Facets of you

June 3, 2017

So, I was watching a play that purported to be about the nature of love and thought to myself, “Nah, this isn’t it.” The playwright had failed to make me feel anything, and I’m pretty picky that way, demanding that romantic entertainments (usually musicals) capture my heart, not just my mind. Once upon a time, every musical was, to a certain extent, about love. Today, some writers manage to avoid it – but I think they’re all running away from something. Face it, we’re in the domaine d’amour.

Twenty years ago today Joy Dewing walked into my life and hit my heart in such a way that my thoughts about love were utterly metamorphosed. The young, intrepid bundle of gorgeousness knocked on my door, having driven up from Washington just to meet me. And instantly there seemed no more natural place for my arms to be than around her. There’d previously been a meeting of the minds, as we communicated through countless e-mails and some chats, but here, in the flesh, was a warm and driven talent, a quick wit, and a thinker wise beyond her years. Which was a good thing, because I was well beyond her years.The First Dance

After I’d gained that new understanding of love, there soon arose opportunities to write songs on the subject. You have to do that a lot when you create musicals, but also, in my life, there are occasional songs. Like Joy’s birthday. Or Valentine’s Day. Or our wedding anniversary. Or this, our meet-iversary. And no matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to the same thought: “Nah, I didn’t quite capture it.”

Seems as if the extraordinary set of amorous feelings can’t quite be captured in words and music; I’m chasing a rainbow. Or maybe I’m not good enough, just as insufficiently articulate as Mee. (For that is the name of the playwright referenced at the beginning.) But I’ve a more positive theory about this: It’s Joy. She’s too marvelous for words and tunes. And I’m reminded, now, that I once expressed something like that in a song I wrote to sing to her: “You’re too wonderful for empty cliché.”

So this week I took our daughter to buy Joy a gift to commemorate the two decades of face-to-face passion and instantly thought I’d muddled it. In our living room, there’s this huge unopened box that is her gift to me, and I’m sure it’s far more fabulous, even though I got her something she said she needs. My underwhelming gift fits a cliché of husbandry: we give bad presents. And I’ll again remind you I’ve a sign that reads “Eschew cliché.” But sometimes it occurs to me that I’ve hit upon a widely-experienced situation. There are many lovers who come up with insufficient tokens of their affection. And if something’s that common, maybe it ought to be a song.

I may have mentioned here that I’m working on a show about married people, Baby Makes Three. Some believe that it’s a musical à clef, but the characters are markedly different from us. Such a project, though, allows me to draw on my experience as a husband, and one song steals from that large set of songs I’ve written for Joy. Here’s the bridge:

I’m well aware there are words you long to hear
What the hell is scaring me? Do I fear
Whatever words I say
Can never quite convey
The magnitude of all I feel?

Musicals, of course, get rewritten countless times. Right now the floor of my office is literally littered with the many numbers I’ve cut from the show. So, frequently, I deem my songs not good enough to stay in a score. If I’m writing a song for a particular day, well, that’s a deadline: Comes the time to give, I give. And I instantly think, “That wasn’t it. That’s not good enough.”

Rather randomly, I’ve found an example of all this:

In a world full of irritations
That crop up out of nowhere
Like a horde of ants when you lift a stone,
It takes guts, holding it together
You can’t yell at stupid tourists
Or be rude to every pollster on the phone.
So we all develop ways we can bear
With catastrophes that spring up when we’re least aware

I have a wife who loves me
Loves me well
And with a wife who loves me
I can get through hell
Arms that provide such comfort
So caring
So tender
I have a wife who’ll love me
Till the end

When I can’t avoid a puddle that, at first, seems to be shallow
But it’s so deep it muddies halfway up my slacks;
When I know I made a bookmark of a receipt I should have saved
And I don’t remember which book when it’s time to file the tax;
When a bus goes intentionally slow
Or whizzes past as I frantically wave in the snow

I think I’ve a wife who loves me
Long and deep
I have a wife who snuggles
As I sleep
Kisses that work a wonder
Refreshing
They warm me
I have a wife who gets me through each storm.

