Jazz waltz

March 2, 2018

When I criticize songwriters on this page, I suspect some readers go “Fine, Katz, but who do you like?” So let’s talk about Harvey Schmidt, who died the other day.

He’s known for exactly three shows – there are others, but they’re rather obscure – 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do and The Fantasticks. That last one is the longest-running musical that ever was. People were so shocked that it closed after 42 years – New York no longer seemed like New York – that a revival opened uptown and that ran for eleven years, closing just last June. Now, one could cynically look at the economics: extremely cheap show to produce managed to fill a tiny theatre on Sullivan Street until it could advertise itself as the longest-running musical in town when My Fair Lady closed. But looking at The Fantasticks through the economic lens minimizes what’s extraordinary about it. Harvey Schmidt’s tunes were like none ever heard before, and Barbra Streisand’s recording of Soon It’s Gonna Rain let the larger world know there was something rather special to be heard down in the Village.

If I use the phrase “harmonic palette” please do not skip this paragraph. We’re discussing a composer here (also a painter) and I’ll attempt to explain what makes a Schmidt song sound different from anyone else’s. The 1950’s saw the flowering of a particular kind of jazz. Listeners to popular music now appreciated all sorts of chords that hadn’t been used much in previous decades. “Jazz piano” was enjoyed, in part, for the kicky way fingers fell off keys – a “grace note” – in which a sound is briefly heard, something like a mistake, and then, more strongly, the next note on the keyboard sounds. The piano is a percussive instrument, so unexpected rhythms, often on a heavy left hand, became popular. And another thing – block chords – which use more notes, closer together, a cluster where the pianist might use all five fingers. There’s an ugliness to these, and so there’s a fresh surprise when a pianist manages to make them pretty.

It’s long been my observation that, in music, harmony marched forward. Every age innovates, somehow. Gershwin does things Irving Berlin never thought of. Bernstein took composing a step further. And, after Harvey Schmidt, well, I’m afraid that, for the most part, the harmonic palettes failed to get more colorful. Here, I blame rock, often the production of untrained young folk strumming guitars. Their fingers didn’t reach out towards the more complex chords and audiences got used to the I-IV-V and progress halted. (Sorry to sound so bleak.)

Another thing that halted in the sixties was Harvey Schmidt’s Broadway career. After Celebration, an experimental musical that was a touch too weird to enrapture audiences on The Great White Way, the master jazzman made no further forays to The Street. His first decade was so glorious, one might have looked forward to a steady stream of great Schmidt scores over the subsequent five decades, but, damn, the stream got dammed.

This is pushing the metaphor too far, but I once appeared in a Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt show involving a lack of water, 110 in the Shade. I was all of 16 and was particularly impressed by what was happening in the chords on Another Hot Day. The first five notes send us straight up a major seventh chord, and I love major seventh chords. They use four pitches in the major scale in what sounds, to me, simultaneously happy and poignant. (And is found infrequently in pre-Schmidt music.) Then, he goes right into another major seventh chord, establishing a pattern. But, on the words, “not a sign on the horizon” the ear is surprised. Instead of hearing the major seventh, we hear the note just below it, the sort of unanticipated detour that characterizes the blues. The title line keeps hitting the minor third where the major is expected. I fear I may have gotten too technical here, but that’s the blues for you.

And Texas. Jones and Schmidt were both from Texas, both preacher’s sons from small towns. It seems a no-brainer that David Merrick would choose them to adapt The Rainmaker. One number exemplifies Schmidt’s flair for the theatrical. Every time you hear the title, Old Maid, you’re hearing block chords, pulsing dramatically, and some of these are major sevenths. Plus, the song ends with a large quote of Another Hot Day. When we first heard it, it was a pleasant, if laconic, way to set the scene. Here, the drought is a force of evil, so that once-pleasant song is now heard as sinister.

