Our language of love

February 14, 2018

A while ago, I heard some former presidential speech writers talk about how difficult it is to avoid clichés in the State of the Union address. We who write love songs, usually more frequently than once a year, can sympathize. Well over 80 years ago, Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin asked “What can you say in a love song that hasn’t been said before?” And now I’m wondering what I can say in a Valentine’s Day blog that hasn’t been said before?

Well, it’s the late great Florence Henderson’s birthday, and she happened to have uttered what I think is the sexiest speech ever delivered on an original Broadway cast album. (Those who think of her as matronly don’t know Flo.) It’s from an amazingly romantic musical called Fanny, book by S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan:

Think of this: Each night there’s a woman who would love to lie down next to you, smell your hair, and fall asleep in the warmth of your body.

1954, folks. If you think of the 1950s, and the musical theatre of the time as prudish or sexless, how come couples in Fanny and The Most Happy Fella are busy having babies without wedlock? And those dames are sopranos!

Some time after Henderson famously mothered The Brady Bunch, there was a seemingly out-of-touch comedian on another sitcom who’d feign befuddlement with the younger generation’s slang, asking “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” with a wink. As language evolves, people keep coming up with new euphemisms. One generation’s “doing the nasty” is another’s “Netflix and chill.” (And here I just have to say: Awesome product placement, Netflix!) And if there’s a limitless supply of ways to say “it,” there should similarly be infinite ways to express love.

I used to point out to my musical theatre students that love songs in musicals hit the audience as stand-ins for sex. We don’t see Lancelot and Guinevere in bed together, but when we hear If Ever I Would Leave You, we just know they’ve made, er, sheet music. And, not to knock another genre, but if you were making a film about that Camelot couple, assumedly rated R, you’d probably show them in bed. Isn’t the Lerner & Loewe love song more passionate, more moving than any dimly-lit filmic tussling? Musicals come up with something sublime to depict what other genres make prosaic, or even embarrassing.

Now, as it happens, the last love song I wrote (about a month ago) makes sport of far-flung phrases of ardor, butchering eight different languages in the process:

I exclaimed “Sacre bleu! You are one pot au feu!”
I asked if you spoke Esperanto
You gave a curt wave with your hand
Interpreting that as “Don’t want to”
I ceded my Sudetenland

You zip-a-dee-doo-dahed my trousers
I ripped your Versace chemise

That might be too silly for its own good, but I’m assured it’s getting recorded. No assurance, of any sort, greets my new musical, Baby Makes Three, but it seems appropriate to share a more serious love song from it. This was inspired by that rarest of things, a real-life emotional moment between strangers I observed on more than one occasion.

At a suburban rail station, greeting the evening rush, stood a father with a small child on his shoulders. They’d look into the sea of incoming faces – petals on a wet, black bough, per Pound – until, spotting the working mother, their two faces would light up. It was so adorable, I decided it had to be part of my show about similar characters.

Kiss me like you haven’t seen me
For a long long time
It’s been a long long time
As far as I’m concerned

When you kiss me
Show me how you miss me
Over all that time
It’s a joyous time
Now that you’ve returned

Hold me and never let me go

Now, you might ask, is that the child singing, or the Dad? In effect, it’s supposed to be both; he’s singing both his feelings and the feelings of their kid.

Years have passed, and I no longer see anyone commuting via train. I don’t catch glances of families reuniting. My daughter’s twice the age of the silent kid on the stranger’s shoulders, and doesn’t need me to communicate for her any more. (Did she ever?)

I just looked down on my desk, as one does, and saw my daughter has left four post-it notes, still stuck together. On the fourth page, she has drawn her and me. On the third page is a heart. On the second page is a combination of the other two: we’re holding hands, and our names with arrows pointing to the portraits. And the cover says “Book I love you Daddy.”



July 24, 2017

The audience basically sat there with their jaws dropped. The reaction wasn’t “This is great.” The reaction was “Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything so marvelous.” You could feel this energy throughout the theatre, the entire building was abuzz with how fantastic the performance was.

