Tag: musical theatre

Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story

For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”

But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.

“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”

It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.

“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”

Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.

“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way Of Enveloping A Story
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Ricky Ian Gordon
April 19, 2021—1:30pm EDT via Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Sounds Heard—Liaisons: Re-Imaging Sondheim from the Piano

The cover for the ECM New Series 3-CD set Liaisons (2470-72).

Liaisons (ECM 2470-72), Anthony de Mare’s 3-CD recital of piano pieces by 36 different composers based on musical theatre songs by Stephen Sondheim, is somewhat unprecedented in the annals of recorded history. In some respects, it’s akin to numerous instrumental jazz albums that re-interpret Broadway show tunes, but not really. These re-imaginings are not by one artist or combo but rather by 36 different composers, actually 37, since as a postlude de Mare offers a Sondheim rendering of his own devising. So perhaps it is more like a tribute album in which the oeuvre of a specific songwriter or band is covered by a wide range of artists. Well, not quite. Even though three dozen disparate compositional voices were involved here and the results are extremely different, all were asked to create music for the piano (and most did, though some added electronics). Plus all of these Sondheim “covers” are interpreted by the same musician—Anthony de Mare—and these pieces form a surprisingly cohesive whole when the collection is listened to in its entirety.

Aside from the recording, de Mare is currently in the middle of a tour where he is performing these works live. On Thursday, November 19, he will perform a selection from the series in New York City, with Sondheim scheduled to be in the audience, at Symphony Space. Then on December 12, he will take the material to PianoForte Studios in Chicago, with more appearances in the works for 2016.

To give some hint of the range of this project, we asked two of the composers de Mare commissioned—Annie Gosfield and Eve Beglarian—to share with us the some of the back story behind their idiosyncratic takes on Sondheim songs. In Gosfield’s setting of “A Bowler Hat,” from Sondheim’s somewhat lesser-known 1976 Broadway musical Pacific Overtures, phrases from the original song waft in and out, whereas in Beglarian’s “Perpetual Happiness,” an elaborate fantasia on the song “Happiness” from Sondheim’s 1994 Tony-award winning show Passion, Sondheim’s tune is transformed into insistent, propulsive motives that caress the keyboard relentlessly. Both totally sound like the work of their respective composers yet both still clearly reflect Sondheim’s immediately-identifiable sound world.



Different Hats

By Annie Gosfield

I never sat through a live musical. I can barely name a show tune, let alone sing one.

So imagine my surprise when Anthony de Mare contacted me about reimagining a Stephen Sondheim song for a new project. As usual, Tony’s enthusiasm was infectious, and I love surprising projects that unexpectedly spring up, so how could I say no?

I met Tony in the 1990‘s, when the new music scene in New York was smaller, friendlier and a little more incestuous. Tony played my piece “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941,” in which the pianist’s fingers never actually touch the keys. Instead, the notes are sounded by baseballs, which are rolled on the keyboard, and used to strike the strings and soundboard of the piano. A catcher’s mitt comes into play, creating monstrous left-hand clusters. This athletic piece was a happy match with Tony’s very physical approach to the piano. I never would have guessed that writing a piece for piano, baseballs, and catcher’s mitt would lead to Sondheim.

We met to discuss the project, and Tony gave me a list of available songs. Steve Reich had already grabbed “Finishing the Hat,” so I quickly checked out “A Bowler Hat.” Why? Because I like hats, and I used to be a milliner. The two contexts are not completely unrelated: the urge to transform materials and make something new out of something in hand exists whether I’m dealing with a Sondheim song or a raw piece of felt. “A Bowler Hat” was a little more obscure (the last thing I wanted to do was tackle “Send in the Clowns”) and had an infectious repeated theme. It’s from Pacific Overtures, and sung by Kayama, a Japanese man proudly displaying his Western accoutrements—a pocket watch, a cutaway coat, and, of course, a bowler hat. The song is about cultural shifts and Kayama’s personal transformation, which fits nicely with the idea of adapting a musical theater piece to my own style.

Working with the piece was another story. The further I got from the original, the weaker the music became. I quickly learned what so many of the other composers already knew, that Sondheim’s songs were impeccably constructed. Any major changes felt like pulling one stone out of a Roman arch; Sondheim was our keystone and the original structure stood beautifully on its own. Like blocking a hat, the song had its own inherent shape, and it was best to respect that. Writing for Tony provided a lot of inspiration as well. I took some liberties, imagining his unique mix of muscular brawn and emotional lyricism, added elements, and combined existing motives. In the end, I stepped back and enjoyed being the instigator of a new conversation between Mr. Sondheim and Mr. de Mare.

This series of delightful surprises continued. When I was a teenager and first met my partner, guitarist Roger Kleier, in the dorm of the music school at North Texas State University, the background soundtrack was often the gorgeous, ethereal, reverb-heavy LPs by Terje Rypdal and John Abercrombie. They were part of Manfred Eicher’s signature sound world on ECM. Fast forward a few decades, and I’m at the Academy of Arts and Letters with the wondrous Judith Sherman producing Tony’s impressive 3-CD set, and after an unexpected sequence of baseballs, hats, and late night dorm listening, my name’s on an ECM release, represented by the spectacular Mr. de Mare.



By Eve Beglarian

I thought I knew what love was,
I thought I knew how much I could feel.
I didn’t know what love was.
But now I do.

—Giorgio in “Happiness from Passion

When Tony de Mare asked me to rework a Sondheim song for his Liaisons project, it took me a while to settle on the opening number from Passion. At the time, I had never actually seen a production of that particular show, so I was surprised when it called to me.

