Hello to all out there who may be reading this - friends, relatives, well-wishers, not-so-well-wishers, and people who may have just stumbled upon this website. Welcome! With the Tony eligibility cut-off just past, and the announcement of the nominations still a few days away, this seemed like an ideal time to discuss a few of my favorite theatrical goodies of this past season. I usually don't talk at length about things I've seen on public forums (I have no stomach for hatchet jobs), but I thought it would be fitting to take a moment and recognize the shows and artists that really resonated with me over the past year.
Now to be fair, I've seen a lot of shows this season, but I haven't seen EVERYTHING, so this shouldn't be read as a comprehensive survey. For example, I've heard only wonderful things about Falsettos, Oslo, and Hello, Dolly!, but considering I haven't seen them I didn't feel like it would be fair to include them here simply based on hearsay (sadly, Falsettos closed before I got the chance to see it, but I still hope to catch Oslo and Dolly at some point). These are "My Favorites", not necessarily "The Best". So here they are - My Favorites!
If you walked into the Golden Theatre on 45th Street at any point last fall, you'd probably notice something very unusual: A pair of headphones resting on the back of every seat in the house. No, the producers didn't think that every single person going to a Broadway play required an assisted listening device. This was an indication that the audience was in for an entirely new kind of theatrical experience. The Encounter - the brainchild of writer/actor/director Simon McBurney - recounts the real-life story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre and his encounter with an un-contacted native tribe after becoming stranded in the jungles of Brazil in 1969. So why the headphones, then? McBurney tells the story as much aurally as he does visually, using looping pedals, voice modulation, and a number of other fascinating auditory magic tricks to get inside the audience's head (literally). It's hard to describe in words, but it was one of the most unexpected and viscerally thrilling nights of theater I've ever had. I heard one person refer to this production as "a stealth campaign to bring back the Tony Award for Best Sound Design." If that was the intent, well then bravo - it worked!
"At this evening's performance, the roles of Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland will, unfortunately, be played by Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland."
The pre-show announcement alone gives you some idea of what you're in for with Oh, Hello. It is somewhat of an anomaly: A show written by and starring young people, playing old people, for an audience of mostly young people, in a genre that caters mostly to old people. And it doesn't exactly boast much in the way of plot, but you didn’t come for the plot, you came to laugh, right? And between the spot-on performances by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney and nimble direction by Alex Timbers, there are nearly as many laughs to be had as grapefruit-sized dollops of tuna fish. Which is, to say, a lot. At its funniest, Oh, Hello recalls the manic vaudevillian energy of a bygone era as we watch two world-class comedians cut loose with wild abandon. It happens to be two of my most favorite things that I believe we could use more of on Broadway: Very, very funny, and very, very weird.
The designers of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
The very first production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 - Composer/Lyricist Dave Malloy's wildly ambitious adaption of a chunk of Tolstoy's War and Peace - was staged in NYC at Ars Nova, an intimate space that seats just shy of 100 people. The entire space was utilized for performance, with actors singing and dancing on tables, playing instruments, and even feeding pierogis to audience members while doing shots of vodka. So how exactly could an immersive production like this translate to Broadway? The Imperial Theatre, a traditional proscenium house, has been completely transformed into an operatic Russian wonderland, in a feat that I'm sure drove the fire marshall crazy but is absolutely thrilling to be part of as an audience member. Beyond just the visuals, everyone involved with the design elements of this show - Mimi Lien (Scenic Design), Paloma Young (Costumes), Bradley King (Lighting), Nicholas Pope (Sound Design), Leah J. Loukas (Hair & Wigs), Amy Jean Wright (Makeup) - along with Director Rachel Chavkin, Choreographer Sam Pinkleton, Music Director Or Matias, and Malloy as Orchestrator, deserves a special shout-out for creating a theatrical experience that I can only think to describe as "An Opera went to a Rave and took a hit of acid." It's not to be missed.
Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen
Prior to Dear Evan Hansen, actor Ben Platt was best known to most people for his role as Benji in the "Pitch Perfect" films, and theater aficionados knew him as a replacement Elder Cunningham in Broadway's The Book of Mormon. Both charming and entertaining roles that require a great actor, to be sure, but not roles that exactly call for serious dramatic heft. Taking on the role of Evan Hansen, a socially awkward high schooler who finds himself thrust into the spotlight after a tragedy involving a classmate, Platt turns in a dazzlingly virtuosic performance that's become one of the most talked about highlights of this season. It's an extremely demanding role vocally/physically/emotionally, and in the hands of a less capable performer Evan could come off as simply annoying or even borderline unbearable. Like all great characters in drama, Evan is messy and complicated and problematic and makes a lot of bad decisions, but Platt forces us to reckon with the character's raw humanity even when we can't approve of of his actions. For an actor still in his early 20's, it's a stunning feat.
When Jitney opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on January 19th, 2017, it became it the final piece from playwright August Wilson's Century Cycle to open on Broadway. Considering the cycle also contains such preeminent works as Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it might be hard to argue that old adage "they saved the best for the last", but Jitney certainly proves itself to be at least equally worthy of recognition. Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1970's, the play examines a community of African-American men working at a jitney (a type of unlicensed cab) station and how they're adapting to increasingly uncertain times and an uncertain future. Every member of the ensemble is perfectly cast, most notably John Douglas Thompson, who gives a spectacular performance as the aging owner of the jitney station, Becker. August Wilson is one of those playwrights who left us far too soon, and while we can theorize about what else he might have given us if he had lived longer, we should be thankful that he was able to give us what he did.
If I Forget (Off-Broadway)
I've shared the sentiment before that if the curtain comes up on the living room of a middle class home, I'm immediately bored. Well this season I was forced was to eat my words after seeing If I Forget, a new play by Steven Levenson (whose other contribution this season was the exquisitely crafted book for the musical Dear Evan Hansen). The play deals with three Jewish siblings (of varying levels of devoutness) and their elderly father, who is falling into increasingly poor health, and touches on issues of faith, politics, and family loyalty. Set between late 2000 and early 2001, If I Forget provides a stinging reminder of how history can repeat itself (hearing a character admit that they voted for Ralph Nader because they "didn't think Al Gore would lose" is particularly jarring in 2017), and marks Levenson as one of the most exciting new playwrights to watch.
Come From Away
If you were to come up with a list of subjects which might make for an upbeat and inspiring Broadway musical, "September 11th" probably wouldn't make the cut. But Come From Away, penned by Canadian writing team (and real-life spouses) Irene Sankoff & David Hein, is much more than simply a feel-good show: It's a show that makes you feel good for the right reasons. Inspired by the true story of the town of Gander, Newfoundland, which was forced to accommodate several thousand wayward passengers after multiple flights were diverted away from US airspace during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the events portrayed in the show would seem entirely unrealistic if they were fictional. Could such unselfish goodness really exist during such a dark and uncertain time? The musical takes an unflinching look at how an unlikely group of people stranded at the edge of the world learned to move forward in the aftermath of a tragedy, giving us what one of my old college professors used to call "The OW and the WOW". With a score that takes cues from the folk music of Newfoundland, a superbly crafted book, and an absolutely stellar ensemble cast, Come From Away is, in my humble opinion, the most thrilling piece of musical theatre since Hamilton. Get thee to the Schoenfeld Theatre!
Sunday In The Park With George
I don't really believe that there is, or will ever be, such thing as a "perfect musical", but Sunday In The Park With George is damn close. And what better way to relight the historic Hudson Theatre, Broadway's newest (though technically oldest!) house, than with this timeless show, a transfer of the Encores! production that played at New York City Center in 2016. Not only was this Sunday a superb rendering of one of Sondheim's greatest scores, it also firmly established Jake Gyllenhaal as a legitimate Broadway leading man. Often times, when a famous film actor not known for singing gets a major role in a Broadway musical, we cross our fingers and just hope they're at least competent. Far beyond competent, Gyllenhaal was brilliant. Here's hoping we see him in more musicals!
Also, a special shout-out to all of the staff working at the Hudson Theatre, who were some of the most welcoming and professional and just lovely people I've ever had the pleasure of being around in a Broadway house. I was lucky enough to be invited up to the Ambassadors patrons lounge before I saw the show, and everything and everyone was absolutely delightful. Of course, it may have been the bourbon talking, but that's okay too.
