The Dottie Frances show

September 28, 2017

Ten years ago today, my musical Such Good Friends opened and thereby hangs a tale. And within that tale, there’s another tale. And within – Hey, you ever feel like, when starting a post, that it’s going to take several posts to cover it all? Yeah, neither do I.

Did you ever notice how many successful musical theatre book-writers wrote sketches for Sid Caesar’s television show in the 1950’s? Best of these were Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello Dolly!, Barnum, 42nd Street) and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Take Me Along, Zorba). Theatre superstar Neil Simon was tapped to write a musical for Caesar to perform on Broadway, Little Me, and later penned Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, and others. Two far funnier books were by Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, City of Angels). And then there are national treasures Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway). There was a time when my admiration for Caesar’s writers was such that I’d go see anything they did, and it was particularly interesting when their scripts reflected back on their experiences working on Your Show of Shows. I read Simon’s Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor prior to its Broadway production. And Brooks’ recollection became a movie he produced, My Favorite Year.

The year of “Year” was 1954, and the film establishes this by having a stack of newspapers dropped off at a newsstand. The headline refers to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, which would have severe implications for the entertainment industry. And then, for the rest of the movie, it’s not mentioned again. Young writer has to corral a drunken old movie star. Not a mention of McCarthyism after the opening shot. Strange, no?

Similarly, Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor has the character based on Caesar punch a hole in the wall in anger over something McCarthy has done. But nobody in the play gets blacklisted, or is forced to testify before the HUAC. Surely, Brooks and Simon knew a lot of people who’d suffered. (Or was it just Shirley?) Their reminiscences were droll enough, but that, to me, is a curious omission, sweeping some ugly truth under the rug.

Woody Allen appeared in Walter Bernstein’s recollection of blacklisting, The Front, and here was a film that more successfully struck a balance between comedy and the grim reality of the scoundrel time. Bernstein’s later book about what he personally experienced was a chief inspiration to me. He didn’t sugarcoat a thing, and I was particularly taken with the tale of two good friends who had sons, maybe twelve years old, who were best friends. Both dads found themselves accused of being former communists, and the day came when, in desperation, one supplied names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. This upset his friend so much, he ordered his son to abandon his friendship with the name namer’s son.

Such an emotional event seemed to call out for musicalization. I’d long wanted to write about the McCarthy era, but the topic seemed too depressing to be a musical. Now, some of you might be thinking “How ridiculous! Nothing’s too depressing to be a musical. The Leo Frank tragedy became Parade.” And it’s here where we must agree to disagree. I think Parade’s a perfectly awful musical, a heap of sad events that garner a knee-jerk reaction. If I were going to create a musical about McCarthyism, it would have to be damn entertaining, not a depression fest.

But how? I thought about this for years, until it hit me: what’s entertaining about My Favorite Year and Laughter On the Twenty-Third Floor is that you have a bunch of funny people put under pressure, the pressure of creating live television in its earliest days. That’s an appealing milieu, filled with opportunities for humorous songs, and amid all the laughter, I’d have the opportunity to show what happened to so many hard-working talents in the entertainment industry back then. Oh, and I knew I could use the father-telling-son-to-give-up-his-best-friend bit.

The song for that scene went through more drafts than any other in the score. I was certain this was the centerpiece of the show, and if I perfected it, everything else would fly. But, at most points in the creative process, one can’t be sure what’s flying. At the time I sent Such Good Friends in for consideration by the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF is its spritely acronym), I’d never had any outsider tell me it was any good.

Imagine my elation when my blacklist musical was selected for production. It was, at long last, confirmation that someone else – a panel of professionals, no less – thought mine a worthy project. And on went a ticking clock. That is, there were now announced dates when the Festival would take place. That limited the remaining time for improving the thing. Little me, the sole writer, was now a funny person under tremendous pressure, just like the characters in my show.

Raising money, quickly, was just about the hardest thing I have ever been called upon to do. And how much to raise? Well, to answer that I needed an experienced producer. And how easy is it to find one of those? And I also knew I needed a director. An agent friend represented some up-and-comers who, she felt, ought to be showcasing their abilities at NYMF. I met with many, and sized up their strengths and weaknesses on a chart, and one hovered well above the rest, Marc Bruni.

Choosing Marc was the best decision I ever made. He had a passion for improving the show and an endless font of good ideas for doing so. He instantly led me to a producer with NYMF experience, and told her that the best use of my time was not to raise money but to fix the script. As a result, I raised far too little but the improvements made in the script, from the day I met Marc to opening night, were extraordinary. (More on this on my next post.)

A good director has vision, and a sense of what can work on stage. My cast size of 19 had to be halved. And wouldn’t include any children. That scene that I thought was so key, Marc convinced me, was a distraction from the main tale I wanted to tell. “It’s not called Such Good Fathers, after all; it’s Such Good Friends.”

