Flying naked baby

September 21, 2017

So, four years ago today, we bought a house. And I’m not just going to sit here and reminisce about how great it was. I want this blog to be less personal, more useful to musical theatre people. So I’m stating this, right at the top, and let’s see if I can follow through.

Leaving my native New York filled me with fear and anxiety. Would I be able to function in a place where I couldn’t get up at 3 a.m., walk two blocks that weren’t empty, and buy some recently-made pasta salad? And I guess this leads to a broader question: What do we need, in our environs, in order to write good musicals? Somehow, I don’t think 3 a.m. pasta salad could possibly be the necessary fuel, but answer that one for yourself.

Our house in the suburbs was 35 minutes from Broadway, closer than the old song goes. I commuted in, and, boarding that train, I always had a certain show tune in my head “New York, in sixteen hours! Anything can happen in those sixteen hours!” And when I’d disembark, I’d feel like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. I was now free to flutter, eavesdropping on hundreds of conversations. I believe this improved my dialogue writing, just hearing how the wide variety of people talked.

Many writers require a certain solitude. A truly quiet environment was a new concept for me. My office at home was a tiny room with windows on four sides – that is, no wall space, and a windowed door to the living room. Jutting out from the house, I felt thrust into nature like a peer into a lake. God, I’m filled with similes today: My life was like a hot fudge sundae: the coolness of the suburban surroundings combined with the chocolaty heat of New York.

Before long, we discovered that all sorts of musical theatre people lived in our suburb. Who doesn’t love Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin and Christine Ebersole? So, when we told our neighbors what they did, they never stared blankly – “Musical theatre? What’s that?” – as we weren’t the first show folk they’d met. Now, when I walked into the village, filled with nothing but cute mom-and-pop shops, I’d a greater chance of eavesdropping on, say, Kait Kerrigan, than I did in Manhattan.

This fed me. I talk to a guy on-line who strives to write shows in a Midwestern town that is literally famous for only one thing: its lack of culture. I have a lot of trouble imagining how anyone could create musicals without being surrounded by other people who create musicals. This is the most collaborative of art forms. One needs a nexus.

So, the song Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway makes me think of the play, Forty-Five Seconds From Broadway, which is about the Edison, the sit-down delicatessen on 47th Street. A little over ten years ago, I sat down with a brilliant director, an enthusiastic producer, an old pro stage manager, a lustrous costumer, and a magic craftsman of a set designer. The latter brought a model of what my musical would look like in its upcoming production at the Julia Miles Theatre on 55th Street. We huddled over it, focused on making a smooth transition between scenes. The set guy estimated how fast the set could be moved; the costumer estimated how fast clothing could be changed. I forgot to mention the lighting person, who certainly put in two cents. (Food at the Edison was inexpensive.) The producer made sure we didn’t have to pay for more “soft goods” such as black curtains you hang so that areas of the stage aren’t visible. Once we discussed how long the scene change should take, and what the feel and energy of the musical was at that moment, I ran home (which, then, was on Broadway) and wrote the song the cast would sing during the transition.

I couldn’t have done that without attending this meeting of the creative team. It’s a haughty concept to say they inspired me; this was different: The energy of all those minds applying themselves to a musical theatre storytelling puzzle got my mind going in the right direction. And the late, lamented Edison Diner was the nexus, the convenient meeting place with matzo-ball soup.

This year, I had an experience in which, like a shot out of a rifle, stuff was suddenly happening, really quickly. One of my shows had been selected for a forty-five minute presentation in southwestern Connecticut. I instantly needed to assemble a reasonably competent cast, quick learners who’d be right for their roles. Luckily, I knew who to call, and in rather short order, I had eight really good New Yorkers learning songs and script. The thunderous ovation they received went on so long, I had a moment to count my lucky stars. I thought about how eight ready, willing, and able players can be found in short order in New York. I’ve been wondering, ever since, whether such a thing could happen anywhere else in the world.

But you tell me. I’d like to learn from you if the stuff I’m describing could happen, or regularly happens, in other places. “Unique New York” used to be a tongue-twister. Somewhere along the way I adopted it as my creed.

