What right have I?

July 20, 2018

Here’s one of musical theatre’s most groan-producing forced rhymes:

You are the light of the world
But if that light’s under a bushel
It’s lost something kind of crucial

(Some people quote the Bible; I quote musicals. Even when they’re purporting to be quoting the Bible.)

So, I’m about to give my internationally famous subjective musical theatre history in Los Angeles. (August 1-4, 2018) It’s the first time, in the eighteen-year-history of the History, that it’s been offered to the general public. (Register now at http://nmi.org/events/a-subjective-history-of-musical-theatre/ ) So, I really ought to say a few words about it but there’s a problem.

If I tell you, with proper honesty, about the reactions of those who’ve previously attended, it’s going to sound like bragging. And I don’t like to brag. But I really shouldn’t keep my light under a bushel. I see the rapt attention in everyone’s eyes. I engage the learners in a conversation about musicals and how they came to be – it’s imprecise to call them an audience. But, when it’s done, inevitably, every time I do it, a group will come up to me and say “Wow, that was amazingly entertaining. I learned so much.”

These were theatre students, accustomed to receiving a fabulous education – some had BFAs, MFAs, there may have been a PhD. Others made a choice to avoid college because they couldn’t picture themselves listening to lectures in a hall. Is what I do a lecture? I don’t think that’s a good word for it. I fill our time with jokes, with much back-and-forth; I run to the piano to sing illustrative songs. I even execute a move I saw in a Fosse show. And, at certain points, I make people cry. I tell the life story of a musical-writing hero of mine in such dramatic fashion, well, the last time I did this there was an audible gasp.

The talk sprung into being when I was given the floor at an acting school with a curriculum so packed, nobody had time for history. Some students knew the classics, but not the new. Others, the reverse. And then there were people who exclusively were into Sondheim shows. There were no grades, no tests, no consequence, really, for not apprehending what I put out there. Teachers, in traditional classrooms, have implicit sway: “Learn this, or get a bad grade <maniacal laugh>.” Take that away, you’ve got my kind of challenge! If I talked fast enough, if I suddenly broke out into song when nobody expected it, if good jokes came frequently enough, folks would eat it up. Learn. Understand.

And, thank God, it’s safely removed from traditional academia. The stories I tell needn’t be the gospel truth (or the Godspell truth, for that matter). No one was going to stop me if I injected my opinion. If I think a particular show is awful, I say so, and get to explain why. And make fun of it in such a way, you’ll laugh your head off.

Since it’s a dialogue, I suspect I’ll field some questions. What’s on many minds these days is the skittishness involved in the current revivals of a couple of Golden Era classics on Broadway. It would seem that producers are uncomfortable with presenting pre-feminism musicals to a post-feminist audience. Broadway, of course, is a business, and the supposition is they’ll sell more tickets to bowdlerized Rodgers & Hammerstein or a Lerner & Loewe with a reinterpreted ending than they would the pure unadulterated hits the world has loved for decades.

I’ve written before about the particularly ludicrous charge that Carousel somehow condones or romanticizes wife-beating. It rather explicitly does not. And since I once played the character uttering the line, I can quote you exactly what the Heavenly Friend says the moment long-dead Billy slaps the hand of his daughter:

Failure! You struck out blindly again. Is that the only way you know how to treat those you love? Failure!

This messenger from God is saying what Hammerstein wants us all to hear, that wife-beating or even daughter-slapping is never acceptable. And yet the text is radically altered to make it even more acceptable to today’s audience.

One property that Rodgers and Hammerstein felt couldn’t work as a musical was George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In that fine play, a lower class woman stands up for herself, getting the best, in argument, of a tony Mayfair scholar. Lerner and Loewe created the longest-running musical, ever (beating Rodgers and Hammerstein’s record), My Fair Lady, by leaving Shaw’s arguments in, virtually intact. I think the best word for it is proto-feminist, since it pre-dates what we call the feminist movement by a few years. 62 years later, though, powers-that-be saw the need to tip the scales a little further in favor of the reconstituted flower peddler, who now marches out of the theatre in response to the final power play.

I’ve admired the work of the directors, Jack O’Brien (Carousel) and Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady) in the past, but this seems a good definition of hubris. Rodgers and Hammerstein crafted what was named the twentieth century’s greatest musical. Lerner and Loewe crafted the longest-running show to open during the 1950s. Those writers are geniuses – you think you can do better?

