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.

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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.


What right have I?

July 20, 2018

Here’s one of musical theatre’s most groan-producing forced rhymes:

You are the light of the world
But if that light’s under a bushel
It’s lost something kind of crucial

(Some people quote the Bible; I quote musicals. Even when they’re purporting to be quoting the Bible.)

So, I’m about to give my internationally famous subjective musical theatre history in Los Angeles. (August 1-4, 2018) It’s the first time, in the eighteen-year-history of the History, that it’s been offered to the general public. (Register now at http://nmi.org/events/a-subjective-history-of-musical-theatre/ ) So, I really ought to say a few words about it but there’s a problem.

If I tell you, with proper honesty, about the reactions of those who’ve previously attended, it’s going to sound like bragging. And I don’t like to brag. But I really shouldn’t keep my light under a bushel. I see the rapt attention in everyone’s eyes. I engage the learners in a conversation about musicals and how they came to be – it’s imprecise to call them an audience. But, when it’s done, inevitably, every time I do it, a group will come up to me and say “Wow, that was amazingly entertaining. I learned so much.”

These were theatre students, accustomed to receiving a fabulous education – some had BFAs, MFAs, there may have been a PhD. Others made a choice to avoid college because they couldn’t picture themselves listening to lectures in a hall. Is what I do a lecture? I don’t think that’s a good word for it. I fill our time with jokes, with much back-and-forth; I run to the piano to sing illustrative songs. I even execute a move I saw in a Fosse show. And, at certain points, I make people cry. I tell the life story of a musical-writing hero of mine in such dramatic fashion, well, the last time I did this there was an audible gasp.

The talk sprung into being when I was given the floor at an acting school with a curriculum so packed, nobody had time for history. Some students knew the classics, but not the new. Others, the reverse. And then there were people who exclusively were into Sondheim shows. There were no grades, no tests, no consequence, really, for not apprehending what I put out there. Teachers, in traditional classrooms, have implicit sway: “Learn this, or get a bad grade <maniacal laugh>.” Take that away, you’ve got my kind of challenge! If I talked fast enough, if I suddenly broke out into song when nobody expected it, if good jokes came frequently enough, folks would eat it up. Learn. Understand.

And, thank God, it’s safely removed from traditional academia. The stories I tell needn’t be the gospel truth (or the Godspell truth, for that matter). No one was going to stop me if I injected my opinion. If I think a particular show is awful, I say so, and get to explain why. And make fun of it in such a way, you’ll laugh your head off.

Since it’s a dialogue, I suspect I’ll field some questions. What’s on many minds these days is the skittishness involved in the current revivals of a couple of Golden Era classics on Broadway. It would seem that producers are uncomfortable with presenting pre-feminism musicals to a post-feminist audience. Broadway, of course, is a business, and the supposition is they’ll sell more tickets to bowdlerized Rodgers & Hammerstein or a Lerner & Loewe with a reinterpreted ending than they would the pure unadulterated hits the world has loved for decades.

I’ve written before about the particularly ludicrous charge that Carousel somehow condones or romanticizes wife-beating. It rather explicitly does not. And since I once played the character uttering the line, I can quote you exactly what the Heavenly Friend says the moment long-dead Billy slaps the hand of his daughter:

Failure! You struck out blindly again. Is that the only way you know how to treat those you love? Failure!

This messenger from God is saying what Hammerstein wants us all to hear, that wife-beating or even daughter-slapping is never acceptable. And yet the text is radically altered to make it even more acceptable to today’s audience.

One property that Rodgers and Hammerstein felt couldn’t work as a musical was George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In that fine play, a lower class woman stands up for herself, getting the best, in argument, of a tony Mayfair scholar. Lerner and Loewe created the longest-running musical, ever (beating Rodgers and Hammerstein’s record), My Fair Lady, by leaving Shaw’s arguments in, virtually intact. I think the best word for it is proto-feminist, since it pre-dates what we call the feminist movement by a few years. 62 years later, though, powers-that-be saw the need to tip the scales a little further in favor of the reconstituted flower peddler, who now marches out of the theatre in response to the final power play.

I’ve admired the work of the directors, Jack O’Brien (Carousel) and Bartlett Sher (My Fair Lady) in the past, but this seems a good definition of hubris. Rodgers and Hammerstein crafted what was named the twentieth century’s greatest musical. Lerner and Loewe crafted the longest-running show to open during the 1950s. Those writers are geniuses – you think you can do better?

Now, I’m not saying you have to love those shows. A Sondheim character sees My Fair Lady and says “I sort of enjoyed it.” But, please, have some sense of historical context. Carousel was written for a war-time audience, one that surely contained war brides and war widows. Rodgers and Hammerstein reassured wives of soldiers that they’d made the right choice, marrying those who served. Imagine if your husband died in World War Two and you get to watch a widow hearing her long-dead husband utter, “Know that I loved you.”

