Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.

 


Up jumped Sandow

March 7, 2017

This week, I’m expanding a circle. That’s a rare event, and an essential step forward in the life of a new musical.

My collaborator, a successful playwright here adapting his own play into a libretto, and I have been working, on and off, for years. Even though we both work in Manhattan, we’re not in the same room very often; it’s a lot of texts. When I finish a draft of a song, I record it and he’ll listen with his wife. So, the circle – the number of people who know what the thing sounds like – is 3. Me, my collaborator, and his wife.

Now, we’re at a point where we want to hear the songs sung by professionals. And if you’re wondering where my wife is in all this, it’s here she enters. A renowned casting director, she helped us to find performers. This meant my collaborator had to write descriptions of the characters. For the first time, I was being asked about vocal ranges. I hadn’t previously considered this question. I’ve formulated no opinion along the lines of “This character should be an alto.” I’m not there yet. Any range will do, this week, as long as it’s wide enough to encompass all the notes in the songs.

There are 12. I had to write up little descriptions of them, and this is another issue I hadn’t previously thought about. So, expanding our circle to include six singers meant contemplating certain questions for the first time. One song gets reprised in a completely different style, so that’s thirteen descriptions. Or not, since two songs are so similar I wrote the same words about them.

(And is that a problem? I’m thinking about The Music Man and how I’d describe Marian’s numbers. Or Eliza Doolittle’s.)

Putting songs in the capable hands of singers unveils a host of discoveries about each number. A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. Now, the performers’ apprehension and investigation of material comes into play. Just a few days ago, this whole show was something of a secret. As three becomes nine, the circle triples in size.

And then hearing them live, sounds from good throats passing through the air into our ears. It’s how they’re meant to be heard.

That seemingly obvious fact is easy to lose sight of. These days, I can compose a tune in my mind, enter it straight into software using a midi which I can use without the volume up, and post the thing on SoundCloud – all without utilizing ears. Out here on the internet, we compare and contrast songs that exist as videos or audios. But theatre writing involves live actors, in the presence of a live audience, communicating; this communication is affected and altered by audience response. How often do we fool ourselves into thinking listening to recorded theatre numbers is remotely similar?

Besides my excitement about hearing all the songs live, over one evening, there’s much anticipation about how they’ll all sound together. This show has been a slow process and various numbers were written very far apart in time. If I can believe my own copyright notices, thirteen years separate the oldest song and the most recent. We’re not dealing with dialogue this time, so it’s something like taking in a cast album: do this disparate pieces hang together well?

Another image comes to mind: Imagine an inventor toiling and toodling in a hermetically sealed chamber. The invention has been engineered to a certain pristine perfection, but how will it hold up in the actual atmosphere? My stuff looks good on paper, but hitting live ears is a whole other thing.

The energy it’s taken to put this sing-through together has robbed me of time I’d normally be devoting to this blog, and I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me the time off. Sometimes, on this page, I feel like I’m teaching you all something. What I really crave is a chance to learn more. While opening up the circle on this show, I’m expanding my mind.

Sound deep? Fear not. I’m sure I’ll get back to going all lesson-y on you in a week or so.


Symphony of wind-up toys

January 27, 2017

Having one of those faintly rhapsodic moments. The midwinter sun is pouring through my office windows, and my office actually has windows on four sides, counting the one in the door to the living room. And so, a tiny space feels much bigger, as if a desk had been set up out of doors. Around me is a well-illuminated partly cloudy sky.

I’m listening to a bunch of instrumental pieces I’ve written over the years. I’ve been thinking of putting them on a CD for my daughter to fall asleep to. One piece was written specifically for that purpose a month or so ago. When composing wordless music, a certain pressure is lifted. In musical theatre songwriting, making sure the audience understands every word is a primary goal. Sans language, that ceases to be a major concern. Even if a piece tells a story (“program music”), the audience isn’t expecting to get it, exactly.

The newest piece – my first composition of 2017 – marks the culmination of a good amount of thinking before a note was written; daydreaming, one might say. And I’ve just reminded myself that this blog is called “There’s Gotta Be a Song” which resembles a song title of mine, There Oughta Be a Song. So, this musical I’m working on should begin with warmth, and there oughta be an overture that puts the audience into a certain frame of mind. The first communication, non-verbally, should get them thinking about a sleeping baby. Then, the first scene of the show is morning: the baby is awake, the father’s feeding it, the mother frenetically gets ready for a day at the office. It’s an anxious and contentious scene and it should be a little startling coming out of the tranquility of a depiction of a sleeping child.

