Some days

April 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oh what a lovely pal is mother

April 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Finale – part two

January 9, 2018

1996-2017, I spent many a stimulating hour at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. 2018, I won’t. So, before too many of my memories distance and die, I thought I’d jot down a few that might be of interest to musical-makers.

The first thing to point out is that everybody takes everything tremendously seriously. Students come completely committed to spending every waking hour for two years totally devoted to learning about performing on stage. Faculty feels itself shaping futures, nudging young adults on an intense “journey towards you” – the idea being they’ll end up as individuals, rather than the cookie-cutter copies of everyone else in the field you find in college programs.

There’s nothing to do, amidst such a rushing river of earnest endeavor, but to swim along with the current. You take a look at what you’re doing – as an artist, as a teacher – and scour yourself for imperfections. If I’m adamant about craft in my writing, it’s because I was among people who picked over every note, every turn of phrase, every motivation, and the physicality inherent in songs and scenes.

Too few songwriters, I feel, sweat those details. So, as I’m guiding artists towards great performances, we’re picking over songwriters’ imperfections, usually inventing a justification for some lapse in craft. Here’s a popular example. Galinda sings “You’ll hang with the right cohorts,” mis-accenting the last word. What could account for this? Maybe she’s from somewhere where nobody uses “cohorts” so she’s never heard it. But she’s read it, because she was a lonely intellectual, the one reader in her crowd, and has arrived at Shiz for her first year of college, showing off her big vocabulary without knowing how to pronounce this word. She’s funny that way.

Now I’m wondering if my friend who played the role ever thought about all this. I kinda doubt it. This level of analysis can’t happen just anywhere. And didn’t, at the many other New York acting schools where I worked. But it’s easier to imagine intensive examinations of Shakespeare, right? That was part of my college experience. I love the fact that there’s a place where show tunes undergo similar scrutiny.

To some, musicals seem frivolous. How wonderful to be part of a community where the thing that I do is valued. Eighteen years ago, Sara Louise Lazarus began teaching musical theatre there and it was immediately apparent I’d found the ultimate kindred spirit. Not only did she take musicals just as seriously, she’d developed an entire methodology for performing individual show tunes. This had been refined down from the legendary performance guru, David Craig. I can’t call Craig the unsung hero of acting in musicals, because “unsung” just seems like the wrong word. But when Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince were developing musicals that required a higher level of interpretive brilliance than had gone on before, they called Craig out of California retirement to teach a new generation of performers who could do the things required to perform Company, A Little Night Music and all the rest. And the takeaway from this is that wonderful things can happen when a musical theatre maverick is called back to Manhattan out of California retirement. Call. Call! CALL!

The greenest students are fresh out of high school and a lot of them park-and-bark. This term is applied to singers – especially at auditions – who show off their vocal prowess without any thought to the acting, how you move, how you register emotion on your face. Sara’s teaching turns that around, with a series of preparatory steps that ensure the performer is thinking what their character is thinking. Every little motion has a meaning, and these are timed as they are in life, with the impulse to say something motivating action; never do our bodies spring up in sync with new words we sing.

Substantial time and effort go into mastering this process. I’d pipe up, often pointing out interpretive possibilities based on the sheet music in front of me. Months of learning, weeks of rehearsal, culminating in a thrilling performance, dazzling an audience with a demonstration of all this intricate work: That was the stuff! That was what I lived for, for two decades.

Some theatre folk enjoy rehearsing more than performing – no assembly required. Working on things, in fine detail, can be the true joy. Sara’s class gets to show off in showcases and cabarets. The “product” in Musical Theatre Scene Study went unseen, and the work was never considered “finished.” Led by the laconic and occasionally cryptic inspirer Alan Langdon, the class was a synthesis of what had been taught all over the school. Each scene involved dialogue, set, costumes, and two people singing. They’d use, most of all, their acting training (Alan teaches Chekhov and other “straight” acting scene work). They’d use their I.P.A., which, I learned, over my years there, is a hoppy sort of beer. Vocal technique from voice-master Beth Falcone, natch. Sometimes dances derived from Jeanne Slater’s teaching, or fights from B.H. Barry. And their Sara Lazarus-training… Well, I was right there to glower at them if they forgot that. When we all got together to run a scene, you could never be certain what Alan would observe, point out. But first the actors would share their own observations: the things they missed, the things they’d achieved.

It’s hard to talk about this. Hyperbole always sounds silly, not-to-be-believed. (When I saw a particularly wonderful musical a couple of years ago, I immediately recognized I shouldn’t say much about it, lest I seem like a raving fanboy. It’s a problem.) So, if I say “greatest, most soul-stirring hours of my life” you’ll think, “that’s ridiculous.” But think about the Bench Scene from Carousel, or A Boy Like That, or The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. Think about dissecting every intricacy of the text and score with talented, eager, and willing-to-work hard singing actors. Hey: What a way to spend a day.


