Untitled

January 9, 2019

I’ve been writing a slew of songs lately, and, paradoxically, my break before getting back to this rap nonsense – oh, that’s not a pejorative; merely descriptive – is to share a little bit about how I do it.

Alone in the Lab

There’s a good amount of solitude involved. I’ve found that there’s no use in talking about the song I’m going to write. People can’t share that vision; they need to hear the tangible thing. So, I have this image of myself as a scientist who merrily mixes stuff in beakers, with nobody watching, until some new potion is ready for presentation for others.

Practically, I have to have many hours of uninterrupted concentration. (This can be hard to get.) There will be pads of lined paper, which is not the same as blank music paper, which I’ll also need.

In the Beginning Was the Word

But not just yet. I like to focus, first, on what’s being communicated in the song. Since it’s almost always a song in a musical, I’ve a lot of parameters that are set up by the needs of the show. I know what the song needs to accomplish, dramatically. One of the pitfalls, here, is that a good song in a musical doesn’t amplify or explain and emotion the audience already knows, or can deduce.

But that’s a problem that can be fixed later. Once songs are completed, there’s all sorts of adjustments that need to be made – often cutting bits of book – to avoid redundancy. Let me emphasize that again: avoid redundancy.

Staring at the blank page, I begin to list things that might go in the song. As I do this, the need for a title is never far from my mind. A good title will encapsulate most of what a song is saying. That’s why it’s usually possible to get a sense of a musical’s plot just by looking at the names of its numbers. But, at this point in the process, you don’t need to have decided on the final title. You’re just listing.

Patterns Emerge

As the list grows, a sort of child’s game begins. Finding matches. The element most likely to leap out is rhyme. One could circle the rhymes, but I never do this, since I think in rhymes. It’s too obvious, to me, to waste time circling. A more important match would be metrical feet. Setting rhyme aside, can phrases be assembled that would have the rhythm of poetry? If you recognize rhythmic patterns, you’re well on the way to starting a melody.

I heard a rumor about Cole Porter: That he would set a lyric by notating the rhythms first, and the pitches came later. But what I’m more likely to do is to investigate various ways the stresses might fall. The image here is that of an actor, testing out different interpretations of a speech. Usually, more than one rhythmic setting will work. But here’s where you go beyond Cole: If you’re pondering the voice of the actor, you’re probably getting a sense of the shape of the melody. Nobody speaks in a monotone, except maybe that dullard who chants “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you.” Don’t be like that character! You’d rather have the moon.

Building Blocks

I’m not sure what to call what you have at this point – a snatch of melody? Well, scientist, you now have an element you can build with. That snatch could go somewhere in your song, and it’s going to be one of many pieces you’ll use. So it’s probably time to think about the larger structure. Piecing together an A section, you’ll now make decisions about where the title goes, where the rhymes go, and how to use those matching rhythms you identified earlier. And, by this point, you’ve chosen the title, which is more than I can say for this essay.

And then give a thought to the larger structure. Your B section will provide a contrast. This might be harmonic, or take the voice to a different tessitura, or, most likely, there’s a rhythmic contrast. A song I’m writing now starts in a minor key – the title’s the first line, but there’s a rhythmic match with the third line there – and is on jagged syncopations. The bridge is higher, in major, and involves much longer sustained notes the singer can open up on. Just the example I have on my mind at the moment. Right now I don’t know about other sections, although I’ve been playing with a somewhat long intro and, as an obstetrician once said to my wife, “I suspect there’s a C section in your future.”

Color By Numbers

Now that I’m thinking about my daughter, let’s consider a bunch of First Graders being given the same color-by-numbers page and an unlimited spectrum of colored pencils. The little artistic prodigies will choose different pigments that give the same drawing a wide array of emotional characteristics. It’s something I particularly love about the painting done about a century ago: Unexpected hues led to unexpected feelings.

Give music students – Tenth Graders, perhaps – the same lead sheet and the geniuses will come up with chords that put the tune across with varying levels of piquancy. Now, if you’ve familiarized yourself with thousands of songs over the years, (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ve recognized patterns in the chord symbols. It’s fair to say there’s usually the Most Obvious Way a melody might be harmonized. But why would you want to go with the Most Obvious Way? Leave that for the non-genius Tenth Graders.

