November 17, 2018

I envy the music critic Alex Ross for his ability to talk about composition in a way that both musicians and the never-even-took-piano crowd can understand. And there’s an assumption in that: I can’t be sure those wholly unfamiliar with theory are able to follow along. But today, I want to write about the process of choosing the notes to throw on a page. And I want to throw words on this page that won’t alienate anyone.

A song has various components. One is


and if I asked you to hum your favorite showtune – sans words – the melody is what you’d be humming. In musicals, it’s important that the tune puts across the lyric in a way that makes dramatic sense. So, the composer looks at text in the way an actor might, choosing what syllables to emphasize:

Don’t call me at 3 a.m. from a friend’s apartment.
I’d like to choose how I hear the news.

To Andrew Lloyd Webber, the important syllables in this rather moving passage are “ment” of “apartment” and “I’d.” The voice leaps up to hit these fairly hard; then the same thing happens on “how I.” Does that make any sense to you? Of course it doesn’t. But that’s my theory: Andrew Lloyd Webber is an Englishman who doesn’t know how to speak English.

The other trouble with the leap is that it’s hard to sing. After sitting down below the staff, you have to ascend a major seventh – a rather uncommon interval – into a completely different part of the vocal range. Am I being too technical, here? This is merely evidence for my other theory: that Andrew Lloyd Webber hates singers.


There’s more to a song than the vocal line. The piano or orchestra will definitely play something in addition to the melody. Two notes that are different make up a chord. I find the selection of chords particularly fascinating. They give emotional contours to a tune. And I’m not going to name names here, but I know of a major Broadway score in which the composer sang into a tape recorder, sans accompaniment. Others filled in the harmonies, and those others did a particularly wonderful job. The result is a famously beautiful score, but the people who didn’t get the credit are the deserving ones. Sorry, I’m not going to reveal the secret.

Garden variety scores tend to use the most obvious harmonies, and I’ve noticed this is often true of works by rock songwriters. Most pop music is written on guitars, and the fingers of rockers tend to fall on familiar frets. The aesthetic, over there in pop-land, isn’t to search for patterns you haven’t heard before. I don’t know why. In my writing, I’m constantly looking for the chord you’re not likely to expect. But one can go overboard with this sort of thing, and a “constantly surprising refrain” may be too weird for most ears. So, show-creators strike a happy medium: not too hot; not too cold, but something Goldilocks would enjoy.


“Hup-two-three-four!” the drill sergeant yells, and that’s about as uninteresting as a rhythm can get. But get too interesting, and your audience gets unsettled. We need Goldilocks again.

Whenever you emphasize an unexpected beat – that is, not the marching cadence, that’s called syncopation, which is the root of jazz, broadly defined.

In the theatre, we’re always concerned with the lyrics sounding natural. Musicals shift from dialogue to singing, and if syllables get mis-accented, well that’s going to get in the way of understanding. Nothing’s worse than that. And yet false stresses abound – the songwriting mistake I see most often. Just yesterday, I was working on a song that’s in one of these awful jukebox musicals, and the word “watusi” put “wa” and “si” on strong beats, leading to all sorts of problems.

In an early comedy song, I commented on these sorts of errors with this bridge:

The bridge is a little too brief
And the rhythm is beyond belief

Of course, the challenge was to set the last line with as many false accents as possible.


When I first started writing musicals, I hadn’t progressed very far in my piano studies. I knew what chords I wanted, and my first few scores I wrote nothing but lead sheets. These show what the singer does – the melody and lyric, and name the chord – G7, F#dim, etc. Those tell you what the chord is, but not how to express it. And that’s leaving a lot up to chance, or your arranger or accompanist’s taste. A composer’s job isn’t truly finished until there’s a full piano score, telling the musician exactly what both hands are playing.

Sometimes, the inability to write an interesting accompaniment is related to insufficient piano skill. And there are plenty of times in which singers need the support of hearing the melody in the accompaniment; this is called doubling.

There’s a song I admire greatly in which the melody isn’t the least bit impressive, the rhythm is annoyingly machine-like, and the harmonic structure isn’t extraordinary. But the accompaniment is so fascinating, and the lyric so trenchant, that when the components come together it hits you with such power, you go “wow!”

Another hundred songwriters aren’t considering interesting ways to support the melody. I think back to my early teens, and recall my composition teacher encouraging me to come up with something more compelling than the block chords on quarter beats I used in my earliest songs. Many current tunesmiths hit the same dull chord on the hup-two-three-four. If they knew now what I knew then, scores of scores would be livelier.