Passion opens with a couple reaching the end of their lovemaking and then singing a love duet in their post-orgasmic bliss. How else do you open a show called Passion, right?

But it’s a curious love duet. While the melodic lines do everything love duets are supposed to, and the words are full of love and certainty, the accompaniment is slightly off-kilter, with curious glancing dissonances that roil just beneath the surface. One of the hardest jobs I had in my reworking was to keep the crunchiness submerged: the dissonances wanted to leak out and infect my version, which would have destroyed the perfect ironic balance Sondheim created.

When I made my version, I thought I understood what the song was getting at. I understood the show as a warped rom-com that happens to end badly. The guy is with the wrong girl, who seems totally right at first; he meets the right girl (who seems really amazingly wrong at first) and finds true love, which is really great. But then it turns out that love, physical love, kills the woman he loves. So sad.

And a little confusing and unsatisfying. Is the story saying that passion is great but sex is a problem? Not too likely. Is it saying love has to kill you to be the real thing? I know there’s a long tradition (Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and on and on) bolstering that line, but in most cases it’s outside forces that kill the lovers, not love itself. I’ve been mulling this whole question over for a while, even after seeing the fine production of the show at Classic Stage Company in 2013.

A few weeks ago, at Tony’s first show celebrating the CD release, the project’s producer, Rachel Colbert, told me about a novel called Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, which tells the same story as Passion. Sondheim credits Ettore Scola’s film, Passione d’Amore, as his inspiration, a film which in turn was based on the novel Fosca, by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. Tarchetti seems to be the source for both Sondheim and Zweig, but I don’t know if Sondheim has read the Zweig.

For me, Beware of Pity was a revelation.

Zweig makes horrifyingly clear that pity is an act of monstrous vanity which destroys everyone: both the pitier and the pitied. Pity is the opposite of empathy or even sympathy. The pitying person sets himself above the one he pities:

On that evening I was God. I had calmed the waters of unrest and driven the darkness from their hearts. But from myself, too, I had chased away the fear, my soul was at peace as never before in all my life.

Pity acts to alienate the pitier from the pitied, isolating the pitier from the vulnerability the pitied person arouses in him. In Beware of Pity, Zweig makes clear that the most broken person in the story is not the sickly woman, but the male protagonist, who himself realizes, “it is not evil and brutality, but nearly always weakness, that is to blame for the worst things that happen in this world.”

At the end of the novel, he abandons his now-fiancée—who commits suicide in response to his betrayal—and runs off to join the opening battles of the First World War. It’s clear to readers of the novel, which was published in 1938, that this soldier has the soul of a Nazi officer: a seemingly brave, strong hero who is actually weak, fearful, and therefore brutal.

In Passion, when Sondheim brings back the music of “Happiness” under a love scene between Fosca and Giorgio, I think he is hinting at some of this complexity. We know Giorgio was wrong to sing “I didn’t know what love was, but now I do,” to his first lover, Clara, at the top of the show. Fosca is heartbreakingly correct at the end of the show, when she sings “Too much happiness, more than I can bear” to the same melody. She sings these words to a man who even now doesn’t have a clue what real love is, because he is besotted with pity.

Usually I embark on creative work with some awareness of what it is I am trying to make sense of as I make the piece. In this case, the piece called me before I understood why I needed to grapple with it. I am grateful to Tony, to Stephen Sondheim, to Rachel Colbert, and to Stefan Zweig for showing me something I needed to understand. Thanks to this exploration, I understand something new about the vital distinction between pity and empathy/sympathy. But I’m still not going to claim I understand what love is!

When Do I Get to Stop Exposing Myself?

Photo of pages of theatrical script.

Photo by Luke Redmond. Photo by Luke Redmond (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.

Starting out as creators of new music theater, we are never told the whole truth about what it means to be an “emerging composer.” Unknown writers have a series of hurdles to clear, many of which entail seeing projects to completion without seeing a dime, all in the name of “good exposure.” Constant self-producing and the seemingly endless development cycle take financial and emotional tolls that inevitably affect the writing process and our lives as a whole. At what point does our work finally carry universally recognized “value”?

As it has famously been said of other art forms, so too with the new musical or opera: it is never finished, only abandoned. The gestation period of a musical from a first informal table read to the big opening night may be a decade or longer: readings, workshops, maybe a small regional production, a move from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway to Broadway (in extremely rare and auspicious cases), several weeks of previews, and finally everything gets “frozen” for posterity and future productions. Along the way are rewrites, rewrites, and more rewrites following input from directors, music directors, choreographers, dramaturgs, performers, designers, and of course producers. Nothing about the work is certain until it is in front of an audience, and in the meantime the writers must keep guessing and second guessing. (The process of bringing a new opera to the stage may or may not be as lengthy, but the opera world has begun to take some cues from the musical theater world and has begun incorporating more readings and workshops into the trajectory.) As the economy and priorities of Broadway have shifted over the last couple of decades, full production opportunities have been supplanted by “developmental opportunities” (which are not the same as the extremely valuable training programs around the country which do nurture developing theater composers and librettists). Now the two-week lab, the 29-hour Equity reading, or the 16-performance showcase is usually the end of the rainbow, and the entities that supported those endeavors will not help nudge a piece any closer to the light of day. Writers are seldom paid during any of the developmental phases, even if everyone else around them receives at least a small stipend. But it’s good exposure—unless they are private readings just to hear the piece out loud (which, believe me, are crucial in their own way). Once the readings and workshops end with no supported next steps in sight, writers must take matters into their own hands and self-produce. Festivals only provide partial assistance, still leaving the authors to raise thousands of dollars to fight for attention in a sea of equally unfamiliar work. It is extremely difficult to find an independent producer willing to take a risk on a new piece if the writers are obscure and there is no other “brand recognition” associated with the show. And then some festivals have policies like this:

A minimum of one (1) paid audience member for each minute of your show…is REQUIRED. However, we really want you to pack our 99-seat house for your single performance. The more support you have in the audience, the more you’ll get out of your performance and talk-back, plus we’ll like you more. If you feel you cannot provide an audience for your piece, don’t apply… If the ticket minimum is not honored…the artist will be expected to make up the balance with a tax-deductible donation to [theater company redacted] on the night of the performance.

