By Julia Meinwald
I get a kick out of nosing out homo-erotic references in Cole Porter lyrics. Titles like "You're the Top" are good for a smirk, but gems like:
"Are you good at figures, dear? Kindly tell me, if so.
Yes, I'm good at figures dear, But in the morning, no.
D'you do double entry, dear? Kindly tell me, if so.
I do double entry, dear, But in the morning, no...."
(from Cole Porter's "But in the Morning, No")
are fun not only because of the wordplay, but also because the double entendre makes you feel privy to a secret about Cole Porter's life. Intimate details like this feel like rewards for the avid fan.
Similarly, Irving Berlin's "When I Lost You" is all the sadder when the listener pictures it as a tribute to his young wife who had died the previous year. The specifics of the author's life imbue the song with more gravity than anonymous pronouns can.
"I lost the sunshine and roses,
I lost the heavens of blue.
I lost the beautiful rainbow,
I lost the morning dew.
I lost the angel who gave me summer the whole winter through.
I lost the gladness that turned into sadness when I lost you."
I'm not sure to what degree writers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin meant their songs to be windows into their lives, but more modern musical theatre writers purposefully create explicitly autobiographical work.
Bill Finn's A New Brain chronicles his experience with AVM, while Elegies memorializes close friends of his who have passed away. Even shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written and performed by John Cameron Mitchell, draw attention to the author's own life. (Mitchell's father was a U.S. Army General stationed in West Berlin, but the confessional nature of the show and the fact that Mitchell himself plays the title role leaves the audience curious about further parallels.)
Gaining a glimpse into the author's private life makes the audience feel closer to the work. If we go to the theatre to seek connection with the characters onstage, it makes sense that feeling a connection with the author himself only deepens that experience. Viewers can pat themselves on the back for each parallel they find between Jamie and Jason Robert Brown in The Last Five Years, and trust Caroline or Change all the more because Kushner himself grew up Jewish in the South (raised by a clarinet playing father and a bassoon playing mother, no less!).
Young writers have a tougher time mining our experiences as twenty-somethings-living-in-
New-York-and-creating-art for theatrically interesting material. We are lucky enough to have avoided brushes with death, divorce, and ingrained racism on the most part, but damned if we don't have some important feelings and thoughts that should be interesting to everyone!
Some of my favorite new songwriters are those who perform their own work, selling their personality and their life stories as much as their craft. Here are some good ones: (as a note, I don't know how many of these songs are 100% based in truth, but they sure feel like it, no?):
"Real Cool Guy," written and performed by Eric March
"If You Like It," written and performed by Joe Iconis
"Durrants," written and performed by Gabriel Kahane
To close, in a nod to one of my favorite blurrers of the line between narrator and author, J.D. Salinger, please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((()))).
JULIA MEINWALD is an NYC-based composer. Her music for theatre has been heard at Lincoln Center (Disappeared at the Directors Lab), Ars Nova (Jack Perry is Alive and Dating), Joe's Pub (One Man Show), Prospect Theatre Company (Mapquest), the York Theatre (NEO5),and Barrington Stages (Bill Finn Presents Ridiculously Talented Composers and Lyricists That You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Should.) Julia is a Dramatists Guild fellow, a resident artist with American Lyric Theatre and a proud participant in the composer librettist studio at New Dramatists. You can hear her music on the internet sitcom Inconvenient Molly as well as in the score to short films featuring Josh Gad (The Losers) and Mary Louise Parker (Wing Woman). She received her BA in Music from Yale University in 2005, and her M.F.A from NYU Tisch's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program in 2007. www.juliameinwald.com