Change of seasons

March 31, 2018

This changes everything.

There comes a moment in the musical I’m writing where characters say “this changes everything” and it’s a big deal. 75 years ago on this day, a revolutionary piece called Oklahoma! changed everything in the American theatre. From that day forward, musicals had to do at least some of the things Oklahoma! did. Anything that was written prior now seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. I ask you: When, in the history of stage performances has there ever been such a game-changer?

As 75 years have passed, some consider Oklahoma! old-fashioned. But you know what’s much more old-fashioned? Every Broadway musical that premiered before it. So, let’s imagine what Broadway was like pre-Oklahoma! Generally, you went to musicals to have a few laughs, hear some good tunes. Nothing wrong with that. I confess, with no embarrassment, I enjoy those old musical comedies. Now think about a good straight play. No tunes to enjoy. Instead, you watch characters interact, and you get emotionally invested in what happens to them. Each is distinct. The plot probably gets you wondering what will happen next, at points. A good play is moving, in part, because the characters feel so real to the viewer. None of these virtues regularly applied to musicals that came out more than 75 years ago. The characters weren’t fully drawn, with distinct voices, interacting in a way that made you care what happened to them. Sure, now and then they might have had a moving song, and certainly stars of the era like Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman were idiosyncratic characters. But, in the minds of the creators, musical plots never needed to make you wonder what would happen next, because the real purpose of the show was to provide a platform for the songs the tunesmiths hoped would be hits.

In the decade leading up to Oklahoma!, no composer was more successful at churning out those hits than Richard Rodgers. He and collaborator Lorenz Hart had burst on the scene in 1925 with a revue to raise funds for the Theatre Guild. The Theatre Guild, back then, was a high-minded producing office that promoted the best in world dramatic literature: they did Strindberg, Ibsen and Shaw; here, in America, they found a young phenom named Eugene O’Neill. So, those expectations we have of a good play were generated, in part, by these master producers. But, in 1943, they’d fallen on hard times and wondered if anything could be done with a script they’d bombed with some seasons earlier, Green Grown the Lilacs by a man named Lynn Riggs. They called Rodgers to urge him to make a musical out of it. Hart understandably rejected the idea, since he gravitated towards sophistication, and, in the final year of his life, a lot of cocktails. So Rodgers then called Oscar Hammerstein, who’d churned out nothing but bombs throughout this period. Back in 1927, Hammerstein had done something extraordinary with Show Boat, which embodied many of the dramatic virtues I described in the last paragraph. (I refer to Show Boat as the spark that didn’t light the kindling, as similar shows did not follow in its wake.) The producers and this newly minted team had an exciting idea in mind: to create a musical play. The story could be light, but the dramaturgy would be taken as seriously as it is in any serious drama. Actions would be fully motivated. The psychological make-up of all major characters would be dealt with. One example: the sexual subconscious of the heroine would be depicted in a dream ballet choreographed by Agnes DeMille.

DeMille was famous at the time for the Wild West ballets she’d created with composer Aaron Copland. Listening to Rodeo and Billy the Kid (as I often do), one discovers an analog to the propulsive forward thrust of galloping horses. In Oklahoma!, Rodgers latched on to some similar ideas. Think of the vamps under I Cain’t Say No and The Farmer and the Cowman, the shuffles under All or Nothing or the country fiddle zipping along in the overture. The point here isn’t that Rodgers was derivative of Copland, it’s that he took seriously the idea that his music should depict the story’s time and place. Those wonderful hit-filled scores he’d done previously with Hart lack this verisimilitude. I imagine he didn’t care about such things, but now, working on this musical play, he prioritized telling the story, rather than generating radio hits.

The first essay I can remember writing about musical theatre detailed Rodgers’ transformation from a jazzy chart-topper to dramatic storyteller. But equally remarkable was Hammerstein’s evolution into the greatest dramatist of the time. Those who think of Oklahoma! as fluff may have forgotten it concerns a class conflict involving a laborer who literally lives below the ground, an Arab immigrant who sells hallucinogenic drugs to a virgin (causing her to have a sex-dream we see), men sharing porn and a connected threat that a rival will be knifed in the eyeball, a murder trial that must be done precisely according to statute or the territory won’t be granted statehood, and a fiancé who so doubts his bride’s fidelity he makes her swear their future children will look like him. Fluff, it’s not, although Rodgers and Hammerstein tackled more serious stuff in their next four shows: Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, and The King and I.

