Jingle

December 7, 2018

This month marks a big anniversary of my musical that Sondheim saw, The Christmas Bride. It was the sixth show I got produced in my twenties, and no decade since has seen nearly as much activity. The Christmas Bride hasn’t quite gone away, as it’s been subsequently presented in venues in different Northeast states, but that first time, so long ago, was in New York, in the Theatre District. Many’s the time, over the years, when I’ve purposefully walked past 354 W. 45thto solidify my memories. But now I think I’ve forgotten a lot, so here I’ll try to set down some answers to questions you might have.

How’d you get Sondheim to come?

Our musical director, Michael Lavine, had developed a long-standing relationship with the composer, but, at that point, he’d never seen Michael musical direct anything. Luckily, the time and location of The Christmas Bride provided a golden opportunity. Sondheim had a musical playing on the same block, and a new actress was taking over the lead role. A plan emerged for him to see our first act and her second act. That way, he could congratulate her on her performance, but have a good excuse to run out of our theatre at intermission, without talking to anybody.

And that’s exactly what happened. But, all sorts of people around me encouraged me to write him a letter to get his reaction. So, that happened, and his response hung on my wall for decades afterwards. I’d joked about cleverness in my note to him and he took me seriously: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise and imagination.” Words I’ve taken to heart ever since.

A mutual friend recently referred to Michael Lavine as a famous person, and it’s true: he also musical directed my On the Brink, Our Wedding, and my evening at the Donnell Library.

Is The Christmas Bride an original musical? About Christmas?

Yes and no and yes and no. It says right on the title page and poster that The Christmas Bride is based on a book by Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life. So, one might naturally conclude that this isn’t an original musical. But when you read The Battle of Life, you’ll discover that there’s virtually no plot there. It describes a situation, and some characters; something about a boy-next-door proposing to the younger of two sisters, which, I guess, condemns the older one to spinsterhood. Enter MK Wolfe, who had a great number of bright thoughts about the situations in the story, and our contemporary conception of Dickensian Christmas. A far-more famous Dickens novella – you know the one – created the template for how we think about Christmastime. Countless twentieth century works refer to this, and our musical couldn’t ignore it in the way The Battle of Life did.

But we had an idea that, I think, everybody can relate to: those holiday times when you’re with your family but not quite feeling the spirit. So, I wrote an English carol for our characters to sing, I’m Happiest At Christmas, to contrast the emotions of our heroine, who thinks she’s chosen the wrong suitor and lost her one true love. The librettist and I were clicking particularly well on this moment, since the stakes were so high that something sort of funny – a family singing louder at a crying ingénue to make her feel better – played for full pathos.

So, yes, certain scenes are set at Yuletide, but it never strikes me as apt to called The Christmas Bride a Christmas musical. It’s a melodrama with perils and fights, but it’s also a romance, with impetuous departures, secret meetings, and twin brothers: one mild, one frightening. Does that sound like a Christmas musical to you?

How’d you get six musicals produced in your twenties?

Not to mention one in my teens. But I didn’t get to see the first one, so The Christmas Bride was the sixth I saw produced. Effective networking means a chain with many links. So, when I was 18 and a freshman in college, I got cast in the smallest possible role in a Shakespeare play. At the first read-through, I asked about the songs; there were many of them. The director hadn’t considered where the tunes would come from, so I volunteered to write them, and the director was glad to delegate the task. The thing I really wanted to do in college was to write The Varsity Show, the annual student-created revue where Rodgers had met both Hammerstein and Hart. But, the years I was at Columbia, they didn’t do Varsity Shows. Instead, I pitched the Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society across the street on the idea of my writing a piece specifically for them, and this played in the very theatre where The Fantasticks had its premiere some decades earlier. In the audience was Adam Belanoff, two years behind me in school, and he managed to revive the Varsity Show tradition and gave me my dream role as songwriter. This was so successful, we were asked to create an off-off-Broadway revue, On the Brink, which played at the old Gene Frankel Theatre near Lincoln Center. The newer Gene Frankel Theatre, on Bond Street, is around the corner from a non-descript N.Y.U. building where, also a round number of years ago, The Heavenly Theatre played. My collaboration on that was set up by someone who remembered my work from The Winter’s Tale. Oh, and the show that was done when I was a teen got completely rewritten due to a copyright issue. There: have I named six?

Once I turned thirty, though, the links of my chain of associations began to sever. Some people left town, some left the theatre, and eventually we ceased sending each other Christmas cards. Which reminds me: I ought to get on that.

 

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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.


