I want to go home

February 23, 2019

Forbes, that source for business information, reported, earlier this month, Musicals Make More Money on the Road than on Broadway and that would certainly seem to be good news. Some days later came the not-so-good news that last year’s Tony-winning musical, The Band’s Visit, has posted its closing notice. The Forbes story had already troubled me, and I found myself in a conversation with a lady from Phoenix (like Sally Durant) about Rent, which, she informed me, is now greeted with audience participation, people on the wrong side of the footlights shouting things, or singing along.

There’s a lot to digest, here. The Band’s Visit, I’m happy to tell you, recouped its investment on Broadway. Whatever road money it makes may be considered gravy. But we can all recall a time when winning the Tony for Best Musical meant you’d run for years. The Band’s Visiting for a little over a year, despite universal rave reviews and excellent word-of-mouth. Its closing is a reminder that high quality doesn’t necessarily mean high profit.

And we can turn this into a trivia game: Which musicals got raves, the top Tonys, were widely loved by audiences and yet didn’t have substantial runs? Redhead? Less trivially, did Fun Home find an audience on the road?

I get perversely perturbed about certain things related to show business. A few years ago, a show bombed on Broadway: got pans, played roughly 100 performances, word-of-mouth was pretty poor. Yet it toured. And this had nothing to do with its quality or how it was received. It had everything to do with the celebrity status of one of its authors, someone who’d never written a musical before, but is beloved for an affable personality and good humor in a completely unrelated field. The same show, written by someone who isn’t famous, wouldn’t have ever been seen again – maddening.

There’s another sort of show mentioned in the Forbes article. Imagine a musical that the New York community of critics and theatre-goers don’t consider good enough for New York. It may play in Peoria, where, it’s said, people don’t have the same standards for quality that we do in the Apple. That doesn’t bother me at all.

This notion recalls Arthur Laurents’ great exchange in Gypsy: “New York is the center of everything!” “New York is the center of New York!” Here’s what I wonder: If the rest of the country has different requirements of entertainment, there should be plenty of examples of musicals that have cleaned up without ever playing The Great White Way. And I’m just going to leave that there as another trivia question for you.

The New York production serves as a de facto imprimatur. Ooh! This show played in New York! It must be good! It must be better than this show that never played New York! This ludicrous proposition is widely believed by theatre people everywhere. On the road, people buy tickets to shows “fresh from Broadway” even if the show was only there a few weeks. I know writers who create fine musicals in different parts of the country who always aspire to get their work seen in Manhattan. And I’m writing this knowing that my next show will play in Los Angeles but not in New York, where I’ve had about a dozen works done in the past.

Rent, which had a partially live TV broadcast last month, has been much on a lot of people’s minds.Here’s what I said to that Phoenician: I feel for Jonathan Larson, who, like me, toiled for years writing little musicals that very few people have ever heard of. His rock amalgam of La Bohème and the Tompkins Square Park riot attracted the attention of what would seem the perfect theatre for it: The New York Theatre Workshop is a grungy little space on East Fourth Street, just a couple of blocks away from where the action takes place. When you create a musical for off-off-Broadway, you consider the audience experience. Attendees would have to be brave enough to walk a stretch of the Bowery, enter a storefront not known for musicals, and then listen to rockers bouncing sounds off of near walls. This wasn’t your parents’ musical comedy, but something different, cutting edge. And then, its sole creator died, days from his 36th birthday. He doesn’t live to ride the skyrocket of the show’s success. Soon, the pressure’s on to bring it to Broadway.

Cagily, the producers sought to retain some of that off-off experience on-on Broadway. They renovated the only Broadway theatre south of 42nd Street, a rarely-used 1,232 seat house and did something truly clever: The renovation didn’t make it look new, it made it look old. Dirty, grungy, positively redolent of the East Village setting. I saw Rent there and had more fun finding my seat than at most of the show. The environment was apt: I felt like I was in one of those lofts, with the characters, their voices – including Idina Menzel – bouncing off the nearby walls.

Twenty years later, I saw the touring production (cast by my wife, Joy Dewing) in the least apt environment imaginable: Orange County, California. The theatre was cavernous, with 1700 non-fixed seats – that is, they weren’t even screwed in to the floor. While the show was amplified, it seemed oddly remote, as there were no walls for the sound to bounce off of. The ceiling was so high, I wondered if this was a converted sports arena.

If you saw Rent on TV (I’m not one of the few), you missed the thrill of rock ricocheting off thick walls from performers who breathe the same air you do. But don’t get me started on televised musicals. Consider, instead, how far we all are from Larson’s vision. He created an intimate musical for a couple hundred brave souls to see together. Unless you took yourself to a grunge club for the telecast, you got nothing like that.

A highly-regarded little musical is on the road as I write this, in a 3000-seat theatre. It’s the first time its creators are making money, and I’m happy for them. But I wonder if history has repeated itself: They fashioned something with a certain level of intimacy, and then, in the provinces, it’s placed in a monstrous edifice larger than an airplane hangar. And I don’t care that the setting of the show is an airplane hangar; that just seems wrong to me.

