Grown-ups

August 1, 2018

Today, for the first time, I’m unleashing my Subjective History of Musical Theatre on the public. This is the same fascinating storytelling session I’m used to presenting to young adults in a theatre school. With a new kind of audience, I don’t know exactly what to expect. It’s always been a dialogue in which the knowledge of the students (or lack thereof) comes into play.

Here on this page, I always imagine I’m addressing musical writers. And it should be obvious to you how important it is to know the history of our beloved genre, what’s gone before. A friend was just telling me about the Bryan Adams score for a new Broadway musical, and my mind leaps to an assumption that Adams, like most rock stars, doesn’t know the repertory. Certainly, one can succeed fabulously in the rock world without knowing the first thing about how songs tell a story on stage. So it drives me a little crazy when pop-meisters “slum” in musical theatre. The task of entertaining an audience in concerts, in music videos, or on recordings is completely different than engaging a live audience in a theatre with a story. But, of course, they’d know that if only they knew the pitiful history of rockers trying to conquer Broadway. But they don’t know that history, usually. Because why would they?

A lot of musical fans are beside themselves with excitement about the recent announcement of a cable television mini-series about Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse which features Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement. Now, I’m not one to enthuse about something that’s not yet made, especially television. But it’s a reminder that Miranda knows and practically reveres musical theatre history. With all the things he could choose to do these days, he’s helping tell an important bit our story. Most obviously, he has a particular genius for presenting history in a way that engages audiences.

And, as long as I’m stating the obvious, Hamilton is a musical about the genesis of America that’s full of references to other musicals. A bit less apparent – at least to me – is that it draws all sorts of parallels to the history of hip-hop. You and me, we’re more likely to catch the nods to Camelot and South Pacific, and might be reminded of Sondheim’s favorite Sondheim song, Someone In a Tree, from his historical musical Pacific Overtures, where we hear various perspectives from folks who weren’t in The Room Where It Happened. 

That was no accident; Miranda knows the show. And this makes me think of the common desire to write something that hasn’t been done before. Well, if you don’t know the shows that have been done, how would you know?

This summer, in Central Park, there’s Shaina Taub’s musical of Twelfth Night. And my mind rushes to all sorts of precedents: the early rock musical smash, Your Own Thing, the short-lived Music Is, the Duke Ellington jukebox, Play On, the lovely Illyria. And from this two things are clear: I know of a lot of shows and EVERYBODY adapts Twelfth Night.

Something that fascinates me is the way writers react to the stuff they see. When Richard Rodgers was young, shows were stilted, not very jazzy, didn’t use the vernacular. And so he and Lorenz Hart created a new sort of musical comedy that was thoroughly modern. And, less than two decades later, Rodgers teamed with Oscar Hammerstein to revolutionize the form. It was as if Rodgers was rejecting Rodgers, which is quite a feat. Those scores to Hart lyrics are wonderful, but utterly different than the ones with Hammerstein words the world knows and loves. And it’s not merely a matter of style; the goals are different. Sometimes authors maintain that The Gentleman Is a Dope is the Rodgers and Hammerstein song most like a Rodgers and Hart song. Really? Was it self-consciously witty? Abound in tricky rhymes? Was it trying to be a radio hit? Of course not. Hammerstein was writing for a character in a situation, and the frustrated nurse expresses herself in ways that remind some of Hart’s cynicism.

Rodgers provided the music to so many ground-breaking shows, he’s the hero of my narrative. But The King and I is the last of his shows to do something extraordinarily different than all that had gone before. Its choreographer, Jerome Robbins, took the baton and became the great change-maker of the next thirteen years. His Broadway career ended with a trio of masterpieces: West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof (the last of which is currently off-Broadway in some language few speak!). The theatre innovator most people today recognize as such, Stephen Sondheim, cut his teeth writing lyrics to two of those shows. So, putting it together, Rodgers -> Robbins -> Sondheim -> Miranda, who translated lyrics for the bilingual Broadway revival of West Side Story.

