Marion (reprise)

December 25, 2018

My recent post about the big anniversary of The Christmas Bride didn’t say enough, I feel, about what goes on in the show. So, if you’re done unwrapping Christmas presents, perhaps it’s a good time for me to wrap up what always should have been billed as a two-part reminiscence.

One thing we knew would happen early in the show is a marriage proposal. From the stolid medical student next door to the younger of two sisters. In the original Dickens story, The Battle of Life, the reader is told that the wrong sister has been proposed to, since the older one is better suited in many ways. But in a dramatic narrative, you show, rather than tell, and librettist MK Wolfe and I kept considering how the audience feels at every point. Usually, marriage proposals are instantly embraced by audiences. We’d need ours to root against the betrothed couple – a wedding they’d hope would be called off. We wrote and rewrote the sequence several times, handling it in many different ways. I wrote a halting proposal song, but that led to too much sympathy for the would-be bridegroom. It eventually occurred to us that he’s too unromantic a lug to sing his proposal. He should stammer, unmusically.

Betrothed couples get toasted, and are given advice. And this notion led to an effective way of introducing a whole bunch of characters rather swiftly. I created a large quodlibet in which different songs had different people advise in ways that defined them. So the paterfamilias is blithe and jocular. The sister emphasizes romance. Attorneys oh-so-properly have them sign papers. Each tiny ditty has a completely different feel, and then they all get repeated simultaneously.

Megan Poulos, Matthew Griffin Photo: Stephen Cihanek

Songwriters often raid the script for bits of dialogue that could become a song. So, a dashing fellow compares a girl he fancies to a thoroughbred. And this got me thinking about his relationship with his horse. The big solo I created for this character is, in fact, sung to his horse – a fairly unique idea. (I was aware of Lover, the Rodgers and Hart song in which Jeanette MacDonald addresses the horse she’s riding in Love Me Tonight.) In The Christmas Bride’s number, you can’t always tell whether the fellow is talking to his horse or himself. It’s fun, and I’m proud that the lyric is extraordinarily succinct.

It’s a huge contrast with the Act One finale, which shows various types of people in various locales, and you can almost hear horse hooves in the accompaniment. There’s a virtue in bigness: think of the Tonight Quintet in West Side Story and the excitement that comes from the convergence of so many forces.

MK Wolfe’s libretto is a fun and fine melodrama, and at one point the plot has two men searching for the same heroine. But, meeting for the first time, they think they’re talking about different women, and I was able to mine this moment for a funny duet that gets laughs, make us like both characters, and is passably romantic.

The roulette sequence is a colossal musical scene within a small-cast musical. It feels very large because so much is going on. A fellow with a gambling problem is goaded into betting more and more, and the stakes are high in more ways than one.

As a direct result of the events in this number, our leads are imprisoned in two different locales, but I gave them a split screen duet. We hear from both at once, and this is the closest they come to a traditional love song.

The Christmas Bride makes much use of subtle repetition. Snatches of song heard in one place returns within another song. A famous example of another show that does this is Merrily We Roll Along, in which the bridge to Rich and Happy returns later as Our Time. And The Hills of Tomorrow is the basis of both Who Wants To Live In New York? and Good Thing Going. Of course, Merrily has been rewritten so many times, the production you see may not include either Rich and Happy or The Hills of Tomorrow, but originally they were all linked.

Something similar happened to The Christmas Bride. The awkward marriage proposal that used to be set to music is heard, in a more fraught tempo, from the same character in the first act finale. But now that the proposal’s been cut, it’s new material, not a reprise.

But don’t get the wrong idea: I am not comparing The Christmas Bride to Merrily We Roll Along. One’s a successful musical that people love, production after production; the other, an interesting failure in which the action goes backwards.

 

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Haven

December 14, 2018

Another of my musicals has a major anniversary this month. You’ve heard me claim The Christmas Bride has little to do with Christmas. Well, The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns For Martyred Actors has more to do with Halloween than anything Yule celebrate this month. It’s a ghost story, and certain wisps of memory I have about it haunt me to this day.

My collaborator was extraordinarily talented, but I’m not going to reveal his name. (Ooh, a mystery as well as a ghost story!) This is because I want to speak honestly about him and some of the callous things he did to me, but it’s classless and/or impolitic to speak ill of the rich and famous. He went on to win the Tony, the Pulitzer, an Emmy – but for now let’s just call him Individual One.

