27 July 2013

Great Comet

Originally posted on Broadway.com


I started working on Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in the summer of 2011; the idea had been in my head since reading War and Peace while playing piano on a cruise ship four years earlier. One particular sliver of the book seemed to me a perfect musical; it had the classic two-couples structure, only in this story the second couple (after Natasha and Anatole) was Pierre and…God? Himself? Humanity? Natasha? So there was that existential throughline, and the fact that these two disparate stories only intersect at the end, flipping the story around in the last moments. I made a rough outline in my head and then moved on to other things.

I never really believed it would happen…then I met Ars Nova. They had seen my show Beowulf - A Thousand Years of Baggage, and after meeting with them a few times and doing a concert there, I was commissioned to write a piece. I proposed the Tolstoy idea, expecting/half-hoping they’d ask for something more manageable. But to my surprise and terror, they were thrilled by the idea, and off we went.

From the start, the intention was to really embrace Tolstoy’s language, keeping his peculiar way of writing (made all the more peculiar through translation) intact, in which every blush, sigh, laugh and tear is lovingly detailed. Starting from this text, I wrote lyrics combining word-for-word Tolstoy, free adaptation, and some modern flourishes (“In nineteenth century Russia we write letters”). I’ve often joked that in Tolstoy I had the best collaborator, because he’s both brilliant and dead.

This novelistic text also resulted in music that freely combines song forms with a sort of accompanied recitative style that I probably learned from singing in a jazz choir in high school. We sang a lot of “vocalese,” in which lyrics are written for famous jazz solos (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross are my favorite purveyors of the style). This style fit both the classical, operatic sections and the more contemporary, electronica ostinatos (introduced by the entrance of Anatole) of the score. Another main intention in writing the score was to feature the band, both by writing them very exposed and soloistic parts, and staging them throughout the space. One of my favorite parts of previews was moving around to sit in front of the oboe seat, the strings seat, and so on, and really live with each of our musicians for a while.

The opening song, “Prologue,” was actually one of the last to be written. Originally the show started right in the thick of Pierre’s self-loathing. After a couple workshops, a constant piece of feedback was that it took people a while to know who was who and where we were, so we decided to add a proper prologue, a la Romeo & Juliet, laying things out as clearly as possible, employing the time honored preschool music tradition of the cumulative song. To my surprise, it worked. It’s probably the most “musical theater” song in the show, both in style and tone. So the show starts with this fun but kind of false, trick beginning; as it goes on, the musical and emotional trajectory gets further and further away from where we started.

A few songs were written for specific performers…Brittain Ashford is a singer/songwriter I’ve known for years; some of her songs about heart-breakingly fierce loyalty and love reminded me of Sonya. It took a few beers to convince her to be in a show, but once she signed on, I wrote “Sonya Alone” specifically for her. Natasha’s Act One aria, “No One Else,” wasn’t in the Ars Nova version of the show; only after working with Phillipa Soo and really getting to know her voice did I get inspired to write a true Natasha song, tailored to Pippa’s talents.

Anatole’s last note (a high C# “Petersburg!”) was written in a spastic moment of composer frustration at not knowing how to end the song. I forgot it was there until we came to it in rehearsal, and Lucas Steele sang it without a second thought. We were picking our jaws off the ground. The opera-within-the-opera too was written with the original performers, Gelsey Bell and Paul Pinto; both are experimental music vocalists, who regularly employ extended technique in their work. The challenge there was to produce something that pokes fun of avant-garde opera (which I sometimes love), but is nevertheless grotesque and amazing in its own right.

That delicate balance of tone is one of the most important things in the work for me, and something director Rachel Chavkin and I talked about a lot. Often when I read a piece of classical literature, I’m simultaneously enraptured and amused; so often a moment of “man, people were ridiculous back then” is closely followed by a moment of “oh my God, I said that yesterday.” There’s a real beauty in reading these works ironically and sincerely at the same time, both commenting on and communing with another time and place. And ultimately, for me it’s the communion, the humanity in these timeless stories, that sticks with me.

After the Ars Nova run, we were fortunate enough to have Howard and Janet Kagan transfer the show to Kazino, a space custom-built for it. It’s been incredible to see the show grow into this more expansive and elegant space, and see each designer’s vision fully realized. Also the addition of an amazing ensemble and a fantastic music director, Or Matias, have made the score richer and fuller; and watching Rachel fill the space and create moments of such simple beauty and whirling spectacle has been an honor. And of course, the occasional cellphone hurling has kept us all on our toes…I’m sure Tolstoy would have loved that tale.

22 January 2013

Originally published at Culturebot

Hi.

Last Saturday, I sat on a Culturebot panel at Under the Radar, entitled “The Theatre of Tomorrow, Today,” which was intended to explore the impact of technology on theatre and what constitutes “theatre” in a rapidly changing Information Age. I’ve never sat on a panel before (and even this was not a true panel, but a “long table discussion”), but I figured it would be fun, and maybe I would talk a bit about electronica, or how the Internet is solitary and sad, or how cool immersive and/or durational theatre is.

Instead, I managed, quite unexpectedly, to spend the entire 90 minutes literally not saying one single word.

There’s a part of me that would love to just leave this experience behind, or to spin myself as a culture-jamming, Dylanesque non-conformist who shuns meaningful dialogue and revels in absurdist performance art stunts. I have imagined aggressively pursuing a career as a silent panelist, building my reputation as a black-shirted enigma who sits on panel after panel in quizzical yet smiling silence.

