Women’s world

May 13, 2018

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

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

lyrics by Dorothy Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We’ve been hit

May 5, 2018

Frozen’s prologue is incredibly moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some days

April 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh what a lovely pal is mother

April 15, 2018

One of the unsung heroes of contemporary musical theatre celebrates her birthday today, Sara Louise Lazarus. If I say a few words about what she does, my hope is that it’s going to help you create better musicals. God knows the 18 years working with her have enriched my craft.

But I must admit I have what might be called the diarist’s impulse: the sense that I should write this all down before the memory fades. I don’t want to forget the lessons, the principles, the way of working, the caring. It’s been eight months since we worked together and… well, you know brains.

And mine can’t shake a thought about pit pulls. It’s said they sink their sharp teeth into something – say a postman’s leg – and refuse to let go. Jaws clamp down and it’s impossible to loosen that grip. Now picture a long day of rehearsals for a group cabaret. Say twenty-one young performers have been scheduled for twenty-minute sessions working with Sara. If I’ve done the math right, that’s seven hours or work for us. Except it’s not, because Sara never sticks to the twenty minute limit. There’s something she sees in a performance that she absolutely needs to make better, and refuses to give up on it – pit bull teeth in a leg.

Now, if you’re one of the individuals singing, you’re thrilled to have your performance sharpened. If you’re me, on the other hand, you’re exhausted from hours and hours of dogged fine-tuning. But, we keep on going, late into the night, because getting actors to convey truth in their songs is so very important to us.

Not every day is marathon-rehearsal day. More often, it’s a structured education with a series of steps that lead to a fully-acted, truthfully-expressed rendering of a musical theatre song. Sara breaks the process down into a set of assignments that constitute an in-depth investigation of material. You take the text, sans music, and work on it as an actor. At this point it’s a prose monologue in which you don’t stop at rhymes, or the end of lines, but move along at a pace totally determined by the emotions inherent in the words; how you respond to them. When Sara’s satisfied that you’ve investigated the lyric and taken in all the implied or expressed facts about the character singing and their situation, you move on to learning the music. Singing the song now involves a discovery of how the composer has dealt with the cadences of the lyric. Has he emphasized the syllables you emphasized in your monologue rendition? No? Then figure out why.

So, readers of this blog know that it’s written for writers. And I’m going to pause here to remind you of the need to stay on the same page. The lyricist has an idea about how the text should be acted. The composer can’t have a conflicting idea. Collaborators must go back and forth, revising and adjusting, until they’re on the same page.

For seventy-five years now, since Oklahoma!, subtext has had paramount importance in good musical theatre writing. Sara’s students then explore the thought behind the words. I don’t know if this is true of everyone, but, whenever I speak, my brain darts through all sorts of words and phrases I choose not to say out loud. (Some have been known to make fun of me for my halting way of talking.) Characters in good musicals have stuff in their heads the audience will never get to hear. And, just because I just mentioned the show, let’s use People Will Say We’re In Love as an example. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric says

Don’t throw bouquets at me
Don’t please my folks too much
Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
People will say we’re in love

But what the love-sodden character is actually thinking is just the opposite:

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it

None of that is said out loud; it’s the subtext. So the singers go back into monologue and speak something half theirs, half Hammerstein.

Show that you adore me by tossing me flowers. Don’t throw bouquets at me
Be a great partner by cozying up to my parents. Don’t please my folks too much
Interact with me like you think I’m scintillating. Don’t laugh at my jokes too much
I love you, and don’t give a damn who knows it. People will say we’re in love

Sounds crazy, no? Well, that’s Laurie and Curly for you. A couple of contradictions who don’t express exactly what’s on their minds.

The culmination of the process is to match movements to the subtext, so that gestures – and these can be as subtle as a shift in where one’s eyes focus – are timed so that the audience sees the impulse to sing a line before the line is sung.

I realize this might sound unnecessarily complex, or seem unnatural when expressed in a quick essay. But Sara’s dealing with a roomful of bright students who eventually grasp this (or don’t) over time, as a group. And think about this: In real life, we listen to people who say things but have thoughts they don’t say all the time. So, a Sara-directed performance is infinitely closer to real life than the far-less-acted vocal displays we’re all too used to seeing.

There are too many Sara-trained performers on Broadway to name. Hello Dolly, School of Rock, Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Wicked, The Bridges of Madison County, Little Shop of Horrors, Side Show, Throughly Modern Millie. I know, I know: Lists are boring to read. Has one teacher put a higher percentage of students on The Great White Way? I think not. Call it the benefit of being bit by a pit bull.

