The Ghosts of Dick and Ockie & Their Eleven O'Clock Number

One of my favorite things is the mashup, combining two things that don't seem like they'd go together, but they actually make something wonderful. A good example is Head Over Heels, the sublime rock musical that marries a 16th-century comic romantic novel with the songs of The Go-Go's. New Line's production of Head Over Heels was rudely interrupted by the virus last year, but we're bringing it back next March.

Another example is my own project, The Zombies of Penzance, a crazy mashup of Gilbert & Sullivan English light opera, with George Romero zombie movies. One of my favorite examples of mashup is Jerry Springer the Opera. Such a glorious, brilliant monstrosity! As you can see, I'm a fan of mashup.

During the Great Pandemic, the way I've kept my sanity (relatively speaking) was lots of time with my cat Hamilton, lots of pot, and lots of writing. One of the things I wrote last year was a collection of "weird fiction," called Night of the Living Show Tunes: 13 Tales of the Weird. I've always loved horror, so this was a dream project for me.

Some of the stories are full-out horror, but some are just really, really weird. One story is my only specific imitation in the book, a rewrite of Poe's "The Raven," now about a young writer of musical theatre meeting the ghosts of Rodgers and Hammerstein late one night. Another mashup.

Though I loved the central idea of this mashup, the real fun was duplicating exactly Poe's rhythms and rhyme scheme. It felt a lot like writing my fake Gilbert & Sullivan shows, The Zombies of Penzance and Bloody King Oedipus! Artists say it lot but it's really true -- limitations are great for creativity. (Just look at New Line!) And it's unbelievably effective lyric-writing practice for me, forcing myself into another writer's language, grammar, and whatever patterns of rhythm and rhyme they've laid out.

My other agenda here was to present the other side to the argument I often make that Rodgers and Hammerstein's work is no longer terribly relevant to today's world and culture. In my poem, Dick and Ockie offer the young writer (who's kind of me, 25 years ago) genuine advice which I think is in tune with their actual beliefs, opinions, and artistic philosophy. It was a very cool exercise, having to speak for them.

Well, here it is. With apologies to Mr. Poe.

Once upon a midnight, writing my next musical, inviting
All the Muses in to help me with my lovely, lonely chore;
At my laptop, happ’ly tapping, could it be I heard a rapping?
Was my tapping overlapping rapping on my office door?
So I listened, listened raptly for that rapping on my door.
          But I heard not one rap more.

I returned to my new story, whimsical and more than gory,
Mashing up Old Broadway with some George Romero zombie gore;
With admitted condescension for tradition and convention,
I believed that writers should write old-school musicals no more;
Only fearless new shows, and those older show tunes nevermore,
          No more scores like shows of yore.

My first draft was truly rocking, when again I heard that knocking,
Softly, faintly, quaintly knocking, as politely as before.
Who, this late, would come to visit? So, of course, I called, “Who is it?
Who is it out there who knocks so soft upon my office door?”
When I crossed and threw it open wide, my oaken, office door –
          Just the hall and nothing more.

Turning back into my workspace, feeling like some jumpy jerkface,
Suddenly I saw a sight I’d never ever seen before –
Richard Rodgers standing there, with Oscar Hammerstein, the pair
Just smiling so serenely, and it shook me to my very core!
Hucksters of the Homespun, with those folksy morals I deplore!
          They just smiled, and nothing more.

Spirits, sure, so pale and ghostly! I stood brave, well sort of, mostly;
Well, I closed my eyes and screamed, “Hallucination! Metaphor!”
But the phantoms laughed profoundly at how foolish they both found me
Which I must admit, did leave me and my ego more than sore.
(Being entertainment for the dead is really quite a bore.
          Quite a bore, and nothing more.)

Decades dead, and much, much thinner, rotted so, I lost my dinner!
Specters of the netherworld, who somehow someway, had crossed o’er!
Sure they saw in my expression my alarm at their transgression,
Slipping from the spirit world! I’d somehow send them back, I swore!
Ne’er again would scary fiends come knocking at my office door!
          But I trembled even more.