When some stranger smacks their gum or talks with their mouth full
Or does that loathsome sucky sound that you hate;
When the brand new expensive iron spits out white glop instead of steam
Destroying your pants and making you late;
When the cable company screws up your show
When you work a long day and then have to fly into snow

Remember that I love you
And hold you dear
Knowing your husband loves you
Persevere
Whatever it is that bugs you
Forget it
Remember
I’ve written you a love song
You are loved.

Nope, not nearly good enough. (This post, I fear, isn’t good enough either.) But at least it has the word “glop” in it. And more I cannot wish you than to wish you twenty years of love. With some glop.


Kate’s brother’s story

April 11, 2017

Twenty years ago, a book was published, and even though it’s specifically about screenwriting, it’s a good time to discuss it here. Story, by Robert McKee, is more famous for the influence it’s had – often mocked – than what it actually says. The author held costly seminars for many years, widely attended by a whole generation of Hollywood scribes. Critics sometimes claim he’s the main reason Hollywood output is so awful. But little of what McKee writes about film isn’t applicable to musicals. His title is apt. Don’t you want your musical to have an effective story?

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps what draws you to musicals is the fact that many succeed without adhering to any particular structure or set of rules. I’m one who’s always been fascinated with departures from our traditions. An example leaps to mind. A bunch of improvisers developed characters who embodied the varying anxieties of kids at a Spelling Bee. Eventually, a songwriter and bookwriter were called in to shape the improvisation into a musical with a set script. And the next thing you know, the libretto wins a Tony Award.

That’s an unusual situation, to be sure. If you’re doing that traditional thing, of sitting down to a blank page and writing a narrative for the stage, at some point you better think about the art of storytelling. Regular readers of this blog know that the craft of how the tale gets told is an obsession of mine. Usually, when I see a show that’s failed to entertain me, there’s something out of kilter in this important area. So, stumbling on the information that Story got published in 1997, I think back to the time a smart musical-writing friend insisted I read what McKee had to say.

If I say this changed my life, or altered the course of my career, I’ll sound like a brainwashed McKee acolyte. In reality, I would never urge anybody to follow McKee’s prescriptions. But what I’d say, to anyone interested in narrative in dramatic form, is: read the book, because it will get you thinking about cause and effect in plot points.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I’ll use my own work to paint a little before-and-after picture. For many years, I’d toiled on an original musical. It was missing a certain something and I couldn’t tell what. I’d created characters, set down a sequence of amusing or entertaining events, resolved everything at the end. Individual moments were engaging people – various songs from the score had gotten big hands in many cabaret shows. But nobody wanted to produce the whole musical; it just didn’t seem exciting enough.

McKee defines an inciting incident that comes early on, propelling the hero into action, perhaps putting him on a quest. Now, without drinking the kool-aid – without buying in the notion that every musical needs a protagonist questing due to some incitement – I couldn’t help noticing my musical had none of that. There wasn’t a single hero. Nobody had any sort of a quest (unless you count an unemployed character who was looking for a job). And I merely had characters meet each other in lieu of any sort of incident. I put down my pen. And pondered.

Eventually, I fashioned a whole new original story, one in which every action had a consequence. Such Good Friends hardly McKee-ian. The hero has no greater goal than preserving a happy status quo. I wouldn’t claim there’s an inciting incident, as Story defines it. The first act includes a flashback to how the characters met, but only one. But the show was a gripping experience for the audience, to a certain extent, because McKee got my thinking about the elements of tale-telling. Events lead to other events, sometimes in unexpected ways. Characters always have motivations, but they evolve over time. When I compare Such Good Friends, with all its narrative thrust, to my unproduced musical, with its lack thereof, it’s hard to escape the notion that reading Story had something to do with my evolution.

