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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lilienthal

Just having a dream isn't enough. You've got to make that dream came true. This motto inspired Otto Lilienthal to become the first man to fly. Unperturbed by the experiences of his unfortunate predecessors, unfazed by the opinion of conventional scholars, unaffected by the derision of Mr. and Mrs. Average Citizen, he went to work, step by step, to rnake his dream of flight come true. He discovered the secret of how birds fly and developed the first workable glider. He had long since proven that humans really can fly when he finally crashed and died with the words: "I live" on his lips. I'd love to tell his story on the musical stage. So far nobody shared my enthusiasm for that idea.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Quartet Of The Legends

On December 4, 1956,
Elvis Presley dropped in on the little sound studio of Sam Phillips in Memphis to pay a social visit while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Jerry Lee Lewis backing him on piano. The three started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tape running. He later telephoned Johnny Cash and brought him in to join the others. These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived, and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also include Elvis Presley's 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'Paralyzed', Chuck Berry's 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man', Pat Boone's 'Don't Forbid Me' and Presley doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) impersonating him on 'Don't Be Cruel'. A must-have for Rock 'n Roll buffs like you know who.

Friday, March 29, 2013

AFN

When I was ten my family moved to Stuttgart. Listening to the radio after school, I soon found out that there was a local station playing a kind of music I had never heard before. That was the American Forces Network. I didn't understand a word of what the DJ's said, and I had no idea what the songs were about. The sound, the rhythm and the voices were enough to electrify me. It's no exaggeration to say that those nocturnal hours at the radio set changed my life. From then on music was much more than music to me.  The boy glued to the radio became infected, and he felt the Rock'n Roll virus run through his veins ever since. The names of the singers and the titles of the hits became written in his heart: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and, of course, Elvis Presley. Back then our German stations did not play any Rock'n Roll, the record stores were hiding the few imported 45's downstairs in their jazz collection. Without the AFN I wouldn't have been exposed to that influence in my early teenage years. It has often been said that Rock'n Roll was not just a new style of music, but a revolution. For me it certainly was like a strike of lightning changing my life. I will be ever grateful to the AFN.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Roy Orbison


“I moved the dial up and down and Roy Orbison's voice came blasting out of the small speakers. His new song, "Running Scared," exploded into the room. Orbison, though, transcended all the genres - folk, country, rock and roll or just about anything. His stuff mixed all the styles and some that hadn't even been invented yet. He could sound mean and nasty on one line and then sing in a falsetto voice like Frankie Valli in the next. With Roy, you didn't know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business. One of his previous songs, "Ooby Dooby" was deceptively simple, but Roy had progressed. He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal. Typically, he'd start out in some low, barely audible range, stay there a while and then astonishingly slip into histrionics. His voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, "Man, I don't believe it." His songs had songs within songs. They shifted from major to minor key without any logic. Orbison was deadly serious - no pollywog and no fledgling juvenile. There wasn't anything else on the radio like him.” 
Bob Dylan


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Good Bye, Arnie!

Monday morning a lamp fell from the ceiling in our bedroom. It crashed on the floor and broke into a thousand pieces. There was no obvious reason why the hook that held it for nine years had suddenly slackened. A few hours later Peggy March called from Florida and told me that her husband, my dear friend Arnie, had died. Apparently at the same time the lamp fell down. Coincidence? Arnie was the best artist manager I've ever met, a dear and encouraging friend, a wonderful human being. I will miss his succinct and constructive criticism as much as his generous and heartfelt praise. It was quite appropriate that he left with a bang. Those who knew him will never forget him.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Golden Words From A Pro

"Singers who start selling albums get bombarded from all directions by writers trying to get on their albums, and by producers they're working with: Hey, let's get together and co-write. As if that's something that anybody can do. no matter what their experience or track record. How hard can it be? Well, even for professional, established songwriters, it's hard. It's not something to be treated casually, and it's truly condescending to the people who do it for a living to assume that you can put anyone in a room and have them come up with a worthwhile song. It's really nonsense, and it's exasperating to have that conversation time and time again, to come up against the claim that a true artist also needs to be a songwriter. That not only disrespects the songwriting craft, it disrespects artists who have never written."
Clive Davis

Monday, March 25, 2013

Old Hero, New Challenge

Through all my life I was in awe of Clive Davis. In the early 1970's, when I became a songwriter and record producer, the attorney turned music executive epitomized success in the music business. He had discovered Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, and he played a vital part in the careers of Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago and almost everybody else I admired. No wonder I have read his just released autobiography The Soundtrack Of My Life in one go. The reading took me back to the past when I myself was playing a minor part in the international pop music show. A pleasant surprise awaited my on page 550. There I read: I'm about to realize another of my life's dreams: producing a Broadway musical. Listen, Clive! To prove once again that you have the right nose for a potential hit, you may consider investing in Rebecca. I'm sure Ben Sprecher will welcome you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Aretha Franklin

