Kate’s brother’s story

April 11, 2017

Twenty years ago, a book was published, and even though it’s specifically about screenwriting, it’s a good time to discuss it here. Story, by Robert McKee, is more famous for the influence it’s had – often mocked – than what it actually says. The author held costly seminars for many years, widely attended by a whole generation of Hollywood scribes. Critics sometimes claim he’s the main reason Hollywood output is so awful. But little of what McKee writes about film isn’t applicable to musicals. His title is apt. Don’t you want your musical to have an effective story?

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps what draws you to musicals is the fact that many succeed without adhering to any particular structure or set of rules. I’m one who’s always been fascinated with departures from our traditions. An example leaps to mind. A bunch of improvisers developed characters who embodied the varying anxieties of kids at a Spelling Bee. Eventually, a songwriter and bookwriter were called in to shape the improvisation into a musical with a set script. And the next thing you know, the libretto wins a Tony Award.

That’s an unusual situation, to be sure. If you’re doing that traditional thing, of sitting down to a blank page and writing a narrative for the stage, at some point you better think about the art of storytelling. Regular readers of this blog know that the craft of how the tale gets told is an obsession of mine. Usually, when I see a show that’s failed to entertain me, there’s something out of kilter in this important area. So, stumbling on the information that Story got published in 1997, I think back to the time a smart musical-writing friend insisted I read what McKee had to say.

If I say this changed my life, or altered the course of my career, I’ll sound like a brainwashed McKee acolyte. In reality, I would never urge anybody to follow McKee’s prescriptions. But what I’d say, to anyone interested in narrative in dramatic form, is: read the book, because it will get you thinking about cause and effect in plot points.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I’ll use my own work to paint a little before-and-after picture. For many years, I’d toiled on an original musical. It was missing a certain something and I couldn’t tell what. I’d created characters, set down a sequence of amusing or entertaining events, resolved everything at the end. Individual moments were engaging people – various songs from the score had gotten big hands in many cabaret shows. But nobody wanted to produce the whole musical; it just didn’t seem exciting enough.

McKee defines an inciting incident that comes early on, propelling the hero into action, perhaps putting him on a quest. Now, without drinking the kool-aid – without buying in the notion that every musical needs a protagonist questing due to some incitement – I couldn’t help noticing my musical had none of that. There wasn’t a single hero. Nobody had any sort of a quest (unless you count an unemployed character who was looking for a job). And I merely had characters meet each other in lieu of any sort of incident. I put down my pen. And pondered.

Eventually, I fashioned a whole new original story, one in which every action had a consequence. Such Good Friends hardly McKee-ian. The hero has no greater goal than preserving a happy status quo. I wouldn’t claim there’s an inciting incident, as Story defines it. The first act includes a flashback to how the characters met, but only one. But the show was a gripping experience for the audience, to a certain extent, because McKee got my thinking about the elements of tale-telling. Events lead to other events, sometimes in unexpected ways. Characters always have motivations, but they evolve over time. When I compare Such Good Friends, with all its narrative thrust, to my unproduced musical, with its lack thereof, it’s hard to escape the notion that reading Story had something to do with my evolution.

In between those shows, though, I wrote a musical which, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, uses a specific non-theatrical format as a model, and there’s no real narrative. This was Our Wedding: The Musical! Guests at a wedding know what they’re in for, and don’t require a story that goes somewhere. Similarly, there are successful movies that completely eschew the McKee paradigm. Your musical can be totally unconventional and do very well. But being exposed to his fairly rigorous and often amusing analysis will inspire you to concentrate more on narrative. And that’s something I wish many more new musicals would do.

 


Up jumped Sandow

March 7, 2017

This week, I’m expanding a circle. That’s a rare event, and an essential step forward in the life of a new musical.

My collaborator, a successful playwright here adapting his own play into a libretto, and I have been working, on and off, for years. Even though we both work in Manhattan, we’re not in the same room very often; it’s a lot of texts. When I finish a draft of a song, I record it and he’ll listen with his wife. So, the circle – the number of people who know what the thing sounds like – is 3. Me, my collaborator, and his wife.

