May 26, 2019

“They sure don’t write ‘em like that any more!” Words often heard when people appreciate a revival of some old musical. It’s utter crap, of course, an inadvertent display of ignorance.

There’s a new musical on Broadway now that’s chock full of Golden Era virtues. It’s very funny, but it also has a hell of a lot of heart. It makes you feel good, and you also get to experience the giddy joy of a teenager getting to dance with a loved one at her prom. In the film world, the term “RomCom” is used disparagingly, as if there’s something unworthy about making an audience laugh and feel the feels. Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciate musicals that deliver these old-fashioned goods; a RomCom, well-done, is a great thing to be.

The Prom has music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and book by Bob Martin and Beguelin, based on Jack Viertel’s inspiration, a decade ago, that there ought to be a show about a Midwestern high school banning gay couples from prom night. I wouldn’t call that a brilliant idea; in retrospect, it seems an obvious idea. But if you’re a writer wondering whether you have a good idea for a musical, think about the Sondheim canon. Bachelor observes friends’ marital squabbles; man with much younger virgin bride can’t quite connect with his mistress, revenge killer has an accomplice bake victims into pies; sickly ugly woman stalks a soldier. Premises, premises: I’m all through with premises premises now.

It’s how it’s handled. The Prom is rendered by experienced musical theatre writers who know a thing or two about time-tested craft. Sklar, Begulin and Martin wrote Elf, which I didn’t see, but I much admire their Broadway debuts: the songwriters did The Wedding Singer and Martin wrote book and starred in The Drowsy Chaperone. That hysterical love-letter to musical theatre nerds was the directing debut of Casey Nicholaw, who directed two musicals centering on high school girls last year, Mean Girls and The Prom. Without Sklar (my colleague at City Lights Youth Theatre), Begulin and Nicholaw have a monster hit in Aladdin. And now it seems like I’m just listing a lot of credits, but I’m thinking back to the Disney cartoon-to-stage adaptations that weren’t nearly as successful and surmise that these guys have some secret sauce that makes musical comedies successful.

In a different era, Casey Nicholaw would be a household name. If we venerated humor – and I believe we should – we might build a shrine to the master of making things funny. So, forgive me, more credits: Nicholaw choreographed Spamalot, an uproarious hit, and directed and choreographed The Book of Mormon and Something Rotten. The guy’s doing something right, and may hold the record for landing more jokes than any director alive.

Just last night a friend told me she knows all the songs in The Prom and I believe her. These strong and hummable tunes are put together well; they land their laughs and, when they need to, tug on the heart. A show-stopper called Zazz is so specifically crafted to chorine Angie Schworer’s amazing talents, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing it. Nicholaw here creates the rarest of things, a solo dance that actually provokes laughter.

But a good number of the numbers do this wonderful old school thing of playing up things the cast members do particularly well. So there’s that Drowsy Chaperone herself, Beth Leavel, ripping into a driving up-tempo that works both as a parody of what Leavel can do and an exemplar of it.

Similarly, Brooks Ashmanskas rips into a number that’s funny, fabulous and emotional. Too similarly, though, there’s Christopher Sieber. Nothing at all wrong with his performance, but somehow nobody noticed that his character is totally unnecessary, performing exactly the same function Ashmanskas performs in the show.

So that’s a qualm about The Prom. I thought it a very good musical. Glad I saw it, has a lot of heart. I don’t think The Prom is an excellent musical, though. There’s a level of predictability to the plot that might lead an East German judge to shave off a point on his card. And while the book and lyrics are very, very funny, I found myself wishing they were even more hysterical. Maybe three verys.

At times like this, I can’t avoid thinking about another Bob Martin creation, The Man In Chair. In The Drowsy Chaperone, he addresses the audience, conveying his enthusiasm for 1920s musicals with their creaky improbable plots and their shoehorned song cues. Then we see scenes from the show he’s describing, and it’s delightfully awful. Or wonderful. Or we’re meant to confront this confusion. Old musicals – awful, or wonderful? Both. There’s much that can be appreciated as well as much that’s disappeared with the era, like bathtub gin evaporating. (Does it even do that? I’ve never left a drop behind to see.)

So here, in the twenty-teens, we have a musical set in the twenty-teens, filled with the virtues and methods of musicals from the nineteen-fifties. Am I the only one who finds this odd, or ironic? Idea-generator Jack Viertel published a book a few years ago delineating things that make Golden Era musicals work. And The Prom, set in our time, seems not of our time. They sure do write ‘em like they used to! Would Man In Chair cheer?

