Timid samba

December 21, 2017

I’ve a friend with a good idea for a musical. But she keeps putting off writing it. And I think it’s because she’s worried it won’t be good.

Sound familiar? As I was contemplating what to write next, the wonderful pop song Try Everything came on. Seems like a magic message, with its acknowledgement that one might fail. But failure is only certainty if you don’t try. Nothing ventured, nothing win, as the Iolanthe trio trills.

Those writing prizes I apply for every year: The only certainty about them is if I don’t apply, I won’t win. Occasionally, a friend wins, giving me the mild frisson of thinking I’m sorta on the right track. But the friend mentioned above ain’t winning anything, since her idea sits there, unwritten.

Yet, writing a musical is a long-term extension of time and effort. I’ve certainly had ideas I didn’t bring to fruition. About 25 years ago, I thought the Anita Hill experience with Clarence Thomas might make a good opera. I threw that one out expecting my dramatization would have trouble finding acceptance since I’m neither black nor a woman. But if a female composer of color had illuminated the subject, audiences today might be particularly interested.

Similarly, I spent many years refining my musical comedy about female friendships, The Company of Women. Eventually, I concluded the world didn’t want to see such a show, and my time would be better spent working on something else. More recently, I toiled on something about a religious retreat until I decided the subject and milieu didn’t interest me enough to continue. So, those were my musicals that wouldn’t see productions.

Having the sinking feeling that what you’re writing isn’t going to be good: I’ve been there a lot. But when I’ve made the effort to see things through, the effort has been rewarded. The season being what it is, the example that comes to mind is A British Christmas. I needed to write a carol that might be sung at a holiday gathering in Victorian England. Research was done into what might happen at such a fête and we settled on the idea that a flaming plum pudding would come out of the kitchen, to oohs and aahs. In some sort of goofy mood, I wrote a verse about how this is the best part of a Yule party. (As opposed to the best part of a Yul party, which is dancing the polka with Yul.) The veil of silliness continued to hang over me as I wrote a bridge about how plum pudding was better than other puddings, such as rice and bread. Not really the sort of thing any actual Englishman would be likely to say, but at least I was making progress on the song. Once I had the form set for my A section and release, I came up with further stanzas. Now I had too much, to a rather dull tune. But when I played it for my collaborator MK Wolfe, she deemed it just what she needed to construct a wonderfully dramatic musical scene.

The plot is so fraught, the tension so heightened, it didn’t much matter how inert my carol was. Four A sections and one bridge is a bad balance. And I was called upon to add incidental underscoring and dance accompaniment that dressed the simplistic melody in various tempos and feels. I get tired of hearing it, but the crux here is that the audience was so fascinated by the libretto’s histrionics, nobody noticed my song’s insufficiencies.

When performed out of context, though, it lays there. When asked to name my least favorite Christmas song, A British Christmas is the first thing I thought of. I’m embarrassed by it. But I sure didn’t mind it in the middle of the Connecticut presentation of The Christmas Bride six months ago. Played like gangbusters – in context.

“Are you embarrassed easily?” asked a comedy album I heard as a kid. This business of making musicals might not be for you if you are. Which reminds me of the only sincere moment in Area 51. In creating a musical in which each scene and song is funny, I noticed, at one point, that the show was a little low on emotion. Librettist Tom Carrozza knew we’d want a triple wedding at the end, and of course this meant that the leads would need to decide to get married. Trouble is, Tom was playing the lead, and wasn’t confident that he could pull off a love song. So, he tried to arrange it so the leading lady would sing to him. The draft of the scene suddenly seemed convoluted, emotionally strange. I wrote a gentle, twinkly ballad, sort of a cross between Of Thee I Sing and Twilight Time.

Come with me to Dreamland
Dance the night away
All is quiet; all is cool
Tomorrow morning, there’s no school…

The earnestness of the moment gets quickly deflated when the character admits he’s talking about an Air Force base on a dry lake named Dreamland. He goes into such detail as to what goes on there, the audience believes it’s unromantic, despite what the music tells them. (Did I mention that aliens from outer space are repeating the tune in their other-worldly voices?) And the lady listening is so goofy, she responds “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you.”

