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.

Jazz waltz

March 2, 2018

When I criticize songwriters on this page, I suspect some readers go “Fine, Katz, but who do you like?” So let’s talk about Harvey Schmidt, who died the other day.

He’s known for exactly three shows – there are others, but they’re rather obscure – 110 in the Shade, I Do I Do and The Fantasticks. That last one is the longest-running musical that ever was. People were so shocked that it closed after 42 years – New York no longer seemed like New York – that a revival opened uptown and that ran for eleven years, closing just last June. Now, one could cynically look at the economics: extremely cheap show to produce managed to fill a tiny theatre on Sullivan Street until it could advertise itself as the longest-running musical in town when My Fair Lady closed. But looking at The Fantasticks through the economic lens minimizes what’s extraordinary about it. Harvey Schmidt’s tunes were like none ever heard before, and Barbra Streisand’s recording of Soon It’s Gonna Rain let the larger world know there was something rather special to be heard down in the Village.

If I use the phrase “harmonic palette” please do not skip this paragraph. We’re discussing a composer here (also a painter) and I’ll attempt to explain what makes a Schmidt song sound different from anyone else’s. The 1950’s saw the flowering of a particular kind of jazz. Listeners to popular music now appreciated all sorts of chords that hadn’t been used much in previous decades. “Jazz piano” was enjoyed, in part, for the kicky way fingers fell off keys – a “grace note” – in which a sound is briefly heard, something like a mistake, and then, more strongly, the next note on the keyboard sounds. The piano is a percussive instrument, so unexpected rhythms, often on a heavy left hand, became popular. And another thing – block chords – which use more notes, closer together, a cluster where the pianist might use all five fingers. There’s an ugliness to these, and so there’s a fresh surprise when a pianist manages to make them pretty.

It’s long been my observation that, in music, harmony marched forward. Every age innovates, somehow. Gershwin does things Irving Berlin never thought of. Bernstein took composing a step further. And, after Harvey Schmidt, well, I’m afraid that, for the most part, the harmonic palettes failed to get more colorful. Here, I blame rock, often the production of untrained young folk strumming guitars. Their fingers didn’t reach out towards the more complex chords and audiences got used to the I-IV-V and progress halted. (Sorry to sound so bleak.)

Another thing that halted in the sixties was Harvey Schmidt’s Broadway career. After Celebration, an experimental musical that was a touch too weird to enrapture audiences on The Great White Way, the master jazzman made no further forays to The Street. His first decade was so glorious, one might have looked forward to a steady stream of great Schmidt scores over the subsequent five decades, but, damn, the stream got dammed.

This is pushing the metaphor too far, but I once appeared in a Tom Jones & Harvey Schmidt show involving a lack of water, 110 in the Shade. I was all of 16 and was particularly impressed by what was happening in the chords on Another Hot Day. The first five notes send us straight up a major seventh chord, and I love major seventh chords. They use four pitches in the major scale in what sounds, to me, simultaneously happy and poignant. (And is found infrequently in pre-Schmidt music.) Then, he goes right into another major seventh chord, establishing a pattern. But, on the words, “not a sign on the horizon” the ear is surprised. Instead of hearing the major seventh, we hear the note just below it, the sort of unanticipated detour that characterizes the blues. The title line keeps hitting the minor third where the major is expected. I fear I may have gotten too technical here, but that’s the blues for you.

And Texas. Jones and Schmidt were both from Texas, both preacher’s sons from small towns. It seems a no-brainer that David Merrick would choose them to adapt The Rainmaker. One number exemplifies Schmidt’s flair for the theatrical. Every time you hear the title, Old Maid, you’re hearing block chords, pulsing dramatically, and some of these are major sevenths. Plus, the song ends with a large quote of Another Hot Day. When we first heard it, it was a pleasant, if laconic, way to set the scene. Here, the drought is a force of evil, so that once-pleasant song is now heard as sinister.

They tried and failed to get Mary Martin to do 110 in the Shade, but then David Merrick succeeded in signing her for the next Jones & Schmidt bon bon, I Do, I Do. I think about this show all the time, because it’s a two-performer musical that focuses on a marriage, and that’s what I’m writing now. So, I ask myself, how do I keep this interesting for an audience? How can I remain true to my characters but throw in the maximum variety in the score? If I keep writing songs and then decide to cut them, it seems I’m in Schmidt’s footsteps, because he and Tom Jones wrote 114 songs for 110 in the Shade. I Do, I Do also has some intriguing discards you can hear on one of Bruce Kimmel’s Lost In Boston albums. But one that was kept was much on my mind last month. For Valentine’s Day, my Facebook status was the entire lyric to I Love My Wife. Seeing it on the page, as “just” words, doesn’t do it justice. Schmidt set it to peppy jazz, with that trademark grace note, and so it plays as fun rather than sentimental. If you don’t know the song, I suggest you read the lyric before listening to Robert Preston.

lyric                                  Original Cast Recording

(One of my ongoing anxieties is the idea that a two-character show can only work with prodigiously talented, always-interesting performers. Maybe I Do, I Do succeeded because people really wanted to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston and I need to get their equivalents. O.K….)

But I wanted to leave you with an anecdote about Schmidt you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. As I Do, I Do was in rehearsals, a reporter confronted him about he could write about marriage since he was a lifelong bachelor. “WELL…” mock accusingly, the pressman pressed him as to why he’d never married. Harvey Schmidt jibed back, “I’m waiting for the reviews.”


Cabaret of despair

February 26, 2018

If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:

  • Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
  • No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
  • Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
  • And… I just don’t get them.

In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:

My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.

That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.

In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.

So, let’s get specific:


This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.

But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.

I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.


The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.

In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.

When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.


Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.

Pretty funny?

A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.

(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)

I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…


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?


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.




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!