Wednesday, July 30, 2008

It Sucks to Be Us: Networking in the Digital Age

When Lucille Ball was approached to turn her radio program My Favorite Husband into a sitcom, she insisted that her husband on the show must be her real life husband Desi Arnaz, but television executives believed that America would never buy the idea of her having a Cuban husband. Determined to do the show together for the sake of their marriage, Ball and Arnaz literally took the show on the road, presenting a stage version of their sitcom concept in several large cities to great fanfare. They took it into their own hands and proved that America would buy it, and the rest is history. Even all these years later, I Love Lucy is still the favorite television show of millions and without a doubt mine.

It’s interesting that with the advent of the Internet (thanks, Al Gore!), the ability to get one’s work to the masses is easier than ever. You can write a show and post the libretto online, allow people to download your music, and network through sites like, Talkin’ Broadway’s All That Chat, and Broadway World.

Yet, every show that has hit the Great White Way in the past ten years has made it there going the traditional route, which is, presumably, through networking like mad, making connections with people who will actually take the time to experience your work, perhaps working your way into the industry by interning or working in a production office, or attending a program like NYU or BMI and hoping someone sees your work. No one who has posted their work online—be it an actress with a demo or a composer with his music—has ever been able to effectively capitalize on the technology.

So, the question of the day is what is the next step? How does one break down the wall around the fortress? And how does one do it without losing their dignity or attempting something that compromises the quality of their work?

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz figured it out. It’s up to a new generation of us to do the same as well.

the Broadway Mouth
July 30, 2008

Monday, July 28, 2008

But Then Again: The Fine Line Between Stunt Casting and Star Casting

We all wince at the notion of stunt-casting—getting a name from television, film, or popular music to appear in a show on Broadway or on tour to get butts in seats, usually to the detriment of the show and to the livelihoods of struggling actors who have devoted their lives to the stage.

Prime examples include, but are not limited to, David Hasselhoff, Jack Wagner, and Sebastian Bach (all from Jekyll and Hyde); Mickey Dolenz, Michelle Williams, Deborah Cox, Toni Braxton, and Taylor Dayne (all from Aida); or CeCe Winans, Chaka Khan, and LaKisha Jones (all from The Color Purple). In some cases, they may not be able to dance like the part requires, sometimes they aren’t the right age at all, and for others, they simply can’t do it on stage.

Tourist audiences walk out thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe I saw ________ live, and wasn’t he/she amazing!” The 1/3 of the audience who is visiting the show after having seen Rob Evan, Chuck Wagner, Heather Headley, Sherie Rene Scott, or Felicia P. Fields in those roles is thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe _________ was so ill-suited for that part.”

But as die-hard as most of us are, and as much as we love our theatre actors, we also need to acknowledge that there are people out there whose careers didn’t originate in theatre but who are still incredibly talented on stage. Everyone has their own path to Broadway, and just because someone, say, chose to wait in long lines for American Idol instead of outside an audition space, doesn’t mean their talent should be discounted.

I was excited to see Diana DeGarmo listed in the Broadway cast of Godspell. Don’t get me wrong, because I would have been more thrilled to see Eden Espinoza, Julia Murney, Felicia Finley, or Coleen Sexton in that part. However, this is a sign that DeGarmo is making a run for a career on Broadway. She’s not just doing a summer tour or three months as a replacement, she’s dedicating herself to a show for an entire year. And she’s got real talent. Not only did I hear great things about her time as Penny in Hairspray, but when I saw her in Brooklyn, she could really knock those songs out of the park. Her voice has grown greatly since her days on Idol (when she was just a teenager), and she’s the real thing.

Honestly, we often hear of people online raving about some replacements, in relation to their being very physically fit men (i.e. Joey Lawrence, Mario Lopez, et al). But there are times when talent wins out, when the road they took to the stage may have been from celebrity, but their acclaim is all talent. After all, for every Lance Bass, there is a Fantasia, Reba McEntire, Marilu Henner, Larry Gatlin, Keith Carradine, or Tom Wopat.

In some cases, they may not be able to dance like the part requires, sometimes they aren’t the right age at all, and for others, they simply can’t do it on stage. But other times, they’re spot on.

Congratulations, Diane DeGarmo. I’ve no doubt you’ve earned it.

the Broadway Mouth
June 28, 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hairspray II: What I Did For Money

There are some stories that welcome an addition to the journey already told. Take, for example, X-Men, which practically screamed to have a sequel because of the nature of the characters and stories.

Most stories survive on the idea that the plot itself is one chunk of time in the characters’ lives. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is about that one great time we got took. The Wedding Singer is about how we met. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is about a spelling bee.

