Shine it on

May 27, 2017

Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?

As you’ve probably heard, the estate of Edward Albee did something horrifying this month, something that ensures his masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be far less commonly produced in our land. Upon hearing that an Oregon troupe had cast an African-American actor as Nick, they pulled the rights to do the play. A slew of editorials and articles condemned this, and it’s redundant for me to add to the chorus now.

But it’s a reminder that performers-of-color very frequently get a raw deal in the theatre biz. There’s a preponderance of white people in positions of power who perpetrate the myth that audiences won’t accept anything but a white person in this or that role. And, if you didn’t know, you’d likely suspect there’s nobody out there trying to do anything about this loathsome attitude.

Good news for the fair-minded and not-fair-complected: I know somebody. I’m married to her. Joy Dewing, who started her casting business five years ago June 1, is on the Diversity Committee of the Casting Society of America. She’s been actively involved in addressing theatre’s long hoped-for metamorphosis into a place where all types can play. And Joy Dewing Casting has been at the forefront of opening up the eyes of directors and producers who’d previously envisioned an all-white cast.

This thing about vision reminds me of the time Joy cast a touring production that needed an expert tap-dancing tenor. The guy who gave the best audition demonstrated extraordinary ability, but he also had an out-of-the-ordinary disability: He suffered from a degenerative eye disease that was gradually robbing him of his vision. The tour would go to dozens of theatres, each configured a little differently – the size of the stage, where the lights shone, where the set would be. Every player needed time to orientate himself to each new space. Imagine how hard this would be if you were legally blind. Many producers wouldn’t have bothered to ask whether it was possible; they’d have passed on the diminishing-vision tapper and moved on to someone else. Joy worked tirelessly with all parties and what emerged was a big ball of Yes. Yes, the actor could do it. Yes, there’d be enough time to get him safe and comfortable on each new stage. Yes, the producers could cast the best person for the role. Yes, he had the time of his life. Audiences were thrilled – and nobody in the seats had any inkling of any issue.

Joy’s championing of performers with unconventional abilities led her to be filmed for a documentary about an actress who uses a wheelchair this month. The two of them were in front of the cameras on a weekend in a third-story studio and everything was going fine until the fire alarm went off. Which meant the building’s elevators automatically got sent to the first floor, fire department use only. Joy phoned 911 to deal with the problem of getting a wheelchair-bound person out of a possibly burning building. It turned out there was no fire, but one can view this as a metaphor for Joy’s career.

Go with me, here: In a way, there’s always a fire. When you’re putting on a show, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get the best possible people to be in it. This involves considerable imagination. You may know an actor’s work in other roles, but how would he be in your markedly different part? Auditions are so brief – what do they really tell you? An auditioner may have prepared a terrific 32 bars, but how will they be over the long haul, the weeks of rehearsal and the run of your show? Only a casting director can unravel these knotty questions. After five years on her own, preceded by many years of apprenticeship and then partnership with Dave Clemmons, Joy’s been there many times before.

Sure, I’ve got a Google News Alert set for Joy Dewing. It’s a window to how the world is reacting to my wife and her shows. Many things she’s cast are national tours, which means they come to new towns constantly and get new reviews from local critics. Is Rent captivating Chicago? Is Cinderella enchanting Phoenix? Is Forty-Second Street a big deal on Beale Street? I bask in the reflected glory, reading rave after rave. Specifically, they praise the discovery of new talent. That’s a specialty of Joy’s. Nobody knows more about the up-and-comers and what they can do. She goes to countless showcases and gives workshops at countless colleges. Nobody, over this period of time, has more often uttered these magical words: “Congratulations: You’ve just gotten your first job in show business.