Now, we’re at a point where we want to hear the songs sung by professionals. And if you’re wondering where my wife is in all this, it’s here she enters. A renowned casting director, she helped us to find performers. This meant my collaborator had to write descriptions of the characters. For the first time, I was being asked about vocal ranges. I hadn’t previously considered this question. I’ve formulated no opinion along the lines of “This character should be an alto.” I’m not there yet. Any range will do, this week, as long as it’s wide enough to encompass all the notes in the songs.

There are 12. I had to write up little descriptions of them, and this is another issue I hadn’t previously thought about. So, expanding our circle to include six singers meant contemplating certain questions for the first time. One song gets reprised in a completely different style, so that’s thirteen descriptions. Or not, since two songs are so similar I wrote the same words about them.

(And is that a problem? I’m thinking about The Music Man and how I’d describe Marian’s numbers. Or Eliza Doolittle’s.)

Putting songs in the capable hands of singers unveils a host of discoveries about each number. A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. Now, the performers’ apprehension and investigation of material comes into play. Just a few days ago, this whole show was something of a secret. As three becomes nine, the circle triples in size.

And then hearing them live, sounds from good throats passing through the air into our ears. It’s how they’re meant to be heard.

That seemingly obvious fact is easy to lose sight of. These days, I can compose a tune in my mind, enter it straight into software using a midi which I can use without the volume up, and post the thing on SoundCloud – all without utilizing ears. Out here on the internet, we compare and contrast songs that exist as videos or audios. But theatre writing involves live actors, in the presence of a live audience, communicating; this communication is affected and altered by audience response. How often do we fool ourselves into thinking listening to recorded theatre numbers is remotely similar?

Besides my excitement about hearing all the songs live, over one evening, there’s much anticipation about how they’ll all sound together. This show has been a slow process and various numbers were written very far apart in time. If I can believe my own copyright notices, thirteen years separate the oldest song and the most recent. We’re not dealing with dialogue this time, so it’s something like taking in a cast album: do this disparate pieces hang together well?

Another image comes to mind: Imagine an inventor toiling and toodling in a hermetically sealed chamber. The invention has been engineered to a certain pristine perfection, but how will it hold up in the actual atmosphere? My stuff looks good on paper, but hitting live ears is a whole other thing.

The energy it’s taken to put this sing-through together has robbed me of time I’d normally be devoting to this blog, and I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me the time off. Sometimes, on this page, I feel like I’m teaching you all something. What I really crave is a chance to learn more. While opening up the circle on this show, I’m expanding my mind.

Sound deep? Fear not. I’m sure I’ll get back to going all lesson-y on you in a week or so.


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.

 


Jog on, jog on

December 15, 2014

Another big anniversary to celebrate, and this one’s really big: a rather round number, the number of years since I completed my first musical.

I was in ninth grade, in Mrs. Steele’s Honors English class. I hadn’t started the year in Honors English, but when I heard that Mrs. Steele had let her students see topless pictures of herself on vacation, I knew this was the teacher for me. And it was, because before I knew it, we were all asked to write something in dramatic form. And my fellow Honors English students all turned in three-page sketches, or really short plays and I wrote a two-act musical. I think I was asked to perform this opus for the class, so I went to the piano and recorded accompaniment to all the songs on cassette. Then, in December of a year ending in “4,” I read the whole thing out loud to the class, pushing “play” and singing all the songs. I was a teenage boy who’d written a musical…about a teenage boy who’d written a musical. That succeeds on Broadway. And his producer’s efforts to get him over the sophomore slump so he could write another one. The name of the producer was Hal Prince.

