The lumpy blue seat. Listless air conditioning. The mildly fetid smell wafting from the tiny washroom. These wisps of observation circled my befogged thoughts as the Trailways bus lurched onto the highway that July night in 1974.
A 9-hour bus ride to Richmond Virginia was not on my list of desired adventures. But there I was, tossed forward in my seat every few minutes, as the bus stopped at every medium-sized town between New York and the city where I was born.
Somewhere in New Jersey, a man in plaid pants got on the nearly empty bus and sat next to me despite many other options. He veered just a little too close to my dozing head with his not-so-dozing head. Maybe I was imagining this? I was full of uncomfortable anxiety, but this man’s sweaty head made me even more uncomfortable, so I got up and moved a few rows back, where no one wished to sit because of its proximity to the washroom.
Why, I wondered again, why on earth was I on this bus ride from hell?
It was mostly my fault, of course. But in that moment, I blamed Mischa and Sara. They harassed me! I evaded them and everyone else and now, here I was, fidgeting on an all-night ride to my barely-remembered hometown.
In 1974, I was living in my first Manhattan apartment with my college girlfriend Paula and our friend Joel. It was a too-small two bedroom apartment on W. 81st St. which somewhat resembled a ship’s cabin. A “living room” floor listed toward the “kitchen,” which was not a separate room but a sink, refrigerator, and the tiniest stove in America all lined up across the slanting floor from a beaten-up loveseat we had rescued from Amsterdam Avenue. One bedroom had no door; the second bedroom was roughly the size of a bed. The three of us inhabited this apartment with intermittently awkward collegiality.
Paula and I had already begun our languid slide toward dissolution. Joel, an actor, was often out at auditions or rehearsing for a series of tepid Off-off-Broadway plays.
I had fled my first job—as a reader at G. P Putnam’s—because of intense boredom entwined with a disastrous office affair. I was collecting unemployment and desultorily looking for my next (still more boring) publishing job.
I was battling gloom, though very few people would have recognized this—I was always good at presenting the face of cheerful persistence. But I had no idea what I was doing or what I might do in the future, and this hung down on me like a dense cloud of unknowing.
My dream then was to write plays. Since moving to New York, I had written and randomly sent out several strange surreal pieces. Two of these plays won small, useless prizes but none had yet come close to being produced, even in the fringy realm of tiny theaters which then dotted the East Village.
Joel’s actor friends kept telling me I needed to go out and schmooze, meet theater folks who might help me. But I was especially inept at and reluctant to attempt any kind of networking. I resisted the truth that honing this social skill might help me find some actual niche in my new New York life. I hoped—my forever hope— that opportunity would fall into my lap.
One day Joel told me about a friend of his who had been working as an assistant to an elderly composer. This composer was looking for a young lyricist to collaborate on a musical.
“Interested?” he wondered.
I shrugged. I was potentially interested in almost anything which might offer the mild buzz of accomplishment, a buzz I had not experienced since moving to New York.
As a boy, my theater-loving parents dragged me to many musicals, and I grew to adore the pageantry, the intermingling of song and story. I wrote several laughably derivative librettos around the age of 14, though this phase was soon nudged aside when I discovered Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, whose works more fully chimed with my nascent adolescent embrace of absurdity. But I always loved and excelled at rhyming; I wrote a rock musical in college for my senior thesis. It was an unexpectedly huge success at Wesleyan’s fabled ‘92 Theater.
But was I interested in working with some elderly composer? Maybe. What else was the universe tossing in my lap at that moment?
His name was Mischa Portnoff. He was a moderately famous pianist, composer, and arranger of other people’s music. He had written one musical long ago, Joel’s friend told me.
“A huge flop,” he said, “but he’s the real deal.”
After procrastinating for several days, I called the number Joel’s friend gave me, and a low whisper of a voice answered.
“Ah! I am so pleased!” he announced, in a vaguely Old World accent when I stammered my purpose. “You will come to see me on Saturday, yes? We will discuss our prospects. Perhaps, you will bring me some lyrics you have written? Perhaps, I will intrigue you with a tune or two?”
