Animal family

June 18, 2019

You know that thing about a large-enough quantity of monkeys sitting at typewriters writing all of Shakespeare? This isn’t that.

Suppose, instead, a hundred musical theatre writers were forced to come up with shows based on the common scourge of bullying at school. 99 of those hundred would include lachrymose ballads about how sad you feel when mean kids pick on you. It’s like an open manhole cover that a parade of creators would fall into. The exception, the one-out-of-a-hundred who avoids the trap, is Michael Gordon Shapiro.

His wholly original musical, The Bully Problem, now at the Broadwater near Santa Monica Blvd. & Vine as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, is the sort of relentless delight that musicals used to be but rarely are any more. It refuses to wallow. It delivers jokes and events at an impressive pace that never flags. It keeps the entertainment balloon aloft, rather than getting stuck in the manhole labeled Life Can Be Cruel.

I’m honor-bound to disclose Mike is a friend, and this means some readers will disregard the praise here. But I’m writing to illuminate certain issues of show construction, not to convince you to go. But here’s a handy link for tickets.

You might think bullying is no laughing matter. As a former bullied kid myself, I can understand that line of thinking. But my mind goes to Kander & Ebb. The rise of the Nazis is a dark subject, but we enjoy their fabulously entertaining diegetic pieces in Cabaret. Years later, their Kiss of the Spiderwoman found glimmers of brightness in a dank and hopeless Latin American prison. Even more extraordinary was their subversive high-kicking minstrel show about The Scottsboro Boys. Why haven’t more people learned from them? They juxtaposed serious subjects with razzmatazz, toe-tapping tunes and gut-punch punch lines more than once.

What I find in most new musicals – and it depresses me – is that the miserable shows are so damn depressing. Too many creators are overly attracted to the shiny bauble that is the Moving Ballad. They see shows and shed tears during a song and decide they want to write something that will get their audience to cry. Sixty years ago, a revue made fun of this, with an up-tempo showing songwriters excited to serve up Man’s Inhumanity To Man. Nowadays, we get dragged into the theatre to see kids with cancer – I’m not kidding, although I wish I were – and it’s a fine though unfunny mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

photo: Matt Kamimura

What a blast of fresh air is The Bully Problem, with its myriad witticisms, actions and events coming at a pace that puts you at the edge of your seat. I’m not saying I loved every moment, but when story beats keep hurtling at you, a confidence grows that the next moment will be one you’ll like or love. When I say it doesn’t wallow, the word, “wallow” has two senses. One is to amplify depressing emotions; the other is to do that… really… slowly.

This, more than the refusal to play up the sad, seems to me the secret of the show’s success. The Bully Problem zips along. Punch lines land like a boxing champion’s punches. Things happen – I imagine an outline of this might make it seem like a three-hour epic, but it’s actually half that. There are surprises along the way. And also something you might not realize if you’re not a music nerd: the meters and feels of the songs are varied enough to create their own subtle propulsion. In any good show, audiences look forward to the next song (sorry, book-writers), but this score manages, almost magically, to kick us into a new gear every time. There’s actually a song called Off Balance, an apt title because that’s how we feel taking in its jagged rhythm.

Torpor can set in when a musical keeps a steady tempo, keeps feeding us new blips of information at regular intervals. The adrenaline rush of The Bully Problem is connected to an irregular fusillade of surprises. And some weeks before I saw this fairly slick production, Mike said something on a similar wave-length:

“Writing for stage requires an intuition about the pacing of human speech, and an ability to imagine a real-time performance. Otherwise a scene that looks reasonable in text can actually feel interminable when performed. Time is the most valuable resource on stage, and each word hogs some.”

It’s particularly satisfying to discover he’s kept the hogs at bay.

Now I suspect there are some people reading this who firmly believe that for a musical about a serious subject must musicalize the pain of a victim’s plight. How, you wonder, can The Bully Problem provide catharsis without some gloriously-sung It’s Sad To Be Bullied cri de coeur? Maybe you’d have to see it to believe it. But sitting next to me was someone who’s recently dealt with a Mean Girl and she shed some tears over what was happening to these characters and felt better after the show was over. You will too.

 

 

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Love is stronger than bureaucracy

February 14, 2019

Thought I’d seize the day to describe my process in writing my latest love song, in as much detail as I can remember. I hope you find it valuable, and not too annoying that I don’t, at this point, have a recording I can share.