Thus, there’s a chain of innovators going back nearly 100 years. Each time, the younger acquires some wisdom from the older, though Sondheim would say he learned more from Hammerstein and that’s true. But the point is, none of these milestones in the musical’s development emerged in a vacuum. All the writers knew a great deal about what had come before.

This week, in L.A., you can attend my idiosyncratic history presentation. It’s going to get you thinking about where musical theatre has been, how it evolved, what it is today. And you can sit there and be thoroughly entertained. Or, you can take this knowledge and apply it to the things you write. The next chapter of the history, dear writer, is yours.

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Change of seasons

March 31, 2018

This changes everything.

There comes a moment in the musical I’m writing where characters say “this changes everything” and it’s a big deal. 75 years ago on this day, a revolutionary piece called Oklahoma! changed everything in the American theatre. From that day forward, musicals had to do at least some of the things Oklahoma! did. Anything that was written prior now seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. I ask you: When, in the history of stage performances has there ever been such a game-changer?

As 75 years have passed, some consider Oklahoma! old-fashioned. But you know what’s much more old-fashioned? Every Broadway musical that premiered before it. So, let’s imagine what Broadway was like pre-Oklahoma! Generally, you went to musicals to have a few laughs, hear some good tunes. Nothing wrong with that. I confess, with no embarrassment, I enjoy those old musical comedies. Now think about a good straight play. No tunes to enjoy. Instead, you watch characters interact, and you get emotionally invested in what happens to them. Each is distinct. The plot probably gets you wondering what will happen next, at points. A good play is moving, in part, because the characters feel so real to the viewer. None of these virtues regularly applied to musicals that came out more than 75 years ago. The characters weren’t fully drawn, with distinct voices, interacting in a way that made you care what happened to them. Sure, now and then they might have had a moving song, and certainly stars of the era like Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman were idiosyncratic characters. But, in the minds of the creators, musical plots never needed to make you wonder what would happen next, because the real purpose of the show was to provide a platform for the songs the tunesmiths hoped would be hits.

In the decade leading up to Oklahoma!, no composer was more successful at churning out those hits than Richard Rodgers. He and collaborator Lorenz Hart had burst on the scene in 1925 with a revue to raise funds for the Theatre Guild. The Theatre Guild, back then, was a high-minded producing office that promoted the best in world dramatic literature: they did Strindberg, Ibsen and Shaw; here, in America, they found a young phenom named Eugene O’Neill. So, those expectations we have of a good play were generated, in part, by these master producers. But, in 1943, they’d fallen on hard times and wondered if anything could be done with a script they’d bombed with some seasons earlier, Green Grown the Lilacs by a man named Lynn Riggs. They called Rodgers to urge him to make a musical out of it. Hart understandably rejected the idea, since he gravitated towards sophistication, and, in the final year of his life, a lot of cocktails. So Rodgers then called Oscar Hammerstein, who’d churned out nothing but bombs throughout this period. Back in 1927, Hammerstein had done something extraordinary with Show Boat, which embodied many of the dramatic virtues I described in the last paragraph. (I refer to Show Boat as the spark that didn’t light the kindling, as similar shows did not follow in its wake.) The producers and this newly minted team had an exciting idea in mind: to create a musical play. The story could be light, but the dramaturgy would be taken as seriously as it is in any serious drama. Actions would be fully motivated. The psychological make-up of all major characters would be dealt with. One example: the sexual subconscious of the heroine would be depicted in a dream ballet choreographed by Agnes DeMille.

DeMille was famous at the time for the Wild West ballets she’d created with composer Aaron Copland. Listening to Rodeo and Billy the Kid (as I often do), one discovers an analog to the propulsive forward thrust of galloping horses. In Oklahoma!, Rodgers latched on to some similar ideas. Think of the vamps under I Cain’t Say No and The Farmer and the Cowman, the shuffles under All or Nothing or the country fiddle zipping along in the overture. The point here isn’t that Rodgers was derivative of Copland, it’s that he took seriously the idea that his music should depict the story’s time and place. Those wonderful hit-filled scores he’d done previously with Hart lack this verisimilitude. I imagine he didn’t care about such things, but now, working on this musical play, he prioritized telling the story, rather than generating radio hits.

