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Whatever Happened at Class?

Forget what the youth of today is listening to; what is the youth of today writing for tomorrow? logo
There I was, looking through my CD collection and facing a terrific challenge. My buddy Steve Wells, who teaches a How-to-Write-a-Musical class at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, said, "Why don't you come in and talk to the kids?" -- and I readily agreed. A few days later, he said, "The kids want you to pick out recordings that you think are representative of where musical theater is going." Hmm. That seemed to be more of a challenge, which is why I kept scanning the spines of my CDs, back and forth, back and forth.

I finally landed on Ragtime, The Last Five Years, and both Wild Party recordings because I'm sure that the writers who gave us those are going to give us many more fetching musicals. I also included Mame, because we are supposedly getting a revival of it, and Brooklyn, for even though I didn't much care for the show (as faithful readers may recall), the Vocal Pyrotechnics Musical is an animal that many musical theater fans like, and I believe they'll support it for some time.

I put the CDs in my coat pocket and headed out to Madison, where Steve took me to the brand-new Dorothy Young Center with its handsome, elaborate black box theater. No question that Drew is making a commitment to the arts -- and they're obviously attracting terrific students, for the five I met in Steve's class would all wind up impressing me as bright and committed young men. I'm going to refer to them as One, Two, Three, Four, and Five, neither because that's the name of an old Maury Yeston musical nor because that's the way the jurors are named in Scott Ellis's current (and disappointingly perfunctory) production of Twelve Angry Men. No -- I caught the guys' names on the fly and I don't want to get them wrong.

I started by endorsing perfect rhymes -- "No 'm's' paired with 'n's,'" I demanded, "and no singulars hooked with plurals." Said Four with a sad shrug, "Well, there goes a lot of my lyrics!" I asked the guys if they used a rhyming dictionary, and each one said that he did. "Which one?" I inquired, for I have found that Gene Lees' 1981 book eliminates all the archaic words found in Clement Wood's 1936 effort. "I use," said One; many of the others bobbed their heads in agreement. I smiled at my naïvete for thinking that 21st century kids would use a book to help them in this task.

I then asked them to name their heroes, and no one mentioned Lloyd Webber or Wildhorn. But One immediately mentioned The Full Monty 'sDavid Yazbek. "Have you heard anything from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?" I asked, hoping that he had, but One shook his head no. "So this is based on one score?" I asked -- not trying to sound nasty, mind you, and I do believe that I kept my my voice from flooding with astonishment. When One answered yes, I didn't give him any grief for it; I can understand why Yazbek, a comparatively young man, would appeal to these young people, and not just because The Full Monty showed great talent. Don't forget that the guy came out of nowhere and wrote a show that ran two years -- which suggests to these students that they can do the same.

But One probably felt some judgment in my question, and he quickly announced that his other hero was Sondheim. So did all the others, to my slight surprise, for I'd been hearing that the 74-year-old composer-lyricist had fallen out of favor with young people. I asked them to name their favorite Sondheims; Into the Woods, Assassins, and Sweeney Todd were all quickly mentioned, and Company and Passion had fans as well. I wasn't surprised that no one said Follies, as that's a show for another generation. I even 'fessed up that, because I was only slightly older than they are now when I first saw it in 1971, I was pretty bored by the couples. But I also mentioned that, at the time, my older-and-wiser friend Frank Roberts told me that the day would come, years later, when I would appreciate it -- and that sure happened. "I suspect it'll happen to you, too," I added.

I thought it important to mention to kids who are embarking on an awfully treacherous career that Sondheim had his setbacks, too -- mostly from the end of 1965 to the beginning of 1970, when he was 35-39. "He didn't have a show on Broadway during that time," I reported, "and most everyone thought he was finished. Look at the facts: He'd had a disaster in 1964 with Anyone Can Whistle, for which he provided the entire score, and a flop in 1965 with Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which he wrote lyrics to the music of Richard Rodgers -- who'd had a hit without him three years earlier with No Strings and was then experiencing a stupendous success with the film of The Sound of Music, for which he wrote both music and lyrics for two new, well-received songs. So Sondheim appeared to be all done, but his glory days were ahead of him. If there's one thing you need in this business," I preached, "it's resiliency."

It didn't take long for Five to mention Hello, Dolly!, and not in a positive way. "It's so trite and simple," he said with a sneer. Well, I came not to praise Dolly! but I certainly didn't want to bury it, either. I was careful not to go ballistic on the kids, for I know that Hello, Dolly! is 40 years old. When I became interested in musicals in 1961, could anyone have easily sold me on Sigmund Romberg's Blossom Time, Oscar Strauss's The Chocolate Soldier, or Rudolf Friml's The Three Musketeers, all of which had opened 40 years earlier? Dolly! must sond like operetta to them.

Nevertheless, when Five said that Hello, Dolly! was shallow and pointless, I calmly mentioned that two moments in it greatly affected my life. The guys blinked in astonishment, but I went on. "Granted," I said, "the first one is a very simple line -- when Irene Molly says, 'Oh, Dolly, the world is full of wonderful things!' -- but she says it with such enthusiasm, it always makes me realize that what she says is true, even when times are particularly tough." (This led to some doleful talk about the recent presidential election.)

Then I mentioned Dolly's quoting her late husband near the end of the show: "Money, if you'll pardon the expression, is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless you spread it around." And I told them that as I grew older and accumulated more money, I had a tendency to become more generous with it. "At the risk of aggrandizing myself," I said, "I pick up more checks, leave bigger tips, and give to more charities -- and, really, some of that is in part to Hello, Dolly! first giving me the idea to do it." After I finished this speech, there was a significant silence in the room. While I could be dead wrong, I think that they'll all consider looking at what seems to be a commercial musical in a more thoughtful way.

Finally, we got around to the shows they were writing. Given that school just started in September, most of them had only completed about 10% of their shows. "Have you written your opening numbers?" I asked, and they all embarrasedly said they hadn't. They were surprised when I said that this wasn't necessarily bad, for many shows get their opening numbers only after the authors really come to grips with what the show is truly about. (Good case in point: "Tradition" in Fiddler, which was written late.)

Then I asked if they were writing orignals or adaptations. Only Three is doing an adaptation (of a P.G. Wodehouse short story) while the rest were all working on originals. I gently pointed out that adaptations were easier to conquer than originals but didn't discourage them from following their dreams. Four and Five are working together on a musical about a man whose girlfriend is dumping him for not making enough money, so now has the chance to makes a bundle by doing something smarmy. (Actually, it sounded quite good.) Two is writing a show about two people who meet while shopping in a department store, unaware that they have been writing to each other on the Internet. I asked if he knew the similarly plotted She Loves Me and he said that he didn't, so I told him to get to the Paper Mill Playhouse, where it's getting a nice production through December 5 -- "not because it'll necessarily discourage you from going ahead, but you'll often find that seeing something similar to what you're doing will give you ideas on how or how not to proceed." As for One, he's writing a sci-fi spoof. "Hmm," I said -- not caustically, but thoughtfully -- "I would think that in doing a spoof, you're trying to do something commercial that's just out to entertain, like Hello, Dolly!" "You've got me there," he said with a smile.

By the way, we never did get around to mentioning -- let alone playing -- the CDs I'd brought. We were too busy talking, trading ideas and opinions, which really made for much sweeter music.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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