Sing what you say

October 12, 2017

“All day the records play.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is just what a fiancé wants to hear.

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Such good friends – part two

October 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

producer Kim Vasquez, me, Liz, Marc

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

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

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

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


The Dottie Frances show

September 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flying naked baby

September 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rondo

August 4, 2017

It’s a big anniversary, ‘round about now, of my musical for children called Popsicle Palace. Except it’s no longer called Popsicle Palace. Merely because the owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, the show is now called Not a Lion. You’d think that, rather than telling us to cease and desist, they might have explored striking up a partnership to our mutual benefit. But good ideas tend to evaporate faster than frozen ade on a stick in the sun.

In a way, Not a Lion is based on another of my musicals that ran into a rights problem. There was a time when the estate of C. S. Lewis allowed anyone to adapt any of his Chronicles of Narnia to the stage. When I was a teenager, my friend Jodi Rogaway proposed that we musicalize The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of the songs I wrote were pretty childish – after all, I wasn’t a grown-up, and knew I was writing for children. But a handful were impressive: cassettes of these helped me get into college and the BMI workshop.

Years passed and Jodi and I lost touch. But then I heard that she’d spent a year studying children’s theatre in Birmingham, England. And there, for one performance, she produced and directed our Through the Wardrobe. I was not yet 20. So I accomplished the coup of getting a show in front of an audience while still in my teens, even if I wasn’t there to see it.

More years passed, and Jodi had married a writer named Lee Rooklin. They lived not far from a family-run theatre in-the-round in Los Angeles, and weekend matinees were musicals for children. Jodi again seized her opportunity and got the theatre all excited about doing Through the Wardrobe. But, after ten years, the rights issue became a big deal. The Lewis estate was no longer allowing adaptations willy-nilly. We thought all was lost.

But Jodi knew she had a hook in a fish. This theatre wanted to work with her, and really liked my songs in that score. Jodi and her husband came up with a completely different story that could utilize at least some of the old Wardrobe songs.

It’s a completely different animal when you’re adults fashioning an original story together. For me, it meant adding a half-dozen songs to the half-dozen we opted to keep from the old score. And I also got to tweak the old ones: a weak piece for a minor character got overhauled with a sort of tap break recitation-in-rhythm. Almost beat for beat, Frozen, decades later, employed the same idea in its best song, In Summer. The cast, and people who saw the production, couldn’t tell the old from the new. But I see them as Before-Lehman Engel and After Lehman-Engel. I knew so much more about moving a story through song.

The premise of our new tale is that an ordinary housecat gets whisked off to a land where the local animals all think he’s a lion. And I found a way of putting that identity crisis smack dab in the middle of a duet. A cat, claiming to be just a cat, points out certain characteristics that indicate his species. An observer – who happens to be a penguin – points out a bunch of things that are true of both lions and cats. Not a Lion became a title song long after the run, but it’s among my favorite things I’ve written.

The score’s full of fun forms: there’s a four-part quodlibet, a round, something of a fugue, and, while I was coming up with this stuff, my mind went back to a song I’d enjoyed as a boy, I Am a Fine Musician. In it, different “bandsmen” – that is, singers imitating various instruments, add their sounds to a brief little chorus.

I stole the form but used clashing swords, fife, drum and the sound of an otter whacking its tail against the ground. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I spent that summer in L.A. to orchestrate and musical direct. At the time, my father was moving out of a chalet-like house in the hills, and I got to house-sit for a time, which was good living. The show was so successful, it often got sold out, and the finite run was extended several times. And I recall the company of actors as being particularly warm to me. Which prompts me to quote the finale, which could have been written about them:

I feel warm. Warm. Warm!
Warm as a fire
Or warm as alphabet soup
Warm as a choir
That huddles, like this, in a group
So warm that a snowball
Is no ball in no time at all
We’ve just begun the season
That comes before the fall
And it’s all
Because of you
You humans from beyond the border
Figment’s order is restored
And, speaking of the border, I see the way back home
Home. Home!
Home is where it’s warm as a canyon
That runs through hot desert sands
Warm, my companion
As we’re warmly holding hands
Life here was an igloo
A big losing battle it seemed
But now our home is warmer than we ever dreamed it would be
Warm. Warm. Warm.


