Sleepy

January 17, 2019

On my birthday I sometimes I feel like it’s a good time for self-congratulation. Other times, I feel I do way too much of that sort of thing already. But right now, I’m feeling pretty good because I’ve just written a draft of the Opening Sequence of a musical and take a great deal of satisfaction in assembling the various elements that are needed up front. Musicals must make a good first impression. Show me A Typical Day In Dogpatch, U.S.A. and I’m primed for a certain kind of humor all night long. At the opposite end of the spectrum is my favorite whipping boy, Still Hurting, in which lights went up on a lachrymose young woman who wailed her dismay that her romance had gone wrong. I wanted to bolt for the door. And the show never quite recovered from the initial unappealing note of self-pity.

So, in discussions with an unusually large collaborative team, I kept emphasizing our need to keep Scene One positive. And so, I’ve written energetic and catchy music, loaded the lyrics and dialogue with cleverness and/or jokes, introducing a community with something to celebrate. As we write more and start rehearsing (that’s any day now), we might discover I’ve set the wrong tone. But right now, I’m feeling uncharacteristically positive about it.

People feel old on their birthdays, but I’m noticing a way in which I’ve changed with the times, in a songwriting sense. The much-admired Broadway composer Lawrence O’Keefe does something that I think of as music designed for short attention spans. Often, the feel or groove it’s in drastically alters rather abruptly. My opening number does something similar: There’s one kind of energy for the intro, which is all in the bass clef, then an Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque duet made of descending lines, a short speech and then a Motown-like ditty in a new key. After two A sections, the feel changes to plainer pop over a bass line that walks down the scale. Then there’s funny dialogue covering a seemingly important Event. The villain launches into the Motown melody and then the chorus takes up the pop tune. Three new characters have a funny spoken exchange which is underscored by a sentimental waltz, then launch into the pop. Another bit of dialogue gives a new character something to celebrate. Then the chorus finishes things off with the Motown into pop sequence one last time. Much less fun to read about than to hear, but this illustrates what I mean when I say it keeps changing.

Time pressure on this show has led to a lot of quick turnaround. I furiously turned out ten other songs in the past month, and that included holidays and my mother-in-law occupying my office for ten days. When something is quickly created, it can be quickly discarded (if it has to be) without a great sense of loss; easy come, easy go. A couple of days ago, the writing team convened and I was asked what I needed to proceed. All I could think of asking for was a list of events, in order, that needed to happen in the first scene. That four-part opening number was written weeks ago, but now there was a larger structure to fit it into. The list was just what I needed.

Deborah S. Craig & Aaron Ramey sing a song of mine at the NEO Concert at the York.

At this point, I’m wondering whether I’m enamored with my work or more self-impressed with the mere fact that the work got done.

Songwriting that spurts out that quickly is aided by something that might be called Modeling on Antecedents. In the musty old file cabinets of my mind are a plethora of songs I’ve heard more than once, and admire. So, when I examine the situation in the show’s story that requires a song, I sometimes say, “needs a song like I Want It All from Baby.” That gives me a template. So the second number has those energetic eight eighth notes to the bar thing from the great female trio. And the bass rises on off-beats, I-III-IV, which I’m aware is a bit of Cats dance music I once found too tricky to play. A song about the start of a marriage takes it accompaniment figure from a more sour Sondheim song about marriage, The Little Things You Do Together. The lullaby needed to have the simple sincerity of Lay Down Your Head from Violet. A chorale about friendship has some distant relationship to some forgotten sitcom theme, and the word, “freedom,” inspired something along the lines of the Aretha Franklin classic, Think. And the finale uses a measure from Cole Porter’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which was known as a delightful duet long before the title was borrowed for a game show. So, right now, you might be humming a whole bunch of really disparate numbers. But the audience that will hear this score in May is unlikely to think of any of them; they’re totally transmogrified. And one ballad is a simplification of a sophisticated number I wrote last year that nobody’s heard. The point is, having these other tunes as a leaping off point helped me unleash the floodgates of creation.

