Swimming in your clothes

June 21, 2017

Energized and elated by rehearsals for the segment of The Christmas Bride that will compete in a Battle of the Christmas Musicals July 1 in Connecticut at the Brookfield Theatre for the Arts. I’m working with a dream cast, 8 good friends bringing 13 characters to life. To win the prize – a fuller run in December – the writing’s got to outshine the competition. Is it self-centered to think so? The book is by the estimable MK Wolfe, who found the fun and funny in Victorian melodrama: the misapprehensions, the larger-than-life emotions, the hairpin plot turns.

Revisiting my score for the first time in over five years, I think I hit upon a way of fashioning a musical equivalent of the high-stakes happenings. Alone in the Night – the main theme – winds down the minor scale in three note phrases. This proved a flexible module: excited when allegro, poignant if slow. Often, it feels like it’s increasing in speed but this is somewhat of an illusion: it canters forward, like a snowball gaining size as it rolls downhill. My lyrics, as they often were in my youth, are densely rhymed, helping the listener quickly apprehend the drama and the emotional implications of every story beat.

While that main theme gets repeated quite a bit, a character comes in with three contrasting themes. The first is marked pesante and plods comically (five-note chords in the right hand). Then there’s a moment reminiscent of the Where’s My Bess? aria that Porgy sings in the final scene. For this, I reprised a bit of Marrying You, the poor sap’s marriage proposal from early in the show. (That song was since cut, so nobody recognizes it.) Finally, over a crescendoing push-beat, there’s the first statement of the Searching theme, a counterpoint number heard as both a trio and a comic duet in the second act. This was originally constructed to play against a number that had been discarded very early in our process.

It might seem like I’m describing something obscure, of interest to no one. Honestly, I always worry about this when writing this blog. So it might help if I point out a similar weaving of strands of cut melodies in a show you likely know, Gypsy. Legendarily, Stephen Sondheim created Rose’s Turn using bits and pieces of songs – music by Jule Styne – from the rest of the score. But, at the time he did this, there were songs that later got cut, such as Mama’s Talking Soft. By the time the Gypsy we know and love opened on Broadway, Rose’s Turn contained a callback to something that hadn’t yet hit the audience’s ears. And the same is true of some of the themes in Alone in the Night.

Strategic re-use of themes is a technique musicals inherited from opera. A nerdy thing I enjoy doing is speculating on the meaning of all the leitmotifs in The Most Happy Fella and Sunday in the Park With George. Those are shows I love that consistently employ the Wagnerian hallmark of assigning emotions, motivations, locales to specific little themes. And here I’m suggesting, to you composers out there, that this might be a thing worth doing. Unfortunately, some more famous writers today are mere repeaters. Think of how often you hear some variation of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in Evita. Is there some reason for that, some method to Lloyd Webber’s madness? Possibly he wanted the audience humming his tune on the way out of the theatre – always a questionable pursuit – and he stole a Bach prelude for the verse to further aid memories.

That image I keep using – weaving – it’s a handy way of discussing a complex compositional device. Strands from different sources make for a stronger fabric, you might say. In The Christmas Bride, MK Wolfe, intertwines instances of story, engaging the audience on every page. Audiences July 1 at the Brookfield Theatre in Connecticut will see a bit of business involving a cookie, and there’s a funny reference to the cookie near the end. Another thing that’s part and parcel of melodrama is the use of unlikely coincidence. So, important characters who’ve never met before just happen to employ the same attorneys and the twin brother of one of the lawyers is a policeman pursuing their client. The same actor plays the two twins. So, when the cop visits the solicitors, one conveniently slips out of the office for a quick change. It’s the sort of fun one finds in the hit stage vehicle, The 39 Steps, which premiered many years later.

The Christmas Bride contains another thing you don’t find in a lot of musicals these days: romantic passion. I’ve often expressed my mystification (usually on Valentine’s Day) that this basic component of the musicals we all grew up on has virtually vanished from the stage. When you see The Christmas Bride, get ready for love. Get ready for people taking leaps of faith on each other, for primal attraction, for dramatization of the different loves we experience throughout life.