Ride a Harley

November 6, 2018

I’m not breaking my no-politics-rule. You can safely read on. But I do like to commemorate a holiday (I assume we all have today off, because why would a democracy make it difficult to vote?) and so, if there’s some overlap with Election Day in my usual discussion of musicals, all the better.

I’ve thought, from time to time, of starting a completely separate blog for politics, but there are so many. This musing on musicals is comparatively unique. What connects the politics and musical-writing is that they involve choosing words, carefully, for maximum effectiveness, usually with an emotional component. And I’m reminded of my year-I-graduated-college investigation of the advertising industry, which would seem to involve something similar. Two people effectively talked me out of it. One was a writer of musicals who’d spent considerable time on Madison Avenue and hated the idea of my talents going to the Dark Side. The other honestly told me that every adman (as they were called back then) has an unsold novel in his drawer. Advertising was where you went if you crash-and-burn with non-commercial creation.

But I’ve been lucky enough to do three musical comedy things in the business world. These were Industrials, a little-known genre that’s the subject of the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway. Companies sometimes see the benefit of using musical theatre talent to help get their message across in an amusing and tuneful way. One of my gigs was for a motorcycle dealership in New Jersey, and it was the sort of thing to which the word “gonzo” gets applied. A handheld camera skittered around the establishment, and I was caught improvising a jingle on a portable keyboard, “If you want to look gnarly, ride a Harley.” And very few of you will recognize you’ve just read the world’s most subliminal political message.

Campaigning for Congress makes for a fantastic number in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Fiorello. “The name’s LaGuardia,” the titular character sings, and then spells out the whole thing. He continues,

Now here’s another name!
T-A-M-M-A-N-Y! What’s that?
— Tammany!
Wrong! The answer’s tyranny!
Tammany spells tyranny like R-A-T spells rat!
Now, there’s a double “m” in Tammany, and a double “l” in gall
Just like the double-dealing, double-crossing, double-talking, double-dyed duplicity of Tammany Hall!

Then, Fiorello delivers the same speech in an Italian neighborhood, entirely in Italian. And finally in a Jewish neighborhood, entirely in Yiddish. This leads to a spirited dance that may have inspired songwriters Bock & Harnick to write two later musicals involving Jews, Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds.

This sequence always seemed to me an only-in-New York thing, the way a candidate would have to speak three different languages. But my family recently knocked on doors and met voters who spoke neither English nor Spanish, so I can no longer say “unique New York.” Not that I ever could. Try it; it’s hard.

I treasure my tradition of walking to my polling place. Just the other day I met the granddaughter of a musical theatre writer, reminding me of my old neighborhood – or should I say precinct? – where the esteemed grandmother lived and I once ran into Tom Jones at the local copy shop. He saw that I was picking up a script and we amiably chatted about writing musicals. A chance encounter with the author of the longest running musical of all time! These are the people in the neighborhood!

No serendipity is involved when an outfit like The Dramatists Guild puts together a panel discussion with the likes of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Sheldon Harnick. Who better to discuss the pressure writers of their generation felt to have extractable out-of-context “hits” emerge from their show scores? My favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, had died but Comden quoted him as suggesting that all the plot-related material be put in the verse and a more generic refrain could become the hit record: “Thanks for electing me governor. I owe it all to you campaign workers” might be a long recitative, but then comes “How I’m doing? Hey-hey. Feels great to be with you.”

I’ve paraphrased Betty paraphrasing Frank badly. But there’s a wonderful show tune from the 60s that does just that, and I remember knowing only the chorus from radio play:

 

That entire clip seems so distant from our contemporary entertainment scene. Ed Sullivan, a host with not a modicum of charisma, introduces us to a musical we’ve probably never heard of, and two British actors whose names ring not a bell. And people watched this! It was a top-rated show.

Broadway, and musicals in particular, held an important place in American culture only 55 years ago. My how the once-mighty have fallen! But here’s how audiences are like voters. We get the government, and the entertainment we deserve. If you don’t like the bums in Washington, it’s your duty to vote them out. If you don’t like, for example, shows with wholly unoriginal scores (such as jukeboxes and performer revues), vote with your ticket purchase to an original musical.

If ruled the world, there’d be some sort of a penalty for presenting a show with an unoriginal score. Jukeboxes are made up of songs that have already earned millions of dollars for their authors, while we creators of new songs persevere in poverty. There should be a Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich – perhaps a fee assessed for using old rock hits – to give to the poor, which might take the form of a fund to produce truly new musicals. I realize this is a radical proposal, but Musical Theatre, our beloved art-form, is imperiled by competition from things like The Cher Show and Summer.

