Give them what they want

June 22, 2018

This June has been so busy, I’m late in acknowledging Charles Strouse’s 90th birthday, which was June 7. And I’m going to cut myself a break by reprinting, here, something I wrote for a Big Time Professional Blog. I have it on good authority that Martin Charnin finds my premise ludicrous. So… enjoy!

People usually credit Hair with bringing the sound of rock & roll to the Broadway stage, but one composer effectively inserted rock into his scores years earlier: Charles Strouse. At a time when pop culture and Broadway were parting ways, Strouse bridged the gap, incorporating contemporary sounds into his scores for Bye Bye Birdie, All American, Golden Boy, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Applause, and even Annie. Songs from his shows were some of the only Broadway tunes to get significant radio play in the 1960’s.

And it started as a joke. In 1960, four funnymen who’d never written a musical professionally before, got together to make fun of a cultural phenomenon. Elvis Presley had cast a spell on young America. He sang a new kind of music and had a different kind of personality than previous stars. He wasn’t particularly articulate in interviews, pictures showed him with a sullen sneer, and his hip-swinging while singing struck a lot of people as obscene. Of course, those words could describe a lot of subsequent rock stars, but Elvis-the-Pelvis was the first. Gower Champion (director), Lee Adams (lyricist), Michael Stewart (librettist) and Charles Strouse (composer) thought this was so amusing, they wrote a show about it: Bye Bye Birdie.

Gower Champion had a choreographic vision involving women swooning and losing control of their muscles as their dreamboat gyrates. Lee Adams noted how rock & roll lyrics often seem to have a thinly veiled sexual content. (“When I sing about a girl, I really feel that girl.”) Michael Stewart had written for Sid Caesar’s television show and would have known Caesar’s musical sketch, You Are So Rare To Me, in which one syllable gets broken into unconnected pulses, just like the endless “baby” in the bridge of One Last Kiss – lampooning rockers’ vocal style.

But Strouse goes beyond mere Presley parody. He sets up different musical landscapes for the two warring generations. The adults sing in styles other than rock – Kids and Rosie are, in effect, old people’s music. Meanwhile, the teen ballad, One Boy, uses a shuffle rhythm and back-up singers in the manner of 50s pop, and when Birdie and the teens sing together (Got a Lot Of Living To Do) Strouse marshals the power of a rhythmically pulsed major seventh, a chord not often heard in musicals of the time, but emerging in rock (e.g., This Boy).

After the breakthrough success of Bye Bye Birdie, Strouse and Adams teamed up with another of Sid Caesar’s gagmen, Mel Brooks, to pen All American. The show also depicted a generational divide, this time between college students and their professors. While the show’s one hit, Once Upon a Time, was a duet for the oldsters, the ingénue has a naughty number called Night Life. Its jazzy vamp keeps accenting the seventh of the scale on an off-beat, where one doesn’t expect it. She’s rebellious and sexy in the way the teenage girl of Bye Bye Birdie is not allowed to be. (You wouldn’t know this from watching the Birdie movie featuring the too-erotic-to-be-believed Ann-Margaret.)

When Strouse and Adams teamed with Clifford Odets to musicalize his play, Golden Boy, the challenge was to represent contemporary urban African-Americans with some level of authenticity. Broadway hadn’t heard anything quite like it. Strouse produced a score that sometimes rocks, sometimes swings and culminates in an energetic gospel funeral. Is Golden Boy a rock musical? It’s certainly soulful, and the definition of what constitutes “rock” gets revised over time. Many of the songs – even a traditional show tune like Don’t Forget 127th Street – end with repetition and quasi-improvisational jazzy playoffs more common in rock records than theatre.

Writing It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Strouse & Adams faced a familiar scenario: a happy chorus giddy with admiration for an unusual superstar. Whether he was conscious of the connection with Bye Bye Birdie or not, Strouse rocks We Need Him, It’s Super Nice and Lois Lane’s It’s Superman. She references a “schoolgirl fantasy” and so seems, in a way, Birdie‘s Kim McAfee all grown up. The hit that emerged from the score, You’ve Got Possibilities, was once sung by Lady Gaga. (I should know: I was at the piano.)

Applause was another hit set in present-day New York. In a production number called But Alive, the leading lady visits a gay bar and dances with adoring fans. They’re accompanied, naturally, by the groovy strains of 1970. This was after Hair, and Broadway audiences, by that point, had become more acclimated to rock music in the theatre.

In fact, the culture, at large, had a new attitude about rock songwriting by the 1970s. What had seemed like inarticulate utterances of hormone-crazed teens grew, in seriousness, as adult performers sang out protests against the war in Vietnam, racial prejudice and other weighty issues. Making fun of young people’s music eventually seemed a tired joke, which may account for the box office failure of Strouse & Adams’ sequel, Bring Back Birdie.

