GUEST BLOG: Deconstructing a Song with Kleban Prize winner Amanda Yesnowitz

As the story goes, Dorothy Hammerstein once overheard a man at a lavish NYC event extolling the virtues of “Ol’ Man River.” Correcting the fellow, who attributed the song’s genius to Jerome Kern, she interjected sassily: “Jerome Kern wrote ‘dum, dum, dum-dum.’ My husband wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’.”

Historically, lyricists get the short shrift. But the truth is that when we’re doing our jobs most compellingly, we shouldn’t be noticed at all. Lyrics should feel organically generated by characters, not writers. Still, when we study the musical theatre canon, we can learn a lot from those wordsmiths whose many gifts have helped develop the form. In my mind, Jerry Herman is one those versifiers who falls through the cracks. Certainly, he’s often recognized for being a songwriting stalwart but he is one of the most underrated lyricists in musical theatre and I know exactly why: he makes lyric writing look effortless. His lyrics are all at once character specific and easily extractable. Favoring economy of language, simple song forms, and uncluttered images, Herman is a lyricist of the people. He knows what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you’re desiring but he knows how to articulate those thoughts, feelings, and desires better than you ever could.

Sentiment is so difficult to represent at the lyric level lest it become sentimentality— ersatz poetry, generic longing, periwinkle moons. Ick. In order to convey sentiment effectively, the writer must push against it as much as possible, creating tension between the ideas being expressed and the actual vehicle for those expressions.

I chose “I Won’t Send Roses” to deconstruct because it makes me weep every time I hear it. And it’s not because I go into some personal reverie about what the song means to me; it’s because I am always seduced into the world of the song.

For reference, the lyrics are below:

I won’t send roses

Or hold the door

I won’t remember

Which dress you wore

My heart is too much in control

The lack of romance in my soul

Will turn you grey, kid

So stay away, kid

Forget my shoulder

When you’re in need

Forgetting birthdays

Is guaranteed

And should I love you, you would be

The last to know

I won’t send roses

And roses suit you so

 

My pace is frantic

My temper’s cross

With words romantic

I’m at a loss

I’d be the first one to agree

That I’m preoccupied with me

And it’s inbred, kid

So keep your head, kid

In me you’ll find things

Like guts and nerve

But not the kind of things

That you deserve

And so while there’s a fighting chance

Just turn and go

I won’t send roses

And roses suit you so.

 

In terms of structure, we have two A sections. That’s all. No B section. No chorus. No release. Not even a coda. Just two verses with a repeated refrain.

Again, the efficiency of this song astounds me. But its construction is far more intricately crafted than the casual listener might realize.

In general, rhymes whose emphasized syllables are spelled differently (contrOL/sOUL), as well as rhymes that are different parts of speech (wore/door), will always land better on the ear. Really.

This song is comprised almost entirely of rhymes that fall into either category, and in some cases both. Also, when the second verse begins, lines 1 and 3 are rhymed (frantic/romantic) while in the first verse

they are not (though the parallel ‘I won’t’s do ground us). The increased rhyming inherently gives the song momentum without announcing such a build.

We may not realize the shift as it goes by—in fact we shouldn’t realize any of these mechanics while we’re listening—we just know the song works in and of itself as it works on us.

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For a comprehensive look into the art and science of lyric writing, register for Amanda’s upcoming workshop in NYC. The workshop will be held on Wednesday, July 18th and few spots remain. Sign up here!

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AMANDA YESNOWITZ is the Winner of 2018 Kleban Prize, Jonathan Larson Award, Dramatists Guild Fellowship, Dottie Burman Award, Jamie deRoy and Friends Award, and 8 MAC nominations, all for excellence and vision in lyric writing. Selected projects: SOMEWHERE IN TIME (Portland Center Stage world premiere; 7 PAMTA noms; NAMT finalist), BY THE NUMBERS (ASCAP Workshop; Goodspeed’s Mercer Colony), THE HISTORY OF WAR (NYMF invited selection), THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE (Hangar Theatre world premiere). RECORDINGS: “Gotta Start Small” (Stephanie Block, PS Classics; Live from Lincoln Center /PBS/Broadway HD). PODCASTS: LiveWire Radio; Keith Price’s Curtain Call. Notable: Featured writer at the Kennedy Center (ASCAP centennial) and Boston’s Symphony Hall (“No Looking Back” performed by Keith Lockhart and the Pops). Her lyrics have been published in The DramatistTimeNewsdayThe NY Daily NewsThe Sydney Morning Herald, and The New York Times. Strange but true: competitive crossword puzzle solver and published constructor (NY Times, 08/26/12. . . no ordinary Sunday).

