Kate’s brother’s story

April 11, 2017

Twenty years ago, a book was published, and even though it’s specifically about screenwriting, it’s a good time to discuss it here. Story, by Robert McKee, is more famous for the influence it’s had – often mocked – than what it actually says. The author held costly seminars for many years, widely attended by a whole generation of Hollywood scribes. Critics sometimes claim he’s the main reason Hollywood output is so awful. But little of what McKee writes about film isn’t applicable to musicals. His title is apt. Don’t you want your musical to have an effective story?

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps what draws you to musicals is the fact that many succeed without adhering to any particular structure or set of rules. I’m one who’s always been fascinated with departures from our traditions. An example leaps to mind. A bunch of improvisers developed characters who embodied the varying anxieties of kids at a Spelling Bee. Eventually, a songwriter and bookwriter were called in to shape the improvisation into a musical with a set script. And the next thing you know, the libretto wins a Tony Award.

That’s an unusual situation, to be sure. If you’re doing that traditional thing, of sitting down to a blank page and writing a narrative for the stage, at some point you better think about the art of storytelling. Regular readers of this blog know that the craft of how the tale gets told is an obsession of mine. Usually, when I see a show that’s failed to entertain me, there’s something out of kilter in this important area. So, stumbling on the information that Story got published in 1997, I think back to the time a smart musical-writing friend insisted I read what McKee had to say.

If I say this changed my life, or altered the course of my career, I’ll sound like a brainwashed McKee acolyte. In reality, I would never urge anybody to follow McKee’s prescriptions. But what I’d say, to anyone interested in narrative in dramatic form, is: read the book, because it will get you thinking about cause and effect in plot points.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I’ll use my own work to paint a little before-and-after picture. For many years, I’d toiled on an original musical. It was missing a certain something and I couldn’t tell what. I’d created characters, set down a sequence of amusing or entertaining events, resolved everything at the end. Individual moments were engaging people – various songs from the score had gotten big hands in many cabaret shows. But nobody wanted to produce the whole musical; it just didn’t seem exciting enough.

McKee defines an inciting incident that comes early on, propelling the hero into action, perhaps putting him on a quest. Now, without drinking the kool-aid – without buying in the notion that every musical needs a protagonist questing due to some incitement – I couldn’t help noticing my musical had none of that. There wasn’t a single hero. Nobody had any sort of a quest (unless you count an unemployed character who was looking for a job). And I merely had characters meet each other in lieu of any sort of incident. I put down my pen. And pondered.

Eventually, I fashioned a whole new original story, one in which every action had a consequence. Such Good Friends hardly McKee-ian. The hero has no greater goal than preserving a happy status quo. I wouldn’t claim there’s an inciting incident, as Story defines it. The first act includes a flashback to how the characters met, but only one. But the show was a gripping experience for the audience, to a certain extent, because McKee got my thinking about the elements of tale-telling. Events lead to other events, sometimes in unexpected ways. Characters always have motivations, but they evolve over time. When I compare Such Good Friends, with all its narrative thrust, to my unproduced musical, with its lack thereof, it’s hard to escape the notion that reading Story had something to do with my evolution.

In between those shows, though, I wrote a musical which, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, uses a specific non-theatrical format as a model, and there’s no real narrative. This was Our Wedding: The Musical! Guests at a wedding know what they’re in for, and don’t require a story that goes somewhere. Similarly, there are successful movies that completely eschew the McKee paradigm. Your musical can be totally unconventional and do very well. But being exposed to his fairly rigorous and often amusing analysis will inspire you to concentrate more on narrative. And that’s something I wish many more new musicals would do.

 


A song that shows range

March 18, 2017

One of the musical theatre’s greatest living composers celebrates his 90th birthday today. So, a few words about John Kander. We’ve met on many occasions, and working with him, playing his piano in his home is one of my most cherished memories. He is kind and generous, gentlemanly and humble. But the most amazing thing, I think, is that he keeps going. There’s a new Kander musical playing in New York right now (Kid Victory) and I’m hard pressed to think of another Broadway composer who’s created new work at this age. God knows what he’ll write in his nineties, but I’m looking forward to it.

