Theresa

December 9, 2019

It was December, in New York, in a year ending with 9. I had an idea for a musical, a theatre company that could offer me space, a director I trusted and a book writer I didn’t quite trust. But the more remarkable thing is that I conceived of an entirely radical new way of developing a musical.

The Company of Women was designed to celebrate female friendships, but I, a male, could claim no first-hand knowledge of the subject. I’d need to do research, and came up with the notion that my investigation could take the form of a troupe of players – all women – improvising scenes that, in some way, related to their actual experiences. I’ve a near-religious faith in improv, and here it was the secret sauce that, we all hoped, could develop an interesting show in an innovative way.

The actresses we cast were a diverse bunch: that was our intention. I think there were about a dozen. Two were friends. Two were named Sara, and they were the youngest and the oldest of our ensemble. One African-American, and one who’d grown up in Puerto Rico. One was so patrician, a rumor started that she had lots of money. At least one clearly didn’t. What we had them do was to write premises for scenes on index cards. The premises were true things that had happened to them. The people improvising were never the card-contributors, so, individuals had the fun of watching how other players were acting out events from their own lives.

I watched, fairly silently, and took notes. Ideas for songs occurred to me. Somebody humorously dismissed the male gender with a line, “They’re good in the winter,” that struck me as a great song title. And this suggested a context. If a bunch of gal pals became aware they were sitting around, drinks in hand, ragging on men, they might challenge themselves to speak in positive terms. And struggle with it … the premise of my song.

My grandfather’s wife had once been an actress, and, hearing about the project, she pooh-poohed it as if I were doing something immoral. “What’s in it for them?” she demanded. The couple who ran the theatre company had the opposite view: Our participants were gaining valuable experience in developmental improvisation. Their improv skills improved and they had the satisfaction of contributing to a new musical. No money flowed in any direction.

In the 1970s, Michael Bennett recorded rap sessions with working Broadway dancers, known of whom were stars. The show that evolved from these, A Chorus Line, cast its contributors and became the longest-running Broadway show of all time. With all that profit, there developed a problem: how to adequately compensate those that provided the fodder for the writers? We should all have such problems!

While I was aware of A Chorus Line, I knew nothing of a then-not-popular sitcom that was running on HBO. It focused on the man troubles of four upper class urban white girls. It seemed the characters barely had a thought that wasn’t connected to dating. Shoes, clothes, cocktails, and tales-of-cock – these were its concerns. Since cable networks didn’t live and die based on ratings, the show was given many seasons to develop an audience, and, eventually, it did.

The Company of Women, we all felt, shouldn’t show females as dependent on males for emotional well-being. Our lesbian character wouldn’t derive self-worth from a girlfriend, either. There’d be no supply of disposable income magically coming from nowhere. This would be a musical that would reflect contemporary reality.

But the untrusted librettist wasn’t quite down with that last goal. She kept talking about having our characters receive mylar envelopes in the mail, inviting them to hop a spaceship to a far-off planet. Why mylar? I don’t know, but it was very important to my partner.

How real to make the show was a collaborative disagreement that couldn’t quite be settled. I kept writing songs that were inspired by the improvs. Pat kept writing scenes that were products of her wild imagination. I got increasingly annoyed by this. The producing pair called a meeting for us to settle our differences. I anticipated this with a great level of intensity. The longer we kept on divergent paths, the more likely the show would end up a mess. Were we not cut out to be collaborators?

I had something of a head of steam as I reached for the doorknob. This thing had to be resolved, and communication had to be repaired. I entered the space and a roomful of people yelled “Surprise!” It was my 30th birthday, and everyone – including Pat – wanted to celebrate. Indeed, I was surprised, but that hoped-for resolution had to wait. I could barely enjoy the party, cake and gifts.

Two months later, we presented a draft to the gang that had inspired us. They cold-read the script and I sang all the songs. And then we all parted ways. Pat went on to write a musical about women journeying to a distant planet. And I went on to work with a new librettist who shared my vision of keeping things as real as possible. When she moved from New York, I soldiered on, alone.