And it’s been a lot of fun. There is something uniquely enjoyable about solving dramaturgic problems through the creation of songs that illuminate turns of plot, and where characters stand; this sort of thing is catnip to me. And nothing stops you from dragging your feet like knowing that a deadline looms ahead. The show opens May 23rd in Beverly Hills; I hope you’ll come see.

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Untitled

January 9, 2019

I’ve been writing a slew of songs lately, and, paradoxically, my break before getting back to this rap nonsense – oh, that’s not a pejorative; merely descriptive – is to share a little bit about how I do it.

Alone in the Lab

There’s a good amount of solitude involved. I’ve found that there’s no use in talking about the song I’m going to write. People can’t share that vision; they need to hear the tangible thing. So, I have this image of myself as a scientist who merrily mixes stuff in beakers, with nobody watching, until some new potion is ready for presentation for others.

Practically, I have to have many hours of uninterrupted concentration. (This can be hard to get.) There will be pads of lined paper, which is not the same as blank music paper, which I’ll also need.

In the Beginning Was the Word

But not just yet. I like to focus, first, on what’s being communicated in the song. Since it’s almost always a song in a musical, I’ve a lot of parameters that are set up by the needs of the show. I know what the song needs to accomplish, dramatically. One of the pitfalls, here, is that a good song in a musical doesn’t amplify or explain and emotion the audience already knows, or can deduce.

But that’s a problem that can be fixed later. Once songs are completed, there’s all sorts of adjustments that need to be made – often cutting bits of book – to avoid redundancy. Let me emphasize that again: avoid redundancy.

Staring at the blank page, I begin to list things that might go in the song. As I do this, the need for a title is never far from my mind. A good title will encapsulate most of what a song is saying. That’s why it’s usually possible to get a sense of a musical’s plot just by looking at the names of its numbers. But, at this point in the process, you don’t need to have decided on the final title. You’re just listing.

Patterns Emerge

As the list grows, a sort of child’s game begins. Finding matches. The element most likely to leap out is rhyme. One could circle the rhymes, but I never do this, since I think in rhymes. It’s too obvious, to me, to waste time circling. A more important match would be metrical feet. Setting rhyme aside, can phrases be assembled that would have the rhythm of poetry? If you recognize rhythmic patterns, you’re well on the way to starting a melody.

I heard a rumor about Cole Porter: That he would set a lyric by notating the rhythms first, and the pitches came later. But what I’m more likely to do is to investigate various ways the stresses might fall. The image here is that of an actor, testing out different interpretations of a speech. Usually, more than one rhythmic setting will work. But here’s where you go beyond Cole: If you’re pondering the voice of the actor, you’re probably getting a sense of the shape of the melody. Nobody speaks in a monotone, except maybe that dullard who chants “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you.” Don’t be like that character! You’d rather have the moon.

Building Blocks

I’m not sure what to call what you have at this point – a snatch of melody? Well, scientist, you now have an element you can build with. That snatch could go somewhere in your song, and it’s going to be one of many pieces you’ll use. So it’s probably time to think about the larger structure. Piecing together an A section, you’ll now make decisions about where the title goes, where the rhymes go, and how to use those matching rhythms you identified earlier. And, by this point, you’ve chosen the title, which is more than I can say for this essay.

And then give a thought to the larger structure. Your B section will provide a contrast. This might be harmonic, or take the voice to a different tessitura, or, most likely, there’s a rhythmic contrast. A song I’m writing now starts in a minor key – the title’s the first line, but there’s a rhythmic match with the third line there – and is on jagged syncopations. The bridge is higher, in major, and involves much longer sustained notes the singer can open up on. Just the example I have on my mind at the moment. Right now I don’t know about other sections, although I’ve been playing with a somewhat long intro and, as an obstetrician once said to my wife, “I suspect there’s a C section in your future.”

