Give them what they want

June 22, 2018

This June has been so busy, I’m late in acknowledging Charles Strouse’s 90th birthday, which was June 7. And I’m going to cut myself a break by reprinting, here, something I wrote for a Big Time Professional Blog. I have it on good authority that Martin Charnin finds my premise ludicrous. So… enjoy!

People usually credit Hair with bringing the sound of rock & roll to the Broadway stage, but one composer effectively inserted rock into his scores years earlier: Charles Strouse. At a time when pop culture and Broadway were parting ways, Strouse bridged the gap, incorporating contemporary sounds into his scores for Bye Bye Birdie, All American, Golden Boy, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Applause, and even Annie. Songs from his shows were some of the only Broadway tunes to get significant radio play in the 1960’s.

And it started as a joke. In 1960, four funnymen who’d never written a musical professionally before, got together to make fun of a cultural phenomenon. Elvis Presley had cast a spell on young America. He sang a new kind of music and had a different kind of personality than previous stars. He wasn’t particularly articulate in interviews, pictures showed him with a sullen sneer, and his hip-swinging while singing struck a lot of people as obscene. Of course, those words could describe a lot of subsequent rock stars, but Elvis-the-Pelvis was the first. Gower Champion (director), Lee Adams (lyricist), Michael Stewart (librettist) and Charles Strouse (composer) thought this was so amusing, they wrote a show about it: Bye Bye Birdie.

Gower Champion had a choreographic vision involving women swooning and losing control of their muscles as their dreamboat gyrates. Lee Adams noted how rock & roll lyrics often seem to have a thinly veiled sexual content. (“When I sing about a girl, I really feel that girl.”) Michael Stewart had written for Sid Caesar’s television show and would have known Caesar’s musical sketch, You Are So Rare To Me, in which one syllable gets broken into unconnected pulses, just like the endless “baby” in the bridge of One Last Kiss – lampooning rockers’ vocal style.

But Strouse goes beyond mere Presley parody. He sets up different musical landscapes for the two warring generations. The adults sing in styles other than rock – Kids and Rosie are, in effect, old people’s music. Meanwhile, the teen ballad, One Boy, uses a shuffle rhythm and back-up singers in the manner of 50s pop, and when Birdie and the teens sing together (Got a Lot Of Living To Do) Strouse marshals the power of a rhythmically pulsed major seventh, a chord not often heard in musicals of the time, but emerging in rock (e.g., This Boy).

After the breakthrough success of Bye Bye Birdie, Strouse and Adams teamed up with another of Sid Caesar’s gagmen, Mel Brooks, to pen All American. The show also depicted a generational divide, this time between college students and their professors. While the show’s one hit, Once Upon a Time, was a duet for the oldsters, the ingénue has a naughty number called Night Life. Its jazzy vamp keeps accenting the seventh of the scale on an off-beat, where one doesn’t expect it. She’s rebellious and sexy in the way the teenage girl of Bye Bye Birdie is not allowed to be. (You wouldn’t know this from watching the Birdie movie featuring the too-erotic-to-be-believed Ann-Margaret.)

When Strouse and Adams teamed with Clifford Odets to musicalize his play, Golden Boy, the challenge was to represent contemporary urban African-Americans with some level of authenticity. Broadway hadn’t heard anything quite like it. Strouse produced a score that sometimes rocks, sometimes swings and culminates in an energetic gospel funeral. Is Golden Boy a rock musical? It’s certainly soulful, and the definition of what constitutes “rock” gets revised over time. Many of the songs – even a traditional show tune like Don’t Forget 127th Street – end with repetition and quasi-improvisational jazzy playoffs more common in rock records than theatre.

Writing It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, Strouse & Adams faced a familiar scenario: a happy chorus giddy with admiration for an unusual superstar. Whether he was conscious of the connection with Bye Bye Birdie or not, Strouse rocks We Need Him, It’s Super Nice and Lois Lane’s It’s Superman. She references a “schoolgirl fantasy” and so seems, in a way, Birdie‘s Kim McAfee all grown up. The hit that emerged from the score, You’ve Got Possibilities, was once sung by Lady Gaga. (I should know: I was at the piano.)

Applause was another hit set in present-day New York. In a production number called But Alive, the leading lady visits a gay bar and dances with adoring fans. They’re accompanied, naturally, by the groovy strains of 1970. This was after Hair, and Broadway audiences, by that point, had become more acclimated to rock music in the theatre.

