I’ve got my suspicions

January 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here’s a sticky wicket

November 19, 2015

Once upon a time, an antique Japanese sword fell off a wall, where it had been hanging as a decoration, in a world-famous musical theatre writer’s home. At the time, W. S. Gilbert had been stuck for an idea. You see, what he loved to do, and what he unquestionably did best, was to poke fun at British society, its institutions, its illogical laws, the dumb ways people act in the name of being polite. Some of his hits, such as Iolanthe and Patience, had been set in contemporary England. But he held an impulse I can relate to: the desire not to repeat himself. Mind you, he still wanted to satirize Brits, holding up a fun-house mirror to their foibles, but he feared his routine had grown tired. Then the sword fell.

And, legend has it, suddenly Gilbert knew what to write. At the time, the English had a big-time fad going on, for Japanese design. There was even a precursor to EPCOT, an amusement park created to give visitors the experience of walking through a Japanese village. Now, this might strike you as ridiculous – and I’m certain Gilbert would agree with you – but, when I was a boy, Orange County, California had, not far from Disneyland, an attraction built on the same premise, called Japanese Village and Deer Park. (If you grew up in New York, you’re now shouting “That’s good water!”) So, both the late 19th century Londoners and mid-20th century Los Angelinos had a fascination with Japan.

In Patience, an ever-in-vogue character admits he’s a fraud: “I do NOT long for all one sees that’s Japanese.” It’s funny to think that those who follow fads are doing it just to be trendy, not because of genuine feelings. And then there’s the issue of loving Japanese things with no real understanding or appreciation for the actual Japanese people and culture.

You can look at this mania as a serious problem, or, as Gilbert did, you can look at it as stuff to ridicule. And ridiculing the British craze is totally different than ridiculing the Japanese, right?

The show Gilbert wrote, with Arthur Sullivan, was his masterpiece, The Mikado. Gilbert was, originally, an attorney, and the main lampoon of The Mikado is that characters follow the law so precisely, the Lord High Executioner is unable to execute anyone because he’s the next person scheduled to have his head removed and suicide is illegal. Follow? Well, even if you don’t, I hope you can grasp that Gilbert is spoofing British insistence on legal procedure, not anything truly Japanese. And so the world took to The Mikado, laughing heartily at its jokes about the British, for well over a hundred years.

In recent months, though, troubling questions have been asked about this remarkably hysterical musical comedy. In countless productions over the years, Caucasian performers have donned black wigs and applied make-up to their eyes in order to convey the idea that the characters are Japanese. In the present century, there’s a critical mass: a large quantity of talented Asian performers. In New York, at least, one could easily fill the stage with great singing actors who’d need no make-up to convince the audience they’re gentlefolk of Japan. Unfortunately, players of Asian descent are often denied jobs by producers and directors who lack the imagination to see the roles traditionally cast with Caucasians any other way. Economic forces, I feel, inevitably would lead some to question why a show set in the Japanese town of Titipu is so frequently cast with people who resemble Gilbert and Sullivan rather than George Takei.

Making matters worse was the venerable New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, known by its acronym, NYGASP. They, too, had the relatable desire not to repeat themselves. Over the decades, their productions of The Mikado evolved to include the addition of a character Gilbert never would have dreamed of. It was a little girl dressed in male garb, and called “The Axe Coolie” who ran around the stage yelling “high-ya.” I haven’t seen their production, but if that description is remotely accurate, it’s not in keeping, at all, with the original intent. And it led, understandably, to the accusation known as Yellowface.

We hear that term and are supposed to think of the more familiar Blackface, when whites would don burnt cork and hyperbolically racist stereotypes. In Blackface, the humor is derived from expounding on certain white folks’ belief that African-Americans act certain ways. And that’s about the most troubling form of entertainment America has known: humor built on prejudice.

