Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Chorus Line Premiered in 1975, Which Is a Long Time Ago.

The first Broadway musical I saw on Broadway was Sweeney Todd in 1979, but the first Broadway musical I saw was A Chorus Line, the touring production, at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis, on a school trip.

I want to say I was a sophomore in high school, so like 1976 or '77, but my memory is bad. It could have been the following year. Either way, it was during those couple years when I was figuring out why, when I saw Brad Christie standing in line at the water fountain, I was compelled to stand in line behind him and hope that my hand accidentally grazed his butt when he bent over for a drink.

And by figuring out, I mean freaking out.

A friend and fellow writer, a straight man, asked me once a few years ago at a musical theater cabaret event, after 2 or 3 boys in a row had sung songs about coming out, "Why does every song lately have to be about being gay?" As I was pondering the question, the lights went down for the second act and our conversation was cut short, but I've thought about it a lot since then and I think the simple answer is that it hurts less and less to tell these stories.

Despite the fact that the musical theater industry was and is so packed with homosexuals, the larger world was still rabidly homophobic, so we could only very tentatively tell our sad tales and then basically only for emotional shock value. Not that Paul's monologue isn't authentic and beautifully told, but it's there to inform you that being gay is super sad. We have more colors to work with now. (Times have changed. Fun Home is funny, moving, thought-provoking, and masterful, and tells a story with a butch lesbian at its center with layers and layers of complexity that would have been unimaginable in a hit Broadway musical in the late 70s when there was only one layer of gay.)

I had done my research. (There must have been a theater queen or two at the DePauw University library where I worked after school, because the library subscribed to After Dark magazine, the gayest periodical ever to never use the word gay.) So I knew how A Chorus Line was created, that the stories the dancers were telling were true -- Hm. It just occurred to me that A Chorus Line is a devised musical. Maybe the first? -- and from then on, though I was still too afraid to tell my own story to anyone but myself, I knew that if I could make a life in the theater in New York I would be fine.

So I did.

Happy anniversary, A Chorus Line!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Random Thoughts About a Few Broadway Musicals.

Lots of Broadway musicals opening -- April is to the Tonys what December is to the Oscars. I have random thoughts, which are not to be read as opinions on these shows, which I have not seen.

Both Gigi and Finding Neverland are getting terrible reviews. I know as well as anyone that critics often just don't get it, so I'm very reluctant to take the fact that reviewers have found these shows boring and/or incoherent at face value. But it's interesting to me that both shows' producers set out to excise what they felt was an uncomfortable whiff of sex with children in the source material.

I find it really sad (and not a little homophobic) that just the idea of friendship between an adult man and a group of boys makes people immediately think about pedophilia. One of the things I liked most about the film Finding Neverland was the strange tenderness of that longing to be a part of the boys' lives. It's more complicated and infinitely more interesting than sex.

Gigi is a whole other beast. The movie is basically about a girl being groomed for prostitution, so the sex is more than just prurient audience projection. But the novella on which it's based was written by Collette, who is kind of known for having interesting things to say about men and women and love and sex. Why, when you have such rich, juicy source material, would you decide it's a good idea to make it "innocent"? Sometimes I just don't understand people.

I guess what I've done here is implied that these shows are bad because they took the sex out, and I don't know if that's true or not. Like I said, I haven't seen the shows. These are just thoughts that come into my head.

The show that's not getting bad reviews is The King and I at Lincoln Center. Oh my god, I want to see this show! Rogers and Hammerstein musicals bring me the greatest pleasure and I don't feel the least bit guilty about it. The songs! The songs!

One of my two favorite R&H songs (Something Wonderful) is in The King and I. (The other is Something Good from The Sound of Music. Nobody does ambivalence about love like R&H.)

Here's Terry Saunders from the movie soundtrack:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What's Happening Now.

My sister and nephew were here for a week's visit, left Saturday. My nephew is 15 and is dead certain he wants to be a composer of percussion music, specifically marimba. He's not much interested in discussing any other trajectory.

He (my sister and I went with him, of course) visited Mannes School of Music, Juilliard, and the Manhattan School while he was here. Everyone around him is saying some version of "Well, that's great, but you need to think about how you might make a living." When the idea of teaching comes up, he says, "I can see myself doing that when I'm older and I've accomplished all I set out to do."