In fact, the culture, at large, had a new attitude about rock songwriting by the 1970s. What had seemed like inarticulate utterances of hormone-crazed teens grew, in seriousness, as adult performers sang out protests against the war in Vietnam, racial prejudice and other weighty issues. Making fun of young people’s music eventually seemed a tired joke, which may account for the box office failure of Strouse & Adams’ sequel, Bring Back Birdie.

Last night I saw Annie and was puzzled by the use of a rock beat in a show set during the 1930s. What’s up with that? I can vividly remember hearing the original cast album for the first time: it began with a small brass choir, like you might hear on a street corner at Christmas. Just as I was thinking how much I love brass choirs, the music abruptly shifted to a staccato repeated chord on electric instruments. This struck me as an odd choice at the time – an inappropriately contemporary way of coloring the rebelliousness of besieged orphans – but many years later Jay-Z’s version of It’s a Hard Knock Life went platinum. So why question it? Charles Strouse invented the rock musical, and keeps finding opportunities to rock out whenever he can. The guy can’t help it.


Women’s world

May 13, 2018

For Mothers’ Day, I thought I’d say a few words about the mothers of us all, the great female musical theatre creators. Broadway, for most of its history, was one of those Old Boys’ Clubs, but, every now and then, women who could write circles around most of the men managed to break through. Their work became part of our collective consciousness and influences us, often anonymously. Which is fine and dandy to some; me, I think more people should know Fine and Dandy has music by Kay Swift. So, here’s to the ladies…

As the father of a daughter, I admit to a certain skittishness about her growing up to go into show business. A century ago, Lew Fields was a famous musical comedy star, and didn’t feel lyric-writing was an acceptable vocation for his daughter, Dorothy. She defied him, and bravely invited him to see a Harlem revue featuring her songs. The singers that night, however, had no respect for the text, replacing her words with embarrassingly smutty jokes. Imagine young Dorothy Fields hurriedly explaining to her dad that the sex-sodden travesty was not from her pen. She was a nice girl! And soon proved successful with songs like I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, On the Sunny Side of the Street and The Way You Look Tonight.

lyrics by Dorothy Fields

Four decades later, Bob Fosse was putting together a musical based on a Fellini film about a whore with heart. People doubted that a rather refined old lady could come up with contemporary and “street” argot for the dancers-for-rent of the Fandango Ballroom. But Sweet Charity landed – pow! – right in a pot of jam, and may be the greatest set of lyrics ever written.

Betty Comden sought an acting career, and became a writer out of necessity. She and lifelong professional partner Adolph Green had a nightclub gig in Greenwich Village, lampooning existing hit songs. Then they learned about this thing called Copyright Infringement, and had to team up with composers who’d provide original melodies. Among the act’s fans was one Leonard Bernstein, and when he was given the opportunity to turn his ballet, Fancy Free, into a musical, he insisted on Comden and Green for book and lyrics. They, in turn, insisted on playing leading roles, thinking performing on Broadway would boost their acting careers. Thankfully for us, On the Town boosted their writing careers. Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s names became synonymous with a certain kind of never-too-serious musical comedy. They wrote the screenplay for what’s considered filmdom’s greatest musical, Singing in the Rain, but I’m far fonder of the two star vehicles of mid-fifties Broadway, Bells Are Ringing and Wonderful Town. The latter was written in a mad rush, as another team’s score was jettisoned just weeks before Rosalind Russell had to start rehearsals due to scheduling issues.

They collaborated with Cy Coleman, who had a predilection for working with female lyricists. He also collaborated with Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh. I treasure Coleman & Leigh songs for their distinctive way of using words:

I have a feeling that beneath the little halo on your noble head
There lies a thought or two the devil might be interested to know
You’re like the finish of a novel that I’ll finally have to take to bed

That’s bold stuff, for the 1950s, putting female lust front and center. But the most-told-tale about Carolyn Leigh involved rehearsals for Little Me, when the producer and director (Bob Fosse) wanted to cut one of her numbers. She could have called the Dramatists Guild, but instead ran out of the theatre and convinced him to enter the theatre. “Officer, arrest that man!” I’ve long wished she lived to complete Smile, because it might have been successful and wacky, but the bard who wrote “If you should survive to 105, think of all you’ll derive out of being alive” died at 57.

Serendipity: a friend just asked about A…My Name Is Alice, the off-Broadway revue devised by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. This fabulous and funny artifact of feminism, circa 1983, utilized a huge number of writers before they became famous including Marta Kauffman, Winnie Holzman, and Lucy Simon. But two friends of mine who never gained fame, Georgia Holof and David Metee, outdid them all, creating the most moving female duet ever penned, Friends.