Color By Numbers

Now that I’m thinking about my daughter, let’s consider a bunch of First Graders being given the same color-by-numbers page and an unlimited spectrum of colored pencils. The little artistic prodigies will choose different pigments that give the same drawing a wide array of emotional characteristics. It’s something I particularly love about the painting done about a century ago: Unexpected hues led to unexpected feelings.

Give music students – Tenth Graders, perhaps – the same lead sheet and the geniuses will come up with chords that put the tune across with varying levels of piquancy. Now, if you’ve familiarized yourself with thousands of songs over the years, (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ve recognized patterns in the chord symbols. It’s fair to say there’s usually the Most Obvious Way a melody might be harmonized. But why would you want to go with the Most Obvious Way? Leave that for the non-genius Tenth Graders.

Learning Through Observation

My daughter has started playing music too loud in the next room, and it’s one of those uninventive kiddie ditties with Most Obvious everything – Can You Imagine That? I’ve often spoken, here, of the sign in my office that reads Eschew Cliché. In order to do that, you’re really going to have to take a good long look at a huge quantity of songs from the past 100 years or so. See what they do with placing a title in the A section, deciding where the rhymes go, where the rhythmic matches show up. And if you’re staring at sheet music with chord symbols, take a gander at how the tune’s being colored. Anything that’s been done too much is, by definition, a cliché. Excuse me, I feel a sneeze coming on: Eschew!


You are the one for the job

January 1, 2019

So, I wrote some pretty good songs in 2018. And, while they’re not quite ready for sharing on this platform, I’d like to raise a flute of last night’s leftover bubbly to the mere fact they got written. And thereby hangs a tale of fortitude and perseverance.

My year – particularly the first half – was a spectacularly horrible one, the most depressing time of my life. There was a legitimate question as to whether I’d be able to dig in and write musicals. Baby Makes Three had no real deadline. There was no pressing need to finish the third draft. (The first was entitled The Music Playing.) But there’s a philosophy of strength I ascribe to. That, with one’s nose to the grindstone, one can get work done. Any time. Any place. No matter how soul-killing one finds one’s environs, or circumstances. If I truly believed that, I’d have to finish this draft, and rounding out the score are a couple of numbers – I Miss Breastfeeding, and Abigail Was a Butterfly – that are among the strongest songs in it.

My mood was tortured…
My life resembled
The Cherry Orchard

So, thinking back on this year made me think of these lines from a song with music by Galt MacDermot, who died a couple of weeks ago, one day short of his 90thbirthday. Before composing the music for Hair, he was hardly a hippie icon. He had a fairly conservative existence, earning a living writing jingles. Yes, jingles. Working for the Man. And then two young actors came to him with a crazy idea for a musical that would also be a be-in. What’s a be-in? Nobody quite knew. When your book and lyric writers are high all the time, it’s hard to trust them, but trust MacDermot did.

It’s here that I gently knock my father, who turns 91 this month. Those two actors, Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado, were in a play Dad produced off-Broadway. They told him about a show they were writing, Hair, which seemed to have no plot. My father declined to produce it – it was master producer Joseph Papp who had the vision to see its merit – and, well, there goes what would have been the family fortune.

Galt MacDermot’s follow-up to Hair, Two Gentlemen of Verona, which won the Tony (over Follies), is the clear progenitor of the contemporary Shakespearean musicals of Shaina Taub. MacDermot lived in Staten Island, a fact I couldn’t shake from my mind whenever I was there. In fact, I had this fantasy I’d need to use the bathroom and knock on his door, just to say I’d used the John of Galt.

But I’ve a contemporary Shakespearean musical of my own in the works, and there was a period in late summer when I managed to come up with a new song every week for it. If I’m going to celebrate my 2018 accomplishments, well, that level of production certainly deserves a place on the list. This fecund period convinced me that I don’t need the stimuli that fed me for decades in order to create. What lit a fire under me, on this one, was a collaborator who was fairly demanding and occasionally had trouble seeing the merits of certain songs. I’ve noticed that when I have an idea in my head, sometimes the only way a collaborator is going to understand that idea is if I write a draft of the song and record it.

