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.


With a quickly racing pulse

August 26, 2016

Twenty years ago I traveled to a place I’d never been for a performing arts festival I knew little about. It was the fiftieth annual Edinburgh Festival, which, every year, blows up a quaint little Scottish city into a crowded metropolis four times its normal size. What could draw that many people to the top of the earth? What drew me? The chance to see an incredible amount of plays from all over the world.

Well, something else drew ME, but I’ll get to that later.

I was there for a little over a week, in the middle of the three weeks it’s on. Having traveled all this way, I felt a certain pressure to see as many theatre pieces as possible. It was a familiar feeling because, as a teen, I’d taken a two-week trip to New York during which I managed to cram in seventeen shows. But that sort of cramming is for amateurs. Edinburgh had more than 2000 offerings. There may have been thirty or forty venues. And the thing about the venues is that they’re not just theatres. A church converts quite easily. A hillside strewn with pillows. Auditoriums in schools and clubs. Pubs. Each venue had a chalkboard showing that day’s offerings. They started early and ended late.

8:00 Burns For Breakfast
9:30 Paddington!
11:00 No Exit
12:30 The Miser
15:30 The Real Inspector Hound
17:00 The Gondoliers
20:30 Oedipus Rex
23:30 The Rocky Horror Show

If one wanted to, one could sit at one venue and catch eight shows in a day. But one didn’t want to. You plan your day, calculating travel time from venue to venue. (Edinburgh’s small size is an asset.) And one needs breaks for meals, museums and palaces.)

Actually, Burns For Breakfast, unlike some of those others, was a real show I actually saw – first thing one weekday morning. It was a one-man show in which a fellow costumed as Scottish bard Robert Burns joked with the crowd, recited a few poems, and then, the moment of truth, we all got on a line to taste haggis. This famously awful concoction, served cold, was not for the faint of heart. But I was a brave heart. And hungry. And when else was I going to try it? But the ante was really upped when I saw that there was no beverage to be had, no water fountain. Nothing to wash it down until I arrived at the next venue across town, for a Japanese Noh play.

I know; this sounds like a song:

I’ll know just what haggis tastes like, with no drink till the Noh play / Like no business I know

OK, not quite Robbie Burns there.

Consider this: There are a million theatre fans, from all over the world, trudging from venue to venue from dawn till past midnight, every day. Is this not madness?

Now consider the challenge of planning each show-catching day. You’ve over 2000 choices. Winnowing those down to the six or seven you can see on one day is enormously difficult. This was long before the internet was in our hands. Back in the last century, the smartest course was to pick up an actual newspaper, The Scotsman.

The Scotsman, helpfully, published short reviews of everything that opened. And for those scanning lists, who didn’t have time to read, they had a rating system. A three-star attraction was worth seeing. Four stars meant very good. Five stars was awarded to fewer than 1% of the productions. Good luck nabbing tickets to those. The moment one of those very rare five star reviews came out, the entire run of a show would sell out.

This is because the masses of theatre-goers truly relied upon The Scotsman to glean what was good. The truly clever figured out the time and place The Scotsman first hit the stands. It’s a point that gets lost in arenas dominated by God-I-Hate-Critics kvetches. When a 2000-item smorgasbord is spread before you, a bit of professional guidance is a valuable thing.

Earlier, I hinted something else drew me to Scotland and it was this. Students from the University of Edinburgh were performing one of my musicals, Murder At the Savoy. This was a gloriously no-sweat-off-my-back boon. I merely sent off the script and score, and they produced and performed it as written. I just showed up, this ambassador from the west, collecting compliments and plaudits.

The reason they had the wherewithal to do my Murder, and the reason it was of interest to them, is that they were the campus Gilbert & Sullivan Society. A lot of schools had such a thing back in the day, especially in Britain. They tend to do G & S and nothing but. However, the Festival Fringe forces groups to think small. Gilbert and Sullivan only wrote one one-act, their reputation-establishing Trial By Jury. Back when my college Savoy group wanted to do Trial By Jury, I wrote them a piece to fill out the evening. Now, these Edinburghers, tired of the travail of Trial every summer, seized on my backstage whodunnit, which is written entirely in the same vocabulary.