Now, I’m not saying you have to love those shows. A Sondheim character sees My Fair Lady and says “I sort of enjoyed it.” But, please, have some sense of historical context. Carousel was written for a war-time audience, one that surely contained war brides and war widows. Rodgers and Hammerstein reassured wives of soldiers that they’d made the right choice, marrying those who served. Imagine if your husband died in World War Two and you get to watch a widow hearing her long-dead husband utter, “Know that I loved you.”

To appreciate this, though, you might have to have a sense of history. And those current producers don’t trust that ticket-buyers today have that. But one can always learn history. Which is why you’re going to attend my Subjective History of Musicals. You’ll learn; you’ll laugh; you’ll love musicals more.

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Head to toe

July 13, 2018

I’m writing this on the eve of a visit with the son of my best life-long friend, who is very much interested in writing musicals. So, naturally, I’m thinking about what to tell him, if I’m called upon to tell him something. Which isn’t likely. And I certainly won’t utter a thousand words. Like I will here.

A mid-century football coach said “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The thing that most people miss, in writing musicals, is that story isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Oh, sure, if you think hard enough, you can find successful musicals with plots that didn’t work at all. But aspire to higher than Andrew Lloyd Webber and various elements of your creation are more likely to fall into place. When I taught a college course in musical theatre performance, I began the first class every year with the words, “Greetings, storytellers.” I would have said the same to costumers, stage managers, conductors. It’s the most collaborative of arts and all of us, in any position, are endeavoring to tell the story. Make sure the audience is following along. Don’t assume that you can distract them from attending the tale by throwing in some splashy number, tangential to the plot. Cut that out! Kill your babies! Make your show a lean story-telling machine.

This probably entails tossing out your ballads. Songwriters fall in love with their slowly expressed cris de coeur and, more times than not, audiences are put to sleep by them. And then when you pile up a succession of ballads in a row: I know you didn’t mean to, but you’ve created a snooze-fest.

If a group of expert artisans were building a building, the architect would start by producing a blueprint. And, along the way, the finished edifice would differ, in many ways, from that initial plan. (I enjoy attending architecture shows in museums where you can compare these things.) So, eleven years ago, my script Such Good Friends had a cast of 19 and centered on a difficult exchange between a father and a son. Under the brilliant direction of Marc Bruni, the show was produced with a cast of ten, no son, and that difficult exchange never happened. The alterations told the story better. Neophyte scribes should be aware that the collaborative forces are very likely to adjust the plan on its way to fruition. And that’s a good thing.

I swear I’ll drop this analogy soon, but think of a component on that blueprint, looking wonderful. One reason it might not survive in the production is that it didn’t play as well, live on stage, as it did in its earlier form. It’s easy to get confused by this. A song may be wonderful on paper. A song may play like gangbusters in a cabaret. The recording of a song could be a YouTube sensation. But your principal goal is to tell a story in a theatre to a live audience, and that’s a very different thing. When I was just a little older than my young friend is today, there was a song from a musical you heard on the radio all the time. Its verses were rap – quite ahead of its time! – and the refrains were reminiscent of the disco era, specifically the Bee Gees’ use of falsettos. Number 3 on the charts! That’s quite a successful song, right?

Well, not in the theatre. In the musical, Chess, it was a scene-setter that made little sense. The character singing, a “bad boy” American chess master (you know the type) extended all this energy to tell us about Thailand. For no good reason. (Contrast how The King and I establishes the same country with music and images, not a descriptive word is sung.) The song – hell, the whole show – just lay there because the creators lost sight of the narrative need to motivate a high-octane description.

Composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, sometimes called “The ABBA Boys” were new to musical-writing, but experienced at concocting chart-topping hits. The veteran lyricist, Tim Rice, had, in Jesus Christ Superstar, successfully transformed the post-suicide Judas into a rockin’ narrator of that show’s title song. The original “hit” recordings of both these songs involved the same British actor, Murray Head. I am straining to avoid using a pun with all these names.

