Head to toe

July 13, 2018

I’m writing this on the eve of a visit with the son of my best life-long friend, who is very much interested in writing musicals. So, naturally, I’m thinking about what to tell him, if I’m called upon to tell him something. Which isn’t likely. And I certainly won’t utter a thousand words. Like I will here.

A mid-century football coach said “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The thing that most people miss, in writing musicals, is that story isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Oh, sure, if you think hard enough, you can find successful musicals with plots that didn’t work at all. But aspire to higher than Andrew Lloyd Webber and various elements of your creation are more likely to fall into place. When I taught a college course in musical theatre performance, I began the first class every year with the words, “Greetings, storytellers.” I would have said the same to costumers, stage managers, conductors. It’s the most collaborative of arts and all of us, in any position, are endeavoring to tell the story. Make sure the audience is following along. Don’t assume that you can distract them from attending the tale by throwing in some splashy number, tangential to the plot. Cut that out! Kill your babies! Make your show a lean story-telling machine.

This probably entails tossing out your ballads. Songwriters fall in love with their slowly expressed cris de coeur and, more times than not, audiences are put to sleep by them. And then when you pile up a succession of ballads in a row: I know you didn’t mean to, but you’ve created a snooze-fest.

If a group of expert artisans were building a building, the architect would start by producing a blueprint. And, along the way, the finished edifice would differ, in many ways, from that initial plan. (I enjoy attending architecture shows in museums where you can compare these things.) So, eleven years ago, my script Such Good Friends had a cast of 19 and centered on a difficult exchange between a father and a son. Under the brilliant direction of Marc Bruni, the show was produced with a cast of ten, no son, and that difficult exchange never happened. The alterations told the story better. Neophyte scribes should be aware that the collaborative forces are very likely to adjust the plan on its way to fruition. And that’s a good thing.

I swear I’ll drop this analogy soon, but think of a component on that blueprint, looking wonderful. One reason it might not survive in the production is that it didn’t play as well, live on stage, as it did in its earlier form. It’s easy to get confused by this. A song may be wonderful on paper. A song may play like gangbusters in a cabaret. The recording of a song could be a YouTube sensation. But your principal goal is to tell a story in a theatre to a live audience, and that’s a very different thing. When I was just a little older than my young friend is today, there was a song from a musical you heard on the radio all the time. Its verses were rap – quite ahead of its time! – and the refrains were reminiscent of the disco era, specifically the Bee Gees’ use of falsettos. Number 3 on the charts! That’s quite a successful song, right?

Well, not in the theatre. In the musical, Chess, it was a scene-setter that made little sense. The character singing, a “bad boy” American chess master (you know the type) extended all this energy to tell us about Thailand. For no good reason. (Contrast how The King and I establishes the same country with music and images, not a descriptive word is sung.) The song – hell, the whole show – just lay there because the creators lost sight of the narrative need to motivate a high-octane description.

Composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, sometimes called “The ABBA Boys” were new to musical-writing, but experienced at concocting chart-topping hits. The veteran lyricist, Tim Rice, had, in Jesus Christ Superstar, successfully transformed the post-suicide Judas into a rockin’ narrator of that show’s title song. The original “hit” recordings of both these songs involved the same British actor, Murray Head. I am straining to avoid using a pun with all these names.

And maybe that last paragraph is just trivia. But there’s something to be said for knowing the history of musical theatre, and the repertory. When rock stars decide they can write a musical, they often stumble due to lack of familiarity with what’s gone before. No less a talent than Paul Simon served up a tale of Hispanic gang violence in New York of the late 1950s. Critics queried whether it hadn’t occurred to him this had been done before – one of the best shows ever. I figure if you’re going to do something that’s been done before, the least you can do is pick something truly obscure. So, when writing The Christmas Bride my librettist came up with an idea that a profligate’s lawyers want him to focus on serious debts but all he can do is rhapsodize about a woman. I thought, Wait a minute: Where have I seen something like this before? It’s similar to a funny duet from a show called Kean, To Look Upon My Love. I took the template from this incredibly obscure show tune and ran with it.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

So, where does one go to learn the history of musical theatre? August 1, 2 & 4 I will entertain all comers for four hours in North Hollywood, California. ( http://nmi.org/events/a-subjective-history-of-musical-theatre/ ) How our beloved genre came to be, told in story and song, moving and funny. Which seems appropriate, because good musicals tell stories through song and are always both moving and funny. It’s in two two-hour parts, which you can mix and match. Say hello. See you there. Aloha.