Though I could certainly share a thought or two with him about the relationship between what you set out to do and how you actually end up living a life, I'm really reluctant to join the chorus of pleading for practicality. Dreams are dreams, and it might not matter that they don't usually drive you where you planned. They drive you somewhere. When I was 15, I didn't want to listen to anyone telling me No. (I still don't.) My nephew has energy, focus, talent, and loves to practice. Fifteen is not the age for practicality.

What else?

My old friend Linda Smith asked me to record a cover of one of her songs for an album of covers her label is putting out. Linda and I were in the The Woods together in the 80s and have kept in touch, more or less, since. Linda made a name for herself in the 80s and 90s putting out several home-recorded albums on cassette, when that was a thing. Her albums are full of great songs and I have many favorites. It's been a long time since I've made a recording that wasn't just a work demo for someone else to learn the song from, and I can't wait to dive in. I was not a songwriter when I joined The Woods, and I learned so much from Linda, mostly about how songwriting is 95% intuition. I still jog myself back to that attitude when I find myself bogged down in the knowledge of "rules" I've acquired since.

What else?

Okay, so Hillary Clinton is in it now. It's gonna be a long year-and-a-half and I'm going to try to not complain too much. I'm not a fan, as we know, but -- with the current composition of Congress and the Supreme Court -- I have a hard time taking any other stance than that it's important she win this one. I live in a safe state, but I don't want to contribute to any sort of Democrats-sit-this-one-out-because-they-don't-care-for-Hillary phenomenon. I feel like, with Obama, I got as close as I might ever get to a president who represents my values. And it turns out that wasn't super close. Sometimes you just have to hold your nose.

And I should add that the antidote to that feeling that presidential elections are a depressing exercise in cynicism is to vote in other elections, the ones closer to home, where it is possible to vote for candidates with integrity. One of the many reasons I'm excited about moving back to the LES is that, because I lived there for so many years in the 80s and 90s, I have a better sense of the politics.

Monday, March 30, 2015


My day started with breaking my glasses. One of the little plastic oval feet that rest on the side of my nose had been digging into my skin for days, so I went to bend it a little and it snapped off.

I live in near-constant fear of breaking my glasses -- that's an exaggeration, but it's true that it's very often on my mind, because I can't do much of anything without them, can't read, can't leave the house, I don't even like to walk around the apartment without them because I run into things -- but I have an old pair that are close to the same prescription, just not as clear for reading, so I put those on. C dug out some epoxy for me and I glued the nose piece back on. It doesn't swivel like it's supposed to, but maybe it'll be fine.

Writing days have been frustrating the last week or so. I have a couple small things yet to write for Hester Prynne and I can't find anything interesting about them to draw me in. There's no big rush -- we have a nearly-complete first draft and a workshop in the fall at Playwrights Horizons Theater School. We have the summer to get ready, so there's time to get these last bits done. But I have time now, and I want to write.

I want to start a new play or dive back into something old and incomplete, but I have to decide which, so I've been sifting through old notebooks in search of notes or a fragment, a sketch, a story, something to galvanize my artist brain.

The city is replacing the concrete stairway that goes up 10 flights from Broadway to our street and runs right past our apartment. There are 2 parallel staircases. They ripped one out last year and just finished making the new one. Now they're ripping out the other one. A lot of concrete has to be smashed and hauled away. They start at about 8 and stop for the day at about 4. It's very loud.

I decided I was thinking too hard and needed some busywork to get me out of my head. I've been putting it off because it makes me sad, but I'd given up on my worm composting and had to dispose of the bin and its contents, and that seemed like as good a task as any for an already frustrating Monday.

I got the worms about 3 years ago and set up a plastic bin under the sink. They were going to eat my kitchen scraps and make potting soil. I loved those worms, they were easy to care for, and I felt good about doing some small part to keep garbage out of the landfill. But a small bin of worms under the sink, it turns out, eat very little. Very little. Like about a banana peel a week. I cook every day, so they weren't eating more than about 1% of the vegetable scraps I was throwing away. Even though it quickly became clear my worms were no more than a gesture, a ritual of environmental consciousness that wasn't doing anything to actually help the environment, I hated giving up. The ritual was enough for a long time. But then it just started to feel stupid.

I stopped feeding them. A worm composting bin self-regulates. If there's less food, they reproduce less and their numbers dwindle. So after a few months, there was just dirt left. Or so I thought. When I went to empty it out this morning, I found one small worm. One. Since it's spring, I thought it would be fine if I took it out to the front yard. I put it in the sink while I scooped out the dirt and scattered it among our various potted plants. But I forgot it was there when I came back to the sink to wash my hands, and, when I remembered and looked down, it was gone down the drain.