And when other writers tackled tough subjects – West Side Story and Cabaret come quickly to mind – it’s because Oklahoma! opened the door. All great musicals follow in its footsteps, with a seriousness of purpose, with ample thought to the psychological underpinnings of character actions, with music that effectively depicts the setting. Oklahoma! may not be my favorite musical. It may not be yours. But chances are our favorites never would have existed were it not for the myriad innovations unleashed 75 years ago today.

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Pieces of eight

March 22, 2018

It is easy to knock Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It is easy to mock Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And sometimes I think his unparalleled financial success brings out a certain snarkiness in us under-compensated musical theatre people. But then, his hero, Richard Rodgers, had success writing shows, unlike anyone previous, and was snark unleashed at him? Simply less snarky times, the good old days? Or could it be that Lloyd Webber (his 70th birthday is today) is really awful?

I’m writing this on the Ides of March, and come not to damn him, but to praise him. (Every post provides its own challenges.) First, I must note that we tend to think of his shows as Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, and forget he has collaborators. That’s unusual. Quick, who wrote Phantom of the Opera? Chances are you didn’t say Charles Hart, who wrote the lyrics. And the book, oddly, is credited to Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe. It wasn’t ever thus. For a long time, people talked of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice as a team, but then they both had success with other collaborators.

So, if this composer gets practically all the credit, he also tends to get all the blame. If Stephen Ward bombed (and it did), a lot of people point to Lord Lloyd Webber, but it seems logical that an inept retelling of the Profumo affair might better be laid at the feet of wordsmiths Christopher Hampton and Don Black.

Although it’s clear Lloyd Webber is involved with many aspects of his shows, he comes off a bit better if we view him solely as a composer. Take the anthropomorphic revue that he’s most widely derided for, Cats. There had to be a time when thirty-ish Andrew felt it was time to take time off from working with Rice on shows about celebrities and their fawning fans. He set himself a simpler task: setting music to a famous set of nursery rhymes by T.S.Eliot. Each page of doggerel describes a different pussy personality, so it makes sense to set each in a different musical style. And here the score succeeds in spades. There’s the stodgy Bustopher Jones strut, the Andrews Sisters bit, the train-like number in 13/8 time, and my personal favorite, the sentimental waltz about the old theatre cat. Good stuff, and it might have made a fine children’s album, or a concert for kids.

Powerful commercial forces made it something else entirely, the first “theme park” musical. Compared to other works for the stage, it’s a furry mess. You want to blame Lloyd Webber for that, be my guest. But the challenge he originally set for himself was admirably fulfilled.

When you have a project that’s not intended to be a stage musical and then repurpose the material for the West End, you naturally run into trouble. Say you’re fashioning a one-woman show for television. The small screen focus on one character, one performer managing to tell a story involves close-ups and something of a rock concert aesthetic. The singer’s range comes into play. So, for Marti Webb, Lloyd Webber could write a major seventh leap in the middle of a word (“apartment”) and get away with it. (Normally, this is considered horrible voice-leading.) But here come those money-grubbers again: Let’s make this musical for the stage. One star sings for the first act. Dancers enter for Act Two, using the variations of the familiar Paganini theme you wrote for your cellist brother. Poof, we have something big enough for Broadway. Now, as musicals go, Song and Dance may be fairly weak tea. But what Lloyd Webber originally composed for television is strong Earl Grey. I admire Come Back With the Same Look In Your Eyes and appreciate that Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known makes 5/4 time palatable; its awkwardness works in its favor. Again, what started as a little thing with certain virtues got blown up into something much bigger but less effective. And when you have an extremely predictable tune called When You Want To Fall In Love, the last thing you ought to do is change the lyric to Unexpected Song. Unexpected? The title invites the mockery.

