Tell me where is fancy bred?

January 30, 2018

The Boy Wonder of Broadway turns 90 today. Harold Prince, known as Hal. His name is a subliminal reference to Shakespeare’s Boy Wonder, Prince Hal, but the diminutive is really endearment, as he’s beloved by the entire community. After grabbing an Ivy League degree, he worked as a stage manager on shows like Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game – an apprenticeship, of sorts, under the Great Old Man, George Abbott, who, a generation earlier, had made a similar transition from stage manager to producer and director. At 27, Prince was a name-over-the-title producer of a big hit, Damn Yankees. And then New Girl in Town (a Tony-winner), West Side Story, and Fiorello!, By then he was 31.

Prince was so famous, he actually became a character in another Broadway show, Say Darling. This was based on a book about the creation of The Pajama Game, and all who saw it knew that Robert Morse’s character was based on the prodigious producer. I should note, here, that Hal Prince is also a character in the first musical I ever wrote. That was when I was 14, and didn’t think twice about putting living personages into my shows.

The shows I’ve mentioned so far were mostly crafted through a process in which the director exerts a great deal of influence over the writers, “shaping” the show without putting words on a page. I believe Prince is the last great practitioner of this. He became a director around the time Jerome Robbins stopped crafting shows for Broadway, and the torch was passed. Imagine how much Prince learned just from being in the room as Abbott and Robbins did their thing. All three were involved in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Abbott-directed farce starring Zero Mostel, Joel Grey and Karen Black was playing to mirthless near-empty houses in its out-of-town tryout. Time to call the doctor!– the show doctor, that is. Abbott, over his long career, had doctored many. But now he was so puzzled, he said “I like it; they don’t like it: We need to call in George Abbott.” Prince called in Robbins, who said “Nothing is wrong except the opening number.” (Love Is In the Air)

He sent Stephen Sondheim off to a room to write a new one, Comedy Tonight, staged it, and a hit was born. (They replaced Grey and Black, too.)

Nobody’s won more Tony Awards than Prince, and nobody has guided more masterpieces. An early example of what he did as a director is Cabaret, in which he came up with the idea that all the “on-stage” numbers at the Kit Kat Klub would comment on the rather realistic action in the rest of the play. So, the hero gets a financial windfall, but he doesn’t sing about it. Instead, there’s an incredibly energetic number about being suddenly rich. As the show goes on, the rise of the Nazis gets a twisted mirror reflection in increasingly sinister numbers such as If You Could See Her following an anti-Semitic incident. What once seemed charming has edged closer to evil. (More on this next essay.)

A character actor had written a handful of short plays about marriages and Prince thought they could be turned into a musical. But how? The writer had no idea. The largely-forgotten, then-rather-obscure songwriter Prince brought in didn’t know. But in talking with Hal, a notion emerged: to have a swinging bachelor observe these good and crazy people his married friends. Watching could lead to an epiphany. But is that a plot? Can you make a whole musical out of that? Only Hal Prince could. Fine as the Stephen Sondheim numbers are, it’s really the directorial magic that made Company a revolutionary hit.

So Prince and Sondheim continued to collaborate, and rack up Tonys, and each project was more audacious than the last. Follies, co-directed by Michael Bennett, added psychological underpinning to the type of songs their parents’ generation loved, so something obvious, like The Man I Love, is lampooned with something complex, Losing My Mind. A Little Night Music also took an outmoded form, operetta, and injected sexual subtext and Chekhovian wit. Pacific Overtures is a musical without a human protagonist (it’s about a country). And a melodramatic revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd, took on a veneer of Brechtian societal criticism at Hal’s behest.

Years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Lincoln Center Library about Prince. One thing that particularly fascinated me was a long set of very specific instructions about the staging of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. He had an idea about every gesture, every look, what it all means to the character. Now, since I am not a genius, I read Tim Rice’s lyric and think it’s meaningless prattle. But Prince was able to turn that song – music by Johann Sebastian Bach (but inexplicably credited to Andrew Lloyd Webber) – into a piece with dramatic depth. Cabaret and the Sondheim shows demonstrated what Prince could do with strong material. Evita and Phantom of the Opera may be terrible shows on paper, but the staging made them palatable; hell, more than palatable: huge hits.

