Riding on a shark

August 23, 2017

Circumstances – some unforeseen, none about health – have led me to consider the topic of retirement. What if – and this is a big

WHAT IF

– I didn’t write musicals any more? Some of my favorite writers stopped, at some point: Jerry Herman, Harvey Schmidt, Craig Carnelia. They’re alive. Late masters like Irving Berlin, Frederick Loewe and Cole Porter put down their pens many years before dying. Do we view it as a great shame that Loewe wrote so little after Camelot and Herman nothing after La Cage aux Folles? Well, yes, actually, we do.
But I’m not them. No legions of fans are shuffling on their feet, biding their time until my next work hits the boards. I’m known by few, and that can certainly be viewed as a failing of some sort. I’ve failed to make such a mark of The World of Musical Comedy that a significant coterie feels any sort of anticipation for a new Noel Katz show. So, that’s a thing: If you’re not particularly wanted, leave and you won’t be missed.

Readers of this blog know I too often celebrate the rounder anniversaries of my past musicals’ openings. Every production has led some to exclaim “I love what you do! I love your writing!” Those cheers ring in my ears, feeding my fragile ego years and years after the fact.

Having just visited a relative who is a horse-racing maven, I have this analogy for my career: Very fast start, then petered off toward the end. Thoroughbreds who do that are exciting but ultimately disappointing. So, I look back on the six shows I got to see on stage in my twenties and think, well, those were really fabulous times. The past ten years, though, well, nobody would call them fabulous. I spent a lot of time and energy rewriting my award-winning 2007 show, Such Good Friends. Then I started a project, which I decided to abandon. There was a trunk song cabaret, which then got revived. The first draft of one of my current projects was done in a private reading in 2014. That means that, at this turn, the amount of positive reinforcement has seemed comparatively small.

My natural bent is to soldier on. I realize I lived a charmed life in my twenties. Projects don’t always pan out. Sometimes you have an idea for a show and it turns out to be the wrong idea for you – which is why I abandoned Haven. But starting to write a theatre piece is a huge leap of faith. You’re going to put words on paper and hold on to this shred of hope that says that someday, maybe years from now, actors will do this on a stage for an audience. If you’re very lucky, you might have a project that’s definitely going to be produced by a specific date. This was true for me on The Heavenly Theatre, The New U. and The Pirate Captains. I also had strong reasons to believe The Christmas Bride and Area 51 would get done because my collaborators had the wherewithal to produce and that’s what eventually happened. As I said, that’s leading a charmed life, and, these days, my life seems a lot less charmed.

Merely writing this has pointed to a paradox: To write musicals, one must be extremely optimistic. At this time in my life, lacking those cheering affirmations, I’m extremely pessimistic. It doesn’t seem like I can take a leap of faith when I’ve so little faith I’ll get through August.

For me, though, the way I get through anything is, usually, by writing. Not sure how healthy this is, but when I’m stressed I often shut myself away and just concentrate on creating songs. Which leaves me with a bunch of songs, unheard, and what are you going to do with those? If the way I get through a day is by retreating to my writing pad, then stopping writing musicals is eliminating my primary coping mechanism. (Or blogging, to use the current moment.)

A relative is having a brain surgery, and a good friend had brain surgery last summer. So, what keeps coming to my mind is a metaphorical image, that part of the brain is being cut away. Here I am with tons of experience writing musicals. Stuff I put on paper gets all the way to a paying audience and from this comes a certain amount of “smarts.” And if I’m not using this chunk of know-how, it’s as if a huge concatenation of brain cells is being surgically removed. How can I stop now? It’s tantamount to a self-mutilation.

As this blog approaches 400 essays, I sometimes think, well, at least I’ve put a lot of this knowledge down on a web page. That’s nearly half a million words, and, if you’re interested in knowing my opinion, methodology, and experience, a lot of it is contained here. So many pages, so much information, that the blog doesn’t really need the additional wisdom I’ll glean working on more shows. This blog will go on – I’m unable to kick the habit of sharing thoughts about the writing of musicals. So, you readers will be fine. But you gotta keep me away from knives, O.K.?