All these experiences, that journey of learning-through-improv, led to a script with an impressive amount of verisimilitude. Its commercial prospects, though, were completely hamstrung by the existence of that homogenous television entertainment. It had captured the zeitgeist and become extremely popular. My six women, of various ages, races, and social status who’d go out drinking together were no match for the four white clotheshorses sipping cosmos America fell in love with.


The star-spangled banner

October 12, 2019

My baby is Sweet 16 today. No, not my daughter. My most famous musical, Our Wedding, the one with full-page coverage in The New York Times – which means this is also my 16th wedding anniversary. Yes, Joy and I got married in an original musical, on stage at an off-Broadway theatre, and that’s remarkable. Notable. So it’s the thing most people seem to know about me.

Fame Becomes Me. No, that’s not me complimenting myself. It’s the name of a Broadway musical that’s been on my mind as the last of a now-dead breed. In Broadway’s Golden Age, every season contained Star Vehicles, and fans of that star would buy tickets with the not-unreasonable expectation that they’d get to see the star doing what the star was best at. That might mean Phil Silvers perpetrating some crazy scheme. Or Carol Burnett being loud and aggressive but simultaneously charming. Ray Bolger with his lanky legwork or Ethel Merman blowing the roof off the place.

And today… not so much. Economic forces have killed the star vehicle. A bona fide star, with a following, won’t commit to enough months doing a musical for the show to recoup. And it takes a certain amount of bravery today’s stars don’t possess – that an original musical will provide worthy material. The last example I can think of is when Martin Short brought his shtick to Broadway, entrusting the Hairspray team of Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman to do the songs. (This is, in my opinion, their best work. Nobody agrees with me.) I never saw Fame Becomes Me – not that big of a Short fan, but now I celebrate it as the final example of a glorious sub-genre.

Album still sells for $20

Growing up, I had an ambition to write a star vehicle. Recently, a friend was fascinated by an old paperback I had on my shelf of tomes related to my musicals, produced an un-. This was something a well-connected friend proposed we adapt as a vehicle for Carol Channing long ago. Looking back, I’m struck by what a terrible idea for a musical this was, but the idea of writing for a major musical comedy star was catnip to me. When we abandoned it, my desire to fashion material for a star was left an unscratched itch.

Jump to 2003, and the creation of Our Wedding: The Musical. The cast contained no stars you would have heard of, but, in that specialized subset of a community known as “wedding guests,” there are certain individuals everyone wants to see. We gasp at brides. We might look forward to a Best Man’s toast, or see the pride of the Father of the Bride. In a way, most members of a wedding party are celebrities-for-a-day, and it’s no great stretch to say my writing of our wedding show gave me the chance I always wanted to write to the particular talents of people whose “fans” have built-in interest in what they’ll do.

My task became to let each one shine in their own idiosyncratic way. My best man could give a rambling toast that covered tons of personal history not only because that’s the expectation of best men, but because I knew Sandy Schlechter could run on with a torrent of words in an amusing way. Father of the Bride embodied Classic Rock, so his genre was an easy call, and I could make use of his size – much bigger than me – and so we acted out a mock threat of violence. Another burst of energy came from my sister, who’d done musicals in her youth. So, her exposition had shifting tempos, and jokes I knew she could put across. Joy had four bridesmaids, all from college, and I felt this was too high a quantity for the audience to keep distinct, so I treated them as one, a choral quartet that did danced, here and there. And when the new wife and husband dance for the first time, all eyes are on them. I wasn’t quite comfortable with this, so I split the focus with my father, who sang a sentimental instructional waltz as I galumphed and Joy gracefully twirled.