However, another part of me just feels a bit bad about the whole thing, and would love to explain what was going on for me, especially to Andy and Culturebot, whom I admire quite a bit.

So:

What I was thinking during my silent 90 minutes was that I was deeply unaligned with most of the discourse that actually unfolded. On several occasions I came close to voicing my dissent, but I missed my first few opportunities, and then as I found the list of disagreements in my head growing to an unwieldy size, my innate sad-clown social awkwardness found the increasingly difficult task of spewing out what was becoming a more and more potentially disrespectful manifesto to be paralyzingly impossible.

Essentially, my own belief is that the many “crises of American theatre” are self-imposed and imaginary, stemming mostly from a simple yet entitled desire to make more money. Among the many points made at the panel: that the word “theatre” and the frame it provides is ineffective and potentially harmful in describing what some experimental theatre artists do; that the many expectations of the institutions, buildings and markets of the theatre hurt or constrict the work; that there is not enough funding and that ticket sales are non-sustainable; that Broadway is artistically bereft; that theatrical art is not valued in the same way as other art forms; that one method of increasing our value would be to frame ourselves as researchers rather than artists; etc.

I started doing (i.e. composing music for, performing in, designing sound for and writing or co-creating) theatre in San Francisco in the summer of 2000. I didn’t study it, or imagine that I would make a career of it. At the time I had just dropped out of grad school (in Music Composition) and was working in a record store, playing electro-jazz in shitty clubs in the Mission. I did a theatre show on a whim, and soon found other shows offered to me as a result of the people I met. For about 8 years I did theatre in San Francisco, making mostly no money at all; for some shows I got maybe $50. I think $300 was an all-time high, which crazily was all from ticket sales, due to director Maya Gurantz’s awesome share-based model of paying theatre fees. I continued to work day jobs, at a preschool, a home for severely emotionally disturbed youth, a test prep company, and occasional stints on cruise ships. I didn’t apply for a single grant during this period, because it honestly just didn’t occur to me. I was so happy doing what I was doing, and I found living on the brink of poverty quite thrilling and enlightening, in a Jack Kerouac sort of way. Furthermore, I was in my 20s, living in San Francisco: eating excellent produce, listening to awesome drum’n’bass music, reading a lot of Buddhism and Taoism. There was a lot of optimism and self-awareness in the air.

I am fully aware that I was also (and will ever continue to be) living life through the prism of straight white male privilege and mild class privilege (though again, there were entire months when I always got off BART using the turnstile-less North Berkeley elevator, because I couldn’t afford to actually pay). I don’t really know of a successful rhetorical way to get around this straight white maleness, other than to suggest that I do what I can to avoid working exclusively with other straight white men. But I don’t think that my philosophy is dependent on my status, and I know a hell of a lot of people who share my status and still bitch all the time. So if it helps us get past this hurdle, then we can say that the rest of this essay is just for them.

Back in those San Francisco salad days, and indeed still today, I didn’t do theatre to make money. I didn’t really do it to change the world, or even to communicate some deep human truth. Ultimately I did it because I liked it; because it made me happy. I can make music at the piano alone or under headphones in my room too, and that can often bring a tickle and a smile, but for me the interaction with both other creators and the audience is divinely fulfilling. It makes me happy. The act of writing a new song is often as simple as asking myself “what would make me so happy to hear at this moment?” And it makes me happy to see other people happy as result, to hear people singing along or quoting scenes or giving a hug afterward. As someone with sad-clown levels of social awkwardness, it is the medium through which I can most effectively communicate in joyful and spiritually rich ways with other people. Most of my hardest laughters have been in rehearsals and my profoundest revelations and catharses have been in performance. Theatre is how I found my God.

So for me, the very thought that I “should be paid” for this work or that it has “monetary value” is shocking, laughable and even blasphemous.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love earning money from theatre. It’s something that’s only started happening in meaningful ways in the last 4 years or so, but I continue to work a day job (teaching the GMAT to business school applicants), and there are still lean times. But fundamentally, I don’t actually think I deserve this money. I mean, out of simple fairness, I think if tickets are being sold I should get a cut; but I think of theatre and music as valuable in spiritual and intellectual ways, not in monetary ways. Not the way food or clothing is. Or even computers and cars, or doctors and teachers and policemen (actually there are a quite a few Communist bones in my body that don’t put monetary value on any of those things either, but that is another essay, one I’m too ill-read to write). For me art is ultimately a profoundly selfish act, though paradoxically the reason I pursue this act is that it brings me close to other people, and other people closer to each other. But it is selfish, it is not needed, and probably you’d be better off just staring at the ocean for 2 hours than seeing any of the plays I’ve ever made.

So the fact that I have managed to get paid for theatre in recent years is both delightful and amusing to me. As the fees have gotten bigger, so have the resources, and thus I’ve been able to make progressively more and more involved and thoroughly executed pieces. But there has never been in me this feeling that I find so prevalent among my peers in NYC today, that I need more money/grants/commissions/institutions producing me to be able to execute my art. It just seems like a fundamentally backwards way of looking at the situation. I’ve always created pieces based on the resources that were available to me at the time, and found all of these experiences to be quite fulfilling. Some were better than others, and I’ve grown as an artist and I think gotten better at what I do. But I never felt this entitlement that I needed/deserved money or opportunities to properly create. Interestingly it’s mostly only since I moved to NYC that I’ve heard these conversations; in San Francisco most everyone seemed quite happy chugging away, but again, the produce there is really quite phenomenal.

