Category Archives: Writing

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.

Embracing The Mass Murderer — A Trope

I enjoy fantasy and science fiction shows when they’re done well. Major “Buffy” fan back in the day, and number “iZombie” and “The Magicians” among my current shows. I’ve also kept up with my Marvel Universe movies, although I am cutting their network offerings down to “Jessica Jones” because the writing and plotting of the others, both on Netflix and ABC is subpar. [The only reason “Iron Fist” is called that is because “Dumb As A Sack Of Hammers” isn’t catchy enough.]

However, there is a long-term plotting trope common to these shows and movies that continues to bug me, because it is essentially unacknowledged. A character, usually taken over by a curse, will go on a killing binge as one does, but when said curse is lifted, will be taken back into the loving arms of his/her previous community, with relatively little censure. Even more, will team up with the heroes without any real consequence as to their previous actions.

There are several characters in the Buffy universe who follow this pattern, but the most egregious example is Faith, her fellow-slayer, who became a murderer for hire without any supernatural excuse. She did go to prison after a remorseful arc in “Angel,” but came back for the Buffy final season and went on essentially unchallenged. [I haven’t read the story-lines past the third comic book, so there may have been more. She seems to be in the wild.]

Blaine, the principal villain of iZombie, has a massive body count to his credit, yet has not met his come-uppance despite multiple opportunities, legal and otherwise. Clearly a Spike-derivative down to his bleached blonde punkish persona, he’s a walking plothole in an otherwise beautifully plotted series.

Julia of “The Magicians,” is a fascinating character. At one point, she goes sociopathic, having lost her “shade,” which seems to be a soul-equivalent. During this period, she at one point obliterates an entire population of sentient trees [long story]. But when she gets her shade back, she’s back on the team, no further consequences.

In the Marvel Universe, Gamora, the fighting blue sister in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” assists in a few mass murder events in the first movie, yet rallies to help her fighting green sister in the sequel and is allowed to run off scott-free. Loki kills a ton of people [oh, he’s so mischievous!], yet teams up with Thor many times — and he’s charming. We’ll see how they do in the upcoming Infinity Wars. My bet — she dies, he doesn’t.

And, speaking of Marvel, how about the Hulk in “Thor: Ragnarok.” He’s the champion fighter in the Grandmaster’s tournaments. Which means a history of opponents going splat permanently. But he’s lovable, so he gets a pass.

This is all fantasy, yet several of these shows aspire to bring in real emotion to drive the drama. You can’t have it both ways. It inures the characters to violent death, and by doing so, us. Only “Buffy” attempted to deal with the consequences, particularly with Willow, but redemption was generally only a few episodes away [and was rewarded with hot sex].

I realize that I am asking too much out of what is meant to be entertainment. But it’s one thing for a character to commit murder, or mass murder, as part of his/her story. It’s another for everyone else to ignore it — or worse, go “That’s cool. What can you do for me now?”

And don’t get me started on Darth Vader.

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.”


					

Me and Thomas Pynchon Are Like This

   Those who know me know that Thomas Pynchon is my favorite author, bar none. He’s the guy I order in advance in hardcover, the one I keep when others get recycled. He’s the one I reread, hoping to catch more of what I missed, and God knows I miss a lot, because he is much smarter than me and one of the great historical researchers in American fiction.

   He is also, famously, a recluse. The last picture of him dates from the 1950’s. He does live in New York City. Apparently, he married late in life and produced a son who is now in his twenties. A television news crew once stalked him and obtained footage, but he purportedly talked them out of showing it.

   He also has appeared on television twice — but both were on “The Simpsons,” where even his cartoon image wore a paper bag over his head. He is rumored to have been an extra in the film adaptation of “Inherent Vice,” but I haven’t seen actual confirmation or identification of him. There’s a befuddled-looking guy in glasses who wanders by a window at one point, and there’s a scene full of people in hooded costumes. Both are plausible.

   So, being the fan-boy that I am, I have fantasized about meeting him. I have also fantasized that he, needing a break from his exhaustive research, has read my mystery novels, which are by no means Pynchonesque but have involved a large amount of historical research.