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A little love

November 28, 2016

Five years ago today, I took on a new role, that of father. It is so encompassing, so overwhelming, and so tiring, I don’t quite know what to say about it. I can’t deny that it’s impinged on my musical-writing time. And you might have noticed new entries on this blog appear less frequently. I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you, but for me these little shortfalls are far outweighed by the wonderfulness of my daughter, Adelaide.

She’s a one-girl show, constantly entertaining people with songs, dances, acrobatics, jokes, even routines. She’s everyone’s favorite child, and “everyone” includes her schoolmates, all of whom vie for time with her. But through great good scheduling luck, I’m the one who gets to spend more time with her than anyone.

No, the sentiment of one of her most widely-enjoyed original songs is not lost on me. It’s called Enjoy Your Family and Adelaide enthusiastically exhorts us to have fun with our kin while they’re still alive. One of my songs contains the line “My daughter makes me dance with glee.” So, apparently we share this habit of musicalizing the things we actually feel. “Actually” – by the way – seems to be the word she most frequently utters.

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You’re probably thinking, “But of course she turns her emotions into songs; like father, like daughter.” But actually, she never observes me writing and it’s relatively rare she sees me playing piano. Her favorite piece of shtick is to clap her hand over my mouth the moment I start to sing. My niece, when she was slightly younger than Adelaide is today, sang a solo in Our Wedding – The Musical. Had Adelaide been around then, I wouldn’t have been allowed to sing my vows. Perhaps this is why so many people believe in marriage before children.

And, a decade apart, I’ve moved from writing a wedding musical, filled with true stuff, to a musical about the struggles of long-married couple with child, a work of fiction.And here I hear the skeptics: “How can you call The Music Playing fiction when it’s about a couple struggling to keep their ardor up as they raise a baby girl?” This might be asked of a lot of people. Are Philip Roth novels about Philip Roth? Are Neil Simon’s four plays featuring a pair of brothers memories of things as they were? And when will you people stop prying into writers’ lives and just enjoy the work? What’s happened here is that I saw emotional and comedic possibilities inherent in the situation. It seemed to me that there’s something wonderful, crying out to be turned into a musical. And then I created these characters, who, to my way of thinking, are very different than me and my wife. They deal with different things in different ways, and it’s all very entertaining. And the little girl? Not anything like Adelaide.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t contributed to the show. One thing she uttered in her second year, “Mommy is yummy” became the title of a song. Songwriters are always on the look-out for titles, and these three words encapsulate something that’s on my character’s mind; he needs to express it. In the show, he hears his daughter say these words, and launches into something of a rhapsody. In real life, Adelaide said those words and I tucked them away in the back of my mind, thinking they could be a song some day. Now, it’s quite possible that, over the five years, other stuff got tucked and emerged, but such is the stuff of all art.

And I’ve made new use of the song I used to sing when pushing her in her stroller on Riverside Drive. Adelaide’s the only one who ever heard that song, and, since no one can remember things they heard before they’re two, has surely forgotten it. In The Music Playing, there’s a scene that sets up a stark contrast between the lives of the two parents. The father’s in a serene state, as I was, pushing that stroller on a nice day. The mother’s stressed out by delays in her commute home. So, I took my old strolling song and wrote an anxious counter-melody, setting them up as a quodlibet. The hope is that this earns a big round of applause. And you know, that’s the motivator for many an entertaining tot. My daughter takes these wonderful bows when she finally comes to the end of her songs and dances. And if she doesn’t hear clapping, she’ll yell “Clap!”

Musical-writers usually button songs to trigger applause. But, in thinking back on the plethora of draining, depressing musical tragedies I’ve watched, concentrating on stopping my fidgeting from bothering other patrons, I sometimes think more of us need to pick up on my daughter’s aesthetic. Be a dynamo. Put a seemingly inexhaustible amount of energy into showing your audience a good time. Dare to be goofy. Go too far. Curtsy and bow. I tend to think only two of my shows live up to this, The New U. and Area 51. Recently, Adelaide and I attended a party in which I saw cast members from one of those shows for the first time in many, many years. Everybody spoke of how the audience howled, how it was the wackiest thing they’d done in their lives. Little did they know that my current inspiration to be surpassingly zany was dancing underfoot.


