Welcome to the top

January 26, 2019

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.

 

 

 

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Sleepy

January 17, 2019

On my birthday I sometimes I feel like it’s a good time for self-congratulation. Other times, I feel I do way too much of that sort of thing already. But right now, I’m feeling pretty good because I’ve just written a draft of the Opening Sequence of a musical and take a great deal of satisfaction in assembling the various elements that are needed up front. Musicals must make a good first impression. Show me A Typical Day In Dogpatch, U.S.A. and I’m primed for a certain kind of humor all night long. At the opposite end of the spectrum is my favorite whipping boy, Still Hurting, in which lights went up on a lachrymose young woman who wailed her dismay that her romance had gone wrong. I wanted to bolt for the door. And the show never quite recovered from the initial unappealing note of self-pity.

So, in discussions with an unusually large collaborative team, I kept emphasizing our need to keep Scene One positive. And so, I’ve written energetic and catchy music, loaded the lyrics and dialogue with cleverness and/or jokes, introducing a community with something to celebrate. As we write more and start rehearsing (that’s any day now), we might discover I’ve set the wrong tone. But right now, I’m feeling uncharacteristically positive about it.

People feel old on their birthdays, but I’m noticing a way in which I’ve changed with the times, in a songwriting sense. The much-admired Broadway composer Lawrence O’Keefe does something that I think of as music designed for short attention spans. Often, the feel or groove it’s in drastically alters rather abruptly. My opening number does something similar: There’s one kind of energy for the intro, which is all in the bass clef, then an Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque duet made of descending lines, a short speech and then a Motown-like ditty in a new key. After two A sections, the feel changes to plainer pop over a bass line that walks down the scale. Then there’s funny dialogue covering a seemingly important Event. The villain launches into the Motown melody and then the chorus takes up the pop tune. Three new characters have a funny spoken exchange which is underscored by a sentimental waltz, then launch into the pop. Another bit of dialogue gives a new character something to celebrate. Then the chorus finishes things off with the Motown into pop sequence one last time. Much less fun to read about than to hear, but this illustrates what I mean when I say it keeps changing.

Time pressure on this show has led to a lot of quick turnaround. I furiously turned out ten other songs in the past month, and that included holidays and my mother-in-law occupying my office for ten days. When something is quickly created, it can be quickly discarded (if it has to be) without a great sense of loss; easy come, easy go. A couple of days ago, the writing team convened and I was asked what I needed to proceed. All I could think of asking for was a list of events, in order, that needed to happen in the first scene. That four-part opening number was written weeks ago, but now there was a larger structure to fit it into. The list was just what I needed.

Deborah S. Craig & Aaron Ramey sing a song of mine at the NEO Concert at the York.

At this point, I’m wondering whether I’m enamored with my work or more self-impressed with the mere fact that the work got done.

Songwriting that spurts out that quickly is aided by something that might be called Modeling on Antecedents. In the musty old file cabinets of my mind are a plethora of songs I’ve heard more than once, and admire. So, when I examine the situation in the show’s story that requires a song, I sometimes say, “needs a song like I Want It All from Baby.” That gives me a template. So the second number has those energetic eight eighth notes to the bar thing from the great female trio. And the bass rises on off-beats, I-III-IV, which I’m aware is a bit of Cats dance music I once found too tricky to play. A song about the start of a marriage takes it accompaniment figure from a more sour Sondheim song about marriage, The Little Things You Do Together. The lullaby needed to have the simple sincerity of Lay Down Your Head from Violet. A chorale about friendship has some distant relationship to some forgotten sitcom theme, and the word, “freedom,” inspired something along the lines of the Aretha Franklin classic, Think. And the finale uses a measure from Cole Porter’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which was known as a delightful duet long before the title was borrowed for a game show. So, right now, you might be humming a whole bunch of really disparate numbers. But the audience that will hear this score in May is unlikely to think of any of them; they’re totally transmogrified. And one ballad is a simplification of a sophisticated number I wrote last year that nobody’s heard. The point is, having these other tunes as a leaping off point helped me unleash the floodgates of creation.

And it’s been a lot of fun. There is something uniquely enjoyable about solving dramaturgic problems through the creation of songs that illuminate turns of plot, and where characters stand; this sort of thing is catnip to me. And nothing stops you from dragging your feet like knowing that a deadline looms ahead. The show opens May 23rd in Beverly Hills; I hope you’ll come see.


