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?

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Rondo

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.


Bows

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.

(nsfw)

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.


Processional: oohs and ahhs

March 14, 2017

Currently, in New York, you can see the two Sondheim-composed shows I most enjoy, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George. While I haven’t caught these particular revivals, I’ve seen other revivals, as well as the Broadway originals, and this year I’m hell-bent on saying something positive about Sondheim for a change. You see, two years ago, I waited until the day after his birthday to voice a handful of criticisms, and members of his cultish coterie of fans got up in arms. It strikes me as remarkable, and not good for anyone, that so many Steve-adorers can’t abide any criticism of their God. But that’s not Sondheim’s fault; he, in fact, is happy to condemn mistakes he’s made. If he says Welcome To Kanagawa isn’t funny, that’s considered humility. If I say I sat through Welcome To Kanagawa and nary a laugh was heard, I’m some blasphemer.

There was a famous disagreement between the songwriter and director of Sweeney Todd, as they developed it nearly 40 years ago. Hal Prince kept pushing for a sort of harangue, a Brechtian indictment of the audience. We were supposed to feel culpable, somehow, for being part of the society that could produce a mass murderer. And so we stared at that beehive drop, delineating the hierarchy of Victorian professions and got pointed to when the chorus, at show’s end, hissed “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” All, I’m disappointed to report, to little effect. Sondheim had a different goal, engaging us in the fun and furious Grand Guignol of a bloody revenge melodrama. In this, the show succeeds in spades (also, with spades, wielded by gravediggers). I can think of no show more Wagnerian in its marshaling of compositional devices to rattle us with powerful thrills.

Somehow, it’s even right when it’s wrong. (Warning: I’m going to get a little technical and critical here.) A young swain has an adagio ballad, with grandly slow arepeggiated chords. That makes him seem a little larger than life, but I’m OK with that so far. Then, on the word “dream” the minor of the scale is played against the major in accompaniment. This clash is the sort of thing one hears in twentieth century blues, never in London during Victoria’s reign. Luckily, this anachronistic chord adds creepiness to the song, as if suggesting the tenor is some sort of a stalker. He’s not, it turns out, but, at the time, we appreciate the composer bringing up the question. One of the happier themes we hear more than once is a sort of an advertising jingle, and is stolen, note for note, from Harvey Schmidt’s Texas-set 110 in the Shade. That Sondheim is a Schmidt fan – there are other examples – is actually endearing, and I don’t call The Worst Pies In London a steal from Charles Strouse’s Tomorrow because the feels of the two seem farther afield.

My favorite moment in Sweeney Todd includes a pretty waltz that alternates between a major seventh and a whole tone scale, a mixture I love and have used often in my own writing. It’s cool jazz, but it sure ain’t nineteenth century England. What Pretty Women is, however, is an expert building up of pressure that always gets me to squirm in my seat. Sweeney’s about to give the closest shave he’s ever given to the very miscreant who ruined his life sixteen years earlier. Given the injustice he’s suffered under, we want him to succeed, but know the longer he waits the more likely he’ll be interrupted. Victim and murderer have this sweet duet and it’s extraordinarily tense. That scene may be my favorite of everything written in the past forty years.

Yet, since I’m not all that malevolent and more of a tortured artist, I found myself more moved by Sunday in the Park With George. Ask me to name my favorite Sondheim song, and I blurt out Children and Art. Perhaps it’s because I take it so personally. My long-suffering girlfriend who’d witnessed how obsessed I get while creating musicals shattered me when she dumped me a few weeks before I saw this show, about an obsessed artist whose long-suffering girlfriend dumps him. In a way, I was putty in Sondheim’s hands. But how he worked that putty!

As you can probably tell, I’m one of those who prefers Sunday’s second act to its somewhat less-deeply-felt Act One. And yet, for a lot of folks, including my smart friend Rachel, the first act seems like a complete evening of theatre. And the same is often said of Into the Woods. Citing these two 1980s collaborations with James Lapine, she asked me why this is so. I responded:

Intermission is a big deal. It gives an audience a chance to spend time reflecting on the first act, and perhaps build up a few expectations for the second. Neil LaBute once wrote a play and specified that very loud rock music be played throughout the theatre during the intermission because he didn’t want anybody thinking too hard about what they’d just seen. When a musical written to be intermission-less, such as A Chorus Line, Passion or Follies, gets one, something is ruined because the authors didn’t build up to the act break, or write their way into the second one.

