Breaking the rules

September 3, 2017

You might have thought of my wife, Joy Dewing, while reading any of a number of recent theatre news articles. Normally, I’d provide links to the articles, but today I’m a little short on time. They were:

The national tour of The Little Mermaid led by an Asian-American Ariel and how middle America is reacting to her.
The controversy about the role in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 going from Josh Grobin to Okieriete Onaodowan and then, almost, to Mandy Patinkin, ending up with the show closing.
The New England production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime that cast an actor who is, as we say nowadays, “on the autism spectrum” in the lead role of a young man on the autism spectrum.

Joy Dewing has been everybody’s favorite casting director in New York for about ten years. She rose from unpaid intern to name-on-the-door partnership with Dave Clemmons; then when Dave left casting five years ago, she founded Joy Dewing Casting. She’s cast a lot of tours, some Broadway, many regional productions, but had nothing to do with the shows mentioned.

Or did she?

To no small degree, Joy has shaken things up in the theatre casting business. She never forgot her days as a performer, and how auditioners used to be treated like cattle – they literally called auditions “cattle calls” – in a very unsatisfying experience for all. In essence, Joy wanted to change that world; and did.

The two main ways she effected that change were leading by example – that is, providing the model of a vastly innovative casting company that others followed – and serving on the Diversity Committee of the Casting Society of America. Joy’s improvements, in some cases, became industry-wide standards. And so one can argue she had something to do with the success of three hit shows she didn’t really work on. And so I will.

This year, news events and presidential proclamations have reminded us that there is much racial prejudice across America. The internet gives rude bozos the confidence to say disturbing things anonymously, and, astoundingly, Diana Huey saw racist complaints from Seattle to Memphis about the mere fact that she, an American of Japanese descent, is portraying The Little Mermaid. Of course, this venom was spewed by miscreants who hadn’t actually seen the show. Those who had loved Huey’s performance.

Roll back a couple of years to the national tour of another family-friendly musical with an iconic title role, Annie, cast by Joy Dewing. I happened to be in the room (which is rare) when she first encountered Tori Bates and saw a ten-year-old’s potential. When you get a lead role in a show, there are a slew of callbacks, and Joy sees to it that aspirants bring their best game. Ask anyone who’s gotten a role in any of her dozens of shows. They’ll credit Joy for providing support, encouragement and practical information leading them to win the role. Under Joy’s nurturing, Tori was chosen by director-lyricist Martin Charnin to be the first African-American Annie on stage.

Some time later, when director Glenn Casale cast the tour of The Little Mermaid, he chose the most talented performer and didn’t consider race. Which is as it should be. Which is as it is in no small part because of Joy’s example with Annie.

Last season there was a very unusual Broadway musical based on a little bit of War and Peace. Those of you who’ve read War and Peace (Joy is one) know that Tolstoy didn’t write about black people. When Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opened on Broadway, much was made of its extraordinary staging. Seats were torn out of the Imperial Theatre to make room for platforms, so that the show could play in various spaces surrounded by audience on all sides. Don’t picture theatre in the round; picture a Calder mobile: different-sized planks, at different heights, dotting a crowd. Dave Malloy’s music is rather dissimilar to any Broadway score you’ve heard before. Staging and score got people talking. You know what didn’t? The multi-racial casting.

Denée Benton was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Natasha. Earlier, off-Broadway, the role had been played by Phillipa Soo, who later earned fame as Hamilton’s stalwart wife. Another actor from Hamilton, Okieriete Onaodowan, replaced superstar Josh Groban, recently, as Pierre. In all of that time, nobody seemed to mind that the cast was chock full of actors who didn’t look remotely Russian. Then, the need to up the box office led to the announcement that Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin would replace Oak Onaodowan as Pierre. My first thought was “But he’s twice as old!” In a massive public relations debacle, this most un-racist of shows was accused of insensitivity in felling an Oak for last century’s model. But you know all that.

What you might not know is that Joy’s tireless work on that diversity committee helped foster an environment where casting with no regard to skin-tone isn’t blinked at. She set up listening forums, in which casting directors heard first-hand of the struggles players-of-color face. And then she went beyond ethnic diversity. What struggles do so-called actors-with-disabilities face? What can be done to evolve to a place where character men in wheelchairs play something other than The Man Who Came To Dinner and Sunrise At Campobello?

