Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Leonard Cohen Taught Me

A publisher had arranged that Leonard Cohen and I should meet to write a song together. It was a crazy idea, but too tempting for me to turn it down. I don't know why Leonard agreed to work with someone like me, but he did. Certainly not because of my talent. We collaborated for ten days. What came out of it was less than great and never released, deservedly so. Nevertheless I'm grateful for every minute we sat together, I scribbling on a pad, he behind a silly kiddie-sized electric keyboard. He lived in an unsightly townhouse off Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, a simple unpretentious man. We met in the late afternoons, for back then he spent six to eight hours per day in a monastery up on the hills, praying and meditating and, I suspect, searching for rhymes. For Leonard is not just some singer-songwriter. He is a true poet. A holy man. First thing he did in those afternoons was to quote a new version of the lyrics he was currently working on. It was always the same poem, with small, often minimal changes. “I’m writing all the time," he said. "I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. It takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.” In those ten days I learned from Leonard how important every single word is, and how much difference little changes can mean. Only then I understood that you should never stop working on a good song. Sometimes you can improve it so much that it becomes great.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Janis Ian On Songwriting

“One of the hardest things of all is to start," says Janis Ian who gave us At Seventeen and Society's Child. "Just sitting down and getting over your own intimidations. Every professional songwriter I know — people who do it 100% for their living — is terrified every time they sit down to write. You’re always convinced that your next song is going to be your last, or that it’s going to be your worst, or that you’ll never be able to write anything as good as your hit. It’s a constant terror. I think all artists live in a constant state of terror. And part of our job is to know our own chaos well enough to be able to make sense of it when you can.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

How To Become A Successful Songwriter

An aspiring young man approached me the other day. "You had so many top hits," he said. "Since you gave up writing pop songs for good you could reveal now your secret of success to me." I didn't know how to answer, because - honest to God - I never had a secret of success. My spontaneous answer was: "Keep writing songs and polish the lyrics until you enjoy singing them". Admittedly that is no guarantee for success. It is a good beginning, though, to write what you love to sing. Difficult enough but still the easy part. The bad news is that songwriting is a craft that must be learned and mastered. Anyway, start by writing a lot. You will get better. Learn from great songs, find out what you like about them and try to create something similar. And when you feel you can do it, aim for the charts. In doing so, you may find it useful to check my

Seven Points For The Highly Successful Songwriter:
1) Basic idea: You must tell something worth telling. A conventional way to say I love you is not an idea. Try something new, something different. Think of a situation, strange circumstances, a story.
2) Catch line: A phrase that expresses your idea in a nutshell in an original or popular way. Again, try to find something original.
3) Structure: Like a story (and the best songs are actually stories) a good song must have a beginning, a middle and and an end; a great song has a surprising turn towards the ending.
4) Hook: Anything that is memorable, such as a repeated key line, a silly word, even a cry.
5) Relevance: Great songs are expressions of the zeitgeist, putting into words and music what people think, sense, long for; not necessarily journalistic observations, rather the way how your generation talks about love, relationships, daily problems.
6) Context: Your song must fit into the current charts; study your competition but don't just copy what's already out there; the trick is to add 10 to 20 percent originality to what people already love.
7) Sting: Add something, anything to your song that makes people listen up because it is kind of provocative - a word you usually don't hear in a song or a never-heard-before sound.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jeff Again: Becoming A Legend "Beats Working"

Jeff is so modest. And the girl who interviews him doesn't seem to know that she is talking to one of the few members of the Rock 'n Roll Hall Of Fame. When you don't feel the need to mention your achievements you're truly great.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Division Of Labour

"You drive. I'll criticize."

