Growing younger

January 17, 2018

All I really wanted for my birthday was a website. In lieu of that, I’ll do the annual indulgent thing of talking about my musicals. There are so many, and so few of you have seen them. And – I don’t know this for sure – but I expect the word I use most on this here blog is “craft.” And that, like so much these days, leads me to thoughts of craft beer. It’s made in small batches by individual brewmasters and gets shared with select group of aficionados. I put a lot of care, time and love into my bubbly creations, and share them with a small but lucky few. O.K. Enough torturing the analogy. On to the shows.

At 14 I wrote a rather short two-act musical called How To Be Happy, about a kid who writes (alone) and stars in a Broadway show. That could never happen! (Right, Lin-Manuel?) Like a lot of things one does in adolescence, it’s pretty embarrassing now.

At 15 I adapted a play called Broadway into a musical called The Great White Way. I can still recall my composition teacher’s suggestion about a song called One of These Mornings. I’d set the title on quick notes, very much like St. Louis Woman. He got me to slow down, suggesting melissmas could extend the line. To this day I obsess a lot over the quickness with which new words hit the ear.

My first produced musical, Through the Wardrobe, contained the word “exultation.” Who talks like that? A teen with a thesaurus, I guess.

The first work of mine I saw produced, Pulley of the Yard, offered a justification for profuse rhyming and odd vocabulary, since it was a whodunit set backstage at a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. I mimicked their style, which led to self-consciously clever bits like

The audience must be treated well
Don’t take secret glee in
The fact they’re plebian
Or act like Marie Antoinette

The show I created at 21 has seen more different productions than any other of mine, but with a different title, Murder at the Savoy.

The less said about A Diary, the better. But here’s what Lehman Engel said about the line that ended the title song, “Thirteen is a very good age to start to use a diary.” “I thought she was going to say ‘diaphragm.’”

The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns for Martyred Actors was such a difficult collaboration, I was barred from attending rehearsals. If this ever happens to you, take comfort in the fact that Bob Fosse forbade Stephen Schwartz from attending rehearsals of Pippin.

The New U. successfully skated a fine comic line in a way that’s hard to imagine today. The administration of an all-male college oversold the notion that going co-ed would bring about massive improvements. An excited chorus sings:

They’re rosy; they’re peachy
They understand Nietzsche
Those beautiful brainy girls

They write well; they work hard
They talk about Kierk’gaard
Those beautiful brainy girls

Each one is undeniably intellectual
And, thank God, they’re certifiably heterosexual

They know their Cervantes
Although they wear panties
Those beautiful brainy girls.

It’s supposed to be offensive, as the object of our satire was patently sexist promotion of coeducation as a panacea. And what better measure of success than a well-off person in the audience saying “I want to produce the next thing these writers write.”

This was On the Brink, the legendary revue I co-created when I was 25 and the oldest member of the writing team. I found room for feminist messages and a couple of songs that were poignant rather than funny. We turned a profit, which shouldn’t be one’s measure of success; but certainly a nice way to start my professional career.

When a well-established California theatre wanted to do Through the Wardrobe, a rights problem necessitated a massive overhaul, and what ran three or four months as Popsicle Palace then had to be retitled Not a Lion. A lot of musical writers tell very sad tales about rights problems. Beware!

So my next musical was based on a public domain story by Charles Dickens. We called it The Christmas Bride, and it’s a melodrama packed with plot turns, so I had to write passionate romantic music that wouldn’t derail the story train.

Stephen Sondheim attended and, without being asked, sent the producing organization a nice check; with being asked, he sent me a helpful and encouraging letter.

This inspired us to try something new and innovative, an overtly feminist musical developed through rap sessions, a la A Chorus Line, and also improvisations. I learned a lot, but, after many attempts and two utterly different librettists, could never get The Company of Women to a producer willing to put a celebration of female friendships on stage.

Many songs from that score found their way into subsequent trunk song revues: Spilt Milk, Lunatics & Lovers, and Things We Do For Love. An opera-for-kids entrepreneur saw the first of these and commissioned The Pirate Captains, inspired by actual female pirates, and it played for years.

My next two shows were also work-for-hire. Industrials are intended to be seen by specific folks in a business context – people who’ll get the jokes. For years, this was how Jason Robert Brown earned most of his income. But you haven’t heard those songs, or mine, because the material is owned by the clients.