To appreciate this, though, you might have to have a sense of history. And those current producers don’t trust that ticket-buyers today have that. But one can always learn history. Which is why you’re going to attend my Subjective History of Musicals. You’ll learn; you’ll laugh; you’ll love musicals more.


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.


Stock quotes

July 4, 2018

Holidays give us license to kick back and be silly, and this particular one encourages us to be nationalistic. That is, to say something good about America. What to say…what to say… Now, you may have seen, a few weeks ago, a British theatre critic claiming that British plays are better than American plays in The New York Times, of all places. Was that “news” that was fit to print? And it wasn’t even British Independence Day (there’s no such thing). The whole statement is so abundantly absurd, only a truly silly person would even think of responding. So, here I go.

International readers, I hate to break it to you, but American musicals are better than your country’s musicals. There, I said it. (The title of the Times article included this oafish phrase.)

(click for details)

America invented the musical as we know it. And if you want a complete history of the origins, you’ll have to attend my Los Angeles “boot camp” presentation either August 1 or August 4. (Part Two plays August 2 and 4.)

America is a melting pot, and that goes for the development of our native art forms. We took a little sprinkle of Mitteleuropa operetta, a healthy scoop of Gilbert and Sullivan, some sauciness associated with the French, more than a dollop of jazz (which has its own fun set of melting pot origins), and a tinge of “serious” opera – in some ways a sister art.

Mixing that pot is one of those things that gets described as uniquely American. With so many ethnic groups immigrating here, the art we produce tends not to follow one genetic strain. While most of the key creators were Jewish men, their desire to assimilate into the larger American culture was such that they actively sought not to sound Jewish in their writing. And Cole Porter, a Midwest WASP, actively tried to sound Jewish! But these were side-goals: Mostly, all that anyone cared about was entertaining the audience.

It’s said that the British are less comfortable with emotion than the Americans. While this is another dismissible hoary stereotype, if I’m going to make this argument, by jingo, I’ll keep that idea in mind.

So, to be overly methodical about this, we’re going to need to get a little list of best American musicals and see what British shows, if any, measure up.

Quickly, because I have a summer trip to get to, let’s compile… the Rodgers & Hammerstein quartet,

Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I

3 directed by Jerome Robbins

West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof

add a Sondheim pair

Company and Sweeney Todd

I vastly prefer Frank Loesser; so this trio

Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, The Most Happy Fella

1 loved throughout the world but not in Britain

The Fantasticks

& finish up with a bunch of wild cards

Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, A Chorus Line and Hamilton.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into this list; I didn’t need to. Can you, just as quickly, name 22 solid British musicals? I could rest my case right now.

Never one to rush in to pressing “Publish,” I’m now thinking about this notion of a melting pot creating the tastieststew. And I’m wondering if what I really mean is that New York is a melting pot. There are certainly parts of America in which All Kinds of People don’t make up the community.

I’m reminded of the trouble Jimmy Carter ran into when he tried to praise America’s “ethnically pure” neighborhoods. He was called out for racism, as if he wanted to keep black people in ghettos. The American Dream, to me, involves a community in which all types (ethnicities, sexual orientation, age, income) intermingle, support and learn from each other.

New York is such a community, although the not well-off are continually more and more squeezed out. But you know what happens: young people, from all backgrounds, are drawn to the Apple with musical theatre dreams. They intersect, and that’s the melt that comes up with innovative musicals. While other towns may have produced their share of good musicals, I never hear anyone say “I moved to Seattle because of its vibrant musical theatre scene.”

The historical context is that Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin et al had immigrant parents who got off the boat in New York and stayed. More recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents, Puerto Ricans of the West Side Story generation, came to New York to raise their family. (His In the Heights depicts a typically multi-ethnic community.) The City holds out its welcoming arms, and people from all over the world keep coming. It’s as if it has a sign on its entryway. Oh, wait, it does:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 


Give them what they want

June 22, 2018

This June has been so busy, I’m late in acknowledging Charles Strouse’s 90th birthday, which was June 7. And I’m going to cut myself a break by reprinting, here, something I wrote for a Big Time Professional Blog. I have it on good authority that Martin Charnin finds my premise ludicrous. So… enjoy!

People usually credit Hair with bringing the sound of rock & roll to the Broadway stage, but one composer effectively inserted rock into his scores years earlier: Charles Strouse. At a time when pop culture and Broadway were parting ways, Strouse bridged the gap, incorporating contemporary sounds into his scores for Bye Bye Birdie, All American, Golden Boy, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Applause, and even Annie. Songs from his shows were some of the only Broadway tunes to get significant radio play in the 1960’s.

