Polka

August 12, 2017

As the musical theatre community grieves the loss, at 89, of the finest soprano ever, Barbara Cook, much is said about the beauty of her voice, the clarity of her tone, the warmth of her sound. Yes, all of that is so, but I feel every bit of praise for her vocal gifts somehow misses the point. You can possess fantastic vocal cords, you can train your ass off, as opera singers do, in quest of perfection, you still wouldn’t come close to her accomplishments. She wasn’t merely the Voice; she was the Actress, the Personality.

Barbara Cook, it is said, had two careers: leading lady in Broadway musicals, and then the doyenne of the cabaret world. That’s a natural progression for someone whose specialty was acting lyrics with meaning and intent. In musicals, roles are more plentiful for the young and the thin. Once she was neither – and most mark The Grass Harp (1971) as the end of the beginning – she took her gifts to the venue where audiences give the most concentration to lyrics. Rooms with fewer than 100 seats get listeners to prick up their ears. (Of course, Cook was so successful, the rooms included Carnegie Hall.) There aren’t those musical theatre distractions like sets, dancers, book scenes, a story to tell. I’m among the lucky ones, who got to sit in rapt attention at the Carlyle one night, her warmth delivering happiness to everyone in the room.

Mostly, though, like most of you, my understanding of Barbara Cook is based on cast recordings. Since I’m often talking about how those twelve inches of vinyl make misleading impressions, I’m going to have to ask: “What am I missing here?” The most obvious omission is the acting, and Cook was a good enough actress to appear in two of Broadway’s more notable comedies in the 1960s, Little Murders and Any Wednesday. I find this remarkable, aware of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between performers in musicals and thespians in plays. Records and videos give glimpses of what the lady can do with lines. Take that most popular of American arias, butchered by many an opera diva, Glitter and Be Gay. The original Broadway cast album of Candide – which has to be the most glorious capture of a flop musical, ever – has her speaking

Pearls and ruby rings…
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets…lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?

I’ve heard too many sopranos with no idea how to put the right spin on those words to make them funny. Cunegonde has been forced into whoredom – that’s the “awful cost” – but she’s so tickled by endearing trinkets, she’s not certain she got the bad end of the bargain. Nobody would write such a concept today, in our increased-sensitivity-to-sexual-slavery times. But 61 years ago (and ever since), Cook’s interpretive gifts made this hysterically funny and fun.

When considering what we love about her signature song, Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me, is it the gloriousness of the penultimate high B, or is it that we’re reacting to a grounded-in-reality character sorting through a bunch of emotions and discoveries in a recognizably human way? Amalia’s numbers in She Loves Me inspire love in all but the coldest-hearted listener. Since I’m always thinking about songwriters, I usually marvel about Sheldon Harnick’s humorous, charming text and Jerry Bock’s delightful near-classical setting. Collaborator Cook got the whole thing to fly; it could never have worked without her fully-formed character. In a little gem called No More Candy, her would-be shop clerk is forced to improvise a defense of how a small box with a lock on it is “functional” and delicately mentions a “slight tendency to overweight.” Now, there are plenty of observers who believe that Cook’s life story is that she went from thin leading lady to plus-size cabaret star due to a notable change in girth. But this ignores something (I’m clearly straining to avoid saying “the elephant in the room.” Sorry.):

Barbara Cook – the young and thin edition – was not astoundingly pretty. This separates her from many, if not all, of the ingénues who burst on the scene in the mid-fifties. Here was a new kind of star. Not dazzling in appearance, she got us to focus on her characters’ hearts, what they were feeling in every breath. This, to me, is the musical theatre ideal: At its best, we’re living the emotional life of the people we’re watching. And, as they fall in love “Vanilla ice cream: imagine that!” we do the same. So, a classical beauty finding love, by 1955, was old news. Of course hot stuff succeeds in getting male attention. It’s harder for us mere mortals. And I think this is key to why I find Something You’ve Never Had Before the most moving of her numbers. She offers a heart that’s true, not a face that could launch a thousand ships, and I tear up at the idea that the man’s too dense to notice her inner beauty.