GUEST BLOG: TALES FROM A MUSICAL FESTIVAL CURATOR

As I type this, we are four days away from the 15th annual New York Musical Festival (NYMF). On July 9th, 30+ new musical productions, concerts, readings, and educational events will descend upon midtown Manhattan (West 42nd St between 9th and 11th Avenues, to be precise) and showcase their developmental work to a New York audience over the course of four weeks.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since NYMF is a 4-week summer festival, I often get the question, “So what do you do the rest of the year, when the Festival isn’t happening?” People are surprised to hear that the Festival is a full-time, year-around gig and planning for the next Festival begins mere weeks after the previous one has ended. Think of it as a regular theater season with all the programming condensed into 28 non-stop days. The Festival process for me as Producing Artistic Director begins around Labor Day each year when the submissions process for the Next Link Project opens. What is the Next Link Project, you may ask? The Next Link Project anchors the Festival – it’s our primary writer service program that, through a rigorous double-blind evaluation process, selects ten writing teams and their shows to present a production in the Festival. These Next Link teams receive administrative, creative, dramaturgical, and financial support, culminating in a subsidized production in the Festival. By “double-blind,” I mean there are two levels implemented to remove bias from the process: the first, authors’ names are removed from all their materials to maintain the integrity of the work; and secondly, readers’ names are not revealed to one another, so we can get an impartial evaluation from each reader on our Reading Committee (made up of dramaturgs, directors, literary managers, and other working theater professionals).

Next Link submissions close in early November and our reading committee furiously finishes screening (the first stage: evaluating a 15-page excerpt with demos) and reading (the second stage: evaluating the full materials) for another month, leading up to what we affectionately refer to as the Reader Smackdown.  This day-long event gives readers a chance to reveal themselves to one another and debate which shows should be shortlisted as finalists for Next Link. By the end, we typically have 40 shows for me to personally review and determine the top 20 or so finalists. Those shows then go on to be evaluated by our Grand Jury of fancy directors, actors, choreographers, and producers. With their input, we select the ten Next Link Projects in mid-late January! Phew.

But these ten Next Link Projects make up just about one-third of the Festival (and even less in previous years). So where do the other shows come from? Well, many new musicals that come through submissions are conceptually compelling but need time to focus on strengthening their storytelling and character development before they’re ready for production prime time – ten of these shows will eventually go on to be a part of our Developmental Reading Series, which is a barebones presentation in a rehearsal studio with actors on book at music stands (essentially a 29-hour AEA reading). We also choose a few shows – either through submissions or through our email solicitation – to participate as “Invited Productions.” To the outside eye, the Next Link Projects and Invited Productions are really the same and fall under the umbrella category “Productions” – they include all the same production elements (lights, sound, costumes, choreography)- but internally, Invited Productions don’t require the same level of support as Next Link (for example, an experienced producer may want to use the existing Festival structure to share their project with an audience). It’s important to note though that all productions must be considered within the context of the Festival and we recommend they lean in to being suggestive rather than emphasize big-budget Production Values (shows do share space and have limited tech time, after all – it’s a creative challenge). The 2018 Festival will have two Invited Productions along with our ten Next Link Projects.

Concerts and educational events round out the programming – concerts tend to follow a song cycle format and many of these are produced by us. In 2017, we began commissioning what we call “micro-musicals” (30 minutes or less) inspired by politically relevant prompts, which culminate in a concert series entitled How the Light Gets In: An Evening of New American Micro-Musical Works one evening of the Festival. This initiative was developed to create more space for democratic discourse in the Festival as well as create more opportunities for artists to access and participate in the Festival. It’s been a big goal of both mine and our Executive Director Dan Markley’s to remove as many barriers to entry as possible so we can consistently ensure that the most exciting talents have a place at NYMF – we are well on our way.

As a curator, I aim to make sure these 30+ shows showcase a wide range of stories, themes, structures, and musical styles. I’d like to believe there’s at least one show for every Festival goer to revel in, no matter his or her personal aesthetic. I also firmly believe that it’s my job to amplify artistic voices with meaningful stories to tell that have yet to be heard. This year, we will use the Festival’s platform to share stories centered around racial justice, immigration, queer and trans representation, mental illness, and other vital issues – musicals can be challenging, invigorating, and encourage empathy! Of course, we also have a musical about alien lizards that conspire for world domination through a beauty pageant. (Balance is important.)