I happened to be reading the capsule reviews in The New Yorker and was struck that two in a row mentioned disabled thespians on stage. And I thought of the aforementioned production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime with the actor who understands autism experientially. And I thought of Joy, who had nothing to do with those two plays, The Little Mermaid, Natasha/Pierre, or The Curious Incident, but EVERYTHING to do with creating the world in which they exist.

Happy birthday, darling.


Where the bee sucks

July 13, 2017

One of my favorite cans of worms has been opened! And by no less than the recently-appointed co-chief drama critic of The New York Times, Jesse Green. He states something that, to me, is obvious, but very few musical theatre fans seem to understand. That the elements that make for a good listening experience to the consumer of an Original Cast Album are markedly different than what makes good theatre.

It started, as so much does these days, with a tweet. This came from the composer-lyricist of a score Green didn’t much care for, Groundhog Day. It challenged him to listen to the cast album three times and see if his opinion wasn’t altered. And it was. Green had a more positive view of the show’s songs after hearing the album.

There’s something inherently unfair about that challenge, though. Theatre-goers pay between $100 and $200 for a ticket to witness a performance once. At those prices, they ought to enjoy it the first time. Over the years I’ve talked to countless people who’ve admitted they didn’t like a show until they’d heard the recording a few times. To which I’ve said, “Then the songwriter has failed in what he set out to do.”

Let’s break this down. Are you writing your show for the one-time live person in your theatre’s seat, or are you writing for the repeat listener of a record, someone you hope will grow to enjoy it? I get that hearing something over and over and again can add to your appreciation – that’s fine – but theatre writers are trying to entertain ticket-buyers. Recording artists – a wholly different breed – are fashioning albums that they hope will yield more on iteration.

Green then looks at last season’s new musicals, and places them in three categories:

Those that are more enjoyable on record than in the theatre

Groundhog Day
In Transit
War Paint

Those that make a better impression live on Broadway than on an album

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Come From Away
as well as the revivals of Falsettos and Hello Dolly

Those he couldn’t abide in either format

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Bronx Tale
Holiday Inn

And what did he say of the Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen? Equally good both ways.

What I find exciting about this article is that, at last, someone’s delineating the different process we go through reacting to live theatre versus reacting to something through speakers.

Minchin’s challenge forced me to consider not only how his songs for “Groundhog Day” sounded after repeat exposure but also how listening to them in a nontheatrical context altered their texture.

Among other things, I realized that a lot of the rhymes I hadn’t liked onstage seemed harmless when I no longer needed to get information from them. But I still feel, and songwriters I spoke to agreed, that a show with such satirical heft would have benefited from the clean ping of exactly matched sounds.

On the other hand, the songs whose musical structure I’d found “baggy” now seemed more compelling than they did in the theater, where the intensity of the action interfered with their reception.

Theatre is a live art form. And our reactions to what we see enacted before our eyes – well, that’s what matters most. We take in a score in a significantly different way if we only use our ears.

And yet we cast judgments based on hearing alone. We open our ears to cast recordings and, naturally and inevitably, come up with some assessment as to whether a show is good or not. But we are being intentionally misled. And I don’t mean to make it sound evil. Creators of cast albums obviously want to make the things sound as good as possible. But let’s look at some specifics.

One of my favorite albums – as a listening experience – is A New Brain, by William Finn. Yes, my friend Liz Larsen is on it, as well as the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth, and I’d Rather Be Sailing is justifiably hailed as one of the greatest romantic show tunes of our time. You take in this record and go, “My God, this is great.” In the theatre, however, it was more than a tad less compelling. The annoying protagonist undergoes brain surgery and this leads to a long and abstruse hallucination. The viewer loses his bearings and tedium sets in. I’d rather be sailing than be so adrift again.

Ask most of the people I know to name the best musical they ever saw, and you hear Follies a lot. The original production, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, was, I keep getting told, particularly fabulous. The original cast album, however, is severely truncated. It’s widely regarded as botched, a hatchet job, and I think everyone agrees it was better to be there than to listen to that piece of…vinyl.

Another record that comes to mind is House of Flowers. Listening to those sophisticated Harold Arlen melodies, you begin to fantasize that it had to have been quite a treat to see. (Peter Brook was the director. In the cast: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder.) But House of Flowers, I hate to report, is a witless tale of bickering whorehouse madams and an ingénue so gullible, she’s too stupid for us to care what happens to her.