Learning Through Observation

My daughter has started playing music too loud in the next room, and it’s one of those uninventive kiddie ditties with Most Obvious everything – Can You Imagine That? I’ve often spoken, here, of the sign in my office that reads Eschew Cliché. In order to do that, you’re really going to have to take a good long look at a huge quantity of songs from the past 100 years or so. See what they do with placing a title in the A section, deciding where the rhymes go, where the rhythmic matches show up. And if you’re staring at sheet music with chord symbols, take a gander at how the tune’s being colored. Anything that’s been done too much is, by definition, a cliché. Excuse me, I feel a sneeze coming on: Eschew!

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Etude

November 17, 2018

I envy the music critic Alex Ross for his ability to talk about composition in a way that both musicians and the never-even-took-piano crowd can understand. And there’s an assumption in that: I can’t be sure those wholly unfamiliar with theory are able to follow along. But today, I want to write about the process of choosing the notes to throw on a page. And I want to throw words on this page that won’t alienate anyone.

A song has various components. One is

Melody

and if I asked you to hum your favorite showtune – sans words – the melody is what you’d be humming. In musicals, it’s important that the tune puts across the lyric in a way that makes dramatic sense. So, the composer looks at text in the way an actor might, choosing what syllables to emphasize:

Don’t call me at 3 a.m. from a friend’s apartment.
I’d like to choose how I hear the news.

To Andrew Lloyd Webber, the important syllables in this rather moving passage are “ment” of “apartment” and “I’d.” The voice leaps up to hit these fairly hard; then the same thing happens on “how I.” Does that make any sense to you? Of course it doesn’t. But that’s my theory: Andrew Lloyd Webber is an Englishman who doesn’t know how to speak English.

The other trouble with the leap is that it’s hard to sing. After sitting down below the staff, you have to ascend a major seventh – a rather uncommon interval – into a completely different part of the vocal range. Am I being too technical, here? This is merely evidence for my other theory: that Andrew Lloyd Webber hates singers.

Harmony

There’s more to a song than the vocal line. The piano or orchestra will definitely play something in addition to the melody. Two notes that are different make up a chord. I find the selection of chords particularly fascinating. They give emotional contours to a tune. And I’m not going to name names here, but I know of a major Broadway score in which the composer sang into a tape recorder, sans accompaniment. Others filled in the harmonies, and those others did a particularly wonderful job. The result is a famously beautiful score, but the people who didn’t get the credit are the deserving ones. Sorry, I’m not going to reveal the secret.

Garden variety scores tend to use the most obvious harmonies, and I’ve noticed this is often true of works by rock songwriters. Most pop music is written on guitars, and the fingers of rockers tend to fall on familiar frets. The aesthetic, over there in pop-land, isn’t to search for patterns you haven’t heard before. I don’t know why. In my writing, I’m constantly looking for the chord you’re not likely to expect. But one can go overboard with this sort of thing, and a “constantly surprising refrain” may be too weird for most ears. So, show-creators strike a happy medium: not too hot; not too cold, but something Goldilocks would enjoy.

Rhythm

“Hup-two-three-four!” the drill sergeant yells, and that’s about as uninteresting as a rhythm can get. But get too interesting, and your audience gets unsettled. We need Goldilocks again.

Whenever you emphasize an unexpected beat – that is, not the marching cadence, that’s called syncopation, which is the root of jazz, broadly defined.

In the theatre, we’re always concerned with the lyrics sounding natural. Musicals shift from dialogue to singing, and if syllables get mis-accented, well that’s going to get in the way of understanding. Nothing’s worse than that. And yet false stresses abound – the songwriting mistake I see most often. Just yesterday, I was working on a song that’s in one of these awful jukebox musicals, and the word “watusi” put “wa” and “si” on strong beats, leading to all sorts of problems.

In an early comedy song, I commented on these sorts of errors with this bridge:

The bridge is a little too brief
And the rhythm is beyond belief

Of course, the challenge was to set the last line with as many false accents as possible.

