A long long time

November 1, 2017

Every year, around this time of year, for the past 18 years or so, I’ve given a talk called A Subjective History of Musical Theatre. It’s the highlight of my year. And unique. It’s said that there’s nothing quite like it and that nobody else could deliver it, or would have thought of delivering it the same way. I have a blackboard; I have a piano; I have no notes. Off the top of my head, I engage my audience. They are theatre students who may or may not know a thing about the shows written prior to Rent. It’s that gap in knowledge I’m trying to fill.

But here’s the beauty part: It’s not a linear history, nor a survey. It’s whatever I choose to tell them. So, I get to give a lot of opinions. Because, unlike your run-of-the-mill history lectures that claim to be objective, this is SUBjective – it’s right in the title. And everybody accepts that I might say things they’ll disagree with. That’s OK. You’re allowed to argue with me. And the whole thing is, first and foremost, highly entertaining.

It’s difficult to describe, and it’s never exactly the same, and for this you can blame Socrates. I ask the students questions, and, if they give a dopey answer, I’m likely to make fun of them. Amazingly, nobody seems to mind. So, after I identify The Boys From Syracuse as the first musical based on a Shakespeare play, I have the students guess which play it’s based on. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll be able to figure this out; it’s not as if he wrote a lot of plays with men from that city. But, inevitably, someone yells out “Two Gentlemen of Verona” to which I get to yell “No! Those boys are from Verona.” Silently, I appreciate the guess, because Two Gents did become a Tony-winning musical. Rereading this paragraph, I see that I sound a bit mean, but really everyone’s laughing. There’s comedy in errors.

And there’s music in my lecture, unsurprisingly. Whenever I feel like illustrating something with a song, the piano is right there. I even hide behind it to depict the opening of Oklahoma! They hear some Grieg. They hear some Weill – oh, wait, that’s Lloyd Webber, stealing from Weill. I can remember some course I took when I was young where a lecturer took a lot of time to drop a needle on the right place in a record album. My illustrations take no time at all, and I get to sing my favorite song. Because it’s my lecture.

I make Richard Rodgers the central figure, since he was connected to so many of the turning points in musical theatre development. I describe, in great detail, the Isn’t It Romantic sequence in Love Me Tonight.

I get to act out his working relationship with Lorenz Hart. “He pulled the little guy by the scruff of his collar into a small room not unlike this, with a piano in it, and he locked the door. He played the tune they were working on.” I play six notes. “He firmly told Larry ‘We have to finish this song. You are not leaving this room until you give me a lyric to-.’” I play it again. “Hart begs ‘Please, Dick. You can see I’m too hungover to even think right now. Let me out for a quick nip, hair of the dog that bit me and I’ll be back.’ ‘NO, YOU WON’T.’” Six notes. “And this went on and on until Hart, in total desperation, uttered ‘With a song in my heart I behold your adorable face just a song at the start but it soon is a hymn to your grace when the music swells I’m touching you hand it tells that you’re standing near and at the sound of your voice heaven opens its portals to me what to do but rejoice that a song such as ours came to be but I always knew I would live life through with a song in my heart for you. Can I go now, Dick?’ ‘Yes, you can go now, Larry.’”

So, that’s a small example of what I do. It must be pointed out that the students don’t know With a Song In My Heart, and every story I tell assumes they don’t know how the story will end. So there are some dramatic turns that get everyone in the room (including me) crying.

On the other hand, familiarity makes some of my samples something of a sing-a-long. It’s a pleasant surprise when my rendition of Many a New Day has a female chorus join in. That’s one reason why the Subjective History can’t be filmed, or turned into a podcast, book, or any other form. It’s shaped, to a significant extent, by the listeners. I take to the blackboard to draw the world’s worst map of Western Europe, never knowing whether it will be recognized as such in five seconds or five minutes. And that’s just there to show how Offenbach influenced Sullivan.

Writers, hearing each other’s work, refining the form – that’s what interests me. It’s why Oklahoma! gets the most time and less influential shows (say, The Pajama Game) get none. But it’s best not to dwell on who you don’t hear about in my densely-packed few hours (Comden & Green, e.g.), I’ve a limited amount of time to tell an entertaining story. It’s not meant to be definitive. I’m spreading out a smattering of knowledge, like manure, hoping it will grow, and I don’t need to talk about the show that mentions spreading manure to do it.