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Cabaret of despair

February 26, 2018

If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:

  • Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
  • No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
  • Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
  • And… I just don’t get them.

In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:

My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.

That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.

In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.

So, let’s get specific:

Profundity

This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.

But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.

I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.

Repetition

The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.

In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.

When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.

Amplifying

Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.

Pretty funny?

A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.

(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)

I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…


Bows

July 24, 2017

The audience basically sat there with their jaws dropped. The reaction wasn’t “This is great.” The reaction was “Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything so marvelous.” You could feel this energy throughout the theatre, the entire building was abuzz with how fantastic the performance was.

You know, it has never been my intention to make this blog the place where I brag. So I’m going to try, today, to accurately reflect and reflect upon what happened in Connecticut at the beginning of July. As usual, I hope to be interesting and useful to creators of musicals. But, let’s face it, some of this is going to sound like boasting. Deal.

The occasion was a presentation of a portion of The Christmas Bride. I am responsible for its music and lyrics and circumstances landed me in the director’s chair. To my surprise, it’s not a tall wood-and-canvas thing with a title on the back. It fell upon me to select a cast of eight, rehearse them and tell them where to move. We had an extremely short amount of time to put this together, and the lion’s share was spent getting the notes right. An exorbitant number of minutes were lost to laughter, as a couple of players found a bit of business so funny, they were unable to get it together and deliver the material with a straight face.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

But when they were on, they were ON. I’ve never encountered a crowd so titillated. The tongue-in-cheek machismo of leading man Matthew Griffin had the effect of literally turning a lot of women on. And, you know, my wife cast Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, so now we’re both used to having that effect.

I really think the best thing I did in this fraught process was choosing the performers I got. Six had worked together for two years as students of mine. Solid and stolid David Arthur Bachrach is a veteran of two previous Christmas Bride productions, this time essaying a new role. One day I had a brainstorm that my current student Megan Poulos had all the right stuff to be the title character. I took a leap of faith that she’d play well off of Matthew Griffin, who’d made such a great impression earlier this year in Encores’ The New Yorkers at City Center. He’s got the looks, the voice, the goofy swagger; could they project the chemistry of illicit lovers taking a leap of faith on each other?

In a word, yes. This was the thing that thrilled me most. Book writer MK Wolfe and I had always hoped for a certain sexually charged energy between our leads. Previous productions had come up a little short, I think, as the lines and lyrics have to bounce off the pair in a way that sizzles. It’s that old saw that casting a show right is more than half the battle. Here was the proof of that pudding (made of plum?), a very fortunate happenstance. Players with a similar background was a felicitous shortcut: They all knew how to get behind the energy of the piece. MK Wolfe’s book effectively keeps the stakes high, and the players played them for all they’re worth.

Well-played melodrama knocks out an audience – the fraught sense that everything that’s happening is of great importance, has huge consequences for the characters. One could tell from the opening minutes that people were thunderstruck by what they were seeing.

And it was more than my cast of New Yorkers. I also believe the quality of the writing stunned the crowd. The little that is arbitrary never seemed arbitrary because viewers got used to being rewarded for their concentration. In a plot sense, little clues are often dropped as to what might happen next, and these kept people’s ears particularly wide open.

