Monday, May 30, 2011

Ghosts On Broadway

I don't know what inspired me to ask this question now, but: has there ever been an in-depth, authoritative examination of all the rumors about ghost songwriters for Broadway shows -- which rumors are true and which aren't?

Interpolations have always been a part of Broadway musicals; only a select few songwriters were ever powerful enough to have it in their contracts that only they would write the songs. But in many shows, particularly from the '40s through the '60s, the rule was that only the lead songwriters would be credited, no matter who else contributed. And also in the '40s through the '60s, some of the leading songwriters increasingly started getting into producing and publishing. And if you're Frank Loesser, and you have a stake in a show, wouldn't you help out with some uncredited doctoring as needed?

Loesser seems to be the center of a lot of these rumors, because after Guys and Dolls he became very hands-on in promoting young or new-to-Broadway talent and getting the publishing contracts for their shows. Kismet, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and The Music Man are shows he was involved with in this way.

With The Music Man, the one section Loesser is often thought to have written is the opening and closing section of "My White Knight," a quasi-operatic arioso that sounds a bit like the music and lyrics he had turned out the year before in Most Happy Fella. When The Music Man was adapted for the screen, Meredith Willson dropped that section and wrote a new song (but kept the "White Knight" interlude, the one that starts "all I want is an honest man..." which everyone agrees Willson wrote), which gave extra credibility to the idea that this was the one non-Willson part of the score. On the other hand, rumors can be unreliable; people have sometimes identified "Till There Was You" as a Loesser song, which it most certainly is not (Willson had already written a version of it before The Music Man).

Update: John Baxindine writes:

There is not even the slightest possibility that Loesser wrote the melody of "My White Knight." It fits neatly into counterpoint with "The Sadder But Wiser Girl," and the two were originally to have been reprised that way in the footbridge scene.

What he may have done - this is Jon Alan Conrad's theory, as I recall - is suggest to Willson that he transform the original, patter-based number into a ballad. (The original version is recorded on Barbara Cook's Carnegie Hall album.)

The Pajama Game, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, is the center of a lot more rumors. They were young pop songwriters whom Loesser recommended to the producers, and he acted as both their publisher and mentor. It was such a confident score for two first-time theatre songwriters that there was always going to be a lot of talk that they needed help. But the big hits from the score are actually usually thought to be theirs. The rumors I've heard about Loesser's contributions are usually focused on two songs that John Raitt identified as Loesser's: novelty/country duet "There Once Was a Man," which does sound a bit like Loesser in its parodic edge, and "A New Town Is a Blue Town," which is one of the dullest songs in the score.

Loesser has also been rumored as the author of some of the other songs, but short of clear evidence of Loesser or Adler/Ross writing these, it's hard to say -- their work is (obviously) very much influenced by Loesser, so anything they wrote themselves could sound like it was his. ("I'll Never Be Jealous Again" appears to be one of theirs, but like a lot of light duets in '50s musicals it's influenced by Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and other Loesser duets where the two singers step on each other's lines.) Steven Suskin's "Show Tunes" book also suggests that "Her Is" might have been Loesser's, but Hal Prince, who produced the show, suggests that it was Adler and Ross, and I think that one sounds very much unlike Loesser.

There are fewer rumors about Richard Rodgers, because most of the shows he worked on were his own (he produced Annie Get Your Gun, but there's never been any suggestion that Irving Berlin needed help). He is said to have written one song, "The Guy Who Brought Me," from Best Foot Forward, which he produced for his protégés Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Jule Styne produced a few shows by other composers, and Steven Suskin's The Sound of Broadway Music reports that Styne definitely ghost-composed a few songs in a flop called Something More!

In other shows, the contributions of ghosts are more definitely known but the extent of their contributions are in doubt. On Hello, Dolly! it is known that David Merrick, the producer, called in Bob Merrill (whom he'd worked with on two previous shows) to write new songs, and that the songs were "Motherhood" and "Elegance." Jerry Herman, the show's songwriter, has admitted that the ideas -- lyrical and melodic -- came from Merrill on those two songs, but claims that he finished the songs himself. Others say Merrill claimed to have written both of them all the way through. (Not, again, that "Motherhood," the ultimate filler song that sort of works in context but nowhere else, is a particularly great credit to have.) Merrick also got Charles Strouse and Lee Adams to write a song called "Before the Parade Passes By," leading to years of confusion about who wrote the song used in the show: consensus seems to be -- based on the style of the song -- that Herman wrote a song of his own with Strouse and Adams's title. Whether any of the Strouse and Adams version remained in Herman's, or whether Herman's was completely new apart from the title, no one will know until the earlier version is discovered.

