Monday, December 29, 2014

Good Job, Disney!

Translating Stage to Screen

Background: For over thirty years it has been my privilege and pleasure to direct over eighty stage musicals for community groups and high schools, so I have seen and heard a lot of shows, many of them numerous times. Being in a theater watching and listening to live performers has a special magic for both performers and audience. It’s true of live theater of any kind, but music enhances theater. It heightens emotions, increases perceptions and sometimes sweeps us away if it is performed well. As a director I tend to hold my breath through each performance, and it thrills me when the audience leaves smiling. Even more when they are smiling because they saw a satisfying production, and wiping their eyes at the same time because they’ve been moved by the story and by our performance.

I am not a big fan of most films that are adaptations of stage musicals. Oklahoma! was OK (sorry, pun intended). It has been years since I actually watched the film and there must be a reason for that. I really, really, really hated Carousel. Hollywood outdid itself in wrenching a stage musical I love (partly for very personal reasons) into a B movie; leaving out some of the best parts, miscasting the film – I could go on and on about this one. Fiddler on the Roof was not bad, but it seemed to me it dragged terribly. The stage production is very long, the movie seemed interminable.

I liked 1776, but the powers that be were wise enough to use the same team that had made the show a success on Broadway – director, writer, and producer – and many of the original cast members for the film. I love 1776 and loved directing it. The Broadway cast was brilliant and that brilliance translated well to the film version. There were very few changes (some cuts were restored for the most recent DVD). There was very little filler.

Of more recent films, I found Sweeney Todd very disappointing. Some of Sondheim’s best writing for ensemble was completely eliminated – it seemed to be a movie about two very fine actors attempting (and failing) to sing a very difficult, wonderful score. Maybe more than disappointing. I will never watch it again. Tim Burton made me laugh, finally, with all the gore. It became ludicrous. I don’t know, maybe that’s what he was after.

Disney, with Sondheim’s guidance, absolutely nailed Into the Woods. Another great Sondheim show, another show I love, another show I loved directing. The musical numbers that were omitted made sense; the first act finale isn’t needed when there’s no intermission and I liked the way the film continued the story rather than stopping and re-starting. One of my favorite songs in the show (“No More”) was cut but that also made sense in the context of a film and keeping the flow of the story.

The cast was exceptional, and it seemed to me they were all very much aware how much an ensemble piece Into the Woods has to be. My opinion is that the film is a good show for kids as the musical may not be – some of the edges have been smoothed. In the stage play it’s pretty evident that Cinderella’s Prince and the Baker’s Wife have a tryst (good word). In the movie, it can be taken as a “moment” (maybe a little kissing?) but what actually happened is left to the imagination of the audience. There’s no blood, though we understand people die.

No doubt there are those who will object to the changes, but it makes the movie much more accessible to a larger audience. I think it's great that so many people will have the opportunity to see this wonderful musical. Not everybody can afford a ticket to a Broadway show (have you checked the prices recently?!). Not everybody can get to New York to see a show, or even is near a venue for a tour. And those tickets are not cheap either. I saw the film at a matinee at the local Cinemark for $5.75.

Even though they are fairy tale characters, the characters aren’t gorgeous and perfect (well, except for the two Princes – but they have to be). They come across as real people and we care about them. The special effects are excellent and the music is performed expertly, enhanced by a new orchestration. To a purist some of the music may seem a little slow, but again, for an audience that’s unfamiliar with Sondheim and his wonderful texts, I think it was a good choice. Every word is clearly understandable. “The Last Midnight” is extremely well staged. “Agony” was the highlight of the film for me; I can’t imagine how it could possibly have been better.

Give yourself a real treat, go see this film. Even better, take a ten-year-old – but explain the premise first. There’s something beyond “happily ever after” and actions have consequences. And take tissues. “No One Is Alone” always makes me cry. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Nice Christmas Gift

Thanks for the Review

From time to time I check my books which are listed on Amazon, and I was delighted today to see a review of Eli’s Heart posted on Christmas Eve by a reader from the UK. That in itself was a gift, to think someone totally unknown to me ─living in another country ─ had read my book and cared enough to write a review. I began writing in May of 2013, primarily for myself; once How I Grew Up was complete, I wanted to hold it in my hands. I wanted to give other people a chance to read the story. I began writing Eli’s Heart almost immediately, and it’s a very good feeling to learn that this second book has crossed an ocean.

It was a very honest review, positive for the most part. There were a couple of things the reviewer suggested I might have done better – or perhaps differently, and I accepted the criticism in the spirit in which it was tendered … just that, a suggestion as to how I might improve my writing. Of the many nice things he had to say, the one that pleased me most was his comment that he cared about my characters and found them very believable; actually, he said: These fictional figures become utterly real to the reader, helping to develop a connection that will make you need to know what is coming next. He further commented I had created a world he could also believe; the book takes place in the mid-twentieth century. His comment about the book making a good film was definitely a bonus.

This kind of response is a gift. Knowing that the characters who were the product of my imagination apparently became as real to this reader as they are to me was a great compliment. He apparently found the book a good read and was absorbed by it. It was a good review, and I so appreciate that he took the time to a) read Eli’s Heart and b) review it with such thought and care.

There are probably hundreds of thousands of indie authors who are self-publishing these days, many through Amazon’s fine program, CreateSpace. So I am very much aware of the competition for readers, and I am thrilled when I receive this kind of review. I am thrilled when anyone local stops me in the supermarket/parking lot/school auditorium and says: “I read your book and I thought it was great/loved it/thoroughly enjoyed it.” And if they add they borrowed it from a friend or relative, that’s fine. They read it! You can’t give an author a more wonderful gift than to take the time to read her book.

So here’s the self-promotion you knew was coming: Eli’s Heart is a good story, and apparently Eli and Krissy come alive for the reader. You can find the book on Amazon (my favorite place to shop for just about anything, by the way), currently selling for $10.94 for the paperback edition and $3.99 for the Kindle edition. Nice reading for a snowy winter’s night. I believe you will be glad you decided to spend time with these devoted, passionate people who share a difficult life with grace and courage.

