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Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman: Simply Second Nature

from Alex Rosen: 

I struggled for a bit, trying to find an appropriate song for today’s post, but eventually settled on one that was very important to me when I discovered it, and still remains one of my favorite songs from the modern musical theater repertory.

The song is “Simply Second Nature” from the 2013 musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. I heard it for the first time as an undergraduate student, when I was just  beginning to delve into the world of musicals. As a classical musician since childhood, I found that I really didn’t know much at all about Broadway. And recently, I’d started to try my own amateur hand at some composition, so I needed all the guidance I could get.

I listened my way through the decades, through the Rodgers and Hammersteins, through the Sondheims, through the Schwartzes, and then was recommended a new show from the West End. It was ‘Charlie’. Interesting, I thought, and dangerous. The music of the film was iconic, and the film reboot had already tried its hand at reimagining the classic Roald Dahl. But here it was, a new musical. So I listened. And it was nothing like I imagined it would be. There were synthesized instruments, story elements had been 21st century-ized. I don’t like it, I thought. Too glitzy, too glammy. But I kept listening. And then came “Simply Second Nature”. I was hooked.

The introduction begins with a sparse orchestration, just strings and vibraphone. Immediately my mind goes to Gene Wilder singing ‘Pure Imagination’. And as the song unfolds, this Willy Wonka bears his soul in a way that can only be done with a song, with clever rhymes and jagged melodies that seem to fit him perfectly. Punctuated by a huge palette of orchestral colors, he tells us that it is simply second nature for him to build a fantastical candy forest, that he “wouldn’t have it any other way”.

The song became a sort of anthem for me. I make my art because I wouldn’t have it any other way. I listened obsessively, absorbing the sound world, studying the rhymes, and basking in the beauty of the sentiment. And still, it stays with me, inspiring me, and keeping me focused. And as it was passed to me by a dear friend, I pass it on to you, NYFOS blog readers. Please, enjoy!

NYFOS@North Fork: Days 5 & 6

The last few days before a concert are always a little tricky to handle. I want to build confidence. I want to fix the little errors—notes, words, rhythms, dynamics—that seem to be repeat offenders. I also want to keep the cast reaching for the heights of expression from depths of their souls—while keeping their work simple, direct, and open. No navel-gazing allowed. As a result, I have to pick my shots: should I mention this incorrect lyric, which I have now heard five times but which isn’t important, or this other one, which I’ve heard twice and is important?

Friday we had a thorough work-through, and Saturday a dress rehearsal. We didn’t stop, except when one song went off the rails and needed to be restarted…and restarted again. I would have been happy to try and keep going, but the singer (whose identity I shall protect) said the fatal words “Oh, shit.” For me, that is like yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, a clear signal of impending disaster. The third time was the charm and the song was a success, and (as I always say) it is better to have a colossal memory slip in rehearsal than in performance.

Miles Mykkanen and Alex Rosen

Miles Mykkanen and Alex Rosen

Everyone wore the shoes they were going to use in the show—a good idea for a concert where there is a bit of movement. It did give Alex a slightly bizarre look: he had on beige cargo shorts, patent leather shoes, and black dress socks. His exposed shins seemed to be in shock, naked in between his beachy clothes and his fancy feet.

We had some important visitors: Andy Smith, and Barbara and Lily Sacharow. They are people I have come to love. Andy is the son of the late Jane Smith, who used to produce these concerts—and indeed most of the musical events in Orient. Barbara and her daughter Lily were among Jane’s most intimate friends, practically family. Jane was also very dear to me, and her death last April after a long bout with cancer was a deep loss. She had fought her illness so hard and so long that I was able to persuade myself she would last forever. Andy’s sad email four and a half months ago hit me hard.

Andy Smith and Steven Blier

Andy Smith and Steven Blier

The program for “Killer B’s” had taken on an especially elegiac quality fifteen years ago when I did it in San Francisco a few months after my own mother’s death. In memory of Jane, I retained many of those songs for this edition: Bolcom’s “Never More Will the Wind,” Bowles’ “Once a Lady Was Here,” Bernstein’s “Spring Will Come Again,” and especially Burleigh’s beautiful ballad, “Jean.” I felt that the community here would appreciate a tribute to someone who had ornamented it for so many years. Above all, I was thinking about Jane’s family and the Sacharows when I put the program together.

