Stephen Sondheim: Now, Later, Soon, and Why I Became A Lyricist

The great Sondheim burst of the 1970’s was a decade of work unequalled by any other Broadway songwriter. [The Bock/Harnick run from “Fiorello” in 1959 through “The Rothschilds” in 1970 may be comparable, but that was their entire output. Sondheim, both before and after the 70’s, is responsible for several more musicals, including arguably three of the greatest of all time.] 

My own entry into his world started with “A Little Night Music.” The show premiered in 1973. I didn’t see it right away, but I still remember my parents, both musicians, coming home from a theater date, saying they fell in love with the show the moment the bassoon came in. Listen to the overture on the original cast recording, and you’ll hear that moment on the first introduction of the Night Waltz theme. You will fall in love, too.

I was thirteen when it opened. I remember still, oddly enough, the Clive Barnes review in the New York Times singling out the lyric “The hip-bath, the hip-bath, how can you trip and slip into hip-bath,” for particular praise, and not being overly impressed. Of course, he was on deadline, and the intricacies of what Sondheim did with that score are hard to jot down in the darkness of a theater. It would be a year later when I finally saw it. William Daniels had replaced Len Cariou [and I saw George Lee Andrews, his understudy], and there was a new Fredrika, but otherwise, it was the original cast.

I was an incipient lyric-freak, working my way through the Great American Songbook through my gigging dad’s fakebooks. But it was from my mother that I derived my delight in the cleverness of Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, and it was she who bought me the cast album to “A Little Night Music.” 

Which came with a lyric sheet.

There have been a handful of authors who have blinded me on my personal road to Damascus. There has been one songwriter, and this lyric sheet is what did it. 

Most people, when asked about this score, will bring up “Send In The Clowns,” perhaps Sondheim’s most well-known song as a composer/lyricist. It’s a lovely song, but for me, the supreme achievement of the show, and maybe the greatest achievement in any show, was the blending of the first three songs into the trio in “Soon.”

“Now,” sung by Fredrik Egerman. “Later,” sung by Henrik, his adult son. “Soon,” sung by Anne, his young second wife, still a virgin eighteen months after their marriage.

Now, later, soon. Three simple words, each containing within it both Time and Tension. Threes abound in the score, both melodically and lyrically. Each song is different in tempo and tone. Fredrik, the lawyer, a bouncy 6/8 while he analyzes his choices in gaining his wife’s amorous favors; Henrik, the sexually frustrated divinity student, a slower 3/4 while accompanying himself on the cello, bemoaning his own frustrations; Ann, the bride, an almost teasing, delicate Viennese waltz as she tries to convince herself that this marriage was what she wanted. Each song is different, yet Sondheim, in the latter part of “Soon,” brings the songs and the singers together.

Find the lyrics, break them down. He begins with each character singing his or her own song, albeit all to Ann’s lilting waltz. As they begin mingling, the words “Now, later, soon” are passed from character to character. The individual songs give way to every possible combination of two characters singing against a third: Fredrik and Ann, Ann and Henrik, Henrik and Fredrik.

And then they crash together, all singing their individual lines on the bridge to Ann’s “Soon.” As she sings, “And you’ll have to admit I’m endearing,” the others sing other lines in counterpoint, coinciding with the rhymes “peering” for Henrik and “hearing” for Fredrik, followed by the next stanza culminating in “domineering/cheering/interfering.” Interestingly, Ann’s dithering patter while Fredrik sings “Now” includes a line about “earrings,” another rhyme echoed here. Intentional? Accidental? Unconscious? I don’t know, but I like it.

And in the end, the words “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon” return to their originators as Fredrik drifts off to sleep, his young bride next to him in bed — only instead of naming her in the final word of his song of need, he names another woman. Which Ann, of course, hears.

Time. Tension.


I would go on to discover “Company” and “Follies,” to see “Sweeney Todd” and “Pacific Overtures”, to hear, read and devour everything he’s done since. I have become a lyricist myself, largely due to my love of what he did, starting with these three songs.

Happy 90th Birthday, Mr. Sondheim. Thank you for everything.