A contemporary lyricist who never fails to move me is Lynn Ahrens (Once on this Island, My Favorite Year, Ragtime, Seussical, Anastasia). Those ignorant louts who maintain “They sure don’t write them like they used to” are usually usually of her works with composer Stephen Flaherty.

Of course the “just”-a-composer I’m going to mention is Jeanine Tesori. Her least-known credit is musical directing my college revue, The New U. and the following year crafted an equally good varsity show with Alexa Junge. Then I had to wait a few years to see Jeanine make the splash I’d always been certain she’d make. The past 21 years have been electrified with her groundbreaking musicals. Some are not quite like any musical ever seen before, and yet they’re all amazingly different from each other – could any pair be more polar opposites than Thoroughly Modern Millie and Fun Home? Now, part of this may have something to do with all her shows having different lyricists, but I think Jeanine reinvents herself for every show, synthesizing the times and places of her settings. When needed, she’ll utilize multiple styles within the same show, such as when she depicted working class blacks and well-off Jews in 1960s Louisiana for Caroline, or Change. The kitchen appliances sound more like the former.

As I was writing this, I was listening to the relatively new-to-the-scene Shaina Taub. I don’t know if she’s the future. But there’s something to be said for familiarizing oneself with the work of women who write musicals on Mothers’ Day. Leave Battle Him of the Republic and America the Beautiful for another day. Oh, wait: those are by women, too.

We’ve been hit

May 5, 2018

Frozen’s prologue is incredibly moving.

Am I writing about the Broadway show, the film from a few years ago, or the theme park version? I don’t know! I’ve seen all three, recently, and it’s so easy to get them confused. But all three get me verklempt at the start: every time, every medium.

Little sister Anna’s exhortation, Do You Want To Build a Snowman? is a marvelous example of a song title with multiple meanings. Elsa knows she has the power to build a snowman by pointing her finger, but that using this power is unsafe. It hurts her to be asked to build a snowman, since it’s a reminder she can’t have fun with Anna like she used to. Anna’s memory of Elsa’s powers has been wiped clean, so she doesn’t know that she’s asking anything extraordinary. As the sequence goes on, the refusal to build a snowman together is an emblem for sisterly difference, and they’re literally separated by a thick door. Then, as they grow into late teens, the sisters have a greater understanding of how much they truly need each other, and asking to build a snowman, for no-longer-kids, is asking to turn back time.

Just let me in
We only have each other, it’s just you and me
What are we gonna do?
Do you wanna build a snowman?

The song itself is a family affair. One of theatre’s most talented composers, Bobby Lopez, working with his lyricist wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and voiced by their 8-year-old daughter Katie in the original film. The lyric is succinct, and knows where to drop out and let the image take over, as we see the pain on Elsa’s face.

So, at this point, I’m really feeling for those girls and their plight, even though the script conjures an artificial reason for their estrangement. Then an impressively energetic piece, For the First Time In Forever, electrifies the auditorium. Bobby Lopez had previously written two Tony-winning Broadway musicals, really funny ones (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) and working in Hollywood afforded him the opportunity to unleash the power of a studio orchestra. (Warning: I’ll probably talk again about unleashing power later in this piece.) The lyric captures inchoate romantic ambitions, where things seem so intense, one is likely to reach for the chocolate, but then there’s this:

Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy
But I’m somewhere in that zone

And this makes me smile, but I think it goes too far. Anna is the first Disney character to mention digestive distress, and “that zone” is such a modern locution, I momentarily lose sense of where we are.

But the Lopezes and librettist Jennifer Lee are here setting up a dangerous game. In a way, it’s admirable: Past Disney princesses dreamed that some day their prince would come and rescue them or that everything would be great if they received True Love’s Kiss. Frozen seeks to subvert all that. Successfully getting yourself a lover doesn’t solve anything; even the pursuit of romance is portrayed as a foolhardy idea. It’s an anti-love story, and seems a sign of our times. When the characters who should get together finally do, the boy asks permission to kiss the heroine, and it’s almost a parody of some no-means-no training film shown on college campuses.

