I’ll miss

May 24, 2018

Sea birds soaring twenty feet above a body of water suddenly spot food and plunge down, faster than gravity. The speed of their descent is more like what a falling human’s would be. Picture, now, a Brooklyn warehouse, and on the floor is a gymnastics mat, not more than a few inches thick. From a very tall platform, people jump, their arms stretched out, and plummet, completely flat, on to that mat. One after another they fly, to a rhythm, in time to music.

An old portable radio sits on the ground near where a spaceship from outer space lands. Out pour a bunch of galactic travelers in white-face; although, the more one looks at them, the more you realize various ethnic groups are represented under the greasepaint. They turn on the radio and imitate the scratchy sound in-between stations. When they hit the right spot on the dial, though, they suddenly imitate classic rock, orchestral warhorses, pop of various eras. They harmonize; they make percussive sounds; they humorously interact with the audience without speaking a word.

On tour, a traditional song-and-dance man bounds across a stage, tapping up a storm, to the tune of Young and Healthy. You’re so bedazzled by his dexterity and grace, you never notice that he’s legally blind, and had only “seen” this unfamiliar theatre space a few hours before.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music rocks the house as singers who are also actors who are also acrobats fly on trampolines and trapezes and do all the impressive things done by competitive cheerleading squads.

You’re having the time of your life, applauding so hard your hands hurt. These experiences of wild showmanship stick in your memory. Eventually, a question forms in your head: “How did they find people who can do all that?”

Joy Dewing. The widely-beloved casting director Joy Dewing engineered a process that found those people who could drop twenty feat without putting a limb forward to cushion their landings; the beat-boxers and close harmony experts who also mime; extraordinary tappers in droves; kids who leap while waving pom-poms and belting their faces off. The more than five year run of Joy Dewing Casting was responsible for 21 national tours, 56 regional productions, 2 Broadway musicals, 25 New York/Off-Broadway concoctions, and 3 dance companies; plus countless readings the public didn’t get to see.

Something else the public might not know: Joy Dewing, almost single-handedly, revolutionized and modernized the way casting is done in New York. So here’s something else to picture. The sun comes up on a snowy morning. A crowd of young aspirants is standing in front of a locked door. Someone takes a piece of notebook paper, tapes it to the door. Everybody signs up, then leaves until the time the notice in Backstage says auditions are to begin. And then they’re heartbroken to find the people behind the table have a completely different list, their names not on it.

That’s how life used to be for performers in New York. If you got in the room, you sang your sixteen bars in less than a minute, the word “next!” was yelled brusquely, and you’d be out the door. Once out, you’d mutter to yourself “There’s got to be a better way.” Thanks to Joy, the better way was born, became the industry standard. Casting notices get posted on-line, and there’s an equitable system of signing up for slots on-line and no name gets lost. Your time in the room is markedly different. A friendly person greets you, sincerely interested in what you can do. No one yells “next!” but a heartfelt thank you comes when it’s time to go. You leave the room feeling you’ve shared something of yourself, to receptive ears, and eyes that are on you, not screens. The process isn’t only fair, it’s designed to bring out the best in people.

And it’s not just a certain kind of people. Joy spearheaded a more enlightened age in which performers of all ethnicities and the differently-abled are not just considered but cast in roles that would have only gone to traditionally able-bodied whites just a decade ago. That sort of acceptance comes from altering a mind-set: no, Annie doesn’t have to be a redhead with skin white as snow. Now, we all know there’s lots of prejudice in the world: always has been, continues today. Imagine the ingenuity and perseverance required to get the old powers-that-be to revise their thinking and cast a wider net for performers. That’s my wife, Joy Dewing.

So, I imagine that you don’t accept that I’m reporting all this unbiased; that’s a natural assumption. But ask anyone in the New York theatre community and they’ll go on and on about her extraordinary abilities and empathy. We all know that auditioning is a harrying cross-to-bear for a lot of people. Joy sees to it that everybody is at ease, feels welcome, finds the fun. So it’s no wonder that performers’ hearts are lifted whenever she’s in the room.

What can a spouse tell you? This will seem like more than a bit of a stretch, but let’s look back at what Jackie Kennedy said after her husband was assassinated. She recalled that he enjoyed listening to the cast album of Camelot (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, with whom he attended Harvard). And suddenly, the press and historians referred to the Kennedy White House as Camelot. Now, I’m certainly not saying Joy has the importance of her fellow crusader for civil rights, John F. Kennedy. But, on a different scale, there’s a somewhat similar sense that we just lived through a short and impermanent golden age in which the world got better. Joy Dewing Casting is no longer. But

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

 

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Women’s world

May 13, 2018

For Mothers’ Day, I thought I’d say a few words about the mothers of us all, the great female musical theatre creators. Broadway, for most of its history, was one of those Old Boys’ Clubs, but, every now and then, women who could write circles around most of the men managed to break through. Their work became part of our collective consciousness and influences us, often anonymously. Which is fine and dandy to some; me, I think more people should know Fine and Dandy has music by Kay Swift. So, here’s to the ladies…