Back in her performing days, my wife dazzled as two Lloyd Webber heroines, but it was a college assignment she told me about that first clued me in to the notion that this was someone I could marry. In it, she described compositional techniques used in Jesus Christ Superstar. As Judas froths with self-revulsion over his betrayal of Jesus, a chorus sings a calm major chord “Well done, Judas.” – in a completely different key. It’s a dissonance built on utterly disparate things: traditional church choir and contemporary self-lacerating rock. This is so effective, I’d call it a sonic coup, or – dare I say it? – original.

And that’s a word rarely applied to the Brit who’s served up Puccini, Bach, Mendelssohn and Pink Floyd and passed it off as his own. And I’m reminded that my wife heard something I was writing recently and claimed it was a theft from Phantom of the Opera. Is robbing a robber robbery? When it was pointed out that the first measure of Music of the Night is startlingly similar to Lerner & Loewe’s Come To Me Bend To Me, Lloyd Webber claimed it was his homage to Lerner, who was, at one point, supposed to write the words to Phantom. (Quite the homage to Lerner, quoting the work of Loewe.) But, you see, this is the problem with considering Lloyd Webber as anything other than the crafter of tunes. His talent lies not in talking about his work, but in coming up with melodies. Get past the derivativeness of bar one, and the long quote from Girl of the Golden West, and you’ll find a bridge that travels into odd and exciting places. There’s gold in dem hills; you just have to dig for it.


There’s gotta be an alternative

March 14, 2018

I’m setting myself a couple of huge challenges with this post. I’m going to talk about the process of writing music in a way that every reader out there can understand and yet will still be of some interest to those mavens who know way more about music theory than I do. And, if that isn’t hard enough, I’m going to start with a brief mention of current events that’s going to seem like it’s about politics, but really is not about politics at all.

You ready?

There’s a look of delight on Rachel Maddow’s face whenever she announces new indictments coming out of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And here’s the thing: her delight is not about another Trump-connected person going down. It’s about the unpredictability of the successfully secretive Mueller team. She can’t tell what he’ll do next and this fact truly tickles her.

Harmony’s a lot like that.

Things happen in sequences, and we can say they run on a scale going from most obvious to most surprising. We’ve all suffered through plots that get us to think, “I saw that coming.” Good plots tend to surprise us.

I’ve always been crazy about chord symbols. Not all music has them, but those Vocal Selections from Broadway shows usually do. And that’s where my eye goes. For most of my piano-playing career, my eye had to go there because I find it easiest just to play the vocal line and let my left hand render those chords. But this isn’t about playing music, it’s about analyzing as a step towards writing better music. So, I’m reading that sequence of chords and I might find them very surprising or not at all.

There’s always a most obvious chord. In a way, this is kind of comforting. The composer knows a path, a place to go next. I can draw you a chart. But a lot of people are scared of charts, and anything called “music theory.” Fear not! I’m making this simple. The Circle of Fifths is a way of arranging the twelve possible notes you can build chords upon in the shape of a clock. The space between any two that are next to each other is exactly the same. Travel counter-clockwise, and your harmony is going the most obvious route.

When I was sixteen, I wrote a little theme and started with something you don’t hear every day, going from F to B. But, from there, I took the cliché path, right around that circle: Em7, A9, Dm7, G7(b9), C7. (You can safely ignore anything that isn’t a capital letter.) I then repeated the sequence: F, B, Em7, A9, Dm7, G13(b9), C. I’m sorry if this looks like gobbledy-gook to you. Just saying that there’s a cliché involved in traveling along that clock.

For years I kept a sign over my desk that read:

ESCHEW CLICHÉ

Every time I pick a chord on that well-traveled path, I die a little. I’ve failed to eschew cliché. But here it must be said that if your chord sequence is too weird, listeners will revolt. Nobody hums Arnold Schonburg. Musical fans frequently hum Claude-Michel Schönberg, who consistently uses those most obvious harmonies. 30 years ago I walked out of Les Misérables humming Pachelbel’s Canon. This is considered the ultimate classical music cliché, because of its ultra-obvious and endlessly iterated harmonic structure. Its use in the film, Ordinary People, have led many to call it Ordinary Music.