Only certain stories require additional chapters. I have no doubt that characters with mutant powers would have many interesting events happen in their lives, but the spunky, chubby girl who integrates television should only have on amazing life story.

It’s like with Pocahontas. Yes, the Disney movie. I always adored that movie, but the idea of a Pocahontas II was ludicrous. The appeal of the first one was a Romeo and Juliet story, two people whose destinies were meant to be entwined but were forever parted by two-sided ethnocentrism and fear. Juliet can survive the ordeal and later get married to someone else happily ever after. There’s a reason we never learn much about Kate Winslet’s character’s marriage in the movie Titanic—because you can’t assume she loses Leonardo DiCaprio only to gain Brad Pitt. It’s not so touching an ending when you know there’s something great just around the river bend.

So, let’s count the ways Hairspray II could really screw up Hairspray.

1. We know Tacy and Link aren’t going to get married because they’re high school students. Then what happens next of any interest? Link runs off to college with Penny?

2. What journey does Edna take? She’s learned to not be ashamed of her weight . . . Does she now take up the cause for ugly women everywhere?

3. Tracy becomes a do-er when she sees a problem that needs fixing. What issue arises next?—protesting the war, rising divorce rates, prayer in school? Enough sequels, and she’ll become the first chubby congresswoman in Maryland.

4. One of the cast members doesn’t return, and then we’re stuck with sequelitis—the case of the unexplained disappearance of a character because of budget or scheduling problems.

I have faith that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman will create a top-notch score of songs, like they always do. I just don’t have faith that they will be supporting a story that warrants them or a story that won’t work against the magic of the original.

the Broadway Mouth
July 26, 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “My New Philosophy”

Yes, the show was old, but the song was entirely new. The show was You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and the composer and lyricist was Andrew Lippa, writing for the talented Kristin Chenoweth.

I’m not yet familiar with Lippa’s other work, but I greatly admire his versatility in being able to write two new songs for an old score, effortlessly creating something that matches in tone and style the songs composed by the show’s original writer, Clark Gesner. If I had not listened to the OBCR without knowing this, I never would have guessed Lippa’s work was entirely new.

Built with simple but flowing rhymes and a catchy melody stuffed with old Broadway razzmatazz, “My New Philosophy” is a gem of character expression through song. It’s catchy, fun, and funny.

Hooray, Andrew Lippa, Hooray.

the Broadway Mouth
July 22, 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Took a Chance on It: Mamma Mia! on Screen

If you loved the show on stage, you’ll adore the movie. If you didn’t care for the show on stage, you’ll hate the movie. At least I did.

But thankfully for the producers, there have been many more people who love the stage show than didn’t care for it, so I’m sure the movie of Mamma Mia! will thrive at theaters this summer.

For me, every flaw of the stage show was only magnified in the adaptation, namely that the characters burst into song (literally, they do burst on a number of occasions, which provided for a number of unplanned guffaws from some people in the audience) and proceed to sing and sing about emotions either already covered in the dialogue or peripheral to the events in the story. Because of this, the entire middle section of the movie stands still for a selection of ABBA songs to be woven into the plot, stretching out the already thin story until you want to get up . . . and not to dance. The most curious choice of all is the re-arrangement of songs to extend the denouement. Instead of ending with the wedding, followed by “I Have a Dream,” we get a pointless “When All is Said and Done” and Rosie’s pursuit of Bill with “Take a Chance on Me.”

Many critics have already noted the bland choreography (which crosses into embarrassing proportions as Sky’s chorus boy pals dance around in flippers on a dock, which seemed funny on stage but extraordinarily awkward and, coupled with flexing muscles and acrobatics in speedos, more than just a little non-straight on screen). To be fair, though, the cast of non-singers do well with songs that don’t require great voices. Pierce Brosnan certainly seems more fit for Sam than many other Hollywood names ever were for the singing parts they were cast in, like Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, Gerard Butler as the Phantom, or Amanda Bynes as Penny Pingleton. Meryl Streep actually does quite well (better than what is demonstrated in the clips on television), and actually acts the songs, really pulling out all the stops for a top-notch “The Winner Takes It All,” which is beautifully photographed. In fact, Streep is stunning in all her non-Botoxed glory and, in her wedding day dress, far outshines the well-cast Amanda Seyfried as Sophie. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, as Streep’s fellow Dynamos, round out the strongest links in casting.

The showing I saw was pretty much packed (and a matinee earlier in the day had been sold out), but I’ll be curious to see what the box office drop is in its second weekend, to see if there are more of me out there or more of the Mamma Mia! fans. I suspect there are more Mamma Mia! fans.

