Songs come true

November 28, 2017

My amazing daughter is six today. What does this mean to you, reader of this blog about musical theatre writing? Well, in this season where SpongeBob SquarePants is one of the biggest Broadway musicals, it might make sense to look into the overlap ‘twixt musical theatre and a kindergartner.

A bundle of unrelenting energy, filled with jokes, dances, songs at all different volumes – Wait: am I talking about my daughter or a musical here? My girl usually stays up past ten, which is a cross to bear. If your musical runs past ten, it’s probably too long. But even if it doesn’t, it can seem long if the energy flags for too many ballads, or quiet moments. Writers tend to love their ballads, and you might think your quiet bits are the best work you’ve done. Unfortunately, your audience enters the theatre with an expectation of a dynamic (rather than quiet) experience. I was recently staring at my storyboard and an alarm went off: energy flagging towards the middle. Or maybe the alarm was actually a kid running in and jumping on my back.

OK, now I just sent her off to get dressed, giving me the opportunity to listen to an application I’m mailing in this month. Music heard while clothes get changed. Hmm… Is this something you’ve considered? Of course, magic transformations have become a fun component of modern musical theatre. Groundhog Day required such speed, it actually injured its star, and Andy Karl is strong enough to have previously played a boxer. Or, thinking of a show we saw as a family, Cinderella twirls and her dress of rags becomes a beautiful ball gown before our astonished eyes. We should all be so lucky to have directors and costumers who can come up with clever ways of keeping our works aloft.

Recently, I worried out loud that I’m now cut off from what was my main method of discovering new show tunes. Used to be, savvy students would plop good material on my piano, like Pasek & Paul’s Along the Way or Sara Bareilles’ When He Sees Me. So I’m going to have to more actively research what worthwhile new songs are out there. But there are plenty of previously unheard examples of characters breaking into song accompanying my cooking. You see, when I prepare meals for my daughter, I allow her to watch TV and often she’ll choose a show, which, to my pleasant surprise, is a musical. Sophia the First, Elena of Avalor, and the much-dreaded My Little Pony usually contain a song and I’m impressed that the animation industry’s making the effort. It’s a reminder that there’s more of a market for show tune-like material than just the legitimate theatre. Now, the aesthetic and requirements differ significantly. But I’m now remembering a cassette tape I was given by a Hollywood friend many years ago. It was a songwriter’s sampler, and it contained both a fun adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and truly funny numbers that had been done on Animaniacs. Inspiring and amusing; I tend to enjoy songs that make me laugh out loud in any medium.

It ain’t easy. And now I’m not talking about comedy songs, but raising a child. Little quandaries and controversies constantly pop up, and I’m lucky enough to utilize these as a kind of building material for my new musical. An example, sitting on a pad on my desk:

I want to be a fun parent
With no fears about trampolines
One parent
She respects till she’s in her teens

I don’t think I’d know trampolines are hazardous if my wife hadn’t told me.

But now I’m worried how this will play for an audience that may or may not be aware of that peril. So, in all likelihood, these lines won’t stick around for the final draft.

And what does that even mean, “final draft,” anyway? So many of the big-time Broadway writers seem to be spending a lot of time coming up with new drafts of old works. Rags is an example. Its lyricist Stephen Schwartz is frequently occupied by tinkering with works one might have considered “finished.” And thinking about my daughter gets me thinking about a lyric he wrote when he was a new father.

All of a sudden your stew tastes different
And you hear the sheep bleat in a different key
And you see with new eyes

As it happens, this is one of the many phrases Schwartz rethought later, and changed. When I first heard it, I thought the concept of sheep changing keys was a little much. But, since becoming a father, I’ve come to believe all those lines are apt. And what could be more revivifying, for a writer, than seeing with new eyes?

A good friend, six years ago, came up what a particularly wonderful baby gift. He had a onesie made with the last three lines of on my lyrics line on it. Today it sits on my dresser and, as if by magic, the whole song speaks to the process I just described. You’re a young person, cynically believing clichés are puerile, and, eventually, stuff happens to you that makes forced phrases seem like profundities. Stuff like my daughter.

I look at you
And songs come true
The promised magic of romance
At last appears
Songs always say
Love will come your way
I thought I didn’t stand a chance
Such foolish fears!
Dumb songs
Always try to sell you
Dreams in 32 bars
Some songs
Have the nerve to tell you
Passion can propel you
Halfway to the stars
But now I feel
Those songs are real
I see magnificence I never knew
With one look at you
Songs come true


White Christmas

November 18, 2017

I swear I’m not knocking Urinetown, but I’ve long held the suspicion that the creators set out with the goal of writing the worst musical ever. In that, they failed. More often, folks intend to write an excellent musical, and fail spectacularly. We’d all rather have written Urinetown.

