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Sunday, June 30, 2013

What Sondheim Makes Blush

Maybe the best lesson about good lyric writing for a musical character I owe to Stephen Sondheim. One of his greatest lyrics keeps embarrassing him. As almost everyone knows by heart, Maria sings in "West Side Story": "I feel charming, oh, so charming, it's alarming how charming I feel...". Sondheim realized too late that those words and clever rhymes might not belong in the mouth of a simple teenage girl. Criticizing himself he judged that such a play with words draws attention to the lyric writer rather than the character. He rewrote the lyric to make it simpler and more in keeping with the way Maria expressed herself in the rest of the score, but Leonard Bernstein would have none of it. He liked it the way it was. As millions did who saw the show or the movie. Nevertheless still today Sondheim says: "I blush every time I hear the song."

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Venice, Another Rap Musical

Here's an interesting article I found in the latest Village Voice. It's about a new musical called "Venice". Composer-lyricist Matt Sax loves hip-hop. He also loves Shakespeare. These enthusiasms unite—not always smoothly—in this rap and pop musical loosely tied to the tragedy of Othello, but more concerned with post-9/11 America. A terrorist attack 20 years ago has thrust the citizens of Venice (which does not seem remotely Italian) into an era of corporate-sponsored martial law and a strict demarcation between the safe zone, where the elites live, and the city, where the underclass survives. Now a proletarian leader, also named Venice (Haaz Sleiman), has plans for civic reunification and a romantic reunion with his childhood sweetheart, Willow (Jennifer Damiano). Unfortunately, his scheming half-brother, Markos (the ever-excellent Leslie Odom Jr. in ultrasleaze mode), has other ideas. Sax has scripted a plum part for himself as narrator, the Clown MC. Under Eric Rosen's direction, the shifts between the Clown's expository narrative, the dialogue, and the songs are sometimes awkward, the recourse to Shakespeare's plot unilluminating. (And the character of Venice, the Othello stand-in, remains an unfortunate cipher.) But the songs are never less than propulsive, the performances committed, and the overall energy infectious. And all this without a single gondola.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Eggs Can't Fly


"It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."
C. S. Lewis 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Change

Here's what Jon Krakauer, a writer I highly respect ("Into The Wild"), writes about change: “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” However, change is not easy. Staying the same feels safer, even if you are suffering. At least the pain is familiar. You are afraid that some worse pain might be waiting for you out there. That's why you prefer the status quo. It takes courage to change. But, as Bette Davis coined it, no guts, no glory.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Don't Beat A Dead Horse!

Last week R., one of the best international sound engineers and record producers, wrote to me. We had not touched base for some years, and I was saddened by the tone of R.'s letter. It sounded depressed, almost desperate. That was absolutely not like him. After all he used to be a winner. Now he told me that he was out of work and short of options. Two songs were attached to his letter which I was asked to rate. Beautiful songs with emotional lyrics, both clearly without any chance to make its way to the charts. Times have changed, the music industry we knew belongs to the past, to say the least. R. had built his career on studio work, and there was never a better musical producer than him. Unfortunately even first class studio pros struggle to survive nowadays. First I did not know how to react. Should I console him, praise the quality of the songs he had sent me and give him false hope? I couldn't do that. I decided to tell him the truth. Even the best rider can't advance on a dead horse. No use beating it. He must dismount and look for another way to move on. A man (as well as a woman) who's talented, smart and active must change direction if he finds himself trapped in a dead end street. I want R. to do something totally different. I know he can, and I'm sure he will succeed if he forgets what used to be his recipe for success. He  will ask me what exactly I think he should do. I'll answer: Burying your dead horse would be a good start.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ten Simple Tricks

Since many years I regularly read David Pogue's computer column in the New York Times. He knows how to explain complicated things in a clear and often funny way. In this short video he names ten simple computer tricks to use when surfing the internet. After using my Apple Macintosh for almost a quarter century, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I didn't.


Monday, June 24, 2013

The Excitement Of Writing Plays


Maybe the strangest experience I sometimes have as a writer is to see the characters I have invented get independent. "You do have a leash," described Harold Pinter that experience. "You're holding a dog. You let the dog run about. You're in control. But the great excitement is to see what happens if you let the whole thing go. And the dog or the character really runs about, bites everyone in sight, jumps up trees, falls into lakes, gets wet, and you let that happen. That's the excitement of writing plays--to allow the thing to be free but still hold the final leash."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Justice?

In the US, there are 2,270 prisoners who were sentenced as children to life without parole. They will die behind bars. On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers disappeared in Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam six weeks later. Eight members of the Ku Klux Klan went to prison on federal conspiracy charges; none served more than six years.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

What You Always Wanted To Know...