In old Hollywood, studios would sometimes put a wide array of famous performers in one film and then promote it as a cavalcade of stars. Our Wedding gave me so many singers to fashion material for, my work cut out for me in the best possible way. So, my four-year-old niece as flower girl would need something short and simple, because how much can you expect someone to handle at that age? I had to trust her parents, in California, to rehearse her and make sure she was ready to go. We only had time for one rehearsal in New York, and people were coming in from all over the country – Baltimore, Oakland, Phoenix, Florida. All flew in to New York, we rehearsed on Saturday and performed on Sunday at the Soho Playhouse. So, not just my little niece, I needed everyone to self-rehearse, get ready to go. Our officiant was one of the few New Yorkers, and an experienced musical theatre professional, so the least worries about him. Of far greater concern was our mothers, and for them I’d fashioned a duet.

I explained and re-explained to my mother that I’d only write notes she could sing, bits of business she could do. It took her a while, but she came to believe me. And she was fully prepared when she arrived at rehearsal, ready to at last bounce these lines off her duet partner. But where was Bea? My mother-in-law-elect was the only person late for their rehearsal time, and she was extremely late, causing us all great stress. I don’t think she had a cell phone in 2003, and she had no sense of time. She decided to take a walk around New York, then come back and take a bath, never glancing at a clock. The rehearsal space was near her hotel, and eventually a team of bridal party stalwarts got her there. Exactly the sort of bad behavior some difficult stars are known for.

This anniversary, Bea’s the only parent left to recall performing that night. And she and my mother indeed landed their jokes, to everyone’s delight and my profound relief. The chief anxiety of the wedding weekend was whether she’d be able to pull it off, but she did, and whether my mother could ever forgive her for waltzing in so late for their rehearsal slot, but she did (I think). Amazing how that turned out, and amazing that Joy and I, the musically consecrated couple, are still enjoying marriage after sixteen years.


Dina and Jack are married

September 10, 2019

In the spring of 2013, I had an idea for a musical. Artificially giving myself a deadline, I thought I’d try to finish a draft in time to present it, in some form or other, as a gift for Joy on our tenth wedding anniversary. That gave me six months, but… I failed to meet the deadline. The following year, Joy would have a major birthday, so I pushed back the deadline till then. And was all set to unveil a staged reading of a new two-actor show on her birthday when Joy got sick and landed in the hospital.

The reason I thought it might make a good anniversary gift is that our wedding had been an original musical. Now, I wanted to write a show about a couple struggling to keep their romance alive while raising their first child. My characters experience something we went through as new parents. The happy ending – the rekindling of their passion – would play as a romantic expression, a sort of meta present.

As luck would have it, Joy was recovering at home, after another trip to the hospital, on her recent big birthday. It’s taken me some time to get to this particular essay because I’ve been attending to her needs. But September 10 marks the five year anniversary of The Music Playing, because we ended up doing it a week after her birthday, and it was a moving surprise.

Peter Filichia, a critic who caught a certain amount of controversy this summer, wrote up the reading in glowing terms (“may turn out to be the season’s best musical”) but today, I’m considering the journey the show’s been on in the past five years. It included a name change, to Baby Makes Three.

The people who poured into the rented space in 2014 knew a few things. They knew they were there to see a staged reading of the first draft of a new work, hardly a finished project. More importantly, they knew me and Joy, and many knew our child. So, as the show began, they had a reference point, and an emotional connection to the characters. My musical, that night, didn’t need to spend a lot of time saying who these two people were, or give the audience any reason to love them. All of that was a given. And that’s a key difference between The Music Playing, draft One, and subsequent drafts.

Because I didn’t have to introduce the characters and the qualities that make them appealing, I could launch straight into the drama. The Music Playing starts with a busy morning, and sets up the idea that the wife works, the husband stays home with the child, and there’s an issue with her trusting him with all the parental duties. That’s gripping enough if you already care for the characters. For an audience of strangers, I found, you can’t raise the curtain on fraught hysteria because it’s off-putting. Who are these people? They’re frenetic and stressed and therefore I don’t want to get to know them. The conflict seems a bit meh – a common problem parents have, but why should I be interested?