Accompaniment

When I first started writing musicals, I hadn’t progressed very far in my piano studies. I knew what chords I wanted, and my first few scores I wrote nothing but lead sheets. These show what the singer does – the melody and lyric, and name the chord – G7, F#dim, etc. Those tell you what the chord is, but not how to express it. And that’s leaving a lot up to chance, or your arranger or accompanist’s taste. A composer’s job isn’t truly finished until there’s a full piano score, telling the musician exactly what both hands are playing.

Sometimes, the inability to write an interesting accompaniment is related to insufficient piano skill. And there are plenty of times in which singers need the support of hearing the melody in the accompaniment; this is called doubling.

There’s a song I admire greatly in which the melody isn’t the least bit impressive, the rhythm is annoyingly machine-like, and the harmonic structure isn’t extraordinary. But the accompaniment is so fascinating, and the lyric so trenchant, that when the components come together it hits you with such power, you go “wow!”

Another hundred songwriters aren’t considering interesting ways to support the melody. I think back to my early teens, and recall my composition teacher encouraging me to come up with something more compelling than the block chords on quarter beats I used in my earliest songs. Many current tunesmiths hit the same dull chord on the hup-two-three-four. If they knew now what I knew then, scores of scores would be livelier.

 


Why does it have to be a musical?

October 12, 2018

My marriage, which turns 15 years old today, is a musical. Now, many of you are saying, “But of course it’s a musical. Your wedding was a musical.” And some might say “I don’t want to read yet another blog entry about how wonderful Joy is. There’s one of those on her birthday and also the meet-aversary, which coincides with the day she started her casting company.” I get it: This isn’t supposed to be a personal blog, where I publicize testaments of love. It’s about writing musicals, and I know that, at first glance, that first sentence sounds like a poetic reach, romantic piffle. But, as always, what I’m trying to do hear is shed some light on the wonderful world of musical comedy creation.

Overture

But it’s true: Fifteen years ago tonight about 150 theatre-goers poured into the Soho Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Michael Lavine took the piano, and a musical began. Five ladies in eveningwear asked a good question, “Why does this have to be a musical?” And from this first title, a sort of subversion commenced. The audience knew they were about to see an original musical comedy; the invitation came with tickets. But the weird thing is, characters in the show are already casting some shade on why we were doing this. Expectation, bucked.

Shows need to deal with the mind-sets of the people who’ll see them. Our Wedding was designed for exactly the folks who’d RSVP’d. When a writer has deep understanding of who’ll be in the seats, a host of comic possibilities open up. It’s easier to be funny with those whose sense of humor is a known element. The same probably applies to sentiment. Weddings can be extremely treacly; or, so hip no one sheds a tear. Joy and I reveled in chucking certain traditions that didn’t feel quite right to us. But the wedding show ends with a vow taken by the entire assembled crowd: to “be there” as observers and supporters throughout our lives. This has largely proved true.

The Act One Inciting Incident

Ooh, it looks like I’m going to use McKee jargon in this one. So, somewhere fairly early in your first act, something’s going to have to upset the status quo. Joy’s abandonment of her burgeoning performing career catapulted us into uncharted territory. Her voice was so widely revered, all who’d heard her sing naturally assumed she’d entertain more and more of the world for years to come. If Harold Hill brought music to River City, Joy stilled the bells on the hill.

But the story charged off in a new direction, as good tales do. One of the causes of Joy’s disaffection was how actors are treated in this business of show. And her new career as casting director gave her the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands who trod the boards. A peach to the players, if you will. And me, I loved her more. The singing voice was heard no more but the voice of advocacy rocked the theatre. She shook things up, had a huge positive effect on the lives of countless actors with her innovations and inventions.

It’s a good idea to conclude your first act with something startling, intriguing, which the audience might wonder about all intermission long. A baby?!

Intermission

Time out from our story so I can say, yet again, one of the things I say most often about musicals. They should regularly get the audience to wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t like those shows whose plots are eminently predictable. Characters don’t need to be likable, per se, but one must have a rooting interest in what’s going to happen to them. And you shouldn’t be certain what’s going to be. Dare to be unpredictable.