And it started as a joke. In 1960, four funnymen who’d never written a musical professionally before, got together to make fun of a cultural phenomenon. Elvis Presley had cast a spell on young America. He sang a new kind of music and had a different kind of personality than previous stars. He wasn’t particularly articulate in interviews, pictures showed him with a sullen sneer, and his hip-swinging while singing struck a lot of people as obscene. Of course, those words could describe a lot of subsequent rock stars, but Elvis-the-Pelvis was the first. Gower Champion (director), Lee Adams (lyricist), Michael Stewart (librettist) and Charles Strouse (composer) thought this was so amusing, they wrote a show about it: Bye Bye Birdie.

Gower Champion had a choreographic vision involving women swooning and losing control of their muscles as their dreamboat gyrates. Lee Adams noted how rock & roll lyrics often seem to have a thinly veiled sexual content. (“When I sing about a girl, I really feel that girl.”) Michael Stewart had written for Sid Caesar’s television show and would have known Caesar’s musical sketch, You Are So Rare To Me, in which one syllable gets broken into unconnected pulses, just like the endless “baby” in the bridge of One Last Kiss – lampooning rockers’ vocal style.

But Strouse goes beyond mere Presley parody. He sets up different musical landscapes for the two warring generations. The adults sing in styles other than rock – Kids and Rosie are, in effect, old people’s music. Meanwhile, the teen ballad, One Boy, uses a shuffle rhythm and back-up singers in the manner of 50s pop, and when Birdie and the teens sing together (Got a Lot Of Living To Do) Strouse marshals the power of a rhythmically pulsed major seventh, a chord not often heard in musicals of the time, but emerging in rock (e.g., This Boy).

After the breakthrough success of Bye Bye Birdie, Strouse and Adams teamed up with another of Sid Caesar’s gagmen, Mel Brooks, to pen All American. The show also depicted a generational divide, this time between college students and their professors. While the show’s one hit, Once Upon a Time, was a duet for the oldsters, the ingénue has a naughty number called Night Life. Its jazzy vamp keeps accenting the seventh of the scale on an off-beat, where one doesn’t expect it. She’s rebellious and sexy in the way the teenage girl of Bye Bye Birdie is not allowed to be. (You wouldn’t know this from watching the Birdie movie featuring the too-erotic-to-be-believed Ann-Margaret.)

When Strouse and Adams teamed with Clifford Odets to musicalize his play, Golden Boy, the challenge was to represent contemporary urban African-Americans with some level of authenticity. Broadway hadn’t heard anything quite like it. Strouse produced a score that sometimes rocks, sometimes swings and culminates in an energetic gospel funeral. Is Golden Boy a rock musical? It’s certainly soulful, and the definition of what constitutes “rock” gets revised over time. Many of the songs – even a traditional show tune like Don’t Forget 127th Street – end with repetition and quasi-improvisational jazzy playoffs more common in rock records than theatre.

Writing It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Strouse & Adams faced a familiar scenario: a happy chorus giddy with admiration for an unusual superstar. Whether he was conscious of the connection with Bye Bye Birdie or not, Strouse rocks We Need Him, It’s Super Nice and Lois Lane’s It’s Superman. She references a “schoolgirl fantasy” and so seems, in a way, Birdie‘s Kim McAfee all grown up. The hit that emerged from the score, You’ve Got Possibilities, was once sung by Lady Gaga. (I should know: I was at the piano.)

Applause was another hit set in present-day New York. In a production number called But Alive, the leading lady visits a gay bar and dances with adoring fans. They’re accompanied, naturally, by the groovy strains of 1970. This was after Hair, and Broadway audiences, by that point, had become more acclimated to rock music in the theatre.

In fact, the culture, at large, had a new attitude about rock songwriting by the 1970s. What had seemed like inarticulate utterances of hormone-crazed teens grew, in seriousness, as adult performers sang out protests against the war in Vietnam, racial prejudice and other weighty issues. Making fun of young people’s music eventually seemed a tired joke, which may account for the box office failure of Strouse & Adams’ sequel, Bring Back Birdie.

Last night I saw Annie and was puzzled by the use of a rock beat in a show set during the 1930s. What’s up with that? I can vividly remember hearing the original cast album for the first time: it began with a small brass choir, like you might hear on a street corner at Christmas. Just as I was thinking how much I love brass choirs, the music abruptly shifted to a staccato repeated chord on electric instruments. This struck me as an odd choice at the time – an inappropriately contemporary way of coloring the rebelliousness of besieged orphans – but many years later Jay-Z’s version of It’s a Hard Knock Life went platinum. So why question it? Charles Strouse invented the rock musical, and keeps finding opportunities to rock out whenever he can. The guy can’t help it.