So, Sondheim had spent his entire career in commercial musical theatre working with experienced Broadway writers and directors. After the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, he decided to go a different route, collaborating with a visually-oriented experimental writer-director who’d never worked on Broadway. That meant trying new things in his mid-fifties. They must have discussed what they found dissatisfying about commercial theatre imperatives. One of those might have been the need for a happy ending. SO many Sondheim shows don’t have happy endings, so he’d already broken free of that. But I bet Lapine said “What if we gave them a happy ending … at the end of Act One?” Then would come that ten minutes of audience reflection and Act Two could upend their expectations. That would have seemed a plan worth trying.

So, Seurat, left alone, finishes his masterpiece and it’s a stunner and we all applaud. If we have a thought at intermission, it might be that Georges is one of those tortured artists who is so obsessed with art-making that he’s unable to love. Maybe he’ll learn to love in Act Two. Except Act Two’s in a completely different century. And the putative great-grandson doesn’t make pretty things. He massages the egos of donors in order to get more commissions but seems to have no passion. But as he learns more about great-grandpa’s painting, he and we discover that placing the girlfriend all over the canvas was a loving act, bestowing immortality. (“Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.”) Then a ghost tries to convince him to create something new. She and we share the hope that he will learn to put a little love into future creations. We don’t know whether he’ll succeed, and this doubt stops it from being a truly happy ending.

In between acts at Into the Woods, we’re thoroughly satisfied that we’ve seen a rather breathless piece of children’s theatre. Things are neatly tied up, leaving some to feel that’s enough. But Lapine and Sondheim want to upend this satisfaction, by delving into all the moral compromises made to get those items-as-colorful-as-similes. Act Two is, of course, a commentary on the specter of AIDS: people die willy-nilly and society panics. But wait! Weren’t we just watching a kiddie show? It’s rather adult and depressing stuff, particularly in 1987.

One other idea: Lapine, as a downtown theatre artist, was probably used to people leaving at intermission, if they weren’t digging it. But now he was collaborating with a songwriter so famous, nobody was likely to give up at the interval. Unlike before, Lapine could play with our expectations about the second act, reasonably sure we’d return to see it.

In advance of March 22, I’m wishing Stephen Sondheim a happy birthday. That’s also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s birthday, so I’ll say something good about him, too: Jesus Christ Superstar is the paradigm of rock operas.


String quartet

January 1, 2017

Suppose you’re attending a show because an old friend is in it. And that old friend does great, but the writers of the show screwed up somehow, marring your experience as an audience member. Now, the writers aren’t greeting you at the stage door afterwards; the performers are, and you congratulate them on their fine work. The productions – sets, staging, musicianship – may be glorious, but you’re left with an unscratched itch, the nettlesome shortcomings that, then and there, you couldn’t comment on.

Now that we’re through with 2016, on this blog that looks at how musicals are made, I hope you’ll allow me to get some things off my chest. Five seasons ago, nobody was surprised when the Tony for Best Musical went to Once. I finally caught it about a month ago. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, were mostly written for the cute little film on which it’s based. The book is by Enda Walsh. And the show starts before the house lights go down. We see an Irish pub, and people are playing their own instruments. It seems an informal entertainment, supposedly impromptu Irish songs, filled with the usual mythic narratives and humor. When the houselights dim, these same folk are now playing the show’s songs, effectively setting us up for a whimsical tale-spinning, perhaps with a bit of magic thrown in.