Advertisements

Finale – part one

September 11, 2017

For the first time in twenty years, classes will begin at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School, and I won’t be there.

This is something I get terribly emotional about, but I’m making an effort to tone it down. Ironic, isn’t it?, that when we write a musical, we try to make it as emotional as possible. But you didn’t come here to experience a vale of tears; plenty of other blogs for that.

Often, I’ve had to remind myself that Circle was “just” a day job. Those hundreds of students may be unaware, but I’m primarily a musical theatre writer. (Somewhere on this page is a list of my shows; seems like there’s about 20.) My work at the school – an intense two-year conservatory, physically connected to a Broadway theatre – was the thing I did for income. And I could have punched the clock, played the songs and subsisted just fine. OK, tears are now hampering my vision, so I better step back and make a broader point: You, as an artist, are also going to need a steady salary. And the best of all possible worlds involves a day job which somehow feeds your art. In this case, I learned more and more about how songs are written and what it takes to perform them every day I was there. Circle, which exists to educate acting students, made me a far-better writer.

The question soon became, what can I offer, given my experience as a musical theatre writer, to developing musical theatre performers?

Opinions about the quality of the material they’re choosing to sing – suitability, whether it’s an actable text, whether it forces vocal calisthenics that are more trouble than they’re worth.

My totally subjective history of musical theatre.

Emotional support.

Above, I mentioned concealing feelings. When people dropped Scott Alan songs on my piano – well, let’s just say I never got very good at keeping a poker face. So, why do it here? Mr. Alan presents himself as a musical theatre writer, which is curious given that he’s had nothing produced. (Prove me wrong; if you’ve seen a show of his, please tell me so.) His songs, which don’t use titles, have a hook, form, rhyming, or any character development, drone on hitting high belt notes and restating the same sour emotion over and over again. Often, there’s something wrong in the notation – like bass notes put under the treble clef with many ledger lines. The unabating stream of young people with this punk in their books appalled me on a consistent basis.

But tell us how you really feel, Noel.

More surprisingly, I observed many a crash-and-burn on Jason Robert Brown songs. I recognize it makes no sense to mention JRB in the same breath as Scott Alan. And this piece isn’t about criticism of well-loved songwriters. It’s just that my observation, that Brown tends to state one rather obvious emotion and then just restate it over and over again – manifests itself in advice to performers and reminds me to make sure my characters are evolving in some way during my songs. In other words, my day job had me thinking about what makes a song actable every day.

When I started, I worked with F. Wade Russo, who had musical directed one of my shows many years ago. He left town and was replaced by Sara Louise Lazarus, who soon built a musical theatre track, as such things are called. Annually, I was asked to spend a couple of class sessions informing the students about how musical theatre came to be. And now I’m going to sound immodest: I built this into the most entertaining, awesome and fun-to-sit-through four-hour lecture in the history of education. Now, that’s quite a claim, but ask any of the hundreds who’ve seen it: they view this as their favorite time in their entire schooling. You see, I made it irresistibly entertaining. I felt no particular need to tell the truth. I incorporated legends, opinions, and, whenever I felt like it, I’d run to the piano to sing a little example of something. There are jokes, tears are shed, and quite a bit of Socratic intercourse along the way. Yes, I said intercourse.

Which shouldn’t bring me to the subject of my personal relationship with students, but that’s what’s next on the list. (Hey, there are different kinds of love, OK?) Chances are, if you were terrifically talented and I observed you working very hard, I fell in love with you. Not that I’d ever say anything, but there it was, in my mind, a constant chorus of “I love this person.” When you see someone work their ass off, you’re convinced that the sky’s the limit. And there’d be times I’d say to myself “I bet this person’s going to be on Broadway” and I’d be right! That’s a heady feeling: a sense that you’re part of a top-tier performer’s training, a sense that you must be doing something right. Certainly, there are four-year college programs with better reputations, but Circle is a tiny family, a two-year conservatory with a much higher batting average for grads getting on The Great White Way.

