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.


Magic time

May 15, 2017

Around the beginning of May this here blog passed the 35,000 view mark and I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another opportunity for Noel to pat himself on the back. I hate when this becomes an ego trip.” Ever-sensitive to your wishes, I’m not going to talk about this blog here and now. I don’t need to: I just got back from an ego trip.

At my alma mater – and yes, for me, this is one of those anniversary years when you’re supposed­ to go back – there was a three-part celebration of my friend Adam Belanoff, with whom I wrote The New U. and On the Brink, and a couple of other projects. The folks who present the annual Varsity Show were giving him an award, which seems long overdue since he’s the progenitor of the modern version of the student-crafted entertainment. He’s had a long career writing for television, a wildly impressive quantity of years gainfully employed, and is immensely popular as a person. If I say I consider him one of my best friends, I must acknowledge that I’m one of many people who’d say that. This meant, on a recent Saturday, that a huge circle of chums showed up for the party he threw, and then the official reception bestowing a statue, and finally this year’s Varsity Show.

For me, there’s little point in attending the Official Reunion of my college class; that’s interacting with strangers who’ve lived very different lives, not likely to understand mine. The Adam-a-thon, however, was a large turn-out assembly of folks who remembered The New U., On the Brink, and the “Junior Varsity Show” I wrote two songs for, Fear of Scaffolding. Our conversations tended to center on how marvelous those shows were, and, since I wrote music and lyrics, how good the songs were, in particular.

This gets me questioning whether the songs were as good as so many seem to think they were. Also, what was I doing then that I should be doing now? Have my creative methods altered over the years? Did I lose something as I aged?

It’s hard to observe oneself objectively. The time machine that would take me back to the work on my early shows is hampered by nostalgia. I’m an unreliable narrator, so take all this with a grain of salt.

I think I saw to it that songs generally contained three elements I considered essential. One is a great premise for a song. In other words, I could say to my collaborators: I think there should be a song that’s about this, or does this. And they’d respond with enthusiasm, because, just from hearing that premise they could see how it might turn out to be an effective piece. Then, naturally, there’d come a title. A good title is never chosen arbitrarily. You have to winnow down what you’re saying in a song to a very brief thesis statement. This gets supported by other lines that provide evidence that the thesis is true, much in the manner we’re all taught to write non-fiction papers in school. Many old-time songwriters believed coming up with a title was the most important part of the process. If it’s inspiring enough, the rest of the lyric’s pieces can just fall together, naturally cropping up as supporting material for your main point. Similarly, traditional composers place a lot of value on coming up with a musical hook. Just more glue that’s going to hold the creation together.

So those celebrants mentioned various titles they’d recalled over the many years: The Sweetest Guy in the Suite, Most Embarrassing Moments, Something That We’ve Never Had Before, and the mere fact that they’d remembered them tells you something. The last of these was a slight steal of a song from an obscure musical that has since become one of my all-time favorite melodies (Something that You’ve Never Had Before, from The Gay Life). There’s a further thievery involved, as I took the hook from an accompaniment figure in an obscure Rupert Holmes pop song called Adventure. Maybe he wasn’t being truthful, but Holmes told me that nobody remembers his early pop efforts (besides the ubiquitous Pina Colada Song) and yet here I was, face to face with those who remember my gloss on it.

The most-remembered moment in The New U. was The Sweetest Guy in the Suite; everyone seems to agree. It was part of a sequence concerning the lovelorn inhabitants of a dormitory floor. The guy played by Adam pines away for the girl next door. She, in turn, pines for the boy residing on the other side of her. And this boy, in the big reveal, turns out to have a same-sex crush on Adam. They’re all equally unrequited. Five years later, I found out that my favorite songwriting team, Richard Maltby and David Shire, used the same premise. Which shows you it’s a good premise. And here I can truthfully brag that our song got a much bigger reaction than theirs ever did.

Many weeks ago, I had someone take a look at the latest draft of a musical I’m currently working on and she was particularly taken with a traditionally-structured number; that is, one that had a solid title and a hook, not to mention AABA stanzas. This reaction served as a wake-up call. My wild experiments in form hadn’t gone over as well. Better to employ the modus operandi I was using so many years ago.

Being among folk who remember The New U. is also a reminder that what we do, in theatre, is ephemeral. A live performance, capturing the zeitgeist, can never be repeated, later, in quite the same way. What have I done since college? Essentially the same thing I did in college: created entertainments that exist for a short dazzling moment and then don’t, like an art-work on flash paper.


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)