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!”