Sweet lovers love the spring

February 23, 2017

I used to complain that too few new musicals were opening on Broadway. A metaphor comes to mind: a field of dirt had grown so hard, very few seeds could take root. I don’t know whether we can rightly call Hamilton a massive plow that turned over the soil, but, folks, this is one exciting season. The quantity of truly new musicals (I don’t include Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn), who they’re by, what they’re about – all good. The field’s a blooming miracle.

Here’s another image of tearing down and starting over, a palpable revolution: Take a large old theatre and tear out all the seats. Create little stages all over the place, so that action occurs all around the audience. This is Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Dave Malloy’s songs are markedly different from anything I’ve ever heard on Broadway. Now, that title’s so unwieldy, people aren’t sure what to call it. It reminds me that in the heyday of the Broadway musical, shows often had titles that were different from their source material: Sweet Charity, Hello Dolly, Promises Promises, A Little Night Music, Man of La Mancha, to name some hits. In recent years, tons of shows based on movies have kept those titles, hoping to lure fans of the flicks to buy tickets: Legally Blonde, Catch Me If You Can, Sunset Boulevard, Waitress. So, you know what Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is based on? A small section of War and Peace. But that’s in the fine print. Josh Groban’s name is far bigger because he’s the thing that used to be common and now is rather rare: a big Broadway star whose name sells tickets.

The Comet‘s chief competition in the Tony race so far is a totally original musical named Dear Evan Hansen. It’s gratifying to see its recording ascending the Billboard sales chart like no show has for half a century. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are young theatre people who are certainly having their moment in the sun: they also wrote the lyrics to La La Land.

Composer Alan Menken has many Oscars on his shelf. For 35 years, he (certainly not Sondheim) has been the dominant show tune-smith. His new show this season is based on Chazz Palminteri’s memoir that became a monologue for the theatre and then a fine conventional movie about a quarter century ago: A Bronx Tale. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Each songwriter has another musical running on Broadway now: Aladdin and School of Rock.

You may recall I was disappointed by In Transit, but, setting the execution aside, the kind of show it is gladdens my heart. It’s not based on anything. It’s unusual in that there’s no orchestra: it’s all a cappella, the vocal accompaniment musical directed by my old friend, Rick Hip-Flores. The four writers have devoted themselves to theatre-writing – it’s their Broadway debuts – which, to my mind, is SO much better than when rock stars come slumming here, figuring, like a dilettante, that they’ll give Broadway a try.


So that’s what the season has been so far. What’s to come is also cause for excitement.

Come From Away, which I described last September, may be the right show for this turbulent time, since it’s the true story of Canadians welcoming immigrants. Totally original, and its writers’ debuts.

Amélie is songwriter Daniel Messé’s debut, and I know it seems as if I’m just giving my é key a workout, but Messé has teamed up with Broadway vets Nathan Tysen and Craig Lucas, who always does interesting work.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie are songwriters of such quality, I’m automatically interested in anything they do. In War Paint, they’ve two major Broadway talents heading the cast, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Big stars in an original musical? That doesn’t happen often these days.

It now strikes me that my sister has seen those last two shows, and I haven’t. But I don’t get to everything: For years I’d walk past the August Wilson Theatre and see the same marquis for Jersey Boys and have no interest in stepping inisde. The second day this month, I was startled to see the familiar sign was gone. Instead, in rather plain lettering, it said Groundhog Day. Since it was, in fact, Groundhog Day, I thought maybe they were just telling everybody what day it was. But the sign has stayed, so I’m reminded that the most eagerly-anticipated musical of the current season is, indeed, Groundhog Day, based on the beloved film, with songs by Matilda’s Tim Minchin. Years ago, Stephen Sondheim was working on an adaptation. Perhaps one day we’ll all wake up day after day and see it again.

The other London transfer is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with songs by Broadway vets Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Besides name recognition and family-friendliness, Willy Wonka will be warbled by two-time Tony winner Christian Borle. So there’s plenty of reason to believe this will be a Golden Ticket.