Book cover by Tristan Flanagan

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

You Are My Song/Eli's Heart

Two Musicians    

     Writing You Are My Song has been a very different experience from writing Eli's Heart. Eli Levin's story is full of drama because of the two challenges he has faced from birth: a prodigious talent and a frightening congenital heart condition. I recently described Jamie Logan, the young tenor in You Are My Song, to one of my readers as “an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent.” Jamie has an unusually beautiful singing voice and excellent musical instincts, and he works hard to develop his talent. 
     It’s interesting to compare Jamie to Eli Levin. Because Eli was born with a prodigious musical gift, it’s a given that he will be a professional musician. The only question for Eli is how he will use his remarkable skill as a pianist: as a virtuoso, performing solo recitals and orchestral appearances? That is the manner in which most pianists endowed in this way spend their lives.
     Eli chooses instead to work with other musicians, as an accompanist or collaborator. The early part of the book includes descriptions of his battles with his mother over this choice. Because of who Eli is, with these dual challenges there is of necessity the sense of a fairy tale in his story. He’s different from most of us. He’s very different from most of us. He was performing professionally as a soloist at the age of twelve. When he is twenty-four, he’s completed his master of music degree and has embarked on a busy career as a collaborative artist that takes him all over the world.
     Jamie, on the other hand, starts his adult life with an associates’ degree in business and an early marriage that is in trouble. In high school he had enjoyed singing, and like most of us, sang in the school choirs and the high school musicals. Unlike Eli, Jamie has actually heard very little classical music until a voice teacher plays him a recording of a tenor singing a particularly beautiful and moving aria. Jamie is excited by what he hears to the point of wanting to go back to college at the age of twenty-three and eventually attempting a career in opera.
     Many professional opera singers don’t begin serious study until high school or even college, as opposed to instrumentalists who sometimes demonstrate talent and even genius at a very young age, as early as three or four. Serious singing requires muscular and mental development that doesn’t begin to take place until the mid-teens for most men, and the early to mid-teens for women.
     One difference between Jamie and Eli, it seems to me – and I know them better than anyone does – is how they perceive their talent. Eli has the ability to play anything to near perfection the first time he reads through it. Yet he practices hours on end, striving for absolute perfection. He has a very revealing moment in the book when talking with his psychiatrist (I think I did him a great service by putting Pete in his life):

     Eli was aware of how quiet it was in the room. They were high enough above the street so that traffic noise wasn’t audible.
     “You know something, Pete? Nobody ever asked me if I liked playing the piano. It came easily to me, and I could sight read anything, so everybody figured that’s what I should do. What else was I going to do?”
     Eli thought a minute. “I love music, Pete. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like playing piano, because really, I do. I’m hard on myself sometimes because I want it to be perfect. But when I’m working with another musician, it can be exciting to feel what’s happening.”

     Jamie, on the other hand, has come much later to music and the realization he might have a career as a performer. But he battles self-doubts, partly created by the early marriage that ended badly after only two years. More than once these doubts surface as Jamie works hard to become as good a performer as he possibly can. At one point his second wife asks him:

     “What do you want, Jamie? I mean what do you see as the fulfillment of your dream?” She was surprised she had never asked him this. She knew he wanted to sing. She wasn’t really sure what would make him feel he’d “made it.”
     He said without hesitating, “Singing Don José at the Met.” He looked a little troubled. “It may never happen. But I guess it’s good to have a goal, and that’s mine.”

    Eli's Heart is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle, and You Are My Song should be released by mid-January. They are both good stories, both about classical musicians. I have a friend who says everyone has a story, and I believe she is correct. It's been absorbing, challenging and rewarding to follow Eli's and Jamie's paths. 


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

For Love of Music

Why We Make Music

            “We don’t choose music. Music chooses us.” This is something I say to my voice students who seem to have a passion for singing; those who eagerly learn and perfect as best they can the sometimes very difficult songs with which I challenge them. The students who express a desire to continue their study past high school; those who apply to a music program, prepare for auditions, eagerly listen to music I share with them. I caution them not to try to do this, become a performer, unless it seems if they don’t try it they might die. That seems extreme, but while it is an immensely rewarding life, it can be very difficult. It’s important they understand what they are pursuing.
            In one chapter in my book Eli’s Heart, Eli is given the difficult task of preparing the piano part for the Brahms Piano Quintet in a very short amount of time. The professional string quartet-in-residence at the music conservatory he and his wife Krissy are attending have their scheduled professional pianist cancel a concert less than two weeks prior to the performance. Eli was a child prodigy and they are very much aware of his talent, and they ask him to perform with them. He eagerly accepts the invitation, but begins almost immediately to have second thoughts. Eli the perfectionist likes to practice, and he fears he will not have the time to bring his performance up to the standards set by the quartet members.
            He goes through the emotional, visceral experience many … perhaps most … musicians do while preparing to step on stage for this performance, concerned he won’t play as well as he wants to. The best musicians set very high standards for themselves, sometimes almost impossibly high. Perfection in a live performance is very elusive. But at the same time, these musicians must perform. Music has chosen them.

Excerpt from Eli’s Heart (Note: “Walter” is Walter Bergman, the first violinist)