Last night I saw Annie and was puzzled by the use of a rock beat in a show set during the 1930s. What’s up with that? I can vividly remember hearing the original cast album for the first time: it began with a small brass choir, like you might hear on a street corner at Christmas. Just as I was thinking how much I love brass choirs, the music abruptly shifted to a staccato repeated chord on electric instruments. This struck me as an odd choice at the time – an inappropriately contemporary way of coloring the rebelliousness of besieged orphans – but many years later Jay-Z’s version of It’s a Hard Knock Life went platinum. So why question it? Charles Strouse invented the rock musical, and keeps finding opportunities to rock out whenever he can. The guy can’t help it.


Blow blow thou winter wind

June 10, 2018

It’s the day that lives in infamy, y’all.

For me, June 10 marks the golden anniversary of something hurtling from the east to the west, landing in something of a cataclysm. And that something is a small boy. And that small boy is me.

This might seem meaningless, and I’m aware this is the third entry in a row that might be described as a personal essay. But frame it as The Making of a Musical Writer and perhaps you’ll find some useful insights. I’m going to talk about the worst day of my life in a way that doesn’t involve self-pity; when I’m writing a musical, I see to it that characters never pity themselves. When those ultra-serious Eurotrash shows do that, I always have to stifle a giggle. And when you read a blog, you’re free to giggle out loud: I’m not going to hear it.

Untimely plucked from his natural environs, the lifelong Manhattanite was plopped in the lap of Southern California luxury, and viewed it as a fate worse than death. Dad got a too-good-to-pass-up job with Universal, and I got to know his black glass office building. It was square. Why? In Manhattan, you build to the shape of your lot. This was the only tower in Universal City, the large lot owned by the studio. No rationale for it being square, or black; or was I just looking for things to hate about the place?

In those days, the Universal City Studios Tour was – wait for it – an actual tour. Trams drove you around the lot and everyone got out to see Lana Turner’s dressing room. The guide proudly pointed out a familiar sight: the bridge from which Shirley MacLaine gets pushed into the water at the beginning of Sweet Charity.

Hey, wait a minute! I know that bridge. I played on that bridge. That bridge is mine, back home in Central Park, my personal property. And here they’ve constructed a replica, to fool the world. And so I thought of Hollywoodsmen as counterfeits, convincing the world they’re seeing New York – my New York – when they’re not.

Five days before our one-way flight landed in Los Angeles, something truly devastating occurred there. As a little kid, I followed the presidential race with the intensity of a sports nut twice my age. All my little kid hopes and dreams rested on RFK. LBJ (took the IRT…) had mucked up the good work of the JFK administration by miring us in Vietnam and I just knew that it would take my Senator, the slain hero’s brother, to set the country right again. That morning, I got up early to read the election results in the Times: a banner headline proclaimed good news! My idol had won. The morning edition had published too soon to report that Bobby Kennedy had been killed right after his victory speech. My parents woke to deliver the sad truth. Now, my mother had a college friend who’d settled in Dallas, and she’d long wondered how anyone could live in the city where a Kennedy had been shot. We all learned, the hard way, starting on the day that lives in infamy.

Kids bullied me. For my impenetrable New York accent. For rooting for the Mets. For liking to read. I got the idea that none of my miseries would have plagued me had we remained in New York. And so, perhaps as a defense mechanism, my heart stayed in New York. I continued to read The New York Times, and particularly enjoyed Walter Kerr’s think pieces on Broadway shows. I wish I had a picture of my bulletin board from childhood, because it symbolizes my obsessive connection with New York theatre. I took tacks and yarn and mapped the streets around Times Square. Then I cut out colored cardstock in the shapes of every Broadway Theatre, placing them on the board. Finally, I tacked on little marquis signs showing the names of the show currently playing there. But you all did the same, I’m sure.

Eventually, at the age of 16, I got to visit the actual brick and limestone and wrought-iron version of that creation on my wall: I spent 13 days back home, and saw 17 shows. A Chorus Line, Chicago (the original with Gwen, Chita, and Jerry), Streamers, Equus, Pippin and Godspell. Was the intermission of the last one my first cup of wine or my first time on a Broadway stage, or both? I was just reunited with my scrapbook from the trip, containing all the playbills. I wrote notes using the calligrapher’s pen I’d been given to write music with. I don’t know which makes me sound older, that, or the $12 ticket stub for my orchestra seat to A Chorus Line.

It was abundantly clear to me and everyone who knew me that I needed to be in New York; it was the only place I could thrive. And two years later I moved back, for college. There, I immediately had something of a rude awakening when I discovered that my classmates from the east coast had all read the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school. What did my California A.P. English course have me read instead? A tome called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not going to say the insufficiency of a California education is my Achilles heel; I’ll just say “rivet masterlink.” (Just yanking your chain.)

