Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Norah?

Continuing with a look backstage as we assemble my cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight...

The Norah Bayes/Jack Norworth classic “Shine On, Harvest Moon” presents a challenge. The song is so well known that a straight approach runs the risk of being boring. Granted, it has probably been years since anyone actually sang the song as written, but the music is so filled with the elements of ragtime, blues and the first stirrings of what would soon become known as jazz that I thought a more contemporary approach would be fun.

We started out with a kind of “Fever”-style walking bass for the verse but had trouble moving the idea forward in the refrain. At one point Neal shook his had and said “I can’t get out of ragtime!” Much discussion and playing around with the arrangement followed. At one point, the following exchange took place:

Neal: You know, I really feel that a kind of blues or rock approach would work. You should go back and listen to your old Bessie Smith records.
Chuck: I don’t have that many Bessie Smith records.
Tim: Chuck, you’re never going to be Bessie Smith anyway.
Chuck: True on multiple levels.
Tim: What you were kind of doing that last time around was more Al Jolson.
Neal: So maybe we need a little of both.
Tim: Yeah, we need the illegitimate love child of Al Jolson and Bessie Smith. Chuck: Well that would be….that would be Sophie Tucker.

Much merriment followed. Had we possessed custard pies, they would no doubt have been thrown.

I’m still not sure where “Harvest Moon” is going but, like Gershwin’s Porgy, it’s on its way. At our last rehearsal, it had morphed into an upbeat, jazzy number with heavy Jolson accents; I think that might be its final form.

Next: Mr. Nobody.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bring Back Love's Old Sweet Song

Continuing with a look backstage as we assemble my cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight...

“Love’s Old Sweet Song” and “Bring Back Those Wonderful Days” are the two opening numbers, linked by a bit of patter and piano underscore. Aside from dropping the key from the original A-flat to a more bass-friendly E-flat, not much changed in the first song. This is where the show gets its title (“Just a song at twilight” is the opening phrase of the refrain) and also the opening nostalgic mood.

The patter leading to “Bring Back Those Wonderful Days”, however, got cut in half and the song itself got some major surgery. By the time we were finished, the first verse had been dropped and the second rewritten and moved in between the two refrains. I had substituted new lyrics of my own devising for the second refrain as well.

In its original form, “Bring Back”, which dates from 1919, is a wistful yearning for more prosperous times. The country was in the grip of a both a massive recession and Prohibition was just around the corner, so life probably didn’t seem like much fun. In its new form, the nostalgia is musical, not historical. I have no nostalgia for the world of 1910; any time period predating the invention of painless dentistry is not for me.

By the time we were finished, Neal and I agreed that we had a solid opening number. Well, that’s one hurdle down, anyway.

Next: how do you solve a problem like Norah Bayes?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Life is a Cabaret, Part 3

[Being the third in a series of entries chronicling the development of my cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight - The Golden Age of Vaudeville. These are companion pieces to Andrea Braun's Talking Cabaret with Chuck Lavazzi blogs at the web site for The Vital Voice. Performances are March 26 and 27, 2010; tickets at]

It’s axiomatic among actors that your approach to a role inevitably changes as you perform it. In a long-running show, it’s not unusual to revise your performance as you become more comfortable with your material and with your fellow performers.

Something similar happens in the process of developing a cabaret show. You start out with an idea, a song list, and a script (“patter”) to link it all together. Once you start rehearsing the show with your music director and director, however, things start to change – often in major ways.

That’s because when you create a cabaret act you are, in effect, writing a new play starring you. That means that, in the early stages, rehearsals are as much about writing the play as they are about learning the material. At this stage, everything is subject to change.

The songs, in particular, begin the journey from their original published versions to the final customized arrangements that will mesh with the performer’s personality and the script to form a cohesive theatre piece. The music director is especially important at this point, of course, but what really happens in rehearsal is a close collaboration among the performer, music director and director.

Listening to the recoding I made of the first full rehearsal with Tim Schall (my director) and Neal Richardson (my music director), I was struck by the way we tossed ideas back and forth and how quickly our notions of what a song meant sometime changed. I'll be posting some examples in the coming days.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Life is a Cabaret, Part 2

[Being the second in a series of entries chronicling the development of my cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight - The Golden Age of Vaudeville. These are companion pieces to Andrea Braun's Talking Cabaret with Chuck Lavazzi blogs at the web site for The Vital Voice. Performances are March 26 and 27, 2010; tickets at]

Cartoonist Keith Knight (The Knight Life, The K Chronicles, (th)ink) has a recurring feature called Life’s Little Victories – celebrations of the little things that go right in life (e.g. “#6173 – Randomly guessing the correct answer to a trivia question”). In researching my show, I experienced a few little victories of my own.