Herman himself was called in that same year to help out on a show called Ben Franklin In Paris, with a score by two first-time songwriters. Herman wrote two or three songs, with program credit for additional material. And the writers of 1964's other big smash, Fiddler On the Roof, worked in the same capacity on the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street. On those shows, it's a bit easier to tell the ghost contributions: Bock and Harnick's Baker Street songs have a dry wit that the rest of the score doesn't, and Jerry Herman is, well, Jerry Herman, credited or not.

The early-to-mid '60s seems to have been a busy time for ghosts. When the Mary Rodgers/Martin Charnin musical Hot Spot, a misbegotten vehicle for Judy Holliday, was in trouble in 1963, Stephen Sondheim came in -- a friend of both Rodgers and Charnin, and not yet box-office poison. Holliday's first number, "Don't Laugh," is usually jointly credited to Sondheim, Rodgers and Charnin, though I've heard several versions of who wrote it. Steven Suskin's book Show Tunes says it's music by Rodgers, lyrics by Sondheim with revisions by Charnin; others say it's Sondheim's own song.

Of course on any of these shows, there are always whispers that someone in the music department might have covered for -- or composed for -- the credited composer. One known instance of this is on Silk Stockings, where Cole Porter was sick and unable to be with the show full-time during the tryout. Needing a dance number in the second act, the producers got the show's orchestrator, Don Walker, to compose it: the song was called "Red Blues," and it managed to make it into the show and the movie version. (Update: John Baxindine says that Porter himself asked Walker to compose the piece, because Porter couldn't come up with something "sufficiently square.") On a 1959 musical called Saratoga, with a very disappointing score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, Arlen was sick during the tryout and Mercer wrote his music for a couple of the songs.

This isn't even getting into whole other category of numbers that someone else, often the dance arranger, creates. (An example is "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, which was worked out by Sondheim and Jerome Robbins and then finished with Jule Styne, but all based on Styne's themes. And then there's the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, an original composition by dance arranger Trude Rittmann.) But that's not really ghost-writing.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Why It's Hard to Write For Bugs Bunny

(Cross-posted from the TV Guidance blog)

Having written enough about The Looney Tunes Show and Looney Tunes reboots in general, I don't want to say any more about that particular show, which could still eventually turn out to be okay. But I was asked why Daffy Duck, rather than Bugs Bunny, is usually the main character of these reboots (Daffy got more screen time than Bugs in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and one of the better reboots was Daffy's Duck Dodgers). Part of the answer, I think, is that Bugs Bunny is extremely hard to write for, and the reason he's hard to write for goes to the heart of why these characters are so hard to revive effectively.

A Bugs Bunny cartoon goes against all the rules of what we - and writers - now think of as well-made screen storytelling. There are many variations on those rules, but most of them are based on the familiar three-part structure: Give your protagonist a problem, complicate it, and resolve it. This is a structure that is followed in many Daffy Duck cartoons, especially the ones from the '50s, but even some of the earlier ones where he wasn't a loser. In the dream sequence that makes up the bulk of "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," Daffy's detective persona Duck Twacy has a problem (stolen piggy banks), faces complications (getting to the gangster hideout and meeting all the gangsters) and resolves it (defeating the bad guys and getting the piggy banks) before waking up.

There are a few Bugs Bunny cartoons that follow this structure, and they all sort of can be broken down into problem-complication-resolution. Except most of them don't really play that way at all, because Bugs Bunny rarely takes the problems or complications seriously. The classic Bugs Bunny structure is sort of prologue followed by extended resolution: someone bothers Bugs (hunting for him or otherwise pissing him off), and Bugs spends the rest of the cartoon finding escalating ways to display his superiority over the opponent. Moments when Bugs loses the upper hand are very rare, and his opponents are almost always morons who pose no serious threat. (Yosemite Sam was created to be more threatening than Elmer Fudd, but Bugs rarely actually considers him threatening; it's supposed to show how cool Bugs is that he's not afraid of Sam, even though everyone else seems to be.)

One of the most famous Bugs Bunny story formulas was created by Chuck Jones for "Case of the Missing Hare." Bugs is minding his own business when an obnoxious magician comes along and treats him bad. Bugs literally declares war, invades the magician's home turf, and spends the next five minutes dishing out one bit of retribution after another. There is no suspense about the outcome, and once Bugs has declared war, the structure of the film is based more on the pacing and arrangement of the gags, not on the story, which is only going in one direction from here on out.

It's hard to do a film like that, with an invincible hero, without making the hero obnoxious. (The death of Mel Blanc probably hit Bugs Bunny the hardest out of the characters