Song of the rebels

May 16, 2019

It’s high time I tell you a few things about my new musical, Identity, which plays next week at the Wallis-Annenberg Performing Arts Center in Beverly Hills.

There’s an ambition I frequently express, that every new show I write be as different as possible from all my previous shows. And there’s that expression, Be careful what you wish for. Identity, in this sense, is already a success, completely alien to all my experience.

This has much to do with the people involved, and what we’re all trying to do. Usually, I focus on the audience: making sure they have a good time following a tuneful story with characters they emotionally invest in. I’m not saying I haven’t done that, but this time there are countless other goals.

There’s a company called The Miracle Project, serving the autistic community in a variety of ways, including performing arts. For many years now, they’ve assembled a group of singing actors and developed original musicals that they then rehearse and perform. Since I had never worked with people of different abilities, we seemed an unlikely match. The spectrum kids (I can never figure out what to call them, so, for this article, let’s use “kids.”) range in age from 13 to 30; there are 13 in the show. And their abilities and talents run the gamut. Some are fabulously proficient. Others need a little help to guide them around the stage, or to give them a subtle nudge when it’s time to deliver a line. These helpers are also performers, and also have roles in the show. The audience will be unable to tell which is which.

I was instructed to treat everybody exactly the same, and, for many weeks, I had no idea who was autistic. Sometimes, it’s obvious; sometimes, it isn’t. And there’s a lesson there: disabilities are often hidden. When someone takes on a character, singing, dancing and acting, it’s said they become a different person. At this point, I’m used to everybody fleshing out their roles; talking to the off-stage “real” people is something of a surprise.

Starting in autumn, we met once a week for 75 minutes. Ideas about what could be in our musical, Identity, flew back and forth. Tangential discussions about things that happened in people’s lives were ubiquitous. Honestly, I had serious doubts this process could ever lead to the creation of a musical. But I never abandon a writing challenge, and was curious to see how this would play out.

Eventually, the kids and the helpers brainstormed about a future dystopia. Now, if you know my taste, you might be aware that I loathe future dystopias with a passion. If that’s what this show was going to be about, well, it’s certainly unlike all my other musicals.

And there was something I appreciated about the idea. Identity is not about autism. The word’s not in the script, nor is the concept. I guess I came to this with an assumption that a roomful of people dealing with the wide-spread affliction would come up with a show about it. Identity is a lot closer to the classic Young Adult novel, The Giver. Now, it happens that a good friend of mind wrote the screenplay to the movie version, with Meryl Streep. My friend’s very funny, but that film contains not a single joke. Identity distinguishes itself by being rather humorous.

After Thanksgiving, my partners-in-crime solidified a set of ideas that sort of resembled a story. The existence of this – really a massive list written on oversized post-it notes – totally turned my head around. I now could see a workable plot emerging from this extraordinary process. Over the next six weeks, I wrote a dozen songs.

What I really wanted to talk about is the way all sorts of writing choices are the result of examining the dramatic implications of various events in a plot. When the kids came up ideas (I’ll put these in green), they led to many an if/then conclusion. One day in a young adult’s life, a profession and spouse is assigned by the government. If this is a coming-of-age ritual, then there should be a number celebrating becoming a grown-up. (Premises of my songs in purple.) If bureaucracy chooses whom you’ll marry, there could be many an awkward wedding night. And it would be tragic and emotional if a teenage romantic couple got broken up. Job assignments might not match individuals’ true desires, so we could have fun with the discomfort of new workers feeling like square pegs in round holes. One young fellow expressed a desire to play a government apparatchik who then rebels, becoming a good guy. This made me think of the positive energy of the Revolting Children song in Matilda, and that spirit imbues much of the script.

The libretto is a collaboration with the director, who often comes up with new lines as scenes are being staged, and her assistant, who sweats the details admirably and helpfully. Getting so many different performers to remember staging, lines, music and dance is a tremendous undertaking, sometimes requiring simplification. At moments, I feel like I’ve written something far too complicated. But then I see that the team has taken a two-minute rock quartet and expanded it to twelve players divided into three parts of the stage. The complexity of that one isn’t my fault!