   My books involve the members of a fictional Fools’ Guild. In the first, Thirteenth Night, we meet the Guild right away, tucked away in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains.
Imagine my shock and delight, then, when Against The Day came out, and I ran into this passage on page 724: “When Foley Walker returned from Göttingen, he and Scarsdale Vibe met at an outdoor restaurant in the foothills of the Dolomites …

   Complete coincidence, right? Right? Couldn’t have anything to do with me, right? Right? Except, I wouldn’t be a proper Pynchon paranoid if I couldn’t overanalyze this passage. There’s an entire Wiki devoted to this book, but it doesn’t say anything more than that the Dolomites are mountains in Italy. But what are they? How did they become the Dolomites?

   It turns out that they were named for an 18th Century French geologist named Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. He discovered a mineral which was named dolomite in his honor, as were the mountains where I suppose he discovered it.

   Dolomite, the mineral, had the quality of being able to double-refract light when it is shone through it. Astute readers of Against the Day will note that it shares this quality with Icelandic spar, which is one of the obsessions of the characters in the book.

   So what. Big deal. [Quote from “Buckaroo Banzai,” another Pynchon tribute movie.] Well, here goes the real craziness.

   First: I erred in using the name Dolomite. My book was set in the 13th Century, and the range wasn’t named for Dolomieu until the 19th Century. I hadn’t bothered fact-checking this because WHO THE FUCK RENAMES AN ENTIRE MOUNTAIN RANGE? [Answer: The Italians, obviously. And after a French guy. Jeez.] So, in Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon was caught out by obsessive fans referring to the movie “The Return of Jack Slade,” which didn’t come out until after the events of the book took place. In an annoying response, he annotated every pop reference in his next book, Vineland, with the year it came out. So, perhaps his reference to the foothills of the Dolomites was not merely a reference to the location of my Fool’s Guildhall, but an expression of solidarity with historical research that can fall short. Right? Right?

   But, if you think that I’m relying on that for my connection, you are mistaken. I mean, I am, but it’s not my major selling point. Take a deep breath, fasten your safety harness, pop a Dramamine — here we go.

   It turns out that the mineral dolomite, while possessing double refracting properties, is an inferior lens for that purpose when compared to Icelandic spar. One might argue that dolomite is to Icelandic spar as pyrite is to gold. And pyrite, of course, is also known as Fool’s Gold. One might argue that dolomite could also be called Fool’s Spar.

   At least, if one were me. And one is.

   I have never written Mr. Pynchon about this, because that would be an insane thing to do. So instead, I have put it out here in a blog, because nothing in a blog ever appears insane.

   Right?

   Right?

Rejection/Acceptance

I’ve been working on a collection of non-genre short stories lately, so I’ve been submitting them to a different breed of magazine than I have in the past. Rejection is no longer a matter of “slips” nowadays. Has someone coined “e-slip” yet to cover these?

In any case, it’s all part of the Great Game, and I am philosophical rather than discouraged by rejection at this point in my life. I look back at my first science fiction sale for a perfect example of the random aspect of this enterprise. I had sent the story to Analog, one of the two biggies in the science fiction world. It was in due course rejected by them. Analog was considered the more hard-core science fictional of the two, and this story was more allegorical than high-tech. So I pulled out a new pair of 9×12 manila envelopes, because the second one was an SASE, of course, and sent it off to Asimov’s Science Fiction, which was known for having a broader range of stories. To my delight, it was accepted.

And then came the wonderful thing: The story won the magazine’s annual Readers’ Poll Award for Best Short Story. I was ecstatic, and not just because of the $250 cash prize, but because of the recognition this early in my career.

The ceremony was on a top floor of the Bertelsman Building, the company that owned the publisher of the magazine at the time. They also owned Analog, and the same reception honored the recipient of that magazine’s Readers’ Poll Award. While we were mingling, I was introduced to the writer of the Analog winning story. He pulled me aside.

“Just between you and me,” he said. “Did you by any chance submit your story to Analog?”

“As a matter of fact, I did,” I replied. “They rejected it.”

He gave me a huge grin.

Asimov rejected mine,” he said.

I Never Met A Meta That I Liked

I have become very fond of “iZombie,” a show with writing that did not settle for the obvious with the premise[s]. Mystery Writer Brain is quite satisfied with the less than obvious solutions and occasionally very devious means of murder. The cast settled into their roles and hit their strides in about five episodes [compare “Buffy,” where they found their comfort level in Season 2], and the lead, played inevitably by a New Zealander playing an American better than most American actresses, rings changes on the personality shifts brought on by ingesting murder victims’ brains [yes] with subtle touches rather than over the top caricatures.

