Sweet Jane

Sweet Jane

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Dynamic

Working merch on South Pacific has given me the opportunity to listen to the show a bit here and there. I may be in the lobby but, particularly with the monitors on, that 30 piece orchestra hits and hits hard. There's something to be said for reviving a show and keeping choice elements in tact--such as the orchestrations. I will be the first to step up and endorse smaller pits, chamber pits, rock pits, whatever you want to call Next to Normal's pit, but there's just something about kicking it old school. And I'm sorry but the mega musical pits don't count as old school. Just in case you were wondering. If there's a synth in your pit, you ain't legit.
Long ago at a theatre not so far away, a composer friend of mine made an offhand comment about the lyrics of Howard Ashman elevating the work of Alan Menken. This has been a point of thought for me ever since. I'd never really looked at teams that way. The thing is, Menken has never really been as good as he was with Ashman. The blooming, radiant exception is Hunchback of Notre Dame and its subsequent European stage incarnations. But, to be fair, Ashman is known for very little beyond his work with Menken. The only piece that stands out in my mind at the moment is "Once Upon a Time in New York City" from Oliver in Company.
The pair elevated Disney and musicals at a time generally monopolized by a handful of names. Ashman went to Menken pre-Little Mermaid and said that these Disney films were a new frontier of musical theatre. Of course, when you do good by Disney, Disney puts all its eggs in your basket, as those Pixar boys have learned.
So I apply this same template to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the man with the short end of the stick never fails to be Oscar. Am I going to criticize the lyrics of one of the defining artists in contemporary musical theatre? No, it's been done. Sondheim said it best, commenting how Hammerstein loved his bird metaphors. When Hammerstein hits hardest he knocks it out of the stratosphere, like with his final composition: Edelweiss. I'm just saying that the driving, striking force here is Rodgers. The music simply speaks for itself. It wasn't that Rodgers knew how to write a pretty tune, though he did. He knew how to surprise and layer. That "Some Enchanted Evening" sighs beneath "This Nearly Was Mine" could purely be the work of the orchestrator, but the songs had to fit somehow and at the time that simply didn't happen in musical theatre scores.
So I feel Howard Ashman carried Alan Menken and I feel that Richard Rodgers carried Oscar Hammerstein (I'm mostly out of metaphors). So I wonder, is there an even match up? A melange of lyricists worked with Jule Styne, and Styne was what Jeanine Tesori is fast becoming: a chameleon. So it's difficult for me t judge there. I don't know Bock and Harnick well enough to judge, but I do love how varied their work is. Then I look at Kander and Ebb and I have to wonder if they don't compliment each other perfectly, hand in hand always. Quintessentially American, stylistically varied, but not so much that their voices disappear, they sit smack dab in the middle of the fray. They aren't as sweeping as their contemporaries but they can be tender and viscerally serious. They aren't brassy but they aren't without their moments of "entertainment." I particularly love the fact that roots of the "jazz hands" idea of what Broadway is, very well came from a Kander and Ebb show and yet much of the "entertainment" in these shows stands more as a parody or an effigy of the light-hearted Ziegfeld or Gershwin days.
I would love Adam Guettel to find his lyrical soul mate. I think he and David Lindsay-Abaire should try each other out. And I'd love for Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner to write together forever. Comden and Green were a pretty even match, I think.

Friday, October 23, 2009


The purpose of this blog is to keep my head in my show even when what is currently happening, is happening. Buckets of free time at the moment. And mostly pedestrian edits to the score coming. I have a brilliantly arranged finale for Sweet Jane. It sits comfortably in my head and doesn't seem to want to show up on the page. This is not thrilling. Then I go to tinker with the opening of the show and find that the multitude of variations I had on the Lou Reed song don't seem to want to leap forward today. It's all repetition and edits and shifts and alterations that are not unproductive, but not the bounding forward that I would prefer.

And what should I expect? I've barely been able to touch the show this week. The muscle must be warmed and flexed. Right? Perhaps I need food and drink. Perhaps. The definite plus side to this is that I the impotent frustration that I feel when I'm in this particular mood is not unlike the stagnant place in which I'm putting Jack in Sweet Jane.

I have a desk now. It is a charming little L desk from Staples. No more laptop in bed for Jay--unless I'm watching Ab Fab while falling asleep, that is. On my desk are three books. These three books are possible source material for other shows. I want to keep them close at hand.

Another positive: I feel very at home at this desk. I know I will be finishing this show while sitting at it. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Originality and Perspective

So back in the day--"the day" in question being 1900-1960ish--vocal stylists would perform the works of Berlin and Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart and countless other composers. This was the standard--slight pun intended. It was part of jazz, musical theatre, and pop music.

So how did we come to scorn any singer who doesn't write their own music? An accomplished pianist can be lauded for rocking out Bach and Chopin without ever writing anything of his own. It seems that the voice is the only instrument that has quite suddenly become packaged with an obligation to create as well as articulate. It hardly seems fair.