The kids and their teenage helpers contributed several songs and so this is not a score that speaks with one voice. There’s some r & b with guitar accompaniment, a pretty up-tempo folk song, an opera aria that transforms into minor-key jazz with scatting, and rap. Their numbers are like an extraordinary set of special flavors that co-exist with my meat-and-potatoes show tunes. It’s pretty wild.

I’m in the band – in every sense of the word, in the background. You can buy a seat for Identity May 23 to May 26 and be dazzled by the talent of an extraordinary cast of many abilities. They’re in the foreground, as they should be.

Thursday, May 23 – Gala Benefit World Premiere at the Evening of Miracles – 6:30pm

Friday, May 24 – 7:00pm

Saturday, May 25 – 7:00pm

Sunday, May 26 – 1:00pm (Sensory-Friendly)

Sunday, May 26 – 6:00pm 

tix

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Love is stronger than bureaucracy

February 14, 2019

Thought I’d seize the day to describe my process in writing my latest love song, in as much detail as I can remember. I hope you find it valuable, and not too annoying that I don’t, at this point, have a recording I can share.

Identity, a new musical that will open in May, has a plot point that cried out for a tragic romantic duet. In the show, set in a future dystopia, when youths come of age, they are assigned spouses and professions. One job is at the top of a hierarchy, but the downside is you’re not allowed to mate.

“Pregnant”

It occurred to me that a certain number of people marry their high school sweethearts. What if high school sweethearts are broken up by the System? What if one half of a couple is assigned a different person to marry, and the other can’t, by law? Would they continue their romance in secret? Or would they be duty-bound to accept that they can no longer be together?

Pretty dramatic stuff, right? Do you hear a song cue? It struck me that the question the young lovers must address is whether their love is more important than the bureaucracy that imposes a different mate on one and no mate on the other. So, before I knew what the characters would decide to do, I had a title, Love Is Stronger Than Bureaucracy.

There’s something faintly ridiculous about that title. “Bureaucracy” is not a term you’d expect to hear in the title of a love song. Nor are its rhymes likely to be found in any sweet sonnet: hypocrisy and autocracy. At first blush, these words seem alarmingly prosaic. Had I gotten off on the wrong tack?

For much of the score to Identity, there’s a question of tone. I think the moment the piece becomes too earnest, we risk tripping over clichés, alienating the audience. In context, I hope, that faint ridiculousness is going to work in our favor. People who see it should buy into the situation, and realize that ardor expressed in an unromantic society can use less flowery language; it’s fun rather than sweet. But the situation the couple is in requires a certain amount of passion. When I think of love duets that didn’t quite land because of excessive seriousness, I’m reminded of some of the Eurotrash musicals. Hold that thought.

“Love is stronger than bureaucracy” – I stared at these words, investigating where the stresses fall, and what syllables might sound best on sustained notes. This might be stating the obvious, but “love” is a word we’re used to taking up a lot of beats. Love, ageless and evergreen. Love is but a moment’s madness. Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. The rest of my unwieldy title seemed to necessitate short notes. And that’s how I gravitated towards 6/8. “Love” could take up nearly two measures, to be followed by quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth and then three eighth notes for the rhyming syllables. The moment I came up with this rhythm I knew that the song might seem oddly uncontemporary if I rhymed the title. That’s something Gilbert and Sullivan do, and this thing is set in a future century, not their Nineteenth. I wanted to retain, though, the sense of structure, of predictability, that rhymes provide. This led me to repeat the line:

Love is stronger than bureaucracy
Our love is stronger than bureaucracy

Don’t know if you’ve been keeping track. But that’s eight bars right there. A chunk to build on.

If my character – marked as “She” in my notebook – maintains that love is stronger than bureaucracy, then she must be up against someone who maintains the opposite (marked as “He” in my notebook, although genders kept changing and they weren’t always a heterosexual pair). So, now I had a notion about structure. She wants to continue seeing each other. He is a slave of duty (Uh oh, Gilbert and Sullivan rear their ugly heads again!). So, like a formal debate, we have a proposition stated, and then there’s a second section in which the opposite is stated.

Our love can’t justify hypocrisy
Although you well may be the perfect mate
I’m sworn to uphold the state

Musically, I knew I needed something pretty, but off-kilter, to take in the strangeness of a future dystopia. As stated above, the length of notes was dictated by the lyric.