Except, except, except … I am perfectly happy to accept any fantasy/sci-fi/non-reality world as long as it follows its own internal rules. [See previous rant about Steven Moffat’s writing for “Doctor Who” in my FB note.] There is a character on “iZombie” who is assuming an alias while leading her double lives. I just picked up that her name in one life is Gilda, while in the other, Rita. Rita Hayworth played “Gilda,” of course.

While it is perfectly possible for a  character named Gilda to adopt the Rita alias in tribute to her namesake, it also throws me out of the world. It’s the writer signalling the viewer that, “Hey, this is written! Here we are! Are we not clever? And how clever are you for noticing?”

This has popped up in a few other shows and/or movies that I’ve enjoyed. In “Angel,” the “Buffy” spin-off, John Rubinstein had a recurring role as the head of the demonic law firm [no redundancy joke here, please] Wolfram and Hart. In his last scene, immediately before his demise, he’s shouting, “I want my corner of the sky!” Being about two decades older than the target audience for the show, I spotted the reference to the song, “Corner of the Sky.” From the show, “Pippin.” Which I saw twice on Broadway. With John Rubinstein as … Pippin, singing that song.

It’s cute, it has nothing to do with the plot, and provides a self-congratulatory wink. Yes, there are people who like that kind of thing, but it takes you momentarily out of the world, and the gain, the smugness of feeling you’re on the inside with the writer, is outweighed by the annoyance of being distracted.

Last example: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The Marvel movies are filled with Easter Eggs and shout-outs to the loyal fans, making them all part of the big, happy club. Nothing wrong with that. I am not geeky enough to know or spot all of them, but I have been going to and for the most part enjoying these interconnected movies. So, there’s a scene where Cap reconnects with Nick Fury, who has [spoiler alert, but you’ve seen this by now] faked his death. They meet by Fury’s grave. Carved on his tombstone, the Biblical quote beginning with “The path of the righteous man …” that was used by Jules in “Pulp Fiction.” Both Jules and Nick Fury were played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Again, cleverness rears its head. See? says the writers. We’re so cool that we can reference other movies while inside the movie! But it jolts you outside the zone they have [hopefully] put you in.

As always, I am guilty of that which I critique. In my book, “Jester Leaps In,” a character named Simon is later revealed to be a former member of the Knights Templar. “Simon’s a Templar?” exclaims another character. And those of us old enough to remember “The Saint” will no doubt see the halo appear over Roger Moore’s head.

Forgive me. I was young.

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.

About Casting

In my previous post, I wrote about visualizing actors for characters. I don’t do that for fiction, but when it comes to writing for musical theater, that changes. The reason is that the voice, specifically the singing voice, matters. Whereas a written character’s voice could be anything [and the few audio versions that I’ve heard of my work sound nothing like I hear the characters], when it comes to musicals, you have to be thinking, “She’s a soprano, not legit, with a theater belt and the ability to rock out when we need her to.” And once you do, you start remembering performers who meet those criteria.

Which means that you are essentially casting the show in your head while you’re writing it, and I have found that to be a useful thing. You’re moving the imaginary characters around an imaginary stage anyway to make sure that the scenes work and that people have enough time to change costumes, so you might as well have specific people for your templates rather than a SimRep group [and wouldn’t that be a fun game to have?]

The more I’ve gotten to work in theater, the more performers I have met. Every one of them is in my mental database, waiting to leap out and sing their imaginary little hearts out. And I don’t typecast them — the ingenue in one show becomes a biker chick bartender in another; the straight high school senior segués into a gay, thirty-something editor. It all comes down to the voice and, to a lesser extent, the age.

In the year after I had been in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, I was looking for a compatible composer to work with. I had come up with an idea for a show to be made up of thematically-related musical sketches and one-acts. I had been influenced by my experiences both watching and participating in the Raw Impressions Theater Company, who put together evenings of eight ten minute musicals written in forty-eight hours by eight pairs of writers and composers who had never worked together before. They usually had a cast of ten covering the whole set, and the performers were seriously good.

