BROADWAY SONGWRITERS HISTORY MONTH By Peter Filichia
We know February as Black History Month, National Bird-Feeding Month and LGBT+ History Month (in the United Kingdom, anyway).
It should be Broadway Songwriters History Month, too.
To be sure, we could have long earmarked the second month of year for our songwriters, considering that some musical theater giants were born in it.
First, Harold Arlen (Feb. 15, 1905), whose HOUSE OF FLOWERS, JAMAICA and SARATOGA couldn’t be more unalike. Yet each is so wondrous.
The same could be said of Burton Lane (Feb. 2, 1912), whose FINIAN’S RAINBOW and ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER have distinctively different but overwhelmingly terrific music.
Let’s also commend the newish kid on the block, William Finn (Feb. 28, 1952). After he had written some landmark gay-themed musicals, we almost lost him. How lucky we are that we didn’t, as his A NEW BRAIN explains and attests.
But the songwriter born on February 4, 1960 was very much back in the news this month, although he left us more than a quarter-century ago: Jonathan Larson, whose memory lived on through RENT, of course, but whose bio-musical tick, tick … BOOM! received plenty of awards attention this month, thank to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film.
tick, tick … BOOM! ran a modest 215 performances off-Broadway, five performances at Encores! in 2014 and only two months in a 2016 off-off Broadway production. Who would have ever predicted that with such a track record that it would have ever been made as a film? How many off-Broadway musicals can make that claim?
I don’t mean musicals that started off-Broadway and then moved to The Main Stem, be it at for-profit theaters (such as GODSPELL) or not-for-profit ones (A CHORUS LINE). I also don’t mean musicals from institutional, not-for-profit theaters that announced limited runs, played them and closed (HELLO, AGAIN and LUCKY STIFF).
No, I mean musicals that began as genuine off-Broadway hoped-for-profits open runs and stayed there until closing day: THE FANTASTICKS, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, FOREVER PLAID, and HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH are about the only ones that had been filmed before tick, tick … BOOM!
Yes, LITTLE SHOP and HEDWIG eventually wended their way to Broadway, but in subsequent and new productions, long after their film versions had made them famous.
How did it happen? When Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks, people listen. There is no one on the current musical theater scene who’s flying higher. So when Miranda told the Netflix powers-that-be that a fine film could be fashioned of the musical about Larson’s hardscrabble life, they lit the light a bright green.
They’re glad they did. Imdb.com, which catalogues awards, shows that the film started last week with seventeen wins as well as 104 nominations. By week’s end, it had garnered two more, thanks to the Oscars: one for film editing, and one for Andrew Garfield.
Garfield, in fact, is responsible for ten of those wins and thirty-eight of those nominations for playing Jonathan Larson (and looking close enough to be him). As for Miranda, eighteen of those 104 nominations are his, four of which have already morphed into wins.
Of those five off-Broadway musicals that made it to film, tick, tick … BOOM! is only the third to get a soundtrack album. In fact, anyone who really wants to get an extensive study of the musical – and as much of Larson in his pre-RENT days – will have a fine time comparing this new recording with the 2001 original cast album. There, four-time Tony-nominee Raul Esparza portrays Jonathan.
“See Her Smile” and “Sugar” are on the cast album but not the soundtrack. Conversely, “Play Game” and “Swimming” are in the film but not on the cast album. They too are on the soundtrack as well as “Out of My Dream” and “Only Takes a Few” which are included as bonus tracks.
This February also reminded us of another composer-lyricist who died much too young: Edward Kleban, whose longtime girlfriend Linda Kline enlisted Lonny Price to work with her on A CLASS ACT, a bio-musical of the man who provided the lyrics for A CHORUS LINE.
The last two weeks saw a wonderful revival, thanks to Robert W. Schneider and The J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company.
In 2001, THE PRODUCERS won a Tony award in each and every category for which it had garnered a nomination, amassing a record twelve wins. However, I can say one thing for sure: THE PRODUCERS did not get each and every vote for Best Musical, for A CLASS ACT got mine.
Why? Because it’s the only musical I know that has pre-existing songs that seem as if each and every one of them had been specifically written for the book.
We can’t really call A CLASS ACT a jukebox musical, for none of its songs ever made its way into a Wurlitzer. One ditty might have, had Barbra Streisand seen fit to release Kleban’s “Better” after she’d recorded it.
Alas, decades would pass before the world was able to hear it; sad to say, Kleban did not. He’d died of tongue cancer many years earlier at the age of forty-eight. But he still got thirteen more years than the thirty-five year-old Larson received.
Both musicals tell of budding songwriters whose friends urge them to give up songwriting. Michael has made it to the corporate world, is making a bundle – nay, bundles — and wants his buddy to join him. Jonathan won’t. Jonathan can’t.
Ed already had his corporate job at Columbia Records (now part of Masterworks Broadway); so does his BMI Workshop pal Felicia. She’s interested in moving up; so is Ed, but only on Broadway.
Larson’s job was far less glamorous, and the only honor he could hope to get was Employee of the Month, if the Moondance Diner even had that prize.
At least at his job, Kleban received four Grammy nominations. Three came from producing the original cast albums of I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD, JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS and HALLELUJAH, BABY! We suspect, though, that he was more proud of the Grammy for what he’d “produced” in a very different manner: A CHORUS LINE.
All three writers wound up winning a Best Musical Tony and Pulitzer for a musical: Kleban, A CHORUS LINE; Larson, RENT; Miranda, HAMILTON. For that matter, Miranda is also responsible for another Best Musical Tony-winner: IN THE HEIGHTS.
Who knows? Someday there may well be a bio-musical of his life, too, both on stage and screen. If so, each should open in Broadway Songwriters History Month.
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.