That led, in turn, to a different kind of hearing. The singers sounded so great, you could sense the listeners relaxing, taking in a new and enjoyable tune. This is hard to describe, but there’s just a different feeling in a room when melodies hit ears and the hearers savor right away. Far too often, I’ve witnessed the opposite, when oddly-crafted tunes get taken in with a bit of befuddlement. This was more like love-at-first-sight, an instant attraction.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

It’d been five and half years since I’ve seen The Christmas Bride. So, in an odd way, I was reacquainting myself with old themes, and rediscovering what’s good about them. The long sustained notes in Fluttering and Turn Around give time for the vocalist to open up. The sweetness of Megan and Matthew’s sounds delighted. Marion and Alone in the Night are two larger pieces I’ve always thought were among my best. But the main song for the romantic leads, Take a Gamble – well, I’d previously thought of it as a little disappointing. A romantic musical calls for a big I-love-you statement, and this argumentative duet has its eyes on the plot. Megan and Matthew revised my self-assessment. Rather than park-and-bark sentiment, I’d given two actors fully motivated moments to snipe at each other. In their hands, it became a beautiful thing, and, at long last, I found myself enjoying the song.

A friend and fellow musical theatre writer was there, and he’d never previously heard any of my work. He was particularly taken with my dense rhyming and how they gave spring to the meanings of the sung lines. We plan to meet for a drink and discuss it some more.

Songs rhyme for a reason. When the brain knows it’s going to receive sounds that match at regular intervals, listening is enhanced. It might be harder to come up with a clever rhyme structure and stick to it, but it’s surely a lot easier for the hearer. Our brains take in well-rhymed words much quicker than unrhymed or – horrors! – badly rhymed verse.

An example comes to mind because Connor Coughlin applied an echt and charming accent to it:

Furbelows and frocks
Herbal teas and boxes full of gifts for that special she
For my bonnie bride to be

Connor sounded the “H” on “herbal” and then the frocks/box rhyme sped the line forward. It traveled blithely from an unfamiliar word (“furbelows”) to a familiar and understandable concept. Had this been fully staged, he would have been holding a huge pile of presents. Instead, a good rhyme drawing attention to meaning got everyone to picture what they could not see.

Immodestly, perhaps, I’ve unveiled some of the little details that garnered such a huge reaction. There was a moment towards the end where a twenty-second ovation broke out, literally stopping the show. The actor could not continue until the audience obeyed his hand-signal command to simmer down. The Connecticut crowd had never seen anything like it.


That look to me

October 1, 2016

About six years ago I started this blog and I suppose the blogaversary compels me to reflect about blogging. And one thing I think is that the whole thing is way too big. 347 posts about musicals – sheesh! If you’re someone with an interest in how musicals are created, my unique take on things, etc. – you might come here and go “347 posts! When am I going to have time for this?” It’s as if someone expecting to be tossed a thin magazine had the O.E.D. hurled at them instead.

I’m not sure what to do about that. Posting less often has a certain appeal. At this point in my life as a writer of musicals and as a parent, this blog has been relegated to the back-burner. It’s getting harder to find the time to do it. But even if I posted every other week, before long it’ll be 350 posts and that’s still daunting to a new reader.

Galumphing hand and hand with this thought is the notion that I may be close to saying all I have to say about musical theatre writing. I find myself referring people to posts from five or six years ago; there’s that sense of “What’s left to say?” And I don’t want to repeat myself, but find I do: Musicals need to tell stories effectively, ideally engaging the audience’s minds in a way that makes them wonder what happened next. Craft is particularly important in lyric writing, and I take false rhymes as an indication that the creators don’t understand craft. Music is hardest to write about, because I know readers have different levels of understanding; repeating the overly familiar tropes of sixty years of pop-rock is a lazy way of composing. All elements need to be in concert with the narrative drive, which is why language and harmonies that clearly don’t belong in the time and setting of the show is so jarring.

Providing examples is always a problem. Quite often, I dislike musicals that other people love. So, if I devote a post to the many ways Evita is an awful and boring show, somebody’s going to react “No, it isn’t! I thought it was great!” and then discount all the examples I’ve given. I was just trying to illustrate a point. There’s this strange delusion I’ve encountered again and again: no matter how terrible the show, there’s somebody out there maintaining it’s wonderful. Ken Mandelbaum’s famous book about flops is called Not Since Carrie because, in a way, Ken is saying Carrie is the worst of them all. Just this week I met somebody who told me it’s a great musical. If we can’t agree on what’s awful, how can we discuss a cautionary model of ineptitude?