A theme at the panel was that the institutions we work within are antiquated and stilted, following old models and not funding/producing daring work. But my experience is that this is clearly not true; as someone else brought up at the panel, there has been so much work created and/or presented in NYC in the past few years that defies conventions and standard producerial models, takes risks (both at being experimental and at being not experimental), and plays with the frame through extended forms, non-theatrical spaces, different audience/performer relationships, and un-“play”-like content (I’m thinking here of Gatz, Lily’s Revenge, Sleep No More, Roman Tragedies and other van Hove pieces, Life and Times and Nature Theatre’s work, the Woodshed Collective, Untitled Feminist Show and We’re Gonna Die, 13P in general, Radiohole at the Kitchen, Foreman at the Public, the Wooster Group of course, Habit, Then She Fell, Zee, Einstein on the Beach’s remount, Richard Maxwell, Jay Scheib, Temporary Distortion, Witness Relocation, Two-Headed Calf, 600 Highwaymen, ETG’s fabulous combustion, Half Straddle, Toshiki Okada, Rotozaza, Gob Squad, the founding of JACK, the TEAM taking over the world, Catch and Little Theater, a lot of the programming at the Armory, works produced by the Bushwick Starr, Soho Rep, Chocolate Factory, HERE, PS122, etc. Plus my own experiences at the ever-awesome Ars Nova, Incubator, NYTW, ART, and Collapsable Hole, and the hundred things I didn’t see or am just forgetting). So it’s totally out there, whatever it is that the community laments is not there. It’s right there! And many of these pieces were performed in spaces that are often described as antiquated institutions. So in the end, to me, the complaints that are so prevalent in this community seem based more in a selfish, sour grapes, “but why don’t I get that” mentality, than in an actual crisis of the system itself. Yes there are olden, sad theaters that produce play after boring play by straight white men, and there are olden sad critics who write about interesting work in ill-informed ways, but there are and more and more alternatives every season, and those genre-pushing theaters and pieces are often the ones that get the most attention. It seems to me that the olden and sad will die with their audiences, like Republicans, but we shall see.

And for me the issues people have with the state of theatre criticism is just such a non-starter; the idea that someone writing about my work is in any way relevant to my ability to find joy in creating theatre is just absurd. Again, like getting payment, it is nice when someone writes good and insightful things. Writing on theater can be rich, beautiful and artistic in it’s own right, as pieces on Culturebot and HowlRound exemplify time and time again. And it is hilarious when other people write idiotic things, and sure it’s annoying that I’m doomed to always just get theatre reviewers and never have cool music critics write about my shows. But again, the one-to-one relationship with the audience and creators, the moments of joy that I do this for, are so utterly unaffected by critics that I just can’t imagine spending real mental anguish on whether my work is considered, for example, “music theatre” or “musical theatre” by some Tumblr, or whether Brantley’s Radiohole review was “good” or “situated the piece in the right context.” I mean ultimately I see every piece I see in the context of my own life, not of a bunch of shows made by Richard Foreman when I was 6. But I digress.

Back to the buildings: some institutions are better than others at taking risks on experimental work; some make great work and some do not. But for me it’s a simple matter of aligning myself with those theaters that I respect and avoiding those I don’t; to lament that these other theaters aren’t falling into my worldview is, to me, akin to complaining about the rain and snow. There is a world as it is, and the route to joy and enlightenment is through understanding it and finding the places that align with your beliefs, while being at peace with the places that don’t. I recognize that this philosophy taken to its extreme undermines many of the causes of social justice, and that’s a problem I continue to work through; I do think there is great value and joy to be had in nudging systems, moving them towards a more enlightened, all-inclusive place, and that theatre can actually do that, which is pretty fucking cool. But in something as petty as the institution of American theatre itself (where lives and human rights are not actually at stake), I will say that for me personally, I find the Taoist route of assimilating to the world as it is and playing in the slipstreams to be a far more fulfilling path than bitching about the current. I mean yes there is more money in Europe than America for theatre; but American theatre artists can also just go to Europe. It happens all the time. To be upset that some of the funding is not in a geographically convenient place just seems absurd to me; the money can’t be everywhere at once. I imagine the amount of money for the arts to be had in NYC is significantly more than that in Wichita or Tahiti; that is the world as it is, and to spend time complaining about it rather than just going where the money is seems like a waste of breath to me.

And no, not everyone gets to have that money. I mean we can’t all get to make giant Richard Serra metal things. And that’s fine; a lucky few get to that level of financial and artistic support, and can create giant things that make the rest of us sad sacks shake to the core. But not every one is entitled to those resources. There is another deeper truth at play in all of this, I think—dirty words that no one dares talk about in mixed company: Talent and Appeal. Talent is the true dirty word in our field, in an art so based in the communal. But there is an objective truth to it. Vertigo is clearly better than Troll 2 (YouTube it if you’re uninitiated), and to argue otherwise is just to reduce language and aesthetics to absurdity. And I adore Troll 2, but if I heard Claudio Fragasso bitching about the lack of funding in the film industry I would be inclined turn my head silently away. I’m not at all saying that any of my peers or the other people on this particular panel are untalented (in fact I quite like all of the work I’ve seen of those participants, and I’m shaken by things I see almost weekly); but it does seem to me that when the problems of funding in our field are talked about, they are discussed in vague and sanctimonious ways that don’t acknowledge any kind of meritocracy in the system. A flawed meritocracy, run by a disproportionate number of straight white men, but nevertheless a system in which talent is to some extent a deciding factor.