In between those shows, though, I wrote a musical which, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, uses a specific non-theatrical format as a model, and there’s no real narrative. This was Our Wedding: The Musical! Guests at a wedding know what they’re in for, and don’t require a story that goes somewhere. Similarly, there are successful movies that completely eschew the McKee paradigm. Your musical can be totally unconventional and do very well. But being exposed to his fairly rigorous and often amusing analysis will inspire you to concentrate more on narrative. And that’s something I wish many more new musicals would do.

 


I’m working

April 1, 2017

End of the first quarter; might be time for some sort of report. And, I’m not sure how this happened, but the past three months have been more productive than any quarter I can recall in the past decade. And it’s not as if I’ve written a lot. I think there’s just one new song, Happy Show. It’s rare for me to be so pleased with a composition. It breaks new ground, in that I’ve never seen anything like it on stage. I’m very much looking forward to how the audience will react to a bit of business we all know happens in real life, just not under a proscenium.

Sorry to be so cryptic – is there a blog equivalent of “vaguebooking?” The real reveal shouldn’t be me, here, telling you what it is; rather, it should be in a musical, with an audience following what’s happening to two characters, and then comes this surprise that’s fun and funny. And this issue of how people first hear songs is a major obsession with me. Theatre songs are written for a specific context. Obviously, they’re parts of stories, and the audience has some emotional investment in the characters singing. Many good songs contain action, moving a plot from one point to another. But if you said to me “Play me that new song you seem so proud of” and I do – you’d come to it with no knowledge of the plot, character, setting, what just happened in the story, and what the action of the song is likely to mean for the show’s next scenes. But that’s the world we live in. Is there any form more likely to trickle out in dribs and drabs than the musical? Do filmmakers get asked to reveal two minute bits as often as we do? Would you ever ask a painter to show just a square inch of a canvas-in-progress?

The unusual accomplishment of this quarter is that I submitted for six things. Contests, workshops, residencies, grants. This takes a lot of effort, and part of that is deciding which square inches of my canvas to enclose. Often, it feels like I’m playing some elaborate game where I don’t quite understand the rules. On the surface, the application rules seem simple enough: “Enclose four songs from your musical” – that sort of thing. This becomes the main work of a musical theatre writer. Not telling the story, not actually writing the thing, but figuring out how to choose excerpts. And that’s a completely different art. One I don’t think I’m good at, at all.

Ten years ago (and God knows how many applications ago), the wise folks at the New York Musical Theatre Festival said yes. Such Good Friends would be one of a dozen or so Next Link shows that year. I celebrate this watershed, perhaps a little too much, but that’s how I roll. When submissions are rejected, the best thing to do is forget about them, move on. When they succeed, crow about it for a decade or so. Since I work so often with actors who are working their butts off to get that first job, I tend to think we have similar experiences. Most auditions are a swing and a miss; most applications lead to naught. It’s not healthy to dwell on the rejection, or even to think as these as failures. While the expression goes “It’s all a crap shoot.” I, as the creator of a musical scene about playing roulette, prefer the analogy of an enormous roulette table. There’s not just 38 numbers; there are hundreds of places to place a chip. And our task, either as writers or out-of-work actors, is to get into the game, put chips on the table.

The ridiculous part of all of this is that sometimes I find myself too busy working on a new musical to find the time to apply to new works festivals, contests and grants. Creative work taking precedence? That can’t happen! You’ve got to be in it to win it, obviously. The writer who makes no effort to get his shows seen, produced somewhere, is like those unfortunate souls who call themselves actors but never audition for anything, and, therefore, never act.

My amazing March, in fact, involved two giant leaps forward on two new musicals, and neither involved my writing anything new. On fairly short notice, I managed to throw together a private reading of a new score, which my collaborator wanted to hear live (and not sung by me). Finding six eager performers, getting them their music, rehearsing and recording – all of this was a huge endeavor, not something I do often. Simultaneously, I showed another show to a director I trust and received detailed and mind-blowing notes. These were so savvy, I now have a focus for a new draft. Knowing the “holes” in the work – that is, elements identified as missing – has already spurred a couple of new ideas for songs. And – you can tell this is important to me – they’ve premises I haven’t seen elsewhere.