Seems like there are so many do’s and don’ts when it comes to writing a musical, it feels freeing to go through the looking glass and do all those don’ts. I’m feeling something similar right now, writing the blog post that I’m fairly certain will be the least-read blog post of the year. So, what if I did the don’t, and conjured up the very cliché of a Thanksgiving Week essay, the list of things I’m thankful for? The regular blog can resume the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Also, ensuring few will read, I’m giving this a really bad title. In fact, I’m amazed you’ve gotten to the end of the second paragraph.

Another Irving Berlin song urges you to count your blessings instead of sheep. For me, battling the blues these past few months have involved forcing myself, kicking and screaming, to count blessings. My health is reasonably good. There’s a certain niceness to my surroundings, and there’s something admittedly magical in the way a glimpse of an ocean can lift one’s spirits. I’ve seen a couple of good pieces of theatre –always a plus. And I’m in an odd – but perhaps enviable – place with my writing, in which I often am inspired by events in my life that lead me to ideas for my fictional characters to work out.

So, the new song. Nobody’s heard it yet. But a full piano score sits on my piano and I feel a sense of accomplishment. At this moment, I’ve an anxiety that once people hear it, they’ll point out all sorts of flaws. The tune hits the same D too many times. The lyric makes up colloquialisms no one would ever use. But I’ll say this for it: It’s a song about something a fairly large number of people feel that I don’t think has ever been put into a song before. I may have achieved the thing that makes me love Maltby and Shire so much.

When I heard their One of the Good Guys, I thought, “My God: That’s me!” and “How is it that nobody ever thought of writing a song on this subject before?” This knack they have is what makes me say they’re the best collaborative team working today. (Once they were Sondheim’s protégés; I think they’ve surpassed him.) If you know their songs, you likely feel the same way. You’re Miss Byrd, the Crossword Puzzle solver, or the Stop, Time parent, or the parent-to-be feeling the first kick and launching into The Story Goes On.

Speaking of Crossword Puzzle, I believe more people have watched my wife sing that than any other performer’s rendering (in a film). I’m grateful for my wife, and the touch of luxury she’s responsible for. I spend far more time with my wonderful daughter, but she’ll show up in the next post.

The news forces us to think about powerful older men in horrifying relationships with young women. Simultaneously, I find myself most appreciative of a bunch of college-age ladies who have a lovely and loving relationship with me. Once a week, one of them writes me about what’s going on in their lives. When I read these, my mind is engaged in a way that’s like manna from the heavens. Let me explain:

The Class of 2018, whom I had to abandon halfway through their journey, is grappling with questions requiring someone’s musical theatre expertise. For example, they’re picking material for an industry showcase, and each one wants songs that will present themselves in the best possible light. Now, it’s not my job to help them; it’s somebody else’s. But, from my point of view, I’ve spent way too many days in which my brain isn’t pondering anything requiring musical theatre expertise. It’s as if a major part of me has been rendered inoperable, like a broken belt in a car engine. In comes a letter and I’m humming again.

There’s a much smaller set of men, closer to my age, who’ve talked to me about writing and gotten my mind going. One’s a very old friend and former collaborator; another’s a friend of his I just met. I also just met a fellow musical theatre writer I’d previously only known through texts and blog comments, and he’s been particularly helpful in getting my head in the game. And yesterday I had a great lunch talking theatre with a friend I knew when he was a teen, but didn’t see in his 20s, 30s or 40s.

This here blog bears the subtitle “Musings on Musicals” and days when I’m not musing are days without sunshine. A critic I’ve known for maybe twenty years retired and moved west but keeps thinking going by tossing out intriguing theatre-related questions. One recent one was a puzzle I invested many hours in solving, which you might consider a waste of time. (After all, I wasn’t writing.) But thinking about musicals is an exercise I require, in any form. It’s better than not.

If I’m counting my blessings here in November, is it against the rules, somehow, to celebrate something that happened the First of July? For a variety of reasons, the Connecticut presentation of 45 minutes of The Christmas Bride replays in my head. And I know I’ve mentioned it before, but the old show was brought to life so wonderfully by eight pals of mine, quickly assembled, working their asses off, and astounding an audience who applauded and applauded – stopped the show, in fact. A reaction like that, to one’s writing, is not quickly forgotten. So thank God for memory, too.

Dear Alfred

November 10, 2017

Two good musicals recently had their Broadway revivals broadcast on PBS. While I’ve rather negative feelings about the televising of stageworks, perhaps we all now have a basis for a discussion of the shows themselves.