#1 – Finding all of the sheet music you need for free on line. Some work with Google turned up several web sites (all associated with libraries) offering scans of vintage sheet music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The files – usually in image formats, sometimes in Adobe PDF format – were available as free downloads, enabling me to print out exact facsimiles of the original music. Simply looking at the original cover art and ads for other songs proved to be a great way to get a feel for the period.

My biggest sources here were the Lester S. Levy Collection at John Hopkins University (, Indiana University’s INHarmony collection (, and the Detroit Public Library’s Azalia Hackley Collection ( I also tracked down at least one song – “The Bird on Nellie’s Hat” – at the National Library of Australia (

The irony of using early 21st century technology to track down early 20th century resources was not lost on me.

Even more ironic, in some ways, was victory #2 – finding MP3s of thousands of Edison cylinder recordings from as early as 1890 on line, also for free. The Cylinder Digitization and Restoration project at the University of California at Santa Barbara ( proved to be a treasure trove of vintage performances by the giants of the vaudeville era. The collection includes not only musical performances, but dramatic and comedic monologues, language instruction and even political speeches. As a window to a world now long gone, the site is priceless.

With a cabaret show, of course, finding the sheet music is only the beginning. Cabaret artists rarely, if ever, perform a song strictly as written. This is an intensely personal art form, which means that songs need to be arranged to suit the performer. And arrangement, as singer and teacher Lina Koutrakos observes, is like a custom-tailored suit. It’s designed to make the person for whom it’s designed look (or in this case, sound) as good as possible.

Which brings us to my first meetings with my musical director, Neal Richardson.

I first met Neal through the St. Louis Cabaret Conference. He was the musical director for the 2008 Alumni Showcase, at which I was performing “Take Your Girlie to the Movies” – a 1919 novelty that’s included in my current show. We quickly discovered a common love of vaudeville and ragtime-era music, so when I decided to take the plunge he was the first person I contacted. He shared my enthusiasm for the project, and so began our collaboration.

Neal, by the way, is a very busy man. In addition to being much in demand as a pianist and music director, he also teaches music theory and musicianship at Webster University, serves Samuel United Church of Christ as organist/choirmaster and is cofounder of Early Music Saint Louis. He’s also a published composer and arranger with numerous works to his credit. I consider myself lucky to have him on my team.

What does a musical director do? In general terms, he goes over your song list with you, suggests changes in song placement and/or the songs to include or exclude. He transposes music into keys better suited to a performer’s range, changes the accompaniment to suit the performer’s intent, and even acts, when necessary, as a vocal coach (and it my case, it was necessary!). A good musical director – and Neal is certainly that – can provide insights into songs that you, as a performer, might not have considered and can have a major influence on the shape of a show.

In my case, for example, two sessions with Neal resulted in a re-ordering and reduction in length of my original song list and considerable clarification of my ideas behind the show. His arrangement of the 1892 classic “After the Ball” has turned out to be the emotional heart of the show – something I hadn’t considered until we started working together.

He also dropped the keys for nearly every song. A century ago there was no such thing as a microphone, so the stars of the vaudeville stage were invariably tenors and sopranos. Higher voices are easier to hear at the back of the house. As a result, the published scores for these older songs are nearly always in keys that are not very friendly to lower voices like mine (I’m officially a bass-baritone). We lower-voice types wouldn’t come into our own until the invention of electrical recording. Bing Crosby was the first baritone to become a major star.

So after two sessions with Neal, I had a fairly solid idea of the musical shape of the show. What I didn’t have much of yet was patter – the spoken words that knit together the musical numbers and provide context.

You’d think that this would be as easy as falling off a log for someone who was been writing about music and theatre for over forty years. If so, you might want to try falling off a log some time without landing uncomfortably on what the late President Reagan would call our kiester. Writing my own show turned out to be just a little bit more complicated than I had thought.

Of which, more anon.

[title of review]

In his gushy liner notes for the 2006 cast recording of [title of show], noted playwright Terrence McNally praises the new musical for restoring “our faith in the possibilities of theatre” and places its concern for the future of the American Musical on a par with curing cancer.

To quote the late Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know”.

He doesn’t suggest that composer Jeff Bowen and playwright Hunter Bell can actually walk on water, but maybe he just ran out of space. In reality, the goals of [title of show] are far more modest and for the most part both the show and the current production achieve them brilliantly.