Get off the soapbox, Katz. A literal soapbox appeared in a production I saw of Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I’m struck by how many Pulitzer-winning musicals concern politics: There’s the aforementioned Fiorello and the most recent victor, Hamilton. Stretching it just a little, Rent shows young people taking the streets to protest and my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, ends with characters cabling the White House, “Watch out!” The film version actually shows Robert Morse cleaning the windows of the Oval Office, with the implication that he’ll soon take over the president’s job. As a Charles Strouse number goes, “Boy, do we need it now!”


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!”

 


Women’s world

May 13, 2018

For Mothers’ Day, I thought I’d say a few words about the mothers of us all, the great female musical theatre creators. Broadway, for most of its history, was one of those Old Boys’ Clubs, but, every now and then, women who could write circles around most of the men managed to break through. Their work became part of our collective consciousness and influences us, often anonymously. Which is fine and dandy to some; me, I think more people should know Fine and Dandy has music by Kay Swift. So, here’s to the ladies…

As the father of a daughter, I admit to a certain skittishness about her growing up to go into show business. A century ago, Lew Fields was a famous musical comedy star, and didn’t feel lyric-writing was an acceptable vocation for his daughter, Dorothy. She defied him, and bravely invited him to see a Harlem revue featuring her songs. The singers that night, however, had no respect for the text, replacing her words with embarrassingly smutty jokes. Imagine young Dorothy Fields hurriedly explaining to her dad that the sex-sodden travesty was not from her pen. She was a nice girl! And soon proved successful with songs like I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, On the Sunny Side of the Street and The Way You Look Tonight.

lyrics by Dorothy Fields

Four decades later, Bob Fosse was putting together a musical based on a Fellini film about a whore with heart. People doubted that a rather refined old lady could come up with contemporary and “street” argot for the dancers-for-rent of the Fandango Ballroom. But Sweet Charity landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam, and may be the greatest set of lyrics ever written.

Betty Comden sought an acting career, and became a writer out of necessity. She and lifelong professional partner Adolph Green had a nightclub gig in Greenwich Village, lampooning existing hit songs. Then they learned about this thing called Copyright Infringement, and had to team up with composers who’d provide original melodies. Among the act’s fans was one Leonard Bernstein, and when he was given the opportunity to turn his ballet, Fancy Free, into a musical, he insisted on Comden and Green for book and lyrics. They, in turn, insisted on playing leading roles, thinking performing on Broadway would boost their acting careers. Thankfully for us, On the Town boosted their writing careers. Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s names became synonymous with a certain kind of never-too-serious musical comedy. They wrote the screenplay for what’s considered filmdom’s greatest musical, Singing in the Rain, but I’m far fonder of the two star vehicles of mid-fifties Broadway, Bells Are Ringing and Wonderful Town. The latter was written in a mad rush, as another team’s score was jettisoned just weeks before Rosalind Russell had to start rehearsals due to scheduling issues.

They collaborated with Cy Coleman, who had a predilection for working with female lyricists. He also collaborated with Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh. I treasure Coleman & Leigh songs for their distinctive way of using words:

I have a feeling that beneath the little halo on your noble head
There lies a thought or two the devil might be interested to know
You’re like the finish of a novel that I’ll finally have to take to bed

That’s bold stuff, for the 1950s, putting female lust front and center. But the most-told-tale about Carolyn Leigh involved rehearsals for Little Me, when the producer and director (Bob Fosse) wanted to cut one of her numbers. She could have called the Dramatists Guild, but instead ran out of the theatre and convinced him to enter the theatre. “Officer, arrest that man!” I’ve long wished she lived to complete Smile, because it might have been successful and wacky, but the bard who wrote “If you should survive to 105, think of all you’ll derive out of being alive” died at 57.

Serendipity: a friend just asked about A…My Name Is Alice, the off-Broadway revue devised by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. This fabulous and funny artifact of feminism, circa 1983, utilized a huge number of writers before they became famous including Marta Kauffman, Winnie Holzman, and Lucy Simon. But two friends of mine who never gained fame, Georgia Holof and David Metee, outdid them all, creating the most moving female duet ever penned, Friends.

A contemporary lyricist who never fails to move me is Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, My Favorite Year, Ragtime, Seussical, Anastasia). Those ignorant louts who maintain “They sure don’t write them like they used to” are usually usually of her works with composer Stephen Flaherty.