So, I said “family” in the last sentence, and perhaps sentiment compels me to put it that way. School director Colin O’Leary certainly treats staff and students as family. Many – nearly all, I’d say – view acting teacher extraordinaire Alan Langdon as a father figure, and some think of song interpretation maven Sara Lazarus as a mom. Where does that put me? Well, parents are authority figures, and there are times you don’t want to be completely vulnerable in front of a teacher. You need a sibling, of sorts. I managed to maintain close “brotherly” friendships with a slew of students, everyone’s favorite shoulder to cry on in a place where many tears were shed. Erosion from all that salt water has made it difficult for me to properly wear jackets.

Just to tie this into something I said earlier, there were many times when the students would bring in new and interesting songs I’d never heard before. This fed my mind, kept me aware of what a new generation was enjoying. (Pasek and Paul are very old news to me.) And now, like the turn of a faucet, that source of replenishment is stopped. It’s hard to see how I’ll survive without that.

Like some sort of an addict, I require a regular jolt to pep me up. Every September, I’d look around a room at a bunch of young strangers and was reasonably certain I’d fall in love with at least one. Katti Powell, Trisha Jeffrey, Lauren Elder, Nanci Zoppi, Marissa Parness, Rachel Broadwell, Christine De Frece, Vanessa Dunleavy, Ephie Aardema, Amy Northup, Laurie Gardner, Sara Canter, Aubrey Taylor, Claudia Smith, Paola Hernandez, Clara Regula, Rena Gavigan, and now… this month, a hole in my heart will go unfilled.


Breaking the rules

September 3, 2017

You might have thought of my wife, Joy Dewing, while reading any of a number of recent theatre news articles. Normally, I’d provide links to the articles, but today I’m a little short on time. They were:

The national tour of The Little Mermaid led by an Asian-American Ariel and how middle America is reacting to her.
The controversy about the role in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 going from Josh Grobin to Okieriete Onaodowan and then, almost, to Mandy Patinkin, ending up with the show closing.
The New England production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime that cast an actor who is, as we say nowadays, “on the autism spectrum” in the lead role of a young man on the autism spectrum.

Joy Dewing has been everybody’s favorite casting director in New York for about ten years. She rose from unpaid intern to name-on-the-door partnership with Dave Clemmons; then when Dave left casting five years ago, she founded Joy Dewing Casting. She’s cast a lot of tours, some Broadway, many regional productions, but had nothing to do with the shows mentioned.

Or did she?

To no small degree, Joy has shaken things up in the theatre casting business. She never forgot her days as a performer, and how auditioners used to be treated like cattle – they literally called auditions “cattle calls” – in a very unsatisfying experience for all. In essence, Joy wanted to change that world; and did.

The two main ways she effected that change were leading by example – that is, providing the model of a vastly innovative casting company that others followed – and serving on the Diversity Committee of the Casting Society of America. Joy’s improvements, in some cases, became industry-wide standards. And so one can argue she had something to do with the success of three hit shows she didn’t really work on. And so I will.

This year, news events and presidential proclamations have reminded us that there is much racial prejudice across America. The internet gives rude bozos the confidence to say disturbing things anonymously, and, astoundingly, Diana Huey saw racist complaints from Seattle to Memphis about the mere fact that she, an American of Japanese descent, is portraying The Little Mermaid. Of course, this venom was spewed by miscreants who hadn’t actually seen the show. Those who had loved Huey’s performance.

Roll back a couple of years to the national tour of another family-friendly musical with an iconic title role, Annie, cast by Joy Dewing. I happened to be in the room (which is rare) when she first encountered Tori Bates and saw a ten-year-old’s potential. When you get a lead role in a show, there are a slew of callbacks, and Joy sees to it that aspirants bring their best game. Ask anyone who’s gotten a role in any of her dozens of shows. They’ll credit Joy for providing support, encouragement and practical information leading them to win the role. Under Joy’s nurturing, Tori was chosen by director-lyricist Martin Charnin to be the first African-American Annie on stage.

Some time later, when director Glenn Casale cast the tour of The Little Mermaid, he chose the most talented performer and didn’t consider race. Which is as it should be. Which is as it is in no small part because of Joy’s example with Annie.

