Cabaret of despair

February 26, 2018

If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:

  • Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
  • No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
  • Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
  • And… I just don’t get them.

In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:

My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.

That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.

In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.

So, let’s get specific:

Profundity

This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.

But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.

I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.

Repetition

The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.

In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.

When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.

Amplifying

Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.

Pretty funny?

A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.

(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)

I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…

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Our language of love

February 14, 2018

A while ago, I heard some former presidential speech writers talk about how difficult it is to avoid clichés in the State of the Union address. We who write love songs, usually more frequently than once a year, can sympathize. Well over 80 years ago, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin asked “What can you say in a love song that hasn’t been said before?” And now I’m wondering what I can say in a Valentine’s Day blog that hasn’t been said before?

Well, it’s the late great Florence Henderson’s birthday, and she happened to have uttered what I think is the sexiest speech ever delivered on an original Broadway cast album. (Those who think of her as matronly don’t know Flo.) It’s from an amazingly romantic musical called Fanny, book by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan:

Think of this: Each night there’s a woman who would love to lie down next to you, smell your hair, and fall asleep in the warmth of your body.

1954, folks. If you think of the 1950s, and the musical theatre of the time as prudish or sexless, how come couples in Fanny and The Most Happy Fella are busy having babies without wedlock? And those dames are sopranos!

Some time after Henderson famously mothered The Brady Bunch, there was a seemingly out-of-touch comedian on another sitcom who’d feign befuddlement with the younger generation’s slang, asking “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” with a wink. As language evolves, people keep coming up with new euphemisms. One generation’s “doing the nasty” is another’s “Netflix and chill.” (And here I just have to say: Awesome product placement, Netflix!) And if there’s a limitless supply of ways to say “it,” there should similarly be infinite ways to express love.

I used to point out to my musical theatre students that love songs in musicals hit the audience as stand-ins for sex. We don’t see Lancelot and Guinevere in bed together, but when we hear If Ever I Would Leave You, we just know they’ve made, er, sheet music. And, not to knock another genre, but if you were making a film about that Camelot couple, assumedly rated R, you’d probably show them in bed. Isn’t the Lerner & Loewe love song more passionate, more moving than any dimly-lit filmic tussling? Musicals come up with something sublime to depict what other genres make prosaic, or even embarrassing.

Now, as it happens, the last love song I wrote (about a month ago) makes sport of far-flung phrases of ardor, butchering eight different languages in the process:

I exclaimed “Sacre bleu! You are one pot au feu!”
I asked if you spoke Esperanto
You gave a curt wave with your hand
Interpreting that as “Don’t want to”
I ceded my Sudetenland

You zip-a-dee-doo-dahed my trousers
I ripped your Versace chemise

That might be too silly for its own good, but I’m assured it’s getting recorded. No assurance, of any sort, greets my new musical, Baby Makes Three, but it seems appropriate to share a more serious love song from it. This was inspired by that rarest of things, a real-life emotional moment between strangers I observed on more than one occasion.

At a suburban rail station, greeting the evening rush, stood a father with a small child on his shoulders. They’d look into the sea of incoming faces – petals on a wet, black bough, per Pound – until, spotting the working mother, their two faces would light up. It was so adorable, I decided it had to be part of my show about similar characters.

Kiss me like you haven’t seen me
For a long long time
It’s been a long long time
As far as I’m concerned

When you kiss me
Show me how you miss me
Over all that time
It’s a joyous time
Now that you’ve returned

Hold me and never let me go

Now, you might ask, is that the child singing, or the Dad? In effect, it’s supposed to be both; he’s singing both his feelings and the feelings of their kid.

Years have passed, and I no longer see anyone commuting via train. I don’t catch glances of families reuniting. My daughter’s twice the age of the silent kid on the stranger’s shoulders, and doesn’t need me to communicate for her any more. (Did she ever?)

I just looked down on my desk, as one does, and saw my daughter has left four post-it notes, still stuck together. On the fourth page, she has drawn her and me. On the third page is a heart. On the second page is a combination of the other two: we’re holding hands, and our names with arrows pointing to the portraits. And the cover says “Book I love you Daddy.”


