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.

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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.


Such good friends – part two

October 5, 2017

When The New York Musical Theatre Festival chose Such Good Friends as one of its Next Link “blind” selections for presentation, I could have frozen the script, leaned back, and watched what I’d written get produced. That’s what most NYMF writers do. They figure if the panel of professionals think it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, then it’s good enough to go in front of an audience, as is. I thought just the opposite: My God, this thing is going in front of an audience in a few months! I’ve such a short time to get it to where I want it to be!

And this is the main reason director Marc Bruni and I were such a perfect fit. When he first read the script – two meetings before I chose him to direct – he saw it as a work-in-progress with great potential to be truly entertaining by opening night. Neither of us ever felt it was perfect as is; it could always stand for improvement. As I said in Part One of this ten-year anniversary reminiscence, Marc hoped I could focus on script fixes and little else. There was also the odious task of begging people for money, but checks trickled in from surprising sources, including the Anna Sosenko trust, which supports musical theatre writers.

With our rather lean budget, we knew we’d need to streamline the storytelling, so only nine or ten actors would be used. That cut my cast size in half, including the sons and spouses of major characters. Marc had wonderful suggestions. (He’d shepherded at least two Broadway musicals before this as uncredited dramaturg.) We’d have long discussions on how the audience would experience every moment in the show. And if I could boil down this entire excellent experience into one bit of wisdom, it’s that: try to see your show as the audience will see it. The jokes, while plentiful, weren’t funny enough. The dramatic turns had to sucker punch the audience. A musical must surprise. Such Good Friends eventually startled.

I tend to do better inserting humor into my lyrics than I do in dialogue. So, under the genial guidance of Mike Bencivenga, we convened a roomful of funny people to punch up the script. I was aware that this is a common practice with television comedies. They do a read-through, and a table of wags keeps pitching better jokes until the show-runner bangs a figurative gavel to say “Yes, that line’s good enough.” Not all musicals undergo this process, but I’m sure glad such good friends of mine upped the yock-quotient that night.

I think Marc was particularly impressed by the new songs that I came up with as the result of our talks. While I recall we talked a lot more about the first act than the second, about half of the numbers that were heard in Act Two were late additions. Sondheim’s two best-known numbers, Send in the Clowns and Comedy Tonight, were eleventh hour creations, and he’s spoken about how it wasn’t the time pressure that got such good work out of him, it was knowing the characters really well, how they sounded, what the song should do.

On Such Good Friends, several of the songs I initially thought were the score’s best ended up on the cutting room floor. Whenever I hear of a writer digging in their heels, refusing to cut something (and the Dramatist Guild contract gives them that right), I think “Lord, what fools these songsmiths be!” Audiences at bad NYMF shows (and, one must admit, there are a lot) are suffering through any number of numbers that should have been excised.

The other thing about knowing your characters is that everything changes when you find your actors. And what actors we found! To the shock of many who know us, my wife Joy (more on her in the next post) didn’t cast Such Good Friends. There was a more experienced casting director in her office, Geoff Josselson, and she trusted him more than she trusted herself. Geoff and Marc worked together to generate lists of utterly fabulous people who’d be perfect for all of the roles. Offers went out, and I was amazed at the yeses that came back.

I remember when I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. I thought they were plenty funny, but there was someone else in the cast who was far funnier, Brad Oscar. I remember when I saw this utterly fantastic off-Broadway revue, Closer Than Ever, loving the brilliant acting-in-song of Lynne Wintersteller. Getting such high-caliber people in the cast was incredibly exciting to me. Just weeks earlier, remember, the faceless NYMF selection committee had decided my piece had value. Now, performers I’d adored on stage committed their time to this exploit. Quite an honor.

producer Kim Vasquez, me, Liz, Marc

Sometimes your lead breathes life into a character in unexpected ways, and your formerly-just-on-paper personage begins to soar. So, I’d loved Liz Larsen in A New Brain, where she created a far stronger impression than then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth. And I’d loved her Tony-nominated portrayal of Cleo in The Most Happy Fella (a particularly wonderful musical). I’d even liked her as the protagonist of the worst new musical I ever saw on Broadway. If she could enliven that mess, I knew she could do something fantastic for me.

And fantastic she was. Every beat fully acted, fully felt. She grabbed hold of the audience with comic timing, apt physical business, and that gorgeous clarion voice and made everyone care what happened to her character. This was a star turn of the first order, and of course she took home an award for her work. (Marc and I did, too.)

I’ve run out of time to mention everyone I’d like to mention. For now, let it suffice to say I was very lucky to get the people I got and the production I got. The critics (yes, critics came) were beside themselves with superlatives. Peter Filichia thought we “…delivered a production that could move to Broadway right now. Right now. RIGHT NOW!” Michael Dale found it “One of the best musical comedies I’ve seen in years”. Lisa Jo Sagolla’s Critic’s Pick review in Backstage said “The hard-hitting political message takes brilliant dramatic command” and called me “a wily wizard with words.”

