June 11, 2017

It was pointed out, somewhere, that in this year’s Tony nominations, a lot of inexperienced musical theatre writers edged out the veterans who’ve given us solid work in the past. And to this I say: Good. It’s about time.

I admit that I often harbor a suspicion, or skepticism, about novices. Experience is a great teacher, and first efforts frequently are riddled with holes an older and wiser creator would have filled. But I also like to think that the long process of taking a show to Broadway involves something of a quality filter. A lot of people – the multitudinous producers and their large battalions of investors – have to believe the show is good, that it will succeed. Think like an angel: If a show has veterans doing the score, is based on a well-loved book that’s already had two film adaptations, well, that seems like a sure bet, no? Compare that to a show written by nobodies – and I use that term politely – set in a particularly frazzled time in recent history, one that no fun-seeking theatre-goer wants to dwell upon. That seems a less safe wager. Writers with no track record vs. The Names You Know and might have seen on countless movie credits and one of the century’s biggest musical comedy hits.

This year I’ll be cheering for the newcomers. It’s a sign of a healthy industry when new faces prodigiously out-achieve the old. Step aside, those who already have a mantle filled with shiny objects; if a younger generation is a knock-knock-knocking at the door, that’s a good thing. The Tony presentation that comes to mind, for me, is the one in 1960. The Old Guard had a show: Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Lindsay & Crouse had been Broadway’s most successful playwriting pair. They’d won a Pulitzer already, for State of the Union, and their Life With Father is the longest running Broadway play of all time. Rodgers & Hammerstein, I assume you’ve heard of. But what’s this? Here come a pair of songwriters from the Midwest, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Bock’s third Broadway musical and Harnick’s second involves some fairly recent history, and, with no major stars, is an unlikely hit. Who will win in the battle of the Old Guard versus the New Guard?

And it’s… It’s a tie. An equal amount of votes went to the Mary Martin vehicle, The Sound of Music, as to the biography featuring newcomer Tom Bosley, Fiorello. Left in the dust was Gypsy, but more on that later. Martin and Bosley both won awards, but his was in the Featured category. If that sounds odd, consider how few songs in Fiorello involve singing by the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In fact, it’s always a good day to consider Fiorello, as it’s a rather extraordinary show. And I wouldn’t say the same of The Sound of Music.

Now a lot of people, looking back, think all the awards should have gone to Gypsy. And a lot of those people view Broadway through the odd prism of Stephen Sondheim’s career. But what’s important to remember is that that Sondheim had just turned 30, and so the (then just-) lyricist represented youth; in fact, he’d learned much, when he was just a boy, from his best friend’s father, Oscar Hammerstein.

Suppose, back then, you had the mind-set of those today who dislike seeing the Old Guard supplanted. Twenty-twenty hindsight reveals that it was Bock and Harnick who went on to write the best scores of the new decade – Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, and my personal favorite, The Apple Tree. The Old Guard – well, Hammerstein died later that year, but Rodgers went on to write No Strings, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Two By Two. Not nearly as good, right?

So, because I don’t wish to sound cryptic, I suppose I should name the players:

The Old Guard

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the show that got the worst reviews of any musical to open this season. By far. Shaiman’s scored many a comedy film, and the team also did the songs for Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and the first season of the television abomination known as Smash.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are best known for Broadway shows such as Ragtime, the soon-to-be-revived Once On This Island (a particular favorite of mine) and Seussical, the most-produced musical of the century. This year, they adapted their movie musical Anastasia for the stage. If you’ve seen media stories about Russians, it probably isn’t this.

Alan Menken (Aladdin) and Glenn Slater (School of Rock) doubled the number of shows they’ve currently running on Broadway with A Bronx Tale. I predict they’ll soon be back to one each.

Scott Frankel and Michael Korie wrote about actual ladies-of-note in Grey Gardens and now have War Paint about actual ladies-of-note Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. They’ve also done two comparatively major off-Broadway shows, Far From Heaven and Happiness. My wife was particularly underwhelmed by their work here.

The New Guard

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the best-reviewed musical of the season, Come From Away, about a small Canadian town that embraced airline passengers who were forced to land there on 9/11. Their previous work was a Fringe Festival favorite called, I kid you not, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were both born in 1985. Let that sink in a moment. Now, perhaps its unfair to list them as neophytes, since Dear Evan Hansen is their fourth musical to make something of a splash, and they’ve already picked up an Oscar this year for their lyrics to a long rambling song towards the end of the second hour of La La Land. We know how Hollywood makes people rich and famous; I think their stage work makes them more worthy of fame and acclaim.