An exceptionally funny fellow, the same age as me, proposed we write a musical because we were both turning 40. Now, by this point, I’d written a number of shows, but never a purely humorous book musical in the tradition of my favorite, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Area 51 was my opportunity to write the sort of big production numbers and hysterical comedy songs that hadn’t been seen in many an overly serious season. We knew a lot of clowns from New York’s improv community, and festooned many of the roles with things we knew they’d do well. In that sense, Area 51 revived the tradition of 1960s star vehicles (like Once Upon a Mattress and Little Me) where creators came up with wacky stuff with an awareness of the zaniness of well-loved wags. As I fashioned 18 varied and guffaw-producing numbers, I was collaborating with crazy quipsters I knew and loved. So turning 40 was the epitome of fun.

The people up on stage with me feel like a friendly family,” I once wrote.

But what if everybody involved in your musical was literally friends and family, including the audience? Seems like the wildest of fantasies, but – you could read about it in the Times – fantasies come true. Our Wedding – The Musical! involved writing for specific people again, but this time it was my mother, my mother-in-law, my father, my father-in-law, my sister, my 4-year-old niece and a bunch of our talented professional performing friends, one of whom has the credentials to matrimonify. (Sorry, another word from Gilbert & Sullivan snuck in there.)

Many years ago, some musical theatre experts used an intriguing phrase, “serious musical comedy” to describe basically tragic stories leavened with a whole heap of humor, such as Cabaret, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. Creating one seemed a worthy challenge, unlike anything I’d done before, and I had a subject in mind. The McCarthy-era blacklisting affected the lives of many truly entertaining people, and there’d never been a musical about it. Since television was a brand-new technology, there’d be much mirth in the pressures to put on a live variety show, as well as in the on-air songs and sketches. Such Good Friends, which racked up a number of awards and raves at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, was the culmination of years of research, rewrites, and punch-ups. I got my audience to laugh and cry, tap their toes, and get truly invested in What Will Happen Next.

Thanks for reading this far. I consider it a birthday gift. Discussing eighteen musicals ain’t nothing like being there, in the audience, taking them in as they were meant to be taken in. Let’s hope What Will Happen Next is a production you can catch, somewhere near you.

Advertisements

Finale – part two

January 9, 2018

1996-2017, I spent many a stimulating hour at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. 2018, I won’t. So, before too many of my memories distance and die, I thought I’d jot down a few that might be of interest to musical-makers.

The first thing to point out is that everybody takes everything tremendously seriously. Students come completely committed to spending every waking hour for two years totally devoted to learning about performing on stage. Faculty feels itself shaping futures, nudging young adults on an intense “journey towards you” – the idea being they’ll end up as individuals, rather than the cookie-cutter copies of everyone else in the field you find in college programs.

There’s nothing to do, amidst such a rushing river of earnest endeavor, but to swim along with the current. You take a look at what you’re doing – as an artist, as a teacher – and scour yourself for imperfections. If I’m adamant about craft in my writing, it’s because I was among people who picked over every note, every turn of phrase, every motivation, and the physicality inherent in songs and scenes.

Too few songwriters, I feel, sweat those details. So, as I’m guiding artists towards great performances, we’re picking over songwriters’ imperfections, usually inventing a justification for some lapse in craft. Here’s a popular example. Galinda sings “You’ll hang with the right cohorts,” mis-accenting the last word. What could account for this? Maybe she’s from somewhere where nobody uses “cohorts” so she’s never heard it. But she’s read it, because she was a lonely intellectual, the one reader in her crowd, and has arrived at Shiz for her first year of college, showing off her big vocabulary without knowing how to pronounce this word. She’s funny that way.

Now I’m wondering if my friend who played the role ever thought about all this. I kinda doubt it. This level of analysis can’t happen just anywhere. And didn’t, at the many other New York acting schools where I worked. But it’s easier to imagine intensive examinations of Shakespeare, right? That was part of my college experience. I love the fact that there’s a place where show tunes undergo similar scrutiny.