The View Upstairs (Off-Broadway)
Okay, so I may be a little bit biased here, because the creator of The View Upstairs - composer/lyricist/bookwriter/celestial-rock-star Max Vernon - is a fellow alum of my graduate program at NYU. But I maintain that the people coming out of that program are producing some damn good work, and The View Upstairs is damn good work. Inspired by the events surrounding the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack, which killed 28 people and was for many years the deadliest LGBT massacre in US history, it's so many of my favorite things that a musical can be: Joyous, heartbreaking, uplifting, introspective, smart, political, painful, funky as hell, all of these things and more. With a score that takes cues from 1970s glam rock and one of the best of ensemble casts I've seen in quite a while (someone please place Nathan Lee Graham in the Smithsonian because the man is a national treasure), The View Upstairs is "entertaining" in the best sense of the word: It grabs you and it doesn't let go. Anyone worried about the future of the art form (although why would you be after this killer season?) should rest easy: We're in good hands.
It's almost hard to believe that a luminary playwright like Paula Vogel is only now making her Broadway debut, so it should come as no surprise that, given Vogel's extensive theatrical experience and remarkable body of work, it's one hell of a debut. Indecent tells the story of Polish-Jewish writer and playwright Sholem Asch and his 1907 drama God Of Vengeance, which caused a scandal when it arrived in New York in 1923 as it featured (among other salacious things) the first lesbian kiss on a Broadway stage. Spanning half a century and touching on themes of censorship, artistic freedom, anti-Semitism, and queer identity, Indecent is a grippingly powerful play that feels especially timely given the current political climate. And the stunning epilogue is perhaps the biggest emotional gut-punch of the year.
The onstage musicians in Bandstand
One of my only regrets as a musical theatre person in NYC is that I didn't grow up with the piano as my primary instrument, as many of my peers did, so I don't have the serious MD chops that quite a few others in my position do. I was a band kid and choir kid through high school and college, so then how thrilling it was for me to see all of the dazzling musicianship onstage in Bandstand, the big, brassy, hugely ambitious show written by Richard Oberacker & Robert Taylor and directed/choreographed by Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler. The show follows piano prodigy Donny Nivitski (Corey Cott), who has just returned home from World War II and is struggling not only to find work as a musician, but also to cope with the horrors he experienced in war. He wrangles together a band comprised of other veterans (L to R in the above photograph: Joe Carroll on drums, James Nathan Hopkins on saxophone, Alex Bender on trumpet, Geoff Packard on trombone, Cott on piano, and Brandon J Ellis on bass) who are also struggling with their own personal demons in the aftermath of the war. And when I say "these guys really play!", I mean quite literally that these guys REALLY PLAY. No mimicry happening here, all of the actors really are playing these instruments live on stage every night, and between that and Blankenbuehler's virtuosic choreography, the whole production is just spectacular. I won't give away all the details of the plot (there isn't nearly enough room), but it's a gripping story about working through trauma with art and how music cultivates a community for those most desperately in need of it.
One of my goals for this year was "Don't just be a writing hermit all the time and GET'CHA SELF OUT THERE." Well ever since I graduated from NYU I've been chatting with Geoff Kershner, newly-appointed Executive Director of the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg and all-around Cool Dude, about doing some kind of a project, and not long ago I said "Hey, I'm going to be back in town for a little while this summer... how 'bout I put on a concert?" He said "Sure!", and now I'm PSYCHED to be presenting my first solo concert of songs in my hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia! Get hype, y'all.
(Also, +10 Cool-Person-Points to anyone who got my "Wayne's World 2" reference)
“Ugh. Another season of jukebox musicals, revivals, and adaptations of big-budget Hollywood movies. Honestly, where are all the ORIGINAL musicals these days? Doesn’t anyone know how to write an ORIGINAL show anymore?!”
Chances are, if you’re a theatrically-inclined person like myself and frequent the theatrically-inclined spaces of the internet, you’ve heard the previous sentiment expressed time and time again. Frustrated theatregoers are looking at what they perceive to be uninspired Broadway seasons and wondering what happened to the good old days when original musicals were fearlessly championed by producers and lauded by the public. More often than not, they tend to arrive at the same conclusion: The reason that quality original musicals are not being produced is simply that there are no currently active writers capable of producing a quality original musical. And it’s not just audiences who feel this way, as even some high-ranking members of the industry have bought into this manner of thinking. In a recent op-ed article, a BIG name producer claimed that his motivation to produce the upcoming revival of [who-the-hell-cares-because-we’ve-all-seen-this-show-and-they’re-not-going-to-make-it-better] was that there are no contemporary musical writers capable of writing a good song.
At a quick glance, this idea that there are no good writers anymore does seem to have some measure of credibility. Our cultural mythos surrounding Broadway holds that it’s this magical place where the most talented actors, singers, dancers, directors, choreographers, and writers will inevitably end up if they pay their dues and put in enough hard work. Hence, an original musical would surely make it to Broadway if only it were “good enough”, right? We could then assume that producers are putting up jukebox shows and movie tie-ins because they simply have nowhere else to turn for material, yes?
No. As a recent graduate of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU Tisch, and someone who takes it upon myself to see as much original work in the city as I can, let me assure you: There are phenomenally talented composers, lyricists, and playwrights out there right at this very moment, and they’re putting out fantastic, beautiful, inspiring work. So if that’s the case (and it is), why are we seeing increasingly little truly original work represented in contemporary commercial theater? What’s the deal here? To begin to understand the issue, we need to take a good look at how the industry works.
The first thing to understand is that Broadway is a business, and it’s BIG business. The current average price of a ticket to a Broadway show is just over $100. Top price tickets have been seen going for well over $400. The weekly gross of a typical week on Broadway is in the neighborhood of twenty million dollars, with particularly lucrative weeks ending up well above thirty million. In addition to ticket sales, once you factor in merchandising and money spent by theatergoers at nearby businesses (restaurants, hotels, shops, etc.), you have an industry that brings a MASSIVE amount of revenue into New York City. Simply put, when that much money is in play, it becomes increasingly difficult to find enough people willing to take a risk on an original new work.
Of course, many producers are quick to point out that there are no “safe choices” when putting up a show on Broadway, and essentially they’re right. There is no guarantee that any given show will succeed, no matter how much of a sure thing it appears to be given the brand recognition or talent involved or any similar factors. However, while there may be no “safe” choices, there are certainly safER choices, and when we take a look at the audience makeup of a typical Broadway show, it makes sense why it’s better to err on the side of being safer. While it’s the savvy New York-based theatregoers who will most frequently and loudly complain about the lack of quality offerings on Broadway, they are not the majority of audience members. The biggest demographic of just about any Broadway audience is TOURISTS (and ever increasingly, international tourists). For a Broadway show to be a financial success, it’s critical that it appeal to as broad and diverse an audience as possible, and without some kind of pre-existing brand recognition, that’s incredibly difficult.
Also, with these shows becoming more and more expensive to produce, it takes a show longer and longer to recoup its’ original investment and be officially qualified as a success as opposed to a flop. It used to be the case that a show could open on Broadway, run for several months and recoup the original investment, close on Broadway and perhaps go on tour, and this would be considered a success (and likely the kind of opportunity given to a talented but untested young writer or writing team). Nowadays, that kind of scenario is virtually impossible; most Broadway shows take well over a year to recoup their original investment, meaning that your show has to run for a much longer time (and be a much bigger hit) in order to even be considered a “success” at all, at least from a financial standpoint. When you’re a young unknown writer, this isn’t very likely to happen, no matter how talented you are or how good your show is. Even when a quality original musical does appear on the great white way and gets high praises from critics and audiences, there is still no guarantee of its’ financial success. To illustrate this point, let’s look at what I consider to be two quality original musicals from this past season: The Bridges Of Madison County and A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder (before you protest that “Bridges isn’t an original musical, it’s based on a book/movie!”, let me clarify what I mean when I say “original musical”: by this I mean a musical with an original score which, if it’s an adaptation, does not intend to capitalize off of the popularity of its’ source material. Anyway, moving on…).
Bridges had a score by Jason Robert Brown and starred Kelli O’Hara, both very well-known names in the Broadway community but probably not too recognizable to those outside of the theatre scene. The source material, while familiar to the over-40 crowd, was far enough removed from the musical that I don’t think it could be said that they were counting on people who had read the book or seen the movie to all rush out and buy tickets. The show received relatively mixed reviews from critics but garnered very favorable reactions from audiences. Despite being an audience favorite and containing a slew of GREAT songs (seriously, with this show alone I could debunk the whole “nobody can write a good song anymore” notion), the show closed after just a few months. As someone involved with the production told me, “We all did great work, we were really proud of it, but it just didn’t sell enough tickets.” Most people would agree that the show was an artistic success, but at the end of the day that didn’t translate to dollars at the box office.