New musical project, because I’m crazy

I’ve been plugging away at a pseudonymous mystery series, but I’ve tried to keep a musical project going simultaneously. For the last few years, it’s been an adaptation of “Gilgamesh,” for which I am doing the book and my old Lehman Engel Workshop classmate Lawrence Rush is doing the score. More on that as we get it out into the world, but the point is, it’s completed [although not done. Nothing is ever done.]

So, what now? I have promoted a back-burner project to the front burner. Back-burner, as in since 2004. At the end of my first year of the workshop, we had to write a short musical. I paired up with the then young, still pretty young Matt Frey to write a 14 minute musical that was about a murder.

Several years later, I started writing with the late, great Mark Sutton-Smith. The first musical we wrote was a one-act called “Bad Reception.” Which was, in part, about a murder. [You can listen to it here.]

See a pattern yet? I didn’t. It took me a few more years to think, “Aha! I have two short musicals about murder. I should pair them up.” But that only made for about 36 minutes of theater. I decided I needed more short musicals. About murder. With different composers for each, and no more than six performers for the whole shebang.

This has been sitting inside my head for maybe a decade, but with “Gilgamesh” complete, I thought now or never. I started looking for compatible composers. I will list them by their initials so as to keep a little, ya know, mystery going until the project is done.

RP I met when we both did the musical game show “Tune in Time” at the York Theatre. DA is someone whose work I’ve known, seen and admired for a while. We had our first long talk at a Tony Awards party, and he came to critique the “Gilgamesh” table read. SS was referred to me by the estimable Seth Christenfeld of the York. She’s half my age, but we clicked on the creative side. DH saw my want ad on the Dramatists Guild website.

How long will all of this take? Dunno. I have no deadlines. The nice thing about writing short musicals is that they’re, um, short. So the time-frame for completion is not like a full-length project, and people can write inside the gaps of their schedules.

Ideally, each musical will be a different style of story-telling and music. I have planned an absurdist black comedy, a ghostly romance, a country and western road story, a psychiatric thriller [à cappella, maybe?], a jazzy confrontation at a gravesite, and a genteel send-up of every British drawing room scene there has ever been.

What I have, at the moment, are the two completed shows from years ago — and one brand new song as of today.

My feeling is that you haven’t begun writing a musical until the first song is done. We’re on our way. I will try and post regularly on the progress.

Meanwhile, there’s another mystery to be written, and that pesky but financially sustaining day job.

Watch this space!

The Pastrami vs. Lox Debate

My synagogue hosts the recent traditional Purim debate, which in the past has been on the relative merits of hamantaschen vs. latkes. This year, however, they changed the topic to Pastrami on Rye vs. Lox with Bagels. I was proud to represent Team Pastrami. Here are my prepared remarks:

I turned 60 this past Sunday, which means I am the perfect person to stand before you and advocate on behalf of well-preserved meat.

I am speaking of pastrami. Pastrami, which is not merely a Jewish food — it is a Jewish-American food. Pastrami as we know it now did not exist in the old country. It came from southeastern Europe, principally Romania, which is another reason why I should be representing pastrami, because I am one-eighth Romanian. I’m am also currently two-thirds pastrami. We ate at Katz’s Delicatessen on Sunday, and I’m still digesting that sandwich, it was that big.

So, it was a Romanian thing, but the Romanians made it mostly from geese. I read this on the internet, so I know that it’s true. The Romanian Jews then came to America, and when I say America, I mean of course the Lower East Side, because that is as much of America as we could get to back then. And what did they find when they got to the Lower East Side? They found poverty. They found tenement living. They found prejudice. They found hard work. What didn’t they find?

Geese, ladies and gentlemen. They didn’t find geese. Geese in America were things you found on golf courses on their winged migrations from Canada to wherever geese go when they’re not in Canada. Probably Boca, looking for more golf courses. And this was back when golf courses did not let Jews play, so the geese were safe. And when the geese heard that the Romanian Jews had come to New York and were looking for them, waving bags of Kosher salt, they did the smart thing. They got out of town.

So the Jews couldn’t make their traditional brined goose dish. But they were in America, and what does America have more of than anything else? Cows!