Mischa and his wife lived somewhere near Prospect Park—my understanding of vast, unknowable Brooklyn was even more slender then than now—in a somewhat shabby apartment building. This was just before the Brooklyn Renaissance, and there was a palpable sense of decline on what had once been a prosperous block now bordered by check-cashing establishments and grated liquor stores.
But Mischa’s apartment was a classic pre-War set-up, with large, elegant rooms. A beautiful black Steinway grand piano was centered in the living room, surrounded by red velvet chairs, which looked as if no one had sat in them for years.
Mischa greeted me at the door, beaming. He had silver hair neatly swept back; he was wearing a gray suit, a blue shirt, and a bow tie. In the many times I visited that very Mittel European apartment, I do not believe I ever saw him wear anything else.
He sat me down, regarded me with interest. I was young and looked younger. My hair was a mass of uncombed curls, and I did not own any respectable clothes. But he did not appear put off by my post-collegiate deshabille. He handed me a pile of songbooks, famous musicals whose songs he had arranged for beginning piano. He showed me clippings of his performances at Carnegie Hall. He began to tell me about his long career in classical music.
“But it is time for me to write another musical!” he declared. “The first one? Not so good. Win some, lose some, yes?”
“Sure,” I murmured. I squirmed a little, wondering what I might be getting myself into. He talked on about his experiences in the theater; he quizzed me about my favorite songwriters. Mostly, I was listening to Dylan and the Grateful Dead at the time but I had recently seen the splendid Lincoln Center production of Threepenny Opera; I adored Kurt Weill and said so.
He smiled, as if my taste was amusing. “Mr. Weill? Wonderful wonderful composer. But I wish to write something a little more… upbeat.”
“A little more…commercial?” I ventured.
“Ah! We understand each other. Good. Good,”
He asked to see my lyrics, nodded and smiled as he perused them. He slid onto the piano bench and launched into a piece of bubbly, happy chords, like a tune from a Fred Astaire musical but with a hint of melancholy. It was a lovely melody, and I told him so, and he made a little bow at the piano, and just at that moment, his wife entered carrying a silver tray of coffee and cakes.
“Ah!” Mischa said. “Time for a treat.”
This was the template for all of my visits to the Portnoff’s home. They were welcoming, generous, in an almost cartoonishly old-fashioned way. Coffee and cake was served each time, usually just as I was losing the will to go on.
On that first afternoon, after savoring a black and white cookie, Mischa told me of his agent and friend Sara, who had written plays when she was younger and wished to see one of them adapted into a musical.
“Are you up to this challenge?” he mused. “Dealing with Sara can be…complicated. But I shall be the one to deal with her…complications.”
He smiled wryly at this, as if he knew this would not be entirely possible.
He produced a battered playscript in a worn manila envelope. The play was called The Marriage of Mulan. He wanted me to read it then and there, but I demurred, told him I would read it at home and get back to him the following week about this challenge.
I tried to read it on the long subway ride back to the Upper Westside. But my eyes glazed over, I could not get past the first extremely long scene. I decided it was just fatigue, that the play could not be as ill-conceived as it seemed, that I would concentrate on it when I got home.
I did. I sat at the round wooden table which was the only serious piece of furniture we owned. I read. I stopped. I paced. I read. I tried to find a way to like what I was reading. I couldn’t. It was terrible, almost comically bad, except that it wasn’t funny. The actual plot I have utterly wiped from my memory but it was a sort of faux-fairytale, with star-crossed lovers, a tyrannical king. That is about all I remember of it.
Except for its terribleness.
All week, I kept trying to force myself to read past the wooden 1st act finale (it had something to do with an interrupted wedding). I couldn’t. I was determined to say no. To be clear and forceful about the terribleness of the play, though clear and forceful have never been strong elements in my repertoire.
As I stood in the doorway of Mischa’s apartment the following Saturday, I kept mentally editing my negative comments. I hated the play but maybe, maybe there was a way I could work on it even while hating it?