And then there’s the thorny thicket of using my own shows as examples. Few of you have seen any of them. And whatever video or audio I have always strikes me as a woefully inadequate representation. In writing about my own shows, I don’t want to pin laurels on myself like some guy I just saw in a debate. But the hope is that my experience getting 18 shows on the boards may yield some helpful tidbits. And I just reread that sentence and thought: Where else can you find a blog by a guy who’s written as many shows?

So, here am I writing this instead of writing more of the musical that’s consumed me since 2014. I like to hope that there’s something good about me setting down thoughts about my struggles with it while they’re happening. But it’s a little like opting to live in a fishbowl. It’s harder to do a thing when you know you’re being observed doing the thing. Sometimes I fear I’ve set out so many “don’t do this” prohibitions here that I’m hindered from writing. Fearing making a mistake is not a good place to be. So, my blogging about what not to do is an unpleasant bedfellow with my spewing out more and more of this musical.

And I use the word “spew” because it’s half of my favorite description of the writing process. The first step is spewing, because all kinds of music is pouring out of you and, ideally, you don’t hamper yourself by saying “Oh, this is terrible” or “I shouldn’t do it this way.” The later step is editing: taking a cold, hard, critical eye toward your creation, and then fixing it, and throwing out the bad stuff. When I regard the storyboard with two dozen songs before me, I try not to think that’s way too many songs and the piece will be way too long. It’s just spew, now.

Here’s something I said to a young friend yesterday: “I see the care you take, the energy you put in to getting everything right. Well, it’s paid off. So now’s the time to relax, take a deep breath, look at what you’ve accomplished and pat yourself on the back. Spend a moment of two acknowledging that you’ve done great work, restoring yourself before you go on to the next.”

It’s a common paradox: I wish I could take my own advice. I wish I could celebrate the six years of blogging, appreciate that there are some really helpful essays in there. (God knows how you’d find them, though. The tagging business befuddles me.) I usually remember to throw in a few jokes. Click on a picture and you’ll probably hear a song. And they said blogging was going out of fashion six years ago. And here I (still) am.


Rondo

August 18, 2016

If my thoughts about Fun Home are sort of a jumble, it’s perhaps a reflection of the show itself. The 2015 Tony winner – I caught it off-Broadway and recently, on Broadway at The Circle in the Square, where it plays until September 10 – boldly presents a situation that is so true to life, it’s almost too complex to talk about. It keeps bringing up intriguing questions and, more often than not, refusing to answer them. Because life itself has no easy answers, and the show is based on the formative years of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In an attempt to come to terms with her upbringing, she recounted events in the form of a graphic novel. Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (composer) adapted this into a 100-minute chamber piece.

And I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It is never dull, constantly fascinating. You, the viewer, search for answers just as Bechdel does, and there she is, on stage at her drawing board, wondering. (And there your fellow observers are, in the background, as it’s staged in the round.) Why did her father do the things he did? What went on inside his controlling, quick-to-temper mind? What traits did he pass on to his daughter, and how did the discovery that his daughter is a lesbian affect him? Even the arrival of an old French novel in a dorm room is shrouded in mystery.

Given my somewhat ambiguous reaction to a show that embraces a certain amount of ambiguity, it makes more sense to discuss Fun Home’s methods here than to write a long overdue review. (And, considering that Jeanine musical-directed my Varsity Show, The New U. many years ago, I can’t legitimately claim to be impartial.) Fun Home seamlessly transitions between four types of expression, which I’ll define, yet is all of a piece. You don’t notice these; you’re too busy reacting emotionally to the characters and their plight.

The first is dialogue. Kron’s previous experience is in songless theatre. I’ve gotten tired, I must admit, of sung-through shows, because I appreciate the shift in energy involved in moving from spoken material to sung. So many writers overemphasize the importance of songs in a musical, relegating interstitial speaking to the status of filler. In Fun Home, we’re all on a mission to solve a mystery, so we carefully attend the words, as each might contain a clue. Bruce examines yard sale junk, pondering its value while we examine Bruce, pondering whether his actions might hold a key to his character.