To some, musicals seem frivolous. How wonderful to be part of a community where the thing that I do is valued. Eighteen years ago, Sara Louise Lazarus began teaching musical theatre there and it was immediately apparent I’d found the ultimate kindred spirit. Not only did she take musicals just as seriously, she’d developed an entire methodology for performing individual show tunes. This had been refined down from the legendary performance guru, David Craig. I can’t call Craig the unsung hero of acting in musicals, because “unsung” just seems like the wrong word. But when Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince were developing musicals that required a higher level of interpretive brilliance than had gone on before, they called Craig out of California retirement to teach a new generation of performers who could do the things required to perform Company, A Little Night Music and all the rest. And the takeaway from this is that wonderful things can happen when a musical theatre maverick is called back to Manhattan out of California retirement. Call. Call! CALL!

The greenest students are fresh out of high school and a lot of them park-and-bark. This term is applied to singers – especially at auditions – who show off their vocal prowess without any thought to the acting, how you move, how you register emotion on your face. Sara’s teaching turns that around, with a series of preparatory steps that ensure the performer is thinking what their character is thinking. Every little motion has a meaning, and these are timed as they are in life, with the impulse to say something motivating action; never do our bodies spring up in sync with new words we sing.

Substantial time and effort go into mastering this process. I’d pipe up, often pointing out interpretive possibilities based on the sheet music in front of me. Months of learning, weeks of rehearsal, culminating in a thrilling performance, dazzling an audience with a demonstration of all this intricate work: That was the stuff! That was what I lived for, for two decades.

Some theatre folk enjoy rehearsing more than performing – no assembly required. Working on things, in fine detail, can be the true joy. Sara’s class gets to show off in showcases and cabarets. The “product” in Musical Theatre Scene Study went unseen, and the work was never considered “finished.” Led by the laconic and occasionally cryptic inspirer Alan Langdon, the class was a synthesis of what had been taught all over the school. Each scene involved dialogue, set, costumes, and two people singing. They’d use, most of all, their acting training (Alan teaches Chekhov and other “straight” acting scene work). They’d use their I.P.A., which, I learned, over my years there, is a hoppy sort of beer. Vocal technique from voice-master Beth Falcone, natch. Sometimes dances derived from Jeanne Slater’s teaching, or fights from B.H. Barry. And their Sara Lazarus-training… Well, I was right there to glower at them if they forgot that. When we all got together to run a scene, you could never be certain what Alan would observe, point out. But first the actors would share their own observations: the things they missed, the things they’d achieved.

It’s hard to talk about this. Hyperbole always sounds silly, not-to-be-believed. (When I saw a particularly wonderful musical a couple of years ago, I immediately recognized I shouldn’t say much about it, lest I seem like a raving fanboy. It’s a problem.) So, if I say “greatest, most soul-stirring hours of my life” you’ll think, “that’s ridiculous.” But think about the Bench Scene from Carousel, or A Boy Like That, or The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. Think about dissecting every intricacy of the text and score with talented, eager, and willing-to-work hard singing actors. Hey: What a way to spend a day.


Someone who’s warm

January 1, 2018

This is my 400th post and it certainly feels like I’m winding down. Your faithful reporter on the world of musicals may be running out of gas, and this is related to lack of stimuli. Did I even see any new musicals in 2017? Off hand, I can’t remember. I continue to write musicals, and can talk about my writing, present and past, but I’m running out of new stuff to say. I’m a broken old jalopy and the gas gauge is nearing E. Don’t know exactly when I’ll leave this thing on the side of the road – you never know with gas – but the day is coming.

One sign that I’m in the throes of an existential crisis is that I’ve been in a couple of situations in which I’ve had to introduce myself, and I got a little tongue-tied. I am always – always – nervous about coming off as conceited. I want to be honest, but if I say I’ve had 17 musicals produced, I worry that this sounds more impressive than it is. They played in tiny New York theatres – obscure ones. And nobody’s heard of them. Sometimes, people think they’ve heard of On the Brink, but it turns out they’re thinking of a play called On the Verge.

I’ve a faint memory that once I had a webpage in which I described myself as “Just Another Guy Who Writes Musicals.” Recently, someone tried to convince me I’m unique, somehow. But in New York, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a musical theatre writer, and believe me, I’ve tried: There’s unhappy meowing followed by “Hey! Why’d you hit me with that cat?”

It’s possible that my musicals are different from other people’s musicals – and I always try to make them as different from each other as possible – but I think I’ll leave an exploration of that question for my birthday, January 17.

