Dear Alfred

November 10, 2017

Two good musicals recently had their Broadway revivals broadcast on PBS. While I’ve rather negative feelings about the televising of stageworks, perhaps we all now have a basis for a discussion of the shows themselves.

She Loves Me boasts a score by the greatest of post-Rodgers and Hammerstein creative teams, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They’re masters of specificity. Each note sounds oh-so-plausibly mitteleuropa. The words are full of telling details that endear these characters to us. We become fully invested in the two warring leads falling in love.

The opening number has co-workers muse about playing hooky to enjoy the summer day. It’s pointed out that spuriously calling in sick can get you fired. “If it costs that much to get sun-tanned, I’ll stay untanned” – that rarest of birds, the genuinely funny rhyme. Then, less mellifluously, “Pale but solvent” tickles with its bathos. And it’s hard to pick out a favorite line in the whole show, but “meet my lady of the letters who makes tiny faces in her O’s” knocks me out so much, I actually cry each time I hear it, at its brilliance.

Traditional romantic musical comedy doesn’t get much better, and the justly most celebrated song, Vanilla Ice Cream, is an object lesson on how great writers create great opportunities to act. Because of its stunningly high cadenza, it’s thought of as a singer’s song, but really the acting is what sells it. The growing discovery that “a man that I despise has turned into a man I like!” gets us to feel the glorious surprise Amalia feels. And somehow, it’s a two-note polka, that keeps going to different harmonic places, setting off a rubato waltz in the verses. (This, in turn, echoes the music box of her introductory number.)

I think of She Loves Me as a wonderful meal with too many courses. The quality of the songwriting keeps you listening, but ultimately I get a little impatient with supporting characters taking time from the central combatants: Perspective, I Resolve, and Days Gone By. The Bock waltz that thrills me is the leads’ duet, Where’s My Shoe?, propulsive as a roller coaster, with all sorts of stage action prescribed by the lyric.

When I was in college, I saw a little musical that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its innovations are so common today, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary it was. William Finn’s all-sung one-hour entertainment, March of the Falsettos, eschews conventional song forms, goes into wild flights of non-reality, and acknowledges that we’re all gathered in a tiny box to see a musical. Four neurotics burst on to tell us we’d see Four Jews, In a Room, Bitching. And the last word wasn’t one you often heard in those days. It was a surprising laugh line that set us up well: We’re all in this small room together, and we’d be watching kvetching. (Say that three times fast.)

Unfortunately, over the years, James Lapine and Finn have tinkered with the show, every alteration weakening it somehow. So, we’re no longer in a room, and the Jews we meet are from biblical times, some woman is singing about slavery (so it’s not even Four) and we’re capriciously misled as to what the show’s about.

Eight years after that stunning debut, Finn & Lapine wrote a different musical about the same characters, a little later in their lives and plot-driven. Its opening number mocked the seriousness often found in off-Broadway theatre. This time, the show hewed close to reality for a captivating, moving hour.

Then something ill-advised happened. They put the two musicals together, as if they were presenting a coherent whole. You can’t tell that the second act opener is mocking anything, but Falsettoland’s string of highly emotional set-pieces make it everyone’s favorite act. It’s fascinating to me how different the two acts are. The first doesn’t have many story beats. “Well, the situation’s this,” the protagonist sings, and then we get a handful of people commenting on the situation. Unlike She Loves Me, the more minor characters’ perspectives tend to be the most compelling: the ex-wife who doesn’t want to care about what happens to her former husband’s current lover; the child bargaining with God to save a man’s life.

Doesn’t sound like a wacky romp, does it? Surprise! It’s silly, unpredictable, and mixes a Mardi Gras musical style with well-crafted counterpoint. I particularly admire Days Like This, in which various characters try to be upbeat while visiting a friend in the hospital. They take different tacks, and each has a different musical feel. The child says “Gee, you look awful” and sweetly promises to lose a chess game with the patient. As the different melodies are added to the piece, it’s a subliminal message that a true community is coming together.

(Confession: I stole the first feel to start a song once. Also, inadvertently, I stole the bit in She Loves Me where a character realizes she’s late and stops singing to exclaim “I’m late” completing a rhyme, although you wouldn’t get this from how Laura Benanti did it on TV.)

Finn, more than any writer I know, free-associates. A man who wants to say “There’s not a man who could love you as much as I do” says, instead, “There’s not a guy,
There’s not a piece of paper…there’s not a horse or zebra who could love you the same as I.” This is a far cry from the songwriter-ese I’m sometimes prone to. Characters halt and stammer as they roundelay. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they sing in Spanish and then in Hebrew. They’re so human and unpolished you lean in because you can’t guess what they’re going to say next.

A recent New York Times interview of Sondheim by Lin-Manuel Miranda once again brought up that key word (that Sondheim used in his letter to me), surprise. Theatre must consistently surprise us, and surprise is what Falsettos has in spades. What more can I say?