As for me, well, I’m good on Mamma Mia! for many years. Midway through the movie, I’ll admit that I was actually embarrassed to be sitting in a theater full of people watching this movie, and I kind of hoped none of my former students—who all already know my affinity for musicals—would see me walking out. I would have had no problem with, say, The Princess Diaries 2 or She’s the Man, but Mamma Mia!, that’s a different story.

the Broadway Mouth
July 20, 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

You Wanna Be a Producer . . .

Yeah, you know you do. You wanna be a producer and not because you can eat at Sardi's every day. It's because you dream of constructing your own musical, casting your favorites in the parts, and winning a Tony.

Hollywood movies are made by committees, so let's see how that might look on Broadway. Follow the link below, and take a survey on who YOU want involved in your Broadway musical. In a week or so (after enough people have responded to make it worthwhile), I'll post our final creative team and cast.

Click Here to take survey

the Broadway Mouth
July 19, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs from the Past 10 Years: "All Alone in the Universe"

Here’s another spectacular Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty score. Is there anything this duo can’t do?

What most amazes me about the score to Seussical is how dead-on Seuss it is. Musically, it feels right, like the music you might have heard in your head as you were reading the Seuss books as a child, but at the same time, it’s fresh and fun. Lyrically, Ahrens takes on the gargantuan task of recreating Seuss, competing with his clever and witty plays on words and rhymes. However, from start to finish, in the hands of the very talented Ahrens and Flaherty, Seussical feels like it was blown off the pages of the books and onto the stage.

One thing I love about Seussical is that, like all great shows and movies geared toward family audiences, it rises above whatever intentions reviewers and audiences have for it. When I saw the tour, yeah, I could tell the producers had been trying to vie for the family dollar, but nobody in that audience could have enjoyed themselves more than I did.

Part of why that is is represented in the song “All Alone in the Universe.” When people set out to make a kids’ show (or a kids’ movie), it often ends up with a very typical kids’ theme—it’s okay to be different, everyone is special, believe in yourself. Seussical, however, goes beyond that, celebrating more adult ideas, such as strength in adversity, rejoicing in creativity, and standing for right in a world full of wrong. Because of that, I think any one could walk away from Seussical inspired to be a better person.

I love what the song has to say, about being alone in the universe, the only one to see and understand something new (or being the only one to stand up for what is right). We don’t have enough of that in our world because most people lack the vision to be trendsetters and instead become trendfollowers. Yes, I agree Horton, that “At one time or other, / Great thinkers all feel this way,” all alone in the universe. And that’s what makes them great thinkers. That’s a powerful experience, to feel alone in the universe, and a powerful response, to hold fast to your convictions.

As you can tell, I want the courage to be Horton.

The melody accompanying those beautiful lyrics works to create the sense of aloneness and wonder, accentuated in the orchestrations by the singular, simple plunking of piano keys behind Horton’s and JoJo’s solo choruses. Then, when they duet, they harmonize so beautifully, just as their experiences of being “all alone in the universe” harmonize. The song then ends in a beautiful counterpoint, perhaps foreshadowing the differing experiences in aloneness that both characters will have, knowing that they do have someone out there who does believe in them, though they will feel alone in the universe.

Other great songs in the show (and songs I often find myself singing) are the equally moving “Solla Sollew,” “It’s Possible (McElligot’s Pool),” and “Notice Me, Horton,” though they only scratch the surface in a score bubbling with wonderful.

the Broadway Mouth
July 16, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “Freedom’s Child”

I hate country music. And yet, during the tour of The Civil War, I had to often resist the urge to get out of my seat and move during the Frank Wildhorn/Jack Murphy songs. There was just something about those stupendous voices (led by Larry Gatlin, Michael Lanning, and Keith Byron Kirk) and the rock-infused, country styling of the music that was irresistible.

Some criticized the show for not having one running plot thread, being composed with musicals scenes and scenarios forming a mosaic of experiences of those who fought, died, or lived during the Civil War. Others trashed the music for its heavy Frank Wildhorn rock-infusion which placed emotions over character development. But to me, the music was exactly what the show needed, and the show itself powerful.

“Freedom’s Child” is marked with a catchy, upbeat rock melody, the kind that could have made the song a hit on the radio. Lyrically, the song is about America’s greatest asset, freedom, and the struggle for all Americans to live its benefits. When you really stop to listen to the lyrics, keeping in mind America during that time, there’s great power in their ideas. When mega-talented Keith Byron Kirk and the cast sang “Look through these eyes / Imagine what they’ve seen / This long, dark night / Must now come to an end,” it’s powerful. If you don’t know what his eyes have seen, just read Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography/page-turner Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—his eyes have seen horrors. That’s a pretty powerful cry for “the birth of Freedom’s Child.”

