Magic time

May 15, 2017

Around the beginning of May this here blog passed the 35,000 view mark and I know what you’re thinking: “Great, another opportunity for Noel to pat himself on the back. I hate when this becomes an ego trip.” Ever-sensitive to your wishes, I’m not going to talk about this blog here and now. I don’t need to: I just got back from an ego trip.

At my alma mater – and yes, for me, this is one of those anniversary years when you’re supposed­ to go back – there was a three-part celebration of my friend Adam Belanoff, with whom I wrote The New U. and On the Brink, and a couple of other projects. The folks who present the annual Varsity Show were giving him an award, which seems long overdue since he’s the progenitor of the modern version of the student-crafted entertainment. He’s had a long career writing for television, a wildly impressive quantity of years gainfully employed, and is immensely popular as a person. If I say I consider him one of my best friends, I must acknowledge that I’m one of many people who’d say that. This meant, on a recent Saturday, that a huge circle of chums showed up for the party he threw, and then the official reception bestowing a statue, and finally this year’s Varsity Show.

For me, there’s little point in attending the Official Reunion of my college class; that’s interacting with strangers who’ve lived very different lives, not likely to understand mine. The Adam-a-thon, however, was a large turn-out assembly of folks who remembered The New U., On the Brink, and the “Junior Varsity Show” I wrote two songs for, Fear of Scaffolding. Our conversations tended to center on how marvelous those shows were, and, since I wrote music and lyrics, how good the songs were, in particular.

This gets me questioning whether the songs were as good as so many seem to think they were. Also, what was I doing then that I should be doing now? Have my creative methods altered over the years? Did I lose something as I aged?

It’s hard to observe oneself objectively. The time machine that would take me back to the work on my early shows is hampered by nostalgia. I’m an unreliable narrator, so take all this with a grain of salt.

I think I saw to it that songs generally contained three elements I considered essential. One is a great premise for a song. In other words, I could say to my collaborators: I think there should be a song that’s about this, or does this. And they’d respond with enthusiasm, because, just from hearing that premise they could see how it might turn out to be an effective piece. Then, naturally, there’d come a title. A good title is never chosen arbitrarily. You have to winnow down what you’re saying in a song to a very brief thesis statement. This gets supported by other lines that provide evidence that the thesis is true, much in the manner we’re all taught to write non-fiction papers in school. Many old-time songwriters believed coming up with a title was the most important part of the process. If it’s inspiring enough, the rest of the lyric’s pieces can just fall together, naturally cropping up as supporting material for your main point. Similarly, traditional composers place a lot of value on coming up with a musical hook. Just more glue that’s going to hold the creation together.

So those celebrants mentioned various titles they’d recalled over the many years: The Sweetest Guy in the Suite, Most Embarrassing Moments, Something That We’ve Never Had Before, and the mere fact that they’d remembered them tells you something. The last of these was a slight steal of a song from an obscure musical that has since become one of my all-time favorite melodies (Something that You’ve Never Had Before, from The Gay Life). There’s a further thievery involved, as I took the hook from an accompaniment figure in an obscure Rupert Holmes pop song called Adventure. Maybe he wasn’t being truthful, but Holmes told me that nobody remembers his early pop efforts (besides the ubiquitous Pina Colada Song) and yet here I was, face to face with those who remember my gloss on it.

The most-remembered moment in The New U. was The Sweetest Guy in the Suite; everyone seems to agree. It was part of a sequence concerning the lovelorn inhabitants of a dormitory floor. The guy played by Adam pines away for the girl next door. She, in turn, pines for the boy residing on the other side of her. And this boy, in the big reveal, turns out to have a same-sex crush on Adam. They’re all equally unrequited. Five years later, I found out that my favorite songwriting team, Richard Maltby and David Shire, used the same premise. Which shows you it’s a good premise. And here I can truthfully brag that our song got a much bigger reaction than theirs ever did.

Many weeks ago, I had someone take a look at the latest draft of a musical I’m currently working on and she was particularly taken with a traditionally-structured number; that is, one that had a solid title and a hook, not to mention AABA stanzas. This reaction served as a wake-up call. My wild experiments in form hadn’t gone over as well. Better to employ the modus operandi I was using so many years ago.

Being among folk who remember The New U. is also a reminder that what we do, in theatre, is ephemeral. A live performance, capturing the zeitgeist, can never be repeated, later, in quite the same way. What have I done since college? Essentially the same thing I did in college: created entertainments that exist for a short dazzling moment and then don’t, like an art-work on flash paper.


