Get you hence

July 9, 2019

August 7 – 10 I’m performing my Subjective History of Musical Theatre again, in Los Angeles.

When I tell people about it, I tend to sound egotistical – “Yeah, I do this thing and it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” People who’ve already attended the thing tell me I’ve undersold it. “It’s so much better than sliced bread, sliced bread isn’t a proper comparison.” I’m trapped between two camps: one suspects I’m being immodest; the other believes I’ve been way too modest.

Promoting one’s shows is just a fact of life in the theatre, something we all must do. I’ve never been comfortable with it. But here on the blog, at least I don’t have to look in your faces, seeing your “Oh, come on!” while I do it – this alleviates my embarrassment.

After my show, people inevitably come up to me and say they’ve never been so thoroughly entertained by anything of an educational nature. And “lecture” seems the wrong word for it, connoting the imparting of facts for students who might be taking notes, or falling asleep. The word I used in my first sentence today – performing – gets at it a bit more. I sing songs. I run to the piano to play illustrative pieces. I execute a Fosse move (!). But a lot of time, I ask my audience questions, such as “If you lived in Victorian England and wanted to gamble, legally, where would you go?” There’s a lot of improvisation as I deal with wrong answers. And, in a way, a light bulb goes on, as people connect that seemingly silly gambling question with a key moment in the development of musical comedy.

Just yesterday I asked a bunch of children if they knew the meaning of chip-on-my-shoulder. And this might have seemed too schoolteacher-y if there wasn’t a spirit of fun; no penalty for giving a wrong answer. Grown-ups don’t mind being teased in my lecture. It’s mock school. Learning happens, but we all know there are no grades given.

I’ve performed this every year since, I think, 2001. So, certain punch lines have hit enough audience’s ears that I know exactly how they’ll land. But what’s the opposite of a punch line? A cry line? People are quite surprised how moving at all is. Jokes are easy; I take more pride in getting tears to fall.

Some history lessons are a bunch of dates, easy to forget or dismiss. Others are a bunch of names. So, you’ve heard of Gilbert & Sullivan, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim and probably you know their music. By the end of my lecture, you’ll know them as a bunch of people, some of whom hated each other so much they couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. Another guy had to literally lock his collaborator in a room to get him to write. And I dramatize that story in a way that gets my audience to gasp.

Plus, there’s music. We tend to prefer the musical versions of plays – My Fair Lady over Pygmalion, for example – because music enhances the tale, gives us something extra to enjoy. So this is a far cry from college because how many college professors break out into song all the time?

I don’t mean to give anyone SAT flashbacks here, but there’s an Is To analogy that fits: My Fair Lady is to Pygmalion what my lecture is to other people’s lectures – worlds more entertaining because it’s chock full of song.

A lot of writers, I’ve noticed, wish to teach their audience something. I’ve a pretty low opinion of this ambition, because the shows often seem preachy, too school-like to effectively entertain me. My show’s the reverse. From the trappings, it seems to be an educational experience, but it’s more show than lesson. And I see an overlap between giving a riveting talk and creating a riveting musical.

It’s all about the storytelling. Picture cavemen around a campfire, captivating each other with accounts of their days. The one champion, the raconteur everyone most loved listening to, was Mel Brooks. Yes, he’s that old. (He’s the 2000 Year Old Man, after all.)

This sets me off on a tangent: His earliest professional credit I know of – billed as Melvin Brooks – was a sketch he contributed to the Broadway revue, New Faces of 1952. The best thing in that show was a song by Sheldon Harnick – also his first professional credit – and they’re both alive today. Pretty impressive. Who expects two members of a writing team to be around 67 years after opening night?

Adapting The Producers into a musical, Mel visited Jerry Herman, hoping to get him to write the score. Herman went to the piano and demonstrated that the perfect person to write the songs was right in that room – he played a medley of numbers Brooks had written for his films. Could Mel do it all? Not exactly, he needed a collaborator on the script, and the understanding of story structure Thomas Meehan brought to the piece proved a key ingredient in The Producers’ success.

Eventually, the pair published an explication, “The Producers: How We Did It.”