The weird bit I inserted into the chord progression was  “the seventh of the Seventh” every fourth bar. I know that sounds confusing, so I’ll restate this simply. There is an incredibly common pattern of chords we’ve all heard in countless tunes: I, VI minor, II minor, V7. Nothing futuristic about that; you could hear it in Heart and Soul in the 1930s. I used the first three chords, leading the listener to expect the V7 and then – surprise – comes the VII7, which has two notes in common with the obvious one.

Maury Yeston, Pat Cook, Alan Menken

The contours of the melody lead to something of a climax on the tenth bar, of “mate” in the “He” lyric I just quoted. For this I needed something soaring, and fairly big. I thought this was a good time to have the singer open up on a high note – the sixth in the scale – over one of my favorite chords, which I guess might be known as the ninth of the Second. I like to invert this so that the bottom note is a tritone away from the tonic, harmonically, as far as you can travel.The two songwriting heroes of mine from my days in the BMI workshop, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken both used it to good effect in songs mentioning religion. Yeston’s glorious Bells of St. Sebastian puts it at the end of “In tones well-rounded they sounded down the nave” while Menken’s A Little Dental Music humorously underscores “Hark, the Mormon Tabernacle sings!” with it.

To contrast with the choruses, the verses have the free-flowing motion of real dialogue, but the triplets remain. So, who here held that thought about Eurotrash duets? You and I? Yes, it’s a little bit like You and I from Chess, but without the excessive seriousness. Your move! Opening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 23rd in Beverly Hills.


Growing younger

January 17, 2018

All I really wanted for my birthday was a website. In lieu of that, I’ll do the annual indulgent thing of talking about my musicals. There are so many, and so few of you have seen them. And – I don’t know this for sure – but I expect the word I use most on this here blog is “craft.” And that, like so much these days, leads me to thoughts of craft beer. It’s made in small batches by individual brewmasters and gets shared with select group of aficionados. I put a lot of care, time and love into my bubbly creations, and share them with a small but lucky few. O.K. Enough torturing the analogy. On to the shows.

At 14 I wrote a rather short two-act musical called How To Be Happy, about a kid who writes (alone) and stars in a Broadway show. That could never happen! (Right, Lin-Manuel?) Like a lot of things one does in adolescence, it’s pretty embarrassing now.

At 15 I adapted a play called Broadway into a musical called The Great White Way. I can still recall my composition teacher’s suggestion about a song called One of These Mornings. I’d set the title on quick notes, very much like St. Louis Woman. He got me to slow down, suggesting melissmas could extend the line. To this day I obsess a lot over the quickness with which new words hit the ear.

My first produced musical, Through the Wardrobe, contained the word “exultation.” Who talks like that? A teen with a thesaurus, I guess.

The first work of mine I saw produced, Pulley of the Yard, offered a justification for profuse rhyming and odd vocabulary, since it was a whodunit set backstage at a Gilbert & Sullivan troupe. I mimicked their style, which led to self-consciously clever bits like

The audience must be treated well
Don’t take secret glee in
The fact they’re plebian
Or act like Marie Antoinette

The show I created at 21 has seen more different productions than any other of mine, but with a different title, Murder at the Savoy.

The less said about A Diary, the better. But here’s what Lehman Engel said about the line that ended the title song, “Thirteen is a very good age to start to use a diary.” “I thought she was going to say ‘diaphragm.’”

The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns for Martyred Actors was such a difficult collaboration, I was barred from attending rehearsals. If this ever happens to you, take comfort in the fact that Bob Fosse forbade Stephen Schwartz from attending rehearsals of Pippin.

The New U. successfully skated a fine comic line in a way that’s hard to imagine today. The administration of an all-male college oversold the notion that going co-ed would bring about massive improvements. An excited chorus sings:

They’re rosy; they’re peachy
They understand Nietzsche
Those beautiful brainy girls

They write well; they work hard
They talk about Kierk’gaard
Those beautiful brainy girls

Each one is undeniably intellectual
And, thank God, they’re certifiably heterosexual

They know their Cervantes
Although they wear panties
Those beautiful brainy girls.

It’s supposed to be offensive, as the object of our satire was patently sexist promotion of coeducation as a panacea. And what better measure of success than a well-off person in the audience saying “I want to produce the next thing these writers write.”