Here’s the icing on the cake: some companies advertise the pieces we write for free as new commissions. I vote for an immediate end to this practice. By all means, call it a world premiere by the Next Important Composer of Our Time. Phrase it however you need to make it sound sexy and get butts in seats, but it is not a commission. It is unpaid labor from which others stand to gain.

During this long, thorny uphill climb to a high-level production, emerging composers must constantly strive to have work heard as often as possible in whatever format they can find. Usually this means a song or short set included on a program featuring several different composers. Again, no pay but good exposure! Well, good exposure is relative to the resources the presenters (and the writers) have to get the “right people” in the door. And between cover charges and food/drink minimums, it’s easy to end up paying a lot of money to see your own songs performed. So how about self-producing a concert of your own work? After a host of expenses I probably don’t need to itemize for this readership, breaking even is a minor miracle, and simultaneously promoting and rehearsing the art creates a precarious time management situation.

Hence it becomes important to find a survival job. Beware, though: whatever you decide to pursue, among laypeople and established musicians alike, there will be a stigma associated with it. It’s understood, though no one says it in so many words, that any composer worth his/her salt writes toward fully staged productions full time, and the only other respectable source of income is a tenure-track teaching position at a university. Anything else means you’re doing something wrong. (Case in point: after each of the last few presentations of my work, someone has come up to me and said some variation of “You’re so good. What are you still doing at your day job?” It’s a compliment that stings.) In a country where the arts are not well financed (if they are financed at all) and the general populace believes that music just magically appears for free, this is simply not the complete picture. Faculty positions are neither plentiful nor optimal for everyone. If it’s a universally accepted truth that actors also wait tables, then why is it so hard to fathom that composers may do other things too? In addition to traditional gigs in the field—music copying/editing, musical direction, accompanying dance classes, subbing in Broadway pits, etc.—the composers and lyricists I know hold all sorts of survival jobs: writing copy for catalogues, assembling people’s IKEA furniture, fixing computers, babysitting, playing dueling-piano shows, and all manner of office positions at hedge funds, nonprofits, law firms, and more. I am fortunate enough to be employed at a place that lets me expand my knowledge of the operatic repertoire, work directly with many of my favorite composers, and acquire many life skills I would not have picked up while writing alone in my apartment. But that’s not appropriate cocktail party conversation. It is more important to appear sought after and busy with at least one high-profile project so those who can help us attain our aspirations will perk up and take notice. I look forward to a day when emerging composers can stop treating their day jobs as dirty secrets. Let us all please take a breath and acknowledge that we are not failing, but rather we have succeeded in finding a way to keep afloat in a difficult fiscal climate without sacrificing the core of our artistic lives.

In the end, though, the survival job serves the curious dual function of allowing us to and yet keeping us from concentrating on the music. We can pay the rent, take tiny monthly bites out of massive student loan debt, and even fund small-scale performances of our work every now and then, but there is a ceiling to what we can accomplish when our time and attention are so thoroughly divided. Composing is for evenings, weekends, and lunch breaks. A mentor of mine says that if you only have ten minutes to write, then you go deep instead of wide. But what if we never get to go wide and fully understand the complete pieces we are writing because we are always composing in the musical equivalent of sprints? A 9-to-5 commitment does not mesh with the majority of professional rehearsal schedules or the availability of most performers and creative staff; as a result, we may end up working with our third or fourth choices and compromising the best representations of our creations. If the day job does not offer enough flexibility, we may have to pass on certain opportunities altogether. There are residencies for which I never even apply because I cannot leave the office for two months at a time. Talk about good exposure—that’s an automatic wave goodbye to some prestigious resume credits. Then there is the sheer physical exhaustion that comes with the demands of two careers. If a piece is in rehearsal, we work days, rehearse nights, rewrite in the middle of the night, rinse and repeat until the show opens. I have no idea how people who take care of families even manage this. Survival jobs may sustain us on a basic level for the moment, but they are not a sustainable model for the long haul.

Of course no one in the world is required by default to love or pay for our art. And of course sometimes we really do begin new projects solely because we are burning to share something vital to us, and we find homes for them later. But if theaters or opera companies commit to presenting our work without offering compensation, and we say yes over and over again, at some point we are saying, “Take my work, which has no value.” If we say no, will anyone ever hear what we have trained for and labored over for so long? This is the emerging composer’s ongoing dilemma, and this is how it is possible to be an emerging composer at 40, 50, and beyond. Recently I said no to a “commission” for a new song cycle. I felt a twinge of regret, but I took solace in knowing that it would save me time for the other operas, musicals, and scores for plays I am already in the process of writing for no money, for the love of it, and occasionally for the exposure.

Mister, Make Me a…Song?

