Tell me where is fancy bred?

January 30, 2018

The Boy Wonder of Broadway turns 90 today. Harold Prince, known as Hal. His name is a subliminal reference to Shakespeare’s Boy Wonder, Prince Hal, but the diminutive is really endearment, as he’s beloved by the entire community. After grabbing an Ivy League degree, he worked as a stage manager on shows like Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game – an apprenticeship, of sorts, under the Great Old Man, George Abbott, who, a generation earlier, had made a similar transition from stage manager to producer and director. At 27, Prince was a name-over-the-title producer of a big hit, Damn Yankees. And then New Girl in Town (a Tony-winner), West Side Story, and Fiorello!, By then he was 31.

Prince was so famous, he actually became a character in another Broadway show, Say Darling. This was based on a book about the creation of The Pajama Game, and all who saw it knew that Robert Morse’s character was based on the prodigious producer. I should note, here, that Hal Prince is also a character in the first musical I ever wrote. That was when I was 14, and didn’t think twice about putting living personages into my shows.

The shows I’ve mentioned so far were mostly crafted through a process in which the director exerts a great deal of influence over the writers, “shaping” the show without putting words on a page. I believe Prince is the last great practitioner of this. He became a director around the time Jerome Robbins stopped crafting shows for Broadway, and the torch was passed. Imagine how much Prince learned just from being in the room as Abbott and Robbins did their thing. All three were involved in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Abbott-directed farce starring Zero Mostel, Joel Grey and Karen Black was playing to mirthless near-empty houses in its out-of-town tryout. Time to call the doctor!– the show doctor, that is. Abbott, over his long career, had doctored many. But now he was so puzzled, he said “I like it; they don’t like it: We need to call in George Abbott.” Prince called in Robbins, who said “Nothing is wrong except the opening number.” (Love Is In the Air)

He sent Stephen Sondheim off to a room to write a new one, Comedy Tonight, staged it, and a hit was born. (They replaced Grey and Black, too.)

Nobody’s won more Tony Awards than Prince, and nobody has guided more masterpieces. An early example of what he did as a director is Cabaret, in which he came up with the idea that all the “on-stage” numbers at the Kit Kat Klub would comment on the rather realistic action in the rest of the play. So, the hero gets a financial windfall, but he doesn’t sing about it. Instead, there’s an incredibly energetic number about being suddenly rich. As the show goes on, the rise of the Nazis gets a twisted mirror reflection in increasingly sinister numbers such as If You Could See Her following an anti-Semitic incident. What once seemed charming has edged closer to evil. (More on this next essay.)

A character actor had written a handful of short plays about marriages and Prince thought they could be turned into a musical. But how? The writer had no idea. The largely-forgotten, then-rather-obscure songwriter Prince brought in didn’t know. But in talking with Hal, a notion emerged: to have a swinging bachelor observe these good and crazy people his married friends. Watching could lead to an epiphany. But is that a plot? Can you make a whole musical out of that? Only Hal Prince could. Fine as the Stephen Sondheim numbers are, it’s really the directorial magic that made Company a revolutionary hit.

So Prince and Sondheim continued to collaborate, and rack up Tonys, and each project was more audacious than the last. Follies, co-directed by Michael Bennett, added psychological underpinning to the type of songs their parents’ generation loved, so something obvious, like The Man I Love, is lampooned with something complex, Losing My Mind. A Little Night Music also took an outmoded form, operetta, and injected sexual subtext and Chekhovian wit. Pacific Overtures is a musical without a human protagonist (it’s about a country). And a melodramatic revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd, took on a veneer of Brechtian societal criticism at Hal’s behest.

Years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Lincoln Center Library about Prince. One thing that particularly fascinated me was a long set of very specific instructions about the staging of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. He had an idea about every gesture, every look, what it all means to the character. Now, since I am not a genius, I read Tim Rice’s lyric and think it’s meaningless prattle. But Prince was able to turn that song – music by Johann Sebastian Bach (but inexplicably credited to Andrew Lloyd Webber) – into a piece with dramatic depth. Cabaret and the Sondheim shows demonstrated what Prince could do with strong material. Evita and Phantom of the Opera may be terrible shows on paper, but the staging made them palatable; hell, more than palatable: huge hits.