–When I live with Alfred, when we’re married, where will my home be?
–Married folk build new homes. You’ll have two homes: One with him and one with me
There is the love you build
Here is the love you know

Assembling the presentation has been a new experience for me, and I, too, am taking a leap of faith on eight performers I know pretty well. As I write this, they’re taking their training, experience and creativity to infuse life into these thirteen characters in markedly different ways from the previous productions. I’m fascinated to see how they’ll all do it on July 1, peeking out, as I will, over my score on the piano. If you’re interested in a gripping musical love story, you should come, too. It’s free. Can’t beat that.

 


Kate’s brother’s story

April 11, 2017

Twenty years ago, a book was published, and even though it’s specifically about screenwriting, it’s a good time to discuss it here. Story, by Robert McKee, is more famous for the influence it’s had – often mocked – than what it actually says. The author held costly seminars for many years, widely attended by a whole generation of Hollywood scribes. Critics sometimes claim he’s the main reason Hollywood output is so awful. But little of what McKee writes about film isn’t applicable to musicals. His title is apt. Don’t you want your musical to have an effective story?

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps what draws you to musicals is the fact that many succeed without adhering to any particular structure or set of rules. I’m one who’s always been fascinated with departures from our traditions. An example leaps to mind. A bunch of improvisers developed characters who embodied the varying anxieties of kids at a Spelling Bee. Eventually, a songwriter and bookwriter were called in to shape the improvisation into a musical with a set script. And the next thing you know, the libretto wins a Tony Award.

That’s an unusual situation, to be sure. If you’re doing that traditional thing, of sitting down to a blank page and writing a narrative for the stage, at some point you better think about the art of storytelling. Regular readers of this blog know that the craft of how the tale gets told is an obsession of mine. Usually, when I see a show that’s failed to entertain me, there’s something out of kilter in this important area. So, stumbling on the information that Story got published in 1997, I think back to the time a smart musical-writing friend insisted I read what McKee had to say.

If I say this changed my life, or altered the course of my career, I’ll sound like a brainwashed McKee acolyte. In reality, I would never urge anybody to follow McKee’s prescriptions. But what I’d say, to anyone interested in narrative in dramatic form, is: read the book, because it will get you thinking about cause and effect in plot points.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I’ll use my own work to paint a little before-and-after picture. For many years, I’d toiled on an original musical. It was missing a certain something and I couldn’t tell what. I’d created characters, set down a sequence of amusing or entertaining events, resolved everything at the end. Individual moments were engaging people – various songs from the score had gotten big hands in many cabaret shows. But nobody wanted to produce the whole musical; it just didn’t seem exciting enough.

McKee defines an inciting incident that comes early on, propelling the hero into action, perhaps putting him on a quest. Now, without drinking the kool-aid – without buying in the notion that every musical needs a protagonist questing due to some incitement – I couldn’t help noticing my musical had none of that. There wasn’t a single hero. Nobody had any sort of a quest (unless you count an unemployed character who was looking for a job). And I merely had characters meet each other in lieu of any sort of incident. I put down my pen. And pondered.

Eventually, I fashioned a whole new original story, one in which every action had a consequence. Such Good Friends hardly McKee-ian. The hero has no greater goal than preserving a happy status quo. I wouldn’t claim there’s an inciting incident, as Story defines it. The first act includes a flashback to how the characters met, but only one. But the show was a gripping experience for the audience, to a certain extent, because McKee got my thinking about the elements of tale-telling. Events lead to other events, sometimes in unexpected ways. Characters always have motivations, but they evolve over time. When I compare Such Good Friends, with all its narrative thrust, to my unproduced musical, with its lack thereof, it’s hard to escape the notion that reading Story had something to do with my evolution.

In between those shows, though, I wrote a musical which, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, uses a specific non-theatrical format as a model, and there’s no real narrative. This was Our Wedding: The Musical! Guests at a wedding know what they’re in for, and don’t require a story that goes somewhere. Similarly, there are successful movies that completely eschew the McKee paradigm. Your musical can be totally unconventional and do very well. But being exposed to his fairly rigorous and often amusing analysis will inspire you to concentrate more on narrative. And that’s something I wish many more new musicals would do.

