La casa del agua

February 4, 2017

Heard a rumor that there’s a film musical in development about Industrials. And since most rumors turn out to be false and the overwhelming number of movies “in development” never actually get filmed, it seems foolish to wait around for a flick not-yet-flickering to answer the question. I can tell you what an Industrial is, and commemorate my own experience working on one twenty years ago.

An Industrial is a musical that is created not for the general public to see. Some large company – not normally a purveyor of entertainment – wants to put on a show for a specific audience, usually at a convention. In the sixties, when, say, Milliken, wanted to display its new line of textiles for industry buyers, they’d do it with a song and a dance and top-flight Broadway talent (Tommy Tune, Chita Rivera, Bock & Harnick, Bob Fosse). Big business could pay significantly better than hit-or-miss Broadway, and there’s been many a year when the bulk of Jason Robert Brown’s annual income has derived from his work for State Farm.

Just as you’re unlikely to hear anything from a Kander & Ebb industrial, I’m not at liberty to play you songs from my industrials. The client paid for them, and the client owns them. And I’m happy with the money I received. But, since twenty years have gone by, and one of the companies that hired me no longer exists, I suspect nobody will mind if I describe my experiences with The Making of “Larry: The Musical.”

In the late nineties, I spent much of my time working with improv groups; I also taught improv. I got to know a lot of performers in what was then a fairly small community (it’s now enormous). A particularly close friend was a manic and driven young talent named Michael Bridenstine. And, from doing countless shows together, we had a great deal of trust in one another. So, when he told me he was working with Rafi Reguer, who’d been one of my improv students, on a special project, I instantly knew to say yes.  And.

Rafi worked for a company, a discount brokerage called Waterhouse Securities. Every year, it held an annual convention for its employees, and part of that was some silly piece of entertainment. Rafi was responsible for making the assembled conventioneers laugh, and this year, the beloved founder, Larry Waterhouse, was retiring. This meant that Rafi and some executives faced the problem of outdoing their previous efforts. He and Bridenstine decided to put this problem – How do we give Larry a proper send-off? – front and center. They created a video mockumentary about the company entertainment committee commissioning a Broadway-style musical commemorating Waterhouse’s career. It would show the behind-the-scenes preparation, including auditions and rehearsals, and the task of writing a Broadway-style score fell to me.

Rafi collaborated with me on the lyrics, and here we were on unequal footing. As I’ve mentioned countless times here, the key component of effective comedy is knowing your audience. Rafi knew his fellow employees. I knew squat about what a discount brokerage does. So, Rafi would say things like “if this lady says the words ‘she’ll do’ it will get a big laugh” and I was forced to trust him. We were also on unequal footing since Rafi had hired me with company money: In that sense, he was my boss. And that’s the thing about Industrials: you, the artist, must please the executives. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Happily, we had a great deal of trust in each other, and each brought a different element to the table. I know from musical comedies. Michael knows from funny videos. Rafi knew what the hell a brokerage is. As the piece evolved, I found my collaborators admirably receptive to my ideas. There was a place for a ballad that would be so sentimental, it might make people cry. There was an opening number that could also have served as a jingle for the company. And, when I heard the employees included the boss’ sons, identical triplets, I had the idea to have them come into the screen one at a time in a line. So, during Three Heads Are Better Than One you see one identical triplet, followed by a second identical triplet, followed by a black performer who didn’t look like the first two but could clearly out-sing them. The video shows the third triplet’s disappointment in not getting cast as himself.

Rafi and Michael wouldn’t remember this, but the best time I had on the project was recording the music with a sound engineer. He had one electric keyboard, and we kept creating new tracks in which I’d add sounds until we got something that sounded reasonably close to a Broadway orchestra. You could call that orchestration-on-the-fly because we didn’t take much time doing it. Rare is the chance to say “Let’s add a muted trumpet” and suddenly it’s there.

Rafi appreciated this enough to create and distribute a CD, which includes all those tracks, sans vocals, so you hear the score as sung and then you hear the score with just those synthetic instruments. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to, always bringing up warm memories, and Rafi wrote some extremely complimentary liner notes. So it’s just like a normal cast album.

Except, of course, that there’s nothing quite normal about an Industrial. Larry: The Musical never appeared on any stage. Nor was it intended to. The video, The Making of “Larry: the Musical” won three industry awards (I’ve a statue, a huge poster, and the CD framed in the manner of Golden Records) and this was screened for 500 Waterhouse employees in a Las Vegas ballroom. I didn’t get to attend, but, again, trust Rafi: “They laughed their heads off,” he told me soon after, “and during your sentimental ballad, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” I’m proud to have unleashed the Waterhouse waterworks twenty years ago.

(short trailer)

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Moo-goo-gai-pan

January 24, 2016

A few weeks ago, Broadway actress Samantha Massell had the chutzpah to tweet something that needs to be said. Thought about. Discussed. It’s about those omnipresent bootleg videos taken of Broadway shows. I loved the way she dealt with those who tweeted back their views. And, over on Facebook, I got involved in a parallel discussion.