I guess all of this is a circuitous way of explaining how a three month period in which I managed to churn out only one new song can seem like such an accomplishment. I got the job done: the job of applying to things. And even if those things say no, it can’t be denied I placed six chips on the table.


Up jumped Sandow

March 7, 2017

This week, I’m expanding a circle. That’s a rare event, and an essential step forward in the life of a new musical.

My collaborator, a successful playwright here adapting his own play into a libretto, and I have been working, on and off, for years. Even though we both work in Manhattan, we’re not in the same room very often; it’s a lot of texts. When I finish a draft of a song, I record it and he’ll listen with his wife. So, the circle – the number of people who know what the thing sounds like – is 3. Me, my collaborator, and his wife.

Now, we’re at a point where we want to hear the songs sung by professionals. And if you’re wondering where my wife is in all this, it’s here she enters. A renowned casting director, she helped us to find performers. This meant my collaborator had to write descriptions of the characters. For the first time, I was being asked about vocal ranges. I hadn’t previously considered this question. I’ve formulated no opinion along the lines of “This character should be an alto.” I’m not there yet. Any range will do, this week, as long as it’s wide enough to encompass all the notes in the songs.

There are 12. I had to write up little descriptions of them, and this is another issue I hadn’t previously thought about. So, expanding our circle to include six singers meant contemplating certain questions for the first time. One song gets reprised in a completely different style, so that’s thirteen descriptions. Or not, since two songs are so similar I wrote the same words about them.

(And is that a problem? I’m thinking about The Music Man and how I’d describe Marian’s numbers. Or Eliza Doolittle’s.)

Putting songs in the capable hands of singers unveils a host of discoveries about each number. A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. Now, the performers’ apprehension and investigation of material comes into play. Just a few days ago, this whole show was something of a secret. As three becomes nine, the circle triples in size.

And then hearing them live, sounds from good throats passing through the air into our ears. It’s how they’re meant to be heard.

That seemingly obvious fact is easy to lose sight of. These days, I can compose a tune in my mind, enter it straight into software using a midi which I can use without the volume up, and post the thing on SoundCloud – all without utilizing ears. Out here on the internet, we compare and contrast songs that exist as videos or audios. But theatre writing involves live actors, in the presence of a live audience, communicating; this communication is affected and altered by audience response. How often do we fool ourselves into thinking listening to recorded theatre numbers is remotely similar?

Besides my excitement about hearing all the songs live, over one evening, there’s much anticipation about how they’ll all sound together. This show has been a slow process and various numbers were written very far apart in time. If I can believe my own copyright notices, thirteen years separate the oldest song and the most recent. We’re not dealing with dialogue this time, so it’s something like taking in a cast album: do this disparate pieces hang together well?

Another image comes to mind: Imagine an inventor toiling and toodling in a hermetically sealed chamber. The invention has been engineered to a certain pristine perfection, but how will it hold up in the actual atmosphere? My stuff looks good on paper, but hitting live ears is a whole other thing.

The energy it’s taken to put this sing-through together has robbed me of time I’d normally be devoting to this blog, and I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me the time off. Sometimes, on this page, I feel like I’m teaching you all something. What I really crave is a chance to learn more. While opening up the circle on this show, I’m expanding my mind.

Sound deep? Fear not. I’m sure I’ll get back to going all lesson-y on you in a week or so.


Thoughts: in transit

December 11, 2016

“Please, God, please! Don’t let me be normal.”

This famous bit of a monologue from The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones, has been much on my mind because of a persistent worry: That my musical may be too ordinary. The characters are hardly larger than life; they face problems that all sorts of people face every day. So, is my show too mundane to entertain?