As for Gentleman’s Guide, we have a very different yet nonetheless interesting story. The show is, by all means, a complete success: It boasts a fantastic original score and book, great reviews from critics and audiences alike, and the coveted Tony Award for Best Musical. And yet, all of these accolades haven’t translated into the show being a massive, runaway hit. With an intricate and complex plot, a score based around dazzling wordplay, and no tunes with which the audience is already familiar (again, original score), Gentlemans Guide is unlikely to be exceptionally popular with tourists, especially those for whom English is not their first language. The show is doing fairly well at the box office, especially since the Tonys, but it’s not breaking the bank. This brings us to the challenge that producers face when deciding what shows to back. Gentlemans Guide could in many ways be considered a best-case scenario for an original musical with no big names attached, but purely in terms of commercial success it doesn’t stack up to the mega-hits. So the options a producer faces are: You can back an original show by untested authors and, best-case scenario, you’ll do pretty well and make some money –OR- You can back a show with a pre-established brand and/or catalogue of songs and, best-case scenario, you’ll make crazy, obscene, jacuzzi-filled-with-cocaine amounts of money. The results typically do not turn out so well for writers of original work.
Before I go on, I should take a moment to cut producers some slack, as up to this point it seems I’ve more or less been portraying them as a bunch of nasty, cartoon-ish villains. While there are certainly a few producers out there who only care about the bottom line, there are many out there who deeply care about the art form and are passionate about finding quality new work to develop. Problem is, the amount of money involved in the production of a Broadway show actually hurts young, savvy producers as well as young, savvy writers. If you look at a show from fifty/sixty/seventy years ago, you’ll likely see two or three names above the title; today, you could easily see thirty or forty. Even for producers who want to be the next Hal Prince, it’s much easier to get two or three people on board with your show than thirty or forty, so you’re kind of up a creek unless you’re independently massively wealthy.
Let me also to take a moment to state that I don’t think the fact that there is a lot of money involved with Broadway productions is INHERENTLY a bad thing. While I may raise my eyebrow about which shows are getting productions, that doesn’t negate the outstanding work of so many in the industry who care deeply about what they do. Furthermore, the fact that so many people are coming to the city and choosing to spend their money at the theatre is indicative of the fact that Broadway is “cool” in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time. We may roll our eyes at the popularity of shows like Glee and Smash with their inconsistencies and questionable portrayals of the industry, but the fact is that people across the country are seeing these shows and becoming excited about musical theatre and want to be in on what’s happening in our industry. When all is said and done, Broadway being big business is all well and fine, but we should be conscious of where and how our money is being spent.
Now, enough about money, let’s get back to my initial question. “So”, you may be saying to yourself, “Maybe we’re not seeing many original shows on Broadway because the cost of production is so prohibitive, fine. But if there are all these great writers out there, why aren’t we seeing great stuff rise up through the ranks? Why aren’t we seeing shows as great as West Side Story or Sunday In The Park With George popping up out of random Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theaters? Won’t the really good works just ‘find a way’ to be successful? Answer me THAT!” Well, it’s a complex issue with no one easy answer, but let’s take a look.
First of all, obvious as it may sound, those who make statements about the state of musical theatre should probably make an effort to, you know, actually get out and see some of it. The impression I get from the majority of people who complain about the supposed lack of new musicals and writers is that they’ve never even been to see a show that wasn’t on Broadway. There’s a widely-held belief amongst many Broadway fans that any show playing in the scary, untamed theatrical wilderness below 41st Street is going to be bad quality and/or so artsy-fartsy-weird as to be incomprehensible. The truth is, there all KINDS of shows being written and performed Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway. Yes, some of them are pretty out there and experimental, which is great in its’ own right, but many of them are every bit as accessible and catchy as what you’d see in a big commercial production on Broadway. Stereotypes abound about what a “contemporary musical theatre” show looks and sounds like, but if you actually take the time to seek the new stuff out, you’ll find plenty of shows that are smashing those stereotypes to bits.
So let’s say you DO venture out and go to see a new show that interests you – great! Now, forgive me for talking about money yet again, but there’s another thing you’ll need to keep in mind: Production value. Of course, we all realize that seeing a show in a smaller venue is going to entail a smaller budget, but I think it’s important to take a look at what production value does to our psyche when we see a show. When we wax poetic about our favorite shows of yesteryear and think to ourselves “Ah, what great songs!”, we’re almost certainly thinking about them in the best possible settings they could be presented. We think of hearing these songs performed by the likes of, say, Audra McDonald, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. We think of the songs performed in opulent settings by the best singers and musicians in the world, which is simply a scenario that can’t happen for writers still trying to break their way into the industry. Of course, this is not to imply that there aren’t fantastic musicians and singers working in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway settings, there certainly are, but they have to work with what they have; you’re much more likely to see them performing new work recorded on a cell phone from a basement piano bar than in a hi-def special on PBS from Carnegie Hall. While any theatregoer would likely realize on an intellectual level that the production value of a show SHOULDN’T have any bearing on the underlying material, seeing a really high-value production does affect the psyche of even the most theatre-savvy audience member. To drive this point home, let’s conduct a thought experiment.
Take your favorite musical: Let’s say for the sake of this example that it’s Guys & Dolls. Imagine that you’re seeing the show for the very first time, and you know absolutely nothing about it. You’re not familiar with anyone on the writing team, you’ve never heard any of the songs before, you haven’t heard anything about it from a friend or a coworker, you have ZERO specific expectations about the show and you’re going in with an entirely clean slate. Now, instead of seeing the show in a big impressive Broadway house, you’re seeing it in a small, unassuming theatre downtown, with let’s say 100 seats. Because of the budget, sets are virtually nonexistent. There are some costumes and a few props, but they’re meant to suggest the world of the show rather than fully realize it. Instead of a lush Broadway pit orchestra of 15-20 musicians, there is one pianist playing the entire score. Instead of a cast size of 25 to 30, there are 8 or 9 actors. The cast and creative team does not include any celebrities or recognizable names, but let’s say for the sake of argument that they’re every bit as capable and talented as who you’d see on Broadway. And so the show begins: It is word-for-word, note-for-note EXACTLY Guys & Dolls, but performed in this very scaled-back setting out of necessity. Would you run out and tell people that this is the greatest show you’ve ever seen? Maybe you would. But maybe you wouldn’t. When we see a dazzling, high-budget production, more often than not it tends to numb us to the quality (or lack thereof) of the original source material. I use Guys & Dolls as an example because it’s a show I believe DOES hold up to scrutiny: Take away all the fancy extras and razzle dazzle that a high-budget production would afford you, and you still have a brilliant score and book. My point is that, even amongst very intelligent and observant theatregoers, we’re simply going to respond more positively to a polished high-budget production than a rough-around-the-edges low-budget production of exactly the same material, and that’s problematic when you’re a writer trying to move your work to the next level.
There’s another thing to keep in mind when seeking out new work, and I consider it to be the second most important point I’m going to make in this long rambling essay of mine (the first most important point is coming up, just sit tight there, champ). Up until this point, I’ve been using the term “young writers” quite a bit, which is true of most relative unknowns writing for Off- and Off-Off-Broadway spaces right now. And the funny thing about young writers is that they’re… well, YOUNG. You see, we have some funny perceptions about this thing called “talent” in our culture today. The way most people talk about it, it would seem that talent is this mysterious thing that just falls out of the sky and, in the words of miss Mama Rose, “Ya either got it, or ya ain’t!” We love to share videos online with titles like “10 year-old girl singing ‘Wicked’ ZOMG FIERCE BELTING!!!” and “6 year-old piano genius plays BETTER THAN EVERYONE EVER!!!”, furthering this cultural narrative that talent is something you either possess or you don’t, and things like skill or craft or training or lessons or years of experience are more or less irrelevant. This manner of thinking comes into play when people remember their favorite Broadway writers of the past with sentiments like “All the good ones are gone!” and “They just don’t make them like THAT anymore!”, as though there were a time when little Gershwinites would spontaneously emerge from the East River, stroll into the nearest bar, and start playing stride piano on cue.