And then, in song, what we get might fall into three categories. There are refrains with hooks, as shows have always contained. I walked out humming Days and Days and Days but you might fall for the unexpected rests that make Ring of Keys such an unusual waltz. Note, also, that Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold, is rather sparing in its use of applause buttons. When we give a performer a hand, we can see, across the stage, other people clapping; so, we’re taken out of the moment. Wise creators think long and hard about where and how often to let that happen.

Recitative and verse are two different things, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with Fun Home, I’m going to draw on South Pacific for examples. You know these lines –

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother
There is one particular thing that nothing whatsoever in any way shape or form like any other

Essentially, that’s chanted on a single note, with no bar lines, while the orchestra holds a chord. You hear this sort of thing in a lot of opera, and personally I’m more conversant in the Gilbert & Sullivan lampoon of opera:

I am not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes

In contemporary musicals, though, recitative is rarely employed. But Jeanine Tesori, throughout her career, has gone beyond the bounds of “what’s done” drawing on a wealth of knowledge of others forms of music. And the surprise benefit is that it allows the performer to deliver “Oh, my God” over and over again in a charming way that reveals a lot about her personality. (Plus, she’s talking about sex – always a piquant topic.)

Speaking of which, a classic musical theatre example of a verse:

I touch your hands and my arms grow strong

That has a tune to it – Rodgers comes close to religioso, and I think the accompaniment’s on sixths – but it’s not the main tune. You hear it and you know this, that you’re in the verse rather than the refrain.

After our college freshman heroine bursts out with all those omigods, Tesori subtly brings in a little tune that, just like in South Pacific, is clearly not the main tune. It runs quickly around the scale on lines like “I just have to trust that you don’t think I’m an idiot.” We’re tickled, we laugh, but we know we’re not in the main part yet, and then comes a simple but impassioned waltz.

This is so full of joy, discovery, and, yes, sex, that I knew upon first hearing that here was one of the best show tunes of the decade. It’s magical.

Something that always strikes me about Jeanine Tesori is that she usually works with first-time lyricists. It’s as if each collaboration reinvents the wheel, and, the obvious consequence: no composer I can think of is more varied. Violet sounds nothing like Caroline Or Change sounds nothing like Thoroughly Modern Millie sounds nothing like Shrek. Fun Home, the innovation with Lisa Kron is, I think, something none of us was quite prepared for. Every element (including, or especially, set design) combines to tell a compelling and emotional story. Which is what we all want to do: And if we’re ever going to achieve that goal, it behooves us to carefully examine what Tesori and Kron hath wrought.


Hold me

May 25, 2016

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweet Charity lately, and started before The New Group made its surprising announcement that it will revive it in a small off-Broadway theatre with one of musical theatre’s biggest stars, Sutton Foster. Why off-Broadway? Foster has a lot of fans, and the show’s a big star vehicle, one that doesn’t obviously lend itself to a small presentation. I musical directed a production many years ago, where a large company danced on a stage that had been constructed on top of a swimming pool, in a Broadway house, no less. Weird, sure, but less weird than the New tiny theatre idea.

No, the reason I’ve been thinking about Sweet Charity is because a couple dozen friends of mine are doing it. Their performances are coinciding with the Los Angeles shows of my revue, The Things We Do For Love, so, I, alas, must miss it. My musing about my favorite tart-with-heart musical shouldn’t be construed as me telling them all how to do it. They’re capable people in capable hands.

There’s a story about how Sweet Charity got its book writer that I dearly love. It involves carrying a really large tape recorder to Italy. Why really large? Well, this was more than fifty years ago, and there was no such thing as a small tape recorder. It was a big reel-to-reel player, and you had to thread the tape through, kind of like with a movie projector. But if you’re old enough to remember threading a movie projector, you might be old enough to remember reel to reels and if you’re not I’m just speaking Greek.

