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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A molecular biologist

December 25, 2015

I swear, this won’t be another one of those articles telling you how wonderful Hamilton is. So, so many of those have been written: It’s fair to say no new musical has created this much critical acclaim and excitement in four decades. I weighed in on the show way back in early April. So, this Christmas morning, I want to talk about something entirely different.

It’s the best present I received all year, and it’s something my sister sent and … why prolong the suspense? It’s Hamilton, the Genius Annotation!

Wait a minute – wasn’t there just a promise that this wouldn’t be about Hamilton?

Nope, I’m not going to talk about the show, now. But you might not know that some unusually intelligent fans of the show have put up an annotated libretto:

http://genius.com/albums/Lin-manuel-miranda/Hamilton-original-broadway-cast-recording

That means you can read all of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, and, every few words, certain phrases are clickable. Clicking leads to a discussion of various aspects of the writing. Most obviously, since Hamilton is based on true events occurring around the American Revolution, there is commentary from historians. And you know how historians are, they’re apt to argue, amongst themselves, over minuscule details. There’s a limited amount of certainty as to everything that happened in the 18th century, so, in nerdy manner (and I don’t use “nerdy” as a pejorative), details get batted back and forth.

Readers of this blog, I hope, embrace the nerdiness involved in picking apart the fine points of musical theatre writing. We are all nerds: we love this stuff. And that’s the gift from Genius.com: a complete musical being picked apart by fellow nerds. Sometimes, the notes have to do with rhyming, word-choice, orchestration choices, and a wide range of issues of craft. It’s my impression that this resource has been formed through the wiki process. That is, all visitors are invited to comment, and, nerdily, comments are commented on, assessed for their validity.

The greatest treat of all is when information about the writing of Hamilton comes from Hamilton’s writer himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Anyone can speculate about what he was thinking of, what inspired him, what he’s referring to. And that’s fun. But to get the real answer: more fun.

For instance, there’s a note that Miranda’s use of the word, “fraught” may have been inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s song, Impossible, which also uses it. I find this highly doubtful. But, I’m always willing to admit that large parts of my vocabulary were borne of encountering words in show tunes. Here’s an example:

I used to be a hoyden
Boys were my hate,
I was a lady hermit
I couldn’t be annoyed in
Making a date
“Silly,” I would term it
You seemed so daring my heart grew frail,
Now I like wearing my coat of male.
– Lorenz Hart

That was my favorite song for many years (I Feel At Home With You).

The web resource on Hamilton seems a huge gift to me for another reason. I may know a few things about American history, but all I know is that I know nothing about the recent cultural phenomenon of rap and hip-hop. Now, I’ve long admired rap, from afar, because it’s the only popular example I can think of where ears are fully tuned into lyrics, enjoying the wit and cleverness of what’s being said. I’m not denying that there are plenty of popular songs with interesting lyrics, but the rap fan is someone who’s so fascinated by words and what they can do, appreciation of the music is truly secondary. I get impatient with the reverse – when music is interesting but lyrics are deadly dull.

Lin-Manuel Miranda occupies a unique place among writers: He’s a musical theatre creator with an admirably broad appreciation of musicals from the past century. He’s also a huge aficionado of rap. His mostly-rapped musical, Hamilton, makes a huge number of allusions to important rap and hip hop artists. And, me, I’m the damn fool who doesn’t know anything about this history. If only there was a place I could go to get a sense of what rap-master LMM is alluding to.

And that’s the gift of the site once known as Rap Genius. When a character in Hamilton uses the phrase “carefully taught” I have no trouble getting the reference to South Pacific. But when a song implicitly riffs on Ten Crack Commandments by The Notorious B.I.G., well, that’s bound to sail over my head.

So, for me, reading the annotation is a fascinating discovery. The popular music antecedents were previously unknown to me. The true history of Alexander Hamilton is interesting because there’s some disagreement. Also, since Miranda’s writing a show to entertain, and not an academic dissertation, there are some divergences from actual events. These changes illustrate how the musical writer’s job involves compression, dramatizing, but not necessarily fidelity to the truth (whatever that is). And, whenever the comments concern the craft of musical-writing and references to other musicals, it’s nice to find that there’s a whole community out of there, thinking about the sorts of things that obsess me.

