Dream job

November 28, 2018

My daughter turns seven today and I’m once again facing the challenge of using a personal milestone as the springboard for commentary on musicals. I assume you didn’t come here to read a father’s portrait of a First Grader. This isn’t a personal blog, or a journal, but frequently I note birthdays of musical-makers I admire (Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein, etc.) so why not Adelaide? After all, when we were in Arizona she saw a sign with the number 11 and made up a parody of the Elena of Avalor theme song called Eleven of Arizona. (“You can count it on your hands.”)

“I even named her Desirée” coos an old lady about her grown daughter, as if she prescribed her fate at birth. Adelaide, the name, seems a secret code. Everybody in New York instantly understands the reference to that funny and surprisingly intelligent dame in Guys and Dolls. If I’m stuck in a swamp of uncultured yahoos, they’ll hear the name and think we’ve been creative. It’s also one of the largest cities in Australia, but I never seem to meet anyone who knows that.

I recently got to see some teens perform a couple of Guys and Dolls numbers, and it was no surprise that the lyrics refer to things they do not know: feedbox, galoshes, Ovaltine. Of course, the show came out in 1950; its audience understood every cultural reference. Kids today must google everything. But the creators couldn’t have imagined the show would last this long. Musicals in those days were made to last a season or two.

When Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows were young, Show Boat was an unprecedented success, lasting 572 performances on Broadway. No book musical came close to that record until Oklahoma! in 1943, the first mega-hit, which quadrupled that number. And now it’s no longer in the top 25. Guys and Dolls outlived Klein’s and Rogers Peet and these references became obscure through no fault of its own.

Speaking of teens, has it struck you that, as characters, they’ve taken over Broadway? I’m wondering what it says about our times that our new musicals tend to be about kids. Some titles for ya: The Prom, Be More Chill, Mean Girls, Dear Evan Hansen, School of Rock, Frozen. I could go on, but I think we’re all feeling old enough right now.

When I was born, the idea of a Broadway musical filled with little ones was rather novel, and last spring I got to see The Sound of Music more than a few times, when Adelaide played the littlest Von Trapp. There’s that moment when they’re taught how to sing, and each kid gets assigned a note so that they can be conducted, a young-human keyboard. Adelaide was Doh, the all-important tonic of the scale. The seriousness of her presentation was hysterical; the audience looked forward to the start of the phrase every time, Doh, Mi, Mi; Mi, So, So; Re, Fa, Fa; La, Ti, Ti. Later, I cut up post-it notes to attach to piano keys, so she could play the lyric she’d memorized.

Along the way, of course, I had a few thoughts about The Sound of Music. The whole project started as a straight play created for Mary Martin by the formidable team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Those two had written a play that ran even longer than Oklahoma! At first they asked their old friends Rodgers and Hammerstein for a song or two, but this eventually became an entire score. And Oscar Hammerstein was slowly dying. So, any lyric that seems a bit off, I tend to ascribe to illness. (“Reach your goals in your comfy old Rolls or in one of your Mercedes-es?”) The show’s most cringe-worthy moment is a peppy trio about the rise of the Nazis called No Way To Stop It. A tricky rhyme of derring-do sends our heads to the world of Rodgers’ previous collaborator Lorenz Hart. So we have an oddly unserious handling of a serious subject. Next thing we know, three adults with blinders on are celebrating that all absorbing character, that fascinating creature, that super special feature, me! and I wonder what universe we’re in. So, Hammerstein had the excuse of being on his deathbed, but Rodgers set this all to a merry gallop of a dance tune and has no such excuse.

Star vehicles used to comprise a sizable chunk of the musical theatre world. I’m a little envious of the idea that writers can relax a bit, knowing that the moment Mary Martin or Ethel Merman or Danny Kaye sets foot on stage, the audience is getting precisely what it paid to see. I roll my eyes a bit when a non-star takes on such a role. Sweet Charity, for instance, requires ample wattage, as the title character – originally Gwen Verdon – is on stage for every scene but one. When watching a Fraulein Maria who’s not yet sixteen-going-on-seventeen bravely attempting to scintillate, I think about what a different dynamic it must be when Mary Martin wows a crowd that’s come to see Mary Martin wow. Little Gretl couldn’t steal that show.

But Adelaide, Adelaide, ever-riveting Adelaide is a lightning rod par excellence. Total strangers who did and didn’t know I’m her father commented on how they couldn’t take their eyes off of her. And I guess the implication of today’s post is that I may have to spend the rest of my life creating star vehicles for her. There are worse fates. And, perhaps, someday we’ll say that like many a wonderful birthday cake, it all started with dough.

