A date with Angela

October 23, 2017

Somehow, somewhere, amidst these jaunts down memory lane, there came and went the seventh anniversary of this blog. But I’m not looking back here; too much rear-view mirror gazing leads to crashes. And I don’t even say that as a metaphor: I’m literally thinking I’ve been driving badly.

But as long as I’m making confessions, I worry that this here blog is becoming less frequently reactive. I’m not seeing enough new material these days to speak of What’s Happening Now. That leads me, naturally, to discuss past experiences. If this platform is an opportunity to broadcast a bit of what’s on my brain, then the lack of new stimuli results in glops of nostalgic drivel. Auto-correct tells me there’s no such word, but I believe that “glops” is exactly what nostalgic drivel comes in.

But those of us cursed (or blessed) with a sense of history sometimes respond to the present with some thought about the past, whether it’s something we’ve lived through or merely learned about. A couple of months ago – is that too gloppily far back? – I meandered down West 44th one night with a young woman I’ll call Angela. This stroll combined the present – and I was honestly trying to take in the moment, remain in the now – my personal past (ten years ago), and also when I was my friend’s age – plus a glorious point in the past I know from reading and research.

Knowing that we’d soon live far away from each other, Angela decided we should have a goodbye date in which we rent a room with a piano so she could sing a little, like old times. Afterwards we wandered somewhat aimlessly through the theatre district and passed a new Broadway theatre – or, rather, a once-dormant reborn one. The Hudson, just east of Times Square, opened in 1903. That would make it the oldest Broadway theatre, but for most of its long life it hasn’t been a legitimate stage. Radio studio, early television studio, cinema, disco – that sort of thing. I’m used to it being a hotel ballroom, and, every time I passed it, I thought it was kind of sad that economics didn’t drive it back to its original purpose for roughly 50 years. The voice of the turtle was not heard in our land, or, er, on the stage where The Voice of the Turtle, one of Broadway’s top ten longest-running plays, once played.

In 2007, the New York Musical Theatre Festival rented out the grand space for a benefit qua awards ceremony. I’d be handed my trophy for Best Lyricist; Marc Bruni would get his for Best Director, and Liz Larsen would be bestowed for her performance in my show, Such Good Friends. Entertainment for the evening would include Duncan Shiek with songs from his new musical. (Awful. It never went anywhere.) But the opening act was Liz singing my Life of the Party, accompanied by me. The curtain went up, and there we were, captivating a tony (small T) crowd. Then the curtain came down, and the applause drowned out the announcement of who the hell we were. But the big thrill for me was getting to see the inside of the Hudson; few had.

This year, the space reopened as a Broadway theatre, kicking things off with star-studded (and I do mean “stud”) revival of Sunday in the Park With George. Walking on West 44th with Angela was my first time passing it since its renaissance.

Next, we passed the Algonquin. The Algonquin! And I thought about my friend David Rakoff. The fifth anniversary of his death had just been celebrated on This American Life; they reran a lot of his old segments, proving this isn’t the only outlet that occasionally feels compelled to glance back. David was talking about when we were young, how exciting it was to be in New York, starting a writing career. We thought of ourselves as a modern-day iteration of the Algonquin Round Table, tossing off bon mots and laughing with abandon. Now, I wonder: do 20-somethings do this sort of thing all over the world, far away from the actual Algonquin? Or was our behavior, our sense of ourselves as wits, somehow part and parcel of walking down the street where it all happened, in the early twentieth century? David won some national award for humor writing, so, in essence, he succeeded in becoming one of the renowned humorist of his day. In the footsteps of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber.

Am I mentioning Ferber, whose novels Show Boat and Giant became notable musicals 85 years apart just to tie this to musical comedy? In my mind, everything relates to musical comedy. But, a couple of days earlier I’d passed a plaque on Central Park West, identifying a building as a place where Ferber lived. When I was my daughter’s age, I walked past this on my way to kindergarten every day.

This doesn’t have a great deal of meaning for a lot of people today. But it has great meaning for grown-up me. At Angela’s age, I was writing a revue, produced in an off-off-Broadway second-story loft a block and a half from Lincoln Center, and a block and a half from Ferber’s place. I was fairly brimming with belief in myself, the youthful hubris of just knowing my stuff would make people laugh, just like George S. Kaufman, who hated singing on stage but managed to direct Guys and Dolls, and Ring Lardner, whose son’s memoir later informed so much of Such Good Friends. And my audience laughed heartily, among them the master musical mirth-maker, Adolph Green. And now I recall that the last time I was at the Algonquin it was to see a friend’s musical, directed by Marc Bruni. When I started writing this piece, I thought my connection to the Algonquin would seem ludicrously tenuous. But now I see that connection to the Round Table wags is psychological, one of the reasons I’ve felt a soupçon of self-confidence as a musical theatre writer. I know it can be done because I’m literally walking in the footsteps of literary lions. It can be done. It can be done.