Reworking The Music Playing for strangers to enjoy meant taking a certain amount of time to get to that crisis point. I added a prologue in which the baby is born and the parents get to celebrate the new adventure they’re embarking on. It is my hope that this endears them to the viewer. Before long, the wife gets a big promotion and they get the idea that the husband should quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad. This might be termed an inciting incident; those watching should be wondering what will happen next. Then there’s a peaceful interlude

to transition from the prologue to the main body of the play. This begins with the energetic morning routine that originally began The Music Playing.

Does any of this work? I do not know. There needs to be another staged reading to answer questions like that. Performing this two-actor musical requires extraordinary commitment from the actors, who have to learn an unusually large quantity of songs. It’s not that Baby Makes Three is sung-through (it isn’t), it’s that most musicals have a larger number of people singing different numbers. On this point, it’s fair to compare Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander, The Last Five Years. Besides the great quantity of songs, there’s a need to hold the audience’s attention for half the running length. Twice I watched Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott negotiate scads of overlong songs, sans dialogue; two dislikable characters in an incoherent plot. And all I could think – on the positive side – was Wow, they’re talented. Takes a lot of incandescence to engage an audience for that amount of time.

Autobiographical musicals are alarmingly common, and often involve a strange sort of ego. Do you actually believe you’re so interesting that people who don’t know you are going to be interested? We live our lives and think the stuff that happens to us is notably dramatic. Being objective about this involves looking at your story as if it’s completely fictional and asking the hard dramaturgical questions to make sure those who watch are gripped at every turn. My hope is that Baby Makes Three plays as a made-up story about new parents facing situations many people face. The stay-at-home-father aspect seems a topic begging to be explored.

After the reading, someone pointed out that I’d done the Cole Porter thing by having a tall and handsome actor play the Noel role. Porter, perhaps as a joke, suggested Cary Grant play him in the biopic, Night and Day. The studio did just that, and Cole didn’t stop them: “If they wanted Cary Grant to play you in a movie, would you complain?”


Tom’s

May 9, 2019

I’m writing this while the 125thVarsity Show is playing at Columbia. Actually, that’s a little deceptive. They may call it the 125th, but, for many depressing years, school spirit was so low, students couldn’t get it together to mount an original musical comedy satirizing campus life. It’s more accurate to say that the very first one was 125 years ago, a time when collegians put on musicals to raise money to pay for sports teams – hence, “Varsity.”

In roughly twenty years of people having no sense of humor (possibly the Vietnam War’s collateral damage?), including the years I attended, only one or two Varsity Shows were done. This was, to put it mildly, upsetting to me. I knew that Richard Rodgers came to Columbia specifically to write the Varsity Show, and it was Oscar Hammerstein who teamed the freshman up with Lorenz Hart, who’d already graduated. As luck would have it, after I graduated, my friends Adam Belanoff and Stephen Gee called me back to write songs for what would be the Show that ended the drought, The New U. They didn’t have to call far, as I lived just a few blocks away. The previous year, they’d proven they could create an original revue, Fear of Scaffolding, for which I contributed a little. This experience proved we liked each other and could work together.

Or did it? I wrote an eponymous opening number, and Adam and Steve were inspired by it. Adam suggested there be a section in which an individual student claims that he has no fear of scaffolding, that, in fact, it gives him confidence. Then he gets hit over the head by a falling piece of scaffolding. Funny, right?

Consider the reason for the scaffolding, the genesis of the tremendous amount you see all around the city today. Some years earlier, a piece of masonry fell off a Columbia building, killing a Barnard student on the sidewalk below. The city snapped into action, passing a law requiring a close inspection of every building with masonry on it every few years. That’s why most of the scaffolding you see is there: inspectors preventing another fatal tragedy. So, how hysterical would it be to see a student bonked on the head by something falling from the sky? And yet that’s not what the argument was about.