Subversion and the dissolution of a tradition is a nice idea, but what does Frozen put in its place? Eternal winter.There’s a sisterly argument – the older one doesn’t want the younger doing something rash – and a glove gets pulled off accidentally and the world ends. And by world, I mean a place where human beings walk around and do normal things like falling in love. Nope. The bare-handed Elsa starts shooting ice everywhere. And everybody else on stage thinks this is a really awful thing. But, just as we’re grasping this awfulness, the show decides to play the unleashing of power the other way. Elsa’s being creative, and coming into her own. So, shooting ice out of your fingers is a good thing now.

To justify this concoction, Elsa is given a power ballad on the subject of her power. Naturally, it’s the weakest song in the original film and the one that won the Oscar. On Broadway, Caissie Levy makes a meal of it. Very impressive singing, a stunning visual with a magical transformation before our very eyes. It’s a real applause-getter but it does not make me feel what the authors want me to feel. In her sheltered life, Elsa didn’t use her powers for a good reason – they can seriously injure people, by accident. How can I react favorably to the unfettered grown-up? I know, let it go, Noel.

Snow. Too much snow. Trudging through snow. Fractals. (Did you ever expect to see “fractals” in a song written to be heard by kids?) Frozen drifts from a story of how sisters deal with each other to a tale of the elements, palace intrigue and charges of treason. The movie ceases being a musical. But I’m making it sound worse than it is because this miserable coldness is warmed by a good amount of comic relief. Without intending to, with absolutely no volition, Snow Queen Elsa builds…a snowman! And he says a lot of funny things.

So, we have to talk about Josh Gad, the maladroit missionary in Bobby Lopez’s The Book of Mormon. His way of speaking is unique and adorable. Lopez brought a bunch of Broadway people with him to voice the movie: Gad, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Santino Fontana. All are good, but God, that Gad really sounds like the sort of snowman who likes warm hugs. He just does. And his Olaf set a template that stage Olafs must copy, or risk disappointing kids.

And every time Disney adapts one of their hit animated movies to the stage, they face a similar problem. They’re designing something for families who know the original so well, they require a great deal of replication. I enjoyed Frozen on Broadway; it didn’t make a lot of mistakes. But is there any reason for it to be there, other than making money? Guys, you made a much-loved film: Can’t you leave the St, James Theatre for something more original?

And it’s here where I start to think of the things animation can do that the live stage show can’t. Rolling boulders turning into living, eye-blinking trolls, for instance. The cartoon puts those blinks on clearly delineated beats of music; doesn’t read in the theatre. But this leads me to a note of praise to end on. In stereotypical musicals, a chorus of townspeople might push characters to make a love connection. The trolls’ Fixer Upper production number delightfully sends up the cliché. We all know Anna and Kristoff aren’t an item. But we get to see a huge assembly of so-called “love experts” treat them as if they should be. We don’t take it seriously, and can enjoy all the sly insults in a bubbly and positive chorale.

So she’s a bit of a fixer-upper
That’s a minor thing
Her quote ‘engagement’ is a flex arrangement
And by the way I don’t see no ring!

So, is love good? Is shooting ice jets from your fingernails good? I’m still not sure. I guess, to my mind, Frozen’s a bit of a fixer-upper too.

Some days

April 25, 2018

These days, when you enter the Circle-in-the-Square theatre, you’re transported to a delightful Caribbean island. Residents with adorable accents joke with each other and joke with you, all the while handling a live goat, a live chicken, and a sizable shin-deep pool of water. It’s captivating and unexpected. This is Broadway, where we’re accustomed to a stodgy proscenium; instead, this is theatre-in-the-oval, and we’re all part of the show.

Eventually, house lights go down, music begins, and the cast sings and dances a story, directed at a little girl, but also directed at us. The only complexity is that we meet four Gods who use earth’s humans like chess-pieces. That means that we don’t quite grasp mortal actions having consequences: If Gods are playing with us all, we’re not in control of our fates.

Originally produced in 1990, Once On This Island marked the Broadway debut of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and it was very exciting to see a new team burst on the scene with such a high level of craft, such an understanding of how musical forms we’re used to in pop music can be used to further a narrative. So, of course, Flaherty is going to serve up a lot of reggae, but he’s always conscious of differentiating characters and having the songs all sound different. (One motif, on the first four notes of the scale, resurfaces) Some years later, in an admirably ambitious show called Ragtime, he did the same with a variety of rags. But here, on this island, the West Indies sounds become a kind of comfort food, always feeling right.

(Compare the white-girl reggae in The Last Five Years, called I Can Do Better Than That. The musical style, there, is wholly arbitrary, more than a bit puzzling as a choice.)