Photo of a songwriter's workspace. A digital keyboard synthesizer on a tripod positioned by a window perpendicular to a desk; on the desk is a notebook, laptop, headphones, and glass of water.

Photo by Luke Redmond (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

At my day job in music publishing, I spend a lot of time on the phone with the staff at film companies, television stations, and musical organizations who need to know if we license this or that song. Over the course of our conversations, I often discover that what they are calling a song is actually a whole song cycle, a movement from a symphony, half a string quartet, or even an entire opera. Compositions entered into databases have “song codes” regardless of their content. iTunes’s various “upgrades” have managed to jumble every excerpt of every opera, oratorio, musical, symphony, concerto, or other multi-track work in my collection; its overly general classification of “songs” has transformed my once-pleasant listening experience into a chore as I hunt for newly mislabeled tracks in albums needlessly broken into multiple iterations. Since rock ‘n’ roll zoomed to the top of the charts and the sun set on the Golden Age of musical theater, songs written for the stage have not been the currency of mainstream musical engagement. Yet “song” has become the default term for just about any piece of music under the sun. Is the word still meaningful to creators of new musical theater? How does it inform our writing as we formulate the structure and content of our larger pieces? How do we think about songs within and outside their original context? Are there additional considerations that are not even artistic in nature?

In most operas, there are clear distinctions between recitative and aria. The recitative usually contains a fair amount of exposition, and the aria that follows is a reflection on or reaction to that information. Often this requires only a few lines of text and is also a chance to feature some vocal pyrotechnics. Song form in musical theater is a descendant of, among many things, the operatic aria. Though contemporary musicals sometimes employ recitative (sung over chords as in the old style, or spoken in rhythm over an ostinato), in the usual book musical format the dialogue functions as recitative would in an opera, so less recitative is necessary. As musicals evolved over the 20th century, songs became more heavily integrated into the story and carried more responsibility to move it forward. It was no longer satisfactory to step out of the action just to say “I love you” in 32 clever, internally rhymed measures. Music also appears in “sequences,” longer sung scenes or portions of scenes which may involve many characters (example: “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen” from A Chorus Line). Sequences were happening in the days of Gilbert and Sullivan and continue into the work of Michael John LaChiusa and his peers. We generally don’t include those under the “song” umbrella since they can take vastly different shapes in their respective shows. Since songs—and musical moments overall—comprise more of the true core of their parent sources now, it can be more difficult to extract them from their natural habitat and fully understand them. Sure, someone can technically sing “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd on its own, but if we’ve seen the hour or so of backstory unfold first, it is much easier to appreciate.

One of my favorite musicals, William Finn’s revelatory In Trousers, breaks most of the rules. It is almost completely sung through. The score is divided into 29 numbers, but each segues immediately into the next. Many begin with brief intros without really paving the way for anything the characters will express next. Few adhere to an A-A-B-A, verse-chorus, or other standard song form. Some are abstract, bordering on stream of consciousness. Non sequiturs and nonsense syllables pop out of the lyrics. Many end abruptly with no resolution or catharsis. One song, “The Rape of Miss Goldberg,” is divided into eight scenes, each of which is announced. Since the main character, Marvin, jumps back and forth from adult life to adolescence on a very messy and fraught path to self-discovery that forever changes his relationships to everyone in his life, it makes sense that Finn subverts the usual hallmarks of musical theater songwriting. The parts add up to a greater whole, though he may present it more elliptically than most. Finn’s author note in the script says, “[A] lot of the material was about my learning to write the kind of show songs I want to write.” Should he still call them songs? He could plausibly call them something else, but if we want musical theater to continue to grow as an art form, then our perception of what constitutes a musical theater song needs to adapt accordingly.

In graduate school, our department head told our class that a well-written musical theater song serves as a writing team’s calling card. It represents the authors’ collective personality, talent, and worldview all in a neat little three-minute package. It whets listeners’ appetites for more songs and, if you’re lucky, for your entire musical; therefore, there’s potentially an awful lot riding on every single song one presents in public. (No pressure, though!) Out in the real world, I have indeed found it productive to prepare individual songs for concerts. Ideally it opens up dialogue for future collaborations with new artists and yields subsequent performances. But carrying the professorial advice one step further, a song within a larger theatrical work is no longer just a segment of something greater; it must also be its own biosphere ready to be picked up for Famous Broadway Singer X’s next album or concert tour. This runs counter to the idea that a successfully functioning theater song is inextricably woven into its original context. Yet in our current economically dire and overly saturated climate, if we want our voices to be heard and our careers to flourish, our songs must do everything at once. In my own work, I’ve noticed that standalone songs have an unfortunate tendency to pull my attention away from finishing full-length pieces. It is much easier to focus on placing songs in a bunch of concerts than it is to endure the years-long agony of seeing a musical or opera to completion. One way of getting people acquainted with my work is obviously more expedient than the other, but it may be detrimental in the long term as the bigger unfinished projects continue to loom. Say I do pique people’s interest with the songs—what more will I have to offer after that?

I have no background in pop songwriting, but I once had an opportunity to submit a song to Celine Dion’s A&R team, so I tried it. During a public review of the finalists’ (of which I was not one) work, a panelist advised, “No one’s looking for track #9 for the album anymore. Every song has to be track #1.” I worry that this model applies to musical theater songs now, too. Is the pendulum swinging back the other way? Are we returning to a time when our songs must function as pop songs in order to survive, even though the genre has come so very far since the days when musical theater composers dominated the airwaves? Only a handful of songs from In Trousers work well in isolation and none of them would be #1s, but musical theater is much better off for their existence. For all the day-to-day aggravation it entails, I still hope we can continue to confuse iTunes and not placate it.