 

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Sing what you say

October 12, 2017

“All day the records play.”

So it’s the fourteenth anniversary of my famous musical wedding to Joy Dewing. As I sit here in a rather sterile white room staring out at a colorless sky, I’m struck by how completely changed our lives are. This morning I created a Pandora station to play me classic show tunes, which is somewhat like what Sadie Sadie Married Lady did. And, thanks to the latest major purchase, we’re owners of an icebox with a ten-year guarantee. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, well, you’re like all the neighbors.

Our Wedding: The Musical! was an expression of who we were that Sunday in 2003. Our guests saw no traditional ceremony; they got to see a musical comedy on a New York stage. Because that’s what we did: We created musical theatre entertainment – Joy sang, and I wrote. Those simple verbs summed up our lives.

There are usually some in attendance who know the bride, but not the groom; or the groom, but not the bride. (Which reminds me that, when I was 14 or so, I wrote half a musical called The Gride and the Broom.) So I thought of Our Wedding as sort of an introduction to who we were. It contains tons of biographical material – for instance, when my sister was a child, a dog knocked her down and broke her two front teeth. When people inquire whether it’s possible for someone else to perform Our Wedding I think, sure, if two people have lived the lives described in the show.

We forced all our family and friends to perform. Perhaps “forced” is too strong a word. Coaxed? Some were performers, too, and had no trouble singing on stage. Matthew Hamel, who sang the “I now pronounce you” bit is an example. Another cast member went on to appear in two Broadway shows. But back to the forced folk: By giving them sheet music and tapes that they had to learn and sing on an off-Broadway stage in front of people, we were informing them of what the life of a musical theatre person is like. That time of “going to school” when you’re hearing a new song you know you will soon learn and sing is golden to me. You react to the song, having prayed it’s well-written, and immediately start thinking creatively about how you’ll render it on stage.

The other week my favorite early-career performer sent me some unfamiliar music to record, chorus parts by Menken & Schwartz. So I got to be part of that discovery process. But that was just me making a recording and emailing it. The singer’s many miles away. I’ve got to be in the room where it happens. I don’t mean to sound like a troglodyte, pining for the day when you couldn’t email sound files with talented young adults in person. It’s just that my mind is brought back to an experience I regularly enjoyed. Nay, loved.

Better to focus on wonderful things that remain: the joy of being married to Joy Dewing, the love that continues through good times and bad, placid seas and wild upheavals. And the word “love” now appears on countless post-it notes all around me. No, this is not on my storyboard for my musical-in-progress. It’s little missives left by our five-year-old daughter. Last night’s read “Daddy, I love you, but I’m me.”

Does that sound cryptic to you? Is the prodigiously wise one in the family reminding me that I don’t get to dictate what others do? After Our Wedding showcased Joy’s fabulous singing voice, there was nothing I could do when she decided to stop performing. In 2003, everyone who knew Joy was well aware of the extraordinary combination of power and warmth that Joy employed every time she sang. In 2017, a rather small percentage of the people who know her are aware of this fantastic talent.

Instead, Joy has literally made it her business to be aware of the talent of others, as a big-time casting director. Her reputation as someone who encourages and believes in early-career performers spread like gangbusters throughout the theatre community. She was far more celebrated as New York’s favorite casting director than she’d been as a perfomer. A butterfly metamorphosized into a bigger butterfly.

The day after our tenth wedding anniversary was the last day a Joy-cast show played on Broadway. And, another tenth anniversary has been on my mind lately: It’s now been ten years since a paying audience attended a wholly new Noel Katz musical. I seem to creep along, creatively, like a caterpillar. This is another thing nobody would have predicted at Our Wedding.

But this brings up the question, how long should it take to write a musical? Are we looking for fast food, or something that turns on a spit for an extended time? The gestation period for Such Good Friends was far longer than your ordinary elephant. And Our Wedding? Well, the proposal was in December of 2001, and I don’t know when we decided to make our ceremony into an original musical comedy. But then, once October 12 was chosen, there was a finite period of creation. The show had to be ready to go. Those singing relatives needed time to prepare. And, while working on my songs, everybody said how much they loved their numbers, which, of course, I’d specifically crafted for them, and what they could do.

All but one: Joy listened to the art song I’d crafted for her to sing as the climax of the show and said No, that’s not quite it. She sent me back to the drawing board, and I kept coming up with more rich harmonic textures, ones that were very different from the rest of the show. And she kept saying No. And then I wrote This Man Loves Me, a very simple dollop of soul. And she said Yes.

Which is just what a fiancé wants to hear.