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Love is stronger than bureaucracy

February 14, 2019

Thought I’d seize the day to describe my process in writing my latest love song, in as much detail as I can remember. I hope you find it valuable, and not too annoying that I don’t, at this point, have a recording I can share.

Identity, a new musical that will open in May, has a plot point that cried out for a tragic romantic duet. In the show, set in a future dystopia, when youths come of age, they are assigned spouses and professions. One job is at the top of a hierarchy, but the downside is you’re not allowed to mate.

“Pregnant”

It occurred to me that a certain number of people marry their high school sweethearts. What if high school sweethearts are broken up by the System? What if one half of a couple is assigned a different person to marry, and the other can’t, by law? Would they continue their romance in secret? Or would they be duty-bound to accept that they can no longer be together?

Pretty dramatic stuff, right? Do you hear a song cue? It struck me that the question the young lovers must address is whether their love is more important than the bureaucracy that imposes a different mate on one and no mate on the other. So, before I knew what the characters would decide to do, I had a title, Love Is Stronger Than Bureaucracy.

There’s something faintly ridiculous about that title. “Bureaucracy” is not a term you’d expect to hear in the title of a love song. Nor are its rhymes likely to be found in any sweet sonnet: hypocrisy and autocracy. At first blush, these words seem alarmingly prosaic. Had I gotten off on the wrong tack?

For much of the score to Identity, there’s a question of tone. I think the moment the piece becomes too earnest, we risk tripping over clichés, alienating the audience. In context, I hope, that faint ridiculousness is going to work in our favor. People who see it should buy into the situation, and realize that ardor expressed in an unromantic society can use less flowery language; it’s fun rather than sweet. But the situation the couple is in requires a certain amount of passion. When I think of love duets that didn’t quite land because of excessive seriousness, I’m reminded of some of the Eurotrash musicals. Hold that thought.

“Love is stronger than bureaucracy” – I stared at these words, investigating where the stresses fall, and what syllables might sound best on sustained notes. This might be stating the obvious, but “love” is a word we’re used to taking up a lot of beats. Love, ageless and evergreen. Love is but a moment’s madness. Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. The rest of my unwieldy title seemed to necessitate short notes. And that’s how I gravitated towards 6/8. “Love” could take up nearly two measures, to be followed by quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth and then three eighth notes for the rhyming syllables. The moment I came up with this rhythm I knew that the song might seem oddly uncontemporary if I rhymed the title. That’s something Gilbert and Sullivan do, and this thing is set in a future century, not their Nineteenth. I wanted to retain, though, the sense of structure, of predictability, that rhymes provide. This led me to repeat the line:

Love is stronger than bureaucracy
Our love is stronger than bureaucracy

Don’t know if you’ve been keeping track. But that’s eight bars right there. A chunk to build on.

If my character – marked as “She” in my notebook – maintains that love is stronger than bureaucracy, then she must be up against someone who maintains the opposite (marked as “He” in my notebook, although genders kept changing and they weren’t always a heterosexual pair). So, now I had a notion about structure. She wants to continue seeing each other. He is a slave of duty (Uh oh, Gilbert and Sullivan rear their ugly heads again!). So, like a formal debate, we have a proposition stated, and then there’s a second section in which the opposite is stated.

Our love can’t justify hypocrisy
Although you well may be the perfect mate
I’m sworn to uphold the state

Musically, I knew I needed something pretty, but off-kilter, to take in the strangeness of a future dystopia. As stated above, the length of notes was dictated by the lyric.

The weird bit I inserted into the chord progression was  “the seventh of the Seventh” every fourth bar. I know that sounds confusing, so I’ll restate this simply. There is an incredibly common pattern of chords we’ve all heard in countless tunes: I, VI minor, II minor, V7. Nothing futuristic about that; you could hear it in Heart and Soul in the 1930s. I used the first three chords, leading the listener to expect the V7 and then – surprise – comes the VII7, which has two notes in common with the obvious one.

Maury Yeston, Pat Cook, Alan Menken

The contours of the melody lead to something of a climax on the tenth bar, of “mate” in the “He” lyric I just quoted. For this I needed something soaring, and fairly big. I thought this was a good time to have the singer open up on a high note – the sixth in the scale – over one of my favorite chords, which I guess might be known as the ninth of the Second. I like to invert this so that the bottom note is a tritone away from the tonic, harmonically, as far as you can travel.The two songwriting heroes of mine from my days in the BMI workshop, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken both used it to good effect in songs mentioning religion. Yeston’s glorious Bells of St. Sebastian puts it at the end of “In tones well-rounded they sounded down the nave” while Menken’s A Little Dental Music humorously underscores “Hark, the Mormon Tabernacle sings!” with it.