Identity, a new musical that will open in May, has a plot point that cried out for a tragic romantic duet. In the show, set in a future dystopia, when youths come of age, they are assigned spouses and professions. One job is at the top of a hierarchy, but the downside is you’re not allowed to mate.

“Pregnant”

It occurred to me that a certain number of people marry their high school sweethearts. What if high school sweethearts are broken up by the System? What if one half of a couple is assigned a different person to marry, and the other can’t, by law? Would they continue their romance in secret? Or would they be duty-bound to accept that they can no longer be together?

Pretty dramatic stuff, right? Do you hear a song cue? It struck me that the question the young lovers must address is whether their love is more important than the bureaucracy that imposes a different mate on one and no mate on the other. So, before I knew what the characters would decide to do, I had a title, Love Is Stronger Than Bureaucracy.

There’s something faintly ridiculous about that title. “Bureaucracy” is not a term you’d expect to hear in the title of a love song. Nor are its rhymes likely to be found in any sweet sonnet: hypocrisy and autocracy. At first blush, these words seem alarmingly prosaic. Had I gotten off on the wrong tack?

For much of the score to Identity, there’s a question of tone. I think the moment the piece becomes too earnest, we risk tripping over clichés, alienating the audience. In context, I hope, that faint ridiculousness is going to work in our favor. People who see it should buy into the situation, and realize that ardor expressed in an unromantic society can use less flowery language; it’s fun rather than sweet. But the situation the couple is in requires a certain amount of passion. When I think of love duets that didn’t quite land because of excessive seriousness, I’m reminded of some of the Eurotrash musicals. Hold that thought.

“Love is stronger than bureaucracy” – I stared at these words, investigating where the stresses fall, and what syllables might sound best on sustained notes. This might be stating the obvious, but “love” is a word we’re used to taking up a lot of beats. Love, ageless and evergreen. Love is but a moment’s madness. Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. The rest of my unwieldy title seemed to necessitate short notes. And that’s how I gravitated towards 6/8. “Love” could take up nearly two measures, to be followed by quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth and then three eighth notes for the rhyming syllables. The moment I came up with this rhythm I knew that the song might seem oddly uncontemporary if I rhymed the title. That’s something Gilbert and Sullivan do, and this thing is set in a future century, not their Nineteenth. I wanted to retain, though, the sense of structure, of predictability, that rhymes provide. This led me to repeat the line:

Love is stronger than bureaucracy
Our love is stronger than bureaucracy

Don’t know if you’ve been keeping track. But that’s eight bars right there. A chunk to build on.

If my character – marked as “She” in my notebook – maintains that love is stronger than bureaucracy, then she must be up against someone who maintains the opposite (marked as “He” in my notebook, although genders kept changing and they weren’t always a heterosexual pair). So, now I had a notion about structure. She wants to continue seeing each other. He is a slave of duty (Uh oh, Gilbert and Sullivan rear their ugly heads again!). So, like a formal debate, we have a proposition stated, and then there’s a second section in which the opposite is stated.

Our love can’t justify hypocrisy
Although you well may be the perfect mate
I’m sworn to uphold the state

Musically, I knew I needed something pretty, but off-kilter, to take in the strangeness of a future dystopia. As stated above, the length of notes was dictated by the lyric.

The weird bit I inserted into the chord progression was  “the seventh of the Seventh” every fourth bar. I know that sounds confusing, so I’ll restate this simply. There is an incredibly common pattern of chords we’ve all heard in countless tunes: I, VI minor, II minor, V7. Nothing futuristic about that; you could hear it in Heart and Soul in the 1930s. I used the first three chords, leading the listener to expect the V7 and then – surprise – comes the VII7, which has two notes in common with the obvious one.

Maury Yeston, Pat Cook, Alan Menken

The contours of the melody lead to something of a climax on the tenth bar, of “mate” in the “He” lyric I just quoted. For this I needed something soaring, and fairly big. I thought this was a good time to have the singer open up on a high note – the sixth in the scale – over one of my favorite chords, which I guess might be known as the ninth of the Second. I like to invert this so that the bottom note is a tritone away from the tonic, harmonically, as far as you can travel.The two songwriting heroes of mine from my days in the BMI workshop, Maury Yeston and Alan Menken both used it to good effect in songs mentioning religion. Yeston’s glorious Bells of St. Sebastian puts it at the end of “In tones well-rounded they sounded down the nave” while Menken’s A Little Dental Music humorously underscores “Hark, the Mormon Tabernacle sings!” with it.

