Monday, September 30, 2013

Into The Woods And On The Screen

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's masterpiece, Into The Woods, will soon be a major film. This musical is a rather intellectual play with Grimm's fairy tale characters who interact, meet unexpected obstacles and don't live happily ever after. It all starts when a baker and his wife journey into the woods in search of a cow, a red cape, a pair of golden slippers and some magic beans to lift a curse that has kept them childless. One of the story's protagonists is a witch that conspires to teach important lessons to Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack of the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. This picture is a first look at Meryl Streep in that role as she is out to reverse a curse that has taken her beauty. Disney‘s high-profile adaptation also stars Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and others. The Rob Marshall-directed film opens Christmas Day 2014.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Current Broadway Hits

Top-grossing Broadway shows for the week ending Sept. 22.

1. The Book of Mormon
2. The Lion King
3. Kinky Boots
4. Wicked
5. Motown: The Musical
6. Matilda the Musical
7. Pippin
8. The Phantom of the Opera
9. Jersey Boys
10. Mamma Mia!

Kinky Boots is now more successful than the juggernaut box office hit Wicked. A stunning surprise. Matilda which is number one in the West End, and which Ben Brantley of the NYT called the best show ever to come from London, seems to be a Broadway disappointment. The Book Of Mormon has established itself as a long time smash.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tell Your Truth

"What I've learned as a writer is that the more I can get to my own emotional truth, the more a song is actually about me, thinly disguised as an Indian princess or the hunchback of Notre Dame or other characters, oddly enough, the more it communicates universally. For the most personal songs I've written, I've had people come up to me and say, How could you possibly have known that? I felt like you read my diary. It's really an interesting phenomenon, and of course it makes our job as songwriters a lot easier. The more you can tell your truth, the more it resonates for others. Of all the lessons I learned about songwriting I've learned over time, that's been the most revelatory for me."

Friday, September 27, 2013

You're Right, James

I think the worst and most insidious procrastination for me is research. I will be looking for some bit of fact or figure to include in the novel, and before I know, I've wasted an entire morning delving into that subject matter without a word written.
James Rollins 

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Putting first things first sounds easy enough, but in everyday life we all prefer doing first what we like best. Writers find a thousand reasons to procrastinate. At least yours truly.  I used to spend a lot of time sharpening my pencils, filling my pipe and making "important" phone calls until I decided to write with mechanical pencils, stopped smoking and forbade myself to pick up the phone during working hours. Do I start writing immediately now? No. Instead I prepare a badly needed fresh cup of coffee or browse the internet (I call that doing research!) or clean up my computer's desktop. So don't expect advice from me how to follow my own rules.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Concentrate On The Moment!

“Musicians, like golfers, have to put their minds in the right place – trusting, confident, enjoying the pressure, being in present. And so forth. Otherwise, no amount of practice or “Time management” will make them better. The same is true in all professions: if you’re stuck in the Training Mindset, evaluating yourself, or thinking in the past or future, you will not perform up to your potential. You will waste a lot of time, be an inefficient performer, and likely assume you need to manage your time better. In reality you need to manage your thinking better. ”
John Eliot

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Getting Organized

I'm really not a great time manager. Nevertheless I keep being asked how I can get so much done notwithstanding all the traveling and the other distractions of a busy story architect and theatrical author. My trick is very simple and unspectacular. Every now and then, preferably on Sunday afternoons,  I make a list of things to do, prioritize them and try to process my tasks according to importance. As long as I work on something I stick with it and concentrate on just that one occupation. No phone calls, no e-mails, no visits. A coffee break, yes, and a short walk with my dog. Whenever I feel blocked or bored with what I write, I change to the next item on my list. Although I learned from Stephen Covey not to mistake urgency with importance I have to confess that I also tend to check on my e-mails several times a day. However, I gave up answering them promptly. I reserve that task to the late afternoon or evenings when my head gets too tired for creative work.

Monday, September 23, 2013


"I believe in God, but not as one thing, not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It's just that the translations have gone wrong."
John Lennon

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hitchens Again

Don't be put off by the embarrassing introduction, delivered by a young woman who is obviously too nervous to fluently read the prepared text. When Christopher Hitchens talks about God and answers questions he's, like he always was, at his best.

