Where the bee sucks

July 13, 2017

One of my favorite cans of worms has been opened! And by no less than the recently-appointed co-chief drama critic of The New York Times, Jesse Green. He states something that, to me, is obvious, but very few musical theatre fans seem to understand. That the elements that make for a good listening experience to the consumer of an Original Cast Album are markedly different than what makes good theatre.

It started, as so much does these days, with a tweet. This came from the composer-lyricist of a score Green didn’t much care for, Groundhog Day. It challenged him to listen to the cast album three times and see if his opinion wasn’t altered. And it was. Green had a more positive view of the show’s songs after hearing the album.

There’s something inherently unfair about that challenge, though. Theatre-goers pay between $100 and $200 for a ticket to witness a performance once. At those prices, they ought to enjoy it the first time. Over the years I’ve talked to countless people who’ve admitted they didn’t like a show until they’d heard the recording a few times. To which I’ve said, “Then the songwriter has failed in what he set out to do.”

Let’s break this down. Are you writing your show for the one-time live person in your theatre’s seat, or are you writing for the repeat listener of a record, someone you hope will grow to enjoy it? I get that hearing something over and over and again can add to your appreciation – that’s fine – but theatre writers are trying to entertain ticket-buyers. Recording artists – a wholly different breed – are fashioning albums that they hope will yield more on iteration.

Green then looks at last season’s new musicals, and places them in three categories:

Those that are more enjoyable on record than in the theatre

Groundhog Day
In Transit
War Paint

Those that make a better impression live on Broadway than on an album

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Come From Away
as well as the revivals of Falsettos and Hello Dolly

Those he couldn’t abide in either format

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Bronx Tale
Holiday Inn

And what did he say of the Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen? Equally good both ways.

What I find exciting about this article is that, at last, someone’s delineating the different process we go through reacting to live theatre versus reacting to something through speakers.

Minchin’s challenge forced me to consider not only how his songs for “Groundhog Day” sounded after repeat exposure but also how listening to them in a nontheatrical context altered their texture.

Among other things, I realized that a lot of the rhymes I hadn’t liked onstage seemed harmless when I no longer needed to get information from them. But I still feel, and songwriters I spoke to agreed, that a show with such satirical heft would have benefited from the clean ping of exactly matched sounds.

On the other hand, the songs whose musical structure I’d found “baggy” now seemed more compelling than they did in the theater, where the intensity of the action interfered with their reception.

Theatre is a live art form. And our reactions to what we see enacted before our eyes – well, that’s what matters most. We take in a score in a significantly different way if we only use our ears.

And yet we cast judgments based on hearing alone. We open our ears to cast recordings and, naturally and inevitably, come up with some assessment as to whether a show is good or not. But we are being intentionally misled. And I don’t mean to make it sound evil. Creators of cast albums obviously want to make the things sound as good as possible. But let’s look at some specifics.

One of my favorite albums – as a listening experience – is A New Brain, by William Finn. Yes, my friend Liz Larsen is on it, as well as the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth, and I’d Rather Be Sailing is justifiably hailed as one of the greatest romantic show tunes of our time. You take in this record and go, “My God, this is great.” In the theatre, however, it was more than a tad less compelling. The annoying protagonist undergoes brain surgery and this leads to a long and abstruse hallucination. The viewer loses his bearings and tedium sets in. I’d rather be sailing than be so adrift again.

Ask most of the people I know to name the best musical they ever saw, and you hear Follies a lot. The original production, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, was, I keep getting told, particularly fabulous. The original cast album, however, is severely truncated. It’s widely regarded as botched, a hatchet job, and I think everyone agrees it was better to be there than to listen to that piece of…vinyl.

Another record that comes to mind is House of Flowers. Listening to those sophisticated Harold Arlen melodies, you begin to fantasize that it had to have been quite a treat to see. (Peter Brook was the director. In the cast: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder.) But House of Flowers, I hate to report, is a witless tale of bickering whorehouse madams and an ingénue so gullible, she’s too stupid for us to care what happens to her.

The world of musical comedy is filled with people who know shows only through their albums, and that leads to an odd sort of tunnel vision. One can appreciate A New Brain on CD and House of Flowers on disc and have no inkling what a chore they are to sit through. And, if you’re a producer or director, a good album gives rise to a little fantasy that if you put it on you’ll lick all those problems that Peter Brook couldn’t. But A) you’re not better than Peter Brook and B), it’s still about a bordello competition and an idiotic child-woman.