This was On the Brink, the legendary revue I co-created when I was 25 and the oldest member of the writing team. I found room for feminist messages and a couple of songs that were poignant rather than funny. We turned a profit, which shouldn’t be one’s measure of success; but certainly a nice way to start my professional career.

When a well-established California theatre wanted to do Through the Wardrobe, a rights problem necessitated a massive overhaul, and what ran three or four months as Popsicle Palace then had to be retitled Not a Lion. A lot of musical writers tell very sad tales about rights problems. Beware!

So my next musical was based on a public domain story by Charles Dickens. We called it The Christmas Bride, and it’s a melodrama packed with plot turns, so I had to write passionate romantic music that wouldn’t derail the story train.

Stephen Sondheim attended and, without being asked, sent the producing organization a nice check; with being asked, he sent me a helpful and encouraging letter.

This inspired us to try something new and innovative, an overtly feminist musical developed through rap sessions, a la A Chorus Line, and also improvisations. I learned a lot, but, after many attempts and two utterly different librettists, could never get The Company of Women to a producer willing to put a celebration of female friendships on stage.

Many songs from that score found their way into subsequent trunk song revues: Spilt Milk, Lunatics & Lovers, and Things We Do For Love. An opera-for-kids entrepreneur saw the first of these and commissioned The Pirate Captains, inspired by actual female pirates, and it played for years.

My next two shows were also work-for-hire. Industrials are intended to be seen by specific folks in a business context – people who’ll get the jokes. For years, this was how Jason Robert Brown earned most of his income. But you haven’t heard those songs, or mine, because the material is owned by the clients.

An exceptionally funny fellow, the same age as me, proposed we write a musical because we were both turning 40. Now, by this point, I’d written a number of shows, but never a purely humorous book musical in the tradition of my favorite, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Area 51 was my opportunity to write the sort of big production numbers and hysterical comedy songs that hadn’t been seen in many an overly serious season. We knew a lot of clowns from New York’s improv community, and festooned many of the roles with things we knew they’d do well. In that sense, Area 51 revived the tradition of 1960s star vehicles (like Once Upon a Mattress and Little Me) where creators came up with wacky stuff with an awareness of the zaniness of well-loved wags. As I fashioned 18 varied and guffaw-producing numbers, I was collaborating with crazy quipsters I knew and loved. So turning 40 was the epitome of fun.

The people up on stage with me feel like a friendly family,” I once wrote.

But what if everybody involved in your musical was literally friends and family, including the audience? Seems like the wildest of fantasies, but – you could read about it in the Times – fantasies come true. Our Wedding – The Musical! involved writing for specific people again, but this time it was my mother, my mother-in-law, my father, my father-in-law, my sister, my 4-year-old niece and a bunch of our talented professional performing friends, one of whom has the credentials to matrimonify. (Sorry, another word from Gilbert & Sullivan snuck in there.)

Many years ago, some musical theatre experts used an intriguing phrase, “serious musical comedy” to describe basically tragic stories leavened with a whole heap of humor, such as Cabaret, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof. Creating one seemed a worthy challenge, unlike anything I’d done before, and I had a subject in mind. The McCarthy-era blacklisting affected the lives of many truly entertaining people, and there’d never been a musical about it. Since television was a brand-new technology, there’d be much mirth in the pressures to put on a live variety show, as well as in the on-air songs and sketches. Such Good Friends, which racked up a number of awards and raves at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, was the culmination of years of research, rewrites, and punch-ups. I got my audience to laugh and cry, tap their toes, and get truly invested in What Will Happen Next.

Thanks for reading this far. I consider it a birthday gift. Discussing eighteen musicals ain’t nothing like being there, in the audience, taking them in as they were meant to be taken in. Let’s hope What Will Happen Next is a production you can catch, somewhere near you.


Someone who’s warm

January 1, 2018

This is my 400th post and it certainly feels like I’m winding down. Your faithful reporter on the world of musicals may be running out of gas, and this is related to lack of stimuli. Did I even see any new musicals in 2017? Off hand, I can’t remember. I continue to write musicals, and can talk about my writing, present and past, but I’m running out of new stuff to say. I’m a broken old jalopy and the gas gauge is nearing E. Don’t know exactly when I’ll leave this thing on the side of the road – you never know with gas – but the day is coming.