The last Prince-helmed show I saw was about a crackpot inventor who ties so many helium balloons to his lawnchair, he’s lifted high enough to create a problem for airplanes. And therein lies a metaphor for Prince’s career. Musical theatre can effectively deal with earthbound subjects if we remember to leaven the misery with just enough lightness. Political despotism shows up in three Prince-directed Tony-winners and yet they’re not miserable experiences for their audiences. Rare is the chef with a knack for stirring just the right amount of sugar into the pot. And, today, rarer still is the director who’ll take such an active hand in fashioning how the show is written. Prince is the last of a glorious breed.

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Growing younger

January 17, 2018

All I really wanted for my birthday was a website. In lieu of that, I’ll do the annual indulgent thing of talking about my musicals. There are so many, and so few of you have seen them. And – I don’t know this for sure – but I expect the word I use most on this here blog is “craft.” And that, like so much these days, leads me to thoughts of craft beer. It’s made in small batches by individual brewmasters and gets shared with select group of aficionados. I put a lot of care, time and love into my bubbly creations, and share them with a small but lucky few. O.K. Enough torturing the analogy. On to the shows.

At 14 I wrote a rather short two-act musical called How To Be Happy, about a kid who writes (alone) and stars in a Broadway show. That could never happen! (Right, Lin-Manuel?) Like a lot of things one does in adolescence, it’s pretty embarrassing now.

At 15 I adapted a play called Broadway into a musical called The Great White Way. I can still recall my composition teacher’s suggestion about a song called One of These Mornings. I’d set the title on quick notes, very much like St. Louis Woman. He got me to slow down, suggesting melissmas could extend the line. To this day I obsess a lot over the quickness with which new words hit the ear.

My first produced musical, Through the Wardrobe, contained the word “exultation.” Who talks like that? A teen with a thesaurus, I guess.

The first work of mine I saw produced, Pulley of the Yard, offered a justification for profuse rhyming and odd vocabulary, since it was a whodunit set backstage at a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. I mimicked their style, which led to self-consciously clever bits like

The audience must be treated well
Don’t take secret glee in
The fact they’re plebian
Or act like Marie Antoinette

The show I created at 21 has seen more different productions than any other of mine, but with a different title, Murder at the Savoy.

The less said about A Diary, the better. But here’s what Lehman Engel said about the line that ended the title song, “Thirteen is a very good age to start to use a diary.” “I thought she was going to say ‘diaphragm.’”

The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns for Martyred Actors was such a difficult collaboration, I was barred from attending rehearsals. If this ever happens to you, take comfort in the fact that Bob Fosse forbade Stephen Schwartz from attending rehearsals of Pippin.

The New U. successfully skated a fine comic line in a way that’s hard to imagine today. The administration of an all-male college oversold the notion that going co-ed would bring about massive improvements. An excited chorus sings:

They’re rosy; they’re peachy
They understand Nietzsche
Those beautiful brainy girls

They write well; they work hard
They talk about Kierk’gaard
Those beautiful brainy girls

Each one is undeniably intellectual
And, thank God, they’re certifiably heterosexual

They know their Cervantes
Although they wear panties
Those beautiful brainy girls.

It’s supposed to be offensive, as the object of our satire was patently sexist promotion of coeducation as a panacea. And what better measure of success than a well-off person in the audience saying “I want to produce the next thing these writers write.”

This was On the Brink, the legendary revue I co-created when I was 25 and the oldest member of the writing team. I found room for feminist messages and a couple of songs that were poignant rather than funny. We turned a profit, which shouldn’t be one’s measure of success; but certainly a nice way to start my professional career.

When a well-established California theatre wanted to do Through the Wardrobe, a rights problem necessitated a massive overhaul, and what ran three or four months as Popsicle Palace then had to be retitled Not a Lion. A lot of musical writers tell very sad tales about rights problems. Beware!

So my next musical was based on a public domain story by Charles Dickens. We called it The Christmas Bride, and it’s a melodrama packed with plot turns, so I had to write passionate romantic music that wouldn’t derail the story train.