I’m a sucker for a good story. Whether it’s Arthur Laurents smiting his forehead, or David Merrick adjusting the opening night to coincide with a creator’s death, I get to be the raconteur with the unforgettable tales. And a rendition of I Dreamed a Dream that hasn’t been forgotten by a generation of students.

Advertisements

Finale – part one

September 11, 2017

For the first time in twenty years, classes will begin at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School, and I won’t be there.

This is something I get terribly emotional about, but I’m making an effort to tone it down. Ironic, isn’t it?, that when we write a musical, we try to make it as emotional as possible. But you didn’t come here to experience a vale of tears; plenty of other blogs for that.

Often, I’ve had to remind myself that Circle was “just” a day job. Those hundreds of students may be unaware, but I’m primarily a musical theatre writer. (Somewhere on this page is a list of my shows; seems like there’s about 20.) My work at the school – an intense two-year conservatory, physically connected to a Broadway theatre – was the thing I did for income. And I could have punched the clock, played the songs and subsisted just fine. OK, tears are now hampering my vision, so I better step back and make a broader point: You, as an artist, are also going to need a steady salary. And the best of all possible worlds involves a day job which somehow feeds your art. In this case, I learned more and more about how songs are written and what it takes to perform them every day I was there. Circle, which exists to educate acting students, made me a far-better writer.

The question soon became, what can I offer, given my experience as a musical theatre writer, to developing musical theatre performers?

Opinions about the quality of the material they’re choosing to sing – suitability, whether it’s an actable text, whether it forces vocal calisthenics that are more trouble than they’re worth.

My totally subjective history of musical theatre.

Emotional support.

Above, I mentioned concealing feelings. When people dropped Scott Alan songs on my piano – well, let’s just say I never got very good at keeping a poker face. So, why do it here? Mr. Alan presents himself as a musical theatre writer, which is curious given that he’s had nothing produced. (Prove me wrong; if you’ve seen a show of his, please tell me so.) His songs, which don’t use titles, have a hook, form, rhyming, or any character development, drone on hitting high belt notes and restating the same sour emotion over and over again. Often, there’s something wrong in the notation – like bass notes put under the treble clef with many ledger lines. The unabating stream of young people with this punk in their books appalled me on a consistent basis.

But tell us how you really feel, Noel.

More surprisingly, I observed many a crash-and-burn on Jason Robert Brown songs. I recognize it makes no sense to mention JRB in the same breath as Scott Alan. And this piece isn’t about criticism of well-loved songwriters. It’s just that my observation, that Brown tends to state one rather obvious emotion and then just restate it over and over again – manifests itself in advice to performers and reminds me to make sure my characters are evolving in some way during my songs. In other words, my day job had me thinking about what makes a song actable every day.

When I started, I worked with F. Wade Russo, who had musical directed one of my shows many years ago. He left town and was replaced by Sara Louise Lazarus, who soon built a musical theatre track, as such things are called. Annually, I was asked to spend a couple of class sessions informing the students about how musical theatre came to be. And now I’m going to sound immodest: I built this into the most entertaining, awesome and fun-to-sit-through four-hour lecture in the history of education. Now, that’s quite a claim, but ask any of the hundreds who’ve seen it: they view this as their favorite time in their entire schooling. You see, I made it irresistibly entertaining. I felt no particular need to tell the truth. I incorporated legends, opinions, and, whenever I felt like it, I’d run to the piano to sing a little example of something. There are jokes, tears are shed, and quite a bit of Socratic intercourse along the way. Yes, I said intercourse.

Which shouldn’t bring me to the subject of my personal relationship with students, but that’s what’s next on the list. (Hey, there are different kinds of love, OK?) Chances are, if you were terrifically talented and I observed you working very hard, I fell in love with you. Not that I’d ever say anything, but there it was, in my mind, a constant chorus of “I love this person.” When you see someone work their ass off, you’re convinced that the sky’s the limit. And there’d be times I’d say to myself “I bet this person’s going to be on Broadway” and I’d be right! That’s a heady feeling: a sense that you’re part of a top-tier performer’s training, a sense that you must be doing something right. Certainly, there are four-year college programs with better reputations, but Circle is a tiny family, a two-year conservatory with a much higher batting average for grads getting on The Great White Way.