Now you know that this book exists, you naturally anticipate a fun time could be had reading it. You’re used to laughing at Mel Brooks material. I’m not comparing myself to Brooks here – who would do that?* – and this here blog is fairly dry: I don’t know that I get you to laugh all that often. So, it’s a bit of a stretch, imagining you’ll have the time of your life watching a manic raconteur detail the entire history of musical comedy. But… “It’s true! It’s true!”

Info/tickets

 

Advertisements

Fun parent

June 10, 2019

Generally I don’t talk about television programs here where our subject is writing musicals for the stage. But, when famous musical theatre creators make a miniseries about creating musicals, well, it’s fodder for contemplation. And, as I’ve said before, television is a great equalizer. We all have one in our home, whereas relatively few of you have seen, say, The Prom, at this point. There’s a greater chance, with TV, that reader and writer have experienced the same entertainment.

But haven’t we been here before? Yes, there was that time a bunch of theatre people were cast in a show about creating musicals and the result was … a colossal bore called Smash. I had to say a few words. And it wasn’t just joining a chorus of disapproval. I particularly disliked the synthetic songs by the experienced Broadway team of Shaiman and Wittman, but it’s easier to recall the total lack of realism. Everything seemed false, filled with incidents that never really happen.

So now the Hamilton quartet has teamed up with Dear Evan Hansen’s librettist to bring us Fosse/Verdon and in many ways it is Smash’s polar opposite. It’s a dual biography of Broadway’s greatest married pair of talents, and there’s admirable verisimilitude in every frame. All the incidents seem like they could have happened, and many of them did. The songs, of course, are the terrific show tunes from actual musicals by Adler & Ross, Coleman & Fields, Stephen Schwartz, and Kander & Ebb. Beloved Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz has a major role, one in which, amusingly, he refuses to sing. But the other leads are Terpsichores, so Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell have to pass themselves off as brilliant dancers, and it’s pretty amazing how well they do.

Smash made me apoplectic and dyspeptic just thinking about how the network-viewing world was getting such a patently false impression of the things we do. Fosse/Verdon doesn’t bother me, partly because it’s set in the past, and present-day audiences know some things have changed. Bob Fosse’s attention to detail – which made him such an extraordinary choreographer, stage director and then movie director – is echoed in Thomas Kail’s endeavor to get the tiny things right. There’s something inherently fascinating about a top Tony-winning musical theatre director shedding light on the musical-making process.

But haven’t we been here before? Why, yes: 1979, to be precise. Bob Fosse released All That Jazz, a film revealing his process creating Chicago at the same time he was editing his movie, Lenny, a pressure cooker that landed him in a hospital. So, you have dynamic cinematography of a choreographer hard at work, irresponsibly self-medicating, flirting with death both literally and figuratively, fantasy numbers, one-night-stands with chorus dancers, sex on a hospital bed and the idea that razzle-dazzle can mask the depressing realities of life. Am I talking about All That Jazz or Fosse/Verdon here? Well, both, and that’s a problem.

On F/X, F/V is showing us nearly exactly what we’ve seen before. Fosse’s teetering-on-the-edge life intercut with black and white footage of a stand-up act getting too few chuckles? We know this isn’t an accidental steal because the show depicts the filming of Lenny and All That Jazz. I could complain that too little is revealed of Fosse’s art but, truthfully, All That Jazz revealed enough for me.

Despite the “mini” in its title, a miniseries is a comparatively long form. That self-lacerating auto-bio flick runs two hours and is set in the 70s, when a songwriter worries Sinatra won’t record his laughably corny number. Fosse/Verdon has all this extra time and we get one delightful flashback to Damn Yankees and then the next fourteen years go unexamined. So, let’s shift to that period.

In 1956, that best-year-for-musicals-ever, Fosse teamed once last time with his mentor, the first hyphenate director-choreographer Jerome Robbins on a hit, Bells Are Ringing. The next year he choreographed New Girl In Town, a show based on a play by Eugene O’Neill, and the Tony for Best Actress went to both its stars, Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon (her third Tony). Then Verdon used her clout to insist her future husband be hired as both director and choreographer on Redhead. The show and the pair all won Tonys

Now’s when I get to talk about my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It contains a musical number that’s intentionally awful, part of a televised game show. Producer Cy Feuer (played by Paul Reiser in the series) hired an inept choreographer and then had to bring in Fosse to fix the dances. Fosse insisted they leave the risibly bad game show number exactly as it was, let the original choreographer keep his credit, and came up with hysterically funny steps for all the other songs, including the famous slumping chorus line.