So, Merry Christmas, fellow nerds! Pour yourself a cup of Hamilton Genius Annotation and nerd out!

 

 


Berceuse

December 5, 2014

While there’s little value in adding one small voice to a tremendous chorus of disapproval, I found myself referencing the recent Peter Pan on TV to my college students. And there wasn’t time to point out errors they could learn from. So I just hurriedly suggested they compare the Mary Martin broadcast.

A colleague was worried that, although her video recorder was set, her husband and son would likely turn the channel to some Knicks game. I assured her there’s no way they’d want to see the game, because the Knicks were replacing their center that night with an athlete who’d never played basketball before. And who the hell would want to see that?

She didn’t get the joke.

Like last year’s live The Sound of Music, NBC has again cast a live telecast of a musical with someone who’s never done a musical before, which makes exactly as much sense as a basketball team relying on a baseball player to lead. Allison Williams, whose father happens to be the network’s most famous face, was handed the role originally built around the very specific talents of the pre-eminent musical theatre star, Mary Martin. (Few have remarked that The Sound of Music was also a Martin vehicle, which might indicate that next year we’ll get Claire Danes in South Pacific.)

Peter Pan has a checkered history. Its pre-Broadway try-out was troubled enough that more experienced songwriters were called in for last-minute doctoring. When that happens, the doctors can rarely save the patient, but, in this case, they did. And, to my ears, the score doesn’t sound like the product of seven different creators: it’s all of a piece. This surely had something to do with the greatest genius to ever shape the writing of a show (without writing himself), director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. It takes considerable hubris to restage what Robbins wrought, but Rob Ashford, who’s previously supplanted choreography by Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, likes to roll the dice. (And often craps out.)

Certain choices were made back in the day, and you can be sure they were made for a good reason. Peter Pan would sing most of the show’s songs. Why? Because people loved to hear Mary Martin sing. Warmth was her long suit. She was, on stage, naturally lovable. Captain Hook needed to be a villain whose perfidy makes you laugh, and the decision was made to go for the high camp that was the long suit of Cyril Ritchard. Key to the emotional underpinning of a rather slight story was having Ritchard double as the father of the Darling kids. So, on Neverland, they’re battling a funhouse mirror image of their foe at home.

NBC, this time, had the actor playing Mr. Darling double as Hook’s assistant, Smee, whom the children barely see. (It’s Christian Borle, star of many a musical, who won a Tony Award for playing a character based on – guess if you don’t know! – Captain Hook.) Christopher Walken, the movie star who, early in his career, did theatre and musicals, was unable to summon the energy required to be a fun foe. I half expected him to answer “What tempo, Captain?” with “A dirge.”

But in a three-hour extravaganza that failed in almost every possible way, nothing was more damaging than the performance of Allison Williams. And, in opposition to Walken, you could tell she’d worked on it, practiced, had hopes of being good. She’s learned all the notes, never makes an unpleasant sound. But, to use the title of another Styne/Comden & Green song, being good isn’t good enough. This is a star vehicle, so let’s talk about star quality.

Mary Martin flashed an adorable smile. She knows she’s a star (and Peter Pan is charmingly conceited) and moves like she owns the stage. You love me, you came here to see me, and I will give my all to entertain you, she seems to say. Williams is the A student who couldn’t come close to winning Miss Congeniality. She never personalizes a line, or comes up with an interesting phrasing of the music. Strings of quarter notes sound like just that. Martin plays with rhythms to make lines like I think it’s sweet I have fingers and feet I can wiggle and wag utterly endearing. She’s actress enough to put a little wiggle into her wiggle. Williams, heretofore only known as an actress on a contemporary cable show, dutifully sings wiggle as two unadorned quarter notes. This means she has no particular color, no personality, nothing to make us love her. In the huge litany of things that made a three-hour TV program seem like six or ten, Williams inability to project lovability is Problem One.