So, I said “family” in the last sentence, and perhaps sentiment compels me to put it that way. School director Colin O’Leary certainly treats staff and students as family. Many – nearly all, I’d say – view acting teacher extraordinaire Alan Langdon as a father figure, and some think of song interpretation maven Sara Lazarus as a mom. Where does that put me? Well, parents are authority figures, and there are times you don’t want to be completely vulnerable in front of a teacher. You need a sibling, of sorts. I managed to maintain close “brotherly” friendships with a slew of students, everyone’s favorite shoulder to cry on in a place where many tears were shed. Erosion from all that salt water has made it difficult for me to properly wear jackets.

Just to tie this into something I said earlier, there were many times when the students would bring in new and interesting songs I’d never heard before. This fed my mind, kept me aware of what a new generation was enjoying. (Pasek and Paul are very old news to me.) And now, like the turn of a faucet, that source of replenishment is stopped. It’s hard to see how I’ll survive without that.

Like some sort of an addict, I require a regular jolt to pep me up. Every September, I’d look around a room at a bunch of young strangers and was reasonably certain I’d fall in love with at least one. Katti Powell, Trisha Jeffrey, Lauren Elder, Nanci Zoppi, Marissa Parness, Rachel Broadwell, Christine De Frece, Vanessa Dunleavy, Ephie Aardema, Amy Northup, Laurie Gardner, Sara Canter, Aubrey Taylor, Claudia Smith, Paola Hernandez, Clara Regula, Rena Gavigan, and now… this month, a hole in my heart will go unfilled.


Juliette

December 15, 2016

The room was pitch black, the light from the cracks under three doors not illuminating the dozen faces or so within. There was a gentle knock on the door, and a tiny gasp as someone moved from the middle of the room to open the door. When she saw who it was, she flipped on the light and I could see the music in front of me: about as harmonically complex a duet as I have ever seen. In parts, chords change on every eighth note. This may be the “constantly surprising refrain” Hart wrote about but Sondheim denies exists. But, at that moment, I leaned in to take in the dialogue. A girl from the South was inviting an Italian boy into her hotel room, where she’d been sleeping alone. He wasn’t sure he should enter, and kept flipping between Italian and heavily accented broken English. She insisted she understands him. And I got my cue and started playing the thick quarter note chords.

This is Musical Theatre Scene Study class, the highlight of my work week. This particular scene is the midway point in The Light In the Piazza, by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas. A third actor is involved, silently: the girl’s mother opening the door, catching them in flagrante delicto – that ends the scene.

In preparation for this class, I’d rehearsed with the singing pair for about an hour. This was one of the later steps in their process. One of the song’s many unusual challenges is that a lot of it is wordless singing. The performers endeavored to bring particular meaning to a long span of “ah.” There are also unusual rhythms and false accents; perhaps the latter is inspired by Fabrizio’s lack of facility with English. In fact, the inability to express with words is the main subject of the song, which is called Say It Somehow. I feel it’s among the most gorgeous pieces in contemporary musical theatre.

(n.b.: these are not our students)

     If ’tis the season for counting blessings, let’s pause to list a few. For one, this is my day job. I actually get paid to rehearse and explore this rapturous duet with very hard-working and adept singing actors. And, as I just said, I appreciate the gorgeous song. Some acquaintances know me as a music teacher, but that sounds so wrong. Together, we’re exploring aspects of a great scene. I figure out how best to accompany them – such as sticking to the straight beats rather than doubling vocals. As I listen, I discern the tiniest of imperfections, and point out things they miss. Then, that day that started in the dark, we expand our circle: ten others join us to observe the performing work-in-progress. All eyes go to the laconic teacher, Alan Langdon – but is “teacher” the right word for him, really? He says what he’s observed. Rarely, he’ll give a directorial suggestion. In the case of Say It Somehow, the first words out of Alan’s mouth were exactly the words that were in my head: that Fabrizio had a strong accent when he talked but hardly any when he sang. Then Alan had a question about his entering her room: “What is the metaphoric meaning?” The actors were unable to answer this, and their inability relates to the main element that was lacking that first time they did it that day. Before their redo, I was asked to speak.