They tried and failed to get Mary Martin to do 110 in the Shade, but then David Merrick succeeded in signing her for the next Jones & Schmidt bon bon, I Do, I Do. I think about this show all the time, because it’s a two-performer musical that focuses on a marriage, and that’s what I’m writing now. So, I ask myself, how do I keep this interesting for an audience? How can I remain true to my characters but throw in the maximum variety in the score? If I keep writing songs and then decide to cut them, it seems I’m in Schmidt’s footsteps, because he and Tom Jones wrote 114 songs for 110 in the Shade. I Do, I Do also has some intriguing discards you can hear on one of Bruce Kimmel’s Lost In Boston albums. But one that was kept was much on my mind last month. For Valentine’s Day, my Facebook status was the entire lyric to I Love My Wife. Seeing it on the page, as “just” words, doesn’t do it justice. Schmidt set it to peppy jazz, with that trademark grace note, and so it plays as fun rather than sentimental. If you don’t know the song, I suggest you read the lyric before listening to Robert Preston.

lyric                                  Original Cast Recording

(One of my ongoing anxieties is the idea that a two-character show can only work with prodigiously talented, always-interesting performers. Maybe I Do, I Do succeeded because people really wanted to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston and I need to get their equivalents. O.K….)

But I wanted to leave you with an anecdote about Schmidt you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. As I Do, I Do was in rehearsals, a reporter confronted him about he could write about marriage since he was a lifelong bachelor. “WELL…” mock accusingly, the pressman pressed him as to why he’d never married. Harvey Schmidt jibed back, “I’m waiting for the reviews.”

Advertisements

Polka

August 12, 2017

As the musical theatre community grieves the loss, at 89, of the finest soprano ever, Barbara Cook, much is said about the beauty of her voice, the clarity of her tone, the warmth of her sound. Yes, all of that is so, but I feel every bit of praise for her vocal gifts somehow misses the point. You can possess fantastic vocal cords, you can train your ass off, as opera singers do, in quest of perfection, you still wouldn’t come close to her accomplishments. She wasn’t merely the Voice; she was the Actress, the Personality.

Barbara Cook, it is said, had two careers: leading lady in Broadway musicals, and then the doyenne of the cabaret world. That’s a natural progression for someone whose specialty was acting lyrics with meaning and intent. In musicals, roles are more plentiful for the young and the thin. Once she was neither – and most mark The Grass Harp (1971) as the end of the beginning – she took her gifts to the venue where audiences give the most concentration to lyrics. Rooms with fewer than 100 seats get listeners to prick up their ears. (Of course, Cook was so successful, the rooms included Carnegie Hall.) There aren’t those musical theatre distractions like sets, dancers, book scenes, a story to tell. I’m among the lucky ones, who got to sit in rapt attention at the Carlyle one night, her warmth delivering happiness to everyone in the room.

Mostly, though, like most of you, my understanding of Barbara Cook is based on cast recordings. Since I’m often talking about how those twelve inches of vinyl make misleading impressions, I’m going to have to ask: “What am I missing here?” The most obvious omission is the acting, and Cook was a good enough actress to appear in two of Broadway’s more notable comedies in the 1960s, Little Murders and Any Wednesday. I find this remarkable, aware of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between performers in musicals and thespians in plays. Records and videos give glimpses of what the lady can do with lines. Take that most popular of American arias, butchered by many an opera diva, Glitter and Be Gay. The original Broadway cast album of Candide – which has to be the most glorious capture of a flop musical, ever – has her speaking

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets…lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

I’ve heard too many sopranos with no idea how to put the right spin on those words to make them funny. Cunegonde has been forced into whoredom – that’s the “awful cost” – but she’s so tickled by endearing trinkets, she’s not certain she got the bad end of the bargain. Nobody would write such a concept today, in our increased-sensitivity-to-sexual-slavery times. But 61 years ago (and ever since), Cook’s interpretive gifts made this hysterically funny and fun.

When considering what we love about her signature song, Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me, is it the gloriousness of the penultimate high B, or is it that we’re reacting to a grounded-in-reality character sorting through a bunch of emotions and discoveries in a recognizably human way? Amalia’s numbers in She Loves Me inspire love in all but the coldest-hearted listener. Since I’m always thinking about songwriters, I usually marvel about Sheldon Harnick’s humorous, charming text and Jerry Bock’s delightful near-classical setting. Collaborator Cook got the whole thing to fly; it could never have worked without her fully-formed character. In a little gem called No More Candy, her would-be shop clerk is forced to improvise a defense of how a small box with a lock on it is “functional” and delicately mentions a “slight tendency to overweight.” Now, there are plenty of observers who believe that Cook’s life story is that she went from thin leading lady to plus-size cabaret star due to a notable change in girth. But this ignores something (I’m clearly straining to avoid saying “the elephant in the room.” Sorry.):