All of this reminds me of a Sondheim song I never much cared for until I heard Barbara Cook’s rendition. In Buddy’s Eyes had always struck me as a rather plain and extended wifely paean, not quite dramatic enough to justify its length. But when Cook sings “I’m young; I’m beautiful” or “I don’t get older” you hear the heartbreak in the self-delusion. Ambivalence simmers underneath; the lady is kept alive by the lies she tells herself. You don’t think Sally is crazy, hearing the Follies In Concert album; you revel in a beautiful coping mechanism; you care.

Finally, let’s pivot back from the complex to the simplistic, and take in how she infused what’s essentially a plain (not fancy) lullaby with true longing. In The Music Man, it’s established that every night she sings a plaintive waltz to a little girl. We’re set up for something meaningless and dismissible. Cook colors her tones in a way that illuminates the touching reality that Marian the librarian truly depends on a wish and a star to bring her love.

Sweet dreams be yours, dear, if dreams there be
Sweet dreams to carry you close to me.
I wish they may and I wish they might.
Now goodnight, my someone, goodnight.

 

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Juliette

December 15, 2016

The room was pitch black, the light from the cracks under three doors not illuminating the dozen faces or so within. There was a gentle knock on the door, and a tiny gasp as someone moved from the middle of the room to open the door. When she saw who it was, she flipped on the light and I could see the music in front of me: about as harmonically complex a duet as I have ever seen. In parts, chords change on every eighth note. This may be the “constantly surprising refrain” Hart wrote about but Sondheim denies exists. But, at that moment, I leaned in to take in the dialogue. A girl from the South was inviting an Italian boy into her hotel room, where she’d been sleeping alone. He wasn’t sure he should enter, and kept flipping between Italian and heavily accented broken English. She insisted she understands him. And I got my cue and started playing the thick quarter note chords.

This is Musical Theatre Scene Study class, the highlight of my work week. This particular scene is the midway point in The Light In the Piazza, by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas. A third actor is involved, silently: the girl’s mother opening the door, catching them in flagrante delicto – that ends the scene.

In preparation for this class, I’d rehearsed with the singing pair for about an hour. This was one of the later steps in their process. One of the song’s many unusual challenges is that a lot of it is wordless singing. The performers endeavored to bring particular meaning to a long span of “ah.” There are also unusual rhythms and false accents; perhaps the latter is inspired by Fabrizio’s lack of facility with English. In fact, the inability to express with words is the main subject of the song, which is called Say It Somehow. I feel it’s among the most gorgeous pieces in contemporary musical theatre.

(n.b.: these are not our students)

     If ’tis the season for counting blessings, let’s pause to list a few. For one, this is my day job. I actually get paid to rehearse and explore this rapturous duet with very hard-working and adept singing actors. And, as I just said, I appreciate the gorgeous song. Some acquaintances know me as a music teacher, but that sounds so wrong. Together, we’re exploring aspects of a great scene. I figure out how best to accompany them – such as sticking to the straight beats rather than doubling vocals. As I listen, I discern the tiniest of imperfections, and point out things they miss. Then, that day that started in the dark, we expand our circle: ten others join us to observe the performing work-in-progress. All eyes go to the laconic teacher, Alan Langdon – but is “teacher” the right word for him, really? He says what he’s observed. Rarely, he’ll give a directorial suggestion. In the case of Say It Somehow, the first words out of Alan’s mouth were exactly the words that were in my head: that Fabrizio had a strong accent when he talked but hardly any when he sang. Then Alan had a question about his entering her room: “What is the metaphoric meaning?” The actors were unable to answer this, and their inability relates to the main element that was lacking that first time they did it that day. Before their redo, I was asked to speak.

     “I love when there’s a number where I notice something new each time I play it. What’s the first line of this lyric?”
— Why don’t you trace it on my hand?
     “But that’s not how it comes out with the music. It’s not a succession of eighth notes. I think we’re missing a joke here.”
— Why don’t you trace it on … my hand.
     “So, when she started that sentence, she may have had a different part of her body in mind.”

This time, they launched into the song with more instances of erotic play. Clothes came off. It was intimate, and more believable.

One of the things I often find myself saying, during rehearsals of love duets, is that musical theatre has a convention that singing a duet can be a substitute for sex. If a camera followed a romantic couple around, the film would be rated X. On some level, the audience in the theatre understands that the ahhing is a beautiful musical emblem for dirty doings going on. And then that mother walks in.