There are a couple of things everybody says about Kander & Ebb and I hate restating the obvious. But Kander and his brilliant lyrical collaborator Fred Ebb had no fear: They were willing to take on topics nobody else would think of turning into a musical. Unpleasant parts of history get combined with sprightly old-fashioned Broadway tunes and somehow, sometimes, the combination works. Of course, there’s their masterpiece, Cabaret. We’re instantly charmed by the razzmatazz of the Kit Kat Klub, and, over the course of the show, that seductive music works on us. As Hitler gains power, we feel what the characters feel, that this evil has snuck up on us while we were enjoying a merry dance. Similarly audacious was using the trappings of a minstrel show to tell the appalling tragedy of The Scottsboro Boys. Think how easily that idea could have gone south, using a form now considered offensive to add energy and humor to an expressionist depiction of a miscarriage of justice. Prisons are prominent in a number of Kander & Ebb productions: Kiss of the Spiderwoman is set entirely in a South American cell. But the characters keep their sanity by recalling the music of their lives outside.

The other thing is that Kander is the vamp king. The introductions to his refrains are infectious, and convey delight. Think of Wilkommen or When You’re Good To Mama; the first bars of All I Care About Is Love could be a song in itself.

One of the hardest of his vamps to play, in my experience, is the sixteenth-note riot leading into Colored Lights. That’s one of the songs I had to play on his piano as he coached one of my students. He couldn’t have been more gracious in helping me with my struggle, playing it himself, saying, just run your fingers over those keys with a little swell, like waves coming in from the ocean.

Allow me to clear up a myth about the American musical with more Broadway performance than any other: Chicago was a hit the first time around. It opened the same season as A Chorus Line – one of those dancers chose to ditch the Michael Bennett project for the Bob Fosse – so it didn’t win at the Tonys, though there were eleven nominations. Still, it was a very hot ticket, and ran for a long time, yet, for some reason a lot of people believe it was some sort of a flop. Of course, everything seems like a flop compared to the revival, which has been running more than twenty years on Broadway and counting. I saw the original production: a flower thrown by Gwen Verdon landed in the lap of my friend sitting next to me. In high school, a bunch of friends wanted to perform Cell Block Tango but couldn’t acquire the music, so I transcribed the whole thing – a painstaking process that I’d only undergo for a song I dearly loved.

My favorite Kander tune has always been Why Should I Wake Up? At first glance, it seems a plain 1960s ballad, alternating between a major seventh on the tonic and a minor seventh on the second note of the scale, like a lot of tunes of the era. But after the lyric “euphoric state” the accompaniment surprises with a flat fifth. The music tells us there’s an evil undercurrent beneath this romantic fantasy. And it’s subtle enough that listeners don’t recognize what’s happening. Another ballad that uses the flat fifth, If You Leave Me Now, got cut before The Happy Time opened. It’s gorgeous – I cry every time I play it – but, I suppose, had too little to do with the show’s Quebec setting.

Music should direct our imaginations to a specific time and place. The opening strain of Zorba transports us to Greece. A measure of Steel Pier gets us to the Atlantic City boardwalk during the depression. Or the pounding organ waltz of The Rink and we’re on a different pier on the other coast. In thinking about Kander’s amazing career, I’m reminded of his song, Don’t Leave, which mentions so many places around the world. Not to be confused with Don’t Go, which is rapturous, and was created for a long-forgotten revisal of Cabaret.

Since the original Cabaret is such a brilliant and moving entertainment, the mere existence of a revisal sticks in my craw. To me, it’s a horrible shame that most people know Cabaret from the strange rewrite where the American bumpkin is more into Sally Bowles’ green nail polish than her erogenous zones, making an abortion far less emotional than it had been previously. The only saving grace is the score. And you get to hear I Don’t Care Much.

I’m a sucker for minor key waltzes, and sitting on the second note of the minor scale is a form of harmonic propulsion that’s catnip to me. Once, at a party, Kander & Ebb were challenged to improvise a song. “What should the song be called?” Ebb asked. “I Don’t Care Much” was the response, and, legend has it, Kander instantly launched into a minor oom-pah-pah. Amazingly, they later wrote this down as the first draft of a song they intended for Sally, around the time of that abortion. That was cut from the original. The hit revisal robs it of its piquancy, weirdly giving it to a male narrator.