     The night of the Quartet concert he paced the floor outside the Recital Hall for the entire first half of the program, his score for the Brahms quintet in his hands. He’d only rehearsed twice with the Quartet; he wished they had rehearsed more. He was convinced it would have been better if their original pianist were playing it with them. He knew when he walked on stage his hands would be shaking, and he would play terribly. He still didn’t feel he had mastered the long first movement. He wished he still had some of the medication Pete had prescribed for him. It would help.
     He asked Krissy to sit in the auditorium for the first half of the concert, two Bartok quartets. She wanted to stay with him, but he told her he’d really rather she didn’t. She tried not to look hurt, but he saw in her face she felt he was shutting her out. She was right. He needed it to be him and Brahms right now. He studied the score, his hands trembling.
     At intermission Walter told him not to worry, it was going to be great. Krissy found him and walked into his arms, and he held her tight. She didn’t say anything, just held him as close as she could. He relaxed enough to feel he could walk out to the piano. “Hold these for a minute, will you?” He handed her his glasses as he wiped his face and hands with his handkerchief. It distressed her to see his hands shaking. Have I ever been this nervous before a performance? he thought. Krissy replaced his glasses and kissed him, and he relaxed a little more. She smiled and caressed his face, love and concern in her eyes, and went back to her seat.
     As Eli waited to go onstage with the Quartet, he tried to turn his thoughts inward, to find that place in himself where he had gone so many times to find the muse. He knew she was there; she was always there. He caught a glimpse of her and held onto it as he walked onstage. He sat at the piano, opening the score. He looked at the score as he heard the strings tuning, focusing on what Brahms was asking from them to bring the printed notes to life.
     Think about the music, Eli said to himself. Think about the muse. He heard the music in his head. His hands were no longer shaking; they were steady as he lifted them. He looked at Walter and nodded slightly; he was ready. On Walter's signal Eli brought his hands down on the keyboard, a brief thought crossing his mind: Here we go. He felt and heard the opening unison passage, all of them moving as one.  Eli attacked the keyboard for the rapid arpeggios that followed, playing them cleanly; he heard the strings accenting what he was doing. He caught Walter’s signal as they began the main theme, and the music swept through him. He became caught up in the beauty of what they were doing together and the connection he felt with them.
     The first movement went almost perfectly, and he began to feel more confident. Eli loved playing with these men. He was part of a team; it was the musical equivalent of playing in the infield with the New York Yankees. The nerves were gone. By the time they began the third movement ... the Scherzo ... everything felt right. His fingers flew over the keyboard with surety, elegantly arcing phrases, weaving the piano part perfectly with the strings. This was why he played; this incredible feeling of making the music soar. There was another rush of adrenalin as they approached the end of the final movement; after the last strong chords there were glances and smiles exchanged on stage. Eli breathed a huge sigh of relief, feeling slightly giddy, elated by the joy of having lived music here in this hall with Brahms, with his colleagues, with this audience. The audience stood and responded with enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

I need to thank my dear friend Scott Besser, a near-genius pianist himself, for some of the insight he gave me in writing this section. Scott’s are the hands that grace the cover of Eli’s Heart, which is on sale on Amazon currently at $3.99 (a steal!) for Kindle and $11.34 for paperback (sale price).

Cover design by Tristan Flanagan

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Different Look at Giuseppe Verdi

Thoughts on a Young Composer

     One of the first operas I ever heard, and one which undoubtedly influenced my passion for opera, was Giuseppe Verdi’s magnificent Othello. I was a young high school student, I believe a sophomore, and the recording was lent to me by a friend of my mother’s. When I first heard it, I had no idea of the huge leap forward Verdi had made with this opera which broke all the traditional rules: no overture, very few arias, orchestration far beyond what he had done with earlier compositions, intricate and complex choral writing. I was simply caught up in the beauty of the music and the visceral reaction to both the story and the musical telling of it.
     Eventually I went to music school where the master was part of my course of study, and I understood better why Othello is such a powerful composition. It remains to this day, many decades later, my favorite opera and the one I consider as close to perfection as is humanly possible. People may argue that Falstaff, his final opera, was actually Verdi’s masterpiece. No matter, Othello speaks to me as no other opera does.
     A biography of Verdi by Vincent Sheean, Orpheus at Eighty, became a favorite book while I was a college student. I still find it a fascinating read, an in-depth portrait of a complex genius and his life and work, as well as a study of the Italy of his day and how closely integrated he was into the changing politics of the country. Actually, the rebirth of Italy as a country.
     Recently I have been re-reading this book, after a period of several years. It’s interesting to see the annotations I made; some for a classical music program I hosted for a couple of years on the local university radio station, no doubt some because they struck me as important when I first read the book. But during this reading I am considering things about the young Verdi: the boy, really, of eighteen through his early twenties, I had been aware of the disappointments and tragedies he suffered at a young age, and thought of that part of his life as having an impact on his music for the rest of his career.
     The first image of Verdi I ever saw was the well-known portrait by Boldoni painted when he was in his seventies, I believe. That was how I most often thought of him. I hadn’t considered Verdi the boy, Verdi the youth, and how terribly painful for him that time of his life was. While he was enduring, he had no inkling of the prolific and celebrated – in fact, revered ─ composer he would become.
     Perhaps I am viewing him differently because I just wrote two books about young men who were gifted musicians and who had struggles and tragedies of their own. My protagonists are performers and not creative geniuses, but the similarities struck me, nevertheless.
     In his mature years, Verdi liked to self-style himself as a peasant. In actuality, while he understood farming and loved the earth of his native Busseto, he was hardly a rube. He had a good education – Shakespeare was an early passion ─ and from a young age his musical ability was recognized by his family and the professional musicians who worked with him.
     He received fine musical training and was conductor and performer, as well as composer, by his teens. At the age of eighteen he was sent off to Milan to apply to the conservatory, with every expectation he would be accepted and continue his musical education. The fact that he was not granted admission was the first blow to befall him.
     In today’s world, eighteen would be the age most people are applying for a college-level music program. In Verdi’s world, most applicants above the age of fourteen were generally not admitted. Verdi was an extraordinary talent, but according to what we know, one of the judges felt his keyboard ability was sub-par and he was turned down. This was a terrible disappointment for both Verdi and his benefactors. However, he did remain in Milan and continued his study of music as a private pupil, eventually returning to Busseto as a professional musician.
     The rejection rankled all his life. It is said when the conservatory many years later wanted to change its name to honor him, he refused. “They didn’t want me when I was young. They can’t have me now that I’m old,” or words to that effect, was his response.
     After marrying his sweetheart Margherita Barezzi, the daughter of his benefactor, Verdi returned to Milan to compose opera for La Scala.  The La Scala of the mid-nineteen century was quite different from the prestigious opera house of today, but Verdi was doing what his soul demanded … writing for the theater. Giuseppe and Margherita had loved each other since they were seventeen and were married when they were twenty-three. Two children arrived during the next two years. That must have been a brief period of happiness for the young composer.