Tim Minchin had fame from another sphere – comedy – before he started writing musicals. You may recall his audacious debut with Matilda and this year his sophomore effort is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy called Groundhog’s Day.

Dave Malloy writes songs that don’t quite sound like anybody else’s. He’s worked his way up from avant garde and off-Broadway venues to a reconstituted Great White Way house. Three nominations. That’s a route that’s gratifying to see. The title makes it sound long, but it’s based on only a tiny passage of War and Peace: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

To go through the BMI workshop and then get a show on Broadway is another path that cheers me, as a BMI vet. In Transit introduced Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, one of whom already has an Oscar.

Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor are unfamiliar names to me. My wife quite liked their Broadway debut, Bandstand. Not a lot of nominations for these last two (nor the quick-closing Amélie by Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen). But I have to celebrate a season so crowded with good new work that good old writers can’t get a nod. Do better next time, venerable ones!





Anything can happen in the theatre

May 16, 2013

Ding-Dong! The Smash is dead. And I could join the throng that reveled in writing about how awful it was, in practically every way. But what’s the point of adding one more voice to a choir of a thousand? You all know in your hearts that Smash was one of the worst series in the history of television. The writing was particularly poor, but also the acting and direction stunk so badly, flowers on my TV stand wilted. The problem was not, as many have maintained, that the show frequently depicted behind-the-scenes outrageousness that would never really happen behind-the-scenes of a musical aborning. It’s that it generally had human beings acting like no human being ever acted. True to our world of musicals? Of course not. True to the experience of being a person on this earth? Even further off.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy (I’m not one) accept not-quite-human behavior all the time. But those cyborgs, zombies, vampires, and extra-terrestrials tend to follow a consistent logic. Smash‘s Broadway babies acted less logically than most mutants. One appears pantless in a private late-night audition in a cushy bachelor pad, yet can’t bear her new flame punching his evil brother, and puts off responding to a marriage proposal with the immortal excuse, “I’m in tech.” The other, hopped up on pills, performs so unprofessionally she’d surely be thrown out of the union, yet quickly returns to deftly play a lead. Pills make you do crazy things, apparently, but at least they’re easy to quit.

With Smash teaching the viewer that drugs are eminently kickable, the calumnies it spreads about the making of musicals seem relatively benign. Makes one wonder if a new flock of musical-makers will think you can write new songs all night long and see them fully staged by next sundown. There were occasional dream sequences but we were supposed to take it as real when a tiny East 4th Street theatre suddenly could hoist Krysta Rodriguez into the air on silk straps. Pulled, pulled, pulled, indeed.

But among Smash‘s many problems was too little time spent in musical flights of fancy while too much time was spent on mundane issues like who’s sleeping with whom. In this, the colossal miscalculation compares unfavorably with the legendary flop musical TV show of years ago, Cop Rock. Cop Rock more wisely found the fun in how unexpected it always is when police break out into song. It embraced its own absurdity while Smash, tonally, was merely a procedural about people putting on a show that had songs in it.

I’ve griped before about the low quality of the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and, back in Cop Rock‘s brief shining moment, I complained bitterly that the producers, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to let people who’d never written a musical before write the songs. Smash should have been better, given that it added true up-and-comers like Joe Iconis and Pasek & Paul. But nobody demonstrated a proficiency at writing an actual show tune, or a tune that could work on TV (a tube tune?). It’s easy for me to imagine a party where friends sit around a piano, improvising silly songs for bad musicals. Been there and done that countless times. The thing is, if you came up with intentionally bad improvised ditties about Marilyn Monroe they’d be indistinguishable from the show-within-the-show tunes Shaiman and Wittman came up with (with no shame and no wit). Now, before anyone leaps to their defense with the claim that it’s difficult to come up with an amusing original song every week on television, I’ve got an 85-year-old to throw back at you: Tom Lehrer.

Long before The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, there was That Was the Week That Was, a news satire variety show.  A mathematician, Tom Lehrer was hired for the-job-I’d-most-like-to-have-in-the-history-of-jobs: Every week, Lehrer had to come up with music and lyrics for a comedy song based on something in the news. And every week he made America laugh. The most famous example was The Vatican Rag, which I remember enjoying on radio’s Dr. Demento show: Its premise was that if the Catholic Church decided to promote itself using Madison Avenue techniques, it might come up with a peppy jingle that would begin

First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

Do whatever steps you want if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
Everybody say his own
Kyrie eleison,
Doin' the Vatican Rag.

