Dancing in Pairs — Lyrics & Background

Cecelia Ticktin singing Dancing in PairsOkay, so I’ve been pretty lax about blogging the lyrics and background of Derek’s and my songs, but I’m trying to get back on the wagon. Think of it as a pre-New Year’s resolution. I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions anyway; I figure, if it’s time to make a change in your life, you should make it now. So, before we have a new song of the month, I’m carpe-ing the diem and writing a bit about “Dancing in Pairs.”

This was another of our earliest cabaret songs and is now part of our song cycle Island Song. The show deals with the dynamic between isolation and connection in urban life: the ways in which we can know the most intimate secrets of someone we’ve never met (as in “Wall Lovin’”) or become completely alienated from someone we’ve known for years (as in “So Far From Pennsylvania”).

“Dancing in Pairs” explores the nature of intimacy—physical and emotional—and the fear of intimacy–as it relates to dancing.

The context for this song is the way that dancers today grow very physically intimate with people (or even groups of people) they’ve never met, can’t see, and can’t really talk to… a lot friends say that being unable to see or hear their fellow dancers makes them much more appealing to dance against. For those few of us who have seen Derek or me dance, I think we can agree: the lower the light, the better (my dancing would probably be classified as “inefficient,” while Derek’s might be described as “dry heaving to rhythm.”)

By contrast, fifty or sixty years ago–when the music was softer, the lights were brighter, and you could only dance with one person at a time–the dance had the potential to be much more intimate, even if orifices were a few more inches away from each other.

This is what “Dancing in Pairs” explores, both the desire for emotional connection and fear of being exposed or scrutinized. After all, if you’re stuck on the dance floor with someone staring at your face and talking to you, you had better have something to say and feel okay about how you look. Deep down, we all want to make an emotional connection with another person, but there sure is safety in anonymity.

The singer goes through this whole thought process, as she dreams of dancing with just one other person and then freaks herself out with the nightmare of self-consciousness that could involve. Ultimately, she realizes that, if she wants to make a real connection with someone, no matter where she is, she’ll have to be willing to be exposed: “if I only let my mask down, take a deep breath, then instead of having flings, I’ll have affairs.” [A note on affairs: I’m using it here not in the sense of adultery, but in the sense of an intense, passionate relationship. I think flings suggests something meaningless or, at least, quickly forgotten.] Once the singer discovers that she has to be willing to be seen for what she truly is, she’s free to enjoy the fantasy again. I think of the last two stanzas as her living the dance—and the end of the dance—vicariously, almost the way we watch movies we’re completely drawn into.

In Derek’s and my mind, the song takes place just outside of a contemporary dance club. That will at least be the setting in Island Song. I recently wrote a new introductory verse for the number, which Derek has set to a techno beat. I’m including the new intro below, along with the rest of the lyric:

Here in the club
In tsunamis of noise,
Where the boys
Need a scrub,
But it’s too dark to know,
And they know
How to glow
In the flickers of light.
And they flock,
As you rock.
You excite,
As they press…
You release all your poise
For the joys of the beat,
And you welcome deceit,
‘Cause sometimes all you want is a “yes.”

And you stumble outside,
With a boy, maybe not.
The excitement has died,
Or it will in an hour,
And either way, after you shower,
What have you got?

Long ago, or so they tell me,
So they tell me,
People danced in pairs.
And they never knew the numbing
Of the drumming,
Back when murmured words could catch you unawares.

In the past, or so they whisper,
So they whisper,
Couples danced in twos.
Long before these flashes woke us,
We could focus
On the gaze that gave the necessary cues.
And I could share
My inmost thought,
And all I sought
Would be right there.

Come and dance me ‘cross the ballroom beams.
Quick, before my hopes all give out,
Let us live out
All our dreams.

And in my dreams,
I love the way he waltzes,
I love the way he looks in my eyes.
He can un-sheath
The soul underneath…

It’s awfully quiet;
What does he expect me to say?
Where are the drumbeats to fill in each pause?
And where are the strobe lights to hide all my flaws.
He’d probably stare,
And I’d feel so bare…
Thank goodness I’m not really there.

Though the thought may overwhelm me,
When they tell me
People danced in pairs,
If I only let my mask down,
Take a deep breath,
Then, instead of having flings,
I’ll have affairs.