Barbara Cook – the young and thin edition – was not astoundingly pretty. This separates her from many, if not all, of the ingénues who burst on the scene in the mid-fifties. Here was a new kind of star. Not dazzling in appearance, she got us to focus on her characters’ hearts, what they were feeling in every breath. This, to me, is the musical theatre ideal: At its best, we’re living the emotional life of the people we’re watching. And, as they fall in love “Vanilla ice cream: imagine that!” we do the same. So, a classical beauty finding love, by 1955, was old news. Of course hot stuff succeeds in getting male attention. It’s harder for us mere mortals. And I think this is key to why I find Something You’ve Never Had Before the most moving of her numbers. She offers a heart that’s true, not a face that could launch a thousand ships, and I tear up at the idea that the man’s too dense to notice her inner beauty.

All of this reminds me of a Sondheim song I never much cared for until I heard Barbara Cook’s rendition. In Buddy’s Eyes had always struck me as a rather plain and extended wifely paean, not quite dramatic enough to justify its length. But when Cook sings “I’m young; I’m beautiful” or “I don’t get older” you hear the heartbreak in the self-delusion. Ambivalence simmers underneath; the lady is kept alive by the lies she tells herself. You don’t think Sally is crazy, hearing the Follies In Concert album; you revel in a beautiful coping mechanism; you care.

Finally, let’s pivot back from the complex to the simplistic, and take in how she infused what’s essentially a plain (not fancy) lullaby with true longing. In The Music Man, it’s established that every night she sings a plaintive waltz to a little girl. We’re set up for something meaningless and dismissible. Cook colors her tones in a way that illuminates the touching reality that Marian the librarian truly depends on a wish and a star to bring her love.

Sweet dreams be yours, dear, if dreams there be
Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.
I wish they may and I wish they might.
Now goodnight, my someone, goodnight.

 


Off the wall

August 15, 2014

Since I knew and worked with Robin Williams before he was famous (pre-Mork), it seems incumbent on me to add a few words to the torrent that’s been written about him.

As a teen, I somehow landed a job playing piano for an improv troupe, Off the Wall. I’d play something to lead in to scenes, to button them, and we improvised a few songs in every show, all based, of course, on audience suggestions. Sometimes the audience was so sparse, I felt guilty for taking my tiny salary, as nobody else was getting paid. While the group had two or three stalwarts who never left, a lot of the cast floated in and out: some became stand-ups, some got hired to write sitcoms and some quit the business. As we were located on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood, all hoped that Someone of Importance would see them there and kick-start their careers. A certain desperation sets in – I think of Los Angeles as a place where everybody feels that desperation – we had to be funny, so that we’d get a reputation for witty work, so that more people would see us, and thus increase the likelihood of a connection with Someone of Importance.

One day, we were joined by a wry fellow in rainbow suspenders. Robin Williams was brand new to L.A., and so zany, he was the answer to all our prayers. He’d been Juilliard-trained, so he could send up any style of theatre when we’d call upon the audience to call out styles. Shakespeare was an easy one. Robin strode out, with a classical actor’s stance, looked up, and intoned, “Behold, the moon hangs like a testicle in the sky.” How’d we find Robin? He found us. Dee Marcus, our leader, taught improv classes, and one day, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him in the doorway. “Would you like to improvise with us?” she asked, because Robin looked like someone who could do that.

The rapid-fire brilliance we’re all accustomed to from countless performances and late-night talk show appearances is really best suited to the anything-goes creativity showcase that is improv. As many have commented, films always failed to capture what was so remarkable about Robin. It can be disappointing to see him stuck in one role when you know he could play a thousand. But films pay more than other forms of entertainment, and the man really made a pile of terrible movies. But they all came after I knew him. During the period he was at Off the Wall, television came a-biting: There was a revival of Laugh-In that quickly got canceled, and a propitious guest spot on Happy Days that led to the regular gig that took him from us, Mork and Mindy.

Improvising, he was in his element. We at Off the Wall viewed him as a savior. If two actors were stuck in a scene that was tanking, Robin would jump up from the sides, at any point, and do something brilliant. For example, a conversation at a bus stop plodded on. Robin ran across the front of the stage, like he was a passenger in a bus that was speeding pass. Less than five seconds from him produced long gales of laughter.