Star Quality is not something everybody can learn. And a thought about Mary Martin that’s sticking with me is that the Texas gal had great warmth. When you write a Mary Martin musical, it makes perfect sense to build upon that warmth, to rely upon it, to feature it. So, last year’s NBC live debacle, The Sound of Music, was insufficiently warm: the non-actress in the lead role had not a whit of it. This year’s NBC live debacle shifts the burden of being warm on its Wendy, played by a young soprano who’s actually played the lead in a Broadway musical, Taylor Louderman. I thought the added love ballad for her was fairly fetching. (It’s a rewrite of Styne/Comden & Green’s I Know About Love with totally new lyrics by Green’s daughter, Amanda.) But back when Peter Pan was being patched together out of town, Styne was aware – from their Hollywood days – that Mary Martin possessed a coloratura soprano. And so they seized the opportunity to utilize it in a duet for the leads.

And that’s how you write a star vehicle, folks. (Of course this was omitted from NBC’s new-but-not-improved version.)


Warm

August 29, 2013

Had something of a chance encounter with someone who sees a couple of classic show tunes the way I do. So now I’ve the urge to shout “See? I’m not so weird!” But I won’t. For that would be weird.

Marlon & Wally

I was subbing as accompanist at a famous acting school. My head filled with thoughts of the pre-eminent performers who traipsed these hallways early in their careers. Brando lived nearby, and his roommate was Wally Cox. Wally Cox! A true thespian. As well as the voice of Underdog. And I went up a steep (but not so narrow) staircase to a dance studio and wondered how Marilyn Monroe kept her balance on such an incline. There were only four students, affording the voice teacher (from the opera world) ample opportunity to talk. Mostly he discoursed on technical aspects of singing, but when, back-to-back, there were two familiar numbers from Fiddler on the Roof, he started pointing out the sorts of things I like to point out.In Far From the Home I Love, composer Jerry Bock keeps switching between minor and major. This colors the character’s dichotomy, as she’s tugged in two directions, between love of family and devotion to her fiancé, who’s been sent to Siberia. The minor key section chords are traditionally associated with Judaism. Fiddler on the Roof depicts a younger generation breaking off from old restrictions and customs. Hodel, the daughter who’s departing, expresses a sincere affection for all that she’s abandoning. Her love for the modern-thinking husband-to-be is expressed with modern chords: a major seventh, a passing thirteenth. In the bridge, she gets a little carried away, talking about him. Since it’s in the key of C, pianists can’t help but notice her ecstatic expression is all on white notes. But no tonality lasts for long here. In just a moment we’re back to the rich and ancient minor. The voice teacher offered that Hodel is saying she is able to experience romantic love because her parents gave her such a firm foundation in family love. When I coach the song, I focus on the daughter’s understanding of how her words are landing on Tevye.  She knows she’s breaking his heart, so she darts back to familial love whenever she gets close to being sappy about the boy.  In my song, Home, I also address this notion that “home” means one thing to an unmarried daughter living with her family, and quite another to a bride.  And Fiddler lyricist Sheldon Harnick makes this shift in definitions the final dagger hurled at the dad: “Yet, there with my love, I’m home.”  Bock sets this on that most difficult of intervals, the tritone, because it is such a difficult thing for this girl, who loves both groom and papa, to say.

Far simpler, but positively eloquent, is the surpassingly popular Sunrise Sunset.  Staring at the sheet music during our conversation about it, I thought back to a childhood memory.  Visiting a family friend’s back yard, I saw a row of sunflowers that must have been six feet tall.  I’d never seen flowers so big, and they were more than a little frightening to the young me.  So, Sheldon Harnick wrote “seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers” – a perfect image of the world turning so fast, little things can be come tall very quickly.  It’s not set up as a simile, and he doesn’t use the words “seems like.”  We understand it as a poetic comparison even as it’s stated just like a fact.  Bock uses the first two measures over and over again, at one point this phrase is heard a fourth up from where it’s first heard.  So it’s something of an ear-worm. What’s always struck me about the music is the delightful arpeggio on eighth notes, rather reminiscent of the octatonic scale frequently utilized by Igor Stravinski, the Russian composer who based a lot of his work on the folk music he knew as a child.  In a sense, given Fiddler’s setting, he and Bock were drawing from the same well.  As the lyric extols aspects of the life cycle, the setting of the title line evokes breathing out and breathing in.