Speaking of opening doors, for many years, Alan Langdon and I have led (I won’t say taught) this amazing exploration, Musical Theatre Scene Study and it was only available to full-time students in the second of their two conservatory years studying at the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. But now, our door is open: You, too, can take this amazing class, separate from the school and its program. The good folks at WordPress warn me that I should never embed an e-mail address here, so you can’t click this, but send an e-mail to Sara at SaraCanter dot com. I’m warding off robots who spam by writing out the @ and the . – you know what I mean. The next round of classes starts next month. Do yourself a favor and join us.

You’ll learn a lot. Hell, I’ll learn a lot. Because we’re all in this together, collaborating, sweating the tiniest details, figuring out how to make scenes from musicals work. Since I’m not a performer, what I get out of it goes into my writing of musical scenes. I picture actors doing the sort of deep investigation of every word and note that goes on in our class. And, not to be bromidic (a word, one of my collaborators tells me, that only Oscar Hammerstein ever used), but I’m reminded of a line set to music by Adam Guettel’s grandfather 65 years ago:

A true and honest thought: If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.


Hector

September 19, 2015

It’s rare that I write something here that isn’t addressed specifically to musical theatre writers. But I’m pretty excited about something, a class I’m co-teaching for musical theatre performers. If I describe what goes on there, well, you might get excited, too. And, God knows, a lot of performers are also writers.

Alan Langdon, Justin Boccitto and I will teach Musical Theatre Scene Study, and this is the first time it’s been offered to the general public. For fifteen years or so, Alan and I have been teaching it together as part of the two-year conservatory program at Circle in the Square. It’s just given to second-year musical theatre track students. And they’re a rather committed bunch. They’re used to Alan’s high expectations, and also the somewhat less exacting little me. So, they work very hard to prepare every scene in advance of class. This includes a musical rehearsal with me.

The scenes they do come from a repertory list. Each must include both characters speaking and both characters singing. They almost always get in costumes; there are often props, furniture, or suggestion of a set. Quite often, the scene will involve actors besides the two who are going. For instance, if doing A Boy Like That from West Side Story, the scene begins with Maria and Tony in bed, Anita knocking, and Tony escaping through a window. They Were You, from The Fantasticks, would need a mime dropping confetti. And so on.

Before I get involved, the scenes are run without music, all lyrics spoken (which often involves simultaneous talking). Then comes the day we’re all together: We run the song to check that all musical elements are in place. Then, the actors “check in.” This usually involves (but doesn’t have to), students addressing the rest of the class, referencing emotional events in their past that help them key in to the emotions their character is going through. These need not be literal – Lord help us if the Next To Normal scenes were! Someone who’s endured a separation from a lover might use those feelings of longing to get into All the Wasted Time from Parade. Sometimes, players prefer to summon up their memories in a more private way, staring at a photograph or listening to ear buds. The check-ins can take a lot of time – we’ll have at least forty-five minutes per scene – they don’t go on to the actual scene until they’re truly ready.

And, even as it’s going, the scene doesn’t have to continue if the scene partners aren’t truly ready. Stopping in the middle of a scene or song and doing things again is encouraged. While we’ve stopped, actors can return to their check-in if they wish. Something feeling not quite right? Say what it is, work it out. This is Scene Study, not a performance; it’s like a lab where you can experiment, try things different ways.

It might seem like I’ve described this in such detail, readers can now start their own classes and experience the same mind-blowing magic. But as many hundreds of actors can tell you, there’s nobody quite like Alan Langdon. His observations of a scene-in-progress are sui generis. The performer has objectives to pursue, tactics to use, emotions to express. It’s challenging to accomplish all those goals, and the question of where you’ve succeeded or fallen short – well, first that’s put to you to answer. Then, I might pipe up: I’m staring at the score, and if I see a crescendo that didn’t grow, or a tenuto ignored, I’m likely to bring it up. When Alan finally speaks, you can hear a pin drop. He’ll have noticed something nobody else has seen. What surprises a lot of people is that he’ll say “You sang that too well” often. It’s about being truthful, and if you’ve thought too much about how you’re sounding and not what you’re expressing, it’s a significant flaw.