The songwriters I’m most enthusiastic about are Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. They’re adapting their animated film Anastasia for the stage. So, that’s a score we already know some of, and the some we know is choice. But I don’t go to the theatre excited to hear what I’ve heard before. My heart will be blessed by the sound of their new songs, fleshing out the score.

The last day of the season, Bandstand will open, the debut of its writers. It’ll be the season’s second show (the other was A Bronx Tale) that tried out at Paper Mill Playhouse, where I work from time to time. The prodigiously talented Andy Blankenbuehler is staging it and the star is Laura Osnes: reasons to go; reasons for optimism.

Used to be, we’d wait months and months between new musicals. This spring, they’re busting out all over.


Love can happen

February 14, 2017

Where have all the love songs gone? Long time passing.

So, I’m not going to discuss La La Land but one thing that struck me relates to Valentine’s Day and something of an existential crisis for me. At no point do the characters sing their affections for each other. In that way, the much-praised movie is markedly different from the cinematic musicals it seeks to emulate. But I worry that this is a sign of our times, and scarily common in stage musicals. Not a lot of songs that say “I love you” these days.

This brings to mind some lyrics from 75 years ago by Ogden Nash:

Tell a stranger, by curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger that love is now outmoded?
…I can’t believe that love has lost its glamour,
That passion is really passé?
If gender is just a term in grammar,
How can I ever find my way?

The danger is real. In a comment on this here blog six years ago, a millennial told me this:

There’s another consideration to be had in any discussion of romanticism in lyrics: the audience’s perception. Most people who make love in song come across to most people as either unschooled doe-eyed ninnies or total bullshitters. What would be your reaction if you saw a teenaged boy in real life say to his girlfriend, “Today, the world was just an address” or “Tonight there will be no morning star”? You’d think he was a bullshitter, because the falseness of those lines would convey exactly that.

First, I’m grateful to hear a different view. Second, why compare musicals to real life? Nobody attended West Side Story for an accurate depiction of the city’s gang wars. Third, if there’s a weakness in the quoted lyrics, well, declarations of ardor would appear to be Stephen Sondheim’s weak suit.

But I must admit I’m haunted by something here. If a younger generation finds expressions of passion corny, outmoded, or unnecessary, well, what the hell am I? Every day, I’m endeavoring to create a musical about people who love each other, and, by God, at some point they’re going to express it to each other. Am I writing a show that no one wants to see?

“Born Too Late” seems an appropriate way of describing me. We all know there was a far earlier point in the history of musicals in which the main reasons shows existed was as settings for love songs. Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter and their contemporaries saw Broadway as the principle launching pad for chansons d’amour. The Age of Standards was a time when virtually every popular hit was birthed on the Great White Way. Sure, eventually, shows started telling stories that had intrinsic value, but I maintain that one of the principle reasons we love West Side Story is that we’re drawn to Tony and Maria earnestly warbling “Tonight there will be no morning star.” Still, in 2017, it’s a well-loved show.

When musicals shy away from romance, well, that seems to me oddly self-defeating. Musicals, more than any form, tell romantic stories in a powerful emotional way. They’re obviously different from plays in that whatever point is being put across the footlights is aided by harmony, orchestra, the power of singing. And an audience that can accept the convention of characters singing their hearts out is more likely to be accepting of pronouncements of passion.

If you find such things hoary, or embarrassing, you might not like some of my musicals. There are plenty of Sondheim shows in which nobody sings about happy romantic feelings, although precious few have premiered in the past 30 years. And some stories can be pretty compelling without characters who serenade a beloved – I’m thinking of two arresting pieces composed by Jeanine Tesori: Fun Home and Caroline, or Change – but I’m one who finds the subject interesting enough to write about again and again.

I probably point out far too frequently that Jeanine and I wrote the Columbia Varsity Show in successive years. And, I thought at the time, that hers was excellent; she was clearly going somewhere. But mine had something hers did not: a love song. Now, most folks wouldn’t think of putting a love song in a show meant to spoof various aspects of campus life. But I hit upon the idea that one could list notorious college places and experiences in the form of a dating couple recalling their initial encounters:

After seeing you at all my most embarrassing moments
With you standing so near every time I could have died
With my face a brilliant red
Who’d have believed you if you said
That today you would be standing at my side?
She: And that day at the Furnald Grocery,
I really wanted to scream
You saw me buying seven packages of Ortho-Creme
He: Or in the lobby, during the fire drill
She: The night I was setting my curls
He: I saw you notice my pajama top on one of the F.I.T. girls

(They approach each other, and tentatively, awkwardly, they kiss.)

