Saturday, 14 October 2017

Part 10

To write a musical, I'm calling on everything I know about using and receiving language. Not much, I admit, but a lot, too. 
And the thrill of coming across, during a routine trip to the kitchen, the beat and harmonic guts of an opening number--well I tell you, that's a thrill that 20 minutes later has not worn off.
I'll figure out the words later!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Today, the Musical, Part Nine

I pause from my labours at keyboards to watch some baseball post-season action. That puts me in the path of the irritating SGI "Drive Alive" commercial.
Irritating because its rhyming is so lazy. The four couplets end "hosts/most," "friends/trends," "begins/in," "ride/alive." That's one pure rhyme, two near rhymes, one flat-out impure rhyme.
Dedicated readers of this blog--a fond autumn greeting to you both, Aunt Sneaky and Uncle Pete--will know I've long enjoyed the challenge of formal constraints. The more obsessively I establish them, the more generative they become, has been the prevailing idea these last 35 years, or ever since I encountered this idea as 
Fred Wah's creative writing student in Nelson, B.C.
Pure rhyme is the latest formal constraint I've taken on. The sense such a pursuit makes to me is that rhyme is at the heart of what moves me about musical theatre. 
So I'm going to stay true to it.
PS: Stephen Sondheim speaks also of trick rhyme: like his "personable/coercin' a bull" in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" from Company. Use sparingly, he reminds us. And only if it fits the character.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Today the Musical, Part Eight

Today I sat down with The Great Broadway Fake Book. (I pause to tell this story: years ago--50 of them--my friend Terry turned me on to jazz. (I should also credit my sister Fay and her Ray Charles collection, and even dad's big band LP by, a band whose name I can't remember--the Elgar brothers, or something. That band was usually pitched as mellow, but they could really swing when they let it go.) Terry was into the hardest contemporary jazz--Coltrane, Ornette, later Miles and, my fav, the Jones-Lewis big band which was a powerhouse for a few years into the 70s. He was clear by the time we all finished high school that he'd be a jazz musician, which he became. And he used to talk about fake books, or fakebooks, of well-known tunes represented by only title, composer and lyricist, lyrics, melody, time signature, tempo term, and chords. Often they seemed cobbled together from different photocopiers or sheet music scores. Plastic spiral binding. 
I don't know why they're called that. Maybe because if you have the melody and the changes, you can fake the rest.)
Anyway, this afternoon I sat down, at the piano, with the fakebook of Broadway tunes and worked through four or five pages, maybe half a dozen songs, in an hour. I can read music; I know how to play chords. I'm clumsy as hell as a piano player, though. I'll have to practice before I can perform songs, accompanied by myself at the piano. 
I tell you, it's like magic. Play a Richard Rodgers tune from Allegro, you'll hear it as simple, and perhaps (lyrics by Hammerstein) sentimental, but then you're at the end of the song feeling as if you've learned from it. 
That's what I'm after: why this is so. Why I'm so moved.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Today, the Musical, Part Seven

I think I've figured out how to get Patty, as I'm calling her for now, to get from the vestibule of her apartment building, where she's locked out and buzzing strangers to let her in, to the series of scenes in which we all get to know these strangers. Once the big oak front door opens, which it does after a cacophony (perhaps fugue) of "No" and "bugger off" and "oh yeah? You should hear my problems," Patty does her hallway dance, sometimes chanting a simple verse about "this is how I move" this is where I step," sometimes walking silently. These serve as transitions from one scene to the next. Her chant will have to remind us what progress is being made in these scenes.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Today, the Musical, Part Six

Noodling with melodies and music-notation software. I have a ways to go with both.
In the meantime, back to Sunday in the Park With George. One of Stephen Sondheim's basic principles is that Form follows Content. (I hear you, Black Mountain poets: form is an extension of content.) This applies to his melodies. Instead of composing a tune and chord structure and verse/chorus structure and finding the words to fit, he would find the melody to fit the words, even if chorus/verse regularity is not available. The songs are about the character, not about the composer's clever ideas.
The same is true of rhyme. SS is a stickler for pure rhyme, but that doesn't mean abab, for example. He might go aba-cdcd- and then pick up that resolving b
That principle--Form follows Content--gives us songs in which a character develops, which allows an artist like Bernadette Peters to give everything to the moment she's playing. 

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Today, the Musical, Part Five

I'm directing anyone who wonders why I have been swept away by musical theatre to find a clip of Bernadette Peters singing "Children and Art," from Sunday in the Park With George. Preferably the whole show, available on DVD, but if only one song, make it this one.
There is no turning back from work this good. 
I'm afraid to play the thing again for fear I'll vanish into a puddle of tears or forget who I am or something. 
At first, when asked to explain what moves me about musical theatre, I would babble about the necessary suspension of disbelief being so freeing, so open, so powerful. Something about "it must be the fact of music, which in some form every human being knows." 
"Children and Art" gets beyond all that. To see and hear Peters, playing a ninety-eight-year-old grandmother in a wheel chair, singing of what came before in the world and what will be left, as her grand-son kneels, holding her hand . . . in Peters' gorgeous soprano that has aged so well . . . and with her comic genius always at hand . . .
And I haven't mentioned Mandy Patinkin, the grand-son, who is superb, or the first act of the play, in which MP plays the painter Georges Seurat, and BP a figure in Seurat's famous A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. 
Give this song a listen somehow. And while you're at it, catch a clip of Patinkin doing "The Day Off (Dog Song)" from the same show.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Today, the Musical, Part Four or So

The minute I turn from composing the piece to talking about the piece--say, for a grant application--the thing threatens to dry up. But today did bring an idea or two. 
I'd been thinking of how to move what I might call poems--really just a series of character sketches, not unlike many poems I've written--to what I might call songs. Working the former into the latter. Instead, maybe the song can move to where the poem is. If I have something that works as poem, find a way to sing it.
The play involves people who live in an apartment building, a setting that offers potential for both individual and group exploration. I'd been thinking that sooner or later, likely later in Act Two, a meeting of the Tenants' Committee would be a chance for the individuals to sing in duos, trios, etc., maybe even by way of resolution/climax, but don't quote me on that. Anyway, today |I realized that I'll need an earlier iteration of a group voice in some form. A scene writ smaller than the TC meeting, but building toward it.
The cast of characters, and their individual developments, must remain fluid at this point. So far, one of them is the live-in janitor who at one point takes the woman in the vestibule to an (imaginary) patio on the building roof. His doing so, and his singing up there, doesn't fit with the "silent one" tag I've stuck on this guy so far. But that's the kind of work I'll have to do with all these characters. Find out who they are, and let them be true to it.