Of course the “just”-a-composer I’m going to mention is Jeanine Tesori. Her least-known credit is musical directing my college revue, The New U. and the following year crafted an equally good varsity show with Alexa Junge. Then I had to wait a few years to see Jeanine make the splash I’d always been certain she’d make. The past 21 years have been electrified with her groundbreaking musicals. Some are not quite like any musical ever seen before, and yet they’re all amazingly different from each other – could any pair be more polar opposites than Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home? Now, part of this may have something to do with all her shows having different lyricists, but I think Jeanine reinvents herself for every show, synthesizing the times and places of her settings. When needed, she’ll utilize multiple styles within the same show, such as when she depicted working class blacks and well-off Jews in 1960s Louisiana for Caroline, or Change. The kitchen appliances sound more like the former.

As I was writing this, I was listening to the relatively new-to-the-scene Shaina Taub. I don’t know if she’s the future. But there’s something to be said for familiarizing oneself with the work of women who write musicals on Mothers’ Day. Leave Battle Him of the Republic and America the Beautiful for another day. Oh, wait: those are by women, too.


Our language of love

February 14, 2018

A while ago, I heard some former presidential speech writers talk about how difficult it is to avoid clichés in the State of the Union address. We who write love songs, usually more frequently than once a year, can sympathize. Well over 80 years ago, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin asked “What can you say in a love song that hasn’t been said before?” And now I’m wondering what I can say in a Valentine’s Day blog that hasn’t been said before?

Well, it’s the late great Florence Henderson’s birthday, and she happened to have uttered what I think is the sexiest speech ever delivered on an original Broadway cast album. (Those who think of her as matronly don’t know Flo.) It’s from an amazingly romantic musical called Fanny, book by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan:

Think of this: Each night there’s a woman who would love to lie down next to you, smell your hair, and fall asleep in the warmth of your body.

1954, folks. If you think of the 1950s, and the musical theatre of the time as prudish or sexless, how come couples in Fanny and The Most Happy Fella are busy having babies without wedlock? And those dames are sopranos!

Some time after Henderson famously mothered The Brady Bunch, there was a seemingly out-of-touch comedian on another sitcom who’d feign befuddlement with the younger generation’s slang, asking “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” with a wink. As language evolves, people keep coming up with new euphemisms. One generation’s “doing the nasty” is another’s “Netflix and chill.” (And here I just have to say: Awesome product placement, Netflix!) And if there’s a limitless supply of ways to say “it,” there should similarly be infinite ways to express love.

I used to point out to my musical theatre students that love songs in musicals hit the audience as stand-ins for sex. We don’t see Lancelot and Guinevere in bed together, but when we hear If Ever I Would Leave You, we just know they’ve made, er, sheet music. And, not to knock another genre, but if you were making a film about that Camelot couple, assumedly rated R, you’d probably show them in bed. Isn’t the Lerner & Loewe love song more passionate, more moving than any dimly-lit filmic tussling? Musicals come up with something sublime to depict what other genres make prosaic, or even embarrassing.

Now, as it happens, the last love song I wrote (about a month ago) makes sport of far-flung phrases of ardor, butchering eight different languages in the process:

I exclaimed “Sacre bleu! You are one pot au feu!”
I asked if you spoke Esperanto
You gave a curt wave with your hand
Interpreting that as “Don’t want to”
I ceded my Sudetenland

You zip-a-dee-doo-dahed my trousers
I ripped your Versace chemise

That might be too silly for its own good, but I’m assured it’s getting recorded. No assurance, of any sort, greets my new musical, Baby Makes Three, but it seems appropriate to share a more serious love song from it. This was inspired by that rarest of things, a real-life emotional moment between strangers I observed on more than one occasion.

At a suburban rail station, greeting the evening rush, stood a father with a small child on his shoulders. They’d look into the sea of incoming faces – petals on a wet, black bough, per Pound – until, spotting the working mother, their two faces would light up. It was so adorable, I decided it had to be part of my show about similar characters.

Kiss me like you haven’t seen me
For a long long time
It’s been a long long time
As far as I’m concerned

When you kiss me
Show me how you miss me
Over all that time
It’s a joyous time
Now that you’ve returned

Hold me and never let me go

Now, you might ask, is that the child singing, or the Dad? In effect, it’s supposed to be both; he’s singing both his feelings and the feelings of their kid.

Years have passed, and I no longer see anyone commuting via train. I don’t catch glances of families reuniting. My daughter’s twice the age of the silent kid on the stranger’s shoulders, and doesn’t need me to communicate for her any more. (Did she ever?)

I just looked down on my desk, as one does, and saw my daughter has left four post-it notes, still stuck together. On the fourth page, she has drawn her and me. On the third page is a heart. On the second page is a combination of the other two: we’re holding hands, and our names with arrows pointing to the portraits. And the cover says “Book I love you Daddy.”