I, too, am embarrassed that I’ve solidified my old fogey status with a reference to a long-forgotten contraceptive. Yes, I can remember a time when there was a word for people unfamiliar with Ortho-Creme: Parents.

And with that, I wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day.


Shore to water

February 8, 2017

Just as Rocky Horror sings of a pelvic thrust that will drive you insane, Narrative Thrust is that thing that will drive your audience to emotional investment in your characters and their plights. A show that fails at this, no matter how strong its other elements may be, will leave viewers uninvolved.

I just caught Encores’ mounting of Big River, the Tony-winning Huckleberry Finn musical. There were some entertaining things about it, but narrative thrust was nowhere in sight. Don’t blame Mark Twain, author of the source material for two other musicals Encores did in a way that captivated. The authors of Big River, William Hauptman and Roger Miller, were completely new to musical theatre and made many beginners’ mistakes.

Before getting to those, pause to acknowledge the many ways in which the original Big River production, 32 years ago, lucked out. It opened in one of those woebegone Broadway seasons in which the whole community is so desperate for a hit, great praise and a slew of awards get heaped on something that would have been considered mediocre in any decent year. It had a particularly beautiful set by Heidi Landesman, fluid direction (Broadway debut of Des McAnuff, who’s been back many times since) and vibrant lead performances by fresh faces Daniel Jenkins and Ron Richardson. Country songs from an actual star of country music – well, that was a pretty novel thing back then. (These bits of luck don’t exist this week at City Center; it runs through Sunday.)

Landesman’s husband Rocco had the idea, back in the days when producers would get notions and will musicals into existence. So Hauptman was commissioned to adapt America’s most-hailed novel even though he’d not written a play in the seven years prior. There’s one very moving speech, and some funny parts, but the libretto is a collection of episodes, barely connected to each other. I was reminded of another odyssey of a naïve young man, Candide. Either show can be described by a popular title from contemporary children’s literature, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Various bad things happen to good people, and more than a few seem fairly arbitrary. What’s lacking is the sense that one thing is leading to another, with cause and effect. Huckleberry Finn and Candide are both portrayed as young men of limited intelligence. Choices they make are sometimes made for no good reason.

But the real problem is that nothing matters. In successful storytelling, events lead to other events, like dominoes falling. Actions have consequences. When actions don’t have consequences, you’re training your audience not to care. What the characters do shouldn’t or needn’t be invested in, since they lack lasting implications. They don’t affect the things to come.

Act Two of Big River (the better of the two) is filled with oddities. Huck watches as two charlatans con a grieving family out of a large inheritance. He then steals the money – a bold action with absolutely no consequences for him – and stashes it in a coffin which is then buried underground. Habitual theatre-goers would naturally see this as something similar to Chekhov’s gun on stage. It’s bound to get fired, right? Alas, no consequence; nothing made of it.

At least, you might think, Huck has learned some lesson about imitating relatives who are likely to show up a day or so later. Nope: In the next scene, he does the same thing, albeit for a nobler purpose. Lucky for him, the late-arriving kin is his old pal Tom Sawyer.

Books can afford to be episodic. We don’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at one sitting. We put the book down, at the end of a chapter, and return to it later. Twain addresses the ethical crisis of his century, slavery. A century later, over two hours, this musical makes the stunning political pronouncement – Slavery Is Bad – and it’s too many years after Emancipation for this to have much piquancy.

In an odd coincidence, Roger Miller had not written a song in six years prior to Big River, and, on the day of the first rehearsal, he still hadn’t written a song for the show. It’s easy to imagine a musician with limited knowledge of theatre and how it works, picking little moments to musicalize. Some of his songs are quite charming. I’m a sucker for a country waltz, so get some pleasure from You Oughta Be Here With Me, well-warbled by Laura Worsham here. But each act has a moment when a minor character runs on stage and energetically presents a dumb little ditty that has nothing to do with the rest of the show. There’s way too many numbers that don’t move the plot and I suspect Miller and Hauptman had no concept of how this might be a problem.

