Oh what a lovely pal is mother

April 15, 2018

One of the unsung heroes of contemporary musical theatre celebrates her birthday today, Sara Louise Lazarus. If I say a few words about what she does, my hope is that it’s going to help you create better musicals. God knows the 18 years working with her have enriched my craft.

But I must admit I have what might be called the diarist’s impulse: the sense that I should write this all down before the memory fades. I don’t want to forget the lessons, the principles, the way of working, the caring. It’s been eight months since we worked together and… well, you know brains.

And mine can’t shake a thought about pit pulls. It’s said they sink their sharp teeth into something – say a postman’s leg – and refuse to let go. Jaws clamp down and it’s impossible to loosen that grip. Now picture a long day of rehearsals for a group cabaret. Say twenty-one young performers have been scheduled for twenty-minute sessions working with Sara. If I’ve done the math right, that’s seven hours or work for us. Except it’s not, because Sara never sticks to the twenty minute limit. There’s something she sees in a performance that she absolutely needs to make better, and refuses to give up on it – pit bull teeth in a leg.

Now, if you’re one of the individuals singing, you’re thrilled to have your performance sharpened. If you’re me, on the other hand, you’re exhausted from hours and hours of dogged fine-tuning. But, we keep on going, late into the night, because getting actors to convey truth in their songs is so very important to us.

Not every day is marathon-rehearsal day. More often, it’s a structured education with a series of steps that lead to a fully-acted, truthfully-expressed rendering of a musical theatre song. Sara breaks the process down into a set of assignments that constitute an in-depth investigation of material. You take the text, sans music, and work on it as an actor. At this point it’s a prose monologue in which you don’t stop at rhymes, or the end of lines, but move along at a pace totally determined by the emotions inherent in the words; how you respond to them. When Sara’s satisfied that you’ve investigated the lyric and taken in all the implied or expressed facts about the character singing and their situation, you move on to learning the music. Singing the song now involves a discovery of how the composer has dealt with the cadences of the lyric. Has he emphasized the syllables you emphasized in your monologue rendition? No? Then figure out why.

So, readers of this blog know that it’s written for writers. And I’m going to pause here to remind you of the need to stay on the same page. The lyricist has an idea about how the text should be acted. The composer can’t have a conflicting idea. Collaborators must go back and forth, revising and adjusting, until they’re on the same page.

For seventy-five years now, since Oklahoma!, subtext has had paramount importance in good musical theatre writing. Sara’s students then explore the thought behind the words. I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but, whenever I speak, my brain darts through all sorts of words and phrases I choose not to say out loud. (Some have been known to make fun of me for my halting way of talking.) Characters in good musicals have stuff in their heads the audience will never get to hear. And, just because I just mentioned the show, let’s use People Will Say We’re In Love as an example. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric says

Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love

But what the love-sodden character is actually thinking is just the opposite:

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it

None of that is said out loud; it’s the subtext. So the singers go back into monologue and speak something half theirs, half Hammerstein.

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers. Don’t throw bouquets at me
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents. Don’t please my folks too much
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating. Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it. People will say we’re in love

Sounds crazy, no? Well, that’s Laurie and Curly for you. A couple of contradictions who don’t express exactly what’s on their minds.

The culmination of the process is to match movements to the subtext, so that gestures – and these can be as subtle as a shift in where one’s eyes focus – are timed so that the audience sees the impulse to sing a line before the line is sung.

I realize this might sound unnecessarily complex, or seem unnatural when expressed in a quick essay. But Sara’s dealing with a roomful of bright students who eventually grasp this (or don’t) over time, as a group. And think about this: In real life, we listen to people who say things but have thoughts they don’t say all the time. So, a Sara-directed performance is infinitely closer to real life than the far-less-acted vocal displays we’re all too used to seeing.

There are too many Sara-trained performers on Broadway to name. Hello Dolly, School of Rock, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Wicked, The Bridges of Madison County, Little Shop of Horrors, Side Show, Throughly Modern Millie. I know, I know: Lists are boring to read. Has one teacher put a higher percentage of students on The Great White Way? I think not. Call it the benefit of being bit by a pit bull.

But the benefit for me, being a part of all of this, is a revolution in how I think about writing lyrics and music. My Sara-fed familiarity with the process actors go through has immeasurably affected my creative process on my last four or five musicals. Today a huge quantity of entertainers are wishing Sara a happy birthday, acknowledging how she upped their game. Me too, but it’s a slightly different game.

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Finale – part two

January 9, 2018

1996-2017, I spent many a stimulating hour at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. 2018, I won’t. So, before too many of my memories distance and die, I thought I’d jot down a few that might be of interest to musical-makers.