You kids are too young to remember the way it used to be in New York City, when giant herds of cows roamed the streets, clogging up intersections and slowing things down on the subways because they kept getting stuck going through the turnstiles, which to this day are not particularly cow-friendly. They also used to wander onto the railroad tracks. One of the first jobs available to the Romanian Jews was to ride on the front of locomotives, shooing away the cows. Then someone invented the cow-catcher, and the Romanians were all put out of work. But this led to a remarkable discovery. One of the cows wasn’t so lucky. It was hit by a Long Island Railroad Train, so a Romanian Jewish cowcatcher took a side of beef home to his wife. It was too big to keep forever, and they didn’t have refrigerators then, so he said to his wife, “Syl, remember that thing we used to to with the geese back home? What if we tried that with these cows that are all over the place here?” And they did, and it was good. So, there were two beneficial effects — the Jews had something good to eat, and the city no longer has a cow problem. If you don’t believe me, look outside and tell if you see any. This is why. And since Jews knew all about marketing, they took the Romanian word for it, pastrama, and made it rhyme with salami. And this is another reason pastrami is a Jewish-American food — because when it came here, they made it change its name.

Lox — lox isn’t even from here. Fish aren’t American. They’re sneaky creatures who hide in the oceans, plotting and scheming, waiting to attack. If there is one lesson we learned from watching “Jaws,” it’s that you can’t trust a fish. They wait for the right moment and swim under our walls, going upstream to feed our land enemies, the bears. And if lox is so Jewish, how come the one Latin phrase all Jews know is “Nova Scotia?” It’s Latin. It’s Canadian. It means New Scotland. This is food trying to sound fancy, trying to act like it’s better than the rest of us.

And we haven’t addressed the whole carbohydrate situation. Again, I am the perfect choice to be expounding on this, because I have been told that I have a rye sense of humor. Pastrami is meant to be eaten on rye bread, the only bread that comes with the word “Jewish” attached to it. It was Jewish then, it’s Jewish now, and it will always be Jewish and too big to fit in a standard toaster, you have to do one-half, then flip it, and it never really matches up right in the middle, but I am digressing.  Bagels, on the other hand, have become assimilated. They have lost their Jewish identity. You can buy them frozen. They have flavors, now. Flavors that God and the Jews never intended for them. I say unto you that blueberry bagels are an abomination, and don’t get me started on the jalapeno ones. And the reason they have had the mad food scientists inject them with all of these weird food additives is because, let’s be honest, bagels don’t have much flavor themselves. It is not surprising that the bagel symbolizes the number zero, because that’s how much flavor it has. They are carbohydrate delivery systems for whatever you put on them. And let’s talk about how they keep. Rye bread, you wrap it, you put in a bread box if you have one although sometimes the rye bread is bigger than a breadbox so it’s a good subject for Twenty Questions and I’m digressing again, but rye bread keeps its softness and its flavor. A bagel — you leave it in the ordinary atmosphere for more than thirty seconds, you’ll need a diamond saw to slice it. So if you have a piece of lox, which is really just spoiled fish, and you have it with cream cheese, which is really just milk gone bad, then you might as well put the whole, slimy, decaying mess on the densest chunk of carbohydrates ever created. But if you want something with flavor, something with complexity, something with cultural history that with each bite will remind you of your ancestors and with each sandwich may hasten you to join them, then there is no better choice then pastrami and rye.

Oh, and what you put on it — I prefer a little mustard, others like cole slaw — but that should maybe be a topic for the next debate. Thank you.

Speech for the 2019 NEO Concert, The York Theatre, March 4, 2019

I believe that a fundamental component of being a creative artist is self-delusion. My own began in 2003 when I saw a terrible musical that had made it all the way to production with a large cast and orchestra, and thought, phht — I can do better than that. That phrase, and the phht noise is an essential part of it, is the first step of your journey into madness.

You have to convince yourself that you can write a musical; that the musical you’ve written is good; and that others will see and understand this and agree with you to the point that they will put this musical on. The first two parts are all you, but the last part — this is where the York Theatre comes into it. To all of this year’s crop of NEO winners, I want to be brutally honest about what the York’s role is in all of this. The York Theatre is an enabler.

