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.

Advertisements

Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.

 


I’ve got my suspicions

January 17, 2017

Oh, boy! My birthday is here, and here’s my chance to say a few nice things about my shows. Because who’s going to stop me? (Actually, there’s self-restraint: I try to avoid bragging the other 364 days of the year.)

You meet new people, they wonder what you do, and, in my case, I often feel there’s no good way of explaining. I write musicals. If there isn’t one playing, then there really isn’t a good way of getting an inkling of what they’re like. (Plus, I see to it that no two of my shows resemble each other.) Sure, one could whip out an audio or video excerpt, but consider: All these songs were written in service of a story. If you’re just looking at one song, you’ve no idea how it propels the tale it’s attached to. I suppose I could set it up, laying out where we are in the story, but that’s me talking, not the show’s characters interacting, evolving.

Certainly, there are times in which you can take a single tile out of a great big mosaic, and folks can appreciate that single tile for what it is. I think audiences appreciate my duet involving singers singing about how their vocal ranges make beautiful music together without knowing that they’re suspects in a backstage mystery, Murder at the Savoy. Yet there’s a bit of theatrical tension in the bridge that gets lost –

When their voices harmonize
Or sing in counterpoint
The listeners respond with sighs
And tremble in each joint

In the show, the audience sees that they’re being eavesdropped on. The over-hearers indeed sigh, and there’s a question of whether they’ll be discovered in their hiding place. Without that staging, the lyric’s not nearly as interesting.

The book to Murder at the Savoy is not very complicated – I can say that since I wrote it. The book to The Christmas Bride is MK Wolfe’s creation, and it’s filled with those twists and turns found in melodramas and old novels. Our source material, ironically, was an old Charles Dickens novella notably free of twists and turns. So, I greatly appreciated having all sorts of dramatic balls in the air when I wrote large musical scenes. Good Advice is a massive quodlibet with four or five different parts. (I truly can’t recall the number, because it was rewritten so many times, I’m not sure how many we ended up with.) There are twelve parts to Alone In the Night, the first act finale, and nearly as many pages in the act two opener. I swear, I don’t generally write long songs, but you’ll think me very verbose if I try to set up all the story you need to know to comprehend the tension inherent in The French Wheel. So I won’t.

Maybe I go overboard with my suspicion that “you had to be there” applies so often. But when I fondly remember how the audience at Area 51 howled with laughter at a tough-as-nails army general’s rather crass how-to-be-sexy lesson, Work Your Wiles, I tend to think only Gail Dennison and Mary Denmead could possibly make it so hysterical. Tom Carrozza and I had these two in mind when we wrote the show, and Tom created characters that played to their idiosyncratic strengths. We’d all been part of New York’s comedy scene in the 1990s, and I’d witnessed, more than once, Gail’s fulminating power and Mary’s wacky Ethel Merman impression. Somehow, I managed to utilize both in their duet, and the cascades of cackles throughout the Sanford Meisner Theatre were ignited, in part, by the joy inherent of two old friends performing together.

Over the holidays – and shouldn’t I consider my birthday one? – I’ve been cleaning out some old boxes and came across a treasure trove of DVDs I’d long thought lost. It was quite a treat to see Vanessa Dunleavy’s rendition of Inside of Me from Area 51 performed at the old Donnell Library. For that concert, knowing that I wouldn’t have the lunacy of Carrozza’s sci-fi spoof to set it up, I wrote her a monologue to speak over what I’d originally written as a dance break. The audience believed they were seeing a young lady who is rather turned on by meeting a molecular biologist, thus justifying the lyric, which is chock full of double entendres. In the actual musical, the character’s seduction is part of an evil Vegas-esque floor show: the character doesn’t really find the scientist attractive at all. Vanessa’s take, which she reprised in the 2011 cabaret retrospective, Things We Do For Love, is seriously sexy and wildly risible. At present, I don’t have the hardware to upload that video, so, instead, here’s something else I wrote in which a woman’s hot and bothered over someone in a different profession.

So, is this mining silliness out of lust something of a theme with me? Well, I can see how it looks that way. But there’s something else. When I started out writing this little piece of self-praise I didn’t intend to find a theme in what I’ve been writing all these years. But the common bond I now see is dramatic tension. Libido’s a kind of tension. So is the fellow who can’t resist the roulette wheel when we know the malevolent policeman is trying to ensnare him. Or that couple listening to the canoodling of a tenor and a soprano.