The immortality of Sunrise Sunset must be related to the universality of the emotions it expresses.  Bock and Harnick were experts at coming up with songs that are extremely specific to their show’s setting while being general enough that all sorts of people could sing them at all sorts of times.  (Well, mostly at weddings.)  And I think that’s because they began their careers in the 1950s, when it was still expected that show music could produce the most-sung songs in the land.  Today, it’s unusual that songwriters are thinking about the commerciality of what they’re writing for the stage.  But all the things I’ve mentioned here, these bits of brilliance in the crafting of two numbers, are what Bock and Harnick regularly thought about.  A way of thinking, alas, that hasn’t been commonly employed since the team split in 1970.


Tell a Danny story

May 5, 2013

The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent. And everybody’s innocent. But I feel bad about stealing from the Facebook page of someone I don’t know, without permission. He’s a fellow musical theatre writer who’s just gotten some really good news, so I hope he’s in a mood to forgive the invasion of privacy.

I’ll call him Danny but our story begins with an earnest musical theatre performance student I’ll call Rick. Rick asked me to suggest a song he could perform in his Final Year Industry Showcase and I told him about a quirky number, written by Danny. All agreed it was a perfect match of performer to material and Rick diligently began his investigation of the lyric’s meaning. One of the advantages of attending school in New York – where so many songwriters live – is that you can invite them to performances of their songs and they might actually come.  In fact, Danny had, a few years earlier, attended a cabaret where two of his songs were done. So Rick and his classmates were encouraged to contact the authors of their numbers.

Rick’s the kind of young man who was raised to ask questions. Why assume anything, or let a bit of confusion persist, if there’s someone available to answer queries? So, when he wrote to Danny, he asked for guidance understanding the lyric. He also felt honor-bound to report that Rick’s massively-long song was being trimmed to roughly three minutes. Such is a common requirement of industry showcases. Professionals have come to see you and sixteen other aspirants; they don’t want to sit there forever. In this case, we all agreed to be severe in limiting everyone’s time on stage, so the night would not outwear its welcome.

Danny was surprised by Rick’s e-mail, on three levels. First, he’d never heard of Rick, and had no idea that he’d be performing his song. Second was Rick’s interpretive questions, on issues that seemed obvious to Danny. And then there’s the cutting affront of knowing your song has been tailored to less than half its length. By someone you do not know. (OK, I’ll name the guilty party: It was me.)

What to do? How to respond? Danny decided to consult his friends via Facebook.

Hey fellow theatre songwriters: when a college student you’ve never heard from before contacts you saying he’s singing a “three-minute cut” of one of your songs at an upcoming industry showcase (and you are certain he didn’t get said sheet music from you directly) and asks for a whole bunch of detailed advice, lyrical clarifications, and basically interpretation coaching, is it in bad taste to say, “Um, yes, but pay me first”? It’s not that I need the ten bucks. (Although.) It’s the principle of the thing. How would you approach this? Should I just be glad my stuff is getting out there? Do I go all JRB on his ass? Please advise.

To “Go all JRB on his ass” is a reference to the time popular songsmith Jason Robert Brown caustically admonished a teen looking for a free copy of one of his songs, a set of back-and-forth e-mails he eventually published on his website as a wake-up call to all the young people who might share copies of his songs with their friends without paying him. Brown earns a lot of money from his writing; Danny earns next-to-nothing.

Danny commented on his own post- (Oh, and I’ve never made — as in, prepared myself — a three-minute cut of this or any song. Not that I couldn’t or wouldn’t, but I did hear this song done in an abbreviated form by another student once, and it sounded awkwardly and sort of arbitrarily cut. To me.)

Then came responses: Lucy– I think you should say, “I’m glad to offer any advice necessary to folks who purchase music directly from me. If you have, great. If you would like to purchase it, here’s a link.”

Mary– I’ve had students contact me for sheet music (since I haven’t gotten it together to have an e-commerce page) – I don’t mind giving tips, although I have never encountered the exact situation you’re describing. What I would do is this: if you don’t mind him singing the song, then answer the questions as best you can, and then say: in the future, you will build better relationships with writers such as myself if you buy from us (or from wherever we have our music being sold etc). Phrase it however you want – don’t quash his enthusiasm first – redirect it and make him your ally. If you feel he’s gone over the line, you could say, I know I can’t physically prevent you from singing the song, but I’d prefer you didn’t and here’s why… Do you have a place you sell the song? Because if so, Lucy’s advice is probably simplest.