The world of musical comedy is filled with people who know shows only through their albums, and that leads to an odd sort of tunnel vision. One can appreciate A New Brain on CD and House of Flowers on disc and have no inkling what a chore they are to sit through. And, if you’re a producer or director, a good album gives rise to a little fantasy that if you put it on you’ll lick all those problems that Peter Brook couldn’t. But A) you’re not better than Peter Brook and B), it’s still about a bordello competition and an idiotic child-woman.


April 30, 2017

Sure, spring is a time of change, but was anyone fully prepared for the tumultuous transformation of New York’s community of critics? I sure wasn’t. Each alteration (and altercation?) came as a complete surprise to me, and since I’ve never been fond of change, I got a little sad over every move.

The spring of our discontent actually started in winter (say, there’s a better phrase) when the Times let go of long-time second-stringer Charles Isherwood. His was a voice we’d gotten used to hearing, as, over the years, an increasing number of notable shows weren’t reviewed by Chief Drama Critic Ben Brantley. The longstanding tradition is to believe that the Chief Drama Critic is the Most Powerful Man on Broadway. Which breeds considerable fear. And antipathy. Understudy Isherwood never garnered the same dread.

I grew up reading Walter Kerr in the Times every Sunday. Kerr’s early career included the writing of a couple of Broadway musicals, so there was never any doubt he was my kind of guy. Those were created with his wife, Jean Kerr, and when Walter became a critic, Jean wrote far more successful plays on her own. What would happen if a husband was put in the position of having to review his wife’s play? This Frequently Asked Question became the basis for a hit comedy by Ira Levin, Critic’s Choice.

The word, “recuse” keeps popping up these days, doesn’t it? But I digress. As a kid, I ate up Kerr’s columns. These weren’t reviews, per se, but think pieces on shows he’d seen – what made them entertaining, or how they could have been better. And that sort of analysis is what fascinated me. (It still does.) A former college professor, Walter Kerr was wonderfully articulate; hell, they named a theatre after him – a move I cheered.

The twenty-first century New York Times hasn’t provided space for Kerr-like wisdom. Luckily, there have been a handful of critics, writing for other organs, that pay attention to the machinations of theatre writing in their regular reviews. The one I’ve read most often, for the past sixteen years, is my old friend Matthew Murray at a website called Talkin’ Broadway. Every time a review of his came out, there’d be a blurb on the site’s theatre chat board, and this meant chatters were apt to respond. In effect, Matthew’s reviews were often the start of an argument. It should not surprise you to learn I like a good debate about theatre.

Murray’s no Kerr, but the connecting tissue is that from childhood to now, I’ve turned to critiques to learn more about writing for the theatre. And I should have already pointed out that it’s wholly unnecessary to agree with an opinion if you’re looking to learn from it. So, here we are, wondering what to make of the phenomenal success of Hamilton. What does it mean for us as musical theatre writers? Well, I found reading those rave reviews tiring after a while. The only naysayer I could find: Matthew Murray. Now, don’t jump to the conclusion that he’s some sort of idiot due to his immunity to the show’s many charms. Read what he has to say. It’s fascinating to learn why all the things that clicked for you didn’t click for him. That’s an education.

Ten years ago, my show, Such Good Friends, was chosen for presentation in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Would Matthew review my show, risking a rift like the one in Critic’s Choice? Nope. This wasn’t the first time Matthew had dealt with a friend on the other end of his microscope. He’d recuse himself, but would make sure another critic covered my show. He’d also write a feature about the show before it opened. Privately, he told me that he’d very much enjoyed. Then, at the end of the year, the Talkin’ Broadway reviewers named the best musicals they’d seen in any festival that year. And the winners were:

  • Bash’d – Awarded by Dan Bacalzo
  • The Seven-Year B*tch – Awarded by Peter Filichia
  • Unlock’d – Awarded by Matthew Murray
  • Such Good Friends – Awarded by Linda Tullberg

Talk about win-win! Matthew (and Peter Filichia) honored friends of mine, and I got the same honor from a stranger.

If the past few paragraphs have seemed like a valedictory, it’s because my astute old friend has decided to exit, to give up his position as reviewer of theatre for something that (I assume) pays a whole lot better. His last review posted a couple days ago. And what comes to mind is a news story I recently read about a public library somewhere in the northwest closing its doors. This great wealth of knowledge will no longer be part of my ongoing schooling. (I’ll also miss David Cote in Time Out New York.)