Like my day.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Freedom's Just Another Word for Bigotry.

I feel like if there's anything positive about this new spate of "license to discriminate" legislation cropping up in state after state in response to gay marriage decisions by federal courts, it's that it crystallizes the mission of this brand of Christianity, which is to exclude people. They cry they're being persecuted for their religion, but it must be clear to everyone by now that these laws are about revulsion toward non-gender conforming people. It must, right? It kind of separates the soft bigots from the hard bigots.

It's interesting stuff in the midst of all my reading about the 17th century Puritans, the original American Christians, as we write our musical about Hester Prynne. Not that it's a coincidence these topics are current -- that's the whole reason we like the story. The Puritans were just as preoccupied with who's in and who's out, probably more so because they believed the lists had been made at the beginning of time and could not be changed. So they were obsessed with trying to determine ways of knowing who was on which list, so that they'd know whom to let in and whom to keep out. They of course couldn't know, and, in fact, it was sinful to suggest that one could know, but that didn't stop them from speculating on all kinds of outward indications that one might be saved or damned and banishing or executing people who disagreed with the approved methodology. Underlying everything was a great deal of personal anxiety because of course no one could even know whether or not they themselves were chosen. At least now your average Southern Baptist can rest assured he's going to heaven if he accepts Jesus Christ as his blah blah blah. I appreciate the Puritans for that -- at least they had rules. All today's Christians have to do is be super sanctimonious and they go straight to heaven.

I guess we'll know more in June when the Supreme Court weighs in. We'll either end up with a federal right to gay marriage but a bunch of states where you can't buy flowers or cake. Or, if it goes the other way, then all these desperate religious freedom laws will be moot and Alabama and Indiana can go back to the 17th century. Most people in my safe little circle of urban liberals anticipate a positive ruling to come out of the cases before the Court right now, and it's hard to imagine any other result since the argument has been framed in classic conservative terms. But I'm not feeling so sanguine. With judges like Thomas and Scalia, who are less concerned with justice than with creating a world where everyone is forced to follow their rules, there's no end to perfidy.

Indiana hurts particularly because I grew up there. Of course when I was there I wanted out and I fled as soon as I could. But my family is still there, and, though I have no illusions about it being much different than it was, I have to say I was moved last year when the Court of Appeals ruled Indiana's gay marriage ban illegal and suddenly C and I were still married when we visited my folks at Christmas.

It gives me hope that my mom is there fighting the good fight. She's remarkable. I don't think I have the stamina to be a liberal in Indiana, but she's been at it for decades. She'll give you an earful about Mike Pence. He's a grade A asshole. You almost have to be to get elected in Indiana.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Time, Work, Home.

The other day a friend asked me if I miss my old job and I didn't hesitate for a fraction of a second. "No." Of course I don't. I worked with people I liked. I didn't hate my job like I have others. I didn't dread going to work. It was a good job, I felt appreciated, and it paid me well, but what it was most of all was a giant time suck and as soon as I didn't have to spend 32 hours a week plus 3 hours a day commuting to Brooklyn that time was immediately full of everything that I didn't have time to do before. I've written several songs in the last two months and, though I may not be the second coming of Jesus Christ, I think I'm doing the best work of my life. None of this is a surprise to me. I knew exactly how it would be. I waited all my life for it. I was ready.

Now that all my time is open, though, the one thing that has suffered is my blogging. Blogging was always something that required some focus but not the deep, long focus that the real writing needs. So I could do it on my lunch break at work. Or often I would blog on a weekend afternoon, but now that I know the week is available for my serious writing, I feel justified relaxing on a Saturday afternoon. The weekdays feel so wide open.

But then when I'm here at my desk and C has gone to work and I might have an idea for something I want to blog about I can't somehow make myself do it. This is real writing time!

But today has been so full of distractions, the real stuff didn't stand a chance, so ... here I am blogging. (But I did, on my walk to and from Target a couple hours ago, make some notes for a song I've been trying to get a grip on for weeks. It never really leaves my system for good, it's always churning somewhere under the surface.)