Everybody’s favorite writer on the subject of musical theatre, Peter Filichia, once praised my building up tension in Such Good Friends, for which I wrote book, music and lyrics. Now, I know how icky it is to go about quoting your own rave reviews, but, since that’s the sort of indulgence one is only allowed on one’s birthday, I’m going to give him the last word:

For a show that started out like a lark and lulled the audience into thinking this would be one long nostalgia trip, Such Good Friends offered astonishing tension in the second act, where Katz perfectly came to grips with his material, often in unexpected ways, and occasionally having its characters surprise and/or disappoint us. It’s one thing to write an apt, craft-filled, melodious score, which Katz did, but we all know the book is the hardest part, and his work there was just as accomplished. Never in the entire festival did I feel an audience so rapt with attention. Afterwards, someone said, “It’s not that you could hear a pin drop; you could hear a tear drop.” That person must have heard mine, for I wept – partly at the plight of the characters, but partly because I’m so moved when I encounter an all-too-rare work of quality. Thanks, Noel, and everyone else with Such Good Friends.


I’m always smiling

June 14, 2016

Those adoring and enchanted audiences at The Things We Do For Love in New York and Los Angeles were interested in knowing a little more. Were these songs written specifically for this show? No, none of them were. So, what were they from?

Fugue for Cell Phones and Need Somebody were the opening numbers of  revues I did with Second City in the early 2000s. Some of the lyrics were devised out of improvisations. When cell phones were new, it seemed to me people used them, most often, to give their locations. Yes, those are actual Manhattan streets. Computer hook-ups were new when Need Somebody was first heard and the entire cast held keyboards made of styrofoam.

Thoughts In Transit is the oldest of the bunch, written for Fear of Scaffolding (where it was called Subtexts in the Stacks), and revised for On the Brink. I set completely new lyrics to an obscure Sondheim duet, Two Fairy Tales, because I liked the format: near-constant eighth notes divided between two singers.

A half dozen tunes were, at some point, in The Company of Women, my only show that never got produced: Mount Paradiso, They’re Good in the Winter, Working Out, Breaking the Rules, Stuff (intended for On the Brink), and Marry Me. Yes, there’s a small quote from Hamlisch & Kleban’s The Music and the Mirror at the end of the gym number. It’s the sort of pounding ostinato I, with my limited knowledge of gyms, assumed gets played there.

A Song In My Pants was written for Tom Carrozza, who wrote the book to Area 51, from where Inside Of Me comes. In context, Inside of Me is a Vegas lounge act intended to seduce a scientist, which is why the chaste part of the double entendre involves seeing into somebody through a microscope.

Years ago, I was hired to write an industrial. A company had written a musical using famous show tunes and then hatched a plan to distribute a video version. To do that, they needed songs that weren’t under copyright, so I was tasked with replacing some of the greatest show tunes ever written. The Mushy Stuff and Why Do I Do What I Do come from this unusual project. The latter replaced You’re Just In Love/I Hear Singing and I think it’s kind of neat to hit upon a title with so many words ending in open vowels. The audience doesn’t have to wait until the final consonant to comprehend and I could put syllables on longer notes.

The one number making its debut in The Things We Do For Love is I Wouldn’t Wish That on a Dog, written on spec for a project I didn’t ultimately get. I have to keep the name of the show a secret but I’ll tell you another: Part of the fun I had in writing a song endorsing the wearing of animal fur was remembering my grandfather, who worked in the fur biz long before anybody objected to it.

She Smelled Like Chocolate was inspired by real life. A friend of mine took off her coat and started sniffing herself, unable to figure out why she smelled like a Cadbury Egg. “There’s gotta be a song in that,” I thought. I cringe at my own false rhyme on the strongest punch line. Once, I asked Stephen Schwartz what to do about this, and he pointed out that when an audience is laughing really hard, they don’t notice “mistakes.”

She Smelled Like Chocolate is probably my most famous song, and, of my shows, the one I’m most often asked about is Our Wedding. The Things We Do For Love includes two from that, How Could They Have Missed? and This Man Loves Me. It’s really nice to hear the former without concentrating on how to sing it.