It’s uniquely satisfying to me to be around people who are working hard, giving their all. For a decade and a half, I’ve watched actors extend Herculean efforts in our Musical Scene Study classes. Alan inspires fear, in some, when they first meet him. But eventually what he inspires is the desire to be the strongest you, to do the best you are capable of. And, often, better than you ever thought. Year after year, I’ve marveled at the pairs attempting Adam Guettel’s fiendishly difficult and long Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. This is just about as hard a musical theatre scene as exists in the repertoire. That anyone’s able and eager to learn this virtuosic scene is utterly amazing to me.

The Things We Do For Love is the name of a revue of my songs directed and choreographed by my award-winning friend, Justin Boccitto. He, Alan and I have worked together on a number of unusually ambitious projects in the past, and it will be a thrill to see how expressive dance can be added to our process this time. The three of us are similarly passionate, but there’s huge differences in styles. I think of Justin as a limitless creator of fun. That’s a helpful contrast to Alan’s dogged pursuit of truth. Me, I’m probably too goofy for my own good, but, since I’m a writer, I may have a tad more focus on authorial intent. Are these performers getting across what the librettist, composer and lyricist intended?

And the mind-blowing thing I experience each class: Such intense focus on acting scenes and songs, the characters’ intentions – it’s motivation to write musical with meat to them. Write with the assumption that, someday, actors will pick over your words and music with such keen focus and intelligence.

Is this something you’d want to do, Thursday nights in New York? Drop me a line.


Just being with my girlfriends

June 13, 2014

Not that anyone’s asking me what I want for Father’s Day, but it’s the same thing I was hoping to get on Mother’s Day: a little time to myself. During which I would write some songs, maybe relieving me of this constant sense that I am way far behind on my latest project.

For weeks I kept staring at the calendar, loving the Mother’s Day plan. My wife was going to travel with our daughter to see her mother in Delaware, leaving me with time home alone. That would offer me the rare opportunity to compose at the piano, letting its din resound around the house, no neighbors to disturb. I relish such a time because I’ve lived my entire adult life in apartment buildings, only fleeing to the suburbs six months ago. What little composing I’ve since done usually happens on the tiny keyboard attached to my tiny computer, played pianissimo so as not to wake my daughter. Most days, I’m with her, and when she goes down for a nap, I rush to my office. So you see why the home alone scenario is so important to me.

Work – to be done – tends to pile up. When given a chance to be productive, I better produce, you know? And when too few chances are given…well, let’s just say I stared a lot at that date in May, really looked forward to Mother’s Day. And then, of course, my mother-in-law announced some home improvements she was having done weren’t completed on schedule, so there’s all sorts of nails and saws scattered about her house, making it an inappropriate place for our toddler to – er – toddle in. So, rather than having the three generations of women down in Delaware, she was coming up here. And who could object to that, right? Mother’s Day is about the moms, not the dad who’d carved out a certain amount of time to work on his musical and suddenly the crevice got filled in.

My daughter and I are used to seeing the big cats at the zoo lying around, asleep, because certain creatures do snooze an extraordinary number of hours. Without casting aspersions, I’ll just say I’m related to a lioness. And a good host knows to let sleeping cats lie, so there wasn’t a single opportunity to touch the piano Mother’s Day weekend. Or Memorial Day weekend, when the queen of the forest returned. But soft! What ray of hope appeared on the calendar in June? I read the words All Girl Party and knew, instantly, that I wasn’t expected to go. (I’m that smart.) Wife and daughter were expected to attend an afternoon fête a stone’s throw from South Street Seaport, thereby affording me some hours of alone time.

At this point, I was getting to be a bit of an asshole about keeping that time sacrosanct. Any suggestion of any chore I could accomplish while wife and child were gone was met with an overly sharp “No!” I had a set of lyrics ready to set. I’d hummed tons of motifs into my phone-recorder. I had a game plan for what I was going to write that day. It also happened to be the only day off, in the long final stretch leading to the June 8 opening of Bat Boy, which the smartest among you recently enjoyed. Now, mind you, I don’t go around talking about my job in a complain-y way, but some further context is needed. Songwriter Laurence O’Keefe was generous enough to visit with the cast before they went on Monday night, and he graciously answered their questions. If I were a kvetch, I’d have asked “What’s with all the impossible key changes?” There’s a point in the score where you’re chugging along in whatever key has six flats, only to turn the page and find you’re in whatever key has seven sharps. (Both in minor, by the way.) Suffice to say, a high degree of difficulty for me: I was the musical director and would be playing piano for the show.