The last Prince-helmed show I saw was about a crackpot inventor who ties so many helium balloons to his lawnchair, he’s lifted high enough to create a problem for airplanes. And therein lies a metaphor for Prince’s career. Musical theatre can effectively deal with earthbound subjects if we remember to leaven the misery with just enough lightness. Political despotism shows up in three Prince-directed Tony-winners and yet they’re not miserable experiences for their audiences. Rare is the chef with a knack for stirring just the right amount of sugar into the pot. And, today, rarer still is the director who’ll take such an active hand in fashioning how the show is written. Prince is the last of a glorious breed.


Growing younger

January 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Alfred

November 10, 2017

Two good musicals recently had their Broadway revivals broadcast on PBS. While I’ve rather negative feelings about the televising of stageworks, perhaps we all now have a basis for a discussion of the shows themselves.

She Loves Me boasts a score by the greatest of post-Rodgers and Hammerstein creative teams, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They’re masters of specificity. Each note sounds oh-so-plausibly mitteleuropa. The words are full of telling details that endear these characters to us. We become fully invested in the two warring leads falling in love.

The opening number has co-workers muse about playing hooky to enjoy the summer day. It’s pointed out that spuriously calling in sick can get you fired. “If it costs that much to get sun-tanned, I’ll stay untanned” – that rarest of birds, the genuinely funny rhyme. Then, less mellifluously, “Pale but solvent” tickles with its bathos. And it’s hard to pick out a favorite line in the whole show, but “meet my lady of the letters who makes tiny faces in her O’s” knocks me out so much, I actually cry each time I hear it, at its brilliance.

Traditional romantic musical comedy doesn’t get much better, and the justly most celebrated song, Vanilla Ice Cream, is an object lesson on how great writers create great opportunities to act. Because of its stunningly high cadenza, it’s thought of as a singer’s song, but really the acting is what sells it. The growing discovery that “a man that I despise has turned into a man I like!” gets us to feel the glorious surprise Amalia feels. And somehow, it’s a two-note polka, that keeps going to different harmonic places, setting off a rubato waltz in the verses. (This, in turn, echoes the music box of her introductory number.)

I think of She Loves Me as a wonderful meal with too many courses. The quality of the songwriting keeps you listening, but ultimately I get a little impatient with supporting characters taking time from the central combatants: Perspective, I Resolve, and Days Gone By. The Bock waltz that thrills me is the leads’ duet, Where’s My Shoe?, propulsive as a roller coaster, with all sorts of stage action prescribed by the lyric.

When I was in college, I saw a little musical that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its innovations are so common today, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary it was. William Finn’s all-sung one-hour entertainment, March of the Falsettos, eschews conventional song forms, goes into wild flights of non-reality, and acknowledges that we’re all gathered in a tiny box to see a musical. Four neurotics burst on to tell us we’d see Four Jews, In a Room, Bitching. And the last word wasn’t one you often heard in those days. It was a surprising laugh line that set us up well: We’re all in this small room together, and we’d be watching kvetching. (Say that three times fast.)

Unfortunately, over the years, James Lapine and Finn have tinkered with the show, every alteration weakening it somehow. So, we’re no longer in a room, and the Jews we meet are from biblical times, some woman is singing about slavery (so it’s not even Four) and we’re capriciously misled as to what the show’s about.

Eight years after that stunning debut, Finn & Lapine wrote a different musical about the same characters, a little later in their lives and plot-driven. Its opening number mocked the seriousness often found in off-Broadway theatre. This time, the show hewed close to reality for a captivating, moving hour.