A long long time

November 1, 2017

Every year, around this time of year, for the past 18 years or so, I’ve given a talk called A Subjective History of Musical Theatre. It’s the highlight of my year. And unique. It’s said that there’s nothing quite like it and that nobody else could deliver it, or would have thought of delivering it the same way. I have a blackboard; I have a piano; I have no notes. Off the top of my head, I engage my audience. They are theatre students who may or may not know a thing about the shows written prior to Rent. It’s that gap in knowledge I’m trying to fill.

But here’s the beauty part: It’s not a linear history, nor a survey. It’s whatever I choose to tell them. So, I get to give a lot of opinions. Because, unlike your run-of-the-mill history lectures that claim to be objective, this is SUBjective – it’s right in the title. And everybody accepts that I might say things they’ll disagree with. That’s OK. You’re allowed to argue with me. And the whole thing is, first and foremost, highly entertaining.

It’s difficult to describe, and it’s never exactly the same, and for this you can blame Socrates. I ask the students questions, and, if they give a dopey answer, I’m likely to make fun of them. Amazingly, nobody seems to mind. So, after I identify The Boys From Syracuse as the first musical based on a Shakespeare play, I have the students guess which play it’s based on. If you know your Shakespeare, you’ll be able to figure this out; it’s not as if he wrote a lot of plays with men from that city. But, inevitably, someone yells out “Two Gentlemen of Verona” to which I get to yell “No! Those boys are from Verona.” Silently, I appreciate the guess, because Two Gents did become a Tony-winning musical. Rereading this paragraph, I see that I sound a bit mean, but really everyone’s laughing. There’s comedy in errors.

And there’s music in my lecture, unsurprisingly. Whenever I feel like illustrating something with a song, the piano is right there. I even hide behind it to depict the opening of Oklahoma! They hear some Grieg. They hear some Weill – oh, wait, that’s Lloyd Webber, stealing from Weill. I can remember some course I took when I was young where a lecturer took a lot of time to drop a needle on the right place in a record album. My illustrations take no time at all, and I get to sing my favorite song. Because it’s my lecture.

I make Richard Rodgers the central figure, since he was connected to so many of the turning points in musical theatre development. I describe, in great detail, the Isn’t It Romantic sequence in Love Me Tonight.

I get to act out his working relationship with Lorenz Hart. “He pulled the little guy by the scruff of his collar into a small room not unlike this, with a piano in it, and he locked the door. He played the tune they were working on.” I play six notes. “He firmly told Larry ‘We have to finish this song. You are not leaving this room until you give me a lyric to-.’” I play it again. “Hart begs ‘Please, Dick. You can see I’m too hungover to even think right now. Let me out for a quick nip, hair of the dog that bit me and I’ll be back.’ ‘NO, YOU WON’T.’” Six notes. “And this went on and on until Hart, in total desperation, uttered ‘With a song in my heart I behold your adorable face just a song at the start but it soon is a hymn to your grace when the music swells I’m touching you hand it tells that you’re standing near and at the sound of your voice heaven opens its portals to me what to do but rejoice that a song such as ours came to be but I always knew I would live life through with a song in my heart for you. Can I go now, Dick?’ ‘Yes, you can go now, Larry.’”

So, that’s a small example of what I do. It must be pointed out that the students don’t know With a Song In My Heart, and every story I tell assumes they don’t know how the story will end. So there are some dramatic turns that get everyone in the room (including me) crying.

On the other hand, familiarity makes some of my samples something of a sing-a-long. It’s a pleasant surprise when my rendition of Many a New Day has a female chorus join in. That’s one reason why the Subjective History can’t be filmed, or turned into a podcast, book, or any other form. It’s shaped, to a significant extent, by the listeners. I take to the blackboard to draw the world’s worst map of Western Europe, never knowing whether it will be recognized as such in five seconds or five minutes. And that’s just there to show how Offenbach influenced Sullivan.

Writers, hearing each other’s work, refining the form – that’s what interests me. It’s why Oklahoma! gets the most time and less influential shows (say, The Pajama Game) get none. But it’s best not to dwell on who you don’t hear about in my densely-packed few hours (Comden & Green, e.g.), I’ve a limited amount of time to tell an entertaining story. It’s not meant to be definitive. I’m spreading out a smattering of knowledge, like manure, hoping it will grow, and I don’t need to talk about the show that mentions spreading manure to do it.