He said he loved musicals, but he seemed troubled by his own ardor. He once told me he considered them an inherently conservative art form, meant to lull the audience into bourgeois complacency. So, to be a good leftist, it seemed, one had to reject certain musical comedy conventions; to rouse rather than to lull. Them’s fighting words. I was fairly political, of a similar stripe, but didn’t see my embrace of certain time-honored theatrical forms as inherently conservative.

Most songwriters would have cursed out Individual One, refused to work on the project, slammed the door. The 23-year-old me thought that all collaborations involve a certain amount of compromise. If I broke things off, he’d find another writer, and I’d be just another writer without a show. If I found a way to work with Individual One, to get past this rather silly difference, we could create something interesting. Yes, my traditionalism would clash with his incendiary rejection of what had gone before, but I didn’t want our audience lulled into anything either. It was exciting to see where his approach would take this thing.

And, at every point, I never lost sight of two positives: Individual One has an extraordinary brain, able to unite a plethora of disparate concepts, to quote and discourse on a large array of complicated philosophies, to utilize a wide range of theatrical effects. Also, the script crackled with passion and poetry. This guy could write – boy, could he write – and I didn’t want to unhitch my wagon from a speeding locomotive.

I’d contributed some incidental music to three plays he’d written or directed, but The Heavenly Theatre would be a whole score with lyrics by Individual One. That threw me off my game, as I’m always most comfortable creating both words and music all by myself and usually at once. Here, I was handed text to set. And the words – which usually lacked rhyme, meter, or matching sections – were unlike any lyrics I’d ever seen. Forget making this sound like a musical; how could I make this sound like a song? I felt a need to honestly communicate the difficulty I was having to Individual One, and hoped he could restructure his blank verse into something with a little more form. But my request enraged him. “We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer.”

999 out of a thousand would have resigned, but I figured writing with someone is an experience one is bound to learn from. Individual One was so clearly brilliant in so many things, was abandoning him the right way to go? Plus, I had a plan, and that plan involved writing a song. I could take one of his lyrics and reconfigure it into a rhyming, metered, traditionally structured opening number. My efforts energized me. I knew the song was everything the show needed, introducing characters and a style of comedy; showmanship tinged with Bach-like melismas. Individual One grudgingly accepted this into the show. I felt like I’d won one.

From then on his lyrics got more settable, and I found that there were compositional techniques that suggest structure to the listener. One example involved an unusual rhythm that’s first heard on a drum – it alternates 6/8 and 4/4 – and the feel is that of an ancient country dance. The lyric doesn’t utilize a title, but tells a frightening story that’s very compelling. The cadences of those hard beats command the attention of the audience. The whole thing managed to come across.

If I was able to channel my frustrations with my collaborator into my creative work, so was Individual One. The premise of The Heavenly Theatre is that, in medieval times, a government official has ordered the death of a commedia dell’arte troupe. They get revenge by returning as ghosts, presenting him with a musical about the events leading to their murder. Now, of course, the haunted martinet doesn’t like the show, so, after some numbers, he gets to yell his disapproval. In a way, this may have been a healthy outlet for Individual One’s disapproval of me.

Ours is not the only musical set in medieval France with a composer approaching his 24th birthday. There’s also Pippin, and the creative pressures birthing that one led director Bob Fosse to bar songwriter Stephen Schwartz from rehearsals. As rotten luck would have it, I, too, was subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment by Individual One. This was emotionally devastating to me, but I had a great deal of confidence in musical director Wade Russo. He saw to it my music was brought to life, and we remain friends to this day.

Alas, I can’t say the same for Individual One. I ran into about a month after performances, and wondered if it might ever be done again. No, Individual One told me firmly. After our difficulties working together, he’d have to find a different composer for any further permutation of The Heavenly Theatre. He did just that, and the show was announced as part of a major theatre’s season about ten years later, but never came to pass.

Merry Christmas!