I would tell you, but…

July 31, 2016

Is it OK if I share something? “NOOO!!!” I hear you bellow, reflexively. The last thing you want to hear is yet more personal revelation because we live in the Age of the Overshare. It’s easy to point a finger at those timesuck conduits, Facebook and Twitter but they are us. It’s human beings, in astounding quantities, who somehow feel compelled to reveal to the world all sorts of insignificant details, expecting that some reader out there will care.

How much to share has become a frequently asked question in those conversations I hold with myself. Of course, this blog can be a platform. I could jot down recollections of the times I met the recently departed Marni Nixon and some might be interested. I’ve tried to limit Facebook statuses to witty bits about my daughter, even though I’m a politics junkie and could bloviate for hours about the election. But the only medium for sharing it feels appropriate to discuss here is, as usual, musical theatre.

Writers can’t help sharing something of themselves in what they write, and the projects they choose to work on. For some, a musical is an autobiographical expression. Two of my favorite off-Broadway musicals told me a whole bunch about their creators. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin didn’t state it was autobiography, allowing author Kirsten Childs to take more liberties for drama’s sake; The Big Voice: God Or Merman? presented itself as “a musical comedy in two lives” by and starring Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin and I embraced them like good friends after the show (it just felt like we were good friends, due to the warmth coming across the footlights).

So what’s going on there? Is it the old saw, “write what you know” or some egotistic impulse motivating the creation of whole shows? Or a third possibility: Certain musicals start out as cabaret acts, and cabaret is usually about a performer telling the audience about himself. It’s a fine, fine line that separates a revelatory boîte show from a theatre piece and I’ve known people who’ve helped innovate ways of transforming stuff that happens in people’s lives into solo shows they perform to great effect.

But what about you, Noel? Isn’t it true that you’ve worked on four different musicals that are about you?

Well, my most famous production, Our Wedding, was indeed a musical in which a guy named Noel got hitched to a goddess named Joy. It’s certainly long on true feelings and biographical details. But consider the parameters. Everyone in the audience knew the bride, groom, or both. The performance could only be given once, and it had to serve as an actual wedding ceremony. The idea of having our wedding take the form of a musical grew from Joy and my negative feelings about stuff you find in most weddings. That stuffing wedding cake in each other’s faces, for instance. “I love you and want to commit to keep loving you” seems, more naturally, to be a private expression between two people. But, if one has to be private in public, we felt the least we could do is make sure our assembled guest had a good time. And the best way we knew of doing that is to perform an original musical comedy.

And buy the CD, won’t you? I know nobody buys CDs anymore, but they’re cluttering up our basement. It’s a collector’s item. Remember those?

My first attempt at a musical, How To Be Happy, was a fantasy about a guy very much like me who’s written and starred in a hit Broadway show. I wasn’t particularly good inventing characters, in those days, but my task was made easier by having a protagonist who was so similar to me. None of the plot points are things that had happened to me, but I knew how it felt to deal with the ambitions and disappointments the show depicts. So, it had the virtue of verisimilitude.

Ten or twelve years ago, I had an experience that I thought could make an amusing personal essay. Writing that up, I thought, this thing could use a soundtrack. And so, friends of mine were treated to a bunch of pages with an accompanying CD. (Remember CDs? Oh – I already asked.) Practically everybody who read it said “You have to turn this into a musical comedy” thus pushing me down the rabbit hole that became Haven. In adapting, I felt that the story would work better with a female protagonist, and those viewing the finished product wouldn’t suspect that Dinah was based on me. But there never was a finished product: I got tired of telling that story. It wasn’t a subject that interested me, really, and it had taken its perfect form in that short story with CD combo.

But the experience of trying to transform the thing from my life into a fictional musical taught me much about inventing believable and relatable characters. Dinah wasn’t me, just as Robert of How To Be Happy wasn’t me. They were invented people who happened to feel and experience things I’d actually felt and experienced. This gave me a jumping off point, a key into the piece, which can be valuable.

So now I’m working on a show about a married couple trying to keep it together as they face the challenges of adjusting to being parents. Yes, Joy and I are live this situation every day. As such, I’m in touch with the delights and difficulties, the stuff that elates you, the frustrations and disappointments. The process transmogrifies our lives into a work of fiction: I have to view my characters objectively, put no one on a pedestal, heap no scorn; they can’t be villains or saints. At this point, I think of them as rather different from me and Joy. But the emotions I’m getting down on the page, well, there’s no denying I know them well.