Perhaps you’re thinking, right now, “Of course not” – this is a silly fear to have. And yes, I’ll admit that quite a few of my fears fall on the silly side of things. But I’ve seen a new Broadway musical in which each iota of plot is so expected, so everyday, so the-sort-of-thing-we’ve-seen-a-million-times-before that it seems utterly doomed by its own lack of imagination. In Transit is an original musical that marks the Broadway debut of each of its four creators, Sara Wordsworth, Russ Kaplan, James-Allen Ford and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Of these, only the latter is famous, an Oscar-winner for her lyrics to the most-sung song of the current century, Let It Go. (If you don’t believe Let It Go is the most-sung song of the current century, you must not have a daughter under the age of 10.) I like the fact that these are musical theatre writers, who’ve honed their craft for many years, veterans of the BMI workshop, and not some neophytes from other fields. Many years ago at the York’s annual NEO Concert of songs from new works, they and I were each included. So, I was predisposed to like In Transit, think of them as kindred spirits, and it’s playing in the theatre where I work, Circle-in-the-Square.

So there’s a single woman who’s unable to get over the ex who dumped her months ago. She still e-mails, texts, contrives to bump into him. All of this is intelligently rendered, and would be fine IF WE HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. Luckily, that’s not the only plot line. There’s an actress who’s growing weary of waiting for her big break, working as a temp, and I might have sympathized with her IF I HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. There are certain things about In Transit that are fresh, haven’t been done on Broadway, but there’s also the gay groom who’s having trouble coming out to his mother. Say it with me, now: SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE.

What’s original? The fact that there’s no orchestra. A cappella vocals have become a hot genre over the past decade or so, and accompanying soloists with a collection of rhythmic Doos and Baos is something you haven’t seen on Broadway before. Off-Broadway, you have. My wife cast an amusing show called Voca People, and long before that there was Avenue X (1994), which shouldn’t be confused with Avenue Q, co-written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s husband. Pause to say something positive: It’s a neat trick. You don’t miss instrumentalists, but your ear quickly adjusts. After the opening number, you go, “Oh, that’s what this is going to be.” and then your focus goes back to the plot. And then you go “Oy.”

There’s a fourth plot, about a handsome Wall Street type who loses his job. This is far fresher than the other three plots, and I held out hope that the show would have something to say about White Privilege, that the good-looking guy has doors open to him that someone who looks different wouldn’t. The cast of In Transit is multi-ethnic; we even meet a black ice hockey fan. But nothing in Subplot Four had any sort of an edge. His phone is turned off when he can’t pay the bill, so he misses an important call. That is exactly as dramatic as it ever gets.

We who think about the effectiveness of theatre pieces often talk about unearned moments. One of the characters has a series of conversations with a kind and philosophical street musician. Towards the end of the show, he lays a rather common Zen concept on her and she looks at him as if all her life problems are suddenly fixed. Then the entire cast pops out to joyously warble an energetic setting of this precept. This is precisely what is meant by an unearned moment. The character hadn’t evolved, the wisdom being passed was far from profound, and so the hallelujah chorus rang hollow. In a ninety-minute show, sans intermission, you don’t have time to waste on hollow moments, and this wasn’t the only one during the denouement.

The shame, here, is that so many other elements of this show are competent, and even appealing. There were songs to admire, plenty of good performances, and one outlandish costume gets a hand. I found a video of its 2010 staging off-Broadway, and you get the sense that, for the prices charged by a little theatre way back then, In Transit might be a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half. For Broadway prices today, something more than a collection of clichés is needed. “Please God, please: I paid well over a hundred dollars. Don’t let it be normal.

 


I can talk to you

September 21, 2016

For two months, circumstances imposed a break from writing. Now I’m back assessing what needs to be done on my two-performer musical soon approaching completion of its second draft. For a short show, it’s currently got a whole lot of songs: twenty-five, which will be a lot for actors to learn. Half are duets, and the solos are divided evenly. I’m thinking about this, and it strikes me that fretting how difficult this will be for the players is neurotically premature.

But I’ll worry about almost anything. It’s what I do. It’s why I can’t sleep. I’m sketching out a ballet to cover a costume change. And that’s ridiculous. Because no designer has told me how long it will take to make this change. And there’s no choreographer giving input on what the dance will look like. Certainly, my second draft can say, in the script, “They dance.” And I could put any amount of music in the score, and the world will accept that as part of a second draft. Way down the road, when the choreographer and costumer and perhaps a dance arranger are on board, we’ll redo the moment.