Even more salient to me and my peers though, I think is the concept of Appeal; there is a simple truth that experimental theatre, no matter how good it is, is just not that appealing to a large portion of the population. At the panel someone mentioned that the hundreds of thousands of people that attended a Banksy exhibition in LA would have loved the experimental theatre programming down the street, if only they had known about it. I don’t think that that is true. A lot of experimental theatre is hard; it requires critical thinking skills, attention spans and knowledge of esoteric cultural and intellectual data that the average person just doesn’t have. The belief that these new, bigger audiences are “out there” if we only we could reach them seems to be at odds with everything I know about the tastes of popular culture. And again I think that is just fine. Of course there are people out there that haven’t found their way to this work yet, and we should continue to court them. But there is no model by which a Wooster Group show is ever going to be more broadly appealing than Book of Mormon.

It’s hard to talk about this without feeling massively elitist and arrogant, but there is a lot of objective data that tells us what kinds of things attract large audiences and what do not. And I loved Book of Mormon, and don’t look down on it for a second, and love the Wooster Group too, in different ways. Each opens my mind to a different realm, neither more valuable to me than the other. If you want audiences and applause and ticket sales, they can be gotten, but the work has to be broadly appealing; Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24-hour experimental film, a format which doesn’t have any business being successful, but it’s massively appealing due to its content and sheer audacity. (And it’s being screened in giant old institutions).

I’m fortunate that some of my own artistic tendencies (i.e. the musical form) align with broad market appeal; but that’s a happy coincidence. I’ve never found myself adapting or altering my work to make it more appealing or fit more easily into accepted forms. Again I just do what I like to do, whatever brings me the most happiness at the time. Some of it is commercial and some of it is experimental and strange, and I love riding the line between the two.

The craziest thing to me is that there is money in theatre, tons of it; if you want to make money just do a Broadway show. But that’s a hard and specific path, one that requires a certain amount of talent, and if it goes against your artistic tendencies it may not be worth it. As I listened to my peers talk about the problem of funding, the simple after-school special truth that money does not bring happiness (or, in this case, fulfilling art) was ringing through my head. Now I know that my peers are not talking about wanting money to spend on bottle-service nightclubs, but rather on things like health care and dental work. But still, as someone who was quite happy making art for free and getting fillings at dental schools for 8 years, the tenor of the room was discomfiting.

There is a difference between what is nice and what is deserved. I don’t think that art deserves money. Again, I take it when it is offered to me, I’ll ask for a cut if it is being made by others, and if I’m working for someone else I’ll insist on it. But to make my own work is a private necessity and spiritual gift, and not something I feel entitled to payment for. Pretty much all the music I’ve ever made is available on my website for free, I’m a fierce believer in giving out as many comps as I can, and I email people sheet music whenever they ask for it. I’m realist enough to still look for the bigger paychecks, but again that’s just because it’s nice to not have to worry about money things, so if I can make a living while doing what I’d be doing anyway, well that’s great. And if I want a more dependable lifestyle, I can move somewhere where the rent is ¼th of what it is here and work my day job there. Living in NYC as a theatre artist is my choice, and I make that choice fully understanding and accepting the consequences of it.

At the very end of the panel one of the other panelists turned to me after my absurd silent performance and jokingly said “well what do you think Dave!?” I rather too quickly said “I don’t think there are any problems!” and then mumbled something about hating these kind of conversations. Which in retrospect probably means that I shouldn’t have agreed to be at the table in the first place, and I apologize to Andy, the whole Culturebot team, and my fellow panelists, who I must say did make a lot of great and generous points as well (many of which are paraphrased above), and whose work I admire. But in the end these circular conversations do drive me crazy, because I just don’t really think there are so many big problems with our little world. I do encounter small problems, all the time, connected to individual projects, and they almost always get solved; and that’s part of the appeal of it all, solving these puzzles…in one of my companies, every show we would joke that we needed to try to make it 3% better. Just to give us all 3% more happiness. I still believe in that, in these tiny nudges, making things a little better, the plays, the institutions, the discourses, 3% at a time. But the overwhelmingly negative view of the theatre world as it is as profoundly problematic is, to me, profoundly problematic.

I didn’t really intend to write a manifesto, but well, here we are. Again, you probably would have been happier spending this time staring at the ocean. But live and learn—and live, and learn, and live.

26 January 2012

A Slushy in the Face: Musical Theater and the Uncool

Originally published at HowlRound
Then (slightly revised) at Huffington Post

I'm a musical theater composer. It's with considerable pain that I write that statement; for while I love music, and I love theater, I am acutely aware of the stigma of the term "musical theater," of all it has come to connote and the kneejerk reactions the genre tends to elicit. My community is largely one of experimental, downtown theater artists and musicians, for whom the love of musicals is either nonexistent, highly qualified, or a shameful secret.

The music of musical theater has evolved into a highly stylized and specific "genre" of its own, instantly recognizable. And yet this "genre" has little to do with the rest of the world of creative music-making. Musicals are not reported on by Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, or The Wire, or reviewed by music critics, or devoured by people who love music. Instead, they are devoured by people who lovemusicals, the archetypal "musical theater geeks" celebrated in Glee.

Glee, in its presentation of Broadway songs as contemporary pop music, shamelessly auto-tuned and lip-synched, has helped to make musical theater more popular now than ever—The Book of Mormon reached #3 on the Billboard charts (the first Broadway cast album to break the Top Ten since Hair), High School Musical is an institution, and Spider-Man continues to make astounding amounts of money in spite of everything. But, as the high school microcosm of Glee tells its characters (and by extension its fans), even if it is popular, musical theater is still decidedly uncool. Why is this?

