Category Archives: Songwriting

What’s “Better Than Dreaming?”

Composer Joy Son and I met in the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop — and never got to write together. We stayed in touch, however, and when we finally had a chance to collaborate, it was a blast. Joy can simply write anything and make it fresh and beautiful. Each song we produced was different, fun, and like nothing I had ever done before.

So, when we finished writing “The United States of Us,” one of my first reactions was panic. I wasn’t writing with her! I needed to come up with another idea for a show! Now!

Fortunately, it was Pledge Week on PBS. [There’s a phrase you don’t ever hear.] This meant that they showed a documentary about Broadway, this particular one being about the contributions of Jews to musical theater. Apparently, there were some. Who knew? I was watching the section on “West Side Story,” and my mind drifted into thinking about Shakespearean musicals. There basically have been four successful ones on Broadway: “The Boys From Syracuse,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “West SIde Story,” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” I have seen other smaller adaptations  [check out Dave Hudson and Paul Libman’s “Muskie Love” for a hilarious setting of “Much Ado …” and the more recent “Desperate Measures” for two good examples], but the one that jumped into my mind was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I had been a fan of this play since my first exposure, the Mister Magoo version. My writer brain jumped into What If? mode. What if Titania, after spending the night with Bottom, decided to stay with him? What if they had a child? What if she chose to live as a human with her family? What if she had to return to the Fairy Realm? What if later she decided she wanted her child back?

What if we set it in modern-day NYC?

By the end of an hour, I had put together the basic premises of the show and pitched it to Joy. And she said yes.

More conceptual breakthroughs would come. We decided to free up the plot and not be an analog of the original play. Alec, the central male lead, became a mixture of Bottom, Oberon, Theseus and Egeus. The mechanism of the magic changed, and every alteration of a premise sent the plotlines careening in directions Shakespeare never anticipated.

Joy’s score was earthy for the humans, ethereal for the fairies, funny and romantic and heartfelt. Once again, it was a blast working with her, and you can hear the results on the Musical Theater page.

I can’t wait to write with her again.

Lydian, Oh Lydian …

TCM ran a couple of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts last night. In one, he discussed the different modes. When he got to the Lydian mode, he mentioned that it was frequently used in Polish music. I flashed on the Groucho Marx classic, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” which contains the lyric, “For two bits she will do a mazurka in jazz.” The mazurka is a Polish dance. Was this a very sly, esoteric musical pun on the Lydian mode by Arlen and Harburg?

Theater firsts:

First show: “Carousel,” the Lincoln Center revival with John Raitt, 1965. I was 5 or 6. Odd fact that stays with me — the Starkeeper was played by Edward Everett Horton, whose name I recognized as the narrator of “The Fractured Fairy Tales” from The Bullwinkle and Rocky show.

First off-Broadway show: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Also, my second show. Not the original cast. I still think it’s better than the revamped version, but nobody remembers the character of Patty [not Peppermint Patty] anymore.

First non-musical: “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” by Molière, at the Comédie-Française. I was 13. My French wasn’t exactly fluent, but I enjoyed it.

First exposure to Shakespeare: The Mr. Magoo version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” on television.

FIrst exposure to non-animated Shakespeare: The Olivier movie of “Hamlet.”

First exposure to live Shakespeare: The musical of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” still one of my favorites.

First exposure to Shakespeare, live, no gimmicks already: “Richard II,” RSC, London. Boring for three hours, then a sword fight.

First time seeing a Broadway show without an adult taking me: “Candide,” 1973.

First time seeing a Broadway show with a date: “Candide,” 1973.

First show that I went back and saw again: “Candide,” 1973.

First show that made me want to write for the theater: “Travesties,” by Tom Stoppard. The third writer to blow up my adolescent mind, after Kafka and Pynchon. I wanted to write like Stoppard, to make the language dance and the concepts and moments shift on a dime. I needed to know everything he knew. He led me to Joyce and Wilde. I still don’t know everything he knows and never will. And yet, and yet, and yet …

First show that made me appreciate perfect lyrics: “A Little Night Music.” The way “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon” blend into the trio is the greatest achievement in musical theater.

First show that made me appreciate how a musical could express real life: “A Chorus Line.” When they announced the Broadway transfer, I caught the 77 bus into NYC and stood in line in the summer to buy six tickets for the December holidays. Front row center balcony, the perfect vantage point to see the kaleidoscopic patterns of Bennet’s choreography. I love Sondheim’s mastery of lyricism, but Kleban wrote how people I knew talked. The tickets, by the way, were eight dollars each.

First time seeing nudity onstage: “Equus.”

