FIRST GRADE OPERA #1: Astronaut Alice and the Moon Aliens

ALICE: I told Lollipop I would never ever forget him or leave him and now he is gone.  I  can’t find him.

DIGGER: Alice, we will find him together, just like we found the moon rocks. Don’t give up, we can do this!

I get first graders at the Brooklyn Children’s School to create their own original music theater pieces. We call them First Grade Operas.  The teachers and para-professionals in the classroom are closely involved in all stages of the process.  Each first grade class creates their own opera.  I usually start my visits in October when the children choose a theme for their story (this year the themes were Space, Underwater and Knights).  Over time the children will create characters, a story outline, song ideas, lyrics, melodies and dialog.  By late March or April a scenery back drop that covers a wall in the classroom will have been painted, set pieces and costumes will have been designed and built, all with the children’s help.  Each classroom will have been turned into a theater space, and each class will perform a dress rehearsal for the other classes, and an official performance for invited family. It’s a pretty big deal for the kids and their folks.

I have helped create about 50 first grade operas over the years (that’s just first grade at the Children’s School; if you add all the other schools and grade levels where I have mentored original opera projects, the number would be…. um, easily in the hundreds, but my grasp of accounting and statistics is exceeded by that question).  I have learned when the operas are performed for the parents that the one thing that often needs to be restated is that the children really did compose the melodies of their songs.  Adults don’t question that 6 year olds can create stories and dialog and paint scenery, but they assume that I must have written the music.  Of all the arts, composing seems to be the most mysterious to grown-ups, they generally can’t imagine themselves doing it so they don’t see how the kids could do it.  So I often find myself confirming that yes, the children came up not only with the lyrics, they also made up the melodies.  Usually this process involves me sitting at a table with a group of children, reading out a previously written lyrics to a song, and asking one of the children to try to sing it back to me.  The first graders don’t need to know how to write down notes, they just need to be willing to sing and make up melodies or melodic phrases.  I will be their scribe and their music editor.

OK, enough explaining, let’s get to the fun, the first retelling of a First Grade Opera!

This one from this year’s space opera by class 1-1, with excerpts from the score:

1-1-15 song 1

Astronaut Alice and her dog Lollilop run out of fuel and crash land on an alien moon. While they leave the rocket ship to look for fuel, the alien Digger enters the rocket and excitedly plays the video games he finds inside.

1-1-15 song 2

Alice discovers Digger. They strike a bargain. Alice will give Digger video games if Digger helps her collect the moon rocks that have the fuel Alice needs to get back to Earth.

1-1-15 song 3

While Alive and Digger collect moon rocks, the Alien Bambombo discovers Alice’s dog Lollipop. Bambombo loves pets and takes Lollipop.

1-1-15 song 4

Then the Alien Cockeldoodlecah discovers the rocket. Cockeldoodlecah remembers seeing the flowers on Earth when he was a child. He wants to see them again and sneaks into the rocket.

Alice and Digger return to the rocket with enough moon rocks for fuel. But Lollipop is gone and Alice cries.

1-1-15 song 5

Bambombo sees Alice cry and returns with Lollipop, apologizing for taking the dog.  Alice and Lollipop say good-bye to Digger and Bambombo and fly back to Earth.

1-1-15 song 6 a

They don’t realize that they have a stowaway, Cockeldoodlecah, who is looking forward to seeing Earth’s flowers.

1-1-15 song 6 b

The end (Curtain call!)

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Des Broadways liebstes Kind – Broadway’s Dearest Child

I was introduced to American musicals through German television.  Although I saw much music theater on stage growing up in Germany, it was all opera productions my mother (the coloratura soprano Catherine Gayer) was performing in.  I performed musicals at the German-American John F. Kennedy School in Berlin.  It developed a thriving drama department that staged many classic musicals.  But when that began in 1980 I was already 13 years old.  Until then my main source of exposure to musicals was whatever was shown on German television.

The ZDF logo

The ZDF logo

When I think about my childhood and musicals I think of “Des Broadways liebstes Kind” (roughly translated as “Broadway’s Dearest Child”).  That was the anthology television series, begun in 1969 and discontinued sometime in the 1980’s, that every so often would air classic Hollywood musicals on the ZDF, the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (Second German Television – back in those simpler times, there were only two main German TV stations, a third regional TV station, for example SFB – Sender Freies Berlin or Station of Free Berlin – for us in West-Berlin, and the two East German TV stations, which most of us in the West avoided watching).