Such good friends – part two

October 5, 2017

When The New York Musical Theatre Festival chose Such Good Friends as one of its Next Link “blind” selections for presentation, I could have frozen the script, leaned back, and watched what I’d written get produced. That’s what most NYMF writers do. They figure if the panel of professionals think it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, then it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, as is. I thought just the opposite: My God, this thing is going in front of an audience in a few months! I’ve such a short time to get it to where I want it to be!

And this is the main reason director Marc Bruni and I were such a perfect fit. When he first read the script – two meetings before I chose him to direct – he saw it as a work-in-progress with great potential to be truly entertaining by opening night. Neither of us ever felt it was perfect as is; it could always stand for improvement. As I said in Part One of this ten-year anniversary reminiscence, Marc hoped I could focus on script fixes and little else. There was also the odious task of begging people for money, but checks trickled in from surprising sources, including the Anna Sosenko trust, which supports musical theatre writers.

With our rather lean budget, we knew we’d need to streamline the storytelling, so only nine or ten actors would be used. That cut my cast size in half, including the sons and spouses of major characters. Marc had wonderful suggestions. (He’d shepherded at least two Broadway musicals before this as uncredited dramaturg.) We’d have long discussions on how the audience would experience every moment in the show. And if I could boil down this entire excellent experience into one bit of wisdom, it’s that: try to see your show as the audience will see it. The jokes, while plentiful, weren’t funny enough. The dramatic turns had to sucker punch the audience. A musical must surprise. Such Good Friends eventually startled.

I tend to do better inserting humor into my lyrics than I do in dialogue. So, under the genial guidance of Mike Bencivenga, we convened a roomful of funny people to punch up the script. I was aware that this is a common practice with television comedies. They do a read-through, and a table of wags keeps pitching better jokes until the show-runner bangs a figurative gavel to say “Yes, that line’s good enough.” Not all musicals undergo this process, but I’m sure glad such good friends of mine upped the yock-quotient that night.

I think Marc was particularly impressed by the new songs that I came up with as the result of our talks. While I recall we talked a lot more about the first act than the second, about half of the numbers that were heard in Act Two were late additions. Sondheim’s two best-known numbers, Send in the Clowns and Comedy Tonight, were eleventh hour creations, and he’s spoken about how it wasn’t the time pressure that got such good work out of him, it was knowing the characters really well, how they sounded, what the song should do.

On Such Good Friends, several of the songs I initially thought were the score’s best ended up on the cutting room floor. Whenever I hear of a writer digging in their heels, refusing to cut something (and the Dramatist Guild contract gives them that right), I think “Lord, what fools these songsmiths be!” Audiences at bad NYMF shows (and, one must admit, there are a lot) are suffering through any number of numbers that should have been excised.

The other thing about knowing your characters is that everything changes when you find your actors. And what actors we found! To the shock of many who know us, my wife Joy (more on her in the next post) didn’t cast Such Good Friends. There was a more experienced casting director in her office, Geoff Josselson, and she trusted him more than she trusted herself. Geoff and Marc worked together to generate lists of utterly fabulous people who’d be perfect for all of the roles. Offers went out, and I was amazed at the yeses that came back.

I remember when I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. I thought they were plenty funny, but there was someone else in the cast who was far funnier, Brad Oscar. I remember when I saw this utterly fantastic off-Broadway revue, Closer Than Ever, loving the brilliant acting-in-song of Lynne Wintersteller. Getting such high-caliber people in the cast was incredibly exciting to me. Just weeks earlier, remember, the faceless NYMF selection committee had decided my piece had value. Now, performers I’d adored on stage committed their time to this exploit. Quite an honor.

producer Kim Vasquez, me, Liz, Marc

Sometimes your lead breathes life into a character in unexpected ways, and your formerly-just-on-paper personage begins to soar. So, I’d loved Liz Larsen in A New Brain, where she created a far stronger impression than then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth. And I’d loved her Tony-nominated portrayal of Cleo in The Most Happy Fella (a particularly wonderful musical). I’d even liked her as the protagonist of the worst new musical I ever saw on Broadway. If she could enliven that mess, I knew she could do something fantastic for me.

And fantastic she was. Every beat fully acted, fully felt. She grabbed hold of the audience with comic timing, apt physical business, and that gorgeous clarion voice and made everyone care what happened to her character. This was a star turn of the first order, and of course she took home an award for her work. (Marc and I did, too.)

I’ve run out of time to mention everyone I’d like to mention. For now, let it suffice to say I was very lucky to get the people I got and the production I got. The critics (yes, critics came) were beside themselves with superlatives. Peter Filichia thought we “…delivered a production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW!” Michael Dale found it “One of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years”. Lisa Jo Sagolla’s Critic’s Pick review in Backstage said “The hard-hitting political message takes brilliant dramatic command” and called me “a wily wizard with words.”

So, of course, Such Good Friends stands out as the highlight of my career. And it couldn’t have been done without such good friends.