Looking back over my life over the past years, I know that my most harried hours have been spent on the nightly struggle to get my daughter to sleep. But that’s reality, not my fictional musical. So, here’s the program for my program music: A child is gently lulled to sleep with wind-up toys. (I can remember that I, as a child, had one that played To Each His Own, and another that played Tenderly. I can hear neither song today without thinking about childhood.) The first draft of my show had a quodlibet in three-quarter time, with different tunes for each parent. For my overture, I knew I’d start one waltz, which would keep repeating; then, a few bars later, I’d start another one, which would keep repeating. Eventually, there’d be so many, going in counterpoint, the listener would picture a crib with way too many stuffed animals making music – and some cacophony. Eventually, the themes should slow and fade out. (Note: I didn’t quite achieve that goal, yet.)

Speaking of non-verbal communication, I also thought about lighting. Overtures often involve darkening the auditorium. I want lights to gradually come up, as dawn breaks, and end up in a harsh glare of the family’s fraught morning. So, instead of that slow-and-fade thing, I’ve written a segue into the opening number, which is eight-eighth-notes-to-the-bar ostinato rock. And if that’s not what my audience is expecting, all the better. I’m a great believer in rattling expectations.

I’ve talked before about how valuable it is to know the parameters of the piece you’re composing – the more, the merrier. So, what tunes to write for wind-up toys? This may not be true any more, but when I was a kid, music boxes and toys had a tendency to go out of tune. This may have led me to the thought that I could use a wrong-sounding interval, such as the flat fifth. Now, an ascending flat fifth makes everyone think of West Side Story: Bernstein uses it again and again, in that whistle the gang uses, as well as Cool and Maria. So, stay away from that. Start with a descending flat fifth and quickly resolve it because, don’t forget, this theme is not about stress. I repeated the first two bars, and the fifth bar is a rather normal ascending major triad. It was time to go an interesting place, so I chose an unexpected chord, and did a little dance with the minor third of the scale. With much repetition leading to a cadence, I now had my first sixteen-bar theme.

A second theme should contrast. The first involved quarter notes, so now a smattering of eighth notes is called for. If the first danced around the third note of the minor scale on its sixth and fourteenth bars, this could dance around the tonic any place but. By “dance around” I mean fluttering around a note using others close to it. I also went up and down in an arpeggio covering a wider range than a human voice could do. One of the freeing things about writing instrumental music is that you’re not stuck with just what can be sung.

Wondering which should be played first led me to decide on neither. For something introductory I thought of a piece I get unaccountably emotional about, Henry Mancini’s opening credit theme for Two For the Road, a wonderful film depicting the highs and lows of a struggling marriage (something my musical does as well).

On tinkly eighth notes, broken chords are played in an unusual sequence, and the harmonic changes are subtle. I’ve used similar figures with some frequency in instrumental pieces, and also Mommy Is Yummy in the show.

Traditional overtures present themes that will later be heard as songs in the show. At this point, my score has one waltz, and I thought it worth featuring. But it has a different set of harmonies. If I introduce it, there would be clashes. But wasn’t cacophony part of my original plan? The song could enter last and before too long the conflicting wind-up toys could fade out.

Now I had a new idea, one that I didn’t start with. This one theme would emerge from the overlapping counterpoint, and the audience would suspect it’s a tune they’ll hear later in the show. (And they’d be right.) Clarity would emerge from the noise of the seven countermelodies. And, I found, I could use some of those previously stated themes as accompaniment.

Since the song and the newly-composed themes have different chord progressions, those conflicting bars guided my hand in coming up with some of the other melodies. There’s a set of dotted half notes that emerged from looking at what notes are common to the two clashing chords.

I’m a bit self-conscious, now, that I’ve gotten too technical. Certainly, listeners won’t be thinking about any of this inner architecture when they hear the piece. Except you will. Because I just told you.

 


The roving rose

June 7, 2016

“You’ve just given me so much to think about!” declared an actor, with a mixture of surprise and appreciation. The gratitude was directed to director Justin Boccitto, and I, the creator of the song being rehearsed. Due to unusual scheduling demands when you’re working with a cast moving from city to city on a national tour, my show, The Things We Do For Love did the lion’s share of rehearsing before ever meeting with the director. Don’t blame Boccitto. He’s a New Yorker, tending to a number of projects in the theatre, film and dance world. The group of roving players are literally in a different city every week. In May they had enough time in New York to rehearse just eight hours with Justin and then do the show at The Duplex in Greenwich Village.