One bit of wisdom I’d picked up from Matthew is that Jesse Green, of New York Magazine, is another really good critic. And here you don’t have to take my word for it, or Matthew’s. The New York Times chose Green to replace Isherwood, which is good news for those of us who like good writing. The Times, “The Paper of Record,” sees itself as a meritocracy. Only the best get to work there. And yet, there was something of a hue and cry over the Green appointment. For quite a while, theatre criticism at The Times has come from white men, and there were those who’d been hoping the job would go to someone not white or not male. Before this teapot tempest, it hadn’t occurred to me Jesse Green was a white dude. (Jesse is a female character name in one of my shows.) I merely knew he was good – from reading him.

On the other hand, there’s another critic who consistently writes perplexing sentences. The kind I read over and over, trying to figure out their meaning, and only succeed half the time. The critic’s name doesn’t reveal gender, or any particular ethnicity. The most recent review, of Hello Dolly!, spends paragraph after paragraph telling the oft-told biography of Bette Midler, as if we needed to be introduced to one of the biggest stars of our time. Had this critic been chosen by the Times, they would have gotten that much hoped-for Person of Color. But a far worse choice, I think. But what do I know? This spring this abstruse scribbler won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.



One day we dance

January 9, 2017

People – good people – are steadfastly ignoring the reality of the life of Rockettes.

This here blog steadfastly steers clear of politics, but, currently, the world of musical comedy, of which the Rockettes are a part, overlaps with the political sphere, of which the Inaugural is a part. (My fear is, should I start discussing politics, I might unleash a torrent of sphere words.)

It shouldn’t be too controversial to point out that a lot of people hate Donald Trump. Looking ahead at his presidency, I predict there will be times to call for his impeachment, times to call for a filibuster of some horrible legislation he pushes for, times to march in various protests. The aim might be removing him from office, or stopping a bad law from passage, or affecting policy. I’ll be there.

But the Inaugural is a little different. Taking a stand as Trump’s sworn in will not effect change. No law will be stopped; no policy could possibly be altered; Chief Justice Roberts will administer that oath no matter how unhappy the majority of voters are.

In the weeks since the election, various music superstars have publicly refused their invitation to perform at Trump’s installation ceremony. Good for you, Elton John! You’re already a multi-millionaire with a huge income (including musical comedies) and nothing bad will happen to you by declining to sing outdoors in Washington, DC in the middle of January.

But Rockettes aren’t millionaires. Far from it. For some reason, nobody’s addressed the brass tacks economic issues faced by New York’s dancers. The competition to get jobs is fierce. To be in that world-famous kick line, you have to be a certain size. Also, dancers have notably short careers. Rockettes must live close enough to Radio City Music Hall to work there, and apartments ain’t cheap.

Roll back, for a moment, to the time before they were Rockettes. (It happens that I knew some Rockettes before they got the gig, so it’s easy for me to picture this.) They train – hard – to ascend to a level of proficiency that’s particularly difficult for me to imagine right now after all that holiday eating. But these young women aren’t starving themselves as a strategy, they’re near starving due to the economics inherent in their chosen profession. Gigs, when you can succeed at getting one, are usually brief, low-paying, and health benefits are nearly impossible to come by. They hold down survival jobs, frequently soul-crushing ones, just to pay the bills. And those bills include dance classes, gym time, and have you ever seen the price of LaDuca shoes?

Imagine, then, each Rockette’s thrill signing their first contract. At last, steady work! With benefits. Their parents will proudly tell everyone they know. It’s a plum credit on a resumé. You get to work in the gorgeous Radio City Music Hall, well taken-care-of by backstage staff. In these ways, it’s a dream assignment.

One might feel that, besides the many good things involved in being a Rockette, there are also some not-so-good things. That’s true of any job, no? You might not like the hours, for instance: an exhausting performance schedule during the Christmas season. Here’s where it gets a little complex: certain Rockettes aren’t allowed to turn down gigs; other assignments are voluntary. They performed at previous inaugurations, and many other patriotic displays. You weigh the pluses and minuses of any job, and if the pluses tip the scale, you take it.