Last season there was a very unusual Broadway musical based on a little bit of War and Peace. Those of you who’ve read War and Peace (Joy is one) know that Tolstoy didn’t write about black people. When Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opened on Broadway, much was made of its extraordinary staging. Seats were torn out of the Imperial Theatre to make room for platforms, so that the show could play in various spaces surrounded by audience on all sides. Don’t picture theatre in the round; picture a Calder mobile: different-sized planks, at different heights, dotting a crowd. Dave Malloy’s music is rather dissimilar to any Broadway score you’ve heard before. Staging and score got people talking. You know what didn’t? The multi-racial casting.

Denée Benton was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Natasha. Earlier, off-Broadway, the role had been played by Phillipa Soo, who later earned fame as Hamilton’s stalwart wife. Another actor from Hamilton, Okieriete Onaodowan, replaced superstar Josh Groban, recently, as Pierre. In all of that time, nobody seemed to mind that the cast was chock full of actors who didn’t look remotely Russian. Then, the need to up the box office led to the announcement that Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin would replace Oak Onaodowan as Pierre. My first thought was “But he’s twice as old!” In a massive public relations debacle, this most un-racist of shows was accused of insensitivity in felling an Oak for last century’s model. But you know all that.

What you might not know is that Joy’s tireless work on that diversity committee helped foster an environment where casting with no regard to skin-tone isn’t blinked at. She set up listening forums, in which casting directors heard first-hand of the struggles players-of-color face. And then she went beyond ethnic diversity. What struggles do so-called actors-with-disabilities face? What can be done to evolve to a place where character men in wheelchairs play something other than The Man Who Came To Dinner and Sunrise At Campobello?

I happened to be reading the capsule reviews in The New Yorker and was struck that two in a row mentioned disabled thespians on stage. And I thought of the aforementioned production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime with the actor who understands autism experientially. And I thought of Joy, who had nothing to do with those two plays, The Little Mermaid, Natasha/Pierre, or The Curious Incident, but EVERYTHING to do with creating the world in which they exist.

Happy birthday, darling.


Riding on a shark

August 23, 2017

Circumstances – some unforeseen, none about health – have led me to consider the topic of retirement. What if – and this is a big

WHAT IF

– I didn’t write musicals any more? Some of my favorite writers stopped, at some point: Jerry Herman, Harvey Schmidt, Craig Carnelia. They’re alive. Late masters like Irving Berlin, Frederick Loewe and Cole Porter put down their pens many years before dying. Do we view it as a great shame that Loewe wrote so little after Camelot and Herman nothing after La Cage aux Folles? Well, yes, actually, we do.
But I’m not them. No legions of fans are shuffling on their feet, biding their time until my next work hits the boards. I’m known by few, and that can certainly be viewed as a failing of some sort. I’ve failed to make such a mark of The World of Musical Comedy that a significant coterie feels any sort of anticipation for a new Noel Katz show. So, that’s a thing: If you’re not particularly wanted, leave and you won’t be missed.

Readers of this blog know I too often celebrate the rounder anniversaries of my past musicals’ openings. Every production has led some to exclaim “I love what you do! I love your writing!” Those cheers ring in my ears, feeding my fragile ego years and years after the fact.

Having just visited a relative who is a horse-racing maven, I have this analogy for my career: Very fast start, then petered off toward the end. Thoroughbreds who do that are exciting but ultimately disappointing. So, I look back on the six shows I got to see on stage in my twenties and think, well, those were really fabulous times. The past ten years, though, well, nobody would call them fabulous. I spent a lot of time and energy rewriting my award-winning 2007 show, Such Good Friends. Then I started a project, which I decided to abandon. There was a trunk song cabaret, which then got revived. The first draft of one of my current projects was done in a private reading in 2014. That means that, at this turn, the amount of positive reinforcement has seemed comparatively small.