So I faced the two old codgers, Ockie (left) and (right) Dick Rodgers,
Solid-seeming, standing there upon my hardwood office floor.
Feeling woozy, fizzy, dreamy, I asked “Why’ve you come to see me?
Surely I can’t learn from those whose musicals I so abhor!
No offense, but I would rather all your musicals ignore!
          Not half bad, but nothing more.”

Had I thus these ghosts offended, more so than I had intended?
If I’d angered them, were evil spells on me to be in store?
Like two spirits out of Dickens, making sure the plot line thickens,
Punishing me now for all my rash pronouncements heretofore,
All those rough and rude remarks, with ego as the underscore?
          (Ego’s bad as underscore.)

Sensing I was somewhat nervous, Dick said, “May we be of service?
May we help you with this lovely art form which we all adore?
We can see that you’re impassioned, and you think that we’re old-fashioned,
But believe me, we can teach you timeless truths and tricks galore.
We know things are different now, but we know timeless truths galore.”
          I said, “Oh,” and then some more…

“Sorry, Sondheim is my guru, gets me giddy more than you two,
Far more witty, writes a more sophisticated, darker score.”
Dick smiled. “Dark is not the measure, not the thing you most should treasure;
No, son, honest feelings are what finally matters even more.”
Ockie nodded gravely, “Honest feelings make the stronger score –
          True emotion, nothing more.”

“Though Steve Sondheim was my student, imitation is not prudent.
You must find your voice, sir,” Hammerstein the Second did implore.
“Learn from Sondheim, learn from Ockie (you’ll learn less if you’re too cocky!);
Learn from Finn and Lin-Manuel, and all the swell who’ve come before;
Oh, so many wisdoms learned by all the artists come before!
          Wisdom and a whole lot more!”

“But I want to break thru boundary, kill clich├ęs and tropes that hound me,
Through to something new,” said I, “not some artistic dinosaur!”
“Ere your nose get out of joint,” quoth Rodgers, “that is quite our point!
Learn from all that’s past, then tell the story no one’s heard before!
You can still be you and new, influenced by the ones before,
          All the geniuses before.”

Then I saw! It’s not rejection that will point the right direction;
No, it’s making peace with mainstream shows I always did abhor.
Surely all those shows were nifty, back around, say, 1950,
And it’s just that here today we need another metaphor.
Living in the world today requires its own metaphor,
          A newer, truer metaphor.

Honestly and truth to tell, I couldn’t bear the noxious smell:
Rotted flesh and fetid death, plus grave-worms rank, and other gore!
“I admit my view is narrow, but your presence chills my marrow;
Might you take your leave, now that you did your Scare-The-Artsy chore?”
This I said unto my guests, and they both headed for the door.
          But before, this one thing more –

“We’re connected to each other, for we learn from one another,
But there’s always new frontier for every artist to explore,”
Spake the ghosts of Dick and Ockie, now less scary, not as schlocky,
As they floated eerily to-ward my oaken office door.
“You have learned a lot,” Dick said, “but don’t forget, there’s always more!”
          Thus they left, ‘mid thunder’d roar.

Thunder done, the two now gone, dimensionally moving on.
I sat down once more, returning to my lovely, lonely chore.
At my laptop, once more tapping, no more did I hear that rapping;
Just my tapping, tap-tap-tapping, but no rapping on my door.
Still, I could hear voices now, the voices of the ones before –
          Here for me, and many more.

All the voices now I’m hearing are not here for interfering;
Though I hear this chorus of the great ones’ voices, by the score,
Now I hear them all rejoice to hear I’ve finally found my voice;
With my newfound vision, I shall let my words and music soar!
Standing on the shoulders of the voices of the ones before
          Makes me proud, and so much more!

Check out my horror collection, and my other books, while you're at it! My newest book, Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century, has just hit Amazon!

We go into rehearsal in mid-August, for Songs for a New World -- we hope. We're keeping an eye on this not-really-over pandemic. Cross your fingers for us, or make an offering to Apollo. Whichever.

Long Live the Musical!