As the father of a daughter, I admit to a certain skittishness about her growing up to go into show business. A century ago, Lew Fields was a famous musical comedy star, and didn’t feel lyric-writing was an acceptable vocation for his daughter, Dorothy. She defied him, and bravely invited him to see a Harlem revue featuring her songs. The singers that night, however, had no respect for the text, replacing her words with embarrassingly smutty jokes. Imagine young Dorothy Fields hurriedly explaining to her dad that the sex-sodden travesty was not from her pen. She was a nice girl! And soon proved successful with songs like I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, On the Sunny Side of the Street and The Way You Look Tonight.

lyrics by Dorothy Fields

Four decades later, Bob Fosse was putting together a musical based on a Fellini film about a whore with heart. People doubted that a rather refined old lady could come up with contemporary and “street” argot for the dancers-for-rent of the Fandango Ballroom. But Sweet Charity landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam, and may be the greatest set of lyrics ever written.

Betty Comden sought an acting career, and became a writer out of necessity. She and lifelong professional partner Adolph Green had a nightclub gig in Greenwich Village, lampooning existing hit songs. Then they learned about this thing called Copyright Infringement, and had to team up with composers who’d provide original melodies. Among the act’s fans was one Leonard Bernstein, and when he was given the opportunity to turn his ballet, Fancy Free, into a musical, he insisted on Comden and Green for book and lyrics. They, in turn, insisted on playing leading roles, thinking performing on Broadway would boost their acting careers. Thankfully for us, On the Town boosted their writing careers. Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s names became synonymous with a certain kind of never-too-serious musical comedy. They wrote the screenplay for what’s considered filmdom’s greatest musical, Singing in the Rain, but I’m far fonder of the two star vehicles of mid-fifties Broadway, Bells Are Ringing and Wonderful Town. The latter was written in a mad rush, as another team’s score was jettisoned just weeks before Rosalind Russell had to start rehearsals due to scheduling issues.

They collaborated with Cy Coleman, who had a predilection for working with female lyricists. He also collaborated with Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh. I treasure Coleman & Leigh songs for their distinctive way of using words:

I have a feeling that beneath the little halo on your noble head
There lies a thought or two the devil might be interested to know
You’re like the finish of a novel that I’ll finally have to take to bed

That’s bold stuff, for the 1950s, putting female lust front and center. But the most-told-tale about Carolyn Leigh involved rehearsals for Little Me, when the producer and director (Bob Fosse) wanted to cut one of her numbers. She could have called the Dramatists Guild, but instead ran out of the theatre and convinced him to enter the theatre. “Officer, arrest that man!” I’ve long wished she lived to complete Smile, because it might have been successful and wacky, but the bard who wrote “If you should survive to 105, think of all you’ll derive out of being alive” died at 57.

Serendipity: a friend just asked about A…My Name Is Alice, the off-Broadway revue devised by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. This fabulous and funny artifact of feminism, circa 1983, utilized a huge number of writers before they became famous including Marta Kauffman, Winnie Holzman, and Lucy Simon. But two friends of mine who never gained fame, Georgia Holof and David Metee, outdid them all, creating the most moving female duet ever penned, Friends.

A contemporary lyricist who never fails to move me is Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, My Favorite Year, Ragtime, Seussical, Anastasia). Those ignorant louts who maintain “They sure don’t write them like they used to” are usually usually of her works with composer Stephen Flaherty.

Of course the “just”-a-composer I’m going to mention is Jeanine Tesori. Her least-known credit is musical directing my college revue, The New U. and the following year crafted an equally good varsity show with Alexa Junge. Then I had to wait a few years to see Jeanine make the splash I’d always been certain she’d make. The past 21 years have been electrified with her groundbreaking musicals. Some are not quite like any musical ever seen before, and yet they’re all amazingly different from each other – could any pair be more polar opposites than Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home? Now, part of this may have something to do with all her shows having different lyricists, but I think Jeanine reinvents herself for every show, synthesizing the times and places of her settings. When needed, she’ll utilize multiple styles within the same show, such as when she depicted working class blacks and well-off Jews in 1960s Louisiana for Caroline, or Change. The kitchen appliances sound more like the former.

As I was writing this, I was listening to the relatively new-to-the-scene Shaina Taub. I don’t know if she’s the future. But there’s something to be said for familiarizing oneself with the work of women who write musicals on Mothers’ Day. Leave Battle Him of the Republic and America the Beautiful for another day. Oh, wait: those are by women, too.


We’ve been hit

May 5, 2018

Frozen’s prologue is incredibly moving.

Am I writing about the Broadway show, the film from a few years ago, or the theme park version? I don’t know! I’ve seen all three, recently, and it’s so easy to get them confused. But all three get me verklempt at the start: every time, every medium.

Little sister Anna’s exhortation, Do You Want To Build a Snowman? is a marvelous example of a song title with multiple meanings. Elsa knows she has the power to build a snowman by pointing her finger, but that using this power is unsafe. It hurts her to be asked to build a snowman, since it’s a reminder she can’t have fun with Anna like she used to. Anna’s memory of Elsa’s powers has been wiped clean, so she doesn’t know that she’s asking anything extraordinary. As the sequence goes on, the refusal to build a snowman together is an emblem for sisterly difference, and they’re literally separated by a thick door. Then, as they grow into late teens, the sisters have a greater understanding of how much they truly need each other, and asking to build a snowman, for no-longer-kids, is asking to turn back time.