German poster for Singin' in the Rain

German poster for Singin’ in the Rain

“Des Broadways Liebstes Kind” would be the umbrella name for all the musicals shown on ZDF, whether they were movie musicals of actual Broadway classics like “West Side Story” or “Camelot” or whether they were of movie musicals that originated in the Hollywood studios, like “Wizard of Oz” (renamed “Das Zauberland” – “The Magic Land” – for German audiences) or “Singin’ in the Rain” (renamed “Du sollst mein Glueckstern sein” – as in the song title “You are My Lucky Star”).  That distinction didn’t really matter to the TV programmers.

I loved watching movies in general and movie musicals in particular. The songs, the dancing, the spectacle, everything about movie musicals enthralled me as much as I was enthralled by the inventive suspense of Hitchcock or the thrills of science fiction and horror or the joys of animation. But there was one particular treat the Broadways liebstes Kind musicals offered that I could get no where else growing up in Berlin in the 1970’s: I could hear English performed on screen. German Television showed many American movies and TV programs, there was no shortage of culture from the Motherland, so to speak, but it was all dubbed into German. Except for most of the musicals. The dialog would be dubbed, but the songs would be in English with subtitles. Later German TV and movie theaters would offer more opportunities to enjoy films O.m.U. (Original mit Untertitlen – Original (sound) with subtitles), but when I was a child musicals on TV were for the most part the only way to hear English on screen or stage.

German poster for West Side Story

German poster for West Side Story

There were exceptions. Popular German translations of some classic musicals had been performed on stage, so when the movie versions of, for example, “My Fair Lady” and “Kiss Me Kate” came out even the songs were (unfortunately) dubbed into German. But most of the time, when I was first introduced to classic movie musicals like “The Music Man” or “An American in Paris”, I was able to hear the songs in the original English. Eventually, when German TV got a little more generous about broadcasting without dubbing, the SFB aired some classic Hollywood musicals like “Stormy Weather” and many black and white Fred Astaire musicals (with Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth) with no dubbing at all, all dialog and singing in glorious English, for us Americans in Berlin pure heaven!

German poster for An American in Paris

German poster for An American in Paris

Or I should clarify, for us Americans in Berlin who did not have American military privileges. In those Cold War times, American forces were stationed in West Germany and West Berlin (while Soviet forces sat in East Germany and East Berlin). There was a special movie theater, the Outpost, that showed US movies to the military families. Every now and then I would be invited by one of my friends with military privileges to see a movie in English at the Outpost (rather than dubbed into German at the Marmorhaus or the Zoo Palast). There was also AFN, American Forces Network, the TV station serving the American forces. Unfortunately, only if you were part of the military could you acquire a television set that was able to receive AFN’s signal properly.  My parents worked for the Freie Universitaet Berlin and the Deutsche Oper, we were American civilians living in Berlin, not American military personnel stationed in Berlin. Before the late 70’s, when some change in regulation and/or technology made it possible for “regular” Berliners to access AFN, it wasn’t possible to watch all that exotic current US television programming in the original American. But once it was possible, I too was able to laugh my 12 year old head off watching “Three’s Company” or “Laverne and Shirley” like any other contemporary American kid.

The Outpost movie theater in Berlin - now The Allied Forces Museum

The Outpost movie theater in Berlin – now The Allied Forces Museum

Before then, and before I started performing musicals like “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Guys and Dolls” on stage in school, “Des Broadway’s liebstes Kind” was my sole introduction and supplier of American musicals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would learn a lot from watching those musicals on TV.  They would leave a deep impression on me, providing the formative foundation for the artist I would become.

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The Wonderland “Cha Cha” Oopsidaisy

The other day the director Lissa Moira and I were conducting one of our regular weekly meetings, reading through the Speakeasy libretto and discussing production and staging possibilities. We got to the song “Wonderland” as sung by the Tweedle Sisters in the Wonderland nightclub, including the following lyrics:









Lissa asked me whether I was sure the Cha Cha was already known in 1930. I assumed it was. I assumed I had done the research to make sure, just like I had done the research into so many elements of the libretto. But it turns out I hadn’t. A quick flurry of clicks into the internet confirmed that the cha cha wasn’t invented until 1953, over twenty years after the time “Speakeasy” is set. Oopsidaisy!

