William Finn’s Falsettos — Songs for a Sun…er, Friday

William Finn's Falsettos
By Source, Fair use, drawing by Keith Haring

My “Song for a Sunday” arrives two days early this week, thanks to the reminder I received that William Finn’s Falsettos airs on Live from Lincoln Center tonight—October 27th—at 9pm (check your local PBS listings).

It’s not actually a live performance—the show ended its limited run early this year—but it was recorded during a live performance. Which I suppose is close to the same thing.

I’ve embedded the “Sneak Peak!” they put together but I honestly don’t know what you’ll make of it. I’ve seen this material probably four times in total and if I didn’t know the plot, this mishmash of music wouldn’t do much to enlighten me. And not a note of one of the most beautiful ballads William Finn has ever written, “What More Can I Say?” (Alan Cumming does a gorgeous rendition of this on one of his albums).

William Finn’s Falsettos and the power of revision

Falsettos is actually two musicals, written nearly a decade apart—the final two sections of a trilogy about Marvin, a married man with a wife and child who discovers he’s gay.

The show that now comprises the first act of William Finn’s FalsettosMarch of the Falsettos—was the first show I saw in New York as a newly minted theatre major. A show about a gay man! Written by a gay man! Being staged in a real theatre! With a cast album, even. Okay, so what if the man and his lover had a rather pugilistic relationship. They were gay and onstage; the world seemed full of possibilities.

Nine years later, composer William Finn was back with a sequel, Falsettoland, that updated Marvin’s life in the age of AIDS. Marvin and his lover acquired a couple of lesbian friends (lesbians! onstage!). And while the show featured the aforementioned gorgeous ballad and a funny song about baseball, a show about the age of AIDS premiering in the midst of the age of AIDS…well, you’d do well to bring your Kleenex.

With a little judicious trimming, the two separate shows became one—first show, first act; second show, second act.

This 2016 production surprised me; Christian Borle’s Marvin is a bit of a narcissistic a-hole. Actually, more than a bit. Maybe I’d been blinded by the character’s gayness and just didn’t notice that back in the ’80s. Or maybe my tolerance for narcissistic a-holes has declined as I’ve gotten older, like my tolerance for wearing high heels.

It’s also possible they revised the book to make Marvin more of an antihero, though I can’t find any backup for that. While we’re on the subject of revision—since this is one thing I talk to my writers about a lot—please notice that if William Finn had said “Nope. March of the Falsettos is finished. I will not change a word or a note,” then Falsettos would never have existed.

Be open to new possibilities for your work. Try things out; you can always restore your work to the original form. (This is where art made of words has a distinct advantage over art made of things. Once you’ve sawed your painting in half, it’s hard to change your mind.)

Do watch Falsettos if you get a chance (I’ve set my DVR, since it conflicts with the World Series). And bring your Kleenex.


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When Do “We Need a Little Christmas”? — Song for a Sunday

After more than two decades as a professional writer, I’ve come to the conclusion that some words carry so much power that they can erase people’s short-term memories. “Christmas” is one of those words. And the song “We Need a Little Christmas” serves as Exhibit A.

It’s from Mame, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. We’re introduced to the title character as a high-flying member of 1920s New York society. But then the stock market crashes in late October 1929 and she loses everything. Not being one to dwell in negativity, Mame throws a party and decorates the house for the most festive holiday she can think of:

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
and a few lines later:
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
These are what we call clues. Clues that it is not, in fact, Christmas. Yet singers of all stripes trot this song out at Christmastime. Drives me crazy. The lyric
We need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
makes no sense on December 21st. I mean, what? You can’t hold off for four more days? Three if you celebrate on Christmas Eve.