Adam and I disagreed on what style of music was needed for the bonking business. The rest of the number was a minor key rock song, something akin to Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme. I thought the energy of the rock needed to continue throughout the song. Adam thought a switch to a jaunty soft shoe would help the humor land. I wrote two different versions, but the contretemps continued. He liked the soft shoe; I liked my rock.

Meanwhile, Stephen Gee began to think about funny ways to stage the number, and came up with the idea of having people play planks of scaffolding, stumbling downstage like zombies. This notion was so clever, I think the song would have dazzled the audience no matter what genre the falling object section was in. But Adam and I were at such an impasse, he wrote a new title song, with the same premise, with another composer. As he was producer and director, and the other composer was writing the bulk of the score, he was within his rights to yank the thing from me. Did the version of Fear of Scaffolding not written by me work? Why, of course it did. It had that funny Gee (whiz) staging.

Adam’s brilliance as producer, though, was the principal reason the powers-that-were allowed the next Belanoff/Gee epic to be officially designated a Columbia Varsity Show, a round number of years ago. And, this time, they asked me to write all the songs. Meanwhile, friends familiar with the sad case of that opening number asked me how I could bury the hatchet with Adam after such shabby treatment. And here’s the little lesson hidden in this memoir: You bury hatchets in order to get work done. You make a thousand compromises along the way, doing things you swore you’d never do. These are the accommodations one makes to get work produced. Which is usually better than not getting work produced.

(Note, though, that a pair of Varsity Show writers from a later edition, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, just parted company with the bound-for-Broadway musical, Magic Mike. This should not be confused with the Las Vegas sensation, also based on the film, Magic Mike, originally cast by Joy Dewing, who knows a thing or two about sexy men – she’s married to me.)

Our oeuvre, The New U. was a packed-to-the-rafters success. It got the snowball rolling down the hill: There’s been a new Varsity Show every year since. And Adam’s brother saw the show, sized up how the audience was reacting, and decided to bankroll us on our first professional work, On the Brink, the following year. And he turned a profit. So, I’m glad to have buried the hatchet.

All these years later, I consider Adam – now a very successful television writer – just about my closest friend on earth. But I’m now reminded of something very sad. The talented company of The New U. recently lost its third cast member. He played a football player in our show, so of course I remember him as young and virile, cracking up the crowd in a dialogue with Adam about how to attract women. And I wish I could tie up this reminiscence with an O. Henry ending and say that he was killed by a falling piece of masonry while singing a soft shoe number. But no: This wasn’t a funny death at all.


La ravachole

March 16, 2019

Every time I see my friends who have a child in an Ivy League school, looking to make a career for himself writing musical comedies, I naturally think back to when I fit that description. So, it occurs to me that this semester marks a big anniversary: my first paid job musical directing a show in New York.

It was a strange show, an anthology evening called Bertolt Brecht: Masks of Evil, and it was a presentation of Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts. Somewhere, I imagine, eyebrows were raised over the gig going to a college freshman, but, somehow, I’d managed to impress some key powers-that-be with my piano-playing abilities. And it’s true I had a certain affinity for Brecht’s idiosyncratic corner of the musical theatre world. He used songs to make political points, criticizing the establishment. As an impressionable youth, I found agitprop and leftist politics more than a bit intoxicating. I loved Kurt Weill, and wondered what other composers Brecht collaborated with. I attended Mahogonny at the Met. Harsh sounds in jazz rhythms? Catnip to me. Soon, I started a musical where I could exercise that muscle, and, a few years later, wrote an extended parody with Alexa Junge called A Clearance Line. And my most famous song, in those early years, quoted Alabama Song.