Rats.  Not an easy lyric to replace.  But I was able to find an alternative that should suit the feel of that wacky chorus just as well, substituting the “cha cha” for the “wah wah”, that special sound, often vocally imitated, that trumpets and trombones make when capped by a mute, shaped like a bowler hat, also called the “wah wah”. This sound and the look of band members using the “wah wah” is practically synonymous with the Jazz Age.

So now the lyrics read this way:









It’s not the only lyric from “Wonderland “ I have rewritten since the demo tracks for “Speakeasy” were recorded. “Tycoon Al” is now “Tycoon Paul” for example. Keep that in mind when you listen to “Wonderland”:

The Tweedle Sisters are of course based in part on Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who appear in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”.  Alice’s meeting with them informs John Allison’s interaction with the Tweedle Sisters in “Speakeasy”.  The Tweedle Sisters may share Tweedledum and Tweedledee’s habit of carrying rattles, at least to add some percussion to their performances in the Wonderland, but in their looks they likely have more in common with the famous real life vaudeville performers The Dolly Sisters.  They were a famous twin sister dance act of the Jazz Age, possibly even more famous for their extravagant life styles, rife with gambling, jewels and wealthy lovers, than they were for their exotic performances.

Alice meets Tweedledum & Tweedledee

Alice meets Tweedledum & Tweedledee

The Dolly Sisters

The Dolly Sisters

Click here to listen to all the Speakeasy demo recordings.

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Mister Danny and His Most Sung Song

I am a teaching artist. Which means that I freelance as a visiting music and drama teacher to conduct arts education projects in the classroom for limited time periods, usually 8-12 weeks, in schools all across the New York metropolitan area. With budget cuts having eliminated so many arts programs in so many schools, having a visiting teaching artist like me come in to do a theater or music project in the classroom is often the only way some students have any kind of arts education during their school year. It is not nearly enough, but it isn’t rare that that is it for the arts in some schools some years.

I have been lucky enough – in addition to the short term teaching projects most teaching artists cycle through – to have an ongoing relationship with one school, the Children’s School in Brooklyn, which has asked me to return every year for over 15 years so far to teach music and drama and create original music theater projects with their Pre-K, Kindergarten, first and fourth grade students. The school employs full time art, music and dance teachers, but it also makes resources and time available to include me in the classrooms to conduct special music and theater work.

In school I am known as Mister Danny. The children call all adults by their first name with a Miss or Mister attached at the front. Miss Margaret, Miss Sandy, Miss Beth, Mister Doug, etc. Usually Miss, especially in elementary schools, where at some sites the custodian and I might be the only male adults in the building. At the mid-sized Children’s School there are about 8 adult males in the building, which constitutes one of the higher number of male teachers I have found in one school building in NYC.

Which probably explains why there are always some kids in Pre-K and Kindergarten who will call me Miss Danny during my first sessions with them. They are not trying to sass me. They just haven’t yet realized that there is a “Mister” as well as a “Miss” that one uses when addressing the adults in the room.

When I first started working with the young kids in First Grade, Kindergarten and Pre-K, the schools’ arts coordinators didn’t think we could do original music theater projects (which is my specialty) with children that young (although since then we have introduced such projects in Kindergarten and First Grade at the Children’s School). They asked me to do age appropriate theater games and singing. One arts coordinator in a school without a music teacher told me: “Just sing with them. There is no singing in this school. At all. I want the children to sing”.

There is something ineffably sad about that statement. I once read that one of the few requirements for school teachers in the American frontier was that they should play the piano and sing adequately. I remember my Kindergarten teacher, the wonderful Janet Matz, spending thirty minutes every school day strumming her guitar and singing folk tunes with us. To think that there are some schools where there is no singing at all – I’m not talking about actual music instruction, just simply singing some songs as a class sometime – is tragic.

As I was preparing for one of my first assignments with young children who would be singing in school for the first time with me, I decided it would be a good idea to follow a basic age appropriate vocal warm up with an simple song that introduces the children not only to the act of singing but also to the act of making movements to a song. When I teach young children a song, I look for songs that are age appropriate but not childish (“Itsy Bitsy Spider” is a fine tune if you are 3, but it would drive me nuts to have to sing it again and again). It should have few words to memorize (since the children will be learning by ear) and also allow for learning gestures and movements that can be acted out with the singing (this way the song is taught aurally, visually and kinetically). Songs like “Hello Goodbye” from the Beatles, “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music and “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game, to name a few, have proven very effective. But before I teach a “real song” I wanted to teach a simple “warm – up” song that introduced the concepts of how they would learn lyrics and melodies from me, as well as the concept of doing specific movement together at select times of the songs.