Wipe. “Wipe” is a term long-form improvisers stole from the motion picture world, in which we move from one scene to another by miming drawing a curtain across a stage. And I didn’t have a natural segue to start talking about my parallel career in improv. When I was a lad of 16, a troupe started paying me to accompany them, and one of the performers was the then-unknown Robin Williams. When I left for college (Columbia), I thought I’d left that world behind me. But a couple decades later I was talked into exploring newly-wrought improv forms. This meant studying with UCB prior to their move to New York. Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts taught me and eventually, I taught a huge number of people at Second City and the Artistic New Directions retreats. I feel like I was on the cutting age of the New York improv revolution, and was instrumental (pun intended) in evolving forms with The Chainsaw Boys and Centralia.

Teaching, in one form or another, became the day job, the thing I did for money. Sometimes, I was “merely” accompanying classes, and here I can drop the names of Broadway vets Helen Gallagher, Virginia Gibson and Joanna Gleason. At the other end of the spectrum, I got to teach a college course, for 13 years, at Fairleigh-Dickinson in Madison, New Jersey. There, they called me professor and gave me considerable freedom as to what I taught.

Somewhere in the middle is where the heart is: At The Circle in the Square Theatre School, right under Broadway, wise and beloved teachers Sara Louise Lazarus and Alan Langdon allowed me to be me. They’re due a lot of credit, not just for what they teach, but for having the faith that allowing my craziness into the classroom would contribute to the education of young adult performers. Viewed through a certain lens, my presence behind the piano was a sort of long-form improvisation. I’d joke, I’d comment, I’d roll my eyes, I’d grimace. Sometimes, I’d hug. The nurturing and preparation of entertainers is an incredibly emotional process. Sometimes students get upset by things they don’t wish to hear. But there’s a steam valve, of sorts, a guy sitting in the corner who might (or might not) disagree with that message, or who can restate it with a much-needed spoonful of sugar.

Naturally, this all led to a strong connection with students, some of whom continued to call upon me for individual coaching and audition help after graduation. The running theme here – through F.D.U., Circle and my one-on-one work, is that everything that’s sung must be accompanied by thought. We don’t turn our minds off when we express our hearts. Sadly, a lot of singers seem to do just that: they think it’s all about the sound, close their eyes, stand like statues, no feeling registering upon their faces. I’ve always believed that the reason I care so much about how musical theatre material is performed is because I’ve lived through the struggle of creating musicals so many times. Something was said of Barbara Cook at a recent memorial for her, and it resounded strongly with me:

singing is not about voice, “it was about finding the impetus for why the song was written, exploring what the composer and lyricist were thinking when they wrote it.”

This composer and lyricist, over these 400 posts, has been sharing with you all a little of what I’ve been thinking. I’m grateful that this blog gets visitors from all over the world. If you’re interested in what goes into the making of a musical, you’ve clicked to the right place. I encourage you to explore the 400, leave a comment or two. And then go and write a musical. The more of us out there, creating, the better. Swing away! I promise not to be upset when you hit me with a cat.


Sing what you say

October 12, 2017

“All day the records play.”

So it’s the fourteenth anniversary of my famous musical wedding to Joy Dewing. As I sit here in a rather sterile white room staring out at a colorless sky, I’m struck by how completely changed our lives are. This morning I created a Pandora station to play me classic show tunes, which is somewhat like what Sadie Sadie Married Lady did. And, thanks to the latest major purchase, we’re owners of an icebox with a ten-year guarantee. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, well, you’re like all the neighbors.

Our Wedding: The Musical! was an expression of who we were that Sunday in 2003. Our guests saw no traditional ceremony; they got to see a musical comedy on a New York stage. Because that’s what we did: We created musical theatre entertainment – Joy sang, and I wrote. Those simple verbs summed up our lives.

There are usually some in attendance who know the bride, but not the groom; or the groom, but not the bride. (Which reminds me that, when I was 14 or so, I wrote half a musical called The Gride and the Broom.) So I thought of Our Wedding as sort of an introduction to who we were. It contains tons of biographical material – for instance, when my sister was a child, a dog knocked her down and broke her two front teeth. When people inquire whether it’s possible for someone else to perform Our Wedding I think, sure, if two people have lived the lives described in the show.

