Pieces of eight

March 22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s gotta be an alternative

March 14, 2018

I’m setting myself a couple of huge challenges with this post. I’m going to talk about the process of writing music in a way that every reader out there can understand and yet will still be of some interest to those mavens who know way more about music theory than I do. And, if that isn’t hard enough, I’m going to start with a brief mention of current events that’s going to seem like it’s about politics, but really is not about politics at all.

You ready?

There’s a look of delight on Rachel Maddow’s face whenever she announces new indictments coming out of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And here’s the thing: her delight is not about another Trump-connected person going down. It’s about the unpredictability of the successfully secretive Mueller team. She can’t tell what he’ll do next and this fact truly tickles her.

Harmony’s a lot like that.

Things happen in sequences, and we can say they run on a scale going from most obvious to most surprising. We’ve all suffered through plots that get us to think, “I saw that coming.” Good plots tend to surprise us.

I’ve always been crazy about chord symbols. Not all music has them, but those Vocal Selections from Broadway shows usually do. And that’s where my eye goes. For most of my piano-playing career, my eye had to go there because I find it easiest just to play the vocal line and let my left hand render those chords. But this isn’t about playing music, it’s about analyzing as a step towards writing better music. So, I’m reading that sequence of chords and I might find them very surprising or not at all.

There’s always a most obvious chord. In a way, this is kind of comforting. The composer knows a path, a place to go next. I can draw you a chart. But a lot of people are scared of charts, and anything called “music theory.” Fear not! I’m making this simple. The Circle of Fifths is a way of arranging the twelve possible notes you can build chords upon in the shape of a clock. The space between any two that are next to each other is exactly the same. Travel counter-clockwise, and your harmony is going the most obvious route.

When I was sixteen, I wrote a little theme and started with something you don’t hear every day, going from F to B. But, from there, I took the cliché path, right around that circle: Em7, A9, Dm7, G7(b9), C7. (You can safely ignore anything that isn’t a capital letter.) I then repeated the sequence: F, B, Em7, A9, Dm7, G13(b9), C. I’m sorry if this looks like gobbledy-gook to you. Just saying that there’s a cliché involved in traveling along that clock.

For years I kept a sign over my desk that read:

ESCHEW CLICHÉ

Every time I pick a chord on that well-traveled path, I die a little. I’ve failed to eschew cliché. But here it must be said that if your chord sequence is too weird, listeners will revolt. Nobody hums Arnold Schonburg. Musical fans frequently hum Claude-Michel Schönberg, who consistently uses those most obvious harmonies. 30 years ago I walked out of Les Misérables humming Pachelbel’s Canon. This is considered the ultimate classical music cliché, because of its ultra-obvious and endlessly iterated harmonic structure. Its use in the film, Ordinary People, have led many to call it Ordinary Music.

But Les Miz is such a hit. It’s been suggested to me that my sign ought to read

EMBRACE CLICHÉ

But there’s got to be a happy medium, right? There’s got to be a way of avoiding too many obvious steps. Of shaking the listener, a little, but not so often that she can’t grasp what she’s hearing on first hearing.

Composers often talk in terms of emotional colors, but that’s so abstract. Instead, let’s talk in terms of cooking. You’re a chef who’s willing to experiment. You’ve a huge spice rack. (I like to alphabetize mine.) So, cilantro and cinnamon are right next to each other. How does your stew taste if you add those two? It’s either intriguing or ick. Now, maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Top Chef, but I think every experienced chef knows something about flavor on the effect of adding any spice on the rack.

Combinations of chords hit the ear in different emotional ways. Think about this stuff enough, and you memorize the feel behind a slew of them. Composers know what’s intriguing and what’s ick. Many’s the time we go to the most obvious chord, that neighbor on the Circle of Fifths. But I tend to admire those brave enough to go to unexpected places. If you surprise my ear, my attention gets drawn in; whereas a pattern I’ve heard a million times before is easy to tune out. Vernon Duke, Leonard Bernstein, David Shire, Adam Guettel – these wizards take my ear on a journey filled with surprising harmonies, God love ‘em.

Of course, good songs are written in different ways. One pictures James Taylor, hearing of the death of a young friend, and strumming the most obvious chords on his guitar, without thinking, perhaps, pouring out his emotions. There’s nothing wrong with Fire and Rain and I admit that what I do is fairly uncommon. I prefer to experiment with unexpected harmonic language quite often, as if ESCHEW CLICHÉ was a command from God. And “God,” you know, is my silly pet name for George Gershwin.


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.


Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.

 


Symphony of wind-up toys

January 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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.