So during one long bus ride to a school in Sheepshead Bay twenty years ago or so, I came up with the “We’re Singing” song. Taught orally all these years, I only just yesterday wrote out the actual “score” for this blog:

 We're Singing 1

"We're Singing"

Teachers, feel free to use this song as part of your lesson, if you like. Otherwise, all copyright rules apply, of course. ;-)

I not only teach the words (in rhythm) and then the music to each phrase, I also initially indicate the melodic rise and fall with arm and hand gestures. When I first teach the “la la la’s” I initiate a conversation about going up with our voices on the first la la la ending, and down on the second. I show where our voices are going by raising my horizontally stretched hand up and down, taking a step on an imaginary pitch ladder with each note. I don’t ask them to, but many children automatically mimic the hand gestures.

When “we clap our hands together” and “tap our feet together” we do just that on the “clap clap clap” and “tap tap tap” of the song. Then I ask the class to come up with two new things we could “do” and sing about doing together. Following is just a small list of all the myriad activities Pre-K, Kindergarten and the occasional First Grade class have elected to make part of their class’ version of “We’re Singing” in the many years I have employed this song:

We bend our knees together – bend bend bend – bend bend bend

We shake our shoulders together – shake shake shake – shake shake shake

We wiggle our heads together – wiggle wiggle wiggle – wiggle wiggle wiggle

We stomp our legs together – stomp stomp stomp – stomp stomp stomp

We jump up high together – jump jump jump – jump jump jump

We spin around together – spin spin spin – spin spin spin


And so on. You get the idea. Every year every new class gets to create two new lines for their version of the song (one year one child suggested “we shake our booty together”, and the teachers didn’t object, which made for a particularly fun bum-wiggling year). This acts as an early introduction to the concept of composing and making up movements, and also probably keeps things fresh enough for me that I don’t get absolutely sick of this ditty.

Because it occurs to me that over the years “We’re Singing” has been heard by more people than any other piece of music I have composed. It most certainly has been sung by more people than any other song I have composed. So far. Which is a mathematical statistic that perhaps for my own sanity’s sake should not be examined any more closely.

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The Walk in the Park that Conceived “Speakeasy”

I came up with the idea for “Speakeasy” while strolling in Prospect Park with Ed six or seven years ago. But I had the ideas that would lead to the idea for Speakeasy many years, even decades before that moment.

By which I mean before I had that incisive moment in the park that crystallized what Speakeasy would be, I had a whole bunch of primordial ideas: melodies that begged for an outlet, a staging concept that needed a story, and a strong passion to create a powerful Queer musical.

Like most songwriters I have an archive of unfinished songs, from melody snippets to nearly complete songs, sometimes with some lyrics attached, maybe just a title phrase, but usually without any words.   I call them “Orphan Songs” or “Orphan Melodies”, musical ideas that are still looking for “placement” in a musical or project, still needing an outlet to be shared. Some of these Orphan Melodies get written down and archived and then forgotten until I look them up again. Some “haunt” me by sticking in my memory, a tune I will hum to myself again and again, feeling its emotional content even if I didn’t yet know its actual lyrical content. Those songs especially nag at me, tugging at a subconscious sleeve, looking to be fully composed and performed somehow. Once they are “placed” in a show and are performed, they tend to stop tugging at that subconscious sleeve, no longer “haunting” me.

I noticed years ago that a lot of my orphan melodies felt like songs written in the 1920’s or 1930’s. And with that realization I started imagining a musical set in a nightclub, or rather that the nightclub was the staging area for a story set in the 1920’s and/or 1930’s: not necessarily every scene took place in a nightclub, but the nightclub “presented” every scene. That was all fine and well, but I still had no idea what the actual story might be for this possible musical using all those 1920’s /1930’s song ideas.

Jazz Age Nightclub

And then the masterful “Brokeback Mountain” lost to the deeply uneven “Crash” at the 2005 Academy Awards. Besides the relative merits of the two movies, media reports would detail how the “homo-ick” factor had kept too many Academy members from even seeing the Gay Cowboy Movie, let alone voting for it in the category that mattered most. To me Hollywood Homophobia was writ large in the moment Jack Nicholson read “Crash” off the Best Picture envelope and within moments I shouted at my TV screen: “You fucking homophobes. I’ll show you. I’ll write “Gay Sex, the Musical” and shove it down your throats!”