I’m a sucker for a good story. Whether it’s Arthur Laurents smiting his forehead, or David Merrick adjusting the opening night to coincide with a creator’s death, I get to be the raconteur with the unforgettable tales. And a rendition of I Dreamed a Dream that hasn’t been forgotten by a generation of students.


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.


Juliette

December 15, 2016

The room was pitch black, the light from the cracks under three doors not illuminating the dozen faces or so within. There was a gentle knock on the door, and a tiny gasp as someone moved from the middle of the room to open the door. When she saw who it was, she flipped on the light and I could see the music in front of me: about as harmonically complex a duet as I have ever seen. In parts, chords change on every eighth note. This may be the “constantly surprising refrain” Hart wrote about but Sondheim denies exists. But, at that moment, I leaned in to take in the dialogue. A girl from the South was inviting an Italian boy into her hotel room, where she’d been sleeping alone. He wasn’t sure he should enter, and kept flipping between Italian and heavily accented broken English. She insisted she understands him. And I got my cue and started playing the thick quarter note chords.

This is Musical Theatre Scene Study class, the highlight of my work week. This particular scene is the midway point in The Light In the Piazza, by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas. A third actor is involved, silently: the girl’s mother opening the door, catching them in flagrante delicto – that ends the scene.

In preparation for this class, I’d rehearsed with the singing pair for about an hour. This was one of the later steps in their process. One of the song’s many unusual challenges is that a lot of it is wordless singing. The performers endeavored to bring particular meaning to a long span of “ah.” There are also unusual rhythms and false accents; perhaps the latter is inspired by Fabrizio’s lack of facility with English. In fact, the inability to express with words is the main subject of the song, which is called Say It Somehow. I feel it’s among the most gorgeous pieces in contemporary musical theatre.

(n.b.: these are not our students)

     If ’tis the season for counting blessings, let’s pause to list a few. For one, this is my day job. I actually get paid to rehearse and explore this rapturous duet with very hard-working and adept singing actors. And, as I just said, I appreciate the gorgeous song. Some acquaintances know me as a music teacher, but that sounds so wrong. Together, we’re exploring aspects of a great scene. I figure out how best to accompany them – such as sticking to the straight beats rather than doubling vocals. As I listen, I discern the tiniest of imperfections, and point out things they miss. Then, that day that started in the dark, we expand our circle: ten others join us to observe the performing work-in-progress. All eyes go to the laconic teacher, Alan Langdon – but is “teacher” the right word for him, really? He says what he’s observed. Rarely, he’ll give a directorial suggestion. In the case of Say It Somehow, the first words out of Alan’s mouth were exactly the words that were in my head: that Fabrizio had a strong accent when he talked but hardly any when he sang. Then Alan had a question about his entering her room: “What is the metaphoric meaning?” The actors were unable to answer this, and their inability relates to the main element that was lacking that first time they did it that day. Before their redo, I was asked to speak.

     “I love when there’s a number where I notice something new each time I play it. What’s the first line of this lyric?”
— Why don’t you trace it on my hand?
     “But that’s not how it comes out with the music. It’s not a succession of eighth notes. I think we’re missing a joke here.”
— Why don’t you trace it on … my hand.
     “So, when she started that sentence, she may have had a different part of her body in mind.”

This time, they launched into the song with more instances of erotic play. Clothes came off. It was intimate, and more believable.

One of the things I often find myself saying, during rehearsals of love duets, is that musical theatre has a convention that singing a duet can be a substitute for sex. If a camera followed a romantic couple around, the film would be rated X. On some level, the audience in the theatre understands that the ahhing is a beautiful musical emblem for dirty doings going on. And then that mother walks in.

Speaking of opening doors, for many years, Alan Langdon and I have led (I won’t say taught) this amazing exploration, Musical Theatre Scene Study and it was only available to full-time students in the second of their two conservatory years studying at the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. But now, our door is open: You, too, can take this amazing class, separate from the school and its program. The good folks at WordPress warn me that I should never embed an e-mail address here, so you can’t click this, but send an e-mail to Sara at SaraCanter dot com. I’m warding off robots who spam by writing out the @ and the . – you know what I mean. The next round of classes starts next month. Do yourself a favor and join us.

You’ll learn a lot. Hell, I’ll learn a lot. Because we’re all in this together, collaborating, sweating the tiniest details, figuring out how to make scenes from musicals work. Since I’m not a performer, what I get out of it goes into my writing of musical scenes. I picture actors doing the sort of deep investigation of every word and note that goes on in our class. And, not to be bromidic (a word, one of my collaborators tells me, that only Oscar Hammerstein ever used), but I’m reminded of a line set to music by Adam Guettel’s grandfather 65 years ago:

A true and honest thought: If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.