Washington discount

May 10, 2017

I’ve long felt a certain kinship with John LaTouche, my fellow Columbia Varsity Show veteran, who wrote the single greatest lyric about the passing of a venereal disease. (Sorry, I Got It From Agnes fans.) It was written for, and cut from, Candide (1956), which explains the heightened language:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
‘Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She’d forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn’t sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

LaTouche’s now having his second musical in as many years done at Encores, the all-sung epic, The Golden Apple. Seeing this Holy Grail of rarely-revived musicals, I’m thinking about whimsy and wit: How a little of it goes a long way, and how too much of it makes for a long evening.

Ber, Ber, Ber! It’s chilly in my office this morning. But I’m also thinking of the Encores troika of musical director Rob BERman, choreographer Joshua BERgasse and direcor Michael BERresse. They gave this Apple a fine polish, but you know me: I care about how shows are written. And I got a problem with that.

It’s said that the authors never stopped for dialogue because they conceived their musical as an incessant series of show-stoppers. The music by Jerome Moross is unfailingly energetic: I’m a particular fan of the overture, which ratchets up excitement. Every lyric contains showy rhyming, that is, they call attention to themselves. We don’t react to Ulysses and Penelope as people; we react, favorably or un-, to LaTouche. God love him, he gets a laugh rhyming “cobra” with “no bra” and I’m tickled by that kind of stuff. Been known to do it myself.

The Golden Apple was first produced in the 1950s, a decade in which clever rhymes were appreciated. That time is long behind us. But the problem isn’t so much that tastes have changed and the show has aged, it’s that the whole idea of a procession of show-stoppers is wearying. The Homeric epics on which the show is based are, indeed, episodic. But do you really want to see a musical that’s a long chain of pointless episodes, even if they’re individually entertaining?

We long for emotional connection to the characters. Instead, we witness vignettes that somehow relate to ancient Greek lore, but they add up to nothing. There are a huge number of characters, but let’s focus on two: Ulysses and Helen. Ulysses returns from the Spanish-American War, which allows LaTouche to rhyme “Theodore, the Roosevelt that we adore.” There’s a reunion with Penelope, expressed in a ballad called It’s the Going Home Together. So, early in the show, they’ve played the inherent emotion of long-separated lovers returning to each other’s arms. Hold that thought.

For reasons that are never made clear, Ulysses decides to leave with his war buddies on a mission to the big city. LaTouche actually plays the pointlessness for humor, as they’re asked the principal of the thing they’re fighting for and can’t name it. So no one knows. Cut to poor Penelope, pining away that she’s not with Ulysses. In the big city, the big lug gets tempted by sirens and such, but then returns for the happy ending. And I’m feeling nothing. Ulysses’ abandoning Penelope seemed so arbitrary; how are we to trust he won’t do that again?

The marriage between Helen and Menelaus is even worse. Their trouble – and what a stuck-in-the-1950’s idea this is – is that Helen likes sex. Since her husband (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz) is portrayed as not-very-virile, she’s bound to stray. And I suppose we’re supposed to get behind this, emotionally. The only hit song to emerge from this score, Lazy Afternoon, is how she seduces Paris:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And my rocking chair will fit you
And my cake was never richer
And I’ve made a tasty pitcher
Of tea
So, spend this lazy afternoon with me.

A few problems with all this. LaTouche forces rhymes in a playful “look at me! I’m clever!” way and we’re not quite invested in this seduction working. Paris is completely silent – lanky Barton Cowperthwaite gyrates very impressively – but, given what’s happened to left-behind Penelope, do we really want Menelaus left-behind, too?

Jerome Moross was in Aaron Copland’s circle, and boy, can you hear it. There’s that familiar jumbling of arpeggiated major triads, and all manner of rhythmic tropes evoking the turn-of-the-century. And you don’t get a sense of “here’s a serious composer writing classical-sounding music” because the harmonic palette is never overly elevated. These are show tunes, and fine ones.

I heard riffs that turn up in later scores: a bit of West Side Story’s dance music, Sondheim’s incidental music to Invitation to a March. The big ballad in William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s Dynamite Tonite is a clear echo. And I caught a rhyme I used once myself: graduate/glad you ate. That ended the first act of my Varsity Show, but even then I knew that clever rhymes are a special sauce, best used sparingly.

But something positive deterred me from remembering the most prominent homage of all. You see, Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Silverman deliver, dazzlingly, the sound of fine 1950s musical comedy stars. She’s a clarion, jazzy and fun. He’s powerfully masculine. They’re such pros, I nearly forgot Christopher Guest’s celebration of amateur theatre, Waiting For Guffman. It has a intentionally bad number called Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine, perhaps inspired by Nothing Ever Happens In Angel’s Roost, the inauspicious opener to The Golden Apple.