Those were golden hours: everything was changed, for the better. By now you may have heard that the full house at the Duplex laughed uproariously at every joke, applauded their hands off, had a rip-roaring good time with barely a second to breathe, like a good roller-coaster. At the risk of skirting self-indulgence, I’ll point out some of the hows and whys, and perhaps there will be something that applies to your work.

Prior to that fateful meeting with Justin, the cast had learned his choreography off a video of the 2011 production under the able guidance of Stephanie Brooks. They knew their moves. But there’s a wide gap between knowing what to do and understanding why you’re doing it. After Justin fixed some minor missteps, focus turned to motivations. It was then the real work began. Justin gently asked questions that led the performers to call up aspects of their own lives and memories that relate to moments in their songs. If nothing related, they were encouraged to use imagination. Each aspect of a lyric has to seem like it’s there for a reason.

If you recognize this, as a songwriter, you’re never going to make an arbitrary choice about what your song is saying. Characters think, and what they sing clues the audience in on their thought process. Delineate that well, and your actors have something to sink their teeth into. This is why I took a little pride in those words of thanks quoted at the start of this. Yes, Justin, directing my song, fed the singer’s mind. But there was plenty of motivation to be mined in my lyric and music, and I couldn’t help taking this as a compliment.

A week or so before this rehearsal, I’d run into Broadway performer Michael Wartella, who’d introduced the song in my 2005 revue, Lunatics and Lovers. There were all sorts of things he did differently. Some have to do with differing personas. Mike projects as a scrappy urban street kid. In Things We Do For Love, the actor is twice as old, and being a man-of-the-world comes into play. The date being sung about is part of a longer history of romantic encounters. That’s better for the song, and reminds me that there’s always more than one way to do a number. Each actor brings different qualities, and one of the hidden glories of musical theatre is how new interpretations reveal new facets.

Not so with the Eurotrash hits of the 1980s. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and directors like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner sought sameness, so that audiences around the world seeing Les Miserables or Miss Saigon were seeing essentially the same show. From my mother’s Playbill collection, I know that, at some point in the run of Wonderful Town, Carol Channing took over the part of Ruth from Rosalind Russell. Could two performers be more different? The mind reels.

In rehearsal for The Things We Do For Love, I was often surprised and delighted by creative new interpretive ideas that emerged with this cast. Five out of six of them I met for the first time on May 13! – and saw them on stage in 42nd Street later that same day. Now their unfamiliar (to me) energy, applied to my familiar (to me) tunes, yielded fun surprises. One of the sexy solos, which had previously been played for full naughtiness, has been redone with near-lunatic desperation. It’s wild and aggressive, in a very funny way.

Familiar to me, of course, doesn’t mean familiar to you. The songs chosen for The Things We Do For Love were written for various projects over many decades of my career. While I see something revelatory in fresh presentations of songs from my trunk, you’ll encounter them for the first time. You’re unlikely to say to yourself “That’s new!” like I do. But you’ll experience the pleasure of being thoroughly entertained by sextets, trios, duets and solos you’ve never heard before.

Next stop on the national tour of The Things We Do For Love is Los Angeles, with shows at 7 & 9 at The Gardenia Monday, June 13. (Reservations: 323 467-7444) and there’s a leap of faith involved here. I haven’t lived in L.A. for many, many years. In New York, my home town, I’m familiar with a cabaret scene in which fans of songwriting and song interpretation come to intimate spaces to focus in on the deliciousness of songwriting craft, piano and vocal. Do Angelinos do something similar? I’ll find out next week.


Bad dad

February 21, 2016

A fortuitous scheduling quirk gave me a week last month in which I had some extra time at the piano. My lot in life – and I may have complained about this far too much – is that when my daughter’s in the house Daddy can’t touch his piano. Truth is, my four-year-old doesn’t let me sing. If I break out into song (as all mentally healthy people are prone to do), she instantly puts her hand over my mouth. She’s associated my singing with my nightly struggles to get her to go to sleep; so she halts me with “That’s for bed.”

Today I saw a meme: “I am a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.” Don’t I know it!