My plan to serenade the Smiths and Sacharows got waylaid. It turned out that a high school up-island planned some kind of tribute to Jane at the exact same time as our performance, and they needed the three Smiths and the two Sacharows in attendance. They also asked Barbara to speak at the ceremony. Thus I lost the guests of honor for my show. But I still wanted them to hear the concert, and invited them to the dress rehearsal. Linda and Steve, the sister and older brother, couldn’t make it, but Andy, Barbara, and Lily were there.

Suddenly I was in a dilemma. I had been near tears every time I rehearsed the “Jane songs,” and I was afraid they might hit the family even harder. With no audience to serve as a buffer, the message of grief—so pure and piercing in the songs and in the cast’s performance of them—suddenly seemed like an emotional sledgehammer. Would it be cathartic, or just depressing?

In the end, I think all of them were grateful for the honest tribute to Jane. I believe they were moved by the songs, and the program has so many other colors—humor, brashness, romance, good cheer—that it places grief in the larger continuum of life. You mourn, you move on, you mourn some more, you confront another life issue….

“Killer B’s” doesn’t end with a snappy number, but with a eulogy and a gentle song of hope. We got done, and our little audience applauded us. Then Barbara said, through tears, “You…do have…an encore?” Well, of course we do. And it’s the silliest song of the afternoon, complete with the cast doing the pony. Never has Motown seemed more welcome.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 4

I have always had a complex relationship with the piano. But I have an especially complex relationship with the piano I am playing this week at Poquatuck Hall. Oysterponds Community Activities, the hall’s parent organization, proudly bought the piano several years ago, and it was a major upgrade from the weather-beaten wreck it replaced.

But when I first sat down to play it, I had the oddest sensation of déjà-vu. In fact, I felt as if I were seeing a ghost.

This turned out not to be one of those quirks of brain chemistry, the effect of some errant gas in a cerebral nerve ending. You see, this faded, once-black Mason and Hamlin baby grand was the same instrument I grew up playing. The giveaway was the music-rack: square corners, matte finish, unmistakable. Same vintage, same size, and same timbre. I played it, and suddenly I was five years old again.

Our Mason and Hamlin had belonged to my grandparents. Like the one in Poquatuck, its wood had gotten bleached out by being placed in the sun. Ours had another quirk: the key slip, the piece of wood on the front lip where the white keys descend, was loose and had a habit of edging forward and adhering to them as I played. Being a child, I adapted. I became adept at pulling the key-slip back quickly to unstick the keys while rattling through Schumann’s “The Merry Farmer” or Mozart’s “Ronda alla Turca.” The vagaries of my childhood piano set the course for a lifetime of bizarre technical quirks.

Coming back to the same make and model I played as a kid is a very strange homecoming. Due to some strange acoustical property of the room, I can’t quite hear myself when I am playing—until I biff a note or spazz out on a phrase or lose control of a transposition. Those I hear in Technicolor vividness. The hammers have seen better days and don’t like being played too forcefully. The action of the piano is decent until you get down to very soft dynamics, at which point the notes don’t always sound. This can make an easy song into a mine-field of clunks and unwanted silences.

Like women after the rigors of childbirth, I tend to repress the memories of my struggle with this Mason and Hamlin the minute I am done with the annual concert. But this week I am going through the psychodrama of confronting the instrument that got me hooked on playing the piano. It feels like meeting the guy who gave you the gateway drug, sealing your fate as an addict for life.