My good friend Adam, the funniest person I knew, had an interesting take on this. He felt what Robin was doing was shattering the reality of the improv scene, calling attention to himself, being a class clown who’d do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the other actors’ work. I saw his point, but knew that those other actors appreciated his ability to inject madness into any moment at any time. More laughter meant more audience, and now we were the “in” thing to see on stage in Hollywood. Adam had seen the show before Robin, and got increasingly enraged by his antics.

At the end of every show, we invited the audience to play Freeze Tag with us. The rules of the game are that, while an improv scene is in progress, anyone can yell “Freeze” and tag out and replace one of the actors, commencing a new scene using a different interpretation of what’s going on in the frozen positions. One night Adam, who could play this game with the best of them, decided to seize the opportunity to confront Robin. He called “Freeze” and, rather than beginning a new scene, just laid into him:

You are just a scene stealer! You yell and invade scenes and are really a pain in the ass! WHY DON’T YOU TRY BEING A STRAIGHT MAN FOR ONCE!” So all he says is “Okay” and he stands completely straight like a tin soldier and the audience erupts and I’m standing on stage and I’ve been destroyed. Luckily somebody yelled freeze and got me off stage but he killed me and it was effortless for him. Not my best moment but I learned a lesson that day. Talented actors can steal scenes and IT’S OKAY! LEAVE THEM ALONE.

As Adam’s friend, I empathized with his deflation. But I also appreciated that Robin, a 25-year-old doing improv, was encountered with a seemingly angry teen rather than a would-be performer, and, in improv lingo, accepted the offer. He got the laugh, which was his goal; his goal wasn’t to put Adam in his place. He was nice.

And it’s said that a lot of comedians are not nice, that their humor is a defense mechanism against deep psychological scars. That wasn’t my experience of Robin. He launched into scenes with gusto, and after a show he came up to me to acknowledge the success of our on-the-spot spot-on send-up of Chinese opera. “Success” seems the wrong word: he was acknowledging the fun of it.

Improvised comedy is ephemeral. You do it, it’s great for a moment, and it’s gone. And we all accept that that’s the nature of the beast. A lot of people have shed a lot of tears for Robin this week. A brilliant dynamo of hilarity has been yanked from the scene too quickly, many feel. But that’s just improv for you.


The Rooster Parade

December 20, 2013

Seems like I’m breaking promises: I outed myself as someone who’s not into opera, and shouldn’t be writing about it. I swore I wouldn’t let this blog become a sad series of obituaries. But if I’m going to comment on what’s going on in the musical theatre world, I can’t ignore the demise of New York’s most lovable opera company, The New York City Opera.

This blog, you know, is about writing musicals, and operas are entirely different things. In the minds of most. But not New York City Opera. For decades they’ve done Broadway shows like Brigadoon and A Little Night Music. Their creators intended them as commercial entertainments, mounted in some 1000-1800 seat house in the West 40s – not an opera house. But NYCO wanted to focus on American composers, and Broadway musicals are a uniquely American creation. We on the lower side should be flattered by high culture’s nod.

NYCO started its life at City Center, and, in that same massive venue, revivals of recent musicals were presented. (This was back in the day when NYCO was only doing true operas.) Then, City Center was ditched in favor of Lincoln Center. Soon, there wasn’t a place you could regularly go to see show revivals, and, cynically seizing an opportunity, more and more Broadway producers started mounting revivals on Broadway itself. And therein lies a problem.

The mania for revivals has a deleterious effect on the creation of new musical theatre, one that hardly anybody is willing to talk about. There’s the issue of resources. There is a finite quantity of Broadway theatres: the more houses filled with the old, the less room for the new. And productions utilize people – designers, dressers, actors, crew – that are therefore not working on original productions future generations will want to revive. All are employed but the writers, and the writers of the shows that get revived are often dead, not benefiting from seeing their work done again. This casts a pall on our community. We’re told, by happy revival-viewers, “Nobody writes ‘em that way anymore” and don’t yell back “When they wrote ‘em that way, they didn’t have to compete with revivals and idiots saying ‘Nobody writes ‘em that way anymore.’”

People argue with me that the old work needs to be seen, and I start thinking about paintings. New canvases get painted, and seen in galleries, available for purchase. Old masters are hung in museums, and we can all go and gawk and think how brilliant artists were in the good old centuries. The great musicals, I believe, should get done in places we think of as museums (such as City Center) and not on the commercial thoroughfare, Broadway. Then we could see them, when and if we feel like it, and the working practitioners of the craft could work in an environment in which Golden Era classics weren’t literally across the street.