DannyHi Mary (and all) — currently, emailing me with a request is the only official source for my tunes. I don’t mind him singing the song at all. I do want him to be more aware of the professional aspect of the relationship he’s assuming.

DannyThanks, all of you. Here’s what I said: “Hi Rick,

Thanks for writing! Glad to hear the song I wrote has made its way to you, and that you’ve chosen to perform it your industry showcase — no doubt, an important event in your development as a professional performer.

FYI, I’m always happy to provide advice and responses to questions about songs to anyone who’s purchased music directly from me. As far as I know, I’m the only direct source for my sheet music at this point. Since I don’t think I’ve heard from you until now, my assumption is you got a copy of the music from someone else — maybe a fellow or former student, or maybe an instructor? However you got it, that’s fine, and like I said, I’m very glad you’re singing it as part of what you might consider an important professional audition. At the same time, I hope you’ll consider contributing to my own efforts to make this MY profession, and not just a time-consuming and enjoyable hobby. I generally ask for $10 a song, which you can send via Paypal (my account name is danny@chessterms.com ) or check (let me know and I’ll send you my mailing address.)

all best,
Danny

AshThe conversation I would have with myself would be not so much the about the immediate value of “getting my stuff out there” in front of audiences as much as about the value of having advocates for my work. In the current media environment in which media is either free and/or instantly accessible on demand, the $10 for the sheet music is a vestige of an obsolete world. Now, that said, charging for lessons/coaching sessions is still perfectly viable.

MaryVery well worded response. It’s like … you’re a writer or something. Like, a *professional.*

DannyThanks. I sent it, and then on second thought sent him another email answering his questions. Basically separating the issues and still giving him the option to be a mensch.

LucyDude, if he wants a coaching, he should hire someone to do so. My rates are between $60-80/hour, and if he wants you to coach him on your material or any other material, you should charge at least the same!

In the end, Rick was the mensch, and got Danny his ten dollars.

Danny’s desire to school Rick about the “professional relationship” between singers and songwriters is certainly akin to Jason Robert Brown’s massive schooling of a far younger performer. But at least this was temperate and free of snark; he communicated in an un-pissed way and with admirable honesty. I admire Danny’s consulting scribes like him about how to respond. Rick was a little taken aback by Danny’s communiqué and questioned whether he should have asked so many questions, or mentioned the cut. But, when you think about it, Rick doesn’t need Danny; Danny doesn’t need Rick. That professional relationship, ultimately, is of little value.

Songwriters are in a tough financial bind. Very few derive significant income from selling their songs. It’s extremely common for copies to be made, and the Ricks of the world feel no obligation to look up authors and pay some fee when their musical director suggests running to the school’s library to get a copy of a song. It’s possible, though, that Rick asked too many questions, so that a writer feels a little beleaguered, doing so much (answering, allowing a cut to be performed) for free. I’d suggest that Danny’s better course of action would be to just clear up all the interpretive stuff, ask for no money, be glad his song is being done somewhere (even in a truncated form) – all with the goal of merely being a good citizen of the world.

This whole exchange happened well over a year ago, and, today, Danny has made an enviable amount off songwriting. And I hope Rick feels a little pride about performing a song long before the rest of our community discovered it.


I can’t marry you

October 30, 2011

Perhaps the most popular comedy song of the twenty-first century, Shiksa Goddess, by Jason Robert Brown, is a puzzlement to me. I don’t find it effective or amusing. It doesn’t offend me, although it could be considered offensive to Jewish women. I figure if I detail my reactions to the song, perhaps the analysis will help define what a comedy song should and shouldn’t do. Or maybe you can tell me why the song tickles you.

It’s the first time we meet the character of Jamie in The Last Five Years. In the previous number we’ve heard about Jamie: he’s broken the heart of a woman of Irish descent. (We know of her Irishness from an otherwise pointless musical interlude, referencing The Emerald Isle, in the middle of her self-pitying ballad) and he’s been clearly defined as a callous asshole. As this is a two-character musical, the fellow entering can only be Jamie, so we’re predisposed to hate him.

