Well, here I am – it’s my birthday and, as tends to happen on my birthday, I’m another year older. According to conventional thought, age brings you wisdom – though, if you read the fine print, there is no guarantee! So I thought I’d crack open the old brain and see if that’s true in my case.
Back in February, I did a table read of my latest musical, The Distant Bells. I hate table reads. I love table reads. I love-hate table reads. I love them because it’s an invaluable way to gain insight into a show I’m writing. Nothing helps me take a step back and focus on all pictures (big, little and everywhere in between) than sitting in a room and hearing actors read through the show. On top of that, it is the least difficult type of reading – rent a studio, call up some actors you know and away you go.
I suppose it was inevitable – if you start a blog, you end up writing at least a few entries that start with an apology for how long it’s been since the last time you blogged. But, really, my blog (and website for that matter) are still in their infancy, so at least I only need to apologize to a relatively small group of people.
So, sorry it’s been so long since I… you get the idea.
As I write this, I’m sitting in Key West, Florida – a very odd place from what I’ve seen. Sort of an odd mix of nature and white trash and gays and alcohol and palm trees and birds that sound like owls but, apparently, are not. You see why that isn’t their tourism slogan, but it’s pretty accurate. By the way, if you didn’t know – and there’s not real reason you should – Key West is home to the southernmost point in the continental United States. A location that is marked with a large…painted…thing:
As some of you know, I did a table read of my new show, The Distant Bells, about a week and a half ago. My frequent collaborator and director of the show, Stafford Arima, assembled a wonderfully talented group of actors – Nancy Opel, Kate Baldwin, Michele Ragusa, Matt Doyle, Andy Karl, Kasey Marino and Christopher Williams – to read the script and I made a “quick and dirty” recording of me singing through the score. No audience – just the actors, writers and director. The idea being, we get to hear the piece, basically start to finish, and assess where we are. Does the story work? Are the characters well-drawn? How does the book integrate with the score? Are the songs landing? And a hundred other questions…
I almost always learn a lot from these kinds of readings. They can be very exciting and encouraging or very upsetting and discouraging – or almost anywhere in between! So, where did this reading fall in the continuum? Well…
In the “big picture world”, as opposed to the last reading we did – about 9 months ago – this time, the basic story and characters are working. Both will continue to evolve and change as the writing process continues, but it’s a positive step forward that our 4 principal characters and plot/story are heading in the right direction.
Looking at the “small picture” things – ie, everything else! – there are also many positive things in both the score and book. It’s not a surprise that the second half of the show has more problems than the first half – To quote Mrs. Potts, that’s a tale as old as time! Not to say that the first half of the show is ready for opening night – we’ve got a long list of things to rewrite, tighten, focus, etc, etc, etc.
Writing is hard, but rewriting is where I think most shows ultimately live or die. Does that song work or not? Is that scene overwritten? It can be as “simple” as a line or two or as complicated as having the guts to throw out 10 pages and start over. And the choices you make will have a domino effect that might not be obvious for months down the line.
Sounds fun, right?
Funny thing is, it really can be! Frustrating too, but, if you want to tell a story, it’s all part of it. And, remember, The Distant Bells is a totally original musical, not based on any source material so, when we go back to “square one” about something, we end up looking at a very, very white piece of paper!
Ok, you got me – I’m not giving away too many specific details about the show’s good or bad points or even characters and story! Part of that is not to give things away for when you (hopefully!) see it one day. But I’m also a bit superstitious about letting too much of the cat out of the bag before the cat is ready for prime time…to mix a metaphor or two! So I don’t like to say too much too early…
…but, as we continue to write and shape the show, I will say that I’m optimistic that a reading – a real reading where the actors sing and we invite an audience – could happen in the next few months. There are a lot of factors that will determine that of course, but it is possible that The Distant Bells might be getting”closer”, little by little…
Don’t you hate it when people pepper their conversation with random famous names? Usually these famous names are tossed out in such a way as to imply that their fame is insignificant to the speaker – as if it just happened to come up in conversation. It can get really old, really fast – especially if it happens often.