Strayed from my topic, didn’t I? Over its 70 year history, NYCO premiered quite a few operas. Their final production, Anna Nicole, was an accessible work with quite a large amount of profanity and fun (of all things). Another recent premiere was Séance on a Wet Afternoon by the most successful of living musical theatre writers, Stephen Schwartz. One could say he strayed too far from his comfort zone, but I have to give NYCO credit for giving him a chance. Schwartz’s shows for the legitimate stage (seems an odd term in this context, but you know what I mean) have been so widely-embraced, the NYCO brass may have believed he could draw in a huge new audience to the opera house.

And this makes me think of NYCO’s genesis. In the 1940s there was, in the New York area, a large number of opera fans, and not all of them could afford or obtain tickets to the Met. The idea behind NYCO was “popular opera at popular prices” and along with that went an emphasis on American talent and fare far more adventurous than what the dowdy Met was serving up. Trouble is, after both companies moved to Lincoln Center, in huge travertine boxes facing the same plaza, NYCO became “that other opera company, with slightly cheaper ticket prices.” Yet another case of competing with the venue next door. I may be wrong, but I think, eventually, the community of opera-goers shrunk to a level where too few were willing to go with Avis just because they try harder.

And so, a noble cultural endeavor bites the dust, leaving the Met to do what it pleases as the only game in town. Which is: very few new works, little adventurous repertoire, no focus on American talent, and, by all means, no musicals. But I really shouldn’t knock the Met. Once I was there and saw Jacqueline Onassis, standing in front of the men’s room, waiting for her boyfriend to come out. It was very exciting.


When that I was and a little tiny boy

August 10, 2013

Eydie Gormé died today.

Normally, I wouldn’t be writing about the passing of a musical comedy star on the blog, but Eydie Gormé was someone I knew when I was very young.  In a celebrity version of “Parents come in to their kid’s classroom and talk about what they do for a living,” she performed, right in front of me and a couple dozen other awestruck first or second graders.  I don’t think I knew her name: She was “David’s mommy.”

We went back far longer ago than First Grade.  When my mother was in labor with me, she hoped to get the corner room at Doctors’ Hospital, overlooking Gracie Mansion and the East River.  As luck would have it, Eydie Gormé was in the room at the time, and David Lawrence and I believe we met in the nursery, our bassinets next to each other.  We all lived on Central Park West, and I was attending one of those incredibly-hard-to-get-into schools, also on Central Park West.  Steve Lawrence reached out to my father, hoping to get his boys in.  And soon we were buddies.  Indeed, most of my memories of Eydie Gormé are as the parent of a friend.

Eventually, my family moved to California, and, a few years later, so did the Lawrences.  David and I had a reunion on the Little League field.  In high school he aced me out of getting the role I most wanted in the world, Ponty in my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.  And we both ended up writing musicals – David contributed to High School Musical.  But enough about him.

Picture beautiful Eydie Gormé belting out Matchmaker Matchmaker to a bunch of children.  She was so sunny and appealing, it’s fair to say my desire to create musicals, and to be near musical theatre performers, formed then and there.  For me, the move 3000 miles away from my beloved Broadway was a devastating blow.  As a consolation prize (for I was nearly inconsolable), my parents took me to see Mame.  It’s safe to say that trip to the Winter Garden had a earth-shattering influence on me.  How I identified with young Patrick!  And was very moved when Mame sang “What a shame I never really found the boy before I lost him.”

Mame’s one hit song you could hear on the radio, If He Walked Into My Life was that one, sung by Eydie Gormé, a Mame-like figure in my life.  Of course when she does it, and when the general public heard it, this was not a song about the dissolution of an aunt-nephew relationship at all; rather, it was a torch song about an adult romance.  And so, at an early age, I got a sense of how show tunes can mean one thing within the shows they come from, and something else entirely when extracted.

Steve and Eydie, in the 1970s, devolved from being hip to unhip.  As one of the final non-pop acts to maintain a certain level of popularity, they became the singers your parents would listen you.  I couldn’t confess to friends I enjoy them.  I remember them going on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and promoting the songs from a new musical I’d liked, They’re Playing Our Song.  And when I saw that it was getting the Steve and Eydie imprimatur, my heart sank a little, for it meant that younger generation I was a part of was unlikely to embrace the show like it had the previous Marvin Hamlisch musical, A Chorus Line.  Still, it ran a long time, assumedly selling tickets to older people.