People – good people – were initially upset with the idea that the Rockettes were being forced to perform. This seems to me a strange sort of thing to get upset about, especially compared to the large number of Trump proposals that will have a negative impact on ordinary innocent people all over the world. A worker, of any sort, signs a contract, agreeing to terms with a boss who has certain requirements of labor. How is that anyone else’s business? If the talented dancers didn’t want the job, which comes with certain requirements and restrictions, they didn’t have to sign the contract.

But then the hue and cry shifted slightly, from saying the high-kickers shouldn’t be forced to perform at the Inauguration to saying they simply shouldn’t perform at Donald Trump’s installment at all. The argument, here, is the same one we’ve heard for a year and a half: that Trump is an affront to human decency, that he spreads bigotry and fear, that he acts so childishly and unscrupulously he can’t be trusted with the Oval Office and nuclear codes. (I agree with all of that.) But there’s a big therefore coming:


you, tall dancer, should not grace his stage on the 20th. Our feeds and, ironically, the Twitterverse, lit up with exhortations to the young ladies to sit this one out. As if it’s important. As if it’s the only proper response to the perfidy of the new Commander-in-Cheeto.

Good people: could you get off your high horse?

Yes, I realize how you feel about Trump, but what you fail to realize is how financially precarious the life of a dancer is. She Works Hard For the Money was a song in a film about a not-rich dancer for a reason. It’s one thing to pressure Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli to eschew the celebration – they’re very rich, but how dare you make a young professional performer feel bad about making a buck? Boycotting is a purely symbolic gesture – the sort only upper class people can afford. So save your liberal piety for the important stuff, coming soon, after January 20.

Let’s join the army

November 20, 2016

I’ve been really good about keeping this page politics-free, but Mike Pence’s visit to Hamilton combines my two favorite worlds. You need not fear that you’re reading a polemic; if you’re anything like me, you’ve already read too much on the subject. I’ll be brief. The Vice-President-Elect attended the megahit show about the founding of our country, enjoyed himself. Then, as he was hustling out, the actor who’d played Vice-President Aaron Burr addressed Pence with a speech penned in collaboration with the show’s author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, its producer and director:

“Thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of ALL of us. Thank you.”

The Left and the Right predictably split into their usual corners. On one side, the Hamilton company was praised for delivering an important message of peace in such a classy way. On the other, led by the President-Elect in a tweet (of course), outrage and consternation. But the audience, as always, played its part, too. Some booed Pence when they saw him entering the theatre, and part of the outrage from the Right is at the booing of a (just-) elected official.

To conflate the premeditated actions of a cast with the spontaneous jeering of a well-heeled crowd of theatre-goers – well, who would do such a thing? Oh: Donald Trump. For the (presidential) record, here are his tweets:

“Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen!”

“The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

Curtain speeches, of a political sort, are a long and respected tradition in the theatre. The performances before and after the Veep’s attendance ended with appeals for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Some suggest that there’s an important distinction when the comments are addressed to one individual. But Pence is no ordinary citizen. He is a prominent politician with – more than anyone I can think of – a record of governmental actions aimed at making life worse for homosexuals. His anti-gay actions, it could be argued, make him inherently unworthy of respect. The speech aimed at him, however, was astonishingly calm in tone; “anti-inflammatory” seems a good word for it.

To call this “very rude” or to say the cast “harassed” him is to be out of grip with reality.

What to do when the incoming Chief Executive is so thin-skinned, he seems to be living in an alternative universe? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that. The election results have a lot of us more than a little shell-shocked, unsure of how to proceed. The Hamilton company was given a golden opportunity to say a few words, from their hearts, to the person a heartbeat away from the presidency (and head of the transition team). Far from throwing away their shot, they spoke with eloquence and dignity.

There are those who believe art should speak for itself, that no further oratory is needed. Hamilton makes a ton of salient points about the founding of our country and how politics is practiced. One applause-getting line is a timely swipe at today’s anti-immigrant fervor. Alexander Hamilton has long been highly-regarded by the conservative movement. It was Miranda’s unusual choice to lionize him while making liberal favorite Thomas Jefferson the villain. Had he dramatized one of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton’s defense of the Electoral College, his show might be the thing getting boos today. For it is the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that awards the White House to the tweeter of these words:

The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

There are some people who find Hamilton highly overrated. I happen to know both of them, and neither has talked to Trump. Laughably, a BoycottHamilton movement has cropped up out of this tempest in a teapot (dome). Hamilton is completely sold out, a year in advance, but if this makes tickets available to those who want to see it… Well, I’ll be gobsmacked: He did make America great again!