OK, “Speakeasy” is not “Gay Sex, the Musical”, although there is non-heterosexual sex in it. But a line can be drawn from that petulant outburst during the Oscar telecast to the musical “Speakeasy”. I started working on ideas for a musical trilogy on modern LGBTQ life, from 1945 – today. That is still in the works. Yet I also remembered my idea for the 1920’s/1930’s nightclub musical that had no story or even a theme beyond its era and setting. I wondered if there could be a “prequel” to the contemporary Gay Musical trilogy. What was the queer “prehistory” before modern Gay history? Obviously there was Gay life in the USA before World War 2 (often described as the inciting event in modern Gay history, by allowing so many gay people to find each other in large numbers in the Army), but what did we know about this pre WW2 Gay history? It felt like so far back in an unknowable past as to be fantastical. And so I thought, if the post-WW2 Gay era gets a documentary approach in the musical trilogy, how about the musical set earlier is allowed to be depicted more like a dream, in a fantastical, more magical realist fashion? And maybe the nightclub setting which functions as the playing area for the story also lends itself to a fantastical musical that toys with ideas of time and place and reality? (I have since done my research into the era, and Gay life in the 1920’s and 1930’s is as real to me now as any other era of the 20th century; yet the freedom of a dreamlike narrative has allowed me to thread more historical facts into “Speakeasy” than a more straight-forward approach might have.)

So I was thinking about these primordial ideas for a musical, ideas which were still not quite meeting up properly to allow me to start “putting it together”, to quote the Master. I had a trunk of song ideas that belonged to a specific era, I had a setting that was also a rich staging concept, and I had a theme – Gay life in the 1920’s / 1930’s, and I knew I wanted it to be magical realist, fantastical. But what was my story? Or what would be the story idea that could get me started? I kept thinking of The Wizard of Oz and a 1920’s Dorothy making her way through New York Queer subculture, and that may have worked well, but it didn’t feel quite right to me.

IMG_2318_2That is what I was discussing with my husband Ed while we were taking a walk in Prospect Park six or seven years ago. When suddenly I remembered Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. It occurred to me that with Alice we not only had Alice in Wonderland but also Alice Through the Looking Glass. And these two books could be the template not just for one Roaring Twenties Alice, but two. A married couple: John and Jane Allison. Young newlyweds who both explore their sexuality through the course of two simultaneous and intertwining magical adventures. And her story would be inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and his story by Alice Through the Looking Glass. Now finally I had the incisive idea that would allow me to start seriously writing my 1920/30’s Gay magical realist musical.

What followed however would be at least one year of doing research into the history of Gay life in the USA and New York from the 19th century through the 1930’s, while simultaneously reading and breaking down and thinking about the Alice books and playing and reimagining all those 1920/30’s orphan melodies of mine. It would be at least a year of research and thought before the structure of Speakeasy would be clear enough to actually start writing in earnest.

So much more to say about Speakeasy of course, and we’ll come back to it as well as skip around to some other topics in the next few posts. Meanwhile, give a listen to “Dance into the Light”, the song Chet Cheshire sings while couples dance at the Wonderland nightclub, the chorus of which basically holds the moral of the musical: “Dance into the light, let love have her way…”

And, as before, almost all Speakeasy demo recordings can be heard here:

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How this young chum came to the Cabaret

"Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret"

“Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret”

This Christmas one of my “stocking stuffers” from Ed was the gift that thrilled me the most this holiday season: a (battery operated) votive candle with an actual screen cell of Liza Minnelli singing the title song from the movie “Cabaret”.   I don’t pray, and I wasn’t raised Catholic, but I am tempted to use this votive candle as a way to make daily obeisance to the musical gods.

I could go on and on about what makes “Cabaret” not only one of the great movie musicals of all time but simply one of the great movies of any time, period (and I will probably come back to wax happily on various aspects of “Cabaret” in many future posts). It richly deserves every one of the 8 Academy Awards it received, and probably would have won 9 and not earned the distinction of being the movie that won the most Oscars without winning Best Picture if 1972 had not also been the year of “The Godfather”.

cabaretposterGerman TV showed “Cabaret” soon after its theatrical run. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first watched “Cabaret” curled up on a couch with my parents in our West Berlin basement TV room, probably with the fireplace crackling, but I must have been pretty young, because I remember it as the movie that first introduced me to many adult concepts about history and sexuality.