In David’s high school yearbook, I wrote that we’d known each other since the maternity ward, through two schools on two coasts, and then: “I wonder who will die first.”  Seemed like an OK joke at the time, but just a few years later, the younger Lawrence brother, Michael, suddenly died.  That Steve and Eydie were ever able to sing again is a testament to their dedication to their art and their fans.

And there are a great many fans mourning this loss.  I think so many of us loved Eydie because of her life-loving spirit, a quality amply on display that day so many years ago in a schoolroom on Central Park West.


Some kind of hero

June 26, 2013

Jean Stapleton

The last six months saw the deaths of two fine character actors. Both were 90. Both were best-known for TV sitcom roles in the 70s. But I bristle at that, as both had roles in wonderful Jule Styne musicals on Broadway. And the more important (to me) thing they had in common: both attended my musical, Such Good Friends.

Neither Jack Klugman nor Jean Stapleton could be expected to perceive I’d written the music by asking myself, “What would Jule Styne do?” What was more important was that they had lived through the era Such Good Friends depicts, the “scoundrel time” of blacklisting, Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. As such, they knew people – fellow actors, or behind-the-camera folks – who’d been forced into the horrible choice my characters face: Do I testify that certain old friends and acquaintances attended a meeting or a function a couple of decades ago?
When I started work on Such Good Friends, back in the 90s, I foolishly assumed everyone has a certain familiarity with the Witch Hunt. Years went by, and I found more and more young people who knew next-to-nothing about what so many of our entertainers had experienced. It was as if, in school, they’d studied American history, but they’d only gotten up to World War Two as time ran out in the school year. So Such Good Friends, for certain audiences, became something I’d never intended: a history lesson.

Jack Klugman had previously appeared in a Jeffrey Sweet play about blacklisting with my leading lady, Liz Larsen. As Jeff has been a friend for many years, I won’t even hint as to which show the two liked better. But I get the feeling that both Klugman and Stapleton had experienced, with a certain horror, that same ignorance of the period among the young. So, when Jean Stapleton leaned in towards me to tell me my show was not only wonderful but “important,” it felt like she had, on her mind, the memories of so many show biz friends whose lives were ruined or ended by the Red Scare.

You know, I met Klugman and Stapleton exactly the way I like to meet people. They’d seen my work before casting their eyes on me. (Such Good Friends is the show I’m most proud of.) And both envisioned a happy future for it. It only would be “important” if it reached a large audience of those who need to know about the McCarthy Era. And neither lived to see that happen.
I think, in aspect, when you’re considering what musical to put on, an “important” musical, or a history lesson about a troubled time, seems eminently less appealing than other types of shows. For instance, shows that are very funny. Or shows that show the craziness that happens behind the scenes in some odd corner of the entertainment world. Or even shows that explore the dynamics of long-standing friendships. I didn’t write Such Good Friends to alert audiences to the scourge of witch-hunting; I wrote it to entertain. For years, I’d been interested in the period, and what led friends to betray friends. But I didn’t start writing a show about it until it struck me that if I could focus on truly funny people going about their business of putting on a variety show in the early days of television, then, and only then, I could create something so entertaining that a little consciousness-raising about McCarthyism could be palatable. We go to school to learn history, and, for many, history isn’t their favorite school subject.

And I’ve sat through countless theatrical explorations of important issues, bored out of my skull. Some call it “spinach theatre” – stuff you’re supposed to swallow cause it’s good for you, but is really ick. And hell, I’ll name names: Wallenberg, a musical about – you guessed it – Raoul Wallenberg, one of those ever-so-noble Jew-saving daredevils of World War II. Each scene shows him doing something heroic, and you walk away thinking Wallenberg was certainly a terrific fellow. You’ve consumed the spinach, but you haven’t been entertained.

The problem I encounter with Such Good Friends is that people hear “a musical about blacklisting” and instantly assume it’s spinach. It’s why I prefer to say it’s the story of old friends struggling to create comedy in the early days of live television. It’s very funny, shows the craziness that happens behind the scenes and mines emotion from the dynamics of long-standing friendships. Its main love song is about the feeling one gets working side-by-side with platonic pals one truly cares for, Like Love.