Doing the raging bull

November 12, 2016

I’ve been reading exhortations to artists to do what we do in light of our current governmental miasma as if we’re needed now more than ever and my reflex is to find them petty. But if I’m going to muse on something, here and now, it can’t be a quick dismissal.

And I’m aware you come to this page for amusement concerning musical theatre creation and history, not for politics, so let’s start with some little-known history: Once upon a time there was a celebrity who was sworn in as president. That same winter, an old friend of his, also a celebrity, put on a musical. The name of the show struck some as a comment on the new direction our ship of state was being steered to, Step To the Right. The show opened in Beverly Hills, California in a theatre I know pretty well from its movie-showing days. The show got nothing but terrible reviews, including one from the estimable Dan Sullivan in The Los Angeles Times. The star of the show was understandably distraught. He’d finished his second long-running (if undistinguished) television show and hoped fans would turn out to see his return to his musical roots. Many years earlier, MGM wanted to cast him as the Tin Man but an adverse reaction to silver paint, er, tarnished the plan.

I’ve gone on too long without naming names: The seventy-something song-and-dance man was Buddy Ebsen and he called his buddy in the White House and before you could say “crony capitalist” Ronald Reagan phoned Dan Sullivan in an attempt to coax him to say something positive about Step To the Right. Well, someone knew about the ethics of the job he held, and the critic refused. For some reason, the pressure-exerting failure went on to be known as The Great Communicator, although his best-known quote is not “Mr. Sullivan, take down that review!”

I’ve told this before, but hanging on a wall in the place where one of my shows rehearsed was a quote from Bertolt Brecht. “In the bad times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the bad times.” So, is that what we’re all supposed to do now, channel our grief and fear into some musical? Writing this so soon after the election, that seems, to me, like mighty weak tea.

It’s true I concur with Aristotle that theatre provides needed catharsis to a pained populace. But, by the time any musical I write today gets on the boards, we’ll be on to the 46th president, if not the 47th. I’m reminded of California’s infamous Proposition 8 some years back, an initiative designed to strip gay people of their civil rights. It passed, and, some weeks afterward, Marc Shaiman released an entertaining musical comedy number on YouTube. It was the sort of thing that might have changed a lot of voters’ minds had they only seen it before voting.

Thursday night I happened to see a new Broadway musical that had a developmental reading back when George W. Bush was president. I wish I had a greater understanding of why these things take so long. And what happens during those eight years? Are there daily improvements? Does the script spend a certain amount of time preserved in amber? Why are other shows rushed to Broadway with comparatively little pickling?

The day after the election I made a minor change in a lyric that had been bothering me for some time. I still don’t think I’ve fixed the song, but five words replaced five not-so-wonderful words and that’s something. It’s possible, though, that I’m making too big a deal of this minor adjustment.

But I can’t help seeing this in terms of those exhortations to artists to make art. You see, having voted and then bitterly crumpled up that “I Voted” sticker, we all feel pathetically powerless right now. It didn’t soothe me to read “You are empathizers and listeners and powerful agents of change.” – not one bit. What we do, when we get to do it, takes years of tinkering, sweating details to get things just right. It’s a long, slow process.

But so’s governing. I like the ship of state analogy, since it takes quite a bit of work to turn a ship in a different direction. Sure, candidates promise to do all sorts of things, “in the first hundred days” to reverse the policies of the previous office-holder. As we quake in fear that some of the wonderful advancements of the past eight years may get overturned, remember that most changes come slowly over time. Those “hundred day” promises are pie-in-the-sky and the alterations are likely to be incremental. It’s taken me two years to come up with a second draft of my current front-burner musical; I believe it’s radically different. The radical difference in the way the government does things might take as many years, at which point we get another chance to repopulate the houses of Congress.


October 21, 2016

Bob Dylan’s Nobel laurels leave me vaguely discomfited. Maybe a blog exploring these feelings will help us evolve our view of what we do, just as those Swedish solons have evolved their definition of Literature.

There’s an expectation in the air. I’m supposed to be elated, or elevated in some way, by the idea that a songwriter’s oeuvre is here considered Literature. It’s not big news when the Prize goes to a novelist. Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Morrison – to name some Americans – easily get us to nod and say, yes: they deserve it. Poets like Yeats? Sure, that’s Literature; nobody would deny it. And I didn’t cry fie! over Fo. Like O’Neill before him and Pinter later, it’s not a radical idea to honor creators of Dramatic Literature.