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A cat can look at a king

July 3, 2017

Richard Rodgers’ birthday was June 28, which means it’s the anniversary of the extraordinary birthday party I threw him, in absentia, a large and even number of years ago. He was alive then, and I saw he was turning a round number, so I did the thing that seemed perfectly natural to me: I invited all my friends over and checked out as many Rodgers scores as I could find from the library. We would all stand around the piano, singing as many of his songs as we knew, which was quite a few. I made a reel-to-reel tape recording, and we gleefully sang for hours and hours.

No other composer could have been feted this way. A large group of kids, singing one man’s songs for that much time – could only be Rodgers. In my house, we owned the Rodgers and Hammerstein Song Book and the Rodgers and Hart Song Book and they both got a lot of play every day of the week. My trip to the library filled out the repertoire with scores he wrote after those books had been published: Flower Drum Song, Cinderella, The Sound of Music, No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz and, I think, Two By Two. (Here I must note what a windfall it is to have a library with so many Broadway scores to check out.) Our school had recently done Allegro, meaning that my friends knew all the songs from a show that’s obscure to many. We had also just done Carousel. The soprano who’d just played Julie Jordan sang more songs than anybody, but when we came to that score, she decided to sing Carrie Pipperidge’s song, and “Carrie” sang hers.

I sang only the songs no one else knew. Like Like a God, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, The Man I Used To Be. And I never left the piano. It was up to others to answer the door, get snacks – anything a host does. Which reminds me of the many marathon piano-playing sessions throughout my life. My first regular job was playing piano bar from 11pm to 4am. I was encouraged to take breaks, but never did. I’d also hosted a cast party during the run of Carousel, in which we served a huge pot of clam chowder. Bellies were full; hearts were warm. They all had a real good time.

Did I have any friends who didn’t sing? Yes: the guys I played poker with. They accepted the idea I was throwing a party that wasn’t for them. Late in the evening, one called with the devastating news that another of the boys’ mother had killed herself. So, when I think back on that mostly magical night, my memory always goes to the inherent emotional roller coaster.

I know: you didn’t come here to read of personal tragedies of my friends. Back to Rodgers, and when I think of roller coasters, I often think of It’s a Grand Night For Singing, from the film, State Fair. Fun rides at fairs: there’s my train of thought. And the time I went over to Julie’s house and sat down at the piano and played a medley of Richard Rodgers waltzes. So often they have this infectious fun quality – bright and brisk. Done right, they seem to radiate joy: Falling In Love With Love With Love, I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy, Money Isn’t Everything, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Out of My Dreams, and, of course, Lover. There’s a legend that when Rodgers met Peggy Lee, who had recorded a jazzy version of Lover that robbed it of this sense of giddy joy, he told her “It’s a waltz, you know.”

That makes him sound a little prickly. Certainly, enough of the world appreciates a Rodgers waltz. People might list them as one of their Favorite Things. There are stories about him not being a very nice man. And, when I tried to recapture the magic of that party on the Rodgers centennial, I made the mistake of inviting a friend who was rather close to Lorenz Hart’s relatives. This group of heirs, he told us, were hopping mad that Rodgers had used his business acumen, during the years when Hart was drunk practically all the time, to set up an unfair contract that unevenly distributed the many millions they’d earned in their collaboration. This was a different sort of downer at what should have been a Rodgers celebration.

His musical-writing daughter Mary, toward the end of her life, publicly carped about what a distant father he’d been. (Adelaide, if you’re reading this, do not do the same.) But I’ve a different tale to tell about Rodgers as a human being.

My mother had never written a letter to a celebrity in her life. But, watching her son and all of his friends toasting Richard Rodgers this way, she felt he had to be told. Nowadays, every celebrity has someone handling fan mail, and communicating with artists we admire is a common thing. Rodgers was of a different age, an age when the famous person never wrote back. And I guess that also makes him sound a bit inhuman from our twenty-first century perspective.

But my mother’s account of my little party caught his eye. And he wrote back – something he practically never did – and pointed out that there’d been a recent Carousel concert at the White House where the president had praised his contribution to American culture.

Wonderful as it was, it brought me no more pleasure than hearing of your son Noel’s evening in my honor.

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.

 


Edgard

June 11, 2017

It was pointed out, somewhere, that in this year’s Tony nominations, a lot of inexperienced musical theatre writers edged out the veterans who’ve given us solid work in the past. And to this I say: Good. It’s about time.