Flaherty and Ahrens went through the BMI workshop a couple of years after me, and it often strikes me that they’re the very models of the principles Lehman Engel imparted. Every phrase in every lyric is perfectly apt, utilizing exactly the vocabulary the character naturally uses. Each song moves you from one emotional place to another. A lot of the show is funny, but a great deal of the show is deeply moving.

Ti Moune and Daniel are star-crossed lovers. They meet by accident, literally, and it takes a great deal of bravery and industry for Ti Moune to go and meet Daniel again. An obvious antecedent is The Little Mermaid. Ariel saves Eric from a wreck but has to go through a hell of a lot to get to spend more time with him in his castle. Based on a novel by Rosa Guy, Once On This Island scrupulously keeps its heroine active. She is younger and far braver than those Wicked witches who occupy the same building several stories above.

On this island, the Montagues and Capulets aren’t equals. Ti Moune is a foundling from the dark-skinned peasant community. Daniel is lighter-skinned because he descends from a French colonist. This production, in a rare misstep, portrays the white forefather as a black shadow silhouette, and I know my daughter missed out on the important pigment-based prejudice aspect of the story.

Most of the time, though, director Michael Arden creates stunning stage pictures against a background that is made up of mostly white audience members. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but things fall from the ceiling or rise from the ground, and there’s energetic tale-telling in the choreography of Camille A. Brown. The show zips along from one great song to another (there’s almost no dialogue) and there are fully-committed performances from a beautiful cast.

Two problems of theatre-in-the-round, though, are not quite licked. One is that actors can’t constantly twirl. There will be times when you’ll be looking at the back of the head of a player who’s registering emotion on their face and you’ll miss it. In my review of the Jesus Christ Superstar telecast, I talked about how loud rock music literally rocks the floorboards, bursting into your ears as sounds bounce off the walls of the theatre. That can’t happen here because the walls are way behind all the seats. We hear sans bounce, and it’s a rare Broadway show when I think certain songs aren’t loud enough. Call it the damage of being inside a bowl (as in stadium); soundman won’t provide.

Honestly, though, my excitement about this production is mostly connected to how Once On This Island is written. Its most famous number is the paragon of I Want songs, Waiting For Life To Begin.

I’m here in the field
With my feet on the ground
And my fate in the air

Ahrens makes nifty use of consonance there, propelling the line forward. And, by song’s end, we love Ti Moune, here personified by young Hailey Kilgore, because she (rather than Ahrens) uses fun ways of speaking like that.

Flaherty is the vamp-master of his generation. The one that begins Forever Yours sits on two notes, but the harmonies underneath make the danger of this romantic expression palpable. And, just when you think you’re hearing a conventional love song, the God of Death bursts onto the stage making the whole thing suddenly evil. Tamyra Gray, in a role previously cast with a male actor, gave my favorite performance in the piece.

Long before I encountered Once On This Island, I heard admiring whispers about a solo waltz. When I heard Some Girls, I thought they should have been admiring shouts. 

Some girls take pleasure
In buying a fine trousseau
Counting each treasure
And tying each tiny bow
They hold their futures with perfumed hands
While you face the future with no demands

This is top-notch songwriting: We invest in this love story, our hearts fill with hope for the couple. The charm of these numbers is manipulative in the best possible sense. The audience goes through powerful emotions over a brisk ninety minutes.

Which reminds me of the nineteen-nineties, and how, of all the shows to premiere on Broadway, none moved me more than Once On This Island.

Pieces of eight

March 22, 2018

It is easy to knock Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It is easy to mock Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And sometimes I think his unparalleled financial success brings out a certain snarkiness in us under-compensated musical theatre people. But then, his hero, Richard Rodgers, had success writing shows, unlike anyone previous, and was snark unleashed at him? Simply less snarky times, the good old days? Or could it be that Lloyd Webber (his 70th birthday is today) is really awful?

I’m writing this on the Ides of March, and come not to damn him, but to praise him. (Every post provides its own challenges.) First, I must note that we tend to think of his shows as Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, and forget he has collaborators. That’s unusual. Quick, who wrote Phantom of the Opera? Chances are you didn’t say Charles Hart, who wrote the lyrics. And the book, oddly, is credited to Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe. It wasn’t ever thus. For a long time, people talked of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice as a team, but then they both had success with other collaborators.

So, if this composer gets practically all the credit, he also tends to get all the blame. If Stephen Ward bombed (and it did), a lot of people point to Lord Lloyd Webber, but it seems logical that an inept retelling of the Profumo affair might better be laid at the feet of wordsmiths Christopher Hampton and Don Black.

