Blow blow thou winter wind

June 10, 2018

It’s the day that lives in infamy, y’all.

For me, June 10 marks the golden anniversary of something hurtling from the east to the west, landing in something of a cataclysm. And that something is a small boy. And that small boy is me.

This might seem meaningless, and I’m aware this is the third entry in a row that might be described as a personal essay. But frame it as The Making of a Musical Writer and perhaps you’ll find some useful insights. I’m going to talk about the worst day of my life in a way that doesn’t involve self-pity; when I’m writing a musical, I see to it that characters never pity themselves. When those ultra-serious Eurotrash shows do that, I always have to stifle a giggle. And when you read a blog, you’re free to giggle out loud: I’m not going to hear it.

Untimely plucked from his natural environs, the lifelong Manhattanite was plopped in the lap of Southern California luxury, and viewed it as a fate worse than death. Dad got a too-good-to-pass-up job with Universal, and I got to know his black glass office building. It was square. Why? In Manhattan, you build to the shape of your lot. This was the only tower in Universal City, the large lot owned by the studio. No rationale for it being square, or black; or was I just looking for things to hate about the place?

In those days, the Universal City Studios Tour was – wait for it – an actual tour. Trams drove you around the lot and everyone got out to see Lana Turner’s dressing room. The guide proudly pointed out a familiar sight: the bridge from which Shirley MacLaine gets pushed into the water at the beginning of Sweet Charity.

Hey, wait a minute! I know that bridge. I played on that bridge. That bridge is mine, back home in Central Park, my personal property. And here they’ve constructed a replica, to fool the world. And so I thought of Hollywoodsmen as counterfeits, convincing the world they’re seeing New York – my New York – when they’re not.

Five days before our one-way flight landed in Los Angeles, something truly devastating occurred there. As a little kid, I followed the presidential race with the intensity of a sports nut twice my age. All my little kid hopes and dreams rested on RFK. LBJ (took the IRT…) had mucked up the good work of the JFK administration by miring us in Vietnam and I just knew that it would take my Senator, the slain hero’s brother, to set the country right again. That morning, I got up early to read the election results in the Times: a banner headline proclaimed good news! My idol had won. The morning edition had published too soon to report that Bobby Kennedy had been killed right after his victory speech. My parents woke to deliver the sad truth. Now, my mother had a college friend who’d settled in Dallas, and she’d long wondered how anyone could live in the city where a Kennedy had been shot. We all learned, the hard way, starting on the day that lives in infamy.

Kids bullied me. For my impenetrable New York accent. For rooting for the Mets. For liking to read. I got the idea that none of my miseries would have plagued me had we remained in New York. And so, perhaps as a defense mechanism, my heart stayed in New York. I continued to read The New York Times, and particularly enjoyed Walter Kerr’s think pieces on Broadway shows. I wish I had a picture of my bulletin board from childhood, because it symbolizes my obsessive connection with New York theatre. I took tacks and yarn and mapped the streets around Times Square. Then I cut out colored cardstock in the shapes of every Broadway Theatre, placing them on the board. Finally, I tacked on little marquis signs showing the names of the show currently playing there. But you all did the same, I’m sure.

Eventually, at the age of 16, I got to visit the actual brick and limestone and wrought-iron version of that creation on my wall: I spent 13 days back home, and saw 17 shows. A Chorus Line, Chicago (the original with Gwen, Chita, and Jerry), Streamers, Equus, Pippin and Godspell. Was the intermission of the last one my first cup of wine or my first time on a Broadway stage, or both? I was just reunited with my scrapbook from the trip, containing all the playbills. I wrote notes using the calligrapher’s pen I’d been given to write music with. I don’t know which makes me sound older, that, or the $12 ticket stub for my orchestra seat to A Chorus Line.

It was abundantly clear to me and everyone who knew me that I needed to be in New York; it was the only place I could thrive. And two years later I moved back, for college. There, I immediately had something of a rude awakening when I discovered that my classmates from the east coast had all read the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school. What did my California A.P. English course have me read instead? A tome called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not going to say the insufficiency of a California education is my Achilles heel; I’ll just say “rivet masterlink.” (Just yanking your chain.)

So there’s the context for my unusual Golden State antipathy. (Most residents like it.) And why I always said I’d never want to raise a child in the West. But, reading this over, I see that my connection to New York theatre was somehow solidified by being away from New York theatre, for an important ten years in my development. I survived the away-time, and can take the attitude of many a war veteran: Sure, it was a tough decade, in hell, but ultimately it made me stronger.