It was a great pleasure to see how they brought my characters to life, and, of course, they knew more about the reality of a British bobby than I ever did. For one thing, no police officer refers to himself as a bobby, though my Detective Pulley of the Yard did. And there were many other locutions I got wrong. Yet, nobody seemed to mind, so tickled were they by the humor throughout the operetta.

There’s a famous precedent. American Alan Jay Lerner adapted a Shaw play, set in London, for the Broadway stage. One of the most famous songs used an Americanism no Englishman would ever utter, On the Street Where You Live. Brits say In the Street Where You Live. But, for American audiences, that conjures up images of Eliza having no roof over her head, sleeping in Covert Garden, and the song comes later in My Fair Lady, when she’s respectably ensconced in Mayfair. Lerner was writing for a New York audience, and when the hit was produced across the pond, the English politely tolerated what the young American lad got wrong. Just as they did with me, I like to think.

But by now I’m sure you’ve guessed how this happy memoir ends. The Scotsman came out with its review – the critic was inspired by my rhyming to render his verdict in verse – and, for those too busy to read, the show garnered five stars. Instant sell-out. Thunderous ovations. Twenty years later, the laughter still rings in my ears.


Rondo

August 18, 2016

If my thoughts about Fun Home are sort of a jumble, it’s perhaps a reflection of the show itself. The 2015 Tony winner – I caught it off-Broadway and recently, on Broadway at The Circle in the Square, where it plays until September 10 – boldly presents a situation that is so true to life, it’s almost too complex to talk about. It keeps bringing up intriguing questions and, more often than not, refusing to answer them. Because life itself has no easy answers, and the show is based on the formative years of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In an attempt to come to terms with her upbringing, she recounted events in the form of a graphic novel. Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (composer) adapted this into a 100-minute chamber piece.

And I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It is never dull, constantly fascinating. You, the viewer, search for answers just as Bechdel does, and there she is, on stage at her drawing board, wondering. (And there your fellow observers are, in the background, as it’s staged in the round.) Why did her father do the things he did? What went on inside his controlling, quick-to-temper mind? What traits did he pass on to his daughter, and how did the discovery that his daughter is a lesbian affect him? Even the arrival of an old French novel in a dorm room is shrouded in mystery.

Given my somewhat ambiguous reaction to a show that embraces a certain amount of ambiguity, it makes more sense to discuss Fun Home’s methods here than to write a long overdue review. (And, considering that Jeanine musical-directed my Varsity Show, The New U. many years ago, I can’t legitimately claim to be impartial.) Fun Home seamlessly transitions between four types of expression, which I’ll define, yet is all of a piece. You don’t notice these; you’re too busy reacting emotionally to the characters and their plight.

The first is dialogue. Kron’s previous experience is in songless theatre. I’ve gotten tired, I must admit, of sung-through shows, because I appreciate the shift in energy involved in moving from spoken material to sung. So many writers overemphasize the importance of songs in a musical, relegating interstitial speaking to the status of filler. In Fun Home, we’re all on a mission to solve a mystery, so we carefully attend the words, as each might contain a clue. Bruce examines yard sale junk, pondering its value while we examine Bruce, pondering whether his actions might hold a key to his character.

And then, in song, what we get might fall into three categories. There are refrains with hooks, as shows have always contained. I walked out humming Days and Days and Days but you might fall for the unexpected rests that make Ring of Keys such an unusual waltz. Note, also, that Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold, is rather sparing in its use of applause buttons. When we give a performer a hand, we can see, across the stage, other people clapping; so, we’re taken out of the moment. Wise creators think long and hard about where and how often to let that happen.

