Anything for a laugh

March 23, 2017

The New Yorkers, the Encores concoction at City Center this week, transports us to a world where nothing makes sense and, even better, nothing has to. While we in the twenty-first century labor strenuously to make sure everything’s motivated and logical in our musicals, it’s refreshing to be reminded that nearly 90 years ago, silliness reigned. Jokes that are unimaginably corny or improbably blue are thrown across the footlights with not an ounce of shame and a surprisingly high percentage land. A huge cast and a 29-piece orchestra (!) swinging out winsome orchestrations by Josh Clayton and Larry Moore do more than right by sixteen sumptuous Cole Porter songs, many of which you won’t know. And it’s all lunacy: It’s as if we’ve the great good fortune to be included in a bathtub gin-besodden soirée at a well-appointed speakeasy (laugh-out-loud funny sets by Allen Moyer) and we’re all drunk and, magically, everything’s funny and romantic.

But doesn’t the very name, Cole Porter, evoke all that? (You’d think it would bring to mind a menial dirty job in a never-coming-back energy industry, but no.) Like The Great Gatsby, he was a mysterious millionaire from the Midwest, and what he chose to do with his life was to entertain his friends with jokes about concupiscence (“I want you to holler ‘hooray!’ when first you see me in my so-to-speak”) and sinuous melodies. After Yale and military service, there was a dilettante period where he married someone even richer, resided in Europe and didn’t much care if his songs made it on Broadway. Once he did, The New Yorkers was his third creation for The Great White Way, the third of many; he was in his late thirties, but still early in his prodigious career. You may have heard me complain about comedy songs that go on and on and just aren’t funny. Here are masterpieces of the genre: clever 32-bar mirth-makers that actually make people laugh. And one gets the sense Cole is just tossing them off.

But, amidst this madness, there’s an extraordinary and utterly serious imagining of what a prostitute’s life is actually like. It stands out like a sore thumb, sure, but what a plum thumb Love For Sale is! The harmonies travel to unexpected places: listen to what’s happening during the line “Love that’s only slightly soiled; love for sale.” then go back and consider what an amazing thing to say that is.

The New Yorkers is frank and thoroughly unromantic about sex. A society woman with a psychological malaise keeps eagerly asking her doctor, “Shall I strip?” and the madcap highlight of this evening has a dancing chorus running around a bed with huge turkey legs while a couple tussles under the sheets. “A romp and a quickie is all little Dickie means when he mentions romance,” goes a song.

But it’s here where Porter nerds like me express appall. That line’s from Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love, written seven or eight years after The New Yorkers. What’s it doing in this show? What’s Night and Day doing in it? Or the patter song introduced by a young Danny Kaye in the forties, Let’s Not Talk About Love? The addition of these Porter evergreens to an already very good score makes absolutely no sense. Jack Viertel and his team at Encores, missing certain songs, arrangement and script pages, opted to jettison accuracy in order to give an impression of what musicals of the period were like. And then call attention to their prestidigitation by quipping “We’d sing Friendship now, but that’s from a different show.” The same show, in fact, that gave us Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love

This is, of course, a minor nitpick. If the move to stuff this evening with some other Cole classics makes no sense, well, not much in the show makes any sense in the first place. Take Wood, for instance, written by the show’s star comedian, Jimmy Durante. During it, the cast builds a barricade a la Les Misérables, for absolutely no reason at all. And the senselessness of this stage action astounds us into such fits of giggles, we don’t stop to ask if musicals were ever really this stupid.

My less minor nitpick is about jazz star Cyrille Aimée’s pitch accuracy on Love For Sale. This is a jazz number too brilliant to be played with. An audience new to the song wouldn’t be able to tell where Porter ends and the surreal (for that’s how her name is pronounced) begins. But mostly the songs are delivered with winning aplomb; the large cast includes all sorts of characters actors you’ve loved for years (Eddie Korbich, Kevin Chamberlin, Ruth Williamson) and the ace leading lady is the British phenomenon Scarlett Strallen.

The New Yorkers doesn’t invite serious analysis – the sort of thing I’m used to doing here. And a disclosure is needed: In the company of 31 lunatics on stage is a close friend of mine, Matthew Griffin, making his professional debut. It strikes me as a perfect match: he’s delightful and ridiculous just like the show is. And there’s a line towards the end about things that can only happen in New York. Like 60 people, actors and musicians, on a huge stage in a huge theatre, performing this totally forgotten bit of whimsy from 1930. I Happen To Like New York is the finale, and tears streamed down all our faces, in part, because we know nothing like this could ever happen anywhere else.