It's common knowledge that reading books makes you wiser. I read a lot of books, but there are obviously a lot of things I didn't know. Especially about sex. I had to read the latest NYT Book Review to learn that Galen of Pergamum, the great physician and medical researcher of antiquity, was one of many learned men of his time who believed that women had to have an orgasm during sexual intercourse for conception to occur. For 1,500 years this was the scientific consensus. And today it is still generally believed that women are naturally less libidinous than men. True or not? According to Daniel Bergner (What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers) it depends where you meet. In the 1970s, a psychologist and neuro­endocrinologist named Kim Wallen noticed that the sexual behavior of rhesus monkeys was affected by the size of their cages. In close quarters the monkeys went at it like mad, and the male seemed to initiate sexual activity, which in turn seemed to confirm the prevailing idea that female monkeys were entirely sexually passive. But in larger cages, as in the wild, the females were the ones who chose their partners and initiated sex by following the males around and touching them demonstratively. The small cages, with their forced proximity, reduced monkey sex life to intercourse, obviating all the mating rituals in which female lust was the essential factor that set sex in motion. After Wallen’s observations, primatologists started seeing evidence that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections. Amazing, isn't it. You never stop learning.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Good Writing Means Cutting

“I’m not sure I’m quoting Somerset Maugham’s rule absolutely correctly, but I think it is, ‘If it should occur to cut, do so.’ That’s the first basic rule of cutting. If your reading through something and it bothers you, then it’s bad. Cut it…It’s purifying. It’s refining. Making it precise…My own rules are very simple rules. First, cut all the wisdom; then cut all the adjectives. I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity. No symphathy…Cutting leads to economy, precision, and to a vastly improved script.”
Paddy Chayefsky

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Prescient Words!

Paddy Chayefsky wrote this scene of Network in 1975. It opens the final act of the film, when the rebellious protagonist, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), discovers that Communications Company of America (CCA), the conglomerate that owns UBS, will be bought out by an even larger Saudi Arabian conglomerate. Beale launches an on-screen tirade against the deal, encouraging viewers to send telegrams to the White House telling them, "I want the CCA deal stopped now!". This leads to his meeting with CCA chairman Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who explicates his own "corporate cosmology" to Beale. Jensen delivers a tirade of his own in an "appropriate setting," the dramatically darkened CCA boardroom.

One of the greatest movie scenes ever written. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981, but his work lives on.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Paddy Chayefsky

Yesterday I saw Network again. I had almost forgotten what a great movie it is, and I was surprised - or should I say shocked - how topical. 36 years ago that story about a television station using all means to get a top rating was just a clever and caustic satire. Today it resembles a documentary. I shouldn't be surprised that every scene and almost every word of that movie has stood the test of time. After all it is one of the masterworks of the great and unforgotten Paddy Chayefsky. In a powerful scene, set in a conference room of imperial décor and intimidating proportion, he presciently described today's world, letting a business mogul (Ned Beatty) lecture the newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch): “We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business...There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.”


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Respect The Audience


"Consider the public. Treat it with tact and courtesy. It will accept much from you if you are clever enough to win it to your side. Never fear it nor despise it. Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then, if you must, make it laugh, make it cry and make it think, but above all, dear pioneers, in spite of indiscriminate and largely ignorant critical acclaim, in spite of awards and prizes and other dubious accolades, never never never bore the living [heck] out of it"
Noel Coward

Monday, June 17, 2013

Storytelling Is No Teamwork


"From a writing point of view, you now have teams of screenwriters working with a director. What's lost in the process is the power of that one heart, brain, gut and soul that makes something an original piece of writing…I always wanted to make sure that what I write is what appears on screen, to not have some idiot change it on its way to the screen."
Joe Eszterhas 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Directors Are Just That

This just happened to Sylvester and me: We met a prospective director for one of our shows who suggested some "improvements" to be implemented in an upcoming production. Some of his ideas had been in our minds before, and we reluctantly agreed to think about some others. Before we even started working on the rewrite the producer informed us that the director would be entitled now to a share of the authors' copyright for their work.
Entitled? Because he made suggestions? Not at all. The Dramatists Guild of Rights clearly states that the authors own all approved revisions, suggestions, and contributions to the script made by other collaborators in the production, including actors, directors, and dramaturgs. You do not owe anyone any money for these contributions. If a theatre uses dramaturgs, you are not obligated to make use of any ideas the dramaturg might have. Even when the input of a dramaturg or director is helpful to the playwright, dramaturgs and directors are still employees of the theatre, not the author, and they are paid for their work by the theatre/producer. It has been well-established in case law, beginning with "the Rent Case" (Thompson v. Larson) that neither dramaturgs nor directors (nor any other contributors) may be considered a co-author of a play, unless (i) they've collaborated with you from the play's inception, (ii) they've made a copyrightable contribution to the play, and (iii) you have agreed in writing that they are a co-author. I dedicate this information to all colleagues reading my blog and advise them never to give in to any such unjustified demand, even if they should be blackmailed by their producer to agree.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Different Again!