So there’s the context for my unusual Golden State antipathy. (Most residents like it.) And why I always said I’d never want to raise a child in the West. But, reading this over, I see that my connection to New York theatre was somehow solidified by being away from New York theatre, for an important ten years in my development. I survived the away-time, and can take the attitude of many a war veteran: Sure, it was a tough decade, in hell, but ultimately it made me stronger.


June 3, 2018

Let’s start at the very beginning

Today’s our meetaversary. 21 years ago, I opened my door and there was this beautiful young person, possessed of a glorious sense of humor, a powerfully mellifluous voice, a mind that goes a thousand miles a minute, and, as I soon discovered, a splendiferous kisser. This was a watershed moment for me, a transition from my most-accustomed state – abject loneliness – to lifelong companionship that could be counted upon. And I went from a musical-writer who spent his time imagining love to an inspired one, living it.

Joy was always a go-getter, and there’s something to be said from up-close observance of a person vigorously pursuing goals. I can remember times, pre-Joy, when it would be tough to drag myself out of bed to get on with the work of writing something. Around that time, on Astor Place, a place for writers was set up; the idea being that you’re more likely to get things done if you’re surrounded by people who get things done. Now I was energized, a moon pulled along by a swiftly moving planet.

Warmed by the glow of insolvency

Some romanticize what it’s like to be penniless and in love. Joy drove a broken-down vehicle on its last legs up to New York, and barely had enough for tolls. She naturally hoped I’d take her out to dinner, but that was something I couldn’t afford to do. I don’t know why anybody romanticizes this: Being poor sucks. I’d go to the 99-cent store for pasta and sauce a lot. And five such trips would run through my royalty check for a musical I wrote that was regularly playing to big audiences. It paid me that little.

Joy took some of those usual awful jobs to support her not-lucrative acting habit. (And I do mean “habit” – often she was second nun from the right in The Sound of Music.) Eventually, she found work in a law firm on East Forty-Second Street, far away from where you’d “meet those dancing feet” (that was West Forty-Second). There, Joy developed a deep distaste for incompetent or non-office-like behavior. She honed the high standards for how a business should be run that later served her so well when she ran her own casting company.

Unpredictable as weather

Some recently-met friends picture that Joy and I worked together a lot. Seems to me that happy happenstance was rather rare. I contributed special material for her cabaret act; she assembled and appeared in my Donnell Library concert. More famously, there was Our Wedding, which was a musical. We sang our vows; she delivered the 11 o’clock number, This Man Loves Me. And everyone in that theatre sang the finale, certain that she’d always be singing and we’d both always be musical theatre pros in New York.

It must have been around the time Joy turned 30 that she shocked all who knew her by deciding to cease performing. Friends refused to believe it: they continued to look forward to the next Joy Dewing appearance despite being told many times that she’d retired. Reminds me of the John O’Hara line: “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” The gorgeousness of that voice was more craveable than chocolate. I’m reminded of my late friend Gary Austin. We were talking in a big meeting room when his wife, Wenndy, started to sing. He politely left our conversation to draw near: “Excuse me, but this is why I married her.” Would I ever hear Joy again?

The duet will become a trio

Thank God for lullabies. Our daughter needed (and needs) quite a bit of coaxing to get to sleep. I’d cup my ear to the wall to listen to Joy sing again. And thus ever-loving Adelaide brought the sound of music back into our home. And, these days, I mean that literally, as she’s playing Gretl, the littlest Von Trapp, in a local production of The Sound of Music. The movie and various recordings are in constant play in our home. And impromptu performances. And if Joy hums a bit of the score to herself, I don’t relish the sound; I want to yell “ANYTHING but that!” It’s gotten to the point where I’m unconsciously using bits of its lyrics as section headings in things I write.

I’ll sing once more

Six-and-a-half years ago, there came into the world this beautiful girl, possessed of a glorious sense of humor, a powerfully mellifluous voice, a mind that goes a thousand miles a minute, and, as I soon discovered, a splendiferous kisser. (One wonders why I call them both “Honey.”) And I went from a musical-writer who regularly wrote songs for his wife to one who conjured up an entire musical about how parenthood changes relationships.

So here’s a sentence with a meaningless verb: I recently completed a new draft of Baby Makes Three. But what does that mean? I’m not putting down my pen. There are improvements to be made, always. Maybe, some point in the far-distant future, a director will grab me by the shoulders and sternly tell me to stop making changes; for the sake of the actors, we have to freeze the show. At present, I have a draft I’ve declared Ready-For-Certain-Others-To-Read. But nothing is set in stone. There’s much fixing to be done.

These days, though, I’m far more likely to receive praise for being a father or husband than I am for being a musical writer. But, just as I’d never declare a draft of a musical Finished or Unimprovable, I view my roles at home as an ongoing march of trying-to-do-better with wife and child. Not perfect yet – not nearly – but at least Year 21 can be declared complete.