Pre-school started a week before my winter work break finished, affording me three mornings home alone. I was determined to finish one of my argument songs. That’s not some arcane term I coined: I literally mean duets in which characters argue. Before this boon-of-a-week, I’d have said I was about 3/4 done with this one, which just shows you how little we know. I’d had the man rant, wrote “key change” on the score, and started the woman’s response. The plan was for each to have equal time.

Which reminds me: I caught a glimpse of CNN this week and I hate CNN precisely because they make a virtue of equal time. They’ll talk to someone who thinks the earth is flat and devote exactly as many minutes to some scientist who maintains Columbus was right: it’s round. Seems wrong to me, as well as artificial.

So, as I continued work on the argument song it struck me that my bent for equal time was getting it too far from reality. As a songwriter, I love structure: structure makes things easier. But Do It the Hard Way, as Rodgers and Hart wrote, and you can keep an audience on its toes. The equal time stratagem is all too predictable.

The song has a lot of eighth notes. It’s rock that chugs along quickly. I’d come to think of it as something Sara Bareilles might write. Its frenetic power derives, in part, from chords that shift off the beat. That is, new harmonies don’t start on the beats you count, but in-between: 3-and-four-SHIFT-One-and-two-SHIFT. The idea is to keep the audience on edge, just like the warring characters.

But it’s all rather relentless. I didn’t appreciate this until getting to the piano on Tuesday. It seemed a little tiring to play, and that might mean it’s tiring to listen to. Contrast was needed, something a little lyrical, with sustained notes. The energy won’t drop if I continue the eighth note chords in the accompaniment.

I’m thinking, as I write this, about the word “sustain” since it made it into the lyric. My baby’s smile sustains me. I’m wondering whether I would have thought of that verb if “sustain” hadn’t been part of my musical process. Probably, I’ll rewrite the line, as it contains too many S’s, but that’s what I have now. The lyric says something, here, that needed to be said because I’d stated something rather strongly in filling out the woman’s lyric earlier. Her rant tops his, but she’s a tad too insulting and this section serves to humanize her.

Or at least I hope. Throughout writing this show I’ve had one eye on an imaginary likability meter. It’s a two-character musical, in the audience must enjoy being in their presence for the full length of the piece. But there’s bound to be friction, arguing, and times they’re less than pleasant company. I worry I worry about this too much.

Broadway, about fifty years ago, saw another two-character musical about a married couple, I Do, I Do. Not one I’ve seen, but it strikes me they cast the two most charming, inherently lovable stars that could be found: Mary Martin and Robert Preston. More recently came The Last Five Years, an off-Broadway flop that cast the magnetic Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. I saw this show twice and had great difficulty sympathizing with either of the characters. The woman, when introduced, indulged in self-pity, the worst of all possible first impressions. The man, towards the end, did something that destroyed whatever affection the audience built towards him. It’s incumbent on me to learn from the mistakes Jason Robert Brown made in creating his two-character show about a marriage. (I realize, of course, that a lot of people love this show.)

Not sure I’ve ever mentioned my mosaic metaphor. A work can be made up of a ton of tiny pieces. Right now there are 28 cards on my storyboard. This duet is just one of them. The current task is to craft the best tile possible – 1/28 of the whole – and not to worry about how the whole thing works. There will be plenty of time for that later, and audiences – at readings, backer’s auditions and previews – will help

My incessant phobia about whether my characters are likable inspired a new idea for where the lyric could go. Here they are, arguing passionately, a picture of discord. What if, after the release (described above) they find something in common? They share similar frustrations, and perhaps there’s a way to celebrate the fact that they’re sharing. This would justify them singing lines alternately, in harmony, and finally switching to the pronoun, “we” in a unison button.

By Wednesday’s school pick-up time, I had a complete piano score. Feels really good to reach this milestone. While my daughter amused herself, I snuck a peak at my storyboard. The new song brings fire and conflict to an early point in the show, and the next card is a sweet duet. The idea is that one of their parents will call, ask how things are going, and this check-in from the outside world leads both characters to perspective on their plight. Thursday, I got back to the song for that spot. And now I could see I didn’t need the intro that set up the main motif like an eighties pop song. Instead I’ll use whole notes, sort of like the way church bells stop the action in the first scene of My Fair Lady. (“A reminder.”)

Friday there were suddenly two new projects, that will pay me to write, and these will take me away from my musical for a while. But this week seemed like a great leap forward. (And, as you can tell, I got a little ahead on this blog.)