Wipe that smile off your face! The important part of the story is that I impressed a lot of people with what I did, and some of these people helped me continue this pursuit. Plans were formed to perform the show at school, but they didn’t pan out. The would-be producer’s brother played trumpet, so I learned something about writing a trumpet part. And I decided to write another musical, basing it on an old George Abbott play that seemed to cry out for music. When this was done, my effort to get it produced at my high school involved me singing the entire score for the drama teacher, who listened attentively. My Roaring Twenties tale of gangsters and chorines didn’t strike him as the right thing to put on, but he left the door open to hear anything else I wrote. At this point, a librettist materialized, and we figured we had a better shot writing a musical based on a well-known children’s book. The drama teacher patiently listened to our adaptation, and again politely and encouragingly turned us down. My collaborator took a copy of the script with her to college, and was studying abroad her sophomore year when she got a chance to direct anything she wanted. This is how, at the age of 18, I joined the lucky throng of those who’ve had a musical produced. In jolly old England of all jolly old places.

The other prodigious accomplishment of my teens was playing piano for an improv troupe. Someone there, knowing I’d be heading to New York for college and had a passion for writing musicals, insisted I apply for Lehman Engel’s free musical writers’ workshop at BMI. Really, I thought I was a longshot to get in, but, at this point, I’d written three musicals, and my little cassette tape must have impressed somebody over there, for I was accepted, by far the youngest person in the workshop. My education there coincided with my education at Columbia, where I also impressed people enough to get more opportunities to get more shows produced. At the BMI workshop, I decided to adapt a play I thought was deeply flawed. Why? Well, at this point I’d learned that Oscar Hammerstein had challenged the teenaged Stephen Sondheim to teach himself about writing musicals by writing four shows:

  • One based on a play you admire
  • One based on a play whose flaws you think you can fix in your adaptation
  • One based on something not yet in dramatic form
  • One completely original

That fourth project completed the quartet. But let’s consider Hammerstein’s assignment, for a moment. He certainly told young Stephen a lot of helpful things about writing musicals (and, as you know, on this blog, I try to share helpful things I’ve gleaned about writing musicals). But the real education, of course, is going through the experience of writing those four shows. So, sure, read this blog and take in what I have to say. But, more importantly, write a musical, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

On the Brink’s writers

Don’t worry if you don’t get these maiden efforts produced – I got one; Sondheim got none. I swear you’ll improve with each one and your fifth just might be worthy.

My senior year at Columbia I finally got to see a show I’d written produced on campus. It was then called Pulley of the Yard, but when British people discovered it, they took its alternative title, Murder at the Savoy, and produced it again and again, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival. Right after graduation I started collaborating with a guy whose faith in me was based, in part, on the Kurt Weill-like harmonies I’d used in the fourth “apprentice” project. Then Columbia called again, needing a songwriter for the Varsity Show, and the success of this led to the off-Broadway hit, On the Brink, which turned a profit when I was the ripe old age of 25. Next, that first show that had been produced got rewritten into something wholly other, and ran a long time when I was 27. And who should attend my next effort but the aforementioned Mr. Sondheim, who sent a note in response suggesting what I should focus on in my next musical.

My Next Musical” – my how those words have a nice ring to them! You can never know whether it’s going to be a commercial success (as many of my shows have) or win you some awards (as three of my shows have) or multiple productions. The only thing you can be certain of is that you’ll learn from the experience. Exactly what it takes to get better at it.


Tell a Danny story

May 5, 2013

The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent. And everybody’s innocent. But I feel bad about stealing from the Facebook page of someone I don’t know, without permission. He’s a fellow musical theatre writer who’s just gotten some really good news, so I hope he’s in a mood to forgive the invasion of privacy.

I’ll call him Danny but our story begins with an earnest musical theatre performance student I’ll call Rick. Rick asked me to suggest a song he could perform in his Final Year Industry Showcase and I told him about a quirky number, written by Danny. All agreed it was a perfect match of performer to material and Rick diligently began his investigation of the lyric’s meaning. One of the advantages of attending school in New York – where so many songwriters live – is that you can invite them to performances of their songs and they might actually come.  In fact, Danny had, a few years earlier, attended a cabaret where two of his songs were done. So Rick and his classmates were encouraged to contact the authors of their numbers.