To contrast with the choruses, the verses have the free-flowing motion of real dialogue, but the triplets remain. So, who here held that thought about Eurotrash duets? You and I? Yes, it’s a little bit like You and I from Chess, but without the excessive seriousness. Your move! Opening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 23rd in Beverly Hills.


Yes and yes and

February 4, 2019

My friend Alyssa asked about Writer’s Block, and my first thought was: I didn’t know Alyssa wrote. I bet she’s good at it. But then, at the moment, she’s probably suffering from Writer’s Block. I can’t recall when last I was afflicted with this dread disease. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never addressed it on the blog, and it’s high time.

Die Vampires Die

Naturally, a show tune instantly comes to mind. The 4-actor musical, [title of show], is remarkably relatable – really shows what it’s like to be a musical theatre writer. The title of my favorite [title of show] number is misleading. “Vampires,” in this case, refer to any force that’s stopping you from creating. So, take that metaphor: Writer’s Block is a famous vampire that must be vanquished. And you can do this, because vampires are mythical creatures and you’re a vampire-slayer.

On Many Burners

The most important writing task I’ve in front of me today is not this early-February blog post. I need to flesh out the final sequence to a musical, interspersing four songs with dialogue, making the whole thing dramatic, swift-moving and clear. That’s on the front burner, as we cooks say. On the back burner is the new draft of my musical, Baby Makes Three. Some recent reading I’ve done on that show’s subject matter engenders new notions I’d like to incorporate. Another burner warms my monthly letter to my aunt. She gets pages in an envelope. There are also two e-mails to write to friends. This thing I’m doing now – the blog – occupies the second burner. And yet that’s what I’m doing.

If you’ve a whole bunch of things to write, procrastination can take the form of tending to a less prominent burner. And that’s forward motion: you’re writing. Gears are turning, which is better than not.

So Many Possibilities

A musical about an artist ends: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” To which I say: “His favorite???” Having so many possibilities is terrifying to me.

Recently I was asked to write a song for a theatre company and was assured (falsely, it turned out) I could write about absolutely anything. To me, this wasn’t good news. I thrive on restrictions. Don’t say to me, “write a song,” say, “write a love song a nature photographer might sing to a walrus in the Arctic.” The more specific the parameters, the more I’ll know what will need to be in the song. And in this example, I’d ask what year the love song should be set in, because nature photography has been going on for a while, but our knowledge that the polar ice caps are melting is far more recent.

This is something I love about rhyme. It cuts down on those “many possibilities.” When writing a rhyme-less poem, you’ve the entire dictionary to choose from. When rhyming, you’ve a much smaller column in a rhyming dictionary.

Applying this to Alyssa’s Writer’s Block query: Figure out if there are restrictions that can be applied to your writing project. Here on the blog, I always shoot for 1000 words, and this time I’m using headlines to break up the text. Parameters can be completely artificial. I used to challenge myself to come up with acrostics, poems in which the first letter of every line can be read vertically. It’s like working out a puzzle, fun.

The Shock Of The New

While I’m writing this, I’m listening to a cast album I’ve never heard before. And, you know me, I’m having thoughts about its quality – what works in it, and what doesn’t. And that’s a helpful frame of mind because when I come up with notes and words I’ll be thinking about what works and what doesn’t, also. And I’m reminded of my many trips to the Museum of Modern Art. When I saw favorites I’d seen many times before, it was like greeting an old friend. But more important to overcoming Writer’s Block is taking in works of art, in any genre, to get those critical faculties going.

While MOMA gets two million visitors a year, I used to spend many happy hours as a tourist in my own town, bicycling through neighborhoods nobody else would ever consider cycling through. In every trip, I saw things I’d never seen before, such as a rack of live chickens in cages near Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. When you go fast, the world whizzes by like a sped-up film. And this jolts your brain, hopefully knocking out the vampire of Writer’s Block.

Put Another Way

And I’d like to share a trick I picked up years ago at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Back in the days when cast albums were truly albums – 12 inch vinyl within a sleeve, there’d often be a synopsis on the back. Those might have been 500 words long. At NYMF, we were encouraged to describe our stories in various lengths: 500 words, 1000 words, three sentences (sometimes called The Elevator Pitch) and a ten-word tagline for the poster and ads. I’ve found this to be a helpful exercise in molding a story.

So, you’re stymied by the Block. Can you write ten words? Can you tell what your piece is about in three sentences? These seem like small challenges. Moving on to 100 words may be difficult, but you’re incrementally increasing the difficulty of what you’re doing. If you can tell your story in 5000 words, you’ve written a short story. Over half-a-million, you’ve written Infinite Jest.

Summarize Proust Competition

Looking up how many words are in Infinite Jest reminded me of a Monty Python sketch and also of a pair of television comedy writers who’d start each day cackling hysterically at a comedy record by the then-unknown-in-America British troupe. Feeding yourself something totally silly might distract you from concentrating on the serious problem of Writer’s Block.

Or, perhaps it won’t; but at least you’ll have had a laugh.