How does it do this? By connecting you with other crazy, self-deluded people. People who are convinced that they can create theater — not just theater, but your theater. The show that for years has played only in your mind in a continuous loop, causing you to hum off-key in the subways or speak in different voices in public parks, has suddenly been yanked away and entrusted to a team of strangers with talent. And this is New York City, which means that the talent pool they will be drawing on is the greatest musical theater talent pool in the world.

I know this from experience. I have done workshops in other states. There are talented people in other states, but not as many. You might get cast members who don’t read music, or who will confess, I’m really a straight actor, but my agent thought I should try musicals. Not here. The York does it right. They cast it right. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was sitting down with my composer, Joy Son, our director, Annette Jolles, and Seth Christenfeld, the producer slash god of casting at the York, and suggest people for our show. Which became a lot of me saying, “Holy cow! You can get him? She might do it?” And you look at clips on youtube for people you’ve never heard of and say, “Cast them! Now, before someone else does!” And you end up with the best of all possible casts, which is to say, the best cast available that week.

And because they are New York City musical theater actors, they will learn the score in two and a half days, leaving you two more to finally hear what the show sounds like outside of your head. It will be very different. I write with my imaginary floating repertory company supplying the voices. Nick and Lauren have been members for years. But now you have different voices, different faces, different bodies inhabiting your characters, and you get to see whether the work will hold up with these new people, if the lines and songs and scenes make sense. And you will find yourself saying, “That’s a terrible line. Who wrote that terrible line? Oh, right.” and you cut it. Or, “How self-indulgent were we to think that song needed a second verse?” and you cut it.

But then you see the things you hoped might work actually work. You came into the week with a twelfth draft that you thought was perfect, and come out with a thirteenth draft that’s even more perfect and ten minutes shorter. And then it gets performed in front of a knowledgeable musical theater audience, because this is the York. For one performance, a group of self-deluded people comes together to support your delusion, and all of a sudden, it’s a mass delusion. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve made something worthwhile and rewritten reality. And the sad and beautiful part is, it happens only once, and you’ll never see that particular collection of performers do that particular version of the show again. But you’ll know that maybe your choice to do this was not so crazy after all.

The great Lily Tomlin once said, “Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.” My hero Tom Stoppard said, “ You’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else.” To all of my self-deluded colleagues, I wish you the best, and enjoy the long strange trip you’re about to take.

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?

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.

Synchonicity and Murder

In the first year of the Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, they rotate the lyricists with the composers for each project. The final project is a ten minute musical. Having gotten in with no real musical theater experience, I was panicky and insecure about having enough time to write one in three weeks. My solution was to start writing it long before I knew who I would be paired up with, which was grossly unfair to my unknown composer.

Nevertheless, I forged ahead, picking a classic macabre murder story to musicalize, because I thought it would be perverse fun. Fortunately, I was paired with a young composer named Matt Frey, who not only accepted what I had done, but ran with it with his own musical craziness.

The middle section was an extended scene for the three crime scene officers. Matt’s music caught the insanity of my lyrics, switching meters practically every measure: 5/8, 6/8, 7/8, 6/8.

While this was happening, my day job as a public defender took me into a real murder case. It was one involving a great deal of forensics, including one area that was new to me — blood splatter analysis. This was before the Dexter books and series made it cool. I was working with a mentor, Tom Klein, who was the Roving Murder Guy at Legal Aid. He set up a meeting with the Crime Scene Analysts working at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

I arrived early, and waited outside for Tom. Since I had some time to kill, I called Matt to talk over changes in the musical. About halfway through the conversation, it suddenly occurred to me that I was talking about a crime scene song in a murder musical while waiting to talk with crime scene analysts in an actual murder. Synchronicity.

And that was one of those moments when I realized that my life had gotten weird even for me.

The musical is getting its first performance since its debut [and closing] performance in the workshop. Come to the Cornelia Street Cafe on Monday, January 22nd. It can’t help but be better than when we put it on, because I won’t be singing this time.

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.”