One sign that I’m in the throes of an existential crisis is that I’ve been in a couple of situations in which I’ve had to introduce myself, and I got a little tongue-tied. I am always – always – nervous about coming off as conceited. I want to be honest, but if I say I’ve had 17 musicals produced, I worry that this sounds more impressive than it is. They played in tiny New York theatres – obscure ones. And nobody’s heard of them. Sometimes, people think they’ve heard of On the Brink, but it turns out they’re thinking of a play called On the Verge.

I’ve a faint memory that once I had a webpage in which I described myself as “Just Another Guy Who Writes Musicals.” Recently, someone tried to convince me I’m unique, somehow. But in New York, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a musical theatre writer, and believe me, I’ve tried: There’s unhappy meowing followed by “Hey! Why’d you hit me with that cat?”

It’s possible that my musicals are different from other people’s musicals – and I always try to make them as different from each other as possible – but I think I’ll leave an exploration of that question for my birthday, January 17.

Wipe. “Wipe” is a term long-form improvisers stole from the motion picture world, in which we move from one scene to another by miming drawing a curtain across a stage. And I didn’t have a natural segue to start talking about my parallel career in improv. When I was a lad of 16, a troupe started paying me to accompany them, and one of the performers was the then-unknown Robin Williams. When I left for college (Columbia), I thought I’d left that world behind me. But a couple decades later I was talked into exploring newly-wrought improv forms. This meant studying with UCB prior to their move to New York. Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts taught me and eventually, I taught a huge number of people at Second City and the Artistic New Directions retreats. I feel like I was on the cutting age of the New York improv revolution, and was instrumental (pun intended) in evolving forms with The Chainsaw Boys and Centralia.

Teaching, in one form or another, became the day job, the thing I did for money. Sometimes, I was “merely” accompanying classes, and here I can drop the names of Broadway vets Helen Gallagher, Virginia Gibson and Joanna Gleason. At the other end of the spectrum, I got to teach a college course, for 13 years, at Fairleigh-Dickinson in Madison, New Jersey. There, they called me professor and gave me considerable freedom as to what I taught.

Somewhere in the middle is where the heart is: At The Circle in the Square Theatre School, right under Broadway, wise and beloved teachers Sara Louise Lazarus and Alan Langdon allowed me to be me. They’re due a lot of credit, not just for what they teach, but for having the faith that allowing my craziness into the classroom would contribute to the education of young adult performers. Viewed through a certain lens, my presence behind the piano was a sort of long-form improvisation. I’d joke, I’d comment, I’d roll my eyes, I’d grimace. Sometimes, I’d hug. The nurturing and preparation of entertainers is an incredibly emotional process. Sometimes students get upset by things they don’t wish to hear. But there’s a steam valve, of sorts, a guy sitting in the corner who might (or might not) disagree with that message, or who can restate it with a much-needed spoonful of sugar.

Naturally, this all led to a strong connection with students, some of whom continued to call upon me for individual coaching and audition help after graduation. The running theme here – through F.D.U., Circle and my one-on-one work, is that everything that’s sung must be accompanied by thought. We don’t turn our minds off when we express our hearts. Sadly, a lot of singers seem to do just that: they think it’s all about the sound, close their eyes, stand like statues, no feeling registering upon their faces. I’ve always believed that the reason I care so much about how musical theatre material is performed is because I’ve lived through the struggle of creating musicals so many times. Something was said of Barbara Cook at a recent memorial for her, and it resounded strongly with me:

singing is not about voice, “it was about finding the impetus for why the song was written, exploring what the composer and lyricist were thinking when they wrote it.”

This composer and lyricist, over these 400 posts, has been sharing with you all a little of what I’ve been thinking. I’m grateful that this blog gets visitors from all over the world. If you’re interested in what goes into the making of a musical, you’ve clicked to the right place. I encourage you to explore the 400, leave a comment or two. And then go and write a musical. The more of us out there, creating, the better. Swing away! I promise not to be upset when you hit me with a cat.


Timid samba

December 21, 2017

I’ve a friend with a good idea for a musical. But she keeps putting off writing it. And I think it’s because she’s worried it won’t be good.

Sound familiar? As I was contemplating what to write next, the wonderful pop song Try Everything came on. Seems like a magic message, with its acknowledgement that one might fail. But failure is only certainty if you don’t try. Nothing ventured, nothing win, as the Iolanthe trio trills.