Back in the big time

May 16, 2016

This week, a respite from the intricate inspection of other people’s musicals, because I’ve one of my own coming up. The Things We Do For Love is a cabaret show of eighteen songs from my trunk, playing May 25 at The Duplex in New York and June 13 at The Gardenia in Los Angeles. The show sold out at The Duplex five years ago, and now five new performers join Steven Bidwell on the intimate stage, again directed by Justin Boccitto.

Here’s what’s highly unusual: the performers are all on tour with Forty-Second Street, traveling from city to city, across the country. Only when they’re near enough to me do I get to work with them. In a way, The Things We Do For Love is on a national tour, hitching a ride on a show five times its size, directed by its librettist Mark Bramble and choreographed by current Tony-nominee Randy Skinner. A few nights ago, I saw their show and it’s pretty fantastic. The leading lady, Kaitlin Lawrence, is funny and delicious and already I feel blessed to have her talents turned to my numbers. Wacky as hell in the roles based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green are Britte Steele and Steven Bidwell, and I’m very excited to see their comic chops on my joke-filled ditties. Britte gets to premiere I Wouldn’t Wish That On a Dog – the one change from the 2011 incarnation – and it’ll be fun to see how its first-ever audience receives it.

The other seventeen songs are proven applause-getters. The proof’s in the reception our Duplex shows got five years ago, and also all but a few of the numbers were heard in other musicals and revues of mine. So, when I tell you, confidently, that audiences love them, that isn’t a boast or brag. Just the facts, ma’am.

My last few posts here have ended with a tiny plug. It hardly seems out of line to promote one’s own shows on one’s own blog. But, last week, some Sondheim-firsters cried foul, as some Steve-Adores tend to do. I’d seen a bunch of comedy songs play in a 2,750 seat house and receive barely a chuckle. Using an asterisk, which used to be universally accepted as indicative of humor, I linked my weekly “humble” plug with my report on how such beloved (?) comic show tunes as This Week Americans and What Do We Do We Fly had fizzled. That got a blogger to carp that my 1100-word piece on Do I Hear a Waltz was all an excuse to promote The Things We Do For Love. So, let’s uncouple two concepts: Do I Hear a Waltz, lyrics by Sondheim, music by Richard Rodgers, book by Arthur Laurents, is a rarely-performed chamber musical with a lot of comedy songs that – last week, at least – didn’t quite land. Totally unrelated to that, you can hear more than a dozen comedy songs that people have laughed hysterically at this month and next at my cabaret show, The Things We Do For Love. There you go: Just the facts.

Of course, some of my songs have have longer histories than others. Brady Miller may (or may not) propose to Britte Steele in a duet that wowed in one of those Bound For Broadway concerts, the Noel Katz night at the Donnell Library, Musical Writers Playground’s half-hour presentation of The Company of Women, and countless cabarets in London by A Stage Kindly.

But when Stephanie Brooks regales us about the true purpose of a ski trip, that’s a song that’s only been heard in The Things We Do For Love. It was written for an early draft of The Company of Women, but we found that the character singing it wasn’t necessary to the plot, so her and her song were cut. So, it’s particularly pleasurable to me to see the tune find a home after all these years.

And if I get nostalgic watching Steven Bidwell and Tommy Joscelyn doing Why Do I Do What I Do, it’s because this particular number sparked the whole idea for the show. Some years ago, I was asked to put up a song of mine at a benefit. I can’t recall why I thought of this two-man quodlibet from The Love Contract, but thought of Steven, I think, because of his resemblance to the original performer. Steven and Jayson Kerr knocked ‘em dead at the benefit, and, soon after that Steven found himself running a monthly concert series at a theatre district bar. He’d feature a different songwriter or theme each time, and singing my duet gave him the idea to devote a night to Noel Katz material.

And you know what I said? No. Don’t do it.

This was a boisterous and noisy bar, and, for many patrons, the live singing was just background music. I knew, from my experiences playing in bars, and the successes of Spilt Milk and Lunatics & Lovers, that my songs go over best in venues where listeners can concentrate on the lyrics. Steven’s bar wasn’t such a conducive environment and I told him so.