Where was I? Oh, Italy. Neil Simon had written a movie and it was shooting there. The married couple traveling all the way to see him was Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. They’d been working on a musicalization of a coincidentally Italian film, Nights of Cabiria and wanted to convince Simon to do the book. At this point, they had a bunch of songs by Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, along with choreographic ideas about how they’d be staged. Bob & Gwen set up that machine, played the songs as Gwen performed some of the steps and Bob described what the audience would see. Simon knew Nights of Cabiria and now he was being presented with something no writer has ever been presented with: a fully-realized show that merely needed some funny dialogue to lead from fantastic number to fantastic number. Or that’s how it seemed at the time. Later, of course, further structuring was needed. What convinced Simon to join wasn’t the ease of the assignment, it was the fabulousness of the numbers: a club scene with rows of dancers holding their fists as if they were sparring with punching bags, a moment so exciting for the protagonist that a marching band in uniform appears out of nowhere, the aspirations of three down-on-their-luck females expressed as a fiery rooftop dance, the dead-eyed look of rent-a-dancers confronting yet another set of customers.

To fully appreciate that last one, Big Spender, check out an obscure early Stanley Kubrick film called Killer’s Kiss. It’s a black-and-white from the fifties, filmed on location in Times Square. The camera follows the characters up the stairs over a store and there’s a room where strangers dance with a cashier booth. Lonely men in suits buy a ticket, give it to a “professional” dancer, and then get to hold them tight as at least one pair of feet moves to the music. Now, we jaded moderns take the whole scene as a stand-in for sex with prostitutes. But not every rent-a-pas-de-deux led to a “happy ending.” Take the scene at face value, and the city is crawling with men so lonely, they long to have any sort of physical contact with a young woman.

The inherent sadness subtly pervades Sweet Charity. Yes, men seek sex. But some men are desperate for the less salacious touch you find on a dance floor. And, most extraordinary of all, there’s a girl on that floor who wants love and marriage and to get the hell out of that life. Pre-feminism, it seems to her that her options are few. Explicitly, she’s told she couldn’t be a secretary or even a hat check girl, and the pair that can envision themselves in those careers goes on to mock Charity’s dreams. The idea that she can marry her way out of the sordid life she lives has a certain logic to it – what else can she do? – and her middle name is Hope.

We invest, emotionally, in Charity’s dream. We want her to marry that respectable fellow (the second Neil Simon character named Oscar). To me, this pulling for the heroine is the most important component in Sweet Charity’s success. Yes, there are tons of fabulous Fosse production numbers, Doc Simon punchlines and the sexiness of the milieu, but caring for the character trumps all.

Dorothy Fields’ lyrics do most of the work here. They may be as good a set of lyrics as were ever written, filled with slang expressions that are so particular, they just feel right. “Tonight I landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam.” I don’t think any other lyricist could have come up with that, and there were doubts, when she took on the project, that a sweet and respectable little old Jewish lady could write for contemporary urban bar-girls. “Let me get right to the point: I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.

But they do, you know. People misinterpret Big Spender as merely a song in which women get to be sexy. As staged by Bob Fosse (repeated in his debut film), it’s more about the boredom of having to sing this feigned come-on night after night.

It’s been fifty years since the show premiered, and sexual politics have altered so much, it can be hard to recall that many musicals had fun with the idea that some women have such shapely bodies, men’s knees turn to jelly. This was very much at the center of the previous Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Bob Fosse collaboration, Little Me, which used a different female lyricist, Carolyn Leigh. That played the concept for laughs. Here Charity is said to be built for everything but talking, a line that doesn’t quite tickle my funny bone, but sure tugs at my heartstrings.

See what I mean for free at Circle in the Square, 50th between Broadway & 8th, June 12 & 13. 8pm both nights and also a 2pm matinee on Monday, the 13th. Just walk in the joint and grab a seat, no ticket required.


Sittin’ around

September 25, 2015

This is one of those days in which I was pretty disappointed in myself, in my productivity. I finally managed to scrape together six hours to get some work done. And there are three songs I’ve poked at, for months, like a not-hungry kid with a plate of unappealing food. And maybe they’re just not ready to be written.

