You be you

March 26, 2019

Now that Stephen Sondheim’s entered his 90th year (I’m writing this a day after his 89th birthday), a few thoughts on what he learned from Oscar Hammerstein during his second sixth of life. They met when he was roughly 15. Before meeting the old master, Sondheim hadn’t even considered writing musicals. The year the protégé turned 30, and had two wonderful musicals running (lyrics only), Hammerstein died at the age of 65. Also that year, there were two Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway.

And I might as well name them: Gypsy was playing, and West Side Story had returned from the road; Flower Drum Song, a funnier-than-most R&H piece, ended its run, and The Sound of Music opened and was a hot ticket. Of this quartet, I far prefer the innovative shows with Sondheim lyrics; both have scripts by Arthur Laurents and direction by the estimable Jerome Robbins.

It is, of course, tragic that Hammerstein died so young: think of what more he might have given us! On the flip side, it’s wonderful that Sondheim has lived so long. So, there’s no what-might-have-he-given-us if he lived past 65. He did, and gave us exactly two off-Broadway musicals, Assassins and Road Show. No debilitating diseases slowed him; it’s just been a rather fallow quarter century. The shows he created from age 40-65 were so excellent – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George among them – I, for one, can’t help feeling disappointment that his productivity knob has turned down so drastically.

Better to picture him as a teenager soaking up wisdom from his Bucks County neighbor. It’s always fascinated me that little Steve presented a script for his friend’s dad to comment on and boy, did he comment! This was the greatest single lesson in musical theatre writing ever given, and what I’d give to have been a fly on that wall. We have information about Hammerstein’s understanding of theatre from his essential forward to his book of lyrics; of course, the shows themselves exemplify his aesthetic, although there were usually collaborators (besides Richard Rodgers) adding their own great thoughts.

Hammerstein cared about structure, and you may have noticed there’s usually a main couple (such as the Bigelows) and a contrasting pair (like the Snows). If one is serious, the other is likely to be comic. His lyrics abound in well-chosen nature imagery. (Busy as a spider spinning daydreams.) And the aspect most on my mind these days is concision, the notion that when you tell your story through song, things move faster than they would in unsung dialogue.

Sondheim has also peppered his published volumes of lyrics with fascinating commentary. And he mentions an “oedipal thrill” of criticizing his mentor’s lyrics when he was a successful adult. One can only imagine his reaction to “like a lark who is learning to pray” although I’ve always felt it plausible that Hammerstein meant “prey” – on little worms, or whatever larks eat.

And when the cat’s away, the mice are at play. Once the mentor’s watchful eyes were shut for good, the mentee wrote substantively different musicals, as if he at last felt free to rebel.

Short & Sweet/Long & Sour

The first of the Sondheim shows to open in the sixties was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and that long title lived up to its one adjective. The book, by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, speeds along splaying jokes across the footlights. You never stop laughing until…the songs. They attempt to be funny, but manage to slow things down, evoking smiles (sometimes pained: “irascible!”) rather that guffaws. Had Oscar lived to comment, he might have restated the lesson about concision. Just when the second act is hurtling forward like a dislodged Ferris wheel, a battleaxe takes stage and diverts us from all that’s good with an ungainly and mirthless scena. I wanted this show to be over without the fat lady singing, thank you very much. To his credit, Sondheim’s repeated his teacher’s point about concision many times since, rather concisely.

Whither structure?

The era when all shows needed to resemble the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics couldn’t last forever. The many Broadway flops of the late sixties made many feel it was time for something new and Sondheim’s 1970 hit, Company, shattered perceptions of what a musical should and could be. It’s refreshingly different, the first of many innovative entertainments fashioned with director Hal Prince. And we can celebrate this busting of the mold but must acknowledge that what’s being undone was the template Oscar created.

Company doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s a set of scenes about marriages, bemusedly witness by a swinging bachelor named Bobby. What happens to Bobby is not something we ever care much about, and his decision to connect seems a tacked-on ending. We don’t really track his feelings; his actions are few. Later, two works in collaboration with librettist John Weidman similarly present scenes that don’t tell the story of characters: Pacific Overtures and Assassins. It might be fair to call these “revuesicals.”

“A musical play” was under the title of the Rodgers and Hammerstein genre-busters. For them it was of primary importance to tell a moving story about realistic people, presented as seriously and cogently as any play.

An un-love story

But the most obvious hallmark of the Golden Era was that, without exception, musicals concerned love. One went with the expectation that love songs would be sung, and, it was to be hoped, you’d be moved by the ups and downs of romances.

It’s here where I believe ol’ Oscar would have been most surprised and dismayed by what his pupil hath wrought. Bobby doesn’t love anyone, and Follies and A Little Night Music center on unhappy marriages. Into the Woods has the temerity to show fairy tale characters commit adultery. The Sondheim musicals, so rarely showing love, contain very few love songs. He denies audiences one of the main things they used to come to musicals for – an odd omission, probably willful.