Rick’s the kind of young man who was raised to ask questions. Why assume anything, or let a bit of confusion persist, if there’s someone available to answer queries? So, when he wrote to Danny, he asked for guidance understanding the lyric. He also felt honor-bound to report that Rick’s massively-long song was being trimmed to roughly three minutes. Such is a common requirement of industry showcases. Professionals have come to see you and sixteen other aspirants; they don’t want to sit there forever. In this case, we all agreed to be severe in limiting everyone’s time on stage, so the night would not outwear its welcome.

Danny was surprised by Rick’s e-mail, on three levels. First, he’d never heard of Rick, and had no idea that he’d be performing his song. Second was Rick’s interpretive questions, on issues that seemed obvious to Danny. And then there’s the cutting affront of knowing your song has been tailored to less than half its length. By someone you do not know. (OK, I’ll name the guilty party: It was me.)

What to do? How to respond? Danny decided to consult his friends via Facebook.

Hey fellow theatre songwriters: when a college student you’ve never heard from before contacts you saying he’s singing a “three-minute cut” of one of your songs at an upcoming industry showcase (and you are certain he didn’t get said sheet music from you directly) and asks for a whole bunch of detailed advice, lyrical clarifications, and basically interpretation coaching, is it in bad taste to say, “Um, yes, but pay me first”? It’s not that I need the ten bucks. (Although.) It’s the principle of the thing. How would you approach this? Should I just be glad my stuff is getting out there? Do I go all JRB on his ass? Please advise.

To “Go all JRB on his ass” is a reference to the time popular songsmith Jason Robert Brown caustically admonished a teen looking for a free copy of one of his songs, a set of back-and-forth e-mails he eventually published on his website as a wake-up call to all the young people who might share copies of his songs with their friends without paying him. Brown earns a lot of money from his writing; Danny earns next-to-nothing.

Danny commented on his own post- (Oh, and I’ve never made — as in, prepared myself — a three-minute cut of this or any song. Not that I couldn’t or wouldn’t, but I did hear this song done in an abbreviated form by another student once, and it sounded awkwardly and sort of arbitrarily cut. To me.)

Then came responses: Lucy– I think you should say, “I’m glad to offer any advice necessary to folks who purchase music directly from me. If you have, great. If you would like to purchase it, here’s a link.”

Mary– I’ve had students contact me for sheet music (since I haven’t gotten it together to have an e-commerce page) – I don’t mind giving tips, although I have never encountered the exact situation you’re describing. What I would do is this: if you don’t mind him singing the song, then answer the questions as best you can, and then say: in the future, you will build better relationships with writers such as myself if you buy from us (or from wherever we have our music being sold etc). Phrase it however you want – don’t quash his enthusiasm first – redirect it and make him your ally. If you feel he’s gone over the line, you could say, I know I can’t physically prevent you from singing the song, but I’d prefer you didn’t and here’s why… Do you have a place you sell the song? Because if so, Lucy’s advice is probably simplest.

DannyHi Mary (and all) — currently, emailing me with a request is the only official source for my tunes. I don’t mind him singing the song at all. I do want him to be more aware of the professional aspect of the relationship he’s assuming.

DannyThanks, all of you. Here’s what I said: “Hi Rick,

Thanks for writing! Glad to hear the song I wrote has made its way to you, and that you’ve chosen to perform it your industry showcase — no doubt, an important event in your development as a professional performer.