Stephen Sondheim attended and, without being asked, sent the producing organization a nice check; with being asked, he sent me a helpful and encouraging letter.

This inspired us to try something new and innovative, an overtly feminist musical developed through rap sessions, a la A Chorus Line, and also improvisations. I learned a lot, but, after many attempts and two utterly different librettists, could never get The Company of Women to a producer willing to put a celebration of female friendships on stage.

Many songs from that score found their way into subsequent trunk song revues: Spilt Milk, Lunatics & Lovers, and Things We Do For Love. An opera-for-kids entrepreneur saw the first of these and commissioned The Pirate Captains, inspired by actual female pirates, and it played for years.

My next two shows were also work-for-hire. Industrials are intended to be seen by specific folks in a business context – people who’ll get the jokes. For years, this was how Jason Robert Brown earned most of his income. But you haven’t heard those songs, or mine, because the material is owned by the clients.

An exceptionally funny fellow, the same age as me, proposed we write a musical because we were both turning 40. Now, by this point, I’d written a number of shows, but never a purely humorous book musical in the tradition of my favorite, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Area 51 was my opportunity to write the sort of big production numbers and hysterical comedy songs that hadn’t been seen in many an overly serious season. We knew a lot of clowns from New York’s improv community, and festooned many of the roles with things we knew they’d do well. In that sense, Area 51 revived the tradition of 1960s star vehicles (like Once Upon a Mattress and Little Me) where creators came up with wacky stuff with an awareness of the zaniness of well-loved wags. As I fashioned 18 varied and guffaw-producing numbers, I was collaborating with crazy quipsters I knew and loved. So turning 40 was the epitome of fun.

The people up on stage with me feel like a friendly family,” I once wrote.

But what if everybody involved in your musical was literally friends and family, including the audience? Seems like the wildest of fantasies, but – you could read about it in the Times – fantasies come true. Our Wedding – The Musical! involved writing for specific people again, but this time it was my mother, my mother-in-law, my father, my father-in-law, my sister, my 4-year-old niece and a bunch of our talented professional performing friends, one of whom has the credentials to matrimonify. (Sorry, another word from Gilbert & Sullivan snuck in there.)

Many years ago, some musical theatre experts used an intriguing phrase, “serious musical comedy” to describe basically tragic stories leavened with a whole heap of humor, such as Cabaret, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. Creating one seemed a worthy challenge, unlike anything I’d done before, and I had a subject in mind. The McCarthy-era blacklisting affected the lives of many truly entertaining people, and there’d never been a musical about it. Since television was a brand-new technology, there’d be much mirth in the pressures to put on a live variety show, as well as in the on-air songs and sketches. Such Good Friends, which racked up a number of awards and raves at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, was the culmination of years of research, rewrites, and punch-ups. I got my audience to laugh and cry, tap their toes, and get truly invested in What Will Happen Next.

Thanks for reading this far. I consider it a birthday gift. Discussing eighteen musicals ain’t nothing like being there, in the audience, taking them in as they were meant to be taken in. Let’s hope What Will Happen Next is a production you can catch, somewhere near you.


Finale – part two

January 9, 2018

1996-2017, I spent many a stimulating hour at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. 2018, I won’t. So, before too many of my memories distance and die, I thought I’d jot down a few that might be of interest to musical-makers.

The first thing to point out is that everybody takes everything tremendously seriously. Students come completely committed to spending every waking hour for two years totally devoted to learning about performing on stage. Faculty feels itself shaping futures, nudging young adults on an intense “journey towards you” – the idea being they’ll end up as individuals, rather than the cookie-cutter copies of everyone else in the field you find in college programs.

There’s nothing to do, amidst such a rushing river of earnest endeavor, but to swim along with the current. You take a look at what you’re doing – as an artist, as a teacher – and scour yourself for imperfections. If I’m adamant about craft in my writing, it’s because I was among people who picked over every note, every turn of phrase, every motivation, and the physicality inherent in songs and scenes.

