I’m burning out on arranging.
I need to ‘sorbet’ myself and just do a tune that’s straight piano and vocal.
I need something easy.
Something in my round house.
Something that I can begin, and end in one sitting and feel like I’ve actually completed something on this project.
THE CMU SONG!
This song….is what I like to refer to as a ‘jewel tune’. In fact, I was going to call this CD ‘Jewel Tunes’ if not name the CD the ‘real’ title of this song, which I’m calling for the moment THE CMU SONG.
CMU stands for my Alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, and CMU is where I heard this song for the first (and only) time.
I was a freshman and so obviously, everything any upper classman did was pure genius.
I had already witnessed absolute mind-blowing brilliance in the ‘black box studio’ theatre on campus in the form of a Junior class Randy Newman Review that just about made my uterus hit the floor with a clang- I was SO fucking excited about it.
So imagine my girly parts when I saw my very first ‘main stage musical’ in the historic Kresge Theatre with the *gasp* Senior Class! It was a musical called “I Hear America Singing” (which now I realize -having just done the recent WORKING revival at the Old Globe- was pretty much a rip off of that entire score. Which is to say, it was fucking awesome and I have the bootlegs of Billy Porter literally- wailing for Jesus to prove it).
Now in every CMU class, it seems that there’s one ‘non singer, straight dramat’ girl who’s -for whatever reason- allowed to take all the musical theatre classes and take part in the musicals. While I never understood the reason for this, I always found myself looking forward to whatever they did the most. And not in a this will be a fabulous car crash kinda way at all. I found that, because these girls were not ‘officially’ singers, but really actresses who…kinda, sorta sang a little…their numbers were always tremendously more interesting to me.
It was really from these ‘miscast’ young women that I learned that it was not really technical proficiency that ever really reached anyone when singing a song with lyrics. Clearly, music has power, as does technique and even vocal purity and the occasional pyrotechnics, but….when there are lyrics- attention and respect must be paid to the story telling. Once you add lyrics, you must must MUST tell the story. And since all these gals had to hold onto was the text, I always found myself profoundly more engaged in what their numbers had to say, above all others.
So, here was this lone non-singer chick in the senior class who apparently was ‘such a bad singer’ that they hardly even let her sing in the chorus. And because this was a ‘review type’ of a show, with really hardly any scenes or monologues- she was totally fucked out of some serious stage time. I mean, you never saw her onstage. And i know this because I volunteered to be an usher for the rest of run so I could watch her do her number about 25 more times.
In fact the only moment they gave her was this CMU SONG. And it was really kind of like….they were ’throwing her a bone’ with one easy song.
That’s really all she had to do.
Sing this one song
All by herself.
And stay out of everyone else's way.
Now it would seem, that having a beautiful solo song was a reward, but for some reason- there was a distinct aroma of ‘if we just keep her AWAY from the rest of us….we’ll be fine’. As if her absence of singing and dancing ability was some sort of plague to be quarantined.
I tell you what.
She was amazing.
Not only because she was a master of simplicity, but because- she knew how everyone felt about her. She knew that everyone looked on her as musically lame. And she went out there every night and kicked the absolute SHIT out of this song by NOT kicking the shit out of it. She remains, to this day- one of my personal heroes. And I can't even remember her name.
And this isn't to day that the rest of that class wasn't impressive. They were miraculous. We're talking about a Senior class that had Michael McElroy in it for fuck's sake...so, come on. We're talking about that level of talent. And of course, when I saw the whole show and just freaked out at the talent of everyone. I was WOWED by their technique, I was AMAZED by their natural musical prowess, but not once...was I actually ‘moved’.
This girl stepped onstage into a blue-ish spotlight... wearing a tattered, flowing white dress while a fan blowing from stage right eerily made her look like a ghost.
Or an angel.
I could never figure out which.
It changed for me, every time i saw her do it.
From the moment she ‘appeared’ I was riveted. Yes, everything was working for her—the dress, the fan, the light, the smoke….but what STRUCK me was her presence.
It was so powerful.
She just stood there.
I had only seen Bernadette Peters (a friggin guru of the parking and barking) do this on TV maybe once, but I'd never seen it live.
But there she was.
Dress blowing, in the mist…and with this….music....these AMAZING chords underneath her.