So Apple has not lost its ability to innovate after Steve Jobs left the building. On the first day of its annual conference for software developers, the company unveiled a new desktop computer that looks like no computer ever looked before. The new Mac Pro, a computer for professionals scheduled for release this year, looks like a metal cylinder. It could be mistaken for a vase. I'm relieved that Steve Jobs' mantra Think Different hasn't been forgotten, and I hope the daring step ahead will be rewarded. When someone does the opposite of what is expected, I can't help being impressed.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Dancing Drag Queens

The story goes like this: Charlie Price has suddenly inherited his father’s shoe factory, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to live up to his father’s legacy and save his family business, Charlie finds inspiration in Lola. A fabulous entertainer in need of some sturdy stilettos, Lola turns out to be the one person who can help Charlie become the man he’s meant to be. As they work to turn the factory around, this unlikely pair finds that they have more in common than they ever dreamed possible.

Choreographer Jerry Mitchell did the obvious drag queen routine and was duly rewarded by winning a Tony.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Revolting Kids

In Matilda The Musical Peter Darling lets school children dance, but they dance like kids. He obviously studied the movements of angry children and turned those into an exciting choreography. Chapeau!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tony Awards 2013

An old theater rule warns actors to share the stage with a minor. According to common knowledge even the most amazing acting can't compete with a child that wins the audience's love. Since last sunday we have to add: ...unless the actor is a drag queen. At this year's Tony Awards “Kinky Boots,” a show about a drag queen who helps save a struggling shoe factory, pulled off an upset victory as best musical edging out the expected front-runner, “Matilda the Musical" about a smart young girl battling against idiotic adults.The best-musical win for “Kinky Boots” was a shock for the producers and artists on “Matilda,” which set a record in London for winning the most Olivier Awards and which received justly the best reviews of any musical this season. The children's performance in that show is absolutely breathtaking. But in my opinion the show's hero is its choreographer, Peter Darling. If anyone deserved a Tony - this ingenious man is the one. He didn't get it. It will probably not console him - but I want Peter to choreograph my next show.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Heine On Cathedrals

"When I lately stood with a friend before [the cathedral of] Amiens, . . . he asked me how it happens that we can no longer build such piles? I replied: Dear Alphonse, men in those days had convictions (Ueberzeugungen), we moderns have opinions (Meinungen) and it requires something more than an opinion to build a Gothic cathedral."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Heinrich Heine On Immanuel Kant

“The history of Immanuel Kant's life is difficult to portray, for he had neither life nor history. He led a mechanical, regular, almost abstract bachelor existence in a little retired street of Königsberg, an old town on the north-eastern frontier of Germany. I do not believe that the great clock of the cathedral performed in a more passionless and methodical manner its daily routine than did its townsman, Immanuel Kant. Rising in the morning, coffee-drinking, writing, reading lectures, dining, walking, everything had its appointed time, and the neighbors knew that it was exactly half-past three o'clock when Kant stepped forth from his house in his grey, tight-fitting coat, with his Spanish cane in his hand, and betook himself to the little linden avenue called after him to this day the Philosopher's Walk. Summer and winter he walked up and down it eight times, and when the weather was dull or heavy clouds prognosticated rain, the townspeople beheld his servant, the old Lampe, trudging anxiously behind Kant with a big umbrella under his arm, like an image of Providence.- What a strange contrast did this man's outward life present to his destructive, world-annihilating thoughts! In sooth, had the citizens of Königsberg had the least presentiment of the full significance of his ideas, they would have felt far more awful dread at the presence of this man than at the sight of an executioner, who can but kill the body. But the worthy folk saw in him nothing more than a Professor of Philosophy, and as he passed at his customary hour, they greeted him in a friendly manner and set their watches by him.”

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine is best known for his poems, most of them written in a folky style with a surprising, totally unfolky twist at the end. I like Heine's poems very much, but the reason I admire him is the wit and intelligence of his prose. He wrote essays that are sparkling gems. I dare say Heine was the German-language Christopher Hitchens of the 19th century, commenting acidly on literature, religion and politics. A born Jew, he had converted to the protestant faith. "It is extremely difficult for a Jew to be converted", he joked, "for how can he bring himself to believe in the divinity of - another Jew?"