Musical theater grew out of the vaudeville acts of the late 1800s; popular songs of the day were woven into slight plots with little concern for narrative logic. Gilbert and Sullivan's shows and Show Boat (1927) brought rich orchestrations and story to the form respectively, but by and large music heard in the theater was music that might be heard anywhere—in a concert hall, tavern, or living room. Recordings of show tunes from the 40s are indistinguishable from other contemporary recordings of popular music (Mitch Miller, Bing Crosby, the Dorsey Brothers). There are some notable exceptions, shows in which composers drew from other simultaneously evolving genres, including contemporary classical music (Three Penny Opera, 1928; West Side Story, 1957), and Rodgers and Hammerstein gave the genre a deep narrative richness that was often reflected in the structure and style of the music (Carousel, 1945). But there remained a strong connection between musicals and the music of the day. Miles Davis recorded Porgy and Bess in 1954; that same year, Rosemary Clooney's "Hey There" was already a hit on the radio when the musical from which it was from, The Pajama Game, opened. The Beatles covered The Music Man's "Til There Was You" in 1963—one of the last moments of true musical/pop cross-pollination (we certainly don't hear current jazz musicians, Arcade Fire or Sharon Jones doing covers from Next to Normal). Even as popular music evolved, a dialogue remained—but then the great revolution of rock music hit Broadway hard. The performer-driven music of rock overtook the composer-driven music of theater, and musicals began to fade from the popular consciousness.

It's worth looking at the first rock musical, Hair (1967), because it gets so many things right. It's written by Galt McDermott, an accomplished rock and jazz composer long before he wrote for the stage. He won a Grammy for Cannonball Adderley's recording of his tune "African Waltz" in 1960, and his non-theater recordings have been sampled by Run-DMC and MF Doom (neither of whom, I'm pretty sure, have ever sampled a Broadway show tune). But it's fascinating to listen to the sound of the music devolve through its recorded history. The original Off-Broadway recording is indistinguishable from popular rock of the day. "Easy To Be Hard" could be a Jefferson Airplane song. The 2009 revival version however, sounds nothing like rock music—it is clean, antiseptic, highly produced, and devoid of rawness. Drummer Bernard Purdie (who played with James Brown, Miles Davis, Steely Dan and many others) plays drums on both recordings, and yet the sound is completely different. In 1967 the score was recorded to sound like rock music; in 2009 it was recorded by to sound like musical theater music. Other early rock operas have a similar sound; the original Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) (which, in my own informal research, is the one album that lots of musical theater haters seem to know and love) sounds like an amazing early 70s rock/funk band swinging their asses off, because that's just what it is (Jesus was the lead singer of Deep Purple).

As rock worked it's way onto Broadway stages (mostly with dazzling failure), the inevitable counter-movement led by Sondheim and especially Hamlisch's A Chorus Line (1975) continued to expand on the traditional Broadway sound, while also experimenting with extended forms and lyrics that tended to be more specific than those of the past. Proper names and context-specific references abounded, making the songs harder to present in isolation (which is why Sondheim has really only had one major "hit," "Send in the Clowns"). Also in this era, there was a great harmonic innovation: the sus chord.

It's hard to communicate just how singular the sus chord sounds without playing one. Essentially a sus chord is one in which the third of a chord is replaced by a more unresolved, "suspended" note, the second or the fourth. (So while a C-major chord is spelled C-E-G, C-sus chords are spelled either C-D-G or C-F-G.) If major chords are "happy" and minor chords "sad," suspended chords are uncertain, hanging in anticipation. It's actually pretty insane how ubiquitous this chord (which can also be heard in lots of Copland and Hindemith) has become in musical theater: it's the sound of much of Into the Woods, of "Defying Gravity" from Wicked and Rent's "Seasons of Love"; composer Jason Robert Brown uses it constantly.

Meanwhile, a world away, people were listening to Led Zeppelin II and Bitches Brew, Steve Reich and Kraftwerk. There were still some great shows avoiding the new trends by reverting back to genre studies (Chicago, 1975; Grease, 1972), but by and large, Broadway was defining a new, unique sound of its own. As shows and box offices got bigger, the music did too. Phantom of the Opera (1986) took the harmonic discoveries of the 70s and jammed them back into recognizable "hit song" forms, smoothing over the lyrical complexities and generously applying schmaltz. Les Miserables (1985) often gets lumped together with Phantom, for their role in creating the Great Broadway Spectacle Tradition, but musically it's quite different with it's epic marches and aggressive embrace of 80s rock creating a weird hybrid that one could argue leads directly to Rent (full disclosure: I've music directed both Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and loved every second of it. I did get rid of all the synths though).

Also in the 80s, a new brand of self-examining, ironic theater was being born, with shows like Little Shop of Horrors (1982), in which songs aren't presented as honest emotion but rather as detached and critical references to another thing. In recent years this trend has become a defining trait: the musical as parody, inherently ironic. This style was crystallized in Urinetown (2001) and continued with Avenue Q (2003), Mel Brook's musicals and of course Book of Mormon (2011). Good as these shows can be at what they do (I love "Suddenly Seymour"), they significantly alter the role of the music itself, from one of authenticity to irony. Larson fought this tendency with 1996's Rent, a highly acclaimed (by theatercritics) rock musical that many believed would be the crossover hit Broadway had been wanting for thirty years. But Rent and its imitators have remained relegated to the affections of musical theater fans only. For rock fans, there remains a deep disconnect between this style of music and "authentic" rock.