My inability to embrace Cabaret Redux makes me seem old and out of touch, like someone who’d carp “They don’t write ‘em like they used to.” But Kander does. Here in the twenty-first century, Kander still gives us melodies as hummable as anything from the Golden Era.

And, of course, he’s one of the great composers of the tail end of that era. So, my happy birthday wish quotes Ebb, and one of the first songs he and Kander wrote together:

It’s a fact you can quote
Best old goat is good old goat
Happy New Year
My dear friend


Love can happen

February 14, 2017

Where have all the love songs gone? Long time passing.

So, I’m not going to discuss La La Land but one thing that struck me relates to Valentine’s Day and something of an existential crisis for me. At no point do the characters sing their affections for each other. In that way, the much-praised movie is markedly different from the cinematic musicals it seeks to emulate. But I worry that this is a sign of our times, and scarily common in stage musicals. Not a lot of songs that say “I love you” these days.

This brings to mind some lyrics from 75 years ago by Ogden Nash:

Tell a stranger, by curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger that love is now outmoded?
…I can’t believe that love has lost its glamour,
That passion is really passé?
If gender is just a term in grammar,
How can I ever find my way?

The danger is real. In a comment on this here blog six years ago, a millennial told me this:

There’s another consideration to be had in any discussion of romanticism in lyrics: the audience’s perception. Most people who make love in song come across to most people as either unschooled doe-eyed ninnies or total bullshitters. What would be your reaction if you saw a teenaged boy in real life say to his girlfriend, “Today, the world was just an address” or “Tonight there will be no morning star”? You’d think he was a bullshitter, because the falseness of those lines would convey exactly that.

First, I’m grateful to hear a different view. Second, why compare musicals to real life? Nobody attended West Side Story for an accurate depiction of the city’s gang wars. Third, if there’s a weakness in the quoted lyrics, well, declarations of ardor would appear to be Stephen Sondheim’s weak suit.

But I must admit I’m haunted by something here. If a younger generation finds expressions of passion corny, outmoded, or unnecessary, well, what the hell am I? Every day, I’m endeavoring to create a musical about people who love each other, and, by God, at some point they’re going to express it to each other. Am I writing a show that no one wants to see?

“Born Too Late” seems an appropriate way of describing me. We all know there was a far earlier point in the history of musicals in which the main reasons shows existed was as settings for love songs. Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter and their contemporaries saw Broadway as the principle launching pad for chansons d’amour. The Age of Standards was a time when virtually every popular hit was birthed on the Great White Way. Sure, eventually, shows started telling stories that had intrinsic value, but I maintain that one of the principle reasons we love West Side Story is that we’re drawn to Tony and Maria earnestly warbling “Tonight there will be no morning star.” Still, in 2017, it’s a well-loved show.

When musicals shy away from romance, well, that seems to me oddly self-defeating. Musicals, more than any form, tell romantic stories in a powerful emotional way. They’re obviously different from plays in that whatever point is being put across the footlights is aided by harmony, orchestra, the power of singing. And an audience that can accept the convention of characters singing their hearts out is more likely to be accepting of pronouncements of passion.

If you find such things hoary, or embarrassing, you might not like some of my musicals. There are plenty of Sondheim shows in which nobody sings about happy romantic feelings, although precious few have premiered in the past 30 years. And some stories can be pretty compelling without characters who serenade a beloved – I’m thinking of two arresting pieces composed by Jeanine Tesori: Fun Home and Caroline, or Change – but I’m one who finds the subject interesting enough to write about again and again.

I probably point out far too frequently that Jeanine and I wrote the Columbia Varsity Show in successive years. And, I thought at the time, that hers was excellent; she was clearly going somewhere. But mine had something hers did not: a love song. Now, most folks wouldn’t think of putting a love song in a show meant to spoof various aspects of campus life. But I hit upon the idea that one could list notorious college places and experiences in the form of a dating couple recalling their initial encounters:

After seeing you at all my most embarrassing moments
With you standing so near every time I could have died
With my face a brilliant red
Who’d have believed you if you said
That today you would be standing at my side?
She: And that day at the Furnald Grocery,
I really wanted to scream
You saw me buying seven packages of Ortho-Creme
He: Or in the lobby, during the fire drill
She: The night I was setting my curls
He: I saw you notice my pajama top on one of the F.I.T. girls

(They approach each other, and tentatively, awkwardly, they kiss.)