Gavotte

April 30, 2017

Sure, spring is a time of change, but was anyone fully prepared for the tumultuous transformation of New York’s community of critics? I sure wasn’t. Each alteration (and altercation?) came as a complete surprise to me, and since I’ve never been fond of change, I got a little sad over every move.

The spring of our discontent actually started in winter (say, there’s a better phrase) when the Times let go of long-time second-stringer Charles Isherwood. His was a voice we’d gotten used to hearing, as, over the years, an increasing number of notable shows weren’t reviewed by Chief Drama Critic Ben Brantley. The longstanding tradition is to believe that the Chief Drama Critic is the Most Powerful Man on Broadway. Which breeds considerable fear. And antipathy. Understudy Isherwood never garnered the same dread.

I grew up reading Walter Kerr in the Times every Sunday. Kerr’s early career included the writing of a couple of Broadway musicals, so there was never any doubt he was my kind of guy. Those were created with his wife, Jean Kerr, and when Walter became a critic, Jean wrote far more successful plays on her own. What would happen if a husband was put in the position of having to review his wife’s play? This Frequently Asked Question became the basis for a hit comedy by Ira Levin, Critic’s Choice.

The word, “recuse” keeps popping up these days, doesn’t it? But I digress. As a kid, I ate up Kerr’s columns. These weren’t reviews, per se, but think pieces on shows he’d seen – what made them entertaining, or how they could have been better. And that sort of analysis is what fascinated me. (It still does.) A former college professor, Walter Kerr was wonderfully articulate; hell, they named a theatre after him – a move I cheered.

The twenty-first century New York Times hasn’t provided space for Kerr-like wisdom. Luckily, there have been a handful of critics, writing for other organs, that pay attention to the machinations of theatre writing in their regular reviews. The one I’ve read most often, for the past sixteen years, is my old friend Matthew Murray at a website called Talkin’ Broadway. Every time a review of his came out, there’d be a blurb on the site’s theatre chat board, and this meant chatters were apt to respond. In effect, Matthew’s reviews were often the start of an argument. It should not surprise you to learn I like a good debate about theatre.

Murray’s no Kerr, but the connecting tissue is that from childhood to now, I’ve turned to critiques to learn more about writing for the theatre. And I should have already pointed out that it’s wholly unnecessary to agree with an opinion if you’re looking to learn from it. So, here we are, wondering what to make of the phenomenal success of Hamilton. What does it mean for us as musical theatre writers? Well, I found reading those rave reviews tiring after a while. The only naysayer I could find: Matthew Murray. Now, don’t jump to the conclusion that he’s some sort of idiot due to his immunity to the show’s many charms. Read what he has to say. It’s fascinating to learn why all the things that clicked for you didn’t click for him. That’s an education.

Ten years ago, my show, Such Good Friends, was chosen for presentation in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Would Matthew review my show, risking a rift like the one in Critic’s Choice? Nope. This wasn’t the first time Matthew had dealt with a friend on the other end of his microscope. He’d recuse himself, but would make sure another critic covered my show. He’d also write a feature about the show before it opened. Privately, he told me that he’d very much enjoyed. Then, at the end of the year, the Talkin’ Broadway reviewers named the best musicals they’d seen in any festival that year. And the winners were:

  • Bash’d – Awarded by Dan Bacalzo
  • The Seven-Year B*tch – Awarded by Peter Filichia
  • Unlock’d – Awarded by Matthew Murray
  • Such Good Friends – Awarded by Linda Tullberg

Talk about win-win! Matthew (and Peter Filichia) honored friends of mine, and I got the same honor from a stranger.

If the past few paragraphs have seemed like a valedictory, it’s because my astute old friend has decided to exit, to give up his position as reviewer of theatre for something that (I assume) pays a whole lot better. His last review posted a couple days ago. And what comes to mind is a news story I recently read about a public library somewhere in the northwest closing its doors. This great wealth of knowledge will no longer be part of my ongoing schooling. (I’ll also miss David Cote in Time Out New York.)

One bit of wisdom I’d picked up from Matthew is that Jesse Green, of New York Magazine, is another really good critic. And here you don’t have to take my word for it, or Matthew’s. The New York Times chose Green to replace Isherwood, which is good news for those of us who like good writing. The Times, “The Paper of Record,” sees itself as a meritocracy. Only the best get to work there. And yet, there was something of a hue and cry over the Green appointment. For quite a while, theatre criticism at The Times has come from white men, and there were those who’d been hoping the job would go to someone not white or not male. Before this teapot tempest, it hadn’t occurred to me Jesse Green was a white dude. (Jesse is a female character name in one of my shows.) I merely knew he was good – from reading him.