(In this case, Joy delivered the good news to a parent, who told her daughter in her own way)

It takes a bit of sleuthing to access the on-line forums in which actors bitch and moan – er, discuss – their gig-seeking travails. But it only takes a casual investigation to reveal that Joy Dewing is, by far, the favorite casting director of the community in New York. The auditioning process can be grueling and soul-killing – it’s nobody’s favorite thing. But when Joy runs things, it’s far more palatable. Hopefuls feel they’ve gotten a fair hearing, and they’ve been treated well. This means that the talent pool’s a little larger – people want to get in front of Joy; they’re less likely to turn up when CDs of lesser repute are at the helm.

Did that sound like stalking? I really don’t spend much time scanning the internet to see how the world sees my wife: I know her. I see the kindness and compassion daily. I get a sense of what frustrates her, and those golden moments in which a new face shows up and blossoms. I think she’s grossly underpaid (doesn’t every spouse think this?) for the wonderful work she does. Joy Dewing Casting’s experience and ways of working is a godsend to any production. And that’s not just an uxorious brag. You can ask anybody.

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I’m your friend

September 3, 2016

Had an idle thought – and I swear this is not about politics: When the second Bush ascended to the presidency, the first Bush got referred to as “41.” If, next year, we have our second Clinton, will the first be referred to as “42?”

Speaking of accomplished women, it’s my wife’s birthday. She runs her own business, Joy Dewing Casting, at the tender age of – well, I won’t say but it may or may not have been hidden in the previous paragraph. And I bet you’re breathing a sigh of relief that this isn’t about politics.

Au contraire, it’s about radical change! Joy has, almost single-handedly, changed the way theatre is cast in America today. I’ve observed this from a safe remove, so perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about, or am biased, but hear me out:

The revolution began before Joy started her company in 2012. Last decade, when Joy started interning for Dave Clemmons Casting, she joined a heady conversation every gin-and-tonic Friday with the likes of Rachel Hoffman and Geoff Josselson (who’d go on to cast my Such Good Friends). Ideas about the state of the casting process were passed back and forth. Joy had been on the side of the table where one is watched, and imagined a world in which performers didn’t feel like slabs of meat. Any aspirant can be the answer to a problem the creative team has, and so should be treated with respect, given a real chance to shine.

As Joy rose in that company, eventually guiding all its operations, she engineered new methods of looking at the talent that exists, giving increasingly higher quantities of players their fair shake. Where once there were paper sign-up sheets (open to the chicanery of people not present, being signed in by a friend), Joy helped innovate the system of on-line scheduling so common today. The shows Joy casts go all over the country. Back in the day, they only auditioned in New York. Joy was among the first to encourage and enable video submissions. Plus, she travels all over the country to see up-and-comers, new to the scene but not yet in New York.

Casting a wider net (sorry to reuse that verb) has been something of an obsession. I’m never sure I’m using the proper terminology, but there are differently-abled people who have something to contribute to the musical theatre stage. Joy’s at the forefront of getting them seen, expanding the minds of creative teams. Earlier this year, I saw a fantastic singer-dancer tap his heart out in a leading role. It was quite the surprise to learn that he’s legally blind..

Casting directors have a professional association, and Joy’s a bigwig on its Diversity Committee. You’re probably aware that Broadway shows are usually populated by white people  – one of last season’s new shows specified “Caucasian only” in its casting call. Joy’s Committee explores ways to upset that status quo. There was no legitimate reason the leads in Mamma Mia needed to be all-white. When Joy took over the casting the barrier broke. And I happened to be present for the first audition of the little phenom who’ll soon play Annie; she’ll be the professional stage’s first Annie-of-color.

These may be the first raindrops in an oncoming storm. Hey, I told you I was writing about radical change! Part of Joy’s genius is behind-the-scene conversations with producers, directors and choreographers. Most are white, and most start with a vision of how their show should look – possibly like the lily-white casts from the days of yore. Elsewhere, there are people of color who’ve seen so many lily-white casts performing musicals, some naturally assume that musical theatre might not be an option for them. In the slow march towards the meritocracy the arts should be, Joy opens minds on both sides.