While most of these great writers did display natural talent at an early age, it wasn’t until they amassed skill and craft and training and lessons and (most importantly) years of experience that they wrote their greatest works. George Gershwin wrote Porgy & Bess when he was 37. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote Oklahoma! when they were both over 40, and hadn’t collaborated previously. Cole Porter wrote Kiss Me, Kate when he was 57. Irving Berlin wrote Annie Get Your Gun when he was 58. Nobody was expecting them to plop out a masterpiece at the age of 19. And when you look at the early works of many of these people who we’ve come to regard as geniuses, they fall considerably short of what they went on to create. Take Stephen Sondheim’s very first show, Saturday Night: It’s a solid first outing from a clearly very talented composer and lyricist, it’s good, but it’s not brilliant (apologies to those readers who worship unquestioningly at the Altar Of Sondheim – feel free to come beat me up in the parking lot later). Or take Jonathan Larsons’ tick, tick… BOOM!, which I saw just recently at the Encores! series at City Center: Again, a solid first outing from a clearly very talented composer and lyricist. Is it a towering work of monumental genius? Hardly. But we root and cheer for the protagonist, knowing who he’ll go on to become.
The problem we face with our young writers of today is that we don’t just want them to be great, we want them to be great RIGHT THE F*%! NOW. We are INCREDIBLY impatient. We’re basically telling an entire generation young writers, “LOOK, if you can’t write something as great as Sunday In The Park With George RIGHT NOW, when you’re 23 and fresh out of school, never mind the fact that Sondheim was nearly 50 with decades of professional experience under his belt when he wrote that show, then you clearly have no talent and aren’t worth our time”. We could be telling the potential future George Gershwins and Cole Porters and Stephen Sondheims to pack up and go home because they didn’t come flying out of the gate with a masterpiece on their first attempt, and I believe this is detrimental to everyone involved. When we see new work being staged by young and untested writers, we shouldn’t view it as the culmination of everything that they will ever be, but rather as a window into who they are and what they could become.
And now, we arrive at what I consider to be the most important point I’m going to make in this article, which is as follows: Any time that you go see a new work, you’re taking a risk. You don’t know for sure that you’re going to see a good show. There’s a lot of new work that’s terrible. REALLY terrible. Maybe that’s what you’ll see. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll see something great. With the soaring cost of Broadway ticket prices, it’s certainly understandable why many people simply don’t want to take a risk. Many marketing campaigns of popular shows try to reassure us with catch phrases like “All your favorite songs are here!” and “You already know you’re gonna love it!”, because the average ticket-buyer doesn’t want to take a chance on something they might not like if they’re paying $100 for their seat. But for all of this comfort and safety that you’re assured in most commercial theatre, you lose out on a sense of discovery, the sense that you’ve found something fresh and exciting, something that really speaks to you and engages you. We need to ask ourselves as theatregoers whether we want to be actively engaged or simply placated by what we see on the stage. Because I assure you, the next truly great musical isn’t going to rocket straight to Broadway with pomp and fanfare and comforting reassurances of “You already know you’re gonna love it!” It’s going to be something different, something untested, something strange. It’s going to challenge you. It’s going to make you think. And an awful lot of people are not going to like it, at least at first. But whatever it is, it will be great.
As young writers trying to make our way in the world of musical theatre today, we face an interesting uphill battle. We’re trying to make our voices heard in a community that is at once wondering aloud where we are yet screaming in our faces that we don’t actually exist. How we overcome this obstacle is anyone’s guess at this point. But what I can assure you of is that, no matter what happens in the industry at large, we will continue to write. The next great generation of musicals is being created as we speak, in basements in the East Village, on patios in Brooklyn, in living rooms in Washington Heights, in every rehearsal room and tiny performance space we can manage to secure. Will they end up on Broadway as certified mega-hits? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe in these coming years Broadway will no longer be the place to see genuinely interesting and exciting new work. Whatever happens, we will continue to write. We will continue to create. And if you truly want to go out and experience new work, all you need to do is come find us. Come see a new show. Come see something you’ve never seen before. Trust me, we’re not trying to keep this stuff a secret. All we can do right now is keep writing, and hope that our work will impart the mantra shouted over and over again by those little beings on that little speck of dust in that classic story by Dr. Seuss: “We are here! We are here! WE ARE HERE!”
Fall has arrived in NYC, and it's not a moment too soon. Comfy jackets have been donned, the smell of Pumpkin Spice Lattes pervades the crisp autumn air, and I am hard at work writing a joyous musical comedy about a mass suicide (more to come on that later, as I have hopefully piqued your interest and/or disgust). One of the big upcoming challenges of the piece is conceiving of and writing the opening number. Openings, as many of you musical and theatrical types are aware, are a tricky beast; in as brief an amount of time as possible, you need to bring your audience into the world of the show and say "Here is what you are going to see this evening", and do it in a way that is (hopefully) artful and entertaining. Determined to begin crafting an opening number for my show by researching examples, I started by doing what any serious scholar and musician would do - going straight to Google. I was intent on finding a quality list of the greatest opening numbers from musicals, compiled in one convenient location for me to enjoy. Alas, I was rather surprised to find that no such quality list exists (there are one or two lists out there if you do the search, but take my word for it, they're absolute rubbish). So I thought to myself, "Well... why not write your own list?". Hence, I now present to you what I consider to be the twenty five best opening numbers from a musical. A few things to keep in mind before we get started:
- I am ONLY including opening numbers from stage musicals (musicals that were originally written for the stage, as a number of these have been adapted into films). Film musicals are a different animal that function in a different way, and while there are some great ones with great opening numbers, I'm restricting this list to songs specifically written for the stage. I have, however, used clips from the film adaptations of musicals in some of my examples, as those are what's readily available. Yes, I am aware of the irony. SHUT UP.
- I'm also restricting this list to songs that are one singular complete piece of music. By this logic, a few extended musical sequences have been left out, notably the openings of "Into The Woods", "Guys And Dolls", and "Les Miserables". While I consider these to be great openings, I'm interested in looking at how a single piece of music (with our without lyrics) functions as an opening number.
- The list only includes true opening numbers. There exist out there some almost-but-not-quite openers that happen early in a show and "feel" like an opening number (examples include "Some People" from Gypsy and "New York, New York" from On The Town), but there are other minor songs that happen in the show before them, so I'm not counting those as true openings. On a related note, overtures are also not included (sorry again, Gypsy).
- Remember, this list is all in good fun and it's only my opinion. However, my opinion is usually right. So there's that.
And so, without any further babbling on my part, the list...
#25: "Heaven On Their Minds" - Jesus Christ Superstar (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice)
Andrew Lloyd Webber is of course a popular target these days for wisecracks about musical theater, but to anyone who would say that the man has always been completely devoid of talent, I would point them in the direction of this show. Opening the show with a driving rock song sung by Judas Iscariot tells us that we are about to experience a familiar story into a totally original way. Also, you have to admit, that killer opening groove is a straight-up rump-shaker.
#24: "The Ballad Of Floyd Collins" - Floyd Collins (Music & Lyrics by Adam Guettel)
While it's tempting to open your show with a big, over-the-top musical number, it can be equally effective and affecting to open with something more subtle and intimate, as we see here with Adam Guettel's haunting opening to Floyd Collins.
#23: "The Old Red Hills Of Home" - Parade (Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)
Those of you familiar with Parade know that the show deals with some difficult subject matter - so how do we find a way in to a story that deals with anti-semitism, racism, and mob justice? This opening number, sung by a Confederate soldier through two stages in his life (the song begins during the American Civil War and ends in 1913), gives us some insight (without making judgements) into the unique cultural complexity that will explored over the course of the show.
#22: "Maybe" - Annie (Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin)
Annie has been lampooned and parodied so many times over the years that it's hard for some people to take it seriously these days, but the fact remains that it's actually a really solid show with some terrific tunes. Using "Maybe" as the opening number is a bit of a risk, as a down-tempo number sung by an orphan about how she imagines her parents doesn't exactly convey that this is going to be a sunny musical comedy ("It's A Hard Knock Life" is perhaps the more obvious choice for an opening), but by showing us up front that there is genuine depth and heart to this story, the "happy" moments of the show are given much more weight. If this song doesn't make you at least a little bit misty, I'm afraid you don't have a soul.