Ride a Harley

November 6, 2018

I’m not breaking my no-politics-rule. You can safely read on. But I do like to commemorate a holiday (I assume we all have today off, because why would a democracy make it difficult to vote?) and so, if there’s some overlap with Election Day in my usual discussion of musicals, all the better.

I’ve thought, from time to time, of starting a completely separate blog for politics, but there are so many. This musing on musicals is comparatively unique. What connects the politics and musical-writing is that they involve choosing words, carefully, for maximum effectiveness, usually with an emotional component. And I’m reminded of my year-I-graduated-college investigation of the advertising industry, which would seem to involve something similar. Two people effectively talked me out of it. One was a writer of musicals who’d spent considerable time on Madison Avenue and hated the idea of my talents going to the Dark Side. The other honestly told me that every adman (as they were called back then) has an unsold novel in his drawer. Advertising was where you went if you crash-and-burn with non-commercial creation.

But I’ve been lucky enough to do three musical comedy things in the business world. These were Industrials, a little-known genre that’s the subject of the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway. Companies sometimes see the benefit of using musical theatre talent to help get their message across in an amusing and tuneful way. One of my gigs was for a motorcycle dealership in New Jersey, and it was the sort of thing to which the word “gonzo” gets applied. A handheld camera skittered around the establishment, and I was caught improvising a jingle on a portable keyboard, “If you want to look gnarly, ride a Harley.” And very few of you will recognize you’ve just read the world’s most subliminal political message.

Campaigning for Congress makes for a fantastic number in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Fiorello. “The name’s LaGuardia,” the titular character sings, and then spells out the whole thing. He continues,

Now here’s another name!
T-A-M-M-A-N-Y! What’s that?
— Tammany!
Wrong! The answer’s tyranny!
Tammany spells tyranny like R-A-T spells rat!
Now, there’s a double “m” in Tammany, and a double “l” in gall
Just like the double-dealing, double-crossing, double-talking, double-dyed duplicity of Tammany Hall!

Then, Fiorello delivers the same speech in an Italian neighborhood, entirely in Italian. And finally in a Jewish neighborhood, entirely in Yiddish. This leads to a spirited dance that may have inspired songwriters Bock & Harnick to write two later musicals involving Jews, Fiddler on the Roof and The Rothschilds.

This sequence always seemed to me an only-in-New York thing, the way a candidate would have to speak three different languages. But my family recently knocked on doors and met voters who spoke neither English nor Spanish, so I can no longer say “unique New York.” Not that I ever could. Try it; it’s hard.

I treasure my tradition of walking to my polling place. Just the other day I met the granddaughter of a musical theatre writer, reminding me of my old neighborhood – or should I say precinct? – where the esteemed grandmother lived and I once ran into Tom Jones at the local copy shop. He saw that I was picking up a script and we amiably chatted about writing musicals. A chance encounter with the author of the longest running musical of all time! These are the people in the neighborhood!

No serendipity is involved when an outfit like The Dramatists Guild puts together a panel discussion with the likes of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Sheldon Harnick. Who better to discuss the pressure writers of their generation felt to have extractable out-of-context “hits” emerge from their show scores? My favorite songwriter, Frank Loesser, had died but Comden quoted him as suggesting that all the plot-related material be put in the verse and a more generic refrain could become the hit record: “Thanks for electing me governor. I owe it all to you campaign workers” might be a long recitative, but then comes “How I’m doing? Hey-hey. Feels great to be with you.”

I’ve paraphrased Betty paraphrasing Frank badly. But there’s a wonderful show tune from the 60s that does just that, and I remember knowing only the chorus from radio play:


That entire clip seems so distant from our contemporary entertainment scene. Ed Sullivan, a host with not a modicum of charisma, introduces us to a musical we’ve probably never heard of, and two British actors whose names ring not a bell. And people watched this! It was a top-rated show.

Broadway, and musicals in particular, held an important place in American culture only 55 years ago. My how the once-mighty have fallen! But here’s how audiences are like voters. We get the government, and the entertainment we deserve. If you don’t like the bums in Washington, it’s your duty to vote them out. If you don’t like, for example, shows with wholly unoriginal scores (such as jukeboxes and performer revues), vote with your ticket purchase to an original musical.