If the Medium Is the Message, Then Who Should Sing It?

Photo of a dimly lit empty stage.

Photo by Max Wolfe. (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

Composers of new music theater depend on singers to bring their characters to life. From conception to casting, we often face a difficult choice: who should be performing this material? As the stylistic divide between contemporary opera and musical theater continues to widen, how do we who write crossover material manage to avoid compromising our original intentions? Why is it so challenging to find the right singers to fit the bill, and is there value in writing for and/or casting singers who specialize in the “wrong” style as dictated by the form?

Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom was that classical training was the best foundation for all styles of singing, but that no longer seems to be the case as “legit” singing has fallen out of fashion in new musical theater writing. Of course vocal training for classical music and vocal training for musical theater need different foci, to an extent. Each requires meticulous attention to a separate set of performance traditions. American musical theater is mainly in English; opera singers need to master diction in several different languages. Musical theater performers must produce a healthy sound that will serve them for eight performances every week; opera singers must produce a healthy sound that reaches a hall of 4,000 sans amplification. Training programs have grown to address these individual needs, but they seldom cultivate all that musical theater and opera have in common. New York University offers two different voice curricula, one singer-focused at the Steinhardt School, and one actor-focused at Tisch. These programs do not share resources. Last year I had some opera scenes staged at a top conservatory. Students were required to audition with 20th-21st century arias in English, and they were encouraged to have musical theater songs ready as well. I was shocked to find that many of them did not have any English arias, and the only soprano who knew a musical theater song had to run to the school’s library in the middle of the audition to get sheet music for the pianist since it was not officially part of her repertoire.

I have not taken a voice lesson in eons, and I do not pretend to be an authority on the subject. But as I sit on the other side of the audition table now, I am well aware that the current gold standard for contemporary musical theater writing and performance is now this.

(Full disclosure: I am glad that it has spoken to millions around the world, but it is neither my personal preference nor my strength. I feel like people singing in this manner are yelling at me, and as a New Yorker I encounter enough yelling in my daily life as it is.) Thus I have surmised that there is now a vicious cycle at play: since Wicked and other shows written in that style are the plum gigs, it is important to possess the requisite vocal skills to snag them. So the premier training available for musical theater singers skews to that, whether or not it is what the singer’s voice naturally wants to do. Indeed, several singers I know have expressed frustration that, after many years of hard work, they have had to start their training all over again to build a more acceptable and marketable sound for Broadway. It is now possible to belt the high G flat in “If I Loved You” from Carousel and book the job—I have seen this happen.

The unfortunate old maxim endures: opera is all about the music, and musical theater is all about the text, so one demands top-notch musicianship while the other just requires better acting. I believe writers and performers all do themselves a disservice by using this yardstick. It creates stumbling blocks between all of us that don’t need to exist. Here’s one example: once in an opera workshop the conductor called me out for a lack of dynamics and articulations in my score. I couldn’t justify it at the time, and later I realized I’d gotten into a habit of under-articulating because I was so used to anticipating musical theater singers forging ahead fortissimo all the time, regardless of what I’d indicated on the page. I wasn’t communicating properly because I didn’t inherently trust the excellent performers around me. Here’s another: when I recently asked a well-known musical theater actress to play a role in my opera that would utilize her puppetry skills perfectly, she declined mainly because she was intimidated by opera as a whole. I even set about rewriting the part for her, but ultimately it was a missed opportunity to collaborate.

So what happens when we sit down to write with all of this in mind? Musical theater pedagogy guru Jeannette LoVetri talks about “the newer crop of composers who write for their own ears.” In context, she is referring to those who ignore practical technical considerations in favor of impressive vocal lines, and I am definitely not advocating for that. But when it comes to figuring out what timbre is best suited for each role we write, we must be true to our own ears. As the Baker’s Wife sings in Into the Woods, “Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole was cast with a mix of opera and theater singers. Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities originally featured an operatic mezzo but later starred Jocelyn B. Smith, who bills herself as a soul singer. Both renditions of “Dwell Where the Dogs Dwell” (which starts here around 3:45) in that piece are equally arresting for completely different reasons. The rules are just not so hard and fast.

As my own opera makes its way through the developmental process and I am repeatedly asked to choose between opera and musical theater singers for the various roles, I continue to answer that question with only a question mark. I think there is something in the disconnect that’s worth exploring, a sort of aesthetic friction that happens when a line obviously steeped in musical theater tradition is sung operatically and vice versa. The more singers I meet in both genres, the more possibilities open up. As long as the dramatic moment allows for the “wrongness,” it’s just one more wrench in the theatrical toolbox to create a heightened world.

It’s a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping

The operatic war in N. Y., a lithographic print from the 1880s from the archives of the Boston Library, depicting a clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera, with Henry E. Abbey, opera singers, conductors, and orchestras; some of the identified figures include Marcella Sembrich, Sofia Scalchi, Galassi, Trebelli, Roberto Stagno, Mirabelli, Campanini, and Col. Mapleson.

The operatic war in N. Y., a lithographic print from the 1880s from the archives of the Boston Library, depicting a clash between the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera, with Henry E. Abbey, opera singers, conductors, and orchestras; some of the identified figures include Marcella Sembrich, Sofia Scalchi, Galassi, Trebelli, Roberto Stagno, Mirabelli, Campanini, and Col. Mapleson. (The image is in the public domain and has been made available by the Boston Library on Flickr.)