She Loves Me boasts a score by the greatest of post-Rodgers and Hammerstein creative teams, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They’re masters of specificity. Each note sounds oh-so-plausibly mitteleuropa. The words are full of telling details that endear these characters to us. We become fully invested in the two warring leads falling in love.

The opening number has co-workers muse about playing hooky to enjoy the summer day. It’s pointed out that spuriously calling in sick can get you fired. “If it costs that much to get sun-tanned, I’ll stay untanned” – that rarest of birds, the genuinely funny rhyme. Then, less mellifluously, “Pale but solvent” tickles with its bathos. And it’s hard to pick out a favorite line in the whole show, but “meet my lady of the letters who makes tiny faces in her O’s” knocks me out so much, I actually cry each time I hear it, at its brilliance.

Traditional romantic musical comedy doesn’t get much better, and the justly most celebrated song, Vanilla Ice Cream, is an object lesson on how great writers create great opportunities to act. Because of its stunningly high cadenza, it’s thought of as a singer’s song, but really the acting is what sells it. The growing discovery that “a man that I despise has turned into a man I like!” gets us to feel the glorious surprise Amalia feels. And somehow, it’s a two-note polka, that keeps going to different harmonic places, setting off a rubato waltz in the verses. (This, in turn, echoes the music box of her introductory number.)

I think of She Loves Me as a wonderful meal with too many courses. The quality of the songwriting keeps you listening, but ultimately I get a little impatient with supporting characters taking time from the central combatants: Perspective, I Resolve, and Days Gone By. The Bock waltz that thrills me is the leads’ duet, Where’s My Shoe?, propulsive as a roller coaster, with all sorts of stage action prescribed by the lyric.

When I was in college, I saw a little musical that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its innovations are so common today, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary it was. William Finn’s all-sung one-hour entertainment, March of the Falsettos, eschews conventional song forms, goes into wild flights of non-reality, and acknowledges that we’re all gathered in a tiny box to see a musical. Four neurotics burst on to tell us we’d see Four Jews, In a Room, Bitching. And the last word wasn’t one you often heard in those days. It was a surprising laugh line that set us up well: We’re all in this small room together, and we’d be watching kvetching. (Say that three times fast.)

Unfortunately, over the years, James Lapine and Finn have tinkered with the show, every alteration weakening it somehow. So, we’re no longer in a room, and the Jews we meet are from biblical times, some woman is singing about slavery (so it’s not even Four) and we’re capriciously misled as to what the show’s about.

Eight years after that stunning debut, Finn & Lapine wrote a different musical about the same characters, a little later in their lives and plot-driven. Its opening number mocked the seriousness often found in off-Broadway theatre. This time, the show hewed close to reality for a captivating, moving hour.

Then something ill-advised happened. They put the two musicals together, as if they were presenting a coherent whole. You can’t tell that the second act opener is mocking anything, but Falsettoland’s string of highly emotional set-pieces make it everyone’s favorite act. It’s fascinating to me how different the two acts are. The first doesn’t have many story beats. “Well, the situation’s this,” the protagonist sings, and then we get a handful of people commenting on the situation. Unlike She Loves Me, the more minor characters’ perspectives tend to be the most compelling: the ex-wife who doesn’t want to care about what happens to her former husband’s current lover; the child bargaining with God to save a man’s life.

Doesn’t sound like a wacky romp, does it? Surprise! It’s silly, unpredictable, and mixes a Mardi Gras musical style with well-crafted counterpoint. I particularly admire Days Like This, in which various characters try to be upbeat while visiting a friend in the hospital. They take different tacks, and each has a different musical feel. The child says “Gee, you look awful” and sweetly promises to lose a chess game with the patient. As the different melodies are added to the piece, it’s a subliminal message that a true community is coming together.

(Confession: I stole the first feel to start a song once. Also, inadvertently, I stole the bit in She Loves Me where a character realizes she’s late and stops singing to exclaim “I’m late” completing a rhyme, although you wouldn’t get this from how Laura Benanti did it on TV.)

Finn, more than any writer I know, free-associates. A man who wants to say “There’s not a man who could love you as much as I do” says, instead, “There’s not a guy,
There’s not a piece of paper…there’s not a horse or zebra who could love you the same as I.” This is a far cry from the songwriter-ese I’m sometimes prone to. Characters halt and stammer as they roundelay. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they sing in Spanish and then in Hebrew. They’re so human and unpolished you lean in because you can’t guess what they’re going to say next.

A recent New York Times interview of Sondheim by Lin-Manuel Miranda once again brought up that key word (that Sondheim used in his letter to me), surprise. Theatre must consistently surprise us, and surprise is what Falsettos has in spades. What more can I say?