But here’s the thing – today’s blog entry is about somebody famous that I’m fortunate enough to get to work with. I could go through the entire entry using pronouns or non-specific phrases, but that would almost make it worse. The herculean effort people put into NOT dropping a name is more annoying than just saying it and moving on! So, watch your toes and clear some space, cause here it comes…
The funny part is, the reason I bring her up isn’t because she’s famous – not really. But you’ll see what I mean soon enough…
I first worked with Chita when she did a guest spot on “Johnny and the Sprites”. She played the part of the Queen of All Magical Creatures and, when her character appeared, she was greeted by a song I wrote called Welcome to Grotto’s Grove. The song was mostly sung TO her, but she briefly joined in at the end, so I found myself at a recording studio with Chita to pre-record her vocals. She only sang a few lines in the song, but there was something very surreal about hearing her voice – that distinctive voice – singing something I had written. To this day, one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of my life as an audience member was seeing her in Kiss of the Spider Woman the day after she won the Tony award for her performance.
A few months after “Sprites”, I was approached about briefly filling in for her music director for some concerts and club gigs – and I jumped at the chance. I learned her show – a combination of showtunes she made famous, standards and stories about her career – and did 2 concerts in large theatres as well as a 2 week run at the Rrazz Room – a more intimate “club” venue in downtown San Francisco. A little over a year later, they asked me to return as her regular pianist and I’ll be doing various concerts with her in 2010, including an exciting night at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Saturday March 6!
Working and performing with her has been a wonderful thing, but what surprised me more than perhaps it should have, was how creatively energizing she was to me. I ‘m not telling any secrets when I say that Chita has been performing for a long time! And that doesn’t happen unless you have something very special – and she does! In the several years I’ve worked with her off and on, I’ve never seen her just “sing” a song. She is invested in everything she performs – every song she sings is acted and interpreted and given such care, and yet it is never overdone or anything other than appropriate for the moment. It is extremely impressive! I still find myself carried away by her performance – no matter what the audience is like, no matter how tired we are or aren’t, no matter how…anything. When she is on that stage, performing, you clearly see why she was, is and continues to be who she is!
And that’s the funny part about it – in regards to everything I’ve said, she really does just “happen to be famous”. I would write the same thing and get the same thrill from any actor and performer who brought the level of dedication and craft and joy and commitment to her performance. It really is something to behold and an honor and a thrill to be a part of.
So, if you wanna say this entry was me being a name dropper, that’s fine – but, in a business that’s as cynical and jaded as it can be, I will gladly risk the “name dropper” moniker to remind myself of the excitement, the thrill and the joy of why I do what I do. All of which is embodied in the life, career, personality and performance of…
(For info on my upcoming appearances with Chita, click on the News button at the top of your screen.)
Over the last few years, I’ve been asked to consider writing a few musicals which would have been adaptations – from books, movies, etc. Some I was excited about – the source material seemed rife with possibilities for musicalization. Others, I didn’t see working out. As it turns out, I’m not working on any of those proposed projects, but I have thought alot lately about musicals that started out as something else.
I want to be clear on this from the start – I see nothing fundamentally wrong, bad or distasteful about a musical being adapted from another source. It’s been going on for a long time and, when it is done well and wisely, it can lead to a really wonderful musical. In fact, one of my favorite musicals of all time, Little Shop of Horrors, was based on a movie. But in that oddball little show lies what I regard as the key to adaptations – imagination.
Take a look at the movie version of Little Shop of Horrors – certain characters and plot points will be familiar, but the musical is a very different animal from the movie – and that’s a really, really good thing. It’s not a good movie! The writers of the musical – Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman – were able to see imagine and create an entirely new musical world. If they had lacked imagination – or lacked sufficient imagination – they might never have written the show or, worse yet, they might have written a straight “musical version” of the film without adapting it at all! Horrors indeed!