Every time I encounter an argument about whether Porgy and Bess is a musical or an opera, I am reminded of this.

I won’t rehash any discussions about the technical differences between musicals and operas here. But I am interested in exploring preconceived notions held by those working in both genres and the effect they have on composing for the theater. For example:

Opera is inaccessible, outdated, and made for and by snobs.

A few years ago, I participated in a lab for new music theater. One colleague, who writes musicals exclusively, used “Pompous Mock-Opera” as a tempo marking above a declamatory passage. There was a whole values system inherent in his tempo marking, and the leader of the workshop picked up on it. “Why pompous?” he asked. “Because, you know, it’s opera,” the writer replied.

But wait…

This is an opera. So is this…

And this…

Floor wax? Dessert topping?

A few weeks ago, after hearing some of my songs, a commercial theater producer contacted me and asked what I am working on now. I included an opera on my list. Response: crickets.

Musical theater is full of vapid sentimentality and relentless optimism conveyed by too many jazz hands.

But what about this…

Or this…

Let us also not forget the dark undercurrents in most of the musicals by those great purveyors of cock-eyed optimism, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

This once ran on Broadway, as did this. But both works were billed as operas. Floor wax? Dessert topping?

Yet opera and orchestra musicians continue to groan when I inquire about any scheduled musical theater-oriented performances: Broadway-oriented pops concerts, or even whole musicals on an opera company’s season. Musical theater is ubiquitous in the “serious music” world, yet show tunes are beneath them.

Recently I had a reading of that opera-in-progress, followed by a feedback session with experts for whom I have the utmost respect. There are elements of what we typically think of as musical theater in the piece. Accordingly, I was told that the heroine must not die in the end because: a) a musical requires a redemptive finale; b) it was funny at the beginning and should continue to be funny throughout; c) there are children present onstage and it would no longer be family-friendly. I was extremely confused by these reactions because I have only ever thought of this work as an opera. Has no heroine ever died in an opera? Spoiler alert: it is the children’s chorus who kills her. It is about the dangers of obsession and the fatal effects of a culture of pervasive casual cruelty. It was never meant to be a family-friendly evening. To add to the confusion, I was later told never to mention its musical theater influences while pitching it.

It astonishes me that, a good 80 years after Porgy and Bess opened, these rigid notions about overblown, tragic opera vs. happy, hopeful musical theater endure. (Indeed, a few years ago that very show was retooled to entice an audience more likely to attend Broadway musicals.) There are seemingly endless precedents for “crossover” composing; it is not new or revolutionary to write a piece in one style that constantly nods toward the other. The skill sets for writing musicals and operas differ somewhat, but there is an awful lot of overlap, and the goal is ultimately the same: to provide a rich theatrical experience by presenting a compelling story (which is not to say linear narrative) through vocal/physical performance (song and dance, if you must). The challenges of craft are the same for both, too. It is often lamented that there are no compelling lyrics or libretti today in either arena. (There are as many dreadful examples supporting this complaint as there are magnificent examples refuting it.) And composers of both musicals and operas must strive to write music that is an engine supporting the text rather than obscuring it. History has set the bar very high for all of us, even if that’s not evident in some of what actually makes it to the stage.

Bearing all of this in mind, I’ve noticed that when I sit down to write, a sort of “opera switch” goes on for me. If I’m writing operatic material as opposed to a musical theater song, I suddenly give myself permission to write libretto in free verse, and I’m no longer bound by song form (unless I choose to be) or the often-limited vocal ranges of musical theater singing (more about this in a subsequent post). Unfortunately, I also tend to don this cloak of self-consciousness that says, “This Must Sound Like an Opera.” And when I wear this cloak, I invariably end up tossing out a lot of what I write. Because what does an opera sound like anyway? More high notes? More long notes? More complex rhythms? More repeated text? More tone clusters? More erratic intervals? None of this is remotely helpful. I find that when I write what I think other people expect to hear in an opera, I end up with a wash of notes for notes’ sake and little that illuminates the urgency of the libretto. So I must scrap it and ask instead: Who is the character? What is the moment? Back to the basic Playwriting 101 questions!

There’s a character that shows up very late in my opera, and I struggled for a long time to figure out his sound. He is a goofy, easygoing exterminator who finds himself in the middle of a tightly wound dysfunctional family’s fight. It wasn’t until The Beatles’ “Come Together” popped into my head that I understood what he needed to do. Using that groove as an inspiration, I came up with a silly, funky setting of what originally read as very earnest and straightforward on the page. I’m certainly not saying that ripping off great popular songs is always the solution, and it wasn’t something I ever planned to include. Does it “sound like opera”? Probably not. But it was right for the moment, and it turned out to be one of the more successful arias. People wanted more of him, and more surprising moments like that.

But it’s not only in the writing itself that the divide is evident. Without necessarily meaning to, I have simultaneously established myself as a dark, angry musical theater writer and a kooky, funny opera composer; in order to survive, I know I must find a way to follow both paths. (Contemporary opera is never funny, the experts say, and people are desperate for that to change. Again, I can think of a host of examples pro and con.) But I have been advised to eliminate references to musical theater from my applications for residencies and awards—to hide a significant portion of my education and my body of work for fear of not being taken seriously. (Make no mistake: if I were truly afraid of not being taken seriously, I would never get anything done.) I frequently get mixed up about how I should apply in the first place. Which category do I choose? Composition, where the frame of reference may be George Crumb? Theater, where the frame of reference may be Jonathan Larson? I don’t write like either of those guys. There seems to be no right choice in these situations—I can only continue to second-guess. Heck, there are residencies and awards tailored only to one genre or the other. Where do I focus my limited time and energy in applying for these opportunities to ensure that I can continue composing anything at all?