Then something ill-advised happened. They put the two musicals together, as if they were presenting a coherent whole. You can’t tell that the second act opener is mocking anything, but Falsettoland’s string of highly emotional set-pieces make it everyone’s favorite act. It’s fascinating to me how different the two acts are. The first doesn’t have many story beats. “Well, the situation’s this,” the protagonist sings, and then we get a handful of people commenting on the situation. Unlike She Loves Me, the more minor characters’ perspectives tend to be the most compelling: the ex-wife who doesn’t want to care about what happens to her former husband’s current lover; the child bargaining with God to save a man’s life.

Doesn’t sound like a wacky romp, does it? Surprise! It’s silly, unpredictable, and mixes a Mardi Gras musical style with well-crafted counterpoint. I particularly admire Days Like This, in which various characters try to be upbeat while visiting a friend in the hospital. They take different tacks, and each has a different musical feel. The child says “Gee, you look awful” and sweetly promises to lose a chess game with the patient. As the different melodies are added to the piece, it’s a subliminal message that a true community is coming together.

(Confession: I stole the first feel to start a song once. Also, inadvertently, I stole the bit in She Loves Me where a character realizes she’s late and stops singing to exclaim “I’m late” completing a rhyme, although you wouldn’t get this from how Laura Benanti did it on TV.)

Finn, more than any writer I know, free-associates. A man who wants to say “There’s not a man who could love you as much as I do” says, instead, “There’s not a guy,
There’s not a piece of paper…there’s not a horse or zebra who could love you the same as I.” This is a far cry from the songwriter-ese I’m sometimes prone to. Characters halt and stammer as they roundelay. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they sing in Spanish and then in Hebrew. They’re so human and unpolished you lean in because you can’t guess what they’re going to say next.

A recent New York Times interview of Sondheim by Lin-Manuel Miranda once again brought up that key word (that Sondheim used in his letter to me), surprise. Theatre must consistently surprise us, and surprise is what Falsettos has in spades. What more can I say?



August 4, 2017

It’s a big anniversary, ‘round about now, of my musical for children called Popsicle Palace. Except it’s no longer called Popsicle Palace. Merely because the owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, the show is now called Not a Lion. You’d think that, rather than telling us to cease and desist, they might have explored striking up a partnership to our mutual benefit. But good ideas tend to evaporate faster than frozen ade on a stick in the sun.

In a way, Not a Lion is based on another of my musicals that ran into a rights problem. There was a time when the estate of C. S. Lewis allowed anyone to adapt any of his Chronicles of Narnia to the stage. When I was a teenager, my friend Jodi Rogaway proposed that we musicalize The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of the songs I wrote were pretty childish – after all, I wasn’t a grown-up, and knew I was writing for children. But a handful were impressive: cassettes of these helped me get into college and the BMI workshop.

Years passed and Jodi and I lost touch. But then I heard that she’d spent a year studying children’s theatre in Birmingham, England. And there, for one performance, she produced and directed our Through the Wardrobe. I was not yet 20. So I accomplished the coup of getting a show in front of an audience while still in my teens, even if I wasn’t there to see it.

More years passed, and Jodi had married a writer named Lee Rooklin. They lived not far from a family-run theatre in-the-round in Los Angeles, and weekend matinees were musicals for children. Jodi again seized her opportunity and got the theatre all excited about doing Through the Wardrobe. But, after ten years, the rights issue became a big deal. The Lewis estate was no longer allowing adaptations willy-nilly. We thought all was lost.

But Jodi knew she had a hook in a fish. This theatre wanted to work with her, and really liked my songs in that score. Jodi and her husband came up with a completely different story that could utilize at least some of the old Wardrobe songs.

It’s a completely different animal when you’re adults fashioning an original story together. For me, it meant adding a half-dozen songs to the half-dozen we opted to keep from the old score. And I also got to tweak the old ones: a weak piece for a minor character got overhauled with a sort of tap break recitation-in-rhythm. Almost beat for beat, Frozen, decades later, employed the same idea in its best song, In Summer. The cast, and people who saw the production, couldn’t tell the old from the new. But I see them as Before-Lehman Engel and After Lehman-Engel. I knew so much more about moving a story through song.