First show with college girlfriend: “Eubie.”

First time seeing two shows in one day [also with college girlfriend]: Spring break, 1979. “Sweeney Todd” and “Wings.”

First play I directed: “The Real Inspector Hound.” By Stoppard. At Swarthmore College.

First play I wrote: Yeah, not gonna talk about that. It was in high school. It was pretentious and terrible.

First time at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park: “The Pirates of Penzance,” 1980.

First show seen with my wife [aforementioned college girlfriend]: Memory fades, but research suggests it was “I’m Not Rappaport.” We got free tickets, thanks to my brother. He got them because the play was staged in a house designated for musicals, so they had to pay some musicians under the union rules of the time as what were referred to as “walkers.” My brother, a cellist, was one of them, I’m not sure how.

First show seen with my son: “The Lion King.” Also with my wife and parents. My brother was playing in the pit. For real, this time! And he got us house seats, which was sweet.

First time at the Delacorte Theater with my son: “Twelfth Night,” 2002. Terrible production.

First time seeing three shows in one day: “The Coast of Utopia,” by Tom Stoppard.

First musical written by me: “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with music by Matt Frey, based on the Roald Dahl story. Fourteen minutes long, performed in front of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, with Masi Asare, Lawrence Rush, David Sisco, and me performing. A blast.

First musical written by me which people paid to see in public: “Math Anxiety,” a ten minute musical written in 48 hours with composer Michael Hunsaker and staged a week later by the Raw Impressions Musical Theater in an evening of rapidly written shows. Performed by Karen Hyland, Dennis Holland, and Darryl Winslow; directed by Tesha Buss, musical direction by future crossword champ Dan Feyer. Six performances, and I was at five of them. A crazy, thrilling ride.

First fully-staged full-length musical written by me which people paid to see in public: “The Usual,” with music by the late Mark Sutton-Smith, produced at the Williamston Theatre in Michigan, with Joseph Zettelmaier, Emily Sutton-Smith, Leslie Hull, Brandon Piper and Carolyne Rex. Directed by Tony Caselli. I was up for the last two weeks of rehearsal into the premiere. People unrelated to me sat in the audience and laughed, gasped, and cheered at words that I wrote. One of the greatest experiences of my life.

First full-length musical written by me to make it to Broadway: Watch this space.

Creating “The Usual”

Now that the libretto for our musical “The Usual” has been published, I thought I’d tell you how it came to be. It happened because of the Raw Impressions Music Theatre. This was a wonderfully insane, low-budget project that would put together evenings of ten minute musicals written in 48 hours. Eight writers and eight composers who had never worked together before would show up on a Friday afternoon; ten performers would sing for a minute each; then eight musical-writing teams would form and be given the theme for that program. It was like, here’s your composer, these three performers will be yours, here’s your director, here’s your musical director, you have 48 hours, see you Sunday, GO!

One week later, they would put on a fully-staged, off-book evening of eight ten minute musicals. Our theme was “Love by Degrees.” “Math Anxiety,” with music by Michael Hunsaker, was my first publicly performed work. There were six performances, and I went to five of them and listened and watched as an audience of strangers laughed and cheered for our show. It was a blast.

I started thinking about what I would do if I could run one of these. I remembered seeing Paul Sills’ All-Star improv group when they came to NYC. [Can’t remember all of them, but Paul Dooley, Severn Darden, Gerrit Graham …] There was one format where they were given a first line and a last line, and had to improvise a scene that got from one to the other. [“Put down that chainsaw!” was the final one that night.] So, what if a group of random sentences were drawn from a hat and used to start musicals?

The phrase, “I knew you’d come back,” popped into my head. And within 90 seconds, I knew the characters, the entire plot, the songs, and that it had to be jazz-based. [Da DOO be do BOP!]

Well, fun idea, but I wasn’t in charge of anything. But I kept coming up with ideas for short musicals, and wondered what an evening of such would be like. Then I met the composer Mark Sutton-Smith. He had responded to a personal ad I had put up in a Yahoo newsgroup of musical theater writers [“Lonely lyricist seeks composer …”] We met by the Lincoln Center fountain [cue Gene Wilder screaming, “I’ll do it!” as the water erupts orgasmically.] At dinner, we each pitched an idea. Mine was for the program of one-act musicals; he then growled, “I want to write a show called, ‘Girl Detective.'” We ended up doing both.