So, NYGASP scrapped their production, uttered a mea culpa, and fights for survival in a world that seems to have turned against them. In my view, the addition of Axe-Coolie was not only racist, it was wholly unnecessary. Savoyards understand that The Mikado is funny enough to thoroughly entertain an audience without adding a single prejudiced trope. What kind of G & S company feels the need to add shtick to the most humorous operettas ever written? (Many, apparently.) There ought to be a way of mounting a bit of Victorian silliness in a way that gives no offense.

But it can’t be denied, either, that certain people live to be offended. Yes, bigotry exists in the world, and you may have suffered traumas and indignities: that’s sad but true. But if you can’t see the humor in what a Victorian English satirist did 130 years ago, setting a silly story in a distant country nobody knew much about, well, nobody’s forcing you to attend. The existence of The Mikado and the audiences who enjoy it is no insult to the Japanese.

Similarly, there’s a stunning quantity who get deeply offended by Carousel. Many months ago, I wrote a piece for another blog suggesting that those who see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 masterpiece as somehow excusing or sentimentalizing wife-beating are ignoring much of the script, perhaps willfully. Hammerstein is musical theatre’s greatest humanist, and he wrote musical plays for adults. If you can’t stand a show about a three-dimensional character who does some truly awful things (besides hitting his spouse, armed robbery leads to his death) as well as some good things, don’t go to Carousel. Leave it and The Mikado to those who have the ability to understand historical context and evolving sensibilities.


Fingers and toes

October 22, 2015

While my last blog entry celebrated our twelve years of marriage on October 12, over at Jason Robert Brown’s blog, he was celebrating 20 years since his tiny revue, Songs for a New World, put him on the map. Indeed, when you look at the past two decades, you think of this as The Age of Jason Robert Brown. His songs are immensely popular with performers, and who else’s era might it be? Quick, name a Sondheim song from the last 20 years. Fail? Now try to name a Lloyd Webber.

Playing piano for young adults, as I do, means I’ve encountered JRB sheet music with cringe-inducing frequency. And hundreds who’ve gotten to know me know that I generally and genuinely don’t like Brown songs, so I hope you’ll pardon the negativity as I elucidate a few of the reasons.

The most obvious complaint most pianists have is that his scores are devilishly hard to play. But that’s pretty petty compared to the effect of employing wild licks requiring acrobatic finger-work. I’ve seen this happen too many times: some singer pours her heart into performing I’m Not Afraid of Anything. It’s exceedingly difficult to sing and act – very challenging to get the audience to understand what this epic is about, and get them to feel anything about the character. People I’ve played for have worked very hard on it, and then, in performance, my hands run around the keyboard like a mad man. There’s that machine gun-like ostinato in the left hand, the dazzling string of twenty-fourth notes in one bar of the treble, loud and percussive – all of these elements, if done correctly, upstage the hard-working singer. It’s as if Brown is more interested in showing off his mad virtuoso skills than letting the audience get emotionally engaged with an industrious actor. This breaks my heart every time I have to play it.

I think it’s better when the audience’s heart breaks, and that’s a matter of understanding drama and giving good actors meaty material with subtext and subtlety. If a musical halts action for a song, and then the lyric repeats and repeats in my ear exactly the emotion I already understood from the scene – well, I can’t help it: I get bored. The tune might be pleasant, the singing might be glorious, but slowly-stating-the-obvious, to me, is a waste of time.

There are different standards that apply to show tunes and pop tunes. Brown’s very accomplished, I think, as a pop writer. When I consider Someone To Fall Back On as “just” a song on an album, I’m attracted to it: I don’t require character development when I’m listening to a song that isn’t part of a story. When I’m playing a Christmas party, JRB’s Christmas Lullaby is often the prettiest recently-composed number you’ll hear. Twenty years ago, the revue seemed his ideal format since he wasn’t burdened with having to further a narrative.