When a song lands in Big River, it seems it’s almost by chance. So the passion and energy behind Muddy Water is a pleasant uplift. The raft leaves the dock and it feels as if something’s taking flight. That’s the seventh song in the show: I was quite impatient by this time.

But it’s better than one might expect of neophytes. The bigger question remains: Why do producers, again and again, call upon people who’ve never written for the theatre before to give it a try? Are they hoping for another Big River? That good fortune will emerge from the combination of a famous title and the quirky talents of a music world superstar? Usually, the Twain don’t meet.


La casa del agua

February 4, 2017

Heard a rumor that there’s a film musical in development about Industrials. And since most rumors turn out to be false and the overwhelming number of movies “in development” never actually get filmed, it seems foolish to wait around for a flick not-yet-flickering to answer the question. I can tell you what an Industrial is, and commemorate my own experience working on one twenty years ago.

An Industrial is a musical that is created not for the general public to see. Some large company – not normally a purveyor of entertainment – wants to put on a show for a specific audience, usually at a convention. In the sixties, when, say, Milliken, wanted to display its new line of textiles for industry buyers, they’d do it with a song and a dance and top-flight Broadway talent (Tommy Tune, Chita Rivera, Bock & Harnick, Bob Fosse). Big business could pay significantly better than hit-or-miss Broadway, and there’s been many a year when the bulk of Jason Robert Brown’s annual income has derived from his work for State Farm.

Just as you’re unlikely to hear anything from a Kander & Ebb industrial, I’m not at liberty to play you songs from my industrials. The client paid for them, and the client owns them. And I’m happy with the money I received. But, since twenty years have gone by, and one of the companies that hired me no longer exists, I suspect nobody will mind if I describe my experiences with The Making of “Larry: The Musical.”

In the late nineties, I spent much of my time working with improv groups; I also taught improv. I got to know a lot of performers in what was then a fairly small community (it’s now enormous). A particularly close friend was a manic and driven young talent named Michael Bridenstine. And, from doing countless shows together, we had a great deal of trust in one another. So, when he told me he was working with Rafi Reguer, who’d been one of my improv students, on a special project, I instantly knew to say yes.  And.

Rafi worked for a company, a discount brokerage called Waterhouse Securities. Every year, it held an annual convention for its employees, and part of that was some silly piece of entertainment. Rafi was responsible for making the assembled conventioneers laugh, and this year, the beloved founder, Larry Waterhouse, was retiring. This meant that Rafi and some executives faced the problem of outdoing their previous efforts. He and Bridenstine decided to put this problem – How do we give Larry a proper send-off? – front and center. They created a video mockumentary about the company entertainment committee commissioning a Broadway-style musical commemorating Waterhouse’s career. It would show the behind-the-scenes preparation, including auditions and rehearsals, and the task of writing a Broadway-style score fell to me.

Rafi collaborated with me on the lyrics, and here we were on unequal footing. As I’ve mentioned countless times here, the key component of effective comedy is knowing your audience. Rafi knew his fellow employees. I knew squat about what a discount brokerage does. So, Rafi would say things like “if this lady says the words ‘she’ll do’ it will get a big laugh” and I was forced to trust him. We were also on unequal footing since Rafi had hired me with company money: In that sense, he was my boss. And that’s the thing about Industrials: you, the artist, must please the executives. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Happily, we had a great deal of trust in each other, and each brought a different element to the table. I know from musical comedies. Michael knows from funny videos. Rafi knew what the hell a brokerage is. As the piece evolved, I found my collaborators admirably receptive to my ideas. There was a place for a ballad that would be so sentimental, it might make people cry. There was an opening number that could also have served as a jingle for the company. And, when I heard the employees included the boss’ sons, identical triplets, I had the idea to have them come into the screen one at a time in a line. So, during Three Heads Are Better Than One you see one identical triplet, followed by a second identical triplet, followed by a black performer who didn’t look like the first two but could clearly out-sing them. The video shows the third triplet’s disappointment in not getting cast as himself.