Song of the rebels

May 16, 2019

It’s high time I tell you a few things about my new musical, Identity, which plays next week at the Wallis-Annenberg Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills.

There’s an ambition I frequently express, that every new show I write be as different as possible from all my previous shows. And there’s that expression, Be careful what you wish for. Identity, in this sense, is already a success, completely alien to all my experience.

This has much to do with the people involved, and what we’re all trying to do. Usually, I focus on the audience: making sure they have a good time following a tuneful story with characters they emotionally invest in. I’m not saying I haven’t done that, but this time there are countless other goals.

There’s a company called The Miracle Project, serving the autistic community in a variety of ways, including performing arts. For many years now, they’ve assembled a group of singing actors and developed original musicals that they then rehearse and perform. Since I had never worked with people of different abilities, we seemed an unlikely match. The spectrum kids (I can never figure out what to call them, so, for this article, let’s use “kids.”) range in age from 13 to 30; there are 13 in the show. And their abilities and talents run the gamut. Some are fabulously proficient. Others need a little help to guide them around the stage, or to give them a subtle nudge when it’s time to deliver a line. These helpers are also performers, and also have roles in the show. The audience will be unable to tell which is which.

I was instructed to treat everybody exactly the same, and, for many weeks, I had no idea who was autistic. Sometimes, it’s obvious; sometimes, it isn’t. And there’s a lesson there: disabilities are often hidden. When someone takes on a character, singing, dancing and acting, it’s said they become a different person. At this point, I’m used to everybody fleshing out their roles; talking to the off-stage “real” people is something of a surprise.

Starting in autumn, we met once a week for 75 minutes. Ideas about what could be in our musical, Identity, flew back and forth. Tangential discussions about things that happened in people’s lives were ubiquitous. Honestly, I had serious doubts this process could ever lead to the creation of a musical. But I never abandon a writing challenge, and was curious to see how this would play out.

Eventually, the kids and the helpers brainstormed about a future dystopia. Now, if you know my taste, you might be aware that I loathe future dystopias with a passion. If that’s what this show was going to be about, well, it’s certainly unlike all my other musicals.

And there was something I appreciated about the idea. Identity is not about autism. The word’s not in the script, nor is the concept. I guess I came to this with an assumption that a roomful of people dealing with the wide-spread affliction would come up with a show about it. Identity is a lot closer to the classic Young Adult novel, The Giver. Now, it happens that a good friend of mind wrote the screenplay to the movie version, with Meryl Streep. My friend’s very funny, but that film contains not a single joke. Identity distinguishes itself by being rather humorous.

After Thanksgiving, my partners-in-crime solidified a set of ideas that sort of resembled a story. The existence of this – really a massive list written on oversized post-it notes – totally turned my head around. I now could see a workable plot emerging from this extraordinary process. Over the next six weeks, I wrote a dozen songs.

What I really wanted to talk about is the way all sorts of writing choices are the result of examining the dramatic implications of various events in a plot. When the kids came up ideas (I’ll put these in green), they led to many an if/then conclusion. One day in a young adult’s life, a profession and spouse is assigned by the government. If this is a coming-of-age ritual, then there should be a number celebrating becoming a grown-up. (Premises of my songs in purple.) If bureaucracy chooses whom you’ll marry, there could be many an awkward wedding night. And it would be tragic and emotional if a teenage romantic couple got broken up. Job assignments might not match individuals’ true desires, so we could have fun with the discomfort of new workers feeling like square pegs in round holes. One young fellow expressed a desire to play a government apparatchik who then rebels, becoming a good guy. This made me think of the positive energy of the Revolting Children song in Matilda, and that spirit imbues much of the script.

The libretto is a collaboration with the director, who often comes up with new lines as scenes are being staged, and her assistant, who sweats the details admirably and helpfully. Getting so many different performers to remember staging, lines, music and dance is a tremendous undertaking, sometimes requiring simplification. At moments, I feel like I’ve written something far too complicated. But then I see that the team has taken a two-minute rock quartet and expanded it to twelve players divided into three parts of the stage. The complexity of that one isn’t my fault!

The kids and their teenage helpers contributed several songs and so this is not a score that speaks with one voice. There’s some r & b with guitar accompaniment, a pretty up-tempo folk song, an opera aria that transforms into minor-key jazz with scatting, and rap. Their numbers are like an extraordinary set of special flavors that co-exist with my meat-and-potatoes show tunes. It’s pretty wild.

I’m in the band – in every sense of the word, in the background. You can buy a seat for Identity May 23 to May 26 and be dazzled by the talent of an extraordinary cast of many abilities. They’re in the foreground, as they should be.