One of my early successes was a comedy song based on a news event, My Baby (inspired by Three Mile Island). A lot of people told me it was the sort of thing Lehrer used to write. A nice compliment, to be sure, but, unfortunately, comedy songs that are actually funny are so rare nowadays, anything that produces a chuckle gets compared to Lehrer’s hysterical numbers from the 1960s. It’s disappointing – puzzling, even – that Smash didn’t even attempt to be humorous. Its creators  clearly forgot that “musical” used to have a last name, “comedy” and, back when it did, a whole lot of people liked them. Instead, we got a soapy drama about the making of two mirthless musicals, and, according to Nielsen, nobody liked it.

There ought to be diamonds

May 17, 2012

And now it seems a fair enough time to assess the score Julia Houston and Tom Levitt have been writing for their Marilyn Monroe bio-musical, Bombshell.  True, we’ve heard some of these songs in brief excerpts, but enough notes have passed before our ears to say P-U! There’s some truly horrific songwriting going on here. 

The first song held some promise: Let Me Be Your Star is a power ballad with an impressively catchy hook.  The musical style, however, is pure 1980’s, a decade neither Monroe or her would-be portrayer, Karen Cartwright, was alive for.  The lyric leads one to believe Marilyn’s career is at an early stage, but Tom’s music is out of sync with the 1940s.  Without an allusion to a specific time and place, the song becomes an anthem of Everygirl, which is O.K. only if that’s the point the authors wish to make about Marilyn.

My wife’s favorite of the Bombshell songs she’s heard is the joyful History Is Made At Night.  The first sixteen notes are all on the same pitch, but Tom smartly dresses this up with a backing choir doing Modernaires-type chords.  That’s a good idea: when your melody’s going nowhere, make sure your harmony’s going somewhere, at least.  And a hit Gene DePaul song from the period, Teach Me Tonight, also starts with the same note seven times, and is exactly the sort of song Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe might have made love to.  So, at first glance, History Is Made At Night seems like an apt invention for this spot.  At second glance, though, the original and its simulacrum seem far too similar.  Both use teaching as a metaphor for sex, but the Sammy Cahn lyric has a blithe jocularity to it, and a bunch of three-syllable rhymes.  Julia’s lyric makes very little of the metaphor.  It says next to nothing, and then says it again and again.


Did I see producer Eileen Rand openly dabbing her eyes at Second-Hand White Baby Grand?  Wow: somebody thinks this is a good number.  Certainly, there’s a place for metaphor in musical theatre.  What I don’t buy, for a moment, is that Marilyn would express such a metaphor.  Julia’s lyric sounds more like one of the zillion Monroe biographers, making an arty pronouncement about her.

In a similar ilk is the way-too-serious DiMaggio cri de coeur, Lexington and Fifty-Second.  Does anybody believe the Yankee Clipper would really talk this way, or think this way?  Or know that address?  Chorus boy Sam Strickland surely could have said something about this to Tom, especially since his first words to him, before romance bloomed, assumed he was a fellow gay sports nut.  Yeah: gay sports nuts think other gay men are into sports all the time; that’s why they’re called nuts.

The dead giveaway that Tom and Julia know nothing about baseball is a kitschy and witless number called National Pastime.  The best thing it can do is make reference to the best comedy song Monroe ever sang, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.

Joltin’ Joe and the blonde bombshell share a quiet moment in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, about the romantic pursuit of anonymity.  I’m no expert on these icons, but the idea of Marilyn Monroe aspiring to be an ordinary person sounds so wrong to me, it’s laughable. A shame.  In a different context, with different characters, this might be a lovely song.

If Bombshell is content to play fast and loose with biographical facts, then maybe the intention is to serve up yet another campy portrait of an idol.  If so, there shouldn’t be three women vying for the lead role; all it takes is one good drag queen.  That might justify Darryl Zanuck, of all people, getting a snappy patter in his steam bath, surrounded by unclothed chorus boys.  Pure hokum, but a way to go now that we live in an age where Marilyn Monroe is no longer turning men on.