If ruled the world, there’d be some sort of a penalty for presenting a show with an unoriginal score. Jukeboxes are made up of songs that have already earned millions of dollars for their authors, while we creators of new songs persevere in poverty. There should be a Robin Hood principle of robbing the rich – perhaps a fee assessed for using old rock hits – to give to the poor, which might take the form of a fund to produce truly new musicals. I realize this is a radical proposal, but Musical Theatre, our beloved art-form, is imperiled by competition from things like The Cher Show and Summer.

Get off the soapbox, Katz. A literal soapbox appeared in a production I saw of Of Thee I Sing, the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I’m struck by how many Pulitzer-winning musicals concern politics: There’s the aforementioned Fiorello and the most recent victor, Hamilton. Stretching it just a little, Rent shows young people taking the streets to protest and my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, ends with characters cabling the White House, “Watch out!” The film version actually shows Robert Morse cleaning the windows of the Oval Office, with the implication that he’ll soon take over the president’s job. As a Charles Strouse number goes, “Boy, do we need it now!”

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

October 30, 2018

Fifteen years ago today, a Broadway blockbuster began its run. Without adjusting for inflation, when all the receipts are counted, it’s a fair guess that Wicked will have earned more money than any musical created by Americans. The librettist is Winnie Holzman, who transmogrified the source material – a novel! of all things! – and the songs are by Stephen Schwartz. Both are heroes of mine, for other things they’ve written. That amped up my expectations when I saw it way back in the first year of its seemingly endless run.

There are two distinct reasons I view Stephen Schwartz as a musical theatre superstar: his works, which include Godspell, Pippin, Working, Rags and The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and the magnificent learning experience of his thirty years running the ASCAP musical theatre writing workshop. Much as I like some of his shows and movies, the pedagogical contribution is far more valuable to me as a writer.

Can you name anyone who premiered three of a decade’s biggest hits before reaching the age of 30? Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show were amonth the top ten longest running shows of the 70s. Each brought a new sound to the world of musical comedy, tinkly and vibrant, infused with the harmonic surprises of contemporary pop. Schwartz sounded like no other, and his lyrics were funny and often clever. Most impressive was his marshalling of what was then called rock into theatrical forms. Counterpoint abounds – Tower of Babel, All For the Best, Two’s Company – and flowing pianistic accompaniments – Meadowlark, Corner of the Sky.

At ASCAP, listening to long excerpts of developing shows, Schwartz laid huge heaps of wisdom on us. For example, there was a notion he said he’d learned at Disney about having every “beat” of your story relate to an overall theme or thesis. Remember that. When Schwartz got into the nitty-gritty of lyrics, he’d call out word-choices that seemed wrong for characters, or times when writers strained to be clever.

Holzman had been a lyricist herself, before she fled to Hollywood. Since I liked her work in musicals, I’d tune in to TV shows she wrote, and was impressed by the level of reality she brought to angsty teen girls in My So-Called Life and thirty-somethings in some show I forget the name of.

Wicked marked a return to New York after a long absence for both of them. And the idea of telling the tale of The Wizard of Oz from the witches’ perspective is an appealing one. The life of college co-eds plays to Holzman’s strengths. Schwartz had the more daunting task of creating something new when the brilliance of Harburg and Arlen’s movie score holds a hallowed place in our memories. Similarly, the design team faced an audience with an indelible picture of Oz.

And it’s ugly. Which is a choice: I don’t think it’s ugly by accident. Schwartz sets the scene with dissonant chords and the sets and costumes seem somewhere in the Steampunk realm. The creative team seems set on wiping the 1939 MGM classic out of our minds, which may be understandable but a problem soon emerges. Schwartz’s lyrics are filled with trick rhymes and they don’t stack up. Yip Harburg’s the acknowledged master of amusing sound-pairing:

Dorothy: Supposing you met an elephant?

Lion: I’d wrap him up in cellophant!

Here, the attempt doesn’t quite succeed:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis

Think of it as personality dialysis

Now that I’ve chosen to be come a pal

A sister and adviser, there’s nobody wiser

Should Schwartz be praised for the triple-three-syllable rhyme, or do you go “Ew, dialysis is disgusting!” or, more likely, “What the hell is ‘personality dialysis’?” This lyric is calling attention to the lyricist’s cleverness and requires countervailing physicality to keep us in the story. (Thanks, Kristin Chenoweth.) If we had time to think about personality dialysis, it might begin to make sense, but vocabulary like this colors the character as very intellectual. But in the same song she mis-accents “cohorts,” which implies she doesn’t have a firm grasp of English. So, which is it?