Hammerstein & Sondheim shared a collaborator: Richard Rodgers, desperate to replace his late partner, glommed on the supposed protégé for Do I Hear a Waltz? It was an unhappy experience for them both, probably owing to Sondheim’s discomfort or distaste for writing lyrics about love.


La ravachole

March 16, 2019

Every time I see my friends who have a child in an Ivy League school, looking to make a career for himself writing musical comedies, I naturally think back to when I fit that description. So, it occurs to me that this semester marks a big anniversary: my first paid job musical directing a show in New York.

It was a strange show, an anthology evening called Bertolt Brecht: Masks of Evil, and it was a presentation of Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts. Somewhere, I imagine, eyebrows were raised over the gig going to a college freshman, but, somehow, I’d managed to impress some key powers-that-be with my piano-playing abilities. And it’s true I had a certain affinity for Brecht’s idiosyncratic corner of the musical theatre world. He used songs to make political points, criticizing the establishment. As an impressionable youth, I found agitprop and leftist politics more than a bit intoxicating. I loved Kurt Weill, and wondered what other composers Brecht collaborated with. I attended Mahogonny at the Met. Harsh sounds in jazz rhythms? Catnip to me. Soon, I started a musical where I could exercise that muscle, and, a few years later, wrote an extended parody with Alexa Junge called A Clearance Line. And my most famous song, in those early years, quoted Alabama Song.

The most memorable aspect of Masks of Evil was Chrysis, the singer of Alabama Song and whatever other songs I played. And Chrysis had a habit of parading around the green room totally topless, the first pair of naked breasts I’d seen. But – you knew there’d be a but here – their round perfection didn’t have the effect on me you might expect, because Chrysis was transgender. Altering the parts normally hidden by clothes is much discussed now, but extremely rare back then. 19-year-old me didn’t quite know whether to be excited. I recall thinking that I ought not to have my mind on the process of transitioning from him to her, and I was doing fairly well taking this in stride until we got around to staging her numbers. Like Sally Bowles, Chrysis wore fishnet stockings and was placed on top of the upright piano I was playing, my back to the audience. She put one high-heel on the space above my treble keys, the other below my bass. At eye level, then, was a crotch that may or may not have been the creation of a cutting edge surgeon. I suppose a good dance belt is a great equalizer, but wouldn’t you have wondered what, precisely, you were staring at?

Over the next decade and a half, there were more productions of musicals I’d written than those with me as musical director. My reputation, such as it was, was as a guy who wrote songs, not as a piano-player. Of course one might have assumed a composer must be a competent musician. And you know what they say about “assume” – it turns you and me into a musical director. I got some odd gigs, such as playing rehearsals for an original musical celebrating Italian culture called Wine In My Blood. It was so poorly written, my mind wandered to a silly What If. What if a mafia don had such a love for musicals that he decided to commission and produce one? It would either be exactly like Wine In My Blood, or, perhaps based on mob rub-out experiences, Blood In My Wine.

MD-ing, 2011

I musical directed another original show no one’s heard of, The Big Orange Splot, at the York Theatre, and this one was so good I think of it practically every week. It’s about a town with legally-imposed conformity; all the houses must be the same color. Until the titular bucket of paint falls from the sky. I frequently find myself in neighborhoods where all the homes look exactly the same, and cast my eyes skyward in hopes that an illicit color will fall. Alas, that never happens.

But that premise was on my mind as I wrote a song called This Thing Fell Out of the Sky for the musical I wrote with Tom Carrozza. I met the master improviser when I was part of The White Horse Experiment, New York’s first long-form troupe. They insisted I appear on stage, not behind the piano, and, for a while, I kept it a secret that I even knew how to play. Tom and I ran into each other at some show, each of us with no date. So we talked long enough for Tom to confess, in something of a whisper, that he secretly loves singing obscure old comedy songs and was looking to replace his musical director. Well, if he was going to reveal such a secret about himself, I certainly wasn’t going to keep my light under a bushel. Which led to an extraordinary cabaret act and our sci-fi musical comedy, Area 51. Soon, the whole New York improv community knew me as a top tier improv player, and I was hired for countless shows and teaching gigs.

Of course there are huge differences between spontaneous theatre and thoroughly-rehearsed musicals. The former requires complete flexibility; you have to be so “in the moment” that if an actor sings a less-than-mellifluous note, you adjust what you’re playing to make him sound good. Conducting shows requires precision, attention to detail, and countless tiny adjustments to wrest the maximal emotional power out of every measure of music. I was thinking about this contrast in rehearsing a part of Identity – where I’m both songwriter and musical director – involving a bit of rhythm-less recitative. The performer, learning the piece, is intent on getting it right. But, the goal of the music is to have the band adjust to whatever rhythm he chooses, and that could differ from performance to performance. I have to slake his thirst to get it “right” before he feels the freedom to do it in a way that seems “wrong.” Composers use the adverb “freely” to give performers power to make their own idiosyncratic choices about the rhythms they act their lines with. As I write this, I’ve no idea whether we’ll ever achieve the goal of true rhythmic freedom, but you can come see May 23.