The late great Jack Klugman and Jean Stapleton took the leap of faith that they’d be seeing a new musical that would be fun, not good-for-you. And they had loads of fun, and were highly complimentary. The world needs more people like them. And I’m not talking about warm and wonderful character actors who can enchant audience both on the small screen and the Broadway stage. I’m talking about folks willing to take a gamble that a funny musical that depicts what the House Un-American Activities Committee did to people doesn’t taste like spinach at all.


Anything can happen in the theatre

May 16, 2013

Ding-Dong! The Smash is dead. And I could join the throng that reveled in writing about how awful it was, in practically every way. But what’s the point of adding one more voice to a choir of a thousand? You all know in your hearts that Smash was one of the worst series in the history of television. The writing was particularly poor, but also the acting and direction stunk so badly, flowers on my TV stand wilted. The problem was not, as many have maintained, that the show frequently depicted behind-the-scenes outrageousness that would never really happen behind-the-scenes of a musical aborning. It’s that it generally had human beings acting like no human being ever acted. True to our world of musicals? Of course not. True to the experience of being a person on this earth? Even further off.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy (I’m not one) accept not-quite-human behavior all the time. But those cyborgs, zombies, vampires, and extra-terrestrials tend to follow a consistent logic. Smash‘s Broadway babies acted less logically than most mutants. One appears pantless in a private late-night audition in a cushy bachelor pad, yet can’t bear her new flame punching his evil brother, and puts off responding to a marriage proposal with the immortal excuse, “I’m in tech.” The other, hopped up on pills, performs so unprofessionally she’d surely be thrown out of the union, yet quickly returns to deftly play a lead. Pills make you do crazy things, apparently, but at least they’re easy to quit.

With Smash teaching the viewer that drugs are eminently kickable, the calumnies it spreads about the making of musicals seem relatively benign. Makes one wonder if a new flock of musical-makers will think you can write new songs all night long and see them fully staged by next sundown. There were occasional dream sequences but we were supposed to take it as real when a tiny East 4th Street theatre suddenly could hoist Krysta Rodriguez into the air on silk straps. Pulled, pulled, pulled, indeed.

But among Smash‘s many problems was too little time spent in musical flights of fancy while too much time was spent on mundane issues like who’s sleeping with whom. In this, the colossal miscalculation compares unfavorably with the legendary flop musical TV show of years ago, Cop Rock. Cop Rock more wisely found the fun in how unexpected it always is when police break out into song. It embraced its own absurdity while Smash, tonally, was merely a procedural about people putting on a show that had songs in it.

I’ve griped before about the low quality of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and, back in Cop Rock‘s brief shining moment, I complained bitterly that the producers, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to let people who’d never written a musical before write the songs. Smash should have been better, given that it added true up-and-comers like Joe Iconis and Pasek & Paul. But nobody demonstrated a proficiency at writing an actual show tune, or a tune that could work on TV (a tube tune?). It’s easy for me to imagine a party where friends sit around a piano, improvising silly songs for bad musicals. Been there and done that countless times. The thing is, if you came up with intentionally bad improvised ditties about Marilyn Monroe they’d be indistinguishable from the show-within-the-show tunes Shaiman and Wittman came up with (with no shame and no wit). Now, before anyone leaps to their defense with the claim that it’s difficult to come up with an amusing original song every week on television, I’ve got an 85-year-old to throw back at you: Tom Lehrer.

Long before The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, there was That Was the Week That Was, a news satire variety show.  A mathematician, Tom Lehrer was hired for the-job-I’d-most-like-to-have-in-the-history-of-jobs: Every week, Lehrer had to come up with music and lyrics for a comedy song based on something in the news. And every week he made America laugh. The most famous example was The Vatican Rag, which I remember enjoying on radio’s Dr. Demento show: Its premise was that if the Catholic Church decided to promote itself using Madison Avenue techniques, it might come up with a peppy jingle that would begin

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin' the Vatican Rag.

One of my early successes was a comedy song based on a news event, My Baby (inspired by Three Mile Island). A lot of people told me it was the sort of thing Lehrer used to write. A nice compliment, to be sure, but, unfortunately, comedy songs that are actually funny are so rare nowadays, anything that produces a chuckle gets compared to Lehrer’s hysterical numbers from the 1960s. It’s disappointing – puzzling, even – that Smash didn’t even attempt to be humorous. Its creators  clearly forgot that “musical” used to have a last name, “comedy” and, back when it did, a whole lot of people liked them. Instead, we got a soapy drama about the making of two mirthless musicals, and, according to Nielsen, nobody liked it.