To learn more about the 2018 Festival, visit www.nymf.org. Submissions for the 2019 Next Link will open on August 29, 2018.

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RACHEL SUSSMAN is an award-winning New York-based producer committed to nurturing accessible, inclusive work through creative collaboration.

Rachel is a co-founder of  The MITTEN Lab, an emerging theatre artist residency program in her native state of Michigan as well as The Indigo Theatre Project, a theatre company of passion and purpose dedicated to producing play readings that benefit related non-profit organizations, most recently, An American Daughter (starring Keri Russell and Hugh Dancy for She Should Run). She serves as the Producing Artistic Director for the New York Musical Festival (NYMF).

Rachel has worked with such companies as Second Stage Theatre, 321 Theatrical Management, RKO Stage Productions, Goodspeed Musicals’ Mercer Colony, The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, The Tony Awards, and CREATE-Ireland in Dublin, Ireland. Independent producing credits include:  the Obie award-winning production of The Woodsman (New World Stages/59E59), Don’t You F**king Say a Word (59E59), The Rug Dealer (Women’s Project Pipeline Festival), The Sweetest Life (New Victory), and Talk to me about Shame (FringeNYC, Overall Excellence Award). Upcoming: Eh Dah? (Next Door @ NYTW) and a new musical about the American women’s suffrage movement by Shaina Taub.

Rachel is a 2014-2016 Women’s Project Lab Time Warner Foundation Fellow, a trustee emeritus for The Awesome Foundation NYC, and a two-time finalist for the T Fellowship in Creative Producing. She sits on the Advisory Board for Strangemen & Co. and The Musical Theatre Factory as well as the Artist Board for Encores! Off-Center. She is a proud member of the Ghostlight Project Steering Committee and the Covenant House Broadway Sleep Out Executive Committee. Rachel is a graduate of the Commercial Theater Institute (Fred Vogel Scholarship) and a University Honors Scholar alumna of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
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The New York Musical Festival (NYMF) nurtures the creation, production, and public presentation of stylistically, thematically, and culturally diverse new musicals to ensure the future vitality of musical theater.

Now in its fifteenth year, the Festival is the premier musical theater event in the world. The preeminent site for launching new musicals and discovering new talent, the Festival provides an affordable platform for artists to mount professional productions that reach their peers, industry leaders, and musical theater fans. More than 90 Festival shows have gone on to productions on and Off-Broadway, in regional theaters in all 50 states, and in more than 24 countries worldwide. Festival alumni have received a wide array of awards including the Tony Award® and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2013, NYMF received a special Drama Desk Award in recognition of its work “creating and nurturing new musical theater, ensuring the future of this essential art form.”

Podcast Episode 34 – John Rando

 

Sometimes I think we throw around the words “Tony Winner” like it’s the latest teen speak like “OMG” or “Hashtag.”

The fact is the Tony Awards only started in 1947. That means there have only been 69 of these suckers.  So if you win one, you’re in relatively small company in your category.

Take for example, Best Director of a Musical . . . which has only been given out since 1960.  That means people like our guest, John Rando, are one of only 56 (42 if you count multiple winners) people on the planet who have been good enough to win that award.  (If you already knew John won for Urinetown then you win . . . well, an electronic pat on the back.  Pat, pat.)

That also means we’re all really lucky that Mr. Rando took time out from his busy summer schedule of directing Penn & Teller and a workshop and a pre-Broadway show to spend time with us.

If you’re a Director, or just plan on working with a Director (which is all of us), then listen in to this enlightening podcast to hear John talk about . . .

  • How he created his own major in college to pursue the theater.
  • Why Directors have to balance art and commerce just like Producers.
  • The story of the unlikely success of Urinetown.  
  • Why he likes to work with people with opinions.
  • The most controversial question I’ve ever asked on any podcast to date.

You’re going to learn a lot by listening to the Director of UrinetownThe Wedding Singer, and this past season’s glorious On the Town talk Broadway . . . but one of the most interesting things you’re going to learn is that John is simply a great guy.

Click above to listen.

Listen to it on iTunes here.  (And give me a rating, while you’re there!)

Download it here.

Click here to read the transcript.

Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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