Changing my spots

February 6, 2018

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Cabaret lately. And when I think about Cabaret, I’m talking about the original Broadway musical that came out in the 1960s, not the famous Bob Fosse movie, which has a different plot, and not the 1990s revisal, which also has a different plot and uses songs written for the movie plus most of the songs written for the original Broadway show, and one of those songs (written for Sally) was cut from the original for good reasons but is here given to a male character because male characters can tell us so much about how it feels to have an abortion.

Stop. Let’s move back to a simpler time, and a simpler show. (And a quick reminder that this blog has a No Politics Rule.) It struck me that the original Hal Prince-helmed Cabaret deftly deceives the audience about what it’s about. I recently wrote a synopsis of what the show I’m writing is about, and started wondering about the usefulness of shifting answers to that question.

Man, I think I’m being unclear. Try it this way: Imagine tapping an audience member’s shoulder every ten minutes and whispering, “What’s this show about?”

Ten minutes into Cabaret, she’d answer “It’s about this night club in Berlin, and it’s sort of weird and sexy, with an all-girl band.” Twenty minutes into Cabaret, the response would be different: “It’s about a naïve American writer from the Midwest and he’s fascinated with this promiscuous Englishwoman. They’re sharing a narrow bed, with all that implies.” Thirty minutes: “Intrigue involving smuggling across German borders.” And later, “Anti-Semitism threatens to derail an interfaith romance between older people.”

Maybe I’m exaggerating but you get the idea. Cabaret – book by Joe Masteroff based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – is a gripping entertainment, in part, because the audience never knows quite what to expect. From moment to moment, what the show seems to be about changes again and again.

A lot of musicals do the opposite. Barnum comes to mind. Tap that audience member at any point, and she’ll say “It’s about this fast-talking huckster collecting sideshow acts to present.” Call it a shiftless musical. To me, that’s far less interesting. I never wonder what will happen next.

And that’s something of a Gold Standard for me. Perhaps I, in my theatre seat, want to see something in a musical that Barnum’s many fans don’t care about. It’s this: I want to wonder what will happen next. I’ve got to care enough about the characters to be invested in unfolding plot points. These must be surprising enough so that the action doesn’t seem clichéd, expected.

So it’s the early days of television, and all sorts of calamities spring up in the effort of broadcasting a live variety show. And then it turns out the main characters have a long history together; a flashback reveals two once had a romance. The star of the TV shows tries to get another old friend, her Broadway mentor, booked as a guest, but there’s some trouble with this. Then, it’s a little like the old Dick Van Dyke Show, with writers subverting the watchful eye of an unhip authority figure. Then, boom! – subpoenas arrive from the House Un-American Activities Committee and we wonder, throughout intermission, how the old friends will be affected by being forced to testify.

Those shifting perceptions are what I set up in my musical, Such Good Friends. I didn’t think about this ten years ago, but that what’s-this-about evolution follows the model of the original Cabaret. And now I’m wondering about the wisdom of how Stephen Schwartz explains the storyboarding process in the ASCAP workshop. He said that his work at Disney taught him that every card on your corkboard (that is, story beats and songs) should relate to a central theme, a what’s-this-show-about. Certainly, that’s one way of doing it. But there are other ways.

Here’s a question I enjoy: What functions as the I Want song in Fiddler on the Roof? A lot of people think this is easy. The protagonist, Tevye, has a big number, early in the show, explicitly saying that he wants to be rich. On the other hand, Fiddler is certainly not a show about one man’s attempts to acquire wealth. (Barnum is.) Arranging his daughter’s marriage to a well-off butcher is not something Tevye uses his wiles to pursue; it’s very good fortune that falls into his lap. So, let’s go back to the question director Jerome Robbins asked the creators before they got the idea for a new opening number: What’s this show about? That, I can tell you in one word: Tradition! It’s about the dissolution of long-held traditions. These are very important to practically every character. (Not those defiant daughters. Their I Want is romantic, to make a matchless match.) In Fiddler on the Roof, the opening number is the protagonist’s I Want song. He wants to uphold his traditions because without them, life would be as shaky as… as… I can’t remember what.

It’s no coincidence that the preservation of the status quo is also the central goal in my Such Good Friends. “I want”…things to stay this good forever. So, in my best show, just as in the best show ever written, humor and romance masks the basic sadness of a well-loved world falling apart.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just me. Me with my lifelong aversion to change. Maybe that’s just a theme I find particularly moving. We had a good thing going…going…gone.

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I want to &#%! you

April 18, 2013

In a way, I was a witness (standing way, way on the side) to a key moment in the popularization of one of the most basic tenets of musical-writing, the proper use of the I Want song.