A song that shows range

March 18, 2017

One of the musical theatre’s greatest living composers celebrates his 90th birthday today. So, a few words about John Kander. We’ve met on many occasions, and working with him, playing his piano in his home is one of my most cherished memories. He is kind and generous, gentlemanly and humble. But the most amazing thing, I think, is that he keeps going. There’s a new Kander musical playing in New York right now (Kid Victory) and I’m hard pressed to think of another Broadway composer who’s created new work at this age. God knows what he’ll write in his nineties, but I’m looking forward to it.

There are a couple of things everybody says about Kander & Ebb and I hate restating the obvious. But Kander and his brilliant lyrical collaborator Fred Ebb had no fear: They were willing to take on topics nobody else would think of turning into a musical. Unpleasant parts of history get combined with sprightly old-fashioned Broadway tunes and somehow, sometimes, the combination works. Of course, there’s their masterpiece, Cabaret. We’re instantly charmed by the razzmatazz of the Kit Kat Klub, and, over the course of the show, that seductive music works on us. As Hitler gains power, we feel what the characters feel, that this evil has snuck up on us while we were enjoying a merry dance. Similarly audacious was using the trappings of a minstrel show to tell the appalling tragedy of The Scottsboro Boys. Think how easily that idea could have gone south, using a form now considered offensive to add energy and humor to an expressionist depiction of a miscarriage of justice. Prisons are prominent in a number of Kander & Ebb productions: Kiss of the Spiderwoman is set entirely in a South American cell. But the characters keep their sanity by recalling the music of their lives outside.

The other thing is that Kander is the vamp king. The introductions to his refrains are infectious, and convey delight. Think of Wilkommen or When You’re Good To Mama; the first bars of All I Care About Is Love could be a song in itself.

One of the hardest of his vamps to play, in my experience, is the sixteenth-note riot leading into Colored Lights. That’s one of the songs I had to play on his piano as he coached one of my students. He couldn’t have been more gracious in helping me with my struggle, playing it himself, saying, just run your fingers over those keys with a little swell, like waves coming in from the ocean.

Allow me to clear up a myth about the American musical with more Broadway performance than any other: Chicago was a hit the first time around. It opened the same season as A Chorus Line – one of those dancers chose to ditch the Michael Bennett project for the Bob Fosse – so it didn’t win at the Tonys, though there were eleven nominations. Still, it was a very hot ticket, and ran for a long time, yet, for some reason a lot of people believe it was some sort of a flop. Of course, everything seems like a flop compared to the revival, which has been running more than twenty years on Broadway and counting. I saw the original production: a flower thrown by Gwen Verdon landed in the lap of my friend sitting next to me. In high school, a bunch of friends wanted to perform Cell Block Tango but couldn’t acquire the music, so I transcribed the whole thing – a painstaking process that I’d only undergo for a song I dearly loved.

My favorite Kander tune has always been Why Should I Wake Up? At first glance, it seems a plain 1960s ballad, alternating between a major seventh on the tonic and a minor seventh on the second note of the scale, like a lot of tunes of the era. But after the lyric “euphoric state” the accompaniment surprises with a flat fifth. The music tells us there’s an evil undercurrent beneath this romantic fantasy. And it’s subtle enough that listeners don’t recognize what’s happening. Another ballad that uses the flat fifth, If You Leave Me Now, got cut before The Happy Time opened. It’s gorgeous – I cry every time I play it – but, I suppose, had too little to do with the show’s Quebec setting.

Music should direct our imaginations to a specific time and place. The opening strain of Zorba transports us to Greece. A measure of Steel Pier gets us to the Atlantic City boardwalk during the depression. Or the pounding organ waltz of The Rink and we’re on a different pier on the other coast. In thinking about Kander’s amazing career, I’m reminded of his song, Don’t Leave, which mentions so many places around the world. Not to be confused with Don’t Go, which is rapturous, and was created for a long-forgotten revisal of Cabaret.

Since the original Cabaret is such a brilliant and moving entertainment, the mere existence of a revisal sticks in my craw. To me, it’s a horrible shame that most people know Cabaret from the strange rewrite where the American bumpkin is more into Sally Bowles’ green nail polish than her erogenous zones, making an abortion far less emotional than it had been previously. The only saving grace is the score. And you get to hear I Don’t Care Much.