Without doubt Aretha Franklin has altered the course of popular music. A string of hits such as Respect, You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman and Chain Of Fools made her the undisputed Queen of Soul in the Sixties. So I looked forward to meet her when I went to Los Angeles in 1976 to attend the Grammy Awards Gala. Aretha was to present the Rhythm and Blues Grammy, the category in which Sylvester and I were among the nominated artists. I remember sitting right behind Stevie Wonder and Aretha. When the R&B category came up, she went on stage. There she opened the envelope and smilingly read our names. We could hardly believe to have won. As soon as Sylvester and I rose to head for the stage, Aretha's face petrified. She was shocked at seeing two white guys from Europe approaching her to take away the one Grammy traditionally reserved for blacks. Giving us the trophy, she addressed me. To be exact, she hissed two short words. Too stunned to answer, I kept smiling. After all I was receiving the R&B Grammy from the hands of the Queen of Soul.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Desirée

Gilbert singing one of the songs we wrote together. Note his powerful performance and how he overrides his forgetting the lyrics of the second verse. What a zest for life he emanates!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Gilbert Bécaud

Over the years I had the privilege to work with a number of talented people, and some became dear friends. One of them was the French composer and singer, Gilbert Bécaud. We met at his farm in the country or on this houseboat in Paris and spent a lot of time together, writing songs, drinking Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois and discussing everything and anything. I learned something very important from Gilbert: Trust your talent, but improve what it gives to you by hard work. It was easy for him to come up with marvelous melodies, but that was only the starting point of his composing. He always tried to simplify his first idea, to make the melodic flow more natural. To write a three-minute-song took him six days or more of continuous work. He was often dissatisfied with himself, never gave up before he was really happy with the result and sometimes had fits of anger, especially when he wasn't glad with his performance in the recording studio. I loved to work with him. He was honest, loyal and smart. My Jewish friends would have called him "a mensch". Gilbert died 11 years ago. I miss him very much.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Narcissus

The best little story about vanity was written by Paul Coelho. I found it in his novel, The Alchimist, and it goes like this:

“The alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus.

The alchemist knew the legend of Narcissus, a youth who knelt daily beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty. He was so fascinated by himself that, one morning, he fell into the lake and drowned. At the spot where he fell, a flower was born, which was called the narcissus.

But this was not how the author of the book ended the story.

He said that when Narcissus died, the goddesses of the forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears.

'Why do you weep?' the goddesses asked.

'I weep for Narcissus," the lake replied.

'Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus,' they said, 'for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand.'

'But... was Narcissus beautiful?' the lake asked.

'Who better than you to know that?' the goddesses asked in wonder. 'After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!'

The lake was silent for some time. Finally, it said:

'I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.'

'What a lovely story,' the alchemist thought.”

I agree.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Devil's Favorite Sin...

... erases happiness, destroys friendships, hurts loved ones, makes wise men and women dumb, paralyzes the gifted, blinds the farsighted and poisons all collaboration. Watch the Devil (Al Pacino) revel in that human weakness.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Vanity vs. Happiness


You think at the age of eighty-seven Herbert Kretzmer, who created the English version of Les Miserables,  would be laughing all the way to the bank. But no, he's not a happy man. His complaint is an ancient malady that afflicts theatrical collaborators. He thinks he deserves more credit for his work than he's getting. "The show belongs as much to me as it belongs to the French," he told John Lahr of the New Yorker magazine. To be called the translator makes him furious. "Translation - the very word I rebut and resent, because it minimizes the genuine creativity that I bring to the task. All the big songs, Empty chairs at empty tables, Stars, Do you hear the people Sing? and Bring him home were mine." Needless to say that I sympathize with Kretzmer. But isn't it a pity that his vanity prevents him from enjoying his unique success?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Let It Be!


“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” 
Victor E. Frankl


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Free!

video
Lukas Hobi as Moses in St. Gallen/Switzerland. A poor quality recording of a great performance.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Freedom Of The Tortured

There is a song in Moses, the show that opened a few weeks ago in Switzerland, for which I received more praise than I deserve. It is the aria the tortured Moses sings in prison. Although he is locked up and chained, he claims to be free. Addressing his myrmidons he shouts: "Fetter and gag me, insult me, scorn and torture me: What makes me a human being stays free!" I owe this thought to Victor Frankl, an unbroken Auschwitz surviver. Frankl was convinced that only his will to "say yes to life in spite of everything"  let him endure the sufferings of the camp. His tormentors could not destroy his thoughts. He just would not let them. I admire this man, and deeply regret that I discovered his writings only after his death in the late nineties.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Robert McKee

I have to confess that some years ago I attended Robert McKee's seminar in New York. Those of you who are interested in story structure probably have heard of him. McKee regards himself as the guru of gurus, to use a rhetoric form he is fond of. One of his ceterum censeos is that a writer must never be satisfied with the negation of the main character's goal, but that he must go to the extreme which he calls "the negation of the negation". You would not dare tell him that logic defines the negation of the negation as  an endorsement. Bob hates to be criticized. You may have seen what happened to Nicolas Cage, playing a troubled screenwriter, when he approached Robert McKee, played by Brian Cox in the movie "Adaptation". I advise everyone to buy McKee's book Story. It is much cheaper than the seminar, and you don't run the risk of being yelled at. This said, I hasten to add that I learned a lot from grumpy Bob and regard him as one of my mentors.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chris Vogler's Model