Those writing prizes I apply for every year: The only certainty about them is if I don’t apply, I won’t win. Occasionally, a friend wins, giving me the mild frisson of thinking I’m sorta on the right track. But the friend mentioned above ain’t winning anything, since her idea sits there, unwritten.

Yet, writing a musical is a long-term extension of time and effort. I’ve certainly had ideas I didn’t bring to fruition. About 25 years ago, I thought the Anita Hill experience with Clarence Thomas might make a good opera. I threw that one out expecting my dramatization would have trouble finding acceptance since I’m neither black nor a woman. But if a female composer of color had illuminated the subject, audiences today might be particularly interested.

Similarly, I spent many years refining my musical comedy about female friendships, The Company of Women. Eventually, I concluded the world didn’t want to see such a show, and my time would be better spent working on something else. More recently, I toiled on something about a religious retreat until I decided the subject and milieu didn’t interest me enough to continue. So, those were my musicals that wouldn’t see productions.

Having the sinking feeling that what you’re writing isn’t going to be good: I’ve been there a lot. But when I’ve made the effort to see things through, the effort has been rewarded. The season being what it is, the example that comes to mind is A British Christmas. I needed to write a carol that might be sung at a holiday gathering in Victorian England. Research was done into what might happen at such a fête and we settled on the idea that a flaming plum pudding would come out of the kitchen, to oohs and aahs. In some sort of goofy mood, I wrote a verse about how this is the best part of a Yule party. (As opposed to the best part of a Yul party, which is dancing the polka with Yul.) The veil of silliness continued to hang over me as I wrote a bridge about how plum pudding was better than other puddings, such as rice and bread. Not really the sort of thing any actual Englishman would be likely to say, but at least I was making progress on the song. Once I had the form set for my A section and release, I came up with further stanzas. Now I had too much, to a rather dull tune. But when I played it for my collaborator MK Wolfe, she deemed it just what she needed to construct a wonderfully dramatic musical scene.

The plot is so fraught, the tension so heightened, it didn’t much matter how inert my carol was. Four A sections and one bridge is a bad balance. And I was called upon to add incidental underscoring and dance accompaniment that dressed the simplistic melody in various tempos and feels. I get tired of hearing it, but the crux here is that the audience was so fascinated by the libretto’s histrionics, nobody noticed my song’s insufficiencies.

When performed out of context, though, it lays there. When asked to name my least favorite Christmas song, A British Christmas is the first thing I thought of. I’m embarrassed by it. But I sure didn’t mind it in the middle of the Connecticut presentation of The Christmas Bride six months ago. Played like gangbusters – in context.

“Are you embarrassed easily?” asked a comedy album I heard as a kid. This business of making musicals might not be for you if you are. Which reminds me of the only sincere moment in Area 51. In creating a musical in which each scene and song is funny, I noticed, at one point, that the show was a little low on emotion. Librettist Tom Carrozza knew we’d want a triple wedding at the end, and of course this meant that the leads would need to decide to get married. Trouble is, Tom was playing the lead, and wasn’t confident that he could pull off a love song. So, he tried to arrange it so the leading lady would sing to him. The draft of the scene suddenly seemed convoluted, emotionally strange. I wrote a gentle, twinkly ballad, sort of a cross between Of Thee I Sing and Twilight Time.

Come with me to Dreamland
Dance the night away
All is quiet; all is cool
Tomorrow morning, there’s no school…

The earnestness of the moment gets quickly deflated when the character admits he’s talking about an Air Force base on a dry lake named Dreamland. He goes into such detail as to what goes on there, the audience believes it’s unromantic, despite what the music tells them. (Did I mention that aliens from outer space are repeating the tune in their other-worldly voices?) And the lady listening is so goofy, she responds “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you.”

The audience giggled throughout, partly because their expectations had been so thoroughly thrown. And Tom’s character, to his way of thinking, wasn’t being romantic, therefore the actor was comfortable with delivering this bit of lunacy. After all, he hadn’t intended to propose marriage; her acceptance of his unmade proposal led us to our ending.

So I guess that’s my suggestion for the New Year: Don’t let embarrassment stop you from creating, and you’ll come up with delightfully off-center funny business. Or, at the very least, a paean to plum pudding that only works with the rest of the show around it.


Roy Moore

December 6, 2017

Bows

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.