Recitative and verse are two different things, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with Fun Home, I’m going to draw on South Pacific for examples. You know these lines –

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother
There is one particular thing that nothing whatsoever in any way shape or form like any other

Essentially, that’s chanted on a single note, with no bar lines, while the orchestra holds a chord. You hear this sort of thing in a lot of opera, and personally I’m more conversant in the Gilbert & Sullivan lampoon of opera:

I am not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes

In contemporary musicals, though, recitative is rarely employed. But Jeanine Tesori, throughout her career, has gone beyond the bounds of “what’s done” drawing on a wealth of knowledge of others forms of music. And the surprise benefit is that it allows the performer to deliver “Oh, my God” over and over again in a charming way that reveals a lot about her personality. (Plus, she’s talking about sex – always a piquant topic.)

Speaking of which, a classic musical theatre example of a verse:

I touch your hands and my arms grow strong

That has a tune to it – Rodgers comes close to religioso, and I think the accompaniment’s on sixths – but it’s not the main tune. You hear it and you know this, that you’re in the verse rather than the refrain.

After our college freshman heroine bursts out with all those omigods, Tesori subtly brings in a little tune that, just like in South Pacific, is clearly not the main tune. It runs quickly around the scale on lines like “I just have to trust that you don’t think I’m an idiot.” We’re tickled, we laugh, but we know we’re not in the main part yet, and then comes a simple but impassioned waltz.

This is so full of joy, discovery, and, yes, sex, that I knew upon first hearing that here was one of the best show tunes of the decade. It’s magical.

Something that always strikes me about Jeanine Tesori is that she usually works with first-time lyricists. It’s as if each collaboration reinvents the wheel, and, the obvious consequence: no composer I can think of is more varied. Violet sounds nothing like Caroline Or Change sounds nothing like Thoroughly Modern Millie sounds nothing like Shrek. Fun Home, the innovation with Lisa Kron is, I think, something none of us was quite prepared for. Every element (including, or especially, set design) combines to tell a compelling and emotional story. Which is what we all want to do: And if we’re ever going to achieve that goal, it behooves us to carefully examine what Tesori and Kron hath wrought.


Hold me

May 25, 2016

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweet Charity lately, and started before The New Group made its surprising announcement that it will revive it in a small off-Broadway theatre with one of musical theatre’s biggest stars, Sutton Foster. Why off-Broadway? Foster has a lot of fans, and the show’s a big star vehicle, one that doesn’t obviously lend itself to a small presentation. I musical directed a production many years ago, where a large company danced on a stage that had been constructed on top of a swimming pool, in a Broadway house, no less. Weird, sure, but less weird than the New tiny theatre idea.

No, the reason I’ve been thinking about Sweet Charity is because a couple dozen friends of mine are doing it. Their performances are coinciding with the Los Angeles shows of my revue, The Things We Do For Love, so, I, alas, must miss it. My musing about my favorite tart-with-heart musical shouldn’t be construed as me telling them all how to do it. They’re capable people in capable hands.

There’s a story about how Sweet Charity got its book writer that I dearly love. It involves carrying a really large tape recorder to Italy. Why really large? Well, this was more than fifty years ago, and there was no such thing as a small tape recorder. It was a big reel-to-reel player, and you had to thread the tape through, kind of like with a movie projector. But if you’re old enough to remember threading a movie projector, you might be old enough to remember reel to reels and if you’re not I’m just speaking Greek.

Where was I? Oh, Italy. Neil Simon had written a movie and it was shooting there. The married couple traveling all the way to see him was Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. They’d been working on a musicalization of a coincidentally Italian film, Nights of Cabiria and wanted to convince Simon to do the book. At this point, they had a bunch of songs by Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman, along with choreographic ideas about how they’d be staged. Bob & Gwen set up that machine, played the songs as Gwen performed some of the steps and Bob described what the audience would see. Simon knew Nights of Cabiria and now he was being presented with something no writer has ever been presented with: a fully-realized show that merely needed some funny dialogue to lead from fantastic number to fantastic number. Or that’s how it seemed at the time. Later, of course, further structuring was needed. What convinced Simon to join wasn’t the ease of the assignment, it was the fabulousness of the numbers: a club scene with rows of dancers holding their fists as if they were sparring with punching bags, a moment so exciting for the protagonist that a marching band in uniform appears out of nowhere, the aspirations of three down-on-their-luck females expressed as a fiery rooftop dance, the dead-eyed look of rent-a-dancers confronting yet another set of customers.