This month, in Boston, a play will open that posed a unique challenge to its casting director, Joy. Everybody in the audience already associates specific actors with all the characters, and has a fully-formed sense of how they should all be played. Sounds impossible, no? But here comes Cheers, a new play based on the first season of one of the best-loved television shows of all times. Imagine the difficulty in seeking actors who are brilliant comedians here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, playing Sam and Diane and Carla and Norm and Coach and Cliff, characters who made an indelible impression way back in the second-to-last decade of the twentieth century. Everybody knows your name, indeed. And your inflection, body language, look, voice, accent. I get nervous just thinking about it.

 

But musical theatre fans might be used to this in two different forms. First, think of all the musicals based on familiar movies. Today, folks walk in to the Winter Garden fully expecting Jack Black in School of Rock because they remember his film portrayal so well. I know the cover in the role – that is, the guy who takes over any time the lead is out – and think: he’s nothing like Jack Black; he’s up against an expectation that wouldn’t be there if he were doing an original. But then I think back to how wonderful he was in The Wedding Singer at NJPAC, where he wasn’t remotely like Adam Sandler but was thoroughly amusing in his own way.

And then we’ve got iconic musicals. Buoyed by a film that used most of the original cast, Rentheads have opinions about how the Rent characters should be played. Touring soon will be the 20th Anniversary production, cast by Joy, where you’ll be dazzled by the gifts a new generation brings to those East Villagers. Today, of course, the best ass below 14th Street would belong to someone rich enough to pay for surgical sculpting, but we can remember when.

Which reminds me: Happy birthday, honey.


Opening

January 1, 2016

“I’ll bet those actors feel self-conscious.”

This was said after I’d described a little of what goes on in the Musical Scene Study class Alan Langdon and I teach. It’s my belief that there’s no class remotely like it in the world, which is why I was describing it:

A pair of actors will rehearse a well-written musical scene, one involving dialogue leading into a duet, for an intensive period of time. The main goal is for them to comprehend, and portray the characters’ intentions in every thing they do. If they turn to the left, there’s a reason for it. If they extend the length of a note by a fraction of a second, there’s gotta be a reason. And they’re making every effort to see to it that nothing goes unnoticed, or unplayed. When they finally get in front of Alan and me together, the actors will talk, a bit, as themselves. As they recount real-life events and feelings, they’re recollecting things they’ve gone through that relate, somehow to something their characters are going through in the scene. They’ll dress in character, and carry themselves like people of their class and time periods would. And of course, they’ll sing in a manner totally appropriate to the style of the music. The pairs have roughly an hour to work.

They’re always eager for reactions. What did we see? What intentions appeared to be missing? Did someone play the wrong intention? Was something sung in a questionable way?

So, would that make you self-conscious? Yes and no.

No, because you’ve rehearsed to a certain level. I won’t call it perfection, but you’ve worked it enough times that you have experience keeping an eye on so many different aspects of your scene.

Yes, because of a broader meaning of self-consciousness: awareness. As an artist, your eyes need to be open, concentrating on a variety of details. “Detail oriented” is a phrase you read in job descriptions, but it’s an implied requirement of every casting call. Because actors have to sweat the details.

And, as we start a new calendar year here on this blog, it seems to me that most of my posts are about how writers of musical theatre need to sweat the details. It tends to irk me when I discover a bit of a musical that smacks of an unsweated detail, such as that Sondheim reference to a Sony television that wasn’t sold in America at the time the scene was set. But I’m gentle with the acting students.

They’ve worked hard, scrutinizing a musical’s text. There are times when something seems out of kilter and I think it’s a problem in the writing, not the performing. And of course I look back at my own musicals, and wonder if someone in my professorial shoes (loafers, rubber soul) would find fault with this or that.

So, the question might be asked, am I overly self-conscious as I write? There’s so many things you need to get right in a musical: a million ways to fail. I tend to plow along, and to not let such doubts distract me. If a song’s not working, I have complete confidence that I can come up with a replacement that will.