FYI, I’m always happy to provide advice and responses to questions about songs to anyone who’s purchased music directly from me. As far as I know, I’m the only direct source for my sheet music at this point. Since I don’t think I’ve heard from you until now, my assumption is you got a copy of the music from someone else — maybe a fellow or former student, or maybe an instructor? However you got it, that’s fine, and like I said, I’m very glad you’re singing it as part of what you might consider an important professional audition. At the same time, I hope you’ll consider contributing to my own efforts to make this MY profession, and not just a time-consuming and enjoyable hobby. I generally ask for $10 a song, which you can send via Paypal (my account name is danny@chessterms.com ) or check (let me know and I’ll send you my mailing address.)

all best,
Danny

AshThe conversation I would have with myself would be not so much the about the immediate value of “getting my stuff out there” in front of audiences as much as about the value of having advocates for my work. In the current media environment in which media is either free and/or instantly accessible on demand, the $10 for the sheet music is a vestige of an obsolete world. Now, that said, charging for lessons/coaching sessions is still perfectly viable.

MaryVery well worded response. It’s like … you’re a writer or something. Like, a *professional.*

DannyThanks. I sent it, and then on second thought sent him another email answering his questions. Basically separating the issues and still giving him the option to be a mensch.

LucyDude, if he wants a coaching, he should hire someone to do so. My rates are between $60-80/hour, and if he wants you to coach him on your material or any other material, you should charge at least the same!

In the end, Rick was the mensch, and got Danny his ten dollars.

Danny’s desire to school Rick about the “professional relationship” between singers and songwriters is certainly akin to Jason Robert Brown’s massive schooling of a far younger performer. But at least this was temperate and free of snark; he communicated in an un-pissed way and with admirable honesty. I admire Danny’s consulting scribes like him about how to respond. Rick was a little taken aback by Danny’s communiqué and questioned whether he should have asked so many questions, or mentioned the cut. But, when you think about it, Rick doesn’t need Danny; Danny doesn’t need Rick. That professional relationship, ultimately, is of little value.

Songwriters are in a tough financial bind. Very few derive significant income from selling their songs. It’s extremely common for copies to be made, and the Ricks of the world feel no obligation to look up authors and pay some fee when their musical director suggests running to the school’s library to get a copy of a song. It’s possible, though, that Rick asked too many questions, so that a writer feels a little beleaguered, doing so much (answering, allowing a cut to be performed) for free. I’d suggest that Danny’s better course of action would be to just clear up all the interpretive stuff, ask for no money, be glad his song is being done somewhere (even in a truncated form) – all with the goal of merely being a good citizen of the world.

This whole exchange happened well over a year ago, and, today, Danny has made an enviable amount off songwriting. And I hope Rick feels a little pride about performing a song long before the rest of our community discovered it.


I need a wife

September 3, 2012

It’s my wife’s birthday, and my first inclination is just to post a photo of her and say “Isn’t she beautiful?” I’m writing this in Riverside Park, on our baby’s nine month birthday. Adelaide’s asleep in her stroller, and Stevie Wonder’s evergreen song Isn’t She Lovely? is, naturally, on my mind. If you ask me to name the best American songwriters, Wonder’s the only one I’d name who hasn’t written a musical. (Paul Simon and Burt Bacharach have written Broadway shows, one each.)

How hard Joy works. Three months ago, she started her own casting company, and she’s already done some major off-Broadway musicals and the soon-to-launch national tour of Catch Me If You Can (look for it in a city near you).  All this hard work takes time away from Adelaide, and I’m the lucky one since I get the lion’s share of time with the baby.

Casting can be very challenging work. Clients sometimes come to projects with unrealistic expectations. Gazing at our beautiful child, I see, attached to the stroller, a luggage tag from the 2007-2008 national tour of Movin’ Out, the first big project Joy ever cast. The director, internationally esteemed choreographer Twyla Tharp, was used to getting the crème de la crème, but this particular tour had an arduous schedule and a not-all-that-attractive salary. Many of the dancers with the proficiency to perform this difficult narrative ballet were saying no to this gig. Joy’s job was to find the folk who’d say yes. That meant, first, that Joy had to educate herself about dance; it hadn’t previously been her area of expertise. Then, she had to go out and find a wide array of talent, and put it in front if Twyla. What strikes me as most remarkable, all these years later, is that Joy got Tharp to adjust her expectations, to see diamonds in the rough: where she was used to crème de la crème, she learned to embrace la crème du reste.  And was quite pleased with the results.