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Etude

November 17, 2018

I envy the music critic Alex Ross for his ability to talk about composition in a way that both musicians and the never-even-took-piano crowd can understand. And there’s an assumption in that: I can’t be sure those wholly unfamiliar with theory are able to follow along. But today, I want to write about the process of choosing the notes to throw on a page. And I want to throw words on this page that won’t alienate anyone.

A song has various components. One is

Melody

and if I asked you to hum your favorite showtune – sans words – the melody is what you’d be humming. In musicals, it’s important that the tune puts across the lyric in a way that makes dramatic sense. So, the composer looks at text in the way an actor might, choosing what syllables to emphasize:

Don’t call me at 3 a.m. from a friend’s apartment.
I’d like to choose how I hear the news.

To Andrew Lloyd Webber, the important syllables in this rather moving passage are “ment” of “apartment” and “I’d.” The voice leaps up to hit these fairly hard; then the same thing happens on “how I.” Does that make any sense to you? Of course it doesn’t. But that’s my theory: Andrew Lloyd Webber is an Englishman who doesn’t know how to speak English.

The other trouble with the leap is that it’s hard to sing. After sitting down below the staff, you have to ascend a major seventh – a rather uncommon interval – into a completely different part of the vocal range. Am I being too technical, here? This is merely evidence for my other theory: that Andrew Lloyd Webber hates singers.

Harmony

There’s more to a song than the vocal line. The piano or orchestra will definitely play something in addition to the melody. Two notes that are different make up a chord. I find the selection of chords particularly fascinating. They give emotional contours to a tune. And I’m not going to name names here, but I know of a major Broadway score in which the composer sang into a tape recorder, sans accompaniment. Others filled in the harmonies, and those others did a particularly wonderful job. The result is a famously beautiful score, but the people who didn’t get the credit are the deserving ones. Sorry, I’m not going to reveal the secret.

Garden variety scores tend to use the most obvious harmonies, and I’ve noticed this is often true of works by rock songwriters. Most pop music is written on guitars, and the fingers of rockers tend to fall on familiar frets. The aesthetic, over there in pop-land, isn’t to search for patterns you haven’t heard before. I don’t know why. In my writing, I’m constantly looking for the chord you’re not likely to expect. But one can go overboard with this sort of thing, and a “constantly surprising refrain” may be too weird for most ears. So, show-creators strike a happy medium: not too hot; not too cold, but something Goldilocks would enjoy.

Rhythm

“Hup-two-three-four!” the drill sergeant yells, and that’s about as uninteresting as a rhythm can get. But get too interesting, and your audience gets unsettled. We need Goldilocks again.

Whenever you emphasize an unexpected beat – that is, not the marching cadence, that’s called syncopation, which is the root of jazz, broadly defined.

In the theatre, we’re always concerned with the lyrics sounding natural. Musicals shift from dialogue to singing, and if syllables get mis-accented, well that’s going to get in the way of understanding. Nothing’s worse than that. And yet false stresses abound – the songwriting mistake I see most often. Just yesterday, I was working on a song that’s in one of these awful jukebox musicals, and the word “watusi” put “wa” and “si” on strong beats, leading to all sorts of problems.

In an early comedy song, I commented on these sorts of errors with this bridge:

The bridge is a little too brief
And the rhythm is beyond belief

Of course, the challenge was to set the last line with as many false accents as possible.

Accompaniment

When I first started writing musicals, I hadn’t progressed very far in my piano studies. I knew what chords I wanted, and my first few scores I wrote nothing but lead sheets. These show what the singer does – the melody and lyric, and name the chord – G7, F#dim, etc. Those tell you what the chord is, but not how to express it. And that’s leaving a lot up to chance, or your arranger or accompanist’s taste. A composer’s job isn’t truly finished until there’s a full piano score, telling the musician exactly what both hands are playing.

Sometimes, the inability to write an interesting accompaniment is related to insufficient piano skill. And there are plenty of times in which singers need the support of hearing the melody in the accompaniment; this is called doubling.

There’s a song I admire greatly in which the melody isn’t the least bit impressive, the rhythm is annoyingly machine-like, and the harmonic structure isn’t extraordinary. But the accompaniment is so fascinating, and the lyric so trenchant, that when the components come together it hits you with such power, you go “wow!”

Another hundred songwriters aren’t considering interesting ways to support the melody. I think back to my early teens, and recall my composition teacher encouraging me to come up with something more compelling than the block chords on quarter beats I used in my earliest songs. Many current tunesmiths hit the same dull chord on the hup-two-three-four. If they knew now what I knew then, scores of scores would be livelier.

 


Ride a Harley

November 6, 2018

I’m not breaking my no-politics-rule. You can safely read on. But I do like to commemorate a holiday (I assume we all have today off, because why would a democracy make it difficult to vote?) and so, if there’s some overlap with Election Day in my usual discussion of musicals, all the better.