The audience giggled throughout, partly because their expectations had been so thoroughly thrown. And Tom’s character, to his way of thinking, wasn’t being romantic, therefore the actor was comfortable with delivering this bit of lunacy. After all, he hadn’t intended to propose marriage; her acceptance of his unmade proposal led us to our ending.

So I guess that’s my suggestion for the New Year: Don’t let embarrassment stop you from creating, and you’ll come up with delightfully off-center funny business. Or, at the very least, a paean to plum pudding that only works with the rest of the show around it.


Be my baby

December 13, 2017

Something is stirring
Shifting ground, it’s just begun
Edges are blurring all around
And yesterday is done


OK, we’ve all, as a nation, been thinking a lot about scenarios in which men attempt to get women to do something sexual. We hear about monstrous predators who wielded great power, in business or society, and used that power to have their way with the significantly less powerful. Such news revelations might (or might not) alter our personal definition of a code of conduct, of what behavior is acceptable during a lust-fed pursuit. But there’s only one question I know you’ve come here to see addressed:

What does this mean for musical comedy writing?

Frank Loesser’s randy duet, Baby It’s Cold Outside, will probably get a lot less airplay this year. I stand by what I said about the witty Oscar-winner two years ago. But contemporary disc jockeys, or whoever it is that programs what songs to play this Christmas, don’t want to remind listeners of the back and forth of a couple that may end up having sex.

Here’s the first song I thought of:

Wish You Were Here is about young single adults at a camp with individual cabins. I love how the score finds so many amusing ways to depict the way real and relatable people mix and mingle. It’s a snapshot of the dating game as it was played, mid-century; I value it as such.

Musicals, quite often, contain romance. Romance, quite often, contains lust. If we’re going to portray lovers in a realistic and recognizable way, sex is likely to be part of the picture. Musical-writers are lucky that there’s a tradition in musicals that a passionate love song is a way of communicating to the audience that sexy stuff has occurred. Think of Younger Than Springtime in South Pacific. Liat, who doesn’t speak English, certainly didn’t give Lieutenant Cable a peck and call it a kiss. (Nor look in his eyes through a lorgnette.) We get it. And it’s infinitely lovelier than any bed tussling in an R-rated movie.

Both Relax (by Harold Rome) and Baby It’s Cold Outside reflect an attitude that there’s something fun and funny about the ways a man might go about persuading a woman to do something naughty. I worry that contemporary sensibilities are stopping some from seeing what’s amusing in this. And what are you going to do, today, if you’re musicalizing a mating dance?

A key component I notice, that separates these songs from the victims of predators, is that the women have agency. There are times – I have it on very good authority – when girls just wanna have fun, in bed. It’s remarkable that these songs from so long ago celebrate the female who consciously says yes. I keep hearing the carping, today, of women who find Baby It’s Cold Outside “creepy.” Which makes me wonder if some song of seduction I’ve written might be considered creepy 65 years in the future. Remind me not to be around for that.

There’s a marvelous number, told from the girl’s point of view, by two old acquaintances of mine, Dennis Markell and Douglas Bernstein, called Joshua Noveck. The adolescent fumbling it describes reminds me of the time I was 15 and asked a girl over to rehearse a kiss for a drama class. But, for those who don’t have a memory of doing anything remotely like that, there is the principle accusation against Al Franken, whose alleged middle-aged minor celebrity insistence on rehearsing a kiss has cost him his job in the Senate. So, the same scenario can be seen through different prisms. When high schoolers practice a kiss for a play, that’s acceptable, innocent. When adult performers on a USO tour do the same, it’s considered conduct unbecoming of a U.S. Senator. And when you mix the two, when an adult government attorney dates high school girls … need I say Moore? Of Alabama? (Oh, don’t ask why.)

A friend of mine was asked what it’s like to be a man in this new age of #MeToo awareness, and, just a few weeks later, was quoted in a major men’s magazine. He’s now embarrassed by what he said, as the ground seemed to have shifted during those few weeks. So, I’m reticent to say much more today, because this all could look insensitive a few weeks from now.

I don’t understand men who find it a turn-on when a woman says “no.” I just don’t. I understand lust – pretty well, I think – but what could be more of a turn-off than an unwilling partner?

Life is moments you can’t understand
And that is life
Holding to the ground as the ground keeps shifting
Trying to keep sane as the rules keep changing…
Everything will be all right

Roy Moore

December 6, 2017