The ideas of the song are also presented in a strong progression—a reminder of the reality of slavery (the “Look at these hands” verse that opens the song), a reminder of the promise of freedom inherent in America (the “Look at these words / To God all men are equal” verse), and then the cry for war to bring about freedom if necessary (the “give us our freedom now / Nothing less, nothing more” bridge, coupled with the chorus of “Let the dogs of war run wild”). The lyrics give “Freedom’s Child” an intellectual strength since the song provides a logical progression of ideas, and the melody gives the song an additional emotional push.

It was a travesty that the original Broadway cast never recorded a full Broadway album, though it is fortunate that a few cast members do appear on the 2-disc concept album and that Matt Bogart recorded the moving “Tell My Father” for his solo JAY album. There are many other powerful songs in the show—“If Prayin’ Were Horses” is stunningly beautiful, and “Brother, My Brother,” “This Old Gray Coat,” and “The Glory” are just a few of the other highlights.

the Broadway Mouth
July 14, 2008

Friday, July 11, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “People Like Us”

Michael John LaChiusa’s music is like other great works of literature; the more you read the lyrics and consider what is happening in the story, the more greatness you see in it. You may not laugh much, but you do think and feel. “People Like Us” from Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party is a great example of a LaChiusa song, one highlight in a show filled with riches.

The Wild Party is a musical about people searching, craving, needing abundance and decadence to hide and medicate their emotional emptiness. Honestly, the show sadly always reminded me of many students I met during my first teaching position, which was in a small outer-ring suburb where the kids felt like there was nothing to occupy their free time other than drinking, smoking, and drugs. There was the fair share of happy-go-stupid partygoers who went, no doubt, for a good time, but it was also a school filled with brokenness, so many kids who struggled with paternal abandonment, divorce, and emotional distance from parents, kids who did drugs and inhaled alcohol because there was no one there who cared enough to stop them.

“People Like Us” is an intriguing song for a number of reasons. First off, it plays like a passion-filled love song, and at its heart, it is a song not all that different from “If I Loved You” or “Make Believe” because it is a song in which two characters fall in love. The subtext is bonding and emotional attachment through like circumstances; however, the actual words reveal the why.

Queenie begins with a melancholy remembrance of what brought her to the city, a verse which young Nadine will later sing with glee—“Always wanted to see the lights of Broadway / I always wanted to hear the traffic roar . . .” But before she can finish it, she breaks down, and opens up, telling Black, “I was that girl. I’m all of them. Trapped in a room full of shadows and not enough light.”

The title could refer to Queenie and Black themselves, but what they say—“People like us. We take lovers like pills. / Just hoping to cure what we know we can’t fix.”—actually applies to everyone at the party—Kate’s constant conquest of younger men, Madeline’s instantaneous love for Sally, Jackie’s flippant desire for both Oscar and Nadine. What unites Queenie and Black is the mutual realization of what they’ve become, the fact that of all the people in the room, they alone realize that they are “people like us.”

That is not to say the song is all about honesty. Queenie sings, “People like us: We sure get our kicks: / And we heal awful fast and we don’t even scar,” which shows her own delusions. The fact that she’s with a man like Burrs illuminates how scarred she’s become.

Because of “People Like Us,” we can actually have hope for Queenie and Black, because her attachment to Black isn’t out of pure emotional need or sexual desire. The light that bathes her at the end (perhaps the enlightenment about her own self) signifies her entrance into the real world, the real world which she’s struggled to know throughout the show (as indicated in Black’s lyric, “It feels like a dream / But it’s too hard to tell / Where the dream begins / And the real world ends”). This isn’t another case of “Because we’re attracted to each other, we’re in love” type of love; these are two characters who are able to and willing to confront their own inner demons in order to live a life different from the one they’ve known.

So, not many laughs, but one heck of a score.

the Broadway Mouth
July 11, 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

20 Great Broadway Songs of the Past 10 Years: “Not That Kind of Thing”

A critic whose name I don’t remember wrote that the score of The Wedding Singer was an attempt to mimic mediocre pop, leaving audiences with a score that was itself mediocre pop.

I heartily disagree.

Given the synthesizer/80s pop treatment, “Luck Be a Lady” or “Wheels of a Dream” wouldn’t be any less great as theatre songs; they’d just sound like 80s-influenced theatre songs. Most of the songs in The Wedding Singer could easily have been given the traditional Broadway arrangements; for the direction of the show, however, it was natural that they would be given the grand 80s treatment.

So, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s score for The Wedding Singer may sounds retro, but the songs themselves are 100% classic musical comedy, ripe with very funny lyrics and catchy melodies. My favorite of the score is “Not That Kind of Thing,”

To begin with, you have to love the song’s very funny lyrics, which are typical of the score as a whole. The following interchange was laugh-out-loud funny in the theatre and a favorite to revisit on recording:

You get stuck with them for better

Or worse

Crystal and Julie
No matter which way you stack it

Robbie and Mookie
It’s emasculating holding a purse

And it doesn’t match my jacket.

But after the comedy, we are left with a catchy, pleasing song that perfectly fits the characters, carefully showing how they are falling in love with each other (the flirtations, the joking) without fully admitting it to themselves. In a way, it’s an “If I Loved You” of a new era. Instead of the Peter Stone-titled conditional ballad of Oscar Hammerstein II, “Not That Kind of Thing” is the Stephen Sondheim-infused subtext-laden version of “I’ll say one thing, but really mean another,” wrapped in a light-hearted and hum-able melody.

“Not That Kind of Thing” isn’t the only great song in the show—“It’s Your Wedding Day,” “A Note From Linda,” “Pop!,” “If I Told You,” and a host of others are all exceptional for their strong melodies, laugh-out-loud funny lyrics, and/or their perfection in storytelling.

No wonder The Wedding Singer gets a lot of play on my stereo.

the Broadway Mouth
July 9, 2008

Monday, July 7, 2008

I Know Things Now: An Update on the Pursuit of Production from the Broadway Mouth (and a Few Musings of Interest to Other Writers)

Wicked librettist Winnie Holzman in the bonus features for Show Business: The Road to Broadway:

“It’s very unique to have a show on Broadway. It’s hard to even describe the shock of it and the feeling of gratitude. One’s very aware of how difficult that is to have happen . . . the sense of the odds stacked against you, the feeling that you sort of pulled off a miracle. It’d hard to describe, but it’s there . . . I still can’t believe it.”

I recently followed a link on All That Chat to an article about someone who was honored through the BMI musical theatre workshop, and I was made acutely aware of the terrifying reality that I’m not the only out there trying to get a show on Broadway. That strikes me now and again when I see websites for people with shows they are developing, demos they are sharing, or, like the BMI link, pictures and names of people who are studying musical theatre with the hopes of robbing me of seeing my name in a Playbill.

There are so many people trying to make it on Broadway, what serious hope do any of us have of actually getting there, particularly if we are not connected.

Being a Book-Writer: The Blessing and the Curse
After networking, the biggest factor at hand is quality of our work. We’d all like to think of our work as undiscovered genius, but the truth is, there’s a lot floating out there that isn’t quite ready for Broadway. I actually have it easy because, as a librettist, my work can’t be accurately capsulated into an MP3 file. A book-writer’s skills are in character development and plotting, neither of which can accurately be measured in a few pages. That doesn’t mean we aren’t forced to shove our 138-paged self-proclaimed masterpiece into trivializing treatments or into one or two paragraph summaries, but I think it is easier to showcase talent as a writer than as a songwriter. How many music samples have I listened to online and thought, “What a bland melody” or “time doesn’t rhyme with kind” or “those rhymes are too obvious” or “the meter is off; we don’t say yes-ter’-day.” Judging and mis-judging a book-writer’s work isn’t quite as easy.

The flip of the coin, however, is that the librettist has the added challenge of time. I once had a producer of a favorite Broadway show say, “Send me a CD when you get the music done. That’s advice I got from Hal Prince. If I like the music, then I’ll read the libretto.” But unfortunately for me, I parted ways with the composer for his lack of work ethic (i.e. productivity, follow-through, abundance of convenient illness to explain lack of work, etc.) and no demo CD was made. It may only take an hour or two to read a libretto, but no one has the time to invest to do so. People will invest millions but not a couple of hours (though to be fair, one could spend a lifetime reading crap submitted to them, and while Cameron Mackintosh does, one assumes he has more free time since he earned untold millions in a stretch of twenty years).

When I started writing as the Broadway Mouth, I began sharing bits and pieces of my own journey to Broadway, hoping that my experiences and musings would entertain, enlighten, and, perhaps, inspire others. So, once again, I check-in with you, sharing what specifics I can about my journey.

One Year (and a Little Accomplished)
About a year ago, I wrote a column about discovering that my sister knew someone who knew someone well who was involved in the producing of a major Tony-award winning Broadway musical and how, through her, a connection was forged. In summation, the libretto for my second musical—a musical comedy—was sent off to be given to this producer-like figure with a promise that her people would read it.

Those sorts of things always take time. Producer Kevin McCollum (of Rent, Avenue Q, and In the Heights, among others) talked on the American Theatre Wing Working in the Theatre seminars (see the links to your right) about how the libretto for The Drowsy Chaperone sat on his desk for an entire year before picking it up to read it. Producers are busy people—heck, even non-Producers are busy people—and the fact that I haven’t heard anything in the nine or so months since it was hand-delivered isn’t a bad sign at all.