I, too, am embarrassed that I’ve solidified my old fogey status with a reference to a long-forgotten contraceptive. Yes, I can remember a time when there was a word for people unfamiliar with Ortho-Creme: Parents.

And with that, I wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day.


La casa del agua

February 4, 2017

Heard a rumor that there’s a film musical in development about Industrials. And since most rumors turn out to be false and the overwhelming number of movies “in development” never actually get filmed, it seems foolish to wait around for a flick not-yet-flickering to answer the question. I can tell you what an Industrial is, and commemorate my own experience working on one twenty years ago.

An Industrial is a musical that is created not for the general public to see. Some large company – not normally a purveyor of entertainment – wants to put on a show for a specific audience, usually at a convention. In the sixties, when, say, Milliken, wanted to display its new line of textiles for industry buyers, they’d do it with a song and a dance and top-flight Broadway talent (Tommy Tune, Chita Rivera, Bock & Harnick, Bob Fosse). Big business could pay significantly better than hit-or-miss Broadway, and there’s been many a year when the bulk of Jason Robert Brown’s annual income has derived from his work for State Farm.

Just as you’re unlikely to hear anything from a Kander & Ebb industrial, I’m not at liberty to play you songs from my industrials. The client paid for them, and the client owns them. And I’m happy with the money I received. But, since twenty years have gone by, and one of the companies that hired me no longer exists, I suspect nobody will mind if I describe my experiences with The Making of “Larry: The Musical.”

In the late nineties, I spent much of my time working with improv groups; I also taught improv. I got to know a lot of performers in what was then a fairly small community (it’s now enormous). A particularly close friend was a manic and driven young talent named Michael Bridenstine. And, from doing countless shows together, we had a great deal of trust in one another. So, when he told me he was working with Rafi Reguer, who’d been one of my improv students, on a special project, I instantly knew to say yes.  And.

Rafi worked for a company, a discount brokerage called Waterhouse Securities. Every year, it held an annual convention for its employees, and part of that was some silly piece of entertainment. Rafi was responsible for making the assembled conventioneers laugh, and this year, the beloved founder, Larry Waterhouse, was retiring. This meant that Rafi and some executives faced the problem of outdoing their previous efforts. He and Bridenstine decided to put this problem – How do we give Larry a proper send-off? – front and center. They created a video mockumentary about the company entertainment committee commissioning a Broadway-style musical commemorating Waterhouse’s career. It would show the behind-the-scenes preparation, including auditions and rehearsals, and the task of writing a Broadway-style score fell to me.

Rafi collaborated with me on the lyrics, and here we were on unequal footing. As I’ve mentioned countless times here, the key component of effective comedy is knowing your audience. Rafi knew his fellow employees. I knew squat about what a discount brokerage does. So, Rafi would say things like “if this lady says the words ‘she’ll do’ it will get a big laugh” and I was forced to trust him. We were also on unequal footing since Rafi had hired me with company money: In that sense, he was my boss. And that’s the thing about Industrials: you, the artist, must please the executives. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Happily, we had a great deal of trust in each other, and each brought a different element to the table. I know from musical comedies. Michael knows from funny videos. Rafi knew what the hell a brokerage is. As the piece evolved, I found my collaborators admirably receptive to my ideas. There was a place for a ballad that would be so sentimental, it might make people cry. There was an opening number that could also have served as a jingle for the company. And, when I heard the employees included the boss’ sons, identical triplets, I had the idea to have them come into the screen one at a time in a line. So, during Three Heads Are Better Than One you see one identical triplet, followed by a second identical triplet, followed by a black performer who didn’t look like the first two but could clearly out-sing them. The video shows the third triplet’s disappointment in not getting cast as himself.

Rafi and Michael wouldn’t remember this, but the best time I had on the project was recording the music with a sound engineer. He had one electric keyboard, and we kept creating new tracks in which I’d add sounds until we got something that sounded reasonably close to a Broadway orchestra. You could call that orchestration-on-the-fly because we didn’t take much time doing it. Rare is the chance to say “Let’s add a muted trumpet” and suddenly it’s there.