You know, it has never been my intention to make this blog the place where I brag. So I’m going to try, today, to accurately reflect and reflect upon what happened in Connecticut at the beginning of July. As usual, I hope to be interesting and useful to creators of musicals. But, let’s face it, some of this is going to sound like boasting. Deal.

The occasion was a presentation of a portion of The Christmas Bride. I am responsible for its music and lyrics and circumstances landed me in the director’s chair. To my surprise, it’s not a tall wood-and-canvas thing with a title on the back. It fell upon me to select a cast of eight, rehearse them and tell them where to move. We had an extremely short amount of time to put this together, and the lion’s share was spent getting the notes right. An exorbitant number of minutes were lost to laughter, as a couple of players found a bit of business so funny, they were unable to get it together and deliver the material with a straight face.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

But when they were on, they were ON. I’ve never encountered a crowd so titillated. The tongue-in-cheek machismo of leading man Matthew Griffin had the effect of literally turning a lot of women on. And, you know, my wife cast Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, so now we’re both used to having that effect.

I really think the best thing I did in this fraught process was choosing the performers I got. Six had worked together for two years as students of mine. Solid and stolid David Arthur Bachrach is a veteran of two previous Christmas Bride productions, this time essaying a new role. One day I had a brainstorm that my current student Megan Poulos had all the right stuff to be the title character. I took a leap of faith that she’d play well off of Matthew Griffin, who’d made such a great impression earlier this year in Encores’ The New Yorkers at City Center. He’s got the looks, the voice, the goofy swagger; could they project the chemistry of illicit lovers taking a leap of faith on each other?

In a word, yes. This was the thing that thrilled me most. Book writer MK Wolfe and I had always hoped for a certain sexually charged energy between our leads. Previous productions had come up a little short, I think, as the lines and lyrics have to bounce off the pair in a way that sizzles. It’s that old saw that casting a show right is more than half the battle. Here was the proof of that pudding (made of plum?), a very fortunate happenstance. Players with a similar background was a felicitous shortcut: They all knew how to get behind the energy of the piece. MK Wolfe’s book effectively keeps the stakes high, and the players played them for all they’re worth.

Well-played melodrama knocks out an audience – the fraught sense that everything that’s happening is of great importance, has huge consequences for the characters. One could tell from the opening minutes that people were thunderstruck by what they were seeing.

And it was more than my cast of New Yorkers. I also believe the quality of the writing stunned the crowd. The little that is arbitrary never seemed arbitrary because viewers got used to being rewarded for their concentration. In a plot sense, little clues are often dropped as to what might happen next, and these kept people’s ears particularly wide open.

That led, in turn, to a different kind of hearing. The singers sounded so great, you could sense the listeners relaxing, taking in a new and enjoyable tune. This is hard to describe, but there’s just a different feeling in a room when melodies hit ears and the hearers savor right away. Far too often, I’ve witnessed the opposite, when oddly-crafted tunes get taken in with a bit of befuddlement. This was more like love-at-first-sight, an instant attraction.

Photo: Stephen Cihanek

It’d been five and half years since I’ve seen The Christmas Bride. So, in an odd way, I was reacquainting myself with old themes, and rediscovering what’s good about them. The long sustained notes in Fluttering and Turn Around give time for the vocalist to open up. The sweetness of Megan and Matthew’s sounds delighted. Marion and Alone in the Night are two larger pieces I’ve always thought were among my best. But the main song for the romantic leads, Take a Gamble – well, I’d previously thought of it as a little disappointing. A romantic musical calls for a big I-love-you statement, and this argumentative duet has its eyes on the plot. Megan and Matthew revised my self-assessment. Rather than park-and-bark sentiment, I’d given two actors fully motivated moments to snipe at each other. In their hands, it became a beautiful thing, and, at long last, I found myself enjoying the song.

A friend and fellow musical theatre writer was there, and he’d never previously heard any of my work. He was particularly taken with my dense rhyming and how they gave spring to the meanings of the sung lines. We plan to meet for a drink and discuss it some more.

Songs rhyme for a reason. When the brain knows it’s going to receive sounds that match at regular intervals, listening is enhanced. It might be harder to come up with a clever rhyme structure and stick to it, but it’s surely a lot easier for the hearer. Our brains take in well-rhymed words much quicker than unrhymed or – horrors! – badly rhymed verse.