Too few songwriters, I feel, sweat those details. So, as I’m guiding artists towards great performances, we’re picking over songwriters’ imperfections, usually inventing a justification for some lapse in craft. Here’s a popular example. Galinda sings “You’ll hang with the right cohorts,” mis-accenting the last word. What could account for this? Maybe she’s from somewhere where nobody uses “cohorts” so she’s never heard it. But she’s read it, because she was a lonely intellectual, the one reader in her crowd, and has arrived at Shiz for her first year of college, showing off her big vocabulary without knowing how to pronounce this word. She’s funny that way.

Now I’m wondering if my friend who played the role ever thought about all this. I kinda doubt it. This level of analysis can’t happen just anywhere. And didn’t, at the many other New York acting schools where I worked. But it’s easier to imagine intensive examinations of Shakespeare, right? That was part of my college experience. I love the fact that there’s a place where show tunes undergo similar scrutiny.

To some, musicals seem frivolous. How wonderful to be part of a community where the thing that I do is valued. Eighteen years ago, Sara Louise Lazarus began teaching musical theatre there and it was immediately apparent I’d found the ultimate kindred spirit. Not only did she take musicals just as seriously, she’d developed an entire methodology for performing individual show tunes. This had been refined down from the legendary performance guru, David Craig. I can’t call Craig the unsung hero of acting in musicals, because “unsung” just seems like the wrong word. But when Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince were developing musicals that required a higher level of interpretive brilliance than had gone on before, they called Craig out of California retirement to teach a new generation of performers who could do the things required to perform Company, A Little Night Music and all the rest. And the takeaway from this is that wonderful things can happen when a musical theatre maverick is called back to Manhattan out of California retirement. Call. Call! CALL!

The greenest students are fresh out of high school and a lot of them park-and-bark. This term is applied to singers – especially at auditions – who show off their vocal prowess without any thought to the acting, how you move, how you register emotion on your face. Sara’s teaching turns that around, with a series of preparatory steps that ensure the performer is thinking what their character is thinking. Every little motion has a meaning, and these are timed as they are in life, with the impulse to say something motivating action; never do our bodies spring up in sync with new words we sing.

Substantial time and effort go into mastering this process. I’d pipe up, often pointing out interpretive possibilities based on the sheet music in front of me. Months of learning, weeks of rehearsal, culminating in a thrilling performance, dazzling an audience with a demonstration of all this intricate work: That was the stuff! That was what I lived for, for two decades.

Some theatre folk enjoy rehearsing more than performing – no assembly required. Working on things, in fine detail, can be the true joy. Sara’s class gets to show off in showcases and cabarets. The “product” in Musical Theatre Scene Study went unseen, and the work was never considered “finished.” Led by the laconic and occasionally cryptic inspirer Alan Langdon, the class was a synthesis of what had been taught all over the school. Each scene involved dialogue, set, costumes, and two people singing. They’d use, most of all, their acting training (Alan teaches Chekhov and other “straight” acting scene work). They’d use their I.P.A., which, I learned, over my years there, is a hoppy sort of beer. Vocal technique from voice-master Beth Falcone, natch. Sometimes dances derived from Jeanne Slater’s teaching, or fights from B.H. Barry. And their Sara Lazarus-training… Well, I was right there to glower at them if they forgot that. When we all got together to run a scene, you could never be certain what Alan would observe, point out. But first the actors would share their own observations: the things they missed, the things they’d achieved.

It’s hard to talk about this. Hyperbole always sounds silly, not-to-be-believed. (When I saw a particularly wonderful musical a couple of years ago, I immediately recognized I shouldn’t say much about it, lest I seem like a raving fanboy. It’s a problem.) So, if I say “greatest, most soul-stirring hours of my life” you’ll think, “that’s ridiculous.” But think about the Bench Scene from Carousel, or A Boy Like That, or The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. Think about dissecting every intricacy of the text and score with talented, eager, and willing-to-work hard singing actors. Hey: What a way to spend a day.


Someone who’s warm

January 1, 2018

This is my 400th post and it certainly feels like I’m winding down. Your faithful reporter on the world of musicals may be running out of gas, and this is related to lack of stimuli. Did I even see any new musicals in 2017? Off hand, I can’t remember. I continue to write musicals, and can talk about my writing, present and past, but I’m running out of new stuff to say. I’m a broken old jalopy and the gas gauge is nearing E. Don’t know exactly when I’ll leave this thing on the side of the road – you never know with gas – but the day is coming.