#21: "Little Shop Of Horrors" - Little Shop Of Horrors (Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman)
As the story goes, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were adapting Little Shop Of Horrors, a 1960 B-movie about a murderous houseplant, into a musical comedy, but despite their best efforts something just wasn't clicking. The story was solid, the songs were well-crafted, but the early audiences for the show just didn't seem to get it. Until one day Ashman suggested, "Well... what about doo-wop?" They wrote this opener, went back through the score to incorporate the style, and the rest is history.
#20: "Mama Who Bore Me" - Spring Awakening (Music by Duncan Sheik, Lyrics by Steven Sater)
If you set a musical in 1890 and give it an alt-rock score, you run the risk of confusing the hell out of your audience, but this opener sets the tone lets us know what we're in for. We start with a simple, folk-like melody, then that drum beat kicks in and BOOM - sexual liberation and fierce lady-vocals. And now every all-female a capella group in the known universe has covered this song.
#19: "The Advantages Of Floating In The Middle Of The Sea" - Pacific Overtures (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
For those who complain that Stephen Sondheim isn't tuneful enough, Pacific Overtures is more than enough to frighten them away; one of Sondheim's most musically and dramatically complex works, the show is rarely performed (and more often by opera companies than by musical theater organizations). Nonetheless, this stunning opening number about the serenity and isolation of Japan in the mid-19th century is a testament to Sondheim's impeccable craft as both a composer and lyricist.
#18: "Tear Me Down" - Hedwig And The Angry Inch (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Trask)
When you're creating a show about a transgender glam rock singer who defected from East Germany, it's probably not the best idea to start out subtle. This rollicking opening number drops us right into the world of the show and effectively serves as Hedwig's mission statement - whatever the world might throw her way, it can't tear Hedwig down. And it's a sweet freakin' jam.
#17: "Aurelia Dolores" - Giant (Music & Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa)
(This song isn't on YouTube, but do yourself a favor and buy the cast album on iTunes; it's absolutely sensational)
Okay, so I might be a little biased about this show because it was written by two of my teachers from NYU (yay Michael John and Sybille!), but this is still an absolutely gorgeous opener. Giant is such a massive story that examines so many characters over a long period of time that it could be difficult to find a way in, but this simple song does a beautiful job of inviting us in to the world of the show.
#16: "Four Jews In A Room Bitching" - Falsettos (Music & Lyrics by William Finn)
With an opening number title like this one, who could resist seeing this show? Falsettos is one of those rare shows that runs the gamut from hysterically funny to heartbreaking while remaining completely honest, and this opening number gives us the first taste of Bill Finn's stellar character writing. Plus, writing a song where a good chunk of the lyrics are just the words "funny" and "bitch"? That's funny, bitch.
#15: "Tradition" - Fiddler On The Roof (Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick)
When Jerome Robbins was developing the original production of Fiddler On The Roof with Bock and Harnick, he would regularly sit the two down and ask them "What is this show about?" They would give long-winded answers about how it's the story of a group of Russian Jews in the early 20th century, but Robbins would shake his head and say "No, what is it ABOUT?" Finally, one day Sheldon Harnick chimed in "It's a show about tradition", and - BAM! - there you have it. Out of that thought came one of the most iconic and recognizable opening numbers in the history of the art form.
#14:" We Are What We Are" - La Cage Aux Folles (Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman)
La Cage Aux Folles is a remarkable show in that it tells a story about a very specific group of people, and yet the fundamental messages of the show speak to everyone and anyone imaginable. Writing a show about a gay couple who run a drag club on the French Riviera was especially risky during the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980's, when homophobic vitriol was reaching a boiling point, but Jerry Herman's iconic opening number invites us into the show by affirming that, whoever and whatever we are, we should damn well be proud of it.
#13: "All That Jazz" - Chicago (Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb)
Kander and Ebb are the masters of political commentary via dark commentary in my book. The opening of Chicago tells us that the story we're about to see, much like jazz music itself, is fun and sexy on the surface, but hides a dark and devious underbelly (and that's what makes it really fun).
*Interesting/useless historical fact of note - my grandmother went to high school with John Kander, and when the two of them were 15 they went on a date together to a school dance. As my grandma would later recount, "That's before I knew he was gay. Heck, that's probably before HE knew he was gay. But that's okay."
#12: "Another Openin', Another Show" - Kiss Me, Kate (Music & Lyrics by Cole Porter)
The brilliance of this opening number is in how simple the idea actually is. Cole Porter is a man who can dazzle and delight with his lyrical wit as well as anyone, but what makes this song land is the simple, straightforward conveyance of the excitement we (as both performers and audience members) feel as a show is about to begin. Kind of meta, is it not?
#11: "I Hope I Get It" - A Chorus Line (Music by Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics by Ed Kleban)
If you went to see in Broadway show in the 60's or early 70's, odds are you would have no idea what decade it was based on what was happening on stage. For the most part, contemporary popular simply wasn't being represented on Broadway. When A Chorus Line premiered in 1975, it was a game changer and a breath of fresh air as it told stories of real people dealing with real situations at the time, and the opening number set us up to root for and empathize with the underdogs. And let's be real, we all know that opening routine - Da-da-duh-daaaaa-duh-da-duh-DAT-DAT!
#10: "Ragtime" - Ragtime (Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)
Yet another massively epic show (that premiered in a massively epic theater), Ragtime opens with a number that connects three disparate communities from early 20th century America via a shared music on which they all put their own unique stamp. And can I just say how awesome it is that even in the midst of a large-scale ensemble number, you can still hear Audra McDonald cut over EVERYONE?! Yup. Awesome.
#9: "Comedy Tonight" - A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
The opening number for this show did not come about easily. In early versions, Sondheim went through a number of opening numbers that never seemed to click (for a long time the opening number was a song called "Love Is In The Air", parts of which were later sung by Robin Williams and Christine Baranski in the film The Birdcage), but nothing seemed to convey to the audience the nature of the show they were about to see. And what were they about to see? A "Comedy Tonight", of course! Once Sondheim went with this decision, audiences "got it" and the show went on to become one of the most beloved musical comedies of the latter 20th century.
#8: "Company" - Company (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Earlier in this blog post, I said something along the lines of "If you saw a Broadway show in the 60's or 70's, you would have no idea what decade it was based on what you were seeing". Company is perhaps the most notable exception to this generalization. The show doesn't follow a traditional narrative structure but is rather a character study of the protagonist, Bobby, and those he surrounds himself with. The opening number gives us a sense that, although Bobby seems to be constantly surrounded by friends, lovers, and well-wishers, his life is lacking deeper human connections.
#7: "How To Succeed" - How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (Music & Lyrics by Frank Loesser)
The brilliance of this show, I believe, lies in the fact that is an extremely subversive story hiding behind an extremely optimistic facade. In the opening number, J. Pierpont Finch makes it clear that he will do anything in order to succeed in the world of big business. What does the company he aspires to work for do, exactly? Who cares. What will happen to the people who Finch leaves in the dust in his race he top? Who cares. What the hell is a wicket? Who cares. But Finch is just so damn CHARMING that we can't help but cheer him on. It's manipulation at it's finest and funniest.
#6: "Prologue" - West Side Story (Music by Leonard Bernstein)
At first, I wasn't sure that this number should technically count for this list. It's not really a song proper, there are no lyrics or sung text of any kind, and I'm not counting extended sequences, so why should this be included? I'm including it because, even in the absence of singing, it does everything that a great opening number should do. We are introduced to the world of the show, the characters, and their relationships to each other. The visual and musical languages of the piece are immediately defined via the brilliant choreography of Jerome Robbins and the fan-freaking-tastic musical score by Leonard Bernstein. In these opening minutes, we are told exactly what to expect for the rest of the show, and the rest of the show delivers.
#5: "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning" - Oklahoma (Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
An audience going to see a Broadway show in 1943 would have certain expectations about an opening number: A stage full of people, lots of singing and dancing and spectacle, and a slew of scantily-clad (for the time, anyway) chorus girls. So when the curtains first rose on Oklahoma to reveal an old woman churning butter, many an audience member likely thought to themselves "... da f*** is this?". But when Curly steps on stage and begins to sing this song, we are ushered not only into the world of the show, but into a new era of musical theater, where story takes precedence over spectacle and sensationalism.
#4: "Hello" - The Book Of Mormon (Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone)
The term "LOL" gets thrown around quite a lot these days, but how often does a musical make you literally (and I mean "literally literally" not "figuratively literally") laugh out loud? The Book Of Mormon is one of the few musicals that sent me into fits of laughter from my very first listen, and the whole thing kicks with this brilliant opening number, using the "ding-dong" of doorbell as a motive that weaves it's way throughout the entire piece. Three minutes into the show, we can't help but love every single overly-perky person on stage.