Finally, there’s the odd journey of the title song. In The Christmas Bride, we knew we’d have a scene in which the two rivals, searching for the Victorian lass who’s lost somewhere in London, meet each other and don’t know that they’re both looking for the same girl. In early drafts, we tried various ways to milk the comedy of this situation. One of the men was a bit of a dolt, and we thought there’d be some comic mileage in his lack of appreciation for romance. So, I wrote him a song filled with – I thought – the most old-fashioned clichés. This was quickly discarded when we hit upon a better idea. The men would give physical descriptions of the lady in question, and it would be funny that the two of them see her entirely differently. The earlier song would languish in my trunk for many years.

In putting together Spilt Milk, the first cabaret revue made up of my songs, the producer asked whether there was anything from The Christmas Bride that might work. At first, I answered no, because everything in the score is so firmly grounded in its time and place, none could possibly work in a contemporary cabaret setting. Except…just maybe…the one that never worked in the Victorian setting. A new arrangement for an oohing and ahhing quartet brought out the silliness one associates with 60s pop. It was as if the influence of Burt Bacharach on me was magically unearthed.

When Brady Miller sings The Things Wed Do For Love in The Things We Do For Love, it’s quite touching. After singing Marry Me, he’s comically beleaguered, and now what was once a list of clichés comes off as a heart-felt reflection back on all the madness in the previous seventeen songs. The new context renders my old song sincere and a bit moving. And nobody could be more surprised than I.

 


The roving rose

June 7, 2016

“You’ve just given me so much to think about!” declared an actor, with a mixture of surprise and appreciation. The gratitude was directed to director Justin Boccitto, and I, the creator of the song being rehearsed. Due to unusual scheduling demands when you’re working with a cast moving from city to city on a national tour, my show, The Things We Do For Love did the lion’s share of rehearsing before ever meeting with the director. Don’t blame Boccitto. He’s a New Yorker, tending to a number of projects in the theatre, film and dance world. The group of roving players are literally in a different city every week. In May they had enough time in New York to rehearse just eight hours with Justin and then do the show at The Duplex in Greenwich Village.

Those were golden hours: everything was changed, for the better. By now you may have heard that the full house at the Duplex laughed uproariously at every joke, applauded their hands off, had a rip-roaring good time with barely a second to breathe, like a good roller-coaster. At the risk of skirting self-indulgence, I’ll point out some of the hows and whys, and perhaps there will be something that applies to your work.

Prior to that fateful meeting with Justin, the cast had learned his choreography off a video of the 2011 production under the able guidance of Stephanie Brooks. They knew their moves. But there’s a wide gap between knowing what to do and understanding why you’re doing it. After Justin fixed some minor missteps, focus turned to motivations. It was then the real work began. Justin gently asked questions that led the performers to call up aspects of their own lives and memories that relate to moments in their songs. If nothing related, they were encouraged to use imagination. Each aspect of a lyric has to seem like it’s there for a reason.

If you recognize this, as a songwriter, you’re never going to make an arbitrary choice about what your song is saying. Characters think, and what they sing clues the audience in on their thought process. Delineate that well, and your actors have something to sink their teeth into. This is why I took a little pride in those words of thanks quoted at the start of this. Yes, Justin, directing my song, fed the singer’s mind. But there was plenty of motivation to be mined in my lyric and music, and I couldn’t help taking this as a compliment.

A week or so before this rehearsal, I’d run into Broadway performer Michael Wartella, who’d introduced the song in my 2005 revue, Lunatics and Lovers. There were all sorts of things he did differently. Some have to do with differing personas. Mike projects as a scrappy urban street kid. In Things We Do For Love, the actor is twice as old, and being a man-of-the-world comes into play. The date being sung about is part of a longer history of romantic encounters. That’s better for the song, and reminds me that there’s always more than one way to do a number. Each actor brings different qualities, and one of the hidden glories of musical theatre is how new interpretations reveal new facets.

Not so with the Eurotrash hits of the 1980s. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and directors like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner sought sameness, so that audiences around the world seeing Les Miserables or Miss Saigon were seeing essentially the same show. From my mother’s Playbill collection, I know that, at some point in the run of Wonderful Town, Carol Channing took over the part of Ruth from Rosalind Russell. Could two performers be more different? The mind reels.

In rehearsal for The Things We Do For Love, I was often surprised and delighted by creative new interpretive ideas that emerged with this cast. Five out of six of them I met for the first time on May 13! – and saw them on stage in 42nd Street later that same day. Now their unfamiliar (to me) energy, applied to my familiar (to me) tunes, yielded fun surprises. One of the sexy solos, which had previously been played for full naughtiness, has been redone with near-lunatic desperation. It’s wild and aggressive, in a very funny way.