An example comes to mind because Connor Coughlin applied an echt and charming accent to it:

Furbelows and frocks
Herbal teas and boxes full of gifts for that special she
For my bonnie bride to be

Connor sounded the “H” on “herbal” and then the frocks/box rhyme sped the line forward. It traveled blithely from an unfamiliar word (“furbelows”) to a familiar and understandable concept. Had this been fully staged, he would have been holding a huge pile of presents. Instead, a good rhyme drawing attention to meaning got everyone to picture what they could not see.

Immodestly, perhaps, I’ve unveiled some of the little details that garnered such a huge reaction. There was a moment towards the end where a twenty-second ovation broke out, literally stopping the show. The actor could not continue until the audience obeyed his hand-signal command to simmer down. The Connecticut crowd had never seen anything like it.

Facets of you

June 3, 2017

So, I was watching a play that purported to be about the nature of love and thought to myself, “Nah, this isn’t it.” The playwright had failed to make me feel anything, and I’m pretty picky that way, demanding that romantic entertainments (usually musicals) capture my heart, not just my mind. Once upon a time, every musical was, to a certain extent, about love. Today, some writers manage to avoid it – but I think they’re all running away from something. Face it, we’re in the domaine d’amour.

Twenty years ago today Joy Dewing walked into my life and hit my heart in such a way that my thoughts about love were utterly metamorphosed. The young, intrepid bundle of gorgeousness knocked on my door, having driven up from Washington just to meet me. And instantly there seemed no more natural place for my arms to be than around her. There’d previously been a meeting of the minds, as we communicated through countless e-mails and some chats, but here, in the flesh, was a warm and driven talent, a quick wit, and a thinker wise beyond her years. Which was a good thing, because I was well beyond her years.The First Dance

After I’d gained that new understanding of love, there soon arose opportunities to write songs on the subject. You have to do that a lot when you create musicals, but also, in my life, there are occasional songs. Like Joy’s birthday. Or Valentine’s Day. Or our wedding anniversary. Or this, our meet-iversary. And no matter how hard I try, I keep coming back to the same thought: “Nah, I didn’t quite capture it.”

Seems as if the extraordinary set of amorous feelings can’t quite be captured in words and music; I’m chasing a rainbow. Or maybe I’m not good enough, just as insufficiently articulate as Mee. (For that is the name of the playwright referenced at the beginning.) But I’ve a more positive theory about this: It’s Joy. She’s too marvelous for words and tunes. And I’m reminded, now, that I once expressed something like that in a song I wrote to sing to her: “You’re too wonderful for empty cliché.”

So this week I took our daughter to buy Joy a gift to commemorate the two decades of face-to-face passion and instantly thought I’d muddled it. In our living room, there’s this huge unopened box that is her gift to me, and I’m sure it’s far more fabulous, even though I got her something she said she needs. My underwhelming gift fits a cliché of husbandry: we give bad presents. And I’ll again remind you I’ve a sign that reads “Eschew cliché.” But sometimes it occurs to me that I’ve hit upon a widely-experienced situation. There are many lovers who come up with insufficient tokens of their affection. And if something’s that common, maybe it ought to be a song.

I may have mentioned here that I’m working on a show about married people, Baby Makes Three. Some believe that it’s a musical à clef, but the characters are markedly different from us. Such a project, though, allows me to draw on my experience as a husband, and one song steals from that large set of songs I’ve written for Joy. Here’s the bridge:

I’m well aware there are words you long to hear
What the hell is scaring me? Do I fear
Whatever words I say
Can never quite convey
The magnitude of all I feel?

Musicals, of course, get rewritten countless times. Right now the floor of my office is literally littered with the many numbers I’ve cut from the show. So, frequently, I deem my songs not good enough to stay in a score. If I’m writing a song for a particular day, well, that’s a deadline: Comes the time to give, I give. And I instantly think, “That wasn’t it. That’s not good enough.”