And what we get is: the exact opposite. We see the halting romance between a Guy and a Girl (that’s what the Playbill calls them) and it’s notably lacking in myth and magic. They communicate in a true-to-life way that I might have found admirable if I hadn’t been set up for just the opposite. For long stretches, Once plays like a solid two-character play, well grounded in contemporary reality. When a song comes in, it’s passionate pop. One of the things that struck me is that the Guy’s unusual singing voice is a big part of what’s entertaining about this musical. That’s impressive; so’s the hard strumming on guitars that seems an emotional expression by a character. Once is rather innovative in this.

But I was reminded of one of Lehman Engel’s Key Components: Subplot. In Engel’s view, the audience needs a distraction from the main characters and what they’re doing. (I worry about this, because I’m now writing a show with no subplot; it’s half as long as Once, though.) Guy and Girl take their realistic relationship baby steps, and the trouble is, there isn’t enough interesting plot for a whole musical. We get tired of watching them. I’ve never seen something that cried out more for a subplot.

There is also no subplot, and a songwriting central figure, in Tick Tick…Boom. The librettist is David Auburn, who, like Enda Walsh, is a major playwright with no musical theatre experience. The music and lyrics – and, in a sense, the first draft of the book – are by Jonathan Larson. It’s a posthumous work; he and Auburn didn’t work together. But back when Larson was a little-known musical theatre writer, he had the idea of depicting his life and struggles in the field. So, for readers of this blog, Tick Tick…Boom is something of a must-see. It is unusual in that Auburn expects the audience to know that Larson went on to write the biggest hit musical of the 1990s but died on the eve of its first performance. Poignantly, he didn’t live to see Rent succeed – the raves, the Tony, the Pulitzer. We watch Jonathan apply himself to writing musicals with no acclaim or recompense. Given that emotional backdrop, Auburn structures a plot (sans subplot) that we invest in, to an extent, because we know what will happen after the curtain drops.

You can’t say that about a lot of shows, although I’m just remembering seeing, as a small boy, a musical set in Illinois called Young Abe Lincoln – something of the same thing. In Tick Tick…Boom, Jonathan rewrites Come To Your Senses “over and over and over till I get it right.” It’s supposed to be the emotional climax when we finally hear the full song, but every time I hear it, I find its message hard to grasp. The concepts in the lyric come at the ear too quickly:

The fences inside are not for real
If we feel as we did, and I do
Can’t you recall when this all began
It was only you and me
It was only me and you
But now the air is
Filled with confusion

I’ll say it is.

In Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece, Rent, we also meet a songwriter, Roger, struggling to write the perfect song about his relationship. Turns out to be one of the weakest numbers in the score.

There’s something I should’ve have told you
When I looked into your eyes
Why does distance make us wise?
You were the song all along

This is, as another character in the show says, “less than brilliant.” Is the point supposed to be that Roger isn’t a particularly good writer? (I ask the same question about Mr. Holland’s Opus, when I hear that awful symphonic piece at the end.)

So, on my recent re-visit to Rent, I was most struck by how overly-rhymed it is. Larson famously bridged the rock and musical theatre worlds, but, even twenty-one years ago, good musicals no longer were littered with showy rhymes that call attention to themselves. Lesbians I knew at the time didn’t call each other “Pookie” but hey, a rhyme for “spooky” was needed and what are you going to do? At one point, the whole problem is summed up when a character says, of what he’s just said “That’s poetic. That’s pathetic.”

Any writing error in Rent, though, is one I suspect Larson would have fixed had he lived to shepherd it to Broadway. We don’t go to edgy musicals about East Village squatters in order to hear “control freak” paired with “droll geek” (I kid you not). We might go to children’s theatre for such alleged cleverness, but that’s a genre in which we can’t expect a plot to hold our attention for long. Which brings me to Seussical, by Eric Idle, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This is, I believe, the most-performed show of the new century, and everything that happens in it is so silly, so lacking in import, the show becomes a mere pageant of fanciful design. What Happens Next is so frequently arbitrary, you give up caring What Happens Next rather quickly. An elephant interacts with a tiny town smaller than a clover, then can’t find the clover on which it’s located, then a bird who loves him finds it off-stage. My four-year-old kept whispering in my ear “When is this going to be over?” which – don’t tell my friends in the cast! – was exactly what was on my mind, too.