Magical music

March 6, 2018

Stephen Schwartz turns 70 today but way back when he was in his twenties he had three smash hit long-running musicals on Broadway. One of these, Godspell, had transferred from Off-Broadway, where it had played five years. That’s an amazing amount of success at an amazingly young age.

Like many of us, I’ve been contemplating the power of the young in recent weeks. Sometimes, it takes a tyro to start a revolution. The old ways can seem played out, no longer effective. Prior to Schwartz, a show tune sounded like a show tune, and musical theatre’s Golden Age had provided a bunch of scores that sounded somewhat similar to each other: Your parents’ music. Then, a kid bursts on the scene whose songs sounded like Laura Nyro, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. How fresh he must have sounded, imbued with the energy of youth.

I’m not one who knocks the Golden Era. (A major critic once called me Jerry Hermanish.) But, today, listen to a little of Mack and Mabel and then listen to Pippin. They don’t seem like they’re from the same planet, let alone the same era. The former had stars but wasn’t a hit; the latter lacked stars but ran forever.

The Seventies can be seen as a transformative period. The older generation clung to the idea that show music shouldn’t sound like pop. Later came the idea that new shows shouldn’t sound like Golden Era shows. In the Seventies, both types existed, and nobody did more to demonstrate how pop sounds can be used for dramatic purposes than Stephen Schwartz.

That’s because he’s a man of the theatre, with an innate understanding of what makes a song theatrical. This quality is notably missing when aging rock stars decide to try their hand at the legitimate stage. The first Schwartz number heard in the first Schwartz musical is an octet in which various philosophies are heard in counterpoint: Socrates, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Sartre, Nietzsche, and Buckminster Fuller. Now, I ask you, could a professional rock star ever come up with anything like that? Schwartz turns these intellectual tenets into easily-understood lyrics, like only a Broadway baby can. And just when this threatens to be too wordy to take, we hear the startling sound of a ram’s horn. A new song begins, and its lyric consists of seven words repeated over and over again. The mind gets a break. We can sit back and enjoy the joyful dancing. The boy in his early twenties who came up with that understood something about how an audience pays attention that older writers consistently miss.

Let’s hear it for the boy; let’s give that boy a hand. Or, a wall of hands. The opening number I just described would be awfully hard to top, no? Well, what if, in the beginning, you saw three dozen hands, palm forward, instead of a curtain? The light catches nothing else. There’s a rock bassist and an electric piano and yet, somehow, this music is placing us in a faraway time and place. “Join us,” a commedia player commands. Harmonically, we’ve got the cool jazz of a minor ninth chord, never settling into anything truly familiar, like a tonic. But what was strange and wondrous in 1972 is now iconic: We think of Magic To Do as the paradigm of openings.

And then comes the paradigm of I Want songs, Corner of the Sky. But my favorite first two tracks on a Stephen Schwartz cast album are Chanson and Merci Madame from his first bomb, The Baker’s Wife. It closed out of town but, miraculously, four performers were hustled into a recording studio. None of the numbers involving anyone other than Paul Sorvino, Patti LuPone, Kurt Peterson and Terri Ralston were recorded, so this cast album doesn’t really represent the show as it actually was. But, having seen it some years later, I can tell you: that’s a good thing. The solos and duets are wonderful, tell a moving story, and the album is a joy to listen to. The whole show, in the theatre, is filled with annoying ensembles and the plot is deeply problematic. We love the baker and the baker loves his much younger wife. She decides to run away with a young lover, so, naturally, we hate her. Except Schwartz came up with a tour-de-force for the performer, an extremely long allegory that allows this adulteress to justify her perfidy. By rights, the audience should boo and hiss her off the stage. But that song, Meadowlark, is so hard to sing, we’re so impressed by the singer, we applaud wildly. This is so problematic, the producer David Merrick tried to cut it by literally going into the orchestra pit and removing every musician’s copy from their music stands. Contractually, it’s up to the writers to approve all cuts, but I can see where he was coming from.

Musical theatre writers in New York and Los Angeles have another reason to appreciate Schwartz. Annually, at the ASCAP writing workshop, he shares his thoughts, critiquing new musicals. The information I’ve gleaned, listening to him over the many years, is far more valuable to me than the fine examples of his formidable musicals for the stage and screen. No writer has shared more about what goes into the crafting of a show. And he’s not delivering a prepared speech; he’s simply saying what comes to his head. I admire his mind even more than his music.