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Flying naked baby

September 21, 2017

So, four years ago today, we bought a house. And I’m not just going to sit here and reminisce about how great it was. I want this blog to be less personal, more useful to musical theatre people. So I’m stating this, right at the top, and let’s see if I can follow through.

Leaving my native New York filled me with fear and anxiety. Would I be able to function in a place where I couldn’t get up at 3 a.m., walk two blocks that weren’t empty, and buy some recently-made pasta salad? And I guess this leads to a broader question: What do we need, in our environs, in order to write good musicals? Somehow, I don’t think 3 a.m. pasta salad could possibly be the necessary fuel, but answer that one for yourself.

Our house in the suburbs was 35 minutes from Broadway, closer than the old song goes. I commuted in, and, boarding that train, I always had a certain show tune in my head “New York, in sixteen hours! Anything can happen in those sixteen hours!” And when I’d disembark, I’d feel like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. I was now free to flutter, eavesdropping on hundreds of conversations. I believe this improved my dialogue writing, just hearing how the wide variety of people talked.

Many writers require a certain solitude. A truly quiet environment was a new concept for me. My office at home was a tiny room with windows on four sides – that is, no wall space, and a windowed door to the living room. Jutting out from the house, I felt thrust into nature like a peer into a lake. God, I’m filled with similes today: My life was like a hot fudge sundae: the coolness of the suburban surroundings combined with the chocolaty heat of New York.

Before long, we discovered that all sorts of musical theatre people lived in our suburb. Who doesn’t love Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Christine Ebersole? So, when we told our neighbors what they did, they never stared blankly – “Musical theatre? What’s that?” – as we weren’t the first show folk they’d met. Now, when I walked into the village, filled with nothing but cute mom-and-pop shops, I’d a greater chance of eavesdropping on, say, Kait Kerrigan, than I did in Manhattan.

This fed me. I talk to a guy on-line who strives to write shows in a Midwestern town that is literally famous for only one thing: its lack of culture. I have a lot of trouble imagining how anyone could create musicals without being surrounded by other people who create musicals. This is the most collaborative of art forms. One needs a nexus.

So, the song Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway makes me think of the play, Forty-Five Seconds From Broadway, which is about the Edison, the sit-down delicatessen on 47th Street. A little over ten years ago, I sat down with a brilliant director, an enthusiastic producer, an old pro stage manager, a lustrous costumer, and a magic craftsman of a set designer. The latter brought a model of what my musical would look like in its upcoming production at the Julia Miles Theatre on 55th Street. We huddled over it, focused on making a smooth transition between scenes. The set guy estimated how fast the set could be moved; the costumer estimated how fast clothing could be changed. I forgot to mention the lighting person, who certainly put in two cents. (Food at the Edison was inexpensive.) The producer made sure we didn’t have to pay for more “soft goods” such as black curtains you hang so that areas of the stage aren’t visible. Once we discussed how long the scene change should take, and what the feel and energy of the musical was at that moment, I ran home (which, then, was on Broadway) and wrote the song the cast would sing during the transition.

I couldn’t have done that without attending this meeting of the creative team. It’s a haughty concept to say they inspired me; this was different: The energy of all those minds applying themselves to a musical theatre storytelling puzzle got my mind going in the right direction. And the late, lamented Edison Diner was the nexus, the convenient meeting place with matzo-ball soup.

This year, I had an experience in which, like a shot out of a rifle, stuff was suddenly happening, really quickly. One of my shows had been selected for a forty-five minute presentation in southwestern Connecticut. I instantly needed to assemble a reasonably competent cast, quick learners who’d be right for their roles. Luckily, I knew who to call, and in rather short order, I had eight really good New Yorkers learning songs and script. The thunderous ovation they received went on so long, I had a moment to count my lucky stars. I thought about how eight ready, willing, and able players can be found in short order in New York. I’ve been wondering, ever since, whether such a thing could happen anywhere else in the world.

But you tell me. I’d like to learn from you if the stuff I’m describing could happen, or regularly happens, in other places. “Unique New York” used to be a tongue-twister. Somewhere along the way I adopted it as my creed.


Finale – part one

September 11, 2017

For the first time in twenty years, classes will begin at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School, and I won’t be there.

This is something I get terribly emotional about, but I’m making an effort to tone it down. Ironic, isn’t it?, that when we write a musical, we try to make it as emotional as possible. But you didn’t come here to experience a vale of tears; plenty of other blogs for that.