Just let me in
We only have each other, it’s just you and me
What are we gonna do?
Do you wanna build a snowman?

The song itself is a family affair. One of theatre’s most talented composers, Bobby Lopez, working with his lyricist wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and voiced by their 8-year-old daughter Katie in the original film. The lyric is succinct, and knows where to drop out and let the image take over, as we see the pain on Elsa’s face.

So, at this point, I’m really feeling for those girls and their plight, even though the script conjures an artificial reason for their estrangement. Then an impressively energetic piece, For the First Time In Forever, electrifies the auditorium. Bobby Lopez had previously written two Tony-winning Broadway musicals, really funny ones (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) and working in Hollywood afforded him the opportunity to unleash the power of a studio orchestra. (Warning: I’ll probably talk again about unleashing power later in this piece.) The lyric captures inchoate romantic ambitions, where things seem so intense, one is likely to reach for the chocolate, but then there’s this:

Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy
But I’m somewhere in that zone

And this makes me smile, but I think it goes too far. Anna is the first Disney character to mention digestive distress, and “that zone” is such a modern locution, I momentarily lose sense of where we are.

But the Lopezes and librettist Jennifer Lee are here setting up a dangerous game. In a way, it’s admirable: Past Disney princesses dreamed that some day their prince would come and rescue them or that everything would be great if they received True Love’s Kiss. Frozen seeks to subvert all that. Successfully getting yourself a lover doesn’t solve anything; even the pursuit of romance is portrayed as a foolhardy idea. It’s an anti-love story, and seems a sign of our times. When the characters who should get together finally do, the boy asks permission to kiss the heroine, and it’s almost a parody of some no-means-no training film shown on college campuses.

Subversion and the dissolution of a tradition is a nice idea, but what does Frozen put in its place? Eternal winter.There’s a sisterly argument – the older one doesn’t want the younger doing something rash – and a glove gets pulled off accidentally and the world ends. And by world, I mean a place where human beings walk around and do normal things like falling in love. Nope. The bare-handed Elsa starts shooting ice everywhere. And everybody else on stage thinks this is a really awful thing. But, just as we’re grasping this awfulness, the show decides to play the unleashing of power the other way. Elsa’s being creative, and coming into her own. So, shooting ice out of your fingers is a good thing now.

To justify this concoction, Elsa is given a power ballad on the subject of her power. Naturally, it’s the weakest song in the original film and the one that won the Oscar. On Broadway, Caissie Levy makes a meal of it. Very impressive singing, a stunning visual with a magical transformation before our very eyes. It’s a real applause-getter but it does not make me feel what the authors want me to feel. In her sheltered life, Elsa didn’t use her powers for a good reason – they can seriously injure people, by accident. How can I react favorably to the unfettered grown-up? I know, let it go, Noel.

Snow. Too much snow. Trudging through snow. Fractals. (Did you ever expect to see “fractals” in a song written to be heard by kids?) Frozen drifts from a story of how sisters deal with each other to a tale of the elements, palace intrigue and charges of treason. The movie ceases being a musical. But I’m making it sound worse than it is because this miserable coldness is warmed by a good amount of comic relief. Without intending to, with absolutely no volition, Snow Queen Elsa builds…a snowman! And he says a lot of funny things.

So, we have to talk about Josh Gad, the maladroit missionary in Bobby Lopez’s The Book of Mormon. His way of speaking is unique and adorable. Lopez brought a bunch of Broadway people with him to voice the movie: Gad, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana. All are good, but God, that Gad really sounds like the sort of snowman who likes warm hugs. He just does. And his Olaf set a template that stage Olafs must copy, or risk disappointing kids.

And every time Disney adapts one of their hit animated movies to the stage, they face a similar problem. They’re designing something for families who know the original so well, they require a great deal of replication. I enjoyed Frozen on Broadway; it didn’t make a lot of mistakes. But is there any reason for it to be there, other than making money? Guys, you made a much-loved film: Can’t you leave the St, James Theatre for something more original?

And it’s here where I start to think of the things animation can do that the live stage show can’t. Rolling boulders turning into living, eye-blinking trolls, for instance. The cartoon puts those blinks on clearly delineated beats of music; doesn’t read in the theatre. But this leads me to a note of praise to end on. In stereotypical musicals, a chorus of townspeople might push characters to make a love connection. The trolls’ Fixer Upper production number delightfully sends up the cliché. We all know Anna and Kristoff aren’t an item. But we get to see a huge assembly of so-called “love experts” treat them as if they should be. We don’t take it seriously, and can enjoy all the sly insults in a bubbly and positive chorale.

So she’s a bit of a fixer-upper
That’s a minor thing
Her quote ‘engagement’ is a flex arrangement
And by the way I don’t see no ring!

So, is love good? Is shooting ice jets from your fingernails good? I’m still not sure. I guess, to my mind, Frozen’s a bit of a fixer-upper too.