We forced all our family and friends to perform. Perhaps “forced” is too strong a word. Coaxed? Some were performers, too, and had no trouble singing on stage. Matthew Hamel, who sang the “I now pronounce you” bit is an example. Another cast member went on to appear in two Broadway shows. But back to the forced folk: By giving them sheet music and tapes that they had to learn and sing on an off-Broadway stage in front of people, we were informing them of what the life of a musical theatre person is like. That time of “going to school” when you’re hearing a new song you know you will soon learn and sing is golden to me. You react to the song, having prayed it’s well-written, and immediately start thinking creatively about how you’ll render it on stage.

The other week my favorite early-career performer sent me some unfamiliar music to record, chorus parts by Menken & Schwartz. So I got to be part of that discovery process. But that was just me making a recording and emailing it. The singer’s many miles away. I’ve got to be in the room where it happens. I don’t mean to sound like a troglodyte, pining for the day when you couldn’t email sound files with talented young adults in person. It’s just that my mind is brought back to an experience I regularly enjoyed. Nay, loved.

Better to focus on wonderful things that remain: the joy of being married to Joy Dewing, the love that continues through good times and bad, placid seas and wild upheavals. And the word “love” now appears on countless post-it notes all around me. No, this is not on my storyboard for my musical-in-progress. It’s little missives left by our five-year-old daughter. Last night’s read “Daddy, I love you, but I’m me.”

Does that sound cryptic to you? Is the prodigiously wise one in the family reminding me that I don’t get to dictate what others do? After Our Wedding showcased Joy’s fabulous singing voice, there was nothing I could do when she decided to stop performing. In 2003, everyone who knew Joy was well aware of the extraordinary combination of power and warmth that Joy employed every time she sang. In 2017, a rather small percentage of the people who know her are aware of this fantastic talent.

Instead, Joy has literally made it her business to be aware of the talent of others, as a big-time casting director. Her reputation as someone who encourages and believes in early-career performers spread like gangbusters throughout the theatre community. She was far more celebrated as New York’s favorite casting director than she’d been as a perfomer. A butterfly metamorphosized into a bigger butterfly.

The day after our tenth wedding anniversary was the last day a Joy-cast show played on Broadway. And, another tenth anniversary has been on my mind lately: It’s now been ten years since a paying audience attended a wholly new Noel Katz musical. I seem to creep along, creatively, like a caterpillar. This is another thing nobody would have predicted at Our Wedding.

But this brings up the question, how long should it take to write a musical? Are we looking for fast food, or something that turns on a spit for an extended time? The gestation period for Such Good Friends was far longer than your ordinary elephant. And Our Wedding? Well, the proposal was in December of 2001, and I don’t know when we decided to make our ceremony into an original musical comedy. But then, once October 12 was chosen, there was a finite period of creation. The show had to be ready to go. Those singing relatives needed time to prepare. And, while working on my songs, everybody said how much they loved their numbers, which, of course, I’d specifically crafted for them, and what they could do.

All but one: Joy listened to the art song I’d crafted for her to sing as the climax of the show and said No, that’s not quite it. She sent me back to the drawing board, and I kept coming up with more rich harmonic textures, ones that were very different from the rest of the show. And she kept saying No. And then I wrote This Man Loves Me, a very simple dollop of soul. And she said Yes.

Which is just what a fiancé wants to hear.


Such good friends – part two

October 5, 2017

When The New York Musical Theatre Festival chose Such Good Friends as one of its Next Link “blind” selections for presentation, I could have frozen the script, leaned back, and watched what I’d written get produced. That’s what most NYMF writers do. They figure if the panel of professionals think it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, then it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, as is. I thought just the opposite: My God, this thing is going in front of an audience in a few months! I’ve such a short time to get it to where I want it to be!

And this is the main reason director Marc Bruni and I were such a perfect fit. When he first read the script – two meetings before I chose him to direct – he saw it as a work-in-progress with great potential to be truly entertaining by opening night. Neither of us ever felt it was perfect as is; it could always stand for improvement. As I said in Part One of this ten-year anniversary reminiscence, Marc hoped I could focus on script fixes and little else. There was also the odious task of begging people for money, but checks trickled in from surprising sources, including the Anna Sosenko trust, which supports musical theatre writers.