Untitled

January 9, 2019

I’ve been writing a slew of songs lately, and, paradoxically, my break before getting back to this rap nonsense – oh, that’s not a pejorative; merely descriptive – is to share a little bit about how I do it.

Alone in the Lab

There’s a good amount of solitude involved. I’ve found that there’s no use in talking about the song I’m going to write. People can’t share that vision; they need to hear the tangible thing. So, I have this image of myself as a scientist who merrily mixes stuff in beakers, with nobody watching, until some new potion is ready for presentation for others.

Practically, I have to have many hours of uninterrupted concentration. (This can be hard to get.) There will be pads of lined paper, which is not the same as blank music paper, which I’ll also need.

In the Beginning Was the Word

But not just yet. I like to focus, first, on what’s being communicated in the song. Since it’s almost always a song in a musical, I’ve a lot of parameters that are set up by the needs of the show. I know what the song needs to accomplish, dramatically. One of the pitfalls, here, is that a good song in a musical doesn’t amplify or explain and emotion the audience already knows, or can deduce.

But that’s a problem that can be fixed later. Once songs are completed, there’s all sorts of adjustments that need to be made – often cutting bits of book – to avoid redundancy. Let me emphasize that again: avoid redundancy.

Staring at the blank page, I begin to list things that might go in the song. As I do this, the need for a title is never far from my mind. A good title will encapsulate most of what a song is saying. That’s why it’s usually possible to get a sense of a musical’s plot just by looking at the names of its numbers. But, at this point in the process, you don’t need to have decided on the final title. You’re just listing.

Patterns Emerge

As the list grows, a sort of child’s game begins. Finding matches. The element most likely to leap out is rhyme. One could circle the rhymes, but I never do this, since I think in rhymes. It’s too obvious, to me, to waste time circling. A more important match would be metrical feet. Setting rhyme aside, can phrases be assembled that would have the rhythm of poetry? If you recognize rhythmic patterns, you’re well on the way to starting a melody.

I heard a rumor about Cole Porter: That he would set a lyric by notating the rhythms first, and the pitches came later. But what I’m more likely to do is to investigate various ways the stresses might fall. The image here is that of an actor, testing out different interpretations of a speech. Usually, more than one rhythmic setting will work. But here’s where you go beyond Cole: If you’re pondering the voice of the actor, you’re probably getting a sense of the shape of the melody. Nobody speaks in a monotone, except maybe that dullard who chants “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you.” Don’t be like that character! You’d rather have the moon.

Building Blocks

I’m not sure what to call what you have at this point – a snatch of melody? Well, scientist, you now have an element you can build with. That snatch could go somewhere in your song, and it’s going to be one of many pieces you’ll use. So it’s probably time to think about the larger structure. Piecing together an A section, you’ll now make decisions about where the title goes, where the rhymes go, and how to use those matching rhythms you identified earlier. And, by this point, you’ve chosen the title, which is more than I can say for this essay.

And then give a thought to the larger structure. Your B section will provide a contrast. This might be harmonic, or take the voice to a different tessitura, or, most likely, there’s a rhythmic contrast. A song I’m writing now starts in a minor key – the title’s the first line, but there’s a rhythmic match with the third line there – and is on jagged syncopations. The bridge is higher, in major, and involves much longer sustained notes the singer can open up on. Just the example I have on my mind at the moment. Right now I don’t know about other sections, although I’ve been playing with a somewhat long intro and, as an obstetrician once said to my wife, “I suspect there’s a C section in your future.”

Color By Numbers

Now that I’m thinking about my daughter, let’s consider a bunch of First Graders being given the same color-by-numbers page and an unlimited spectrum of colored pencils. The little artistic prodigies will choose different pigments that give the same drawing a wide array of emotional characteristics. It’s something I particularly love about the painting done about a century ago: Unexpected hues led to unexpected feelings.

Give music students – Tenth Graders, perhaps – the same lead sheet and the geniuses will come up with chords that put the tune across with varying levels of piquancy. Now, if you’ve familiarized yourself with thousands of songs over the years, (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ve recognized patterns in the chord symbols. It’s fair to say there’s usually the Most Obvious Way a melody might be harmonized. But why would you want to go with the Most Obvious Way? Leave that for the non-genius Tenth Graders.