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Snuggling

June 3, 2018

Let’s start at the very beginning

Today’s our meetaversary. 21 years ago, I opened my door and there was this beautiful young person, possessed of a glorious sense of humor, a powerfully mellifluous voice, a mind that goes a thousand miles a minute, and, as I soon discovered, a splendiferous kisser. This was a watershed moment for me, a transition from my most-accustomed state – abject loneliness – to lifelong companionship that could be counted upon. And I went from a musical-writer who spent his time imagining love to an inspired one, living it.

Joy was always a go-getter, and there’s something to be said from up-close observance of a person vigorously pursuing goals. I can remember times, pre-Joy, when it would be tough to drag myself out of bed to get on with the work of writing something. Around that time, on Astor Place, a place for writers was set up; the idea being that you’re more likely to get things done if you’re surrounded by people who get things done. Now I was energized, a moon pulled along by a swiftly moving planet.

Warmed by the glow of insolvency

Some romanticize what it’s like to be penniless and in love. Joy drove a broken-down vehicle on its last legs up to New York, and barely had enough for tolls. She naturally hoped I’d take her out to dinner, but that was something I couldn’t afford to do. I don’t know why anybody romanticizes this: Being poor sucks. I’d go to the 99-cent store for pasta and sauce a lot. And five such trips would run through my royalty check for a musical I wrote that was regularly playing to big audiences. It paid me that little.

Joy took some of those usual awful jobs to support her not-lucrative acting habit. (And I do mean “habit” – often she was second nun from the right in The Sound of Music.) Eventually, she found work in a law firm on East Forty-Second Street, far away from where you’d “meet those dancing feet” (that was West Forty-Second). There, Joy developed a deep distaste for incompetent or non-office-like behavior. She honed the high standards for how a business should be run that later served her so well when she ran her own casting company.

Unpredictable as weather

Some recently-met friends picture that Joy and I worked together a lot. Seems to me that happy happenstance was rather rare. I contributed special material for her cabaret act; she assembled and appeared in my Donnell Library concert. More famously, there was Our Wedding, which was a musical. We sang our vows; she delivered the 11 o’clock number, This Man Loves Me. And everyone in that theatre sang the finale, certain that she’d always be singing and we’d both always be musical theatre pros in New York.

It must have been around the time Joy turned 30 that she shocked all who knew her by deciding to cease performing. Friends refused to believe it: they continued to look forward to the next Joy Dewing appearance despite being told many times that she’d retired. Reminds me of the John O’Hara line: “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” The gorgeousness of that voice was more craveable than chocolate. I’m reminded of my late friend Gary Austin. We were talking in a big meeting room when his wife, Wenndy, started to sing. He politely left our conversation to draw near: “Excuse me, but this is why I married her.” Would I ever hear Joy again?

The duet will become a trio

Thank God for lullabies. Our daughter needed (and needs) quite a bit of coaxing to get to sleep. I’d cup my ear to the wall to listen to Joy sing again. And thus ever-loving Adelaide brought the sound of music back into our home. And, these days, I mean that literally, as she’s playing Gretl, the littlest Von Trapp, in a local production of The Sound of Music. The movie and various recordings are in constant play in our home. And impromptu performances. And if Joy hums a bit of the score to herself, I don’t relish the sound; I want to yell “ANYTHING but that!” It’s gotten to the point where I’m unconsciously using bits of its lyrics as section headings in things I write.

I’ll sing once more

Six-and-a-half years ago, there came into the world this beautiful girl, possessed of a glorious sense of humor, a powerfully mellifluous voice, a mind that goes a thousand miles a minute, and, as I soon discovered, a splendiferous kisser. (One wonders why I call them both “Honey.”) And I went from a musical-writer who regularly wrote songs for his wife to one who conjured up an entire musical about how parenthood changes relationships.

So here’s a sentence with a meaningless verb: I recently completed a new draft of Baby Makes Three. But what does that mean? I’m not putting down my pen. There are improvements to be made, always. Maybe, some point in the far-distant future, a director will grab me by the shoulders and sternly tell me to stop making changes; for the sake of the actors, we have to freeze the show. At present, I have a draft I’ve declared Ready-For-Certain-Others-To-Read. But nothing is set in stone. There’s much fixing to be done.

These days, though, I’m far more likely to receive praise for being a father or husband than I am for being a musical writer. But, just as I’d never declare a draft of a musical Finished or Unimprovable, I view my roles at home as an ongoing march of trying-to-do-better with wife and child. Not perfect yet – not nearly – but at least Year 21 can be declared complete.


