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.

 

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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.

 


Oh what a lovely pal is mother

April 15, 2018

One of the unsung heroes of contemporary musical theatre celebrates her birthday today, Sara Louise Lazarus. If I say a few words about what she does, my hope is that it’s going to help you create better musicals. God knows the 18 years working with her have enriched my craft.

But I must admit I have what might be called the diarist’s impulse: the sense that I should write this all down before the memory fades. I don’t want to forget the lessons, the principles, the way of working, the caring. It’s been eight months since we worked together and… well, you know brains.

And mine can’t shake a thought about pit pulls. It’s said they sink their sharp teeth into something – say a postman’s leg – and refuse to let go. Jaws clamp down and it’s impossible to loosen that grip. Now picture a long day of rehearsals for a group cabaret. Say twenty-one young performers have been scheduled for twenty-minute sessions working with Sara. If I’ve done the math right, that’s seven hours or work for us. Except it’s not, because Sara never sticks to the twenty minute limit. There’s something she sees in a performance that she absolutely needs to make better, and refuses to give up on it – pit bull teeth in a leg.

Now, if you’re one of the individuals singing, you’re thrilled to have your performance sharpened. If you’re me, on the other hand, you’re exhausted from hours and hours of dogged fine-tuning. But, we keep on going, late into the night, because getting actors to convey truth in their songs is so very important to us.

Not every day is marathon-rehearsal day. More often, it’s a structured education with a series of steps that lead to a fully-acted, truthfully-expressed rendering of a musical theatre song. Sara breaks the process down into a set of assignments that constitute an in-depth investigation of material. You take the text, sans music, and work on it as an actor. At this point it’s a prose monologue in which you don’t stop at rhymes, or the end of lines, but move along at a pace totally determined by the emotions inherent in the words; how you respond to them. When Sara’s satisfied that you’ve investigated the lyric and taken in all the implied or expressed facts about the character singing and their situation, you move on to learning the music. Singing the song now involves a discovery of how the composer has dealt with the cadences of the lyric. Has he emphasized the syllables you emphasized in your monologue rendition? No? Then figure out why.

So, readers of this blog know that it’s written for writers. And I’m going to pause here to remind you of the need to stay on the same page. The lyricist has an idea about how the text should be acted. The composer can’t have a conflicting idea. Collaborators must go back and forth, revising and adjusting, until they’re on the same page.

For seventy-five years now, since Oklahoma!, subtext has had paramount importance in good musical theatre writing. Sara’s students then explore the thought behind the words. I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but, whenever I speak, my brain darts through all sorts of words and phrases I choose not to say out loud. (Some have been known to make fun of me for my halting way of talking.) Characters in good musicals have stuff in their heads the audience will never get to hear. And, just because I just mentioned the show, let’s use People Will Say We’re In Love as an example. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric says

Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love

But what the love-sodden character is actually thinking is just the opposite:

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it

None of that is said out loud; it’s the subtext. So the singers go back into monologue and speak something half theirs, half Hammerstein.

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers. Don’t throw bouquets at me
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents. Don’t please my folks too much
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating. Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it. People will say we’re in love

Sounds crazy, no? Well, that’s Laurie and Curly for you. A couple of contradictions who don’t express exactly what’s on their minds.

The culmination of the process is to match movements to the subtext, so that gestures – and these can be as subtle as a shift in where one’s eyes focus – are timed so that the audience sees the impulse to sing a line before the line is sung.

I realize this might sound unnecessarily complex, or seem unnatural when expressed in a quick essay. But Sara’s dealing with a roomful of bright students who eventually grasp this (or don’t) over time, as a group. And think about this: In real life, we listen to people who say things but have thoughts they don’t say all the time. So, a Sara-directed performance is infinitely closer to real life than the far-less-acted vocal displays we’re all too used to seeing.

There are too many Sara-trained performers on Broadway to name. Hello Dolly, School of Rock, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Wicked, The Bridges of Madison County, Little Shop of Horrors, Side Show, Throughly Modern Millie. I know, I know: Lists are boring to read. Has one teacher put a higher percentage of students on The Great White Way? I think not. Call it the benefit of being bit by a pit bull.

But the benefit for me, being a part of all of this, is a revolution in how I think about writing lyrics and music. My Sara-fed familiarity with the process actors go through has immeasurably affected my creative process on my last four or five musicals. Today a huge quantity of entertainers are wishing Sara a happy birthday, acknowledging how she upped their game. Me too, but it’s a slightly different game.


Growing younger

January 17, 2018

All I really wanted for my birthday was a website. In lieu of that, I’ll do the annual indulgent thing of talking about my musicals. There are so many, and so few of you have seen them. And – I don’t know this for sure – but I expect the word I use most on this here blog is “craft.” And that, like so much these days, leads me to thoughts of craft beer. It’s made in small batches by individual brewmasters and gets shared with select group of aficionados. I put a lot of care, time and love into my bubbly creations, and share them with a small but lucky few. O.K. Enough torturing the analogy. On to the shows.

At 14 I wrote a rather short two-act musical called How To Be Happy, about a kid who writes (alone) and stars in a Broadway show. That could never happen! (Right, Lin-Manuel?) Like a lot of things one does in adolescence, it’s pretty embarrassing now.

At 15 I adapted a play called Broadway into a musical called The Great White Way. I can still recall my composition teacher’s suggestion about a song called One of These Mornings. I’d set the title on quick notes, very much like St. Louis Woman. He got me to slow down, suggesting melissmas could extend the line. To this day I obsess a lot over the quickness with which new words hit the ear.