From the chords….
You sense a purity but also…a slight sophistication?
Somethings...not quite right?
And then she began to sing.
Well, not even really sing.
But to speak on pitch.
The first time I’d seen this, ever.
She spoke on pitch and NEVER MOVED.
She didn’t have to.
And if she had, the spell would have been broken.
Because the MUSIC, and the LYRICS were so perfect, so pure that…
She stayed out of its way.
It was the only way.
Funny side story- i was working Sir Alan Ayckbourn as a director on a musical he had written called BY JEEVES and he once said to me,
"Darling. I wrote the lines. I don't need you to make them funny. They're already funny. I know this, because i wrote them. When you make them funny, they just become remarkably UN-funny. So if you could just SAY the words, and get out of the way of my brilliance, I would greatly appreciate it."
Btw, he's totally tongue-in-cheek and incredibly modest so...he wasn't being a jackass but he was getting the point across.
You see, as actors we are so used to making shitty, and i mean SHITTY material work- in readings, workshops, even Broadway shows- that we just automatically go into scotch tape and shellac mode. We walk into something not trusting the material, because...usually we can't.
But when the rare occasion affords us perfect material, we sometimes forget that in an ideal situation like this- we are merely vessels. When we are working with brilliant material- there is nothing more that's asked of us than to be a receptacle in which something wonderful can be transmitted.
Like copper wire.
That's why working on Sondheim shows are so shockingly and surprisingly much 'easier' than you'd imagine. It's because you just don't have to work that hard. You can just ride on top of the genius that is the material. It's so much less exhausting than other shows can be.
Now, let’s talk about the fucking lyrics for a second.
Holy Christ on a CROSS are they genius.
This song's about nuclear war.
Well, really...the aftermath of nuclear war.
I know I know I know….
a beautiful, mind blowing song about Armageddon?
But really- in the big picture- what it’s really about is what happens when the ‘end’ comes.
Of a relationship.
Of someone’s life.
In this case, the world.
So anyone who's ever experienced any sort of 'death' can relate to this song.
And the lyrics are absolute poetry.
And this amazing actress---skillfully….allowed each word to ‘shimmer’ in a way. I'd learned about this in Voice and Speech class regarding monologues but I had never really seen it applied to singing before.
It’s so hard to describe because it’s SUCH a fine line between Mandy Patinkin singing (who I love, btw- but he does have a tendency to over-do the poetry sometimes) and just allowing each word to breathe. This personally, is my greatest struggle with this song. Because i love the lyrics so much i want to chew them UP and roll them around in my mouth and spit them out.
That ruins it.
No one wants to watch someone really really really enjoy their dinner. Because then of course it becomes about that person enjoying their dinner then- and not about the dinner itself. That everyone is trying to enjoy. At the same time.
But God, there are words like…‘burst’ and ‘beams’ and ‘bloom’ and ‘flash’, 'backlash', ‘strange’ and ‘perfume’…and the music is designed to allow those words to pop. And shine.
They’re not hidden-
The music and the lyrics don’t compete with each other for your attention-
They work…symbiotically…in –no pun intended- perfect harmony.
I was enraptured by these simple jazz chords.
Hypnotized by this poetry.
And by the time she got to the last note….
I was BAWLING.
Like, uncontrollable and embarrassing heaving.
And I couldn’t even begin to know why.
It was the first time, I had ever really been almost possessed by a performance.
I will never, ever forget it.
It's burned onto my retinas forever.
Immediately, I got my hands on that song.
Jerry Dantry, the resident Music Director extraordinaire in Pittsburgh was my partner in crime and he found it in the bowels of the library.
I still have the dogged manuscript from almost twenty years ago handwritten by Deborah-Henson Conant.
I have sung this song now for decades.
It’s in my blood.
And it’s one of those songs that everyone comes up to you after and says ‘WHERE THE HELL DID YOU GET SONG??!!!!’
This one, is easy.
I record the piano while singing- one pass.
I record the vocal- one pass.
I go back and re-accompany myself on piano- one pass.
And it’s done.
While I’m at it, I record the vocals for THE MONUMENT SONG.
I now have two entire songs officially in the can.
am finding myself a bit wistful for my college days.
And with that, 'go tartans'.