 


Up jumped Sandow

March 7, 2017

This week, I’m expanding a circle. That’s a rare event, and an essential step forward in the life of a new musical.

My collaborator, a successful playwright here adapting his own play into a libretto, and I have been working, on and off, for years. Even though we both work in Manhattan, we’re not in the same room very often; it’s a lot of texts. When I finish a draft of a song, I record it and he’ll listen with his wife. So, the circle – the number of people who know what the thing sounds like – is 3. Me, my collaborator, and his wife.

Now, we’re at a point where we want to hear the songs sung by professionals. And if you’re wondering where my wife is in all this, it’s here she enters. A renowned casting director, she helped us to find performers. This meant my collaborator had to write descriptions of the characters. For the first time, I was being asked about vocal ranges. I hadn’t previously considered this question. I’ve formulated no opinion along the lines of “This character should be an alto.” I’m not there yet. Any range will do, this week, as long as it’s wide enough to encompass all the notes in the songs.

There are 12. I had to write up little descriptions of them, and this is another issue I hadn’t previously thought about. So, expanding our circle to include six singers meant contemplating certain questions for the first time. One song gets reprised in a completely different style, so that’s thirteen descriptions. Or not, since two songs are so similar I wrote the same words about them.

(And is that a problem? I’m thinking about The Music Man and how I’d describe Marian’s numbers. Or Eliza Doolittle’s.)

Putting songs in the capable hands of singers unveils a host of discoveries about each number. A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. Now, the performers’ apprehension and investigation of material comes into play. Just a few days ago, this whole show was something of a secret. As three becomes nine, the circle triples in size.

And then hearing them live, sounds from good throats passing through the air into our ears. It’s how they’re meant to be heard.

That seemingly obvious fact is easy to lose sight of. These days, I can compose a tune in my mind, enter it straight into software using a midi which I can use without the volume up, and post the thing on SoundCloud – all without utilizing ears. Out here on the internet, we compare and contrast songs that exist as videos or audios. But theatre writing involves live actors, in the presence of a live audience, communicating; this communication is affected and altered by audience response. How often do we fool ourselves into thinking listening to recorded theatre numbers is remotely similar?

Besides my excitement about hearing all the songs live, over one evening, there’s much anticipation about how they’ll all sound together. This show has been a slow process and various numbers were written very far apart in time. If I can believe my own copyright notices, thirteen years separate the oldest song and the most recent. We’re not dealing with dialogue this time, so it’s something like taking in a cast album: do this disparate pieces hang together well?

Another image comes to mind: Imagine an inventor toiling and toodling in a hermetically sealed chamber. The invention has been engineered to a certain pristine perfection, but how will it hold up in the actual atmosphere? My stuff looks good on paper, but hitting live ears is a whole other thing.

The energy it’s taken to put this sing-through together has robbed me of time I’d normally be devoting to this blog, and I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me the time off. Sometimes, on this page, I feel like I’m teaching you all something. What I really crave is a chance to learn more. While opening up the circle on this show, I’m expanding my mind.

Sound deep? Fear not. I’m sure I’ll get back to going all lesson-y on you in a week or so.


Shore to water

February 8, 2017

Just as Rocky Horror sings of a pelvic thrust that will drive you insane, Narrative Thrust is that thing that will drive your audience to emotional investment in your characters and their plights. A show that fails at this, no matter how strong its other elements may be, will leave viewers uninvolved.

I just caught Encores’ mounting of Big River, the Tony-winning Huckleberry Finn musical. There were some entertaining things about it, but narrative thrust was nowhere in sight. Don’t blame Mark Twain, author of the source material for two other musicals Encores did in a way that captivated. The authors of Big River, William Hauptman and Roger Miller, were completely new to musical theatre and made many beginners’ mistakes.