It would be naïve to ignore the important practical reasons why musicals and operas don’t completely fit under the same roof. Artistic concerns and historical traditions—which are significant—aside, it is also partially a matter of packaging. Producers understand that audiences looking for an opera will have different expectations than those seeking a musical, and they have to signal accordingly, particularly when tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. I only wish that the necessity of proper packaging would not continue to reinforce and deepen our collective need to choose between creating and/or supporting only a floor wax or a dessert topping. The world could use more Shimmer!


Rachel Peters

Rachel Peters

Composer/librettist Rachel Peters’s operas/musicals/scores for plays/songs have been performed by/at Rhymes With Opera, Hartford Opera Theater, New Georges, Huntington Theatre, Arkansas Rep, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Manhattan School of Music, Symphony Space, and cabarets nationwide. Recent commissions include a song cycle for the Walt Whitman Project and short musicals for NYU Steinhardt. Upcoming: The Wild Beast of the Bungalow with Center for Contemporary Opera.

Mary Rodgers (1931-2014): A Woman of Many Talents

2008 Photo of Mary Rodgers

Mary Rodgers Guettel in 2008. Photo by Leo Sorel, courtesy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

Mary Rodgers, who was for many years my Rodgers boss at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, died on June 26. She was a woman of many talents, but for the purposes of NewMusicBox, let’s talk about Mary Rodgers, the composer.
Writing music tends to get listed after a lot of the other things she did in her life: daughter of a legendary composer father and fiercely competent mother; mother of five successful children (one of whom is a composer in his own right); wife to two distinctive husbands; writer of children’s books (including one of the best known titles of all time – Freaky Friday), board member (of many schools and institutions, including Juilliard, for which she served as chairman); family representative (for many years the Rodgers voice in the world of Rodgers & Hammerstein & Hart); philanthropist (generous donor to many causes); lecturer (from clubs to cruise ships); friend to many (perhaps most notably Stephen Sondheim, but also Leonard Bernstein and Hal Prince etc.). The list goes on and on.

But she was a composer. Imagine, if you will, what it must have taken, to decide to go into the family business when your father had lived through one wildly successful collaboration (with Lorenz Hart), and had created another even more successful partnership which had effectively turned American musical theater on its ear and into an art form (with Oscar Hammerstein II). Just to go to a piano in a house out of which flowed all that glorious—and wildly popular—music must have taken a combination of guts, confidence, and pride. Not to mention talent.

But to the piano she went. After having toiled in the fields of Golden Books, television, and commercials (my wife can still sing you Mary’s Prince Spaghetti TV jingle), her first breakthrough work was Once Upon a Mattress. She often told the story of playing one of the songs for her father, who questioned why she had written one of the passages the way she had. At that moment, she said, she realized he was asking because she was doing something different from what he would have done. She realized she had to be careful playing music for him; she had to keep doing things her own way. Gutsy.

Mary Rodgers in the 1950s

Mary Rodgers in the 1950s. Photo courtesy the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

I recently listened to the London cast album of Once Upon a Mattress in a car, by myself, from beginning to end, uninterrupted. Several things struck me. First, it has all the melody that the Broadway musical theater of 1959 demanded. Hummable tunes, perhaps, although I am not exactly sure what that phrase means. But second, it has harmonies that are surprising, and indicate the unique voice of the composer. Listen to “Yesterday I Loved You” and you’ll see what I mean. One harmonic bed is established in the verse, and yet when the lyrics shifts to the present—“…and today, I love you even more”—the harmony and rhythm change and surprise us. We are taken somewhere new. That’s quintessential Mary. (The third thing that struck me is that Marshall Barer’s lyrics are genius – too bad his talent never found as appropriate a piece again.) And then there is “Sensitivity”—a song entirely in 5/4 time. Of course the word “sensitivity” has five syllables, so it makes sense, but the music feels almost insensitive as it keeps shifting between a feel of two beats and three. The rhythm is set up so the emphasis is on the third syllable (e.g. “SensiTIVity, sensiTIVity”) and then it gets tweaked on the next line: “I’m just loaded with THAT” with the last word falling in a beautifully awkward place. It is perfect for the jabbering Queen who won’t shut up.

The next Mary Rodgers score I fell in love with was The Mad Show. I loved the roundness of “I’m Looking for Someone”; it has a melody that never stops flowing from one thought to the next as the character gets completely and totally internally lost. Even the two chords she uses for the Bob Dylan parody “Well It Ain’t” stand back and let the lyric take center stage: “You think it’s easy, singing about misery and how the world is up a creek – when you’re making over four thousand dollars a week!” The music is entirely appropriate to the task at hand.

Of course The Mad Show contains what has become her most well known song, one she wrote with her old friend Stephen Sondheim. The story—and again, it is a very Mary story—was that when she and Marshall Barer played their score for Bill Gaines, the publishing guru of MAD magazine, he rejected all of the songs, saying they had nothing to do with his magazine. (He later relented.) While Marshall melted down and disappeared, Mary got on the phone and called her friends to come and help. So she and Steve Sondheim wrote a gay parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,”a popular song of the day, with a series of unpronounceable names of places where “the boy” was from and would go. (Because Sondheim was helping his pal and didn’t want to continue being known primarily as a lyricist, he first called himself “Nom de Plume” and then “Esteban Rio Nido.”) Writing a gay song was a bit of a risk at the time; years later Sondheim said he wasn’t sure such an overtly (if brilliantly subtle) gay song would be acceptable. It was, and has become a staple of the cabaret world. There is even a clip of Peggy Lee singing it!