Authenticity. And here we have a thesis: that the reason so much musical theater sounds bad and "uncool" to so many ears, particularly when it flirts with rock, is because it lacks authenticity. Because it is being sung by people who aren't rock singers. They are acting.

It's an obvious but critical fact; actors perform in fundamentally different ways from musicians. When a non-theatrical singer sings a song, they are of course performing, but even when they are "playing a character," the actual performer is still center stage. You know you are listening to David Bowie, and that is the character you care about—Bowie, with all his untouchable chic and unknowable fame. It's the same for an unknown guy playing open mic; when he's singing you are watching him, the actual human being singing, and he is trying to show you himself as sincerely as possible, to commune with you in a way that transcends the words. Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday do the same thing; so does Beyoncé. The greatest insult you can lay on a rock, country, folk, jazz, soul, or hip-hop musician is that they are "faking it," or "being theatrical"—if a singer starts overemoting in way that seems premeditated and/or insincere, the audience checks out. Acting is anathema to music. I'd even argue that the best Broadway singers do this too. Liza Minnelli singing "Maybe This Time" is astonishing, because it's working on several levels; sure she's Sally Bowles, but she's also clearly Liza. This is probably the reason so many people criticized Lea Salonga's Éponine but she's by far my favorite; she's barely "acting" at all, she's just being Lea Salonga.

But Liza and Lea are the exception, and even they are working within a style of singing unique to the world of Broadway musicals. The worst musical theater singers adhere to a very learned, imitative, uniform style that has evolved over years of fusing classic Broadway singing with jazz, rock, and pop. It's a style that is usually the result of years of training in over-articulating, over-enunciating, and over-emoting, presumably to insure that the words are heard and understood. Most every other style of music embraces idiosyncrasies, champions subtlety, celebrates its mumblers a nd growlers, and doesn't care if we can't hear a word here or there if the overall feeling is visceral. But musical theater remains chained to an orthodoxy of diction, projection, and extroversion.

The composers, too, frequently sound as though they are acting. Great rock musicians spend years finding their sound, but most rock musical theater composers sound like they are composing inside a bubble, without ever having played in rock bands or spent any time immersed in the music they are imitating. And you can hear it. One of the reasons Sondheim commands so much respect and reverence is his good sense to stay clear of rock because he doesn't like rock on stage, and he knows he'd be a liar if he tried it. He's a classicist and true to himself (his one flirtation outside of his realm, the witch's "rap" in Into the Woods, still makes me cringe).

Of course there are musicals being written by famous rock musicians too: Elton John, U2, the slew of artists rearranged into jukebox musicals. But there's a different dishonesty here—one of manufactured emotions and corporate sponsorship. In a way I almost forgive these shows, because they seem to not pretend to be "great art," anymore than Hard Rock Cafe pretends to serve "great food." Disney shows are designed to do a very specific thing, and by most accounts they do it very well, making many tourists happy. But the music in these shows—manipulative and trite—is a far cry from "Tiny Dancer" or The Joshua Tree.

The authenticity rule goes for the sound design too. Most Broadway shows are performed in houses that are not rock venues with sound design that is so concerned with making the lyrics audible and the audience comfortable that the actual sound of real rock music is completely washed out and lost. In the Heights (2008) got a lot of attention from the musical theater world for being the "first rap musical." But it didn't get a lot of attention in the hip-hop world, because it didn't sound anything like the hip-hop you'd hear in an actual hip-hop club. Hip-hop needs bass, way more bass than In the Heights had.

Probably the best music I heard on Broadway in the last five years was in Fela! (2008), and the reason is quite simple; the show's house band was an actual Afrobeat band, Antibalas, and they had a fantastic sound designer, who was allowed to let the music sound like Afrobeat music. There have been other signs of hope: Passing Strange (2006) was built around a nontheater musician, Stew; Once (2011), opening on Broadway this spring, has some awfully beautiful indie rock songs performed by a stage full of string-playing actors; and of course there's Billie Joe Armstrong. But I long for so much more. I want to hear a musical sound as unique and new as Radiohead, Björk, or the Dirty Projectors. A piece for the stage that tells a story as well and as musically compellingly as Pink Floyd's The Wall or Danny Elfman's The Nightmare Before Christmas. I want to hear a musical that's cool.

So how do we get that? How do we get musicals that break the musical mold? So much discussion about musicals centers on the function of the music, the way the music relates to the book, the narrative arc, etc. All these are important things, but the music itself is paramount and all too often it's an afterthought. We need composers and singers that come from rock clubs, cabarets, basements, not undergraduate musical theater programs. We need singular, creative musicians, playing music that is inventively arranged and not beholden to any preordained sound. We need to never allow a digital piano to be used again. We need to get more bands out of the pit and onto the stage, so we can see them groove. We need sound designers that blow the rooms up, and we need directors that will let them. We need audiences that will let a missed lyric go.

But above all, we need authenticity; composers, lyricists, singers, musicians and technicians all doing what they do because they couldn't possibly do it any other way.

18 January 2010

TOP TEN LISTS ARE FUN!

But ten is just a coincidence based on our fingers.
My favorite things I saw last year (in chronological order) were:

Collapsible Giraffe's Last Last @ Collapsible Hole
Young Jean Lee's The Shipment @ The Kitchen
Chellfitsch's Five Days in March @ Japan Society
The Necks @ Le Poisson Rogue
Cory McAbee's Stingray Sam
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Rambo Solo @ Soho Rep
Terry Riley's In C @ Carnegie Hall
Hair on Broadway
David Byrne @ Prospect Park
Mucca Pazza @ Mercury Lounge
Fuerza Bruta
David Cromer's Our Town @ Barrow St.
God of Carnage on Broadway, original cast
Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge @ HERE
The Dirty Projectors @ Bowery Ballroom
Bruce Springsteen @ MSG
The Fiery Furnaces @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
Heiner Goebbel's Stifters Dinge @ Park Ave. Armory

It's really tempting to take off all the Broadway, Fuerza Bruta and Bruce, to make my list cooler and edgier. But it just ain't true dudes.