I’ve thought, from time to time, of starting a completely separate blog for politics, but there are so many. This musing on musicals is comparatively unique. What connects the politics and musical-writing is that they involve choosing words, carefully, for maximum effectiveness, usually with an emotional component. And I’m reminded of my year-I-graduated-college investigation of the advertising industry, which would seem to involve something similar. Two people effectively talked me out of it. One was a writer of musicals who’d spent considerable time on Madison Avenue and hated the idea of my talents going to the Dark Side. The other honestly told me that every adman (as they were called back then) has an unsold novel in his drawer. Advertising was where you went if you crash-and-burn with non-commercial creation.

But I’ve been lucky enough to do three musical comedy things in the business world. These were Industrials, a little-known genre that’s the subject of the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway. Companies sometimes see the benefit of using musical theatre talent to help get their message across in an amusing and tuneful way. One of my gigs was for a motorcycle dealership in New Jersey, and it was the sort of thing to which the word “gonzo” gets applied. A handheld camera skittered around the establishment, and I was caught improvising a jingle on a portable keyboard, “If you want to look gnarly, ride a Harley.” And very few of you will recognize you’ve just read the world’s most subliminal political message.

Campaigning for Congress makes for a fantastic number in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Fiorello. “The name’s LaGuardia,” the titular character sings, and then spells out the whole thing. He continues,

Now here’s another name!
T-A-M-M-A-N-Y! What’s that?
— Tammany!
Wrong! The answer’s tyranny!
Tammany spells tyranny like R-A-T spells rat!
Now, there’s a double “m” in Tammany, and a double “l” in gall
Just like the double-dealing, double-crossing, double-talking, double-dyed duplicity of Tammany Hall!

Then, Fiorello delivers the same speech in an Italian neighborhood, entirely in Italian. And finally in a Jewish neighborhood, entirely in Yiddish. This leads to a spirited dance that may have inspired songwriters Bock & Harnick to write two later musicals involving Jews, Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds.

This sequence always seemed to me an only-in-New York thing, the way a candidate would have to speak three different languages. But my family recently knocked on doors and met voters who spoke neither English nor Spanish, so I can no longer say “unique New York.” Not that I ever could. Try it; it’s hard.

I treasure my tradition of walking to my polling place. Just the other day I met the granddaughter of a musical theatre writer, reminding me of my old neighborhood – or should I say precinct? – where the esteemed grandmother lived and I once ran into Tom Jones at the local copy shop. He saw that I was picking up a script and we amiably chatted about writing musicals. A chance encounter with the author of the longest running musical of all time! These are the people in the neighborhood!

No serendipity is involved when an outfit like The Dramatists Guild puts together a panel discussion with the likes of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Sheldon Harnick. Who better to discuss the pressure writers of their generation felt to have extractable out-of-context “hits” emerge from their show scores? My favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, had died but Comden quoted him as suggesting that all the plot-related material be put in the verse and a more generic refrain could become the hit record: “Thanks for electing me governor. I owe it all to you campaign workers” might be a long recitative, but then comes “How I’m doing? Hey-hey. Feels great to be with you.”

I’ve paraphrased Betty paraphrasing Frank badly. But there’s a wonderful show tune from the 60s that does just that, and I remember knowing only the chorus from radio play:

 

That entire clip seems so distant from our contemporary entertainment scene. Ed Sullivan, a host with not a modicum of charisma, introduces us to a musical we’ve probably never heard of, and two British actors whose names ring not a bell. And people watched this! It was a top-rated show.

Broadway, and musicals in particular, held an important place in American culture only 55 years ago. My how the once-mighty have fallen! But here’s how audiences are like voters. We get the government, and the entertainment we deserve. If you don’t like the bums in Washington, it’s your duty to vote them out. If you don’t like, for example, shows with wholly unoriginal scores (such as jukeboxes and performer revues), vote with your ticket purchase to an original musical.

If ruled the world, there’d be some sort of a penalty for presenting a show with an unoriginal score. Jukeboxes are made up of songs that have already earned millions of dollars for their authors, while we creators of new songs persevere in poverty. There should be a Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich – perhaps a fee assessed for using old rock hits – to give to the poor, which might take the form of a fund to produce truly new musicals. I realize this is a radical proposal, but Musical Theatre, our beloved art-form, is imperiled by competition from things like The Cher Show and Summer.

Get off the soapbox, Katz. A literal soapbox appeared in a production I saw of Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I’m struck by how many Pulitzer-winning musicals concern politics: There’s the aforementioned Fiorello and the most recent victor, Hamilton. Stretching it just a little, Rent shows young people taking the streets to protest and my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, ends with characters cabling the White House, “Watch out!” The film version actually shows Robert Morse cleaning the windows of the Oval Office, with the implication that he’ll soon take over the president’s job. As a Charles Strouse number goes, “Boy, do we need it now!”