Often, I’ve had to remind myself that Circle was “just” a day job. Those hundreds of students may be unaware, but I’m primarily a musical theatre writer. (Somewhere on this page is a list of my shows; seems like there’s about 20.) My work at the school – an intense two-year conservatory, physically connected to a Broadway theatre – was the thing I did for income. And I could have punched the clock, played the songs and subsisted just fine. OK, tears are now hampering my vision, so I better step back and make a broader point: You, as an artist, are also going to need a steady salary. And the best of all possible worlds involves a day job which somehow feeds your art. In this case, I learned more and more about how songs are written and what it takes to perform them every day I was there. Circle, which exists to educate acting students, made me a far-better writer.

The question soon became, what can I offer, given my experience as a musical theatre writer, to developing musical theatre performers?

Opinions about the quality of the material they’re choosing to sing – suitability, whether it’s an actable text, whether it forces vocal calisthenics that are more trouble than they’re worth.

My totally subjective history of musical theatre.

Emotional support.

Above, I mentioned concealing feelings. When people dropped Scott Alan songs on my piano – well, let’s just say I never got very good at keeping a poker face. So, why do it here? Mr. Alan presents himself as a musical theatre writer, which is curious given that he’s had nothing produced. (Prove me wrong; if you’ve seen a show of his, please tell me so.) His songs, which don’t use titles, have a hook, form, rhyming, or any character development, drone on hitting high belt notes and restating the same sour emotion over and over again. Often, there’s something wrong in the notation – like bass notes put under the treble clef with many ledger lines. The unabating stream of young people with this punk in their books appalled me on a consistent basis.

But tell us how you really feel, Noel.

More surprisingly, I observed many a crash-and-burn on Jason Robert Brown songs. I recognize it makes no sense to mention JRB in the same breath as Scott Alan. And this piece isn’t about criticism of well-loved songwriters. It’s just that my observation, that Brown tends to state one rather obvious emotion and then just restate it over and over again – manifests itself in advice to performers and reminds me to make sure my characters are evolving in some way during my songs. In other words, my day job had me thinking about what makes a song actable every day.

When I started, I worked with F. Wade Russo, who had musical directed one of my shows many years ago. He left town and was replaced by Sara Louise Lazarus, who soon built a musical theatre track, as such things are called. Annually, I was asked to spend a couple of class sessions informing the students about how musical theatre came to be. And now I’m going to sound immodest: I built this into the most entertaining, awesome and fun-to-sit-through four-hour lecture in the history of education. Now, that’s quite a claim, but ask any of the hundreds who’ve seen it: they view this as their favorite time in their entire schooling. You see, I made it irresistibly entertaining. I felt no particular need to tell the truth. I incorporated legends, opinions, and, whenever I felt like it, I’d run to the piano to sing a little example of something. There are jokes, tears are shed, and quite a bit of Socratic intercourse along the way. Yes, I said intercourse.

Which shouldn’t bring me to the subject of my personal relationship with students, but that’s what’s next on the list. (Hey, there are different kinds of love, OK?) Chances are, if you were terrifically talented and I observed you working very hard, I fell in love with you. Not that I’d ever say anything, but there it was, in my mind, a constant chorus of “I love this person.” When you see someone work their ass off, you’re convinced that the sky’s the limit. And there’d be times I’d say to myself “I bet this person’s going to be on Broadway” and I’d be right! That’s a heady feeling: a sense that you’re part of a top-tier performer’s training, a sense that you must be doing something right. Certainly, there are four-year college programs with better reputations, but Circle is a tiny family, a two-year conservatory with a much higher batting average for grads getting on The Great White Way.

So, I said “family” in the last sentence, and perhaps sentiment compels me to put it that way. School director Colin O’Leary certainly treats staff and students as family. Many – nearly all, I’d say – view acting teacher extraordinaire Alan Langdon as a father figure, and some think of song interpretation maven Sara Lazarus as a mom. Where does that put me? Well, parents are authority figures, and there are times you don’t want to be completely vulnerable in front of a teacher. You need a sibling, of sorts. I managed to maintain close “brotherly” friendships with a slew of students, everyone’s favorite shoulder to cry on in a place where many tears were shed. Erosion from all that salt water has made it difficult for me to properly wear jackets.

Just to tie this into something I said earlier, there were many times when the students would bring in new and interesting songs I’d never heard before. This fed my mind, kept me aware of what a new generation was enjoying. (Pasek and Paul are very old news to me.) And now, like the turn of a faucet, that source of replenishment is stopped. It’s hard to see how I’ll survive without that.

Like some sort of an addict, I require a regular jolt to pep me up. Every September, I’d look around a room at a bunch of young strangers and was reasonably certain I’d fall in love with at least one. Katti Powell, Trisha Jeffrey, Lauren Elder, Nanci Zoppi, Marissa Parness, Rachel Broadwell, Christine De Frece, Vanessa Dunleavy, Ephie Aardema, Amy Northup, Laurie Gardner, Sara Canter, Aubrey Taylor, Claudia Smith, Paola Hernandez, Clara Regula, Rena Gavigan, and now… this month, a hole in my heart will go unfilled.