So, of course, Such Good Friends stands out as the highlight of my career. And it couldn’t have been done without such good friends.


The Dottie Frances show

September 28, 2017

Ten years ago today, my musical Such Good Friends opened and thereby hangs a tale. And within that tale, there’s another tale. And within – Hey, you ever feel like, when starting a post, that it’s going to take several posts to cover it all? Yeah, neither do I.

Did you ever notice how many successful musical theatre book-writers wrote sketches for Sid Caesar’s television show in the 1950’s? Best of these were Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello Dolly!, Barnum, 42nd Street) and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Take Me Along, Zorba). Theatre superstar Neil Simon was tapped to write a musical for Caesar to perform on Broadway, Little Me, and later penned Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, and others. Two far funnier books were by Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum, City of Angels). And then there are national treasures Mel Brooks (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Woody Allen (Bullets Over Broadway). There was a time when my admiration for Caesar’s writers was such that I’d go see anything they did, and it was particularly interesting when their scripts reflected back on their experiences working on Your Show of Shows. I read Simon’s Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor prior to its Broadway production. And Brooks’ recollection became a movie he produced, My Favorite Year.

The year of “Year” was 1954, and the film establishes this by having a stack of newspapers dropped off at a newsstand. The headline refers to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt, which would have severe implications for the entertainment industry. And then, for the rest of the movie, it’s not mentioned again. Young writer has to corral a drunken old movie star. Not a mention of McCarthyism after the opening shot. Strange, no?

Similarly, Laughter on the Twenty-Third Floor has the character based on Caesar punch a hole in the wall in anger over something McCarthy has done. But nobody in the play gets blacklisted, or is forced to testify before the HUAC. Surely, Brooks and Simon knew a lot of people who’d suffered. (Or was it just Shirley?) Their reminiscences were droll enough, but that, to me, is a curious omission, sweeping some ugly truth under the rug.

Woody Allen appeared in Walter Bernstein’s recollection of blacklisting, The Front, and here was a film that more successfully struck a balance between comedy and the grim reality of the scoundrel time. Bernstein’s later book about what he personally experienced was a chief inspiration to me. He didn’t sugarcoat a thing, and I was particularly taken with the tale of two good friends who had sons, maybe twelve years old, who were best friends. Both dads found themselves accused of being former communists, and the day came when, in desperation, one supplied names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. This upset his friend so much, he ordered his son to abandon his friendship with the name namer’s son.

Such an emotional event seemed to call out for musicalization. I’d long wanted to write about the McCarthy era, but the topic seemed too depressing to be a musical. Now, some of you might be thinking “How ridiculous! Nothing’s too depressing to be a musical. The Leo Frank tragedy became Parade.” And it’s here where we must agree to disagree. I think Parade’s a perfectly awful musical, a heap of sad events that garner a knee-jerk reaction. If I were going to create a musical about McCarthyism, it would have to be damn entertaining, not a depression fest.

But how? I thought about this for years, until it hit me: what’s entertaining about My Favorite Year and Laughter On the Twenty-Third Floor is that you have a bunch of funny people put under pressure, the pressure of creating live television in its earliest days. That’s an appealing milieu, filled with opportunities for humorous songs, and amid all the laughter, I’d have the opportunity to show what happened to so many hard-working talents in the entertainment industry back then. Oh, and I knew I could use the father-telling-son-to-give-up-his-best-friend bit.

The song for that scene went through more drafts than any other in the score. I was certain this was the centerpiece of the show, and if I perfected it, everything else would fly. But, at most points in the creative process, one can’t be sure what’s flying. At the time I sent Such Good Friends in for consideration by the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF is its spritely acronym), I’d never had any outsider tell me it was any good.

Imagine my elation when my blacklist musical was selected for production. It was, at long last, confirmation that someone else – a panel of professionals, no less – thought mine a worthy project. And on went a ticking clock. That is, there were now announced dates when the Festival would take place. That limited the remaining time for improving the thing. Little me, the sole writer, was now a funny person under tremendous pressure, just like the characters in my show.

Raising money, quickly, was just about the hardest thing I have ever been called upon to do. And how much to raise? Well, to answer that I needed an experienced producer. And how easy is it to find one of those? And I also knew I needed a director. An agent friend represented some up-and-comers who, she felt, ought to be showcasing their abilities at NYMF. I met with many, and sized up their strengths and weaknesses on a chart, and one hovered well above the rest, Marc Bruni.

Choosing Marc was the best decision I ever made. He had a passion for improving the show and an endless font of good ideas for doing so. He instantly led me to a producer with NYMF experience, and told her that the best use of my time was not to raise money but to fix the script. As a result, I raised far too little but the improvements made in the script, from the day I met Marc to opening night, were extraordinary. (More on this on my next post.)

A good director has vision, and a sense of what can work on stage. My cast size of 19 had to be halved. And wouldn’t include any children. That scene that I thought was so key, Marc convinced me, was a distraction from the main tale I wanted to tell. “It’s not called Such Good Fathers, after all; it’s Such Good Friends.”