Some days

April 25, 2018

These days, when you enter the Circle-in-the-Square theatre, you’re transported to a delightful Caribbean island. Residents with adorable accents joke with each other and joke with you, all the while handling a live goat, a live chicken, and a sizable shin-deep pool of water. It’s captivating and unexpected. This is Broadway, where we’re accustomed to a stodgy proscenium; instead, this is theatre-in-the-oval, and we’re all part of the show.

Eventually, house lights go down, music begins, and the cast sings and dances a story, directed at a little girl, but also directed at us. The only complexity is that we meet four Gods who use earth’s humans like chess-pieces. That means that we don’t quite grasp mortal actions having consequences: If Gods are playing with us all, we’re not in control of our fates.

Originally produced in 1990, Once On This Island marked the Broadway debut of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and it was very exciting to see a new team burst on the scene with such a high level of craft, such an understanding of how musical forms we’re used to in pop music can be used to further a narrative. So, of course, Flaherty is going to serve up a lot of reggae, but he’s always conscious of differentiating characters and having the songs all sound different. (One motif, on the first four notes of the scale, resurfaces) Some years later, in an admirably ambitious show called Ragtime, he did the same with a variety of rags. But here, on this island, the West Indies sounds become a kind of comfort food, always feeling right.

(Compare the white-girl reggae in The Last Five Years, called I Can Do Better Than That. The musical style, there, is wholly arbitrary, more than a bit puzzling as a choice.)

Flaherty and Ahrens went through the BMI workshop a couple of years after me, and it often strikes me that they’re the very models of the principles Lehman Engel imparted. Every phrase in every lyric is perfectly apt, utilizing exactly the vocabulary the character naturally uses. Each song moves you from one emotional place to another. A lot of the show is funny, but a great deal of the show is deeply moving.

Ti Moune and Daniel are star-crossed lovers. They meet by accident, literally, and it takes a great deal of bravery and industry for Ti Moune to go and meet Daniel again. An obvious antecedent is The Little Mermaid. Ariel saves Eric from a wreck but has to go through a hell of a lot to get to spend more time with him in his castle. Based on a novel by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island scrupulously keeps its heroine active. She is younger and far braver than those Wicked witches who occupy the same building several stories above.

On this island, the Montagues and Capulets aren’t equals. Ti Moune is a foundling from the dark-skinned peasant community. Daniel is lighter-skinned because he descends from a French colonist. This production, in a rare misstep, portrays the white forefather as a black shadow silhouette, and I know my daughter missed out on the important pigment-based prejudice aspect of the story.

Most of the time, though, director Michael Arden creates stunning stage pictures against a background that is made up of mostly white audience members. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but things fall from the ceiling or rise from the ground, and there’s energetic tale-telling in the choreography of Camille A. Brown. The show zips along from one great song to another (there’s almost no dialogue) and there are fully-committed performances from a beautiful cast.

Two problems of theatre-in-the-round, though, are not quite licked. One is that actors can’t constantly twirl. There will be times when you’ll be looking at the back of the head of a player who’s registering emotion on their face and you’ll miss it. In my review of the Jesus Christ Superstar telecast, I talked about how loud rock music literally rocks the floorboards, bursting into your ears as sounds bounce off the walls of the theatre. That can’t happen here because the walls are way behind all the seats. We hear sans bounce, and it’s a rare Broadway show when I think certain songs aren’t loud enough. Call it the damage of being inside a bowl (as in stadium); soundman won’t provide.

Honestly, though, my excitement about this production is mostly connected to how Once On This Island is written. Its most famous number is the paragon of I Want songs, Waiting For Life To Begin.

I’m here in the field
With my feet on the ground
And my fate in the air

Ahrens makes nifty use of consonance there, propelling the line forward. And, by song’s end, we love Ti Moune, here personified by young Hailey Kilgore, because she (rather than Ahrens) uses fun ways of speaking like that.

Flaherty is the vamp-master of his generation. The one that begins Forever Yours sits on two notes, but the harmonies underneath make the danger of this romantic expression palpable. And, just when you think you’re hearing a conventional love song, the God of Death bursts onto the stage making the whole thing suddenly evil. Tamyra Gray, in a role previously cast with a male actor, gave my favorite performance in the piece.

Long before I encountered Once On This Island, I heard admiring whispers about a solo waltz. When I heard Some Girls, I thought they should have been admiring shouts. 