I know I’m being nit-picky about this popular song, but here’s where I’m coming from: If a new lyricist had brought that into the ASCAP workshop, Stephen Schwartz definitely would have pointed out the false accent, the skeeve-you-out word-choice, the inconsistency and what this lyric says about Galinda, which isn’t borne out by the rest of the play. Wicked doesn’t practice what Schwartz preaches at ASCAP. By 2003, words that do calisthenics to rhyme seemed awfully passé.

Skimming the surface

Gliding where turf is smooth

I don’t even know what that means; I’m only aware of the lyricist’s attempt to impress me with his rhyming skills.

I’m less bothered by Wicked’s abundance of references to the famous film. “I’ll be so happy, I could melt” the witch sings, not knowing the future that we know. Holzman’s script, from a Gregory Maguire novel, effectively amuses with its outré retelling of an overly familiar tale. But, going back to ASCAP again, is it all about one thing? Act One has something to do with prejudice: the skin-color of Elphaba, her wheelchair-bound sister, Tartars (!), and then there’s this unexplained hatred of talking animals. Fine topics for a musical, and yet these all get dropped in Act Two. At dénouement there’s a very moving duet about friendship, which made me go, “Is that what this show’s about?” Too little of the previous two and a half hours had much to say about the two galpals. It’s not that show.

The other night I heard Idina Menzel do Defying Gravity, that anthem of female empowerment (the first time I ever heard it, Schwartz was singing). It hits the nail squarely on the head, exactly what you’d expect at that moment. As a result, I find it rather boring. Plus, Elphaba had a more effective self-actualization number earlier in the show. But there’s no doubt that musicalizing a young woman coming into her own is a key to the show’s unparalleled success. It’s a terrific topic for a musical, and I look forward to seeing a better rendering one day.

Why does it have to be a musical?

October 12, 2018

My marriage, which turns 15 years old today, is a musical. Now, many of you are saying, “But of course it’s a musical. Your wedding was a musical.” And some might say “I don’t want to read yet another blog entry about how wonderful Joy is. There’s one of those on her birthday and also the meet-aversary, which coincides with the day she started her casting company.” I get it: This isn’t supposed to be a personal blog, where I publicize testaments of love. It’s about writing musicals, and I know that, at first glance, that first sentence sounds like a poetic reach, romantic piffle. But, as always, what I’m trying to do hear is shed some light on the wonderful world of musical comedy creation.


But it’s true: Fifteen years ago tonight about 150 theatre-goers poured into the Soho Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Michael Lavine took the piano, and a musical began. Five ladies in eveningwear asked a good question, “Why does this have to be a musical?” And from this first title, a sort of subversion commenced. The audience knew they were about to see an original musical comedy; the invitation came with tickets. But the weird thing is, characters in the show are already casting some shade on why we were doing this. Expectation, bucked.

Shows need to deal with the mind-sets of the people who’ll see them. Our Wedding was designed for exactly the folks who’d RSVP’d. When a writer has deep understanding of who’ll be in the seats, a host of comic possibilities open up. It’s easier to be funny with those whose sense of humor is a known element. The same probably applies to sentiment. Weddings can be extremely treacly; or, so hip no one sheds a tear. Joy and I reveled in chucking certain traditions that didn’t feel quite right to us. But the wedding show ends with a vow taken by the entire assembled crowd: to “be there” as observers and supporters throughout our lives. This has largely proved true.

The Act One Inciting Incident

Ooh, it looks like I’m going to use McKee jargon in this one. So, somewhere fairly early in your first act, something’s going to have to upset the status quo. Joy’s abandonment of her burgeoning performing career catapulted us into uncharted territory. Her voice was so widely revered, all who’d heard her sing naturally assumed she’d entertain more and more of the world for years to come. If Harold Hill brought music to River City, Joy stilled the bells on the hill.

But the story charged off in a new direction, as good tales do. One of the causes of Joy’s disaffection was how actors are treated in this business of show. And her new career as casting director gave her the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands who trod the boards. A peach to the players, if you will. And me, I loved her more. The singing voice was heard no more but the voice of advocacy rocked the theatre. She shook things up, had a huge positive effect on the lives of countless actors with her innovations and inventions.