Rather randomly, I’ve found an example of all this:

In a world full of irritations
That crop up out of nowhere
Like a horde of ants when you lift a stone,
It takes guts, holding it together
You can’t yell at stupid tourists
Or be rude to every pollster on the phone.
So we all develop ways we can bear
With catastrophes that spring up when we’re least aware

I have a wife who loves me
Loves me well
And with a wife who loves me
I can get through hell
Arms that provide such comfort
So caring
So tender
I have a wife who’ll love me
Till the end

When I can’t avoid a puddle that, at first, seems to be shallow
But it’s so deep it muddies halfway up my slacks;
When I know I made a bookmark of a receipt I should have saved
And I don’t remember which book when it’s time to file the tax;
When a bus goes intentionally slow
Or whizzes past as I frantically wave in the snow

I think I’ve a wife who loves me
Long and deep
I have a wife who snuggles
As I sleep
Kisses that work a wonder
They warm me
I have a wife who gets me through each storm.

When some stranger smacks their gum or talks with their mouth full
Or does that loathsome sucky sound that you hate;
When the brand new expensive iron spits out white glop instead of steam
Destroying your pants and making you late;
When the cable company screws up your show
When you work a long day and then have to fly into snow

Remember that I love you
And hold you dear
Knowing your husband loves you
Whatever it is that bugs you
Forget it
I’ve written you a love song
You are loved.

Nope, not nearly good enough. (This post, I fear, isn’t good enough either.) But at least it has the word “glop” in it. And more I cannot wish you than to wish you twenty years of love. With some glop.


Love can happen

February 14, 2017

Where have all the love songs gone? Long time passing.

So, I’m not going to discuss La La Land but one thing that struck me relates to Valentine’s Day and something of an existential crisis for me. At no point do the characters sing their affections for each other. In that way, the much-praised movie is markedly different from the cinematic musicals it seeks to emulate. But I worry that this is a sign of our times, and scarily common in stage musicals. Not a lot of songs that say “I love you” these days.

This brings to mind some lyrics from 75 years ago by Ogden Nash:

Tell a stranger, by curiosity goaded
Is there really any danger that love is now outmoded?
…I can’t believe that love has lost its glamour,
That passion is really passé?
If gender is just a term in grammar,
How can I ever find my way?

The danger is real. In a comment on this here blog six years ago, a millennial told me this:

There’s another consideration to be had in any discussion of romanticism in lyrics: the audience’s perception. Most people who make love in song come across to most people as either unschooled doe-eyed ninnies or total bullshitters. What would be your reaction if you saw a teenaged boy in real life say to his girlfriend, “Today, the world was just an address” or “Tonight there will be no morning star”? You’d think he was a bullshitter, because the falseness of those lines would convey exactly that.

First, I’m grateful to hear a different view. Second, why compare musicals to real life? Nobody attended West Side Story for an accurate depiction of the city’s gang wars. Third, if there’s a weakness in the quoted lyrics, well, declarations of ardor would appear to be Stephen Sondheim’s weak suit.

But I must admit I’m haunted by something here. If a younger generation finds expressions of passion corny, outmoded, or unnecessary, well, what the hell am I? Every day, I’m endeavoring to create a musical about people who love each other, and, by God, at some point they’re going to express it to each other. Am I writing a show that no one wants to see?

“Born Too Late” seems an appropriate way of describing me. We all know there was a far earlier point in the history of musicals in which the main reasons shows existed was as settings for love songs. Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter and their contemporaries saw Broadway as the principle launching pad for chansons d’amour. The Age of Standards was a time when virtually every popular hit was birthed on the Great White Way. Sure, eventually, shows started telling stories that had intrinsic value, but I maintain that one of the principle reasons we love West Side Story is that we’re drawn to Tony and Maria earnestly warbling “Tonight there will be no morning star.” Still, in 2017, it’s a well-loved show.

When musicals shy away from romance, well, that seems to me oddly self-defeating. Musicals, more than any form, tell romantic stories in a powerful emotional way. They’re obviously different from plays in that whatever point is being put across the footlights is aided by harmony, orchestra, the power of singing. And an audience that can accept the convention of characters singing their hearts out is more likely to be accepting of pronouncements of passion.