In any beginning playwriting class (or story-writing class), you’re told to give your protagonist some burning desire.  And then you throw some wrenches in his way, probably including some villain poised to stop him.  In extremely basic musical theatre writing, the character’s intentions are baldly stated in a song, the I Want and, often, it’s too honest and obvious.  As I write this, I’m listening to a recording of George Gershwin playing Looking for a Boy from a 1925 musical called Tip Toes. “I am just a little girl who’s looking for a little boy who’s looking for a girl to love.”  We get it.

By the Golden Era’s heyday – and did any year have more great shows open than 1956? – authors like Lerner & Loewe were using the device in a subtler fashion.  Eliza Doolittle – “All I want is a room somewhere far away from the cold night air” meets Henry Higgins – “Why can’t the English learn to set a good example to people whose English is painful to your ears?” The goals of the two leads are accomplished fairly quickly.  Higgins works his magic on Eliza, transforming her cockney into something that sounds acceptable at Ascot.  Eliza gets her room.  But notice she never gets the goal from the end of her song “someone’s head resting on my knee, warm and tender as he can be, who takes good care of me.”  Of course if she’d married Freddy…  Ha!

at right: Kleban, Menken

In the 60s, Broadway conductor Lehman Engel started the BMI workshop, and taught a generation of would-be musical theatre writers a set of principles, including the I Want song.

I was his youngest student (by some stretch of years) and his star pupils – Ed Kleban, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken created musicals that were hugely influential.  That is, writers saw Kleban’s A Chorus Line or Yeston’s Nine and, with those examples, the Gospel according to Lehman was spread.  The largest influence was the work of Alan Menken, since he’s written smash hits for the theatre and a set of animated movies that everyone (under a certain age) knows intimately.

Many theatre fans are aware of Part of Your World’s similarity to Menken and Ashman’s earlier I Want song, Somewhere That’s Green.  The tag’s almost identical, but what’s most similar is the song’s function in the story.  One of my most cherished memories of early adulthood was the day Menken and Ashman brought in several songs from Little Shop of Horrors to the BMI workshop.  Lehman particularly loved Somewhere That’s Green, the very model of an I Want song.  It has clear AABA’ structure, each A ending with the title.  The title has a second meaning later in the show, when the character ends up in a green place that had nothing to do with her dream.  (There was a third meaning in the name of the actress who originated the role on stage and then on screen, Ellen Greene.)  That ability to be simultaneously poignant and funny, to my ears, is the best thing about it.

But not everyone in the room that day was convinced of Little Shop’s viability.  Carol Hall, songwriter of the then still-running Broadway hit, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, drawled “Why would you boys want to write a musical based on a crummy ‘B’ horror movie?” (At 2,209 performances, the show became the most performed of all American musicals from the 1980s.)

And so ends the small bit I witnessed, from the side of the room.  Menken and Ashman eventually found themselves at Disney, where the studio was engaged in a new and concerted effort to do animated musicals right.  They drew on their long history of story-boarding, while Menken drew on the teachings of Engel and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were the most successful Disney features, artistically and financially, in many a year.  After Ashman’s death, Menken was stuck with sub-par lyricist Tim Rice, but, happily, moved on to team with Stephen Schwartz and then Glenn Slater, who certainly knows what’s what.

In thinking about my I Want songs, I’m struck by the fact that I’ve two shows in which the main characters have everything they want at the top of the show … and then things go to hell.  The main character in Area 51 is ecstatic with his lot in life.  “I don’t ever wanna leave, never wanna leave this place.”  (Another character has a more traditional I Want.)  For Such Good Friends, I felt I had to create a flashback in order to give the protagonist her I Want; we’d then have a greater understanding of the emotional cost of losing it.

I’VE GOTTA BE PART OF THIS CLUB, DANNY
THEN I’LL NO LONGER BE A SCHLUB, DANNY
THANKS TO YOU, I’VE FOUND MY DREAM:
I’M GONNA BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
PICTURE IT! ME:
THE BELLE OF THE BALL
PEOPLE WILL SMILE
THE MOMENT I ENTER
CLEARING AN AISLE
FOR ME STAGE CENTER
MESMERIZED WHILE
MY STORIES HOLD THEM IN THRALL
IF I COULD BE
THE LIFE OF THE PARTY
THEN YOU WOULD SEE
A GIRL IN HER PRIME
JOKING AND JAZZ
TO MAKE THEM CHUCKLE
WATCHING THEM AS
THEIR KNEES ALL BUCKLE
EVERYONE HAS A MARVELOUS TIME.

Like Somewhere That’s Green, the tune repeats in dramatic contrasts later in the show.  One of them I’ve previously quoted here.

But I don’t want to leave you with me.  Instead, here’s another of those 1956 premieres, the ultimate want-free dude, Li’l Abner, wanly warbling If I Had My Druthers
And then, of course, all hell breaks loose.