It’s a good idea to conclude your first act with something startling, intriguing, which the audience might wonder about all intermission long. A baby?!


Time out from our story so I can say, yet again, one of the things I say most often about musicals. They should regularly get the audience to wonder what’s going to happen next. I don’t like those shows whose plots are eminently predictable. Characters don’t need to be likable, per se, but one must have a rooting interest in what’s going to happen to them. And you shouldn’t be certain what’s going to be. Dare to be unpredictable.

Act Two: The plot thickens

Our daughter, the Princess of Pure Delight, has always been physically fearless. She mastered walking and was off on a tear in every direction, which led me to question whether the sidewalks of New York were the best place for her. My interest in relocating to the suburbs surprised everyone who knows me. Manhattan is the stuff that gets my blood coursing through my veins. But I still worked there, and our house was near enough. I adjusted. Our girl thrived. And our heroine? Not as joyful as you might have predicted. Running a small business can be an annoying chore. The long hours plus the commute meant less time to kick back and be a mommy. I think of the Porgy and Bess divorce-for-sale scene, “That is a complication.”

But the musical I’ve been writing, Baby Makes Three, deals with many of the same issues. Working mother and stay-at-home dad, and much friction as each spouse envies the other. It sure would be nice to go off to work and be appreciated by everyone rather than clean up spilled oatmeal all the time. Or, it sure would be nice to be home to watch all the remarkable things the little one says and does. Discontent, disquietude, conflict: elements of an entertainment rooted in reality.The First Dance

One May morning when the daughter was in pre-school, I went to my favorite convivial coffee place and I wrote a scene in which the wife gets her dream job and then emerges the idea of having the husband quit his to raise the child. It’s a scene I’ve struggled to make organic: things happen quickly; I thought nobody would believe it. But a matter of weeks later, Joy got a spanking new job, casting at a place she’d always dreamed of working at; I quit mine. The difficulties of adjusting, for us three, were a case of life imitating art.

And I explained this to friends who pointed out that the very idea that a musical writer could write something that then becomes true could be a pretty good idea for a musical. But wait a sec: Our marriage is already a musical. Or two. Fun and funny, and occasionally fraught, and, like they sing in Seesaw, one hell of a ride.



October 4, 2018

“Why can’t we dance about American subjects?” the young Jerome Robbins asked himself. “Why can’t we talk about the way we dance today, and how we are?” And from that self-query, Robbins revolutionized the American ballet world, and also the arena we focus on here, the American musical. It’s fair to say there’s no one alive today who remembers what musicals were like before his cataclysmic overhaul. We, the too young to remember, accept that shows are a certain way and do certain things, but this is mostly because the Robbins innovations stuck.

He invented a role for himself: The hyphenate term, “Director-choreographer” didn’t exist before, but, soon, everybody was doing it. His famous protégée, Bob Fosse, is revered today, but without Robbins, there’s no Fosse, and so many of the things we love about the latter are things the former thought of first.

I’m not qualified to talk about dance, per se, but consider Robbins the most important non-writing creator of musical theatre because he was so effectively in writers’ faces, pushing them to tell their stories more clearly, more entertainingly, with more humor. There are two famous stories from the early 1960s, and I don’t see how I can avoid retelling them. One involved a show doing poorly on its pre-Broadway try-out in Detroit. It opened with an energetic, all-female comedy song, with an attractive little quodlibet in the middle. It was all supposed to be funny, but wasn’t getting a lot of laughs, a bad sign for a musical comedy. So Robbins called a meeting with the writers.

“What’s this show about?” the director-choreographer asked. And various answers were given. It’s the struggles of a poor milkman to find husbands for his daughters. “No,” said Robbins, unsatisfied. It’s about a small town, persecuted by the Russian government. “No.” he said again. It’s about finding love at the end of the era of arranged marriages. “No, not that.” Imperfect responses kept piling up until someone said: It’s about the dissolution of a way of life, the end of a tradition. Robbins sat up: “Write that.” Meeting adjourned, and soon Stein, Bock & Harnick came up with the greatest opening number ever created, adding two tunes to the quodlibet. Robbins staged Tradition and Fiddler on the Roof became the longest running Broadway musical of all time.