The most memorable aspect of Masks of Evil was Chrysis, the singer of Alabama Song and whatever other songs I played. And Chrysis had a habit of parading around the green room totally topless, the first pair of naked breasts I’d seen. But – you knew there’d be a but here – their round perfection didn’t have the effect on me you might expect, because Chrysis was transgender. Altering the parts normally hidden by clothes is much discussed now, but extremely rare back then. 19-year-old me didn’t quite know whether to be excited. I recall thinking that I ought not to have my mind on the process of transitioning from him to her, and I was doing fairly well taking this in stride until we got around to staging her numbers. Like Sally Bowles, Chrysis wore fishnet stockings and was placed on top of the upright piano I was playing, my back to the audience. She put one high-heel on the space above my treble keys, the other below my bass. At eye level, then, was a crotch that may or may not have been the creation of a cutting edge surgeon. I suppose a good dance belt is a great equalizer, but wouldn’t you have wondered what, precisely, you were staring at?

Over the next decade and a half, there were more productions of musicals I’d written than those with me as musical director. My reputation, such as it was, was as a guy who wrote songs, not as a piano-player. Of course one might have assumed a composer must be a competent musician. And you know what they say about “assume” – it turns you and me into a musical director. I got some odd gigs, such as playing rehearsals for an original musical celebrating Italian culture called Wine In My Blood. It was so poorly written, my mind wandered to a silly What If. What if a mafia don had such a love for musicals that he decided to commission and produce one? It would either be exactly like Wine In My Blood, or, perhaps based on mob rub-out experiences, Blood In My Wine.

MD-ing, 2011

I musical directed another original show no one’s heard of, The Big Orange Splot, at the York Theatre, and this one was so good I think of it practically every week. It’s about a town with legally-imposed conformity; all the houses must be the same color. Until the titular bucket of paint falls from the sky. I frequently find myself in neighborhoods where all the homes look exactly the same, and cast my eyes skyward in hopes that an illicit color will fall. Alas, that never happens.

But that premise was on my mind as I wrote a song called This Thing Fell Out of the Sky for the musical I wrote with Tom Carrozza. I met the master improviser when I was part of The White Horse Experiment, New York’s first long-form troupe. They insisted I appear on stage, not behind the piano, and, for a while, I kept it a secret that I even knew how to play. Tom and I ran into each other at some show, each of us with no date. So we talked long enough for Tom to confess, in something of a whisper, that he secretly loves singing obscure old comedy songs and was looking to replace his musical director. Well, if he was going to reveal such a secret about himself, I certainly wasn’t going to keep my light under a bushel. Which led to an extraordinary cabaret act and our sci-fi musical comedy, Area 51. Soon, the whole New York improv community knew me as a top tier improv player, and I was hired for countless shows and teaching gigs.

Of course there are huge differences between spontaneous theatre and thoroughly-rehearsed musicals. The former requires complete flexibility; you have to be so “in the moment” that if an actor sings a less-than-mellifluous note, you adjust what you’re playing to make him sound good. Conducting shows requires precision, attention to detail, and countless tiny adjustments to wrest the maximal emotional power out of every measure of music. I was thinking about this contrast in rehearsing a part of Identity – where I’m both songwriter and musical director – involving a bit of rhythm-less recitative. The performer, learning the piece, is intent on getting it right. But, the goal of the music is to have the band adjust to whatever rhythm he chooses, and that could differ from performance to performance. I have to slake his thirst to get it “right” before he feels the freedom to do it in a way that seems “wrong.” Composers use the adverb “freely” to give performers power to make their own idiosyncratic choices about the rhythms they act their lines with. As I write this, I’ve no idea whether we’ll ever achieve the goal of true rhythmic freedom, but you can come see May 23.

 


Marion (reprise)

December 25, 2018

My recent post about the big anniversary of The Christmas Bride didn’t say enough, I feel, about what goes on in the show. So, if you’re done unwrapping Christmas presents, perhaps it’s a good time for me to wrap up what always should have been billed as a two-part reminiscence.