One sign that I’m in the throes of an existential crisis is that I’ve been in a couple of situations in which I’ve had to introduce myself, and I got a little tongue-tied. I am always – always – nervous about coming off as conceited. I want to be honest, but if I say I’ve had 17 musicals produced, I worry that this sounds more impressive than it is. They played in tiny New York theatres – obscure ones. And nobody’s heard of them. Sometimes, people think they’ve heard of On the Brink, but it turns out they’re thinking of a play called On the Verge.

I’ve a faint memory that once I had a webpage in which I described myself as “Just Another Guy Who Writes Musicals.” Recently, someone tried to convince me I’m unique, somehow. But in New York, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a musical theatre writer, and believe me, I’ve tried: There’s unhappy meowing followed by “Hey! Why’d you hit me with that cat?”

It’s possible that my musicals are different from other people’s musicals – and I always try to make them as different from each other as possible – but I think I’ll leave an exploration of that question for my birthday, January 17.

Wipe. “Wipe” is a term long-form improvisers stole from the motion picture world, in which we move from one scene to another by miming drawing a curtain across a stage. And I didn’t have a natural segue to start talking about my parallel career in improv. When I was a lad of 16, a troupe started paying me to accompany them, and one of the performers was the then-unknown Robin Williams. When I left for college (Columbia), I thought I’d left that world behind me. But a couple decades later I was talked into exploring newly-wrought improv forms. This meant studying with UCB prior to their move to New York. Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts taught me and eventually, I taught a huge number of people at Second City and the Artistic New Directions retreats. I feel like I was on the cutting age of the New York improv revolution, and was instrumental (pun intended) in evolving forms with The Chainsaw Boys and Centralia.

Teaching, in one form or another, became the day job, the thing I did for money. Sometimes, I was “merely” accompanying classes, and here I can drop the names of Broadway vets Helen Gallagher, Virginia Gibson and Joanna Gleason. At the other end of the spectrum, I got to teach a college course, for 13 years, at Fairleigh-Dickinson in Madison, New Jersey. There, they called me professor and gave me considerable freedom as to what I taught.

Somewhere in the middle is where the heart is: At The Circle in the Square Theatre School, right under Broadway, wise and beloved teachers Sara Louise Lazarus and Alan Langdon allowed me to be me. They’re due a lot of credit, not just for what they teach, but for having the faith that allowing my craziness into the classroom would contribute to the education of young adult performers. Viewed through a certain lens, my presence behind the piano was a sort of long-form improvisation. I’d joke, I’d comment, I’d roll my eyes, I’d grimace. Sometimes, I’d hug. The nurturing and preparation of entertainers is an incredibly emotional process. Sometimes students get upset by things they don’t wish to hear. But there’s a steam valve, of sorts, a guy sitting in the corner who might (or might not) disagree with that message, or who can restate it with a much-needed spoonful of sugar.

Naturally, this all led to a strong connection with students, some of whom continued to call upon me for individual coaching and audition help after graduation. The running theme here – through F.D.U., Circle and my one-on-one work, is that everything that’s sung must be accompanied by thought. We don’t turn our minds off when we express our hearts. Sadly, a lot of singers seem to do just that: they think it’s all about the sound, close their eyes, stand like statues, no feeling registering upon their faces. I’ve always believed that the reason I care so much about how musical theatre material is performed is because I’ve lived through the struggle of creating musicals so many times. Something was said of Barbara Cook at a recent memorial for her, and it resounded strongly with me:

singing is not about voice, “it was about finding the impetus for why the song was written, exploring what the composer and lyricist were thinking when they wrote it.”

This composer and lyricist, over these 400 posts, has been sharing with you all a little of what I’ve been thinking. I’m grateful that this blog gets visitors from all over the world. If you’re interested in what goes into the making of a musical, you’ve clicked to the right place. I encourage you to explore the 400, leave a comment or two. And then go and write a musical. The more of us out there, creating, the better. Swing away! I promise not to be upset when you hit me with a cat.