There are other more recent examples of well-done adaptations, but there are also – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – plenty of examples where it didn’t go so well. Writing a musical is never easy, but, when it comes to adaptations, it sure is easier to regurgitate a movie on stage with some songs thrown in. It might even be successful – depending on how you measure success that is. (Sadly, laziness is no guarantee of failure nor is imagination a guarantee of success!) But when laziness trumps imagination, we get lazy shows, lazy producers, lazy actors and, eventually, uniformly lazy audiences.
So am I suggesting that, from now on, we do nothing but original musicals, not based on any source material? Of course not! If a show is well written and works on stage, it doesn’t matter where it came from. But we need to care more about the quality of the shows being done – big shows, little shows, cheap shows, expensive shows – all kinds, all musical styles and all types of stories.
It is a sad bit of irony that, in the entertainment industry, creativity and imagination are often valued less than what I will charitably call “the easy road”. We need, as an industry, to try harder, aim higher and do better. And making that level of work the norm will take the most imagination and be the biggest adaptation of them all!
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the score for The Distant Bells. I wrote the first song for Bells about a year and a half ago. Of course, I put that song in my trunk awhile back, but I digress. At this point, working on the score is an interesting combination of writing brand new songs for brand new moments and rewriting and retooling old songs which still fit, but not quite as well as they used to. When you first begin writing a show, it’s all new. And when you get to previews – if you get to previews – then, though you may be rewriting like mad, it’s almost all “old”.
In between those two fence posts though, it’s a mixed bag. I’m almost always working on old and new things at the same time. It’s a constant battle as to which I love or hate more – sometimes old beats new and sometimes the other way around. And sometimes they both lose to the Wii in the other room…but I digress!
When I’m working on an old song – rewriting, revising or retooling it – it can be very exciting. It is a wonderful feeling when I feel that I’m “almost there” or that I just have “one more piece of the puzzle” before I can put my pencil down, play through the last section and take a satisfying drink of my international coffee. Then there are the times where rewriting a song feels like I’m walking into a run-down fixer upper of a house when I really want to see the brand new shiny place across the street.
When I’m working on a new song – well, that can be very exciting too! Finally tackling a new moment in the show that has been crying out for a song is what it’s all about. Of course, writing new material isn’t all joy and rapture. Sometimes, an idea is all I need. I crack “the nut” and the musical and lyrical ideas start to flow. Inspiration hits and a song seems to write itself. Ok, that almost never happens. It would be nice if it did, but… Don’t get me wrong, an idea is important. But an idea on its own is like a friend with ADHD who gives you remodeling suggestions. Sure his comments about “knocking down that wall” might give you something to think about, but he’s nowhere to be found when you start swinging your sledge hammer!
So, back to rewriting the old material. The idea is already there and I’ve fleshed it out – and that’s nice. But the old material also comes with the baggage of what the song already is or once was or maybe could be.
Back to the new stuff! It’s exciting to ponder what the “in” for a moment or a song might be. The possibilities are exciting and good and pure and hopeful and frustrating and scary and annoying!
Suddenly I have the strongest urge to call Carrie Fisher and tell her I know how she feels…
But, such is the glamorous life of a writer – or at least this writer. I dunno, maybe other writers get up in the morning and trip over their pianos and toe-stub out a song by accident…but I doubt it…
The official announcement will be made today that the Off Broadway production of Altar Boyz will close on Sunday January 10th, 2010 following the 7:30pm show. It will have played 16 previews and 2032 regular performances over a period of almost 5 years, making it the 9th longest running Off Broadway musical off all time – the 8th longest by my count, but that’s another story!
Every show eventually posts a closing notice – whether after 1 performance or after thousands. Altar Boyz is no exception and, right or wrong, its time has come. But being the first show I wrote that was professionally produced, Altar Boyz will always hold a special place in my heart.
The show was written and re-written over a period of years and, as with any show, we had our share of drama and difficulties along the way. Simply put, the show did not work for a long time. We had many readings, but every one of them was…well, let’s go with “problematic”.
