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!”

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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.

 


Under the pool

September 7, 2018

She’s alive!

My last two posts celebrated the birthdays of long-dead musical theatre writers. And, since writing them, the world’s lost Neil Simon (who wrote five musicals), Barbara Harris (the most delightful musical comedy star of the 1960s), and a couple of folks who were even more famous. So let’s veer a different way and celebrate the lovable living woman who enlivens my days, my wife, whose birthday was Labor Day.

Beloved.

Beloved, she is, and not just by me. We’d be walking down some West Side street, and someone I’d never met would scream her name in glee – “Joy!” and that embodied a double meaning, since the person exclaiming her name virtually bubbled over with elation. And there’d be a big hug, and a truthfully expressed “thank you” and most often some mention of how Joy changed the performer’s life.

For that’s what she did, for the large community of New York performers, for well over a decade. Individually, at the auditions she ran, she’d make the aspirant feel welcome, supported, even loved. She’d be honest, like the time she stopped a friend of mine after he’d left the room to tell him he wasn’t going to get this particular role, but she’d be calling him in for something else soon. And, yes, he won that role; it changed his life. If they bumped into each other today, you’d see the exact scene I just described. But he’s one of many hundreds.

The acting community at large saw tangible improvements to the auditioning process.That means things like a digital sign-up system, improved waiting rooms, invaluable help with learning what to prepare and what the team is looking for, opened possibilities for performers of all ethnicities, gender identities, and what I’ll clumsily call “ableness” – whether one’s in a wheelchair, or legally blind, might not bar one from Legally Blonde.

Joy denies deserving credit for these systemic changes in the theatre industry. And you know you’re reading a biased news source, but I’d love to hear the name of any casting director who’s done more in the comments. But first, a story that relates to Neil Simon.

About a year into our relationship, Simon’s first memoir came out, Rewrites. I think Joy and I each had a copy, and we were very much enjoying reading it at the same time, or not exactly at the same time, as I was a few chapters ahead. As Doc detailed the love story of meeting and courting his first wife, Joan, Joy decided that, in some sense, they were like us. I was this wry and prolific theatre writer; she enjoyed tennis. Our first names had a lot of letters in common. As the pages turned, she was more and more convinced Joy and Noel were just like Joan and Neil.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Should I break the news to her? Or should Simon?”

As I was dithering over whether it was a good idea to inform her of her doppelganger’s untimely demise – a story that Simon used as part of the basis for his play, Chapter Two – the phone rang. All I could hear was crying. Joan died in the prime of life, in the flowering of true romance; Simon wrote it up to move readers who knew, and readers who didn’t

But this gets me thinking about Chapter Two, and how Simon took a turn of events from his life – his re-entry into the world of romance as a widower – and wrote it up as a funny and touching play that the world naturally assumed was about him and Marsha Mason. For the past five years, I’ve been working on a musical about a couple with a young daughter and the world naturally assumes this has something to do with me and Joy. It’s an entertainment, not a documentary, and there’s nothing to be gained by hewing close to the truth. So, I take my premise – that having a kid affects the marital relationship – and dramatize the implications with no regard as to whether any of these things actually happened. If audiences assume it’s real, we’ll both be annoyed.

Besides, I already wrote a musical in which Joy and I were accurately represented as Bride and Groom – Our Wedding. You can buy the Original Cast Album – quite a rarity – and enjoy Joy playing the real Joy. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how she kept sending me back to the drawing board on her big number. I keep creating new numbers for spots in one of my current projects. And a sense of hopelessness might set in if I didn’t recall the happy result on Joy’s eleven o’clock song.

So, dissatisfaction with what I’ve written is a life-long recurring theme with me. And that applies to this little essay today: I feel it doesn’t nearly do Joy justice. And it didn’t even come out on her birthday! Her birthday is being celebrated over a period of many days, starting with Labor Day weekend and continuing on a few more. All this fun – in person, in real life – has taken away time I might spend creating this here thing. I’m reminded of a Gilbert & Sullivan song called A Man Who Would Woo A Fair Maid and fear this endeavor may earn me a punch in the ear.

He must learn that the thrill of a touch
May mean little, or nothing, or much…
Then a glance may be timid or free;
It will vary in mighty degree,
From an impudent stare
To a look of despair
That no maid without pity can see.
And a glance of despair is no guide—
It may have its ridiculous side;
It may draw you a tear
Or a box on the ear;
You can never be sure till you’ve tried

 

 


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.


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.