Of course, you can’t help but dream that by some fluke, the person loves your musical, wants to produce it, matches you up with the right collaborators, and in a year, you’re on Broadway with over a thousand people laughing uproariously at something that began life on your computer screen. Still, I am willing to be realistic and hope greatly to receive some useful feedback about my work.

As a writer, sending your play or script off to someone for feedback is always a scary thing. One friend of mine knows a stunt man in Hollywood who has done stunt work in some high profile movies, including in one of the Spider-Man movies. My friend arranged for him to read a sitcom pilot I wrote several years ago, and I was very thankful for the opportunity to send it to someone. His comments to me, though, revealed the big danger for someone writing in play or script format. Not everyone can read a script.

It takes a unique mind that is familiar with reading plays to begin to be able to visualize the images in the writer’s mind, the timing of the jokes, the expressions of the actors. I forget the specific wording, but his big recommendation was to include more in the way of stage directions to help show how things should be read and to better understand the characters’ personalities. I didn’t know how to read his comments because a writer should never be excessive in stage directions or designators, and the personalities are best shown through dialogue and actions (though how to describe characters in stage directions in a way that is clear but doesn’t rob the reader of meeting them in the way the audience will—through the dialogue and actions—may be a quandary I haven’t solved). His comments never fully satisfied me that he actually was able to understand what I had written.

I was very excited, though, when I was presented this past January with the gift of being able to send my musical comedy to an actual writer. I ended up meeting someone (a very talented artist in his own right) who knew this Broadway-produced playwright and, not-so-long story short, arranged for me to send a copy of my musical comedy to this writer, who has since contacted me and assured me that he will get to my work. After so many years of writing—and I have actually had audience reception to fuel my work—it will be life-giving to get some sort of feedback from an expert on the subject.

One Year (and a Lot Learned)
It’s amazing how much one learns and grows. I am in awe of those artists throughout history who have managed to produce art of note and lasting impression while still young—Anne Bronte, who published two novels before dying at age 29, both of which are still being read today; under-30 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deserved Tony win for his hip-hop/Latin-infused hit of the season, In the Heights; or Stevie Wonder, who released his first album at 13.

At 31, I count myself among those artists whose work required time, study, and refinement to earn attention (or, in my case, to hope to earn attention). Jonathon Larson was a genius, but not until he was 35 and watching Rent off-Broadway during previews. Writer Sandra Benitez (A Place Where the Sea Remembers) wrote an entire novel that she would later bury as a sign of death and resignation that not only would it not get published but that it didn’t deserve to be; she later wrote several other books which promise to thrive long after her passing. Amy Tan, whose books The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife I esteem among my favorites, didn’t even begin writing until she was in her late 30s.

I liken myself to Jane Austen, in that she wrote two novels that never saw publication in their original form. One was Elinor and Marianne, the other First Impressions. It would be well over ten years later those works would be revised to become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Their new titles alone suggest a maturity of style and depth that their earlier incarnations must have been lacking. Ten years of reading, studying, and maturing does wonders for your talent.

At this time in my life, I feel the most prepared to take on anything creatively. As much stress and frustration nine years of teaching gave me, I have to admit that the process of teaching writing and literature analysis to students taught me volumes that have helped me as a writer. I’ve also flourished in my ability to interpret the world and to create work that engages the heart and mind. I hope to look back on nine years (more, actually) of writing without fruit and realize that, as Maya Angelou would say, I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.

Advice to Future Broadway Creators
Starting the Broadway Mouth blog was one of the best things I could have done as an aspiring-to-be-produced librettist. One of the ways we learn about things is by writing. You could read a book or see a show and have the propensity for ideas sprouting from the experience, but writing is the most effective mode of actually giving those thoughts form and substance, forcing you to create sentences to complete your ideas.

A great example of this learning process is my recent series on “20 Great Broadway Songs from the Past 10 Years,” which began as an innocuous list celebrating Broadway. I can’t tell you how much this experience has taught me about Broadway music. By analyzing the different kids of show music (the pop Aida, the operatic Marie Christine, the comedic The Drowsy Chaperone), I have forced myself to learn more about how music affects the character development, tone, and style of a show, how pop music has one set of benefits, while the character-rich style of an Adam Guettel has another set of benefits. Honestly, I would recommend any aspiring Broadway writer to create their own list AND to write their own analysis.

Projects Bouncing About My Head
This summer, my blog has pretty much consumed the majority of my writing time (since I decided to make a point of enjoying the warmth of the summer more than ever before), but I am not without ideas for writing projects.