The premise of our new tale is that an ordinary housecat gets whisked off to a land where the local animals all think he’s a lion. And I found a way of putting that identity crisis smack dab in the middle of a duet. A cat, claiming to be just a cat, points out certain characteristics that indicate his species. An observer – who happens to be a penguin – points out a bunch of things that are true of both lions and cats. Not a Lion became a title song long after the run, but it’s among my favorite things I’ve written.

The score’s full of fun forms: there’s a four-part quodlibet, a round, something of a fugue, and, while I was coming up with this stuff, my mind went back to a song I’d enjoyed as a boy, I Am a Fine Musician. In it, different “bandsmen” – that is, singers imitating various instruments, add their sounds to a brief little chorus.

I stole the form but used clashing swords, fife, drum and the sound of an otter whacking its tail against the ground. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I spent that summer in L.A. to orchestrate and musical direct. At the time, my father was moving out of a chalet-like house in the hills, and I got to house-sit for a time, which was good living. The show was so successful, it often got sold out, and the finite run was extended several times. And I recall the company of actors as being particularly warm to me. Which prompts me to quote the finale, which could have been written about them:

I feel warm. Warm. Warm!
Warm as a fire
Or warm as alphabet soup
Warm as a choir
That huddles, like this, in a group
So warm that a snowball
Is no ball in no time at all
We’ve just begun the season
That comes before the fall
And it’s all
Because of you
You humans from beyond the border
Figment’s order is restored
And, speaking of the border, I see the way back home
Home. Home!
Home is where it’s warm as a canyon
That runs through hot desert sands
Warm, my companion
As we’re warmly holding hands
Life here was an igloo
A big losing battle it seemed
But now our home is warmer than we ever dreamed it would be
Warm. Warm. Warm.



July 24, 2017

The audience basically sat there with their jaws dropped. The reaction wasn’t “This is great.” The reaction was “Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything so marvelous.” You could feel this energy throughout the theatre, the entire building was abuzz with how fantastic the performance was.

You know, it has never been my intention to make this blog the place where I brag. So I’m going to try, today, to accurately reflect and reflect upon what happened in Connecticut at the beginning of July. As usual, I hope to be interesting and useful to creators of musicals. But, let’s face it, some of this is going to sound like boasting. Deal.

The occasion was a presentation of a portion of The Christmas Bride. I am responsible for its music and lyrics and circumstances landed me in the director’s chair. To my surprise, it’s not a tall wood-and-canvas thing with a title on the back. It fell upon me to select a cast of eight, rehearse them and tell them where to move. We had an extremely short amount of time to put this together, and the lion’s share was spent getting the notes right. An exorbitant number of minutes were lost to laughter, as a couple of players found a bit of business so funny, they were unable to get it together and deliver the material with a straight face.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

But when they were on, they were ON. I’ve never encountered a crowd so titillated. The tongue-in-cheek machismo of leading man Matthew Griffin had the effect of literally turning a lot of women on. And, you know, my wife cast Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, so now we’re both used to having that effect.

I really think the best thing I did in this fraught process was choosing the performers I got. Six had worked together for two years as students of mine. Solid and stolid David Arthur Bachrach is a veteran of two previous Christmas Bride productions, this time essaying a new role. One day I had a brainstorm that my current student Megan Poulos had all the right stuff to be the title character. I took a leap of faith that she’d play well off of Matthew Griffin, who’d made such a great impression earlier this year in Encores’ The New Yorkers at City Center. He’s got the looks, the voice, the goofy swagger; could they project the chemistry of illicit lovers taking a leap of faith on each other?

In a word, yes. This was the thing that thrilled me most. Book writer MK Wolfe and I had always hoped for a certain sexually charged energy between our leads. Previous productions had come up a little short, I think, as the lines and lyrics have to bounce off the pair in a way that sizzles. It’s that old saw that casting a show right is more than half the battle. Here was the proof of that pudding (made of plum?), a very fortunate happenstance. Players with a similar background was a felicitous shortcut: They all knew how to get behind the energy of the piece. MK Wolfe’s book effectively keeps the stakes high, and the players played them for all they’re worth.