Julia and Tom’s main mistake was starting with a flimsy idea for a show, and then writing songs for various spots in Monroe’s life, rather than starting with an effective story outline and letting the plot’s emotional hills and valleys motivate book-driven songs.  Assuming they might need, at some point, something akin to Marilyn’s Heat Wave, they serve up clichés of Latin music in Twentieth Century Fox Mambo.  Is nobody bothered by the fact that this song is not a mambo?  “Mambo,” here, sounds like a nonsense word merely tacked on to the end of lines.  It’s Twentieth Century Fox that serves as the title of this song, and it might sound like a good pun to those who are unaware that sexy women weren’t called foxes during Marilyn’s life.

I have trouble keeping that song straight from the appropriately-titled Let’s Be Bad and I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love To Howl. I can’t help wincing at false rhymes, and gotcha/Sinatra has to be the nadir of Julia’s career.  (Also wrong: fiery/hire me.) But now I’m reminded of their awful angels-on-a-staircase number from Heaven On Earth.  It’s a song that’s rather similar to the same actor’s big number in Catch Me If You Can, utilizing all sorts of anecdotal examples from the earth’s long history, none of them surprising or amusing.


The higher you get, the farther the fall
Now I’m kicking butt and taking names
‘Cause even St. Joan went down in flames
Napoleon Waterlooed and Genghis Khan sure hit a slump
I might say “You’re fired”
When you have expired,
Donald Trump


 It started back with Moses when he led around the Jews
And climbed way up that mountain to pick up God’s Daily News
He schlepped up Mt. Sinai – cried and begged on their behalf
He almost dropped those tablets when he saw that golden calf
Now we teach the Ten Commandments every Sunday in our schools
Cause the game ain’t worth winning if you’re breaking all the rules
I guess the constitution to some is too complex
They think our founding fathers fought so they can forge some checks
They see themselves as Robin Hood stealing from the rich
Paying back the things they take; well, payback is a bitch
Cause the world ain’t Sherwood Forest
You can’t give away those jewels

There’s only so long one can wait around, hoping a song like that will get funny.

Smash! (the song), for a chorus of Marilyns (huh?) uses a growl-y motif that plays up and down a diminished chord.  It’s catchy because we’ve heard this sort of thing a thousand times before: boilerplate sexy.  What seals the song’s fate as a forgettable throwaway is the utterly generic lyric.  Julia could come up with nothing interesting to say here about the oft-written-of subject of lust.  (Maybe she should have a hot affair, or something.)  So the whole ditty exudes déjà vu.

Then she stretches out a metaphor over too great a length of time in the plaintive ballad, Never Give All Your Heart, a sentiment attributed to “the Irishman,” “Mr. Yeats.”  This may be literally true, but boy, does it feel wrong.  So many have given that advice, it’s odd for anyone to attribute it, albeit correctly.  But if that song’s too smart for its own good, what is one to make of the Bollywood number, A Thousand and One Nights?  The title’s Arabic, the style is Indian, and both cultures have every right to be offended that they’re being confused for the other.

Post-death, Marilyn is able to belt out, in a style that didn’t exist pre-death, a finale called Don’t Forget…Me. Ellipses must be inserted because Tom’s tune separates the final word as would never happen in normal speech. Makes it sound as if Marilyn wants us to forget somebody else (assumedly, Jayne Mansfield. Done.) but not her. Julia and Tom should be cut a break here because the song was written on such short notice, but the whole drama of the song’s creation is an example of why composers in the theatre virtually never orchestrate their own songs: there often isn’t time. Had composition and orchestration been handled by different people, the final result wouldn’t sound like generic 1990s elevator music. (The end of a genre, it seems: when’s the last time you heard music in an elevator?)

Years from now, when people talk of Bombshell (and they will talk of Bombshell), it’s obvious there’ll be added emphasis on the first syllable.

Not much right now

February 6, 2012

actresses hung like slabs of meat

Steven Spielberg wanted Smashto be an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.

Epic fail.

I suppose we’re supposed to be happy that network television has finally seen fit to set an hour-long drama in our little world.  Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find any characters breaking into song on the little screen.  But I’m reminded of a lady who bitterly complained about the quality of the food at a Catskills retreat.  Could have been worse: there could be no food at all.

So let’s be grateful for the tasteless morsel we’ve been thrown, and spend a few moments picking on the bone.  It certainly could be worse.  They’ve decided to use an admirable quantity of original songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman rather than covers of old rock hits (with a key exception) and the cast includes Christian Borle and Brian D’Arcy James, guys I’ve actually enjoyed in Broadway shows.  Good moves, there, and, again, better than starvation.