I’m a sucker for minor key waltzes, and sitting on the second note of the minor scale is a form of harmonic propulsion that’s catnip to me. Once, at a party, Kander & Ebb were challenged to improvise a song. “What should the song be called?” Ebb asked. “I Don’t Care Much” was the response, and, legend has it, Kander instantly launched into a minor oom-pah-pah. Amazingly, they later wrote this down as the first draft of a song they intended for Sally, around the time of that abortion. That was cut from the original. The hit revisal robs it of its piquancy, weirdly giving it to a male narrator.

My inability to embrace Cabaret Redux makes me seem old and out of touch, like someone who’d carp “They don’t write ‘em like they used to.” But Kander does. Here in the twenty-first century, Kander still gives us melodies as hummable as anything from the Golden Era.

And, of course, he’s one of the great composers of the tail end of that era. So, my happy birthday wish quotes Ebb, and one of the first songs he and Kander wrote together:

It’s a fact you can quote
Best old goat is good old goat
Happy New Year
My dear friend


Processional: oohs and ahhs

March 14, 2017

Currently, in New York, you can see the two Sondheim-composed shows I most enjoy, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George. While I haven’t caught these particular revivals, I’ve seen other revivals, as well as the Broadway originals, and this year I’m hell-bent on saying something positive about Sondheim for a change. You see, two years ago, I waited until the day after his birthday to voice a handful of criticisms, and members of his cultish coterie of fans got up in arms. It strikes me as remarkable, and not good for anyone, that so many Steve-adorers can’t abide any criticism of their God. But that’s not Sondheim’s fault; he, in fact, is happy to condemn mistakes he’s made. If he says Welcome To Kanagawa isn’t funny, that’s considered humility. If I say I sat through Welcome To Kanagawa and nary a laugh was heard, I’m some blasphemer.

There was a famous disagreement between the songwriter and director of Sweeney Todd, as they developed it nearly 40 years ago. Hal Prince kept pushing for a sort of harangue, a Brechtian indictment of the audience. We were supposed to feel culpable, somehow, for being part of the society that could produce a mass murderer. And so we stared at that beehive drop, delineating the hierarchy of Victorian professions and got pointed to when the chorus, at show’s end, hissed “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” All, I’m disappointed to report, to little effect. Sondheim had a different goal, engaging us in the fun and furious Grand Guignol of a bloody revenge melodrama. In this, the show succeeds in spades (also, with spades, wielded by gravediggers). I can think of no show more Wagnerian in its marshaling of compositional devices to rattle us with powerful thrills.

Somehow, it’s even right when it’s wrong. (Warning: I’m going to get a little technical and critical here.) A young swain has an adagio ballad, with grandly slow arepeggiated chords. That makes him seem a little larger than life, but I’m OK with that so far. Then, on the word “dream” the minor of the scale is played against the major in accompaniment. This clash is the sort of thing one hears in twentieth century blues, never in London during Victoria’s reign. Luckily, this anachronistic chord adds creepiness to the song, as if suggesting the tenor is some sort of a stalker. He’s not, it turns out, but, at the time, we appreciate the composer bringing up the question. One of the happier themes we hear more than once is a sort of an advertising jingle, and is stolen, note for note, from Harvey Schmidt’s Texas-set 110 in the Shade. That Sondheim is a Schmidt fan – there are other examples – is actually endearing, and I don’t call The Worst Pies In London a steal from Charles Strouse’s Tomorrow because the feels of the two seem farther afield.

My favorite moment in Sweeney Todd includes a pretty waltz that alternates between a major seventh and a whole tone scale, a mixture I love and have used often in my own writing. It’s cool jazz, but it sure ain’t nineteenth century England. What Pretty Women is, however, is an expert building up of pressure that always gets me to squirm in my seat. Sweeney’s about to give the closest shave he’s ever given to the very miscreant who ruined his life sixteen years earlier. Given the injustice he’s suffered under, we want him to succeed, but know the longer he waits the more likely he’ll be interrupted. Victim and murderer have this sweet duet and it’s extraordinarily tense. That scene may be my favorite of everything written in the past forty years.

Yet, since I’m not all that malevolent and more of a tortured artist, I found myself more moved by Sunday in the Park With George. Ask me to name my favorite Sondheim song, and I blurt out Children and Art. Perhaps it’s because I take it so personally. My long-suffering girlfriend who’d witnessed how obsessed I get while creating musicals shattered me when she dumped me a few weeks before I saw this show, about an obsessed artist whose long-suffering girlfriend dumps him. In a way, I was putty in Sondheim’s hands. But how he worked that putty!