Although it’s clear Lloyd Webber is involved with many aspects of his shows, he comes off a bit better if we view him solely as a composer. Take the anthropomorphic revue that he’s most widely derided for, Cats. There had to be a time when thirty-ish Andrew felt it was time to take time off from working with Rice on shows about celebrities and their fawning fans. He set himself a simpler task: setting music to a famous set of nursery rhymes by T.S.Eliot. Each page of doggerel describes a different pussy personality, so it makes sense to set each in a different musical style. And here the score succeeds in spades. There’s the stodgy Bustopher Jones strut, the Andrews Sisters bit, the train-like number in 13/8 time, and my personal favorite, the sentimental waltz about the old theatre cat. Good stuff, and it might have made a fine children’s album, or a concert for kids.

Powerful commercial forces made it something else entirely, the first “theme park” musical. Compared to other works for the stage, it’s a furry mess. You want to blame Lloyd Webber for that, be my guest. But the challenge he originally set for himself was admirably fulfilled.

When you have a project that’s not intended to be a stage musical and then repurpose the material for the West End, you naturally run into trouble. Say you’re fashioning a one-woman show for television. The small screen focus on one character, one performer managing to tell a story involves close-ups and something of a rock concert aesthetic. The singer’s range comes into play. So, for Marti Webb, Lloyd Webber could write a major seventh leap in the middle of a word (“apartment”) and get away with it. (Normally, this is considered horrible voice-leading.) But here come those money-grubbers again: Let’s make this musical for the stage. One star sings for the first act. Dancers enter for Act Two, using the variations of the familiar Paganini theme you wrote for your cellist brother. Poof, we have something big enough for Broadway. Now, as musicals go, Song and Dance may be fairly weak tea. But what Lloyd Webber originally composed for television is strong Earl Grey. I admire Come Back With the Same Look In Your Eyes and appreciate that Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known makes 5/4 time palatable; its awkwardness works in its favor. Again, what started as a little thing with certain virtues got blown up into something much bigger but less effective. And when you have an extremely predictable tune called When You Want To Fall In Love, the last thing you ought to do is change the lyric to Unexpected Song. Unexpected? The title invites the mockery.

Back in her performing days, my wife dazzled as two Lloyd Webber heroines, but it was a college assignment she told me about that first clued me in to the notion that this was someone I could marry. In it, she described compositional techniques used in Jesus Christ Superstar. As Judas froths with self-revulsion over his betrayal of Jesus, a chorus sings a calm major chord “Well done, Judas.” – in a completely different key. It’s a dissonance built on utterly disparate things: traditional church choir and contemporary self-lacerating rock. This is so effective, I’d call it a sonic coup, or – dare I say it? – original.

And that’s a word rarely applied to the Brit who’s served up Puccini, Bach, Mendelssohn and Pink Floyd and passed it off as his own. And I’m reminded that my wife heard something I was writing recently and claimed it was a theft from Phantom of the Opera. Is robbing a robber robbery? When it was pointed out that the first measure of Music of the Night is startlingly similar to Lerner & Loewe’s Come To Me Bend To Me, Lloyd Webber claimed it was his homage to Lerner, who was, at one point, supposed to write the words to Phantom. (Quite the homage to Lerner, quoting the work of Loewe.) But, you see, this is the problem with considering Lloyd Webber as anything other than the crafter of tunes. His talent lies not in talking about his work, but in coming up with melodies. Get past the derivativeness of bar one, and the long quote from Girl of the Golden West, and you’ll find a bridge that travels into odd and exciting places. There’s gold in dem hills; you just have to dig for it.

There’s gotta be an alternative

March 14, 2018

I’m setting myself a couple of huge challenges with this post. I’m going to talk about the process of writing music in a way that every reader out there can understand and yet will still be of some interest to those mavens who know way more about music theory than I do. And, if that isn’t hard enough, I’m going to start with a brief mention of current events that’s going to seem like it’s about politics, but really is not about politics at all.

You ready?

There’s a look of delight on Rachel Maddow’s face whenever she announces new indictments coming out of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And here’s the thing: her delight is not about another Trump-connected person going down. It’s about the unpredictability of the successfully secretive Mueller team. She can’t tell what he’ll do next and this fact truly tickles her.

Harmony’s a lot like that.