Physical humor was, back then, the hallmark of Fosse’s style – movements making mirth. Naturally, he teamed up with Neil Simon on the Sid Caesar vehicle, Little Me. On that, a textual disagreement with lyricist Carolyn Leigh prompted her to run outside, grab a policeman, and yell at him to arrest Fosse. But the cop was far too amused.

For the next Verdon vehicle – one in which she only left the stage for one scene – Fosse used Little Me’s composer, Cy Coleman and Redhead’s lyricist, Dorothy Fields to adapt a rather melodramatic Fellini film. They decided an extra helping of laughter was needed and Fosse and Verdon flew off to Italy where Doc Simon was doing a movie. They traveled with a huge reel-to-reel tape recorder so they could play Simon the songs and explain/dance what would happen in the numbers. He said yes, and Sweet Charity became a smash hit, one that catapulted Fosse into moviemaking.

That, folks, is my favorite episode in the lives of Fosse and Verdon. You’d think a moment of sheer delight might be part of a show about them, but, alas, there’s an emphasis on the dour rather than the razzle-dazzle.

 


You be you

March 26, 2019

Now that Stephen Sondheim’s entered his 90th year (I’m writing this a day after his 89th birthday), a few thoughts on what he learned from Oscar Hammerstein during his second sixth of life. They met when he was roughly 15. Before meeting the old master, Sondheim hadn’t even considered writing musicals. The year the protégé turned 30, and had two wonderful musicals running (lyrics only), Hammerstein died at the age of 65. Also that year, there were two Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals on Broadway.

And I might as well name them: Gypsy was playing, and West Side Story had returned from the road; Flower Drum Song, a funnier-than-most R&H piece, ended its run, and The Sound of Music opened and was a hot ticket. Of this quartet, I far prefer the innovative shows with Sondheim lyrics; both have scripts by Arthur Laurents and direction by the estimable Jerome Robbins.

It is, of course, tragic that Hammerstein died so young: think of what more he might have given us! On the flip side, it’s wonderful that Sondheim has lived so long. So, there’s no what-might-have-he-given-us if he lived past 65. He did, and gave us exactly two off-Broadway musicals, Assassins and Road Show. No debilitating diseases slowed him; it’s just been a rather fallow quarter century. The shows he created from age 40-65 were so excellent – Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George among them – I, for one, can’t help feeling disappointment that his productivity knob has turned down so drastically.

Better to picture him as a teenager soaking up wisdom from his Bucks County neighbor. It’s always fascinated me that little Steve presented a script for his friend’s dad to comment on and boy, did he comment! This was the greatest single lesson in musical theatre writing ever given, and what I’d give to have been a fly on that wall. We have information about Hammerstein’s understanding of theatre from his essential forward to his book of lyrics; of course, the shows themselves exemplify his aesthetic, although there were usually collaborators (besides Richard Rodgers) adding their own great thoughts.

Hammerstein cared about structure, and you may have noticed there’s usually a main couple (such as the Bigelows) and a contrasting pair (like the Snows). If one is serious, the other is likely to be comic. His lyrics abound in well-chosen nature imagery. (Busy as a spider spinning daydreams.) And the aspect most on my mind these days is concision, the notion that when you tell your story through song, things move faster than they would in unsung dialogue.

Sondheim has also peppered his published volumes of lyrics with fascinating commentary. And he mentions an “oedipal thrill” of criticizing his mentor’s lyrics when he was a successful adult. One can only imagine his reaction to “like a lark who is learning to pray” although I’ve always felt it plausible that Hammerstein meant “prey” – on little worms, or whatever larks eat.

And when the cat’s away, the mice are at play. Once the mentor’s watchful eyes were shut for good, the mentee wrote substantively different musicals, as if he at last felt free to rebel.