That’s telling an old tale out of school, of course, and perhaps I shouldn’t have.  But a sizable number of actors can’t seem to grasp what the life of a casting director is like.  They too often see casting directors as impediments towards their getting cast.  “If only Bigshot McCaster liked me, and would call me in.  I was perfect for that.”

  1. Show up at the open call and out-audition everyone else.  That’s the way it’s done.
  2. It’s your agent’s job to get you work, not the casting director’s.
  3. It’s likely you don’t see yourself the way the world sees you, especially when it comes to role appropriateness.

And the casting director can become the lightning rod for blame.  Once, I ran into a friend of mine, right as she was on line to audition for something.  Across the hall, Joy was casting something my friend would have been perfect for.  Or so I thought.  The client, it turns out, was insisting on a very specific physical type which my friend didn’t fit.  But how would she know that?  Sometimes, a casting director’s hands are tied.

Lest we jump to the conclusion that this client was being unreasonable, let me air some dirty linen of my own.  There was a character in Area 51 who had to be laid-back, personable, copacetic and friendly.  Oh, and he hails from another planet.  We saw a lot of fine actors for the role but one stood head and shoulders above the rest.  Literally.  Gregory Jones is six-foot-six.  Paint him green (as we did) and he’s bound to look like a brother from another planet.  No mere human-size human would do for us.  Greg was wonderful as the alien, and I’m pleased to report he made his Broadway debut last spring in a play about NBA stars.

And then there was an incredible array of specifications for the lead of Such Good Friends.  The character is a big comedy star in the early days of television, so someone like Lucille Ball or Imogene Coca.  The script contains a flashback to an early point in her career, so the actress would have to pass for 21-or-thereabouts to 38-or-thereabouts.  I wanted to make a subtle point about the anti-semitism of blacklisting, so, ideally, the character should be Jewish.  But not like Gertrude Berg – the point would cease to be subtle.  The singing demands were huge (critics compared it to Funny Girl) and, above all, she had to be lovable.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?  Luckily, Joy’s company was on the case.  Agents pushed various people – some big names, but none that matched our needs.  Since we were part of The New York Theatre Festival, there was, contractually, a severely limited amount of salary that we were allowed to offer.  (Also, a limited rehearsal period.)  Actors’ availability and willingness was checked.  We sat through roughly 300 auditions.  And finally, credit a save to the casting director: We got Liz Larsen.  I’d seen her in A New Brain, Starmites, and The Most Happy Fella, but somehow didn’t think of her.  That’s because I don’t have the brains to work in casting. While The Most Happy Fella earned her a Tony nomination, Such Good Friends earned Liz two impressive awards: one from NYMF and a performance-of-the-year honor from Talkin’ Broadway, in addition to a whole bunch of raves.  She was absolutely riveting in the role: no one else would have been nearly as good.

Area 51 didn’t have a casting director; some of those players never appeared in a New York musical again.  Such Good Friends taught me that trying to cast without a professional (like Joy Dewing) is the height of foolishness and hubris.  Trust me, you don’t want to go through the casting process alone.  And I know, I know: it’s a little harder to trust a husband, but you couldn’t find a better casting director than Joy.


Impromptu

March 17, 2012

Does writing musicals seem hard to you?  If you’ve been reading this blog, now approaching 100 posts, with any regularity, you’ve learned of a passel of pitfalls, problems to avoid, mistakes that even multiple Tony-winners have made.  And achieving that dream of writing a really entertaining musical might seem well nigh impossible.

Many’s the time it’s seemed that way to me.  But then, from time to time, I remind myself that musical theatre can be created instantaneously and easily.  And that’s when I’m improvising a musical.

Making up a musical, on the spot, with an audience in front of you, at first blush, seems tremendously difficult.  But, over the past fifteen years, Larry Rosen and I have developed exercises and teaching methods that make the impossible not only possible, but reasonably easy.  And it’s exhilarating for all of our students.