If “Cabaret” wasn’t my movie introduction to Nazis and Anti-Semitism and the history of the Nazis coming to power in the 1930s, it surely was the one that prompted my first questions to my parents about these concepts, seeing how deeply and intractably they effected all of the movie’s characters. And if “Cabaret” wasn’t my introduction to the concept of homosexuality, surely it was at least the introduction to the concept of bisexuality, as I clearly remember asking my parents to explain this explosive exchange between Sally (Liza Minnelli) and Brian (Michael York) about their rich friend Maximilian (Helmut Griem):

Brian: Ah, screw Maximilian!

Sally: I do.

Brian: … So do I.

Actually, I first heard this exchange dubbed into German (here recalled from memory):

Brian: Ach, dann bums Maximilian!

Sally: Das tue ich.

Brian: … Ich auch

(I would watch “Cabaret” in German many many times, wearing out the Betamax video copy we had made when it aired on TV. I didn’t see “Cabaret” in English until I moved to America, although thankfully in the German version the songs were not dubbed, the German “Synchron-dialog” was smartly adapted and the voice acting was of a high standard, aided by the fact that many of the secondary actors, including co-leads Helmut Griem and Fritz Wepper, spoke German and dubbed their own performances.)

My parents explained to me the nature of Brian, Sally and Maximilian’s sexual relationship in a basically age appropriate way, and I then understood the subtext of the many awkward silences between the three characters better, or at least felt its import more deeply. I would not recognize that I myself was bisexual until I hit puberty.  Michael York as Brian will forever be the original emblem of bisexual male to me.

Max (Helmut Griem), Brian (Michael York) & Sally (Liza Minnelli)

Max (Helmut Griem), Brian (Michael York), & Sally (Liza Minnelli)

Sidenote: I had the privilege of spending a summer with the debonair actor Helmut Griem when I was thirteen. My older brother David (in one of his few acting gigs before he turned his attention completely to studying physics) was cast as Mr. Griem’s son in the family dramedy “Stachel im Fleisch” which was filming on the island of Sardinia. My parents and I joined my brother to spend our summer vacation in Sardinia and act as extras in a couple of beach scenes.  I remember Helmut Griem as a sweet, slightly melancholy man (my parents told me he was going through a divorce). He was kind to thirteen year old me (who tried not to act too star stuck, considering this was the handsome movie star from my very favorite film), treating me as a conversational peer during evenings spent shooting the breeze with my folks and movie cast and crew on the terrace restaurant of the hotel that lodged us all.

Like I said, I would watch “Cabaret” over and over again on our Betamax. Then I got to see it for the first time on the big screen at the local Bali movie theater, when they screened a print one weekday evening. I made a startling discovery. Two scenes were missing. The risqué “Two Ladies” number and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. The print I saw in the movie theater was from when the film was released in German theaters in its original run. And at that time it evidently had been decided that these two scenes needed to be excised for German audiences.

Joel Grey and his Two Ladies

Joel Grey and his Two Ladies

I guess the “Two Ladies” number was just too risqué? It dealt cheekily with the concept of a ménage a trois, but did so without actually showing anything more overtly sexual than any other part of the movie; it was more silly than raunchy. Was the mere depiction of a threesome in any form, even a cartoonish dance number, too much for the censor?

"Tomorrow Belongs to Me"

“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”

More interesting was the decision to excise the “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number. It depicts a sweet faced blond tenor singing a lyrical ode to the German landscape in a German beer garden. As the camera pans back we realize the young singer is in a Nazi uniform. The song grows in urgency and one by one the Nazi youth is joined by the patrons of the beer garden. The rousing climax of the song is a stunning musical and cinematic illustration of the pull Nazi ideology and iconography had on the German populace in the 1930s. But there is no violence or sexuality in the images. Nothing that would normally rouse the censors. Was this scene cut because the movie distributors feared what effect it might have in cinemas in Germany in the early 1970s? And exactly what effect were they anticipating?  Did they fear some movie patrons might rise and sing along?  I don’t know. I do know by the time “Cabaret” aired on German TV just a few years later, both scenes had been wisely reinstated.