But here too, there’d been a ray of hope. We decided our band would consist of me on a real piano, plus a keyboardist whose machine would produce a wide variety of fun and/or terrifying sounds. As I got to know the score, it seemed to me I had the less hard part. The difficult sixteenth note figures and runs go to the Key 2 player. So, that calmed me, knowing that we had a guy who was going to come in with his own keyboard, program it and could play it. And then, ten days before the opening, he dropped out.

IMG_2090

my daughter, my dad

And so began a mad scramble to get a replacement on short notice. We went through the heart rise-and-sink of thinking we’d found someone, only to learn a day or so later that there was a schedule conflict he couldn’t extract himself from. And you know, besides the pressure of saving the show, there was the pressure I’d imposed on myself to keep all those June 1 hours to myself. The day came: I played with my daughter all morning (wife wanted to sleep in on a Sunday morning) and managed to do laundry too. Since this was a party, there was a long period of sacrosanct dressing-and-putting-on-makeup time. I thought they’d never leave. But, once they did, I started flinging notes at staves as fast as I could. Get it down, get on with it: move this barge forward. And then, as luck would have it, South Street Seaport was closed for renovations, so my family returned earlier than they might have. When they did, I was on the phone with the keyboardist who eventually played the show. He explained, calmly, that he was just a keyboardist with a keyboard. We’d need someone else to program it. And we’d definitely need a sound person to deal with the volume of the amps. Well, we got the second guy to program, and I brought in an assistant musical director who made the show much better; he did what he could with the amps.

As I write this, I’ve yet to look back on whatever it was I composed during those fraught hours. And I’m telling you all this because it’s another window into the life of a musical theatre writer. Life gets in the way, sometimes, and you don’t have time to create much. During my twenties, when I wrote Murder at the Savoy (then called Pulley of the Yard), The Heavenly Theatre, The New U., On the Brink, Not a Lion (then called Popsicle Palace) and The Christmas Bride – all produced in New York – stuff rarely interfered. I’d stay home all day, writing, and some of those shows poured out in a short amount of time. During my teens, though, I’d stare at the appendix to the Cole Porter and Harold Arlen songbooks. They listed all the songs they’d composed every year, and, sometimes, for some reason, there’d come a year in which they’d come up with nothing or near-nothing. That’s something I keep reminding myself of.

This Father’s Day weekend I’m taking my daughter to visit my Dad. As my wife can’t be with us on Saturday, it’s a lot of work for me. If I compose a single measure I’ll consider myself lucky. And if I don’t… Well, I just reread the first sentence in this paragraph: I have a daughter; I have a wife: I have a father. We’ll all be together on Father’s Day. If I don’t compose a note I’ll consider myself lucky, too.


Sleep well, baby

November 28, 2012
It’s my daughter’s birthday – she’s one – and I’ve some scattered thoughts about musicals relating to this glorious occasion.It’s mostly lullabies, naturally, but the existence of a baby in our home has meant that singing has returned after a long absence. My wife’s voice was part of the reason I married her. Before parenthood, years went by without her singing a thing. Now I get to hear Sleepy Man every night (we change it to Sleepy Girl and the key sexual component is missing.) It’s from the folk musical comedy, The Robber Bridegroom, and the lyric makes great use of diffused rhymes.

Been a busy day
With some heavy seas
But you’ve done your best, sleepy man
Let your troubles lay
Let your breathing ease
While I rub your chest, sleepy man…
Not a girl I know
Has a better deal
Than my life with you, sleepy man
If I let it show
How you make me feel
We’ll be up ’til 2, sleepy man

So, lyricist Alfred Uhry reaps the benefits of formal precision while listeners are unaware they’re hearing rhymes. It’s a stratagem I’ve used from time to time.In addition to getting to hear my wife sing, fatherhood has meant that I’m frequently singing. During the day it’s often Frank Loesser’s Adelaide, or, when the baby kicks, You Mustn’t Kick It Around by Rodgers and Hart. But I, too, am on lullaby duty, and I’m often overcome with emotion singing not a man I know has a better deal than my life with you.