Familiar to me, of course, doesn’t mean familiar to you. The songs chosen for The Things We Do For Love were written for various projects over many decades of my career. While I see something revelatory in fresh presentations of songs from my trunk, you’ll encounter them for the first time. You’re unlikely to say to yourself “That’s new!” like I do. But you’ll experience the pleasure of being thoroughly entertained by sextets, trios, duets and solos you’ve never heard before.

Next stop on the national tour of The Things We Do For Love is Los Angeles, with shows at 7 & 9 at The Gardenia Monday, June 13. (Reservations: 323 467-7444) and there’s a leap of faith involved here. I haven’t lived in L.A. for many, many years. In New York, my home town, I’m familiar with a cabaret scene in which fans of songwriting and song interpretation come to intimate spaces to focus in on the deliciousness of songwriting craft, piano and vocal. Do Angelinos do something similar? I’ll find out next week.


Back in the big time

May 16, 2016

This week, a respite from the intricate inspection of other people’s musicals, because I’ve one of my own coming up. The Things We Do For Love is a cabaret show of eighteen songs from my trunk, playing May 25 at The Duplex in New York and June 13 at The Gardenia in Los Angeles. The show sold out at The Duplex five years ago, and now five new performers join Steven Bidwell on the intimate stage, again directed by Justin Boccitto.

Here’s what’s highly unusual: the performers are all on tour with Forty-Second Street, traveling from city to city, across the country. Only when they’re near enough to me do I get to work with them. In a way, The Things We Do For Love is on a national tour, hitching a ride on a show five times its size, directed by its librettist Mark Bramble and choreographed by current Tony-nominee Randy Skinner. A few nights ago, I saw their show and it’s pretty fantastic. The leading lady, Kaitlin Lawrence, is funny and delicious and already I feel blessed to have her talents turned to my numbers. Wacky as hell in the roles based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green are Britte Steele and Steven Bidwell, and I’m very excited to see their comic chops on my joke-filled ditties. Britte gets to premiere I Wouldn’t Wish That On a Dog – the one change from the 2011 incarnation – and it’ll be fun to see how its first-ever audience receives it.

The other seventeen songs are proven applause-getters. The proof’s in the reception our Duplex shows got five years ago, and also all but a few of the numbers were heard in other musicals and revues of mine. So, when I tell you, confidently, that audiences love them, that isn’t a boast or brag. Just the facts, ma’am.

My last few posts here have ended with a tiny plug. It hardly seems out of line to promote one’s own shows on one’s own blog. But, last week, some Sondheim-firsters cried foul, as some Steve-Adores tend to do. I’d seen a bunch of comedy songs play in a 2,750 seat house and receive barely a chuckle. Using an asterisk, which used to be universally accepted as indicative of humor, I linked my weekly “humble” plug with my report on how such beloved (?) comic show tunes as This Week Americans and What Do We Do We Fly had fizzled. That got a blogger to carp that my 1100-word piece on Do I Hear a Waltz was all an excuse to promote The Things We Do For Love. So, let’s uncouple two concepts: Do I Hear a Waltz, lyrics by Sondheim, music by Richard Rodgers, book by Arthur Laurents, is a rarely-performed chamber musical with a lot of comedy songs that – last week, at least – didn’t quite land. Totally unrelated to that, you can hear more than a dozen comedy songs that people have laughed hysterically at this month and next at my cabaret show, The Things We Do For Love. There you go: Just the facts.

Of course, some of my songs have have longer histories than others. Brady Miller may (or may not) propose to Britte Steele in a duet that wowed in one of those Bound For Broadway concerts, the Noel Katz night at the Donnell Library, Musical Writers Playground’s half-hour presentation of The Company of Women, and countless cabarets in London by A Stage Kindly.

But when Stephanie Brooks regales us about the true purpose of a ski trip, that’s a song that’s only been heard in The Things We Do For Love. It was written for an early draft of The Company of Women, but we found that the character singing it wasn’t necessary to the plot, so her and her song were cut. So, it’s particularly pleasurable to me to see the tune find a home after all these years.