I have decided to spend my time now focusing on that which is most easy to secure an audience. So, in addition to the shows I’ve already written and am actively pursuing production, I’m going to take the time to turn my own First Impressions into a Pride and Prejudice. Five years ago I wrote a 350+ page novel that I always knew had great potential. As I wrote it, I would email chapters to two different friends who are avid readers, and the fact that they would eagerly anticipate each new chapter was encouragement. For a variety of reasons, I let the work sit dormant, but now that I’m older and have grown as an artist (like I mentioned above), I’m ready to sit down and revisit the work. I know how to better shape the material so that it has a chance of living up to my own standards. Books are easier to pursue publication for the simple fact that you can send them off to a variety of publishing houses and actually expect that someone will read them. Crap still has a difficult time getting published, but statistically, you have a better chance of getting feedback and an honest appraisal. Librettist Joe Smith could have the next Guys and Dolls, but no one is going to read it anyway. It’s a little easier with books.

For the past nine months or so, I’ve also been contemplating writing a show about the life of one of the most popular singers of the 1960s (who also had great success in the 1970s and 1980s). Not only was this singer extremely popular, but I know someone who has been friends with her for thirty years and would be willing to hand her a copy of my play. Face it, I’d at least get my work read, and her approval would be a huge step toward enticing a producer.

I have purposefully been staying away from Jersey Boys because I don’t want to be influenced by that show, and I think I have created a concept and plotline that infuses her big hits in a way that is fresh and dramatic. I would NOT write this work with Broadway in mind, but I do think it could be a big hit if I could make it entertaining enough.

My big dilemma, though, is twofold. Number one, it’s very hard to contemplate writing a living person as a character in a play when you aren’t sure of their speech patterns or the nuances of their personality, which would be very important should she read the play (which is part of the plan). I was hoping to meet the singer, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Secondly, it’s honestly not a project I am passionate about (though, frankly, once I start on it, I will be very excited about it). Honestly, I could write a great musical with the idea that I’ve got, but I would prefer to work on something entirely original (or at least using entirely original music).

It Sucks to Be Me / It Sucks to Be You
It doesn’t suck to be Winnie Holzman because she’s got a show on Broadway (and in Chicago, Los Angeles, and cities around the world), but you know, the reality is that at one point, it sucked to be Winnie Holzman too. We are all the metaphor of the butterfly who must struggle to escape the cocoon in order to develop the muscles needed to fly.

And yeah, there are a lot of other butterflies all trying to break out of their cocoon into a crowded world, but I guess if we don’t have the fortitude and belief in ourselves to break out of the cocoon, we would never survive in the cruel world of Broadway anyway.

To paraphrase Mary Poppins, it sucks to be us, and that’s as it should be.

the Broadway Mouth
July 7, 2008

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In a Jane Austen Kind of Mood: First Impressions

The impetus was Persuasion, one of two novels published posthumously by Jane Austen’s brother, a novel like the others of hers that I’ve read (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma) which concerns themselves with upper middle class society’s foibles and moral strengths. In this case, it is a Miss Anne Elliot who foolishly spurned the love of her youth at the persuasion of a trusted friend, only to realize after an eight-year absence and the withering of her youthful beauty, how much she loves him and longs to spend her life with him.

Bear with me, this is getting to Broadway.

Even for men less than interested in pure love stories of the Nicholas Sparks ilk, Jane Austen’s works interest for their psychological complexity, for their astute observations of timeless human behavior, and for their well-crafted stories. While reading a Jane Austen novel or watching one of the many fine film adaptations, it’s easy to fall into a Jane Austen kind of mood.

This is how I arrived at thinking of First Impressions, the 1959 Broadway musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which reverted the work back to its pre-publication title, what Austen named it before revising the work and, presumably, before finding the depth and spirit of the work, as evidenced by the generic nature of the title First Impressions and the psychological depth of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen on Broadway
The OBCR of First Impressions (recorded though the show only reached 84 performances, according to Peter Filichia in Let’s Put on a Musical) was released on CD by DRG for the first time several years ago, and just as I’m sure a number of other Austen fans did, I too put it on my high priority list of CDs to obtain.

The story of Pride and Prejudice concerns the Bennet brood of daughters, a liability at a time when inheritance rights of estate (how the upper and upper middle class obtained wealth) passed solely from male heir to male heir, meaning that when Mr. Bennet dies, his wife and daughters will be left without money or status. Despite their precarious situation, second-eldest daughter Elizabeth is determined to wed for love, leading her to spurn the proposal of the very wealthy Mr. Darcy, whom she perceives to be lacking in character and heart. Only after spurning him, however, does she realize that she has been blinded by her own pride and prejudice (just as he was initially blinded by his own) and has passed on her chance for marriage to a man of strong character and great a capacity for love.