Intense scrutiny – I seem to keep coming back to those words. My previous entry enthused about the Genius Annotation of Hamilton. I love that self-appointed scholars (and some real experts) are poring over lyrics, explicating and analyzing, tracking down every allusion. How I wish other great musicals got this treatment. And then I’m reminded of times in my life when I had the time of my life listening to directors going over my musicals with a fine tooth comb. There was a brief encounter with Elizabeth Lucas, working with some Broadway vets on The Company of Women. Or those summer days when Marc Bruni asked me a million questions about Such Good Friends, leading to massive rewrites and our winning awards.

I still refer to those early meetings with Marc as the outstanding experience of my career, here in the 21st century. But, at New Year’s, the tradition is to look back over the year just ended. And make resolutions for the year just beginning. IMG_0236So, in 2015, adding this open-to-the-general-public class with Alan Langdon is a clear highlight. If you’re a serious musical theatre actor, I encourage you to join us. You know how dancing classes are offered for various levels of skill? Most people I know find Advanced Dance too challenging, but our class is like an Advanced Acting For Musicals, and we’re not going to break your knees – we’ll raise the level of your game.

And for an upcoming goal, let me circle back to the thing about awareness. I just went to a holiday party where a woman quoted a rhyme I’d written decades ago and I felt myself cringing a little. I was so young, and I wrote what I thought would be funny. And yes, people laughed, but I wasn’t aware of something, back then, that I’m aware of now. And I’ll take this as a sign I need to be more aware in 2016. Maybe about how jokes will be taken. Maybe about the vocabulary I employ. Maybe about compositional patterns I fall into. I never want to sound like myself. (Road Show, anyone?) And awareness also means listening more. To the rhythms of overheard conversations. To the musicality of the foreign languages I don’t speak. (That would be all of them.) To composers I’ve never heard. (Ed Sheeran, astonishingly, I’ve heard not a note of.) To birds. To paintings. To my wife, the wisest in the world. And more to the most un-self-conscious dynamo of creativity I’ve every met, my daughter.

 


Stay as sweet as you are

September 10, 2015

Today, a progress report, rather than a celebration. It’s the one-year anniversary of the first time anyone saw The Music Playing. But The Music Playing wasn’t finished a year ago; it was just time to put a draft in front of an audience and see how it went over. The invited attendees loved it, laughed at all the jokes, and soaked the floor with a puddle of tears. Everything, it seemed, was going right. And I saw this success as a decent start, a first step.

And so began a year – and counting – of rewriting. Taking a cold, hard look at every moment in the piece, including those that had clearly enraptured the crowd, and figuring out ways to make it better. It’s easy to be seduced by a positive reaction into thinking something can be left as it is. There are reasons to distrust the cheers.

The main thing is that the September 10, 2014 reading played for a room full of friends. There’s a huge difference between entertaining strangers and putting on a show for those you know. On one rather important level, that night was a surprise birthday celebration for my wife. She didn’t know where I was taking her, and hadn’t an inkling she was about to see friends perform an original musical that, in many ways, was a reflection of our life. Now, the guests who filled the other seats did know what they were about to see. But a huge part of their emotional experience, watching the show, was watching Joy watch the show. How was the birthday girl reacting to pal Nadia Vinnytsky playing a wife-and-mother very much like her? The Music Playing is about a pair of new parents finding ways to keep and kindle the love in their marriage. As the audience thought about this, they could look to where Joy and I were sitting and think about this novel romantic gesture of mine.

That’s a very different experience than the one that will be had by assemblies of strangers. I’m reminded that one of the current century’s funniest musicals was written as a gift from husband to wife, too. If I tell you the recipient’s name is Janet van der Graaf, many of you will instantly recall The Drowsy Chaperone with a smile. And while you were enjoying it, it probably never crossed your mind that the bride who didn’t want to show off no more had the same name, and some character traits, of a real person.

Future audiences taking in The Music Playing must accept Lizzie and Chuck without any familiarity with my family. If written well, of course, we accept fictional characters as real, at least for the time we’re watching the piece. My family isn’t fictional, although my daughter keeps saying things that nobody would accept as real coming out of the mouth of a made-up three-year-old.