To contrast with the choruses, the verses have the free-flowing motion of real dialogue, but the triplets remain. So, who here held that thought about Eurotrash duets? You and I? Yes, it’s a little bit like You and I from Chess, but without the excessive seriousness. Your move! Opening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on May 23rd in Beverly Hills.


Sleepy

January 17, 2019

On my birthday I sometimes I feel like it’s a good time for self-congratulation. Other times, I feel I do way too much of that sort of thing already. But right now, I’m feeling pretty good because I’ve just written a draft of the Opening Sequence of a musical and take a great deal of satisfaction in assembling the various elements that are needed up front. Musicals must make a good first impression. Show me A Typical Day In Dogpatch, U.S.A. and I’m primed for a certain kind of humor all night long. At the opposite end of the spectrum is my favorite whipping boy, Still Hurting, in which lights went up on a lachrymose young woman who wailed her dismay that her romance had gone wrong. I wanted to bolt for the door. And the show never quite recovered from the initial unappealing note of self-pity.

So, in discussions with an unusually large collaborative team, I kept emphasizing our need to keep Scene One positive. And so, I’ve written energetic and catchy music, loaded the lyrics and dialogue with cleverness and/or jokes, introducing a community with something to celebrate. As we write more and start rehearsing (that’s any day now), we might discover I’ve set the wrong tone. But right now, I’m feeling uncharacteristically positive about it.

People feel old on their birthdays, but I’m noticing a way in which I’ve changed with the times, in a songwriting sense. The much-admired Broadway composer Lawrence O’Keefe does something that I think of as music designed for short attention spans. Often, the feel or groove it’s in drastically alters rather abruptly. My opening number does something similar: There’s one kind of energy for the intro, which is all in the bass clef, then an Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque duet made of descending lines, a short speech and then a Motown-like ditty in a new key. After two A sections, the feel changes to plainer pop over a bass line that walks down the scale. Then there’s funny dialogue covering a seemingly important Event. The villain launches into the Motown melody and then the chorus takes up the pop tune. Three new characters have a funny spoken exchange which is underscored by a sentimental waltz, then launch into the pop. Another bit of dialogue gives a new character something to celebrate. Then the chorus finishes things off with the Motown into pop sequence one last time. Much less fun to read about than to hear, but this illustrates what I mean when I say it keeps changing.

Time pressure on this show has led to a lot of quick turnaround. I furiously turned out ten other songs in the past month, and that included holidays and my mother-in-law occupying my office for ten days. When something is quickly created, it can be quickly discarded (if it has to be) without a great sense of loss; easy come, easy go. A couple of days ago, the writing team convened and I was asked what I needed to proceed. All I could think of asking for was a list of events, in order, that needed to happen in the first scene. That four-part opening number was written weeks ago, but now there was a larger structure to fit it into. The list was just what I needed.

Deborah S. Craig & Aaron Ramey sing a song of mine at the NEO Concert at the York.

At this point, I’m wondering whether I’m enamored with my work or more self-impressed with the mere fact that the work got done.

Songwriting that spurts out that quickly is aided by something that might be called Modeling on Antecedents. In the musty old file cabinets of my mind are a plethora of songs I’ve heard more than once, and admire. So, when I examine the situation in the show’s story that requires a song, I sometimes say, “needs a song like I Want It All from Baby.” That gives me a template. So the second number has those energetic eight eighth notes to the bar thing from the great female trio. And the bass rises on off-beats, I-III-IV, which I’m aware is a bit of Cats dance music I once found too tricky to play. A song about the start of a marriage takes it accompaniment figure from a more sour Sondheim song about marriage, The Little Things You Do Together. The lullaby needed to have the simple sincerity of Lay Down Your Head from Violet. A chorale about friendship has some distant relationship to some forgotten sitcom theme, and the word, “freedom,” inspired something along the lines of the Aretha Franklin classic, Think. And the finale uses a measure from Cole Porter’s Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which was known as a delightful duet long before the title was borrowed for a game show. So, right now, you might be humming a whole bunch of really disparate numbers. But the audience that will hear this score in May is unlikely to think of any of them; they’re totally transmogrified. And one ballad is a simplification of a sophisticated number I wrote last year that nobody’s heard. The point is, having these other tunes as a leaping off point helped me unleash the floodgates of creation.