Based on Joseph Campbell's theories Christopher Vogler developed a structure model for writers which I find very useful. Chris read The Hero With A Thousand Faces when he attended film school at the University of Southern California. Studying Campbell's theory he discovered a secret code of storytelling. This was in the mid-70's when coincidentally George Lucas's first Star Wars film came out. Chris could see that Lucas had been influenced by Campbell and that his ideas had vast application to moviemaking. I apply Vogler's mythic structure occasionally to my story architecture.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eternity Is Now

Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. And the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Bodhisattva, the one whose being (sattva) is illumination (bodhi), who realizes his identity with eternity and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder and to come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved which is sorrow. Loss, loss, loss.
Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Joseph Campbell

At his death in 1987, Joseph Campbell left a significant body of published work that explored his lifelong passion, the complex of universal myths. Influenced by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, he developed the theory that all myths are linked in the human psyche and that they are cultural manifestations of the universal need to explain reality. His most famous book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, is always within easy reach when I structure a show.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Great Club To Join

The Dramatists Guild of America is the States' national organization dedicated to promoting the vitality and vibrancy of the theatre by asserting the dramatist as its driving artistic force, advocating for their rights and working to create opportunities so that every playwright can realize their dream, take pride in their work and enjoy the respect they deserve. I joined the Guild in the early 90's, long before I had my first Broadway opening, and was surprised that they generously accepted me, being a foreigner and at that time still without a green card. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wrong Solution

As early as 1791 the great Thomas Paine lampooned the politics that induced the financial crisis of our days. He compared the combination of the Pitt ministry's small sinking fund with large borrowings to asking a man with a wooden leg to catch a hare: the longer they run, the further apart they grow.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Rule To Remember

Less is more. That is a rule of art I have learned from my father who was both a writer and an illustrator. I remember him sitting at his desk drawing new versions of the same sketch over and over again. Often several days went by before he was satisfied with his work. My dad's ideal was to reduce a face, an object, a movement to one single line. As a kid I didn't understand this. I regarded already the very first drawing as a masterwork. Many years later I learned that the great Henri Matisse had a similar ambition, painting the same picture again and again, making it less and less realistic, reducing it sometimes to only a few expressive lines and areas. I try to do the same when writing.



Friday, March 8, 2013

Honest Music

Yesterday I had the joy and the privilege of attending a concert of the Jazz Crusaders at the "Blue Note" in Manhattan's West Village. It was a wonderful experience, a time travel back to the golden days of live music. The old Wayne Henderson and his not much younger friends did what great musicians do best: They poured their hearts out playing, devoting all their virtuosity to the music instead of showing off. I am certainly not critical of showmanship. We live in a time when form is giving more attention than content. No use to criticize it. Still it's a pleasure just to see and hear good musicians make good music.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Whores?

“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” Virginia Wolf phrased that quote. Sounds great and always wins applause, but I don't believe it is true. A professional writer always tries to write something meaningful that is important for himself ("for love") and, at least in his opinion, for others, too ("for friends"). And if he succeeds he will probably make some money. There's not necessarily any moral descent or self-betrayal involved. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Herb & Constantin


Herb Alpert, one of the most successful pop instrumentalist ("A Taste Of Honey") and co-founder of A&M Records, uses part of his wealth to support children. Since 2010 his foundation has donated more than $ 6 million to the Harlem School Of The Arts. I recently watched Mr. Alpert perform at Manhattan's Café Carlyle. "I believe," he explained why he decided to save the Harlem school, "the best chance we have of creating responsible and productive kids is through the arts, and it has to be developed just like literacy." That reminded me of Constantin Stahlberg whom I mentioned earlier on this blog. Constantin, a former businessman, is also a musician. His German foundation "Musical@School" serves exactly the same purpose. While the Harlem School plans to rename its building the Herb Alpert Center to honor its benefactor, Constantin Stahlberg usually still has to fight for the permission to bring his tutors to the schools. American Kids, you've got it better!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sondheim As A Teacher

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pocket Mirror

The Viennese Kaffeehaus regular, Richard Engländer, a contemporary of Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Karl Kraus, named himself Peter Altenberg when he decided to become a poet and a bohemian. Although I don't know his writings well enough to pass any judgement on them, I feel considerable affection for the man because he gave one of the nicest self-characterisations a writer can possibly give: "I never dreamed of being Shakespeare or Goethe, and I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror, the sort that a woman can carry in her purse; one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart." 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Pickled By Poison

It took me some time to realize that unjust, even malicious reviews don't kill.  Unfortunately they are poison for a sensitive playwright. I wish I could deal with unfair critics like King Mithridates dealt with his enemies. His system learned to thrive on poison, for his assassins made the mistake of using small doses. So Mithridates was pickled, not destroyed.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Tony Kushner Became Such A Great Writer

The playwright I will always admire for his epic work on Aids, "Angels in America", created with "Lincoln" a new masterwork. In this short interview excerpt he explains what made him so great.