Before getting to those, pause to acknowledge the many ways in which the original Big River production, 32 years ago, lucked out. It opened in one of those woebegone Broadway seasons in which the whole community is so desperate for a hit, great praise and a slew of awards get heaped on something that would have been considered mediocre in any decent year. It had a particularly beautiful set by Heidi Landesman, fluid direction (Broadway debut of Des McAnuff, who’s been back many times since) and vibrant lead performances by fresh faces Daniel Jenkins and Ron Richardson. Country songs from an actual star of country music – well, that was a pretty novel thing back then. (These bits of luck don’t exist this week at City Center; it runs through Sunday.)

Landesman’s husband Rocco had the idea, back in the days when producers would get notions and will musicals into existence. So Hauptman was commissioned to adapt America’s most-hailed novel even though he’d not written a play in the seven years prior. There’s one very moving speech, and some funny parts, but the libretto is a collection of episodes, barely connected to each other. I was reminded of another odyssey of a naïve young man, Candide. Either show can be described by a popular title from contemporary children’s literature, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Various bad things happen to good people, and more than a few seem fairly arbitrary. What’s lacking is the sense that one thing is leading to another, with cause and effect. Huckleberry Finn and Candide are both portrayed as young men of limited intelligence. Choices they make are sometimes made for no good reason.

But the real problem is that nothing matters. In successful storytelling, events lead to other events, like dominoes falling. Actions have consequences. When actions don’t have consequences, you’re training your audience not to care. What the characters do shouldn’t or needn’t be invested in, since they lack lasting implications. They don’t affect the things to come.

Act Two of Big River (the better of the two) is filled with oddities. Huck watches as two charlatans con a grieving family out of a large inheritance. He then steals the money – a bold action with absolutely no consequences for him – and stashes it in a coffin which is then buried underground. Habitual theatre-goers would naturally see this as something similar to Chekhov’s gun on stage. It’s bound to get fired, right? Alas, no consequence; nothing made of it.

At least, you might think, Huck has learned some lesson about imitating relatives who are likely to show up a day or so later. Nope: In the next scene, he does the same thing, albeit for a nobler purpose. Lucky for him, the late-arriving kin is his old pal Tom Sawyer.

Books can afford to be episodic. We don’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at one sitting. We put the book down, at the end of a chapter, and return to it later. Twain addresses the ethical crisis of his century, slavery. A century later, over two hours, this musical makes the stunning political pronouncement – Slavery Is Bad – and it’s too many years after Emancipation for this to have much piquancy.

In an odd coincidence, Roger Miller had not written a song in six years prior to Big River, and, on the day of the first rehearsal, he still hadn’t written a song for the show. It’s easy to imagine a musician with limited knowledge of theatre and how it works, picking little moments to musicalize. Some of his songs are quite charming. I’m a sucker for a country waltz, so get some pleasure from You Oughta Be Here With Me, well-warbled by Laura Worsham here. But each act has a moment when a minor character runs on stage and energetically presents a dumb little ditty that has nothing to do with the rest of the show. There’s way too many numbers that don’t move the plot and I suspect Miller and Hauptman had no concept of how this might be a problem.

When a song lands in Big River, it seems it’s almost by chance. So the passion and energy behind Muddy Water is a pleasant uplift. The raft leaves the dock and it feels as if something’s taking flight. That’s the seventh song in the show: I was quite impatient by this time.

But it’s better than one might expect of neophytes. The bigger question remains: Why do producers, again and again, call upon people who’ve never written for the theatre before to give it a try? Are they hoping for another Big River? That good fortune will emerge from the combination of a famous title and the quirky talents of a music world superstar? Usually, the Twain don’t meet.


Thoughts: in transit

December 11, 2016

“Please, God, please! Don’t let me be normal.”

This famous bit of a monologue from The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones, has been much on my mind because of a persistent worry: That my musical may be too ordinary. The characters are hardly larger than life; they face problems that all sorts of people face every day. So, is my show too mundane to entertain?