Some girls take pleasure
In buying a fine trousseau
Counting each treasure
And tying each tiny bow
They hold their futures with perfumed hands
While you face the future with no demands

This is top-notch songwriting: We invest in this love story, our hearts fill with hope for the couple. The charm of these numbers is manipulative in the best possible sense. The audience goes through powerful emotions over a brisk ninety minutes.

Which reminds me of the nineteen-nineties, and how, of all the shows to premiere on Broadway, none moved me more than Once On This Island.

Oh what a lovely pal is mother

April 15, 2018

One of the unsung heroes of contemporary musical theatre celebrates her birthday today, Sara Louise Lazarus. If I say a few words about what she does, my hope is that it’s going to help you create better musicals. God knows the 18 years working with her have enriched my craft.

But I must admit I have what might be called the diarist’s impulse: the sense that I should write this all down before the memory fades. I don’t want to forget the lessons, the principles, the way of working, the caring. It’s been eight months since we worked together and… well, you know brains.

And mine can’t shake a thought about pit pulls. It’s said they sink their sharp teeth into something – say a postman’s leg – and refuse to let go. Jaws clamp down and it’s impossible to loosen that grip. Now picture a long day of rehearsals for a group cabaret. Say twenty-one young performers have been scheduled for twenty-minute sessions working with Sara. If I’ve done the math right, that’s seven hours or work for us. Except it’s not, because Sara never sticks to the twenty minute limit. There’s something she sees in a performance that she absolutely needs to make better, and refuses to give up on it – pit bull teeth in a leg.

Now, if you’re one of the individuals singing, you’re thrilled to have your performance sharpened. If you’re me, on the other hand, you’re exhausted from hours and hours of dogged fine-tuning. But, we keep on going, late into the night, because getting actors to convey truth in their songs is so very important to us.

Not every day is marathon-rehearsal day. More often, it’s a structured education with a series of steps that lead to a fully-acted, truthfully-expressed rendering of a musical theatre song. Sara breaks the process down into a set of assignments that constitute an in-depth investigation of material. You take the text, sans music, and work on it as an actor. At this point it’s a prose monologue in which you don’t stop at rhymes, or the end of lines, but move along at a pace totally determined by the emotions inherent in the words; how you respond to them. When Sara’s satisfied that you’ve investigated the lyric and taken in all the implied or expressed facts about the character singing and their situation, you move on to learning the music. Singing the song now involves a discovery of how the composer has dealt with the cadences of the lyric. Has he emphasized the syllables you emphasized in your monologue rendition? No? Then figure out why.

So, readers of this blog know that it’s written for writers. And I’m going to pause here to remind you of the need to stay on the same page. The lyricist has an idea about how the text should be acted. The composer can’t have a conflicting idea. Collaborators must go back and forth, revising and adjusting, until they’re on the same page.

For seventy-five years now, since Oklahoma!, subtext has had paramount importance in good musical theatre writing. Sara’s students then explore the thought behind the words. I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but, whenever I speak, my brain darts through all sorts of words and phrases I choose not to say out loud. (Some have been known to make fun of me for my halting way of talking.) Characters in good musicals have stuff in their heads the audience will never get to hear. And, just because I just mentioned the show, let’s use People Will Say We’re In Love as an example. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric says

Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love

But what the love-sodden character is actually thinking is just the opposite:

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it

None of that is said out loud; it’s the subtext. So the singers go back into monologue and speak something half theirs, half Hammerstein.

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers. Don’t throw bouquets at me
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents. Don’t please my folks too much
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating. Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it. People will say we’re in love

Sounds crazy, no? Well, that’s Laurie and Curly for you. A couple of contradictions who don’t express exactly what’s on their minds.

The culmination of the process is to match movements to the subtext, so that gestures – and these can be as subtle as a shift in where one’s eyes focus – are timed so that the audience sees the impulse to sing a line before the line is sung.

I realize this might sound unnecessarily complex, or seem unnatural when expressed in a quick essay. But Sara’s dealing with a roomful of bright students who eventually grasp this (or don’t) over time, as a group. And think about this: In real life, we listen to people who say things but have thoughts they don’t say all the time. So, a Sara-directed performance is infinitely closer to real life than the far-less-acted vocal displays we’re all too used to seeing.

There are too many Sara-trained performers on Broadway to name. Hello Dolly, School of Rock, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Wicked, The Bridges of Madison County, Little Shop of Horrors, Side Show, Throughly Modern Millie. I know, I know: Lists are boring to read. Has one teacher put a higher percentage of students on The Great White Way? I think not. Call it the benefit of being bit by a pit bull.