The problem: We never quite finished the collection of one-acts, entitled, “This Happened To Someone I Know,” although writing it was a good learning process and way for us to get a sense of what each other could do. I wrote for an imaginary group of six performers I knew either through my BMI workshop or Raw Impressions: Jill Abramovitz, Karen Hyland, Kristin Maloney, Nick Cearley, Steve Routman, and my Raw Impressions collaborator, Michael Hunsaker. Of the one acts, only the one I initially thought of was completed: “Bad Reception,” which Kristin and Mike performed sensationally at the Emerging Artists Theater. [You can hear them singing “I Knew You’d Come Back” and “Enough” here. The latter is one of the most gorgeous melodies you’ll ever hear.] We got caught up in writing “Girl Detective,” but more importantly, the one-acts never quite connected with an overall theme. This particularly hit home when we put together a private reading, amazingly getting Kristin, Nick, Steve and Mike, two-thirds of the dream team, and added in Lauren Blackman and Russell Koplin in the other female roles. In the post-mortem, it was suggested that we’d be better off finding an overall through-line.

I thought about that, and actually came up with an idea for one — six characters, two side-by-side locations [a living room; a bar] — but the frustrations were creeping in, so we put the project aside.

In early autumn, 2010, Mark called me and said [this is verbatim], “Hey, my sister’s theater is looking for original musicals for two to three performers and one set. Let’s write one of those.” He proposed that we salvage what songs we could from the earlier project. I re-examined one of the one-acts, “Kaypro II,” in which a woman named Valerie rediscovers the clunky old computer from her teen years and plays a computer adventure game that she never finished. The demons she encounters in the game parallel the demons from her real life.

It seemed like a possible second act, albeit with much rewriting. I took my idea for the through-line and cut it in half. One set, a bar. A guy walks into the bar, starts talking to the bartender. Then Valerie enters. And stuff happens.

My wife, Judy and I, were taking an anniversary trip to Hawaii. I can never sleep on planes. I took a spiral notebook and started riffing an opening scene. It flowed [“like butter,” said Mark when he read it later].

We still needed songs. Lots of them, in fact, to fill up this full-length show. They started to come. Mark and I worked by sending things back and forth to each other. He described his composing process to me as “Walking around the house, muttering.” Three new songs happened. The Williamston Theatre liked the first draft. They even did the opening scene for a fund-raising gala. But there was much to be done. Eight more songs to go, and we wanted to put together a table read for August so that Tony Caselli, the director, could come to NYC and take a look at the completed show.

Then I stopped hearing from Mark. No e-mails with music attached, no calls, no picking up on his end. We had lined up three performers [Tara Novie and Gil Brady from “Girl Detective,” and Kristin Maloney, who had inspired the original Valerie]. I was getting increasingly frantic, wondering what was going on.

Then things got worse. Much worse.

It turned out that Mark had been diagnosed with lymphoma. He finally called me and filled me in. I was stunned, needless to say. Horrified for him, and wondering if we’d be able to finish what we started.

We postponed the reading. On the other end of the life event scale, Kristin had become pregnant, and the new date was past her due date. She recommended a woman she had recently worked with who she said could do everything she could do even better, and that’s how I first met Jillian Louis.

Mark started chemo, which laid him out. We went ahead with the reading, which was encouraging and pointed out what needed to be rewritten. Then I received the first piece of music from Mark. Then another. Then another.

He ended up writing eight new songs in between bouts of chemo. They were wonderful. It was one of the most incredible things I had ever seen. To create while that ill takes courage beyond anything I’ve ever had. We completed the show in time to get it to Williamston.

The Williamston Theatre is a small theater, with 99 seats surrounding a small square stage on three sides. It was founded by four people, including Tony Caselli, our director, and Emily Sutton-Smith, Mark’s sister and our leading lady. The theater is an Equity house that also draws on the nearby Michigan State theater students. Our leading man, Kip, was played by Joseph Zettelmaier, an award-winning playwright long associated with the theater. Sam, the bartender, was played by Emily Hull, a graduate student at the time. Tony also had the clever idea of incorporating the two student  assistant stage managers, Brandon Piper and Carolyne Rex, as an onstage chorus when they weren’t changing scenery or operating demons. [When Mark heard about that, he said, “Five voices are going to sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in that space.”] The set, costumes, lighting and props were all beautifully done, and the musical director improvised cocktail piano for the underscoring that Mark couldn’t complete.

I was up for the last two weeks of rehearsal, rewriting in my hotel room by day. The layout of that room had the television mounted over the desk. The bottom of framework had padding on it. I remember thinking, “What kind of idiot is going to hit his head standing up from the desk?” The answer was me. Twice.

We had our first preview. The laughs were huge. So was the gasp of shock and dismay at the last twist of the final scene. [Joe came running up to me after, crowing, “Did you hear that?”]

And Mark made it to the premiere to hear his little sister sing his music for the first, and only, time in his life.