#3: "The Carousel Waltz" - Carousel (Music by Richard Rodgers)
I won't hide the fact that I have very mixed feelings about Carousel. In it's best moments, the show features some of the most brilliant, well-crafted, and moving material in the history of the art form. In it's worst moments, it features an uncomfortably ambiguous viewpoint on domestic violence and what is perhaps the worst song ever written for a musical (I'm lookin' at you, Clambake). Whatever you feel about the show as a whole, the opening number (another music-only entry on this list) is stunning, living proof of the old adage that says "Where words fail, music speaks".
#2: "Willkommen" - Cabaret (Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb)
The true brilliance of the Kander & Ebb collaboration was in their ability to tackle a serious social issue by using a well-known popular art form. Cabaret explores the rise of Nazi Germany through a story interwoven with musical numbers set in the fictional Kit Kat Klub in Berlin. We are welcomed into the world of the show by the Emcee, who invites us to "leave our troubles outside"; those unfamiliar with the show might be placated into thinking they're about to enjoy an evening of frivolous entertainment, but as the night goes on we realize that these seemingly silly cabaret numbers are being used to expose the darkest parts of ourselves. This opening number sets the stage for what is to follow: we think we're familiar with what we're about to see, but by the end of the show we'll see it in an entirely different light.
#1: "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" - Sweeney Todd (Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
I'm afraid I don't have ample words to describe just how daring of a show Sweeney Todd is, especially considering that it come out at a time when a "horror musical" seemed near unthinkable. A revenge story about a murderous barber who cuts people's throats and bakes them into pies? Not an easy sell. But this remarkable opening, inspired by the film scores of Bernard Hermann and crafted to utter musical and lyrical perfection by Stephen Sondheim, lets us know exactly what kind of a show we're in for, all the while with an implicit wink to the audience that suggests "Don't worry, it's all in good fun". Seriously, there is not a single thing about this number that doesn't kick copious amounts of ass.
Comments? Questions? Glaring omissions? Let me know.
So it's been over a year since my last blog post. Eh. Whatever.
Here's the skinny: I finished my first year in the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU Tisch. It is basically the greatest thing in the history of the universe. My classmates and faculty advisers are wonderful, insanely talented individuals with whom I feel extremely privileged to work. I've continued making friends and connections in the New York City music and theater scenes and met scores of interesting folks. I wrote many many many songs, some of which are good.
But enough about me (I say as I write on this website that bears my name).
Now that the hectic pace of the school year has subsided and I begin work on my Thesis project for Year II (more to come on that topic later, I suspect), this seems as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on exactly what I learned this past year. Originally I had planned to write an entire list of "Things I Learned This Year!" with irreverent descriptions and whatnot, but it inevitably ended up sounding a bit too "bloggish" for my taste, and if you want to read Buzzfeed, then just go read Buzzfeed. But for all the technical skills I've acquired and little life lessons I've learned this year, I feel like there's one realization I've finally fully accepted that's important enough to share, and that is as follows:
Your Success And Happiness Does Not Hinge On The Approval Of Any One Person Or Group
If you're anything like me, you probably spent much of your time as a young artist clamoring for the attention and validation of a particular individual or group. You think to yourself "If only I can get [prominent faculty member] or [prominent student organization] to sing my praises, then I'll know that I've MADE IT!" As you make the transition from being a student to being a young professional, this mindset becomes "If only I can get [prominent famous musician] or [prominent arts organization] to sing my praises, then I'll know that I've REALLY MADE IT!" I'm here today to tell you what it's near impossible to accept while you're struggling with these perceptions: Absolutely none of that matters.
Yes, we creative types have a tendency to voraciously crave validation. But deciding ahead of time which specific people you need validation from is a futile effort. There will be people you admire, respect, and look up to who will not like what you do. However, your biggest supporters may come from places you would never suspect. If you're creating the kind of stuff that YOU would get excited about, it's inevitable that someone else out there will be excited about it as well, and it doesn't matter whether it's your professor or your friend or Stephen Sondheim or [prominent whatever] or any or none of the above. If you're creating good work, you will find supporters, whether they're exactly who you would expect or not who you would expect at all.
And now to finish editing my scores for the first round of Thesis musical proposals coming up. Onward!
Preparing for grad school at NYU has meant listening to and studying lots and lots and lots of musicals. So as I've been doing my research, it's got me to thinking about what I consider to be the most beautiful songs from musicals. Hence, I put together this list. I'm not necessarily arguing that these are the BEST songs from musicals, or that they come from the best shows, I just think that these songs represent (for me) the pinnacle of beauty when it comes to writing songs for the stage.
"Anthem" (from Chess; Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus)
"Anyone Can Whistle" (from Anyone Can Whistle; Stephen Sondheim)
"Being Alive" (from Company; Stephen Sondheim)
"Bring Him Home" (from Les Miserables; Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg)
"But Not For Me" (from Girl Crazy; George & Ira Gershwin)
"Dear Friend" (from She Loves Me; Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick)
"Distant Melody" (from Peter Pan; Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green)
"Edelweiss" (from The Sound Of Music; Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II)
"Far From The Home I Love" (from Fiddler On The Roof; Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick)
"I Am What I Am" (from La Cage Aux Folles; Jerry Herman)
"I Miss The Music" (from Curtains; John Kander and Fred Ebb)
"If Ever I Would Leave You" (from Camelot; Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe)
"If I Loved You" (from Carousel; Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II)
"I've Never Been In Love Before" (from Guys & Dolls; Frank Loesser)
"Lily's Eyes" (from The Secret Garden; Lucy Simon & Marsha Norman)
"Losing My Mind" (from Follies; Stephen Sondheim)
"Love To Me" (from The Light In The Piazza; Adam Guettel)
"My Funny Valentine" (from Babes In Arms; Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart)
"No More" (from Into The Woods; Stephen Sondheim)
"Not A Day Goes By" (from Merrily We Roll Along; Stephen Sondheim)
"Not While I'm Around" (from Sweeney Todd; Stephen Sondheim)
"Numberless Are The World's Wonders" (from The Gospel At Colonus; Bob Telson & Lee Breuer)
"Once Upon A Dream" (from Jekyll & Hyde; Frank Wildhorn & Leslie Bricusse)
"Old Man River" (from Showboat; Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II)
"The Origin Of Love" (from Hedwig And The Angry Inch; Stephen Trask & John Cameron Mitchell)
"Send In The Clowns" (from A Little Night Music; Stephen Sondheim)
"So In Love" (from Kiss Me, Kate; Cole Porter)
"Some Other Time" (from On The Town; Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green)
"Someone To Watch Over Me" (from Oh, Kay!; George & Ira Gershwin)
"Somewhere" (from West Side Story; Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim)
"Sunday" (from Sunday In the Park With George; Stephen Sondheim)
"Sunrise, Sunset" (from Fiddler On The Roof; Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick)
"There's A Fine, Fine Line" (from Avenue Q; Bobby Lopez & Jeff Marx)
"There's A World" (from Next To Normal; Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey)
"Tonight" (from West Side Story; Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim)
"What I Did For Love" (from A Chorus Line; Marvin Hamlisch & Ed Kleban)
"Will You Remember Me?" (from Lady Be Good [cut during rehearsals]; George & Ira Gershwin)
"With Every Breath I Take" (from City Of Angels; Cy Coleman and David Zippel)
"Where Or When" (from Babes In Arms; Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart)
"Who Can I Turn To?" (from The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd; Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley)
"You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Carousel; Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II)
"You're Nearer" (from Too Many Girls; Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart)
Thoughts? Opinions? Glaring omissions? Let me know what you think!
Greetings friends! I haven't updated this blog in quite a while, but to be fair, I've been a little bit busy. The show I've been working on, "Nice Work If You Can Get It", opened at the Imperial Theater in NYC this past Tuesday, and the whole event was utterly fantastic (check out my multimedia page for some photographic evidence). Now that my official involvement with the show is over, I figured this would be a good time to reflect upon some of the lessons I've inferred from my first Broadway gig.