Things took a turn for the better yesterday. Unlike the singers, who can practice all morning, run lines while floating in the bay, and review choreography on the beach, I don’t really have a way to put a bandage on the inevitable spots that come undone during a rehearsal week. I literally awaken in the middle of the night going over the knotty measures in my sleep—“fingering my passages in bed,” as the old joke goes. So I have resorted to a kind of Zen technique, getting hold of the task at hand in my mind before I go to rehearsal, picturing a calm connection between my aural concept and my hands, and inducing a spiritual acceptance of the piano’s limitations. I must say that I played a lot better at our work-through yesterday. Yeah, there were some accidents, but no five-car pileups. Nicks and scratches, everything covered by insurance.

unnamed-5As for the cast, “the weather still continues charming,” to quote The Important of Being Earnest. Miles showed his teeth in a way I had not seen before (wonderful), Kelsey’s emotional command continues to detonate, Alex’s warmth and humanity shine through like a beacon (though I occasionally have to ask for them), and Christine—who said she wasn’t feeling too well—blazed through her songs with radiance and power. We had a few visitors and heard our first applause. A mother brought her four-year old son in just as we were launching into Bernstein’s raucous “A Julia de Burgos.” Christine hit a high C for the ages—but mother and toddler were gone by then. I am sure they could hear her a block away.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 3

Wednesday is always the last play-day. People are still giggling over their memory slips, I calmly look the other way when I play a wrong note (which means I am looking the other way quite often), and a certain amount of experimentation remains the order of the day. Sunday’s performance seems centuries away. Everything changes tomorrow, when the glass is definitely half-empty. But today we were in the song-sandbox all afternoon, with the glass safely half-full.

I hustled hard to get to the hall on time and almost made it, speeding down the main road at full speed on my wheelchair, braving oncoming traffic, checking my watch every 40 seconds. I streaked in through the back door, feeling semi-triumphant, only to find the cast completely absorbed in the task of eating their lunch. The room had the deep, meditative quality of a yoga class. Kelsey emerged from the Bikram-haze to offer me a bag of Caesar Snapea Crisps (really good), and I realized that no one was in much a hurry. I reverted to Orient Mode (“We have all afternoon”) and set my nervous system to “Chill.”

It is fascinating to watch this cast sink into the poetry and music. Their first readings had been very good—it was clear everyone already made a real investment in the program. But as my friend Alvin Epstein once said about a young woman working on a scene from Blitzstein’s “Regina,” “It takes years to make a bitch like Regina.” The leap from understanding a song intellectually to living a song as if you’d written it…well, that too can take years. But you can go pretty far in a week if you are in an environment where that is clearly the artistic goal. And a week is what we have.

I’ve been keeping my eye on Kelsey, who has a couple of big acting songs, as well as two that are more lyrical. She is the baby of the group and I feel protective of her. Not that she needs coddling—she’s a strong, self-starting young woman with a keen eye and the soul of an artist. On Monday and Tuesday she’d given very nice, very intelligent readings of Bill Bolcom’s “Toothbrush Time.” But today, something shifted. We talked it over yesterday, located the song in a physical way, filled in some backstory and details. Specifics, like “Where are you? What’s to your left, your right? How long have you been there? What are you wearing? Whom are you talking to—in your mind—a girlfriend? Your shrink?” All of a sudden the piece was happening in real time, and the character’s frustration and compulsiveness were bubbling under every line. Personally, I am a little tired of this song—I first played it in 1979 and it has that not-so-fresh feeling they used to talk about in TV ads. But working with Kelsey today, it rose again, Lazarus-like, and I almost felt as if I were hearing it for the first time.

unnamed-4I am working with four very nice people—decent, sweet, generous colleagues, real boy- and girl-scouts. What is hardest for them is to play characters who are not so nice, not so idealistic, not so saintly. In a group number, supported by one another, they can match Don Rickles for insult humor. We end Act I with “Outside of That, I Love You,” and they practically have a food fight onstage. But that’s comic anger. Real anger, bloody-mindedness, selfishness: these take some real work when they crop up in solo material. I think back to Alvin’s words about Regina—“it takes years to make a bitch.” Can we condense that down to four days?