The year’s third project, unlike the others, has a stringent set of deadlines. If I don’t complete more than one song every week, it’s not going to be done in time. There’s no time for me to second-guess myself; notes must be flung on staves, and words on pads, as fast they can be. At this point, a quodlibet is particularly fabulous, and there’s a stirring love ballad, plus a lullaby with many layers of meaning. Going well.

But I’m reminded that, back in March, I had to get a new computer, and the Apple salesmen assured me this modern model would work with my old midi keyboard. They’d lied. And so started the long nightmare of entering music on a computer staff by pointing and clicking – the glacially slow way. Come Christmas, though, my wife gave me a new keyboard that does interface with my computer. And, as a forgotten president once said, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

My wish for 2019 is to end our long national nightmare. But I’m telling you that no matter how horrible things get, you should still be able to write your musicals. Just summon up the will, or, in the case of one of my shows, the Will. And remember this Sondheim stanza:

A rhymeless word like silver
Is possible to rhyme
All it takes is will, ver-
Bosity and time.


Haven

December 14, 2018

Another of my musicals has a major anniversary this month. You’ve heard me claim The Christmas Bride has little to do with Christmas. Well, The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns For Martyred Actors has more to do with Halloween than anything Yule celebrate this month. It’s a ghost story, and certain wisps of memory I have about it haunt me to this day.

My collaborator was extraordinarily talented, but I’m not going to reveal his name. (Ooh, a mystery as well as a ghost story!) This is because I want to speak honestly about him and some of the callous things he did to me, but it’s classless and/or impolitic to speak ill of the rich and famous. He went on to win the Tony, the Pulitzer, an Emmy – but for now let’s just call him Individual One.

He said he loved musicals, but he seemed troubled by his own ardor. He once told me he considered them an inherently conservative art form, meant to lull the audience into bourgeois complacency. So, to be a good leftist, it seemed, one had to reject certain musical comedy conventions; to rouse rather than to lull. Them’s fighting words. I was fairly political, of a similar stripe, but didn’t see my embrace of certain time-honored theatrical forms as inherently conservative.

Most songwriters would have cursed out Individual One, refused to work on the project, slammed the door. The 23-year-old me thought that all collaborations involve a certain amount of compromise. If I broke things off, he’d find another writer, and I’d be just another writer without a show. If I found a way to work with Individual One, to get past this rather silly difference, we could create something interesting. Yes, my traditionalism would clash with his incendiary rejection of what had gone before, but I didn’t want our audience lulled into anything either. It was exciting to see where his approach would take this thing.

And, at every point, I never lost sight of two positives: Individual One has an extraordinary brain, able to unite a plethora of disparate concepts, to quote and discourse on a large array of complicated philosophies, to utilize a wide range of theatrical effects. Also, the script crackled with passion and poetry. This guy could write – boy, could he write – and I didn’t want to unhitch my wagon from a speeding locomotive.

I’d contributed some incidental music to three plays he’d written or directed, but The Heavenly Theatre would be a whole score with lyrics by Individual One. That threw me off my game, as I’m always most comfortable creating both words and music all by myself and usually at once. Here, I was handed text to set. And the words – which usually lacked rhyme, meter, or matching sections – were unlike any lyrics I’d ever seen. Forget making this sound like a musical; how could I make this sound like a song? I felt a need to honestly communicate the difficulty I was having to Individual One, and hoped he could restructure his blank verse into something with a little more form. But my request enraged him. “We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer.”