An audience, it should be obvious, brings a completely different set of expectations to an improv show.  It’s never like that years-in-the-making painstakingly-crafted “finished product” on the Great White Way.  The audience isn’t going to have high standards when it comes to surprising plotting, or mellifluous singing, or heartfelt emotions.  They’re there for a shared experience, in which something that will only be seen once, only by them, is created using a dollop of their input – the suggestion the audience gives to start us off.

In a group of first-time musical improv students, there will invariably be a few misconceptions.  One is that you have to sing well.  Pardon me while I drop some names: Robin Williams, Amy Poehler, Casey Wilson, Kate Walsh and Todd Stashwick.  Have you bought any of their records to accompany any candlelit dinners?  These are people I’ve improvised songs with, and they all did it brilliantly.  While you can see them on television every week, they’re not stars because of their beautiful voices.

Another false notion is that you have to be funny, or even particularly quick on your feet.  And sure, Robin, Amy, Casey and Todd are known for being funny, but Kate?  Well, when we improvised together she was hysterical; it’s been a surprise to me that her fame derives from a dramatic role (Addison on Private Practice).

We teach improvisers to be truthful.  The best laughs come out of characters reacting as people really do, not performers standing up there and trying to crack jokes.  This distinction basically separates two worlds of improv: those who go for jokes and those who go for truth.

This dichotomy is sometimes said to define the schism between “game” improvisation and “long-form.”  I’ve had my heart in the latter camp since a field trip to Chicago in the mid-nineties.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t played a lot of “game” shows.  Some fine ones, too.  But here’s my beef:

Way too much improv resembles a bar trick.  One example is the Alphabet Game, in which each piece of dialogue must start with successive letters of the alphabet.  The audience may be impressed by this feat, but the game consists of nothing more than an artificial impediment to creating a good scene.

I don’t see a good reason for such impediments.  And there are always going to be certain difficulties to song improv.  One, you’d probably assume, is rhyme.  But I don’t feel rhyme is a necessary component of a good improvised song.  It makes made-up songs sound more like pre-written songs, sure; but I figure an audience looking to hear pre-written songs is better off at a concert.

And so are listeners seeking to hear good voices.  It’s hard to imagine someone leaving an improv show saying “Great show!  Loved the voices!” 

No, the hard part is structure.  The advanced song improviser can do a scene and suddenly break out into song, having come up with a good, workable title that sums up their character’s sentiment.  She’ll create a structure in which the title reappears at regular and expected intervals, just like written songs usually do.  (Actually, it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t use a title; The Beatles’ A Day in the Life is one.)

I worry that I’ve made song improv sound incredibly difficult.  Certainly, if a non-improviser walked into the third hour of one of our classes, they’d see every student doing incredibly impressive things.  But the students don’t think it’s hard.  I use an analogy: the medieval thumbscrew.  Larry and I start with easy exercises, and, as the class goes on, each new exercise is incrementally harder than the last one.  So it’s like turning a thumbscrew so slowly, you never feel the pain.

And, we do something that I don’t think anyone else has ever thought of doing: We let participants have the unique experience of improvising completely without form: no meter, no rhyme, no repeated motif in the vocal necessary.  This is particularly exhilarating, because it allows people to focus on being truthful.

If people are being real in an improvised musical, the show can be as poignant as West Side Story.  Audiences are delighted to discover that a full range of emotions are amplified in improv; it’s never just wags cracking wise.

Another unexpected pleasure is improvised harmony.  This is part of every class we teach, a clear example of the “group mind” at work.  I lay down a sequence of chords and play them over and over.  Different people find different notes, in different rhythms: right away we have glorious counterpoint.

But, you know, the more I describe this, the more I fear two things: that I’m giving away too many secrets, and that readers can’t possibly understand/appreciate what I’m talking about.  It’s simply something you have to experience for yourself.  Email ANDReserve@aol.com to inquire about our next workshop.