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.

 

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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!


Jingle

December 7, 2018

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

How’d you get Sondheim to come?

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

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

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

Is The Christmas Bride an original musical? About Christmas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Ride a Harley

November 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


Why does it have to be a musical?

October 12, 2018

My marriage, which turns 15 years old today, is a musical. Now, many of you are saying, “But of course it’s a musical. Your wedding was a musical.” And some might say “I don’t want to read yet another blog entry about how wonderful Joy is. There’s one of those on her birthday and also the meet-aversary, which coincides with the day she started her casting company.” I get it: This isn’t supposed to be a personal blog, where I publicize testaments of love. It’s about writing musicals, and I know that, at first glance, that first sentence sounds like a poetic reach, romantic piffle. But, as always, what I’m trying to do hear is shed some light on the wonderful world of musical comedy creation.

Overture

But it’s true: Fifteen years ago tonight about 150 theatre-goers poured into the Soho Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Michael Lavine took the piano, and a musical began. Five ladies in eveningwear asked a good question, “Why does this have to be a musical?” And from this first title, a sort of subversion commenced. The audience knew they were about to see an original musical comedy; the invitation came with tickets. But the weird thing is, characters in the show are already casting some shade on why we were doing this. Expectation, bucked.

Shows need to deal with the mind-sets of the people who’ll see them. Our Wedding was designed for exactly the folks who’d RSVP’d. When a writer has deep understanding of who’ll be in the seats, a host of comic possibilities open up. It’s easier to be funny with those whose sense of humor is a known element. The same probably applies to sentiment. Weddings can be extremely treacly; or, so hip no one sheds a tear. Joy and I reveled in chucking certain traditions that didn’t feel quite right to us. But the wedding show ends with a vow taken by the entire assembled crowd: to “be there” as observers and supporters throughout our lives. This has largely proved true.

The Act One Inciting Incident

Ooh, it looks like I’m going to use McKee jargon in this one. So, somewhere fairly early in your first act, something’s going to have to upset the status quo. Joy’s abandonment of her burgeoning performing career catapulted us into uncharted territory. Her voice was so widely revered, all who’d heard her sing naturally assumed she’d entertain more and more of the world for years to come. If Harold Hill brought music to River City, Joy stilled the bells on the hill.

But the story charged off in a new direction, as good tales do. One of the causes of Joy’s disaffection was how actors are treated in this business of show. And her new career as casting director gave her the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands who trod the boards. A peach to the players, if you will. And me, I loved her more. The singing voice was heard no more but the voice of advocacy rocked the theatre. She shook things up, had a huge positive effect on the lives of countless actors with her innovations and inventions.

It’s a good idea to conclude your first act with something startling, intriguing, which the audience might wonder about all intermission long. A baby?!

Intermission

Time out from our story so I can say, yet again, one of the things I say most often about musicals. They should regularly get the audience to wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t like those shows whose plots are eminently predictable. Characters don’t need to be likable, per se, but one must have a rooting interest in what’s going to happen to them. And you shouldn’t be certain what’s going to be. Dare to be unpredictable.

Act Two: The plot thickens

Our daughter, the Princess of Pure Delight, has always been physically fearless. She mastered walking and was off on a tear in every direction, which led me to question whether the sidewalks of New York were the best place for her. My interest in relocating to the suburbs surprised everyone who knows me. Manhattan is the stuff that gets my blood coursing through my veins. But I still worked there, and our house was near enough. I adjusted. Our girl thrived. And our heroine? Not as joyful as you might have predicted. Running a small business can be an annoying chore. The long hours plus the commute meant less time to kick back and be a mommy. I think of the Porgy and Bess divorce-for-sale scene, “That is a complication.”

But the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three, deals with many of the same issues. Working mother and stay-at-home dad, and much friction as each spouse envies the other. It sure would be nice to go off to work and be appreciated by everyone rather than clean up spilled oatmeal all the time. Or, it sure would be nice to be home to watch all the remarkable things the little one says and does. Discontent, disquietude, conflict: elements of an entertainment rooted in reality.The First Dance

One May morning when the daughter was in pre-school, I went to my favorite convivial coffee place and I wrote a scene in which the wife gets her dream job and then emerges the idea of having the husband quit his to raise the child. It’s a scene I’ve struggled to make organic: things happen quickly; I thought nobody would believe it. But a matter of weeks later, Joy got a spanking new job, casting at a place she’d always dreamed of working at; I quit mine. The difficulties of adjusting, for us three, were a case of life imitating art.

And I explained this to friends who pointed out that the very idea that a musical writer could write something that then becomes true could be a pretty good idea for a musical. But wait a sec: Our marriage is already a musical. Or two. Fun and funny, and occasionally fraught, and, like they sing in Seesaw, one hell of a ride.