The first essay I can remember writing about musical theatre detailed Rodgers’ transformation from a jazzy chart-topper to dramatic storyteller. But equally remarkable was Hammerstein’s evolution into the greatest dramatist of the time. Those who think of Oklahoma! as fluff may have forgotten it concerns a class conflict involving a laborer who literally lives below the ground, an Arab immigrant who sells hallucinogenic drugs to a virgin (causing her to have a sex-dream we see), men sharing porn and a connected threat that a rival will be knifed in the eyeball, a murder trial that must be done precisely according to statute or the territory won’t be granted statehood, and a fiancé who so doubts his bride’s fidelity he makes her swear their future children will look like him. Fluff, it’s not, although Rodgers and Hammerstein tackled more serious stuff in their next four shows: Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, and The King and I.

And when other writers tackled tough subjects – West Side Story and Cabaret come quickly to mind – it’s because Oklahoma! opened the door. All great musicals follow in its footsteps, with a seriousness of purpose, with ample thought to the psychological underpinnings of character actions, with music that effectively depicts the setting. Oklahoma! may not be my favorite musical. It may not be yours. But chances are our favorites never would have existed were it not for the myriad innovations unleashed 75 years ago today.


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.


Cabaret of despair

February 26, 2018

If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:

  • Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
  • No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
  • Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
  • And… I just don’t get them.

In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:

My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.

That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.

In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.

So, let’s get specific:

Profundity

This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.

But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.

I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.

Repetition

The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.

In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.

When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.

Amplifying

Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.

Pretty funny?

A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.

(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)

I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…


Tell me where is fancy bred?

January 30, 2018

The Boy Wonder of Broadway turns 90 today. Harold Prince, known as Hal. His name is a subliminal reference to Shakespeare’s Boy Wonder, Prince Hal, but the diminutive is really endearment, as he’s beloved by the entire community. After grabbing an Ivy League degree, he worked as a stage manager on shows like Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town and The Pajama Game – an apprenticeship, of sorts, under the Great Old Man, George Abbott, who, a generation earlier, had made a similar transition from stage manager to producer and director. At 27, Prince was a name-over-the-title producer of a big hit, Damn Yankees. And then New Girl in Town (a Tony-winner), West Side Story, and Fiorello!, By then he was 31.

Prince was so famous, he actually became a character in another Broadway show, Say Darling. This was based on a book about the creation of The Pajama Game, and all who saw it knew that Robert Morse’s character was based on the prodigious producer. I should note, here, that Hal Prince is also a character in the first musical I ever wrote. That was when I was 14, and didn’t think twice about putting living personages into my shows.

The shows I’ve mentioned so far were mostly crafted through a process in which the director exerts a great deal of influence over the writers, “shaping” the show without putting words on a page. I believe Prince is the last great practitioner of this. He became a director around the time Jerome Robbins stopped crafting shows for Broadway, and the torch was passed. Imagine how much Prince learned just from being in the room as Abbott and Robbins did their thing. All three were involved in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Abbott-directed farce starring Zero Mostel, Joel Grey and Karen Black was playing to mirthless near-empty houses in its out-of-town tryout. Time to call the doctor!– the show doctor, that is. Abbott, over his long career, had doctored many. But now he was so puzzled, he said “I like it; they don’t like it: We need to call in George Abbott.” Prince called in Robbins, who said “Nothing is wrong except the opening number.” (Love Is In the Air)

He sent Stephen Sondheim off to a room to write a new one, Comedy Tonight, staged it, and a hit was born. (They replaced Grey and Black, too.)