Well-played melodrama knocks out an audience – the fraught sense that everything that’s happening is of great importance, has huge consequences for the characters. One could tell from the opening minutes that people were thunderstruck by what they were seeing.

And it was more than my cast of New Yorkers. I also believe the quality of the writing stunned the crowd. The little that is arbitrary never seemed arbitrary because viewers got used to being rewarded for their concentration. In a plot sense, little clues are often dropped as to what might happen next, and these kept people’s ears particularly wide open.

That led, in turn, to a different kind of hearing. The singers sounded so great, you could sense the listeners relaxing, taking in a new and enjoyable tune. This is hard to describe, but there’s just a different feeling in a room when melodies hit ears and the hearers savor right away. Far too often, I’ve witnessed the opposite, when oddly-crafted tunes get taken in with a bit of befuddlement. This was more like love-at-first-sight, an instant attraction.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

It’d been five and half years since I’ve seen The Christmas Bride. So, in an odd way, I was reacquainting myself with old themes, and rediscovering what’s good about them. The long sustained notes in Fluttering and Turn Around give time for the vocalist to open up. The sweetness of Megan and Matthew’s sounds delighted. Marion and Alone in the Night are two larger pieces I’ve always thought were among my best. But the main song for the romantic leads, Take a Gamble – well, I’d previously thought of it as a little disappointing. A romantic musical calls for a big I-love-you statement, and this argumentative duet has its eyes on the plot. Megan and Matthew revised my self-assessment. Rather than park-and-bark sentiment, I’d given two actors fully motivated moments to snipe at each other. In their hands, it became a beautiful thing, and, at long last, I found myself enjoying the song.

A friend and fellow musical theatre writer was there, and he’d never previously heard any of my work. He was particularly taken with my dense rhyming and how they gave spring to the meanings of the sung lines. We plan to meet for a drink and discuss it some more.

Songs rhyme for a reason. When the brain knows it’s going to receive sounds that match at regular intervals, listening is enhanced. It might be harder to come up with a clever rhyme structure and stick to it, but it’s surely a lot easier for the hearer. Our brains take in well-rhymed words much quicker than unrhymed or – horrors! – badly rhymed verse.

An example comes to mind because Connor Coughlin applied an echt and charming accent to it:

Furbelows and frocks
Herbal teas and boxes full of gifts for that special she
For my bonnie bride to be

Connor sounded the “H” on “herbal” and then the frocks/box rhyme sped the line forward. It traveled blithely from an unfamiliar word (“furbelows”) to a familiar and understandable concept. Had this been fully staged, he would have been holding a huge pile of presents. Instead, a good rhyme drawing attention to meaning got everyone to picture what they could not see.

Immodestly, perhaps, I’ve unveiled some of the little details that garnered such a huge reaction. There was a moment towards the end where a twenty-second ovation broke out, literally stopping the show. The actor could not continue until the audience obeyed his hand-signal command to simmer down. The Connecticut crowd had never seen anything like it.


Washington discount

May 10, 2017

I’ve long felt a certain kinship with John LaTouche, my fellow Columbia Varsity Show veteran, who wrote the single greatest lyric about the passing of a venereal disease. (Sorry, I Got It From Agnes fans.) It was written for, and cut from, Candide (1956), which explains the heightened language:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
‘Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She’d forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn’t sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

LaTouche’s now having his second musical in as many years done at Encores, the all-sung epic, The Golden Apple. Seeing this Holy Grail of rarely-revived musicals, I’m thinking about whimsy and wit: How a little of it goes a long way, and how too much of it makes for a long evening.

Ber, Ber, Ber! It’s chilly in my office this morning. But I’m also thinking of the Encores troika of musical director Rob BERman, choreographer Joshua BERgasse and director Michael BERresse. They gave this Apple a fine polish, but you know me: I care about how shows are written. And I got a problem with that.