Rafi and Michael wouldn’t remember this, but the best time I had on the project was recording the music with a sound engineer. He had one electric keyboard, and we kept creating new tracks in which I’d add sounds until we got something that sounded reasonably close to a Broadway orchestra. You could call that orchestration-on-the-fly because we didn’t take much time doing it. Rare is the chance to say “Let’s add a muted trumpet” and suddenly it’s there.

Rafi appreciated this enough to create and distribute a CD, which includes all those tracks, sans vocals, so you hear the score as sung and then you hear the score with just those synthetic instruments. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to, always bringing up warm memories, and Rafi wrote some extremely complimentary liner notes. So it’s just like a normal cast album.

Except, of course, that there’s nothing quite normal about an Industrial. Larry: The Musical never appeared on any stage. Nor was it intended to. The video, The Making of “Larry: the Musical” won three industry awards (I’ve a statue, a huge poster, and the CD framed in the manner of Golden Records) and this was screened for 500 Waterhouse employees in a Las Vegas ballroom. I didn’t get to attend, but, again, trust Rafi: “They laughed their heads off,” he told me soon after, “and during your sentimental ballad, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” I’m proud to have unleashed the Waterhouse waterworks twenty years ago.

(short trailer)


Symphony of wind-up toys

January 27, 2017

Having one of those faintly rhapsodic moments. The midwinter sun is pouring through my office windows, and my office actually has windows on four sides, counting the one in the door to the living room. And so, a tiny space feels much bigger, as if a desk had been set up out of doors. Around me is a well-illuminated partly cloudy sky.

I’m listening to a bunch of instrumental pieces I’ve written over the years. I’ve been thinking of putting them on a CD for my daughter to fall asleep to. One piece was written specifically for that purpose a month or so ago. When composing wordless music, a certain pressure is lifted. In musical theatre songwriting, making sure the audience understands every word is a primary goal. Sans language, that ceases to be a major concern. Even if a piece tells a story (“program music”), the audience isn’t expecting to get it, exactly.

The newest piece – my first composition of 2017 – marks the culmination of a good amount of thinking before a note was written; daydreaming, one might say. And I’ve just reminded myself that this blog is called “There’s Gotta Be a Song” which resembles a song title of mine, There Oughta Be a Song. So, this musical I’m working on should begin with warmth, and there oughta be an overture that puts the audience into a certain frame of mind. The first communication, non-verbally, should get them thinking about a sleeping baby. Then, the first scene of the show is morning: the baby is awake, the father’s feeding it, the mother frenetically gets ready for a day at the office. It’s an anxious and contentious scene and it should be a little startling coming out of the tranquility of a depiction of a sleeping child.

Looking back over my life over the past years, I know that my most harried hours have been spent on the nightly struggle to get my daughter to sleep. But that’s reality, not my fictional musical. So, here’s the program for my program music: A child is gently lulled to sleep with wind-up toys. (I can remember that I, as a child, had one that played To Each His Own, and another that played Tenderly. I can hear neither song today without thinking about childhood.) The first draft of my show had a quodlibet in three-quarter time, with different tunes for each parent. For my overture, I knew I’d start one waltz, which would keep repeating; then, a few bars later, I’d start another one, which would keep repeating. Eventually, there’d be so many, going in counterpoint, the listener would picture a crib with way too many stuffed animals making music – and some cacophony. Eventually, the themes should slow and fade out. (Note: I didn’t quite achieve that goal, yet.)

Speaking of non-verbal communication, I also thought about lighting. Overtures often involve darkening the auditorium. I want lights to gradually come up, as dawn breaks, and end up in a harsh glare of the family’s fraught morning. So, instead of that slow-and-fade thing, I’ve written a segue into the opening number, which is eight-eighth-notes-to-the-bar ostinato rock. And if that’s not what my audience is expecting, all the better. I’m a great believer in rattling expectations.