Nobody’s won more Tony Awards than Prince, and nobody has guided more masterpieces. An early example of what he did as a director is Cabaret, in which he came up with the idea that all the “on-stage” numbers at the Kit Kat Klub would comment on the rather realistic action in the rest of the play. So, the hero gets a financial windfall, but he doesn’t sing about it. Instead, there’s an incredibly energetic number about being suddenly rich. As the show goes on, the rise of the Nazis gets a twisted mirror reflection in increasingly sinister numbers such as If You Could See Her following an anti-Semitic incident. What once seemed charming has edged closer to evil. (More on this next essay.)

A character actor had written a handful of short plays about marriages and Prince thought they could be turned into a musical. But how? The writer had no idea. The largely-forgotten, then-rather-obscure songwriter Prince brought in didn’t know. But in talking with Hal, a notion emerged: to have a swinging bachelor observe these good and crazy people his married friends. Watching could lead to an epiphany. But is that a plot? Can you make a whole musical out of that? Only Hal Prince could. Fine as the Stephen Sondheim numbers are, it’s really the directorial magic that made Company a revolutionary hit.

So Prince and Sondheim continued to collaborate, and rack up Tonys, and each project was more audacious than the last. Follies, co-directed by Michael Bennett, added psychological underpinning to the type of songs their parents’ generation loved, so something obvious, like The Man I Love, is lampooned with something complex, Losing My Mind. A Little Night Music also took an outmoded form, operetta, and injected sexual subtext and Chekhovian wit. Pacific Overtures is a musical without a human protagonist (it’s about a country). And a melodramatic revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd, took on a veneer of Brechtian societal criticism at Hal’s behest.

Years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Lincoln Center Library about Prince. One thing that particularly fascinated me was a long set of very specific instructions about the staging of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina. He had an idea about every gesture, every look, what it all means to the character. Now, since I am not a genius, I read Tim Rice’s lyric and think it’s meaningless prattle. But Prince was able to turn that song – music by Johann Sebastian Bach (but inexplicably credited to Andrew Lloyd Webber) – into a piece with dramatic depth. Cabaret and the Sondheim shows demonstrated what Prince could do with strong material. Evita and Phantom of the Opera may be terrible shows on paper, but the staging made them palatable; hell, more than palatable: huge hits.

The last Prince-helmed show I saw was about a crackpot inventor who ties so many helium balloons to his lawnchair, he’s lifted high enough to create a problem for airplanes. And therein lies a metaphor for Prince’s career. Musical theatre can effectively deal with earthbound subjects if we remember to leaven the misery with just enough lightness. Political despotism shows up in three Prince-directed Tony-winners and yet they’re not miserable experiences for their audiences. Rare is the chef with a knack for stirring just the right amount of sugar into the pot. And, today, rarer still is the director who’ll take such an active hand in fashioning how the show is written. Prince is the last of a glorious breed.


String quartet

January 1, 2017

Suppose you’re attending a show because an old friend is in it. And that old friend does great, but the writers of the show screwed up somehow, marring your experience as an audience member. Now, the writers aren’t greeting you at the stage door afterwards; the performers are, and you congratulate them on their fine work. The productions – sets, staging, musicianship – may be glorious, but you’re left with an unscratched itch, the nettlesome shortcomings that, then and there, you couldn’t comment on.

Now that we’re through with 2016, on this blog that looks at how musicals are made, I hope you’ll allow me to get some things off my chest. Five seasons ago, nobody was surprised when the Tony for Best Musical went to Once. I finally caught it about a month ago. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, were mostly written for the cute little film on which it’s based. The book is by Enda Walsh. And the show starts before the house lights go down. We see an Irish pub, and people are playing their own instruments. It seems an informal entertainment, supposedly impromptu Irish songs, filled with the usual mythic narratives and humor. When the houselights dim, these same folk are now playing the show’s songs, effectively setting us up for a whimsical tale-spinning, perhaps with a bit of magic thrown in.

And what we get is: the exact opposite. We see the halting romance between a Guy and a Girl (that’s what the Playbill calls them) and it’s notably lacking in myth and magic. They communicate in a true-to-life way that I might have found admirable if I hadn’t been set up for just the opposite. For long stretches, Once plays like a solid two-character play, well grounded in contemporary reality. When a song comes in, it’s passionate pop. One of the things that struck me is that the Guy’s unusual singing voice is a big part of what’s entertaining about this musical. That’s impressive; so’s the hard strumming on guitars that seems an emotional expression by a character. Once is rather innovative in this.