We got great reviews from the Michigan media, nominations for different awards. It was a blast, one of the great experiences of my life.

And the performance after the premiere would be the last time that I would see Mark in person.

He lived another year, composing to the end. We spoke on the phone. He gave me his blessing when the possibility arose for me to work with someone else, which we understood would be until he was well enough to work again on another musical. About a year after the premiere, we lost him.

A month or so after that, I received a call informing me that I had won the Kleban Prize for Most Promising Librettist for this little show. The ceremony was at the ASCAP building, and Mark’s music was played by Joy Son, my new collaborator, on Harold Arlen’s Steinway grand. She told me that she had never practiced so hard.

Oh, the title. The working title had been “These Two Walked Into A Bar.” Sometime in the rehearsal process, Tony suggested, “The Usual.” And we said, “Yeah. That’s it.”


					

It’s Gravity! A song in honor of Albert Einstein and the validation of gravity waves

IT’S GRAVITY!

by Alan Gordon

I. [Swing tempo]

WHEN A MASSIVE BLACK HOLE

LIKES ANOTHER BLACK HOLE

VERY, VERY MUCH,

THEY CIRCLE FOR EONS, THEN THEY TOUCH.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

AND WHEN THOSE HOLES ARE DONE,

THEN THE TWO BECOME ONE,

AND FROM THIS COSMIC EMBRACE

COMES A RIPPLE THROUGH THE FABRIC OF SPACE.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

WE DON’T KNOW IF THEY DERIVE PLEASURE,

‘CAUSE BLACK HOLES WON’T GIVE OFF ONE GLEAM.

BUT THE RIPPLE IS SOMETHING WE CAN MEASURE,

AND THAT’S SOME PLEASURE THAT WILL MAKE A LASER BEAM.

 

GIN A BODY MEET A BODY

COMIN’ THROUGH THE SKY,

AND THEY HAVE WHAT EACH OTHER CRAVES,

IT’S GRAVITY!

LET’S MAKE SOME WAVES!

 

II.

I DON’T WANNA SEEM CRASS,

BUT YOUR BODY HAS MASS,

SO IT NATURALLY ATTRACTS.

I CAN’T HELP IT IF MINE REACTS.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

AND IF THE SHORTEST LINE

BETWEEN YOUR BODY AND MINE

COMES ACROSS AS SLIGHTLY CURVED,

THAT LINE’S FINE, SAYS EINSTEIN. DON’T BE UNNERVED.

IT’S GRAVITY!

 

THERE’S NO LIGHT FOR US TO KEEP OUR EYES ON.

BLACK HOLES WON’T EVEN LET OFF A SPARK.

IT’S TRAPPED BEYOND THE EVENT HORIZON,

BUT SOME THINGS ARE BETTER WHEN THEY’RE DONE IN THE DARK.

 

SO, COME HERE, YOU LOST SOUL,

‘CAUSE YOU KNOW I CAN’T CONTROL

HOW THE UNIVERSE BEHAVES.

IT’S GRAVITY!

THAT SPACE-WARPING GRAVITY.

IT’S GRAVITY!

LET’S MAKE SOME WAVES!

The Pi Song [posted on 3/14/15, natch]

Back when I was in the Lehmann Engel Workshop, I worked on a proposed musical adaptation of Douglas Coupland’s book Microserfs. Out of that came the following lyric — think of it as an Andrews Sisters number.

THE PI SONG

Way down yonder in Ancient Greece,
There once was a fellow who gained fame.
A mathematical sage from the Golden Age,
Archimedes was his name.
He once drew a circle in the sand,
And what he saw there made his eyes pop.
He discovered a number
That disrupted his slumber,
‘Cause once he got it going then it wouldn’t stop.
And since Roman num’rals weren’t invented yet,
He named it for a letter in the Greek alphabet.

He called it Pi.
Not beta, not theta, not chi.
And what was first discovered by those ancient Greeks
Is now a source of fascination to us modern geeks.
I like Pi.
Although I can’t explain why.
It’s beyond all computin’.
It even puzzled Newton,
So just keep salutin as the numbers march by
Some fellas try to tell us that they can solve Fermat’s Theorem.
But if they don’t know  Pi, I’d never go near ‘em.
I’d even fear ‘em.
Give me Pi.
Don’t be coy or shy.
If you know a thousand digits,
You’ll give me the fidgits.
No mental midgets need apply.