Oh, I could go on and on about “Cabaret”. I will be banging the drum about what makes it such an extra-ordinary musical and movie all my life (and will surely focus on many aspects of its incredible artistry in many future posts). Besides being a great movie with a great score, how could it not leave such a deep imprint on me when it deals so indelibly with so many themes important to me: music theater, performing, Berlin and its fraught history, Americans in Berlin, being Jewish in Germany, bisexuality, bilingualism… It’s a great work of art, even more deeply felt as such because of the many personal connections it made for me at a very young age.

So, having a votive candle to light to its brilliance is for me eminently appropriate. Or rather, perhaps it is, to quote Sally Bowles, “divine decadence”.

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THE SPEAKEASY INTRODUCTION – A fantastical musical of Prohibition era NYC Queer life.

SP door

The following is the official introduction/synopsis for Speakeasy. While you read it, you may want to listen to the Wonderland’s Master of Ceremonies Chet Cheshire sing the Speakeasy opening number:

(If you are “greedy” and want to listen to more Speakeasy demo tracks, they can be accessed here.)

“Speakeasy – The Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland” is a big full-length musical, generously over-stuffed with memorable songs, that cleverly adapts Lewis Carroll’s Alice books to take its audience on a fantastic journey through the little known vibrant Queer culture of Prohibition era New York City.  Love and Identity in their many facets are explored in surprising, whimsical and ultimately profound ways in an evening full of song, dance, laughter, heartbreak and adventure.

John and Jane Allison are newlyweds in 1929/30 New York.  Although they love each other, they have desires they haven’t even acknowledged to themselves, let alone explored.  But after giving her neighbor Roberta White a kiss, and running after her, Jane enters a basement Speakeasy to find herself in a strange world where time and space and identity don’t appear to follow conventional rules.  John too enters this world in his own way: after accepting a sexual proposition in a public men’s room he mysteriously slides through the bathroom mirror.  Thus Jane goes “down the rabbit hole” and John falls “through the looking glass”. Their adventures, first separate, then together, mirror Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, only with Carroll’s characters and events transformed into characters and events from New York City’s Prohibition era culture.

The Wonderland is now a nightclub run by Master of Ceremonies Chet Cheshire, based on Gene (Jean) Malin, the openly homosexual headline act of New York’s short-lived Pansy Craze of 1929.  The Wonderland’s favorite double act, The Tweedle Sisters (Dora and DeeDee), are loosely based on Vaudeville’s famous Dolly Sisters.  Jane and John meet Duchess Bentley, based on the larger than life black lesbian singer Gladys Bentley, as well as Julian Carnation, based on the popular female impersonator Julian Eltinge.  Through their friendships and subsequent love affairs with these characters, John and Jane, in one magical realist dream night, explore many facets of Prohibition era Queer culture, including sexually and racially inclusive speakeasies, buffet flat parties, police raids, and the grand Jefferson Lodge Ball, inspired by the real-life Hamilton Lodge Ball, where up to two thousand cross-dressing costumed men (and women) danced while up to three thousand spectators watched from the balconies.

By the night’s end, John and Jane must confront each other’s hidden sexuality and infidelity. At the same time the free-spirited world of the Wonderland is brought to a halt by a bizarre, Carrollesque Trial, mirroring the end of Prohibition and the tightening of moral strictures that followed in the early 1930’s.  Duchess Bentley, Julian Carnation and Chet Cheshire each endure reversals of fortunes and societal repression that echo their real life counterparts’ histories.  Finally John and Jane rebel against the Trial’s “stuff and nonsense”, cause great chaos (just as Alice does at the end of both Wonderland books) and wake up from their mutual dream, Jane alone on her couch and John in a subway car.  But will they reveal their “dreams” to each other and “speak easy” about the truth of themselves?

IMG_2341_2 F flapper


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THE FIRST “NOTES FROM A COMPOSER“ BLOG POST … Or Why am I doing this, really, why?

Why am I starting this blog? Did I really have this great need to share my views on the arts in general, music and theater in particular, and my own experience in creating music theater very particularly? Um, actually no, I’ll admit I didn’t have that desperate desire but had and still have rather more ambivalent feelings about writing a blog. However I have a hunch that may change as I dive in to the wild woolly world of “blogging”.