Perhaps you’re thinking, right now, “Of course not” – this is a silly fear to have. And yes, I’ll admit that quite a few of my fears fall on the silly side of things. But I’ve seen a new Broadway musical in which each iota of plot is so expected, so everyday, so the-sort-of-thing-we’ve-seen-a-million-times-before that it seems utterly doomed by its own lack of imagination. In Transit is an original musical that marks the Broadway debut of each of its four creators, Sara Wordsworth, Russ Kaplan, James-Allen Ford and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Of these, only the latter is famous, an Oscar-winner for her lyrics to the most-sung song of the current century, Let It Go. (If you don’t believe Let It Go is the most-sung song of the current century, you must not have a daughter under the age of 10.) I like the fact that these are musical theatre writers, who’ve honed their craft for many years, veterans of the BMI workshop, and not some neophytes from other fields. Many years ago at the York’s annual NEO Concert of songs from new works, they and I were each included. So, I was predisposed to like In Transit, think of them as kindred spirits, and it’s playing in the theatre where I work, Circle-in-the-Square.

So there’s a single woman who’s unable to get over the ex who dumped her months ago. She still e-mails, texts, contrives to bump into him. All of this is intelligently rendered, and would be fine IF WE HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. Luckily, that’s not the only plot line. There’s an actress who’s growing weary of waiting for her big break, working as a temp, and I might have sympathized with her IF I HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. There are certain things about In Transit that are fresh, haven’t been done on Broadway, but there’s also the gay groom who’s having trouble coming out to his mother. Say it with me, now: SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE.

What’s original? The fact that there’s no orchestra. A cappella vocals have become a hot genre over the past decade or so, and accompanying soloists with a collection of rhythmic Doos and Baos is something you haven’t seen on Broadway before. Off-Broadway, you have. My wife cast an amusing show called Voca People, and long before that there was Avenue X (1994), which shouldn’t be confused with Avenue Q, co-written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s husband. Pause to say something positive: It’s a neat trick. You don’t miss instrumentalists, but your ear quickly adjusts. After the opening number, you go, “Oh, that’s what this is going to be.” and then your focus goes back to the plot. And then you go “Oy.”

There’s a fourth plot, about a handsome Wall Street type who loses his job. This is far fresher than the other three plots, and I held out hope that the show would have something to say about White Privilege, that the good-looking guy has doors open to him that someone who looks different wouldn’t. The cast of In Transit is multi-ethnic; we even meet a black ice hockey fan. But nothing in Subplot Four had any sort of an edge. His phone is turned off when he can’t pay the bill, so he misses an important call. That is exactly as dramatic as it ever gets.

We who think about the effectiveness of theatre pieces often talk about unearned moments. One of the characters has a series of conversations with a kind and philosophical street musician. Towards the end of the show, he lays a rather common Zen concept on her and she looks at him as if all her life problems are suddenly fixed. Then the entire cast pops out to joyously warble an energetic setting of this precept. This is precisely what is meant by an unearned moment. The character hadn’t evolved, the wisdom being passed was far from profound, and so the hallelujah chorus rang hollow. In a ninety-minute show, sans intermission, you don’t have time to waste on hollow moments, and this wasn’t the only one during the denouement.

The shame, here, is that so many other elements of this show are competent, and even appealing. There were songs to admire, plenty of good performances, and one outlandish costume gets a hand. I found a video of its 2010 staging off-Broadway, and you get the sense that, for the prices charged by a little theatre way back then, In Transit might be a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half. For Broadway prices today, something more than a collection of clichés is needed. “Please God, please: I paid well over a hundred dollars. Don’t let it be normal.

 


I can talk to you

September 21, 2016

For two months, circumstances imposed a break from writing. Now I’m back assessing what needs to be done on my two-performer musical soon approaching completion of its second draft. For a short show, it’s currently got a whole lot of songs: twenty-five, which will be a lot for actors to learn. Half are duets, and the solos are divided evenly. I’m thinking about this, and it strikes me that fretting how difficult this will be for the players is neurotically premature.

