Lucy in the sky with diamonds

October 30, 2018

Fifteen years ago today, a Broadway blockbuster began its run. Without adjusting for inflation, when all the receipts are counted, it’s a fair guess that Wicked will have earned more money than any musical created by Americans. The librettist is Winnie Holzman, who transmogrified the source material – a novel! of all things! – and the songs are by Stephen Schwartz. Both are heroes of mine, for other things they’ve written. That amped up my expectations when I saw it way back in the first year of its seemingly endless run.

There are two distinct reasons I view Stephen Schwartz as a musical theatre superstar: his works, which include Godspell, Pippin, Working, Rags and The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and the magnificent learning experience of his thirty years running the ASCAP musical theatre writing workshop. Much as I like some of his shows and movies, the pedagogical contribution is far more valuable to me as a writer.

Can you name anyone who premiered three of a decade’s biggest hits before reaching the age of 30? Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show were amonth the top ten longest running shows of the 70s. Each brought a new sound to the world of musical comedy, tinkly and vibrant, infused with the harmonic surprises of contemporary pop. Schwartz sounded like no other, and his lyrics were funny and often clever. Most impressive was his marshalling of what was then called rock into theatrical forms. Counterpoint abounds – Tower of Babel, All For the Best, Two’s Company – and flowing pianistic accompaniments – Meadowlark, Corner of the Sky.

At ASCAP, listening to long excerpts of developing shows, Schwartz laid huge heaps of wisdom on us. For example, there was a notion he said he’d learned at Disney about having every “beat” of your story relate to an overall theme or thesis. Remember that. When Schwartz got into the nitty-gritty of lyrics, he’d call out word-choices that seemed wrong for characters, or times when writers strained to be clever.

Holzman had been a lyricist herself, before she fled to Hollywood. Since I liked her work in musicals, I’d tune in to TV shows she wrote, and was impressed by the level of reality she brought to angsty teen girls in My So-Called Life and thirty-somethings in some show I forget the name of.

Wicked marked a return to New York after a long absence for both of them. And the idea of telling the tale of The Wizard of Oz from the witches’ perspective is an appealing one. The life of college co-eds plays to Holzman’s strengths. Schwartz had the more daunting task of creating something new when the brilliance of Harburg and Arlen’s movie score holds a hallowed place in our memories. Similarly, the design team faced an audience with an indelible picture of Oz.

And it’s ugly. Which is a choice: I don’t think it’s ugly by accident. Schwartz sets the scene with dissonant chords and the sets and costumes seem somewhere in the Steampunk realm. The creative team seems set on wiping the 1939 MGM classic out of our minds, which may be understandable but a problem soon emerges. Schwartz’s lyrics are filled with trick rhymes and they don’t stack up. Yip Harburg’s the acknowledged master of amusing sound-pairing:

Dorothy: Supposing you met an elephant?

Lion: I’d wrap him up in cellophant!

Here, the attempt doesn’t quite succeed:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis

Think of it as personality dialysis

Now that I’ve chosen to be come a pal

A sister and adviser, there’s nobody wiser

Should Schwartz be praised for the triple-three-syllable rhyme, or do you go “Ew, dialysis is disgusting!” or, more likely, “What the hell is ‘personality dialysis’?” This lyric is calling attention to the lyricist’s cleverness and requires countervailing physicality to keep us in the story. (Thanks, Kristin Chenoweth.) If we had time to think about personality dialysis, it might begin to make sense, but vocabulary like this colors the character as very intellectual. But in the same song she mis-accents “cohorts,” which implies she doesn’t have a firm grasp of English. So, which is it?

I know I’m being nit-picky about this popular song, but here’s where I’m coming from: If a new lyricist had brought that into the ASCAP workshop, Stephen Schwartz definitely would have pointed out the false accent, the skeeve-you-out word-choice, the inconsistency and what this lyric says about Galinda, which isn’t borne out by the rest of the play. Wicked doesn’t practice what Schwartz preaches at ASCAP. By 2003, words that do calisthenics to rhyme seemed awfully passé.

