Of course we all know Judi Dench as a marvelous actor. But do you know she’s also quite a, well, a dench musical theatre interpreter as well?
In a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in London, she sang the over-sung, often cloyingly sentimental “Send in the Clowns.” Frankly, the song had always put me right to sleep. Until I saw her interpretation. It’s dench, all right. Totally dench. Enjoy.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
One of the great singers of the American musical theatre passed away yesterday. I may be somewhat less than objective about her—I once drove 36 miles in a raging blizzard because I had front-row seats to a one-night-only concert—but I think some of the qualities that made Barbara Cook such a great singer parallel the qualities we need to be great writers.
Teaching master classes at the Juilliard School in recent years, Ms. Cook often waved off her students’ preoccupation with vocal perfection, pushing them instead to get at the pain and joy beneath the notes.
“What is this song about?” she demanded of one bewildered class.
Writers may not always be dealing with the extremes of “pain and joy,” but we must have an emotional connection to what we write. It’s the only way we can hope that our audience will also have an emotional connection to the material. And without an emotional connection, without knowing what your message is about, they’re just listening to a bunch of words. And who cares about that?
Notice also Cook’s insistence that the singers stop obsessing about sounding perfect. Perfection is just a roadblock we create. Because it’s unattainable, we can constantly belittle ourselves when we fall short of it. In her concerts, Cook would sometimes stop in mid-song and start all over again if she sensed something was off—not because she wanted to sing perfectly, but because she wanted the audience know that she was just as human as we are.
Barbara Cook: Words matter, the truth matters
But one thing Barbara Cook pursued rigorously, especially in her career as a cabaret singer: the truth. When she sang a lyric, you knew exactly what it meant. And fortunately for us, later in life she discovered the work of Stephen Sondheim—devilishly hard music with lyrics that demand complete emotional connection. Asked by Broadway.com to name her three favorite songs to sing, she chose two by Sondheim. Sondheim, in turn, told The Washington Post in 2002:
“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”
After winning acclaim—and a Tony Award—on Broadway, Cook took a left turn into alcoholism and depression, emerging in the mid-1970s onto the cabaret circuit. This soon led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. And that is how her Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall record entered my collection: I gave blood one day while I was working at CBS and picked the record out of a bin set aside to reward donors. I never suspected it would be the start of a four-decade-long musical crush. But that’s a story for another time.
The New York Times obit again:
Paying less heed to the technical virtuosity that had thrilled audiences in big Broadway theaters, she now emphasized phrasing and styling to project a song’s emotions in smaller, more intimate settings.
The effect was striking. She had made no secret of her personal problems. But character and hard-won experience seemed to suffuse her songs, and it connected with audiences and critics. The reviewers took up a refrain, with phrases like “simple honesty,” “simplicity and directness” and “straightforward and declamatory.”
Obviously I added the emphasis, but this is authenticity. And it works as well when you’re reading a speech as it does when you’re singing a showtune. Connect with honesty—character flaws and all—and your audiences will connect with you.
Her three favorite songs to sing
“He Was Too Good to Me” by Rodgers and Hart (recording released in 1959) — bear with her through the verse; the emotion kicks in with the song proper. And listen to that crystalline soprano. If this song doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, I don’t know what will.
Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—yes, I’ve overdosed on this song too. But listen to the lyrics—you can hear every one.
The third song Cook mentioned was Sondheim’s “So Many People.” It’s the second half of this arrangement. Although it comes from Cook’s Sondheim album, this is Malcolm Gets singing. I couldn’t find a recording of Cook herself singing it.
Goodnight, dear Barbara Cook
I’ll leave you with Cook in her prime—1957—from her Tony Award-winning role, Marion the Librarian in The Music Man.
When you think about all of that, humming a showtune seems like the only sane thing to do. That, and call your legislators.
If you’re anything like me (and if you are, I’m not sure whether to offer congratulations or condolences), there’s only one showtune running through your head this week.
I regret that I couldn’t find a non-pirated video clip for you, since the stage business that accompanies this gem enhances the lyrics immeasurably. But enjoy the lyrics, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim; Jule Styne’s music; and the performance of the incomparable Ethel Merman on the original cast album of Gypsy.
Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it?
A: Because they think they should.
True story: I used to have a stereo whose sound cut out intermittently. Speaker wires coming loose or something. The problem persisted for a good long while. Annoying, but an easy fix: just jiggle some connections.
One Saturday morning long, long ago, I was kneading bread, happily singing along to a record playing on the stereo. The original London cast album of Side by Side by Sondheim, if you must know. The first track finished and I waited for the next song to begin—”You Must Meet My Wife,” a slyly acerbic duet. Only…nothing. No sound at all.
The speakers must have cut out again, I thought. But I couldn’t do anything about it; my hands were covered in dough. So I resigned myself to kneading in silence. Then I realized that “You Must Meet My Wife” was not the second song on that side. It was another duet, “The Little Things.” And the moment I realized I’d been listening for the wrong song, I heard the music again.
It wasn’t the speakers that broke; it was my brain. Having decided which song I would hear, I became incapable of hearing the song that actually played. Once I adjusted my expectations, allowed myself to be in the moment, I heard the real song loud and clear.
I think writer’s block is like that.
Don’t pathologize writer’s block
I suppose I could have reacted differently to the blip in my hearing. If the internet had been around back then, I might have Googled “sudden hearing loss” and gone down a rabbit hole of diagnoses, each scarier than the one before. But I didn’t have the internet (or health insurance, for that matter), so I just chalked it up to a strange case of mind over matter. And filed it away as a metaphor that would surely come in handy some day.
Maybe you have something think you should write—like the thank-you note to Grandma. Or something you’re scared of writing—like that semi-autobiographical novel. Or something you have to write—that unaccountably boring assignment from your client. I should state for the record that my clients’ assignments never bore me, but I can imagine that such things make the Muse run screaming in the opposite direction. And who can blame her?
Does that mean there’s something wrong with you? No, it means you’re a human being. A creative one. And there’s a reason Henry Ford didn’t put writers on his assembly line: we can’t turn out an unbroken stream of quality words every time the factory whistle blows.
Thinking, not knowing exactly what to write every time you look at your keyboard—they’re perfectly normal processes. Don’t pathologize a perfectly normal process. Because once you allow yourself to believe that “writer’s block” is real, it’ll come back again and again. And writing will become progressively more difficult.
Hear the music that’s playing
Maybe you’re listening for the wrong tune. So be present and try writing to the tune that is playing.
Set yourself a writing exercise. Write something irredeemably silly. Write something serious—but write it in crayon. And not the staid black crayon, either. I’m talking neon green.
Allow your pet rabbit to take over as guest author and write the next chapter from her perspective. Get out of your lane, get out of your head. And stop thinking it’s writer’s block. Because writer’s block doesn’t exist.
If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.
I wrote yesterday about a piece one of my writers wrote that hit me like a gut-punch. (Okay, I wrote “punch in the gut” but SEO doesn’t like prepositions in keywords.)
I’ve experienced many emotions in the theatre, but only one moment where I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Seriously. When Patti LuPone sang “Rose’s Turn” in the revival of Gypsy she did—wow, was it 10 years ago?—my first reaction was a sound, maybe oof! The kind of sound I imagine you make when someone delivers a gut-punch. (I hope I never test this theory.)
When I left the theatre after the show, I called my partner. She asked, “How was it?”—not particularly caring one way or the other. So she was shocked when I burst into tears: “It was the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen. I could see this show every night for a week.” (This was before the production moved to Broadway; it was a very limited run at City Center.)
I came home and logged on my computer to find an email from a friend who had three tickets to Gypsy she couldn’t use and did I perhaps want to see the show?
I don’t know if you’ll experience the same gut-punch I did. But here’s your song for a Sunday.
I was going to write about this song about unleashing creativity. It’s called “A Wizard Every Day.” And I will.
But as I was searching the YouTube for the best rendition of it, I got to thinking about the creative people who wrote the song, composer Nikko Benson (you’ll hear him singing on the video I chose) and lyricist Liz Suggs. And about all of us who make art come out of our minds and our fingertips. Maybe not every time we try. But enough times that we’ve made people go “ooh” in appreciation. If it happens even once, that’s magical.