I'd also like to point out, that I'm a "musical theater composer", and there's only one piece of musical theater on this list. Written 30+ years ago.
And even that, I mean the show kind of sucks, it was just so damn fun.

SHIT.

16 January 2010

There is a typo in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's been there for at least 10 years. Every time I go, I check up on it, and sure enough last Friday it was still there, a completely unambiguous typographical error, surviving against all odds in this ivory tower of culture and history.

I mean, it's really bad. It's not like confusing "which" and "that" or something, where a lot of laypeople might not catch it. No, this is something that absolutely everyone could see; there's a really, really important letter missing from a word. It's not an alternate spelling, or a common misspelling. It's something like writing "hinoceros". or "lligator".

How can this have gone unnoticed for sooooooooo long? Or has it been noticed, and laziness or bureaucracy has prevented anyone from fixing it? Perhaps it and the surrounding exhibits are printed on some obscure old paper that would be hard to match. I like to think that maybe there is an old story about it, some old lady who typed it up and then was hit by a bus on her way home from work that night, in the rain, and the staff decided to keep the typo in her honor. Or perhaps there is an old voodoo curse involved. Or something about Frank Lloyd Wright's estate.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no reference to the error anywhere on the internet. I've googled the offending phrase and get 0 Met-correlated results. This even more so leads me to believe that there is hocus-pocus involved. I mean, no blogger has noticed this ever? None of the grammar-watch blogs or culture pages? No snarky Upper East Side teenager forced to do a report?

Anyway.

I love it. i love it so much. It's my favorite thing there.
It fills me with such glee and delight for human fallibility.
The perfect godliness in seeing the king with his shoe untied.

It's in one of my very favorite rooms, the Frank Lloyd Wright room, in the newly renovated American Wing.

Newly renovated!
Oh will these joys ever cease.

27 October 2009

i am slowly starting to favor capital letters.
I am slowly starting to favor capitals letters.

Hmph!

27 January 2009

sometimes i ALMOST write a blog. somethings ive recently ALMOST blogged about are:

  • kanye west's voice correction antics
  • how you dont have to use strings to make people cry, especially when its 5 fucking degrees out
  • how much i liked young jean lee's "the shipment" and collapsible giraffe's "last last"
  • performing at berkely rep vs. chicken johns ( = both really cool)
  • related: how all i wanna do anymore is theater in rockbars
  • whippits
  • rick warren
  • how much i liked the kronos quartet doing crumbs "black angels" at carnegie hall
  • how nyc is different from sf (GAG!)
  • how facebook is impacting our lives (DOUBLE GAG!)
  • some weird racism stuff
  • how i hate the left more than the right when they talk about bristol palin
  • how the left has lost sight of love
  • how much i like barack hussien obama (TRIPLE GAG!)
  • (how that triple gag is about the post, not the guy. i do like him!)
  • money
  • stupid musical theater songs
  • the sudden early thirties alcohol paradigm shift
  • the case of david rice atchison, a senator from missouri claimed by some to have been president of the us for one day, march 4, 1849
see what a good blogger i am!

20 July 2008

i have a old school german army jacket that i sometimes wear. see?:



anyway. i was on bart yesterday, in this jacket, coming home from a long and beautiful day of sf independent study: gg park, bicycle festival with crazy shoe tire bikes, buffalo, ocean, japantown, french thriller ("tell no one". its good!), cheese steak. i was sitting with my bike, when this guy boards, hes big, 30ish, wearing unseasonal flipflops and a baseball hat. he looks like a frat oaf. so then:

"hey. HEY! where'd you get that jacket?"
pause
"a thrift store"
long pause
pause
"you like wearing that jacket?"
"yeah"
long pause

and we go through the tunnel etc. silence. i go back to my book.
finally my stop arrives, i get up. hes in the door, so i have to go past him. i look him in the eyes just once.

"you better be carfeul who you wear that jacket around buddy.
you got a lot of balls wearing that jacket.
...
asshole."

i couldnt resist a small smirk. but thats all.

what is this, really? a jewish thing? its really my only guess...the guy certainly didnt look it though. maybe just a patriotic, american wwII old axis thing?

geesh.
i just wear it cuz it looks cool. and i like a lot of german composers.
geesh!

24 June 2008

i am surrounded by small sprawling piles of paper nostalgia.
im moving to nyc in the fall, but this very week j&j are driving a giant silver bullet cargo van across the country. so im purging, the biggest purge of the last 8 years, and packing up all my big things, instruments, fancy clothes and worn-through books. and of course the box of unthrowawayable nostalgia.

i havent gone through this box in a long time, and its hitting me hard (doesnt help that im listening to the beatles, complete in chronological order, to maximize my nostalgix state)(btw, what the fuck is with all the clapping in "words of love"?). such a bizarre and arrogant swirlstorm of creativity my friends and i were! there are printouts of old email correspondence from dps, and, mat and more (including a few if i might say so quite beautifully understated love letters to a girl named jen henkin, whom i cant remember at all); there are cassettes and minidiscs of old college bands, early four track noise, a 7th grade "day in the life" documentary, and middle of the night cruise ship piano sessions, complete with elegantly mournful sighs of frustration when i time and time again cant lay down a single perfect chorus of "when i fall in love"; there are 8 years of old datebooks, with entries like "some new pants" and "telepathy/lobster claws/apocalypse"; and there are photos, and bizarre magazine cutout mailings, and old plays and scores, and frantic intoxicated illegibilities.