On the other hand, there’s another critic who consistently writes perplexing sentences. The kind I read over and over, trying to figure out their meaning, and only succeed half the time. The critic’s name doesn’t reveal gender, or any particular ethnicity. The most recent review, of Hello Dolly!, spends paragraph after paragraph telling the oft-told biography of Bette Midler, as if we needed to be introduced to one of the biggest stars of our time. Had this critic been chosen by the Times, they would have gotten that much hoped-for Person of Color. But a far worse choice, I think. But what do I know? This spring this abstruse scribbler won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

 

 


What would Rosie O’Donnell do?

April 17, 2017

That Facebook meme: I suppose I’m supposed to be gratified that so many people took a few seconds out of their day to name some musicals they like and loathe. I mean: I can’t deny that I wish people more people would think about musicals more. And here’s evidence that many are thinking about musicals some. But the listing of titles after the redundant categories – Musical I love, Musical I cherish – seems so meaningless, reductive to the point of being absurd.

And old news. If you say (as many did), Cats is the show you hate and Les Misérables is overrated, aren’t you saying something that’s been said thousands of times over the past thirty-plus years? Cineastes eventually stopped blasting Heaven’s Gate. Way to state the obvious, people.

(nsfw)

But I immediately began to question what musicals the poster has and hasn’t seen. If nobody listed one of my most-loathed sleepy nights in the theatre, The 1940s Radio Hour, it’s likely because nobody else had the great displeasure of seeing it. I searched in vain for any friend whose favorite show is Finian’s Rainbow, which, I began to assume, too few people have seen.

We live in an age of lists, or perhaps I should say, a listing age. And here it bothers me that folks weren’t telling the world why they cherish Assassins or what’s so wonderful about Urinetown. It’s not my disagreement with choices; it’s that I’d really like to hear the rationales.

As it happens, American Theatre has an interesting article by Diep Tran explaining her considerable troubles with Miss Saigon, which is the worst of the financially successful Broadway musicals I’ve ever seen. At the risk of sounding ancient, I’ll say that I remember a time when the mere mention of Vietnam made Americans wince, so troubling were our actions there, and the politics of that not-too-distant age. But leave it to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, creators of the far more effective sobfest, Les Misérables, to present a love story that’s merely set during our withdrawal from Vietnam, with nary a mention of the politics involved, or any condemnation of America seeing itself as the Great White Savior of the distant Asian country. The icing on this urinal cake is a scene co-opting a real-life tragedy with footage of Amerasian orphans like one would see in a telethon. The cherry on top is the thievery of a Richard Rodgers hit, There’s a Small Hotel for an affectless cri de coeur.

Facebook is supposed to draw us together, I guess, so it’s disappointing I didn’t find a lot fellow Frank Loesser fans through this. Just last Thursday I found myself laughing out loud at a scene from his 1950 collaboration with Abe Burrows, Guys and Dolls. I know it’s my uncle’s favorite musical, and his train stopped at Saratoga every summer for the exact same reason Nathan Detroit’s did. But he’s 90, so perhaps loving truly funny shows is a generational thing. I prefer How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, also by Loesser and Burrows (both shows have other credited book writers who seem not to have done much), in which every song and every scene provokes audience laughter. That’s quite an accomplishment, but Loesser did something even more impressive: He wrote book, music and lyrics to a musical through which I sob uncontrollably, The Most Happy Fella. And, to have his Italian-American characters sound convincing, he taught himself Italian. Gotta love it.

A widely-performed show that ended up in different categories – hate, love, overrated, underrated, I sob through – is Jason Robert Brown’s time-bender, The Last 5 Years. I wish somebody could explain to me what all the crying’s about. There’s this doormat woman who’s Still Hurting after her marriage is over, and she’s so busy feeling sorry for herself, I feel absolutely nothing. Also at the top of the show is a completely unfunny comedy song about a man whose Judaism is I important to him, dating a gentile is some huge deal. You know, like in Abie’s Irish Rose, the hit play of 1922! If only meme-answerers could explain why they liked it, I’d find it valuable.

But hey, it’s just a meme: a throwaway thing with little or no inherent value. I get that. As I’m writing this, my wife and child are off seeing a new musical on Broadway. It’s the third new musical my wife has seen this week. And it’s mere coincidence that all this attendance is happening while so many people are sharing titles of shows they’ve liked and loathed. But it leads me to muse: What if, instead of jotting down the names of favorites and un-favorites you saw years and years ago, you went out and explored? Go to shows you haven’t seen before. And then your answers, the next time this meme comes up, might be totally different.


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.


Anything for a laugh

March 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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