And it’s been a lot of fun. There is something uniquely enjoyable about solving dramaturgic problems through the creation of songs that illuminate turns of plot, and where characters stand; this sort of thing is catnip to me. And nothing stops you from dragging your feet like knowing that a deadline looms ahead. The show opens May 23rd in Beverly Hills; I hope you’ll come see.


Untitled

January 9, 2019

I’ve been writing a slew of songs lately, and, paradoxically, my break before getting back to this rap nonsense – oh, that’s not a pejorative; merely descriptive – is to share a little bit about how I do it.

Alone in the Lab

There’s a good amount of solitude involved. I’ve found that there’s no use in talking about the song I’m going to write. People can’t share that vision; they need to hear the tangible thing. So, I have this image of myself as a scientist who merrily mixes stuff in beakers, with nobody watching, until some new potion is ready for presentation for others.

Practically, I have to have many hours of uninterrupted concentration. (This can be hard to get.) There will be pads of lined paper, which is not the same as blank music paper, which I’ll also need.

In the Beginning Was the Word

But not just yet. I like to focus, first, on what’s being communicated in the song. Since it’s almost always a song in a musical, I’ve a lot of parameters that are set up by the needs of the show. I know what the song needs to accomplish, dramatically. One of the pitfalls, here, is that a good song in a musical doesn’t amplify or explain and emotion the audience already knows, or can deduce.

But that’s a problem that can be fixed later. Once songs are completed, there’s all sorts of adjustments that need to be made – often cutting bits of book – to avoid redundancy. Let me emphasize that again: avoid redundancy.

Staring at the blank page, I begin to list things that might go in the song. As I do this, the need for a title is never far from my mind. A good title will encapsulate most of what a song is saying. That’s why it’s usually possible to get a sense of a musical’s plot just by looking at the names of its numbers. But, at this point in the process, you don’t need to have decided on the final title. You’re just listing.

Patterns Emerge

As the list grows, a sort of child’s game begins. Finding matches. The element most likely to leap out is rhyme. One could circle the rhymes, but I never do this, since I think in rhymes. It’s too obvious, to me, to waste time circling. A more important match would be metrical feet. Setting rhyme aside, can phrases be assembled that would have the rhythm of poetry? If you recognize rhythmic patterns, you’re well on the way to starting a melody.

I heard a rumor about Cole Porter: That he would set a lyric by notating the rhythms first, and the pitches came later. But what I’m more likely to do is to investigate various ways the stresses might fall. The image here is that of an actor, testing out different interpretations of a speech. Usually, more than one rhythmic setting will work. But here’s where you go beyond Cole: If you’re pondering the voice of the actor, you’re probably getting a sense of the shape of the melody. Nobody speaks in a monotone, except maybe that dullard who chants “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you.” Don’t be like that character! You’d rather have the moon.

Building Blocks

I’m not sure what to call what you have at this point – a snatch of melody? Well, scientist, you now have an element you can build with. That snatch could go somewhere in your song, and it’s going to be one of many pieces you’ll use. So it’s probably time to think about the larger structure. Piecing together an A section, you’ll now make decisions about where the title goes, where the rhymes go, and how to use those matching rhythms you identified earlier. And, by this point, you’ve chosen the title, which is more than I can say for this essay.

And then give a thought to the larger structure. Your B section will provide a contrast. This might be harmonic, or take the voice to a different tessitura, or, most likely, there’s a rhythmic contrast. A song I’m writing now starts in a minor key – the title’s the first line, but there’s a rhythmic match with the third line there – and is on jagged syncopations. The bridge is higher, in major, and involves much longer sustained notes the singer can open up on. Just the example I have on my mind at the moment. Right now I don’t know about other sections, although I’ve been playing with a somewhat long intro and, as an obstetrician once said to my wife, “I suspect there’s a C section in your future.”

Color By Numbers

Now that I’m thinking about my daughter, let’s consider a bunch of First Graders being given the same color-by-numbers page and an unlimited spectrum of colored pencils. The little artistic prodigies will choose different pigments that give the same drawing a wide array of emotional characteristics. It’s something I particularly love about the painting done about a century ago: Unexpected hues led to unexpected feelings.