I’ve talked before about how valuable it is to know the parameters of the piece you’re composing – the more, the merrier. So, what tunes to write for wind-up toys? This may not be true any more, but when I was a kid, music boxes and toys had a tendency to go out of tune. This may have led me to the thought that I could use a wrong-sounding interval, such as the flat fifth. Now, an ascending flat fifth makes everyone think of West Side Story: Bernstein uses it again and again, in that whistle the gang uses, as well as Cool and Maria. So, stay away from that. Start with a descending flat fifth and quickly resolve it because, don’t forget, this theme is not about stress. I repeated the first two bars, and the fifth bar is a rather normal ascending major triad. It was time to go an interesting place, so I chose an unexpected chord, and did a little dance with the minor third of the scale. With much repetition leading to a cadence, I now had my first sixteen-bar theme.

A second theme should contrast. The first involved quarter notes, so now a smattering of eighth notes is called for. If the first danced around the third note of the minor scale on its sixth and fourteenth bars, this could dance around the tonic any place but. By “dance around” I mean fluttering around a note using others close to it. I also went up and down in an arpeggio covering a wider range than a human voice could do. One of the freeing things about writing instrumental music is that you’re not stuck with just what can be sung.

Wondering which should be played first led me to decide on neither. For something introductory I thought of a piece I get unaccountably emotional about, Henry Mancini’s opening credit theme for Two For the Road, a wonderful film depicting the highs and lows of a struggling marriage (something my musical does as well).

On tinkly eighth notes, broken chords are played in an unusual sequence, and the harmonic changes are subtle. I’ve used similar figures with some frequency in instrumental pieces, and also Mommy Is Yummy in the show.

Traditional overtures present themes that will later be heard as songs in the show. At this point, my score has one waltz, and I thought it worth featuring. But it has a different set of harmonies. If I introduce it, there would be clashes. But wasn’t cacophony part of my original plan? The song could enter last and before too long the conflicting wind-up toys could fade out.

Now I had a new idea, one that I didn’t start with. This one theme would emerge from the overlapping counterpoint, and the audience would suspect it’s a tune they’ll hear later in the show. (And they’d be right.) Clarity would emerge from the noise of the seven countermelodies. And, I found, I could use some of those previously stated themes as accompaniment.

Since the song and the newly-composed themes have different chord progressions, those conflicting bars guided my hand in coming up with some of the other melodies. There’s a set of dotted half notes that emerged from looking at what notes are common to the two clashing chords.

I’m a bit self-conscious, now, that I’ve gotten too technical. Certainly, listeners won’t be thinking about any of this inner architecture when they hear the piece. Except you will. Because I just told you.

 


I’ve got my suspicions

January 17, 2017

Oh, boy! My birthday is here, and here’s my chance to say a few nice things about my shows. Because who’s going to stop me? (Actually, there’s self-restraint: I try to avoid bragging the other 364 days of the year.)

You meet new people, they wonder what you do, and, in my case, I often feel there’s no good way of explaining. I write musicals. If there isn’t one playing, then there really isn’t a good way of getting an inkling of what they’re like. (Plus, I see to it that no two of my shows resemble each other.) Sure, one could whip out an audio or video excerpt, but consider: All these songs were written in service of a story. If you’re just looking at one song, you’ve no idea how it propels the tale it’s attached to. I suppose I could set it up, laying out where we are in the story, but that’s me talking, not the show’s characters interacting, evolving.

Certainly, there are times in which you can take a single tile out of a great big mosaic, and folks can appreciate that single tile for what it is. I think audiences appreciate my duet involving singers singing about how their vocal ranges make beautiful music together without knowing that they’re suspects in a backstage mystery, Murder at the Savoy. Yet there’s a bit of theatrical tension in the bridge that gets lost –

When their voices harmonize
Or sing in counterpoint
The listeners respond with sighs
And tremble in each joint

In the show, the audience sees that they’re being eavesdropped on. The over-hearers indeed sigh, and there’s a question of whether they’ll be discovered in their hiding place. Without that staging, the lyric’s not nearly as interesting.