Rafi appreciated this enough to create and distribute a CD, which includes all those tracks, sans vocals, so you hear the score as sung and then you hear the score with just those synthetic instruments. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to, always bringing up warm memories, and Rafi wrote some extremely complimentary liner notes. So it’s just like a normal cast album.

Except, of course, that there’s nothing quite normal about an Industrial. Larry: The Musical never appeared on any stage. Nor was it intended to. The video, The Making of “Larry: the Musical” won three industry awards (I’ve a statue, a huge poster, and the CD framed in the manner of Golden Records) and this was screened for 500 Waterhouse employees in a Las Vegas ballroom. I didn’t get to attend, but, again, trust Rafi: “They laughed their heads off,” he told me soon after, “and during your sentimental ballad, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” I’m proud to have unleashed the Waterhouse waterworks twenty years ago.

(short trailer)


Marion

December 25, 2016

‘Twas five years ago, during chilly December

I flew to New England – how well I remember

The frost hit my lungs as my chest swelled with pride

To see a production of my lovely Bride

No, I don’t mean Joy, then the newest of mothers

My fictional Bride, which surpasses all others

 

You might say “What? The Dickens?” and there you’d be right

On his tale of two sisters we’d based our delight

From The Battle of Life sprang the seed of our plot

You might say “What? That’s Dickens?” for most have forgot

His least-heralded story, of sisterly duty

We changed several plot points, retained all its beauty.

Our unfaithful revision seems Charles Dickens’ fulf-

Illment; here credit is due to librettist M.K. Wolfe.

(Excuse the enjambment. This would be pristine

If only she’d kept the name, Margit Ahlin.)

 

I jump hurdles, sometimes, to rhyme a tough word

But on Christmas Bride something different occurred:

It cried out for romance, the ardor you gush

No score I’ve composed’s more enticingly lush

No lyrics more passionate; each song – it sears!

Stoic New Englanders: mugs streaked with tears.

And the best part? The narrative: T.C.B.’s text

Got patrons to contemplate what happens next.

When scripts keep ‘em guessing, attention is paid

And that’s half The Battle (of Life) as conveyed

In a tiny production, in the smallest of halls

Spanking new orchestrations, they bounced off the walls

‘Twas my maiden endeavor – arranging for reeds

A band – teeny tiny – it met all our needs.

One tooter played flute, English Horn, bassoon, oboe,

Clarinet, piccolo – he looked like a hobo

So ragged ran he, switching quick back and forth

Plus pianist and cellist – all we had there up North.

And that cast, how they sparkled, each player a “playa”

Directed, precisely, by Al D’Andrea.

Maine’s Snowlion Rep the producer, so sage

The Victorian world, gamely stuffed on that stage

And fine choreography, like you don’t see much now:

Country reels! Horseback riding! Even milking a cow

We conjured, precisely, Victorian past

On the wings of commitment by talented cast

One Marissa Sheltra, fantastically she’d

Warble her heart out (I’ve buried the lead)

And Brian McAloon, so dashing a cupid!

One vixen! One dancer! One – wait, this is stupid

The cast was perfection that Providence sent

Like Fran Page, graced our stage at that Maine event.

 

Now time flips its pages, and stages seem wan

Five years since I’ve seen a book musical on

I’m wishing this Christmas one more might be seen

On the boards near to you in Two-Ought-Seventeen

But I made the same wish back in Two-Thousand-Ten

And had no idea what the future held then

So, I keep my tradition each Christmas, I dream

Of a new show production by a fabulous team.

 

 


Look, here’s Whittleby

November 1, 2016

Celebrating the anniversary of the opening of the first show of mine I saw performed, Murder at the Savoy, which was, way back then, called Pulley of the Yard. It was some multiple of five years ago, making this a “big” anniversary, I suppose. But, since this blog is more than five years old, I’ve noted the same event here before.