On paper and CD, the idea of [title of show] looks a bit flimsy: a talented songwriter and author want to write a new, completely original musical but can’t come up with a topic, so they decide (in the song “Two Nobodies from New York”) to write a new musical about a talented songwriter and author trying to write a new musical. The result is a show that’s about only itself and its creators – “talking to a mirror talking to himself”, to quote A Neil Innes lyric. It’s a potentially deadly idea if not handled with skill.

Skill, happily, is something Mr. Bowen and Mr. Bell clearly have in abundance, along with talent, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a true love of musical theatre. As a result [title of show], despite the occasional misstep, is generally very funny, entertaining and, at times, even touching.

The non-stop musical theatre in-jokes are clever and nearly always hilarious, as are the many gags about the theatrical process itself. This is a show that cheerfully demolishes the “fourth wall” at every opportunity in an effort to make us aware of how that process works. [title of show] also offers, in songs like “Nine People’s Favorite Thing”, some thoughtful commentary on the dilemmas creative folk face in balancing the need for commercial success with the desire for artistic integrity, as well as insight into every artist’s (and, for that matter, every human’s) battles with self-doubt (“Die, Vampire, Die!”) and the difficulty of recapturing a dream lost (“A Way Back to Then”).

In short, if you’re a lover of musical theatre and/or a performing artist yourself (I confess to both), this is certainly a “must see”. And even if you’re neither of those, you’ll probably find it hard to resist the exuberance, energy and talent of the five-person cast.

St. Louis’s own Ben Nordstrom is a comic dynamo as St. Louis’s own Hunter Bell, nicely contrasting with Benjamin Howes’s appropriately restrained Jeff. If, as the real Hunter Bell writes, [title of show] “really does represent our lives”, then Jeff Bowen would appear to be the ice to Mr. Bell’s fire. It’s the classic straight man/funny guy dynamic and it works quite well.

There’s a similar relationship between the two women who complete the cast. Stephanie D’Abruzzo is utterly charming as original cast member Susan Blackwell who, at least in her fictional incarnation, is a funny, self-assured woman coming to terms with the conflict between her unsatisfying “real world” job and her desire to act. Ms. D’Abruzzo is doing so many interesting things on stage, verbally and otherwise, that she sometimes gets perilously close to stealing focus without, happily, ever doing so.

Amy Justman is Heidi Blickenstaff, the only actor in the original show who actually had Broadway experience. Ironically, she is the least confident of the bunch. Ms. Justman is well nigh perfect in the part, and provides a nice balance to Ms. D’Abruzzo’s more eccentric Susan.

Music director and keyboard player David Horstman – well known in local theatre circles for his fine work at the 88s – is music director and keyboard player Larry (originally Kansas native Larry Pressgrove). Mr. Horstman doesn’t have many lines – something that becomes one of many running gags in the show. That obliges him to do the most difficult kind of acting – reacting in character. He pulls it off nicely.

Scenic designer Scott C. Neale is responsible for the small but tidy New York apartment set. It effectively establishes the scene and mood while still leaving lots of space for the high-energy blocking and semi-choreography.

The book of [title of show] could use a bit of work. The scene in which we’re first introduced to Heidi and Susan fell a bit flat, I thought, and material chronicling the show’s fortunes after its first performance at the New York Musical Theatre Festival felt somewhat tacked-on and repetitious. That said if, as its Wikipedia page states, [title of show] is a “post-modern work-in-progress”, then we can probably expect it to evolve as it makes its way around the regional theatre circuit. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the current production and local reactions to it – including, for all I know, the works I’m typing right now – popping up in a future performance.

The bottom line is that [title of show] is a very smart and funny musical that mostly avoids the pitfalls that come with this sort of self-referential humor. If you have any interest in musical theatre at all, you really must see it. Be aware, though, that the book and songs contain plenty of what the press release calls “adult language” (and I call “the way my friends and I talk all the time”), so it’s officially recommended for “those 16 years of age and older”. Performances continue in the Rep Studio Theatre through January 31st; for more information, you may call 314-968-4925 or visit the Rep’s web site at

To learn more about the ongoing multi-media project that [title of show] has apparently become, check out the official web site at as well as (stop me if this gets too dizzying) the [title of show] show on Youtube. It’s nice to know that, despite branching out into “one hundred people’s ninth favorite thing” projects like Disney’s Villains Tonight! and “a new half-hour sitcom” for ABC, [title of show]’s creators remain, to some extent, true to their unique project.