Skimming the surface

Gliding where turf is smooth

I don’t even know what that means; I’m only aware of the lyricist’s attempt to impress me with his rhyming skills.

I’m less bothered by Wicked’s abundance of references to the famous film. “I’ll be so happy, I could melt” the witch sings, not knowing the future that we know. Holzman’s script, from a Gregory Maguire novel, effectively amuses with its outré retelling of an overly familiar tale. But, going back to ASCAP again, is it all about one thing? Act One has something to do with prejudice: the skin-color of Elphaba, her wheelchair-bound sister, Tartars (!), and then there’s this unexplained hatred of talking animals. Fine topics for a musical, and yet these all get dropped in Act Two. At dénouement there’s a very moving duet about friendship, which made me go, “Is that what this show’s about?” Too little of the previous two and a half hours had much to say about the two galpals. It’s not that show.

The other night I heard Idina Menzel do Defying Gravity, that anthem of female empowerment (the first time I ever heard it, Schwartz was singing). It hits the nail squarely on the head, exactly what you’d expect at that moment. As a result, I find it rather boring. Plus, Elphaba had a more effective self-actualization number earlier in the show. But there’s no doubt that musicalizing a young woman coming into her own is a key to the show’s unparalleled success. It’s a terrific topic for a musical, and I look forward to seeing a better rendering one day.

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Why does it have to be a musical?

October 12, 2018

My marriage, which turns 15 years old today, is a musical. Now, many of you are saying, “But of course it’s a musical. Your wedding was a musical.” And some might say “I don’t want to read yet another blog entry about how wonderful Joy is. There’s one of those on her birthday and also the meet-aversary, which coincides with the day she started her casting company.” I get it: This isn’t supposed to be a personal blog, where I publicize testaments of love. It’s about writing musicals, and I know that, at first glance, that first sentence sounds like a poetic reach, romantic piffle. But, as always, what I’m trying to do hear is shed some light on the wonderful world of musical comedy creation.

Overture

But it’s true: Fifteen years ago tonight about 150 theatre-goers poured into the Soho Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Michael Lavine took the piano, and a musical began. Five ladies in eveningwear asked a good question, “Why does this have to be a musical?” And from this first title, a sort of subversion commenced. The audience knew they were about to see an original musical comedy; the invitation came with tickets. But the weird thing is, characters in the show are already casting some shade on why we were doing this. Expectation, bucked.

Shows need to deal with the mind-sets of the people who’ll see them. Our Wedding was designed for exactly the folks who’d RSVP’d. When a writer has deep understanding of who’ll be in the seats, a host of comic possibilities open up. It’s easier to be funny with those whose sense of humor is a known element. The same probably applies to sentiment. Weddings can be extremely treacly; or, so hip no one sheds a tear. Joy and I reveled in chucking certain traditions that didn’t feel quite right to us. But the wedding show ends with a vow taken by the entire assembled crowd: to “be there” as observers and supporters throughout our lives. This has largely proved true.

The Act One Inciting Incident

Ooh, it looks like I’m going to use McKee jargon in this one. So, somewhere fairly early in your first act, something’s going to have to upset the status quo. Joy’s abandonment of her burgeoning performing career catapulted us into uncharted territory. Her voice was so widely revered, all who’d heard her sing naturally assumed she’d entertain more and more of the world for years to come. If Harold Hill brought music to River City, Joy stilled the bells on the hill.

But the story charged off in a new direction, as good tales do. One of the causes of Joy’s disaffection was how actors are treated in this business of show. And her new career as casting director gave her the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands who trod the boards. A peach to the players, if you will. And me, I loved her more. The singing voice was heard no more but the voice of advocacy rocked the theatre. She shook things up, had a huge positive effect on the lives of countless actors with her innovations and inventions.

It’s a good idea to conclude your first act with something startling, intriguing, which the audience might wonder about all intermission long. A baby?!

Intermission

Time out from our story so I can say, yet again, one of the things I say most often about musicals. They should regularly get the audience to wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t like those shows whose plots are eminently predictable. Characters don’t need to be likable, per se, but one must have a rooting interest in what’s going to happen to them. And you shouldn’t be certain what’s going to be. Dare to be unpredictable.