I’ve heard Benson and Suggs’s song twice now, both times sung by my favorite male singer, Brian Stokes Mitchell. And I can’t believe I didn’t blog about it the first time. But I didn’t, so here we are.
Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the song by writing too much about it. You should listen for yourself. All the way through.
I say “all the way through” because at first you’re going to think it’s just a silly song about a man’s encounter with a trick-or-treater. It is that, but it’s not just that.
So thank you to Nikko Benson and Liz Suggs, wherever you are, for unleashing creativity in the form of your song “A Wizard Every Day.” The world could use more wizards. Who knows—maybe one of my readers…
I’d love to know what you think of the song. What’s your favorite line or moment? Let me know in the comments.
Yip’s lyrics contain only two details describing Paris. In the verse he writes, “The tang of wine is in the air.” I have no idea what that means.
But in the chorus, an indelible description:
April in Paris
Chestnuts in blossom…
As I understand it, you can see lots of flowers blooming in Paris in cold, rainy April. But the chestnut trees generally wait for the warmer weather towards May.
Even though it’s not quite an accurate description of Paris, the details of the chestnut trees in blossom captured the imagination of travelers everywhere. Lyrics don’t need to be packed with details to resonate.
Lyrics — Imagination vs. Facts
Contrast this with Cole Porter’s song “I Love Paris.” Unlike Harburg, Porter had actually been to Paris. He could run circles around Harburg with facts about Paris. Do you get a sense of how he felt about it from these lyrics?:
Every time I look down on this timeless town
Whether blue or gray be her skies
Whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears
More and more do I realize that
I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles
I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris
Why, oh, why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.
What does that lyric tell you about Paris? Nothing—except that Cole Porter loves it. Or, since he wrote this for the Broadway musical Can-Can, that the character singing the song loves Paris. But it’s just a list song. A fairly boring and lazy one at that (“drizzles/sizzles”—doesn’t do much for me).
Want to profess your love? For me it’s not in the repetition, it’s in the details. Notice the beauty, describe the beauty. Don’t just wear your sweetheart down with a million I love yous.
No doubt you’ve heard of this Beyoncé. But what do you know about Nora Bayes, star of Broadway and vaudeville?
She made a cameo appearance in one of my recent blogs. Nora Bayes, née Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, introduced the world to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” She followed that with several other hit records. George M. Cohan personally chose her to record his morale-boosting song “Over There” during World War I. It became an international hit. Shortly after the war ended in 1918, she became the first woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her, the Nora Bayes Theatre, of course.
Bayes’s second husband, Jack Norworth, wrote some hit songs for her, like “Shine On, Harvest Moon”—probably their biggest hit. But Bayes also wrote songs in her own right—music and lyrics. In fact, most sources neglect to mention that she co-wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Norworth.
More than half a dozen Broadway shows—including Ziegfeld Follies of 1931—featured “songs by Nora Bayes,” according to her listing in the Internet Broadway Database. Several others bear the credit “additional lyrics by Nora Bayes.”
She died in 1928—but her memory apparently lived on, because in 1980 writer Garson Kanin used her as the central character of his novel Smash. If that title seems familiar, yes, the book served as at least part of the basis of the television series Smash. But the producers swapped out Nora Bayes for a more contemporary figure, Marilyn Monroe.
Who was Nora Bayes?
I could end this post right now and you’d have an interesting bunch of trivia about a star of the early 20th century. But Nora Bayes was more than “…one of those rare female triple-threats in vaudeville entertainment” and “easily the most popular female entertainer in vaudeville for much of the first quarter of the 20th century.” She was also a fiercely independent woman, unafraid to forge her own path. Perhaps the comparison with Beyoncé runs deeper than their fashion style.
“In…battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.”
Florenz Ziegfeld banned her from show business after she walked out on his 1909 Follies. But she had the last laugh—audiences missed her. She returned to the stage triumphantly, with an even more lucrative contract than she’d had before: $2,500 a week—more than $60,000 in today’s dollars.
Several years later, she broke her contract with a vaudeville producer and set out on her own:
“…she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.”