But Les Miz is such a hit. It’s been suggested to me that my sign ought to read

EMBRACE CLICHÉ

But there’s got to be a happy medium, right? There’s got to be a way of avoiding too many obvious steps. Of shaking the listener, a little, but not so often that she can’t grasp what she’s hearing on first hearing.

Composers often talk in terms of emotional colors, but that’s so abstract. Instead, let’s talk in terms of cooking. You’re a chef who’s willing to experiment. You’ve a huge spice rack. (I like to alphabetize mine.) So, cilantro and cinnamon are right next to each other. How does your stew taste if you add those two? It’s either intriguing or ick. Now, maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Top Chef, but I think every experienced chef knows something about flavor on the effect of adding any spice on the rack.

Combinations of chords hit the ear in different emotional ways. Think about this stuff enough, and you memorize the feel behind a slew of them. Composers know what’s intriguing and what’s ick. Many’s the time we go to the most obvious chord, that neighbor on the Circle of Fifths. But I tend to admire those brave enough to go to unexpected places. If you surprise my ear, my attention gets drawn in; whereas a pattern I’ve heard a million times before is easy to tune out. Vernon Duke, Leonard Bernstein, David Shire, Adam Guettel – these wizards take my ear on a journey filled with surprising harmonies, God love ‘em.

Of course, good songs are written in different ways. One pictures James Taylor, hearing of the death of a young friend, and strumming the most obvious chords on his guitar, without thinking, perhaps, pouring out his emotions. There’s nothing wrong with Fire and Rain and I admit that what I do is fairly uncommon. I prefer to experiment with unexpected harmonic language quite often, as if ESCHEW CLICHÉ was a command from God. And “God,” you know, is my silly pet name for George Gershwin.


Magical music

March 6, 2018

Stephen Schwartz turns 70 today but way back when he was in his twenties he had three smash hit long-running musicals on Broadway. One of these, Godspell, had transferred from Off-Broadway, where it had played five years. That’s an amazing amount of success at an amazingly young age.

Like many of us, I’ve been contemplating the power of the young in recent weeks. Sometimes, it takes a tyro to start a revolution. The old ways can seem played out, no longer effective. Prior to Schwartz, a show tune sounded like a show tune, and musical theatre’s Golden Age had provided a bunch of scores that sounded somewhat similar to each other: Your parents’ music. Then, a kid bursts on the scene whose songs sounded like Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. How fresh he must have sounded, imbued with the energy of youth.

I’m not one who knocks the Golden Era. (A major critic once called me Jerry Hermanish.) But, today, listen to a little of Mack and Mabel and then listen to Pippin. They don’t seem like they’re from the same planet, let alone the same era. The former had stars but wasn’t a hit; the latter lacked stars but ran forever.

The Seventies can be seen as a transformative period. The older generation clung to the idea that show music shouldn’t sound like pop. Later came the idea that new shows shouldn’t sound like Golden Era shows. In the Seventies, both types existed, and nobody did more to demonstrate how pop sounds can be used for dramatic purposes than Stephen Schwartz.

That’s because he’s a man of the theatre, with an innate understanding of what makes a song theatrical. This quality is notably missing when aging rock stars decide to try their hand at the legitimate stage. The first Schwartz number heard in the first Schwartz musical is an octet in which various philosophies are heard in counterpoint: Socrates, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Sartre, Nietzsche, and Buckminster Fuller. Now, I ask you, could a professional rock star ever come up with anything like that? Schwartz turns these intellectual tenets into easily-understood lyrics, like only a Broadway baby can. And just when this threatens to be too wordy to take, we hear the startling sound of a ram’s horn. A new song begins, and its lyric consists of seven words repeated over and over again. The mind gets a break. We can sit back and enjoy the joyful dancing. The boy in his early twenties who came up with that understood something about how an audience pays attention that older writers consistently miss.

Let’s hear it for the boy; let’s give that boy a hand. Or, a wall of hands. The opening number I just described would be awfully hard to top, no? Well, what if, in the beginning, you saw three dozen hands, palm forward, instead of a curtain? The light catches nothing else. There’s a rock bassist and an electric piano and yet, somehow, this music is placing us in a faraway time and place. “Join us,” a commedia player commands. Harmonically, we’ve got the cool jazz of a minor ninth chord, never settling into anything truly familiar, like a tonic. But what was strange and wondrous in 1972 is now iconic: We think of Magic To Do as the paradigm of openings.