I think I worry about such things because my mind desperately grasps for reasons not to write. A metaphor comes to mind – possibly based on the massive amount of swimming my daughter did this summer: You have to keep your head underwater to create. It requires a special sort of concentration. But your lungs need air, so there’s this pull towards the surface, and soon your arms and legs are flailing. I’m only here writing this because I jotted down a possible chorus for the twenty-fifth song and now I need the air.

I don’t even know where this new song goes. I know I just said I’ll do anything to take a break from writing songs; focusing on book is a greater problem. I know I’m supposed to sit down and come up with dialogue, but my brain keeps going to these little holes I see and I think the best way to plug them up is through songwriting. That comes easier to me. So, at some point, a few of the 25 numbers will seem superfluous. Which means cutting. Which means saying goodbye to your babies. It hurts, on some level, to cut a song.

Easiest to remember the process on this last one. It began as an idea for a ballad. But the last thing this show needs – any show needs? – is more ballads. So I figured out a way to express the same emotions in energetic rock, strings of eighth notes like you’d find in Billy Joel. (Now that I think of it, the current draft sounds like a cross between My Life and All For Leyna.)

Wondering where to place it, I stare at the storyboard. My eyes go to a section of six songs I’ve underlined and labeled “Ballads.” Could squeeze it in there.

About stepping back to look at the storyboard. It’s dangerous. You divide a massive project into little digestible bits. You can complete a bit by concentrating on it, but if you step back to look at the whole show, it seems gargantuan, unachievable. But that storyboard’s in bright colors, and my daughter’s drawn something on it. (Did I mention it’s a dry erase board festooned with different colored post-it notes?) At this late date, I find it hard to keep my eyes from the ginormous whole.

It’s evolved quite a bit over the past two years. People who saw the reading of the first draft probably won’t recognize it. You have to have faith that every change is an improvement. Somebody might come up and say “What happened to the quodlibet lullaby? I loved that.” and you have to remind yourself that you know best; it was slowing down the show. But then, you’re supposed to listen to your audience. Who’s the expert here, again?

The white post-its are for book scenes. Inexplicably, they all have “You bring the BBQ, I’ll bring the wine” printed on them. Ignore that. So many people write shows sans dialogue these days. Usually, the existence of two dozen songs clearly indicates a show without spoken words. My dialogue has to crackle. It has to be funny, seem real to the audience, and have building energy that will soon lead them back in to song. That’s a significant amount or pressure, right there.

Just as I was saying it’s premature to whip up a ballet without a choreographer, it’s daunting to me to write dialogue without actors on hand. These experts open their mouths, and things either sound natural or they sound stilted. In the first draft, I wrote a particularly unsayable sentence: “Somewhere we seem to have neglected our previous roles, as spouses.” Who talks like that?

Librettists working in a vacuum, that’s who. The sound of the dialogue is one of the many reasons musicals need to be workshopped, with good actors in front of a live audience, so often. As with anything, the more you do this the more you get a knack for how people actually talk. But, somewhere, I seem to have neglected my previous role, as a crafter of real-sounding dialogue. Oh, there I go again.

 

 


A seeker

July 4, 2016

Some weeks ago a couple of media outlets fired their critics. And didn’t replace them. No more reviews of theatre for them. And some of you may be saying “Good. I hate critics.” But think further: The stage community needs criticism, publicity, and a wide array of views expressed for all to see. Taking away “merely” two of the throng damages us. We can perpetrate dreck, unchecked, and then never find an audience. No theatre practitioner is an island; our art depends on connections.