The first thing to point out is that everybody takes everything tremendously seriously. Students come completely committed to spending every waking hour for two years totally devoted to learning about performing on stage. Faculty feels itself shaping futures, nudging young adults on an intense “journey towards you” – the idea being they’ll end up as individuals, rather than the cookie-cutter copies of everyone else in the field you find in college programs.

There’s nothing to do, amidst such a rushing river of earnest endeavor, but to swim along with the current. You take a look at what you’re doing – as an artist, as a teacher – and scour yourself for imperfections. If I’m adamant about craft in my writing, it’s because I was among people who picked over every note, every turn of phrase, every motivation, and the physicality inherent in songs and scenes.

Too few songwriters, I feel, sweat those details. So, as I’m guiding artists towards great performances, we’re picking over songwriters’ imperfections, usually inventing a justification for some lapse in craft. Here’s a popular example. Galinda sings “You’ll hang with the right cohorts,” mis-accenting the last word. What could account for this? Maybe she’s from somewhere where nobody uses “cohorts” so she’s never heard it. But she’s read it, because she was a lonely intellectual, the one reader in her crowd, and has arrived at Shiz for her first year of college, showing off her big vocabulary without knowing how to pronounce this word. She’s funny that way.

Now I’m wondering if my friend who played the role ever thought about all this. I kinda doubt it. This level of analysis can’t happen just anywhere. And didn’t, at the many other New York acting schools where I worked. But it’s easier to imagine intensive examinations of Shakespeare, right? That was part of my college experience. I love the fact that there’s a place where show tunes undergo similar scrutiny.

To some, musicals seem frivolous. How wonderful to be part of a community where the thing that I do is valued. Eighteen years ago, Sara Louise Lazarus began teaching musical theatre there and it was immediately apparent I’d found the ultimate kindred spirit. Not only did she take musicals just as seriously, she’d developed an entire methodology for performing individual show tunes. This had been refined down from the legendary performance guru, David Craig. I can’t call Craig the unsung hero of acting in musicals, because “unsung” just seems like the wrong word. But when Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince were developing musicals that required a higher level of interpretive brilliance than had gone on before, they called Craig out of California retirement to teach a new generation of performers who could do the things required to perform Company, A Little Night Music and all the rest. And the takeaway from this is that wonderful things can happen when a musical theatre maverick is called back to Manhattan out of California retirement. Call. Call! CALL!

The greenest students are fresh out of high school and a lot of them park-and-bark. This term is applied to singers – especially at auditions – who show off their vocal prowess without any thought to the acting, how you move, how you register emotion on your face. Sara’s teaching turns that around, with a series of preparatory steps that ensure the performer is thinking what their character is thinking. Every little motion has a meaning, and these are timed as they are in life, with the impulse to say something motivating action; never do our bodies spring up in sync with new words we sing.

Substantial time and effort go into mastering this process. I’d pipe up, often pointing out interpretive possibilities based on the sheet music in front of me. Months of learning, weeks of rehearsal, culminating in a thrilling performance, dazzling an audience with a demonstration of all this intricate work: That was the stuff! That was what I lived for, for two decades.

Some theatre folk enjoy rehearsing more than performing – no assembly required. Working on things, in fine detail, can be the true joy. Sara’s class gets to show off in showcases and cabarets. The “product” in Musical Theatre Scene Study went unseen, and the work was never considered “finished.” Led by the laconic and occasionally cryptic inspirer Alan Langdon, the class was a synthesis of what had been taught all over the school. Each scene involved dialogue, set, costumes, and two people singing. They’d use, most of all, their acting training (Alan teaches Chekhov and other “straight” acting scene work). They’d use their I.P.A., which, I learned, over my years there, is a hoppy sort of beer. Vocal technique from voice-master Beth Falcone, natch. Sometimes dances derived from Jeanne Slater’s teaching, or fights from B.H. Barry. And their Sara Lazarus-training… Well, I was right there to glower at them if they forgot that. When we all got together to run a scene, you could never be certain what Alan would observe, point out. But first the actors would share their own observations: the things they missed, the things they’d achieved.

It’s hard to talk about this. Hyperbole always sounds silly, not-to-be-believed. (When I saw a particularly wonderful musical a couple of years ago, I immediately recognized I shouldn’t say much about it, lest I seem like a raving fanboy. It’s a problem.) So, if I say “greatest, most soul-stirring hours of my life” you’ll think, “that’s ridiculous.” But think about the Bench Scene from Carousel, or A Boy Like That, or The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. Think about dissecting every intricacy of the text and score with talented, eager, and willing-to-work hard singing actors. Hey: What a way to spend a day.