So if that’s not too fresh in your mind, let’s discuss Pulley as an essential stepping stone in my growth as a writer. In my teens, I wrote four musicals, following the suggested course of learning-by-doing study Oscar Hammerstein had given the teen Stephen Sondheim: one based on a play you admire, one based on a play you think could be improved, one based on something not in dramatic form, and one original. After I finished those, I found myself at a college that didn’t regularly put on musicals. At the same time, I was the youngest member of Lehman Engel’s Workshop at BMI. And, right across the street – and that street is Broadway – another college, our “sister school” had a group that regularly did Gilbert and Sullivan. So, if I wanted to see a work of mine done during my college years, it would have to be a piece entirely in their style.

I’d floundered, considerably, on those four apprentice musicals. The plots didn’t make the audience wonder what would happen next; many of the songs amplified feelings that any viewer would have already been aware of. So, what were they doing for the show? But now, for my fifth creation, I had a very specific model. Or two, really, because the who-done-it is something of a set genre; we all know certain things will happen in them. For instance, the detective will interview various suspects who all have various motives to kill the deceased. It’s something we expect to see in Agatha Christie or her imitators.

Now, when you know what your fans expect, require, or want, a path is laid out for you. You’re going to have to write that sequence and it soon struck me that I deal with the de rigueur quickly and efficiently by staging a quodlibet. In It’s So Simple, Detective Pulley brags that gathering the information to solve the case is easy because every suspect will come to him to implicate someone else, casting off the shroud of suspicion. I merely had to rhymify the motives of five possible murderers. Each would individually draw Pulley to one side of the stage, to have a private conversation. After verses gets added, all get repeated in counterpoint. The whole thing takes two minutes.

The floundering of my teen-written shows ceased, too, because of the fine examples of musical comedy writing by Gilbert and Sullivan. I got to know all their operettas pretty well. Nowadays, it’s very rare that young people know their works. But in the good old days – I’m really talking about before I was born here – every single musical theatre writer knew all of Gilbert and Sullivan intimately. Furthermore, the audience did, too. For example, there’s this Mikado quote in Lady in the Dark:

Our object all sublime
We shall achieve in time
To let the melody fit the rhyme!

This leads a judge to tell a jury,

This is all immaterial and irrelevant
What do you think this is, Gilbert and Sellivant?

Today, I’d say, there are plenty of writers who know the complete works of Stephen Sondheim and nothing of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sondheim’s works tend to be too idiosyncratic to imitate. And I’m not knocking him when I suggest it’s more valuable to look at G&S for paradigms.

Which is just what circumstances forced me to do all those years ago. And, the next thing I knew, I was getting fan mail. People thought it the perfect introduction to the world of Gilbert & Sullivan. The Englishmen writing in the Victorian age naturally used words we no longer use today. Jokes referred to things that no longer exist. For example, in The Mikado, “Knightsbridge” was a big punch-line that got a huge laugh. The Japanese exhibition there closed in 1887 and some of these young whippersnappers have already forgotten about it.

In Murder at the Savoy, I steered clear of outdated terms and references, so it’s a more easily-apprehended Gilbert and Sullivan piece than anything Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote. To my amazement, fans of detective stories loved it, too. And the even bigger surprise: It was embraced by the British. There have been five productions over there in the past two decades. When pressed, actors will tell me where I wrote things Brits never say – but the 21-year-old me did a better job depicting Londoners’ language than the far older Alan Jay Lerner who, they tell me, should have written, “No, it’s just in the street where you live.

On the street where I live, Broadway, four admirable musical-makers used the same premise ten seasons ago. We see the backstage world of a musical production; the lead performer gets murdered; a detective arrives – himself a big fan of musicals – and asks suspects questions to solve the crime. All of this takes three times the length of Murder at the Savoy, and I know of no mystery fan who liked, or was ever mystified by, Curtains, by John Kander and Rupert Holmes. The other half of the collaborative team, Fred Ebb and Peter Stone, died some years before the opening. For them to contribute to rewrites, a Ouija board had to be consulted, which is a rather slow way to go. But I’ve had slower collaborators. But not on Murder at the Savoy, which I wrote all by myself one summer umpteen years ago.

Here’s to umpteen years!

 


Madison Avenue is calling me

October 12, 2016

“What’s it like to be married to a casting director?” seems a fair topic for my 13th wedding anniversary.