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Password Madness

We've all heard the advice to make up a different password for every Web site we use. It's not enough that it is long, contains digits, punctuation and unrecognizable words, we must also change it every thirty days. Well, I just can't follow that advice, and I don't know anyone who does. Nowadays you have to enter a password as often as you use the internet. I guess I have account names and passwords for more than 50 pages by now. How shall I possibly remember all of them anew every 30 days without being blocked for any other memory upload? There are several password memorization programs available, such as KeePass, 1Password and Dashlane. But are they safe? I rather do what the security pundits advise me not to do: I write my account ID's and passwords on an old-fashioned piece of paper. Maybe it is wrong, but I am rather reckless than crazy.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Avatars

The other day I read an article in the New York Times I can't forget. It is about a Russian billionaire who sponsors a scientific project called 2045 Initiative. In short, Dmitry Itskov, 32, envisions the mass production of lifelike, low-cost avatars that can be uploaded with the contents of a human brain, complete with all the particulars of consciousness and personality. Your avatar would be digital copy of your mind in a nonbiological carrier, a version of a fully sentient person that could live for hundreds or thousands of years. This project seems far-fetched and unfeasible, but I wouldn't say it's unrealistic. And so I fantasize that the children of my grandchildren will have to cope with a growing population of living dead - immortal personalities walking around as avatars. A nightmare.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Meeting Sylvester


Forty years ago I spent my days and most of my nights at a Munich sound studio. I always used the same rhythm group of musicians. Some dark February morning the regular keyboarder did not show up. I called all good piano players in town, nobody was available. What should I do? The studio was booked, the musicians waited, I had a deadline. I was in a panic. A session agent suggested to send me the keyborder of a professional big band. Having no other choice, I reluctantly agreed. An hour later the guy arrived, a 28-year old Yogoslavian with a funny beard and long black hair. I gave him the score of the songs we would record, basically a tab sheet, and he joined the rhythm group for a first run-through. Listening to his playing in the corntrol booth I first nodded, then smiled. He was not only better than the replaced keyboarder, he was great. In no time he understood what I wanted and offered various ways to do it. I know musical talent when I hear it; this guy was a genius. I asked him on the spot if he would be willing to do more studio work. He did. The big band that had brought him to Munich had to look for another piano player. After the session we had the usual drink in the studio cafeteria. It was the beginning of a productive collaboration and a life-long friendship.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Is Disco Back?

Strange news have arrived from the United States. Radio programmers note the pop charts list more dance-oriented songs than at any point since the late 1970s, a consequence of the surging popularity of electronic dance music. Teenagers, born two decades after disco died, are reported to move again to pure 1970s disco music, such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Curse Of Early Success

I never met Phil Spector, but when I started producing pop music  in the seventies he was one of my role models. I even tried to copy his famous Wall Of Sound (to no avail). Like every artist I dreamed of success. Phil Spector, the legendary producer of 60s' hits like Baby I Love You, Spanish Harlem, Da Doo Ron Ron, Be My Baby and You've Lost That Loving Feeling had been a teenager when he had reached the peak of his career. In my twenties, struggling to make a living, working hard and longing for a breakthrough I regarded him as the lucky one. But what looks like a blessing sometimes turns out to be a curse. How can you top having at the same time four songs in the top ten of the Billboard Charts? Impossible. You can't even repeat it. So everything else that comes feels like a failure. Already in his thirties, Phil Spector became very strange. He hid from daylight and surrounded himself with bodyguards. He never stopped producing, recorded songs with big stars and enormous success. However, he wasn't the admired wunderkind he used to be, rather a revisited legend. And never again four hits in the charts. He turned bitter. His weird behavior alienated him from his devotees and collaborators. I guess Phil hated himself. The wigs he wore and the drugs he took did not help. The sad end of his career came in 2011: He was sentenced to life imprisonment on a charge of murder. As Tim Rice in his great Evita aria High Flying Adored says: So famous, so easily, so soon is not the wisest thing to be.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Recognition

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Giorgio's Great Discovery


While Giorgio was focused on “becoming international”, I produced songs for the German charts. Every now and then we met in one of Munich's sound studios and watched each other at work. Giorgio’s mantra was that you needed an unusual sound to succeed. After trying vocoders, flangers and kids’ toys he discovered by chance a wall of the very first Moog sound computers in the Bavaria Studios. It was only natural that from then on he used the Moog's great variety of sounds for his productions. In the mid-seventies, when I finally went “international” myself, we both produced a number of global disco hits. But Giorgio Moroder’s real achievement was that he had discovered computer sounds and rhythms for pop music, long before the invention of the so-called synthesizer. Right now, he is being recognized and justly admired for this by a new generation of musicians, in particular Daft Punk.