to a familiar and understandable concept. Had this been fully staged, he would have been holding a huge pile of presents. Instead, a good rhyme drawing attention to meaning got everyone to picture what they could not see.

Immodestly, perhaps, I’ve unveiled some of the little details that garnered such a huge reaction. There was a moment towards the end where a twenty-second ovation broke out, literally stopping the show. The actor could not continue until the audience obeyed his hand-signal command to simmer down. The Connecticut crowd had never seen anything like it.

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Where the bee sucks

July 13, 2017

One of my favorite cans of worms has been opened! And by no less than the recently-appointed co-chief drama critic of The New York Times, Jesse Green. He states something that, to me, is obvious, but very few musical theatre fans seem to understand. That the elements that make for a good listening experience to the consumer of an Original Cast Album are markedly different than what makes good theatre.

It started, as so much does these days, with a tweet. This came from the composer-lyricist of a score Green didn’t much care for, Groundhog Day. It challenged him to listen to the cast album three times and see if his opinion wasn’t altered. And it was. Green had a more positive view of the show’s songs after hearing the album.

There’s something inherently unfair about that challenge, though. Theatre-goers pay between $100 and $200 for a ticket to witness a performance once. At those prices, they ought to enjoy it the first time. Over the years I’ve talked to countless people who’ve admitted they didn’t like a show until they’d heard the recording a few times. To which I’ve said, “Then the songwriter has failed in what he set out to do.”

Let’s break this down. Are you writing your show for the one-time live person in your theatre’s seat, or are you writing for the repeat listener of a record, someone you hope will grow to enjoy it? I get that hearing something over and over and again can add to your appreciation – that’s fine – but theatre writers are trying to entertain ticket-buyers. Recording artists – a wholly different breed – are fashioning albums that they hope will yield more on iteration.

Green then looks at last season’s new musicals, and places them in three categories:

Those that are more enjoyable on record than in the theatre

Groundhog Day
In Transit
Amélie
Bandstand
War Paint

Those that make a better impression live on Broadway than on an album

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Come From Away
as well as the revivals of Falsettos and Hello Dolly

Those he couldn’t abide in either format

Paramour
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Bronx Tale
Holiday Inn
Anastasia

And what did he say of the Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen? Equally good both ways.

What I find exciting about this article is that, at last, someone’s delineating the different process we go through reacting to live theatre versus reacting to something through speakers.

Minchin’s challenge forced me to consider not only how his songs for “Groundhog Day” sounded after repeat exposure but also how listening to them in a nontheatrical context altered their texture.

Among other things, I realized that a lot of the rhymes I hadn’t liked onstage seemed harmless when I no longer needed to get information from them. But I still feel, and songwriters I spoke to agreed, that a show with such satirical heft would have benefited from the clean ping of exactly matched sounds.

On the other hand, the songs whose musical structure I’d found “baggy” now seemed more compelling than they did in the theater, where the intensity of the action interfered with their reception.

Theatre is a live art form. And our reactions to what we see enacted before our eyes – well, that’s what matters most. We take in a score in a significantly different way if we only use our ears.

And yet we cast judgments based on hearing alone. We open our ears to cast recordings and, naturally and inevitably, come up with some assessment as to whether a show is good or not. But we are being intentionally misled. And I don’t mean to make it sound evil. Creators of cast albums obviously want to make the things sound as good as possible. But let’s look at some specifics.

One of my favorite albums – as a listening experience – is A New Brain, by William Finn. Yes, my friend Liz Larsen is on it, as well as the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth, and I’d Rather Be Sailing is justifiably hailed as one of the greatest romantic show tunes of our time. You take in this record and go, “My God, this is great.” In the theatre, however, it was more than a tad less compelling. The annoying protagonist undergoes brain surgery and this leads to a long and abstruse hallucination. The viewer loses his bearings and tedium sets in. I’d rather be sailing than be so adrift again.

Ask most of the people I know to name the best musical they ever saw, and you hear Follies a lot. The original production, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, was, I keep getting told, particularly fabulous. The original cast album, however, is severely truncated. It’s widely regarded as botched, a hatchet job, and I think everyone agrees it was better to be there than to listen to that piece of…vinyl.

Another record that comes to mind is House of Flowers. Listening to those sophisticated Harold Arlen melodies, you begin to fantasize that it had to have been quite a treat to see. (Peter Brook was the director. In the cast: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder.) But House of Flowers, I hate to report, is a witless tale of bickering whorehouse madams and an ingénue so gullible, she’s too stupid for us to care what happens to her.