Friday, July 26, 2013

Jeff Barry

In the Mid-Eighties Peter Kirsten, one of the most prolific German record producers, had the idea of teaming me up with Jeff Barry. At that time Jeff already was a songwriter legend. He had worked with Phil Spector and Ellie Greenwich, and written perennial pop classics, such as Tell Laura I Love Her, Be My Baby, Da-Doo-Ron-Ron, Baby, I Love You, Leader of the Pack, Chapel of Love, Solitary Man, River Deep,Mountain High, Sugar,Sugar, Montego Bay - to name just a few. When we met we liked each other immediately. However, an unexpected problem arose.  Jeff asked me to go to the piano and play some of my melodies. I said I don't have any, I'm a lyricist. "You're kidding," Jerry said, "I'm a lyricist, too." - "Well, what are we going to do now? Shall I fly back to Munich?" - "No, I'd love to write some songs with you. Let's just give it a try." So I stayed at a bungalow of the Beverly Hills Hotel for three weeks. Putting our heads together we wrote a whole album during that time. When Peter recorded our songs with the Scandinavian singer Gitte Haenning, Jeff came over to Munich. It was a wonderful summer, and after long studio days we used to spend the evening in a beer garden or, joined by Roswitha, on the terrace of my Gr├╝nwald home.  Our album made gold and platinum, and I've learned one more time that the most gifted professionals have no attitude at all. Jeff and I haven't met for a long time, but we'll be friends forever.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Critic Arrives In Heaven...

“Picture this scene. A critic arrives at the gates of heaven. 'And what did you do?' asks Saint Peter. 'Well', says the dead soul. 'I criticised things'. 'I beg your pardon?' 'You know, other people wrote things, performed things, painted things and I said stuff like, "thin and unconvincing", "turgid and uninspired", "competent and serviceable," know'.”
Stephen Fry

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I Need Critics, But Some I Abhor

Naturally I sympathize with Sondheim's views, but they are not exactly my own. I need critics, especially when I've written something new. It is quite normal that I am unsure about it. I think it's fantastic (1%), miserable (20%) or so-so (79%), without knowing where I failed. Usually my wife, Roswitha, or my co-author, the composer, tell me upfront what's wrong, later maybe the director or a total outsider who happens to visit the rehearsals. Often I find some grain of truth in what musical fans write about the previews online or tell me during intermission. Professional critics see the work only when I regard it finished. Some of them sense weaknesses I denied, others may detect some real flaws I never saw. Unfortunately many don't even try to understand what I've written, and those are not helpful at all. A few intellectuals even pride themselves on their ignorance, indicating more or less explicitly they hate all musicals (or entertainment in general) and find it degrading to write about it. Those are the critics I abhor. No newspaper would send a reporter who detests sports to a football game. I'll never understand why they let opera buffs review musical openings.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sondheim On Critics

“If they praise you, you suffer afterwards by disappointing them; few writers who have a smash hit the first time out survive to be more than one-trick ponies. When the critics pan you, your confidence is shattered, but you gain a certain resilience, if for no other reason than there’s nowhere to go but up.”

"Critics are no longer necessary to find. In the theatre, the buzz created by chatroom chatters has become increasingly important to a show’s reputation before it opens. There are thousands of critics tapping away their opinions to whoever will listen -–so who needs a paid pontificator to tell you what your opinion should be?”

“Musicals are the only public art form reviewed by ignoramuses,” he said. “There are very few of them, I can guarantee it, who know anything about music at all.”

Monday, July 22, 2013

Lynda About Hollyweird

Here's Lynda herself, presenting her book at my favorite bookstore, New York's Strand.

She's not the greatest of readers, but a fine writer and an amusing talker.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The New Hollywood

Lynda Obst, one of the most prolific and respected American film producers, has written a book on the current situation in Hollywood. It is desperate. Sleepless in Hollywood is highly readable, even entertaining, but nevertheless depressing. I read it in one go, and anybody who's interested in the development of mass culture should read it too. Here's an excerpt as a teaser:

