Stock quotes

July 4, 2018

Holidays give us license to kick back and be silly, and this particular one encourages us to be nationalistic. That is, to say something good about America. What to say…what to say… Now, you may have seen, a few weeks ago, a British theatre critic claiming that British plays are better than American plays in The New York Times, of all places. Was that “news” that was fit to print? And it wasn’t even British Independence Day (there’s no such thing). The whole statement is so abundantly absurd, only a truly silly person would even think of responding. So, here I go.

International readers, I hate to break it to you, but American musicals are better than your country’s musicals. There, I said it. (The title of the Times article included this oafish phrase.)

(click for details)

America invented the musical as we know it. And if you want a complete history of the origins, you’ll have to attend my Los Angeles “boot camp” presentation either August 1 or August 4. (Part Two plays August 2 and 4.)

America is a melting pot, and that goes for the development of our native art forms. We took a little sprinkle of Mitteleuropa operetta, a healthy scoop of Gilbert and Sullivan, some sauciness associated with the French, more than a dollop of jazz (which has its own fun set of melting pot origins), and a tinge of “serious” opera – in some ways a sister art.

Mixing that pot is one of those things that gets described as uniquely American. With so many ethnic groups immigrating here, the art we produce tends not to follow one genetic strain. While most of the key creators were Jewish men, their desire to assimilate into the larger American culture was such that they actively sought not to sound Jewish in their writing. And Cole Porter, a Midwest WASP, actively tried to sound Jewish! But these were side-goals: Mostly, all that anyone cared about was entertaining the audience.

It’s said that the British are less comfortable with emotion than the Americans. While this is another dismissible hoary stereotype, if I’m going to make this argument, by jingo, I’ll keep that idea in mind.

So, to be overly methodical about this, we’re going to need to get a little list of best American musicals and see what British shows, if any, measure up.

Quickly, because I have a summer trip to get to, let’s compile… the Rodgers & Hammerstein quartet,

Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I

3 directed by Jerome Robbins

West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof

add a Sondheim pair

Company and Sweeney Todd

I vastly prefer Frank Loesser; so this trio

Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, The Most Happy Fella

1 loved throughout the world but not in Britain

The Fantasticks

& finish up with a bunch of wild cards

Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, A Chorus Line and Hamilton.

I didn’t put a lot of thought into this list; I didn’t need to. Can you, just as quickly, name 22 solid British musicals? I could rest my case right now.

Never one to rush in to pressing “Publish,” I’m now thinking about this notion of a melting pot creating the tastieststew. And I’m wondering if what I really mean is that New York is a melting pot. There are certainly parts of America in which All Kinds of People don’t make up the community.

I’m reminded of the trouble Jimmy Carter ran into when he tried to praise America’s “ethnically pure” neighborhoods. He was called out for racism, as if he wanted to keep black people in ghettos. The American Dream, to me, involves a community in which all types (ethnicities, sexual orientation, age, income) intermingle, support and learn from each other.

New York is such a community, although the not well-off are continually more and more squeezed out. But you know what happens: young people, from all backgrounds, are drawn to the Apple with musical theatre dreams. They intersect, and that’s the melt that comes up with innovative musicals. While other towns may have produced their share of good musicals, I never hear anyone say “I moved to Seattle because of its vibrant musical theatre scene.”

The historical context is that Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin et al had immigrant parents who got off the boat in New York and stayed. More recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents, Puerto Ricans of the West Side Story generation, came to New York to raise their family. (His In the Heights depicts a typically multi-ethnic community.) The City holds out its welcoming arms, and people from all over the world keep coming. It’s as if it has a sign on its entryway. Oh, wait, it does:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

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Some days

April 25, 2018

These days, when you enter the Circle-in-the-Square theatre, you’re transported to a delightful Caribbean island. Residents with adorable accents joke with each other and joke with you, all the while handling a live goat, a live chicken, and a sizable shin-deep pool of water. It’s captivating and unexpected. This is Broadway, where we’re accustomed to a stodgy proscenium; instead, this is theatre-in-the-oval, and we’re all part of the show.

Eventually, house lights go down, music begins, and the cast sings and dances a story, directed at a little girl, but also directed at us. The only complexity is that we meet four Gods who use earth’s humans like chess-pieces. That means that we don’t quite grasp mortal actions having consequences: If Gods are playing with us all, we’re not in control of our fates.