So – how can I avoid this? – another mention of that really long word I find I drop way too often: verisimilitude. What my daughter says actually comes out of her mouth, but no paying audience would ever believe it. Stuff that Abigail says in the show has to be accepted by the audience as plausible, can’t get them thinking “no one would say that.” And my actress pointed out to me that I’d ended a lyric with a fast string of words, including “shnook,” that, to her, didn’t sound like something Joy would say. She’s right. But I must now ask myself, will the audience feel the character of Lizzie could plausibly verbalize that way? It’s imperative that writers get into audience members’ heads, picturing how they’re going to take in every word they hear, every image they see.

More broadly, the main thing I’m obsessing about is my unmet audience’s feelings about Lizzie and Chuck, whom they’ll never think have anything to do with Joy and me. Is my fictional couple interesting enough, sympathetic enough, for a house full of strangers to make an emotional investment in? In last year’s premiere, I feel, the characters are a little too nice, a little too perfect for strangers to care about. It’s like I’m tasting some cooking-in-progress and saying it needs a little something, a little tartness, more acidity. And the thought crosses my mind that if Lizzie somehow gets rewritten into an unpleasant person, Joy will be insulted. Perish the thought! It’s all about the audience, and always must be.

For my money, Jason Robert Brown went a bit overboard in making a character based on himself too much of an asshole in the denouement of The Last Five Years. I remember watching that master-of-charm, Norbert Leo Butz, getting through this extremely long, slow waltz and thinking “Well, that’s it. I don’t care about this character at all. The two hours spent watching this romance seems a waste of time.”

But when I think about it today, I wonder if Brown was dealing with a similar problem. He, too, was writing book, music and lyrics based on a romantic relationship he’d lived through. The woman, legendarily, was not happy about his turning stuff they’d lived into a musical. I think he wanted to be fair, didn’t want the play to seem like an act of revenge. So, he doesn’t paint himself as the good guy.

Which, I guess, is a good argument for steering clear of autobiographical works. So, let me advocate for the devil: You’re living life, seeing real stuff happen. Sometimes, you can see that a certain time period makes up an interesting story. As you’re living your life, there are jokes. People joke about a situation, or you do, and you might even have a storehouse of funny things to say that you never actually said. And that’s enough quality material, perhaps, to make a good show out of. It just might take a little tweaking. Or a lot of tweaking. Until any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Mommy is yummy

September 3, 2015

She’s out there, tending the garden, my wife. And, perversely, I don’t think about the beauty of the garden, with its incredible array of morning glories (I dutifully ask them if they’ve heard about Hugo and Kim) or the incredible beauty of Joy. These wonders get taken for granted. I think, instead, about the word, “tending.”

Now, why do I do that? How is it I miss the forest for the lexicographical trees? Perhaps it’s evidence of my obsession, as a lyricist, with words – what they mean, how they’re used, what effect they have when you choose to use them. And it may have been a while since I’ve thought about the word, “tending.”

Does it relate to “tendency” and “tender?” What is the origin of the phrase, “legal tender?” And Tenderly. That’s a lovely song. I suggested it be the song for the first dance at our wedding. Which brings me back to Joy.

It’s her birthday today. (This time, I buried the lead.) And she’s tender in everything she does. Tending to our daughter. Tending to the actors who come to her auditions. Tending to the clients – theatre companies/producers who sagely have the tendency to hire Joy Dewing Casting, her three-and-a-half-year-old company. Tending to the garden. Tending, oh so tenderly, to me. O.K., now I’ve tired of that word and its offshoots. Moving on.10506949_10152655729825350_2207334286046412683_o

I overheard her on a work call, recently, and was struck that we’ve a similar obsession. She and her interlocutor were working on a press release or perhaps a mass e-mail and Joy was the eagle-eyed editor, rephrasing bits, here and there, for maximum effect. That obsession with the mot juste – a proclivity we share.