Since seeing the pilot (I also read the script, many months ago), I’ve been wondering if I’m more upset than I should be.  I mean, of course it seems inauthentic to me: it’s the world I live in.  And does it really matter if NBC viewers are fed a false impression?  Suppose I knew nothing about how musicals are prepared and produced, would I find Smash so disappointing?  It’s a little like wondering if that Catskills harridan had eaten ground glass all her life, would she still have caviled on the buffet line?

There are worse things a network could do, sure.  And there are worse crimes than seeming ersatz.  For instance, being very boring, or riddled with the hoariest clichés.  But, given Speilberg’s publicly-stated ambition to hold up a mirror to our little world, you’ll pardon me if I mock the mock.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this yet, consider yourself lucky.)

Feels a bit weird to be commenting on television.  I’ve merely seen the pilot, and a zillion things can change – for the better, I hope – as the series progresses.  While I have a lot of friends in the TV-writing business, I’ve no special insight into the making of meat for the small-box medium.  Maybe spinning out cliché upon cliché is, somehow, encouraged in Tubetown.  As you know, I’ve a sign on my desk that says “Eschew cliché” so naturally I sneeze at:

The set-upon spouse who pleads for the obsessed (and admirable) partner to forget their obsession, settle down and spend more time at home.  In a not-so-novel twist, the pleading one is the husband, Brian D’Arcy James.  It’s got to be a big let-down for him to go from his stage roles (Burrs, Sidney Falco, Shrek) to a cliché kvetch.

A divorcing couple, where one spurned spouse is itching to show the other up with a public triumph, pronto.  Even Anjelica Huston’s hair-do screams 1930s Hollywood.

A more modern rendering of the “skyrocket to fame” idea is the viral video that’s so popular, it actual exerts pressure on the business world.  Reluctant songwriters collaborate on a song for a musical about Marilyn Monroe, invite a friend over to learn it and sing it back to them.  Someone takes a video of this, which gets posted on-line and voila! there’s a producer green-lighting the as-yet-unwritten project.  I remind you of the Spielberg quote above: “an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.

The main character, an aspiring singer who may win the grand prize or merely come in second, is played by Katharine McPhee, an aspiring singer who came close to winning the grand prize on American Idol but merely came in second.  Nice to see her stretch.  Her parents worry about all the rejection she faces in the city.  Her boyfriend reminds them she’s not a waitress, she’s an actress.  Is anything else on?  Is ABC running that game show in which ordinary people fall off slippery things into wading pools?  I’m there!

At her audition, McPhee transfixes the table with her rendition of the Christina Aguilera hit, Beautiful; and if you listen carefully to the lyric, which few do, it’s about seeing the true beauty in people, not the surface beauty.  Marilyn Monroe, of course, is the iconic embodiment of surface beauty.  Perhaps the Karen character wants the panel to see past her unextraordinary brunette good looks and find her inner Marilyn.  Are you following any of this?  The show insists you must.

But wait, there’s an immediate response from the director, in the form of a text message that says come over to my place.  Hold the phone!  Well, it’s the cellular age; I guess we always hold the phone somewhere on our person.  And poor Karen, like Pauline in The Perils Of runs off to this fabulous bachelor pad.  There, the lustful Svengali insists she reveal the smoldering sensual fire within her.  She considers fleeing, but, just before reaching the door, she steels herself, grabs his shirt, comes out wearing it and no pants, and coos Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

At the risk of sounding like an out-of-touch prude, I’d like to point out that children are going to watch this program and believe every word.  After all, some have read famous director Spielberg’s proclamation that Smash is “an absolutely authentic depiction” so it must be so, it must be, that the way to win a role on Broadway is to go alone to the director’s apartment late at night and act all sexy.  NBC, by the way, has helpfully launched a program to get school kids watching this thing.  Great to see a big corporation supporting arts in schools that lack performing arts, but it comes at the cost of spreading moral turpitude.  Does the good outweigh the evil here?

Young ladies: Should you find yourself the recipient of a “come over to my place” late-night text from a director, immediately contact the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, ask “Is this proper?” and forward the text.  But why am I telling you this?  It’s not going to happen in real life.  Scenarios like this only occur in the creakiest of old melodramas, or, to put it in a word, “Smash.”

Warning: playing the drink-every-time Shaiman-&-Wittman-use-a-cliché game may lead to blackouts.