A Little Christmas & Valentine’s Day, Too

Why, you may be wondering, am I ranting about this in October? I recently ran across a video of an indie folksinger doing a very lovely rendition of the song—at a Christmas party. I’m not linking to her video here because Lord knows she’s far from the only performer who’s ever sung the song in December.
Besides—give the audience what they want. Audiences hear the word “Christmas” and they expect to hear the song at Christmas.
Same thing with “My Funny Valentine.” That’s also from a show—Babes in Arms, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It’s been a long time since that show premiered in 1937, so most people don’t know that Valentine is the name of the male romantic lead in the show.
But the closing line contains one of those phrases that obliterates all that’s gone before. When the ingénue in the show sings
Each day is Valentine’s day
she’s talking about her devotion to the dude named Valentine. Not about the holiday around which this song has become inescapable.
Honestly, if I could time-travel back to 1936, I would shake Larry Hart by the shoulders—hard—and say, “Don’t do it, man! If you name your character ‘Valentine,’ your lovely ballad will become an oversung, saccharine piece of mush.”
Sadly, until someone loans me a souped-up DeLorean or a standard-issue Tardis, we’ll all just have to learn to live with “My Funny Valentine” on, you know, that day. And “We Need a Little Christmas” every freaking December.
But since it’s October, the song is seasonally appropriate. So enjoy your song for a Sunday:


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Identity & discovery — song for a Sunday

identity and discovery in Fun HomeHere’s a public service announcement: the national tour of Fun Home is touching down in Boston later this month. Prepare to laugh, and cry. Some people will cry buckets. I did—both times I saw the show in New York. Because Fun Home is about identity and discovery. And seeing a lesbian discover and claim her identity in a mainstream Broadway musical…well, I never dreamed of that. Not in my lifetime.

Fortunately, Tony Award-winning writers Lisa Kron (book & lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) did dream it. And MacArthur “genius” grant-winner Alison Bechdel lived it—and wrote the graphic memoir the show brings to life. To be clear that’s “graphic” in the sense that it’s what some people might call a “comic book.” And while there are laughs in Fun Home, it’s not anyone’s idea of comic.

So here’s your song for this Sunday, as performed by Tony nominee Sydney Lucas at the 2015 Tony Awards: “Young Alison” beginning to discover her identity. And there’s a lot more where this came from. See the show if you haven’t. It will open your eyes—when they’re not brimming with tears.

The dench Dame Judi Dench — Song for a Sunday

Listen to Judi Dench rap. (I bet you never expected to read that sentence.)

“Hey, I’m Jude-to-the-D—Pow!”

I came across a Huffpost article about Dame Judi Dench “learning to spit lyrics” with a British rapper.

While she does look fetching in the flat-brimmed DENCH cap he gives her, the talent she displays is not so much rapping as it is mimicry—and rhythm. The Dame’s got rhythm.

Have a listen to the video if you like, but the thing that made me want to bring this to your attention is this line in the accompanying article:

“In the United Kingdom, Dench’s surname is sometimes used as slang to describe something amazing.”

Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench, photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0

A quick check in the Urban Dictionary confirms Dench as a synonym for sick (in a good way) or nice, and offers the examples:

That was dench bruvaaaaa
look at her saaaaaaaan she is well judi dench

What an extraordinary thing to have one’s name enter the lexicon—and as high praise, no less.

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.


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Imperfection & authenticity — RIP Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook,
Cook in 2011, photo by Joella Marano, CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Take this anecdote, from her obituary in The New York Times:

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.

Mr. Goldstone — Showtune for a Sunday

I don’t know about you, but the news this week has me humming a showtune.

That is, in between fretting about the validity of the 2016 election, whether North Korea will nuke Alaska while I’m on my west coast trip, and how my business will fare if the Republicans in Congress nuke net neutrality. I guess I’ll have to write shorter blogs—not that anyone will be around to read them if the “healthcare” bill ends up killing us all.

showtune
“Have an eggroll, Mr. Goldstone.” Or perhaps he’d prefer a blini. (Photo from Facebook)

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.

If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it? — Frequent Questions

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.

writer's block
Jacket design for the original London cast recording, released in the U.S. by RCA

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.

Like today.

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.


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Musical gut-punch — song for a Sunday

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.)

gut-punchI’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.)

I was so stunned—I think everyone in the theatre was—that it took a moment for my hands to find each other and begin clapping. This writer calls it “the greatest musical theatre moment I’ve ever experienced.”

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.

Unleashing creativity — song for a Sunday

unleashing creativityI 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.


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Lyrics about Paris — two songs for a Sunday

lyrics about Paris
By Zinneke – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

One of my favorite lyricists, Yip Harburg, wrote a detail-rich song that’s become a classic: “April in Paris.”  Not only had Yip never been to Paris, he’d never left the U.S. of A. He wrote the lyrics based on a close reading of travel brochures.

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.