You don't have to agree with him to admire his wit. Hitchens reminds me of one of my literary heroes, Heinrich Heine.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Two Kinds Of Ghosts

“Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevski, the Russian novelist, said one time that, One sacred memory from childhood is perhaps the best education. I can think of another quickie education for a child, which, in its way, is almost as salutary: Meeting a human being who is tremendously respected by the adult world, and realizing that that person is actually a malicious lunatic.”
Kurt Vonnegut

Friday, September 20, 2013

Why Do We Need A Ghost?

Obviously a ghost makes our protagonist more interesting, especially if we only learn about it as the story unfolds. Much more important is the ghost's influence on the character's behavior. His or her trauma is the source of the protagonist’s psychological and moral weakness, his internal opponent. John Truby who devotes many pages in his book, The Anatomy Of Story, to that topic, describes the ghost as the great fear that is holding the hero back from action. That's why he or she has to overcome it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Protagonist's Ghost

A good protagonist should have a ghost that haunts him or her. Or, to use a less dramatic expression, a trauma. Something that happened in the character's past and is still influencing his behavior and his way to see the world. It often is a traumatic experience like the early loss of a beloved one, or an accident in his or her childhood, but it can also be something positive. It depends on the story we wish to tell, and what story we wish to tell depends on us. I found out pretty late that I tend to tell stories whose protagonists have paternal ghosts. The "ghost" of my "Rebecca" protagonist, "I", was her father, just like the ghost of "Elisabeth" and "Mozart!". And my latest heroine, "Lady Bess", has to leave two ghosts behind, those of her father, Henry VIII, and her mother, Anne Boleyn.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Let It Be!

Without doubt I'm not  the first or only one who was approached to write a Beatles show. The concept is always the same: Some producer intends to put a group of young musicians on stage, retell the episodes to be found in some hundred Beatles, McCartney and John Lennon biographies, and use the Beatles' greatest hits album as a score. There's a legal problem, of course, because the publishers of the Beatles repertoire won't give you the stage rights of the songs. To circumvent this, you must not integrate the songs into the story. What you can do is a kind of Beatles Revival Concert with some talking in between. That's not theatre, and certainly not a "musical", even though Mr. Producer will advertise it as "the new Beatles musical". The Beatles were smart enough to break up when they ran out of ideas. So they never began endlessly touring, performing big, glitzy, sold-out shows of just the hits. What's the point of doing that now, putting ringers wearing their 60's costumes on stage, pretending they are John, Paul, George and Ringo? Dear producers, please let it be.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Good Start

My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted to be.
Carole King 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Carole King On Broadway

I always admired her. Well, at least since I knew that she had written Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, one of my favorite songs. When her name was still Carole Klein she went to that high school in Brooklyn that was the hotbed of the rock'n roll of the sixties, the James Madison High, where, among others, Phil Spector, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Jeff Barry and Mort Shuman spent their teenage years. Neil Sedaka wrote Oh Carol to charm his cass mate when she was 16. When Carole Klein became pregnant she married her boyfriend and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin. They left college and took daytime jobs, Goffin working as an assistant chemist and King as a secretary, while writing songs together in the evening at an office belonging to Don Kirshner's Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway opposite the Brill Building. From there, Carole and Gerry fought their way into the record business. By the time Carole reached her twenties, she had the husband of her dreams and a flourishing career writing hits for the biggest acts in rock ‘n’ roll. But it wasn’t until her personal life began to crack that she finally managed to find her true voice. Her album Tapestry which topped the U.S. album chart for 15 weeks belonged to the soundtrack of my life in the 70's. Now the story of Carole King’s remarkable rise to stardom has been turned into a musical called Beautiful that will open at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway on January 12th, 2014. Previews start on November 21st, 2013.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Goodbye, Mr. Dolby!