My natural bent is to soldier on. I realize I lived a charmed life in my twenties. Projects don’t always pan out. Sometimes you have an idea for a show and it turns out to be the wrong idea for you – which is why I abandoned Haven. But starting to write a theatre piece is a huge leap of faith. You’re going to put words on paper and hold on to this shred of hope that says that someday, maybe years from now, actors will do this on a stage for an audience. If you’re very lucky, you might have a project that’s definitely going to be produced by a specific date. This was true for me on The Heavenly Theatre, The New U. and The Pirate Captains. I also had strong reasons to believe The Christmas Bride and Area 51 would get done because my collaborators had the wherewithal to produce and that’s what eventually happened. As I said, that’s leading a charmed life, and, these days, my life seems a lot less charmed.

Merely writing this has pointed to a paradox: To write musicals, one must be extremely optimistic. At this time in my life, lacking those cheering affirmations, I’m extremely pessimistic. It doesn’t seem like I can take a leap of faith when I’ve so little faith I’ll get through August.

For me, though, the way I get through anything is, usually, by writing. Not sure how healthy this is, but when I’m stressed I often shut myself away and just concentrate on creating songs. Which leaves me with a bunch of songs, unheard, and what are you going to do with those? If the way I get through a day is by retreating to my writing pad, then stopping writing musicals is eliminating my primary coping mechanism. (Or blogging, to use the current moment.)

A relative is having a brain surgery, and a good friend had brain surgery last summer. So, what keeps coming to my mind is a metaphorical image, that part of the brain is being cut away. Here I am with tons of experience writing musicals. Stuff I put on paper gets all the way to a paying audience and from this comes a certain amount of “smarts.” And if I’m not using this chunk of know-how, it’s as if a huge concatenation of brain cells is being surgically removed. How can I stop now? It’s tantamount to a self-mutilation.

As this blog approaches 400 essays, I sometimes think, well, at least I’ve put a lot of this knowledge down on a web page. That’s nearly half a million words, and, if you’re interested in knowing my opinion, methodology, and experience, a lot of it is contained here. So many pages, so much information, that the blog doesn’t really need the additional wisdom I’ll glean working on more shows. This blog will go on – I’m unable to kick the habit of sharing thoughts about the writing of musicals. So, you readers will be fine. But you gotta keep me away from knives, O.K.?


Polka

August 12, 2017

As the musical theatre community grieves the loss, at 89, of the finest soprano ever, Barbara Cook, much is said about the beauty of her voice, the clarity of her tone, the warmth of her sound. Yes, all of that is so, but I feel every bit of praise for her vocal gifts somehow misses the point. You can possess fantastic vocal cords, you can train your ass off, as opera singers do, in quest of perfection, you still wouldn’t come close to her accomplishments. She wasn’t merely the Voice; she was the Actress, the Personality.

Barbara Cook, it is said, had two careers: leading lady in Broadway musicals, and then the doyenne of the cabaret world. That’s a natural progression for someone whose specialty was acting lyrics with meaning and intent. In musicals, roles are more plentiful for the young and the thin. Once she was neither – and most mark The Grass Harp (1971) as the end of the beginning – she took her gifts to the venue where audiences give the most concentration to lyrics. Rooms with fewer than 100 seats get listeners to prick up their ears. (Of course, Cook was so successful, the rooms included Carnegie Hall.) There aren’t those musical theatre distractions like sets, dancers, book scenes, a story to tell. I’m among the lucky ones, who got to sit in rapt attention at the Carlyle one night, her warmth delivering happiness to everyone in the room.

Mostly, though, like most of you, my understanding of Barbara Cook is based on cast recordings. Since I’m often talking about how those twelve inches of vinyl make misleading impressions, I’m going to have to ask: “What am I missing here?” The most obvious omission is the acting, and Cook was a good enough actress to appear in two of Broadway’s more notable comedies in the 1960s, Little Murders and Any Wednesday. I find this remarkable, aware of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between performers in musicals and thespians in plays. Records and videos give glimpses of what the lady can do with lines. Take that most popular of American arias, butchered by many an opera diva, Glitter and Be Gay. The original Broadway cast album of Candide – which has to be the most glorious capture of a flop musical, ever – has her speaking

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets…lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

I’ve heard too many sopranos with no idea how to put the right spin on those words to make them funny. Cunegonde has been forced into whoredom – that’s the “awful cost” – but she’s so tickled by endearing trinkets, she’s not certain she got the bad end of the bargain. Nobody would write such a concept today, in our increased-sensitivity-to-sexual-slavery times. But 61 years ago (and ever since), Cook’s interpretive gifts made this hysterically funny and fun.