One thing we knew would happen early in the show is a marriage proposal. From the stolid medical student next door to the younger of two sisters. In the original Dickens story, The Battle of Life, the reader is told that the wrong sister has been proposed to, since the older one is better suited in many ways. But in a dramatic narrative, you show, rather than tell, and librettist MK Wolfe and I kept considering how the audience feels at every point. Usually, marriage proposals are instantly embraced by audiences. We’d need ours to root against the betrothed couple – a wedding they’d hope would be called off. We wrote and rewrote the sequence several times, handling it in many different ways. I wrote a halting proposal song, but that led to too much sympathy for the would-be bridegroom. It eventually occurred to us that he’s too unromantic a lug to sing his proposal. He should stammer, unmusically.

Betrothed couples get toasted, and are given advice. And this notion led to an effective way of introducing a whole bunch of characters rather swiftly. I created a large quodlibet in which different songs had different people advise in ways that defined them. So the paterfamilias is blithe and jocular. The sister emphasizes romance. Attorneys oh-so-properly have them sign papers. Each tiny ditty has a completely different feel, and then they all get repeated simultaneously.

Megan Poulos, Matthew Griffin Photo: Stephen Cihanek

Songwriters often raid the script for bits of dialogue that could become a song. So, a dashing fellow compares a girl he fancies to a thoroughbred. And this got me thinking about his relationship with his horse. The big solo I created for this character is, in fact, sung to his horse – a fairly unique idea. (I was aware of Lover, the Rodgers and Hart song in which Jeanette MacDonald addresses the horse she’s riding in Love Me Tonight.) In The Christmas Bride’s number, you can’t always tell whether the fellow is talking to his horse or himself. It’s fun, and I’m proud that the lyric is extraordinarily succinct.

It’s a huge contrast with the Act One finale, which shows various types of people in various locales, and you can almost hear horse hooves in the accompaniment. There’s a virtue in bigness: think of the Tonight Quintet in West Side Story and the excitement that comes from the convergence of so many forces.

MK Wolfe’s libretto is a fun and fine melodrama, and at one point the plot has two men searching for the same heroine. But, meeting for the first time, they think they’re talking about different women, and I was able to mine this moment for a funny duet that gets laughs, make us like both characters, and is passably romantic.

The roulette sequence is a colossal musical scene within a small-cast musical. It feels very large because so much is going on. A fellow with a gambling problem is goaded into betting more and more, and the stakes are high in more ways than one.

As a direct result of the events in this number, our leads are imprisoned in two different locales, but I gave them a split screen duet. We hear from both at once, and this is the closest they come to a traditional love song.

The Christmas Bride makes much use of subtle repetition. Snatches of song heard in one place returns within another song. A famous example of another show that does this is Merrily We Roll Along, in which the bridge to Rich and Happy returns later as Our Time. And The Hills of Tomorrow is the basis of both Who Wants To Live In New York? and Good Thing Going. Of course, Merrily has been rewritten so many times, the production you see may not include either Rich and Happy or The Hills of Tomorrow, but originally they were all linked.

Something similar happened to The Christmas Bride. The awkward marriage proposal that used to be set to music is heard, in a more fraught tempo, from the same character in the first act finale. But now that the proposal’s been cut, it’s new material, not a reprise.

But don’t get the wrong idea: I am not comparing The Christmas Bride to Merrily We Roll Along. One’s a successful musical that people love, production after production; the other, an interesting failure in which the action goes backwards.

 


Haven

December 14, 2018

Another of my musicals has a major anniversary this month. You’ve heard me claim The Christmas Bride has little to do with Christmas. Well, The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns For Martyred Actors has more to do with Halloween than anything Yule celebrate this month. It’s a ghost story, and certain wisps of memory I have about it haunt me to this day.

My collaborator was extraordinarily talented, but I’m not going to reveal his name. (Ooh, a mystery as well as a ghost story!) This is because I want to speak honestly about him and some of the callous things he did to me, but it’s classless and/or impolitic to speak ill of the rich and famous. He went on to win the Tony, the Pulitzer, an Emmy – but for now let’s just call him Individual One.