As you can probably tell, I’m one of those who prefers Sunday’s second act to its somewhat less-deeply-felt Act One. And yet, for a lot of folks, including my smart friend Rachel, the first act seems like a complete evening of theatre. And the same is often said of Into the Woods. Citing these two 1980s collaborations with James Lapine, she asked me why this is so. I responded:

Intermission is a big deal. It gives an audience a chance to spend time reflecting on the first act, and perhaps build up a few expectations for the second. Neil LaBute once wrote a play and specified that very loud rock music be played throughout the theatre during the intermission because he didn’t want anybody thinking too hard about what they’d just seen. When a musical written to be intermission-less, such as A Chorus Line, Passion or Follies, gets one, something is ruined because the authors didn’t build up to the act break, or write their way into the second one.

So, Sondheim had spent his entire career in commercial musical theatre working with experienced Broadway writers and directors. After the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, he decided to go a different route, collaborating with a visually-oriented experimental writer-director who’d never worked on Broadway. That meant trying new things in his mid-fifties. They must have discussed what they found dissatisfying about commercial theatre imperatives. One of those might have been the need for a happy ending. SO many Sondheim shows don’t have happy endings, so he’d already broken free of that. But I bet Lapine said “What if we gave them a happy ending … at the end of Act One?” Then would come that ten minutes of audience reflection and Act Two could upend their expectations. That would have seemed a plan worth trying.

So, Seurat, left alone, finishes his masterpiece and it’s a stunner and we all applaud. If we have a thought at intermission, it might be that Georges is one of those tortured artists who is so obsessed with art-making that he’s unable to love. Maybe he’ll learn to love in Act Two. Except Act Two’s in a completely different century. And the putative great-grandson doesn’t make pretty things. He massages the egos of donors in order to get more commissions but seems to have no passion. But as he learns more about great-grandpa’s painting, he and we discover that placing the girlfriend all over the canvas was a loving act, bestowing immortality. (“Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.”) Then a ghost tries to convince him to create something new. She and we share the hope that he will learn to put a little love into future creations. We don’t know whether he’ll succeed, and this doubt stops it from being a truly happy ending.

In between acts at Into the Woods, we’re thoroughly satisfied that we’ve seen a rather breathless piece of children’s theatre. Things are neatly tied up, leaving some to feel that’s enough. But Lapine and Sondheim want to upend this satisfaction, by delving into all the moral compromises made to get those items-as-colorful-as-similes. Act Two is, of course, a commentary on the specter of AIDS: people die willy-nilly and society panics. But wait! Weren’t we just watching a kiddie show? It’s rather adult and depressing stuff, particularly in 1987.

One other idea: Lapine, as a downtown theatre artist, was probably used to people leaving at intermission, if they weren’t digging it. But now he was collaborating with a songwriter so famous, nobody was likely to give up at the interval. Unlike before, Lapine could play with our expectations about the second act, reasonably sure we’d return to see it.

In advance of March 22, I’m wishing Stephen Sondheim a happy birthday. That’s also Andrew Lloyd Webber’s birthday, so I’ll say something good about him, too: Jesus Christ Superstar is the paradigm of rock operas.


Sweet lovers love the spring

February 23, 2017

I used to complain that too few new musicals were opening on Broadway. A metaphor comes to mind: a field of dirt had grown so hard, very few seeds could take root. I don’t know whether we can rightly call Hamilton a massive plow that turned over the soil, but, folks, this is one exciting season. The quantity of truly new musicals (I don’t include Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn), who they’re by, what they’re about – all good. The field’s a blooming miracle.

Here’s another image of tearing down and starting over, a palpable revolution: Take a large old theatre and tear out all the seats. Create little stages all over the place, so that action occurs all around the audience. This is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Dave Malloy’s songs are markedly different from anything I’ve ever heard on Broadway. Now, that title’s so unwieldy, people aren’t sure what to call it. It reminds me that in the heyday of the Broadway musical, shows often had titles that were different from their source material: Sweet Charity, Hello Dolly, Promises Promises, A Little Night Music, Man of La Mancha, to name some hits. In recent years, tons of shows based on movies have kept those titles, hoping to lure fans of the flicks to buy tickets: Legally Blonde, Catch Me If You Can, Sunset Boulevard, Waitress. So, you know what Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is based on? A small section of War and Peace. But that’s in the fine print. Josh Groban’s name is far bigger because he’s the thing that used to be common and now is rather rare: a big Broadway star whose name sells tickets.