#5: Skill and knowledge are infinitely more valuable than "Talent"
Our culture has a fascination with the concept of "talent", and we have it in our heads that, as Mama Rose once sang, "Ya either got it, or ya ain't". We believe that talented people are simply born with some mysterious, unquantifiable gift that will inevitably lead them to fame and fortune. But NYC has an incredible number of attractive people who can sing and dance and want to make it as performers - so how do you seperate the great from the merely good? What distinguishes the people who work at this level is that, not only are they tremendously talented (and they are), but they are extremely knowledgeable about their craft, possess the skills needed to do whatever they are called upon to do, and have the work ethic to pull it all off. Talent may be innate, but knowledge and skill must be taught, and take an incredible amount of discipline to foster. Many people out there are able to coast by for a while on talent, perhaps even a great deal of talent, but that by itself is not enough to make it. In the grand scheme of things, "talent" is relatively common, but skill and knowledge are absolutely fundamental for succcess.
#4: The details make all the difference
Many people have asked me "What's something that you found surprising about this whole experience?", and the first thing I would say is that I was surprised how many changes the show went through since day one. I remember doing my original musical in college, and by the time I finally had the whole thing finished and all the materials (score, script, etc.) turned in, I was so mentally exhausted that the thought of doing major rewrites never really occured to me. Of course, some changes were made, but all relatively minor enough that they could be marked into scripts and music with a pencil. In this show, every line, every note, every lyric was gone over several times with a fine-tooth comb. We would constantly ask ourselves "Is this really right for the character?", "Is this line really going to get a laugh?", "Is this really the best key for this person?" Make no mistake, none of the constant examining, rewriting, or changing was whiney, bitchy, or ego-driven - everyone involved was committed to making the show as good as it could possibly be, and we would do whatever was necessary to make it happen. We could have gone out and performed the whole show the way it was on the first day, with not a single change whatsoever, and it would still have been an incredibly enjoyable show. But the question we would constantly ask ourselves is: "Yes, it's good, but how can we make it great?"
#3: Yes, it's a job, and yes, you will get tired
I remember my sister once talking about how, while studying abroad, there's sort of an expectation from back home they're only supposed to feel "blinding excitement, every minute of every day". In some ways that's no different from this job - because it's a really cool job in a really cool place, people have this expectation that every day is like a vacation. As cool as it is, it's a job, not "sitting and looking at celebrities all day", and you need to go in prepared to work. And not only is it a job, but a very demanding one with long hours, so at the end of the day, you will be tired. However, lest I come off like I'm complaining, I'm referring here to physical exhaustion. It's a sign that you're in the right business when you can go home after a long week, absolutely whipped, and still get a kick out of listening to all the songs from the show when they pop up on your iTunes.
#2: On a fundamental level, it's still like putting on a show anywhere else
When you start working on your first professional production, there's sort of an expectation that you'll learn certain "tricks", and see how different it is working on a Broadway show than working on a regional show, college show, high school show, or what have you. What struck me is actually how many things are incredibly similar, if not basically the same, to my previous experiences in the theater. Sure, there are differences - everyone involved is a hired professional, it's a full-time job, union rules, the people you eat lunch with have Tony Awards, the guy you're watching dumb YouTube videos with on your break starred in the greatest movie of the 80's, etc. - but you're still doing all the same fundamental things you do to put on a show anywhere else. So if you're currently enrolled in a solid high school or college theater program, or you're doing regional theater, know that the skills you're learning right now about the rehearsal process will be valuable to you however far you decide to go in this business. The scale may become grander, but the fundamentals of putting on a great show never change.
#1: Keep M&M's handy, and everyone will be happy
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory.
Tomorrow I head back to VA on the train to see my lovely girlfriend graduate from JMU, and in just two weeks I'll be off to Paris! Now that I'll have a little more free time here and there I'll try to update this blog a bit more often, assuming I have worthwhile things about which to blog. Cheers everyone!
Greetings all! I finally have a little time to catch my breath after moving up to NYC and starting work, so I figured I'd do a bit of blogging and bring you all up to speed. First of all...
My apartment! It's a studio at West 56th Street and 9th Av. in Hell's Kitchen. For those of you not familiar with the city, don't let the name "Hell's Kitchen" intimidate you (it's a term that has to do with people in the 1850's being racist against the Irish), it's actually quite a lovely neighborhood. It's small, but it's nice small, with all new hardwood floors, new paintjob, and new kitchen appliances. With the housing market in Manhattan being as crazy as it is, it's amazing that I got this place for the price I did (or frankly, that I got it at all). So the living situation is great, I really couldn't have asked for a better situation, or a better location. But enough about that, let's talk Broadway.
I started work Monday morning at 10, and right away we were off to the races! This week is pre-production (rehearsals don't officially start until next Monday, Feb.6th), so the majority of the time it's only the essential production crew members who are there. So far it's been myself, Kathleen Marshall (director/choreographer), Tom Murray (music director), Marc Bruni (assistant director), David Chase (music supervisor), and Kathleen's assistant Lorna who are in the rehearsals, with a few others popping in and out from time to time. The primary focus of this week is getting everything as ready as possible for the cast when they show up next week, so a lot of what I've been doing is going over everything in the score and script with a fine-tooth comb to make sure it all syncs up properly. Of course, the score and script are constantly changing and being updated, so it's quite a task, but good for someone like me who's very thorough about things and slighty obsessive-compulsive. In the actual rehearsals right now, it's usually myself, Tom, and David sitting at the piano going over the score, Marc going over the script, and Kathleen and Lorna reviewing all the choreography that will be ready for day one. There's a lot of nitty-gritty work that's probably not too interesting to describe in great detail, but the foundation is being laid for a great production!
Many people have been asking variations of "What's it like working with people on Broadway?", and I have to say that, so far, everyone I've met is really remarkably... normal. There's no pretentiousness, no huge egos, no divas, none of that stuff. We get work done, we go to lunch, we goof around, we watch YouTube videos to get inspiration, and we get really excited when somebody brings cookies into the rehearsal studio. Pretty normal stuff I'd say, and everyone's chill and really genuinely nice. We have a popular culture that glorifies being a "diva", particularly in the theater, so I think there's sort of an expectation that everyone here acts that way, but nothing could be further from the truth. People who act like divas are the ones who sit around and talk about how much they'd LIKE to be on Broadway, but they'll never actually get here because nobody will put up with their crap. If Rachel Berry from "GLEE" was a real person, she would never actually land a Broadway job. Trust me on this one. Anyway, what has struck me is this: not only is everyone involved extremely good at what they do, but they are also extremely knowledgeable about what everyone else is doing. Kathleen can have very in-depth discussions with David and Tom about the details of the score, the two of them can talk in-depth about the choreography, everyone discusses the integrity of the script and the lyrics, and so forth. So if you're currently a student and you're wondering "UGH! Why do we have to take all these classes in music theory and music/theater history and all that?!", the answer is this: if you want to work at this level, you actually have to know that stuff. And you will put that knowledge to use. Again, trust me.
So, in summary, it's a lot of nitty-gritty work right now, but it's fun to think that we're building this show from the ground up. In many ways, it's really not that much different from doing a community show or a college production, just on a grander scale with more money. There's still much plunking of notes, slowly going over dance steps, and agonizing over the little details, but it's all worth it. Here's to a fabulous production, and a fabulous process!
Happy 2012 everyone! To ring in the new year, I am... phoning it in by posting an old Facebook note I wrote quite a while ago. But I've updated the list, and I'm throwing in a few YouTube clips as well. Enjoy!
I've been noticing a trend in the popular music world as of late. It seems that many musical artists nowadays, in an effort to branch out musically, are becoming obsessed with "stripping it down" and "getting to the essentials". This often leads to simple acoustic versions of many songs, and also leads to artists whose entire career is centered around a very minimalist writing and performing style. Unfortunately, this also usually leads to whiny vocals, poor instrumental proficiency, and general weirdness praised as being "honest and meaningful art", a great example being that song from the movie "Juno". And let's face it: nobody likes that song. NOBODY. Anyone who tells you they like that song is lying. Even the people who wrote it probably thought "God, this song is just awful". And yet, that's what's being passed off these days as "meaningful" music. And I think to myself - what happened to the days when people made MORE out of their songs? You don't improve a steak by "stripping it down to the essentials", you improve it by wrapping it in bacon, covering it in A1 sauce, and lighting it on fire. Why not improve your song by adding lengthy guitar solos, some double bass-pedal action, and a completely unnecessary and very expensive symphony orchestra? You may question the musical integrity, you may question the artistic honesty, but you can't question the fact that these songs will ROCK YOUR FACE
OFF. What many people don't realize these days is that "Goofy" and "Awesome" are musical forces that actually go hand-in-hand quite wonderfully, and a lot of the time, the best plan of action really is to turn it up to 11. And so, without further adieu, I give you...