My first produced musical, Through the Wardrobe, contained the word “exultation.” Who talks like that? A teen with a thesaurus, I guess.

The first work of mine I saw produced, Pulley of the Yard, offered a justification for profuse rhyming and odd vocabulary, since it was a whodunit set backstage at a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. I mimicked their style, which led to self-consciously clever bits like

The audience must be treated well
Don’t take secret glee in
The fact they’re plebian
Or act like Marie Antoinette

The show I created at 21 has seen more different productions than any other of mine, but with a different title, Murder at the Savoy.

The less said about A Diary, the better. But here’s what Lehman Engel said about the line that ended the title song, “Thirteen is a very good age to start to use a diary.” “I thought she was going to say ‘diaphragm.’”

The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns for Martyred Actors was such a difficult collaboration, I was barred from attending rehearsals. If this ever happens to you, take comfort in the fact that Bob Fosse forbade Stephen Schwartz from attending rehearsals of Pippin.

The New U. successfully skated a fine comic line in a way that’s hard to imagine today. The administration of an all-male college oversold the notion that going co-ed would bring about massive improvements. An excited chorus sings:

They’re rosy; they’re peachy
They understand Nietzsche
Those beautiful brainy girls

They write well; they work hard
They talk about Kierk’gaard
Those beautiful brainy girls

Each one is undeniably intellectual
And, thank God, they’re certifiably heterosexual

They know their Cervantes
Although they wear panties
Those beautiful brainy girls.

It’s supposed to be offensive, as the object of our satire was patently sexist promotion of coeducation as a panacea. And what better measure of success than a well-off person in the audience saying “I want to produce the next thing these writers write.”

This was On the Brink, the legendary revue I co-created when I was 25 and the oldest member of the writing team. I found room for feminist messages and a couple of songs that were poignant rather than funny. We turned a profit, which shouldn’t be one’s measure of success; but certainly a nice way to start my professional career.

When a well-established California theatre wanted to do Through the Wardrobe, a rights problem necessitated a massive overhaul, and what ran three or four months as Popsicle Palace then had to be retitled Not a Lion. A lot of musical writers tell very sad tales about rights problems. Beware!

So my next musical was based on a public domain story by Charles Dickens. We called it The Christmas Bride, and it’s a melodrama packed with plot turns, so I had to write passionate romantic music that wouldn’t derail the story train.

Stephen Sondheim attended and, without being asked, sent the producing organization a nice check; with being asked, he sent me a helpful and encouraging letter.

This inspired us to try something new and innovative, an overtly feminist musical developed through rap sessions, a la A Chorus Line, and also improvisations. I learned a lot, but, after many attempts and two utterly different librettists, could never get The Company of Women to a producer willing to put a celebration of female friendships on stage.

Many songs from that score found their way into subsequent trunk song revues: Spilt Milk, Lunatics & Lovers, and Things We Do For Love. An opera-for-kids entrepreneur saw the first of these and commissioned The Pirate Captains, inspired by actual female pirates, and it played for years.

My next two shows were also work-for-hire. Industrials are intended to be seen by specific folks in a business context – people who’ll get the jokes. For years, this was how Jason Robert Brown earned most of his income. But you haven’t heard those songs, or mine, because the material is owned by the clients.

An exceptionally funny fellow, the same age as me, proposed we write a musical because we were both turning 40. Now, by this point, I’d written a number of shows, but never a purely humorous book musical in the tradition of my favorite, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Area 51 was my opportunity to write the sort of big production numbers and hysterical comedy songs that hadn’t been seen in many an overly serious season. We knew a lot of clowns from New York’s improv community, and festooned many of the roles with things we knew they’d do well. In that sense, Area 51 revived the tradition of 1960s star vehicles (like Once Upon a Mattress and Little Me) where creators came up with wacky stuff with an awareness of the zaniness of well-loved wags. As I fashioned 18 varied and guffaw-producing numbers, I was collaborating with crazy quipsters I knew and loved. So turning 40 was the epitome of fun.

The people up on stage with me feel like a friendly family,” I once wrote.

But what if everybody involved in your musical was literally friends and family, including the audience? Seems like the wildest of fantasies, but – you could read about it in the Times – fantasies come true. Our Wedding – The Musical! involved writing for specific people again, but this time it was my mother, my mother-in-law, my father, my father-in-law, my sister, my 4-year-old niece and a bunch of our talented professional performing friends, one of whom has the credentials to matrimonify. (Sorry, another word from Gilbert & Sullivan snuck in there.)

Many years ago, some musical theatre experts used an intriguing phrase, “serious musical comedy” to describe basically tragic stories leavened with a whole heap of humor, such as Cabaret, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. Creating one seemed a worthy challenge, unlike anything I’d done before, and I had a subject in mind. The McCarthy-era blacklisting affected the lives of many truly entertaining people, and there’d never been a musical about it. Since television was a brand-new technology, there’d be much mirth in the pressures to put on a live variety show, as well as in the on-air songs and sketches. Such Good Friends, which racked up a number of awards and raves at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, was the culmination of years of research, rewrites, and punch-ups. I got my audience to laugh and cry, tap their toes, and get truly invested in What Will Happen Next.

Thanks for reading this far. I consider it a birthday gift. Discussing eighteen musicals ain’t nothing like being there, in the audience, taking them in as they were meant to be taken in. Let’s hope What Will Happen Next is a production you can catch, somewhere near you.