With our rather lean budget, we knew we’d need to streamline the storytelling, so only nine or ten actors would be used. That cut my cast size in half, including the sons and spouses of major characters. Marc had wonderful suggestions. (He’d shepherded at least two Broadway musicals before this as uncredited dramaturg.) We’d have long discussions on how the audience would experience every moment in the show. And if I could boil down this entire excellent experience into one bit of wisdom, it’s that: try to see your show as the audience will see it. The jokes, while plentiful, weren’t funny enough. The dramatic turns had to sucker punch the audience. A musical must surprise. Such Good Friends eventually startled.

I tend to do better inserting humor into my lyrics than I do in dialogue. So, under the genial guidance of Mike Bencivenga, we convened a roomful of funny people to punch up the script. I was aware that this is a common practice with television comedies. They do a read-through, and a table of wags keeps pitching better jokes until the show-runner bangs a figurative gavel to say “Yes, that line’s good enough.” Not all musicals undergo this process, but I’m sure glad such good friends of mine upped the yock-quotient that night.

I think Marc was particularly impressed by the new songs that I came up with as the result of our talks. While I recall we talked a lot more about the first act than the second, about half of the numbers that were heard in Act Two were late additions. Sondheim’s two best-known numbers, Send in the Clowns and Comedy Tonight, were eleventh hour creations, and he’s spoken about how it wasn’t the time pressure that got such good work out of him, it was knowing the characters really well, how they sounded, what the song should do.

On Such Good Friends, several of the songs I initially thought were the score’s best ended up on the cutting room floor. Whenever I hear of a writer digging in their heels, refusing to cut something (and the Dramatist Guild contract gives them that right), I think “Lord, what fools these songsmiths be!” Audiences at bad NYMF shows (and, one must admit, there are a lot) are suffering through any number of numbers that should have been excised.

The other thing about knowing your characters is that everything changes when you find your actors. And what actors we found! To the shock of many who know us, my wife Joy (more on her in the next post) didn’t cast Such Good Friends. There was a more experienced casting director in her office, Geoff Josselson, and she trusted him more than she trusted herself. Geoff and Marc worked together to generate lists of utterly fabulous people who’d be perfect for all of the roles. Offers went out, and I was amazed at the yeses that came back.

I remember when I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. I thought they were plenty funny, but there was someone else in the cast who was far funnier, Brad Oscar. I remember when I saw this utterly fantastic off-Broadway revue, Closer Than Ever, loving the brilliant acting-in-song of Lynne Wintersteller. Getting such high-caliber people in the cast was incredibly exciting to me. Just weeks earlier, remember, the faceless NYMF selection committee had decided my piece had value. Now, performers I’d adored on stage committed their time to this exploit. Quite an honor.

producer Kim Vasquez, me, Liz, Marc

Sometimes your lead breathes life into a character in unexpected ways, and your formerly-just-on-paper personage begins to soar. So, I’d loved Liz Larsen in A New Brain, where she created a far stronger impression than then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth. And I’d loved her Tony-nominated portrayal of Cleo in The Most Happy Fella (a particularly wonderful musical). I’d even liked her as the protagonist of the worst new musical I ever saw on Broadway. If she could enliven that mess, I knew she could do something fantastic for me.

And fantastic she was. Every beat fully acted, fully felt. She grabbed hold of the audience with comic timing, apt physical business, and that gorgeous clarion voice and made everyone care what happened to her character. This was a star turn of the first order, and of course she took home an award for her work. (Marc and I did, too.)

I’ve run out of time to mention everyone I’d like to mention. For now, let it suffice to say I was very lucky to get the people I got and the production I got. The critics (yes, critics came) were beside themselves with superlatives. Peter Filichia thought we “…delivered a production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW!” Michael Dale found it “One of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years”. Lisa Jo Sagolla’s Critic’s Pick review in Backstage said “The hard-hitting political message takes brilliant dramatic command” and called me “a wily wizard with words.”

So, of course, Such Good Friends stands out as the highlight of my career. And it couldn’t have been done without such good friends.


The Dottie Frances show

September 28, 2017

Ten years ago today, my musical Such Good Friends opened and thereby hangs a tale. And within that tale, there’s another tale. And within – Hey, you ever feel like, when starting a post, that it’s going to take several posts to cover it all? Yeah, neither do I.