Since I write these musings in advance, I’m writing this during a holiday. So, I’m going to attempt to adapt my comments into an essay about bootlegging. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but hey, you gotta let me slack off a bit on a holiday, right?

To the gentleman in the third row BLATANTLY filming our whole show on his iPhone. Shame on you!

A fellow cast member (the show is Fiddler on the Roof) chimed in:

So apparently there was a dude filming our show tonight. It would be appropriate if I choked him instead of Tevye with my pearls yes? #Fruma

Someone tweeted back:

the thing is, I’m too poor to see the play IRL. I live for those people who record the shows.

Massell answered:

I DEEPLY appreciate that, but live theatre is LIVE for a reason. I’m NOT paid extra when my work appears on youtube


And when someone else offered that video-takers could be subtler about it, Massell retorted:

The distraction, while annoying, is NOT the issue. The issue is that filming a live show is THEFT

Bootleggers, and people who watch bootlegs, don’t see it as “theft” but make a variety of specious arguments justifying the practice of surreptitiously recording videos of Broadway shows. Let’s look at a few of these:

     I can’t afford it.

Broadway performers train for years, paying large sums to voice teachers, acting coaches, dance lessons, etc. It costs many millions to mount a Broadway show. Anyone who steals a peak at a bootleg is robbing the hard-working performers and the angels who back the show. “I steal only what I can’t afford,” is something Aladdin sings, the scamp.

But theatre should be affordable because stage artists want their work seen by the highest number of people possible.

Do they? You know, there already is entertainment professionally recorded and available on Netflix for a small fee, something called “motion pictures.” Less-than-rich folk enjoy them all the time. Broadway is a luxury item, like a Rolls Royce; it’s not supposed to be affordable to most. Broadway artists, deservedly or not, are considered the best in the business. “Theft” was the term used by the Fiddler actress. I assume because she signed a contract to perform for a maximum of 1900 people 8 times a week for a couple thou. So, if you’re not among those 1900, and also aren’t compensating her, you’re “stealing” her work.

But, sometimes, theatres outside of New York decide to produce shows they wouldn’t have otherwise been familiar with without the bootleg.

Interesting point. I know I’d like it if a bootleg of one of my shows led to new productions. What show were we talking about, again? Fiddler on the Roof? Ever hear of it?

A bootleg’s my only option.

I realize some people are shut-ins with medical reasons they can’t travel to Broadway. I’m sympathetic to that plight, and am reminded of an old friend who had a moderate income, is confined to a wheelchair, lived in Pennsylvania and attended Broadway shows frequently. Me, I worked until 4 a.m. at jobs that threatened to kill my soul just so I could earn enough to attend NY theatre. So: Really? A bootleg’s your only option?

Theatre people want their work seen by as wide an audience as possible.

No: you’re thinking of TV & film people. The actress tweeting is an artist performing for a full house at the Broadway. She does what she does for them, and not for the surreptitious camera. Performing for the camera is another beast entirely.
Now, I agree it might be nice if all parties agreed to a wide distribution like the Met Opera and National Theatre experiments. But the chorus of fans insisting they somehow deserve Broadway entertainment for free isn’t helping to bring that about.

But what about performers and writers who are glad that they are made?

I’ve no doubt there are plenty of Broadway artists who are glad that bootlegs have been made. But one can’t therefore assume everybody’s pleased. There were, years ago, hard-fought negotiations with various stage unions that created the Lincoln Center Library archive: In that case, every party agreed to a rather limited showing. Why can you only see each video once? So you can’t steal the staging. I empathize with directors who’ve worked hard to create stage pictures that are then copied by hundreds of creativity-deprived directors for no compensation. Would you feel flattered, or robbed?

If someone gets a bootleg of a performance by the OBC of The Golden Apple, how is that preventing anyone from getting the pay that they should be getting?

The mention of The Golden Apple gets me thinking about its composer, Jerome Moross, who only wrote one Broadway musical. I don’t know much about him, but let’s speculate that one of the reasons he didn’t write more is that he didn’t feel he was fairly remunerated for the tremendous amount of work it took to create that incredible score. He didn’t live to see the world we have today, in which income for Broadway composers hasn’t risen significantly, but the number of consumers has grown exponentially. And it’s not that theatres have gotten bigger. It’s that cultural thieves have discovered a way to enjoy Broadway shows without giving one penny to the people who’ve worked so hard to put the show on. Several of the best musical theatre writers of my generation stopped writing musicals because they could earn much more money in Hollywood. Bootleggers provide a disincentive for many musical theatre creators to stay in the business.