     “I love when there’s a number where I notice something new each time I play it. What’s the first line of this lyric?”
— Why don’t you trace it on my hand?
     “But that’s not how it comes out with the music. It’s not a succession of eighth notes. I think we’re missing a joke here.”
— Why don’t you trace it on … my hand.
     “So, when she started that sentence, she may have had a different part of her body in mind.”

This time, they launched into the song with more instances of erotic play. Clothes came off. It was intimate, and more believable.

One of the things I often find myself saying, during rehearsals of love duets, is that musical theatre has a convention that singing a duet can be a substitute for sex. If a camera followed a romantic couple around, the film would be rated X. On some level, the audience in the theatre understands that the ahhing is a beautiful musical emblem for dirty doings going on. And then that mother walks in.

Speaking of opening doors, for many years, Alan Langdon and I have led (I won’t say taught) this amazing exploration, Musical Theatre Scene Study and it was only available to full-time students in the second of their two conservatory years studying at the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. But now, our door is open: You, too, can take this amazing class, separate from the school and its program. The good folks at WordPress warn me that I should never embed an e-mail address here, so you can’t click this, but send an e-mail to Sara at SaraCanter dot com. I’m warding off robots who spam by writing out the @ and the . – you know what I mean. The next round of classes starts next month. Do yourself a favor and join us.

You’ll learn a lot. Hell, I’ll learn a lot. Because we’re all in this together, collaborating, sweating the tiniest details, figuring out how to make scenes from musicals work. Since I’m not a performer, what I get out of it goes into my writing of musical scenes. I picture actors doing the sort of deep investigation of every word and note that goes on in our class. And, not to be bromidic (a word, one of my collaborators tells me, that only Oscar Hammerstein ever used), but I’m reminded of a line set to music by Adam Guettel’s grandfather 65 years ago:

A true and honest thought: If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.


Employee of the day

March 14, 2016

Last month this blog received its 30,000th visit and I wonder if that’s a good enough excuse to talk about the blog a bit.

If I think the goal here is to get readers to write better musicals, the upshot is when I see an inept new musical, I’m likely to think “Arrrgh: I wish they’d read my blog.” And it should be just the opposite; I should see a really good new musical and the authors say “Thanks, Noel. We got a lot out of reading your musings.”

Ah, well. I’m only half-serious about that goal. There are other places to go, if you want to learn to write musicals. And if I were fully serious, I’d write a book. The original idea here – and it came from the late, great Mark Sutton-Smith – is that I have so many thoughts about musical theatre, they just ought to be jotted down somewhere. That 60,000 eyes have been cast upon them is just stunning to me. That nobody seems to have figured out why posts here get inappropriate titles is stunning, too, but less so. And the Easter Egg thing – that clicking any photo leads to an illustrative video: few are aware.

But those are the quirks. The big themes I keep getting back to:

Storytelling is everything.

Sittin’ around
I see a rainbow
Dirge for a dying theatre
The path not taken

Craft is important, exists for a reason.

Shall I drift away with the sea?
Sasha says woof
Turn around
Walk like an Egyptian

Stephen Sondheim is not quite as brilliant as people seem to think he is.

Cryptic greeting
Content at last
With friends like you
Poor romantic you

Now, there’s something about that less sentiment: it bothers a lot of people. And what irks sometimes gets people to read more. In the current on-line environment, the subject of a piece gets called “clickbait” when it provokes like an itch, drawing eyeballs (fingernails?) in.

(The internet’s filled with oddballs. Recently, one guy reacted to my insistence that perfect rhymes be employed by saying my exhortation would inevitably bring about the death of musical theatre.)100-0063EA22

I’ve been experimenting with clickbait in stuff written for other blogs. Two pieces were widely read and distributed: Notes On Notes: Talking To Your Audition Accompanist and Ten Songs I Never Mind Hearing At Auditions. And I kind of think there’s a broader lesson to be drawn. Here, I come up with pieces with little regard to whether anybody wants to read them. There, there’s an imperative and the title itself has to draw people in.