Thursday, May 23 – Gala Benefit World Premiere at the Evening of Miracles – 6:30pm

Friday, May 24 – 7:00pm

Saturday, May 25 – 7:00pm

Sunday, May 26 – 1:00pm (Sensory-Friendly)

Sunday, May 26 – 6:00pm 



May 9, 2019

I’m writing this while the 125thVarsity Show is playing at Columbia. Actually, that’s a little deceptive. They may call it the 125th, but, for many depressing years, school spirit was so low, students couldn’t get it together to mount an original musical comedy satirizing campus life. It’s more accurate to say that the very first one was 125 years ago, a time when collegians put on musicals to raise money to pay for sports teams – hence, “Varsity.”

In roughly twenty years of people having no sense of humor (possibly the Vietnam War’s collateral damage?), including the years I attended, only one or two Varsity Shows were done. This was, to put it mildly, upsetting to me. I knew that Richard Rodgers came to Columbia specifically to write the Varsity Show, and it was Oscar Hammerstein who teamed the freshman up with Lorenz Hart, who’d already graduated. As luck would have it, after I graduated, my friends Adam Belanoff and Stephen Gee called me back to write songs for what would be the Show that ended the drought, The New U. They didn’t have to call far, as I lived just a few blocks away. The previous year, they’d proven they could create an original revue, Fear of Scaffolding, for which I contributed a little. This experience proved we liked each other and could work together.

Or did it? I wrote an eponymous opening number, and Adam and Steve were inspired by it. Adam suggested there be a section in which an individual student claims that he has no fear of scaffolding, that, in fact, it gives him confidence. Then he gets hit over the head by a falling piece of scaffolding. Funny, right?

Consider the reason for the scaffolding, the genesis of the tremendous amount you see all around the city today. Some years earlier, a piece of masonry fell off a Columbia building, killing a Barnard student on the sidewalk below. The city snapped into action, passing a law requiring a close inspection of every building with masonry on it every few years. That’s why most of the scaffolding you see is there: inspectors preventing another fatal tragedy. So, how hysterical would it be to see a student bonked on the head by something falling from the sky? And yet that’s not what the argument was about.

Adam and I disagreed on what style of music was needed for the bonking business. The rest of the number was a minor key rock song, something akin to Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme. I thought the energy of the rock needed to continue throughout the song. Adam thought a switch to a jaunty soft shoe would help the humor land. I wrote two different versions, but the contretemps continued. He liked the soft shoe; I liked my rock.

Meanwhile, Stephen Gee began to think about funny ways to stage the number, and came up with the idea of having people play planks of scaffolding, stumbling downstage like zombies. This notion was so clever, I think the song would have dazzled the audience no matter what genre the falling object section was in. But Adam and I were at such an impasse, he wrote a new title song, with the same premise, with another composer. As he was producer and director, and the other composer was writing the bulk of the score, he was within his rights to yank the thing from me. Did the version of Fear of Scaffolding not written by me work? Why, of course it did. It had that funny Gee (whiz) staging.

Adam’s brilliance as producer, though, was the principal reason the powers-that-were allowed the next Belanoff/Gee epic to be officially designated a Columbia Varsity Show, a round number of years ago. And, this time, they asked me to write all the songs. Meanwhile, friends familiar with the sad case of that opening number asked me how I could bury the hatchet with Adam after such shabby treatment. And here’s the little lesson hidden in this memoir: You bury hatchets in order to get work done. You make a thousand compromises along the way, doing things you swore you’d never do. These are the accommodations one makes to get work produced. Which is usually better than not getting work produced.

(Note, though, that a pair of Varsity Show writers from a later edition, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, just parted company with the bound-for-Broadway musical, Magic Mike. This should not be confused with the Las Vegas sensation, also based on the film, Magic Mike, originally cast by Joy Dewing, who knows a thing or two about sexy men – she’s married to me.)

Our oeuvre, The New U. was a packed-to-the-rafters success. It got the snowball rolling down the hill: There’s been a new Varsity Show every year since. And Adam’s brother saw the show, sized up how the audience was reacting, and decided to bankroll us on our first professional work, On the Brink, the following year. And he turned a profit. So, I’m glad to have buried the hatchet.

All these years later, I consider Adam – now a very successful television writer – just about my closest friend on earth. But I’m now reminded of something very sad. The talented company of The New U. recently lost its third cast member. He played a football player in our show, so of course I remember him as young and virile, cracking up the crowd in a dialogue with Adam about how to attract women. And I wish I could tie up this reminiscence with an O. Henry ending and say that he was killed by a falling piece of masonry while singing a soft shoe number. But no: This wasn’t a funny death at all.