So what gives? Well, I’ll admit outright there are ulterior motives besides “expressing” myself on the www. I am planning to produce a showcase of my most (terrifyingly) ambitious musical “Speakeasy” next year, and it occurred to me that a blog may be a good way to talk about the show and create interest and an audience for it. Then my co-producers basically said, yes you have to do this (and for a while I started backtracking and felt like Michael Keaton in Birdman mumbling something about wanting to just focus on the work and shouldn’t people other than me talk about it and then Emma Stone shouts at me about getting on social media or else I or the work don’t even really exist, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because we are all going to die… OK, I digress, and I need to see that movie again, because I’m sure I have just grossly misrepresented something). Anyhow…

God forbid this is just a blog about “my great new musical – y’all come see it next year, dates to be announced…” How about we expand beyond that, and create something more interesting? People who meet me at dinner parties or some such social gatherings tend to be genuinely interested in my work as a composer, and so me sharing some idiosyncratic stories about music and theater and the arts, from a very personal perspective, might make for an enjoyable way to give and partake on the internet.

I should introduce myself (about time, right, it’s the fourth paragraph already; although, let’s face it, the first readers and maybe always only readers of this are my family and friends who don’t need the introduction): I am a composer of over a dozen theatrically produced musicals and other works. I am many other things too, an actor, a writer, a musician, a director, a producer, a teacher, a whole laundry list of artistic pursuits all of which will likely figure into the writing of this blog. I am also an American who grew up in Germany; I am proud of being an “American Mutt”: part Jewish, part Finnish, part Russian, part Austrian, throw in some Hungarian and some colonial stock and a very small but dearly cherished part Cherokee and you can imagine that I boast a nicely diverse DNA pie chart, well, at least for a Caucasian. I’m also a middle-aged (OK, that I hated typing out), bisexual man married to a lovely man named Ed. We’ve been together 22 years, 18 of them at the same address in Brooklyn, New York. All these bits and more will inform this blog, but first and foremost it will all come back to music, and me being a composer. That will be the main focus of this blog, my experience as a composer, my perspective as a composer, my love of music.

fanned music cropped

My musical “Speakeasy” will easily take up the greater share of blog entries, at least at the start. It is not the only musical I have written and not the only project I am currently working on, but it will definitely take up most of my energy and focus as I work to ready a showcase production of this rather massive show for next year. Its subtitle should give you an idea what it is about and why there might be so much to say about it: “Speakeasy – the Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland”. Yes, our setting is Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, and yes, it is a riff on Alice and Wonderland, except we have two Alice’s: John and Jane Allison. And less obviously stated, yes, we will be exploring unusual, fantastical realms based in historical fact: the New York Queer subculture of the late 1920’s, early 1930’s.

I usually have no problem getting people interested and excited about “Speakeasy” just by simply mentioning the title and subtitle and describing the basic premise. If we were talking about it, say, at a dinner party, an interesting conversation would be guaranteed. In fact, there is so much to talk about and so many interesting directions to take the conversation, about the history, the music, the story, the sex(!), I could go on forever and given the opportunity I would and though I am generally polite enough to let you get a word in edgewise, I would still probably totally wear you out with all I have to say.

But in this blog, I can take all the interesting bits and bobs about Speakeasy, and about my personal history as a composer, and my personal musings on music and theater and media, and serve them in (hopefully) fun and engrossing little blog posts, with music and pictures and video files and whatnot. I will try to be the interesting dinner party guest who has some unique, enjoyable stories to share. But in cyberspace you needn’t feel trapped by not being able to leave your seat at the dinner table; I won’t wear you out, because you can listen in at will, when you want, for how long you want, and also respond in the comments sections if you like. And so, like at a good dinner party it may even become a really scintillating conversation.

My posts will be organized in several categories. “The Speakeasy Chronicles”, about my musical Speakeasy; “Beginnings”, about my formative experiences as a composer; “Melodies Linger On” where I share personal musings on musical cultural touchstones; “The Teaching Artist” about my work teaching, specifically getting kids to compose and write their own musicals. And as the blog develops, additional categories will surely be added.

So even if “Notes from a Composer” comes into existence because it is (to put it crassly) part of a marketing plan for a musical showcase, before I even post the first piece I am hoping to make it something more: a place to be part of the artistic process, with personal stories and thoughts on composing, with unique perspectives on music and theater and teaching and the arts. A forum offering insight into one artist’s work and idiosyncratic reactions to shared cultural milestones.

music strips

PS: You can follow me on Twitter (Ashkenasi@DannyAshkenasi). My co-producers insisted I start tweeting and so I have been having fun exploring that particular world of social outreach and commentary. After two months and approx. 170 tweets I amassed a staggering 12 followers. 12. Yes, that’s twelve… I have written more musicals than I have managed to attract twitter followers…



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