In a time long out of fashion,
They knew passion,
As they danced alone.
And they’d know a true desire
And conspire
On just how to dodge the dozing chaperone.

Then out! Into the night,
The moonlight waned,
As they walked on.
And, into one another’s eyes,
Before the rising dawn had caught them,
They’d be gone.

*   *   *

Now to the main point. What I really want to discuss is the way sound works in this song. Often, when drafting a lyric—or in contemplating revisions—one word may sound more “right” than another word of the same number of syllables. Often this is because one phrase is harder to say than another phrase, because one word means something slightly different than another, or because the character would be more likely to use one word instead of another. But, putting these more logical considerations aside, I’ll often just prefer the sound of one turn of phrase to another that means pretty much the same thing and has the same rhythm.

The sound of a lyric—not only rhythm and rhyme, but also alliteration (the repetition of consonants), and assonance (the repetition of vowels)—can contribute to that lyrics’ very meaning. I think that’s particularly true in “Dancing in Pairs.”

It’s pretty clear in the opening verse that putting rhymes close together–and sometimes sooner than expected–creates a sense of agitation or energy that might mirror the dance club beat.

However, once the wistful part of the song begins and the mood becomes reflective, the sound of the words becomes even more important. The singer is singing about something she’s imagining, something she doesn’t have direct access to but knows exists somewhere or once existed. It’s something sort of like an echo. Repeating “so they tell me” and “so they whisper” helps create that sense of an echo (dramatically speaking, the repetition heightens her sense of uncertainty, but we’re focusing here just on sound). That echo is also created through repeated sounds.

We start with alliteration:

people danced in pairs.
and they never knew the numbing…

and move onto assonance (remember that “the” is pronounced “thuh” and “of” is pronounced “uhv”)

…the numbing of the drumming

and then we get both at once:

…back when murmured words could catch you unawares

Here, repeated Ms (murmurred, which also picks up the Ms of numbing and drumming), repeating Ws (when / words / awares), repeated Cs (could catch), and repeated URs (murmurred words), all culminating in a rhyme from much earlier in the verse (pairs / unawares)

I’m not saying that, when we hear this, we’re consciously aware of the repetitions or think, “wow, that sounds like an echo of something I’ve heard before,” but I do think that we subconsciously hear the repetitions and perceive the echoes.

In a case like this, where the singer is groping for something far away, I think assonance and alliteration are much better tools than internal rhyme, because they hint at repetition without making it too explicit or present. Nothing is too certain, nothing is too clear, and even the rhyme is from long ago in the verse. Too much rhyme might feel too concrete, like the singer has too much of a handle on what she thinks and what she wants—or, put another way, too much rhyme might feel like the thing itself, and not the echo. I think the alliteration and assonance (in addition, of course, to Derek’s dreamy Debussy-esque music) is what creates the haunting feeling of this passage.

*   *   *

In literary critic Kenneth Burke’s 1940 article “On Musicality in Verse: As Illustrated by Some Lines of Coleridge,” he discusses, among other things, the ideas of “augmentation” and “diminution” of sound in poetry. When a certain group of phonemes (single sounds, whether consonants or vowels) is repeated with other phonemes in the middle, we feel a sense of expansion or augmentation; Burke’s example is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “she sent the gentle sleep from heaven / that slid into my soul,” where the sl of sleep and slid is expanded in soul. We may be conscious of a similar sense of contraction or diminution when a group of phonemes is repeated without intervening phonemes—as when moving from the longer phrase “when murmurred” to the shorter “words.”

This technique can be used to create a general jingle or musicality, but it can also be used to enact in sound what the verse is talking about. I think this happens a couple of times in “Dancing in Pairs,” particularly in the second stanza. First is a diminution:

long before these flashes woke us, we could focus

Here, flashes woke us becomes focused into focus, and we hear what is being described. Later on in the stanza, the reverse (augmentation) happens:

on the gaze that gave the necessary cues (where S is a Z sound)

Here gaze is expanded, like the hints it offers, into something larger.

Again, this is not a conscious thing. Moreover, it’s not permanent. The same sounds can be used to create a different effect in a different circumstance. But a certain constellation of sounds, paired with a certain dramatic context, can seem to enact that context. As my former poetry professor John Hollander put it, “sounds don’t have any inherent meaning, but the poet creates a temporary fiction that they do.”