The thing about Schwartz lyrics is that they’re squarely in the musical comedy tradition and usually sound nothing like pop. They deliver story, subtext, surprise and here’s the part that gives one pause: overly clever rhymes. That’s an old-fashioned quality, seemingly at odds with the modern sound of his music. In a way, this contradiction defines Schwartz – the new-fashioned sound with old-fashioned showmanship. I sometimes lose patience with this showiness (“Life is fraught-less when you’re thoughtless.”) but this may have to do with my fear that something similar goes on in my own work.

And we’ve this other odd thing in common. As children, our parents took us to visit a professional composer who lived in the Chelsea Hotel. The idea wasn’t to influence us to become musical theatre writers. We went because George Kleinsinger kept all sorts of exotic animals in his apartment including a toucan named Sam. Only one of us went on to write a musical about Noah’s Ark, though. Happy birthday to him.

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Cabaret of despair

February 26, 2018

If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:

  • Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
  • No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
  • Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
  • And… I just don’t get them.

In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.

And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:

My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.

That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.

In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.

So, let’s get specific:

Profundity

This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.

But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.

I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.

Repetition

The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.

In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.

When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.

Amplifying

Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.

Pretty funny?

A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.

(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)

I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…


I’m working

April 1, 2017

End of the first quarter; might be time for some sort of report. And, I’m not sure how this happened, but the past three months have been more productive than any quarter I can recall in the past decade. And it’s not as if I’ve written a lot. I think there’s just one new song, Happy Show. It’s rare for me to be so pleased with a composition. It breaks new ground, in that I’ve never seen anything like it on stage. I’m very much looking forward to how the audience will react to a bit of business we all know happens in real life, just not under a proscenium.

Sorry to be so cryptic – is there a blog equivalent of “vaguebooking?” The real reveal shouldn’t be me, here, telling you what it is; rather, it should be in a musical, with an audience following what’s happening to two characters, and then comes this surprise that’s fun and funny. And this issue of how people first hear songs is a major obsession with me. Theatre songs are written for a specific context. Obviously, they’re parts of stories, and the audience has some emotional investment in the characters singing. Many good songs contain action, moving a plot from one point to another. But if you said to me “Play me that new song you seem so proud of” and I do – you’d come to it with no knowledge of the plot, character, setting, what just happened in the story, and what the action of the song is likely to mean for the show’s next scenes. But that’s the world we live in. Is there any form more likely to trickle out in dribs and drabs than the musical? Do filmmakers get asked to reveal two minute bits as often as we do? Would you ever ask a painter to show just a square inch of a canvas-in-progress?

The unusual accomplishment of this quarter is that I submitted for six things. Contests, workshops, residencies, grants. This takes a lot of effort, and part of that is deciding which square inches of my canvas to enclose. Often, it feels like I’m playing some elaborate game where I don’t quite understand the rules. On the surface, the application rules seem simple enough: “Enclose four songs from your musical” – that sort of thing. This becomes the main work of a musical theatre writer. Not telling the story, not actually writing the thing, but figuring out how to choose excerpts. And that’s a completely different art. One I don’t think I’m good at, at all.

Ten years ago (and God knows how many applications ago), the wise folks at the New York Musical Theatre Festival said yes. Such Good Friends would be one of a dozen or so Next Link shows that year. I celebrate this watershed, perhaps a little too much, but that’s how I roll. When submissions are rejected, the best thing to do is forget about them, move on. When they succeed, crow about it for a decade or so. Since I work so often with actors who are working their butts off to get that first job, I tend to think we have similar experiences. Most auditions are a swing and a miss; most applications lead to naught. It’s not healthy to dwell on the rejection, or even to think as these as failures. While the expression goes “It’s all a crap shoot.” I, as the creator of a musical scene about playing roulette, prefer the analogy of an enormous roulette table. There’s not just 38 numbers; there are hundreds of places to place a chip. And our task, either as writers or out-of-work actors, is to get into the game, put chips on the table.

The ridiculous part of all of this is that sometimes I find myself too busy working on a new musical to find the time to apply to new works festivals, contests and grants. Creative work taking precedence? That can’t happen! You’ve got to be in it to win it, obviously. The writer who makes no effort to get his shows seen, produced somewhere, is like those unfortunate souls who call themselves actors but never audition for anything, and, therefore, never act.

My amazing March, in fact, involved two giant leaps forward on two new musicals, and neither involved my writing anything new. On fairly short notice, I managed to throw together a private reading of a new score, which my collaborator wanted to hear live (and not sung by me). Finding six eager performers, getting them their music, rehearsing and recording – all of this was a huge endeavor, not something I do often. Simultaneously, I showed another show to a director I trust and received detailed and mind-blowing notes. These were so savvy, I now have a focus for a new draft. Knowing the “holes” in the work – that is, elements identified as missing – has already spurred a couple of new ideas for songs. And – you can tell this is important to me – they’ve premises I haven’t seen elsewhere.