Give music students – Tenth Graders, perhaps – the same lead sheet and the geniuses will come up with chords that put the tune across with varying levels of piquancy. Now, if you’ve familiarized yourself with thousands of songs over the years, (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ve recognized patterns in the chord symbols. It’s fair to say there’s usually the Most Obvious Way a melody might be harmonized. But why would you want to go with the Most Obvious Way? Leave that for the non-genius Tenth Graders.

Learning Through Observation

My daughter has started playing music too loud in the next room, and it’s one of those uninventive kiddie ditties with Most Obvious everything – Can You Imagine That? I’ve often spoken, here, of the sign in my office that reads Eschew Cliché. In order to do that, you’re really going to have to take a good long look at a huge quantity of songs from the past 100 years or so. See what they do with placing a title in the A section, deciding where the rhymes go, where the rhythmic matches show up. And if you’re staring at sheet music with chord symbols, take a gander at how the tune’s being colored. Anything that’s been done too much is, by definition, a cliché. Excuse me, I feel a sneeze coming on: Eschew!


You are the one for the job

January 1, 2019

So, I wrote some pretty good songs in 2018. And, while they’re not quite ready for sharing on this platform, I’d like to raise a flute of last night’s leftover bubbly to the mere fact they got written. And thereby hangs a tale of fortitude and perseverance.

My year – particularly the first half – was a spectacularly horrible one, the most depressing time of my life. There was a legitimate question as to whether I’d be able to dig in and write musicals. Baby Makes Three had no real deadline. There was no pressing need to finish the third draft. (The first was entitled The Music Playing.) But there’s a philosophy of strength I ascribe to. That, with one’s nose to the grindstone, one can get work done. Any time. Any place. No matter how soul-killing one finds one’s environs, or circumstances. If I truly believed that, I’d have to finish this draft, and rounding out the score are a couple of numbers – I Miss Breastfeeding, and Abigail Was a Butterfly – that are among the strongest songs in it.

My mood was tortured…
My life resembled
The Cherry Orchard

So, thinking back on this year made me think of these lines from a song with music by Galt MacDermot, who died a couple of weeks ago, one day short of his 90thbirthday. Before composing the music for Hair, he was hardly a hippie icon. He had a fairly conservative existence, earning a living writing jingles. Yes, jingles. Working for the Man. And then two young actors came to him with a crazy idea for a musical that would also be a be-in. What’s a be-in? Nobody quite knew. When your book and lyric writers are high all the time, it’s hard to trust them, but trust MacDermot did.

It’s here that I gently knock my father, who turns 91 this month. Those two actors, Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado, were in a play Dad produced off-Broadway. They told him about a show they were writing, Hair, which seemed to have no plot. My father declined to produce it – it was master producer Joseph Papp who had the vision to see its merit – and, well, there goes what would have been the family fortune.

Galt MacDermot’s follow-up to Hair, Two Gentlemen of Verona, which won the Tony (over Follies), is the clear progenitor of the contemporary Shakespearean musicals of Shaina Taub. MacDermot lived in Staten Island, a fact I couldn’t shake from my mind whenever I was there. In fact, I had this fantasy I’d need to use the bathroom and knock on his door, just to say I’d used the John of Galt.

But I’ve a contemporary Shakespearean musical of my own in the works, and there was a period in late summer when I managed to come up with a new song every week for it. If I’m going to celebrate my 2018 accomplishments, well, that level of production certainly deserves a place on the list. This fecund period convinced me that I don’t need the stimuli that fed me for decades in order to create. What lit a fire under me, on this one, was a collaborator who was fairly demanding and occasionally had trouble seeing the merits of certain songs. I’ve noticed that when I have an idea in my head, sometimes the only way a collaborator is going to understand that idea is if I write a draft of the song and record it.

The year’s third project, unlike the others, has a stringent set of deadlines. If I don’t complete more than one song every week, it’s not going to be done in time. There’s no time for me to second-guess myself; notes must be flung on staves, and words on pads, as fast they can be. At this point, a quodlibet is particularly fabulous, and there’s a stirring love ballad, plus a lullaby with many layers of meaning. Going well.