THE 12 GOOFIEST/MOST AWESOME SONGS
#12: "Bewitched" - Candlemass
Candlemass is a rather interesting band that is sometimes classified as "Stoner Metal", as in "I'd have to be stoned to understand what the eff is going on in this song". Although the thunderous riffs and melodious high-baritone wailings of singer Messiah Marcolin ("The Book Of Mormon" actor Josh Gad's evil twin, I'm sure of it) certainly classify this song as both goofy and awesome, what really puts it over the top is the video. Grainy VHS footage of metal dudes LARP-ing at a Renaissance Fair? Count me in.
#11: "Wrathchild" - Iron Maiden
If Satan formed a funk band, it would probably sound something like this. Rarely ever does a genuine heavy metal song make one want to shake one’s booty, but Steve Harris’s badass bass lines and crunchy riffs lay down a funky-fresh groove so funkadelic that you’ll soon be saying “DAMN that’s funky!” Throw in a little guitar shredding and some gratuitous metal screams and we’re off to the races.
#10. "Play With Me" - Extreme
Most of you probably know this as the song being played during the mall chase sequence in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. If you are not familiar that film, you have a lot to learn about things that are both goofy and awesome. Two minutes of rapid-fire, completely nonsensical lyrics followed by Nuno Bettencourt’s mind-blowing guitar solo make for goofy/awesome glory that just screams “It’s 1989, I have a mullet, I live in my parent’s basement, and I have some SWEET tickets for Judas Priest, this Saturday at the Omaha Civic Center! Well… actually, they’re kinda near the back… but still, JUDAS PRIEST!!! I’m taking my super-hot girlfriend that I TOTALLY didn’t make up.” Rock on.
#9: "Kill The King" - Rainbow
Rainbow goes down in my book as one of the most under-rated rock bands of all time, and this 1977 fantasy rock classic only serves to prove my point. Nothing says "metal" quite like epic fantasy lyrics, rollicking guitar riffs, flamboyant keyboard licks, thunderous double bass drums, and a 5-foot tall Italian guy wearing the puffy shirt from Seinfeld while flashing the devil horns (RIP Ronnie James Dio).
#8: Hangar 18 - Megadeth
One of the most goofy/awesome songs of all time also happens to be accompanied by one of the most goofy/awesome music videos of all time. Stick around through the long intro, the rest of the song and video is totally worth it. Blistering guitar solos, Dave Mustaine snarling into the camera, and sci-fi lyrics about medical experiments performed on space aliens that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico: it’s like everything great about being a nerd was combined into a single song.
#7: "Painkiller" - Judas Priest
One day (as I imagine this whole thing happened), the members of Judas Priest were sitting around somewhere in jolly old England, when one of them said "I say old chaps, what say we each chug an entire case of Red Bull, then run into the recording studio and play the fastest, loudest, craziest goddamn thing we possibly can?" They all thought it was a smashing idea and got right on it. The engineer in the booth suggested that Rob Halford sing the entire song up an octave, and that lead guitarist Glenn Tipton should play "MOAR SWEEP-PICKING!!!!!"; the band agreed. What you hear is the result. The video is what happens when an overdriven electric guitar has a seizure.
#6: "The Pharoah Sails To Orion" - Nightwish
It’s hard to get around the goofy/awesome stigma when you’re a Scandinavian prog-metal band with a female opera singer as your lead vocalist, so Nightwish tends to just go with it, and all for the better. This six-plus minute epic goes through a staggering multitude of musical material and features lyrics about… erm, something… honestly, the lyrics are virtually impossible to understand. Much like hieroglyphs before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the lyrics are virtually impossible decipher even by internationally renowned university language professors. I’ve heard this song countless times and I STILL have no freakin’ clue what it’s about. Oh well.
#5: "Flash" - Queen
About half of Queen’s entire catalogue could be up for nomination on this list (I could do an entire separate article on “Goofy/Awesome Queen Songs”), so narrowing it down to just one was a difficult decision. I decided to go with this song for the complete campiness of the music video as well as the song itself. Queen actually composed the entire soundtrack to the now hysterically dated-looking 1980 “Flash Gordon” film, and this song was released as a single to accompany the release of the movie. The opening lines are some of the most epically-cheesy/cheesily-epic ever written in the English language: “FLASH! AAAAHHHH! Savior of the universe! *epic Brian May guitar riff*” It’s almost inevitable that a poorly-drawn super hero will then burst in through the walls, wrap his arms around the buxom-est blonde he can find, and fly away triumphantly to the strains of Freddie Mercury’s falsetto. The Flash Gordon film clips bring to mind images of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, but perhaps most perplexing about the music video: What the heck is up with John Deacon’s sweater? Is it just cold in there, or is he in fact a 70 year-old British woman? A case could be made for each scenario.
#4: "The Dark Eternal Night" - Dream Theater
A heavy metal epic about a Pharaoh who rises from the grave as an undead zombie/mummy bent on terrorizing civilization. There is a honky-tonk ragtime piano solo in the instrumental section. Do I NEED to write anything else? No. No I do not. Just watch the video.
#3: "To Hell With The Devil" - Stryper
“Christain” and “hair metal” are not exactly two terms that people tend to associate with each other, but sure enough, Stryper emerged in the mid-80’s as a band of rowdy, guitar-shredding, spandex-donning head-bangers who just happened to love Jesus. The band would have been a complete joke if they didn’t actually write good songs, but let’s face it… they kinda rocked. Except the ballads. Their ballads SUCKED. Original prints of Stryper albums actually contained a warning label on the back that read “SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Listening to Stryper ballads causes ear cancer, profuse vomiting, erectile dysfunction, and may complicate pregnancy, in that nobody would EVER want to have sex with someone who listens to Stryper ballads”. Yikes. However, when playing and writing pure heavy metal, these guys could rock out with the best of them, as exemplified in 1987’s outrageously over-the-top “To Hell With The Devil”. Be sure to stick around to the end of the video for Michael Sweet’s ungodly high
note. The man could out-scream Satan himself.
#2: "Hot For Teacher" - Van Halen
The song begins with a 30-second drum solo that sounds a bit like Bruce Vilanch falling down a flight of stairs in an antique shop. Great way to start. In comes Eddie Van Halen’s finger-tapping guitar wizardry, followed by David Lee Roth’s offbeat in-song commentary, and we’re headlong into a raucous, ridiculous 1980’s classic. Not only is this one of the goofiest/most awesome songs ever written, but it also features one of the goofiest/most awesome music videos ever created. Words simply don’t do this song justice, just watch and listen for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.
#1: "Eagle Fly Free" - Helloween
If I were to describe the experience of listening to this song, I would say it’s akin to being sexually assaulted in the ear for about five straight minutes. When the song ends, your first thought is probably something along the lines of “What the HELL just happened to me?!”, and yet you wouldn’t mind doing it all over again. This song contains all the trappings of goofy/awesome greatness: bloody-blazing fast tempo, indecipherable fantasy lyrics written by guys with an apparently tenuous grasp of the English language (the band is from Germany), testicle-defying high notes, dueling lead guitar lines, overtly gratuitous guitar solos, a drum solo, a bass solo (?!?!?!?!?!?!), and more distorted power chords than you can shake a stick at. It’s the musical equivalent of biting into a candy bar so sweet that you immediately contract diabetes. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Most of you reading this blog have already heard by now, but I thought I should put it up on here just to make it even more official. As of just a few days ago, I have officially accepted a position to be the Music Intern and direct assistant to the Music Supervisor for the upcoming Broadway production of George & Ira Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It", starring Tony-award winning actor Matthew Broderick:
Tony-nominated actress Kelli O'Hara:
And directed by Tony-award winner Kathleen Marshall:
So, needless to say, this all pretty durn exciting. And I'm going to be directly involved in the rehearsal process, working with the musicians and the actors to put the whole show together, not just brewing coffee and making copies (though I'm sure I'll be doing some of that too). Now, the next order of business: find a place to live in NYC. More to come on that soon...
Also, thanks to everyone for the absurd amount of Facebook love. 204 "likes" and 69 comments on my announcement... damn. I may not be able to respond to each one of you individually, but you all rock!
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.