Of course, Joy wasn’t a casting director back then. Back then she was a performer. She was in the middle of a national tour when I proposed, and, as I’m writing this, she’s on a conference call in the next room saying, “As long as the actors are treated with RESPECT…” and that’s just how she said it: all caps. And this is not unrelated. Experiences she had as a performer, touring and auditioning, color her every move as casting director. And a lot of what she casts are national tours. So, first and foremost, she ensures that auditioning actors are well-treated. And that’s how she earned her reputation as the casting director people most love being in front of.

But now I’m thinking of Betty Draper. She’s a fictional character, a suburban housewife in the 1960s, married to an adman on Mad Men. Imagine the ad agency putting together an audition in which they seek a sexy woman. In a conference room in a Madison Avenue skyscraper, a parade of attractive females would be paraded in front of Don Draper and as many leering male colleagues as the room would accommodate.

Sound icky to you? How would you like to be in Betty’s position? Well, pleased to meet you: I am Betty Draper. I’m in a suburb making lunches for my child’s lunchbox while my spouse sets up a parade of hunks auditioning for a stage show called Magic Mike. Two ladies I’ve told this story to – one around 20, one around 80 – have informed me that they don’t find terribly muscular men sexy at all. And that’s fine. But Joy does!

Those ladies doth protest too much, a little like how Diane claimed not to find Sam Malone attractive when first they met on Cheers. Cheers comes to mind because Boston and Chicago recently saw a stage adaptation of the classic TV sitcom. And the job of finding the actor who could personify irresistible Mayday Malone went to you-know-who. And also Diane, and Coach, and Carla and Cliff and NORM! (I put that in capitals in case you felt compelled to shout along.) Consider how viewers feel about those actors from so many decades ago. How could an audience, today, ever accept different players, even if the set looked exactly the same? That’s quite a casting challenge, and, since I didn’t get to see the show, I’ll take a Chicago Tribune critic’s word for it:

These are different actors in “Cheers Live.” That’s Grayson Powell as Sam, Jillian Louis as Diane, Barry Pearl as Coach, Buzz Roddy as Cliff, Sarah Sirota as Carla and Paul Vogt as Norm. And you know what? It does not matter a jot. What more could any writer desire than to watch an audience so embrace fictional characters, fully apart from the actors who played them? Amazing.

And a tribute, actually, to these particular actors, who have a tough collective assignment. For “Cheers Live On Stage” actually is a much better show than you likely are expecting me to say.

There are several factors in its favor. One is a full Equity cast of performers with mostly Broadway credits (although you likely will recognize Pearl from the 1978 movie version of “Grease“). These are not nobodies, these are skilled character players and I found all of them very funny and, to a person, exceptionally adept at walking that tricky line between impersonation — Norm has to be Wendt-like to some extent, lest the audience riot — and original interpretation. Louis makes the boldest choices as Diane, and it’s quite the inspired comic performance, although Vogt dispenses those famous Norm bon mots with real aplomb, and at a faster pace. Pearl, meanwhile, is hilarious. I preferred him to Colasanto, and I was a great fan of that late actor.

Once, at 7 o’clock on a Friday night, a director demanded a list of available actors of a particular ethnicity by Monday morning. Two things about that: Joy had already created a huge list of actors that the director had seen a day or so before and had apparently ignored. But the more obvious thing: the director felt it was fine to ask Joy to drop weekend plans and work instead. As a spouse of a casting director, I can get pretty steamed at a thing like this, but have to hold my tongue. Running her own business that provides a service, Joy comes to decisions about how to respond without flying off the handle. The customer is always right, right?

So here I am, a bit befuddled, trying to explain this life to you. And it’s much harder to understand if you’re four-years-old. What must our daughter think of the many business trips that take Mommy away? She craves time together, just the two of them. And there’s this current TV ad that drove home a point.

So Joy recently took her to Disney World, where they stayed in the resort where animals roam right outside your window. An actual giraffe lit up our daughter’s eyes, just like in that commercial. And when they got back, and I picked them up at the airport, I asked “Did you miss me?” and she cocked her head, considering the question and said “…Sorta.”

Moral: It’s hard to compete with a giraffe.