Act Two: The plot thickens

Our daughter, the Princess of Pure Delight, has always been physically fearless. She mastered walking and was off on a tear in every direction, which led me to question whether the sidewalks of New York were the best place for her. My interest in relocating to the suburbs surprised everyone who knows me. Manhattan is the stuff that gets my blood coursing through my veins. But I still worked there, and our house was near enough. I adjusted. Our girl thrived. And our heroine? Not as joyful as you might have predicted. Running a small business can be an annoying chore. The long hours plus the commute meant less time to kick back and be a mommy. I think of the Porgy and Bess divorce-for-sale scene, “That is a complication.”

But the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three, deals with many of the same issues. Working mother and stay-at-home dad, and much friction as each spouse envies the other. It sure would be nice to go off to work and be appreciated by everyone rather than clean up spilled oatmeal all the time. Or, it sure would be nice to be home to watch all the remarkable things the little one says and does. Discontent, disquietude, conflict: elements of an entertainment rooted in reality.The First Dance

One May morning when the daughter was in pre-school, I went to my favorite convivial coffee place and I wrote a scene in which the wife gets her dream job and then emerges the idea of having the husband quit his to raise the child. It’s a scene I’ve struggled to make organic: things happen quickly; I thought nobody would believe it. But a matter of weeks later, Joy got a spanking new job, casting at a place she’d always dreamed of working at; I quit mine. The difficulties of adjusting, for us three, were a case of life imitating art.

And I explained this to friends who pointed out that the very idea that a musical writer could write something that then becomes true could be a pretty good idea for a musical. But wait a sec: Our marriage is already a musical. Or two. Fun and funny, and occasionally fraught, and, like they sing in Seesaw, one hell of a ride.

 


Visualize

October 4, 2018

“Why can’t we dance about American subjects?” the young Jerome Robbins asked himself. “Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today, and how we are?” And from that self-query, Robbins revolutionized the American ballet world, and also the arena we focus on here, the American musical. It’s fair to say there’s no one alive today who remembers what musicals were like before his cataclysmic overhaul. We, the too young to remember, accept that shows are a certain way and do certain things, but this is mostly because the Robbins innovations stuck.

He invented a role for himself: The hyphenate term, “Director-choreographer” didn’t exist before, but, soon, everybody was doing it. His famous protégée, Bob Fosse, is revered today, but without Robbins, there’s no Fosse, and so many of the things we love about the latter are things the former thought of first.

I’m not qualified to talk about dance, per se, but consider Robbins the most important non-writing creator of musical theatre because he was so effectively in writers’ faces, pushing them to tell their stories more clearly, more entertainingly, with more humor. There are two famous stories from the early 1960s, and I don’t see how I can avoid retelling them. One involved a show doing poorly on its pre-Broadway try-out in Detroit. It opened with an energetic, all-female comedy song, with an attractive little quodlibet in the middle. It was all supposed to be funny, but wasn’t getting a lot of laughs, a bad sign for a musical comedy. So Robbins called a meeting with the writers.

“What’s this show about?” the director-choreographer asked. And various answers were given. It’s the struggles of a poor milkman to find husbands for his daughters. “No,” said Robbins, unsatisfied. It’s about a small town, persecuted by the Russian government. “No.” he said again. It’s about finding love at the end of the era of arranged marriages. “No, not that.” Imperfect responses kept piling up until someone said: It’s about the dissolution of a way of life, the end of a tradition. Robbins sat up: “Write that.” Meeting adjourned, and soon Stein, Bock & Harnick came up with the greatest opening number ever created, adding two tunes to the quodlibet. Robbins staged Tradition and Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running Broadway musical of all time.