And then comes the paradigm of I Want songs, Corner of the Sky. But my favorite first two tracks on a Stephen Schwartz cast album are Chanson and Merci Madame from his first bomb, The Baker’s Wife. It closed out of town but, miraculously, four performers were hustled into a recording studio. None of the numbers involving anyone other than Paul Sorvino, Patti LuPone, Kurt Peterson and Terri Ralston were recorded, so this cast album doesn’t really represent the show as it actually was. But, having seen it some years later, I can tell you: that’s a good thing. The solos and duets are wonderful, tell a moving story, and the album is a joy to listen to. The whole show, in the theatre, is filled with annoying ensembles and the plot is deeply problematic. We love the baker and the baker loves his much younger wife. She decides to run away with a young lover, so, naturally, we hate her. Except Schwartz came up with a tour-de-force for the performer, an extremely long allegory that allows this adulteress to justify her perfidy. By rights, the audience should boo and hiss her off the stage. But that song, Meadowlark, is so hard to sing, we’re so impressed by the singer, we applaud wildly. This is so problematic, the producer David Merrick tried to cut it by literally going into the orchestra pit and removing every musician’s copy from their music stands. Contractually, it’s up to the writers to approve all cuts, but I can see where he was coming from.

Musical theatre writers in New York and Los Angeles have another reason to appreciate Schwartz. Annually, at the ASCAP writing workshop, he shares his thoughts, critiquing new musicals. The information I’ve gleaned, listening to him over the many years, is far more valuable to me than the fine examples of his formidable musicals for the stage and screen. No writer has shared more about what goes into the crafting of a show. And he’s not delivering a prepared speech; he’s simply saying what comes to his head. I admire his mind even more than his music.

The thing about Schwartz lyrics is that they’re squarely in the musical comedy tradition and usually sound nothing like pop. They deliver story, subtext, surprise and here’s the part that gives one pause: overly clever rhymes. That’s an old-fashioned quality, seemingly at odds with the modern sound of his music. In a way, this contradiction defines Schwartz – the new-fashioned sound with old-fashioned showmanship. I sometimes lose patience with this showiness (“Life is fraught-less when you’re thoughtless.”) but this may have to do with my fear that something similar goes on in my own work.

And we’ve this other odd thing in common. As children, our parents took us to visit a professional composer who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. The idea wasn’t to influence us to become musical theatre writers. We went because George Kleinsinger kept all sorts of exotic animals in his apartment including a toucan named Sam. Only one of us went on to write a musical about Noah’s Ark, though. Happy birthday to him.


Jazz waltz

March 2, 2018

When I criticize songwriters on this page, I suspect some readers go “Fine, Katz, but who do you like?” So let’s talk about Harvey Schmidt, who died the other day.

He’s known for exactly three shows – there are others, but they’re rather obscure – 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do and The Fantasticks. That last one is the longest-running musical that ever was. People were so shocked that it closed after 42 years – New York no longer seemed like New York – that a revival opened uptown and that ran for eleven years, closing just last June. Now, one could cynically look at the economics: extremely cheap show to produce managed to fill a tiny theatre on Sullivan Street until it could advertise itself as the longest-running musical in town when My Fair Lady closed. But looking at The Fantasticks through the economic lens minimizes what’s extraordinary about it. Harvey Schmidt’s tunes were like none ever heard before, and Barbra Streisand’s recording of Soon It’s Gonna Rain let the larger world know there was something rather special to be heard down in the Village.