I’ll miss

May 24, 2018

Sea birds soaring twenty feet above a body of water suddenly spot food and plunge down, faster than gravity. The speed of their descent is more like what a falling human’s would be. Picture, now, a Brooklyn warehouse, and on the floor is a gymnastics mat, not more than a few inches thick. From a very tall platform, people jump, their arms stretched out, and plummet, completely flat, on to that mat. One after another they fly, to a rhythm, in time to music.

An old portable radio sits on the ground near where a spaceship from outer space lands. Out pour a bunch of galactic travelers in white-face; although, the more one looks at them, the more you realize various ethnic groups are represented under the greasepaint. They turn on the radio and imitate the scratchy sound in-between stations. When they hit the right spot on the dial, though, they suddenly imitate classic rock, orchestral warhorses, pop of various eras. They harmonize; they make percussive sounds; they humorously interact with the audience without speaking a word.

On tour, a traditional song-and-dance man bounds across a stage, tapping up a storm, to the tune of Young and Healthy. You’re so bedazzled by his dexterity and grace, you never notice that he’s legally blind, and had only “seen” this unfamiliar theatre space a few hours before.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music rocks the house as singers who are also actors who are also acrobats fly on trampolines and trapezes and do all the impressive things done by competitive cheerleading squads.

You’re having the time of your life, applauding so hard your hands hurt. These experiences of wild showmanship stick in your memory. Eventually, a question forms in your head: “How did they find people who can do all that?”

Joy Dewing. The widely-beloved casting director Joy Dewing engineered a process that found those people who could drop twenty feat without putting a limb forward to cushion their landings; the beat-boxers and close harmony experts who also mime; extraordinary tappers in droves; kids who leap while waving pom-poms and belting their faces off. The more than five year run of Joy Dewing Casting was responsible for 21 national tours, 56 regional productions, 2 Broadway musicals, 25 New York/Off-Broadway concoctions, and 3 dance companies; plus countless readings the public didn’t get to see.

Something else the public might not know: Joy Dewing, almost single-handedly, revolutionized and modernized the way casting is done in New York. So here’s something else to picture. The sun comes up on a snowy morning. A crowd of young aspirants is standing in front of a locked door. Someone takes a piece of notebook paper, tapes it to the door. Everybody signs up, then leaves until the time the notice in Backstage says auditions are to begin. And then they’re heartbroken to find the people behind the table have a completely different list, their names not on it.

That’s how life used to be for performers in New York. If you got in the room, you sang your sixteen bars in less than a minute, the word “next!” was yelled brusquely, and you’d be out the door. Once out, you’d mutter to yourself “There’s got to be a better way.” Thanks to Joy, the better way was born, became the industry standard. Casting notices get posted on-line, and there’s an equitable system of signing up for slots on-line and no name gets lost. Your time in the room is markedly different. A friendly person greets you, sincerely interested in what you can do. No one yells “next!” but a heartfelt thank you comes when it’s time to go. You leave the room feeling you’ve shared something of yourself, to receptive ears, and eyes that are on you, not screens. The process isn’t only fair, it’s designed to bring out the best in people.

And it’s not just a certain kind of people. Joy spearheaded a more enlightened age in which performers of all ethnicities and the differently-abled are not just considered but cast in roles that would have only gone to traditionally able-bodied whites just a decade ago. That sort of acceptance comes from altering a mind-set: no, Annie doesn’t have to be a redhead with skin white as snow. Now, we all know there’s lots of prejudice in the world: always has been, continues today. Imagine the ingenuity and perseverance required to get the old powers-that-be to revise their thinking and cast a wider net for performers. That’s my wife, Joy Dewing.

So, I imagine that you don’t accept that I’m reporting all this unbiased; that’s a natural assumption. But ask anyone in the New York theatre community and they’ll go on and on about her extraordinary abilities and empathy. We all know that auditioning is a harrying cross-to-bear for a lot of people. Joy sees to it that everybody is at ease, feels welcome, finds the fun. So it’s no wonder that performers’ hearts are lifted whenever she’s in the room.

What can a spouse tell you? This will seem like more than a bit of a stretch, but let’s look back at what Jackie Kennedy said after her husband was assassinated. She recalled that he enjoyed listening to the cast album of Camelot (lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, with whom he attended Harvard). And suddenly, the press and historians referred to the Kennedy White House as Camelot. Now, I’m certainly not saying Joy has the importance of her fellow crusader for civil rights, John F. Kennedy. But, on a different scale, there’s a somewhat similar sense that we just lived through a short and impermanent golden age in which the world got better. Joy Dewing Casting is no longer. But

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

 


Oh what a lovely pal is mother

April 15, 2018

One of the unsung heroes of contemporary musical theatre celebrates her birthday today, Sara Louise Lazarus. If I say a few words about what she does, my hope is that it’s going to help you create better musicals. God knows the 18 years working with her have enriched my craft.