Short & Sweet/Long & Sour

The first of the Sondheim shows to open in the sixties was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and that long title lived up to its one adjective. The book, by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove, speeds along splaying jokes across the footlights. You never stop laughing until…the songs. They attempt to be funny, but manage to slow things down, evoking smiles (sometimes pained: “irascible!”) rather that guffaws. Had Oscar lived to comment, he might have restated the lesson about concision. Just when the second act is hurtling forward like a dislodged Ferris wheel, a battleaxe takes stage and diverts us from all that’s good with an ungainly and mirthless scena. I wanted this show to be over without the fat lady singing, thank you very much. To his credit, Sondheim’s repeated his teacher’s point about concision many times since, rather concisely.

Whither structure?

The era when all shows needed to resemble the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics couldn’t last forever. The many Broadway flops of the late sixties made many feel it was time for something new and Sondheim’s 1970 hit, Company, shattered perceptions of what a musical should and could be. It’s refreshingly different, the first of many innovative entertainments fashioned with director Hal Prince. And we can celebrate this busting of the mold but must acknowledge that what’s being undone was the template Oscar created.

Company doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s a set of scenes about marriages, bemusedly witness by a swinging bachelor named Bobby. What happens to Bobby is not something we ever care much about, and his decision to connect seems a tacked-on ending. We don’t really track his feelings; his actions are few. Later, two works in collaboration with librettist John Weidman similarly present scenes that don’t tell the story of characters: Pacific Overtures and Assassins. It might be fair to call these “revuesicals.”

“A musical play” was under the title of the Rodgers and Hammerstein genre-busters. For them it was of primary importance to tell a moving story about realistic people, presented as seriously and cogently as any play.

An un-love story

But the most obvious hallmark of the Golden Era was that, without exception, musicals concerned love. One went with the expectation that love songs would be sung, and, it was to be hoped, you’d be moved by the ups and downs of romances.

It’s here where I believe ol’ Oscar would have been most surprised and dismayed by what his pupil hath wrought. Bobby doesn’t love anyone, and Follies and A Little Night Music center on unhappy marriages. Into the Woods has the temerity to show fairy tale characters commit adultery. The Sondheim musicals, so rarely showing love, contain very few love songs. He denies audiences one of the main things they used to come to musicals for – an odd omission, probably willful.

Hammerstein & Sondheim shared a collaborator: Richard Rodgers, desperate to replace his late partner, glommed on the supposed protégé for Do I Hear a Waltz? It was an unhappy experience for them both, probably owing to Sondheim’s discomfort or distaste for writing lyrics about love.


The nun

March 5, 2019

It’s my sister’s birthday and I ran some numbers. It’s been 38 years since she graduated high school, and, then, the Golden Age of musical theatre had begun 38 years earlier. So, today, I thought I’d use 1981 is a point of demarcation, and examine the differences between Golden Age musicals and – what to call the more recent ones? – Copper Age musicals, proving, now and forever, that I know precious little about precious metals.

In the wake of Rent’s TV fizzle and Hair’s TV cancellation, some oldsters have mentioned how musicals on television were so much more successful in the 1950s. I thought of the broadcast of Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, which gave eager viewers a taste of what they could have seen on Broadway. Far fewer tuned in to recent attempts like Jesus Christ Superstar and A Christmas Story; this gets me thinking about stars and star power.

Rosalind Russell was primarily known as a movie star and her Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday created an indelible impression. Smart, fast-talking, loud, a bit abrasive, not lovey-dovey or sentimental. And the Broadway musical, Wonderful Town – book by Chodorov and Fields, lyrics by Comden and Green, music by Leonard Bernstein – let Roz be Roz. So, the TV-viewer in 1958 knew what they would be getting. Rosalind Russell shtick, with songs and dances. Skip ahead sixty years. What percentage of television viewers have any idea what watching Jesus Christ Superstar or Rent will be like?