*   *   *

In the final stanza of the song, as the singer imagines the dancers disappearing into the pre-dawn night and love, the dreaminess is heightened by the swirl of repeating sounds. The passage is chock-full of “aw” (walked, on, dawn, caught, gone), with some other vowels repeating as well (“one another’s,” “waned as they,” etc.)

This stanza echoes even more than it appears to on the page, because T, D, N, and TH are all related sounds. Phonetics alert… but it’s not that complicated, and you can try this out in your own mouth (not as much fun as a scratch-and-sniff blog, but I do what I can):

T, D, N, and TH are all inter-dental consonants; in other words, these sounds are made by putting the tongue against the back of the teeth. T is made by cutting off the air flow with the tongue against the teeth briefly (known as an unvoiced stop), D is made by cutting off the air flow while the vocal chords are engaged (known as a voiced stop), N is made by cutting off the air flow while redirecting the air through the nose (known as a nasal), and TH is made by holding the tongue near the back of the teeth while air is forced through (known as a fricative). Because they are all inter-dentals, they all have similar sounds; T feels a lot closer to N than it does to B, for instance.

As an example of this, imagine you have a head cold and say, “I know the knob has been tightened,” and it will come out more like “I doe dee dob has bid-ided”

Similarly, P, B, M, F, and V are all related sounds, all made between the lips and thus known as labial consonants (yes, Derek, I just wrote the word “labial”). P is the labial unvoiced stop, B is the labial voiced stop, M is the labial nasal, F is the labial unvoiced fricative, and V is the labial voiced fricative.

In the same article as referenced above, Burke points out this aspect of phonetics and discusses what he calls “concealed alliteration” in verse. In other words, because of the close relationship of some of these sounds, phrases that don’t appear alliterative on paper can feel alliterative. One of Burke’s examples is Collerige’s phrase “bathed by the mist,” where we get a b__ b__ m__ concealed labial alliteration, in addition to a __thd __th __t concealed inter-dental alliteration. We find the same kind of concealed alliteration at work in the opening of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, not only in the phrase into the woods, but also in the phrase, “I must begin my journey,” where we get both the m__ b__ m__ sequence and the __t __n __n sequence.

Let us turn again to the inter-dentals in the last stanza of “Dancing in Pairs”:

Then out into the night, the moonlight waned as they walked on” has a lot more alliteration than it would appear to on it’s face. And so does the next phrase, “And into one another’s eyes, before the rising dawn had caught them, they’d be gone.” Again, try saying these two phrases with a head cold, and you’ll hear the alliteration even more strongly.

By the same token, C, G, and NG are all made in the same part of the mouth, by putting the middle of the tongue against the roof of the mouth (or palate). C is a palatal unvoiced stop, G is a palatal voiced stop, and NG is a palatal nasal. So the progression at the very end of the song has another hidden alliteration as well: rising dawn had caught them, they’d be gone.

So, if these lines at the end of the song feel as echoey to you as they do to me, this may be part of the reason why. Perhaps they echo even more because the alliteration is concealed and we’re not fully conscious of the repetition.

I can’t imagine that any lyricist would ever set out to create a dreamy effect through the use of repeating inter-dental consonants, but this sort of thing is why one phrase might be kept and another might be discarded. I’ll find that sometimes something “sounds right,” and in this case, I think this may be why this constellation of sounds sounded right to me. By the same token, when a phrase “sounds wrong,” sometimes that’s because the sound of the phrase appears to enact something other than what the passage is talking about.

And for all of the singers who are reading this, this interplay of sounds is why a lyricist might sometimes insist on you delivering the lyrics exactly as written. “Could be” and “Might be” may mean essentially the same thing. But, if there’s a certain sound structure set up, they may really not be the same thing after all.

*   *   *

These are some favorite performances of “Dancing in Pairs”:

Cecelia Ticktin gave a beautiful, emotionally rich performance of the song at the Underground Lounge as part of the Libra Theatre concert of our work “Fleet Week and Other Reasons to Sail” earlier in the year.

Julie Reiber gave a really clear, beautifully sung performance in our “Take Back the Stage” show at the D-Lounge last year.

Holland Mariah Grossman sang the song gorgeously in our third “Barely Legal Showtune Extravaganza” at Drom in the East Village a few months ago.