If I use the phrase “harmonic palette” please do not skip this paragraph. We’re discussing a composer here (also a painter) and I’ll attempt to explain what makes a Schmidt song sound different from anyone else’s. The 1950’s saw the flowering of a particular kind of jazz. Listeners to popular music now appreciated all sorts of chords that hadn’t been used much in previous decades. “Jazz piano” was enjoyed, in part, for the kicky way fingers fell off keys – a “grace note” – in which a sound is briefly heard, something like a mistake, and then, more strongly, the next note on the keyboard sounds. The piano is a percussive instrument, so unexpected rhythms, often on a heavy left hand, became popular. And another thing – block chords – which use more notes, closer together, a cluster where the pianist might use all five fingers. There’s an ugliness to these, and so there’s a fresh surprise when a pianist manages to make them pretty.

It’s long been my observation that, in music, harmony marched forward. Every age innovates, somehow. Gershwin does things Irving Berlin never thought of. Bernstein took composing a step further. And, after Harvey Schmidt, well, I’m afraid that, for the most part, the harmonic palettes failed to get more colorful. Here, I blame rock, often the production of untrained young folk strumming guitars. Their fingers didn’t reach out towards the more complex chords and audiences got used to the I-IV-V and progress halted. (Sorry to sound so bleak.)

Another thing that halted in the sixties was Harvey Schmidt’s Broadway career. After Celebration, an experimental musical that was a touch too weird to enrapture audiences on The Great White Way, the master jazzman made no further forays to The Street. His first decade was so glorious, one might have looked forward to a steady stream of great Schmidt scores over the subsequent five decades, but, damn, the stream got dammed.

This is pushing the metaphor too far, but I once appeared in a Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt show involving a lack of water, 110 in the Shade. I was all of 16 and was particularly impressed by what was happening in the chords on Another Hot Day. The first five notes send us straight up a major seventh chord, and I love major seventh chords. They use four pitches in the major scale in what sounds, to me, simultaneously happy and poignant. (And is found infrequently in pre-Schmidt music.) Then, he goes right into another major seventh chord, establishing a pattern. But, on the words, “not a sign on the horizon” the ear is surprised. Instead of hearing the major seventh, we hear the note just below it, the sort of unanticipated detour that characterizes the blues. The title line keeps hitting the minor third where the major is expected. I fear I may have gotten too technical here, but that’s the blues for you.

And Texas. Jones and Schmidt were both from Texas, both preacher’s sons from small towns. It seems a no-brainer that David Merrick would choose them to adapt The Rainmaker. One number exemplifies Schmidt’s flair for the theatrical. Every time you hear the title, Old Maid, you’re hearing block chords, pulsing dramatically, and some of these are major sevenths. Plus, the song ends with a large quote of Another Hot Day. When we first heard it, it was a pleasant, if laconic, way to set the scene. Here, the drought is a force of evil, so that once-pleasant song is now heard as sinister.

They tried and failed to get Mary Martin to do 110 in the Shade, but then David Merrick succeeded in signing her for the next Jones & Schmidt bon bon, I Do, I Do. I think about this show all the time, because it’s a two-performer musical that focuses on a marriage, and that’s what I’m writing now. So, I ask myself, how do I keep this interesting for an audience? How can I remain true to my characters but throw in the maximum variety in the score? If I keep writing songs and then decide to cut them, it seems I’m in Schmidt’s footsteps, because he and Tom Jones wrote 114 songs for 110 in the Shade. I Do, I Do also has some intriguing discards you can hear on one of Bruce Kimmel’s Lost In Boston albums. But one that was kept was much on my mind last month. For Valentine’s Day, my Facebook status was the entire lyric to I Love My Wife. Seeing it on the page, as “just” words, doesn’t do it justice. Schmidt set it to peppy jazz, with that trademark grace note, and so it plays as fun rather than sentimental. If you don’t know the song, I suggest you read the lyric before listening to Robert Preston.

lyric                                  Original Cast Recording

(One of my ongoing anxieties is the idea that a two-character show can only work with prodigiously talented, always-interesting performers. Maybe I Do, I Do succeeded because people really wanted to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston and I need to get their equivalents. O.K….)

But I wanted to leave you with an anecdote about Schmidt you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. As I Do, I Do was in rehearsals, a reporter confronted him about he could write about marriage since he was a lifelong bachelor. “WELL…” mock accusingly, the pressman pressed him as to why he’d never married. Harvey Schmidt jibed back, “I’m waiting for the reviews.”