Someone who’s warm

January 1, 2018

This is my 400th post and it certainly feels like I’m winding down. Your faithful reporter on the world of musicals may be running out of gas, and this is related to lack of stimuli. Did I even see any new musicals in 2017? Off hand, I can’t remember. I continue to write musicals, and can talk about my writing, present and past, but I’m running out of new stuff to say. I’m a broken old jalopy and the gas gauge is nearing E. Don’t know exactly when I’ll leave this thing on the side of the road – you never know with gas – but the day is coming.

One sign that I’m in the throes of an existential crisis is that I’ve been in a couple of situations in which I’ve had to introduce myself, and I got a little tongue-tied. I am always – always – nervous about coming off as conceited. I want to be honest, but if I say I’ve had 17 musicals produced, I worry that this sounds more impressive than it is. They played in tiny New York theatres – obscure ones. And nobody’s heard of them. Sometimes, people think they’ve heard of On the Brink, but it turns out they’re thinking of a play called On the Verge.

I’ve a faint memory that once I had a webpage in which I described myself as “Just Another Guy Who Writes Musicals.” Recently, someone tried to convince me I’m unique, somehow. But in New York, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a musical theatre writer, and believe me, I’ve tried: There’s unhappy meowing followed by “Hey! Why’d you hit me with that cat?”

It’s possible that my musicals are different from other people’s musicals – and I always try to make them as different from each other as possible – but I think I’ll leave an exploration of that question for my birthday, January 17.

Wipe. “Wipe” is a term long-form improvisers stole from the motion picture world, in which we move from one scene to another by miming drawing a curtain across a stage. And I didn’t have a natural segue to start talking about my parallel career in improv. When I was a lad of 16, a troupe started paying me to accompany them, and one of the performers was the then-unknown Robin Williams. When I left for college (Columbia), I thought I’d left that world behind me. But a couple decades later I was talked into exploring newly-wrought improv forms. This meant studying with UCB prior to their move to New York. Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts taught me and eventually, I taught a huge number of people at Second City and the Artistic New Directions retreats. I feel like I was on the cutting age of the New York improv revolution, and was instrumental (pun intended) in evolving forms with The Chainsaw Boys and Centralia.

Teaching, in one form or another, became the day job, the thing I did for money. Sometimes, I was “merely” accompanying classes, and here I can drop the names of Broadway vets Helen Gallagher, Virginia Gibson and Joanna Gleason. At the other end of the spectrum, I got to teach a college course, for 13 years, at Fairleigh-Dickinson in Madison, New Jersey. There, they called me professor and gave me considerable freedom as to what I taught.

Somewhere in the middle is where the heart is: At The Circle in the Square Theatre School, right under Broadway, wise and beloved teachers Sara Louise Lazarus and Alan Langdon allowed me to be me. They’re due a lot of credit, not just for what they teach, but for having the faith that allowing my craziness into the classroom would contribute to the education of young adult performers. Viewed through a certain lens, my presence behind the piano was a sort of long-form improvisation. I’d joke, I’d comment, I’d roll my eyes, I’d grimace. Sometimes, I’d hug. The nurturing and preparation of entertainers is an incredibly emotional process. Sometimes students get upset by things they don’t wish to hear. But there’s a steam valve, of sorts, a guy sitting in the corner who might (or might not) disagree with that message, or who can restate it with a much-needed spoonful of sugar.

Naturally, this all led to a strong connection with students, some of whom continued to call upon me for individual coaching and audition help after graduation. The running theme here – through F.D.U., Circle and my one-on-one work, is that everything that’s sung must be accompanied by thought. We don’t turn our minds off when we express our hearts. Sadly, a lot of singers seem to do just that: they think it’s all about the sound, close their eyes, stand like statues, no feeling registering upon their faces. I’ve always believed that the reason I care so much about how musical theatre material is performed is because I’ve lived through the struggle of creating musicals so many times. Something was said of Barbara Cook at a recent memorial for her, and it resounded strongly with me:

singing is not about voice, “it was about finding the impetus for why the song was written, exploring what the composer and lyricist were thinking when they wrote it.”

This composer and lyricist, over these 400 posts, has been sharing with you all a little of what I’ve been thinking. I’m grateful that this blog gets visitors from all over the world. If you’re interested in what goes into the making of a musical, you’ve clicked to the right place. I encourage you to explore the 400, leave a comment or two. And then go and write a musical. The more of us out there, creating, the better. Swing away! I promise not to be upset when you hit me with a cat.


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.


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.