Originally produced in 1990, Once On This Island marked the Broadway debut of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and it was very exciting to see a new team burst on the scene with such a high level of craft, such an understanding of how musical forms we’re used to in pop music can be used to further a narrative. So, of course, Flaherty is going to serve up a lot of reggae, but he’s always conscious of differentiating characters and having the songs all sound different. (One motif, on the first four notes of the scale, resurfaces) Some years later, in an admirably ambitious show called Ragtime, he did the same with a variety of rags. But here, on this island, the West Indies sounds become a kind of comfort food, always feeling right.

(Compare the white-girl reggae in The Last Five Years, called I Can Do Better Than That. The musical style, there, is wholly arbitrary, more than a bit puzzling as a choice.)

Flaherty and Ahrens went through the BMI workshop a couple of years after me, and it often strikes me that they’re the very models of the principles Lehman Engel imparted. Every phrase in every lyric is perfectly apt, utilizing exactly the vocabulary the character naturally uses. Each song moves you from one emotional place to another. A lot of the show is funny, but a great deal of the show is deeply moving.

Ti Moune and Daniel are star-crossed lovers. They meet by accident, literally, and it takes a great deal of bravery and industry for Ti Moune to go and meet Daniel again. An obvious antecedent is The Little Mermaid. Ariel saves Eric from a wreck but has to go through a hell of a lot to get to spend more time with him in his castle. Based on a novel by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island scrupulously keeps its heroine active. She is younger and far braver than those Wicked witches who occupy the same building several stories above.

On this island, the Montagues and Capulets aren’t equals. Ti Moune is a foundling from the dark-skinned peasant community. Daniel is lighter-skinned because he descends from a French colonist. This production, in a rare misstep, portrays the white forefather as a black shadow silhouette, and I know my daughter missed out on the important pigment-based prejudice aspect of the story.

Most of the time, though, director Michael Arden creates stunning stage pictures against a background that is made up of mostly white audience members. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but things fall from the ceiling or rise from the ground, and there’s energetic tale-telling in the choreography of Camille A. Brown. The show zips along from one great song to another (there’s almost no dialogue) and there are fully-committed performances from a beautiful cast.

Two problems of theatre-in-the-round, though, are not quite licked. One is that actors can’t constantly twirl. There will be times when you’ll be looking at the back of the head of a player who’s registering emotion on their face and you’ll miss it. In my review of the Jesus Christ Superstar telecast, I talked about how loud rock music literally rocks the floorboards, bursting into your ears as sounds bounce off the walls of the theatre. That can’t happen here because the walls are way behind all the seats. We hear sans bounce, and it’s a rare Broadway show when I think certain songs aren’t loud enough. Call it the damage of being inside a bowl (as in stadium); soundman won’t provide.

Honestly, though, my excitement about this production is mostly connected to how Once On This Island is written. Its most famous number is the paragon of I Want songs, Waiting For Life To Begin.

I’m here in the field
With my feet on the ground
And my fate in the air

Ahrens makes nifty use of consonance there, propelling the line forward. And, by song’s end, we love Ti Moune, here personified by young Hailey Kilgore, because she (rather than Ahrens) uses fun ways of speaking like that.

Flaherty is the vamp-master of his generation. The one that begins Forever Yours sits on two notes, but the harmonies underneath make the danger of this romantic expression palpable. And, just when you think you’re hearing a conventional love song, the God of Death bursts onto the stage making the whole thing suddenly evil. Tamyra Gray, in a role previously cast with a male actor, gave my favorite performance in the piece.

Long before I encountered Once On This Island, I heard admiring whispers about a solo waltz. When I heard Some Girls, I thought they should have been admiring shouts. 

Some girls take pleasure
In buying a fine trousseau
Counting each treasure
And tying each tiny bow
They hold their futures with perfumed hands
While you face the future with no demands

This is top-notch songwriting: We invest in this love story, our hearts fill with hope for the couple. The charm of these numbers is manipulative in the best possible sense. The audience goes through powerful emotions over a brisk ninety minutes.

Which reminds me of the nineteen-nineties, and how, of all the shows to premiere on Broadway, none moved me more than Once On This Island.