This is not to justify my own slow progress. But I’m wondering if you’ve ever been at a point where it’s seemed that a key component is missing, and, without it, you can’t satisfactorily complete a song. Each of the three has something different that just wasn’t there, yet:

For the slow-tempo duet, which I started literally years ago, what’s lacking is an evolution. The lyric says something that should resound with audiences, that needs to be said. But the problem is that, at the end of the song, nothing’s happened. It’s just saying the same poignant thing. And that’s a problem with so many songs I know – and dislike.

Then there’s an up-tempo duet, a list song. On this, there was something strange in my approach: I decided to come up with the tune first. Now, like many a melody, it began with my setting the title, and then composing music that naturally led to that hook at the end. I’ve worried, too much, that the tune owes too much to some pop song and I don’t know which. But the omitted element here is a sense of what’s happening, in the play, after the song is over. I could end big and just black out the lights, but that seems like cheating. This couple’s in the middle of an argument; fidelity to the truth dictates that some sort of resolution be shown. Even if it’s characters slamming a door shut.

I think outlining might have helped with this. Right now, on my plate, there’s more than one musical contretemps, and I’m uncertain the show can bear that many. The audience needs to see how songs change the situation. You’ve heard me be highly critical of musicals that present a situation that doesn’t evolve in any way. I think that’s unsatisfying. So, I’m unwilling to do it, and this unwillingness may be stopping me from completing a song that has quite a few other elements already in place.

And then the heroine’s charm song. It’s serving its purpose, making the character lovable, but it’s not building to an effective ending, yet. I’ve no idea what that might be. As I write this paragraph, it occurs to me that I could transition into another song, and not play this one for applause. It seems a cheat, but if the second song leads to a big hand, the audience will subconsciously feel they’re acknowledging the two songs at once.

Wind just tipped one of my whiteboards forward, as if Mother Nature herself was saying “Don’t stop to blog about this. You’ve storyboarding to do!”

So, I did a little of that: My tiny office has no fewer than three dry-erase boards, and one of them’s filled with post-it notes from about fifteen months ago (yes, for this show). I fear redundancy. Let me say that again: I fear redundancy. O.K.: now I’m terrified.

This might explain why so many of my musicals are shorter than other people’s shows. I want a lean, mean, entertaining machine. I get so annoyed with pieces in which I can tell, in advance, what the next song is going to be about, what will be said in it. I know I’ve told this story before, about why the word, surprise, is so important to me.

Many years ago, Stephen Sondheim came to one of my shows, and I was convinced I should write him a letter asking his opinion of it. My letter to him referenced a callous character in his Merrily We Roll Along who tells young writers not to be so clever. In his response, Sondheim seemed not to get the reference! He hadn’t found my show particularly clever, and wrote: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise, and imagination.” And it struck me that whatever my musical’s qualities, surprise certainly wasn’t one of them. Surprise, I’ve thought from that day forward, is an essential element of what makes a work entertaining.

So, if I send my characters into one argument after another, as the Department of Redundancy Department would have me do, the show will be predictable. It will lack surprise – at least during the section with all the arguments.

So, there’s plenty of architecture that could use repairing. And those structural flaws are impeding my progress on a bunch of songs at present. One of my odd theories of creativity is that when enough elements are in place, things suddenly sort of write themselves. When it’s a struggle, conversely, it’s likely that too few elements are in place.

It takes a long time to write a musical. And seeing six hours elapse without getting much closer to finishing anything shouldn’t be viewed as a tragedy. Recently, near where I live, there were these Tibetan monks who were creating a piece of art made with colored sand. The grains of sand were put in place, one grain at a time. Multiple monks completed their picture within a week. Some of my shows were written over long periods of time, with tiny bits of daily progress over the course of months or years. Today, I placed a grain or two. It’s not as if I did nothing. And when the whole thing’s in performable form, this day I was given six hours and accomplished very little will be a tiny blip on a trajectory of accomplishment.