Sittin’ around

September 25, 2015

This is one of those days in which I was pretty disappointed in myself, in my productivity. I finally managed to scrape together six hours to get some work done. And there are three songs I’ve poked at, for months, like a not-hungry kid with a plate of unappealing food. And maybe they’re just not ready to be written.

This is not to justify my own slow progress. But I’m wondering if you’ve ever been at a point where it’s seemed that a key component is missing, and, without it, you can’t satisfactorily complete a song. Each of the three has something different that just wasn’t there, yet:

For the slow-tempo duet, which I started literally years ago, what’s lacking is an evolution. The lyric says something that should resound with audiences, that needs to be said. But the problem is that, at the end of the song, nothing’s happened. It’s just saying the same poignant thing. And that’s a problem with so many songs I know – and dislike.

Then there’s an up-tempo duet, a list song. On this, there was something strange in my approach: I decided to come up with the tune first. Now, like many a melody, it began with my setting the title, and then composing music that naturally led to that hook at the end. I’ve worried, too much, that the tune owes too much to some pop song and I don’t know which. But the omitted element here is a sense of what’s happening, in the play, after the song is over. I could end big and just black out the lights, but that seems like cheating. This couple’s in the middle of an argument; fidelity to the truth dictates that some sort of resolution be shown. Even if it’s characters slamming a door shut.

I think outlining might have helped with this. Right now, on my plate, there’s more than one musical contretemps, and I’m uncertain the show can bear that many. The audience needs to see how songs change the situation. You’ve heard me be highly critical of musicals that present a situation that doesn’t evolve in any way. I think that’s unsatisfying. So, I’m unwilling to do it, and this unwillingness may be stopping me from completing a song that has quite a few other elements already in place.

And then the heroine’s charm song. It’s serving its purpose, making the character lovable, but it’s not building to an effective ending, yet. I’ve no idea what that might be. As I write this paragraph, it occurs to me that I could transition into another song, and not play this one for applause. It seems a cheat, but if the second song leads to a big hand, the audience will subconsciously feel they’re acknowledging the two songs at once.

Wind just tipped one of my whiteboards forward, as if Mother Nature herself was saying “Don’t stop to blog about this. You’ve storyboarding to do!”

So, I did a little of that: My tiny office has no fewer than three dry-erase boards, and one of them’s filled with post-it notes from about fifteen months ago (yes, for this show). I fear redundancy. Let me say that again: I fear redundancy. O.K.: now I’m terrified.

This might explain why so many of my musicals are shorter than other people’s shows. I want a lean, mean, entertaining machine. I get so annoyed with pieces in which I can tell, in advance, what the next song is going to be about, what will be said in it. I know I’ve told this story before, about why the word, surprise, is so important to me.

Many years ago, Stephen Sondheim came to one of my shows, and I was convinced I should write him a letter asking his opinion of it. My letter to him referenced a callous character in his Merrily We Roll Along who tells young writers not to be so clever. In his response, Sondheim seemed not to get the reference! He hadn’t found my show particularly clever, and wrote: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise, and imagination.” And it struck me that whatever my musical’s qualities, surprise certainly wasn’t one of them. Surprise, I’ve thought from that day forward, is an essential element of what makes a work entertaining.

So, if I send my characters into one argument after another, as the Department of Redundancy Department would have me do, the show will be predictable. It will lack surprise – at least during the section with all the arguments.

So, there’s plenty of architecture that could use repairing. And those structural flaws are impeding my progress on a bunch of songs at present. One of my odd theories of creativity is that when enough elements are in place, things suddenly sort of write themselves. When it’s a struggle, conversely, it’s likely that too few elements are in place.

It takes a long time to write a musical. And seeing six hours elapse without getting much closer to finishing anything shouldn’t be viewed as a tragedy. Recently, near where I live, there were these Tibetan monks who were creating a piece of art made with colored sand. The grains of sand were put in place, one grain at a time. Multiple monks completed their picture within a week. Some of my shows were written over long periods of time, with tiny bits of daily progress over the course of months or years. Today, I placed a grain or two. It’s not as if I did nothing. And when the whole thing’s in performable form, this day I was given six hours and accomplished very little will be a tiny blip on a trajectory of accomplishment.