Changing my spots

February 6, 2018

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Cabaret lately. And when I think about Cabaret, I’m talking about the original Broadway musical that came out in the 1960s, not the famous Bob Fosse movie, which has a different plot, and not the 1990s revisal, which also has a different plot and uses songs written for the movie plus most of the songs written for the original Broadway show, and one of those songs (written for Sally) was cut from the original for good reasons but is here given to a male character because male characters can tell us so much about how it feels to have an abortion.

Stop. Let’s move back to a simpler time, and a simpler show. (And a quick reminder that this blog has a No Politics Rule.) It struck me that the original Hal Prince-helmed Cabaret deftly deceives the audience about what it’s about. I recently wrote a synopsis of what the show I’m writing is about, and started wondering about the usefulness of shifting answers to that question.

Man, I think I’m being unclear. Try it this way: Imagine tapping an audience member’s shoulder every ten minutes and whispering, “What’s this show about?”

Ten minutes into Cabaret, she’d answer “It’s about this night club in Berlin, and it’s sort of weird and sexy, with an all-girl band.” Twenty minutes into Cabaret, the response would be different: “It’s about a naïve American writer from the Midwest and he’s fascinated with this promiscuous Englishwoman. They’re sharing a narrow bed, with all that implies.” Thirty minutes: “Intrigue involving smuggling across German borders.” And later, “Anti-Semitism threatens to derail an interfaith romance between older people.”

Maybe I’m exaggerating but you get the idea. Cabaret – book by Joe Masteroff based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – is a gripping entertainment, in part, because the audience never knows quite what to expect. From moment to moment, what the show seems to be about changes again and again.

A lot of musicals do the opposite. Barnum comes to mind. Tap that audience member at any point, and she’ll say “It’s about this fast-talking huckster collecting sideshow acts to present.” Call it a shiftless musical. To me, that’s far less interesting. I never wonder what will happen next.

And that’s something of a Gold Standard for me. Perhaps I, in my theatre seat, want to see something in a musical that Barnum’s many fans don’t care about. It’s this: I want to wonder what will happen next. I’ve got to care enough about the characters to be invested in unfolding plot points. These must be surprising enough so that the action doesn’t seem clichéd, expected.

So it’s the early days of television, and all sorts of calamities spring up in the effort of broadcasting a live variety show. And then it turns out the main characters have a long history together; a flashback reveals two once had a romance. The star of the TV shows tries to get another old friend, her Broadway mentor, booked as a guest, but there’s some trouble with this. Then, it’s a little like the old Dick Van Dyke Show, with writers subverting the watchful eye of an unhip authority figure. Then, boom! – subpoenas arrive from the House Un-American Activities Committee and we wonder, throughout intermission, how the old friends will be affected by being forced to testify.

Those shifting perceptions are what I set up in my musical, Such Good Friends. I didn’t think about this ten years ago, but that what’s-this-about evolution follows the model of the original Cabaret. And now I’m wondering about the wisdom of how Stephen Schwartz explains the storyboarding process in the ASCAP workshop. He said that his work at Disney taught him that every card on your corkboard (that is, story beats and songs) should relate to a central theme, a what’s-this-show-about. Certainly, that’s one way of doing it. But there are other ways.

Here’s a question I enjoy: What functions as the I Want song in Fiddler on the Roof? A lot of people think this is easy. The protagonist, Tevye, has a big number, early in the show, explicitly saying that he wants to be rich. On the other hand, Fiddler is certainly not a show about one man’s attempts to acquire wealth. (Barnum is.) Arranging his daughter’s marriage to a well-off butcher is not something Tevye uses his wiles to pursue; it’s very good fortune that falls into his lap. So, let’s go back to the question director Jerome Robbins asked the creators before they got the idea for a new opening number: What’s this show about? That, I can tell you in one word: Tradition! It’s about the dissolution of long-held traditions. These are very important to practically every character. (Not those defiant daughters. Their I Want is romantic, to make a matchless match.) In Fiddler on the Roof, the opening number is the protagonist’s I Want song. He wants to uphold his traditions because without them, life would be as shaky as… as… I can’t remember what.

It’s no coincidence that the preservation of the status quo is also the central goal in my Such Good Friends. “I want”…things to stay this good forever. So, in my best show, just as in the best show ever written, humor and romance masks the basic sadness of a well-loved world falling apart.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just me. Me with my lifelong aversion to change. Maybe that’s just a theme I find particularly moving. We had a good thing going…going…gone.