     Within a year after the birth of the second child, both children had died. Not long afterward the death of his adored and no doubt very loving wife totally devastated the young composer. Giuseppe was twenty-six. It seems he sank deeply into despair and depression, vowing to never write another note of music so long as he lived.
     He did, of course. But what a struggle it must have been for him to cope with these blows, two children – little more than babies, really, a loving wife, all ripped from him in a matter of months. And after his wife’s death he was required by contract to complete the composition of a comic opera, the opera which was the most abysmal failure of his career. No wonder he never wrote another comedy until many decades had passed and he presented the world with Falstaff.
     My heart goes out to this young man, bereft, grieving, feeling his life has ended. All of the passion and emotion of this period I feel he poured into some of the most beautiful melodies, the most skillfully wrought orchestrations, the most thrilling opera choruses,  the world has ever heard. Without this tragedy, this angst, would he have been the same composer? 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Thoughts on Camille and La Traviata

The Lady of the Camellias

     Very recently I watched the 1936 film Camille for the first time. It surprises me that I had not seen the entire film before, because I love the story and was very much aware of the Dumas novel being the basis for both Verdi’s beautiful opera La Traviata and this movie. I’ve seen and heard the opera many times and never tire of it. There are musical moments in this opera, as in many of Verdi’s operas, which are so achingly beautiful and so moving it’s impossible not to respond to them exactly as Verdi intended we should. 
     I have to admit, though, I’ve never read the novel, and I’m surprised that I have not. There were moments in the film in which the dialogue is nearly word for word the same as those scenes in the opera; in particular, the scene between Marguerite/Violetta and Armand's/Alfredo's father. I have to correct that; I need to read the novel, but I wish I could read it in French. I’m still not sure I understand why the film was entitled Camille and not The Lady of the Camellias, English for the book title La Dame aux Camélias.
     In the novel, Marguerite Gautier is a Parisian courtesan who lives by being “kept” by men of wealth (I won’t call them “gentlemen”). A woman of great beauty, she came to Paris from the country and grew to love the life of luxury these men afforded her. She’s battling consumption, though, and is doomed to die young. But before she does, she meets the great love of her life, Armand Duval, a younger man who has been hopelessly smitten with her. They have a summer together. She eventually dies in his arms.
     Since I knew the opera better than the film … or the novel … one of the things I appreciated about the movie was learning more about the characters. While the music paints the emotions of the characters as words alone cannot, there are some things about them we don’t learn in the opera. Marguerite is happy in the country because she came from the country, and she appreciates such things as the care of livestock. Verdi’s Violetta doesn’t show or tell us that about herself. However, she has an aria (“Sempre libera”) about her determined pursuit of living for herself that ignites the stage more than any dialogue or monologue ever could.
     Greta Garbo struck me as not just beautiful, but luminous. Radiant. I know it’s an old film, but I thought it was the most romantic movie I have ever seen, primarily because of Garbo’s Marguerite. What a remarkable actress the woman was. A lesson in what an actor needs to do to create and express a character – voice, face, body. It made me curious about how many sopranos who perform the role of Violetta study Garbo’s Marguerite. They should.
     The primary reason I wanted to watch the film was because the protagonist of my book You Are My Song, tenor Jamie Logan, sings the role of Alfredo – Verdi’s version of Armand. I had my own ideas about how Alfredo (or Armand) should be portrayed, and was enchanted with what Robert Taylor did with the role. I believe Armand was Taylor’s first major film role, and I’m sure it was daunting for the young actor to be performing in a film with the divine Garbo, but I found him wonderfully convincing in the role. It was exactly what I had hoped it would be.
     (An aside: Robert Taylor, whose real name was Spangler Arlington Brugh, began life as a musician. He was a serious cello student and followed his teacher from Doane College in Nebraska to Pomona College in Los Angeles. While a student there he became part of a theater group, where he was spotted by a talent scout. Those things do happen sometimes!)
     So here is a brief moment in You Are My Song (to be released January, 2015) concerning Jamie’s first appearance as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata.

     Meredith attended the final dress rehearsal and loved what she saw. Marco’s staging called for an instant attraction between Violetta and Alfredo, and they were in each other’s arms almost from the moment the two of them were alone on stage. Meredith thought Jamie’s Alfredo was just about perfect; he played the role as a very eager, very young man, almost a boy. Arlene’s Violetta was at first seductive and sophisticated, then became a woman truly in love, entranced by Alfredo.
     Meredith thought of the old film Camille with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, which is based on the same story. She had thought the film the height of romanticism when she saw it. Marco was producing the same effect with two fine singing actors who had the voices, the looks, and the chemistry between them to make it work well.
     After the rehearsal Meredith said to Jamie and Arlene, “It’s wonderful. Just steamy enough. Who says opera is stuffy? You are both absolutely fantastic.”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Back to the Past

