Jonathan Karp
Jonathan Karp
At least when you're to be shot by a firing squad, you're blindfolded. But what's it like to sit on stage while selections from your musical are performed in front of a packed house? That's what happens every year at Merkin Hall as part of Sean Hartley's Broadway Close-Up series. Since 2000, Hartley has brought writers on stage to chat about their fledgling shows and then lets the audience sample some songs. At this year's event, held on November 28, a dozen writers' works received the close-up treatment. When their musicals eventually get produced, these creators can sit at the back of the house, where no one will see how they react; but at Merkin, after they enter, sit, and explain their shows for host Liz Callaway, they have a full-frontal audience encounter.

What is the correct demeanor? If an author seems to be enjoying him/herself, will he/she seem cocky? Only once have I seen an emerging writer take pleasure from such a situation: In 1986, at the Dramatists Guild. A then-unknown Lynn Ahrens, standing by the piano as performers sang songs from her Lucky Stiff, laughed heartily at every joke as if to say, "I shouldn't be reacting like this, but what can I do when something is so funny?" To paraphrase Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, "And look what happened to her."

Adam Overett, who wrote all of Call It Courage, is first at Merkin. He makes me remember the teenage term "Zony" (one who looks zoned out because he's so nervous). Overett sits on the flame-orange colored couch -- a fitting color for a hot seat! -- hoping that he won't be flamed. As a hired pianist plays and eight actors sing, his hands are clasped and no muscle moves. His face looks like a formal portrait in a souvenir booklet. Someday maybe we'll see it there, for his songs go over splendidly. Callaway moves her head in time and, finally, the infectiousness hits Overett. How nice to see him brighten by the end, though, when he claps wildly, he takes care to give the impression that he's applauding the performers and not himself.

More at ease is Jonathan Karp, whose head is cocked with confidence over How to Save the World and Find True Love in Ninety Minutes. Some of that assurance must come from his day-job; he's editor-in-chief of Warner Twelve. But, just as 42nd Street says that "no one cares and no one knows" who writes the words and music, this crowd isn't interested that Karp found and edited Seabiscuit and other best-sellers. How are his songs? Damn good, in fact. Karp's grin starts and grows when his jokes score. His lip-chewing collaborator Seth Weinstein isn't sitting with him, because he's accompanying the singers on piano. When Weinstein forcefully delivers a big button on the last song, he sighs with relief. Still, pianists have it comparatively easy, for they have something to do rather than just sit and stare.

For A Hundred Years Into the Heart, composer Jeffrey Lodin tickles the ivories, but lyricist William Squier isn't tickled until the audience laughs. Only then does he dare to do so, too. Meanwhile, book writer Richard Vetere doesn't seem interested in the crowd's reaction; he's casually checking out the balcony, looking more intrigued by the architecture. I figure out why during the presentation of Drift, when book writer Craig Pospisil looks unworried as songsmith Jeremy Schonfeld strives at the piano. Pospisil and Vetere aren't on trial, for they're "just" book writers. Their time to suffer will come later. Tonight, only their judgment -- not their talent -- will be called into question. Did they choose the right property and the correct collaborator(s)? Yes, if the crowd's titanic reaction means anything.

"Have sex with me." That's the first line from The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown, and the salacious quip breaks the ice. Book writer/co-lyricist Kait Kerrigan is apparently enjoying herself, keeping time with the music by moving her foot up and down. Wait, that isn't what she's doing; she's nervously waving her foot helter-skelter from anxiety. Then she stops, because she sees the song is succeeding. Now she allows her foot to tap in time. Meanwhile, at the piano, composer/co-lyricist Brian Lowdermilk concentrates on the power and the beauty of the music, which is considerable. Kerrigan gets a reprieve from the couch because she'll play the teen title character in a song. Sure, she's too old; but she knows the character well, so the number scores. Afterwards, she doesn't return to the couch but goes to the back wall, where the other performers sit. Now I can't see her face, for it's obscured from my view by a music stand. Too bad, for Matt Cavenaugh's heartfelt characterization of a boy who begs Samantha to run away with him gets the biggest applause of the night. May Samantha Brown live as long as Sarah Brown.

Michael Jeffrey, the composer of The Ring and the Rose, isn't here but home in London. "He's broke and owes me 600 pounds," says book writer-lyricist Peter Morris. As Farah Alvin sings from this fairy tale musical, Morris has his hand to his mouth, pondering; during Valerie Fagan's song, he bites a nail, seemingly questioning a lyric. Did it need a stronger hand? Did it need a lighter touch? The audience thinks each tune is swell, so a smile peeks through Morris's fingers. He eventually applauds -- not too enthusiastically, not too wanly, but, as they say in another fairy tale, j-u-u-u-st right.

Clay Zambo's Greenbrier Ghost concerns "the only conviction ever handed down on suprnatural evidence." He too busies himself on piano but beams more than anyone else when Callaway sings his last song, a stirring country prayer titled "Let There Be an Answer." For Zambo and the others, the prayer is "Let There Be a Production." As all the Zonies take bows and look much relieved. I wonder: Will their faces be stony when we see on each Sony someone handing the Zony the Tony Award? Probably not: Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez displayed some of Avenue Q at Broadway Close-Up in 2002, and they sure didn't look nervous on the Radio City stage on June 6, 2004.

********************

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]