First I heard the name Ray Dolby in the early 70's when I spent most of my time in recording studios. His company, Dolby Laboratories in London, introduced a new technology that produced cleaner, crisper sound by electronically reducing the hiss generated by analog tape recording. The Dolby noise-reduction technology quickly became a staple of all good studios. You could actually hear the difference. Film studios began adopting the system in the 1970s, beginning with Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film “A Clockwork Orange.” Dolby Laboratories introduced digital surround-sound technology to home entertainment in the 1980s. Dolby started his career already as a teenager when he was hired by Alexander Poniatoff, a Russian émigré and founder of Ampex, the pioneering maker of first class studio tape recorders. In his early twenties he developed the electronic components of the company’s videotape recording system. Then he left Ampex to graduate at Cambridge University in Britain where he met a German summer student, Dagmar Bäumert. They were still married when Ray Dolby died on Thursday at his home in San Francisco. He was 80.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Susan Sontag On Writing

"You write in order to read what you've written and see if it's O.K. and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it — once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread. You are your own first, maybe severest, reader. "To write is to sit in judgment on oneself," Ibsen inscribed on the flyleaf of one of his books. Hard to imagine writing without rereading... though the rewriting — and the rereading — sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of "literature" in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit... Let's say it's a mess. But you have a chance to fix it. You try to be clearer. Or deeper. Or more eloquent. Or more eccentric. You try to be true to a world. You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself. You want to winch the book out of your balky mind. As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be — what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be. You read the sentences over and over. Is this the book I'm writing? Is this all?... Or let's say it's going well; for it does go well, sometimes. There you are, and even if you are the slowest of scribes and the worst of touch typists, a trail of words is getting laid down, and you want to keep going; and then you reread it. Perhaps you don't dare to be satisfied, but at the same time you like what you've written. You find yourself taking pleasure — a reader's pleasure — in what's there on the page. Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to reread. Allowing yourself, when you dare to think it's going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration's shove... And then: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed."
Susan Sontag (1933-2004) in the New York Times 12/18/2000

Friday, September 13, 2013

Advice For Writers

"Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience."
Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dream Ideas

What happened to me, seems to be pretty normal. We are creative when we sleep. In 1924, Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, had been grappling with a problem of stitching for his machine, when he had a dream one night.  He dreamed he’d been captured by a native tribe and ordered by their king to complete the construction of a sewing machine.  By visualizing holes in their spearheads, he awakened with the solution – an eyehole in the needle point.  The insight led to the successful implementation of the sewing machine. Another example:
While working on a model of the atom, physicist Niels Bohr dreamed of a planetary system with electrons circulating around the nucleus.  The Bohr Model of the Atom, along with his other works, led him to a Nobel prize in science.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How I Found The Key To Writing "Elisabeth"

In the late 80's I was about to give up my project of turning the life story of the melancholic and amazingly progressive Austrian Empress, Elisabeth, into a stage musical. Her courage and her will to break free of traditional limitations fascinated me, I saw clearly that her tale was a metaphor of the challenges, possibilities and dangers of women's lib, and I realized that her personal fate reflected the downfall of an overripe and overbred culture. But how could that be the stuff for a show? I was at the point of putting all the books and documents aside and forget about it when, one late evening, I read a book of Elisabeth's original writings and came across a very sad, almost suicidal poem expressing her wish to die. That woman's yearning for death, I thought, was almost erotic. When I went to sleep that night I dreamed of Elisabeth having a love affair with a good looking, seductive man who turned out to be Death. I awoke from that dream at four o'clock in the morning and knew how I must tell her story. In that moment all my problems were solved, I could see the whole arc of the drama. The story of my main character's life was a complicated love affair with Death.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pop Songs Should Be Popular

"There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit; but the case of song-writing is, I think, one of the few."
Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 9, 2013

Popularity Kills Art

You can define yourself, taste-wise, as either in league with the popular or against it. To be sure you want to be accepted by (well, I mean popular with) your friends and colleagues, but you also wish to show that you are ahead of the crowd, not swimming with the current. The rule is: If something is popular, it can’t also be good. It's utterly uncool to be fond of the chart-topping song, the top-rated TV show, the No. 1 best seller, the highest-grossing movie of the year or the most successful musical. There's is some risk, however, in being enthusiastic about an unrecognized talent, a misjudged masterwork or an underrated play. What if the sleeper you praise will become a hit? Then you need a good reason to change your mind. I know what always works. Just say it is no longer what it promised to be because it lost its soul to the devil of commerciality. Today everyone knows that something that makes money can't be art.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

How To Become Extraordinary

"People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things."
Sir Edmund Hilary, 
First to reach the summit
of Mount Everest

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Temptations

This is a medley from a London concert in 1982. At that time the original lineup of the group - David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Otis Williams, and Eddie Kendricks - had changed several times. Here we see Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Richard Street, Ron Tyson and Dennis Edwards perform. The typical sound of this phenomenal funk masters survived all changes.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why We Need Plays

"Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays."
Friedrich Schiller
I guess I have quoted this sentence before on these pages, but I don't mind to repeat it over and over again. It is a concise description of every culture's foundation, and a perfect explanation of the importance of the unimportant.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Meeting The Motown Guys

I never got to know Motown's master mind, Barry Gordy, but Sylvester and I met with Motown's heart and soul, the hit writing team of Lamont Dozier and Brian & Eddie Holland. That was in 1976, after we had two consecutive number one hits in the US charts with my studio group Silver Convention. Our songs were pure disco, Munich style, but American ears categorized them as R & B music. To be sure, we both loved R & B, and I was a fan of the Temptations. So we regarded Holland-Dozier-Holland as our main inspiration. We took a plane to Detroit only to meet them and show our admiration and gratitude. Oh, how naive we were! Our three heroes looked at us with condescending smiles and undisguised hostility. I said: "We owe you a lot." And Brian Holland answered: "We know." The rest was awkwardness on our side as we tried to ignore our heroes' contempt.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

No Money For "Money"

I read an article by Larry Richter in the New York Times that infuriates me. The song “Money,” recorded in 1959, was the first national success for the Motown label of the now legendary Barry Gordon. Over the years, “Money” has generated millions of dollars in publishing royalties. It was recorded by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, has been widely used in films and advertisements and is now featured in “Motown: The Musical” on Broadway. But the pianist and singer
Barrett Strong, who first recorded “Money” and, according to records at the United States Copyright Office in Washington, was originally listed as a writer of the song, says that he has never seen a penny of those profits. Unbeknown to Mr. Strong, who also helped write many other Motown hits, his name was removed from the copyright registration for “Money” three years after the song was written, restored in 1987 when the copyright was renewed, then removed again the next year — his name literally crossed out. Documents at the copyright office show that all of these moves came at the direction of Motown executives. Mr. Strong’s predicament illustrates an oddity in the American copyright system, one that record and music publishing companies have not hesitated to exploit. The United States Copyright Office, a division of the Library of Congress, does not notify authors of changes in registrations, and until recently the only way to check on any alterations was to go to Washington and visit the archives personally.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

While in London, I came across James Shapiro's book Contested Will, Who Wrote Shakespeare. I follow the discussion (or should I rather call it the fight) about the authorship of Shakespeare's works for many years now and I read a dozen books pro and contra. The title of Shapiro's book is misleading. It does not ask who wrote Shakespeare (Shapiro does not doubt that it was Shakespeare himself), it tries to find out why the question was raised in the first place. Like James Shapiro’s previous book, 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, a high-definition portrait of the playwright at the moment he wrote Hamlet, his description of the almost 300 year old controversy is a pleasure to read. That Columbia University professor really knows how to write non-fiction. I fully agree with Jeremy Noel-Tod who summed up his review for The Daily Telegraph like this: "Contested Will is a serious, interesting and original book about how Shakespeare’s genius can dominate the imagination. It is especially illuminating on the parallels between 19th-century religious and critical doubt. But its demystifying approach only explains part of the “why”: the minds of other people."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Shakespeare's Globe

Last Friday I had the pleasure of visiting the Globe Theatre in London for the first time. I saw a splendid production of Macbeth. What impressed me even more was the theatre itself.

The original Globe Theatre, built by the Theatre acting company to which William Shakespeare belonged, opened in 1599. In 1613, it burnt to the ground during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. The fire was attributed to a theatrical cannon, which misfired and set the thatched roof and wooden timbers aflame. The new Globe Theatre, built according to Elizabethan plans, is the brainchild of American actor and director Sam Wanamaker. Similar to the original, the stage of the new Globe Theatre extends into a large circular yard, which is surrounded by three tiers of very steep seating. The most expensive seats are covered. All others are exposed, which is why plays are held here only during the summer months. Additional standing room for about 700 is available at a very low cost (I paid 5 Pounds) for those who don't mind remaining erect during the entire production. In total, the theatre can accommodate about 1,300 patrons, less than half of the 3,000 or so who could attend productions during Shakespeare's time. I assure you, the experience is a time travel back into the early 17th century.

Sunday, September 1, 2013