I don’t point all this out in order to say “shame on you for watching bootlegs!” But something is rotten when an entitled class sups on our art when we didn’t authorize it. I’m led to fantasize the following revenge scenario: Some guy whose bootleg has been viewed a million times on the internet gets sued for a million dollars times the price of the show’s ticket. If he claims “I can’t afford it,” he’ll be drawn, quartered, and forced to sit through Mamma Mia again and again.


A glimmer of you

October 7, 2012

A young theatre songwriter I very much admire, Ryan Cunningham, has written a perfectly fair article for The Huffington Post about what might as well be called The You-Tubing of Our Industry. He accurately describes the contemporary process of writing a song, uploading a video, people see it and like it (or, perhaps, “like” it). Then you’ve got more people familiar with your work, more singers who want to perform that song, and, the ultimate goal, interesting producers in the musical from whence it came.

Sounds like a sure hit, does it not? – the musical From Whence It Came.

So that’s what it’s come to, here in the second decade of the 21st Century. At the risk of sounding troglodytically mired in 20th Century ways of thinking, I’d like to point out a few problems with our Brave New World.

The biggest one may be the hardest thing to convince you about. There are important differences between the qualities necessary for a song to score on YouTube and what flies theatrically in the context of a story for the stage. These differences were apparent to some, forty years ago, when the musical Pippin pioneered the use of television advertising for Broadway. The show had a smart producer, Stuart Ostrow and the brilliant director-choreographer Bob Fosse as its chief creative force. They took a long hard look at how Stephen Schwartz’s songs might play on the small screen and decided to present a dance with no singing.  What makes Pippin a successful entertainment is not stuff a camera could capture.

But surely music, if it’s good, will shine on a video.  And also the lyrics, especially if they’re witty. Could be, but finely crafted words and tune might just sit there, like so much lox, in the context of a show’s narrative. I was recently discussing one of Cy Coleman’s best ballads, with a piquant David Zippel lyric, With Every Breath I Take. The rangy and haunting tune, while bearing certain similarities to Rupert Holmes’ Moonfall, from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, seems overflowing with emotion, like an effective jazz standard. I love the song, but watching the show it’s from, City of Angels, I almost didn’t notice it. The scenery was moving during the song; a narrator spoke during the intro. What’s worse, it wasn’t a character we care about expressing herself: it was merely a jazz singer setting the scene, a 1940s night club.  The show gives us no reason to pay enough attention to the song that we get any inkling how good it is. Had City of Angels used this gem in TV ads, the lured-in audience would have been outraged.

Imagine Cy and David were writing this today and put this number on YouTube. They’d build an interested and excited viewership but it’s rather deceptive. If one were to list the virtues of City of Angels (and there are many) the emotionality of its torch song wouldn’t bear a mention.

Of course, that’s the age-old problem with excerpts. Like those blind men feeling up that elephant, we can’t quite get a handle on how the song propels the story (if it does).  Nowadays there are quite a few songwriters with considerable reputations who have yet to demonstrate that they can move an audience in the theatre with pieces that are pieces of narrative. Why are they renowned musical theatre writers, then?  Their videos.

Look, I’m not saying these guys are bad. And I’m not maintaining New York is the be-all and the end-all. But just to make myself clear:

Scott Alan
Jonathan Reid Gealt
Kooman and Dimond
Ryan Scott Oliver

have yet to demonstrate to New York audiences that they can write a book musical.  For many singers, usually under a certain age, they’re the go-to guys.  It’s puzzling to me that prolific show-writers like Peter Mills or Douglas J. Cohen aren’t.  But then, I’m puzzled by a lot of things.  Illuminate me.  I’m just putting this out there.

Speaking of putting it out there, remember Rebecca Black?  Or is this teen video star already forgotten, her name only known to trivia contestants?  Story goes, she borrowed $4000 from her parents to put up a cheerfully jejune song on YouTube, Friday, and became an overnight sensation, the very personification of going viral.  She was lucky her parents had the money to loan: I’m reminded of a political candidate who recently suggested young would-be entrepreneurs can borrow start-up funds from their parents.  I won’t say which candidate said this but must note that his father was a very rich auto executive and governor. (Vote, people!)  But who was I talking about?  Oh, yes: some young girl: I didn’t hear her name mentioned in the Grammy nominations, because, even in pop, the things that make a video eminently clickable are not confused for the qualities of, er, quality.

I don’t talk about pop on this blog.  My concern is musical theatre, and the increasingly widespread practice of YouTubing threatens to propel our genre’s equivalent of Rebecca Black into the spotlight, stealing attention from writers with great craft but not-so-great videos.

And maybe their videos aren’t wonderful because there’s something in the nature of musical theatre that even an expensively produced video can never put across.  Our songs are written for live performance, in which a live actor sends something across the footlights that’s received by an audience.  The audience, in turn, sends an energy back, often as laughter, or applause, or tears hitting the arms of their chairs.  This is received by the performer, who will adjust what she’s doing in response to the response.  And so it goes.  When musical theatre is firing on all cylinders.  And no video can ever relate that.