But I’m reminded that, back in March, I had to get a new computer, and the Apple salesmen assured me this modern model would work with my old midi keyboard. They’d lied. And so started the long nightmare of entering music on a computer staff by pointing and clicking – the glacially slow way. Come Christmas, though, my wife gave me a new keyboard that does interface with my computer. And, as a forgotten president once said, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

My wish for 2019 is to end our long national nightmare. But I’m telling you that no matter how horrible things get, you should still be able to write your musicals. Just summon up the will, or, in the case of one of my shows, the Will. And remember this Sondheim stanza:

A rhymeless word like silver
Is possible to rhyme
All it takes is will, ver-
Bosity and time.


Marion (reprise)

December 25, 2018

My recent post about the big anniversary of The Christmas Bride didn’t say enough, I feel, about what goes on in the show. So, if you’re done unwrapping Christmas presents, perhaps it’s a good time for me to wrap up what always should have been billed as a two-part reminiscence.

One thing we knew would happen early in the show is a marriage proposal. From the stolid medical student next door to the younger of two sisters. In the original Dickens story, The Battle of Life, the reader is told that the wrong sister has been proposed to, since the older one is better suited in many ways. But in a dramatic narrative, you show, rather than tell, and librettist MK Wolfe and I kept considering how the audience feels at every point. Usually, marriage proposals are instantly embraced by audiences. We’d need ours to root against the betrothed couple – a wedding they’d hope would be called off. We wrote and rewrote the sequence several times, handling it in many different ways. I wrote a halting proposal song, but that led to too much sympathy for the would-be bridegroom. It eventually occurred to us that he’s too unromantic a lug to sing his proposal. He should stammer, unmusically.

Betrothed couples get toasted, and are given advice. And this notion led to an effective way of introducing a whole bunch of characters rather swiftly. I created a large quodlibet in which different songs had different people advise in ways that defined them. So the paterfamilias is blithe and jocular. The sister emphasizes romance. Attorneys oh-so-properly have them sign papers. Each tiny ditty has a completely different feel, and then they all get repeated simultaneously.

Megan Poulos, Matthew Griffin Photo: Stephen Cihanek

Songwriters often raid the script for bits of dialogue that could become a song. So, a dashing fellow compares a girl he fancies to a thoroughbred. And this got me thinking about his relationship with his horse. The big solo I created for this character is, in fact, sung to his horse – a fairly unique idea. (I was aware of Lover, the Rodgers and Hart song in which Jeanette MacDonald addresses the horse she’s riding in Love Me Tonight.) In The Christmas Bride’s number, you can’t always tell whether the fellow is talking to his horse or himself. It’s fun, and I’m proud that the lyric is extraordinarily succinct.

It’s a huge contrast with the Act One finale, which shows various types of people in various locales, and you can almost hear horse hooves in the accompaniment. There’s a virtue in bigness: think of the Tonight Quintet in West Side Story and the excitement that comes from the convergence of so many forces.

MK Wolfe’s libretto is a fun and fine melodrama, and at one point the plot has two men searching for the same heroine. But, meeting for the first time, they think they’re talking about different women, and I was able to mine this moment for a funny duet that gets laughs, make us like both characters, and is passably romantic.

The roulette sequence is a colossal musical scene within a small-cast musical. It feels very large because so much is going on. A fellow with a gambling problem is goaded into betting more and more, and the stakes are high in more ways than one.

As a direct result of the events in this number, our leads are imprisoned in two different locales, but I gave them a split screen duet. We hear from both at once, and this is the closest they come to a traditional love song.

The Christmas Bride makes much use of subtle repetition. Snatches of song heard in one place returns within another song. A famous example of another show that does this is Merrily We Roll Along, in which the bridge to Rich and Happy returns later as Our Time. And The Hills of Tomorrow is the basis of both Who Wants To Live In New York? and Good Thing Going. Of course, Merrily has been rewritten so many times, the production you see may not include either Rich and Happy or The Hills of Tomorrow, but originally they were all linked.

Something similar happened to The Christmas Bride. The awkward marriage proposal that used to be set to music is heard, in a more fraught tempo, from the same character in the first act finale. But now that the proposal’s been cut, it’s new material, not a reprise.

But don’t get the wrong idea: I am not comparing The Christmas Bride to Merrily We Roll Along. One’s a successful musical that people love, production after production; the other, an interesting failure in which the action goes backwards.