It’s said that the authors never stopped for dialogue because they conceived their musical as an incessant series of show-stoppers. The music by Jerome Moross is unfailingly energetic: I’m a particular fan of the overture, which ratchets up excitement. Every lyric contains showy rhyming, that is, they call attention to themselves. We don’t react to Ulysses and Penelope as people; we react, favorably or un-, to LaTouche. God love him, he gets a laugh rhyming “cobra” with “no bra” and I’m tickled by that kind of stuff. Been known to do it myself.

The Golden Apple was first produced in the 1950s, a decade in which clever rhymes were appreciated. That time is long behind us. But the problem isn’t so much that tastes have changed and the show has aged, it’s that the whole idea of a procession of show-stoppers is wearying. The Homeric epics on which the show is based are, indeed, episodic. But do you really want to see a musical that’s a long chain of pointless episodes, even if they’re individually entertaining?

We long for emotional connection to the characters. Instead, we witness vignettes that somehow relate to ancient Greek lore, but they add up to nothing. There are a huge number of characters, but let’s focus on two: Ulysses and Helen. Ulysses returns from the Spanish-American War, which allows LaTouche to rhyme “Theodore, the Roosevelt that we adore.” There’s a reunion with Penelope, expressed in a ballad called It’s the Going Home Together. So, early in the show, they’ve played the inherent emotion of long-separated lovers returning to each other’s arms. Hold that thought.

For reasons that are never made clear, Ulysses decides to leave with his war buddies on a mission to the big city. LaTouche actually plays the pointlessness for humor, as they’re asked the principal of the thing they’re fighting for and can’t name it. So no one knows. Cut to poor Penelope, pining away that she’s not with Ulysses. In the big city, the big lug gets tempted by sirens and such, but then returns for the happy ending. And I’m feeling nothing. Ulysses’ abandoning Penelope seemed so arbitrary; how are we to trust he won’t do that again?

The marriage between Helen and Menelaus is even worse. Their trouble – and what a stuck-in-the-1950’s idea this is – is that Helen likes sex. Since her husband (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz) is portrayed as not-very-virile, she’s bound to stray. And I suppose we’re supposed to get behind this, emotionally. The only hit song to emerge from this score, Lazy Afternoon, is how she seduces Paris:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And my rocking chair will fit you
And my cake was never richer
And I’ve made a tasty pitcher
Of tea
So, spend this lazy afternoon with me.

A few problems with all this. LaTouche forces rhymes in a playful “look at me! I’m clever!” way and we’re not quite invested in this seduction working. Paris is completely silent – lanky Barton Cowperthwaite gyrates very impressively – but, given what’s happened to left-behind Penelope, do we really want Menelaus left-behind, too?

Jerome Moross was in Aaron Copland’s circle, and boy, can you hear it. There’s that familiar jumbling of arpeggiated major triads, and all manner of rhythmic tropes evoking the turn-of-the-century. And you don’t get a sense of “here’s a serious composer writing classical-sounding music” because the harmonic palette is never overly elevated. These are show tunes, and fine ones.

I heard riffs that turn up in later scores: a bit of West Side Story’s dance music, Sondheim’s incidental music to Invitation to a March. The big ballad in William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s Dynamite Tonite is a clear echo. And I caught a rhyme I used once myself: graduate/glad you ate. That ended the first act of my Varsity Show, but even then I knew that clever rhymes are a special sauce, best used sparingly.

But something positive deterred me from remembering the most prominent homage of all. You see, Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Silverman deliver, dazzlingly, the sound of fine 1950s musical comedy stars. She’s a clarion, jazzy and fun. He’s powerfully masculine. They’re such pros, I nearly forgot Christopher Guest’s celebration of amateur theatre, Waiting For Guffman. It has a intentionally bad number called Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine, perhaps inspired by Nothing Ever Happens In Angel’s Roost, the inauspicious opener to The Golden Apple.