I admit that I often harbor a suspicion, or skepticism, about novices. Experience is a great teacher, and first efforts frequently are riddled with holes an older and wiser creator would have filled. But I also like to think that the long process of taking a show to Broadway involves something of a quality filter. A lot of people – the multitudinous producers and their large battalions of investors – have to believe the show is good, that it will succeed. Think like an angel: If a show has veterans doing the score, is based on a well-loved book that’s already had two film adaptations, well, that seems like a sure bet, no? Compare that to a show written by nobodies – and I use that term politely – set in a particularly frazzled time in recent history, one that no fun-seeking theatre-goer wants to dwell upon. That seems a less safe wager. Writers with no track record vs. The Names You Know and might have seen on countless movie credits and one of the century’s biggest musical comedy hits.

This year I’ll be cheering for the newcomers. It’s a sign of a healthy industry when new faces prodigiously out-achieve the old. Step aside, those who already have a mantle filled with shiny objects; if a younger generation is a knock-knock-knocking at the door, that’s a good thing. The Tony presentation that comes to mind, for me, is the one in 1960. The Old Guard had a show: Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Lindsay & Crouse had been Broadway’s most successful playwriting pair. They’d won a Pulitzer already, for State of the Union, and their Life With Father is the longest running Broadway play of all time. Rodgers & Hammerstein, I assume you’ve heard of. But what’s this? Here come a pair of songwriters from the Midwest, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Bock’s third Broadway musical and Harnick’s second involves some fairly recent history, and, with no major stars, is an unlikely hit. Who will win in the battle of the Old Guard versus the New Guard?

And it’s… It’s a tie. An equal amount of votes went to the Mary Martin vehicle, The Sound of Music, as to the biography featuring newcomer Tom Bosley, Fiorello. Left in the dust was Gypsy, but more on that later. Martin and Bosley both won awards, but his was in the Featured category. If that sounds odd, consider how few songs in Fiorello involve singing by the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In fact, it’s always a good day to consider Fiorello, as it’s a rather extraordinary show. And I wouldn’t say the same of The Sound of Music.

Now a lot of people, looking back, think all the awards should have gone to Gypsy. And a lot of those people view Broadway through the odd prism of Stephen Sondheim’s career. But what’s important to remember is that that Sondheim had just turned 30, and so the (then just-) lyricist represented youth; in fact, he’d learned much, when he was just a boy, from his best friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein.

Suppose, back then, you had the mind-set of those today who dislike seeing the Old Guard supplanted. Twenty-twenty hindsight reveals that it was Bock and Harnick who went on to write the best scores of the new decade – Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, and my personal favorite, The Apple Tree. The Old Guard – well, Hammerstein died later that year, but Rodgers went on to write No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Two By Two. Not nearly as good, right?

So, because I don’t wish to sound cryptic, I suppose I should name the players:

The Old Guard

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the show that got the worst reviews of any musical to open this season. By far. Shaiman’s scored many a comedy film, and the team also did the songs for Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and the first season of the television abomination known as Smash.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are best known for Broadway shows such as Ragtime, the soon-to-be-revived Once On This Island (a particular favorite of mine) and Seussical, the most-produced musical of the century. This year, they adapted their movie musical Anastasia for the stage. If you’ve seen media stories about Russians, it probably isn’t this.

Alan Menken (Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) doubled the number of shows they’ve currently running on Broadway with A Bronx Tale. I predict they’ll soon be back to one each.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie wrote about actual ladies-of-note in Grey Gardens and now have War Paint about actual ladies-of-note Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. They’ve also done two comparatively major off-Broadway shows, Far From Heaven and Happiness. My wife was particularly underwhelmed by their work here.

The New Guard

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the best-reviewed musical of the season, Come From Away, about a small Canadian town that embraced airline passengers who were forced to land there on 9/11. Their previous work was a Fringe Festival favorite called, I kid you not, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were both born in 1985. Let that sink in a moment. Now, perhaps its unfair to list them as neophytes, since Dear Evan Hansen is their fourth musical to make something of a splash, and they’ve already picked up an Oscar this year for their lyrics to a long rambling song towards the end of the second hour of La La Land. We know how Hollywood makes people rich and famous; I think their stage work makes them more worthy of fame and acclaim.

Tim Minchin had fame from another sphere – comedy – before he started writing musicals. You may recall his audacious debut with Matilda and this year his sophomore effort is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy called Groundhog’s Day.

Dave Malloy writes songs that don’t quite sound like anybody else’s. He’s worked his way up from avant garde and off-Broadway venues to a reconstituted Great White Way house. Three nominations. That’s a route that’s gratifying to see. The title makes it sound long, but it’s based on only a tiny passage of War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

To go through the BMI workshop and then get a show on Broadway is another path that cheers me, as a BMI vet. In Transit introduced Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, one of whom already has an Oscar.

Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor are unfamiliar names to me. My wife quite liked their Broadway debut, Bandstand. Not a lot of nominations for these last two (nor the quick-closing Amélie by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen). But I have to celebrate a season so crowded with good new work that good old writers can’t get a nod. Do better next time, venerable ones!

 

 

 


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.