Breaking the rules

September 3, 2017

You might have thought of my wife, Joy Dewing, while reading any of a number of recent theatre news articles. Normally, I’d provide links to the articles, but today I’m a little short on time. They were:

The national tour of The Little Mermaid led by an Asian-American Ariel and how middle America is reacting to her.
The controversy about the role in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 going from Josh Grobin to Okieriete Onaodowan and then, almost, to Mandy Patinkin, ending up with the show closing.
The New England production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime that cast an actor who is, as we say nowadays, “on the autism spectrum” in the lead role of a young man on the autism spectrum.

Joy Dewing has been everybody’s favorite casting director in New York for about ten years. She rose from unpaid intern to name-on-the-door partnership with Dave Clemmons; then when Dave left casting five years ago, she founded Joy Dewing Casting. She’s cast a lot of tours, some Broadway, many regional productions, but had nothing to do with the shows mentioned.

Or did she?

To no small degree, Joy has shaken things up in the theatre casting business. She never forgot her days as a performer, and how auditioners used to be treated like cattle – they literally called auditions “cattle calls” – in a very unsatisfying experience for all. In essence, Joy wanted to change that world; and did.

The two main ways she effected that change were leading by example – that is, providing the model of a vastly innovative casting company that others followed – and serving on the Diversity Committee of the Casting Society of America. Joy’s improvements, in some cases, became industry-wide standards. And so one can argue she had something to do with the success of three hit shows she didn’t really work on. And so I will.

This year, news events and presidential proclamations have reminded us that there is much racial prejudice across America. The internet gives rude bozos the confidence to say disturbing things anonymously, and, astoundingly, Diana Huey saw racist complaints from Seattle to Memphis about the mere fact that she, an American of Japanese descent, is portraying The Little Mermaid. Of course, this venom was spewed by miscreants who hadn’t actually seen the show. Those who had loved Huey’s performance.

Roll back a couple of years to the national tour of another family-friendly musical with an iconic title role, Annie, cast by Joy Dewing. I happened to be in the room (which is rare) when she first encountered Tori Bates and saw a ten-year-old’s potential. When you get a lead role in a show, there are a slew of callbacks, and Joy sees to it that aspirants bring their best game. Ask anyone who’s gotten a role in any of her dozens of shows. They’ll credit Joy for providing support, encouragement and practical information leading them to win the role. Under Joy’s nurturing, Tori was chosen by director-lyricist Martin Charnin to be the first African-American Annie on stage.

Some time later, when director Glenn Casale cast the tour of The Little Mermaid, he chose the most talented performer and didn’t consider race. Which is as it should be. Which is as it is in no small part because of Joy’s example with Annie.

Last season there was a very unusual Broadway musical based on a little bit of War and Peace. Those of you who’ve read War and Peace (Joy is one) know that Tolstoy didn’t write about black people. When Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opened on Broadway, much was made of its extraordinary staging. Seats were torn out of the Imperial Theatre to make room for platforms, so that the show could play in various spaces surrounded by audience on all sides. Don’t picture theatre in the round; picture a Calder mobile: different-sized planks, at different heights, dotting a crowd. Dave Malloy’s music is rather dissimilar to any Broadway score you’ve heard before. Staging and score got people talking. You know what didn’t? The multi-racial casting.

Denée Benton was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Natasha. Earlier, off-Broadway, the role had been played by Phillipa Soo, who later earned fame as Hamilton’s stalwart wife. Another actor from Hamilton, Okieriete Onaodowan, replaced superstar Josh Groban, recently, as Pierre. In all of that time, nobody seemed to mind that the cast was chock full of actors who didn’t look remotely Russian. Then, the need to up the box office led to the announcement that Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin would replace Oak Onaodowan as Pierre. My first thought was “But he’s twice as old!” In a massive public relations debacle, this most un-racist of shows was accused of insensitivity in felling an Oak for last century’s model. But you know all that.

What you might not know is that Joy’s tireless work on that diversity committee helped foster an environment where casting with no regard to skin-tone isn’t blinked at. She set up listening forums, in which casting directors heard first-hand of the struggles players-of-color face. And then she went beyond ethnic diversity. What struggles do so-called actors-with-disabilities face? What can be done to evolve to a place where character men in wheelchairs play something other than The Man Who Came To Dinner and Sunrise At Campobello?

I happened to be reading the capsule reviews in The New Yorker and was struck that two in a row mentioned disabled thespians on stage. And I thought of the aforementioned production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime with the actor who understands autism experientially. And I thought of Joy, who had nothing to do with those two plays, The Little Mermaid, Natasha/Pierre, or The Curious Incident, but EVERYTHING to do with creating the world in which they exist.

Happy birthday, darling.