Bad dad

February 21, 2016

A fortuitous scheduling quirk gave me a week last month in which I had some extra time at the piano. My lot in life – and I may have complained about this far too much – is that when my daughter’s in the house Daddy can’t touch his piano. Truth is, my four-year-old doesn’t let me sing. If I break out into song (as all mentally healthy people are prone to do), she instantly puts her hand over my mouth. She’s associated my singing with my nightly struggles to get her to go to sleep; so she halts me with “That’s for bed.”

Today I saw a meme: “I am a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story.” Don’t I know it!

Pre-school started a week before my winter work break finished, affording me three mornings home alone. I was determined to finish one of my argument songs. That’s not some arcane term I coined: I literally mean duets in which characters argue. Before this boon-of-a-week, I’d have said I was about 3/4 done with this one, which just shows you how little we know. I’d had the man rant, wrote “key change” on the score, and started the woman’s response. The plan was for each to have equal time.

Which reminds me: I caught a glimpse of CNN this week and I hate CNN precisely because they make a virtue of equal time. They’ll talk to someone who thinks the earth is flat and devote exactly as many minutes to some scientist who maintains Columbus was right: it’s round. Seems wrong to me, as well as artificial.

So, as I continued work on the argument song it struck me that my bent for equal time was getting it too far from reality. As a songwriter, I love structure: structure makes things easier. But Do It the Hard Way, as Rodgers and Hart wrote, and you can keep an audience on its toes. The equal time stratagem is all too predictable.

The song has a lot of eighth notes. It’s rock that chugs along quickly. I’d come to think of it as something Sara Bareilles might write. Its frenetic power derives, in part, from chords that shift off the beat. That is, new harmonies don’t start on the beats you count, but in-between: 3-and-four-SHIFT-One-and-two-SHIFT. The idea is to keep the audience on edge, just like the warring characters.

But it’s all rather relentless. I didn’t appreciate this until getting to the piano on Tuesday. It seemed a little tiring to play, and that might mean it’s tiring to listen to. Contrast was needed, something a little lyrical, with sustained notes. The energy won’t drop if I continue the eighth note chords in the accompaniment.

I’m thinking, as I write this, about the word “sustain” since it made it into the lyric. My baby’s smile sustains me. I’m wondering whether I would have thought of that verb if “sustain” hadn’t been part of my musical process. Probably, I’ll rewrite the line, as it contains too many S’s, but that’s what I have now. The lyric says something, here, that needed to be said because I’d stated something rather strongly in filling out the woman’s lyric earlier. Her rant tops his, but she’s a tad too insulting and this section serves to humanize her.

Or at least I hope. Throughout writing this show I’ve had one eye on an imaginary likability meter. It’s a two-character musical, in the audience must enjoy being in their presence for the full length of the piece. But there’s bound to be friction, arguing, and times they’re less than pleasant company. I worry I worry about this too much.

Broadway, about fifty years ago, saw another two-character musical about a married couple, I Do, I Do. Not one I’ve seen, but it strikes me they cast the two most charming, inherently lovable stars that could be found: Mary Martin and Robert Preston. More recently came The Last Five Years, an off-Broadway flop that cast the magnetic Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott. I saw this show twice and had great difficulty sympathizing with either of the characters. The woman, when introduced, indulged in self-pity, the worst of all possible first impressions. The man, towards the end, did something that destroyed whatever affection the audience built towards him. It’s incumbent on me to learn from the mistakes Jason Robert Brown made in creating his two-character show about a marriage. (I realize, of course, that a lot of people love this show.)

Not sure I’ve ever mentioned my mosaic metaphor. A work can be made up of a ton of tiny pieces. Right now there are 28 cards on my storyboard. This duet is just one of them. The current task is to craft the best tile possible – 1/28 of the whole – and not to worry about how the whole thing works. There will be plenty of time for that later, and audiences – at readings, backer’s auditions and previews – will help

My incessant phobia about whether my characters are likable inspired a new idea for where the lyric could go. Here they are, arguing passionately, a picture of discord. What if, after the release (described above) they find something in common? They share similar frustrations, and perhaps there’s a way to celebrate the fact that they’re sharing. This would justify them singing lines alternately, in harmony, and finally switching to the pronoun, “we” in a unison button.

By Wednesday’s school pick-up time, I had a complete piano score. Feels really good to reach this milestone. While my daughter amused herself, I snuck a peak at my storyboard. The new song brings fire and conflict to an early point in the show, and the next card is a sweet duet. The idea is that one of their parents will call, ask how things are going, and this check-in from the outside world leads both characters to perspective on their plight. Thursday, I got back to the song for that spot. And now I could see I didn’t need the intro that set up the main motif like an eighties pop song. Instead I’ll use whole notes, sort of like the way church bells stop the action in the first scene of My Fair Lady. (“A reminder.”)

Friday there were suddenly two new projects, that will pay me to write, and these will take me away from my musical for a while. But this week seemed like a great leap forward. (And, as you can tell, I got a little ahead on this blog.)