So, what kind of musical are you writing? Are you compelled to toil for ages on a show because of some artistic impulse within you? I’m sure we all know a writer – perhaps a poet – who fills pages without any expectation that anyone will read it. The opposite would be the creator who cares about pleasing the audience, not himself. And that’s just a bad place to be: “I don’t like this crap, but the public will.” A few years ago, a lot of wise folks encouraged me to write a show about a subject I’ve always found a bit icky. Others don’t find it icky, though, and there’s reason to believe there’d be a market for such a show. Dutifully I wrote, until my lack of love for telling the story stayed my hand.

I can’t think of an example of the other, of me writing a musical out of an uncontrollable urge to sing from my soul. The ideal is a combination of the two, a tale you’ll enjoy telling which you believe an audience will embrace. Of course you can misestimate the public. And then you have a flop. An earnestly believed-in, authors-poured-their-heart-in, flop.


Just sitting here

February 4, 2016

Monday, February 8, at 4 and 7, you can wander in to The Circle-in-the-Square, the Broadway theatre where Fun Home plays, and see an extraordinary hour of songs from musicals. It’s free, you don’t need a ticket, and while many will have reservations (212.307.0388), nobody without a reservation will be turned away. The 15 performers are students who will soon be handed a piece of paper and thrust into the real world. They’re a talented bunch and I have high expectations.

Here’s the complex part: I’ve been a key component in their training, and continue to be, but have only the slightest involvement in the showcase itself. So, I take pride in the consummate performers I’ve helped them to become, but I haven’t seen what they’re doing here. Some of them asked for my input about what songs to do, and Clara Regula and Michelle Bailey are doing just what I suggested. Mimi Pabon and Connor Coughlin will do, among other things, songs I thought of for them that nobody else would have thought of. So, naturally, I predict they’ll be wonderful. But the whole group is very strong, and likely to shine even in numbers I didn’t think of.

I’ve gotten a peek at the program, and counted four Tom Kitt songs but none from Next To Normal; three Andrew Lippa numbers not from The Wild Party; three Jeanine Tesoris; two Alan Menken tunes you don’t hear every day. So, one reason you might attend is to hear 21st century Broadway songwriting just in case, as I did, you missed First Date, Rocky, and It Shoulda Been You.

But it’s even more cutting edge than that when you consider the likelihood you’ll be seeing performers who will soon populate Broadway. It’s like getting a look at the 2025 season years ahead of time.

Ten years ago, at this truly tiny school, you could have seen Alan Shaw, now in Les Misérables; Michael Wartella, of the soon-to-open Tuck Everlasting; Christian Dante White, who just left The Book of Mormon to start rehearsals for Shuffle Along; Merritt David Janes, of School of Rock (he went on as the lead this week); Eric William Morris, one of two Circle grads recently in Songbird; Allison Guinn of the On the Town revival: she’ll soon be seen in a new musical in Bucks County, A Taste of Things To Come, which might as well be the title for Monday’s showcase.

Other schools do showcases and have grads on Broadway. But they’re usually much larger programs, connected to four-year colleges. We pack two years with more how-to, and you get to see them on a Broadway stage. And it’ll all be over in an hour.

For someone who sees puns in everything, “industry showcase” has a neat double meaning. Yes, casting directors, agents and producers are invited to catch a glimpse of singing, acting, and dancing talent. But “industry” can also refer to how hard you’re working and that’s what I get to see, behind the scenes, all the time. The nailing of a harmony, the sticking of a landing, the emotional shading. It all pays off in what the audience perceives as effortless and organic. The hard work – the industry – gets shown to great advantage.

When teachers get together, they often complain that kids today don’t work hard enough. I’ve witnessed plenty of that, but, at Circle, I get to interact with actors who are not quite kids (everyone’s over 18, last year we had one pushing 40) and I never see them shirk work. Gotta feel pretty lucky about that.

And I’m sure I’ve said this before: Watching actors justifying everything they say, every breath they take, every motion they make – well, it informs my writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about why the Broadway songwriters made all the choices they did, and then I come home to write and project into the future where somebody’s going to wonder at my reasons. As the song in Carnival goes, There’s Got To Be a Reason.

Monday, 50th between Broadway & Eighth. 4 & 7. Be there, at The Circle in the Square, or be…?


Opening

January 1, 2016

“I’ll bet those actors feel self-conscious.”