When considering what we love about her signature song, Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me, is it the gloriousness of the penultimate high B, or is it that we’re reacting to a grounded-in-reality character sorting through a bunch of emotions and discoveries in a recognizably human way? Amalia’s numbers in She Loves Me inspire love in all but the coldest-hearted listener. Since I’m always thinking about songwriters, I usually marvel about Sheldon Harnick’s humorous, charming text and Jerry Bock’s delightful near-classical setting. Collaborator Cook got the whole thing to fly; it could never have worked without her fully-formed character. In a little gem called No More Candy, her would-be shop clerk is forced to improvise a defense of how a small box with a lock on it is “functional” and delicately mentions a “slight tendency to overweight.” Now, there are plenty of observers who believe that Cook’s life story is that she went from thin leading lady to plus-size cabaret star due to a notable change in girth. But this ignores something (I’m clearly straining to avoid saying “the elephant in the room.” Sorry.):

Barbara Cook – the young and thin edition – was not astoundingly pretty. This separates her from many, if not all, of the ingénues who burst on the scene in the mid-fifties. Here was a new kind of star. Not dazzling in appearance, she got us to focus on her characters’ hearts, what they were feeling in every breath. This, to me, is the musical theatre ideal: At its best, we’re living the emotional life of the people we’re watching. And, as they fall in love “Vanilla ice cream: imagine that!” we do the same. So, a classical beauty finding love, by 1955, was old news. Of course hot stuff succeeds in getting male attention. It’s harder for us mere mortals. And I think this is key to why I find Something You’ve Never Had Before the most moving of her numbers. She offers a heart that’s true, not a face that could launch a thousand ships, and I tear up at the idea that the man’s too dense to notice her inner beauty.

All of this reminds me of a Sondheim song I never much cared for until I heard Barbara Cook’s rendition. In Buddy’s Eyes had always struck me as a rather plain and extended wifely paean, not quite dramatic enough to justify its length. But when Cook sings “I’m young; I’m beautiful” or “I don’t get older” you hear the heartbreak in the self-delusion. Ambivalence simmers underneath; the lady is kept alive by the lies she tells herself. You don’t think Sally is crazy, hearing the Follies In Concert album; you revel in a beautiful coping mechanism; you care.

Finally, let’s pivot back from the complex to the simplistic, and take in how she infused what’s essentially a plain (not fancy) lullaby with true longing. In The Music Man, it’s established that every night she sings a plaintive waltz to a little girl. We’re set up for something meaningless and dismissible. Cook colors her tones in a way that illuminates the touching reality that Marian the librarian truly depends on a wish and a star to bring her love.

Sweet dreams be yours, dear, if dreams there be
Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.
I wish they may and I wish they might.
Now goodnight, my someone, goodnight.

 


Rondo

August 4, 2017

It’s a big anniversary, ‘round about now, of my musical for children called Popsicle Palace. Except it’s no longer called Popsicle Palace. Merely because the owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, the show is now called Not a Lion. You’d think that, rather than telling us to cease and desist, they might have explored striking up a partnership to our mutual benefit. But good ideas tend to evaporate faster than frozen ade on a stick in the sun.

In a way, Not a Lion is based on another of my musicals that ran into a rights problem. There was a time when the estate of C. S. Lewis allowed anyone to adapt any of his Chronicles of Narnia to the stage. When I was a teenager, my friend Jodi Rogaway proposed that we musicalize The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of the songs I wrote were pretty childish – after all, I wasn’t a grown-up, and knew I was writing for children. But a handful were impressive: cassettes of these helped me get into college and the BMI workshop.

Years passed and Jodi and I lost touch. But then I heard that she’d spent a year studying children’s theatre in Birmingham, England. And there, for one performance, she produced and directed our Through the Wardrobe. I was not yet 20. So I accomplished the coup of getting a show in front of an audience while still in my teens, even if I wasn’t there to see it.