The world of musical comedy is filled with people who know shows only through their albums, and that leads to an odd sort of tunnel vision. One can appreciate A New Brain on CD and House of Flowers on disc and have no inkling what a chore they are to sit through. And, if you’re a producer or director, a good album gives rise to a little fantasy that if you put it on you’ll lick all those problems that Peter Brook couldn’t. But A) you’re not better than Peter Brook and B), it’s still about a bordello competition and an idiotic child-woman.


A cat can look at a king

July 3, 2017

Richard Rodgers’ birthday was June 28, which means it’s the anniversary of the extraordinary birthday party I threw him, in absentia, a large and even number of years ago. He was alive then, and I saw he was turning a round number, so I did the thing that seemed perfectly natural to me: I invited all my friends over and checked out as many Rodgers scores as I could find from the library. We would all stand around the piano, singing as many of his songs as we knew, which was quite a few. I made a reel-to-reel tape recording, and we gleefully sang for hours and hours.

No other composer could have been feted this way. A large group of kids, singing one man’s songs for that much time – could only be Rodgers. In my house, we owned the Rodgers and Hammerstein Song Book and the Rodgers and Hart Song Book and they both got a lot of play every day of the week. My trip to the library filled out the repertoire with scores he wrote after those books had been published: Flower Drum Song, Cinderella, The Sound of Music, No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz and, I think, Two By Two. (Here I must note what a windfall it is to have a library with so many Broadway scores to check out.) Our school had recently done Allegro, meaning that my friends knew all the songs from a show that’s obscure to many. We had also just done Carousel. The soprano who’d just played Julie Jordan sang more songs than anybody, but when we came to that score, she decided to sing Carrie Pipperidge’s song, and “Carrie” sang hers.

I sang only the songs no one else knew. Like Like a God, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, The Man I Used To Be. And I never left the piano. It was up to others to answer the door, get snacks – anything a host does. Which reminds me of the many marathon piano-playing sessions throughout my life. My first regular job was playing piano bar from 11pm to 4am. I was encouraged to take breaks, but never did. I’d also hosted a cast party during the run of Carousel, in which we served a huge pot of clam chowder. Bellies were full; hearts were warm. They all had a real good time.

Did I have any friends who didn’t sing? Yes: the guys I played poker with. They accepted the idea I was throwing a party that wasn’t for them. Late in the evening, one called with the devastating news that another of the boys’ mother had killed herself. So, when I think back on that mostly magical night, my memory always goes to the inherent emotional roller coaster.

I know: you didn’t come here to read of personal tragedies of my friends. Back to Rodgers, and when I think of roller coasters, I often think of It’s a Grand Night For Singing, from the film, State Fair. Fun rides at fairs: there’s my train of thought. And the time I went over to Julie’s house and sat down at the piano and played a medley of Richard Rodgers waltzes. So often they have this infectious fun quality – bright and brisk. Done right, they seem to radiate joy: Falling In Love With Love With Love, I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy, Money Isn’t Everything, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Out of My Dreams, and, of course, Lover. There’s a legend that when Rodgers met Peggy Lee, who had recorded a jazzy version of Lover that robbed it of this sense of giddy joy, he told her “It’s a waltz, you know.”

That makes him sound a little prickly. Certainly, enough of the world appreciates a Rodgers waltz. People might list them as one of their Favorite Things. There are stories about him not being a very nice man. And, when I tried to recapture the magic of that party on the Rodgers centennial, I made the mistake of inviting a friend who was rather close to Lorenz Hart’s relatives. This group of heirs, he told us, were hopping mad that Rodgers had used his business acumen, during the years when Hart was drunk practically all the time, to set up an unfair contract that unevenly distributed the many millions they’d earned in their collaboration. This was a different sort of downer at what should have been a Rodgers celebration.

His musical-writing daughter Mary, toward the end of her life, publicly carped about what a distant father he’d been. (Adelaide, if you’re reading this, do not do the same.) But I’ve a different tale to tell about Rodgers as a human being.

My mother had never written a letter to a celebrity in her life. But, watching her son and all of his friends toasting Richard Rodgers this way, she felt he had to be told. Nowadays, every celebrity has someone handling fan mail, and communicating with artists we admire is a common thing. Rodgers was of a different age, an age when the famous person never wrote back. And I guess that also makes him sound a bit inhuman from our twenty-first century perspective.

But my mother’s account of my little party caught his eye. And he wrote back – something he practically never did – and pointed out that there’d been a recent Carousel concert at the White House where the president had praised his contribution to American culture.

Wonderful as it was, it brought me no more pleasure than hearing of your son Noel’s evening in my honor.

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.