and above all, there are IDEAS; huge, lofty, horrible, wonderful ideas. looking through my old music notebooks is pretty wrenching when i focus on the specifics, all of these angular, atonal funk lines, unsingable jazz choir music, lots of different ways of notating "noise", 10 pages of random chord progressions created by dps's computer science genius. but the ideas, the ideas them selves are pretty amazing sometimes. there are outlines of complete, bizarre, unrealized music/theater pieces: "the wooden staircase", a ten movement masquerade of robed figures, closed doors, steeplechases and balloon men; a five year conspiracy art piece involving intentional mistakes by a major film company, symphony orchestra, book publisher and new york times columnist; there is "put all your eggs in one basket, put an entire cake in one bag".

all of it tingles and drips with the truth-is-right/stream-of-consciousness-is-truth early twenties idealism, with kerouac, with electric kool-aid, with phish lyrics, stockhausen and stravinsky, with dada and the rat pack and buddhist near-misses. aw god i got plenty old all right, and sure the art has gotten better, but there is that frenetic importance to it all that i miss. there is this urgency to all this creation of the past, this dire stakes, this attitude of love above all and !smash the glasses on the floor! that makes me want to head right out to north beach and find some brandy and a flapper-girl and take the piano out for a post-freebebop spin all over again. all those monkey truths may have had their strings and holes revealed over time, but the exuberant joy is still valid, and essential, and missed.

my favorite thing right now is this scrawled bit from a notebook dating from not too too too long ago, 2002 maybe:

--------------------------

GRANT WRITING TECHNIQUE
higher academic-
but enclosed
a small sealed envelope
special paper
unlabeled (or "the truth"?)

-i just have these things in
my head
and i need some $
to get them out.
i think it would
be good to
have
them
out.

-------------

i still kind of wonder if that would work.

18 March 2008

monday at 5pm or so i walked out of the penn station A train subway stop with one hour to postmark my CA$H theatre grant application. im asking for money for effects pedals and conch shells for beowulf. i had printed out six copies of my letter/resume/materials, but needed to go to a copy shop to copy the cover letter, a form which i had to handwrite because it was only offered in archaic straightup uneditable pdf form. okay.

all of this was complicated by the fact that i had ZERO money. i often find myself in this situation, feast or famine, where running out of money and getting money end up just a few days apart; it is such a frustration to me, these $30 overdraft charges i incur JUST BECAUSE OF TIME. i mean, i have the money, i just dont have it right now. goddamn, one day, 24 hours makes all the difference.
like time even exists!
...in this case i am due two large checks, but neither has come through as they should have. FRUSTRATE. and then sure enough my rent check goes through, and i am $-30 (which quickly becomes $-60 due to the overdraft charge). FRUSTRATE.

so now, i have to copy and mail this grant application, with no money. but i have found my fortunates, on which this little project hinges...i have an old kinkos card in my wallet, with an unknown amount of money, and scrounging through my subletee's desk drawers uncovered a pile of old stamps, of odd denominations. i also have 43 cents.

i arrive at kinkos and copy my six pages, just barely making it on my card, then start stapling and collating...only to discover that in the (additionally frustrating) madness of printing odd/even pages reverse order on a cheap constantly-feeding-two pages-at-once-printer etc, i have actually only printed five copies of my resume et al. 09¢ x 8 pages = 72¢, so im FUCKED, right? 29¢ short. and the option is quickly, yeah im just gonna have to ask someone. for change, for 29¢, for the copy machine. steeling myself up for the panhandle, i walk past a copy machine...and find one with a card still in it. no one nearby. THE UNIVERSE PROVIDES.

get the copies made, sealed in envelope. head to the post office to weigh. $1.84, ive almost got it, stamps of 80¢ 60¢ and 39¢. oh yeah. i decide to trust it. five cents right?

only: while the 80¢ stamp affixes easily, the 60¢ and 39¢ stamps are both old enough that the glue has become non functioning. they wont stick. FRUSTRATE. and the potentially tape giving tellers are blocked by insane lines, fucking rush hour ridiculous. all this while i have both the 6pm postmark deadline and an 8pm opening night across town, for which i still have to load in six new sound cues, adjust levels, solve this mystery cue that logic audio keeps reversing the stereo spread on, etc. i walk through the place looking for tape. none. none. no tape. theres some "priority mail" tape that is not transparent and will not suit me. im fucked.

so i walk outside, survey the options. theres a duane reade across the street. i head on over...and on the way i have a delightful brain storm: removing the unnecessary metal clasp on the manila envelope will possible knock off the extra weight thats putting me 4 cents over. i pick it off while heading into duane reade, and cut my finger. ouch.

once in duane reade, i head downstairs to the tape section, survey the scene, and then yeah stand there like a fucking criminal, checking left and right before going into one of the scotch tape rolls and getting what i need, keeping the roll on the rack. holding my left middle finger in my mouth to avoid getting blood on my grant application.

i get it done, head back to the post office, drop the mail in the slot. slot says due to new postal regulations any letter over 13oz or something has to be taken up in person.

fuck you, right?

i dont know.
i seem to find myself in this kind of absurdist minutiae all the fucking time.
what the hell is wrong with me?