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.
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.