But lively Latin music strikes up. So Jamie must be hispanic. On comes a charming young man,

your Hebrew slave

Norbert Leo Butz. But he’s not hispanic. He doesn’t appear to be Jewish, either. You might assume, at this point, that I’m inexplicably obsessed with ethnic identification. Don’t blame me. The music and lyrics are sending strong signals, ordering the audience to think about these things. The previous song was a depressing dirge about a depressed person that broke off to play an Irish jig. That’s such a curious thing to do, we need to understand the rationale. Now comes a cheerful salsa beat and the lyric refers to some difficulty about a Jewish man dating a Christian girl. Why the Spanish music? Is Jamie supposed to be Sephardic (Jewish, but from Spain or Portugal)? Why the non-Jewish actor?

I’ll admit that casting a character who’s specifically written as Jewish can be a tricky proposition. I’ve been there before, and opted for a wonderful actor who’s “only” half-Jewish. (This year, he became an award-winning playwright.) But let’s face it: in a 200-seat house, perception matters.

I’m breaking my mother’s heart.

The longer I stand looking at you,

The more I hear it splinter and crack

OK, so this might seem to support the idea that Jamie is an asshole – here, to his mother. And we wonder, at this point, what Mommy could disapprove of.

 The J.C.C. of Spring Valley is shaking


And crumbling to the ground,


And my grandfather’s rolling,


Rolling in his grave.

Now we have a clue but I wonder what percentage of the audience gets it. Is J.C.C. a commonly-known abbreviation? And where’s Spring Valley? In an arch way, the lyricist is talking in code, a code far more likely to be understood by Jews and those aware of New York City suburbs.

A critic once said of one of my shows that I was writing for an audience that understands cultural references from 60 years ago. Guilty as charged, I’m concentrating on this problem in writing lyrics for another show set in the same era. Jason Robert Brown, here, seems content to alienate the non-Jewish, non-New York area part of his audience by making references they do not understand.

But I was one of the lucky ones who knew J.C.C. stands for Jewish Community Center and Spring Valley is in nearby Rockland County, not far from where my grandfather lived. So, I deduce, there’s a Jewish community there who might be upset that Jamie’s dating this girl.

If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter.


If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.


If you came from Spain or Japan


Or the back of a van –

These things would matter to a lot of people, and their families, but not Jamie. He’d happily accept a whole host of quirks, but then comes a qualifier:

 Just as long as you’re not from Hebrew school –

Am I interpreting this right? Jamie’s O.K. with bald chicks but not Jewish girls? Clearly, this is supposed to be funny, but I’m taken back to the first line. The character seems gleeful about breaking his mother’s heart. And all theses “ifs” are describing what the object of his affection isn’t, not what she is. The “ifs” lead to an expectation that we’re going to get to a “but” or the end of some syllogism. O.K., I can be patient.

I’d say “Now I’m getting somewhere!


I’m finally breaking through!”


I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!


I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

That’s how the verse concludes. And I’m mystified as to what all those “ifs” were about. He’s barely said anything about what Cathy is, just that title. So let’s consider that:

Shiksa” is a word some Jews use to describe a woman who isn’t Jewish. It is considered mildly derisive. Of course, “Goddess” makes up for that. The two-word phrase might be used for someone like Miss America, a beauty who, from the looks of her, clearly isn’t Jewish. So Cathy fits into a cliché; is telling her this, using this phrase, supposed to be some sort of a compliment?

I know, I know: it’s a comedy song. And maybe Jamie’s so smitten, he’s not making sense, but it’s leading to one very confused audience member. If Jamie’s been waiting for a great goy girl; did he go on Non-J-Date?

I’ve been waiting through Danica Schwartz and Erica Weiss
And the Handelman twins.
I’ve been waiting through Heather Greenblatt, Annie Mincus,
Karen Pincus and Lisa Katz.
And Stacy Rosen, Ellen Kaplan, Julie Silber and Janie Stein.
I’ve had Shabbas dinners on Friday nights
With every Shapiro in Washington Heights

Ouch, this makes me wince. These previous dates he’s “waited” through all have stereotypical Jewish names. And that’s what’s supposed to be funny about this passage. He doesn’t say anything about them, just that two of them were twins. We all know the Anti-Defamation League has made a stink over less. The impression is left that Jamie didn’t like any of these ladies because of their ethnicity. Therefore, it seems he likes Cathy because she’s not of his faith. If I were Cathy, I’d slap him. There’s gotta be more to Cathy than her religious affiliation, no?