I was driving west in a classically horrible L.A. morning commute on my way to Peter Chernin’s new office in Santa Monica, thinking about our regular lunches back when he ran the studio and I worked as a producer there in the nineties. Peter, who is now building his own media empire at Fox and had been president of News Corp. for over a decade, was clearly the perfect person to ask what had turned the Old Abnormal into the New Abnormal. First of all, he was incredibly smart about the business. But more important, I now realized that during those lunches, he was the first to warn me that the proverbial “light ahead” was an oncoming train. It was way before things turned obviously grim. Since I was reliably churning out pictures then, I didn’t take his gloomy talk about piracy seriously. I just went around saying, “The landlord has the blues,” and blithely fell into the future.
Peter wasn’t exactly having a hard time making the transition. Once he decided in 2009 to leave the number-two job overseeing the News Corp. media empire, he became the biggest producer at Fox (one of the biggest anywhere), with guaranteed pictures and huge potential profit participation. His first picture was the tentpole smash Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he already had three television shows on the air. More recently, he released the smash Identity Thief, with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman.
The long drive got me thinking about the contrast between the struggling Old Abnormal producers (and writers) and the soaring New ones like Peter. It was discussed at a fancy-pants dinner party I went to a week before.
“They’re completely broke,” said a studio head, when asked by me (of course) about how different things were these days. He spoke about famous players who regularly came to him begging for favors—a picture, a handout, anything.
“Why?” his very East Coast guest asked incredulously.
I recalled his exact words as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. “They have extremely high overheads,” he said to his guest with me listening in. “They have multiple houses, wives, and families to support. They’ve made movies for years, they were on top of the world and had no reason to think it would end. And then suddenly it did. They’ve gone through whatever savings they had. They can’t sell their real estate. Their overhead is as astronomical as their fees used to be. They’ve taken out loans, so they’re highly leveraged. It’s a tragedy.”

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Friday, July 19, 2013

Frank Wildhorn

In 1997 I saw a preview of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway and was thrilled. Finally a truly American composer with a contemporary and popular style had entered the scene. For a long time Andrew Lloyd Webber had had no counterpart in the U.S.. Most musical composers in New York tried to walk in the shoes of Sondheim or please the critics by using the old swing music formulas of the 40's and 50's. Their work was mostly respected and occasionally even successful on Broadway, but internationally none could compete with ALW's blockbusters. Frank was the first one to leave the trodden path of Broadway behind. Clearly influenced by the pop music of the eighties, he wasn't ashamed to write ballads with the potential to hit the charts. The critics hated him for that, of course, but audiences all over the world keep flocking to his musicals. Not all of the shows Frank has written so far have been commercial hits, but all of them prove his extraordinary talent. Someday he will amaze the world with a work that will give him the recognition he deserves.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What Profession To Choose

Yesterday I had a talk with Peter. He's the son of a very good friend, in his early twenties, a student of event management. He loves music, plays several instruments and is the member of a yet unknown heavy metal band. Unfortunately Peter doesn't know what kind of profession to choose. Something connected to music would be great, but he's afraid that wouldn't pay the rent. I couldn't tell him exactly what to do. My advice was to consider by all means a job he could be enthusiastic about, no matter what it paid. In the course of my life I have watched enough people lose their souls by accepting compromise after compromise. On the other hand I've witnessed that those who spent their days doing something they loved to do had all the success they needed to become happy and satisfied. No one who enjoys his work has anything to fear from life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Creating Villains

"My favorite character I have ever written is Frollo (the lascivious cleric of Hunchback), who is probably the most despicable human being in anything I've done; I love him as a character. He was so totally self-justifying and in such denial of his own true motives. It was really fun to go to dark places in myself I would never let myself do in real life. It made me understand why actors love to play villains."
Stephen Schwartz

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Stephen Schwartz

He was born on the same day as my wife, but that can't be the reason I like him so much. From the first moment we met we communicated on the same wave length. I knew of course that Steve had written his first Broadway hit - Godspell - when he was 21, and had another hit - Pippin - in 1972. We met in 1999 in Berlin. He and Alan Menken had come over from the States to work with me on the first stage production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a musical based on their Disney movie score. Now, I could try to make a list of why we understood each other so well, but I rather sum it up: We both believe that dramatic structure is most important, that songs need to have turning points and that lyrics must be simple without being stupid. He treated me as equal, I looked up to him and still do. His masterwork is Wicked which is also his greatest commercial success, breaking box office records since its opening in 2003. I regard this show as a milestone in the history of the musical theatre, because it is the first to merge the Broadway tradition with the more "operatic" European style. Needless to say that Stephen Schwartz has won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics, three Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and has been nominated for six Tony Awards. Many more to come, and all fully deserved.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Maury Yeston