This has less to do with musical theatre’s place on the crowded cultural landscape than it does with how those shows were created. Copper Age musicals aren’t built around popular stars and what they do best. The public doesn’t love particular performers for a set of abilities they could do eight times a week on Broadway, and the actors, if they’ve done film and television, are used to getting a much larger paycheck than the theatre offers. Copper Age creators, therefore, don’t build shows around stars. We write with the hope that some other element will put people in the seats

List great Golden Age musicals and you’ll come up with many examples of shows designed to be performed by particular people. Gypsy gives audiences Ethel Merman doing Merman-esque things, as does Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun. Kismet and Kiss Me Kate were tailored to Alfred Drake’s prodigious talents, and one contains all the letters of the other. Mary Martin singing Rodgers & Hammerstein? Who’s going to care she’s too old for her roles. Broadway, as a commercial engine serving up beloved stars, shaped its productions to let those stars shine.

Today, of course, a musical can be almost anything. Except not a star vehicle because stars today don’t commit to appearing on Broadway for a period of time long enough for investors to recoup. When a musical can be almost anything, it can also miss the mark in a great many ways.

We’ve all seen the sad image of a forlorn polar bear floating off on a tiny island of ice. The Broadway musical lost its connection to the mainland. Your income and exposure, writing musicals, didn’t just come from performances on stage. There were record sales – on unbreakable (but scratchable) vinyl. There were radio shows and then television shows dying to play the latest Cole Porter numbers from Broadway. The Ed Sullivan Show, any many others, regularly invited New York shows to do scenes for its viewers. It broadcast from the theatre where Stephen Colbert is today, so the sets and stars only had to move a few blocks. After appearing, lines for tickets would go around the block.

Golden Age songwriters weren’t just writing for characters in situations, they were writing for the masses. An extractable hit, like Hey There from The Pajama Game, would be embraced by millions, sell all sorts of records to people who never knew (or cared) that this was sung by an anti-union factory foreman in Iowa, to himself, using a dictograph machine; eventually the live John Raitt and his recording of himself would harmonize together.

The hope that your song would be heard beyond Broadway created its own set of imperatives. The music would have to have recognizable form, the harmonies couldn’t be wildly unexpected, the lyrics would have to rhyme so that they could be instantly understood.

These imperatives no longer exist, and nobody expects a show tune to ever make it to the Top 40, to ever be heard outside of the theatre. Our concentration is on characters and situation, and so melodies needn’t be hummable, and so they often aren’t.

If musicals and musical-writers are only making money from live performances of the whole show, well, naturally this changes the nature of the beast. Economics forces some realities on us. The musical-writer will not make a lot of money, compared to the Golden Days. Maybe that’s why I chose Copper to contrast with Gold! And business-people take a look at the marketability of shows, rather than the quality itself. So, I’ll admit it, a romance centering on a strike in an Iowan pajama factory doesn’t sound like a great idea to me; no way it would be produced today. But I treasure The Pajama Game for the quality of its songwriting, the spirit and dazzle of its Bob Fosse dances, and the strength of John Raitt’s voice.

And what a different world we’re in today. If shows succeed it’s in spite of their low-quality songwriting, dances don’t dazzle in ways that sell tickets, and it’s hard to find a booming baritone. I’m not judging, by the way. It is what it is. But I’ve noticed a lot of people who have familiarity with Golden Age classics who think anything new is automatically inferior. That’s another vicious circle: Audiences, nostalgic for the time when musicals did something different, stay away from Copper Age shows, and so these shows have trouble finding an audience. Comparisons are invidious; it’s a different beast.


Dream job

November 28, 2018

My daughter turns seven today and I’m once again facing the challenge of using a personal milestone as the springboard for commentary on musicals. I assume you didn’t come here to read a father’s portrait of a First Grader. This isn’t a personal blog, or a journal, but frequently I note birthdays of musical-makers I admire (Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein, etc.) so why not Adelaide? After all, when we were in Arizona she saw a sign with the number 11 and made up a parody of the Elena of Avalor theme song called Eleven of Arizona. (“You can count it on your hands.”)

“I even named her Desirée” coos an old lady about her grown daughter, as if she prescribed her fate at birth. Adelaide, the name, seems a secret code. Everybody in New York instantly understands the reference to that funny and surprisingly intelligent dame in Guys and Dolls. If I’m stuck in a swamp of uncultured yahoos, they’ll hear the name and think we’ve been creative. It’s also one of the largest cities in Australia, but I never seem to meet anyone who knows that.