But the minute I first met you 
I could barely catch my breath.


I’ve been standing for days with the phone in my hand,
 like an idiot, scared to death.

At last, something positive about his feelings for the person he’s singing to. Kinda.

I’ve been wand’ring through the desert!
I’ve been beaten, I’ve been hit!
My people have suffered for thousands of years
And I don’t give a shit!

Here’s some fun references to Jewish history; appreciate the effort to be clever. There’s an implication here that I think we’re supposed to ignore: that if he ends up with Christian Cathy it will add to the suffering of the long-suffering Chosen People.

So let’s ignore that.

If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.
If you once were in jail or you once were a man,
If your mother and your brother had “relations” with each other
And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,
I’d say, “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
It’s tragic but it’s true.
I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

So we’re back to listing “ifs” and it’s a fine, fun list but it still doesn’t logically lead to anything. Cathy assumedly doesn’t fit any of the “if” descriptions, but if she did, Jamie’d utter the same concluding sorta compliment.

You, breaking the circle

I have no idea what that means. The music, here, is gentler, more romantic, so maybe it’s a good thing. If I had time to think about it, which I don’t, I might conclude that there’s a circle involved in continuing the tradition of marrying within one’s religion.

You, taking the light.

I put a similar line in a lyric, once, “The way your features capture the light” which was specific and clear; Brown’s more nebulous.


You are the story I should write –
I have to write!

This is a double-edged sword. I admire John Guare’s lyric for a love song called Symphony – “I’m planning to write a very good book. Would you mind if the heroine is very much like you?” There’s an out-of-the-ordinary honor in putting a loved one in a work of art. (It’s why I’m so moved by Sondheim’s line “Mama is everywhere; he must have loved her so much.“) The other side of the sword is that there’s a popular philosophical metaphor that we all write the stories of our own lives, if we’re fully in control, as we should be. Jamie’s plan (threat?) to write Cathy’s story implies he wants to control her.

But time out for some praise: the groove of the music is catchy and lively and I do think there’s something interesting afoot.  It would seem that the plot of The Last Five Years is going to involve two significant perils to the central romance: the fact that they come from two different religious backgrounds, and this potential problem that he has some desire to control her. Those reading this who’ve seen the whole show (I’ve seen it twice) can answer whether the writing follows through with these particular plot knots.

I don’t want to open the can of worms of how I feel about The Last Five Years as a whole, but I’ll tell you what I was feeling at this point in the show: dread. It’s a two-character musical, and after each character has a solo I wasn’t looking forward to a love story involving a complaining, self-pitying doormat and an asshole who disses his mom and enthuses over a woman’s non-Jewishness.

If you drove an R.V., that wouldn’t matter!
If you like to drink blood, I think it’s cute.
If you’ve got a powerful connection to your firearm collection,
I say, Draw a bead and shoot!
I’m your Hebrew slave, at your service!
Just tell me what to do!
I say, Hey hey hey hey!
I’ve been waiting for someone,
I’ve been praying for someone,
I think that I could be in love with someone
Like you!

I know I’m being far too literal here. It’s a comedy song: I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But at the start of a show, I need to learn a lot about the characters, and all I know is that Jamie has had a long-held fetish for Christians. Weird stuff like that can make for a funny song.

But the songwriter has left out the jokes. Humor is obviously in the funny bone of the beholder. Maybe the song’s countless fans are finding stuff to laugh at in this lyric. I see nothing laughable, and only a few things that provoke a smile. And, really, I’m the ideal audience for this song. Born Jewish in New York, dated Christians and Jews, ending up marrying a Catholic. My life experience is close enough to Jamie’s for me to get everything, and yet I don’t get any of it. Can anyone help a brother out?


When I capture Aslan

March 31, 2011

When I was sixteen, I played a song I’d written for a musical-for-children for my composition teacher. It contained the line,

If you will kindly listen

To your beloved misanthrope,

I’ll tell you what we’ll do

Joe was rather tickled by it, but said “You can’t use a word like misanthrope in a song for kids. But that rhyme is so delicious, well, I guess you have to keep it.”