The book to Murder at the Savoy is not very complicated – I can say that since I wrote it. The book to The Christmas Bride is MK Wolfe’s creation, and it’s filled with those twists and turns found in melodramas and old novels. Our source material, ironically, was an old Charles Dickens novella notably free of twists and turns. So, I greatly appreciated having all sorts of dramatic balls in the air when I wrote large musical scenes. Good Advice is a massive quodlibet with four or five different parts. (I truly can’t recall the number, because it was rewritten so many times, I’m not sure how many we ended up with.) There are twelve parts to Alone In the Night, the first act finale, and nearly as many pages in the act two opener. I swear, I don’t generally write long songs, but you’ll think me very verbose if I try to set up all the story you need to know to comprehend the tension inherent in The French Wheel. So I won’t.

Maybe I go overboard with my suspicion that “you had to be there” applies so often. But when I fondly remember how the audience at Area 51 howled with laughter at a tough-as-nails army general’s rather crass how-to-be-sexy lesson, Work Your Wiles, I tend to think only Gail Dennison and Mary Denmead could possibly make it so hysterical. Tom Carrozza and I had these two in mind when we wrote the show, and Tom created characters that played to their idiosyncratic strengths. We’d all been part of New York’s comedy scene in the 1990s, and I’d witnessed, more than once, Gail’s fulminating power and Mary’s wacky Ethel Merman impression. Somehow, I managed to utilize both in their duet, and the cascades of cackles throughout the Sanford Meisner Theatre were ignited, in part, by the joy inherent of two old friends performing together.

Over the holidays – and shouldn’t I consider my birthday one? – I’ve been cleaning out some old boxes and came across a treasure trove of DVDs I’d long thought lost. It was quite a treat to see Vanessa Dunleavy’s rendition of Inside of Me from Area 51 performed at the old Donnell Library. For that concert, knowing that I wouldn’t have the lunacy of Carrozza’s sci-fi spoof to set it up, I wrote her a monologue to speak over what I’d originally written as a dance break. The audience believed they were seeing a young lady who is rather turned on by meeting a molecular biologist, thus justifying the lyric, which is chock full of double entendres. In the actual musical, the character’s seduction is part of an evil Vegas-esque floor show: the character doesn’t really find the scientist attractive at all. Vanessa’s take, which she reprised in the 2011 cabaret retrospective, Things We Do For Love, is seriously sexy and wildly risible. At present, I don’t have the hardware to upload that video, so, instead, here’s something else I wrote in which a woman’s hot and bothered over someone in a different profession.

So, is this mining silliness out of lust something of a theme with me? Well, I can see how it looks that way. But there’s something else. When I started out writing this little piece of self-praise I didn’t intend to find a theme in what I’ve been writing all these years. But the common bond I now see is dramatic tension. Libido’s a kind of tension. So is the fellow who can’t resist the roulette wheel when we know the malevolent policeman is trying to ensnare him. Or that couple listening to the canoodling of a tenor and a soprano.

Everybody’s favorite writer on the subject of musical theatre, Peter Filichia, once praised my building up tension in Such Good Friends, for which I wrote book, music and lyrics. Now, I know how icky it is to go about quoting your own rave reviews, but, since that’s the sort of indulgence one is only allowed on one’s birthday, I’m going to give him the last word:

For a show that started out like a lark and lulled the audience into thinking this would be one long nostalgia trip, Such Good Friends offered astonishing tension in the second act, where Katz perfectly came to grips with his material, often in unexpected ways, and occasionally having its characters surprise and/or disappoint us. It’s one thing to write an apt, craft-filled, melodious score, which Katz did, but we all know the book is the hardest part, and his work there was just as accomplished. Never in the entire festival did I feel an audience so rapt with attention. Afterwards, someone said, “It’s not that you could hear a pin drop; you could hear a tear drop.” That person must have heard mine, for I wept – partly at the plight of the characters, but partly because I’m so moved when I encounter an all-too-rare work of quality. Thanks, Noel, and everyone else with Such Good Friends.


One day we dance

January 9, 2017

People – good people – are steadfastly ignoring the reality of the life of Rockettes.

This here blog steadfastly steers clear of politics, but, currently, the world of musical comedy, of which the Rockettes are a part, overlaps with the political sphere, of which the Inaugural is a part. (My fear is, should I start discussing politics, I might unleash a torrent of sphere words.)