A long long time

November 1, 2017

Every year, around this time of year, for the past 18 years or so, I’ve given a talk called A Subjective History of Musical Theatre. It’s the highlight of my year. And unique. It’s said that there’s nothing quite like it and that nobody else could deliver it, or would have thought of delivering it the same way. I have a blackboard; I have a piano; I have no notes. Off the top of my head, I engage my audience. They are theatre students who may or may not know a thing about the shows written prior to Rent. It’s that gap in knowledge I’m trying to fill.

But here’s the beauty part: It’s not a linear history, nor a survey. It’s whatever I choose to tell them. So, I get to give a lot of opinions. Because, unlike your run-of-the-mill history lectures that claim to be objective, this is SUBjective – it’s right in the title. And everybody accepts that I might say things they’ll disagree with. That’s OK. You’re allowed to argue with me. And the whole thing is, first and foremost, highly entertaining.

It’s difficult to describe, and it’s never exactly the same, and for this you can blame Socrates. I ask the students questions, and, if they give a dopey answer, I’m likely to make fun of them. Amazingly, nobody seems to mind. So, after I identify The Boys From Syracuse as the first musical based on a Shakespeare play, I have the students guess which play it’s based on. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll be able to figure this out; it’s not as if he wrote a lot of plays with men from that city. But, inevitably, someone yells out “Two Gentlemen of Verona” to which I get to yell “No! Those boys are from Verona.” Silently, I appreciate the guess, because Two Gents did become a Tony-winning musical. Rereading this paragraph, I see that I sound a bit mean, but really everyone’s laughing. There’s comedy in errors.

And there’s music in my lecture, unsurprisingly. Whenever I feel like illustrating something with a song, the piano is right there. I even hide behind it to depict the opening of Oklahoma! They hear some Grieg. They hear some Weill – oh, wait, that’s Lloyd Webber, stealing from Weill. I can remember some course I took when I was young where a lecturer took a lot of time to drop a needle on the right place in a record album. My illustrations take no time at all, and I get to sing my favorite song. Because it’s my lecture.

I make Richard Rodgers the central figure, since he was connected to so many of the turning points in musical theatre development. I describe, in great detail, the Isn’t It Romantic sequence in Love Me Tonight.

I get to act out his working relationship with Lorenz Hart. “He pulled the little guy by the scruff of his collar into a small room not unlike this, with a piano in it, and he locked the door. He played the tune they were working on.” I play six notes. “He firmly told Larry ‘We have to finish this song. You are not leaving this room until you give me a lyric to-.’” I play it again. “Hart begs ‘Please, Dick. You can see I’m too hungover to even think right now. Let me out for a quick nip, hair of the dog that bit me and I’ll be back.’ ‘NO, YOU WON’T.’” Six notes. “And this went on and on until Hart, in total desperation, uttered ‘With a song in my heart I behold your adorable face just a song at the start but it soon is a hymn to your grace when the music swells I’m touching you hand it tells that you’re standing near and at the sound of your voice heaven opens its portals to me what to do but rejoice that a song such as ours came to be but I always knew I would live life through with a song in my heart for you. Can I go now, Dick?’ ‘Yes, you can go now, Larry.’”

So, that’s a small example of what I do. It must be pointed out that the students don’t know With a Song In My Heart, and every story I tell assumes they don’t know how the story will end. So there are some dramatic turns that get everyone in the room (including me) crying.

On the other hand, familiarity makes some of my samples something of a sing-a-long. It’s a pleasant surprise when my rendition of Many a New Day has a female chorus join in. That’s one reason why the Subjective History can’t be filmed, or turned into a podcast, book, or any other form. It’s shaped, to a significant extent, by the listeners. I take to the blackboard to draw the world’s worst map of Western Europe, never knowing whether it will be recognized as such in five seconds or five minutes. And that’s just there to show how Offenbach influenced Sullivan.

Writers, hearing each other’s work, refining the form – that’s what interests me. It’s why Oklahoma! gets the most time and less influential shows (say, The Pajama Game) get none. But it’s best not to dwell on who you don’t hear about in my densely-packed few hours (Comden & Green, e.g.), I’ve a limited amount of time to tell an entertaining story. It’s not meant to be definitive. I’m spreading out a smattering of knowledge, like manure, hoping it will grow, and I don’t need to talk about the show that mentions spreading manure to do it.

I’m a sucker for a good story. Whether it’s Arthur Laurents smiting his forehead, or David Merrick adjusting the opening night to coincide with a creator’s death, I get to be the raconteur with the unforgettable tales. And a rendition of I Dreamed a Dream that hasn’t been forgotten by a generation of students.