Maya Sharpe gave the song a smooth, jazzy quality in her performance of the song in BUZZED, our 2010 concert with the Broadway cast of HAIR.

// Posted on December 26th, 2011

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Some Great New Videos

First off, I wanted to let everyone know about our new “Tuesdays 2-to-4” segment, which is now live. This one features the immensely talented Sean Dunavant working with us on our song “Make It Here.” Check it out!

We just took a two-and-a-half week trip through the midwest and had some wonderful adventures along the way. Our first stop was in Malvern and Waynesburg, Ohio, which many of you will know from our song “Wall Lovin'”. We documented the trip, and you can see a little bit of our adventure in the following video:

We did a bunch of concerts along the way, and I wanted to share a few of the many highlights of those concerts.

Here’s a gorgeous performance of “After Hours” by Nora Navarro of Roosevelt University in Chicago

Here’s a wonderfully rich performance of “So Far From Pennsylvania” by Danielle Wade of the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada)

And here’s a wonderful group from the cabaret community of Jackson, Michigan performing “Too Much,” the finale to our song cycle ISLAND SONG:

Enjoy!

// Posted on December 3rd, 2011

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New 8-Measure Audition Song

Performers talk to us all the time about the stresses of picking material for auditions. It’s not only finding a song that shows off their abilities; it’s also finding something obscure enough that the people behind the table haven’t already heard it thirty times over the course of the day. Once a singer has found the perfect song, she often has to cut it down to a quarter of its size or less. How can you show acting range in only sixteen bars? Or, even harder, in eight? Well, that’s exactly what non-Equity performers have to do at many auditions. Sometimes, even Equity performers have to as well. At the behest of our friend Cecelia, we just wrote CARNER & GREGOR’S 8-BAR AUDITION SONG. We hope it will ease the plight of actors by providing them with an eight-measure song (no cutting necessary!) that has acting range and vocal range. And as for obscure? Well, who’s less popular than us? Check it out:

// Posted on June 17th, 2011

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New Media

We’re excited to share with you the latest in two new series we’re starting.

1. “The Carner & Gregor Podcast,” in which we interview performers whose work we love. We began with Felicia Ricci last year, and we now continue with Julie Reiber. Click Here for the Podcast

2. Our video series “Tuesdays Two-to-Four.” For a number of weeks over the summer, we filmed whatever was going on between 2pm and 4pm on Tuesdays and the brilliant Florence and Caitlin edited the video down to about five minutes per installment.

Both of these were recorded last year, but they’re ready to go and not sitting on the shelf any longer. And more of both will follow soon!

// Posted on February 24th, 2011

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Sing, But Don’t Tell — Lyrics & Background

We recently had a kind note from Kasey, asking if we could post some of our lyrics online. We actually get a fair number of emails asking for lyrics, and I typically email them. But now, in honor of the new website and my attempt at diligent blogging, I think it’s time to start posting some.

I figured I’d start with Sing, But Don’t Tell, since it’s our “Song of the Month.” And, since I haven’t tweaked the lyrics in a year, it seems pretty safe.

Sing, But Don’t Tell was the first cabaret song that we wrote. The idea came about in several ways, but it probably started with the lust of a friend of mine for Derek. It’s not unusual for people to lust after Derek—much like O-negative, Derek’s everyone’s type—but it doesn’t usually lead to song. What was unusual was that she expressed her lust with such eloquence.

This somewhat synesthetic artist, after seeing Derek play piano with his rock band M-LAB, commented, “I wonder what it would be like to be played like that piano.” There is always something seductive about a really confident and accomplished instrumentalist, and that idea of wanting to be played like the instrument stuck with me for several months, eventually coming out in this number.

But the core idea for the song came from the conventions of cabaret itself. Having previously written only musical theatre songs—numbers where the dramatic situations dictated many of the songs’ elements—the task of creating an entirely self-contained piece took a little thought. In musical theatre songs, you often want to expand a moment, but not advance the plot too much; you need to leave something for the rest of the show to do. But a cabaret song has the potential to be its own four-minute show, a complete story unto itself. Moreover, the relationship of singer to audience is different in cabaret than it is in musical theatre.