It shouldn’t be too controversial to point out that a lot of people hate Donald Trump. Looking ahead at his presidency, I predict there will be times to call for his impeachment, times to call for a filibuster of some horrible legislation he pushes for, times to march in various protests. The aim might be removing him from office, or stopping a bad law from passage, or affecting policy. I’ll be there.

But the Inaugural is a little different. Taking a stand as Trump’s sworn in will not effect change. No law will be stopped; no policy could possibly be altered; Chief Justice Roberts will administer that oath no matter how unhappy the majority of voters are.

In the weeks since the election, various music superstars have publicly refused their invitation to perform at Trump’s installation ceremony. Good for you, Elton John! You’re already a multi-millionaire with a huge income (including musical comedies) and nothing bad will happen to you by declining to sing outdoors in Washington, DC in the middle of January.

But Rockettes aren’t millionaires. Far from it. For some reason, nobody’s addressed the brass tacks economic issues faced by New York’s dancers. The competition to get jobs is fierce. To be in that world-famous kick line, you have to be a certain size. Also, dancers have notably short careers. Rockettes must live close enough to Radio City Music Hall to work there, and apartments ain’t cheap.

Roll back, for a moment, to the time before they were Rockettes. (It happens that I knew some Rockettes before they got the gig, so it’s easy for me to picture this.) They train – hard – to ascend to a level of proficiency that’s particularly difficult for me to imagine right now after all that holiday eating. But these young women aren’t starving themselves as a strategy, they’re near starving due to the economics inherent in their chosen profession. Gigs, when you can succeed at getting one, are usually brief, low-paying, and health benefits are nearly impossible to come by. They hold down survival jobs, frequently soul-crushing ones, just to pay the bills. And those bills include dance classes, gym time, and have you ever seen the price of LaDuca shoes?

Imagine, then, each Rockette’s thrill signing their first contract. At last, steady work! With benefits. Their parents will proudly tell everyone they know. It’s a plum credit on a resumé. You get to work in the gorgeous Radio City Music Hall, well taken-care-of by backstage staff. In these ways, it’s a dream assignment.

One might feel that, besides the many good things involved in being a Rockette, there are also some not-so-good things. That’s true of any job, no? You might not like the hours, for instance: an exhausting performance schedule during the Christmas season. Here’s where it gets a little complex: certain Rockettes aren’t allowed to turn down gigs; other assignments are voluntary. They performed at previous inaugurations, and many other patriotic displays. You weigh the pluses and minuses of any job, and if the pluses tip the scale, you take it.

People – good people – were initially upset with the idea that the Rockettes were being forced to perform. This seems to me a strange sort of thing to get upset about, especially compared to the large number of Trump proposals that will have a negative impact on ordinary innocent people all over the world. A worker, of any sort, signs a contract, agreeing to terms with a boss who has certain requirements of labor. How is that anyone else’s business? If the talented dancers didn’t want the job, which comes with certain requirements and restrictions, they didn’t have to sign the contract.

But then the hue and cry shifted slightly, from saying the high-kickers shouldn’t be forced to perform at the Inauguration to saying they simply shouldn’t perform at Donald Trump’s installment at all. The argument, here, is the same one we’ve heard for a year and a half: that Trump is an affront to human decency, that he spreads bigotry and fear, that he acts so childishly and unscrupulously he can’t be trusted with the Oval Office and nuclear codes. (I agree with all of that.) But there’s a big therefore coming:

THEREFORE

you, tall dancer, should not grace his stage on the 20th. Our feeds and, ironically, the Twitterverse, lit up with exhortations to the young ladies to sit this one out. As if it’s important. As if it’s the only proper response to the perfidy of the new Commander-in-Cheeto.

Good people: could you get off your high horse?

Yes, I realize how you feel about Trump, but what you fail to realize is how financially precarious the life of a dancer is. She Works Hard For the Money was a song in a film about a not-rich dancer for a reason. It’s one thing to pressure Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli to eschew the celebration – they’re very rich, but how dare you make a young professional performer feel bad about making a buck? Boycotting is a purely symbolic gesture – the sort only upper class people can afford. So save your liberal piety for the important stuff, coming soon, after January 20.