Among the established Broadway composers, Maury Yeston is a unique gem. His musical Nine was innovative, inspired and daringly unconventional. I always admired Maury for this achievement. Later he was the one who had the idea to turn the novel Phantom Of The Opera into a musical. His version is excellent; unfortunately Andrew Lloyd Webber who wrote anther version made Yeston look like a windfall reaper. With great expectations I went to a Broadway preview of Titanic in 1997. I was sure Maury Yeston would use this great metaphor of the "unsinkable" ocean liner that hit an iceberg on its virgin voyage to create again something extraordinary. But not so. Titanic turned out to be just another show with a predictable dramaturgy and a conventional score. I was disappointed, though I knew my own works did not entitle me to criticize others for conventionality. When I met Maury Yeston a few years later, I was happy that this warm and gentle man didn't ask me about my opinion on Titanic. My admiration for his genius has not waned. Last year I heard his September Songs and was in awe.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Titanic Emerged!

The Titanic is afloat again! A concert perfor-mance of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s 1997 Tony-winning musical Titanic will play at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center for one-night-only on February 17, 2014. As part of Manhattan Concert Productions' Broadway Series, the show follows in the footsteps of this year’s concert version of Ragtime.

Titanic will feature over one hundred singers from around the country, led by a Broadway ensemble and the New York City Chamber Orchestra. Broadway vet David Loud will lead the group as musical supervisor. Casting for the production has not yet been announced.

Based on the infamous nautical disaster of 1912, the musical retells the story of the doomed ocean liner with a score that includes songs like “The Largest Floating Object in the World,” “I Must Get On That Ship” and “Goodspeed Titanic.” Titanic was christened on Broadway on April 23, 1997 and went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. Its only run on the European continent was in Hamburg/Germany where it did not meet the producer's expectations.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

No Guts, No Glory!

"It is impossible to win the great prizes in life without running risks."
Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


“Whoever invented the meeting must have had Hollywood in mind. I think they should consider giving Oscars for meetings: Best Meeting of the Year, Best Supporting Meeting, Best Meeting Based on Material from Another Meeting... There is one crucial rule that must be followed in all creative meetings. Never speak first. At least at the start, your job is to shut up."
William Goldman 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Most Successful Broadway Failure

If any writer can be called successful it is William Goldman. He is not only one of the most successful high quality screenwriters (Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, All The President's Men, Marathon Man), but also the author of one of the best books about Hollywood (Adventures In The Screen Trade). So I smiled when I read this confession: “I am a failed playwright. I had three shows on Broadway by the time I was 30. They all flopped, and I fled.”

Monday, July 8, 2013

Broadway Grossings

Every now and then I check the the top-grossing Broadway productions, as reported by The Broadway League. This is the list for the last week in June:

Wicked (Gershwin Theatre), $1,985,154
The Lion King (Minskoff Theatre), $1,971,393
The Book of Mormon (Eugene O’Neill Theatre), $1,736,027
Kinky Boots (Al Hirschfeld Theatre), $1,528,261
Motown: The Musical (Lunt–Fontanne Theatre), $1,447,785
Lucky Guy (Broadhurst Theatre), $1,364,021
I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (Booth Theatre), $810,174
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (John Golden Theatre), $691,532
The Trip to Bountiful (Stephen Sondheim Theatre), $493,900
The Nance (Lyceum Theatre), $390,725

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Software For Songwriters

I was asked recently if I could recommend a software for songwriters. Yes, there is one I find quite useful. It's called Masterwriter, and what I like about it is that it's much more than a rhyming dictionary (if you need one go to rhyme zone, free of charge). Masterwriter offers 36,000 rhymed phrases ready for use, and a comprehensive list of close rhymes and a pop culture dictionary. Additional features are a reference dictionary, a list of descriptive words including alliterations, a synonym finder and the American Heritage Dictionary. I have been using this software for five years now and it still works well, that's why I don't know the latest version which is currently sold for about a hundred bucks. It is available for all systems.

How David Made It

"Failure is really important. Because if you don't fail it means you're not taking enough risks. And if you're not taking enough risks you're not going to discover new things!"

Friday, July 5, 2013

David Henry Hwang

When I worked on the German adaptation of Elton John's and Tim Rice's Aida I had the pleasure to meet David Henry Hwang. We were on the same wave length from the very beginning, and if I could spend more time in New York, I'm sure we could become close friends. David became famous as the author of M. Butterfly, based on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a male Peking opera singer. As a dramatist I admire his understanding of dramatic structure, as an often depressed human creature I envy David's optimism. Wherever he is, the sun shines, even when skies are gray. He once said to me: "It may look like I'm a bit crazy. But I'm just happy."