This was said after I’d described a little of what goes on in the Musical Scene Study class Alan Langdon and I teach. It’s my belief that there’s no class remotely like it in the world, which is why I was describing it:

A pair of actors will rehearse a well-written musical scene, one involving dialogue leading into a duet, for an intensive period of time. The main goal is for them to comprehend, and portray the characters’ intentions in every thing they do. If they turn to the left, there’s a reason for it. If they extend the length of a note by a fraction of a second, there’s gotta be a reason. And they’re making every effort to see to it that nothing goes unnoticed, or unplayed. When they finally get in front of Alan and me together, the actors will talk, a bit, as themselves. As they recount real-life events and feelings, they’re recollecting things they’ve gone through that relate, somehow to something their characters are going through in the scene. They’ll dress in character, and carry themselves like people of their class and time periods would. And of course, they’ll sing in a manner totally appropriate to the style of the music. The pairs have roughly an hour to work.

They’re always eager for reactions. What did we see? What intentions appeared to be missing? Did someone play the wrong intention? Was something sung in a questionable way?

So, would that make you self-conscious? Yes and no.

No, because you’ve rehearsed to a certain level. I won’t call it perfection, but you’ve worked it enough times that you have experience keeping an eye on so many different aspects of your scene.

Yes, because of a broader meaning of self-consciousness: awareness. As an artist, your eyes need to be open, concentrating on a variety of details. “Detail oriented” is a phrase you read in job descriptions, but it’s an implied requirement of every casting call. Because actors have to sweat the details.

And, as we start a new calendar year here on this blog, it seems to me that most of my posts are about how writers of musical theatre need to sweat the details. It tends to irk me when I discover a bit of a musical that smacks of an unsweated detail, such as that Sondheim reference to a Sony television that wasn’t sold in America at the time the scene was set. But I’m gentle with the acting students.

They’ve worked hard, scrutinizing a musical’s text. There are times when something seems out of kilter and I think it’s a problem in the writing, not the performing. And of course I look back at my own musicals, and wonder if someone in my professorial shoes (loafers, rubber soul) would find fault with this or that.

So, the question might be asked, am I overly self-conscious as I write? There’s so many things you need to get right in a musical: a million ways to fail. I tend to plow along, and to not let such doubts distract me. If a song’s not working, I have complete confidence that I can come up with a replacement that will.

Intense scrutiny – I seem to keep coming back to those words. My previous entry enthused about the Genius Annotation of Hamilton. I love that self-appointed scholars (and some real experts) are poring over lyrics, explicating and analyzing, tracking down every allusion. How I wish other great musicals got this treatment. And then I’m reminded of times in my life when I had the time of my life listening to directors going over my musicals with a fine tooth comb. There was a brief encounter with Elizabeth Lucas, working with some Broadway vets on The Company of Women. Or those summer days when Marc Bruni asked me a million questions about Such Good Friends, leading to massive rewrites and our winning awards.

I still refer to those early meetings with Marc as the outstanding experience of my career, here in the 21st century. But, at New Year’s, the tradition is to look back over the year just ended. And make resolutions for the year just beginning. IMG_0236So, in 2015, adding this open-to-the-general-public class with Alan Langdon is a clear highlight. If you’re a serious musical theatre actor, I encourage you to join us. You know how dancing classes are offered for various levels of skill? Most people I know find Advanced Dance too challenging, but our class is like an Advanced Acting For Musicals, and we’re not going to break your knees – we’ll raise the level of your game.

And for an upcoming goal, let me circle back to the thing about awareness. I just went to a holiday party where a woman quoted a rhyme I’d written decades ago and I felt myself cringing a little. I was so young, and I wrote what I thought would be funny. And yes, people laughed, but I wasn’t aware of something, back then, that I’m aware of now. And I’ll take this as a sign I need to be more aware in 2016. Maybe about how jokes will be taken. Maybe about the vocabulary I employ. Maybe about compositional patterns I fall into. I never want to sound like myself. (Road Show, anyone?) And awareness also means listening more. To the rhythms of overheard conversations. To the musicality of the foreign languages I don’t speak. (That would be all of them.) To composers I’ve never heard. (Ed Sheeran, astonishingly, I’ve heard not a note of.) To birds. To paintings. To my wife, the wisest in the world. And more to the most un-self-conscious dynamo of creativity I’ve every met, my daughter.