I recently got to see some teens perform a couple of Guys and Dolls numbers, and it was no surprise that the lyrics refer to things they do not know: feedbox, galoshes, Ovaltine. Of course, the show came out in 1950; its audience understood every cultural reference. Kids today must google everything. But the creators couldn’t have imagined the show would last this long. Musicals in those days were made to last a season or two.

When Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows were young, Show Boat was an unprecedented success, lasting 572 performances on Broadway. No book musical came close to that record until Oklahoma! in 1943, the first mega-hit, which quadrupled that number. And now it’s no longer in the top 25. Guys and Dolls outlived Klein’s and Rogers Peet and these references became obscure through no fault of its own.

Speaking of teens, has it struck you that, as characters, they’ve taken over Broadway? I’m wondering what it says about our times that our new musicals tend to be about kids. Some titles for ya: The Prom, Be More Chill, Mean Girls, Dear Evan Hansen, School of Rock, Frozen. I could go on, but I think we’re all feeling old enough right now.

When I was born, the idea of a Broadway musical filled with little ones was rather novel, and last spring I got to see The Sound of Music more than a few times, when Adelaide played the littlest Von Trapp. There’s that moment when they’re taught how to sing, and each kid gets assigned a note so that they can be conducted, a young-human keyboard. Adelaide was Doh, the all-important tonic of the scale. The seriousness of her presentation was hysterical; the audience looked forward to the start of the phrase every time, Doh, Mi, Mi; Mi, So, So; Re, Fa, Fa; La, Ti, Ti. Later, I cut up post-it notes to attach to piano keys, so she could play the lyric she’d memorized.

Along the way, of course, I had a few thoughts about The Sound of Music. The whole project started as a straight play created for Mary Martin by the formidable team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Those two had written a play that ran even longer than Oklahoma! At first they asked their old friends Rodgers and Hammerstein for a song or two, but this eventually became an entire score. And Oscar Hammerstein was slowly dying. So, any lyric that seems a bit off, I tend to ascribe to illness. (“Reach your goals in your comfy old Rolls or in one of your Mercedes-es?”) The show’s most cringe-worthy moment is a peppy trio about the rise of the Nazis called No Way To Stop It. A tricky rhyme of derring-do sends our heads to the world of Rodgers’ previous collaborator Lorenz Hart. So we have an oddly unserious handling of a serious subject. Next thing we know, three adults with blinders on are celebrating that all absorbing character, that fascinating creature, that super special feature, me! and I wonder what universe we’re in. So, Hammerstein had the excuse of being on his deathbed, but Rodgers set this all to a merry gallop of a dance tune and has no such excuse.

Star vehicles used to comprise a sizable chunk of the musical theatre world. I’m a little envious of the idea that writers can relax a bit, knowing that the moment Mary Martin or Ethel Merman or Danny Kaye sets foot on stage, the audience is getting precisely what it paid to see. I roll my eyes a bit when a non-star takes on such a role. Sweet Charity, for instance, requires ample wattage, as the title character – originally Gwen Verdon – is on stage for every scene but one. When watching a Fraulein Maria who’s not yet sixteen-going-on-seventeen bravely attempting to scintillate, I think about what a different dynamic it must be when Mary Martin wows a crowd that’s come to see Mary Martin wow. Little Gretl couldn’t steal that show.

But Adelaide, Adelaide, ever-riveting Adelaide is a lightning rod par excellence. Total strangers who did and didn’t know I’m her father commented on how they couldn’t take their eyes off of her. And I guess the implication of today’s post is that I may have to spend the rest of my life creating star vehicles for her. There are worse fates. And, perhaps, someday we’ll say that like many a wonderful birthday cake, it all started with dough.


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.

 


Grown-ups

August 1, 2018

Today, for the first time, I’m unleashing my Subjective History of Musical Theatre on the public. This is the same fascinating storytelling session I’m used to presenting to young adults in a theatre school. With a new kind of audience, I don’t know exactly what to expect. It’s always been a dialogue in which the knowledge of the students (or lack thereof) comes into play.