I’ve a similar reaction when I sing Bock and Harnick’s Go To Sleep, Whatever You Are. In The Apple Tree, Eve sings it to the world’s first baby, and the idea that she doesn’t know she’s holding a very young human is simultaneously droll and moving.

Doesn’t faze me if you grow up to be pony or poodle or sheep
You’re my own, whatever you are

The act of singing is, I should say, an essential exercise for songwriters. You gain an understanding of how melodic lines fit on the voice, and what syllables and sounds are hard to wrap one’s lips around. I know many modestly demur “I can’t sing” but if you want to write for singers, you have to.

I could say something of perverse lullabies, like the comic one in Street Scene, or unsettling ones, like Not While I’m Around, but it’s one from off-Broadway that’s been more on my mind this past year. Lay Down Your Head, from Violet by Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori, is an ideal lullaby, one of the few truly sublime compositions of the past twenty years. It starts unaccompanied, which helps it to feel instantly authentic. And it has an emotional resonance far beyond the act of putting a child to sleep.

Perhaps I think of Violet so often because the plot involves a father making a terrible mistake, a fear that is always in the back of my mind. But every time I look at Adelaide, I’m overtaken by amazement at her beauty. The mere idea that such gorgeousness is just one notch down on the gene pool brings to mind another show tune:

Gorgeous, gorgeous,
They produced a baby that was gorgeous, gorgeous…
Who’d have ever thought that we would see such a flawless gem
Out of two meeskites like them?”

Of course this doesn’t apply to my wife at all, but you know how songs from shows have this way of entering my mind.


Find the words

April 10, 2012

There was a scene in the 2005 musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that I just adored.  It took me a number of years to put my finger on why I enjoyed it so much.  Once I did, though, I felt I discovered something that’s essential to acting.  We’re writing for actors, of course, so it helps to know something of what they go through.

It’s a scene between Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz in which Butz’s sincerity is in question.  At first glance, it would seem to be a plain love scene, in which a man and a woman grow closer, singing a pretty song.  But, in the context of the whole show, the stakes are much greater. You see, Freddy is the pupil of a master con man, who takes him on very much in the manner that Higgins takes on Eliza in My Fair Lady.  Also like My Fair Lady, there’s a delineation of class.  The teacher is a high-brow con, impeccably tailored, which is part of what makes him successful.  But Freddy has no class at all.

So, like Eliza at Ascot, there’s considerable tension built up over whether he can seduce an heiress.  Can he converse with her without revealing he’s a fraud?  And, to up the stakes even more, can he sing a love duet with her?

She starts the cleverly-titled Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True and it’s so rhapsodic, the audience falls in love with her.  Not just a pretty girl with a pretty voice singing a pretty melody (music and lyrics by David Yazbek); there’s something about the way she chooses to celebrate the natural beauty all around her that makes her inherently lovable.

Then she turns to Freddy and puts him on the spot: what phenomena does he find Too Wonderful To Be True?  Now the fun begins, as we watch Freddy struggle to think of wondrous things: Crazy Glue?  The free toiletries hotels provide?  Radio call-in giveaways?  It’s a parallel to yelling “Move your blooming arse!” at Ascot and yet he’s just charming enough to put it across.

(couldn’t find Scott & Butz; these are high schoolers)

There’s a whole host of reasons to love this number, but the bit that I keep using in my teaching has to do with seeing Freddy in the process of coming up with all those Wonderful examples.  As played by Norbert Leo Butz, who won a Tony for his performance, the struggle registers on his face, in his whole body.  We watch him think, and there’s much fun in that, true tension.

And, to some extent, this is what should be going on in all non-diegetic musical theatre, and theatre in general.  Characters, usually, haven’t memorized the speech they’re about to make, or the words they’re singing.  So, too, the performer is involved with the thought process of coming up with what to say.  When we see a dull portrayal by some singer-who’s-not-an-actor it’s often lacking in spontaneity because the lyric feels recited, not discovered.  When we see actors in the process of giving birth to the lyrics they sing, songs are more believable, and the players more delightful.

Cast your show with folks who can do that and the results will be Too Wonderful, even better than free shampoo.