“Well?” he asked me, after I sank into one of the chairs. He leaned forward, gazed at me. He had entertainingly bushy eyebrows, and raised one like a professor examining a student.
“I…I’m not sure I know how to…how to do this,” I stammered.
He laughed. “Oh, I know Sara’s play is far from perfect. Far from good, perhaps. It was done back in the 40s in some experimental theater in…perhaps it was Philadelphia? The lovers were played by puppets, I believe. But we can rise above this, can we not? She will provide the money to back us, that is the good news. And you could rewrite the script, add some humor, yes? And the songs, the songs we will write, they will be the ticket. They will carry us forward! Yes?”
I should have said no, I intended to say no. I said yes. I had nothing to do, no way to frame my largely aimless life into some more meaningful arrangement. Working on a musical—even a bad musical—might provide some shape to my shapeless life.
Mischa suggested I write two lyrics—an opening song, something frothy, he hoped, and a song for the star-crossed lovers (who would not, he assured me, be played by puppets in our production). His certainty that there would be a production of our show somewhat ameliorated my quavering doubts. So, I worked on these ideas and wrote several lyrics, and did not hate what I had written.
None of this material still exists; my drafts long ago disappeared in one of my many moves, so I have no way of judging whether the songs were any good. But Mischa loved them, exclaimed that I was a great new talent. He smoked a cigarette, drank several cups of coffee, ate a large slice of cake, then sat down at his piano and set my words to bouncing melodies. When he was done, he looked up at me.
“Now, that’s collaboration!” he declared.
This went on for several months. Mischa had other work; I had…pretty much nothing but still managed to dawdle over my few activities. I wrote a handful of songs, and then began the almost entirely pointless task of revising the script. My only dictum was: get rid of everything I could. I removed almost every line of the leaden dialogue, and replaced it with what I hoped were wittier, zippier lines. Were they? I really have no idea, but it did not seem dreadful, and that was my goal.
I stuck with the plot—whatever the hell it was—and added a few comic characters to bolster the story. Once a week, I visited Brooklyn, and watched Mischa write and rewrite melodies while savoring babka. He asked often for my progress in revising the libretto, and despite my epic vacillation, I began presenting tidbits of my revisions, which he read quickly, urgently.
Each time, he would lift an eyebrow, squint at me, murmuring, “It’s really something.”
It was something. But was it any good? I wasn’t so sure, and sometimes I wondered if he had actually read the scenes I proffered. Possibly, I began to reason, Mischa’s feelings about this project were not so different from my own—I need something to do! Maybe this is it! He was doubtless more convinced than I was of this project’s validity, but this was a low bar to clear.
Apart from the coffee and cake, and the charming kindness with which I was always greeted, the pleasure of the project for me was the bravado Mischa mustered. He loved to sit down at the piano and bang out a tune, and they were good tunes too, although very much from an earlier time. This was the era of Godspell, Pippin, A Chorus Line; old-fashioned book musicals were not exactly in vogue, and I worried that Mischa’s melodies seemed like outtakes by his hero Irving Berlin, whose last musical had flopped sometime in the early ‘60s. But I thrust those worries from me, went on writing scenes and songs for The Marriage of Mulan.
“It’s really something,” Mischa would often repeat. Occasionally, I believed him.
By early summer, I had more or less finished my revision of the script, and brought it to Mischa, who flipped through it as if it were a well-established piece.
“Yes! I shall bring this to Sara!” he announced. “She and I will dine and I will present our work for her consideration!”
He was so convinced that this was a good idea that I did not mention how I dreaded what she might think. Even though her script was exhaustingly bad, there was nothing to suggest she would approve my gutting of it.
She did not.
The following week, Mischa met me at his door with a thoroughly downcast expression. He silently sat me in the red velvet chair, and said, “Sara… how shall I put this? Sara loathes what we have done with her little play.”
She no longer wanted it to be a musical, he sighed. She did not appreciate my attempts to modernize the script. She was no longer interested in backing such a production.
I was not surprised, and not really hurt by her hatred of my work. I just wasn’t sure what response to show, so I showed very little, which I think Mischa took for muted despair.