Act Two: The plot thickens

Our daughter, the Princess of Pure Delight, has always been physically fearless. She mastered walking and was off on a tear in every direction, which led me to question whether the sidewalks of New York were the best place for her. My interest in relocating to the suburbs surprised everyone who knows me. Manhattan is the stuff that gets my blood coursing through my veins. But I still worked there, and our house was near enough. I adjusted. Our girl thrived. And our heroine? Not as joyful as you might have predicted. Running a small business can be an annoying chore. The long hours plus the commute meant less time to kick back and be a mommy. I think of the Porgy and Bess divorce-for-sale scene, “That is a complication.”

But the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three, deals with many of the same issues. Working mother and stay-at-home dad, and much friction as each spouse envies the other. It sure would be nice to go off to work and be appreciated by everyone rather than clean up spilled oatmeal all the time. Or, it sure would be nice to be home to watch all the remarkable things the little one says and does. Discontent, disquietude, conflict: elements of an entertainment rooted in reality.The First Dance

One May morning when the daughter was in pre-school, I went to my favorite convivial coffee place and I wrote a scene in which the wife gets her dream job and then emerges the idea of having the husband quit his to raise the child. It’s a scene I’ve struggled to make organic: things happen quickly; I thought nobody would believe it. But a matter of weeks later, Joy got a spanking new job, casting at a place she’d always dreamed of working at; I quit mine. The difficulties of adjusting, for us three, were a case of life imitating art.

And I explained this to friends who pointed out that the very idea that a musical writer could write something that then becomes true could be a pretty good idea for a musical. But wait a sec: Our marriage is already a musical. Or two. Fun and funny, and occasionally fraught, and, like they sing in Seesaw, one hell of a ride.

 


Visualize

October 4, 2018

“Why can’t we dance about American subjects?” the young Jerome Robbins asked himself. “Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today, and how we are?” And from that self-query, Robbins revolutionized the American ballet world, and also the arena we focus on here, the American musical. It’s fair to say there’s no one alive today who remembers what musicals were like before his cataclysmic overhaul. We, the too young to remember, accept that shows are a certain way and do certain things, but this is mostly because the Robbins innovations stuck.

He invented a role for himself: The hyphenate term, “Director-choreographer” didn’t exist before, but, soon, everybody was doing it. His famous protégée, Bob Fosse, is revered today, but without Robbins, there’s no Fosse, and so many of the things we love about the latter are things the former thought of first.

I’m not qualified to talk about dance, per se, but consider Robbins the most important non-writing creator of musical theatre because he was so effectively in writers’ faces, pushing them to tell their stories more clearly, more entertainingly, with more humor. There are two famous stories from the early 1960s, and I don’t see how I can avoid retelling them. One involved a show doing poorly on its pre-Broadway try-out in Detroit. It opened with an energetic, all-female comedy song, with an attractive little quodlibet in the middle. It was all supposed to be funny, but wasn’t getting a lot of laughs, a bad sign for a musical comedy. So Robbins called a meeting with the writers.

“What’s this show about?” the director-choreographer asked. And various answers were given. It’s the struggles of a poor milkman to find husbands for his daughters. “No,” said Robbins, unsatisfied. It’s about a small town, persecuted by the Russian government. “No.” he said again. It’s about finding love at the end of the era of arranged marriages. “No, not that.” Imperfect responses kept piling up until someone said: It’s about the dissolution of a way of life, the end of a tradition. Robbins sat up: “Write that.” Meeting adjourned, and soon Stein, Bock & Harnick came up with the greatest opening number ever created, adding two tunes to the quodlibet. Robbins staged Tradition and Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running Broadway musical of all time.