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Top Five Playwriting Books

1. The Art of Dramatic Writing. The classic by Lajos Egri. Though highly opinionated by far the best book to learn the craft. Egri's advice has helped generations of playwrights, scriptwriters, and writers for television. I'm one of them and never stop to recommend this excellent book full of timeless wisdom to my colleagues.

2. The Playwright's Process: Learning the Craft from Today's Leading Dramatists. Interwoven with hundreds of quotations from the author's own in-depth interview series at the Dramatists Guild, in New York City, The Playwright's Process offers a fresh and lively discussion of the indispensable ingredients of strong dramatic writing. By Buzz McLaughlin.

3. Naked Playwriting: The Art, The Craft, And The Life Laid Bare. A complete playwriting course -- from developing a theme through plotting and structuring a play, developing characters, creating dialog, formatting the script, and applying methods that aid the actual writing and rewriting processes. The book also offers sound guidance on marketing and submitting play scripts for both contests and production, protecting ones copyright, and working with directors and theatre companies. Well-written, comprehensive, and filled with illustrative examples.

4. The Playwright's Handbook helps you craft a script into a successful theatrical work and get it produced. Written by Frank Pike, an award-winning playwright, and Thomas G. Dunn, founder of the prestigious Minneapolis Playwrights Center, this guide contains the expertise of professionals actively working in the theater.

5. The Playwrights Work Book. A series of 13 written workshops covering, among other topics, conflict and character: the dominant image: Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller; Overheard voices: Ibsen and Shakespeare * The solo performance piece: listening for stories; Terror and vulnerability: Ionesco; The point of absurdity: creating without possessing: Pinter and Beckett; and much more.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tim Rice's New Musical

My admired colleague, the great (and big) Tim Rice of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess and Aida can confidently look forward to another first night in the West End. It is his stage musical adaptation of From Here to Eternity, based on the James Jones’ 1951 novel that was an Oscar-winning film in 1953. The new show‘s music was written by Stuart Brayson. The novel chronicles the lives of a group of privates on an army base in 1941 Hawaii. Romances blossom when the troubled Private Prewitt falls for club girl Lorene while platoon sergeant Warden starts a dangerous affair with his commanding officer’s wife Karen. The original manuscript of the book featured two passages that did not make it into the published edition due to their homosexual content. According to Sir Tim the musical will remain true to the original book and incorporate those homosexual elements deemed inappropriate for the 1953 film. The musical begins previews at the Shaftesbury Theatre on September 30, 2013, with opening night set for October 23.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Reinventing The Musical

Just a mental note for myself:
Writing for the musical stage today is not what it used to be. As much as I admire Hammerstein, Lerner and Weidman, I think the musical genre must change with the viewing habits of the ever-changing audiences. The film dramaturgy, in itself constantly changing, is influencing everything. I keep learning from scriptwriters almost every day, and sometimes I wish that the set and sound designers of the theater would do the same. Instead of repeating the traditional formulas we have to re-invent the musical to keep it alive and thrilling.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Getting Original Screenplays

Notwithstanding a common misapprehension, the real creators of movies and tv-series are not the directors but the writers. Whenever I like a flick, I want to read the screenplay. There are several ways to get the shooting script. First I look if there is a printed version available, but amazon usually can't help. Next I visit Drew's Scriptorama, a website with an enormous choice of links to free and downloadable film and tv scripts. Unfortunately a lot of them are not the original shooting scripts, but transcripts of fans. A collection of hand-scanned PDF's from authentic production scripts are to be found at Hollywoodscriptfinder.  They're all authentic and, even better, they're completely iPad, Kindle, Nexus, Droid ready!  Perfect for reading anywhere, anytime. Tons of impossible-to-find rare, vintage, classic, Noir and '70's titles.  Finally I try the Writers Store in LA which is absolutely the best source for all kinds of writers' needs. If all of those attempts fail I have to try my luck on Broadway. On Wednesdays and Saturdays there are street hawkers on Times Square and 45th Street who sell, probably not absolutely legally, authentic movie and tv scripts for $ 15.00 a copy.