And if I get nostalgic watching Steven Bidwell and Tommy Joscelyn doing Why Do I Do What I Do, it’s because this particular number sparked the whole idea for the show. Some years ago, I was asked to put up a song of mine at a benefit. I can’t recall why I thought of this two-man quodlibet from The Love Contract, but thought of Steven, I think, because of his resemblance to the original performer. Steven and Jayson Kerr knocked ‘em dead at the benefit, and, soon after that Steven found himself running a monthly concert series at a theatre district bar. He’d feature a different songwriter or theme each time, and singing my duet gave him the idea to devote a night to Noel Katz material.

And you know what I said? No. Don’t do it.

This was a boisterous and noisy bar, and, for many patrons, the live singing was just background music. I knew, from my experiences playing in bars, and the successes of Spilt Milk and Lunatics & Lovers, that my songs go over best in venues where listeners can concentrate on the lyrics. Steven’s bar wasn’t such a conducive environment and I told him so.

This demurral gave him an idea: What if he produced a show of my songs in a cabaret in Greenwich Village, the type of place where ears are fully open? Well, that’s what he did and that’s what he’s doing again. It’s very gratifying to get my work in front of new ears, acted by new singers. One of the 2011 players, Stephen Mitchell Brown, went on to appear on Broadway so if you catch the current cast perhaps you can say you saw them before their Broadway debut. Also, catch them in Forty-Second Street: They’re really good in that, too.

 


She took away birthdays

January 17, 2016

It’s my birthday. An opportunity for self-indulgence that might be excused. Because it’s my birthday. Usually I tread with an eye towards modestly but maybe today – just today – I can go egotistical on you all.100-0063EA22

When I was a teenager, it was my habit – nay, my addiction – to check out scores to musicals from the library and play every note. You can learn a lot: I may not have a degree in music, but know much of what I know though that kind of self-teaching. I was playing the overture to Threepenny Opera, a march in waltz time(!), when my father came home with a friend. The friend uttered something appreciative and I said that this particular piece was a big influence on my writing. Then my father said something about my ego. And that’s kind of puzzling: Is being influenced by this obscure Weill piece tantamount to claiming you’re great?

Things you’re told in adolescence can have an effect on you far greater than at other times of life. This off-hand and mildly stated accusation that I was full of myself haunted me for years and years. I’ve been so worried about coming off as conceited, I have a tendency to hide my light under a bushel. So, let’s not do that today.

Another major auto-didactic thing I did in my teens was following Oscar Hammerstein’s assignment for the young Stephen Sondheim. The Master told his apprentice to write four musicals with the idea that you learn a lot about writing musicals just by doing it. The four were to be

A totally original work, like my first effort, How To Be Happy

A show based on a play you admire, like my The Great White Way, based on a play called Broadway

A show based on something not in dramatic form, like my Through the Wardrobe, based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

A show based on a play you think flawed, where musicalization could improve it, and here my choice is a little odd: A Diary, based on The Diary of Anne Frank

Today, I don’t think that play has flaws, and I think Broadway is very flawed. But the point is I completed the assignment before I was old enough to drink.

Circumstances dictated that my fifth musical would be a genre spoof. Nowadays, a lot of people are tired of spoofsicals, but, coming right after the Hammerstein tutorial, this was a good way of teaching myself how a certain type of musical ticked. The only opportunity to get an original musical done at my college was across the street at The Barnard Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I pitched my Pulley of the Yard as an inexpensive companion piece to the duo’s Trial By Jury, and contrived a way of using the same set and costumes. My show would be a murder mystery, set backstage at a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. This gave me a whole other genre to lampoon. I put my murder during the overture, then came various reactions to the death, followed by the entrance of Detective Pulley of the Yard. He gathers clues quickly as each suspect supplies evidence to point suspicion to someone else. The mystery gets solved, there’s a j’accuse reveal, an arrest and, somehow, a deliriously happy ending.

To say the audience ate this up is to be, well, modest. I got fan letters. People who never liked Gilbert and Sullivan became lifelong fans. Some mistook my work for actual G & S, and, under the title Murder at the Savoy, the show has gone on to numerous sold-out productions in Great Britain. It’s fast, funny, and exactly what the two great Victorians might have written if they’d ever set their sights on backstage mysteries.