But I’ll worry about almost anything. It’s what I do. It’s why I can’t sleep. I’m sketching out a ballet to cover a costume change. And that’s ridiculous. Because no designer has told me how long it will take to make this change. And there’s no choreographer giving input on what the dance will look like. Certainly, my second draft can say, in the script, “They dance.” And I could put any amount of music in the score, and the world will accept that as part of a second draft. Way down the road, when the choreographer and costumer and perhaps a dance arranger are on board, we’ll redo the moment.

I think I worry about such things because my mind desperately grasps for reasons not to write. A metaphor comes to mind – possibly based on the massive amount of swimming my daughter did this summer: You have to keep your head underwater to create. It requires a special sort of concentration. But your lungs need air, so there’s this pull towards the surface, and soon your arms and legs are flailing. I’m only here writing this because I jotted down a possible chorus for the twenty-fifth song and now I need the air.

I don’t even know where this new song goes. I know I just said I’ll do anything to take a break from writing songs; focusing on book is a greater problem. I know I’m supposed to sit down and come up with dialogue, but my brain keeps going to these little holes I see and I think the best way to plug them up is through songwriting. That comes easier to me. So, at some point, a few of the 25 numbers will seem superfluous. Which means cutting. Which means saying goodbye to your babies. It hurts, on some level, to cut a song.

Easiest to remember the process on this last one. It began as an idea for a ballad. But the last thing this show needs – any show needs? – is more ballads. So I figured out a way to express the same emotions in energetic rock, strings of eighth notes like you’d find in Billy Joel. (Now that I think of it, the current draft sounds like a cross between My Life and All For Leyna.)

Wondering where to place it, I stare at the storyboard. My eyes go to a section of six songs I’ve underlined and labeled “Ballads.” Could squeeze it in there.

About stepping back to look at the storyboard. It’s dangerous. You divide a massive project into little digestible bits. You can complete a bit by concentrating on it, but if you step back to look at the whole show, it seems gargantuan, unachievable. But that storyboard’s in bright colors, and my daughter’s drawn something on it. (Did I mention it’s a dry erase board festooned with different colored post-it notes?) At this late date, I find it hard to keep my eyes from the ginormous whole.

It’s evolved quite a bit over the past two years. People who saw the reading of the first draft probably won’t recognize it. You have to have faith that every change is an improvement. Somebody might come up and say “What happened to the quodlibet lullaby? I loved that.” and you have to remind yourself that you know best; it was slowing down the show. But then, you’re supposed to listen to your audience. Who’s the expert here, again?

The white post-its are for book scenes. Inexplicably, they all have “You bring the BBQ, I’ll bring the wine” printed on them. Ignore that. So many people write shows sans dialogue these days. Usually, the existence of two dozen songs clearly indicates a show without spoken words. My dialogue has to crackle. It has to be funny, seem real to the audience, and have building energy that will soon lead them back in to song. That’s a significant amount or pressure, right there.

Just as I was saying it’s premature to whip up a ballet without a choreographer, it’s daunting to me to write dialogue without actors on hand. These experts open their mouths, and things either sound natural or they sound stilted. In the first draft, I wrote a particularly unsayable sentence: “Somewhere we seem to have neglected our previous roles, as spouses.” Who talks like that?

Librettists working in a vacuum, that’s who. The sound of the dialogue is one of the many reasons musicals need to be workshopped, with good actors in front of a live audience, so often. As with anything, the more you do this the more you get a knack for how people actually talk. But, somewhere, I seem to have neglected my previous role, as a crafter of real-sounding dialogue. Oh, there I go again.

 

 


I hate showers

August 8, 2016

I’m anti-semantic.

Yeah, you read that right: I, Noel Katz, can’t stand semantics. I don’t care if your show christens itself a musical play, a musical comedy, a rock opera or a happening with songs. If you entertain me, I’ll like it; don’t and I won’t.

But over there on the other side of the bed, my wife, the much-esteemed casting director, recently asked the mythical “hive mind” to coin a better term. You see, if she puts out a notice asking for “contemporary Broadway,” some addlepated aspirant will show up with Easy To Be Hard. Yes, that’s a rock ballad you can wail on, it was on the pop charts and in the musical Hair. And it was written about fifty years ago. So two things: How can you call it contemporary? and God, I hate semantics.