If you find such things hoary, or embarrassing, you might not like some of my musicals. There are plenty of Sondheim shows in which nobody sings about happy romantic feelings, although precious few have premiered in the past 30 years. And some stories can be pretty compelling without characters who serenade a beloved – I’m thinking of two arresting pieces composed by Jeanine Tesori: Fun Home and Caroline, or Change – but I’m one who finds the subject interesting enough to write about again and again.

I probably point out far too frequently that Jeanine and I wrote the Columbia Varsity Show in successive years. And, I thought at the time, that hers was excellent; she was clearly going somewhere. But mine had something hers did not: a love song. Now, most folks wouldn’t think of putting a love song in a show meant to spoof various aspects of campus life. But I hit upon the idea that one could list notorious college places and experiences in the form of a dating couple recalling their initial encounters:

After seeing you at all my most embarrassing moments
With you standing so near every time I could have died
With my face a brilliant red
Who’d have believed you if you said
That today you would be standing at my side?
She: And that day at the Furnald Grocery,
I really wanted to scream
You saw me buying seven packages of Ortho-Creme
He: Or in the lobby, during the fire drill
She: The night I was setting my curls
He: I saw you notice my pajama top on one of the F.I.T. girls

(They approach each other, and tentatively, awkwardly, they kiss.)

I, too, am embarrassed that I’ve solidified my old fogey status with a reference to a long-forgotten contraceptive. Yes, I can remember a time when there was a word for people unfamiliar with Ortho-Creme: Parents.

And with that, I wish you a wonderful Valentine’s Day.


Ninth waltz

May 11, 2016

Sometimes what a musical needs is alchemy. You can have the greatest living composer pouring out gorgeous melodies. You can have the playwright responsible for the books to Gypsy and West Side Story adapting his own fairly solid play. For lyrics, you can have Stephen Sondheim. But if there’s no alchemy, no magic, no secret sauce, all you’re left with is a tasteless muddle.

Do I Hear a Waltz? is now playing at City Center. The fine folks at Encores occasionally slip up, and they miss the mark as badly as they did last time they mounted a Rodgers-post-Hammerstein (No Strings). Music is their specialty, so it’s no surprise Richard Rodgers comes off best. Richard Troxell delivers a delicious performance of the big ballad, Take the Moment, unquestionably the highlight of the evening. And one of my favorite female trios, Moon In My Window, was sumptuous enough. Outside of those, the songs were a string of disappointments.

Stephen Sondheim, one must admit, was simply the wrong lyricist for this project. It required him to write large quantities of comedy songs, and what I’ll call Happy-Love love songs. If I say these are the worst lyrics of his career, that’s taking in the context of the rest of his oeuvre: show after show with excellent lyrics. Do I Hear a Waltz? isn’t bad, lyrically, but comedy songs and Happy-Love just aren’t his strong suits and that’s what he dutifully churned out here. There are plenty of Sondheim songs that make me laugh – Pour le Sport, Instructions To the Audience, that Hail Brooklyn chorale – but, as someone who writes songs that get audiences cackling, I’ve little use for songs that merely get audiences to smile: This Week Americans, What Do We Do We Fly, Bargaining, No Understand, We’re Going To Be All Right – many attempts; none score.*

A song in which someone expresses love for another and is actually happy about it: that’s Rodgers’ thing, not Sondheim. Unhappy love songs he does well. In the title song, “roses are dancing with peonies” which, to my ears, sounds like an attempt at poetry by someone with no real experience of love.

One romantic ballad is even sung from the point of view of a middle-aged shopkeeper and a wine goblet, both lonely, both looking for a mate. “We waited for someone” – “we” being a guy and his glass. Who’s responsible for such a ridiculous idea? One can enjoy the melody but I sure couldn’t feel anything and my heart’s not made of glass.

The last time I saw a collaboration between three writers of such esteem was when Laurents hamstrung Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Nick & Nora – even more lacking in alchemy). Here he’s the source of most of the problems, giving his characters way too little to endear themselves to us. But the more major problem is that there’s nothing major happening in the show. A romance hits a few roadblocks, then the show ends. Good musicals tend to be about larger-than-life characters; here, everyone’s rather smaller-than-life. Someone drinks too much at a party and spills some secrets, threatening a marriage. Big deal.