Here on this page, I always imagine I’m addressing musical writers. And it should be obvious to you how important it is to know the history of our beloved genre, what’s gone before. A friend was just telling me about the Bryan Adams score for a new Broadway musical, and my mind leaps to an assumption that Adams, like most rock stars, doesn’t know the repertory. Certainly, one can succeed fabulously in the rock world without knowing the first thing about how songs tell a story on stage. So it drives me a little crazy when pop-meisters “slum” in musical theatre. The task of entertaining an audience in concerts, in music videos, or on recordings is completely different than engaging a live audience in a theatre with a story. But, of course, they’d know that if only they knew the pitiful history of rockers trying to conquer Broadway. But they don’t know that history, usually. Because why would they?

A lot of musical fans are beside themselves with excitement about the recent announcement of a cable television mini-series about Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse which features Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement. Now, I’m not one to enthuse about something that’s not yet made, especially television. But it’s a reminder that Miranda knows and practically reveres musical theatre history. With all the things he could choose to do these days, he’s helping tell an important bit our story. Most obviously, he has a particular genius for presenting history in a way that engages audiences.

And, as long as I’m stating the obvious, Hamilton is a musical about the genesis of America that’s full of references to other musicals. A bit less apparent – at least to me – is that it draws all sorts of parallels to the history of hip-hop. You and me, we’re more likely to catch the nods to Camelot and South Pacific, and might be reminded of Sondheim’s favorite Sondheim song, Someone In a Tree, from his historical musical Pacific Overtures, where we hear various perspectives from folks who weren’t in The Room Where It Happened. 

That was no accident; Miranda knows the show. And this makes me think of the common desire to write something that hasn’t been done before. Well, if you don’t know the shows that have been done, how would you know?

This summer, in Central Park, there’s Shaina Taub’s musical of Twelfth Night. And my mind rushes to all sorts of precedents: the early rock musical smash, Your Own Thing, the short-lived Music Is, the Duke Ellington jukebox, Play On, the lovely Illyria. And from this two things are clear: I know of a lot of shows and EVERYBODY adapts Twelfth Night.

Something that fascinates me is the way writers react to the stuff they see. When Richard Rodgers was young, shows were stilted, not very jazzy, didn’t use the vernacular. And so he and Lorenz Hart created a new sort of musical comedy that was thoroughly modern. And, less than two decades later, Rodgers teamed with Oscar Hammerstein to revolutionize the form. It was as if Rodgers was rejecting Rodgers, which is quite a feat. Those scores to Hart lyrics are wonderful, but utterly different than the ones with Hammerstein words the world knows and loves. And it’s not merely a matter of style; the goals are different. Sometimes authors maintain that The Gentleman Is a Dope is the Rodgers and Hammerstein song most like a Rodgers and Hart song. Really? Was it self-consciously witty? Abound in tricky rhymes? Was it trying to be a radio hit? Of course not. Hammerstein was writing for a character in a situation, and the frustrated nurse expresses herself in ways that remind some of Hart’s cynicism.

Rodgers provided the music to so many ground-breaking shows, he’s the hero of my narrative. But The King and I is the last of his shows to do something extraordinarily different than all that had gone before. Its choreographer, Jerome Robbins, took the baton and became the great change-maker of the next thirteen years. His Broadway career ended with a trio of masterpieces: West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof (the last of which is currently off-Broadway in some language few speak!). The theatre innovator most people today recognize as such, Stephen Sondheim, cut his teeth writing lyrics to two of those shows. So, putting it together, Rodgers -> Robbins -> Sondheim -> Miranda, who translated lyrics for the bilingual Broadway revival of West Side Story.

Thus, there’s a chain of innovators going back nearly 100 years. Each time, the younger acquires some wisdom from the older, though Sondheim would say he learned more from Hammerstein and that’s true. But the point is, none of these milestones in the musical’s development emerged in a vacuum. All the writers knew a great deal about what had come before.

This week, in L.A., you can attend my idiosyncratic history presentation. It’s going to get you thinking about where musical theatre has been, how it evolved, what it is today. And you can sit there and be thoroughly entertained. Or, you can take this knowledge and apply it to the things you write. The next chapter of the history, dear writer, is yours.