“We shall go on working on this! Of that I am sure! But I also have a proposal,” he said.
He told me that Sara needed someone to work in her office, her assistant had resigned and I needed work, and if I worked for her for a few days, I might charm her into continuing to support our project.
This sounded exactly like something I did not wish to do. But I did need cash, and I was a conscientious office boy, and maybe, I thought, if she was actually an agent, I might at least cajole her into helping me with my own plays?
I knew this was not to be as soon as I entered her dismal apartment/office, in what was then a residential hotel on W. 72nd St. It was a building full of therapists and podiatrists, which might have been a good thing because Sara herself really looked to be about 100 years old. I feel bad saying this, but she was quite a mess—somewhat bent over, white hair tied up in an unconvincing bun, wearing a dark sack-like dress, which reminded me of housedresses my grandmother always wore.
The office itself was rather like an old New Yorker cartoon—there were cats and manuscripts everywhere, desk and chairs piled high with folders and envelopes, and 2 ancient manual typewriters on a side table.
Sara barked at me almost from the moment I ambled in. I am fairly sure that she barked at anyone who came into contact with her, so I did not take it personally, but it made it somewhat less likely that I might charm her into anything.
She immediately demanded that I start reading some of the backlog of manuscripts, then she changed her mind, insisting I type up some letters. There was a young woman who was also working part-time there, though I could not discern what she was supposed to be doing.
“Isn’t typing what you hired me to do?” the young woman asked. She seemed both bewildered by my presence and desperate to get my attention. Not that I was so attractive; I believe it was more that she was stuck in this nasty office with this nasty woman and hoped I might provide some respite.
But Sara had foreseen this development. “Do not be flirting with him!” she bellowed at this hapless secretary. “Look at you, you’re flipping your hair at him, I hate when girls flip their hair at men!”
The young woman rolled her eyes. “I have to put up with this shit all the time,” she muttered.
This flurry of unpleasantry pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day. I did read some scripts—some not bad, some virtually incoherent. I placed a few in the pile of scripts she ought to read, and stuffed the rest in battered manila envelopes. There was no dated material with these scripts, and a few of them looked as if they might have been sitting on the dusty desk for years. One script had tufts of cat hair embedded between the pages, which made me sneeze.
I composed a few business letters but let the secretary—I don’t think I ever knew her name—type them up both because I was an inept typist and because she was standing around, trying to avoid Sara’s death-like glare.
I worked a few hours, and all the while Sara was shouting out orders, many of them contradictory. Around 3:00, I stood up almost involuntarily, gathered my things, said, “Gotta go.”
“Don’t leave!” the young woman whispered. “I’m going nuts here.”
“This was not satisfactory!” Sara said. For a moment, it really felt like she might stretch out her arm and shout, “Go!” as in a Dickens novel.
I slunk out, whispering to myself that I would never return.
The next day, Mischa called me to ask why I had “stormed out” of Sara’s office. Mischa rarely called me, and I rarely answered the phone, and in that moment, I knew why. He was adamant that I should return to Sara’s office, that I should try talking to her about our musical.
“She won’t listen to me” I pointed out.
He sighed loudly. “True, true. Still…”
Still, he thought it would be a good idea for me to give it one more try. And I might have. I probably would have, except that a few minutes later, the phone rang again, and again I unwisely answered it, and it was Sara, fulminating over the phone, claiming I had stolen some of her scripts. I began to explain that I had merely placed them in their return envelopes, but she cut me off, raged at me, and I did something I rarely do, I slammed down the receiver, and cursed the gleaming green phone as if it were her.
Then, a telephone maelstrom began. The phone rang all day that day, every hour or so. I did not answer. Paula was visiting friends in Connecticut, and we were only sort of speaking to one another that summer; Joel was on tour with a children’s theater. I luxuriated in being alone for the first time in that apartment. I was shrouding myself in silence, I thought, evading all those with whom I did not wish to communicate. I imagined this would spur creativity, that I was being cool in some poet maudit sort of way, though mostly I watched TV and went out to cheap Cuban-Chinese restaurants on upper Broadway.