To fully appreciate that last one, Big Spender, check out an obscure early Stanley Kubrick film called Killer’s Kiss. It’s a black-and-white from the fifties, filmed on location in Times Square. The camera follows the characters up the stairs over a store and there’s a room where strangers dance with a cashier booth. Lonely men in suits buy a ticket, give it to a “professional” dancer, and then get to hold them tight as at least one pair of feet moves to the music. Now, we jaded moderns take the whole scene as a stand-in for sex with prostitutes. But not every rent-a-pas-de-deux led to a “happy ending.” Take the scene at face value, and the city is crawling with men so lonely, they long to have any sort of physical contact with a young woman.

The inherent sadness subtly pervades Sweet Charity. Yes, men seek sex. But some men are desperate for the less salacious touch you find on a dance floor. And, most extraordinary of all, there’s a girl on that floor who wants love and marriage and to get the hell out of that life. Pre-feminism, it seems to her that her options are few. Explicitly, she’s told she couldn’t be a secretary or even a hat check girl, and the pair that can envision themselves in those careers goes on to mock Charity’s dreams. The idea that she can marry her way out of the sordid life she lives has a certain logic to it – what else can she do? – and her middle name is Hope.

We invest, emotionally, in Charity’s dream. We want her to marry that respectable fellow (the second Neil Simon character named Oscar). To me, this pulling for the heroine is the most important component in Sweet Charity’s success. Yes, there are tons of fabulous Fosse production numbers, Doc Simon punchlines and the sexiness of the milieu, but caring for the character trumps all.

Dorothy Fields’ lyrics do most of the work here. They may be as good a set of lyrics as were ever written, filled with slang expressions that are so particular, they just feel right. “Tonight I landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam.” I don’t think any other lyricist could have come up with that, and there were doubts, when she took on the project, that a sweet and respectable little old Jewish lady could write for contemporary urban bar-girls. “Let me get right to the point: I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.

But they do, you know. People misinterpret Big Spender as merely a song in which women get to be sexy. As staged by Bob Fosse (repeated in his debut film), it’s more about the boredom of having to sing this feigned come-on night after night.

It’s been fifty years since the show premiered, and sexual politics have altered so much, it can be hard to recall that many musicals had fun with the idea that some women have such shapely bodies, men’s knees turn to jelly. This was very much at the center of the previous Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Bob Fosse collaboration, Little Me, which used a different female lyricist, Carolyn Leigh. That played the concept for laughs. Here Charity is said to be built for everything but talking, a line that doesn’t quite tickle my funny bone, but sure tugs at my heartstrings.

See what I mean for free at Circle in the Square, 50th between Broadway & 8th, June 12 & 13. 8pm both nights and also a 2pm matinee on Monday, the 13th. Just walk in the joint and grab a seat, no ticket required.


Sounds of the city

May 4, 2016

Much is being made of the twentieth anniversary of Rent‘s opening on Broadway. My wife is casting a national tour. The Pulitzer Prize going to Hamilton reminds many of the similar stir created by the 1996 winner. Rent, too, was the creation – book, music and lyrics – of one multi-talented thirtysomething, but in the tragic case of Jonathan Larson, he did not live to see his masterpiece completed. He died on the eve of the first off-Broadway performance. And I believe that everything that’s wrong with Rent is something he could have and would have fixed on the three month road to Broadway.

Yes, once again, you’re detecting I hold an opinion that’s different from much of the rest of the world. Practically everybody loves Rent, thinks it brilliant, even flawless. Such praise, twenty years ago, seemed a natural reaction in the wake of the horrid tragedy of Larson’s death. But perhaps we can now view his famous chef d’oeuvre with dispassionate objectivity. There isn’t a whole lot of “there” there.

But there’s plenty of death, or (seemingly) fatal illness. Two of the three creators of the vastly more effective The Book of Mormon put it best in their send-up, Everybody Has AIDS.