Stay as sweet as you are

September 10, 2015

Today, a progress report, rather than a celebration. It’s the one-year anniversary of the first time anyone saw The Music Playing. But The Music Playing wasn’t finished a year ago; it was just time to put a draft in front of an audience and see how it went over. The invited attendees loved it, laughed at all the jokes, and soaked the floor with a puddle of tears. Everything, it seemed, was going right. And I saw this success as a decent start, a first step.

And so began a year – and counting – of rewriting. Taking a cold, hard look at every moment in the piece, including those that had clearly enraptured the crowd, and figuring out ways to make it better. It’s easy to be seduced by a positive reaction into thinking something can be left as it is. There are reasons to distrust the cheers.

The main thing is that the September 10, 2014 reading played for a room full of friends. There’s a huge difference between entertaining strangers and putting on a show for those you know. On one rather important level, that night was a surprise birthday celebration for my wife. She didn’t know where I was taking her, and hadn’t an inkling she was about to see friends perform an original musical that, in many ways, was a reflection of our life. Now, the guests who filled the other seats did know what they were about to see. But a huge part of their emotional experience, watching the show, was watching Joy watch the show. How was the birthday girl reacting to pal Nadia Vinnytsky playing a wife-and-mother very much like her? The Music Playing is about a pair of new parents finding ways to keep and kindle the love in their marriage. As the audience thought about this, they could look to where Joy and I were sitting and think about this novel romantic gesture of mine.

That’s a very different experience than the one that will be had by assemblies of strangers. I’m reminded that one of the current century’s funniest musicals was written as a gift from husband to wife, too. If I tell you the recipient’s name is Janet van der Graaf, many of you will instantly recall The Drowsy Chaperone with a smile. And while you were enjoying it, it probably never crossed your mind that the bride who didn’t want to show off no more had the same name, and some character traits, of a real person.

Future audiences taking in The Music Playing must accept Lizzie and Chuck without any familiarity with my family. If written well, of course, we accept fictional characters as real, at least for the time we’re watching the piece. My family isn’t fictional, although my daughter keeps saying things that nobody would accept as real coming out of the mouth of a made-up three-year-old.

So – how can I avoid this? – another mention of that really long word I find I drop way too often: verisimilitude. What my daughter says actually comes out of her mouth, but no paying audience would ever believe it. Stuff that Abigail says in the show has to be accepted by the audience as plausible, can’t get them thinking “no one would say that.” And my actress pointed out to me that I’d ended a lyric with a fast string of words, including “shnook,” that, to her, didn’t sound like something Joy would say. She’s right. But I must now ask myself, will the audience feel the character of Lizzie could plausibly verbalize that way? It’s imperative that writers get into audience members’ heads, picturing how they’re going to take in every word they hear, every image they see.

More broadly, the main thing I’m obsessing about is my unmet audience’s feelings about Lizzie and Chuck, whom they’ll never think have anything to do with Joy and me. Is my fictional couple interesting enough, sympathetic enough, for a house full of strangers to make an emotional investment in? In last year’s premiere, I feel, the characters are a little too nice, a little too perfect for strangers to care about. It’s like I’m tasting some cooking-in-progress and saying it needs a little something, a little tartness, more acidity. And the thought crosses my mind that if Lizzie somehow gets rewritten into an unpleasant person, Joy will be insulted. Perish the thought! It’s all about the audience, and always must be.

For my money, Jason Robert Brown went a bit overboard in making a character based on himself too much of an asshole in the denouement of The Last Five Years. I remember watching that master-of-charm, Norbert Leo Butz, getting through this extremely long, slow waltz and thinking “Well, that’s it. I don’t care about this character at all. The two hours spent watching this romance seems a waste of time.”

But when I think about it today, I wonder if Brown was dealing with a similar problem. He, too, was writing book, music and lyrics based on a romantic relationship he’d lived through. The woman, legendarily, was not happy about his turning stuff they’d lived into a musical. I think he wanted to be fair, didn’t want the play to seem like an act of revenge. So, he doesn’t paint himself as the good guy.

Which, I guess, is a good argument for steering clear of autobiographical works. So, let me advocate for the devil: You’re living life, seeing real stuff happen. Sometimes, you can see that a certain time period makes up an interesting story. As you’re living your life, there are jokes. People joke about a situation, or you do, and you might even have a storehouse of funny things to say that you never actually said. And that’s enough quality material, perhaps, to make a good show out of. It just might take a little tweaking. Or a lot of tweaking. Until any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.