Which leads me to get a little self-conscious about what I’m writing here. Was “proclivity” really the right word, there? And I think, more broadly, of all the times I’ve tried to capture Joy in words (such as blog entries on previous birthdays, the anniversary of the day we met and our wedding anniversary) or song and face the sinking feeling that I’ve failed to come close to relating how great she is. It’s a Sisyphean pursuit: she can’t be adequately rendered in any art.

There’s an Ingres portrait at the Frick that strikes me as looking a little like her, though. And I was delighted to learn that Mrs. Henry Frick had the same first name as our three-year-old, who happened to do four or five paintings today. Perhaps there’s a point about diligence to be made here. Some great artists work on a single painting for years. You have to wonder what a typical day’s workload was like. Some time in the last decade, I kept a little diary, listing my creative activity every day. Many days the entry consisted of what seems like the world’s most minor change – like a “but” to a “still.” Pre-schoolers can dab a couple of colors here or there and declare, “I’m done.” One might surmise that genius has something to do with stick-to-it-iveness. If we could spend a year improving a song every day, it stands to reason that song might be 365 times better than a ditty tossed off in a day. As you work, are you in a rush to declare, “I’m done?”

Which is why deadlines box us in. Some external force is saying “No more changes! You have to be done, now!” and, effectively, that can keep you from potchkeying incessantly. So, as I write this, I know I’ll post the latest draft on Joy’s birthday. And the musical I’ve been writing for more than two years, sans deadline, seems, at this point, like pushing a big rock up a hill. And one looks at a pre-school kid’s attitude towards creation with a touch of envy. Wouldn’t we all like to daub and dab and poof! it’s done?480552_10151038323550350_1129632993_n

My attraction to improv, which I think of as a completely different skill, is partly based on the appeal of instant creativity. No sweat and strain of rewriting, there. For many years, I taught song improv for a couple different outfits, including Second City. It struck me that my role as teacher was to get grown-ups to spew out an open fire hydrant of truth. (If I’ve time, I certainly need to rewrite that last phrase.) You tell a child to be Superman and boom! he becomes Superman. He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t consider how to be Superman. It’s an immediate investment in the character, accepted all around. I got adults to do this.

And the day I met Joy, she’d driven up from Washington to meet me, but I had a song improv class to teach, kind of like a long rain-delay in the middle of our date. So, during the hours when she wasn’t around, I got older folk to act like young ‘uns. Then, back to the date, I consciously tried to act younger than my age, since we had a significant age difference back then.

Now she’s older than I was when we met, but she manages to retain so much of the youthful zeal she had at 22. It’s a reason she relates so well to young performers, in her classes, workshops and auditions. It’s fair to say (and say it I often do) that no casting director working today has said to more actors, “Congratulations: You’ve landed your first job in show business.” Such news, usually received by the young, gets greeted with hoops and hollers. And Joy gives it right back – Joy sharing the joy, one might say. And a moment those first-timers will remember the rest of their lives.

I may not be lucky in a lot of things – one could say I’m hexed in that the hard work I’ve put into my writing has led to so little lucre and notoriety – but getting to have Joy in my life, every day: Nothing could be luckier than that.


Some romantic gesture

September 10, 2014

A little of the rocky road to the first presentation of my new musical, The Music Playing. It’s happening as I post this, but, as you know, I write these musings in advance. So I can only talk about the trouble getting here, not how it went.

I’d initially set myself a deadline, that the piece would be in some performable form eleven months ago. But if you ask me what the show’s about, you’ll understand a main reason I missed it by such a wide mark. It’s a two-performer musical about what it’s like to be first-time parents. While the work is entirely fictional, it can’t be denied that my duties as primary caregiver for my two-year-old daughter impeded my progress. And another odd thing is that I kept the project a secret – had no collaborator, told nobody about it, basically, until July. At that point, I contacted a director and hatched a scheme to present the show as a birthday surprise for my wife, a sort of surprise-party-with-reading-of-a-new-musical in the way our wedding was the premiere of a new Noel Katz musical in 2003.