Things happen in sequences, and we can say they run on a scale going from most obvious to most surprising. We’ve all suffered through plots that get us to think, “I saw that coming.” Good plots tend to surprise us.

I’ve always been crazy about chord symbols. Not all music has them, but those Vocal Selections from Broadway shows usually do. And that’s where my eye goes. For most of my piano-playing career, my eye had to go there because I find it easiest just to play the vocal line and let my left hand render those chords. But this isn’t about playing music, it’s about analyzing as a step towards writing better music. So, I’m reading that sequence of chords and I might find them very surprising or not at all.

There’s always a most obvious chord. In a way, this is kind of comforting. The composer knows a path, a place to go next. I can draw you a chart. But a lot of people are scared of charts, and anything called “music theory.” Fear not! I’m making this simple. The Circle of Fifths is a way of arranging the twelve possible notes you can build chords upon in the shape of a clock. The space between any two that are next to each other is exactly the same. Travel counter-clockwise, and your harmony is going the most obvious route.

When I was sixteen, I wrote a little theme and started with something you don’t hear every day, going from F to B. But, from there, I took the cliché path, right around that circle: Em7, A9, Dm7, G7(b9), C7. (You can safely ignore anything that isn’t a capital letter.) I then repeated the sequence: F, B, Em7, A9, Dm7, G13(b9), C. I’m sorry if this looks like gobbledy-gook to you. Just saying that there’s a cliché involved in traveling along that clock.

For years I kept a sign over my desk that read:


Every time I pick a chord on that well-traveled path, I die a little. I’ve failed to eschew cliché. But here it must be said that if your chord sequence is too weird, listeners will revolt. Nobody hums Arnold Schonburg. Musical fans frequently hum Claude-Michel Schönberg, who consistently uses those most obvious harmonies. 30 years ago I walked out of Les Misérables humming Pachelbel’s Canon. This is considered the ultimate classical music cliché, because of its ultra-obvious and endlessly iterated harmonic structure. Its use in the film, Ordinary People, have led many to call it Ordinary Music.

But Les Miz is such a hit. It’s been suggested to me that my sign ought to read


But there’s got to be a happy medium, right? There’s got to be a way of avoiding too many obvious steps. Of shaking the listener, a little, but not so often that she can’t grasp what she’s hearing on first hearing.

Composers often talk in terms of emotional colors, but that’s so abstract. Instead, let’s talk in terms of cooking. You’re a chef who’s willing to experiment. You’ve a huge spice rack. (I like to alphabetize mine.) So, cilantro and cinnamon are right next to each other. How does your stew taste if you add those two? It’s either intriguing or ick. Now, maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Top Chef, but I think every experienced chef knows something about flavor on the effect of adding any spice on the rack.

Combinations of chords hit the ear in different emotional ways. Think about this stuff enough, and you memorize the feel behind a slew of them. Composers know what’s intriguing and what’s ick. Many’s the time we go to the most obvious chord, that neighbor on the Circle of Fifths. But I tend to admire those brave enough to go to unexpected places. If you surprise my ear, my attention gets drawn in; whereas a pattern I’ve heard a million times before is easy to tune out. Vernon Duke, Leonard Bernstein, David Shire, Adam Guettel – these wizards take my ear on a journey filled with surprising harmonies, God love ‘em.

Of course, good songs are written in different ways. One pictures James Taylor, hearing of the death of a young friend, and strumming the most obvious chords on his guitar, without thinking, perhaps, pouring out his emotions. There’s nothing wrong with Fire and Rain and I admit that what I do is fairly uncommon. I prefer to experiment with unexpected harmonic language quite often, as if ESCHEW CLICHÉ was a command from God. And “God,” you know, is my silly pet name for George Gershwin.

Magical music

March 6, 2018

Stephen Schwartz turns 70 today but way back when he was in his twenties he had three smash hit long-running musicals on Broadway. One of these, Godspell, had transferred from Off-Broadway, where it had played five years. That’s an amazing amount of success at an amazingly young age.

Like many of us, I’ve been contemplating the power of the young in recent weeks. Sometimes, it takes a tyro to start a revolution. The old ways can seem played out, no longer effective. Prior to Schwartz, a show tune sounded like a show tune, and musical theatre’s Golden Age had provided a bunch of scores that sounded somewhat similar to each other: Your parents’ music. Then, a kid bursts on the scene whose songs sounded like Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. How fresh he must have sounded, imbued with the energy of youth.

