Nine months ago, Aaron Frankel died, but I found this out through a returned Christmas card. Yes, I still send Christmas cards, and the scary part is, some of my recipients are very old people – Aaron was well into his nineties – and Return To Sender can signify Gone To Meet His Maker.
Aaron had been a stage director – once I thrilled to see black and white pictures of him and some soon-to-be-famous actors hanging in the lobby of Bucks County Playhouse – but he’s best known as the leader of the “other” musical theatre writing workshop. Which is, of course, why he was so important to me.
When we say something is “other” we’re defining it by what it is not. So, when I was very young, in New York, there was only one place you could learn about writing musicals, Lehman Engel’s workshop at BMI. Lehman is the father of us all. In the first year, he’d have us musicalize specific moments in mid-century plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. Then he alone critiqued our efforts. The workshop was hard to get into, but cost nothing to attend.
BMI’s rival, ASCAP, decided to follow suit with a free musical theatre writing workshop of its own. First it was run by Charles Strouse, who then handed the reins to his Rags collaborator, Stephen Schwartz. And they brought in different guest stars to offer their opinions. Once, it was Lauren Bacall. A few other times it was a star who’d make your eyes pop out, like Stephen Sondheim. Non-participants could attend as guest observers. Also free for all.
After my years at BMI and the inaugural year at ASCAP, I was a young man without a workshop to regularly attend. The New School For Social Research, a college that offered individual courses to adults not seeking degrees, had, for a fee, Aaron Frankel and Kenneth Jacobson. Ken had composed two flop Broadway musicals. A song from Hot September was re-used and became the title song of the second one, Show Me Where the Good Times Are. Years later, I worked very closely with someone whose one Broadway credit was as understudy in the later show.
To get in the workshop, I had to visit Ken at his very fancy Upper West Side brownstone to play him my songs. And I remember doing this crazy thing – singing a duet with overlapping lines all by myself. In this case, that put me quite out of breath. When one is merely one part of a two-person song, there’s time to breathe, but when you’re two… And, in the middle of this piece of resistance, Ken threw up his hands and said “Stop! Stop!” He wasn’t trying to save my lungs. He couldn’t stand to hear another note of the song, which, he made clear, was far too Sondheim-like for his tastes!
But, I’d passed. Ken immediately acknowledged that I could write, and was a fine fit for the class. As I write this, I realize this is not a story about Aaron per se, but so many people I meet think I’m so unusual for finding flaws in Sondheim’s oeuvre, the recollection of what Ken said about my song makes me smile.
Aaron reminded me of me, somehow. I’d gone to Columbia, and he’d been a professor there. Short, dynamic, smart-as-a-whip, and he’d given a lot of thought to how musicals work. He published a book, Writing the Broadway Musical, widely considered the best of the how-to tomes, and it’s stayed in print for well over forty years. The many wise things Aaron put in his book are illustrated by two examples, My Fair Lady and Company. I don’t think these shows exemplify much of anything. My Fair Lady lacks romantic expressions between the two main characters, and its two acts are about rather different things. Company is even more unlike all other musicals, since the lead character is, by design, a cipher who does nothing, and there’s no action in the conventional sense.
So, you see, from time to time, I had a bone to pick with Aaron. And, to his great credit, he enjoyed having students pick dem bones. Once I challenged his statement about the percentage of successful Broadway musicals that had been originals vs. adaptations by typing up a list of all the shows that had run more than 500 performances, indicated whether they’d been based on something else or not. Pre-internet, pre-word processing: Aaron was impressed by the effort.
BMI was the prestige place to be, ASCAP was in second place, but gaining on them, and Frankel & Jacobson at The New School were a very distant third. Nobody would claim that the best aspiring writers of musicals were on those folding chairs in a room at the Ansonia. One, though, was Gerard Allessandrini, who became the theatre’s most successful purveyor of parodies, with countless editions of Forbidden Broadway as well as Spamalot.
As someone who’s spent most of his life on the Upper West Side, I have to interject a few words about our beloved wedding cake of an apartment building, the Ansonia. It gazes down a bend in Broadway like a gleaming white French palace blown up to eighteen stories. Completed 115 years ago, it set a template for the old neighborhood: the filigrees and pretty detailing – but especially the thick walls. Thick walls meant music people could be as loud as the hell you want when you’re making … music, and so here you’d find Caruso, Stravinski and Toscanini (who leads the greatest of bands; Jergen’s lotion does the trick for his hands). Each time I entered it, I staggered, thinking of all that history, taking in all the beauty – the lobby fountain once had live seals.
In the basement was AMDA, the acting school. They had their soon-to-be graduates do showcases with original songs, and I was excited to have material included in these. Later, the first time I played a musical theatre performance class, it was for Arabella Hong at the Ansonia. She’d been in the original cast of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Love Look Away had been written for her. But these memories pale in comparison to the knowledge I picked up from Aaron Frankel. When my first professional musical was being produced – just a few blocks away – we brought the script to Aaron and he offered some fine suggestions that contributed to the show’s success. I remember him beaming, gratified that yet another student managed to get a show on the boards.