Robbins had a directing mentor, the Grand Old Man of musical theatre, George Abbott. Both spent much time doctoring other people’s shows. In Washington D.C., Abbott was directing a musical farce sent in ancient times, and nobody was laughing. Or attending: rows and rows of empty seats. Abbott said “I like it, but they don’t like it. I don’t know what to do. We need to call George Abbott.” And so protégée Robbins took the train down to see the clearly-doomed, woefully unfunny disaster. Robbins said the only thing that needed changing was the opening number, which was called Love Is in the Air. This witty schottische promised a classy evening of sophisticated humor, but the show that followed was anything but. It was low comedy, often vulgar, a vaudeville of sorts. Robbins sent the songwriter to his hotel room to replace the opening. Stephen Sondheim came down with Comedy Tonight, Robbins staged it, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum was hailed as the most hysterical show ever written.

Both those masterpieces starred Zero Mostel, who’d been unemployable during the heyday of the Red Scare. Among those who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee was another long-ago communist, Jerome Robbins. Accepting the role of Tevye involved burying a well-earned hatchet, and Zero summed it up by pointing out he was agreeing to be directed by him, but wouldn’t have to eat with him. But here’s the inconvenient truth as we near Robbins’ 100th birthday (October 11): a lot of people detested him.

Once he was balling out a company of dancers in a theatre. They’d assembled facing the audience, and Robbins bloviated on stage just a few feet in front of the orchestra pit. His rage caused him to step backwards, more than once, and it was clear to everyone present that he was in danger of falling a good six feet onto chairs and music stands. But nobody did anything to warn him; they were content to see him fall.

His casts felt tortured because of Robbins’ perfectionism, and long rehearsals. Performers whose characters hated each other were forbidden from dining with each other when rehearsal was over. He was fired from a movie that was on its way to going way over budget due to his endless retakes – but, happy ending here, it won the Oscar – both the film and the direction. And all sorts of heavy hitters were willing to return to Robbins productions: Ethel Merman, Jule Styne, the late great Barbara Harris. And, right now on Broadway, you can still see a lampoon of one of Robbins’ most famous ballets.

Bernstein, Green, Comden, Robbins

It’s the telling of a uniquely American tale through the fun-house mirror cultural filter of a Third World country’s manner of presentation. The King and I was where Robbins collaborated with the revolutionary writers, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And Mrs. Anna wants to catch the conscience of the king of Siam with a theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Charmingly and humorously, things alter in translation, so The Small House of Uncle Thomas is an amalgam of Western and Southeast Asian styles. (The parody of this culture clash has people of Uganda rendering the Utah testament, The Book of Mormon, although not everyone understands this.)

The following decade, Robbins turned his back on Broadway and ensconced himself at New York City Ballet. What strikes me is that ballet has its own vocabulary, its own audience. On Broadway, he had to entertain people who might not worship Terpsichore. He’s speaking to the uninitiated, and audiences are captivated. His version of the Keystone Kops, in High Button Shoes, is, to my eyes, far funnier than the Mack Sennett films it’s based on. The gyrations of You Gotta Have a Gimmick, from Gypsy, find the humor in the tawdriest of performances. (“Something wrong with stripping?”) The glee of three sailors on a spree was rendered twice in 1944 – first the ballet Fancy Free, and then the musical based on it, On the Town, both to music by the other titan born in 1918, Leonard Bernstein. And when those two got together to update Romeo and Juliet, dance episodes carried most of the story, the true integration of the fourth component – movement – with the previously incorporated book, music and lyrics.

I think of those last three Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins productions – West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof – as the apotheosis of the Broadway musical. Has any one individual worked on three better shows? (Not to mention Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl.) So, that dance at the gym: All these young people, members of two warring gangs, are raucously tearing up the floor. It’s noisy, both in a musical and a visual sense. And then it’s not. Our focus is drawn to these two strangers, staring at each other across the crowded room. And everything stops. They move towards each other as if in a trance, but we know that if they interact in any way, all hell will break loose. The music shifts to a tentative cha-cha and they take steps together but do not touch. The tension is exquisite; touch leads inexorably to death. And so they swerve around each other. Their hips come close. Their hands almost reach each other’s faces. And then they do touch, and it’s lovely, but brief, as scary music creeps in, disturbing the dream with harsh reality.

It doesn’t get any better than this. As the old song goes, every little movement has a meaning all its own.

 


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.


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.