Now it happens I’m working on a musical about ordinary people and there’s nothing extraordinary about most of the roadblocks along their way. So, it’s my job to make a big deal of things, to rev up the emotion until they burst out in song. What Laurents, Sondheim and Rodgers fail to do is to ratchet up any moment’s feeling in a way that singing seems natural. An example occurs to me: the unseen character who’s the other leg in a triangle: What does the heroine feel about her, imagine about her? Why isn’t there a song there?

For this Encores staging, we get to hear an eleven o’clock number, Everybody Loves Leona, that was cut before the Broadway opening. One can see why – it lands with a thud. There’s a natural tendency to want to write another Rose’s Turn (from a previous Laurents-Sondheim collaboration) but, for a character to have a great big emotional eruption, we have to care about her. We, in the audience, don’t love Leona enough to justify that moment.

I wrote a bit about We’re Gonna Be Alright in a recent post. I liked Sarah Hunt as Mrs. Yeager so much, I was happy to see her get more to do; but the rest of the show doesn’t have these characters expressing sharp-witted cynicism as they do in the song. It’s a sore thumb, though fairly piquant as sore thumbs go. Another performer, Sarah Stiles, enlivened the usually drab No Understand, and, again, I was glad to be in her presence.

But Rodgers sets the would-be wit to some of his dullest melodies. Bargaining keeps banging the same note as if it’s a Jason Robert Brown song. The creator of Do-Re-Mi settles for Mi-Re-Mi in the verses to the song about air travel, which seems awfully uncreative. A lively ensemble late in the show is brought down by a descending chromatic scale interspersed with the tonic – presaging his I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You a few years later. It seems like he knew a day when he was out of good ideas.

I see I’ve said not a word about the leading lady, Melissa Errico. To say she is completely wrong for this role is to indulge in understatement. Her persona is that of an alabaster princess, not a New York noodge. She over-articulates everything like she’s been to finishing school. The script has her calling everyone “Cookie” but it seemed wrong every time she said it. “Petit four,” I’d believe, not “Cookie.” Opera star Richard Troxell gets referred to as “molto bello” umpteen times in the script, but is he? His body language is stodgy and unsexy; his line readings are dreary. His Italian accent is believable, unsurprisingly, but it was never clear why Leona found him irresistible.

Do I Hear a Waltz? was a sad experience for its creators, recalled fondly by none. But the idea of an unsophisticated American falling in love with a native in Italy: there could be something truly romantic and dramatic about that. I know: I saw The Light in the Piazza with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers’ grandson.

*If you want to hear comedy songs that cause paroxysms of laughter, I humbly suggest you attend The Things We Do For Love, a collection of my songs May 25 at the Duplex in New York, June 13 at the Gardenia in Los Angeles.


My funny valentine

February 14, 2016

Every Valentine’s Day an imagined scenario comes to mind, involving what is widely considered the greatest love song of all time.

I picture Richard Rodgers at the piano, noodling with a minor scale. A-B-C B-C-B. It’s a plain little motif, but bears repeating. And then he gets the A-B-C to launch up to a more surprising place, G, followed by a downward resolution, F-E-D. At this point, Rodgers is eight bars in, a quarter of a song, as such things were defined back then. I imagine he found the tune a little sad, perhaps too Jewish. So he replays it in the relative major, a third up. It’s a nice noodle that way, too, and for the final A section, Rodgers decides to have it both ways: Two bars in minor, two bars up the third in minor, and then a climax consisting of the first two bars an octave higher, but landing on the C. This lets him end the song in major, using the second pair of bars again.

Rodgers played with scales a lot. We all know Doh, a Deer, but I also think of Dancing on the Ceiling, which goes straight up six notes of the major scale, or Blue Room, which climbs up every third note. He does something similar to Blue Room in the bridge of this minor-to-major ballad. The landing note of each phrase ascends the dominant scale. Next, he stitches together the quilt with chords that lead from one place to another. He’s got something: a quiet half-sad melody. It’s time to wake up his collaborator.