Robbins had a directing mentor, the Grand Old Man of musical theatre, George Abbott. Both spent much time doctoring other people’s shows. In Washington D.C., Abbott was directing a musical farce sent in ancient times, and nobody was laughing. Or attending: rows and rows of empty seats. Abbott said “I like it, but they don’t like it. I don’t know what to do. We need to call George Abbott.” And so protégée Robbins took the train down to see the clearly-doomed, woefully unfunny disaster. Robbins said the only thing that needed changing was the opening number, which was called Love Is in the Air. This witty schottische promised a classy evening of sophisticated humor, but the show that followed was anything but. It was low comedy, often vulgar, a vaudeville of sorts. Robbins sent the songwriter to his hotel room to replace the opening. Stephen Sondheim came down with Comedy Tonight, Robbins staged it, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum was hailed as the most hysterical show ever written.

Both those masterpieces starred Zero Mostel, who’d been unemployable during the heyday of the Red Scare. Among those who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee was another long-ago communist, Jerome Robbins. Accepting the role of Tevye involved burying a well-earned hatchet, and Zero summed it up by pointing out he was agreeing to be directed by him, but wouldn’t have to eat with him. But here’s the inconvenient truth as we near Robbins’ 100th birthday (October 11): a lot of people detested him.

Once he was balling out a company of dancers in a theatre. They’d assembled facing the audience, and Robbins bloviated on stage just a few feet in front of the orchestra pit. His rage caused him to step backwards, more than once, and it was clear to everyone present that he was in danger of falling a good six feet onto chairs and music stands. But nobody did anything to warn him; they were content to see him fall.

His casts felt tortured because of Robbins’ perfectionism, and long rehearsals. Performers whose characters hated each other were forbidden from dining with each other when rehearsal was over. He was fired from a movie that was on its way to going way over budget due to his endless retakes – but, happy ending here, it won the Oscar – both the film and the direction. And all sorts of heavy hitters were willing to return to Robbins productions: Ethel Merman, Jule Styne, the late great Barbara Harris. And, right now on Broadway, you can still see a lampoon of one of Robbins’ most famous ballets.

Bernstein, Green, Comden, Robbins

It’s the telling of a uniquely American tale through the fun-house mirror cultural filter of a Third World country’s manner of presentation. The King and I was where Robbins collaborated with the revolutionary writers, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And Mrs. Anna wants to catch the conscience of the king of Siam with a theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Charmingly and humorously, things alter in translation, so The Small House of Uncle Thomas is an amalgam of Western and Southeast Asian styles. (The parody of this culture clash has people of Uganda rendering the Utah testament, The Book of Mormon, although not everyone understands this.)

The following decade, Robbins turned his back on Broadway and ensconced himself at New York City Ballet. What strikes me is that ballet has its own vocabulary, its own audience. On Broadway, he had to entertain people who might not worship Terpsichore. He’s speaking to the uninitiated, and audiences are captivated. His version of the Keystone Kops, in High Button Shoes, is, to my eyes, far funnier than the Mack Sennett films it’s based on. The gyrations of You Gotta Have a Gimmick, from Gypsy, find the humor in the tawdriest of performances. (“Something wrong with stripping?”) The glee of three sailors on a spree was rendered twice in 1944 – first the ballet Fancy Free, and then the musical based on it, On the Town, both to music by the other titan born in 1918, Leonard Bernstein. And when those two got together to update Romeo and Juliet, dance episodes carried most of the story, the true integration of the fourth component – movement – with the previously incorporated book, music and lyrics.

I think of those last three Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins productions – West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof – as the apotheosis of the Broadway musical. Has any one individual worked on three better shows? (Not to mention Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl.) So, that dance at the gym: All these young people, members of two warring gangs, are raucously tearing up the floor. It’s noisy, both in a musical and a visual sense. And then it’s not. Our focus is drawn to these two strangers, staring at each other across the crowded room. And everything stops. They move towards each other as if in a trance, but we know that if they interact in any way, all hell will break loose. The music shifts to a tentative cha-cha and they take steps together but do not touch. The tension is exquisite; touch leads inexorably to death. And so they swerve around each other. Their hips come close. Their hands almost reach each other’s faces. And then they do touch, and it’s lovely, but brief, as scary music creeps in, disturbing the dream with harsh reality.

It doesn’t get any better than this. As the old song goes, every little movement has a meaning all its own.