And maybe that last paragraph is just trivia. But there’s something to be said for knowing the history of musical theatre, and the repertory. When rock stars decide they can write a musical, they often stumble due to lack of familiarity with what’s gone before. No less a talent than Paul Simon served up a tale of Hispanic gang violence in New York of the late 1950s. Critics queried whether it hadn’t occurred to him this had been done before – one of the best shows ever. I figure if you’re going to do something that’s been done before, the least you can do is pick something truly obscure. So, when writing The Christmas Bride my librettist came up with an idea that a profligate’s lawyers want him to focus on serious debts but all he can do is rhapsodize about a woman. I thought, Wait a minute: Where have I seen something like this before? It’s similar to a funny duet from a show called Kean, To Look Upon My Love. I took the template from this incredibly obscure show tune and ran with it.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

So, where does one go to learn the history of musical theatre? August 1, 2 & 4 I will entertain all comers for four hours in North Hollywood, California. ( http://nmi.org/events/a-subjective-history-of-musical-theatre/ ) How our beloved genre came to be, told in story and song, moving and funny. Which seems appropriate, because good musicals tell stories through song and are always both moving and funny. It’s in two two-hour parts, which you can mix and match. Say hello. See you there. Aloha.


Stock quotes

July 4, 2018

Holidays give us license to kick back and be silly, and this particular one encourages us to be nationalistic. That is, to say something good about America. What to say…what to say… Now, you may have seen, a few weeks ago, a British theatre critic claiming that British plays are better than American plays in The New York Times, of all places. Was that “news” that was fit to print? And it wasn’t even British Independence Day (there’s no such thing). The whole statement is so abundantly absurd, only a truly silly person would even think of responding. So, here I go.

International readers, I hate to break it to you, but American musicals are better than your country’s musicals. There, I said it. (The title of the Times article included this oafish phrase.)

(click for details)

America invented the musical as we know it. And if you want a complete history of the origins, you’ll have to attend my Los Angeles “boot camp” presentation either August 1 or August 4. (Part Two plays August 2 and 4.)

America is a melting pot, and that goes for the development of our native art forms. We took a little sprinkle of Mitteleuropa operetta, a healthy scoop of Gilbert and Sullivan, some sauciness associated with the French, more than a dollop of jazz (which has its own fun set of melting pot origins), and a tinge of “serious” opera – in some ways a sister art.

Mixing that pot is one of those things that gets described as uniquely American. With so many ethnic groups immigrating here, the art we produce tends not to follow one genetic strain. While most of the key creators were Jewish men, their desire to assimilate into the larger American culture was such that they actively sought not to sound Jewish in their writing. And Cole Porter, a Midwest WASP, actively tried to sound Jewish! But these were side-goals: Mostly, all that anyone cared about was entertaining the audience.

It’s said that the British are less comfortable with emotion than the Americans. While this is another dismissible hoary stereotype, if I’m going to make this argument, by jingo, I’ll keep that idea in mind.

So, to be overly methodical about this, we’re going to need to get a little list of best American musicals and see what British shows, if any, measure up.

Quickly, because I have a summer trip to get to, let’s compile… the Rodgers & Hammerstein quartet,

Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I

3 directed by Jerome Robbins

West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof

add a Sondheim pair

Company and Sweeney Todd

I vastly prefer Frank Loesser; so this trio

Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, The Most Happy Fella

1 loved throughout the world but not in Britain

The Fantasticks

& finish up with a bunch of wild cards

Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, A Chorus Line and Hamilton.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into this list; I didn’t need to. Can you, just as quickly, name 22 solid British musicals? I could rest my case right now.

Never one to rush in to pressing “Publish,” I’m now thinking about this notion of a melting pot creating the tastieststew. And I’m wondering if what I really mean is that New York is a melting pot. There are certainly parts of America in which All Kinds of People don’t make up the community.

I’m reminded of the trouble Jimmy Carter ran into when he tried to praise America’s “ethnically pure” neighborhoods. He was called out for racism, as if he wanted to keep black people in ghettos. The American Dream, to me, involves a community in which all types (ethnicities, sexual orientation, age, income) intermingle, support and learn from each other.

New York is such a community, although the not well-off are continually more and more squeezed out. But you know what happens: young people, from all backgrounds, are drawn to the Apple with musical theatre dreams. They intersect, and that’s the melt that comes up with innovative musicals. While other towns may have produced their share of good musicals, I never hear anyone say “I moved to Seattle because of its vibrant musical theatre scene.”

The historical context is that Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin et al had immigrant parents who got off the boat in New York and stayed. More recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents, Puerto Ricans of the West Side Story generation, came to New York to raise their family. (His In the Heights depicts a typically multi-ethnic community.) The City holds out its welcoming arms, and people from all over the world keep coming. It’s as if it has a sign on its entryway. Oh, wait, it does:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”