999 out of a thousand would have resigned, but I figured writing with someone is an experience one is bound to learn from. Individual One was so clearly brilliant in so many things, was abandoning him the right way to go? Plus, I had a plan, and that plan involved writing a song. I could take one of his lyrics and reconfigure it into a rhyming, metered, traditionally structured opening number. My efforts energized me. I knew the song was everything the show needed, introducing characters and a style of comedy; showmanship tinged with Bach-like melismas. Individual One grudgingly accepted this into the show. I felt like I’d won one.

From then on his lyrics got more settable, and I found that there were compositional techniques that suggest structure to the listener. One example involved an unusual rhythm that’s first heard on a drum – it alternates 6/8 and 4/4 – and the feel is that of an ancient country dance. The lyric doesn’t utilize a title, but tells a frightening story that’s very compelling. The cadences of those hard beats command the attention of the audience. The whole thing managed to come across.

If I was able to channel my frustrations with my collaborator into my creative work, so was Individual One. The premise of The Heavenly Theatre is that, in medieval times, a government official has ordered the death of a commedia dell’arte troupe. They get revenge by returning as ghosts, presenting him with a musical about the events leading to their murder. Now, of course, the haunted martinet doesn’t like the show, so, after some numbers, he gets to yell his disapproval. In a way, this may have been a healthy outlet for Individual One’s disapproval of me.

Ours is not the only musical set in medieval France with a composer approaching his 24th birthday. There’s also Pippin, and the creative pressures birthing that one led director Bob Fosse to bar songwriter Stephen Schwartz from rehearsals. As rotten luck would have it, I, too, was subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment by Individual One. This was emotionally devastating to me, but I had a great deal of confidence in musical director Wade Russo. He saw to it my music was brought to life, and we remain friends to this day.

Alas, I can’t say the same for Individual One. I ran into about a month after performances, and wondered if it might ever be done again. No, Individual One told me firmly. After our difficulties working together, he’d have to find a different composer for any further permutation of The Heavenly Theatre. He did just that, and the show was announced as part of a major theatre’s season about ten years later, but never came to pass.

Merry Christmas!


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.


Such good friends – part two

October 5, 2017

When The New York Musical Theatre Festival chose Such Good Friends as one of its Next Link “blind” selections for presentation, I could have frozen the script, leaned back, and watched what I’d written get produced. That’s what most NYMF writers do. They figure if the panel of professionals think it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, then it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, as is. I thought just the opposite: My God, this thing is going in front of an audience in a few months! I’ve such a short time to get it to where I want it to be!

And this is the main reason director Marc Bruni and I were such a perfect fit. When he first read the script – two meetings before I chose him to direct – he saw it as a work-in-progress with great potential to be truly entertaining by opening night. Neither of us ever felt it was perfect as is; it could always stand for improvement. As I said in Part One of this ten-year anniversary reminiscence, Marc hoped I could focus on script fixes and little else. There was also the odious task of begging people for money, but checks trickled in from surprising sources, including the Anna Sosenko trust, which supports musical theatre writers.

With our rather lean budget, we knew we’d need to streamline the storytelling, so only nine or ten actors would be used. That cut my cast size in half, including the sons and spouses of major characters. Marc had wonderful suggestions. (He’d shepherded at least two Broadway musicals before this as uncredited dramaturg.) We’d have long discussions on how the audience would experience every moment in the show. And if I could boil down this entire excellent experience into one bit of wisdom, it’s that: try to see your show as the audience will see it. The jokes, while plentiful, weren’t funny enough. The dramatic turns had to sucker punch the audience. A musical must surprise. Such Good Friends eventually startled.

I tend to do better inserting humor into my lyrics than I do in dialogue. So, under the genial guidance of Mike Bencivenga, we convened a roomful of funny people to punch up the script. I was aware that this is a common practice with television comedies. They do a read-through, and a table of wags keeps pitching better jokes until the show-runner bangs a figurative gavel to say “Yes, that line’s good enough.” Not all musicals undergo this process, but I’m sure glad such good friends of mine upped the yock-quotient that night.