By the time I worked with Mary, and then for her when she succeeded her mother as the Rodgers representative at Rodgers & Hammerstein, she had pretty much pushed Mary the composer to the back burner. Two experiences probably helped do that: the Broadway failure of Hot Spot, a musical written for Judy Holliday which crashed and burned at the Majestic Theater, and a musical version of The Member of the Wedding which was a heartbreak. She was never granted the rights to the Carson McCullers novel, although she and Marshall Barer had completed their score, were proud of it, and had reason to believe the rights would be forthcoming. But they weren’t; somebody had lied to them, and later the rights were given to someone else, and a forgettable musical titled F. Jasmine Adams opened and closed quickly at the downtown Circle in the Square. Mary mentioned this from time to time—it hurt, and effectively put an end to her collaboration with Marshall.

But there were several of us who didn’t think the composer should retire completely. One of those was Jay Harnick, creator of Theatreworks USA. His company wrote original works for student audiences, and he hired the best of the musical theater writers, directors and performers to create shows for them. He wanted to do an adaptation of Mary’s Freaky Friday, and convinced Mary to write the score herself. She agreed, and worked with lyricist John Forster. One of their songs from the show—“At the Same Time”—was as good a song as she ever wrote. The premise: can you love somebody and hate somebody at the same time? Forster’s lyrics were Lorenz Hart-like in their wit, and the tune that Mary provided was sweet, interesting, and completely satisfying. (Years later Forster adapted the lyrics for the revue of Mary’s music titled Hey, Love.)

The Theatreworks USA Freaky Friday was a good experience. So good, in fact, that when the persuasive Lyn Austin convinced Mary to try one more time, she agreed, although a bit reluctantly. The work was an adaptation of Frank Stockton’s The Griffin and the Minor Canon, and Lyn wanted to perform it first up at the then Stockbridge home of her Music Theater Group. The creative team ended up being an unhappy one, and I think Mary regretted ever having gotten involved. Effectively, once that summer was over and the Berkshire production was finished, I don’t think she ever touched the piano again.
Another reason I think Mary moved away from composing was her admiration for her son Adam’s work. She saw in Adam the carrying on of the family tradition. She said that she felt like a gene conduit, and was happy to have passed on the family talent. She often characterized her own composing talent as “modest.” That would have been self-deprecating, had she not come from where she came from. She knew good and she knew O.K. In the world of musical theater, there are precious few Richard Rodgerses, Stephen Sondheims, and Adam Guettels. If she compared herself to them, as she did, and placed herself a notch below, I think we have to hand it to her. She was, after all, razor sharp about pretty much everything in life.

I knew Mary Rodgers for many, many years. She and her husband Hank Guettel were friends of my parents Betty and Schuyler Chapin. They socialized often, went on some holidays together, and conceived the best New Years’ parties ever—at the Guettels, where we rented a 16mm projector and watched a bunch of movies! (Yes, there was a time before instant gratification when movies weren’t actually available on your computers and iPhones. In fact, it wasn’t entirely legal to have 16mm prints of movies, but the Guettels had a friend…)

Ted Chapin and Mary Rodgers

Ted Chapin and Mary Rodgers in Shanghai in May 2004 attending an American production of The Sound of Music touring China. Photo by Broad way Asia, courtesy the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

It was Mary’s idea for me to run the Rodgers & Hammerstein office, and she loved that the job worked out so well. I sat next to her in many a theater, and I can attest to the fact that she had uncanny musical instincts. Yes, she knew and understood her father’s music well; in fact, she knew it instinctively. She knew when the tempo was right and when it wasn’t. She would say “it’s too fast” as often as “it’s too slow.”

One time I will never forget was the first preview at the Royal National Theater in London of the Trevor Nunn/Susan Stroman production of Oklahoma! Everything about the evening was spectacular, from the young unknown Australian in the lead (named Hugh Jackman) to the modern take on Agnes de Mille’s choreographic profile that Susan Stroman created. Late in the evening, when the title song came, after the company sang, “…and the wind comes right behind the rain!” Mary leaned over to me and said, “It’s a D sharp; they are singing a D natural.” Of course she was right, and the musical director received the note with graciousness and gratitude.

She also understood the art of arrangement, and was intolerant of sloppy harmonic deviations and wrong-minded rhythmic changes. The first time she heard one of David Chase’s dance arrangements for the new Flower Drum Song in a rehearsal room, I sat there wondering what her reaction would be. David had based the arrangement on a Rodgers song but had taken it a pretty far distance from its home base. I liked it a lot, but had no idea what Mary was feeling. As soon as the rehearsal was over, she got up, walked over and threw her arms around David.
She knew when it was good.

Lea Salonga, Mary Rodgers, Ted Chapin, Barbara Cook and Marin Mazzie at the Richard Rodgers Centennial Celebration concert on June 28, 2002 at the Gershwin Theatre. Photo By Bruce Glikas/ImageDirect, courtesy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

Lea Salonga, Mary Rodgers, Ted Chapin, Barbara Cook and Marin Mazzie at the Richard Rodgers Centennial Celebration concert on June 28, 2002 at the Gershwin Theatre. Photo By Bruce Glikas/ImageDirect courtesy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.