What would Rosie O’Donnell do?

April 17, 2017

That Facebook meme: I suppose I’m supposed to be gratified that so many people took a few seconds out of their day to name some musicals they like and loathe. I mean: I can’t deny that I wish people more people would think about musicals more. And here’s evidence that many are thinking about musicals some. But the listing of titles after the redundant categories – Musical I love, Musical I cherish – seems so meaningless, reductive to the point of being absurd.

And old news. If you say (as many did), Cats is the show you hate and Les Misérables is overrated, aren’t you saying something that’s been said thousands of times over the past thirty-plus years? Cineastes eventually stopped blasting Heaven’s Gate. Way to state the obvious, people.


But I immediately began to question what musicals the poster has and hasn’t seen. If nobody listed one of my most-loathed sleepy nights in the theatre, The 1940s Radio Hour, it’s likely because nobody else had the great displeasure of seeing it. I searched in vain for any friend whose favorite show is Finian’s Rainbow, which, I began to assume, too few people have seen.

We live in an age of lists, or perhaps I should say, a listing age. And here it bothers me that folks weren’t telling the world why they cherish Assassins or what’s so wonderful about Urinetown. It’s not my disagreement with choices; it’s that I’d really like to hear the rationales.

As it happens, American Theatre has an interesting article by Diep Tran explaining her considerable troubles with Miss Saigon, which is the worst of the financially successful Broadway musicals I’ve ever seen. At the risk of sounding ancient, I’ll say that I remember a time when the mere mention of Vietnam made Americans wince, so troubling were our actions there, and the politics of that not-too-distant age. But leave it to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, creators of the far more effective sobfest, Les Misérables, to present a love story that’s merely set during our withdrawal from Vietnam, with nary a mention of the politics involved, or any condemnation of America seeing itself as the Great White Savior of the distant Asian country. The icing on this urinal cake is a scene co-opting a real-life tragedy with footage of Amerasian orphans like one would see in a telethon. The cherry on top is the thievery of a Richard Rodgers hit, There’s a Small Hotel for an affectless cri de coeur.

Facebook is supposed to draw us together, I guess, so it’s disappointing I didn’t find a lot fellow Frank Loesser fans through this. Just last Thursday I found myself laughing out loud at a scene from his 1950 collaboration with Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls. I know it’s my uncle’s favorite musical, and his train stopped at Saratoga every summer for the exact same reason Nathan Detroit’s did. But he’s 90, so perhaps loving truly funny shows is a generational thing. I prefer How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, also by Loesser and Burrows (both shows have other credited book writers who seem not to have done much), in which every song and every scene provokes audience laughter. That’s quite an accomplishment, but Loesser did something even more impressive: He wrote book, music and lyrics to a musical through which I sob uncontrollably, The Most Happy Fella. And, to have his Italian-American characters sound convincing, he taught himself Italian. Gotta love it.

A widely-performed show that ended up in different categories – hate, love, overrated, underrated, I sob through – is Jason Robert Brown’s time-bender, The Last 5 Years. I wish somebody could explain to me what all the crying’s about. There’s this doormat woman who’s Still Hurting after her marriage is over, and she’s so busy feeling sorry for herself, I feel absolutely nothing. Also at the top of the show is a completely unfunny comedy song about a man whose Judaism is I important to him, dating a gentile is some huge deal. You know, like in Abie’s Irish Rose, the hit play of 1922! If only meme-answerers could explain why they liked it, I’d find it valuable.

But hey, it’s just a meme: a throwaway thing with little or no inherent value. I get that. As I’m writing this, my wife and child are off seeing a new musical on Broadway. It’s the third new musical my wife has seen this week. And it’s mere coincidence that all this attendance is happening while so many people are sharing titles of shows they’ve liked and loathed. But it leads me to muse: What if, instead of jotting down the names of favorites and un-favorites you saw years and years ago, you went out and explored? Go to shows you haven’t seen before. And then your answers, the next time this meme comes up, might be totally different.