Cabarets oscillate between external and internal moments—and sometimes seem to live in both at the same time. Sometimes in song, but always in banter, the singer addresses the audience and accompanist/band directly; we are all in the same room together, and the singer knows it. But, in many song moments, the singer is apparently unconscious of the audience’s presence or that he or she is being accompanied musically. It’s that moment when, after telling you a possibly amusing hard-luck story about love, the singer begins a Rodgers and Hart song, her eyes unfocussing slightly, her gaze moving just a bit over your head. You start to think that, if she knew you were there, this might be over-sharing. But because it’s more like a silent reflection you’re somehow overhearing, it’s delicious. And you find a part of yourself in the singer and the song all the more because she’s not looking at you, because she doesn’t know you’re there.

Of course, this experience of peering into a performer’s private thoughts is standard in musical theatre. But, in musical theatre, the fourth wall is almost always up, even in non-soliloquy moments. The performers pretty much never address the audience directly (Forum and the opening seconds of RENT aside). What sets cabaret apart from most musical theatre is the alternation between the singer’s awareness of the audience to his/her unawareness.

But the magic of cabaret is not just in the alternation between public and private thoughts, but in the simultaneity. Sometimes it feels like we’re discretely overhearing the singer’s internal thoughts while being addressed directly at the same time. In cabaret, we can somehow maintain both senses at once. All those moments when the song is so related to the story he was just telling that the singer must be conscious of us, all those moments where the singer is temporarily playing a character and we experience her as both the character and the performer, all those moments when we can’t quite tell if the “you” being addressed in song is us as the audience or a hallucinated lover. In cabaret, song is both a public event and a secret, the singer is both active and passive, and the audience is at once confidant and voyeur.

This was the tension that I wanted to explore and explode in Sing, But Don’t Tell. That’s why the song moves from the singer’s internal thoughts to the singer’s awareness that she’s been sharing them aloud the whole time. In other words, she gets wrong the mode of communication she’s in at the time, because external singing and internal singing look so alike, without context. She’d get away with the confusion, if she weren’t singing about someone who’s right there in the room with her to make her accountable for her audible reverie.

One further point on the nature of the communication in this song: because, in the world of cabaret, the pianist is a real person (as opposed to the invisible orchestra of most musicals), but doesn’t usually speak, his mode of communication to the singer is only on the piano. Probably my favorite part of the song is when they duet on the main melody, the pianist playing it and the singer singing it.

Okay, enough for now about the backstory; here’s the song itself.

* * *

SINGER
Look at him there, my piano man.
My partner through every ballad.
Our relationship’s strictly professional, but
When I sing with him, all the love songs are valid.
My heart melts, just hearing him play,
But I can’t ever say what I mean;
There’s always a piano in between.

No pianist can improve
On the way he plays that groove.
Look at how his fingers move!
Oh, to be a key!
I would be his sharp or flat,
If he’d tickle me like that…

But hold it in…oo…
I think I love him!
Keeping this a secret is hell.
Oo…
Oh God, I love him!
Passionately, sing, but don’t tell.

When I want to talk, he vamps,
When I’m singin’ soft, he damps,
And the boy don’t need no amps,
When it’s time for the climax!
He always follows me,
All the way from C to D to E to F…

Holy F! I definitely love him—
Feelings that I have to dispel.
Oo…
Stay professional!
Long for him, and sing, but don’t tell.

I never get stage-fright, performing in public;
I’m only shy on rehearsal days.
‘Cause that’s when we’re alone;
How can I stay in the zone,
When he plays!
That boy plays!
Why can’t he just play me?

(suddenly, realizing that everyone is listening)

Oh, my God, was that out loud?
Oh my God, I’m still out loud.
And this is a quiet crowd;
He must’ve heard something.

(imploringly, to the audience)

I can’t look!
You look!
Okay, I’ll look.

(SINGER takes a glance at the pianist, who’s looking back)

He’s not looking in his book.
He’s looking at me.

(taking a quick glance back at the pianist)

He’s still looking at me.

(SINGER addresses the pianist directly, who answers by playing)

How’s it goin’ over there?

PIANIST
Da-da-da-da Da-da-da

SINGER
So I kinda want to die.

PIANIST
Da-da-da

SINGER
Yes, I do.

PIANIST
Da-da-da-da Da

SINGER
What’s that?

PIANIST
Da-da-da

SINGER
Play that again.