A cat can look at a king

July 3, 2017

Richard Rodgers’ birthday was June 28, which means it’s the anniversary of the extraordinary birthday party I threw him, in absentia, a large and even number of years ago. He was alive then, and I saw he was turning a round number, so I did the thing that seemed perfectly natural to me: I invited all my friends over and checked out as many Rodgers scores as I could find from the library. We would all stand around the piano, singing as many of his songs as we knew, which was quite a few. I made a reel-to-reel tape recording, and we gleefully sang for hours and hours.

No other composer could have been feted this way. A large group of kids, singing one man’s songs for that much time – could only be Rodgers. In my house, we owned the Rodgers and Hammerstein Song Book and the Rodgers and Hart Song Book and they both got a lot of play every day of the week. My trip to the library filled out the repertoire with scores he wrote after those books had been published: Flower Drum Song, Cinderella, The Sound of Music, No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz and, I think, Two By Two. (Here I must note what a windfall it is to have a library with so many Broadway scores to check out.) Our school had recently done Allegro, meaning that my friends knew all the songs from a show that’s obscure to many. We had also just done Carousel. The soprano who’d just played Julie Jordan sang more songs than anybody, but when we came to that score, she decided to sing Carrie Pipperidge’s song, and “Carrie” sang hers.

I sang only the songs no one else knew. Like Like a God, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, The Man I Used To Be. And I never left the piano. It was up to others to answer the door, get snacks – anything a host does. Which reminds me of the many marathon piano-playing sessions throughout my life. My first regular job was playing piano bar from 11pm to 4am. I was encouraged to take breaks, but never did. I’d also hosted a cast party during the run of Carousel, in which we served a huge pot of clam chowder. Bellies were full; hearts were warm. They all had a real good time.

Did I have any friends who didn’t sing? Yes: the guys I played poker with. They accepted the idea I was throwing a party that wasn’t for them. Late in the evening, one called with the devastating news that another of the boys’ mother had killed herself. So, when I think back on that mostly magical night, my memory always goes to the inherent emotional roller coaster.

I know: you didn’t come here to read of personal tragedies of my friends. Back to Rodgers, and when I think of roller coasters, I often think of It’s a Grand Night For Singing, from the film, State Fair. Fun rides at fairs: there’s my train of thought. And the time I went over to Julie’s house and sat down at the piano and played a medley of Richard Rodgers waltzes. So often they have this infectious fun quality – bright and brisk. Done right, they seem to radiate joy: Falling In Love With Love With Love, I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy, Money Isn’t Everything, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Out of My Dreams, and, of course, Lover. There’s a legend that when Rodgers met Peggy Lee, who had recorded a jazzy version of Lover that robbed it of this sense of giddy joy, he told her “It’s a waltz, you know.”

That makes him sound a little prickly. Certainly, enough of the world appreciates a Rodgers waltz. People might list them as one of their Favorite Things. There are stories about him not being a very nice man. And, when I tried to recapture the magic of that party on the Rodgers centennial, I made the mistake of inviting a friend who was rather close to Lorenz Hart’s relatives. This group of heirs, he told us, were hopping mad that Rodgers had used his business acumen, during the years when Hart was drunk practically all the time, to set up an unfair contract that unevenly distributed the many millions they’d earned in their collaboration. This was a different sort of downer at what should have been a Rodgers celebration.

His musical-writing daughter Mary, toward the end of her life, publicly carped about what a distant father he’d been. (Adelaide, if you’re reading this, do not do the same.) But I’ve a different tale to tell about Rodgers as a human being.

My mother had never written a letter to a celebrity in her life. But, watching her son and all of his friends toasting Richard Rodgers this way, she felt he had to be told. Nowadays, every celebrity has someone handling fan mail, and communicating with artists we admire is a common thing. Rodgers was of a different age, an age when the famous person never wrote back. And I guess that also makes him sound a bit inhuman from our twenty-first century perspective.

But my mother’s account of my little party caught his eye. And he wrote back – something he practically never did – and pointed out that there’d been a recent Carousel concert at the White House where the president had praised his contribution to American culture.

Wonderful as it was, it brought me no more pleasure than hearing of your son Noel’s evening in my honor.

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.

 


Already I’m laughing

May 21, 2017

So, I did a silly thing. And by that I mean a musical comedy project so completely crazy, my remembrance is bound to seem like a fever dream. But I swear, it actually happened. Twenty years ago this month was Tom Carrozza’s appearance at Moonwork, which occurred on Lafayette Street, in what was then part of the Stella Adler studio space. And I suppose one could be rather misleading and call it a cabaret act, but, despite the surface resemblance, this was a skewering of the art form, an anti-cabaret act, if you will.