So, as I began thinking about what I would write, I also thought about the practicalities. I wanted to use six performers, three men and three women, all versatile. And thinking about the characters in the pieces became mixed with thinking about who would play them. The characters suggested the performers, the performers suggested more characters, and in my head, where I was director, designer and audience, I was having a great time enjoying the show.

Of course, if you get to the point where you actually can have a reading or, if you’re lucky, an actual staging of the show, the actors you dreamed of may not be available because they selfishly have their own lives and needs. In the case of “This Happened To Someone I Know,” the anthology musical which I ultimately wrote with composer Mark Sutton-Smith, I did get four of the six to record some demos. I later got a different four of the six to do a reading, and it was sweet hearing their actual voices doing what the voices in my head had done [no medication needed here, folks. Relax.]

But, if you can’t get the performers you dreamed of getting, here’s the wonderful thing about living in NYC: There are a lot of performers here, and many will happily come in to read or sing for you, either because they hope that this will lead to work for them if you ever strike gold, or because they realize that all of us in this community [and I am willing at this point to include myself] need to have this symbiosis continue if musical theater is going to be created.

So, what happens when a performer you craved is unavailable? You network. You find others, and they know others, and before you know it, your imaginary repertory company is legion. And someone will come in who was nothing like the person in your head and put an entirely new spin on the character, and you, the writer, sit there and think, “Oh! This character can do that!” For example, when Mark and I wrote “Girl Detective,” we recruited Kimmy Brownell for the table reading. We had met Kimmy when she learned four songs at the last second for some demos when our original singer came down with a cold. Right before the table reading, Kimmy had a family emergency. She sent me a list of possible replacements, with a notation next to one of them, “She rules!”

Her name was Lauren Blackman. She looked nothing like Kimmy, and we didn’t know how good she was. Turned out she was real good. When we later did a staged reading in NYC, she came back for the role and came up with a reading of the line, “Like what?” that sent both Mark and me into hysterics. Too long to explain, but the point is, I wrote that line, and I had no idea it contained what she found in it.

Sometimes you get even luckier. We wanted a young voice for Casey Ames, Girl Detective. I remembered that the older sister of one of my son’s friends had gone to the Performing Arts High School in NYC, and then on to study musical theater at Pace University. I contacted her, and had her learn one of Casey’s songs. And that’s how I started working with Tara Novie.

Tara has become one of the mainstays of my imaginary repertory company. She’s not merely a great singer. She’s a great musician [not every singer is]. So good, that she allowed Mark and me to take musical risks, knowing that she had the capability to take them and run with them. There was a moment in “Girl Detective” where Casey, self-styled high school detective, comes across a murdered man, and breaks dow because things suddenly got real. Mark and I independently arrived at the idea of using musical fragments to create the theater equivalent of an operatic mad scene. The structure was unconventional, the meters shifted into some less standard rhythms, and we ended up writing a piece that I love to this day because Tara had come into this role and we knew she could do it [and she did]. Unfortunately, it’s not up on the website, but you can hear Tara [and Lauren and many other good folks] here.

So, when I began writing “The Usual,” which had its basis in one of the one-acts from the unfinished “This Happened …” musical, Tara took over in my mind from the actress who was part of the original six. “The Usual” was a three person show: two women, one man. For the visuals, I had Tara, the fabulous Kristin Maloney, who had done demos for “This Happened …” and performed the one-act “Bad Reception” from that show, and Gil Brady, who Mark had recruited for “Girl Detective” from his imaginary repertory company.

See how this works? Only when we got to the table reading and recording for “The Usual,” real life intervened in good and bad ways. The bad: Mark was diagnosed with lymphoma, the treatment of which naturally slowed down his composing. The good: Kristin was pregnant. The delay in the completion of the score pushed things past her due date. She recommended Jillian Louis, who was incredible, and a completely different type than Kristin. [Go to the Musical Theater page to hear Jillian, Tara and Gil on those songs.]

And then “The Usual” was done at the Williamston Theatre in Michigan, and that cast, Joseph Zettelmaier, Emily Sutton-Smith and Leslie Hull, was nothing like Gil, Jillian and Tara. Their takes were different; Tony Caselli, the genius director, found beats and notes that I didn’t know were there, and it was all brilliant.