Robbins had a directing mentor, the Grand Old Man of musical theatre, George Abbott. Both spent much time doctoring other people’s shows. In Washington D.C., Abbott was directing a musical farce sent in ancient times, and nobody was laughing. Or attending: rows and rows of empty seats. Abbott said “I like it, but they don’t like it. I don’t know what to do. We need to call George Abbott.” And so protégée Robbins took the train down to see the clearly-doomed, woefully unfunny disaster. Robbins said the only thing that needed changing was the opening number, which was called Love Is in the Air. This witty schottische promised a classy evening of sophisticated humor, but the show that followed was anything but. It was low comedy, often vulgar, a vaudeville of sorts. Robbins sent the songwriter to his hotel room to replace the opening. Stephen Sondheim came down with Comedy Tonight, Robbins staged it, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum was hailed as the most hysterical show ever written.

Both those masterpieces starred Zero Mostel, who’d been unemployable during the heyday of the Red Scare. Among those who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee was another long-ago communist, Jerome Robbins. Accepting the role of Tevye involved burying a well-earned hatchet, and Zero summed it up by pointing out he was agreeing to be directed by him, but wouldn’t have to eat with him. But here’s the inconvenient truth as we near Robbins’ 100th birthday (October 11): a lot of people detested him.

Once he was balling out a company of dancers in a theatre. They’d assembled facing the audience, and Robbins bloviated on stage just a few feet in front of the orchestra pit. His rage caused him to step backwards, more than once, and it was clear to everyone present that he was in danger of falling a good six feet onto chairs and music stands. But nobody did anything to warn him; they were content to see him fall.

His casts felt tortured because of Robbins’ perfectionism, and long rehearsals. Performers whose characters hated each other were forbidden from dining with each other when rehearsal was over. He was fired from a movie that was on its way to going way over budget due to his endless retakes – but, happy ending here, it won the Oscar – both the film and the direction. And all sorts of heavy hitters were willing to return to Robbins productions: Ethel Merman, Jule Styne, the late great Barbara Harris. And, right now on Broadway, you can still see a lampoon of one of Robbins’ most famous ballets.

Bernstein, Green, Comden, Robbins

It’s the telling of a uniquely American tale through the fun-house mirror cultural filter of a Third World country’s manner of presentation. The King and I was where Robbins collaborated with the revolutionary writers, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And Mrs. Anna wants to catch the conscience of the king of Siam with a theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Charmingly and humorously, things alter in translation, so The Small House of Uncle Thomas is an amalgam of Western and Southeast Asian styles. (The parody of this culture clash has people of Uganda rendering the Utah testament, The Book of Mormon, although not everyone understands this.)

The following decade, Robbins turned his back on Broadway and ensconced himself at New York City Ballet. What strikes me is that ballet has its own vocabulary, its own audience. On Broadway, he had to entertain people who might not worship Terpsichore. He’s speaking to the uninitiated, and audiences are captivated. His version of the Keystone Kops, in High Button Shoes, is, to my eyes, far funnier than the Mack Sennett films it’s based on. The gyrations of You Gotta Have a Gimmick, from Gypsy, find the humor in the tawdriest of performances. (“Something wrong with stripping?”) The glee of three sailors on a spree was rendered twice in 1944 – first the ballet Fancy Free, and then the musical based on it, On the Town, both to music by the other titan born in 1918, Leonard Bernstein. And when those two got together to update Romeo and Juliet, dance episodes carried most of the story, the true integration of the fourth component – movement – with the previously incorporated book, music and lyrics.

I think of those last three Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins productions – West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof – as the apotheosis of the Broadway musical. Has any one individual worked on three better shows? (Not to mention Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl.) So, that dance at the gym: All these young people, members of two warring gangs, are raucously tearing up the floor. It’s noisy, both in a musical and a visual sense. And then it’s not. Our focus is drawn to these two strangers, staring at each other across the crowded room. And everything stops. They move towards each other as if in a trance, but we know that if they interact in any way, all hell will break loose. The music shifts to a tentative cha-cha and they take steps together but do not touch. The tension is exquisite; touch leads inexorably to death. And so they swerve around each other. Their hips come close. Their hands almost reach each other’s faces. And then they do touch, and it’s lovely, but brief, as scary music creeps in, disturbing the dream with harsh reality.

It doesn’t get any better than this. As the old song goes, every little movement has a meaning all its own.