This demurral gave him an idea: What if he produced a show of my songs in a cabaret in Greenwich Village, the type of place where ears are fully open? Well, that’s what he did and that’s what he’s doing again. It’s very gratifying to get my work in front of new ears, acted by new singers. One of the 2011 players, Stephen Mitchell Brown, went on to appear on Broadway so if you catch the current cast perhaps you can say you saw them before their Broadway debut. Also, catch them in Forty-Second Street: They’re really good in that, too.

 


Hector

September 19, 2015

It’s rare that I write something here that isn’t addressed specifically to musical theatre writers. But I’m pretty excited about something, a class I’m co-teaching for musical theatre performers. If I describe what goes on there, well, you might get excited, too. And, God knows, a lot of performers are also writers.

Alan Langdon, Justin Boccitto and I will teach Musical Theatre Scene Study, and this is the first time it’s been offered to the general public. For fifteen years or so, Alan and I have been teaching it together as part of the two-year conservatory program at Circle in the Square. It’s just given to second-year musical theatre track students. And they’re a rather committed bunch. They’re used to Alan’s high expectations, and also the somewhat less exacting little me. So, they work very hard to prepare every scene in advance of class. This includes a musical rehearsal with me.

The scenes they do come from a repertory list. Each must include both characters speaking and both characters singing. They almost always get in costumes; there are often props, furniture, or suggestion of a set. Quite often, the scene will involve actors besides the two who are going. For instance, if doing A Boy Like That from West Side Story, the scene begins with Maria and Tony in bed, Anita knocking, and Tony escaping through a window. They Were You, from The Fantasticks, would need a mime dropping confetti. And so on.

Before I get involved, the scenes are run without music, all lyrics spoken (which often involves simultaneous talking). Then comes the day we’re all together: We run the song to check that all musical elements are in place. Then, the actors “check in.” This usually involves (but doesn’t have to), students addressing the rest of the class, referencing emotional events in their past that help them key in to the emotions their character is going through. These need not be literal – Lord help us if the Next To Normal scenes were! Someone who’s endured a separation from a lover might use those feelings of longing to get into All the Wasted Time from Parade. Sometimes, players prefer to summon up their memories in a more private way, staring at a photograph or listening to ear buds. The check-ins can take a lot of time – we’ll have at least forty-five minutes per scene – they don’t go on to the actual scene until they’re truly ready.

And, even as it’s going, the scene doesn’t have to continue if the scene partners aren’t truly ready. Stopping in the middle of a scene or song and doing things again is encouraged. While we’ve stopped, actors can return to their check-in if they wish. Something feeling not quite right? Say what it is, work it out. This is Scene Study, not a performance; it’s like a lab where you can experiment, try things different ways.

It might seem like I’ve described this in such detail, readers can now start their own classes and experience the same mind-blowing magic. But as many hundreds of actors can tell you, there’s nobody quite like Alan Langdon. His observations of a scene-in-progress are sui generis. The performer has objectives to pursue, tactics to use, emotions to express. It’s challenging to accomplish all those goals, and the question of where you’ve succeeded or fallen short – well, first that’s put to you to answer. Then, I might pipe up: I’m staring at the score, and if I see a crescendo that didn’t grow, or a tenuto ignored, I’m likely to bring it up. When Alan finally speaks, you can hear a pin drop. He’ll have noticed something nobody else has seen. What surprises a lot of people is that he’ll say “You sang that too well” often. It’s about being truthful, and if you’ve thought too much about how you’re sounding and not what you’re expressing, it’s a significant flaw.

It’s uniquely satisfying to me to be around people who are working hard, giving their all. For a decade and a half, I’ve watched actors extend Herculean efforts in our Musical Scene Study classes. Alan inspires fear, in some, when they first meet him. But eventually what he inspires is the desire to be the strongest you, to do the best you are capable of. And, often, better than you ever thought. Year after year, I’ve marveled at the pairs attempting Adam Guettel’s fiendishly difficult and long Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. This is just about as hard a musical theatre scene as exists in the repertoire. That anyone’s able and eager to learn this virtuosic scene is utterly amazing to me.