But the phone rang all night too. Would Mischa or Sara really call me at 2:00 AM? Did they even stay up that late? Still, I declined to answer, as if my evasion were some kind of principled stand. Finally, the next day, when the ringing did not cease, I picked up the phone, and it was my mother, and she yelled at me, “Where have you been? Your grandmother s dead! You need to come to Richmond! Today!”
Richmond was a place I gave virtually no thought to. We moved to Albany, New York when I was 7, and I had only ventured back when I had to, to see grandparents, or attend a wedding. I adored my grandmother when I was young—she was truly the ur-grandma, gently playful with her grandkids, an amazing baker of chocolate cake and lemon meringue pie. But after my grandfather died, she mostly sat in the darkness of their little house on Patterson Avenue, tending to her vast African violet collection; I had not visited her in several years.
This alone would have filled me with guilt, but my mother could not let go of my inaccessibility. “We worried you had died! Why couldn’t we reach you? Why are you being so irresponsible?” she demanded.
I tried to concoct a reasonable excuse: I was…out of town…I was…visiting my friend Fritz…I was…But as her fury continued, I realized she was far more interested in the harangue than in whatever might actually be going on in my life.
Eventually, my father interceded. He was usually the calm juxtaposed with my mother’s storm. “Your mother really wants you to come to Richmond,” he said, nudging her off the phone. “We could have driven you down but now you’ll have to figure out how to get here.”
In 1974, Richmond was not a city most people needed to get to—there was no useful train service, and the one flight a day on Eastern Airlines was far too expensive. I knew my father would reimburse me for any expenses—he was unfailingly generous—but I literally had no cash to front the ticket and did not even possess a credit card in that austere era. Which is how I ended up on the forlorn Trailways, the red-eye of bus routes, which left Port Authority at 11:00 PM and got to Richmond at 8:00 AM.
The funeral, like my grandmother, was small and quiet. I felt sufficiently icky—full of guilt but also knotted up from the 9-hour ride—that I barely interacted with my cousins, and mostly tried to avoid my mother’s somewhat displaced rage.
I was jagged with no-sleep and frustration over all that had been going on in the malcontent mess I called my life. I sat in a corner of my aunt’s house and drank overly sweet wine. I mused on my grandmother’s decline, on the misbegotten musical, on Mischa’s verve and my famous ambivalence. I thought about the ways I had been avoiding making any move, even picking up the phone.
Relatives at the wake kept asking if I was OK, and I looked up blank-faced, thinking not so much about the loss of my grandmother but rather of my utterly ungrown-up way of dealing with Mischa and Sara, and everyone else in my life.
I vowed to do better.
Did I? Not really.
I bought an answering machine as soon as I returned to New York, and monitored it religiously. I wrote Mischa a sweetly lying letter, telling him I had gotten involved with a new theater project and would not have time to continue working on The Marriage of Mulan. A week or so later I received a check for $30 from Sara, with a brusque note: For your half-hearted effort. Whether she meant my half-hearted day as office boy or my equally half-hearted effort to revise her script, I do not know.
But sometimes, half-heartedness is the only way to go, isn’t it? Surely, ambivalence about stupid stuff is merely adaptive behavior.
Mischa died about a year later; his wife called to tell me. “He thought your show had great potential!” she sighed. “Shall I send you the script, the songs?”
I hemmed and hawed, said yes, but never received them. I have no idea what happened to Sara, though I am guessing her vivid ire eventually subsided; I have never found any reference to her or to her clients or career.
The following year, some plays of mine got produced at tiny theaters; a few years later, I stumbled into working on strange musicals with Medicine Show Theater Ensemble, Off-off-Broadway stalwarts. One of these weird collaborative pieces ran for a couple of years at their theater on W.18th Street, one went to theater festivals in France and Bermuda, one won an Obie, the Off-Broadway version of the Tony.
I eventually backed away from the frenetic energy-suck of collaboration, veering toward different writing projects, but more than once I have found myself musing on the chaos evoked by any work in progress, and murmuring, “It’s really something.”
And sometimes, it is.