PIANIST
Da-da-da

SINGER
You too?

(The piano builds, as they really duet)

All along?

Now I can tell you what I’ve been holding in,
Sing it to my heart’s own delight!
And when we’re done with this,
Let’s put aside that damn piano!
Come on, baby,
Play me tonight!

* * *

At the time we began writing Sing, But Don’t Tell, Derek had already been working on a musical theme, which ended up pretty much becoming the verse and chorus music. In his head, the theme was about a teenage couple’s first hook-up, and the one lyric he kept singing was, “oo…I think I love him.” Knowing the words—or even sounds—that Derek hears around his tunes is always valuable. In the same way, Derek always likes to know the rhythms or melodies that I associate with lyrics I come up with. Certainly, we often depart from the other’s impulses, but they always seem to play a part in the work in one way or another. In this case, I changed the context and kept the words.

I’ve talked (at some length, I’m afraid) about the rationale for some of the formal elements of the song, and where I think some of the humor comes from. But, at it’s heart, it’s not a song about cabaret or theatre or singing. It’s a song about someone who has a platonic relationship with someone else, while harboring a secret love. It’s a song about the fear of losing what you have in the attempt to get what you want. The situation could apply to any coworkers or friends.

Last summer Derek played the song with his now girlfriend Ali Ewoldt in Lincoln Center Plaza, as part of the “Sing For Hope” Benefit. Now Ali is out on tour with West Side Story, but they still have the opportunity to do the song every now and then.

Here are some other terrific performances of the song that have been filmed:

Felicia Ricci singing Sing, But Don’t Tell with Derek at the keyboard in the song’s debut in the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival

Briana Carlson-Goodman singing Sing, But Don’t Tell at our concert BUZZED with the cast of HAIR in 2010

Julie Reiber singing Sing, But Don’t Tell with Derek and Sam at our first Take Back the Stage concert

Annaleigh Ashford singing Sing, But Don’t Tell with Rich Silverstein at the piano in the 2010 Duplex gala

To date, as far as I know, the song has always been done with female singers and male pianists. However, we just heard Gabrielle, who was asked if it would be okay to change the gender pronouns so that her girlfriend could play the song. And we’ve just heard from some male singers who may start to do it. So more on all of that in another post.

One final note on the lyrics. As I mentioned at the beginning of this now very long post, I haven’t tweaked the lyrics to to the song in about a year. The last change I made was in the second verse. The line now is “He always follows me all the way from C to D to E to F.” Previously I had “He always comes with me all the way from C to D to E to F.” After doing it a bit (including in a demo recording), I realized that I had written a double entendre unintentionally. Of course, there are lots of intentional double entendres in the song, but that one felt like it might be one too many—and also a little more graphic, somehow—so I changed comes with to follows. But I’ve subsequently had some complaints about the change from some of my (perhaps more perverse) friends. I don’t know. Maybe I’m still tweaking the lyric after all.

// Posted on February 6th, 2011

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On Being a Musical Character

My friend Nicole recently asked me, “If you could be any character in a musical, whom would you be?”

There are so many ways to answer the question: whose philosophy do you most identify with? Whom do you most admire? What world would you most like to live in? Whose performative abilities (either to an audience or in the context of the story—in the case of someone like Harold Hill) do you wish you had? Well, here goes:

Well, there are the characters whose character I admire, like Nat Miller in Take Me Along. (Take Me Along incidentally, was the 1959 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy—and bittersweet comedy at that—Ah, Wilderness! The musical features a lovely score by Bob Merrill.) Nat Miller has a great family and he’s an enlightened, truly kind-hearted man. Despite being in his 60s, he is still young at heart, but not in a midlife-crisis kind of way. He has grown old gracefully, surrounded by those he loves and respected by his fellow townspeople. I think one could do a lot worse than end up like Nat Miller. Also, I love that period. Turn of the 20th Century New England. I bet there would be lots of gazebos, and I love a good gazebo.

I’m always drawn to farces, partly because of the quick-thinking of the leads. I would love to be Billy in Anything Goes or Charley in Where’s Charley. They both have such a miraculous ability to roll with the punches. They both have wit. They both have positive attitude. And they both can dance. I wish I could dance like that. Oh, and I think they’re both rich. Or rich enough, anyway. I’m always drawn to the “garden party musical.” Those worlds where nothing can go too far wrong, and everyone always seems to know just what to say, and right on cue.