I’m fond of musical theatre history, though, so perhaps this will put me in a better mood. For a very long time, people fretted about a schism between the sound of show tunes, which once dominated the airwaves, and the sound of rock, which wasn’t often heard on Broadway. This hysteria didn’t quite jibe with reality. As I pointed out in an essay I wrote earlier this year, Charles Strouse put rock in most of his musicals, sometimes lampooning the genre, sometimes not. But as the demographics of Broadway-attendees skewed older and older, many wished show scores would someday sound just like music you could hear on the radio.

And they got their wish. Have you heard this past season’s original scores? You got some classic rock from the undisputed king of the rock musical, country music from a bona fide pop star, bluegrass from a bona fide comedy star (but it wasn’t funny!), 1980s techno-I’mNotSureWhatToCallItButIHateSemantics, and I think there may have been a show that used a little hip hop.

Yet, many shows shoot themselves in the foot by explicitly telling auditioners not to bring in show tunes. That hearkens back to the rock side of that schism I described a couple paragraphs ago. It’s the manifestation of an unfair prejudice that says a show tune is bound to be hackneyed or clichéd. Whereas non-theatre songs won’t be. They’re more pure, somehow. I’ve never claimed to be an expert on rock, but let’s talk Next To Normal. Isn’t that rock? Is it ever remotely hackneyed? Now – confess it – you know of rock hits with lyrics that make no sense whatsoever. You’ve your own unfavorites, as do I. And I’m not going to spend time listing them lest I turn a whiter shade of pale.

So a shooting gallery of singers pass before a creative team’s eyes, and they’re putting all their efforts into singing and they often seem indistinguishable from each other. That’s often because they’re not paying any attention to the acting of the lyric. And, in certain cases, you can hardly blame them. Some rock lyrics are so stupid they defy all efforts to act them. But rock songs from Broadway shows I admire, such as Two Gentlemen of Verona, Next To Normal and Hamilton, well, those require a great deal of acting. In your audition, you’re not just a singer, you’re a singing actor, which is what wins the role the overwhelming majority of times.

Performers, when faced with that No Show Tunes! decree, make sure you pick a pop/rock song with an actable text.

Writers, feel free to use rock, if the setting of your show calls for it (n.b., Titanic isn’t a rock score, for obvious reasons). But don’t be so imitative of contemporary hits that you forget to fashion an actable text. And now my mind is flashing back to something a critic I know wrote about one of this year’s hit musicals.

…suffers from inexperienced hands treating musical-making as if it’s no different from any other writing form… a justified indie-pop sensation…treats plot and character writing with the same limited scope and reach she does a pop single. She’s not interested in plumbing feelings, particularizing people, or testing the boundaries of how music lands on the ear; she sticks with what she knows and squishes the show around to match.

This all should be obvious, but somehow isn’t: The things that make a rock hit a rock hit are markedly different from the things that make a song work in the theatre. So, like the wishers I referred to earlier, you may have the understandable ambition to have your stage score sound like the songs you love on the radio. But the reasons you love those songs have a lot to do with sound and groove, and hooks and, often, studio-created sounds not easily replicated in a theatre’s orchestra pit. Get your songs, in any style, to particularize character and further your story.

Or, to put it another way, inert songs amplify emotions and these emotions are already present in the story. Her heart is broken, so she sings about how her heart is broken. When Adele does that, it’s fabulous. In the theatre, it’s leaden. Avoid telling us stuff we already know.

And your librettist is an accomplice in this effort. The book’s got to take you to an area in which whatever the lyric says comes as some sort of a surprise. Otherwise, the audience will tune out. It’s a worthy goal to see to it your song takes the singing characters from one emotional place to another. They don’t feel, or even believe, the same things they felt and believed from beginning to end.

Which is why I used the word “inert” just now. Ineffective songs in musicals frequently suffer from a crippling inertia. Be on the look-out for this as you’re fashioning numbers that seem to be simulacrums of pop hits.

But now I feel guilty that I just explained why I used a term. Semantics! – you’ll be the death of me.