Wedding song

October 12, 2011

Wedding anniversary today. Which means it’s also the anniversary of my best-loved musical, Our Wedding.

Yes, Our Wedding was a musical comedy, performed in a New York theatre, with songs for the bride and groom, preacher (with his gospel choir), best man, bridesmaids, four-year-old flower girl, and our parents. “Your parents?” I hear you ask, for this, indeed, is the most frequently asked question; “How’d you get them to do that?” 

Our folks are not performers; they don’t crave the spotlight. So, getting them to appear in Our Wedding – The Musical was something of a stretch.  Divorced decades ago, they were not in regular communication with each other, which we used to our advantage. The first conversation may have gone something like this:

“We want you, Mom, and Joy’s parents to perform on stage in the wedding, doing numbers I’ll tailor specifically for you and what you can do.”

“But I can’t possibly stand up in front of all those people, and sing: I don’t sing! You’ll have to do it without me.”

“You’ll be conspicuous in your absence, because Mom, and Joy’s parents have already said ‘yes.'”

“They have? Oh, well, I guess I can try.”

It was a little white lie we had to repeat:

“We want you, Daddy and Noel’s parents to perform on stage in the wedding, doing numbers tailored specifically for you and what you can do.”

“But I can’t possibly stand up in front of all those people, and sing: I don’t sing! You’ll have to do it without me.”

“You’ll be conspicuous in your absence, because Daddy, and Noel’s parents have already said ‘yes.'”

“They have? Oh, well, I guess I can try.”

And so on, till all had agreed.

They soon discovered I wasn’t lying about the specific tailoring to their strengths.  Or, as they saw it, their weaknesses.  I’m reminded of the legendary story of how Rosalind Russell told Comden and Green she had a vocal range that goes from A to B and needed a number that goes “Duh-da, duh-da, duh-da joke; duh-da, duh-da, duh-da joke” so they wrote her one of the great comedy songs of all time, 100 Easy Ways To Lose a Man from Wonderful Town.

It’s at 9:20 in this video.

So, I wrote my father a sentimental waltz with limited range, our mothers a comedy duet that capitalized on their physical differences, and my father-in-law – well, I knew he was a big fan of The Moody Blues, so I set out to use a classic rock style.

One of the challenges of Our Wedding: The Musical was the fact that so many cast members (of the wedding) lived in far-off locales.  One bridesmaid, and the preacher, lived in New York, like us, but everyone else flew in a couple of days before the wedding from all parts of the country.  So, we could only rehearse, together, the day before and the day of the big show.  Everybody was sent a recording of their music, and all went about learning it in different ways.  In Phoenix, Arizona, Joy’s father went the extra mile and actually hired a vocal coach.  It was that important to him, that he sound good in front of a New York audience.  And he found that he enjoyed singing lessons so much, he said he’d continue them after the wedding, maybe record a few songs.

You might not believe it, but his newly-kindled interest in singing moved me more than any other aspect of our wedding.  It revealed an unintended consequence of forcing friends and family to perform in a musical: they had to walk in our shoes, for a while, and everybody learned more about the process of putting on a show.  Sometimes it seems to me that my wife and I both have careers in musical theatre that few outsiders can comprehend.  Those close relatives who performed on stage with us grew closer to us by sharing an experience that isn’t often shared.  And Randy Dewing’s desire to continue with singing communicated his appreciation of the process better than the words “That was fun; I’m glad you forced me to participate.”

Speaking of outsiders not understanding, I’m often surprised when people ask if the show will ever be performed again.  Do people have a second wedding to each other, repeating everything that happened in the first ceremony?  What an odd question, but I guess it often comes from those who wished they were there to see it.  (You can content yourself with the live original cast album, just $20, free shipping in the USA.)  And how could we ever assemble that cast again?  Force them to fly from all over?  And is a 12-year-old Flower Girl ever as cute as a 4-year-old Flower Girl?

The wedding musical, like any marriage ceremony, is frozen in time, a wonderful memory.  Years go by, and, inevitably, people grow old and die.  This is the first year in which our anniversary is celebrated with one original cast member gone.  And I keep seeing his adorable performance of that Moody Blues-ish song, endearing and funny, and hope he’s pursuing great voice lessons in the sky.