Stuck in the Fifties

     You Are My Song is nearing completion and I hope to have it released by early to mid- January. This whole writing adventure started in May of 2013 with a first novel, How I Grew Up, based on a true event from the mid-twentieth century. The awful slaughter of three members of one family by an unstable son-in-law turned my hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, upside down. My close friend Anita’s parents and another brother-in-law were shot in one murderous evening while everyone in the family was at home except Anita, who had gone to the movies.
     This happened the weekend before our high school was holding auditions for the annual spring musical, which that year was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Anita was expected to have one of the leading female roles in that show. She was an exceptional actress and singer.
     The show’s directors opted to delay the auditions for a week, and Anita won the leading role of Julie Jordan. Carousel is an emotional story, and somehow Anita portraying Julie gave her the strength to deal with the horrific tragedy she and her sisters and their young children were faced with.
     That production of Carousel has resonated throughout my life and I eventually directed high school productions of the show twice. Each time, I was reminded of Anita, and her remarkable courage and poise. Finally I gave Anita a voice and wrote How I Grew Up at the encouragement of a friend to whom I had told the story.
     Even before my first novel was in print I had begun Eli’s Heart, based on two characters who first appeared in How I Grew Up. And before Eli’s Heart was made available I had the idea for You Are My Song, following yet another high school student who had been part of that memorable Carousel production through hills and valleys as he embarked on a career in opera.
     So without even planning it, I am finishing up the third book in a trilogy of sorts. I say “of sorts” because each book stands on its own, yet they all have their origins in that one high school production, and some characters from each book appear in others. I’m not even sure what to call it, and I’ve been wandering through the maze of print on demand and eventually self-publishing along with writing. I suppose at some point I could re-release How I Grew Up on Amazon through my now favorite place to publish … myself, by virtue of some computer skills and a great staff at CreateSpace … so the books could be tied together somehow.
     I like my protagonists. I wrote How I Grew Up in the first person and tried to recall some of Anita’s speech patterns as I wrote. She said “that” a lot. What a surprise. She also said “really” a lot, but I took many of those out before releasing the book. It was a challenge in Eli’s Heart to become the third person narrator (I never had any formal creative writing courses). I’m still not sure I quite understand what the third person narrator is or isn’t allowed to say. I’ve had different people give me different advice.
     You Are My Song had another challenge; creating a protagonist who was born totally in my imagination. Well, maybe not completely; when I created Jamie Logan in How I Grew Up, he was kind of a combination of two high school students I had been acquainted with. But Jamie became more and more his own person, and his second wife, Meredith, is definitely a product of my imagination. I like Jamie and Meredith.
     And obviously, I like revisiting the past. The high school years are formative as few other periods in our lives are, and my sons would read this and shake their heads and remind me I am a master of stating the obvious. But I think writing these books made me more aware of this than I had been.
     It was also great fun to revisit my college years in Eli’s Heart. While the book is fiction, there are some elements that are autobiographical, especially the student rebellion. (Ha! A hook!) There actually was one in my college, and I played a small part in it.
     Now that You Are My Song is nearing completion, I am considering what to write next. It still surprises me that at this stage in my life I’ve discovered I have this passion for writing, but there it is. After a long, full life as a musician/teacher/musical theater director I’ve found a new outlet, one that is gratifying in a whole new way. I think I’ve followed through on all potential story lines from the first book. Time to move forward in time, I think!
     Here’s the shameless self-promotion you’ve been expecting: both How I Grew Up and Eli’s Heart are available on Amazon, paperback and e-book. My kind readers tell me they are good stories.
And if you’re curious, here’s the link to my website

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Excerpt from ELI'S HEART

A Look Into Eli’s Heart

Eli’s Heart is a love story. Eli Levin is born in the middle of the twentieth century with a frightening and complicated heart defect. He is also a piano prodigy. As a young teenager, he visits a small Southeastern town (Eli is a New Yorker) and meets Krissy Porter, a girl who is a few months younger.

Eventually, they marry, and Krissy must learn to deal with the challenges Eli faces. They are passionate and devoted to each other. They experience good times and bad times over the years. How they handle these is the essence of the story.

Yes, Eli’s Heart is a love story, but it is not a “romance” novel. It’s about the characters and the life they share. It’s about the vital importance of music in their lives. It’s about how they deal, separately and together, with Eli’s damaged heart – a heart filled with music. I think the reader will laugh, and cry, and come to care about these people and what happens to them.

Here’s a taste of the book. This is the “Prelude.”  I hope it makes you want to read the entire story.

     It was the final night of the Moscow International Music Competition. In the aptly named Hall of Columns, with its massive Corinthian pillars, three-tiered crystal chandeliers and plush red seats, the large audience of world-class musicians and music lovers generously applauded the Award announcements.  
     The twenty-two year old American violinist Warren Anderson had just been awarded the gold medal. His accompanist, twenty-nine year old American pianist Eli Levin, then received a special award in recognition of his brilliance. It was the first time such an award had ever been presented at this event.
     Eli’s wife Kristina was overwhelmed when Eli’s award was announced. The audience stood and applauded, those near Eli voicing their approval: “Well done!” “Très bien!” “Bravo!” “Pozdravlaiu!” Everyone who had heard him recognized his genius, and the judges had as well.
     Eli bent to embrace his petite wife and, flushed with excitement, hurried to the stage to accept the award. Krissy watched through tears as her slender, dark-haired husband accepted a medal from the judges.When he returned to Krissy, he pressed the medal into her hands and bent down to speak to her softly: “This is for you, my sweet girl.” He held her close as she rested her face against his chest and wept for joy.
     Warren, Eli, and Krissy had traveled to Moscow together. The trip was a surprise for Krissy. Warren’s sponsors had provided her ticket and Eli had arranged with Maestro Aaron Rubin, General Director of the City Opera Company for whom Krissy was Personal Assistant, to give her the more than three weeks she needed to accompany them. Eli knew his wife had always wanted to visit Russia. It meant a great deal to him to make it possible, and Krissy was thrilled.
     The evening after the competition ended they were at the airport preparing for the long trip home, flying first to Paris and then to New York. They left as the sun was setting. As the Boeing 707 lifted into the air, the spires and onion domes of the city soon disappeared into the concentric circles of light surrounding the Kremlin. The sky on the horizon faded from a pale blue to a soft rose to a deep purple.
     Krissy wanted to give Eli a sleeping pill but he shook his head; he was tired enough to sleep without it. They were in the first class cabin, and Warren was across the aisle from them, the Amati violin he had played positioned securely beside him. That violin, valued at over one million dollars and borrowed from a collector, had not left his side the entire trip.
     Eli stretched his legs out as best he could. Krissy asked the stewardess for a blanket, and tenderly tucked it around her husband and herself. He smiled at her, rested his head on her shoulder, and soon after takeoff, he was sleeping soundly in the darkened cabin. She carefully removed his glasses and put them in her handbag.
     Eli was born with a defective heart. He had received a second surgery for the condition only months earlier, and even though he had seemed tireless and energetic throughout the competition, Warren noticed on the drive to the airport that he looked exhausted. No doubt that was why Krissy wanted to be sure her husband received some needed rest on the flight.
     Warren had also stretched out, and he could see Krissy’s warm brown eyes as she watched Eli sleep. She looked at him as if he were the most priceless thing on earth, a treasure almost unimaginable. He envied Eli this kind of love, a love he seldom saw even between the most devoted couples. He leaned across the aisle and said to her softly, “What are you thinking, Krissy, when you look at Eli like that?”
     She said, not taking her eyes off Eli, “That I can’t believe I’m with this incredible man. That I’ve been given a gift I can’t even describe.” She gently touched his head, stroking the dark, curly hair as she so often did. She smiled at Warren.
     “He’s very fortunate to have you,” Warren said. “I know he adores you. He’s told me that many times.”
     Krissy looked again at her sleeping husband and kissed his temple softly. “I’m the fortunate one, Warren. I lost him, years ago, not long after I met him. Eli brought us back together. I treasure every minute I have with him.”
     “Sounds to me like there’s a story behind that,” Warren said, settling back in his seat.
     She smiled but didn’t reply. Indeed there is, she thought. With a noble prince who rescues a damsel in distress, a wicked queen, and a sleeping dragon. A story with an unknown ending.