My first awareness of Brown came with Audra McDonald’s album, Way Back To Paradise. There was a soaring melody, positively brimming with emotion, You Don’t Know This Man. I thought it was pretty successful, and then I saw the song in the show it’s from, Parade. There, it’s a familiar press conference response. The character’s husband has been falsely accused of murder and she meets the press, who predictably hound her like jackals. Everything she says, everything she feels is exactly what you’d think a wife in her position would say and think. Watching, listening, I sank into my seat: a song I once admired was dramatically inert, told me nothing I didn’t know, moved me not a whit.

Speaking of being unmoved, I gotta tell you about the worst opening number to a musical I’ve ever seen. An attractive woman stood alone on stage, lamenting a lost love: “I’m Still Hurting.” Expressions of self-pity are anathema to me. In fact, they’re very rare in the Golden Age of musicals. But here’s a stranger (in that, so far, I’ve learned nothing about her) going on and on about emotional pain caused by someone named Jamie who I haven’t yet met. She’s so sorry for herself, I can’t possibly feel for her: she’s done all the work. Now, the presentation of an emotional doormat early in a show might possibly work if she goes on to heal, to pull herself out of this lachrymose funk. Alas, that doesn’t happen.

Instead we met an attractive fellow with an odd fetish about a girl who isn’t Jewish. How I hoped this wasn’t Jamie describing the aforementioned depressed woman. (No such luck: it was.) But at least it was peppy – Latin, because…? – and it was, ostensibly, a comedy song, albeit one containing no jokes anybody laughed at. But the lyric certainly piled up the usual clichés about Jewishness. Similarly, Mr. Brown (who is Jewish), traded on anti-Semitic slurs in a horrid piece called Just One Step. It’s a depiction of a middle-aged woman threatening suicide if she isn’t bought a fur coat. I wanted to push her off that ledge after 16 bars; unfortunately, she went on for about 160.

Oh, I could go on and on, making this piece overly long. But doing so would repeat one of Brown’s biggest problems. His songs make whatever point they make and then continue to gargantuan lengths. I recently played one epic and heard the comment “That song was so endless, I wanted to slit my wrists.”

Brevity is the soul of wit…and a concept JRB is unfamiliar with. A Summer In Ohio cracks a few solid jokes, and then goes on for a whole extra season. Everything he says in the massive Stars and the Moon, Sondheim previously said in the first minute of his lovely So Many People. How many times does a lyricist have to repeat “It all fades away” before the audience gets the point? (I’d have said thrice, max; Brown says: 16.)

Musical-writing, ideally, is an act of concision. That is, what might take four pages of dialogue in a straight play to convey, you shrink into a one page lyric. The opposite is the act of expansion, an emotion a play would put across in two lines becomes a five minute mini-opera. Or more. And that sort of thing tests my patience.

Which is what the much-admired Mr. Brown has been doing for twenty years.


I’m happiest at Christmas

December 24, 2014

“Credit where credit’s due” has always been a big deal for me. So, when I point out I’m only responsible for the music of Christmas In O’Hare, I hope it doesn’t sound like I’d be embarrassed if you thought I’d written the words. Those are by Tom Carrozza, whose vocal is on the video, and I assume he assembled the images himself. But I wasn’t there. Nor was I there when the recording engineer “orchestrated” my music on computer: The only human accompaniment, I think, was me playing into a keyboard. And now the word that comes to mind is “beehive.” Not just because Tom appreciates a good sculptural hair-do, but I’m compelled to remind you we are all just worker bees – it’s easier to picture ants, actually – each doing our small part to create a transcendent whole.