But I was reminded of one of Lehman Engel’s Key Components: Subplot. In Engel’s view, the audience needs a distraction from the main characters and what they’re doing. (I worry about this, because I’m now writing a show with no subplot; it’s half as long as Once, though.) Guy and Girl take their realistic relationship baby steps, and the trouble is, there isn’t enough interesting plot for a whole musical. We get tired of watching them. I’ve never seen something that cried out more for a subplot.

There is also no subplot, and a songwriting central figure, in Tick Tick…Boom. The librettist is David Auburn, who, like Enda Walsh, is a major playwright with no musical theatre experience. The music and lyrics – and, in a sense, the first draft of the book – are by Jonathan Larson. It’s a posthumous work; he and Auburn didn’t work together. But back when Larson was a little-known musical theatre writer, he had the idea of depicting his life and struggles in the field. So, for readers of this blog, Tick Tick…Boom is something of a must-see. It is unusual in that Auburn expects the audience to know that Larson went on to write the biggest hit musical of the 1990s but died on the eve of its first performance. Poignantly, he didn’t live to see Rent succeed – the raves, the Tony, the Pulitzer. We watch Jonathan apply himself to writing musicals with no acclaim or recompense. Given that emotional backdrop, Auburn structures a plot (sans subplot) that we invest in, to an extent, because we know what will happen after the curtain drops.

You can’t say that about a lot of shows, although I’m just remembering seeing, as a small boy, a musical set in Illinois called Young Abe Lincoln – something of the same thing. In Tick Tick…Boom, Jonathan rewrites Come To Your Senses “over and over and over till I get it right.” It’s supposed to be the emotional climax when we finally hear the full song, but every time I hear it, I find its message hard to grasp. The concepts in the lyric come at the ear too quickly:

The fences inside are not for real
If we feel as we did, and I do
Can’t you recall when this all began
It was only you and me
It was only me and you
But now the air is
Filled with confusion

I’ll say it is.

In Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece, Rent, we also meet a songwriter, Roger, struggling to write the perfect song about his relationship. Turns out to be one of the weakest numbers in the score.

There’s something I should’ve have told you
When I looked into your eyes
Why does distance make us wise?
You were the song all along

This is, as another character in the show says, “less than brilliant.” Is the point supposed to be that Roger isn’t a particularly good writer? (I ask the same question about Mr. Holland’s Opus, when I hear that awful symphonic piece at the end.)

So, on my recent re-visit to Rent, I was most struck by how overly-rhymed it is. Larson famously bridged the rock and musical theatre worlds, but, even twenty-one years ago, good musicals no longer were littered with showy rhymes that call attention to themselves. Lesbians I knew at the time didn’t call each other “Pookie” but hey, a rhyme for “spooky” was needed and what are you going to do? At one point, the whole problem is summed up when a character says, of what he’s just said “That’s poetic. That’s pathetic.”

Any writing error in Rent, though, is one I suspect Larson would have fixed had he lived to shepherd it to Broadway. We don’t go to edgy musicals about East Village squatters in order to hear “control freak” paired with “droll geek” (I kid you not). We might go to children’s theatre for such alleged cleverness, but that’s a genre in which we can’t expect a plot to hold our attention for long. Which brings me to Seussical, by Eric Idle, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This is, I believe, the most-performed show of the new century, and everything that happens in it is so silly, so lacking in import, the show becomes a mere pageant of fanciful design. What Happens Next is so frequently arbitrary, you give up caring What Happens Next rather quickly. An elephant interacts with a tiny town smaller than a clover, then can’t find the clover on which it’s located, then a bird who loves him finds it off-stage. My four-year-old kept whispering in my ear “When is this going to be over?” which – don’t tell my friends in the cast! – was exactly what was on my mind, too.


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.