 Eli’s Heart is available on Amazon, paperback and Kindle.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Mysteries of Twitter

Oh Twitter, Wherefore Art Thou?

So last year I wrote this book.

After a long life as a musician/musical theater director/voice teacher/wife/mother (and everything those last two words imply), at the encouragement of a friend I finally sat down and actually wrote an 84,000 word novel. I was a little stunned that I had done it. It had been enormously gratifying and I was happy I wrote it. It is a very strong story, based on a tragic true event. I have three kind friends who are my “readers” and they said nice things.

Since I wrote it, I wanted to see it in print and hold a copy in my hands before I died. So I knew I probably should just find a way to publish it “non-traditionally” since at my age you never know and I didn’t think I had the time or the patience for years of submissions and query letters and no doubt many rejections. I decided to use a Print On Demand company, Virtual Bookworm. Yes, I paid them some money, and they produced an attractive printed book for me. I liked the book. I had a techno-savvy teenager, son of a former voice student and good friend, help me with a photo for the cover. It’s a pretty cover. You can see it on Amazon (and while you’re there, check out my author page, and maybe consider buying a book?)

Now I wanted to let people know I’d written it so they might buy it and read it. So I started searching the Internet to find out how to publicize … excuse me, “market” my book. I immediately found what an enormous industry book publishing is. Not just publishers, mainstream and P.O.D. and vanity publishers, but there are hundreds … maybe thousands … of people who are happy to tell you how to write and market your book. Mostly for a fee. I started to feel a little like Alice in Wonderland. Fortunately, one of my readers is a published author who gave me some guidance.

Things I learned for free on the Internet: I needed a “brand.” I needed a “platform.” I’m beginning to understand what those are, and I’m not sure I really have a platform. Who wants to read books about classical musicians? Other classical musicians? Oh, yes, I’ve written and published another book and have a third one in the offing. I’m addicted. I needed to write a blog and try to find a way to get people to read my blog. I needed to set up a Twitter account. A what? A Twitter account??

The blog was a good idea; free and easy to set up and since I was now hooked on writing, fun to write. But nobody much was reading my blogs. I created a Facebook author page. I created an author page on Amazon and on Goodreads. I joined a website for indie authors (see how savvy I am becoming?) and the website owner urged me to stick with Twitter. He kind of explained about retweets. Yes, I heard him correctly: retweets.

I’ve been “tweeting” now for several months, and one thing I’ve discovered is when I tweet about my blog posts, I sometimes get more people to read them. Okay, that makes sense, and I can do that. But there’s one thing about Twitter I’m having a hard time with.

Twitter is so fickle. People “follow” and “unfollow” you on a whim. Last week I had thirty new followers and then in one day five people unfollowed me. I currently have 512 followers, not the most I’ve ever had because two days ago I had 517 followers. I have learned that following people gets you more followers, but it doesn’t mean you’ll keep those followers. I don’t get this at all. Why “unfollow” somebody you’ve just started following? I’m a nice person! Now, 517 isn’t a lot. I see people I follow who have thousands of followers. I look at those numbers in awe … 12.5 K. Wow. I also see it’s possible to buy a bunch of followers. My contact at the website I mentioned discouraged purchasing followers. So I’ve resisted. Hitting 500 followers was cool, though.

And writing tweets is not easy for me. My second book has over 133,000 words. And I’m supposed to say something that catches people’s attention in 140 CHARACTERS?? SERIOUSLY? I’ve discovered that writing more tweets seems to result in getting more followers, so to date I have written 1,303 tweets. That’s probably not a lot in the grand scheme of things. I think I set this thing up about six months ago, but I’ve only been posting more tweets since late September. That was when I wrote a blog about the Eric Frein manhunt and had nearly 800 views of that one blog. That was nifty. It was a good blog post, and I wrote a few more on the same subject, and wrapped up Eric Frein (for the present) when he was captured. 

What I want to do is somehow persuade people to read my books. When people buy one it’s great, but I have no illusions about becoming a best-selling author at this stage of my life. Besides, who reads books about classical musicans? Oh, sorry, I already said that. So when someone local stops me in the supermarket or a parking lot and tells me they borrowed my book from a friend or relative and read it and really loved it, that’s a thrill.

Oh, about the books: the first was How I Grew Up, followed by Eli’s Heart. People who have read them have said nice things about them. They are strong stories and worth reading. The third, which I hope to release in January through CreateSpace (have I said how much I love Amazon?) is You Are My Song – a novel about a classical musician, this time a tenor who strives for a career in opera. You can read more on my website:

Excuse me. I should probably post a few tweets.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Tragedy in a Small Town

Excerpt from HOW I GREW UP

     How I Grew Up is a novel based on an actual event which took place in the mid-twentieth century in a small town in the Southeast. In a town which seemed the safest place in the country, a disturbed husband and father entered the home of his wife’s parents and shot three people. His  mother-in-law was killed outright, his father-in-law lived for a few hours, and the husband of his wife’s sister lingered in agony for some three months.
     It was my home town, and there was a third daughter in this family almost destroyed by the horrendous tragedy. Anita was eighteen and a senior in high school, and she was one of my closest friends. I lived through the trauma with her.
     This happened the weekend before our high school was holding auditions for the annual high school musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, and Anita planned to audition for one of the three female leads.
     The directors of the production waited a week, but Anita auditioned a week after burying both her parents. She won the leading role of Julie Jordan and went on to give a polished and moving performance which affected all of us who worked with her and the audiences who attended the production.
     A mutual friend remembered all these years later, “There was so much emotion in that auditorium.” Of course everyone there knew what had happened. It was an experience I never forgot, and decades later I wrote the book in order to tell Anita’s story. Sadly, she died young of breast cancer. Since her voice had been stilled, I attempted to write the story as she might have recalled it.
     In Chapter 3, “Melanie,” the name by which I called the protagonist since this is a novel and a work of fiction, has left after a family dinner to see a film. As she often did, she went by herself, walking to a nearby movie theater. All the other members of her family were in the house; “Tony” had left her husband “Allan” and along with her two sons was staying with her parents. “Alice” and “Steve” and their two little girls were there for dinner as well.
     Here are excerpts from this chapter of the book. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and e-book and also can be purchased at