I guess all of this is a circuitous way of explaining how a three month period in which I managed to churn out only one new song can seem like such an accomplishment. I got the job done: the job of applying to things. And even if those things say no, it can’t be denied I placed six chips on the table.


Jog on, jog on

December 15, 2014

Another big anniversary to celebrate, and this one’s really big: a rather round number, the number of years since I completed my first musical.

I was in ninth grade, in Mrs. Steele’s Honors English class. I hadn’t started the year in Honors English, but when I heard that Mrs. Steele had let her students see topless pictures of herself on vacation, I knew this was the teacher for me. And it was, because before I knew it, we were all asked to write something in dramatic form. And my fellow Honors English students all turned in three-page sketches, or really short plays and I wrote a two-act musical. I think I was asked to perform this opus for the class, so I went to the piano and recorded accompaniment to all the songs on cassette. Then, in December of a year ending in “4,” I read the whole thing out loud to the class, pushing “play” and singing all the songs. I was a teenage boy who’d written a musical…about a teenage boy who’d written a musical. That succeeds on Broadway. And his producer’s efforts to get him over the sophomore slump so he could write another one. The name of the producer was Hal Prince.

Wipe that smile off your face! The important part of the story is that I impressed a lot of people with what I did, and some of these people helped me continue this pursuit. Plans were formed to perform the show at school, but they didn’t pan out. The would-be producer’s brother played trumpet, so I learned something about writing a trumpet part. And I decided to write another musical, basing it on an old George Abbott play that seemed to cry out for music. When this was done, my effort to get it produced at my high school involved me singing the entire score for the drama teacher, who listened attentively. My Roaring Twenties tale of gangsters and chorines didn’t strike him as the right thing to put on, but he left the door open to hear anything else I wrote. At this point, a librettist materialized, and we figured we had a better shot writing a musical based on a well-known children’s book. The drama teacher patiently listened to our adaptation, and again politely and encouragingly turned us down. My collaborator took a copy of the script with her to college, and was studying abroad her sophomore year when she got a chance to direct anything she wanted. This is how, at the age of 18, I joined the lucky throng of those who’ve had a musical produced. In jolly old England of all jolly old places.

The other prodigious accomplishment of my teens was playing piano for an improv troupe. Someone there, knowing I’d be heading to New York for college and had a passion for writing musicals, insisted I apply for Lehman Engel’s free musical writers’ workshop at BMI. Really, I thought I was a longshot to get in, but, at this point, I’d written three musicals, and my little cassette tape must have impressed somebody over there, for I was accepted, by far the youngest person in the workshop. My education there coincided with my education at Columbia, where I also impressed people enough to get more opportunities to get more shows produced. At the BMI workshop, I decided to adapt a play I thought was deeply flawed. Why? Well, at this point I’d learned that Oscar Hammerstein had challenged the teenaged Stephen Sondheim to teach himself about writing musicals by writing four shows:

  • One based on a play you admire
  • One based on a play whose flaws you think you can fix in your adaptation
  • One based on something not yet in dramatic form
  • One completely original

That fourth project completed the quartet. But let’s consider Hammerstein’s assignment, for a moment. He certainly told young Stephen a lot of helpful things about writing musicals (and, as you know, on this blog, I try to share helpful things I’ve gleaned about writing musicals). But the real education, of course, is going through the experience of writing those four shows. So, sure, read this blog and take in what I have to say. But, more importantly, write a musical, and then another, and then another, and then another.

Katz, Belanoff & Gee

On the Brink’s writers

Don’t worry if you don’t get these maiden efforts produced – I got one; Sondheim got none. I swear you’ll improve with each one and your fifth just might be worthy.

My senior year at Columbia I finally got to see a show I’d written produced on campus. It was then called Pulley of the Yard, but when British people discovered it, they took its alternative title, Murder at the Savoy, and produced it again and again, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival. Right after graduation I started collaborating with a guy whose faith in me was based, in part, on the Kurt Weill-like harmonies I’d used in the fourth “apprentice” project. Then Columbia called again, needing a songwriter for the Varsity Show, and the success of this led to the off-Broadway hit, On the Brink, which turned a profit when I was the ripe old age of 25. Next, that first show that had been produced got rewritten into something wholly other, and ran a long time when I was 27. And who should attend my next effort but the aforementioned Mr. Sondheim, who sent a note in response suggesting what I should focus on in my next musical.