NYFOS@NorthFork: Day 2

Today we welcomed our fourth singer, Alex Rosen, who arrived a day late after finishing up his residency at Ravinia. He traveled in from Chicago this morning, successfully boarded the notoriously unreliable jitney at the airport station, and waltzed into rehearsal at 3 PM looking fresher than he had any right to look. Alex is a fascinating combination platter. He is kind and generous, emotionally open, but also unflappable and objective. Like a Baked Alaska, he combines sweet, hot, and cool in a way you cannot ignore. Young basses are almost always works-in-progress. It’s a voice type that tends to mature later than tenors and sopranos, and usually goes through a long, awkward adolescence all the way through the singer’s twenties. While the Full Monty of Alex’s voice may only reveal itself in the future, it is astounding how much he is able to do right now. Today he took a good-but-not-great song by Eubie Blake and found its volcanic center, slipping into an easy rapport with its Harlem Renaissance charm. Not many young singers would know what to do with that number—Alex nailed it and made it sound like a masterpiece.

unnamed-3I met Alex three years ago at Wolf Trap. I blush to admit that I was quite late for our 45-minute coaching—I remember I had some hotel accident that ate up the morning. He sang beautifully and I felt I was in the presence of a true artist. Abashed, I swore to him I’d make up the time, but in spite of my best efforts that never came to pass. Still, I always felt guilty about the twenty minutes I owed Alex. This week-long Orient residency seemed like a good payback—20 minutes plus three years of accrued interest.

The music is pouring out of everyone—heartbreak from Kelsey, brio from Christine, panache from Miles. I feel as if I am driving a very fast chariot à la Ben-Hur, hoping to emerge victorious like Charlton Heston.

Tomorrow we are working out our “’ography”—nothing as complex as real choreography, just movement and blocking and (I guess) a few dance steps for the songs that need them. This is a kinetic cast. Should be fun.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 1

The first day of a residency has a particular energetic charge. We all try to act low-key and normal, just swinging into an ordinary day’s work. But each of us is carefully monitoring everything that is going on. I am hoping that all of my hours of practice will hang in there when I have to focus on the singers and think about something besides my own hands and feet. The singers hope their interpretations are in the ballpark, and that they can have the concert memorized in time for the show. I worry about the way I have divided up the group numbers, they worry about learning incorrect harmonies from my chicken-scrawl handwritten arrangements. I hope I have chosen good material for everyone. And I hope they have studied it.

unnamed-2Today was first day of school, and it went extremely well. All of us were tired, and some of us actually had good reason: Kelsey came to Long Island directly after moving apartments in Manhattan. Christine and Miles had flown in from Europe Saturday night, and were probably quite jet-lagged. You wouldn’t know it from the clarion sounds they were making, or from the positive energy they brought into Poquatuck Hall. But Miles was a bit loopy today. He had a fabulous malapropism in “A Miracle Would Happen,” when he mispronounced “exacerbates” and “exasturbates”—a word that really should exist.

It’s interesting to see which English expressions and witticisms need explanation. In a duet from Bolcom’s “A Wedding,” the character sings, “I was married twice, first a red then a Republican….” Christine said, “Red? Like, Native American?” “Um, no. Red, like Commie.” “Oh…” The line goes on to say, “And neither one knew where the trash is.” “You get that, Chrissie?” “Yes. Well, no. Not really.” “Well,” I search for words, “trash, like, junk, you know…?” “Ohhhhh. So she’s saying that…” “She had two husbands, one radical left wing and one conservative, and they were both lousy in bed.”

That whole song is full of double-entendres, and a lot of them come from old slang expressions. “Neither one knew where the trash is” rhymes with “someone to haul the ashes.” I mentioned it was a phrase you might see in a classic blues song. By this time Christine pulled out her phone to look it up online. “It says: ‘to have sexual intercourse.’ Wait, here’s Urban Dictionary: ‘to have sex, homo or hetero, usually casual, but wild, hot, monkey sex.’” “OK, well, then, you get the picture?” She did.

The afternoon wasn’t all Masters and Johnson. We actually worked through the whole program except for the three pieces that belong to our bass, Alex Rosen, who arrives tomorrow from Ravinia. For the final forty-five minutes all of us were running on fumes, which made our not very difficult encore by—well, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a classic pop tune first recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1963—seem as if we were trying to sing the final fugue from Falstaff.

An encouraging day’s work, egged on by sensational weather. The world is a very chaotic place right now. The peace of Orient, the stimulation of 20 great songs, and the privilege of being together couldn’t be more welcome.

A lovely way to celebrate my mother’s 102nd birthday. She would have been proud, though she could not have explained about “hauling the ashes.”

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