I’m not one who knocks the Golden Era. (A major critic once called me Jerry Hermanish.) But, today, listen to a little of Mack and Mabel and then listen to Pippin. They don’t seem like they’re from the same planet, let alone the same era. The former had stars but wasn’t a hit; the latter lacked stars but ran forever.

The Seventies can be seen as a transformative period. The older generation clung to the idea that show music shouldn’t sound like pop. Later came the idea that new shows shouldn’t sound like Golden Era shows. In the Seventies, both types existed, and nobody did more to demonstrate how pop sounds can be used for dramatic purposes than Stephen Schwartz.

That’s because he’s a man of the theatre, with an innate understanding of what makes a song theatrical. This quality is notably missing when aging rock stars decide to try their hand at the legitimate stage. The first Schwartz number heard in the first Schwartz musical is an octet in which various philosophies are heard in counterpoint: Socrates, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Sartre, Nietzsche, and Buckminster Fuller. Now, I ask you, could a professional rock star ever come up with anything like that? Schwartz turns these intellectual tenets into easily-understood lyrics, like only a Broadway baby can. And just when this threatens to be too wordy to take, we hear the startling sound of a ram’s horn. A new song begins, and its lyric consists of seven words repeated over and over again. The mind gets a break. We can sit back and enjoy the joyful dancing. The boy in his early twenties who came up with that understood something about how an audience pays attention that older writers consistently miss.

Let’s hear it for the boy; let’s give that boy a hand. Or, a wall of hands. The opening number I just described would be awfully hard to top, no? Well, what if, in the beginning, you saw three dozen hands, palm forward, instead of a curtain? The light catches nothing else. There’s a rock bassist and an electric piano and yet, somehow, this music is placing us in a faraway time and place. “Join us,” a commedia player commands. Harmonically, we’ve got the cool jazz of a minor ninth chord, never settling into anything truly familiar, like a tonic. But what was strange and wondrous in 1972 is now iconic: We think of Magic To Do as the paradigm of openings.

And then comes the paradigm of I Want songs, Corner of the Sky. But my favorite first two tracks on a Stephen Schwartz cast album are Chanson and Merci Madame from his first bomb, The Baker’s Wife. It closed out of town but, miraculously, four performers were hustled into a recording studio. None of the numbers involving anyone other than Paul Sorvino, Patti LuPone, Kurt Peterson and Terri Ralston were recorded, so this cast album doesn’t really represent the show as it actually was. But, having seen it some years later, I can tell you: that’s a good thing. The solos and duets are wonderful, tell a moving story, and the album is a joy to listen to. The whole show, in the theatre, is filled with annoying ensembles and the plot is deeply problematic. We love the baker and the baker loves his much younger wife. She decides to run away with a young lover, so, naturally, we hate her. Except Schwartz came up with a tour-de-force for the performer, an extremely long allegory that allows this adulteress to justify her perfidy. By rights, the audience should boo and hiss her off the stage. But that song, Meadowlark, is so hard to sing, we’re so impressed by the singer, we applaud wildly. This is so problematic, the producer David Merrick tried to cut it by literally going into the orchestra pit and removing every musician’s copy from their music stands. Contractually, it’s up to the writers to approve all cuts, but I can see where he was coming from.

Musical theatre writers in New York and Los Angeles have another reason to appreciate Schwartz. Annually, at the ASCAP writing workshop, he shares his thoughts, critiquing new musicals. The information I’ve gleaned, listening to him over the many years, is far more valuable to me than the fine examples of his formidable musicals for the stage and screen. No writer has shared more about what goes into the crafting of a show. And he’s not delivering a prepared speech; he’s simply saying what comes to his head. I admire his mind even more than his music.

The thing about Schwartz lyrics is that they’re squarely in the musical comedy tradition and usually sound nothing like pop. They deliver story, subtext, surprise and here’s the part that gives one pause: overly clever rhymes. That’s an old-fashioned quality, seemingly at odds with the modern sound of his music. In a way, this contradiction defines Schwartz – the new-fashioned sound with old-fashioned showmanship. I sometimes lose patience with this showiness (“Life is fraught-less when you’re thoughtless.”) but this may have to do with my fear that something similar goes on in my own work.

And we’ve this other odd thing in common. As children, our parents took us to visit a professional composer who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. The idea wasn’t to influence us to become musical theatre writers. We went because George Kleinsinger kept all sorts of exotic animals in his apartment including a toucan named Sam. Only one of us went on to write a musical about Noah’s Ark, though. Happy birthday to him.