But I must admit I have what might be called the diarist’s impulse: the sense that I should write this all down before the memory fades. I don’t want to forget the lessons, the principles, the way of working, the caring. It’s been eight months since we worked together and… well, you know brains.

And mine can’t shake a thought about pit pulls. It’s said they sink their sharp teeth into something – say a postman’s leg – and refuse to let go. Jaws clamp down and it’s impossible to loosen that grip. Now picture a long day of rehearsals for a group cabaret. Say twenty-one young performers have been scheduled for twenty-minute sessions working with Sara. If I’ve done the math right, that’s seven hours or work for us. Except it’s not, because Sara never sticks to the twenty minute limit. There’s something she sees in a performance that she absolutely needs to make better, and refuses to give up on it – pit bull teeth in a leg.

Now, if you’re one of the individuals singing, you’re thrilled to have your performance sharpened. If you’re me, on the other hand, you’re exhausted from hours and hours of dogged fine-tuning. But, we keep on going, late into the night, because getting actors to convey truth in their songs is so very important to us.

Not every day is marathon-rehearsal day. More often, it’s a structured education with a series of steps that lead to a fully-acted, truthfully-expressed rendering of a musical theatre song. Sara breaks the process down into a set of assignments that constitute an in-depth investigation of material. You take the text, sans music, and work on it as an actor. At this point it’s a prose monologue in which you don’t stop at rhymes, or the end of lines, but move along at a pace totally determined by the emotions inherent in the words; how you respond to them. When Sara’s satisfied that you’ve investigated the lyric and taken in all the implied or expressed facts about the character singing and their situation, you move on to learning the music. Singing the song now involves a discovery of how the composer has dealt with the cadences of the lyric. Has he emphasized the syllables you emphasized in your monologue rendition? No? Then figure out why.

So, readers of this blog know that it’s written for writers. And I’m going to pause here to remind you of the need to stay on the same page. The lyricist has an idea about how the text should be acted. The composer can’t have a conflicting idea. Collaborators must go back and forth, revising and adjusting, until they’re on the same page.

For seventy-five years now, since Oklahoma!, subtext has had paramount importance in good musical theatre writing. Sara’s students then explore the thought behind the words. I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but, whenever I speak, my brain darts through all sorts of words and phrases I choose not to say out loud. (Some have been known to make fun of me for my halting way of talking.) Characters in good musicals have stuff in their heads the audience will never get to hear. And, just because I just mentioned the show, let’s use People Will Say We’re In Love as an example. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric says

Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love

But what the love-sodden character is actually thinking is just the opposite:

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it

None of that is said out loud; it’s the subtext. So the singers go back into monologue and speak something half theirs, half Hammerstein.

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers. Don’t throw bouquets at me
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents. Don’t please my folks too much
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating. Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it. People will say we’re in love

Sounds crazy, no? Well, that’s Laurie and Curly for you. A couple of contradictions who don’t express exactly what’s on their minds.

The culmination of the process is to match movements to the subtext, so that gestures – and these can be as subtle as a shift in where one’s eyes focus – are timed so that the audience sees the impulse to sing a line before the line is sung.

I realize this might sound unnecessarily complex, or seem unnatural when expressed in a quick essay. But Sara’s dealing with a roomful of bright students who eventually grasp this (or don’t) over time, as a group. And think about this: In real life, we listen to people who say things but have thoughts they don’t say all the time. So, a Sara-directed performance is infinitely closer to real life than the far-less-acted vocal displays we’re all too used to seeing.

There are too many Sara-trained performers on Broadway to name. Hello Dolly, School of Rock, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Wicked, The Bridges of Madison County, Little Shop of Horrors, Side Show, Throughly Modern Millie. I know, I know: Lists are boring to read. Has one teacher put a higher percentage of students on The Great White Way? I think not. Call it the benefit of being bit by a pit bull.

But the benefit for me, being a part of all of this, is a revolution in how I think about writing lyrics and music. My Sara-fed familiarity with the process actors go through has immeasurably affected my creative process on my last four or five musicals. Today a huge quantity of entertainers are wishing Sara a happy birthday, acknowledging how she upped their game. Me too, but it’s a slightly different game.


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.


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.