But the benefit for me, being a part of all of this, is a revolution in how I think about writing lyrics and music. My Sara-fed familiarity with the process actors go through has immeasurably affected my creative process on my last four or five musicals. Today a huge quantity of entertainers are wishing Sara a happy birthday, acknowledging how she upped their game. Me too, but it’s a slightly different game.

Morning devotional

April 8, 2018

Sounding similar to proselytes knocking on my door, asking if I’ve gotten to know Jesus, a lot of people are now asking what I thought of the television version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, I don’t wish to sound smug, or to slam the door in anyone’s face, but the question is connected to a fundamental misunderstanding of what I do. Theatre is created to be experienced live. Easter’s broadcast showed a live audience enjoying a star-studded production and we TV viewers have our faces pressed to the glass, supposing we know what it’s like to be in the room where it happened. We do not.

The enthusiastic throng in the Park Avenue Armory didn’t take in the zippy camerawork we couch potatoes did, and the stunning visual effect depicting the Ascension may not have wowed as strongly from all seats. But what’s most obvious is that rock music’s piquancy is connected to loud sounds that don’t fly to a satellite and back, or along a cable. The bass and drums literally rock the house, felt through the floorboards like a small earthquake. Anybody get that at home? Put a different way, is attending a rock concert anything like watching a rock concert on TV? Or: can the small screen with its lousy speakers only provide a distant simulacrum? If your living room floor was shaking, chances are that was an earthquake. Check your crystal.

I’ve heard that John Legend, in concert, is a delightful charismatic performer. That he has an ingratiating smile, makes eye contact with the audience, and has a rich, honeyed tone that envelopes the audience like a puff of fog. I say I’ve heard this, because none of that good stuff made its way from New York, to that satellite and back, to my living room. And how could it? This blockage is inherent in the medium, not the fault of Legend or director David Leveaux. In an early scene, Jesus leaned down to touch front-row fans, and they certainly looked like they were having a good time. Me, I’m alienated. I like to have a good time, not just watch other people having a good time.

Still, the music and libretto were on display, and I’m happy to muse on that. I think it’s an innovative and influential piece with many fine virtues that aren’t present in the other works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But, I’ll warn you now: some of these couldn’t be rendered on the idiot box. The revolution could not be televised.

The young Englishmen took the idea of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead and retold the most familiar story ever told from the point of view of a different character. And so, the final days of Jesus are told through the lens of Judas Iscariot. And this means that the usual requirement that the tale be expressed through song is lifted. We all know the story, but what we don’t know, and are automatically interested in, is how Judas feels as things progress. My six-year-old wanted to know why Caiaphas and Annas were so angry and I had no answer. The piece doesn’t bother explaining. But why Judas is worried about his friend’s growing celebrity status – that’s explored and explicated. And it’s why I’ve always thought Heaven On Their Minds is a terrific opening number.

“Jesus!” Judas wails, on a rock tenor A, fortissimo, and you feel his distress. Now, for the first time in musical theatre history (early 70s), rock is being used for full expressive power. Of course he screams, and of course his screams resonate around the house – there’s ample justification for it. And Broadway vet Brandon Victor Dixon seemed to have all the right moves, but – sorry to say this – my little TV speakers failed to rock the room. It was like watching something through a vaselined lens. I didn’t feel Judas’ anxiety because his sound didn’t hit my ears like normal rock does. Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote something powerful, and the broadcast diffused that.

Similarly, Legend, Dixon and Sara Bareilles express differing points of view during a 5/4 number called Everything’s Alright and I know, from previously seeing it live, that it can be pretty exciting. Here, it was forgettable, although this may have involved the lack of acting experience of Legend and Bareilles. The writing, in a large quantity of set-pieces, allows rock stars to wail out the emotions we already know are inherent. It’s as if the songwriters understood that providing ample opportunities for strong singers to rock out would be enough to make an entertaining evening. I like Jesus Christ Superstar because of the power of its best numbers. But rock legend Alice Cooper pranced with way too little camp for me to crack a smile during an old-fashioned comedy song. The supposedly-scary Pontius Pilate (Ben Daniels) failed to frighten. The wonderfully humanizing Gethsemene number didn’t move me a bit. And I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve seen these numbers work, gloriously, live. Here, live via satellite, they had little impact.

Still, fewer mistakes were made than were on the other televised musicals from the past decade or two, and I suppose we should all be grateful for that. It’s a weird form that can never quite work. So, even if they cast a better Jesus, Mary Magdalene, King Herod, Pontius Pilate and Annas, I don’t think I’d be raving right now. Call it Jesus Christ, Mildly-Effective-Star.

Change of seasons

March 31, 2018

This changes everything.