I think Marc was particularly impressed by the new songs that I came up with as the result of our talks. While I recall we talked a lot more about the first act than the second, about half of the numbers that were heard in Act Two were late additions. Sondheim’s two best-known numbers, Send in the Clowns and Comedy Tonight, were eleventh hour creations, and he’s spoken about how it wasn’t the time pressure that got such good work out of him, it was knowing the characters really well, how they sounded, what the song should do.

On Such Good Friends, several of the songs I initially thought were the score’s best ended up on the cutting room floor. Whenever I hear of a writer digging in their heels, refusing to cut something (and the Dramatist Guild contract gives them that right), I think “Lord, what fools these songsmiths be!” Audiences at bad NYMF shows (and, one must admit, there are a lot) are suffering through any number of numbers that should have been excised.

The other thing about knowing your characters is that everything changes when you find your actors. And what actors we found! To the shock of many who know us, my wife Joy (more on her in the next post) didn’t cast Such Good Friends. There was a more experienced casting director in her office, Geoff Josselson, and she trusted him more than she trusted herself. Geoff and Marc worked together to generate lists of utterly fabulous people who’d be perfect for all of the roles. Offers went out, and I was amazed at the yeses that came back.

I remember when I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. I thought they were plenty funny, but there was someone else in the cast who was far funnier, Brad Oscar. I remember when I saw this utterly fantastic off-Broadway revue, Closer Than Ever, loving the brilliant acting-in-song of Lynne Wintersteller. Getting such high-caliber people in the cast was incredibly exciting to me. Just weeks earlier, remember, the faceless NYMF selection committee had decided my piece had value. Now, performers I’d adored on stage committed their time to this exploit. Quite an honor.

producer Kim Vasquez, me, Liz, Marc

Sometimes your lead breathes life into a character in unexpected ways, and your formerly-just-on-paper personage begins to soar. So, I’d loved Liz Larsen in A New Brain, where she created a far stronger impression than then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth. And I’d loved her Tony-nominated portrayal of Cleo in The Most Happy Fella (a particularly wonderful musical). I’d even liked her as the protagonist of the worst new musical I ever saw on Broadway. If she could enliven that mess, I knew she could do something fantastic for me.

And fantastic she was. Every beat fully acted, fully felt. She grabbed hold of the audience with comic timing, apt physical business, and that gorgeous clarion voice and made everyone care what happened to her character. This was a star turn of the first order, and of course she took home an award for her work. (Marc and I did, too.)

I’ve run out of time to mention everyone I’d like to mention. For now, let it suffice to say I was very lucky to get the people I got and the production I got. The critics (yes, critics came) were beside themselves with superlatives. Peter Filichia thought we “…delivered a production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW!” Michael Dale found it “One of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years”. Lisa Jo Sagolla’s Critic’s Pick review in Backstage said “The hard-hitting political message takes brilliant dramatic command” and called me “a wily wizard with words.”

So, of course, Such Good Friends stands out as the highlight of my career. And it couldn’t have been done without such good friends.


The Dottie Frances show

September 28, 2017

Ten years ago today, my musical Such Good Friends opened and thereby hangs a tale. And within that tale, there’s another tale. And within – Hey, you ever feel like, when starting a post, that it’s going to take several posts to cover it all? Yeah, neither do I.

Did you ever notice how many successful musical theatre book-writers wrote sketches for Sid Caesar’s television show in the 1950’s? Best of these were Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello Dolly!, Barnum, 42nd Street) and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Take Me Along, Zorba). Theatre superstar Neil Simon was tapped to write a musical for Caesar to perform on Broadway, Little Me, and later penned Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, and others. Two far funnier books were by Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, City of Angels). And then there are national treasures Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway). There was a time when my admiration for Caesar’s writers was such that I’d go see anything they did, and it was particularly interesting when their scripts reflected back on their experiences working on Your Show of Shows. I read Simon’s Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor prior to its Broadway production. And Brooks’ recollection became a movie he produced, My Favorite Year.