The Comet‘s chief competition in the Tony race so far is a totally original musical named Dear Evan Hansen. It’s gratifying to see its recording ascending the Billboard sales chart like no show has for half a century. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are young theatre people who are certainly having their moment in the sun: they also wrote the lyrics to La La Land.

Composer Alan Menken has many Oscars on his shelf. For 35 years, he (certainly not Sondheim) has been the dominant show tune-smith. His new show this season is based on Chazz Palminteri’s memoir that became a monologue for the theatre and then a fine conventional movie about a quarter century ago: A Bronx Tale. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Each songwriter has another musical running on Broadway now: Aladdin and School of Rock.

You may recall I was disappointed by In Transit, but, setting the execution aside, the kind of show it is gladdens my heart. It’s not based on anything. It’s unusual in that there’s no orchestra: it’s all a cappella, the vocal accompaniment musical directed by my old friend, Rick Hip-Flores. The four writers have devoted themselves to theatre-writing – it’s their Broadway debuts – which, to my mind, is SO much better than when rock stars come slumming here, figuring, like a dilettante, that they’ll give Broadway a try.


So that’s what the season has been so far. What’s to come is also cause for excitement.

Come From Away, which I described last September, may be the right show for this turbulent time, since it’s the true story of Canadians welcoming immigrants. Totally original, and its writers’ debuts.

Amélie is songwriter Daniel Messé’s debut, and I know it seems as if I’m just giving my é key a workout, but Messé has teamed up with Broadway vets Nathan Tysen and Craig Lucas, who always does interesting work.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie are songwriters of such quality, I’m automatically interested in anything they do. In War Paint, they’ve two major Broadway talents heading the cast, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Big stars in an original musical? That doesn’t happen often these days.

It now strikes me that my sister has seen those last two shows, and I haven’t. But I don’t get to everything: For years I’d walk past the August Wilson Theatre and see the same marquis for Jersey Boys and have no interest in stepping inisde. The second day this month, I was startled to see the familiar sign was gone. Instead, in rather plain lettering, it said Groundhog Day. Since it was, in fact, Groundhog Day, I thought maybe they were just telling everybody what day it was. But the sign has stayed, so I’m reminded that the most eagerly-anticipated musical of the current season is, indeed, Groundhog Day, based on the beloved film, with songs by Matilda’s Tim Minchin. Years ago, Stephen Sondheim was working on an adaptation. Perhaps one day we’ll all wake up day after day and see it again.

The other London transfer is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with songs by Broadway vets Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Besides name recognition and family-friendliness, Willy Wonka will be warbled by two-time Tony winner Christian Borle. So there’s plenty of reason to believe this will be a Golden Ticket.

The songwriters I’m most enthusiastic about are Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. They’re adapting their animated film Anastasia for the stage. So, that’s a score we already know some of, and the some we know is choice. But I don’t go to the theatre excited to hear what I’ve heard before. My heart will be blessed by the sound of their new songs, fleshing out the score.

The last day of the season, Bandstand will open, the debut of its writers. It’ll be the season’s second show (the other was A Bronx Tale) that tried out at Paper Mill Playhouse, where I work from time to time. The prodigiously talented Andy Blankenbuehler is staging it and the star is Laura Osnes: reasons to go; reasons for optimism.

Used to be, we’d wait months and months between new musicals. This spring, they’re busting out all over.


Rondo

August 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I touch your hands and my arms grow strong

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

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

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

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


Hold me

May 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ninth waltz

May 11, 2016

Sometimes what a musical needs is alchemy. You can have the greatest living composer pouring out gorgeous melodies. You can have the playwright responsible for the books to Gypsy and West Side Story adapting his own fairly solid play. For lyrics, you can have Stephen Sondheim. But if there’s no alchemy, no magic, no secret sauce, all you’re left with is a tasteless muddle.

Do I Hear a Waltz? is now playing at City Center. The fine folks at Encores occasionally slip up, and they miss the mark as badly as they did last time they mounted a Rodgers-post-Hammerstein (No Strings). Music is their specialty, so it’s no surprise Richard Rodgers comes off best. Richard Troxell delivers a delicious performance of the big ballad, Take the Moment, unquestionably the highlight of the evening. And one of my favorite female trios, Moon In My Window, was sumptuous enough. Outside of those, the songs were a string of disappointments.