Rondo

August 18, 2016

If my thoughts about Fun Home are sort of a jumble, it’s perhaps a reflection of the show itself. The 2015 Tony winner – I caught it off-Broadway and recently, on Broadway at The Circle in the Square, where it plays until September 10 – boldly presents a situation that is so true to life, it’s almost too complex to talk about. It keeps bringing up intriguing questions and, more often than not, refusing to answer them. Because life itself has no easy answers, and the show is based on the formative years of cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In an attempt to come to terms with her upbringing, she recounted events in the form of a graphic novel. Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (composer) adapted this into a 100-minute chamber piece.

And I still don’t quite know what to make of it. It is never dull, constantly fascinating. You, the viewer, search for answers just as Bechdel does, and there she is, on stage at her drawing board, wondering. (And there your fellow observers are, in the background, as it’s staged in the round.) Why did her father do the things he did? What went on inside his controlling, quick-to-temper mind? What traits did he pass on to his daughter, and how did the discovery that his daughter is a lesbian affect him? Even the arrival of an old French novel in a dorm room is shrouded in mystery.

Given my somewhat ambiguous reaction to a show that embraces a certain amount of ambiguity, it makes more sense to discuss Fun Home’s methods here than to write a long overdue review. (And, considering that Jeanine musical-directed my Varsity Show, The New U. many years ago, I can’t legitimately claim to be impartial.) Fun Home seamlessly transitions between four types of expression, which I’ll define, yet is all of a piece. You don’t notice these; you’re too busy reacting emotionally to the characters and their plight.

The first is dialogue. Kron’s previous experience is in songless theatre. I’ve gotten tired, I must admit, of sung-through shows, because I appreciate the shift in energy involved in moving from spoken material to sung. So many writers overemphasize the importance of songs in a musical, relegating interstitial speaking to the status of filler. In Fun Home, we’re all on a mission to solve a mystery, so we carefully attend the words, as each might contain a clue. Bruce examines yard sale junk, pondering its value while we examine Bruce, pondering whether his actions might hold a key to his character.

And then, in song, what we get might fall into three categories. There are refrains with hooks, as shows have always contained. I walked out humming Days and Days and Days but you might fall for the unexpected rests that make Ring of Keys such an unusual waltz. Note, also, that Fun Home, directed by Sam Gold, is rather sparing in its use of applause buttons. When we give a performer a hand, we can see, across the stage, other people clapping; so, we’re taken out of the moment. Wise creators think long and hard about where and how often to let that happen.

Recitative and verse are two different things, and, in case you’re unfamiliar with Fun Home, I’m going to draw on South Pacific for examples. You know these lines –

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother
There is one particular thing that nothing whatsoever in any way shape or form like any other

Essentially, that’s chanted on a single note, with no bar lines, while the orchestra holds a chord. You hear this sort of thing in a lot of opera, and personally I’m more conversant in the Gilbert & Sullivan lampoon of opera:

I am not fond of uttering platitudes in stained-glass attitudes

In contemporary musicals, though, recitative is rarely employed. But Jeanine Tesori, throughout her career, has gone beyond the bounds of “what’s done” drawing on a wealth of knowledge of others forms of music. And the surprise benefit is that it allows the performer to deliver “Oh, my God” over and over again in a charming way that reveals a lot about her personality. (Plus, she’s talking about sex – always a piquant topic.)

Speaking of which, a classic musical theatre example of a verse:

I touch your hands and my arms grow strong

That has a tune to it – Rodgers comes close to religioso, and I think the accompaniment’s on sixths – but it’s not the main tune. You hear it and you know this, that you’re in the verse rather than the refrain.

After our college freshman heroine bursts out with all those omigods, Tesori subtly brings in a little tune that, just like in South Pacific, is clearly not the main tune. It runs quickly around the scale on lines like “I just have to trust that you don’t think I’m an idiot.” We’re tickled, we laugh, but we know we’re not in the main part yet, and then comes a simple but impassioned waltz.

This is so full of joy, discovery, and, yes, sex, that I knew upon first hearing that here was one of the best show tunes of the decade. It’s magical.

Something that always strikes me about Jeanine Tesori is that she usually works with first-time lyricists. It’s as if each collaboration reinvents the wheel, and, the obvious consequence: no composer I can think of is more varied. Violet sounds nothing like Caroline Or Change sounds nothing like Thoroughly Modern Millie sounds nothing like Shrek. Fun Home, the innovation with Lisa Kron is, I think, something none of us was quite prepared for. Every element (including, or especially, set design) combines to tell a compelling and emotional story. Which is what we all want to do: And if we’re ever going to achieve that goal, it behooves us to carefully examine what Tesori and Kron hath wrought.