The Things We Do For Love is the name of a revue of my songs directed and choreographed by my award-winning friend, Justin Boccitto. He, Alan and I have worked together on a number of unusually ambitious projects in the past, and it will be a thrill to see how expressive dance can be added to our process this time. The three of us are similarly passionate, but there’s huge differences in styles. I think of Justin as a limitless creator of fun. That’s a helpful contrast to Alan’s dogged pursuit of truth. Me, I’m probably too goofy for my own good, but, since I’m a writer, I may have a tad more focus on authorial intent. Are these performers getting across what the librettist, composer and lyricist intended?

And the mind-blowing thing I experience each class: Such intense focus on acting scenes and songs, the characters’ intentions – it’s motivation to write musical with meat to them. Write with the assumption that, someday, actors will pick over your words and music with such keen focus and intelligence.

Is this something you’d want to do, Thursday nights in New York? Drop me a line.


This is your lucky day

May 11, 2015

A while ago, this blog received its 25,000th view. And that’s something to celebrate. And I usually use any excuse to celebrate. But, around the time my meter ticked past that rather round number, this comment was posted to my blog:

Well, you come across as having an ax to grind. I think you won’t grind it with success, because – whether it is or not – it also comes across as sour grapes, which is just not a good calling card.

which prompts me to self-examine. I’ve always hoped this blog could be a good calling card. But is it a dish of sour grapes? Do I have an ax to grind?

After much soul-searching I hereby confess to privately holding something of a grudge against Happy Days. No, not the Beckett play. It’s a musical based on the old sitcom and it had its world premiere around the time my Such Good Friends opened seven and a half years ago. Such Good Friends, I’m proud to tell you, got unbelievably good reviews. Michael Dale called it the best musical comedy he’d seen in years, it was a critic’s pick in Backstage and Peter Filichia raved for paragraph after paragraph. Yes, I read reviews, and, just to make sure these critics weren’t pushovers, I also read their reviews of other shows that played around that time. The notices for Happy Days were as terrible as anything I’ve ever read. Critics said to steer clear of Happy Days on the same pages they said Such Good Friends was good enough to “move to Broadway right now.” And of course you know my show didn’t move to Broadway and Happy Days has gotten produced over and over again.

Am I beside myself with bitterness about this? I don’t think so, but you tell me.

I do tend to get cynical when famous and successful artists from other genres swoop down and try their hands at musical theatre. For instance, I’ve never seen Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and, for all I know, it could be wonderful. But I’ve a sneaking suspicion it’s gotten produced not because it’s a worthy, high-quality script and score, but because the libretto is by the popular and prolific novelist Stephen King, and the music and lyrics are by John Mellencamp, who used to be a cougar before the animal became synonymous with older women lusting after younger men. I’m not famous myself – although 25,000 people have read my name! – but I’ve the sinking feeling that if I’d written a musical with precisely the same proficiency as Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, it wouldn’t be produced on any stage.

Is that sour grapes? Do I imply that Ghost Brothers might not be good because I’ve an ax to grind, or suspect that axes go into people’s necks during the show? Producers understandably assume that a lot of people will buy tickets to a Stephen King/John Mellencamp show because they already have legions of fans. Just like the crowds who showed up to see Sting’s show last year, or Kathie Lee Gifford’s the year before, or that ridiculously expensive extravaganza by Bono and The Edge.

I wish more musicals got produced based on their merit, rather than on their creators’ reputations for creating something other than musical theatre; don’t you?

I’ve been luckier than most show-writers, as a couple dozen times or so, perspicacious producers have mounted my works. Not because I’ve some following, but because they believed an audience would be entertained. Frequently, the result of that faith was sold-out houses, extended runs, rave reviews and awards. People had a good time, were moved, thoroughly entertained. And that’s what matters most to me.

Here on this blog, I always aim to help fellow writers. I share my experience from many years of writing with the hope that others can learn a bit here. And I’m not afraid to call ’em as I see ’em. So, sometimes I’ll criticize a musical for what I see as shoddy writing. And, due to the irretractable law of chacun à son goût, you may love this show. You may think it’s perfect, unimpeachable, and here I am, impeaching. Should I apologize for that? Did you come here for unvarnished opinions, or varnished ones?