Stephen Sondheim, one must admit, was simply the wrong lyricist for this project. It required him to write large quantities of comedy songs, and what I’ll call Happy-Love love songs. If I say these are the worst lyrics of his career, that’s taking in the context of the rest of his oeuvre: show after show with excellent lyrics. Do I Hear a Waltz? isn’t bad, lyrically, but comedy songs and Happy-Love just aren’t his strong suits and that’s what he dutifully churned out here. There are plenty of Sondheim songs that make me laugh – Pour le Sport, Instructions To the Audience, that Hail Brooklyn chorale – but, as someone who writes songs that get audiences cackling, I’ve little use for songs that merely get audiences to smile: This Week Americans, What Do We Do We Fly, Bargaining, No Understand, We’re Going To Be All Right – many attempts; none score.*

A song in which someone expresses love for another and is actually happy about it: that’s Rodgers’ thing, not Sondheim. Unhappy love songs he does well. In the title song, “roses are dancing with peonies” which, to my ears, sounds like an attempt at poetry by someone with no real experience of love.

One romantic ballad is even sung from the point of view of a middle-aged shopkeeper and a wine goblet, both lonely, both looking for a mate. “We waited for someone” – “we” being a guy and his glass. Who’s responsible for such a ridiculous idea? One can enjoy the melody but I sure couldn’t feel anything and my heart’s not made of glass.

The last time I saw a collaboration between three writers of such esteem was when Laurents hamstrung Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Nick & Nora – even more lacking in alchemy). Here he’s the source of most of the problems, giving his characters way too little to endear themselves to us. But the more major problem is that there’s nothing major happening in the show. A romance hits a few roadblocks, then the show ends. Good musicals tend to be about larger-than-life characters; here, everyone’s rather smaller-than-life. Someone drinks too much at a party and spills some secrets, threatening a marriage. Big deal.

Now it happens I’m working on a musical about ordinary people and there’s nothing extraordinary about most of the roadblocks along their way. So, it’s my job to make a big deal of things, to rev up the emotion until they burst out in song. What Laurents, Sondheim and Rodgers fail to do is to ratchet up any moment’s feeling in a way that singing seems natural. An example occurs to me: the unseen character who’s the other leg in a triangle: What does the heroine feel about her, imagine about her? Why isn’t there a song there?

For this Encores staging, we get to hear an eleven o’clock number, Everybody Loves Leona, that was cut before the Broadway opening. One can see why – it lands with a thud. There’s a natural tendency to want to write another Rose’s Turn (from a previous Laurents-Sondheim collaboration) but, for a character to have a great big emotional eruption, we have to care about her. We, in the audience, don’t love Leona enough to justify that moment.

I wrote a bit about We’re Gonna Be Alright in a recent post. I liked Sarah Hunt as Mrs. Yeager so much, I was happy to see her get more to do; but the rest of the show doesn’t have these characters expressing sharp-witted cynicism as they do in the song. It’s a sore thumb, though fairly piquant as sore thumbs go. Another performer, Sarah Stiles, enlivened the usually drab No Understand, and, again, I was glad to be in her presence.

But Rodgers sets the would-be wit to some of his dullest melodies. Bargaining keeps banging the same note as if it’s a Jason Robert Brown song. The creator of Do-Re-Mi settles for Mi-Re-Mi in the verses to the song about air travel, which seems awfully uncreative. A lively ensemble late in the show is brought down by a descending chromatic scale interspersed with the tonic – presaging his I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You a few years later. It seems like he knew a day when he was out of good ideas.

I see I’ve said not a word about the leading lady, Melissa Errico. To say she is completely wrong for this role is to indulge in understatement. Her persona is that of an alabaster princess, not a New York noodge. She over-articulates everything like she’s been to finishing school. The script has her calling everyone “Cookie” but it seemed wrong every time she said it. “Petit four,” I’d believe, not “Cookie.” Opera star Richard Troxell gets referred to as “molto bello” umpteen times in the script, but is he? His body language is stodgy and unsexy; his line readings are dreary. His Italian accent is believable, unsurprisingly, but it was never clear why Leona found him irresistible.

Do I Hear a Waltz? was a sad experience for its creators, recalled fondly by none. But the idea of an unsophisticated American falling in love with a native in Italy: there could be something truly romantic and dramatic about that. I know: I saw The Light in the Piazza with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers’ grandson.

*If you want to hear comedy songs that cause paroxysms of laughter, I humbly suggest you attend The Things We Do For Love, a collection of my songs May 25 at the Duplex in New York, June 13 at the Gardenia in Los Angeles.