I do mean that literally. At this point in the Rodgers and Hart partnership, Lorenz Hart spent much of his time drinking. It’s here where biographers pretend to be psychoanalysts, offering a diagnosis without having met the subject. But it must be noted that Hart stood about five feet tall, and had a large balding head. It’s said he thought of himself as ugly. And cultural historians point out how difficult it was to be a homosexual in the 1930s. Sex life might involve going into certain seedy bars, nursing a whisky and looking around for a like-minded man. Glances are exchanged and the couple gravitates towards the men’s room. Hart’s attractiveness, self-regard, and love of alcohol combined, many nights, to leave him passed out on the bathroom floor.

So, Richard Rodgers, traditional heterosexual husband and father, would start the workday searching for his partner. (The “workday” was sacrosanct: business-like, he kept regular hours while writing shows.) He’d visit the seediest bars in New York, look under the stall doors in the bathrooms, and eventually would find Hart sleeping off his drunk. He grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into a room where there was a piano, a coffee urn, and a door that locked with a key. Rodgers wouldn’t let Hart out of the room until he’d come up with that day’s lyric. He’d pour umpteen cups of coffee, while Larry begged for a hair of the dog that bit him. Dick replayed his tune, put a pad and pencil in front of him. That was how they worked, how they wrote the most successful musicals of the late 1930s.

Picture Hart slowly regaining his faculties. Pumped up with coffee, the previous night’s bacchanal behind him, he listens to the plaintive air. And he thinks of a fellow he’s fond of, who, like himself, lacks classic good looks. Now, I have it on good authority (my mother), that the man Hart was thinking of headed the drama department at the University of Michigan when she was there, about 65 years ago. Since I’m the one telling this story, I can rely on her as a source. Hart muses on loving someone who’s full of physical imperfections: figure – less than Greek; mouth – a little weak; looks – laughable and unphotographable. Then, what are the compensations; that is, what are the lovable qualities? Funny, sweet, comic, makes me smile. These thoughts coalesce into a love letter:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day

The song done, Rodgers turned the key in the door, releasing Hart for another night of the same.

The title perfectly expresses affection for someone who’s nobody’s ideal. A valentine, in other people’s songs, is like an Adonis. Funny, in a sense, refers to how unusual it is to depict a “work of art” who’s short of perfection. It’s more realistic, truer to most people’s experience of romance. And so many years before plastic surgery became big business, there’s a reference to changing, the idea that the somewhat-less-than-beautiful might want to reshape themselves somehow.

The final step for Rodgers and Hart was to fashion the musical comedy in which this love letter song might fit. It seemed illogical to have a man sing it to a woman, because female vanity was believed to be such that expressing “Your looks are laughable” would be greeted with a slap. Hart thought the male professor would be flattered, and so it was decided that Babes In Arms would have a young man by the name of Valentine – he’s called Val for short – so that a young woman could sing it to him.

If “each day is Valentine’s Day” then it makes more sense to sing it any day of the year that’s not February 14. (See also, Frank Loesser’s What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? which was meant to be sung in spring, love-at-first-sight style.) But, naturally, when the holiday of hearts is upon us, we more often think of this masterpiece of Rodgers and Hart’s.


Picture perfect marriage

October 12, 2015

Twelve years ago, at the Soho Playhouse, you could see an original musical I wrote and also see a wedding, mine to Joy Dewing. For they were one and the same: an actual, legal wedding and an actual, entertaining musical comedy. Our guests were treated to the sort of pleasure we were most adept at creating. In a phrase I find myself using way too often these days, we were playing to our strong suits. Joy’s rapturous voice served as the pièce de resistance; my easy way with lyrics and music on display throughout.

I just read David Sedaris on weddings:

guilt-tripping friends and relatives into giving up their weekends so they could sit on hard church pews or folding chairs in August, listening as the couple mewled vows at each other, watching as they’re force-fed cake, standing on the sidelines, bored and sweating, as they danced, misty-eyed, to a Foreigner song.