The same people who might look down on a pop star for having a limited hand in the composition of their work is the same person who might revere Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald. These women aren't famous for their compositions. They are famous for their voices.

So when did singing cease to be a talent and an art? I mean, throughout the ages it's been so that anyone who wasn't tone deaf could sing. In the 20th century with an increase in mass communication, radio, television etc, personalities came forward that elevated vocal phrasing to an art form, past the operatic. It amazes me how artists can be decried for a lack of originality when the vast majority of popular music and entertainment is founded on a bed of covers, remakes, retellings and reworkings.

It just seems intentionally snobbish to disregard the work of one in favor of another so arbitrarily. I will not give specific examples as I'm sure anyone with firing synapses can make their own comparisons. I suppose I'm just continuing my ever present quest for perspective. One band is inspired by another band: awesome. Johnny Cash covers some classic songs and it's art, but someone covers a Johnny Cash song and it's blasphemy? It don't work that way.

Originality is in articulation. It's not the song, it's how Judy Garland sings it. It's reorchestration, it's reimagining. Musical Theatre is not rife with "original" work. In the Heights is an original telling of a fairly standard story. In the words of Stephen Sondheim: Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new.

How hard is that to accept? If it doesn't work for you, tis well. But let me tell you that while you may lament Britney Spears covering "Satisfaction" someone was saying the same thing about The Rolling Stones, back in the proverbial day.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Why am I awake?

I'm up too late and I have to work too early. I blame coffee. My addiction is not what it used to be and my body clock is nothing resembling stable so here I am. I think I'll watch another episode of Code Monkeys and attempt to fall asleep. My head is aching with this cold, making it difficult for me to spend my awake time productively. Damn winter in the fall. Damn it, I say. For real though, I have to be at work in 3 hours. Oh yeah, that's happening. I need to invest in some Tylenol PM, methinks. In other news, I get a desk on Tuesday, hopefully. Let's hear it for a concrete work space. I've been wanting one of those for quite some time now. 1st Ave bustles, even at 2:00 AM. Life, like writing a show--it seems--is not unlike assembling a jigsaw puzzle in a windstorm. That does not, however, lessen the satisfaction of finally slamming that last piece home and shaking your middle finger at said wind.

Cause the wind cares.

Must sleep...oh look, my Kelly Clarkson download finished...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Comedy and Tragedy

Don't Know What You Got

Til it's gone. For the last couple days I've been afraid that my computer was dead, dying or desperately injured. There was an incident. Tea was spilled. I went to plug the damn thing in and would get flickers of light but no activity...like teaching arts at a public school. I was resigned to leave the poor thing in the care of--God help me--Best Buy, or Dell itself, watching it mournfully as I passed through my room. And just as I'm preparing to pack the paperweight up, I plug it in one last time...and it's alive, sweet Baby Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, it 's alive.

Now there are people out there--and I use the term "people" loosely--who might scold me for being so dependent on my computer. I'm sorry, kittens, I did not invent the rainy day, I'm just hiding under the umbrellas. Half of my work is booked/confirmed/finagled through online communication. Also contained within my computer is my creative identity: my music, my writings, my cartoons. Sorry, I don't have the capacity to lug hard copy of that shit around. And of course, in my brief but torturous computerless time, fear that I would lose my work on Sweet Jane and EVERYthing else only made me want to write more. So the music is coming. It will come. The story is there, taunting me, with no small amount of irony.

An the computer lives. I kinda wanna hug it. I suppose one feels like one is building a house of cards with every detail of their life. This feeling is particularly potent for me currently. So the thought of losing the computer...not thrilling.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Okay, the beginnings of a new blog. I have loose parameters for this blog. Essentially it will be where I post rants, vamps and news pertaining to the show I am writing, as well as the occasional little cartoon.

Because I like cartooning.

My show is called Sweet Jane. I can't imagine its name changing unless Lou Reed is hardcore come licensing/rights time, an event which could actually derail the show quite a bit since I'm building the score around that damn song. I don't see that as a likely hurdle. I'd rather have the hard copy first.

Why Sweet Jane? My little musical takes plays in a morgue and centers around the unidentified corpse of a young woman. Unidentified female corpses are generally called Jane Does. Would you believe it took me 4 years of rattling this chestnut around my head for that idea to come to me? A lot of the show has written itself since then. But it continues to evolve. I had been embarking on one particular path for a finale, but have since concocted a more fiery, intense end for my show. Raising the stakes, baby.

This is a process, it has been a process. It is my first full length show. It will nonetheless be a one-act a la Last Five Years. I'm looking for it to run 100 minutes max. There are two actors, a man and a woman. And we are in a morgue.

Happy show! I hope for it to be a happy show. In the meantime I go about my business in NYC performing with By the Mummers, auditioning, and work work working. The challenge, as I choose to perceive it is: to churn out this show with all these other balls in the air. Can it be done? That's a cynical question to ask. In the meantime I hope to provide some theatre-oriented cartoons to keep my juices flowing and entertain those who choose to smile (now that was patronizing).

It's always once upon a time in New York City, folks. Howard Ashman wrote that.