So, what I have learned: I can cast as much as I like in my head, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll get those people. But if I don’t, I can’t wait to see what these characters of mine will turn into when the new folks arrive. I will keep writing for Tara, and Jillian, and Nick Cearley and David Perlman and so many others, because they help me imagine who these people are. Theater characters are meant to be played by actors, and by more than one if you want the show to live on.

And the other great thing about it is that you keep making new friends.

Casting about

Ming-Na Wen has returned to network television as Melinda May in Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Disappointing, badly written first season, unfortunately, and for those of us who remember her wonderful breakthrough in “The Joy Luck,” it is sad to see her reduced to the Hollywood you’re an Asian Woman, so you can be the kick-ass martial arts chick syndrome. Mind you, she can at 51 wear the catsuit Diana Rigg wore at 24 in a much different “Avengers,” as well as carry through fight scenes that Rigg never could, so props to her, but she’s woefully underused.

Seeing Ms. Wen invariably reminds me of a conversation I had with my mystery writer buddy S. J. Rozan at some Bouchercon several years back. She was talking about how she would cast her series featuring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith [read them if you haven’t], and Wen’s name came up. Wen would have been good had it been done then. The time lapse since that conversation has taken her out of contention. Lydia Chin is, of course, a Chinese-American detective with some serious martial arts chops, but those are rarely deployed — the detecting is the thing.

It’s fun to mentally cast one’s characters, and I wonder how often the actors selected match the writer’s intent. Colin Dexter loved John Thaw’s portrayal of Inspector Morse, and the books that came out after the BBC series began seemed to reflect the actor more and more. On the other hand, the fans may have their own idea of a character in mind. There was a huge brouhaha when Tom Cruise was cast as Jack Reacher. “Reacher is tall! Cruise is not!” screamed the fans, forgetting that Cruise not only is a damn good actor, but also possesses the most credible physicality in fight scenes of any major Hollywood star. I’m sure that Lee Child’s reaction to the casting was along the lines of “I like people who are going to make me money.” [The movie underperformed, but a sequel is in the works.]

A question writers often get is, “Who would you cast in the movie of your book?” This sends us into reveries of endorsing checks with large numbers to the right of and beneath our names, walking down red carpets in tuxes, appearing on national talk shows while trying to appear modest and witty, yet self-deprecating. The truth is, unless you are also the executive producer, you, the writer, will have no control over any part of what happens once you sign away the rights. And you agree to this because the first part of the fantasy, that large-dollar amount check, overwhelms everything else.

I have nothing against this process. [It’s only happened to me once, with a short story that came thisclose to being made, with a screenplay by an Oscar-winner and another Oscar-winner lined up to star. Fortunately, I didn’t spend the money I didn’t get before I got it, which I didn’t. Long story for a short story.]

As to who I would cast — I try not to think about it. I’m writing characters who need to come to life on the page, as opposed to barely fleshed-out movie proposals disguised as a novel. I tend to underdescribe them, which might be a fault, but I prefer to give a bare bones description and let the readers flesh out the rest with their imaginations. There will be bits and pieces — Theophilos, my jester, is tall, skinny and flexible enough for tumbling and acrobatics, but we don’t know much more. His age wasn’t pinned down precisely until the fifth book, An Antic Disposition, which was his origins book. Claudia, née Viola, is given a little more since we see her through his eyes, but not much.

Did I play the casting game with them? Yes, of course. I had the movie fantasies like anyone would. But these characters started forming in the mid-Nineties. The actors I would have cast then? A tall actor with a good singing voice who was adept at physical comedy — Kevin Kline leapt to mind, and if the movie had been made immediately, he would have been great. But he’s 66 now. For Viola at that time, I needed a woman who was a chameleon, short and thirty-ish. I was a big fan of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still am, but she’s 53.

Even if Hollywood buys the rights, it takes years to get anything actually made, and therein lies the problem. So, if anyone comes knocking, I’ll sign away my characters with alacrity. [Maybe I can get them to let me write the screenplay — nah, who am I kidding?] And I’ll hope to God they get it right. Or make it better. As much as I loved Baum’s Oz books, I’m glad that MGM made Dorothy old enough to be played by Judy Garland. It would have been a much poorer movie if she had been the age depicted in the original Denslow illustration.

And I’m a patient man. Matt Smith isn’t old enough to play Theophilos yet. But he will be. And I hear he can sing.