The nun

March 5, 2019

It’s my sister’s birthday and I ran some numbers. It’s been 38 years since she graduated high school, and, then, the Golden Age of musical theatre had begun 38 years earlier. So, today, I thought I’d use 1981 is a point of demarcation, and examine the differences between Golden Age musicals and – what to call the more recent ones? – Copper Age musicals, proving, now and forever, that I know precious little about precious metals.

In the wake of Rent’s TV fizzle and Hair’s TV cancellation, some oldsters have mentioned how musicals on television were so much more successful in the 1950s. I thought of the broadcast of Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, which gave eager viewers a taste of what they could have seen on Broadway. Far fewer tuned in to recent attempts like Jesus Christ Superstar and A Christmas Story; this gets me thinking about stars and star power.

Rosalind Russell was primarily known as a movie star and her Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday created an indelible impression. Smart, fast-talking, loud, a bit abrasive, not lovey-dovey or sentimental. And the Broadway musical, Wonderful Town – book by Chodorov and Fields, lyrics by Comden and Green, music by Leonard Bernstein – let Roz be Roz. So, the TV-viewer in 1958 knew what they would be getting. Rosalind Russell shtick, with songs and dances. Skip ahead sixty years. What percentage of television viewers have any idea what watching Jesus Christ Superstar or Rent will be like?

This has less to do with musical theatre’s place on the crowded cultural landscape than it does with how those shows were created. Copper Age musicals aren’t built around popular stars and what they do best. The public doesn’t love particular performers for a set of abilities they could do eight times a week on Broadway, and the actors, if they’ve done film and television, are used to getting a much larger paycheck than the theatre offers. Copper Age creators, therefore, don’t build shows around stars. We write with the hope that some other element will put people in the seats

List great Golden Age musicals and you’ll come up with many examples of shows designed to be performed by particular people. Gypsy gives audiences Ethel Merman doing Merman-esque things, as does Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun. Kismet and Kiss Me Kate were tailored to Alfred Drake’s prodigious talents, and one contains all the letters of the other. Mary Martin singing Rodgers & Hammerstein? Who’s going to care she’s too old for her roles. Broadway, as a commercial engine serving up beloved stars, shaped its productions to let those stars shine.

Today, of course, a musical can be almost anything. Except not a star vehicle because stars today don’t commit to appearing on Broadway for a period of time long enough for investors to recoup. When a musical can be almost anything, it can also miss the mark in a great many ways.

We’ve all seen the sad image of a forlorn polar bear floating off on a tiny island of ice. The Broadway musical lost its connection to the mainland. Your income and exposure, writing musicals, didn’t just come from performances on stage. There were record sales – on unbreakable (but scratchable) vinyl. There were radio shows and then television shows dying to play the latest Cole Porter numbers from Broadway. The Ed Sullivan Show, any many others, regularly invited New York shows to do scenes for its viewers. It broadcast from the theatre where Stephen Colbert is today, so the sets and stars only had to move a few blocks. After appearing, lines for tickets would go around the block.

Golden Age songwriters weren’t just writing for characters in situations, they were writing for the masses. An extractable hit, like Hey There from The Pajama Game, would be embraced by millions, sell all sorts of records to people who never knew (or cared) that this was sung by an anti-union factory foreman in Iowa, to himself, using a dictograph machine; eventually the live John Raitt and his recording of himself would harmonize together.

The hope that your song would be heard beyond Broadway created its own set of imperatives. The music would have to have recognizable form, the harmonies couldn’t be wildly unexpected, the lyrics would have to rhyme so that they could be instantly understood.

These imperatives no longer exist, and nobody expects a show tune to ever make it to the Top 40, to ever be heard outside of the theatre. Our concentration is on characters and situation, and so melodies needn’t be hummable, and so they often aren’t.

If musicals and musical-writers are only making money from live performances of the whole show, well, naturally this changes the nature of the beast. Economics forces some realities on us. The musical-writer will not make a lot of money, compared to the Golden Days. Maybe that’s why I chose Copper to contrast with Gold! And business-people take a look at the marketability of shows, rather than the quality itself. So, I’ll admit it, a romance centering on a strike in an Iowan pajama factory doesn’t sound like a great idea to me; no way it would be produced today. But I treasure The Pajama Game for the quality of its songwriting, the spirit and dazzle of its Bob Fosse dances, and the strength of John Raitt’s voice.

And what a different world we’re in today. If shows succeed it’s in spite of their low-quality songwriting, dances don’t dazzle in ways that sell tickets, and it’s hard to find a booming baritone. I’m not judging, by the way. It is what it is. But I’ve noticed a lot of people who have familiarity with Golden Age classics who think anything new is automatically inferior. That’s another vicious circle: Audiences, nostalgic for the time when musicals did something different, stay away from Copper Age shows, and so these shows have trouble finding an audience. Comparisons are invidious; it’s a different beast.