But Dylan? Without casting aspersions, I think we can all acknowledge that what Dylan does is significantly different than what all the other Laureates did. One pictures him – and for all I know this could be a false vision – strumming a guitar, humming a simple tune, deciding what he wants to say. In my imagination, he doesn’t even write lyrics on paper. Like the bards prior to papyrus, he could sing his song so often, words get committed to memory, not to the page.

In this scenario, Literature is not a thing that’s written down and read. And the word “Bard” connotes a poet who is often appreciated separately from being published. Homer was a Bard; Shakespeare’s the Bard. Now that the printing press exists, we’ve come to think of Literature as a thing widely appreciated by readers. And, all of a-sudden this month, it’s something else. Sure, you can find Bob Dylan lyrics in a book, but his fans are listeners.

Of course, if you’re listening, there’s no separating lyrics from music. And certainly the Nobel folk have heard the tunes. Doesn’t that give a songwriter an unfair advantage? On my bookshelf are all those huge Robert Kimball volumes, The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, of Oscar Hammerstein, etc. I treasure them – hell, I study them. But always keep in mind that these are words meant to be heard with tunes. So, if we read

Lay, lady, lay-
Lay across my big brass bed

the lines have limited power; when sung, they’re far more potent.

Here non-fans of Bob Dylan might interject that some of his melodies are too dull to help propel a lyric to eloquence. Like a Rolling Stone starts as a quick chant on one note – little help there.

Songwriting is unique in that way. Music and lyrics work together to get an emotion across. So it feels odd to consider Dylan’s lyrics independent of his music. And what about that voice? Bob Dylan has often been criticized for muddy articulation or an unpleasant – even grating – sound. Surely the Nobel folk aren’t rewarding that. But we listeners usually take Dylan’s words, music and voice as one inextricably interconnected bundle.

Rather than unraveling that ball of interconnection let’s talk about one of my favorite authors, Newark’s own wunderkind, Philip Roth. The man’s written so many of my most-loved novels – they’re often very funny and sometimes political – that each year I hope the Nobel Laurels will be his. But ’twas not to be, because while he turns out book after book with stunning prolificacy, some folksinger swipes his prize.

Of course, nobody really thinks that way. Except a character in a musical: Dr. Abner Sedgewick in It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman! is a mad scientist and by “mad,” I mean angry. And what riles him is that he never wins a Nobel. This leads him to such evil actions, it takes Superman to stop him.

Well, I managed to circle back to musicals. (Were you worried I wouldn’t?) If you’re in the mood, you could hear the words of another Nobel Laureate on Broadway, snarled and hissed at you (by a cast led by my Area 51 ingénue, Mamie Parris). This, if you haven’t guessed yet, is Cats, which takes doggerel by T.S. Eliot and slaps on some eclectic melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which can be cute for ten minutes or so. I mean, I’ll admit it: There are times I feel like watching a cat video. I see the cuteness. But I can’t understand the felinophiles who make an evening of it. For well over two hours. For well over a hundred dollars.

Poor Tom (I’m talking about Eliot here). He didn’t mean for these silly rhymes to be heard in a theatre. And not sung to what used to be thought of as rock. When he wanted his words heard in the theatre, he wrote plays. Like you do.

But that ugly fate of a Laureate’s output not quite working in a Broadway musical has already beset Bob Dylan. A show created from his songs, The Times They Are A-Changing, flopped ten years ago. The principal creative force behind it, Twyla Tharp, had done something similar a few seasons earlier, Movin’ Out, based on the songs of Billy Joel, and that ran for many years. I’d venture a guess that Billy Joel’s songs work better in a theatrical context because they tend to tell stories, sometimes about interesting characters, using direct and straightforward language.

But Dylan’s not that sort of songwriter. He’s willing to be a bit cryptic, or opaque – qualities that, I hasten to remind you, stop a theatre song dead in its tracks. Show-goers insist on immediate appreciation. But, as many a poem-reader knows, there’s much pleasure to be derived from meanings that slowly unravel. Especially – it must be said – if you’re high, man. Which brings me back to the decision-making in Scandinavia: What were they smoking?