Did you ever notice how many successful musical theatre book-writers wrote sketches for Sid Caesar’s television show in the 1950’s? Best of these were Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello Dolly!, Barnum, 42nd Street) and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Take Me Along, Zorba). Theatre superstar Neil Simon was tapped to write a musical for Caesar to perform on Broadway, Little Me, and later penned Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, and others. Two far funnier books were by Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, City of Angels). And then there are national treasures Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway). There was a time when my admiration for Caesar’s writers was such that I’d go see anything they did, and it was particularly interesting when their scripts reflected back on their experiences working on Your Show of Shows. I read Simon’s Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor prior to its Broadway production. And Brooks’ recollection became a movie he produced, My Favorite Year.

The year of “Year” was 1954, and the film establishes this by having a stack of newspapers dropped off at a newsstand. The headline refers to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, which would have severe implications for the entertainment industry. And then, for the rest of the movie, it’s not mentioned again. Young writer has to corral a drunken old movie star. Not a mention of McCarthyism after the opening shot. Strange, no?

Similarly, Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor has the character based on Caesar punch a hole in the wall in anger over something McCarthy has done. But nobody in the play gets blacklisted, or is forced to testify before the HUAC. Surely, Brooks and Simon knew a lot of people who’d suffered. (Or was it just Shirley?) Their reminiscences were droll enough, but that, to me, is a curious omission, sweeping some ugly truth under the rug.

Woody Allen appeared in Walter Bernstein’s recollection of blacklisting, The Front, and here was a film that more successfully struck a balance between comedy and the grim reality of the scoundrel time. Bernstein’s later book about what he personally experienced was a chief inspiration to me. He didn’t sugarcoat a thing, and I was particularly taken with the tale of two good friends who had sons, maybe twelve years old, who were best friends. Both dads found themselves accused of being former communists, and the day came when, in desperation, one supplied names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. This upset his friend so much, he ordered his son to abandon his friendship with the name namer’s son.

Such an emotional event seemed to call out for musicalization. I’d long wanted to write about the McCarthy era, but the topic seemed too depressing to be a musical. Now, some of you might be thinking “How ridiculous! Nothing’s too depressing to be a musical. The Leo Frank tragedy became Parade.” And it’s here where we must agree to disagree. I think Parade’s a perfectly awful musical, a heap of sad events that garner a knee-jerk reaction. If I were going to create a musical about McCarthyism, it would have to be damn entertaining, not a depression fest.

But how? I thought about this for years, until it hit me: what’s entertaining about My Favorite Year and Laughter On the Twenty-Third Floor is that you have a bunch of funny people put under pressure, the pressure of creating live television in its earliest days. That’s an appealing milieu, filled with opportunities for humorous songs, and amid all the laughter, I’d have the opportunity to show what happened to so many hard-working talents in the entertainment industry back then. Oh, and I knew I could use the father-telling-son-to-give-up-his-best-friend bit.

The song for that scene went through more drafts than any other in the score. I was certain this was the centerpiece of the show, and if I perfected it, everything else would fly. But, at most points in the creative process, one can’t be sure what’s flying. At the time I sent Such Good Friends in for consideration by the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF is its spritely acronym), I’d never had any outsider tell me it was any good.

Imagine my elation when my blacklist musical was selected for production. It was, at long last, confirmation that someone else – a panel of professionals, no less – thought mine a worthy project. And on went a ticking clock. That is, there were now announced dates when the Festival would take place. That limited the remaining time for improving the thing. Little me, the sole writer, was now a funny person under tremendous pressure, just like the characters in my show.

Raising money, quickly, was just about the hardest thing I have ever been called upon to do. And how much to raise? Well, to answer that I needed an experienced producer. And how easy is it to find one of those? And I also knew I needed a director. An agent friend represented some up-and-comers who, she felt, ought to be showcasing their abilities at NYMF. I met with many, and sized up their strengths and weaknesses on a chart, and one hovered well above the rest, Marc Bruni.

Choosing Marc was the best decision I ever made. He had a passion for improving the show and an endless font of good ideas for doing so. He instantly led me to a producer with NYMF experience, and told her that the best use of my time was not to raise money but to fix the script. As a result, I raised far too little but the improvements made in the script, from the day I met Marc to opening night, were extraordinary. (More on this on my next post.)