Timid samba

December 21, 2017

I’ve a friend with a good idea for a musical. But she keeps putting off writing it. And I think it’s because she’s worried it won’t be good.

Sound familiar? As I was contemplating what to write next, the wonderful pop song Try Everything came on. Seems like a magic message, with its acknowledgement that one might fail. But failure is only certainty if you don’t try. Nothing ventured, nothing win, as the Iolanthe trio trills.

Those writing prizes I apply for every year: The only certainty about them is if I don’t apply, I won’t win. Occasionally, a friend wins, giving me the mild frisson of thinking I’m sorta on the right track. But the friend mentioned above ain’t winning anything, since her idea sits there, unwritten.

Yet, writing a musical is a long-term extension of time and effort. I’ve certainly had ideas I didn’t bring to fruition. About 25 years ago, I thought the Anita Hill experience with Clarence Thomas might make a good opera. I threw that one out expecting my dramatization would have trouble finding acceptance since I’m neither black nor a woman. But if a female composer of color had illuminated the subject, audiences today might be particularly interested.

Similarly, I spent many years refining my musical comedy about female friendships, The Company of Women. Eventually, I concluded the world didn’t want to see such a show, and my time would be better spent working on something else. More recently, I toiled on something about a religious retreat until I decided the subject and milieu didn’t interest me enough to continue. So, those were my musicals that wouldn’t see productions.

Having the sinking feeling that what you’re writing isn’t going to be good: I’ve been there a lot. But when I’ve made the effort to see things through, the effort has been rewarded. The season being what it is, the example that comes to mind is A British Christmas. I needed to write a carol that might be sung at a holiday gathering in Victorian England. Research was done into what might happen at such a fête and we settled on the idea that a flaming plum pudding would come out of the kitchen, to oohs and aahs. In some sort of goofy mood, I wrote a verse about how this is the best part of a Yule party. (As opposed to the best part of a Yul party, which is dancing the polka with Yul.) The veil of silliness continued to hang over me as I wrote a bridge about how plum pudding was better than other puddings, such as rice and bread. Not really the sort of thing any actual Englishman would be likely to say, but at least I was making progress on the song. Once I had the form set for my A section and release, I came up with further stanzas. Now I had too much, to a rather dull tune. But when I played it for my collaborator MK Wolfe, she deemed it just what she needed to construct a wonderfully dramatic musical scene.

The plot is so fraught, the tension so heightened, it didn’t much matter how inert my carol was. Four A sections and one bridge is a bad balance. And I was called upon to add incidental underscoring and dance accompaniment that dressed the simplistic melody in various tempos and feels. I get tired of hearing it, but the crux here is that the audience was so fascinated by the libretto’s histrionics, nobody noticed my song’s insufficiencies.

When performed out of context, though, it lays there. When asked to name my least favorite Christmas song, A British Christmas is the first thing I thought of. I’m embarrassed by it. But I sure didn’t mind it in the middle of the Connecticut presentation of The Christmas Bride six months ago. Played like gangbusters – in context.

“Are you embarrassed easily?” asked a comedy album I heard as a kid. This business of making musicals might not be for you if you are. Which reminds me of the only sincere moment in Area 51. In creating a musical in which each scene and song is funny, I noticed, at one point, that the show was a little low on emotion. Librettist Tom Carrozza knew we’d want a triple wedding at the end, and of course this meant that the leads would need to decide to get married. Trouble is, Tom was playing the lead, and wasn’t confident that he could pull off a love song. So, he tried to arrange it so the leading lady would sing to him. The draft of the scene suddenly seemed convoluted, emotionally strange. I wrote a gentle, twinkly ballad, sort of a cross between Of Thee I Sing and Twilight Time.

Come with me to Dreamland
Dance the night away
All is quiet; all is cool
Tomorrow morning, there’s no school…

The earnestness of the moment gets quickly deflated when the character admits he’s talking about an Air Force base on a dry lake named Dreamland. He goes into such detail as to what goes on there, the audience believes it’s unromantic, despite what the music tells them. (Did I mention that aliens from outer space are repeating the tune in their other-worldly voices?) And the lady listening is so goofy, she responds “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you.”

The audience giggled throughout, partly because their expectations had been so thoroughly thrown. And Tom’s character, to his way of thinking, wasn’t being romantic, therefore the actor was comfortable with delivering this bit of lunacy. After all, he hadn’t intended to propose marriage; her acceptance of his unmade proposal led us to our ending.

So I guess that’s my suggestion for the New Year: Don’t let embarrassment stop you from creating, and you’ll come up with delightfully off-center funny business. Or, at the very least, a paean to plum pudding that only works with the rest of the show around it.