Excerpts from Chapter 3

     The movie was Rhapsody, starring Elizabeth Taylor. I loved it. She played a girl who went to Switzerland to be with a violinist she thought she was in love with, but she met a piano student at the conservatory there who fell madly in love with her. The music was incredibly beautiful, and I kept wishing Krissy and Ellen were both there with me. The piano concerto at the end of the film was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard.
     It was about a quarter after nine when I walked home. The streets were already mostly quiet at that hour, as usual. I had glanced at my watch when I left the theater. It was almost exactly 9:15 p.m.; time in my world was about to spiral completely out of control.
     As they often did, scenes from the film I just watched played out in my mind as my feet found their way home by instinct. The wonderful music was echoing in my head and I thought I would have to see this film again. Maybe Krissy could join me and we could go over the weekend.
     Then a sight straight out of a movie jolted me back to reality. Just before I got to our house I saw two police cars parked right in front. Then I saw the tape across the front door. Something very bad had happened here. My heart seemed to drop down to my feet. I knew something had happened because of Allan and my nightmare had come true.
     I stopped walking; I wanted to turn and run away. My heart started to beat so hard and fast I was sure the young police officer standing outside the house could hear it. My heartbeat was so loud it felt like it was roaring in my ears.
     The officer walked to me. The expression on his face scared me even more; he looked like he knew what had happened in that house was more than awful.
     I knew it, too.
     “Are you Melanie Stewart?” he asked. His voice was very gentle. I couldn’t even speak. I just nodded. I had my hands clasped tightly in front of my waist. That seemed to be the only way I could keep myself from falling. This isn’t happening, I thought. This can’t be real.
     “Please wait here,” he said. I noticed his name on his uniform coat. Officer Miller.
      “What’s happened? Can I please go inside?” I could hear how badly my voice was shaking.
      “Your sister is inside. She’ll be out to speak with you. I’ll bring her right out.”
     He went into the house and was back with Tony very quickly. I was so relieved to see her. Tony wasn’t hurt. Allan hadn’t killed her. So what had happened? Did he kill the boys?  Where were Momma and Daddy, and Alice and her family? The officer stood at a distance while
     Tony came and hugged me for a long time. I said, “Tony?”
     “I need you to be really brave, Mel,” she said, in a voice so quiet I could hardly hear her. “Allan came here tonight.” She had to stop for a minute, but then continued, “He had his gun. He shot Steve and Daddy. Then he shot and killed Momma.”
     I pushed myself away and stared at her, and said, “What?” She could not have said what I thought I had just heard. Why had Allan killed Momma and Daddy, and especially Steve?
     Tony was crying. “I’m so sorry, Melanie. I never thought he would do something like this, no matter how angry he was.”
     I staggered and almost fell, and Tony had to help me stay on my feet. My world had just been completely torn apart. This could not be real. It wasn’t happening. I was not standing outside my house, listening to my sister say these things. I wanted it to be earlier, for all of us to be inside the house talking and laughing. If I didn’t go to the movies, would everything still be the way it was then?
     “No no no no no no,” I barely whispered. My throat felt tight. Tony held me close.
     “Melanie, I need you to be really strong. Steve and Daddy are at the hospital and Alice is there with Steve. I have to stay here with the children. Can you drive yourself to the hospital?”
     I shook my head no. I was crying so hard I couldn’t even see. I started to shake as if I were freezing, even though it wasn’t a terribly cold night.
     “I will take you, ma’am,” the police officer said. I just looked at Tony. I shook my head. “I can’t go there, Tony.”
     She said, “You need to go, Melanie. Daddy needs you.”
     Officer Miller had the door open to the rear passenger side of one of the police cars. Now there were three of them; another officer was just getting out of the third car. Tony walked me to Officer Miller’s police car, hugged me again, and helped me inside. She was crying but tried to smile encouragement. I clung to her for a moment, not wanting to leave her, but she gently pulled my hands away and said, “Please go, Mel.”
    (At the hospital) Alice told me what had happened. It had been getting late for the children, especially the girls, but they knew I would be home soon. Alice and Steve decided to stay a little longer so the girls could say goodnight to me. They were having coffee with Tony and our parents, and the children were playing on the stairs.
     They heard someone kicking the front door and they all knew it had to be Allan. Alice ran upstairs with the children and Momma, Daddy and Steve all stood up. Tony was nearest the door. Allan quickly kicked in the door and was pointing his gun at Steve. Alice heard loud yelling and then five shots fired. Tony started screaming. 
     Alice told the terrified children to stay put, and went back down to the living room and saw the horror. Tony was on the phone talking to the police. Allan was gone. Daddy and Steve were on the floor. Steve was groaning in pain. Momma was sitting on the sofa, but her head was back at an odd angle and her eyes and mouth were open.
     Alice went closer to them and saw that Daddy was moving slightly, but Momma was completely still. Alice knew she was dead. It looked as though she had been shot through the heart. I kept waiting for her to say there was blood everywhere. She didn’t. I heard that later, from Tony. The police arrived almost immediately, followed by two ambulances. One of the ambulance attendants went to Momma, checked her, and shook his head. They put Daddy and Steve in the ambulances quickly. Tony told Alice to go with Steve in the ambulance, so she did. She didn’t know what happened after that and she didn’t know how bad Daddy was.
(Later, Melanie’s friend Krissy comes to the hospital, accompanied by Krissy’s father.)
     I don’t have any idea how long they stayed, but the nurse came in and said my father was being brought in soon and they would have to leave. I managed to stand up and hug Krissy and thank her for being there with me. Then she was gone. The nurse asked me to step out for a few minutes while they brought Daddy in and did what they needed to do. I was so tired I felt like I was floating when I tried to walk.
     I was so tired and lightheaded I put my hand out and leaned against the wall. Pastor Jackson put an arm around me and asked me if I needed to sit down. The nurse came for me, and they both took me into Daddy’s room. He was so still and pale. There were tubes and machines. I saw a bag with a tube going to his arm, and knew it was a blood transfusion. Seeing him was a terrible shock, worse than I had expected. I’d never seen Daddy look like this. For one awful minute I felt a wave of dizziness that was so bad that I thought I might faint. The nurse put her arm around my waist to steady me.
     I could hardly believe the man I was looking at was my father. I touched his hand and said, “Daddy?” but his eyes didn’t open. Please look at me, Daddy. Look at me and smile. Please, Daddy. Please don’t die.
     Dr. Morgan was there. He put his hand on my shoulder. “We did everything we could for him. He was shot twice, and he lost a lot of blood. There was a lot of damage. I wish I had better news for you.” I just nodded my head. He was telling me my father was dying as I stood there next to him. I couldn’t continue to stand up.
     Dr. Morgan asked me if I would like to lie down for a while and try and get some rest. I shook my head yes, and the nurse took me into the room next to Daddy’s. I put my coat on a chair, slipped my shoes off, and lay on the bed. It was hard to move because I hurt all over. She covered me with a blanket, then flicked off the light and left, closing the door very gently behind her.
     I lay there for a while, wishing with all my might that someone would hit a rewind switch, and everything that had happened over the past few hours would be reversed. I imagined myself getting out of the bed, backwards, going into Daddy’s room backwards, everything happening backwards, the policeman backing the police car up from the hospital to our house, me walking backwards into the theater, and then the rewind ended, and I watched the movie and then walked home where there were no police cars or tape on the front door, no Officer Miller standing outside my house, nothing bad had happened, and I went inside and the children were in bed, and I said goodnight to my family, went upstairs to my room and got into my own bed. With that thought I closed my eyes and thankfully, mercifully, fell asleep.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Voices Stilled Too Soon