I’ve an example in mind, a show I think is howlingly terrible. Set during the Great Depression, the score is overloaded with power ballads and the sort of R & B one associates with the 1980s. The lyrics, rife with false rhymes, contain the sort of sentiments usually found on greeting cards. The libretto concerns sisters with a rather unusual and rare birth defect. How the world treats them is explicitly compared to how black people were treated in the 1930s. In a choice that is truly jaw-dropping, the authors focus on the difficulties involved in their having sex. There’s also one of those opening numbers which indicts the audience for treating less fortunate people so miserably. Sound like fun to you? Just last night friends were telling me how much they love this show.

So what happens if I state, on these pages, that a show you loved is poorly written? You’re welcome to argue with my points: I’d truly prefer this to be more of a dialogue, less of a monologue. But some see my willingness to knock some sacred cows as hubris. And before I make another mention of the man who coined the term “moo-cow,” let’s define a pejorative, fanboy.

A fanboy is someone who loves an artist so much, he’s immediately combative when anyone has the temerity to suggest his hero has ever done anything remotely wrong, or less-that-perfect. So, if I point out some minor failings – failings, I must add, that the artist-in-question has pointed out himself, the fanboy might retort,

What has YOUR contribution to the medium been, M. Katz?

And you know, you don’t need to have written any musicals (let alone 18) to have an opinion; the internet allows any schnook to have a blog. This one’s not for fanboys, although you can find plenty that are. Over the next 25,000 visits, I’m hoping to hear more and more from those who wish to seriously discuss musical theatre. And that has nothing to do with the bunch of Thompson seedless I just ate that lacked the expected sweetness.

 


Count the clock

January 17, 2015

Another big birthday has arrived, affording me the right to sit on my porch and yell at kids: “Get off my lawn!”

I know what you’re thinking: that, in effect, I’m already doing that here. Kids who dare to write new musicals are being screamed at by an old man: “That’s not how you do it! That’s not how we did it in my day!”

I used to feel we writers-of-musicals were part of a club where age truly didn’t matter. Back when I was the youngest member of Lehman Engel’s workshop at BMI, there were plenty of gray-hairs in the room and I didn’t feel a great generational divide. Now that I’m older than most musical writers, I’m sad to report I finally feel it.

Could be I’m encountering young people who don’t care about the same things I’ve always cared about. They heedlessly (and needlessly) make craft mistakes Lehman Engel would have balled them out for. They’re seemingly not bothered by music or slang that takes the listener out of the setting of the show. Oddest of all, there’s a de-emphasis on romance, as if they’re embarrassed by the emotion. Also, they’ve a markedly different belief into what sort of story is suited to musicalization.

Devaluing craft and rhyme

I grew up listening to my parents’ collection of original Broadway cast albums. These few dozen discs represented the very best of the Golden Age, from Oklahoma! to 1776. I wore out the vinyl, and – I know this is odd – didn’t listen to pop, or the radio, or American Bandstand. Even as a kid I was only interested in musicals. The lyrics, generally set to hummable melodies, hit the ear smoothly: Everything about them, the verbal tricks, the imagery, the intervals, the character’s subtext – could be instantly understood and enjoyed. In contrast, rock lyrics were something of a puzzle: they usually didn’t mean much the first time you heard them, but repeated spins on your turntable might reveal layers of meaning, as in poetry. Broadway tunesmiths were more interested in telling a story, in being witty, in moving an audience. They utilized tools such as perfect rhyme, ear-friendly melody, and a consideration of how quickly hearers could comprehend concepts and phrases. Popsmiths had a different agenda: Could you dance to it? or, Did it reflect the alienation of youth?

When I hear younger musical-writers who don’t use perfect rhymes, who emphasize rhythm over accessibility, who hurl concepts like hailstones, I think, “Well, they can’t have grown up listening to musicals. This sounds more like pop.” Stuff you hear on the radio can always get away with false rhymes, nonsensical su-su-pseudo-words, and overly dense ideas. And I just realized how much I sound like an old man by saying “hear on the radio” as nobody listens to radio any more. But consider: I limited myself to fewer than fifty albums representing the best of Golden Age musicals. With Spotify and YouTube today, I doubt anybody’s curtailing their playlist to that.