A good director has vision, and a sense of what can work on stage. My cast size of 19 had to be halved. And wouldn’t include any children. That scene that I thought was so key, Marc convinced me, was a distraction from the main tale I wanted to tell. “It’s not called Such Good Fathers, after all; it’s Such Good Friends.”


Flying naked baby

September 21, 2017

So, four years ago today, we bought a house. And I’m not just going to sit here and reminisce about how great it was. I want this blog to be less personal, more useful to musical theatre people. So I’m stating this, right at the top, and let’s see if I can follow through.

Leaving my native New York filled me with fear and anxiety. Would I be able to function in a place where I couldn’t get up at 3 a.m., walk two blocks that weren’t empty, and buy some recently-made pasta salad? And I guess this leads to a broader question: What do we need, in our environs, in order to write good musicals? Somehow, I don’t think 3 a.m. pasta salad could possibly be the necessary fuel, but answer that one for yourself.

Our house in the suburbs was 35 minutes from Broadway, closer than the old song goes. I commuted in, and, boarding that train, I always had a certain show tune in my head “New York, in sixteen hours! Anything can happen in those sixteen hours!” And when I’d disembark, I’d feel like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. I was now free to flutter, eavesdropping on hundreds of conversations. I believe this improved my dialogue writing, just hearing how the wide variety of people talked.

Many writers require a certain solitude. A truly quiet environment was a new concept for me. My office at home was a tiny room with windows on four sides – that is, no wall space, and a windowed door to the living room. Jutting out from the house, I felt thrust into nature like a peer into a lake. God, I’m filled with similes today: My life was like a hot fudge sundae: the coolness of the suburban surroundings combined with the chocolaty heat of New York.

Before long, we discovered that all sorts of musical theatre people lived in our suburb. Who doesn’t love Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Christine Ebersole? So, when we told our neighbors what they did, they never stared blankly – “Musical theatre? What’s that?” – as we weren’t the first show folk they’d met. Now, when I walked into the village, filled with nothing but cute mom-and-pop shops, I’d a greater chance of eavesdropping on, say, Kait Kerrigan, than I did in Manhattan.

This fed me. I talk to a guy on-line who strives to write shows in a Midwestern town that is literally famous for only one thing: its lack of culture. I have a lot of trouble imagining how anyone could create musicals without being surrounded by other people who create musicals. This is the most collaborative of art forms. One needs a nexus.

So, the song Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway makes me think of the play, Forty-Five Seconds From Broadway, which is about the Edison, the sit-down delicatessen on 47th Street. A little over ten years ago, I sat down with a brilliant director, an enthusiastic producer, an old pro stage manager, a lustrous costumer, and a magic craftsman of a set designer. The latter brought a model of what my musical would look like in its upcoming production at the Julia Miles Theatre on 55th Street. We huddled over it, focused on making a smooth transition between scenes. The set guy estimated how fast the set could be moved; the costumer estimated how fast clothing could be changed. I forgot to mention the lighting person, who certainly put in two cents. (Food at the Edison was inexpensive.) The producer made sure we didn’t have to pay for more “soft goods” such as black curtains you hang so that areas of the stage aren’t visible. Once we discussed how long the scene change should take, and what the feel and energy of the musical was at that moment, I ran home (which, then, was on Broadway) and wrote the song the cast would sing during the transition.

I couldn’t have done that without attending this meeting of the creative team. It’s a haughty concept to say they inspired me; this was different: The energy of all those minds applying themselves to a musical theatre storytelling puzzle got my mind going in the right direction. And the late, lamented Edison Diner was the nexus, the convenient meeting place with matzo-ball soup.

This year, I had an experience in which, like a shot out of a rifle, stuff was suddenly happening, really quickly. One of my shows had been selected for a forty-five minute presentation in southwestern Connecticut. I instantly needed to assemble a reasonably competent cast, quick learners who’d be right for their roles. Luckily, I knew who to call, and in rather short order, I had eight really good New Yorkers learning songs and script. The thunderous ovation they received went on so long, I had a moment to count my lucky stars. I thought about how eight ready, willing, and able players can be found in short order in New York. I’ve been wondering, ever since, whether such a thing could happen anywhere else in the world.

But you tell me. I’d like to learn from you if the stuff I’m describing could happen, or regularly happens, in other places. “Unique New York” used to be a tongue-twister. Somewhere along the way I adopted it as my creed.