Sounds crazy, no? Well, yes, this seems a necessity: there must be some touch of madness in any creation for the theatre. And my setting (actually, resetting) a deadline seemed just what I needed to get the writing going. My previous project, a show called Haven, had no self-set schedule, and I could never get my nose to the grindstone. Eventually, I lost all desire to complete it. But The Music Playing would be a Big Birthday Gift extraordinaire. And one of the ways there’s a bit of a release on the pressure valve is that, for this private party, there was no need for a truly finished draft. Something would be presented in early September, maybe just a handful of songs from an upcoming project. I’m proud to say a dozen numbers are done and a script that tells a story. It’s sort of a short-form telling of the tale I sought to tell. And many of the songs, at this early point, are a little bit of all right.

So, I think it must be terribly common among writers that time management is something of an issue. You hear of successful wordsmiths regularly devoting themselves to labor at all sorts of odd hours, keeping to a strict schedule, and that’s how they get things done. As the father of a rambunctious two-year-old, the only time I get to allocate towards creation is when she sleeps. And, many’s the day she utterly refuses to nap. Plus, since this is a musical, of course you’re picturing me pounding a piano for a certain number of hours. Except she’s asleep, so I can’t. Those occasions in which my wife takes our daughter out of the house – those become my only opportunities to compose at the spinet. I don’t tell you all these things as a complaint; just setting up the story.

Tasks that don’t require a piano, like coming up with dialogue for this show, of course are more doable. At some point, I looked at the list of songs I was confident I could finish by September, and, adjusting my outline on my dry-erase board, ordered them into a story I could tell. But I was long on ballads, short on comedy songs, and I’d always hoped for a higher percentage of duets. Now, I had what I thought were some pretty good ideas for energetic and funny songs for my pair of characters to sing together. Two appealing numbers were intended to end the show, one an emotional conclusion to the story, the other, a humorous and surprising epilogue. Late in the game I hit upon another idea for a piece involving one-upmanship that would play to my strengths in a Kander and Ebb mode. It’s fair to say I was fairly salivating to get to these pieces.

And there it was, on our family calendar, an early August mother-daughter business trip. It would be my time alone in the house, my time to bang the keys, all night long if need be. My assurance that my girls would be gone and I could get to it then were what kept me going all summer long: time specifically set aside for the wacky stuff the piece requires. So, the day I woke at 4:30 in the morning to take them to the airport was unusually gleeful. They made it on to their plane, and I was back in bed by 6, peacefully slumbering with the knowledge that I would have the rest of the day, and the four days following, to myself. I got up at 7:30, ready to start my pounding, and my wife texts that the flight’s been cancelled. US Air couldn’t get them to that night’s event. From a business perspective, it only made sense for her to go two days later, sans kid. I trudged back to the airport, face smeared with tears.

Nadia Vynnytsky, Andy White

Soon the project picked up a producer, a co-host, a musical director, and, of course, a cast. These helpful souls led to a performance venue we’d get for free, right on Joy’s birthday. If the show couldn’t be the lyrical laugh riot I’d conceived of, at least I could stuff the libretto with gags, and now I had a good team toiling on a night with a lot of heart. The performers needed some scratch tapes from me, and my daughter stayed quiet enough as I recorded the rather brief score. All was right on track for a glorious surprise musical reading on September Third.

Six days before the main event, Joy experienced a headache so awful her doctor ordered up a trip to the Emergency Room. A team of doctors performed a wide variety of scary tests. They took some days to come up with a diagnosis, and, by the First still hadn’t come up with any real prognosis. So, as nurses entered the hospital room in an approximation of a hazmat suit, I had to call off the birthday surprise. Finding a new time to do it, that worked for the entire team, was very difficult, and two fine places who love Joy so much they were going to donate space, had none to give on the only day that worked for us all. There’s a moment in the film, All That Jazz when a beleaguered musical-maker looks to the Heavens and says “What’s the matter?  Don’t you like musical comedy?”