Look in the glass

September 26, 2018

I started these maunderings eight years ago. When I look at the numbers – over twenty thousand visitors, over forty thousand views – I have no idea what it all means. I don’t believe there are all that many of you who navigate here hoping for advice on writing musical comedies. The pictures I post are somewhat like the glue traps set for mice that capture a bunch of roaches. I’m told that Google Image Search is how many of you arrived here and I’m sorry I likened you to roaches.

Let me give you a piece of my mind. That’s the whole premise, isn’t it? Every week or so, I have some thought about musicals, and, in this share-happy era, I run to make it public. I try to self-impose a 1,000 word limit, but talking about Leonard Bernstein – come on! And some subjects are easier to discuss than others. Take music, for instance. It’s this amorphous thing, and words to describe it are insufficient. The readers may know a helluva lot about music theory, or nothing at all. Addressing you all, I step into a minefield in which I sound way too wonky to some, simplistic to others. And yet there are times when all I want to discuss are compositional issues.

We can widen the lens and talk about the structure of a musical. But imagine I post about Guys and Dolls and the way its two romances play off each other, each providing respite before either couple wears out its welcome. That might be a helpful observation but it’s not as illuminating as actually seeing Guys and Dolls. Go see Guys and Dolls, people! It’s fun. I try to throw jokes into every post, but I’m not that entertaining.

And this is my trouble with so much that is written about musicals. Books on the subject tend to be dry, rendering a very lively art somehow lifeless. I don’t want to remove the bubbles from champagne.

So I’m more likely to discuss lyrics. Thanks to good schools, we all have some experience reading poems. But there’s a trap in this. Lyrics on the page look like poetry, but they’re a completely different thing. They exist with music, and the melody will determine which words get emphasized, and how much time the ear gets to take in every syllable. Writing songs, I’m always considering how the audience will apprehend the things I say. So I would never play with a pun that only works on paper, such as this paean to an old cow in pain:

There are bugs on her dugs.
There are flies in her eyes.
There’s a lump on her rump
Big enough to be a hump-
We’ve no time to sit and dither,
While her withers wither with her

Reading, you can get the triple entendre but in the theatre? Nobody laughs. And the effect on an audience in the theatre is all that matters.

Can you hear the people sing? And by people I mean the Steve-adores and by sing l mean complain. “How dare he criticize a Sondheim line? Everything the man wrote is absolute genius. I love that line.” And there’s where this blog alienates or even outrages readers. I happen to believe that Merrily We Roll Along is uncompelling, Anyone Can Whistle is incomprehensible and Into the Woods exhausting to sit through. Explaining why invariably brings out those who can’t deal with any criticism of their God.

Which is part of a broader problem: There are many musicals that people love that don’t work for me at all: Evita, Side Show, Parade, and the worst hit musical I’ve ever seen, Miss Saigon. Funny thing here – autocorrect respelled the demon first lady of Buenos Aires as “Evian” and every time I see that water brand, I think, “It’s ‘naive’ backwards. Don’t people get it?” But I must own my snobbery. A lot of people love Evian – “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen, from the standpoint of water.” And a lot of people love Evita, but I can’t get past the false rhyming, the meaningless repetition of themes, the sense that I’ve seen it all before. I don’t want to declare Evita fans “naive” – or “Ative,” I guess – but if this blog is about anything, it’s about having high standards of craft. And shows that fall short – well, I’m compelled to call them out on that.

And so, when you meander through these 430 maunderings, you come across some opinions that you might differ with, or that might differ with the prevailing orthodoxy. Good. I expect you come here for idiosyncratic opinions, be they catty or Katzy. I see myself as engaged in a passionate argument, my quill tearing through parchment like Hamilton’s, sizing up musical theatre entertainments; some succeed, some don’t. You don’t have to agree with me, but I hope I’m raising a few issues that get you to look at musicals in ways you might otherwise never consider.

This little blog-aversary acknowledgement is sandwiched between a lot of retrospectives – the centenaries of three masters of the form, my wife’s birthday, our wedding anniversary. And that seems an unhealthy amount of looking backwards. Truth is, I’ve been writing a lot of songs recently, more slowly recording them, and am absolutely obsessed with a current show tune, Answer Me. I really think I’m looking in front of me, even if this blog says otherwise. So, you see, even I find stuff to argue with here.




I’m not a real woman

September 17, 2018

When an L.A.-based musical theatre writer asked me if she should move to New York, I realized I’d failed to commemorate, here, the anniversary of my arrival there, soon after high school, in a year ending with 8. By the next year ending in 8 – that is, ten years later – I’d had seven musicals produced and a college degree.