I’m reminded that the genesis of Our Wedding – The Musical was a list of things neither of us wanted in nuptials. The hurled uncooked rice: painful, wasteful, bad for birds. Stuffing cake down the bride’s mouth: the deadly sin of gluttony, the ruination of a paragon of beauty. Even religion: the great disuniter, alienating those with different traditions. We’d have none of that.

A successful musical unites us. We’re a crowd, brought together in assembly, laughing and crying and reacting as one. The storyteller modulates his tale with the needs and expectations of the audience in mind. Sitting next to us at Hamilton was an older couple, and I wondered how they’d react to genius Lin-Manuel Miranda’s irreverent and dense raps. Somewhere in the middle of the first act, the man exclaimed “No show should be this good!”

And a few days later, after the cast album came out, I took Joy on a car tour of Upper Manhattan to show her where Washington had his headquarters and the still-standing homes of Hamilton and Burr. Of course, she played the appropriate tracks on the car’s speakers. We considered hitting Weehawken on the way back, but she was worried about whether I could drive with tears in my eyes.

It’s common interests like that – and most would find these geeky in the extreme – that form a basis for a marriage, a romance, an enduring passion. And really, who but Joy, all those years ago, would agree to the unusual idea of creating an original musical to get married in? I think it’s key that we both had this litany we didn’t want in a wedding. The emphasis became: how best to entertain our guests? Many were traveling to New York, a place they rarely visited. Naturally, they associated it with The Theatre, and here we were, two theatre people, strutting our stuff.

The closest friends, and just about all the blood relatives, would perform my songs in the show. The parents flew in from Phoenix, Los Angeles, Bethlehem, and I honestly can’t remember where my mother-in-law was living at the time, maybe Kansas. The friends from Hartford, Washington, D.C., Oakland, Baltimore and another place I’m not remembering. (What’s happening to my mind?) Each had musical comedy material specifically tailored to their talents. My niece, the flower girl, was four years old. So her solo didn’t last all that long, nor did it have great range. It had wordplay, but it’s not clear she understood it.

Our Wedding, as a piece of writing, had a tremendous head start. Most musicals get performed for strangers. We’d put together a guest list. Which means that everybody in the audience knew us really well. But now I’m remembering that some of the most enthusiastic compliments came from professionals who didn’t. James Barron, reporter for The New York Times hadn’t previously met me, and I barely knew the recording engineer for the original cast CD. Both bubbled over with elation at what they’d seen. And the CD – still available for $20, free shipping – is treasured by so many total strangers. Buy it, now, before you trash your old CD player! The First DanceBut back to the challenge of creating it. There was no need to build up sympathy for the characters: I could rely upon a certain amount of good feelings coming across the footlights. Friends and family love you. And they’re going to be fascinated to meet your parents, and greet them with open arms, ready to applaud.

Also, we’ve all been to weddings, and know something of what goes on in them. I knew that those in attendance would have certain expectations, and reveled in the opportunity to play with those expectations. So, the four bridesmaids began a canon of traditional advice. Before the audience could settle in, thinking they’d heard this sort of thing before, and tune us out, the vaguely classical music breaks off into sixties rock and the quartet got down and dirty. What do I mean by that? Well, I’m not going to spill the beans here. Buy the CD!

But I’ll share some of the solo I wrote for myself since it deals with that list of expected nuptial traditions:

Rice and shoes and borrowed blues – what do they say?
You’re too wonderful for empty cliché
No “Here Comes the Bride” on wedding band…
We’re not going to start with a hollow token
“Till death do us part” need not be spoken
If a wedding must entail
The breaking of a glass, the lifting of a veil
Then I can’t marry you
So toss ‘em out – The crinoline and crepe
Contracts, pre-nuptials – all that red tape
Don’t toss a bouquet, it leads to spats.
And, for heaven’s sake, don’t take the name, Joy Katz…
I won’t marry you in the tired, traditional way
Who could ask you to honor me?
And you sure as hell won’t obey.

So, the song came true. I’ve spent a dozen years not honored and not obeyed. Nevertheless, I confess: I love my wife.