So today. Target for batteries. I did a Target run on Tuesday -- there's a Target just across the bridge in the Bronx, about a ten minute walk -- and we shop there for cleaning and laundry supplies, toothpaste, etc., because it's cheaper than the Rite Aid, but I forgot to get C batteries for C's shower radio. He's been a little squirrelly in the morning without his NPR. So I went back.

I spent the morning trying to find someone to move our elliptical machine to a friend's house in Brooklyn. Our new building has a gym, so we don't need it. (Yes, we've moving, and that should by rights be a whole blog post on its own but my rule is no looking back, so ...) It was surprisingly difficult to find someone to move the damn thing. It took the better part of 2 mornings. And we're putting together our co-op board application, which is, well, something I never imagined I'd ever be doing. Besides reams and reams of financial history, it requires dozens of reference letters from friends and business associates and current and former landlords.

If they like the way we've dotted all our i's, we will move most likely in June. Back to the Lower East Side, but this time lower and farther east. C lived for some of the 90s on Clinton St and I lived in the East Village most of the 80s and 90s but on Pitt Street near Delancey for a couple years around 1983 or 4. So, even though we won't be right in the heart of all that gentrified madness we'll be close and it feels to both of us like a homecoming.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oscars Post-Mortem.

Lots of chatter still about the Oscars, most of it of the banal language-policing variety that makes me want to jam pencils in my ears and give up all hope for the future of social justice movements.

But this article in this morning's New York Times got me thinking.

Early in my first painting class at Parsons, our teacher, Regina Granne, said something that looms in my memory as “Art is a specialized activity practiced and appreciated by an elite group of people who have the education and refinement to understand it.” Probably she said something more like, “Your parents will never understand what you do.”

Whatever she said, it crystallized for me at that moment and forever a feeling I’ve had at least since high school and still feel, a pull between wanting to make art that everyone will love and wanting to pursue something more esoteric.

Part of that latter impulse is defensiveness brought on by the sense of grievance creative people feel toward a world they think misunderstands and underappreciates them. “I don’t care if you don’t understand me. It’s not my fault you’re a philistine.” And I think a milder, more mature and less emotional, version of that is the realization that there will always be people who get your work and people who don’t and you can’t please everyone. I like to think the reason I don’t like superhero movies has more to do with taste and cultural differences than whether they’re good or bad.

Still, it does have something to do with education and refinement. I don’t think it’s just a matter of taste that there is a group of people who love a Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA and a much larger group who think it tastes nasty and would prefer a Bud Lite. I won’t apologize for having done the work necessary to appreciate art or ideas or food or whatever that is sophisticated, complex, dense. Does that make me a snob? Can someone who loves Neil Diamond and Hello Kitty be a snob? Maybe.

Always these two impulses that seem contradictory and zero sum. I want to make work that straddles the divide, and sometimes I’ve been successful, other times not. Y’all was almost the very definition of populist art. But we were trying from the beginning to subvert what it looked like on the surface. (At first … eventually we just gave in to the fact that the simplest way to be subversive was to be sincere.). And we won over audiences -- sometimes -- in the very highbrowest and lowbrowest of venues (art museums and grocery stores, experimental theater festivals and elementary schools). Rural conservative folks knew we were just aping the Grand Ole Opry, and kids love a toe-tapper. And I guess because we were queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives there was enough for the theory-prone arty types to chew on. (Little did they know that country entertainment had been queer and undermining stereotypes and fucking with unreliable narratives at least since the Carter Family.)

And LIZZIE, the other work that’s occupied an outsize portion of my life and career, I think exists somewhere in between, too. It has lots of big accessible catchy songs but it’s emotionally complex, layered with meaning, deals with history in ways that I think are incisive but open-ended, and rewards close attention. Sorry to brag, but I’m not going to say all that stuff isn’t in there. We spent a lot of years working to make it so.

I’m not sure what I really have to say about the Oscars. I’m not too outraged that lots of small indie films get attention. Some films are not for everyone. It doesn’t make them any better or worse than the blockbusters. I didn’t get much out of Birdman. I was deeply moved by Boyhood. It didn’t just make me cry. (It did, but so did Theory of Everything which I thought was a pretty good movie but nothing special really.) It got under my skin, rearranged my brain, made me see art and life differently forever. Like Terrance Mallick’s films (the other Austin filmmaker), Boyhood left me sort of gasping, puzzled, full of love, afraid and thrilled. As I’ve discovered many times when I try to describe what it is about Mallick that I think is so great, it’s not a feeling that I can really put into words.