 


Changing my spots

February 6, 2018

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about Cabaret lately. And when I think about Cabaret, I’m talking about the original Broadway musical that came out in the 1960s, not the famous Bob Fosse movie, which has a different plot, and not the 1990s revisal, which also has a different plot and uses songs written for the movie plus most of the songs written for the original Broadway show, and one of those songs (written for Sally) was cut from the original for good reasons but is here given to a male character because male characters can tell us so much about how it feels to have an abortion.

Stop. Let’s move back to a simpler time, and a simpler show. (And a quick reminder that this blog has a No Politics Rule.) It struck me that the original Hal Prince-helmed Cabaret deftly deceives the audience about what it’s about. I recently wrote a synopsis of what the show I’m writing is about, and started wondering about the usefulness of shifting answers to that question.

Man, I think I’m being unclear. Try it this way: Imagine tapping an audience member’s shoulder every ten minutes and whispering, “What’s this show about?”

Ten minutes into Cabaret, she’d answer “It’s about this night club in Berlin, and it’s sort of weird and sexy, with an all-girl band.” Twenty minutes into Cabaret, the response would be different: “It’s about a naïve American writer from the Midwest and he’s fascinated with this promiscuous Englishwoman. They’re sharing a narrow bed, with all that implies.” Thirty minutes: “Intrigue involving smuggling across German borders.” And later, “Anti-Semitism threatens to derail an interfaith romance between older people.”

Maybe I’m exaggerating but you get the idea. Cabaret – book by Joe Masteroff based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories – is a gripping entertainment, in part, because the audience never knows quite what to expect. From moment to moment, what the show seems to be about changes again and again.

A lot of musicals do the opposite. Barnum comes to mind. Tap that audience member at any point, and she’ll say “It’s about this fast-talking huckster collecting sideshow acts to present.” Call it a shiftless musical. To me, that’s far less interesting. I never wonder what will happen next.

And that’s something of a Gold Standard for me. Perhaps I, in my theatre seat, want to see something in a musical that Barnum’s many fans don’t care about. It’s this: I want to wonder what will happen next. I’ve got to care enough about the characters to be invested in unfolding plot points. These must be surprising enough so that the action doesn’t seem clichéd, expected.

So it’s the early days of television, and all sorts of calamities spring up in the effort of broadcasting a live variety show. And then it turns out the main characters have a long history together; a flashback reveals two once had a romance. The star of the TV shows tries to get another old friend, her Broadway mentor, booked as a guest, but there’s some trouble with this. Then, it’s a little like the old Dick Van Dyke Show, with writers subverting the watchful eye of an unhip authority figure. Then, boom! – subpoenas arrive from the House Un-American Activities Committee and we wonder, throughout intermission, how the old friends will be affected by being forced to testify.

Those shifting perceptions are what I set up in my musical, Such Good Friends. I didn’t think about this ten years ago, but that what’s-this-about evolution follows the model of the original Cabaret. And now I’m wondering about the wisdom of how Stephen Schwartz explains the storyboarding process in the ASCAP workshop. He said that his work at Disney taught him that every card on your corkboard (that is, story beats and songs) should relate to a central theme, a what’s-this-show-about. Certainly, that’s one way of doing it. But there are other ways.

Here’s a question I enjoy: What functions as the I Want song in Fiddler on the Roof? A lot of people think this is easy. The protagonist, Tevye, has a big number, early in the show, explicitly saying that he wants to be rich. On the other hand, Fiddler is certainly not a show about one man’s attempts to acquire wealth. (Barnum is.) Arranging his daughter’s marriage to a well-off butcher is not something Tevye uses his wiles to pursue; it’s very good fortune that falls into his lap. So, let’s go back to the question director Jerome Robbins asked the creators before they got the idea for a new opening number: What’s this show about? That, I can tell you in one word: Tradition! It’s about the dissolution of long-held traditions. These are very important to practically every character. (Not those defiant daughters. Their I Want is romantic, to make a matchless match.) In Fiddler on the Roof, the opening number is the protagonist’s I Want song. He wants to uphold his traditions because without them, life would be as shaky as… as… I can’t remember what.

It’s no coincidence that the preservation of the status quo is also the central goal in my Such Good Friends. “I want”…things to stay this good forever. So, in my best show, just as in the best show ever written, humor and romance masks the basic sadness of a well-loved world falling apart.

I don’t know; maybe it’s just me. Me with my lifelong aversion to change. Maybe that’s just a theme I find particularly moving. We had a good thing going…going…gone.