Who knows what Bayes would have done if her cancer hadn’t been misdiagnosed early on? But she died in 1928, leaving behind three young children adopted with her fifth husband.
I love finding stories like these. How many other strong women have been all but lost to history? I’ll look for an opportunity to bring Nora Bayes back to life in one of my clients’ speeches.
Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.
The Encores! series at New York’s City Center has been one of the bright spots on my calendar for well over a decade now. They unearth underappreciated musicals, restore their orchestrations, hire ridiculously talented actors (it’s only a two-week commitment), and set them loose. But Encores! had a surprise for me this week: they dedicated their production of The Golden Apple to the memory of an old friend of mine who passed away about 18 months ago.
“Old friend” not in the sense of Sondheim’s “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along, a crew that navigated post-adolescence together and kept turning up in each others’ lives through the bitterness of middle age. Lex Kaplen and I were grammar school classmates; we might easily have never seen each other after sixth grade. But he went to law school with one of my best friends from high school and eventually she brought him to see me sing and we reconnected through email. Then he was gone, heart attack. His post-collegiate employer The New Yorker ran a lovely piece, which I somehow managed to miss. I didn’t learn of his death until after his memorial service, when our mutual friend emailed me about it.
The Golden Apple and apple trees
Lex popped into my life randomly when he was alive; now he has popped in randomly in death. And as I sat there watching the show performed in his memory, a bunch of questions crowded into my brain.
Encores! has done six shows since he passed; why did they choose The Golden Apple to dedicate to him? Was he a rabid fan of this mid-century cult classic? What involvement did he have with Encores!? And why did we never talk about it? Clearly we had much more in common than the school song we could probably both sing in our sleep. Ha! That song was “The Apple Tree” (music and lyrics by our beloved hippie music teacher Ann Crawford)—a resonance that only just occurred to me.
I enjoyed the lush orchestrations and glorious harmonies of the Jerome Moross score. And the surely career-making performance of ingénue Mikaela Bennett, who has not yet graduated from Juilliard. But as the actors succumbed to various deaths, most of them staged for comic effect, I found myself thinking about the real thing. Which is not so funny. Even when the deceased is only a tangential part of your life.
And so your “Song for a Sunday” this week. I wanted to find you “Going Home Together,” the lovely finale of The Golden Apple, but the original cast recording pales in comparison to what I heard onstage this week. So here’s the promo video for the Encores! production. You’ll hear a bit of “Going Home Together” at the 1:35 mark. Enjoy.
I wasn’t sure what song I would give you this Sunday. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d manage to get my daily 15 minutes of writing in yesterday at all—which was freaking me out, since yesterday would be Day 348. I spent the first two-thirds of the day running around—rehearsal, errands—definitely off my routine. So when I popped in at midday to get the dog, I posted notes all around the house that said
Once upon a time, I could handle this frenetic tempo easily; I lived it pretty much seven days a week. But I’ve been hibernating for the last six months, so I’ve gotten used to a much slower pace.
I don’t know how bears feel when they emerge from hibernation—though I bet I have a friend who could tell me—but this mama bear is disoriented and slightly grumpy. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to rejoin the human race. But that appears to be what’s happening: I’ve only had one uninterrupted night at home this week and I’m typing this in between coats of nail polish as I prepare to gussy myself up for a gala tonight.
And so there’s really only one song I could bring you on this spring Sunday: Stephen Sondheim’s “Take Me to the World.” He wrote it for his little-known made-for-TV musical Evening Primrose, about a strange group of people who have decided to live in a department store.
And here you thought Sweeney Todd was the most bizarre thing Sondheim ever wrote.
Your song this Sunday
The ingénue, played by a luminous young Charmian Carr, sings about her longing to explore the world outside the walls of the department store. Anthony Perkins tries to convince her she’s better off staying put. Of course, I’ve got both Charmian and Tony vying for my attention today. Even though I’ve chosen to do everything I’m doing, my emergence still feels too sudden and irrevocable.
I’m embedding a clip from the original TV movie for those of you who prefer visuals, but you’ll find far more glorious singing on the 2004 studio album with Neil Patrick Harris and Theresa McCarthy, who deserves to be much better known. So if you care more about sound, definitely click the link above.