No, there’s nothing funny about AIDS, per se. But there’s something positively wacky about building an entertainment around HIV+ characters. Rent says all the obvious things: that death is sad, that we must live each day we’re given to the fullest, that we must be kind to each other. The message is weak tea compared to the more truth-to-life and heart-felt Falsettoland, which takes one extended family – where everyone’s far more quirky and endearing than anyone in Rent – and shows, specifically, how the new disease upends them.

Rent commits the cardinal sin of musical tragedies: it is moving, at times, simply because AIDS is sad. We cry because AIDS kills, and, for most of us, has killed someone we cared for. Key to Rent’s initial success, of course, was the news story, telling of its author’s death from an aortic aneurysm. A talented young man, taken from us long before his time: that’s truly tragic. Angel in the show is a talented young man, and I’ve always wondered whom the tears are falling for as we mourn him; Larson? And then we have Catwoman, er. Mimi, who dies before our eyes, just as in the opera the show is based on. And then she doesn’t. This is perhaps the falsest ending in all of musical theatre. We weep over a girl’s death, and then – poof! – she lives. How could you not feel cheated by that?

Mimi happens to be the character I cared about least. She’s sexy, all right, in a contemporary way, but she takes far too few actions that engender my sympathy. The romance with Roger is not one I root for. They meet, hit it off, and then I’m supposed to care about their romance as if they’ve had a wealth of experiences together? This plotline is the least interesting aspect of Rent, and you’d think I, a songwriter, would empathize, since I’ve often struggled, like Roger, to create the perfect song for the object of my affections. Now, I like his first act solo, One Song Glory, but the completed product, a cliché-ridden ode to Mimi’s eyes, is a musical low point. “You blew it, man!” I wanted to say to Roger. But really I wanted to say the same thing to Larson after Mimi’s amazingly boring ballad, Without You. It’s monotonous and uninteresting, and I feel quite certain that had Larson lived to shepherd Rent to Broadway, both second act stage-weights would have been replaced.

His posthumously produced Tick Tick Boom has a score that does a number of effective things. It has comedy songs that actually get laughs, for instance. Rent has a duet, The Tango Maureen, which has a set-up that seems likely to yield yocks, but not a single solid joke in the entire lyric. (Some interstitial dialogue lands, thank God). Then, there’s La Vie Bohème, an energetic list song for the full company. It does little more than name-drop beloved artists from different disciplines. I found it kind of fun, but wholly implausible. Here we have a bunch of young East Villagers who know their Neruda from their Sontag from their Merce Cunningham. I’ve got to call shenanigans on this. There simply don’t exist all that many people who are aware of each name in that hall of little-fame.

And one of them, a would-be filmmaker named Mark, is a true idiot. Fans of the show don’t seem to recognize how stupid he is, but let’s take a look: He wants a career in cinema. He is offered a job as a camera-man on a TV show. Anybody with half a brain would jump at that chance. Work there and you’ll make connections, get experience, and be off on the road to achieving your dreams, right? Mark’s main drama is that he’s conflicted about whether to take the job.

Which brings us to entitlement. These artistes are squatters near Tompkins Square Park. They either can’t pay, won’t pay, or are scrambling to pay rent in the Village. They’re in no position to turn town a decent-paying job, or are they? Seems to me they’re pretending to be like the poor people. Which is really offensive to those who care about the plight of the actual poor.

Now, I think there’s a wonderful point to be made about young artists who turn down opportunities, staking some claim to nobility, who intentionally live like they’re poor. That’s an interesting idea for a show. Unfortunately, Rent is not that show. But I’ll always believe that, had its creator lived, the late-period incubation would have produced a work worthy of all that praise and those prizes.

A friend of mine linked to this blog with the quip, “Noel Katz, doing what he does best, eloquently shitting on things you thought you liked.” Hmmm. He’ll revise that once he sees the revue of my songs playing May 25 at The Duplex in Greenwich Village and then June 13 as The Gardenia in Hollywood, The Things We Do For Love.