But the benefit for me, being a part of all of this, is a revolution in how I think about writing lyrics and music. My Sara-fed familiarity with the process actors go through has immeasurably affected my creative process on my last four or five musicals. Today a huge quantity of entertainers are wishing Sara a happy birthday, acknowledging how she upped their game. Me too, but it’s a slightly different game.

Morning devotional

April 8, 2018

Sounding similar to proselytes knocking on my door, asking if I’ve gotten to know Jesus, a lot of people are now asking what I thought of the television version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, I don’t wish to sound smug, or to slam the door in anyone’s face, but the question is connected to a fundamental misunderstanding of what I do. Theatre is created to be experienced live. Easter’s broadcast showed a live audience enjoying a star-studded production and we TV viewers have our faces pressed to the glass, supposing we know what it’s like to be in the room where it happened. We do not.

The enthusiastic throng in the Park Avenue Armory didn’t take in the zippy camerawork we couch potatoes did, and the stunning visual effect depicting the Ascension may not have wowed as strongly from all seats. But what’s most obvious is that rock music’s piquancy is connected to loud sounds that don’t fly to a satellite and back, or along a cable. The bass and drums literally rock the house, felt through the floorboards like a small earthquake. Anybody get that at home? Put a different way, is attending a rock concert anything like watching a rock concert on TV? Or: can the small screen with its lousy speakers only provide a distant simulacrum? If your living room floor was shaking, chances are that was an earthquake. Check your crystal.

I’ve heard that John Legend, in concert, is a delightful charismatic performer. That he has an ingratiating smile, makes eye contact with the audience, and has a rich, honeyed tone that envelopes the audience like a puff of fog. I say I’ve heard this, because none of that good stuff made its way from New York, to that satellite and back, to my living room. And how could it? This blockage is inherent in the medium, not the fault of Legend or director David Leveaux. In an early scene, Jesus leaned down to touch front-row fans, and they certainly looked like they were having a good time. Me, I’m alienated. I like to have a good time, not just watch other people having a good time.

Still, the music and libretto were on display, and I’m happy to muse on that. I think it’s an innovative and influential piece with many fine virtues that aren’t present in the other works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But, I’ll warn you now: some of these couldn’t be rendered on the idiot box. The revolution could not be televised.

The young Englishmen took the idea of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead and retold the most familiar story ever told from the point of view of a different character. And so, the final days of Jesus are told through the lens of Judas Iscariot. And this means that the usual requirement that the tale be expressed through song is lifted. We all know the story, but what we don’t know, and are automatically interested in, is how Judas feels as things progress. My six-year-old wanted to know why Caiaphas and Annas were so angry and I had no answer. The piece doesn’t bother explaining. But why Judas is worried about his friend’s growing celebrity status – that’s explored and explicated. And it’s why I’ve always thought Heaven On Their Minds is a terrific opening number.

“Jesus!” Judas wails, on a rock tenor A, fortissimo, and you feel his distress. Now, for the first time in musical theatre history (early 70s), rock is being used for full expressive power. Of course he screams, and of course his screams resonate around the house – there’s ample justification for it. And Broadway vet Brandon Victor Dixon seemed to have all the right moves, but – sorry to say this – my little TV speakers failed to rock the room. It was like watching something through a vaselined lens. I didn’t feel Judas’ anxiety because his sound didn’t hit my ears like normal rock does. Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote something powerful, and the broadcast diffused that.

Similarly, Legend, Dixon and Sara Bareilles express differing points of view during a 5/4 number called Everything’s Alright and I know, from previously seeing it live, that it can be pretty exciting. Here, it was forgettable, although this may have involved the lack of acting experience of Legend and Bareilles. The writing, in a large quantity of set-pieces, allows rock stars to wail out the emotions we already know are inherent. It’s as if the songwriters understood that providing ample opportunities for strong singers to rock out would be enough to make an entertaining evening. I like Jesus Christ Superstar because of the power of its best numbers. But rock legend Alice Cooper pranced with way too little camp for me to crack a smile during an old-fashioned comedy song. The supposedly-scary Pontius Pilate (Ben Daniels) failed to frighten. The wonderfully humanizing Gethsemene number didn’t move me a bit. And I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve seen these numbers work, gloriously, live. Here, live via satellite, they had little impact.

Still, fewer mistakes were made than were on the other televised musicals from the past decade or two, and I suppose we should all be grateful for that. It’s a weird form that can never quite work. So, even if they cast a better Jesus, Mary Magdalene, King Herod, Pontius Pilate and Annas, I don’t think I’d be raving right now. Call it Jesus Christ, Mildly-Effective-Star.