My Next Musical” – my how those words have a nice ring to them! You can never know whether it’s going to be a commercial success (as many of my shows have) or win you some awards (as three of my shows have) or multiple productions. The only thing you can be certain of is that you’ll learn from the experience. Exactly what it takes to get better at it.


Kate, how can I say this?

January 23, 2014

My father is alive and kicking, turned 86 the other day, and I’m continuing to honor his request not to write about him. Instead, I’m going to write about someone else’s father, a man I met exactly once, and he left this world just the other day. But the story of our encounter, decades ago, and how he inadvertently ruined what I considered a golden opportunity – just by being nice! – is a tale worth telling. And I don’t think his daughter, Kate (not her real name), is likely to read this.

There are times in the life of a musical theatre writer when you surmise that what you really need, more than anything, is a staged reading of a show you’ve been developing, and plan to continue developing. This is a perfectly natural feeling. You’ve written a draft, think it’s possibly good, possibly not, but, for far too long, it’s been words-on-a-page. You need to hear those words read by actors, and for them to sing the songs. You need, most particularly, a live audience to react to what you’ve written.

My musical, The Company of Women had been languishing in a developmental limbo. A director who’d been instrumental in setting out the course of what it was to be had moved to California. A librettist and I had irreconcilable differences about what we wanted the show to be – she wanted to send the characters to outer space, literally, while I liked them earth-bound – so we broke it off. A replacement director/librettist made important improvements, then moved to Florida. What is it about proximity to fresh oranges with these people? I soldiered on, alone, and reached that point where I was dying for a reading.

Luckily, my compadres at The Third Step Theatre Company were assembling a festival of readings of new plays and musicals. At the perfect time, that golden opportunity came a-knocking. (Is that a mixed metaphor? I guess thinking about ladies in Florida and California has brought up thoughts of golden knockers.) I’d have the reading I’d need. And it was one of those where people stay afterwards for a moderated discussion of what they liked about the show, or were puzzled by, or felt didn’t land.

My reading would go on exactly once, but there was a substantial amount of preparation that was needed. The Company of Women is a score full of counterpoint. We had to get those interweaving melodies in perfect tune, and, naturally, the director wanted various acting beats worked out in advance. I’m not complaining about this – I live for this stuff – but want you to know what went into this.

Kate (not her real name) – remember her? – was in the cast and Kate’s father was in the audience. The theatre space was small and bright; I don’t recall the house lights being on dimmers. So, when it came time for the post-performance discussion, the moderator asked those in attendance for their honest reactions. First to speak was Kate’s father, grinning from ear to ear. “Well, I thought it was wonderful!” he fairly gushed.

“Is there any part of it you felt could benefit from any sort of revision?”

“No!” the broadly beaming gentlemen responded. “I thought it was wonderful!”

As I remember it, there was something positively infectious about his enthusiasm. The moderator tried to elicit other responses, but Kate’s father had set the tone. Nobody there seemed willing to utter anything even remotely negative: to do so would have rained on the most happy fella’s parade. And so we folded up the chairs and went home, having received not a shred of guidance as to what needed to be done next.

In marked contrast to the man I’d so entertained, I was depressed by what had transpired. This audience was saying that The Company of Women was unimpeachable, the most perfect musical since Fiddler on the Roof, and offered no ideas as to how it could be any better. Now what the hell was I supposed to do? All that work we put in seemed for naught.

The late dad-of-Kate wasn’t someone you could be mad at; he was charming and ingenuous. But, in my woebegone state, I couldn’t help focus on how he’d marred my moment. After a series of conversations with folks that were there, in which I never revealed my feelings, I discovered something: Kate had nothing on her resume. Now, it seemed to me I’d known Kate for quite some time, as I know a lot of people: young and constantly auditioning. It hadn’t occurred to me that she had struck out at every audition. This little reading of mine was her first time on stage in New York. And that uncritical response was a loving dad, struck inarticulate because he was beside himself with pride. Kate was performing, and that’s all he saw. He could find no flaw in The Company of Women because his perception was clouded by the pleasure of seeing his daughter perform.

Or maybe my perception is clouded by self-doubt, and The Company of Women is the greatest musical written in the past half-century. I went on, wallowing in the thought the whole enterprise had been a waste.

Until…

Someone with a large amount of experience developing musicals, who’d been there, but had to leave before the discussion, sent a letter. He made it clear he doesn’t usually type up notes and send them in a few days later, but The Company of Women had fascinated him, and stuck with him. At last, I got some views I could use, in glorious detail. The Third Step mucky mucks asked how I felt about the letter.  I said “To my way of thinking there’ve been great documents over the years: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the five pages of notes on The Company of Women.”