That’s the thing. They always know what to say. There’s a French term esprit d’escalier, literally, “the spirit of the stairs.” It comes from the 18th-Century French court, where courtiers would climb up a long flight of stairs for their royal audience. After descending, they would recount their conversation to all of the people down at the bottom, including all of the witty things they said to the king and queen. But, of course, they recount, not what they actually said, but what they should have said, the things they thought of on the way back down the staircase.

I feel like we all experience esprit d’escalier everyday. Those moments in which we know what to say in the moment are rare moments to treasure. But characters in musicals, at least a certain kind of musical, almost always know what to say. And it’s one of the great joys of writing shows. You have as long as you want to figure out the perfect response for any situation.

Then, there’s always the lazy approach:

Like Frid (the manservant) in A Little Night Music. He doesn’t really have to show up for the first act. He just gets to sleep with Petra and go his merry way. That’s kind of cool. Or a townsman in The Boys From Syracuse. They’re pretty go-with-the-flow, out for a good time, don’t have to deal with having names. You know, no pressure.

// Posted on January 10th, 2011

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Two Shows Down

We just finished putting on a pair of shows. That’s why I finally have time to write. I figure that, if I don’t record our recent experiences now, it’s never getting done. So here goes with our first real blog:

The first show, on January 25th, was a benefit for the New York Theatre Barn. It was tremendous fun, and we got to hear some terrific songs by Will Van Dyke, who did the second set.

We mostly did cabaret songs that we’ve written over the last year. A couple premiers, including a new song called “After Hours,” which is about walking around the city at night and the strange sense of connection one has with all the other people who are up. We literally finished the draft the day of the show, but it went really well, and Nick sold the hell out of it. We also did a new number from Unlock’d, which hadn’t yet been performed in New York (we unveiled it for the first time at the Ravinia Festival, but none of the locals had heard it).

We had a dream cast, featuring:

Jackie Burns, who’s currently in HAIR, and whom we had worked with in 2007, when she brought down the house with her verse monologues as Clarissa in the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Unlock’d.

Nick Gaswirth, one of the best young tenors we know, who’s helped us develop a number of songs recently (Nick also takes gorgeous photos and does headshots, in case anyone is interested–check out his site)

Maria Couch, whom we’ve worked with many times over the years–Maria was in the very first reading of Unlock’d, back when it was our thesis project at NYU.

Jeremy Jordan, who just left Rock of Ages to play Tony a couple nights a week in West Side Story. Jeremy starred in our New York Musical Theatre Festival cabaret Sing, But Don’t Tell last fall and was kind enough to make time for us again.

Ashley Spencer, who also did our concert back in October. Ashley’s still really young, but she’s already been on Broadway twice; she closed out Hairspray, playing Amber, and played Sandy in the recent Grease revival.

* * *

The second show was February 1st at the Duplex, who treated us really well (even letting us come in to rehearse in the space five hours before the show!)

That show featured Maria and Jeremy returning, and we also got to work for the first time with:

Victoria Matlock, whom we had met and adored in Will’s set the week before. She’s a phenomenal singer and actress and is about to make her Broadway debut in a few months in Million Dollar Quartet.

Julie Reiber, who’s played Elphaba in Wicked and Brooklyn in Brooklyn on Broadway. But she is a wonderful comedienne as well!

Bobby Steggert, who just stole the show as Younger Brother in Ragtime, though we’ve been fans of his, ever since seeing him play Jimmy in 110 in the Shade. Bobby’s about to star in YANK at the York.

All three of them learned the material in less than a week and were such a pleasure to work with.

And it was a really productive week of rehearsals. Bobby patiently worked with us as we adjusted the melodic decorations and flow of “After Hours.” Julie helped us work through the final patter in “TMI,” and Maria made some really valuable suggestions to help give “So Far From Pennsylvania” a little more dramatic shape (we made the opening a little more hopeful, to give the singer’s realization that things are over a little more punch).

* * *

Next up is the HAIR castmembers benefit for the Brooklyn Free School’s Building Campaign on February 7th. John Moauro will be singing our song “Stay Awhile,” and there may be more of our numbers at the show. Looking forward to it!

// Posted on February 15th, 2010

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