The year of “Year” was 1954, and the film establishes this by having a stack of newspapers dropped off at a newsstand. The headline refers to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, which would have severe implications for the entertainment industry. And then, for the rest of the movie, it’s not mentioned again. Young writer has to corral a drunken old movie star. Not a mention of McCarthyism after the opening shot. Strange, no?

Similarly, Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor has the character based on Caesar punch a hole in the wall in anger over something McCarthy has done. But nobody in the play gets blacklisted, or is forced to testify before the HUAC. Surely, Brooks and Simon knew a lot of people who’d suffered. (Or was it just Shirley?) Their reminiscences were droll enough, but that, to me, is a curious omission, sweeping some ugly truth under the rug.

Woody Allen appeared in Walter Bernstein’s recollection of blacklisting, The Front, and here was a film that more successfully struck a balance between comedy and the grim reality of the scoundrel time. Bernstein’s later book about what he personally experienced was a chief inspiration to me. He didn’t sugarcoat a thing, and I was particularly taken with the tale of two good friends who had sons, maybe twelve years old, who were best friends. Both dads found themselves accused of being former communists, and the day came when, in desperation, one supplied names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. This upset his friend so much, he ordered his son to abandon his friendship with the name namer’s son.

Such an emotional event seemed to call out for musicalization. I’d long wanted to write about the McCarthy era, but the topic seemed too depressing to be a musical. Now, some of you might be thinking “How ridiculous! Nothing’s too depressing to be a musical. The Leo Frank tragedy became Parade.” And it’s here where we must agree to disagree. I think Parade’s a perfectly awful musical, a heap of sad events that garner a knee-jerk reaction. If I were going to create a musical about McCarthyism, it would have to be damn entertaining, not a depression fest.

But how? I thought about this for years, until it hit me: what’s entertaining about My Favorite Year and Laughter On the Twenty-Third Floor is that you have a bunch of funny people put under pressure, the pressure of creating live television in its earliest days. That’s an appealing milieu, filled with opportunities for humorous songs, and amid all the laughter, I’d have the opportunity to show what happened to so many hard-working talents in the entertainment industry back then. Oh, and I knew I could use the father-telling-son-to-give-up-his-best-friend bit.

The song for that scene went through more drafts than any other in the score. I was certain this was the centerpiece of the show, and if I perfected it, everything else would fly. But, at most points in the creative process, one can’t be sure what’s flying. At the time I sent Such Good Friends in for consideration by the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF is its spritely acronym), I’d never had any outsider tell me it was any good.

Imagine my elation when my blacklist musical was selected for production. It was, at long last, confirmation that someone else – a panel of professionals, no less – thought mine a worthy project. And on went a ticking clock. That is, there were now announced dates when the Festival would take place. That limited the remaining time for improving the thing. Little me, the sole writer, was now a funny person under tremendous pressure, just like the characters in my show.

Raising money, quickly, was just about the hardest thing I have ever been called upon to do. And how much to raise? Well, to answer that I needed an experienced producer. And how easy is it to find one of those? And I also knew I needed a director. An agent friend represented some up-and-comers who, she felt, ought to be showcasing their abilities at NYMF. I met with many, and sized up their strengths and weaknesses on a chart, and one hovered well above the rest, Marc Bruni.

Choosing Marc was the best decision I ever made. He had a passion for improving the show and an endless font of good ideas for doing so. He instantly led me to a producer with NYMF experience, and told her that the best use of my time was not to raise money but to fix the script. As a result, I raised far too little but the improvements made in the script, from the day I met Marc to opening night, were extraordinary. (More on this on my next post.)

A good director has vision, and a sense of what can work on stage. My cast size of 19 had to be halved. And wouldn’t include any children. That scene that I thought was so key, Marc convinced me, was a distraction from the main tale I wanted to tell. “It’s not called Such Good Fathers, after all; it’s Such Good Friends.”