In a normal cabaret act, a small audience (double digits) files into an intimate space, is forced to order some drinks, and out comes a singer who thinks he sings well, accompanied by an expressionless pianist. He’ll sing some favorite songs, often showing off vocal prowess; he’ll talk – probably about the songs, possibly revealing autobiographical anecdotes. Hopefully, the set contains some variety and it’s all over in 50 minutes, max.

(Yes, that’s a reminder to my friend, Max, who’s liable to run over an hour. Don’t do it, Max!)

I was Carrozza’s one-man band, Corrosion, and the huge room downtown was anything but intimate. It might have served as a cafeteria by day: large tables that could fold, I think. The acoustics were terrible – and cabaret fans love hearing every word in swankier boîtes. And Tom, I think (although I guess there’s a doubt here), has no illusion that he can actually sing mellifluously. But he had the requisite confidence that if he did an act in which he sang old songs, it would be fun and funny, and by God it was.

We wrote some astoundingly ridiculous songs together. Sometimes, he’d give me lyrics; more often, I’d write words and music with his peculiar talents in mind. Once, he handed me an entire screenplay – something along the lines of Airplane but set in a hospital. He asked me to create the theme that goes over the final credits. Minus Tom’s lyric, It Coursed Through Our Veins was used as the overture at Moonwork.

The rest of the program consisted of original songs, odd numbers out of my trunk, even odd numbers out of Tom’s trunk, pop medleys that made no sense, and great comedy songs that nobody’s ever heard. Tom found something Eddie Cantor once had done called She Turned Out To Be the Girlfriend of a Boyfriend of Mine, which, as you might imagine, hit the ears with a different set of associations in 1997 than it had originally. I got him to do You, a musical list of song titles from a show once called So Long, 174th Street. And the piece of resistance – or maybe that’s not quite the right term – a German piece from the late 30s. And now you’re thinking: What? A Nazi anthem? Well, no and yes: Years earlier, I’d done an extremely loose translation of a wannabe Dietrich number probably only performed by a Dietrich wannabe. Tom seized on the opportunity to spoof a Teutonic popular song. He performed the first half in German and to try to get the audience to sing along, with the loony expectation that everyone knows the song. And German.

I like your physique and your jawline
The way you looked wounded, just now
It matters not if you’re a Fräulein
Or a faithless philandering Frau

I’m sorry, young duck, to upset you…
Honestly, though, I’ll forget you
With someone new tomorrow night.

As they later said in Avenue Q, “That is German!”


Another send-up of the cabaret world concerned how, in autobiographical sections, a certain hyper-emotionalism tends to rear its ugly head. So, during a medley of the overdone rock ballads of our youth – Knights In White Satin, Stairway To Heaven  – this decidedly unhip crooner breaks down in tears, as if those classics were simply too moving to him. Then, striking a truer if still hysterical note, Tom reminisced about his time with the avant garde sketch troupe, Mental Furniture. When he set up a song from their work for the two of us to sing, it became a lampoon of songwriters explaining where their songs fit in musicals – the sort of thing I suspect most readers of this blog are mighty familiar with. Tons of characters appear in What’s That Smell? and then, out of practically nowhere, came the single dirtiest lyric I’ve ever warbled. And it just rushes by. The audience may have been shocked, but they were immediately focused on what the next punch line would be. For me, the greater challenge was playing it with no music. I visited the late great Doug Nervik in his squooshed apartment (practically a walk-in closet) in the East Village, to be shown how he’d remembered it going. Far more difficult than singing a four-letter word that today turns my face a bright fuchsia.

(Later, when Tom went into a studio to record the song, a less salacious substitution was sung, probably because the engineer’s wife was around.)

The attempt to make every moment in this one-man one-night bit of lunancy wild enough to provoke laughter is one in which we succeeded with flying colors. (Who’s this “we,” white man? The lion’s share of the credit belongs to Tom.) I learned a good deal about humor working with an experienced funnyman, and, to my great good fortune, Tom had a brilliant idea about what we should do next. Write an entire musical, with a plot and characters and a chorus, in which everything was unspeakably silly. He’d do book; I’d do music and lyrics. And so begat Area 51: The Musical! But that’s another silly thing, to be talked about on another silly day.