First Impressions: The Plot
In studying the OBCR, it’s not fully easy to say where the show might have gone wrong. The book is by the talented Abe Burrows, and, according to Filichia, is “a much wittier book than has been alleged, with incisive dialogue and characterizations,” though in Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, historian Ethan Mordden asserts that Burrows attempted to re-write Jane Austen, which was not a wise choice (for the record, since the production rights are licensed by Samuel French, the libretto can easily be purchased online or, I’m sure, from the Drama Book Shop). Whichever the case may be, the cast recording fails to ignite the heart or romance of the story.

Plot-wise, it’s difficult to fault Burrows’ adaptation of the story, which seems rather wisely pared down, at least as it reads in the liner notes. Yes, it does seem to lack the breadth of time required by the love story—since the novel builds romantic interest through the disparity between when Elizabeth spurns Darcy, discovers his true character, and the time it takes for there to be reconciliation. This lack of time also seems to rush through several key plot points which could hinder the effectiveness of the plotting—the quickness in which characters are introduced and brought into the conflict takes away from the gradual building of relationships upon which the story depends. Jane Bennett and Charles Bingley, for example, hardly register at all on disc.

First Impressions: The Score
Where the show seems to have fallen short most unforgivingly, however, is in the score by Robert Goldman, Glenn Paxton, and George Weiss. In short, First Impressions doesn’t make for a great listen. The fault for this lies in several categories.

First of all, as others have pointed out, the show followed My Fair Lady from 1956, and as effective as Rex Harrison’s ‘arold ‘iggins (to put it in the cockney persuasion) was in speaking his songs, it is ineffective here despite its somewhat extensive use. This is, after all, a musical, and one should be able to expect a full evening of music, and if the audience must hear one star speak his way through “Why Can’t the English?,” then it should at least be followed by “Wouldn’t It be Loverly.” Unfortunately, there is nothing here to rival the latter to justify the former.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a strong concept to have Darcy and Elizabeth speak their way through “A Perfect Evening,” in which they first dance together, because it almost seems fitting for the tone and mood. But yet again, that silly genre title of musical makes it seem so ill-fitting, particularly when not perfectly executed and when all-together too commonly used (Hermione Gingold of A Little Night Music fame—speaks her way through “Five Daughters,” “Have You Heard the News,” and sings in her own unique way on “As Long as There’s a Mother” and “A House in Town”). When Elizabeth and Darcy do sing, the musical requirements of the song don’t always allow them to fully shine vocally, as if stepping above speaking but not fully singing, as in “A Gentleman Never Falls Wildly in Love,” and “I Suddenly Find it Agreeable” (which also resorts to talking in rhythm in spots). Midway through, you want to scream, “Just sing already!”

It’s also interesting to note that the score carefully graphs the first half of the plot—from when Bingley arrives in town through Mr. Collins’ buffoonish proposal—but seems to unravel quickly thereafter, so that the general direction of the plot is clear, but the particulars of what happens doesn’t appear in silhouette as in most cast albums of this era.

And I would guess that it’s fair to say that the score simply never rises above being flat. Certain songs—“Five Daughters” and “As Long as There’s a Mother”—might rise above if they weren’t mired in a score of speak-singing so that their clever lyrics (such as Mrs. Bennet proclaiming of her daughter, “It’s not that I’m not proud of them / It’s just there’s such a crowd of them”) didn’t seem, as Mr. Darcy says elsewhere, “common, common, common.”

Reflections on the Future of Jane Austen on Broadway
Paul Gordon, who so beautifully adapted Jane Eyre, has an adaptation of Emma circulating among regional theatres (with no apparent plans for Broadway), but as of now, there seems to be no viable Broadway-bound Jane Austen musical. It does, admittedly, seem odd that as Jane Austen experiences a bevy of movie adaptations of her works (even new adaptations of titles that have already been recently filmed), there has been no Broadway adaptations in almost fifty years.

But then, maybe that’s not so surprising after all. The success of any literary adaptation is dependant upon the writer’s ability to condense a story without sacrificing too much or the wrong elements, and Jane Austen’s novels tend to be long and detailed. Furthermore, there’s the challenge of matching Austen’s eloquent language and wit, not an easy task in a medium that relies heavily upon simplified character types and songs with big emotions that might reduce Austen’s work to typical musical comedy or pop opera, neither of which are fitting for Austen’s stories. This isn’t to mention the lyrics, which would need to be of appropriate wit and lyrical beauty (paging Mr. Sondheim?).

Still, when another Austen show reaches Broadway, I want the CD.

the Broadway Mouth
July 2, 2008