None of that is coincidental. Or course my young friend should move to New York. Of course there’s no way I would have seen so many of my shows on the boards in my twenties if I was anywhere but New York. Gotham is invigorating vinegar; we in the musical theatre biz are the flies.

And that seems obvious to me, a no-brainer. Usually, I write these essays in the literal old-school way, with a thesis I must prove true. But does anyone really need convincing of the greatness of The Apple?

So, instead, a few random memories; things I think could have only happened in New York.

Nobody ever gets raped in Kansas City…


On a visit when I was sixteen, I saw a little revue with a song that maintained that only right here, in New York City, could anything ever happen to you. Such was the town’s reputation then, and today we’re more used to the idea that while there are more murders in NYC, there aren’t all that many per capita; my borough, Manhattan, wasn’t a hazard. But there’s a weird sort of macho pride to living, unscathed, in a place your Aunt Winifred thinks is a nightmarish hellscape. Really? You really have an Aunt Winifred? Cool.

Nowadays, we’re used to the transgendered, but my freshman year of college, the concept was quite a head-spinner. I was hired to accompany an evening of Brecht plays, and cabaret songs were warbled by a Sally Bowles-type with fabulous legs in fish-net stockings. Six feet tall, plus heels, and, you guessed it, born a man. I had a job to do, and didn’t want my concentration to drift towards the down-below details of the Amazon I was playing for. But then came the staging. I had my back to the audience, playing an upright piano. The singer sat on top of it with her legs spread, one heel just past the piano’s high note, the other just past the low note. The reconfigured anatomy I didn’t want to think about was directly in front of my eyes. You try not to think about it.

Years later I was playing piano bar in the Village and didn’t bat an eye when more than a dozen drag queens poured into the place. They’d attended some event – Wigstock? – and now wanted to sing show tunes. On another night there, I kept my cool as a terrible fist fight broke out. The combatants were near the top of a metal staircase that headed to the basement, and a fall the wrong way could have seriously injured someone. But I knew the bar’s able bouncer would soon pry them apart so I just continued playing Isn’t It Romantic?

I Walk a Little Faster

The thing Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman captured so well is that, every step you take in New York is filled with romantic possibilities. You’re brushing up with strangers, constantly, and one may turn out to be the love of your life. My cousin met the woman he married on a subway platform, and years later I wrote a song about such sweet serendipity. If love is in the soot-filled air, you’ve more inspiration for the romance that goes into your shows.

That song was part of a projected revue a famous restaurateur tried to hire me to write. I negotiated a price and we got together one afternoon, sitting in a booth to sign a contract. Her assistants, two rather large fellows, sat in the booth with us, and I was literally up against the wall. The henchmen – can I call them thugs? – complained about things in the contract that we’d already agreed upon, as if my work couldn’t possibly be worth the meager fee I’d accepted. I knew, right then, that I couldn’t risk working with these people, but couldn’t make a quick exit because the thugs wouldn’t get up.

Maybe that’s not an only-in-New-York event, but I felt I was lucky I didn’t end up in concrete shoes at the bottom of the East River. Do would-be revue-writers get drowned in the Monongahela? You tell me.

At auditions for On the Brink, in walked a man who seemed to be a crazed killer, and, naturally, we thought “Hey, our opening number contains a crazed gunman! We should call him back.” Then it turned out his singing was the one thing about him that wasn’t up to snuff. For The Christmas Bride, auditions were held in such a remote and sketchy place, few people showed up. One middle-aged character man impressed us, and he phoned his girlfriend (who was half his age) to tell her to rush down since she wouldn’t face a lot of competition. She got the lead.

Then there was the time we all showed up one morning to find a locked theatre space, and nobody had the key. So, we moved across the street to an underused atrium, one of the oddest looking spaces I’ve ever seen. Tall but very thin, with one long staircase stuck to one wall, and one more leading nowhere just for show. ** heavy sigh **

The real American folk-song is a rag

The Company of Women was developed in a loft of dubious legality in a non-residential part of town, right around the corner from the original Tin Pan Alley. We commenced creating with a dozen performers improvising scenes from their lives. And I’d be inspired. Not just by what I saw, but from the presence of ghosts. That is, as I walked down 28thStreet, I knew I was literally walking in the footsteps ofGeorge Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. And that mattered to me. A lot. Go try and find that anywhere else in the world.