Music of a place and time

Good theatre composers are like chameleons, really. Sure, everybody has a style, but the pre-eminent practitioners change their skins, in a way, when meeting the challenge of telling tales in different settings. My composition teacher admiringly pointed to Frederick Loewe, who sounded oh-so-Edwardian-England in My Fair Lady, sacre bleu!-so-fin-de-siècle-French in Gigi and so Wild West in Paint Your Wagon, you imagine tumbleweeds getting caught on staves.

So, do you love a good reggae? Who doesn’t love a good reggae? 25 years ago, there was this musical, set on a Caribbean isle, and a vivacious young woman gets introduced with a bright reggae.

Makes sense to me. Stephen Flaherty, perhaps the pre-eminent composer of this era, often writes with an eye towards what harmonic, rhythmic and orchestral colors set a score in a particular time and place. For some reason I cannot fathom, he’s not nearly as famous or known as Jason Robert Brown, whose music and lyrics have graced nothing but flops. His song title I Can Do Better Than That often comes to mind when I think of him. And it, too, happens to be a reggae:

Who doesn’t love a good reggae, right? Because if your character’s from the Caribbean, it makes sense that… Wait a minute! Cathy’s not from the Caribbean. She’s a white chick struggling to learn which Central Park West buildings contain which celebrities. Brown’s choice of a reggae for this character in this particular time and place seems totally arbitrary. Almost as arbitrary as giving a peppy salsa to a Jewish character.

Younger people never seem to be bothered by this.

A little romance

While I’m thinking of The Last 5 Years: Did you ever notice how its stronger moments depict disharmony within a relationship? There’s very little of the lovers saying “I love you.” And it’s not just The Last 5 Years: the inability to give soaring expression to amorous feelings is a wide-spread problem in this strange new world we live in. There was a time – LONG BEFORE I WAS BORN, thank you – when people naturally looked to musicals for passionate outpourings. If Rodgers, Berlin, Porter or Gershwin saw the musicals of today, I think they’d find the lack of love songs the most surprising change of all.

I’m tempted to lay this at the feet of Stephen Sondheim. In the 45 years since he became widely-admired, he’s given us precious few celebrations of amity, along with many searing portrayals of enmity, of love gone wrong. Those who consider Sondheim The Great One often aspire to follow his every move; their output has been long on hate songs, short on love songs. So, where once shows celebrated happy romance, now they excoriate and criticize. You’ll note my latest musical, The Music Playing, details a married couple’s successful ascent out of tough times. And yes, I’m dreadfully old fashioned in my insistence that musicals should contain, somewhere, an un-ironic positive romance.

What’s the show about?

Many a younger person thinks me mighty strange for creating a show in which people love each other. Well, the feeling is mutual: If you’re working on something truly tragic or relentlessly sad, I scratch my head. This month, a Broadway revival of a Broadway flop closed deep in the red. And a lot of people sound surprised that not enough people wanted to buy tickets to see the sad lot of Siamese Twin sisters during the depression. If you think that’s a good idea for a show, you’re probably younger than me.

I’ve actually sat through a cutting of a musical based on Schindler’s List, heard several songs from one about the Lindbergh kidnapping, and my taste led me to avoid shows about Leopold and Loeb, Kitty Genovese, Columbine and tons of others. The truly tragic “sings” to a lot of novice writers. Me, I feel that musicals have an idiosyncratic knack for celebration, for boosting joy.

But, some of you who know my work might say, didn’t you take on a very depressing subject by writing about McCarthyism? Good point: I’ve long suspected Such Good Friends has limited appeal because so few people want to see anything about the scoundrel time, and they don’t look beyond the setting. If they did, they’d see I’d told my tragic story in the most entertaining way conceivable, with lots of jokes and instantly lovable tunes. I guess one of the indulgences one is allowed on one’s birthday is to quote a review, so here’s a bit from Michael Dale:

Noel Katz’s wonderfully funny and beautifully touching Such Good Friends, one of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years…Though the story is a grim one in American history, Katz’s main characters are all funny people who use humor as both a defense mechanism and a weapon, so there is always a realistic lightness at the surface.