More years passed, and Jodi had married a writer named Lee Rooklin. They lived not far from a family-run theatre in-the-round in Los Angeles, and weekend matinees were musicals for children. Jodi again seized her opportunity and got the theatre all excited about doing Through the Wardrobe. But, after ten years, the rights issue became a big deal. The Lewis estate was no longer allowing adaptations willy-nilly. We thought all was lost.

But Jodi knew she had a hook in a fish. This theatre wanted to work with her, and really liked my songs in that score. Jodi and her husband came up with a completely different story that could utilize at least some of the old Wardrobe songs.

It’s a completely different animal when you’re adults fashioning an original story together. For me, it meant adding a half-dozen songs to the half-dozen we opted to keep from the old score. And I also got to tweak the old ones: a weak piece for a minor character got overhauled with a sort of tap break recitation-in-rhythm. Almost beat for beat, Frozen, decades later, employed the same idea in its best song, In Summer. The cast, and people who saw the production, couldn’t tell the old from the new. But I see them as Before-Lehman Engel and After Lehman-Engel. I knew so much more about moving a story through song.

The premise of our new tale is that an ordinary housecat gets whisked off to a land where the local animals all think he’s a lion. And I found a way of putting that identity crisis smack dab in the middle of a duet. A cat, claiming to be just a cat, points out certain characteristics that indicate his species. An observer – who happens to be a penguin – points out a bunch of things that are true of both lions and cats. Not a Lion became a title song long after the run, but it’s among my favorite things I’ve written.

The score’s full of fun forms: there’s a four-part quodlibet, a round, something of a fugue, and, while I was coming up with this stuff, my mind went back to a song I’d enjoyed as a boy, I Am a Fine Musician. In it, different “bandsmen” – that is, singers imitating various instruments, add their sounds to a brief little chorus.

I stole the form but used clashing swords, fife, drum and the sound of an otter whacking its tail against the ground. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I spent that summer in L.A. to orchestrate and musical direct. At the time, my father was moving out of a chalet-like house in the hills, and I got to house-sit for a time, which was good living. The show was so successful, it often got sold out, and the finite run was extended several times. And I recall the company of actors as being particularly warm to me. Which prompts me to quote the finale, which could have been written about them:

I feel warm. Warm. Warm!
Warm as a fire
Or warm as alphabet soup
Warm as a choir
That huddles, like this, in a group
So warm that a snowball
Is no ball in no time at all
We’ve just begun the season
That comes before the fall
And it’s all
Because of you
You humans from beyond the border
Figment’s order is restored
And, speaking of the border, I see the way back home
Home. Home!
Home is where it’s warm as a canyon
That runs through hot desert sands
Warm, my companion
As we’re warmly holding hands
Life here was an igloo
A big losing battle it seemed
But now our home is warmer than we ever dreamed it would be
Warm. Warm. Warm.


Bows

July 24, 2017

The audience basically sat there with their jaws dropped. The reaction wasn’t “This is great.” The reaction was “Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything so marvelous.” You could feel this energy throughout the theatre, the entire building was abuzz with how fantastic the performance was.

You know, it has never been my intention to make this blog the place where I brag. So I’m going to try, today, to accurately reflect and reflect upon what happened in Connecticut at the beginning of July. As usual, I hope to be interesting and useful to creators of musicals. But, let’s face it, some of this is going to sound like boasting. Deal.

The occasion was a presentation of a portion of The Christmas Bride. I am responsible for its music and lyrics and circumstances landed me in the director’s chair. To my surprise, it’s not a tall wood-and-canvas thing with a title on the back. It fell upon me to select a cast of eight, rehearse them and tell them where to move. We had an extremely short amount of time to put this together, and the lion’s share was spent getting the notes right. An exorbitant number of minutes were lost to laughter, as a couple of players found a bit of business so funny, they were unable to get it together and deliver the material with a straight face.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

But when they were on, they were ON. I’ve never encountered a crowd so titillated. The tongue-in-cheek machismo of leading man Matthew Griffin had the effect of literally turning a lot of women on. And, you know, my wife cast Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, so now we’re both used to having that effect.