Jingle

December 7, 2018

This month marks a big anniversary of my musical that Sondheim saw, The Christmas Bride. It was the sixth show I got produced in my twenties, and no decade since has seen nearly as much activity. The Christmas Bride hasn’t quite gone away, as it’s been subsequently presented in venues in different Northeast states, but that first time, so long ago, was in New York, in the Theatre District. Many’s the time, over the years, when I’ve purposefully walked past 354 W. 45thto solidify my memories. But now I think I’ve forgotten a lot, so here I’ll try to set down some answers to questions you might have.

How’d you get Sondheim to come?

Our musical director, Michael Lavine, had developed a long-standing relationship with the composer, but, at that point, he’d never seen Michael musical direct anything. Luckily, the time and location of The Christmas Bride provided a golden opportunity. Sondheim had a musical playing on the same block, and a new actress was taking over the lead role. A plan emerged for him to see our first act and her second act. That way, he could congratulate her on her performance, but have a good excuse to run out of our theatre at intermission, without talking to anybody.

And that’s exactly what happened. But, all sorts of people around me encouraged me to write him a letter to get his reaction. So, that happened, and his response hung on my wall for decades afterwards. I’d joked about cleverness in my note to him and he took me seriously: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise and imagination.” Words I’ve taken to heart ever since.

A mutual friend recently referred to Michael Lavine as a famous person, and it’s true: he also musical directed my On the Brink, Our Wedding, and my evening at the Donnell Library.

Is The Christmas Bride an original musical? About Christmas?

Yes and no and yes and no. It says right on the title page and poster that The Christmas Bride is based on a book by Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life. So, one might naturally conclude that this isn’t an original musical. But when you read The Battle of Life, you’ll discover that there’s virtually no plot there. It describes a situation, and some characters; something about a boy-next-door proposing to the younger of two sisters, which, I guess, condemns the older one to spinsterhood. Enter MK Wolfe, who had a great number of bright thoughts about the situations in the story, and our contemporary conception of Dickensian Christmas. A far-more famous Dickens novella – you know the one – created the template for how we think about Christmastime. Countless twentieth century works refer to this, and our musical couldn’t ignore it in the way The Battle of Life did.

But we had an idea that, I think, everybody can relate to: those holiday times when you’re with your family but not quite feeling the spirit. So, I wrote an English carol for our characters to sing, I’m Happiest At Christmas, to contrast the emotions of our heroine, who thinks she’s chosen the wrong suitor and lost her one true love. The librettist and I were clicking particularly well on this moment, since the stakes were so high that something sort of funny – a family singing louder at a crying ingénue to make her feel better – played for full pathos.

So, yes, certain scenes are set at Yuletide, but it never strikes me as apt to called The Christmas Bride a Christmas musical. It’s a melodrama with perils and fights, but it’s also a romance, with impetuous departures, secret meetings, and twin brothers: one mild, one frightening. Does that sound like a Christmas musical to you?

How’d you get six musicals produced in your twenties?

Not to mention one in my teens. But I didn’t get to see the first one, so The Christmas Bride was the sixth I saw produced. Effective networking means a chain with many links. So, when I was 18 and a freshman in college, I got cast in the smallest possible role in a Shakespeare play. At the first read-through, I asked about the songs; there were many of them. The director hadn’t considered where the tunes would come from, so I volunteered to write them, and the director was glad to delegate the task. The thing I really wanted to do in college was to write The Varsity Show, the annual student-created revue where Rodgers had met both Hammerstein and Hart. But, the years I was at Columbia, they didn’t do Varsity Shows. Instead, I pitched the Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society across the street on the idea of my writing a piece specifically for them, and this played in the very theatre where The Fantasticks had its premiere some decades earlier. In the audience was Adam Belanoff, two years behind me in school, and he managed to revive the Varsity Show tradition and gave me my dream role as songwriter. This was so successful, we were asked to create an off-off-Broadway revue, On the Brink, which played at the old Gene Frankel Theatre near Lincoln Center. The newer Gene Frankel Theatre, on Bond Street, is around the corner from a non-descript N.Y.U. building where, also a round number of years ago, The Heavenly Theatre played. My collaboration on that was set up by someone who remembered my work from The Winter’s Tale. Oh, and the show that was done when I was a teen got completely rewritten due to a copyright issue. There: have I named six?

Once I turned thirty, though, the links of my chain of associations began to sever. Some people left town, some left the theatre, and eventually we ceased sending each other Christmas cards. Which reminds me: I ought to get on that.