He said he loved musicals, but he seemed troubled by his own ardor. He once told me he considered them an inherently conservative art form, meant to lull the audience into bourgeois complacency. So, to be a good leftist, it seemed, one had to reject certain musical comedy conventions; to rouse rather than to lull. Them’s fighting words. I was fairly political, of a similar stripe, but didn’t see my embrace of certain time-honored theatrical forms as inherently conservative.

Most songwriters would have cursed out Individual One, refused to work on the project, slammed the door. The 23-year-old me thought that all collaborations involve a certain amount of compromise. If I broke things off, he’d find another writer, and I’d be just another writer without a show. If I found a way to work with Individual One, to get past this rather silly difference, we could create something interesting. Yes, my traditionalism would clash with his incendiary rejection of what had gone before, but I didn’t want our audience lulled into anything either. It was exciting to see where his approach would take this thing.

And, at every point, I never lost sight of two positives: Individual One has an extraordinary brain, able to unite a plethora of disparate concepts, to quote and discourse on a large array of complicated philosophies, to utilize a wide range of theatrical effects. Also, the script crackled with passion and poetry. This guy could write – boy, could he write – and I didn’t want to unhitch my wagon from a speeding locomotive.

I’d contributed some incidental music to three plays he’d written or directed, but The Heavenly Theatre would be a whole score with lyrics by Individual One. That threw me off my game, as I’m always most comfortable creating both words and music all by myself and usually at once. Here, I was handed text to set. And the words – which usually lacked rhyme, meter, or matching sections – were unlike any lyrics I’d ever seen. Forget making this sound like a musical; how could I make this sound like a song? I felt a need to honestly communicate the difficulty I was having to Individual One, and hoped he could restructure his blank verse into something with a little more form. But my request enraged him. “We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer.”

999 out of a thousand would have resigned, but I figured writing with someone is an experience one is bound to learn from. Individual One was so clearly brilliant in so many things, was abandoning him the right way to go? Plus, I had a plan, and that plan involved writing a song. I could take one of his lyrics and reconfigure it into a rhyming, metered, traditionally structured opening number. My efforts energized me. I knew the song was everything the show needed, introducing characters and a style of comedy; showmanship tinged with Bach-like melismas. Individual One grudgingly accepted this into the show. I felt like I’d won one.

From then on his lyrics got more settable, and I found that there were compositional techniques that suggest structure to the listener. One example involved an unusual rhythm that’s first heard on a drum – it alternates 6/8 and 4/4 – and the feel is that of an ancient country dance. The lyric doesn’t utilize a title, but tells a frightening story that’s very compelling. The cadences of those hard beats command the attention of the audience. The whole thing managed to come across.

If I was able to channel my frustrations with my collaborator into my creative work, so was Individual One. The premise of The Heavenly Theatre is that, in medieval times, a government official has ordered the death of a commedia dell’arte troupe. They get revenge by returning as ghosts, presenting him with a musical about the events leading to their murder. Now, of course, the haunted martinet doesn’t like the show, so, after some numbers, he gets to yell his disapproval. In a way, this may have been a healthy outlet for Individual One’s disapproval of me.

Ours is not the only musical set in medieval France with a composer approaching his 24th birthday. There’s also Pippin, and the creative pressures birthing that one led director Bob Fosse to bar songwriter Stephen Schwartz from rehearsals. As rotten luck would have it, I, too, was subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment by Individual One. This was emotionally devastating to me, but I had a great deal of confidence in musical director Wade Russo. He saw to it my music was brought to life, and we remain friends to this day.

Alas, I can’t say the same for Individual One. I ran into about a month after performances, and wondered if it might ever be done again. No, Individual One told me firmly. After our difficulties working together, he’d have to find a different composer for any further permutation of The Heavenly Theatre. He did just that, and the show was announced as part of a major theatre’s season about ten years later, but never came to pass.

Merry Christmas!