There comes a moment in the musical I’m writing where characters say “this changes everything” and it’s a big deal. 75 years ago on this day, a revolutionary piece called Oklahoma! changed everything in the American theatre. From that day forward, musicals had to do at least some of the things Oklahoma! did. Anything that was written prior now seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. I ask you: When, in the history of stage performances has there ever been such a game-changer?

As 75 years have passed, some consider Oklahoma! old-fashioned. But you know what’s much more old-fashioned? Every Broadway musical that premiered before it. So, let’s imagine what Broadway was like pre-Oklahoma! Generally, you went to musicals to have a few laughs, hear some good tunes. Nothing wrong with that. I confess, with no embarrassment, I enjoy those old musical comedies. Now think about a good straight play. No tunes to enjoy. Instead, you watch characters interact, and you get emotionally invested in what happens to them. Each is distinct. The plot probably gets you wondering what will happen next, at points. A good play is moving, in part, because the characters feel so real to the viewer. None of these virtues regularly applied to musicals that came out more than 75 years ago. The characters weren’t fully drawn, with distinct voices, interacting in a way that made you care what happened to them. Sure, now and then they might have had a moving song, and certainly stars of the era like Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman were idiosyncratic characters. But, in the minds of the creators, musical plots never needed to make you wonder what would happen next, because the real purpose of the show was to provide a platform for the songs the tunesmiths hoped would be hits.

In the decade leading up to Oklahoma!, no composer was more successful at churning out those hits than Richard Rodgers. He and collaborator Lorenz Hart had burst on the scene in 1925 with a revue to raise funds for the Theatre Guild. The Theatre Guild, back then, was a high-minded producing office that promoted the best in world dramatic literature: they did Strindberg, Ibsen and Shaw; here, in America, they found a young phenom named Eugene O’Neill. So, those expectations we have of a good play were generated, in part, by these master producers. But, in 1943, they’d fallen on hard times and wondered if anything could be done with a script they’d bombed with some seasons earlier, Green Grown the Lilacs by a man named Lynn Riggs. They called Rodgers to urge him to make a musical out of it. Hart understandably rejected the idea, since he gravitated towards sophistication, and, in the final year of his life, a lot of cocktails. So Rodgers then called Oscar Hammerstein, who’d churned out nothing but bombs throughout this period. Back in 1927, Hammerstein had done something extraordinary with Show Boat, which embodied many of the dramatic virtues I described in the last paragraph. (I refer to Show Boat as the spark that didn’t light the kindling, as similar shows did not follow in its wake.) The producers and this newly minted team had an exciting idea in mind: to create a musical play. The story could be light, but the dramaturgy would be taken as seriously as it is in any serious drama. Actions would be fully motivated. The psychological make-up of all major characters would be dealt with. One example: the sexual subconscious of the heroine would be depicted in a dream ballet choreographed by Agnes DeMille.

DeMille was famous at the time for the Wild West ballets she’d created with composer Aaron Copland. Listening to Rodeo and Billy the Kid (as I often do), one discovers an analog to the propulsive forward thrust of galloping horses. In Oklahoma!, Rodgers latched on to some similar ideas. Think of the vamps under I Cain’t Say No and The Farmer and the Cowman, the shuffles under All or Nothing or the country fiddle zipping along in the overture. The point here isn’t that Rodgers was derivative of Copland, it’s that he took seriously the idea that his music should depict the story’s time and place. Those wonderful hit-filled scores he’d done previously with Hart lack this verisimilitude. I imagine he didn’t care about such things, but now, working on this musical play, he prioritized telling the story, rather than generating radio hits.

The first essay I can remember writing about musical theatre detailed Rodgers’ transformation from a jazzy chart-topper to dramatic storyteller. But equally remarkable was Hammerstein’s evolution into the greatest dramatist of the time. Those who think of Oklahoma! as fluff may have forgotten it concerns a class conflict involving a laborer who literally lives below the ground, an Arab immigrant who sells hallucinogenic drugs to a virgin (causing her to have a sex-dream we see), men sharing porn and a connected threat that a rival will be knifed in the eyeball, a murder trial that must be done precisely according to statute or the territory won’t be granted statehood, and a fiancé who so doubts his bride’s fidelity he makes her swear their future children will look like him. Fluff, it’s not, although Rodgers and Hammerstein tackled more serious stuff in their next four shows: Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, and The King and I.

And when other writers tackled tough subjects – West Side Story and Cabaret come quickly to mind – it’s because Oklahoma! opened the door. All great musicals follow in its footsteps, with a seriousness of purpose, with ample thought to the psychological underpinnings of character actions, with music that effectively depicts the setting. Oklahoma! may not be my favorite musical. It may not be yours. But chances are our favorites never would have existed were it not for the myriad innovations unleashed 75 years ago today.

Pieces of eight

March 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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