This is a workplace

August 17, 2013

Had a wild time a few days ago laying down tracks in a recording studio. A singer is making an album and will do my Jobim send-up, Timid Samba, along with a new Jule Styne medley I just completed.

The tiny part of the recording process I was involved with was playing the accompaniment into an electric keyboard. Rick, the recording engineer, was fairly obsessive in trying to understand the right “feel” the singer and I want. He listened to a few Jobim numbers, and at least one Styne. Then he created a loop by recording himself shaking some maracas. After about six times through, repeating the two-bar groove, he selected the measures he’d played best to loop. This means a small bit of percussion recording, around two seconds or so, would be repeated over and over again. This was used instead of a click-track for me to keep a steady beat to in my playing.

Sound elaborate? Well, I may have just described the easiest part. The hard parts come later: If I made any mistakes in my playing (and God knows I did), Rick will go back and fix them. He does this in a manner not unlike removing a blemish on a headshot utilizing Photoshop. If I was supposed to play, say, an inverted A major triad, but failed, he’ll find an inverted A major triad elsewhere in the piece, copy it and paste it where I was supposed to play it.

But that’s not all: He’s going to orchestrate the thing. The Styne songs may end up sounding like a Broadway orchestra, and I called for a trumpet solo in my score. Timid Samba may come out sounding like Brazil 66. (If I remember correctly, at some point, Brazil 66 renamed itself Brazil 77, changing with the times.) Through some alchemy I don’t quite understand, what I played into a small keyboard will change into guitars, brass, strings, and reeds.

Rick and the singer have worked on two prior albums together, and I had a number of songs on both. The collaborators indulge each other’s craziest ideas. Many years ago, I wrote a simple pop song that was presented at Moonwork, in the old Stella Adler Studio on Lafayette Street, as if it was the number you heard during the final credits of a horror film named Ax Camp 3. Then they turned this into something of a radio play. You hear a young guy nervously treading through dried leaves, muttering about how the other campers have left him alone in the night. Then you hear the slashing of a knife, several times in quick succession, like what one might hear at Benihana. And then in comes my sappy romantic music.

Creepy? Sure, but funny, which is all these songs are ever meant to be. I was knocked out by what Rick had made of my little number. All I can recall of my contribution was that I hadn’t played it very well, but you can’t tell that from the finished product.

For the Styne medley, the singer wanted two of his favorite show-tunes patched together. I recognized that the two could probably be sung against each other in counterpoint. Since the singer wasn’t looking to make it a duet, my mind raced towards the idea that he could sing both parts of the quodlibet, dueting with himself. Which reminded me of another Styne number, Talking To Yourself. So, now I had three lyrics to shape into a story. You don’t know, at first, who he’s singing about. Then it becomes a merry paean to self-love. Ultimately, it made Rick laugh every time he heard it.

In my career, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the act of recording music. You know how, in school, if you misbehave, school officials threaten to put something down in your Permanent Record? For kids under a certain age, that’s pretty scary. When I’m recording one of my songs, I’m rather nervous at the thought that this will be the Permanent Record, the one rendition I’ll hear again and again. And, of course, others will hear and perhaps it gets remembered this way. In many cases, the only recordings of my songs are ones that have been done on hand-held devices, live in the theatre as the show was playing. And so, during one of the melodramatic pauses in A Sight So Gory, an audience member lets out a big sneeze. Those hearing this for the first time aren’t aware the sneeze isn’t a thing I wrote.

It’s often an expensive process: I must admit to you, all expensive things frighten me. It’s not so much that I’m a cheapskate; it’s an unnatural fear I’ll land in the poor house. In fact, there’s a bar in my neighborhood called The Pour House and I shudder a little each time I see it.

Musical theatre, as an entertainment experience, is one night in an auditorium. You remember what you remember, and forget a lot. But a cast album can be listened to again and again; nothing on those need be forgotten. I always write for that live audience, but, sooner or later, there’s going to be somebody who didn’t see the show, but will become familiar with my work just by listening to it. And that’s not so comfortable to me. What just flashed into my mind – probably because I recently did a show with the performer – is a teaching number I wrote where a three-star general takes off her bullet belt and starts using it as a dominatrix would use a whip. This visual helped to make my song fly. But a recording doesn’t give you that hysterical image, leaving it earthbound.

I guess that’s why I’m so appreciative of what Rick did with Dripping. Using a sonic bag of tricks, he aurally created an Ax Camp 3 so real, you can almost smell the blood.