Tenors, When the Music Stops

     Presently I am in the process of attempting to finish my third novel, You Are My Song. At this point I am aiming for an early January release, but there’s “no opening night,” a time constraint I’ve grown accustomed to after some thirty years of directing musical theater productions. One of my very astute readers pointed that fact out to me with my first novel, How I Grew Up, when I seemed to be at the computer day and night and finished the book in less than five months, which I have learned is – at least for me – breakneck speed. My second novel, Eli’s Heart, took about nine months. There is also “no closing night” with a book. It’s there for any person who chooses to read it and become a member of the audience for each story I tell.
     Back to the nineteen-fifties, the era I continue to “live” and write in: My character Jamie Logan is a young, good-looking singer from East Tennessee who decides to pursue an opera career when in his early twenties. He’d been the star of the music department in high school, but when he married his high school sweetheart the music stopped. Sarah wasn’t supportive of Jamie the singer, and he wanted to please her. However, nothing he did satisfied her, and the marriage failed.
     Jamie is a tenor. There is something about the intensity of the tenor sound which many people respond to differently; something visceral, a sense that the human voice isn’t intended to soar in this manner and with this intensity. A good tenor, a really good tenor who can provide that ringing high note at the end of an aria performed with passion and skill, gives the listener more than the satisfaction of hearing something extraordinarily beautiful. It becomes an experience; an “ah” moment.
     There’s a bit of a sense of danger having been circumvented, similar to watching a high wire artist take the final step to safety, or the circus flier working without a net catching the trapeze cleanly.
     While writing this book I’ve listened to a lot of opera. I’ve listened to a lot of tenors. I’ve read about a lot of tenors whose lives were touched by tragedy … the potentially great Mario Lanza, who died at thirty-eight. Lanza had so much promise and such a huge gift, and seemed to be destined for a long career as an opera singer. Instead, Hollywood beckoned, and who knows what his accepting that lure may have cost him.
     Jerry Hadley was another fine American tenor who also died far too young. Hadley had an immensely successful career for many years and seemed to have the world of opera at his feet … and yet when his marriage ended, his singing stopped. He was overwhelmed by severe depression for years. It appeared he was ready to begin a comeback when he ended his own life.
     During the Metropolitan Opera’s 2002-2003 season I heard yet another outstanding American tenor make his first Met appearance in the title role in Gounod’s Faust. Marcus Haddock had a beautiful voice and he was already an established international artist. It was a thrill to be a member of the audience for this auspicious debut.
     Some six years later, this very successful tenor suffered two massive strokes in the course of twenty-four hours. He survived but was left severely debilitated. The trauma included damage to his vocal mechanism. He’s begun to do some modest performing but his website does not show any engagements beyond March of 2014.
     From what I’ve read, Haddock is spending a lot of time these days teaching in his home in upstate New York. To have the kind of career he had and have it taken from him so abruptly is difficult to imagine, but he seems to be a man of great courage.
     My character Jamie Logan has other challenges to deal with. While I was writing my first draft I was not aware of Marcus Haddock’s struggle, and learned of it through Internet searches when I recalled hearing that Faust performance which had so impressed me over ten years ago. Ironically, Jamie does have some vocal difficulty and is unable to sing for a period of time.

     Singing again was what Jamie had needed. It was hard to explain to anyone, but he felt a sense of joy when he sang, a sense of being connected to everything good and beautiful in the world … no, in the universe. He knew he was able to produce sounds people liked to hear, and those sounds made him aware he could share the joy that sometimes was almost overwhelming to him, the joy that had to find this expression, this love, this beauty.
     Meredith had been concerned when Jamie seemed depressed, and it made her wonder what he would do if for some reason he could not sing at all … if some terrible illness or accident took his voice from him. Life is so fragile, she thought. We like to think we have control over our lives, but we don’t.

     Jamie doesn’t have to face what Marcus Haddock has heroically been dealing with for some five years at this point. He has other trials to face, and in Jamie’s case, his music … his singing … is what provides him with the means to deal with those events. And while there is no way I can know this, I have to think Mr. Haddock’s music has been his source of sustenance as well. He is still connected to everything good and beautiful in the universe; music is in his soul. It will never leave him.
     I salute you, Marcus Haddock. You are a courageous man and an inspiration.