There’s always room for Pi.
If I don’t get it, I’ll surely die.
It may seem irrational; it don’t make sense.
But without it I can’t figure out my circumference.
If a man knows Pi,
He’ll make me swoon and sigh.
If he knows my conic sections,
He’ll conquer my affections,
‘Cause I like to make selections from IQ’s that are high.
I’m not a gal who mixes Pascal into her amours.
But if you know your Pi then the only number I’ll ever want is yours.
Maybe someday I
Will meet a man just like Pi.
If I met such a man, it would be so sweet.
He would completely knock me off my feet,
‘Cause he could go on forever and never repeat.
That’s my kind of guy.
He’d be neat as, sweet as,
Gimme a P, gimme an I, that’s all you need to spell it.
Neat as, sweet as,
This is the finish, so come on, ladies, sell it!
Neat as, sweet as,
Pi.
Pi.
Pi.
Come on, baby, gimme that Pi!

What I Learned From Irving Berlin

     By most reckonings, Irving Berlin was one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American popular music.

And he was, by and large, an abject failure.

How do I reconcile these statements? In fact, how dare I call someone like Berlin a failure? This is a man who, as a Russian Jewish immigrant, pulled himself out of the New York City ghetto and taught himself how to play the piano, albeit only in one key, making the harmonic sophistication of his songs all the more impressive. [He used a transposing piano which changed keys by use of a lever.] This is a man who had one of the all-time best-selling songs in “White Christmas,” who wrote one of the great Broadway song scores with “Annie Get Your Gun,” who lived to be a hundred and is estimated to have written anywhere from over 1250 to over 1500 songs in his lifetime.

Yet that last statistic backs up my second statement about Berlin. It is an unbelievable number of songs. By way of comparison, in my eleven years of an admittedly part-time, third career as a lyricist, I have written about a hundred songs, more or less.  And I depend on collaborators for the music, because I have no skills or training as a composer. Berlin did both, and did them extremely well at times.

So, let’s assume the total number is 1250. Now, suppose you could list these songs in order of quality. I would start with “Let’s Face The Music and Dance” in the top spot, followed by “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Day [To Be Caught In the Rain],” but that’s my list. Look at the first ten songs, and you have ten of the greatest songs ever written. Same with 11-20. And you keep going, through the great anthems [“God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade”], through pretty much the entire score of “Annie Get Your Gun,” and so on.

By the time you get to 41-50, you’ve gotten to songs that maybe you’ve heard of, maybe even have heard played or sung, but rarely. After 60, you’d be hard pressed to even identify a title as an Irving Berlin song. The chronological Wikipedia list, found here, highlights sixty of the songs with their own articles. While not a perfect indicator, it gives a rough proxy as to which of the songs merited further discussion [although “Si’s Been Drinking Cider” seems to have been an accidental highlighting.]

Now for some math. Sixty out of 1260 is a success rate of about 4.8%. Flip it, and it’s a failure rate of 95.2%. Pretty damn high, which proves my second statement.

And this is why Irving Berlin inspires me and gives me hope as a writer. When people ask me for writing advice, the most significant thing that I tell them is to write every day. What you write may or may not turn out to be any good, but the sheer act of writing it will make you a better writer. It’s a muscle, a mental muscle that needs constant exercise if it is ever going to improve.

    And if you write enough, some of it will be good.

And if it isn’t good, set it aside and move on to the next thing. I knew a composer once who told me that he didn’t want to bother writing any bad songs because he thought he only had so many good songs in him. I disagree with that whole-heartedly. You learn from the bad. You develop an aesthetic sense that will help you down the line. Look again at the chronological list in Wikipedia and see how the percentage of significant songs increases as Berlin matured. [It goes back down as he ages out of his prime.]

The young Berlin wrote “Ephraham Played Upon The Piano” and “Don’t Take Your Beau to the Seashore,” and his career survived [the latter song is fun, by the way.] George Gershwin said of him, “The first real American musical work is ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.”

I didn’t get Berlin when I was a young teen working my way through my dad’s fake book. The songs seemed corny, and he never completely made the transition to the integrated musical, although a case can be made for “Call Me Madam” in that regard. His greatest work came when Jerome Kern died before taking on the score to what would become “Annie Get Your Gun,” causing producers Rodgers and Hammerstein to bring him on. As I have developed and improved in my own lyric-writing, I have come to appreciate the idea of telling the story in the song without drawing attention to the songwriter. Simplicity, in other words. Sondheim, in his essay in Finishing The Hat, says “Berlin is a lyricist whose work I appreciate more and more the older I get. His lyrics appear to be simple, but simplicity is a complicated matter, as well as being hard to achieve without a quick slide from simple to simplistic.”

By most reckonings, Irving Berlin was one of the greatest songwriters in the history of American popular music. Most reckonings. Including mine.