Keep it I did. 

But it started me thinking about vocabulary that isn’t understood by the audience. Obsessively, over the years. In college, I wrote a show and used the phrase “de trop.” I only knew this bit of French because Cole Porter had used it. (He intentionally mispronounced it to create a humorous rhyme for “You’re the Top.”) My mother, who majored in French in college, scoffed. Today, I can’t remember what “de trop” means – it’s not part of my vocabulary. I better look that up.

Where was I? Oh, yes: my de trop obsession about lyrics that contain words or concepts the audience isn’t immediately able to grasp. In a recent post, I ragged on a certain egghead writer for using précis, reticule and bathysphere. When a musical is being performed, the audience has so much to see, so much new information to take in. The last thing you want is for them to be scratching their heads, wondering what was just said, while you’ve moved on to providing them with the next entertaining tidbit.

Today, in a cabaret, I’m playing a song from a musical-for-children, Be Prepared. Tim Rice and Elton John wrote it for the Disney film, The Lion King. It’s fully and amusingly choreographed, but, rehearsing it, I’ve had way too much time to think about Rice’s words which kids – hell, human beings of any age – can’t possibly understand.

The very first rhyme isn’t a rhyme at all, it’s an identity.

I know that your powers of retention

Are as wet as a warthog’s backside

But thick as you are, pay attention

An identity is a pair of words that end with the same stressed syllables. It indicates a lyricist is being lazy: he wants a rhyme, but all he’s got is a repeated sound, so he’s missed out on all the good things a good rhyme can do for you.

It’s clear from your vacant expressions

The lights are not all on upstairs

This might work were it not for the fact that it’s a lion talking to hyenas. What do lions know of stairs? Why would the concept of a light being on exist in a world without light switches?

I know it sounds sordid

But you’ll be rewarded

When at last I am given my dues

And injustice deliciously squared

What the hell is “sordid” doing in a song for children? Here, Rice wants the rhyme, but it’s not worth doing if your audience needs to run for a dictionary. And do we want children to understand the definition of sordid? Just as we’re scratching our heads over that one, comes “injustice deliciously squared” so I guess children now have to run to a math textbook as well as a dictionary. We who’ve learned enough math to be familiar with squaring might not grasp what he means here. Scar, the evil lion, says he wants injustice? Already that’s odd, but applying the adverb “deliciously” to “squared” is positively rococo.

The guy who’s doing the song today has been diligently working on his diction, and it’s part of my job to correct him here and there. But I find “quid pro quo” impossible to pronounce, given the rhythm and speed Elton John has proscribed for those words. And how old was I before I knew what that meant? (In order to learn it I had to teach someone some Latin in return.)

So prepare for the coup of the century

Be prepared for the murkiest scam

Meticulous planning

Tenacity spanning

Decades of denial

Is simply why I’ll

Be king undisputed

Respected, saluted

And seen for the wonder I am

Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared

Again, in combination with Elton John’s music, this is totally incomprehensible. (And without the music, it’s not exactly the picture of clarity.) The rhyme and the cadence seem to indicate that “tenacity spanning” is one phrase, one that we’re supposed to understand without taking in the words surrounding it. Then, to make matters worse, “decades” is misaccented, as if the writers think there’s some beauty in having two unstressed “de-” sounds starting off two words in the same line.

And I’m not sure why the lion is telling us his ambitions are bared.

But Noel, some of you are saying, The Lion King is a phenomenally successful children’s entertainment. Rice and John have a slew of Grammies, Oscars and Tonys. The song is loved by millions.

True. But the success of The Lion King has to do with a variety of factors beyond the quality of its songwriting. There’s the animation, the story, the voice-actors, the huge marketing ability of the Disney studio. I’m not an animator or a marketer: I can only discuss the craft of fashioning a musical. But yes, I’ll admit it steams me that Tim Rice gets away with this crap, under the supposedly watchful eye of Disney, while I barely got away with “misanthrope.”

But they got the Oscar for Best Song, for another song from The Lion King, one that contains the line,

Stealing through the night’s uncertainties

Love is where they are

Don’t get me started on that one.