Learning Through Observation

My daughter has started playing music too loud in the next room, and it’s one of those uninventive kiddie ditties with Most Obvious everything – Can You Imagine That? I’ve often spoken, here, of the sign in my office that reads Eschew Cliché. In order to do that, you’re really going to have to take a good long look at a huge quantity of songs from the past 100 years or so. See what they do with placing a title in the A section, deciding where the rhymes go, where the rhythmic matches show up. And if you’re staring at sheet music with chord symbols, take a gander at how the tune’s being colored. Anything that’s been done too much is, by definition, a cliché. Excuse me, I feel a sneeze coming on: Eschew!


You are the one for the job

January 1, 2019

So, I wrote some pretty good songs in 2018. And, while they’re not quite ready for sharing on this platform, I’d like to raise a flute of last night’s leftover bubbly to the mere fact they got written. And thereby hangs a tale of fortitude and perseverance.

My year – particularly the first half – was a spectacularly horrible one, the most depressing time of my life. There was a legitimate question as to whether I’d be able to dig in and write musicals. Baby Makes Three had no real deadline. There was no pressing need to finish the third draft. (The first was entitled The Music Playing.) But there’s a philosophy of strength I ascribe to. That, with one’s nose to the grindstone, one can get work done. Any time. Any place. No matter how soul-killing one finds one’s environs, or circumstances. If I truly believed that, I’d have to finish this draft, and rounding out the score are a couple of numbers – I Miss Breastfeeding, and Abigail Was a Butterfly – that are among the strongest songs in it.

My mood was tortured…
My life resembled
The Cherry Orchard

So, thinking back on this year made me think of these lines from a song with music by Galt MacDermot, who died a couple of weeks ago, one day short of his 90thbirthday. Before composing the music for Hair, he was hardly a hippie icon. He had a fairly conservative existence, earning a living writing jingles. Yes, jingles. Working for the Man. And then two young actors came to him with a crazy idea for a musical that would also be a be-in. What’s a be-in? Nobody quite knew. When your book and lyric writers are high all the time, it’s hard to trust them, but trust MacDermot did.

It’s here that I gently knock my father, who turns 91 this month. Those two actors, Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado, were in a play Dad produced off-Broadway. They told him about a show they were writing, Hair, which seemed to have no plot. My father declined to produce it – it was master producer Joseph Papp who had the vision to see its merit – and, well, there goes what would have been the family fortune.

Galt MacDermot’s follow-up to Hair, Two Gentlemen of Verona, which won the Tony (over Follies), is the clear progenitor of the contemporary Shakespearean musicals of Shaina Taub. MacDermot lived in Staten Island, a fact I couldn’t shake from my mind whenever I was there. In fact, I had this fantasy I’d need to use the bathroom and knock on his door, just to say I’d used the John of Galt.

But I’ve a contemporary Shakespearean musical of my own in the works, and there was a period in late summer when I managed to come up with a new song every week for it. If I’m going to celebrate my 2018 accomplishments, well, that level of production certainly deserves a place on the list. This fecund period convinced me that I don’t need the stimuli that fed me for decades in order to create. What lit a fire under me, on this one, was a collaborator who was fairly demanding and occasionally had trouble seeing the merits of certain songs. I’ve noticed that when I have an idea in my head, sometimes the only way a collaborator is going to understand that idea is if I write a draft of the song and record it.

The year’s third project, unlike the others, has a stringent set of deadlines. If I don’t complete more than one song every week, it’s not going to be done in time. There’s no time for me to second-guess myself; notes must be flung on staves, and words on pads, as fast they can be. At this point, a quodlibet is particularly fabulous, and there’s a stirring love ballad, plus a lullaby with many layers of meaning. Going well.

But I’m reminded that, back in March, I had to get a new computer, and the Apple salesmen assured me this modern model would work with my old midi keyboard. They’d lied. And so started the long nightmare of entering music on a computer staff by pointing and clicking – the glacially slow way. Come Christmas, though, my wife gave me a new keyboard that does interface with my computer. And, as a forgotten president once said, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

My wish for 2019 is to end our long national nightmare. But I’m telling you that no matter how horrible things get, you should still be able to write your musicals. Just summon up the will, or, in the case of one of my shows, the Will. And remember this Sondheim stanza:

A rhymeless word like silver
Is possible to rhyme
All it takes is will, ver-
Bosity and time.