Miraculously, by September 2, Joy recovered from all that had ailed her. She was good to go, too, but doctors wouldn’t release her until one last test result came in, from a lab that hadn’t been open Labor Day weekend. So she was finally sprung on her birthday, and perfectly energetic and non-contagious enough to see a show, but, by then, the postponement was on.

The course of true love never runs smooth, and that’s the inspiration for many a good musical. The course of getting this surprise musical on could barely have run rockier.

 

 


Let me out

July 6, 2014

The time has come, dear friends, for me to suspend weekly additions to this blog. I’ve always worried that jotting down these musings would eat up time that I’d otherwise be spending writing musicals, and it seems the tipping point has been reached. Six months ago, I set myself a deadline for completing a draft of a show, and it’s still not anywhere close to cooked. When I ask myself why, I answer, “I haven’t had the time” and yet I’ve had the time to put up a new entry here every five or six days. What’s wrong with this picture?

This is my 247th post, and the average length is 1000 words. So, from one perspective, I’ve written an entire book on musical theatre writing – a rather long one, in fact – with over 500 illustrations. When you click those, you’re led to a new window – usually a video, sometimes an audio: those are my Easter Eggs. For anyone who misses regular new posts, I suggest you go back and read some old posts. I started this in the fall of 2010, and I doubt anyone remembers them so well that a re-read would produce any déjà vu. I realize that there’s no organization to these musings – in this the blog is very much unlike a book. I’m not too good with the tagging/filed under thing. What happens is, every week, I’m inspired to muse on a different topic. Sometimes, it’s a review of a show I’ve seen. Sometimes, I’m rehearsing something that will provoke a post. When my shows are produced, it’s prime time to say something about the process that led to their creation. And I try to acknowledge the major anniversaries of my fourteen shows, as well as the deaths of my heroes. Which makes me think I’ll come back on with obituaries – so many of my favorite musical theatre writers are well beyond 80 – but that’s not a pleasant thought, a pleasurable way to use this blog.

For a long time, I’ve followed conversations about musicals on-line. It’s likely one of those will be on a topic I’ve already commented on, so, instead of creating a comment, I might simply post a link. And there’s a certain amount of blog maintenance I’ll continue to do. Links and, often, images, go “dead” because the site originally posting the content has evaporated. Here in my sixth month living in the suburbs, father of a precocious two-year-old, I find I can’t make it to the theatre nearly as often as I once could. And the new musicals I see, even readings, are likely to inspire posts. But that brings up a different existential issue:

Have I said it all? Have I jotted down everything I can think of to say about how musicals are made? I’m limited in what I can say here in two basic ways: One has to do with music theory. You readers may know a lot about the subject, or next-to-nothing. If I go into too much detail about chord sequences, accompaniment figures, orchestration and the like, I’m likely to lose you. I actually think of myself as someone who knows far too little about theory myself; when I post about music, I can hear the clucking tongues of the many who know more.

The other has to do with naming names. Some writers write badly. Some musical theatre people do bad things. From time to time, I’ve been treated fairly shabbily by some of the most famous names in our business. But I’m constrained: I don’t want to use a public forum to badmouth folks, even if they deserve it. And you never know who you’ll end up working with tomorrow, or who your wife will. There are stories you’ll tell to a trusted friend that you just don’t tell to you, the anonymous masses who read this blog. I’m reminded that someone I worked very closely with died and I thought I’d write up a couple of my favorite stories about him. They’re very funny stories, but they don’t show the deceased in a positive light. Now I’ve gotten closer to a relative of his, and a portrait of the late-but-not-so-great, well, it never seems like the right time to put that up.

But you never know. This isn’t goodbye. You never know when I’ll feel an unbeatable compulsion to write about something here. You just can’t look forward to the stalwart regularity I’ve stuck to for over two and a half years. Until we meet again!