And do you know about the beehive curtain? When you entered the theatre to see the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd, you encountered a huge illustration, black ink on cloth, suspended where a curtain might normally be, but on ropes. It defined the Beehive as the connected set of professions that defined London life: the tinker, the tailor, the hooker, the hustler (oops, drifted into the wrong song there). An organ played a somber fugue, implying there was something blessed about this network. And then, all of a sudden, an ear-piercing steam whistle, like from the world’s noisiest factory, shook you to your core. The beehive drop was yanked down to reveal a colorless street, where dour people moved around like zombies.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because every subsequent production of Sweeney Todd that I know of did away with this prologue. The audience didn’t start the show considering the connectivity of various professions. And, as the evening wore on, they watched a madman exact murderous revenge on tinkers, tailors, shepherds and fops for no particular reason. His sad lot in life led him to lose his mind and so he became a serial killer. Which isn’t nearly as chilling and thought-provoking as Sweeney as emblem of a corrupt system. Society, with its morals not worth what a pig can spit, created its dark avenger.

The cautionary tale I’m mulling over is the trouble directors of revivals inevitably get into when they restage a piece in a different way. Something gets lost – something important. In 1979, Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince (I believe the beehive curtain was Prince’s idea) fashioned an interesting musical that had something to say. Sondheim, Prince and Wheeler were no slouches. Three decades later, John Doyle sets his staging of Sweeney Todd in an insane asylum where all the inmates play musical instruments, and not discordantly. When the chorus snarls “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” we don’t feel indicted in the slightest because we know we aren’t inmate musicians: we’re at a safe remove. Currently Doyle’s mounting a vastly truncated Allegro, a 1947 musical nobody ever complained was too long, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, directed and choreographed by Agnes DeMille. No slouches either. Once again, the actors are the musicians. I shall not attend.

I also don’t plan to go to the recently announced star-studded staging of Parade. (What is this, a blog about shows I’m not going to?) Parade‘s a sad historical drama that a lot of perspicacious people seem to admire, leading me to wonder, “Did they see the same show I saw?” I suspect a lot of them didn’t. If you saw that original production, directed by I-remind-you-again-No-Slouch Harold Prince, you were bombarded for more than two hours with a single overly-emphatic message: Southerners, a century ago, were unintelligent belligerent bigots. Now, I suppose if you’d never heard that message before, two hours of hearing it loudly stated over and over again (to pleasant tunes), might be your cup of sweet tea. But for those of us who’d already heard about prejudiced whites down in Dixie, well, pass the bourbon. The theatre was at least one third empty the night I saw it. But those who stayed for the third hour were rewarded by a moving conclusion.

Take Jason Robert Brown’s songs out of context and they play like gangbusters. When tasked with moving Parade’s turgid tale, they sludge along like rotting molasses. So, those who’ve only heard the cast album, or have only encountered those melodies unmoored from Alfred Uhry’s libretto, get a distinctly different impression. When I listened to You Don’t Know This Man on Audra McDonald’s CD, I liked its soaring melody and piqued tone. But when you see a quiet Jewish gentlemen falsely accused of murder and his wife comes out to meet the press, you expect her to say certain things. And, in this song, she says them – exactly what you’d expect her to say. Which is rather dull in the theatre.

I probably seem obsessed by this point. But, in my life, I keep encountering people who assume shows are wonderful because they love the scores they’ve merely listened to. In the theatre, our first responsibility is to entertain the audience that’s in the seats. If we don’t interest them, we’ve failed. If a song, out of context, affects people, well, that’s good news, but it wasn’t the goal. I think there’s many a Brown number that people love, without benefit of seeing it in context, and You Don’t Know This Song.

And why am I writing all this on Christmas? Well, I was recalling all the Christmas songs I’ve written, starting with Joy Will Be Yours In the Morning, a setting of a lyric found in The Wind In the Willows, when I was 12 or 13. As a writer of shows, I’ve frequently had to come up with carols characters might sing, and, for The Christmas Bride, two yuletide tunes employed dramatic irony. I’m Happiest At Christmas, in context, is about the difficult emotion of being forced to feel merry when one really isn’t. For the heroine, the title is ironic. Out of context, though, everybody tells me I’ve written a wonderfully evocative Victorian holiday waltz. Who am I to argue?