I suppose some might say I’ve such a positive view of critics because I’ve gotten so many raves in so many papers. What’s not to love? One major paper with a very wide circulation reviewed a work of mine in verse, of all things. The critic was so inspired by my clever rhymes, he felt compelled to join the fray. Another time, in another major paper, a show I worked on received a devastating pan. Everything in it was lambasted with the exception of my songs and the fellow who sang them, “a lark among clods.” Remarkably, everybody took that with bemused grace. Also, there was the time Peter Filichia praised my “production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW” as if to light a fire under producers. (Alas, they proved to be soggy wood.)

But the truth is, I’ve an addiction to input. From any source. Public or private. Positive or negative. My four formative years at the BMI workshop are fondly recalled, mostly, because I could play my new songs and hear what Lehman Engel and others thought. The reaction of others is of paramount importance to me. Look, we’re endeavoring to communicate with an audience, right? So, any chance to hear what that hearer is thinking is a golden opportunity.

I haven’t scanned mine so here’s one to someone else

Just a few days ago was Richard Rodgers’ birthday (114) and I was reminded of the party I threw him in absentia. When he heard about it, he sent a nice letter of appreciation – the sort of thing he did rather rarely. So, in a frame, I’ve this valuable thing, a letter from the most important of musical theatre composers. In another frame, I keep a letter from Stephen Sondheim, who writes back to writers rather more commonly. His letter I cherish because he offers a few thoughts – not particularly complimentary, by the way – about one of my shows, which he saw. Great to hear an experienced and esteemed musical theatre writer’s opinion. But a couple years later, I got a longer letter from someone you’ve never heard of and I value that even more.

The author was someone who’d worked for many years developing new musicals with an off-Broadway company that seems to specialize in that. He’d attended a staged reading of a show I’d been working on. During the many years and many drafts I’d devoted to it, I’d lost multiple collaborators. A director moved to California. A writer-director moved to Florida. A writer and I had such conflicting visions, we decided to part company, and she came up with her own show stemming from our initial idea. But, at this point, I’d been working alone for a long time.

And that meant that everything I wrote existed in a vacuum. No stranger was looking at the thing. I might think something was good, something was working, but I desperately needed the reality check of knowing whether somebody else thought it was good, working. At the staged reading, through a formal feedback chat with the audience, people were invited to speak up. But they kept saying positive things. Nobody named an element that was ineffective. This left me depressed. How was this piece going to improve? What did I need to do next?

Some days later, a five-page letter arrived from that stranger with development experience. He detailed areas that worked and areas where the show seemed unclear, ineffective. The people who mounted the reading, and delivered the letter to me, asked how I felt about this critique. I said “There’s the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and this document.”

Might be the wrong time of year to put anything on an equal plane with Jefferson’s great screed. But I find myself thinking of the broader implications of there being fewer critics. It would seem to be an indication that media powers-that-be don’t think there are enough people reading reviews, and I take them at their word. Today, more than, say, fifty years ago, there are people coming to New York, interested in catching some theatre, but they’re not considering what critical reaction has been. Let’s imagine there are three realities. One is whether a show is actually good: Forget how we define that, for the moment; just acknowledge that this reality exists. A second reality is that certain shows are widely praised by critics. A third reality is that there are productions that sound good to potential ticket-buyers. Let’s say there’s a TV personality, who is frequently funny on TV but has no playwriting experience, and he writes a play that he stars in. That’s your third reality, right there. This sort of thing sounds good to theatre-goers. Critics see this thing, and they all say the show is terrible, a waste of time and money, insufferable. Fifty years ago, universal pans would close a show on opening night. Now, of course, such a play would play to packed houses as long as the TV star wanted to do it. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel (lights on or off).

Say someone who isn’t famous writes a great show and the critics all agree it’s pretty great. But if too few people are reading reviews, and the show isn’t the third reality, too few tickets will sell, dooming the production.

I read reviews all the time. Not just of my shows. Learning what a critic thinks of anything is an education. These scribes see hundreds of stage-pieces a year, and I think that counts for something. Walter Kerr, for whom a Broadway theatre is named, used to pen think-pieces from the perspective of a professor imparting information that is specifically valuable for us creators. As a kid, I practically memorized a book he wrote: How Not To Write a Play. Yep: I want to know that.