Eventually, Gary Adler, Kevin Del Aguila and I hunkered down with our director, Stafford Arima, in my old apartment on 47th street and made a last-ditch effort to write a show that worked. We didn’t emerge from that studio apartment-sized cocoon with the finished script and score in our bruised and bloodied hands, but we did take several giant steps forward – in many ways the first real steps toward the creation of the musical that, for a little while longer at least, plays 8 times a week on west 50th street.
Writing Altar Boyz wasn’t easy – but I doubt writing a musical is ever easy. But, at a reading we did in late July 2004, for the very first time, the show actually worked! Lynne Shankel, our music director, always made the boyz sound great, but this time, the songs and script were working together and the characters came alive.
Barely a month later, when we began to rehearse for the NYMF production, Christopher Gattelli began to add the choreography and another crucial element to the show began to take shape. When the show was performed for, ultimately, 8 performances in September, 2004, the packed houses laughed, cheered and cried in a way we had dreamed, but never really dared to hope, they would.
Between the end of the NYMF run and the start of rehearsals for the Off Broadway production, we continued to rewrite the show – completely throwing out one song, making changes to others, and refining and tightening the book and the show as a whole.
Our long-time lead producers, Ken Davenport and Robyn Goodman, set countless wheels in motion while raising money and bringing other producing partners into the fold. We visited several theatres with them to find the right space for the show and plans were made at a furious pace.
Meanwhile our wonderful design team – including Natasha Katz (lighting), Anna Louizos (set), Simon Matthews (sound), Gail Brassard (costumes), Kathy Fabian (Props), and Doug Katsaros & Lynne Shankel (orchestrations) – worked tirelessly, with Stafford at the helm.
Cheyenne Jackson, who played the role of Matthew at the NYMF, had moved on to another project but our amazing new Matthew, Scott Porter, began rehearsals with us on Tuesday January 18, 2005. The rest of the NYMF cast – Ryan Duncan (Juan), David Josefsburg (Abraham), Andy Karl (Luke) and Tyler Maynard (Mark) – joined us on January 25th. Along the way, our two original swings (Daniel Torres and Kevin Kern) came into the mix and, before we knew it, we were in tech.
Our first preview was on February 15th and, on March 1, 2005, six weeks to the day from our first rehearsal with Scott, Altar Boyz had its opening night Off Broadway. The many things that happened between that day and today are too numerous and varied to list. But it doesn’t really matter because that’s the part of the story you already know – that is the life of the show.
Many actors, musicians, stage managers, crew members and staff have made the show happen 8 times a week for the past 5 years, through good times and bad. Earlier, I mentioned our talented original cast. They were on stage when it all began, but have all moved on to other projects long ago. So when the last performance occurs in a few weeks, our wonderful final cast will be made up of Michael Kadin Craig (Matthew), Travis Nesbitt (Mark), Lee Markham (Luke), Mauricio Perez (Juan) and Ravi Roth (Abraham) with swings Mitch Dean and Tommaso Antico as well as Joey Khoury our long-time dance captain who will have just left the show.
I’m enormously proud of Altar Boyz and the amazing run it’s had, and I can’t ever fully explain all it has meant to me, all I have learned from it, and all that has changed both for me and in me because of it.
So I’ll simply end with one of the first lyrics I ever wrote for the show and one of the last lyrics that will be sung at the final performance:
Take a picture of me now
Take a look at who I am
Yesterday I wasn’t half as strong
Take a picture of us all
What we’ve been and what we are
Look at that and tell me I’m wrong
Welcome to my first blog entry for my brand new web site!
It’s been several months in the making, but it is finally here. Use the links at the top of your screen to check out the Projects Page for info on shows I’ve written so far and for a sneak peak of some projects that are on their way. The Media Page is the place to find audio and video samples of some of my work. I’ll keep you up to date both here on the Blog Page as well as on the News Page. And, of course, you can click the links above to follow me on Twitter or join my fan group on Facebook. And, as if that weren’t enough, head to the Contact Page to send me an e-mail and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.
That’s right, it’s a promotional bonanza here at my new web site! And there’s more to come, so thanks for stopping by, welcome and I hope to see you soon!