I really think the best thing I did in this fraught process was choosing the performers I got. Six had worked together for two years as students of mine. Solid and stolid David Arthur Bachrach is a veteran of two previous Christmas Bride productions, this time essaying a new role. One day I had a brainstorm that my current student Megan Poulos had all the right stuff to be the title character. I took a leap of faith that she’d play well off of Matthew Griffin, who’d made such a great impression earlier this year in Encores’ The New Yorkers at City Center. He’s got the looks, the voice, the goofy swagger; could they project the chemistry of illicit lovers taking a leap of faith on each other?

In a word, yes. This was the thing that thrilled me most. Book writer MK Wolfe and I had always hoped for a certain sexually charged energy between our leads. Previous productions had come up a little short, I think, as the lines and lyrics have to bounce off the pair in a way that sizzles. It’s that old saw that casting a show right is more than half the battle. Here was the proof of that pudding (made of plum?), a very fortunate happenstance. Players with a similar background was a felicitous shortcut: They all knew how to get behind the energy of the piece. MK Wolfe’s book effectively keeps the stakes high, and the players played them for all they’re worth.

Well-played melodrama knocks out an audience – the fraught sense that everything that’s happening is of great importance, has huge consequences for the characters. One could tell from the opening minutes that people were thunderstruck by what they were seeing.

And it was more than my cast of New Yorkers. I also believe the quality of the writing stunned the crowd. The little that is arbitrary never seemed arbitrary because viewers got used to being rewarded for their concentration. In a plot sense, little clues are often dropped as to what might happen next, and these kept people’s ears particularly wide open.

That led, in turn, to a different kind of hearing. The singers sounded so great, you could sense the listeners relaxing, taking in a new and enjoyable tune. This is hard to describe, but there’s just a different feeling in a room when melodies hit ears and the hearers savor right away. Far too often, I’ve witnessed the opposite, when oddly-crafted tunes get taken in with a bit of befuddlement. This was more like love-at-first-sight, an instant attraction.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

It’d been five and half years since I’ve seen The Christmas Bride. So, in an odd way, I was reacquainting myself with old themes, and rediscovering what’s good about them. The long sustained notes in Fluttering and Turn Around give time for the vocalist to open up. The sweetness of Megan and Matthew’s sounds delighted. Marion and Alone in the Night are two larger pieces I’ve always thought were among my best. But the main song for the romantic leads, Take a Gamble – well, I’d previously thought of it as a little disappointing. A romantic musical calls for a big I-love-you statement, and this argumentative duet has its eyes on the plot. Megan and Matthew revised my self-assessment. Rather than park-and-bark sentiment, I’d given two actors fully motivated moments to snipe at each other. In their hands, it became a beautiful thing, and, at long last, I found myself enjoying the song.

A friend and fellow musical theatre writer was there, and he’d never previously heard any of my work. He was particularly taken with my dense rhyming and how they gave spring to the meanings of the sung lines. We plan to meet for a drink and discuss it some more.

Songs rhyme for a reason. When the brain knows it’s going to receive sounds that match at regular intervals, listening is enhanced. It might be harder to come up with a clever rhyme structure and stick to it, but it’s surely a lot easier for the hearer. Our brains take in well-rhymed words much quicker than unrhymed or – horrors! – badly rhymed verse.

An example comes to mind because Connor Coughlin applied an echt and charming accent to it:

Furbelows and frocks
Herbal teas and boxes full of gifts for that special she
For my bonnie bride to be

Connor sounded the “H” on “herbal” and then the frocks/box rhyme sped the line forward. It traveled blithely from an unfamiliar word (“furbelows”) to a familiar and understandable concept. Had this been fully staged, he would have been holding a huge pile of presents. Instead, a good rhyme drawing attention to meaning got everyone to picture what they could not see.

Immodestly, perhaps, I’ve unveiled some of the little details that garnered such a huge reaction. There was a moment towards the end where a twenty-second ovation broke out, literally stopping the show. The actor could not continue until the audience obeyed his hand-signal command to simmer down. The Connecticut crowd had never seen anything like it.