At 21, then, I’d made a name for myself, and this led to my next two shows: a medieval ghost story called The Heavenly Theatre: Hymns For Martyred Actors and then the first Columbia Varsity Show after a long drought, The New U. Yes, these were done in university settings, but there’s no way of measuring the value of a live audience reacting to your work. Not just applause, the calls of “author! author!” and rave reviews but the creative decisions you make along the way. What to cut. The power of orchestration. Timing. One joke in a lyric in The New U. literally stopped the show. The laughter went on and on and the pianist, Jeanine Tesori, took her hands off the keys, waiting for the audience to quiet down so we could go on.

Little wonder my collaborators and I were approached about creating a revue for a commercial production off-Broadway. On the Brink had some stormy collaborative issues, but I managed to channel the strife into my best work. “I’ll show him!” I’d say to myself, and rather furiously write songs like Madison Avenue Is Calling Me, Just Plain Paul and Thoughts In Transit.

My collaborator on Through the Wardrobe resurfaced to say we’d an opportunity to get the show done at a theatre in California. She’d gotten the rights to do the show many years prior in England, but we discovered they were no longer available. A pity, since the theatre loved the score. So, a new musical called Popsicle Palace was created, an attempt to make an original family show and keep as many of my songs as possible. Many were cut, and many new ones added. The show was such a success, the run kept getting extended. Eventually, owners of the trademark, Popsicle, sent us a threatening letter, and the subsequent productions (Greenwich Village, Detroit, Queens) used our new title, Not a Lion.

My fifth musical to get produced in my twenties, The Christmas Bride, was lush and romantic, unlike the others. And that’s been a big deal with me: I want every new show to be a departure from places I’ve gone before. One night, who to my astonished eyes should appear but Stephen Sondheim, who soon thereafter dashed off a check to The Third Step Theatre Company, which developed and presented the piece.

A year later, Third Step shepherded my next project, The Company of Women, and I feel I did my best songwriting on this contemporary piece about female friendships. Several people told me it was hard to believe a man wrote the thing, so true was my ear. But the idea that a man could have something to say on the subject was kryptonite to producers, and, good as it may have been, it’s the only show I wrote as an adult that never saw a production.

Then, a performer involved with the two Third Step shows hit upon the flattering idea of creating a cabaret show out of the songs in my trunk. Spilt Milk was written up in The New Yorker, and, every few years, another assemblage of my material plays in a different cabaret. Here’s what’s odd about the honor. What if my best songs are those large ensembles that convey a lot of plot in a short amount of time? They’re not the sort that work with a small cast in a cabaret setting; none of the four revues therefore constitute a “best of” Noel Katz. What works best are self-contained comedy pieces. As a result, my loony tunes tend to be the ones I’m best known for.

And that’s what I was most frequently called upon to do. A traveling opera troupe commissioned The Pirate Captains and played it for six years. A couple of my pals from the improv world enlisted me to write songs for a goofy corporate video. And then came another. But the biggest creation with the improvisers was the all-funny-all-the-time Area 51.

I apologize for running long with this one, but hey: I’ve written a lot of shows. The most famous is surely Our Wedding, in which I actually wed Joy Dewing. We knew people come to marriage ceremonies with certain expectations, and I wondered how many I could stand upon their ears. Bridesmaids give the bride advice in hoary aphorisms; then decide to switch gears and offer sex tips for The Wedding Night. Father of the Bride threatens to kill groom. I entered singing a song called I Can’t Marry You. Absolutely everybody sang, from my dear old Dad to my 4-year-old niece, the flower girl.

Musical nuptials are easy to love. So next I set myself the challenge of taking a truly dark episode in American history, and leavening the drama with ample helpings of humor. In what has to be the ultimate in birthday self-indulgence, I’m just going to quote one of the many rave reviews to close this out, as Michael Dale said it better than I:

Noel Katz’s wonderfully funny and beautifully touching Such Good Friends, one of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years. It’s the story of an awkward 1930’s Broadway chorus girl (Liz Larsen), who eventually becomes the star of a popular 1950’s television variety show, with her buddies hired as director (Brad Oscar) and head writer (Jeff Talbott). A sketch lampooning Joe McCarthy earns the three of them subpoenas to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and the decisions they make while on the witness stand seriously affect their friendship and careers.
Though the story is a grim one in American history, Katz’s main characters are all funny people who use humor as both a defense mechanism and a weapon, so there is always a realistic lightness at the surface. The lively and hummable score easily blends the vaudevillian antics of the first act into the emotional heartache of the second with sharp lyrics and clever rhymes.