Morning devotional

April 8, 2018

Sounding similar to proselytes knocking on my door, asking if I’ve gotten to know Jesus, a lot of people are now asking what I thought of the television version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, I don’t wish to sound smug, or to slam the door in anyone’s face, but the question is connected to a fundamental misunderstanding of what I do. Theatre is created to be experienced live. Easter’s broadcast showed a live audience enjoying a star-studded production and we TV viewers have our faces pressed to the glass, supposing we know what it’s like to be in the room where it happened. We do not.

The enthusiastic throng in the Park Avenue Armory didn’t take in the zippy camerawork we couch potatoes did, and the stunning visual effect depicting the Ascension may not have wowed as strongly from all seats. But what’s most obvious is that rock music’s piquancy is connected to loud sounds that don’t fly to a satellite and back, or along a cable. The bass and drums literally rock the house, felt through the floorboards like a small earthquake. Anybody get that at home? Put a different way, is attending a rock concert anything like watching a rock concert on TV? Or: can the small screen with its lousy speakers only provide a distant simulacrum? If your living room floor was shaking, chances are that was an earthquake. Check your crystal.

I’ve heard that John Legend, in concert, is a delightful charismatic performer. That he has an ingratiating smile, makes eye contact with the audience, and has a rich, honeyed tone that envelopes the audience like a puff of fog. I say I’ve heard this, because none of that good stuff made its way from New York, to that satellite and back, to my living room. And how could it? This blockage is inherent in the medium, not the fault of Legend or director David Leveaux. In an early scene, Jesus leaned down to touch front-row fans, and they certainly looked like they were having a good time. Me, I’m alienated. I like to have a good time, not just watch other people having a good time.

Still, the music and libretto were on display, and I’m happy to muse on that. I think it’s an innovative and influential piece with many fine virtues that aren’t present in the other works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But, I’ll warn you now: some of these couldn’t be rendered on the idiot box. The revolution could not be televised.

The young Englishmen took the idea of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead and retold the most familiar story ever told from the point of view of a different character. And so, the final days of Jesus are told through the lens of Judas Iscariot. And this means that the usual requirement that the tale be expressed through song is lifted. We all know the story, but what we don’t know, and are automatically interested in, is how Judas feels as things progress. My six-year-old wanted to know why Caiaphas and Annas were so angry and I had no answer. The piece doesn’t bother explaining. But why Judas is worried about his friend’s growing celebrity status – that’s explored and explicated. And it’s why I’ve always thought Heaven On Their Minds is a terrific opening number.

“Jesus!” Judas wails, on a rock tenor A, fortissimo, and you feel his distress. Now, for the first time in musical theatre history (early 70s), rock is being used for full expressive power. Of course he screams, and of course his screams resonate around the house – there’s ample justification for it. And Broadway vet Brandon Victor Dixon seemed to have all the right moves, but – sorry to say this – my little TV speakers failed to rock the room. It was like watching something through a vaselined lens. I didn’t feel Judas’ anxiety because his sound didn’t hit my ears like normal rock does. Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote something powerful, and the broadcast diffused that.

Similarly, Legend, Dixon and Sara Bareilles express differing points of view during a 5/4 number called Everything’s Alright and I know, from previously seeing it live, that it can be pretty exciting. Here, it was forgettable, although this may have involved the lack of acting experience of Legend and Bareilles. The writing, in a large quantity of set-pieces, allows rock stars to wail out the emotions we already know are inherent. It’s as if the songwriters understood that providing ample opportunities for strong singers to rock out would be enough to make an entertaining evening. I like Jesus Christ Superstar because of the power of its best numbers. But rock legend Alice Cooper pranced with way too little camp for me to crack a smile during an old-fashioned comedy song. The supposedly-scary Pontius Pilate (Ben Daniels) failed to frighten. The wonderfully humanizing Gethsemene number didn’t move me a bit. And I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve seen these numbers work, gloriously, live. Here, live via satellite, they had little impact.

Still, fewer mistakes were made than were on the other televised musicals from the past decade or two, and I suppose we should all be grateful for that. It’s a weird form that can never quite work. So, even if they cast a better Jesus, Mary Magdalene, King Herod, Pontius Pilate and Annas, I don’t think I’d be raving right now. Call it Jesus Christ, Mildly-Effective-Star.


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?


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.