 


I’m not a real woman

September 17, 2018

When an L.A.-based musical theatre writer asked me if she should move to New York, I realized I’d failed to commemorate, here, the anniversary of my arrival there, soon after high school, in a year ending with 8. By the next year ending in 8 – that is, ten years later – I’d had seven musicals produced and a college degree.

None of that is coincidental. Or course my young friend should move to New York. Of course there’s no way I would have seen so many of my shows on the boards in my twenties if I was anywhere but New York. Gotham is invigorating vinegar; we in the musical theatre biz are the flies.

And that seems obvious to me, a no-brainer. Usually, I write these essays in the literal old-school way, with a thesis I must prove true. But does anyone really need convincing of the greatness of The Apple?

So, instead, a few random memories; things I think could have only happened in New York.

Nobody ever gets raped in Kansas City…

28th

On a visit when I was sixteen, I saw a little revue with a song that maintained that only right here, in New York City, could anything ever happen to you. Such was the town’s reputation then, and today we’re more used to the idea that while there are more murders in NYC, there aren’t all that many per capita; my borough, Manhattan, wasn’t a hazard. But there’s a weird sort of macho pride to living, unscathed, in a place your Aunt Winifred thinks is a nightmarish hellscape. Really? You really have an Aunt Winifred? Cool.

Nowadays, we’re used to the transgendered, but my freshman year of college, the concept was quite a head-spinner. I was hired to accompany an evening of Brecht plays, and cabaret songs were warbled by a Sally Bowles-type with fabulous legs in fish-net stockings. Six feet tall, plus heels, and, you guessed it, born a man. I had a job to do, and didn’t want my concentration to drift towards the down-below details of the Amazon I was playing for. But then came the staging. I had my back to the audience, playing an upright piano. The singer sat on top of it with her legs spread, one heel just past the piano’s high note, the other just past the low note. The reconfigured anatomy I didn’t want to think about was directly in front of my eyes. You try not to think about it.

Years later I was playing piano bar in the Village and didn’t bat an eye when more than a dozen drag queens poured into the place. They’d attended some event – Wigstock? – and now wanted to sing show tunes. On another night there, I kept my cool as a terrible fist fight broke out. The combatants were near the top of a metal staircase that headed to the basement, and a fall the wrong way could have seriously injured someone. But I knew the bar’s able bouncer would soon pry them apart so I just continued playing Isn’t It Romantic?

I Walk a Little Faster

The thing Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman captured so well is that, every step you take in New York is filled with romantic possibilities. You’re brushing up with strangers, constantly, and one may turn out to be the love of your life. My cousin met the woman he married on a subway platform, and years later I wrote a song about such sweet serendipity. If love is in the soot-filled air, you’ve more inspiration for the romance that goes into your shows.

That song was part of a projected revue a famous restaurateur tried to hire me to write. I negotiated a price and we got together one afternoon, sitting in a booth to sign a contract. Her assistants, two rather large fellows, sat in the booth with us, and I was literally up against the wall. The henchmen – can I call them thugs? – complained about things in the contract that we’d already agreed upon, as if my work couldn’t possibly be worth the meager fee I’d accepted. I knew, right then, that I couldn’t risk working with these people, but couldn’t make a quick exit because the thugs wouldn’t get up.

Maybe that’s not an only-in-New-York event, but I felt I was lucky I didn’t end up in concrete shoes at the bottom of the East River. Do would-be revue-writers get drowned in the Monongahela? You tell me.

At auditions for On the Brink, in walked a man who seemed to be a crazed killer, and, naturally, we thought “Hey, our opening number contains a crazed gunman! We should call him back.” Then it turned out his singing was the one thing about him that wasn’t up to snuff. For The Christmas Bride, auditions were held in such a remote and sketchy place, few people showed up. One middle-aged character man impressed us, and he phoned his girlfriend (who was half his age) to tell her to rush down since she wouldn’t face a lot of competition. She got the lead.

Then there was the time we all showed up one morning to find a locked theatre space, and nobody had the key. So, we moved across the street to an underused atrium, one of the oddest looking spaces I’ve ever seen. Tall but very thin, with one long staircase stuck to one wall, and one more leading nowhere just for show. ** heavy sigh **

The real American folk-song is a rag

The Company of Women was developed in a loft of dubious legality in a non-residential part of town, right around the corner from the original Tin Pan Alley. We commenced creating with a dozen performers improvising scenes from their lives. And I’d be inspired. Not just by what I saw, but from the presence of ghosts. That is, as I walked down 28thStreet, I knew I was literally walking in the footsteps ofGeorge Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. And that mattered to me. A lot. Go try and find that anywhere else in the world.