After writing “Kaddish,” my first piece of music, I composed a few other tunes during high school but hadn’t yet gotten serious about composition. In college, I entered as a music major with the intention of really learning what music composition is all about. Now Brandeis University, while sporting two excellent departments of Theatre and Music, was not at all known for bringing the two together. That is until then-unknown David Crane and Marta Kauffman teamed up in 1977 to direct an extracurricular student production of “Godspell” (for you Brandeis alum, Tympanium Euphorium’s very first show).
Destiny had stepped in.
Events were set in motion that led to my finally meeting the young lady who had sat in the front row of the NFTY Song Competition where “Kaddish” placed and lost. Two years after the competition, Ellen Siegel and I met at auditions for “Godspell.” Consisting of much improvisation, everyone had a great time playing together and by the time the cast list went up, many of us were already fast friends. Ellen and I were cast, she as a member of the ensemble and I as the Lord Jesus himself. Working with this irrepressible cast of amazingly talented, funny and kind actors, Ellen and I got to sing “Day by Day” together and the rest, well, would one day become history. Here we are, in the photo raising the curtain on a whole lotta fun and, in the link just below, singing our hearts out (Ellen in the lead).
Also set in motion were the events that would persuade me to pursue a career in musical theatre rather than becoming a rabbi. For a while anyway.
After “Godspell,” Marta, David, Ellen and I were all in. We wanted to produce a second musical in the coming year. But we thought that “Godspell,” particularly through its auditions, may have shown us most of the theatre talent that Brandeis could offer and we were hard-pressed to come up with a show that would fit. So we decided to write our own. (By the way, we were wrong. There was plenty of other talent at Brandeis, as the following year’s production of “Cabaret” would demonstrate.)
David and Marta wrote the book and lyrics, joined by their uncommonly talented friend, Seth Friedman. I wrote the music (and also some lyrics, a sad tale which I shall share some other day). Ellen and Marta worked together as co-choreographers.
The first show that we wrote (in 1978, my sophomore year) was a one-act entitled “Foundation of Feathers.” Chronicling the world of relationships and what we learn about them in college, this show would be expanded in 1979 (my junior year) to become a two-act musical called “Waiting for the Feeling.” Then in 1980 (my senior year), we wrote “Personals,” a show about people searching for love in the big city (Seth and his brother Joel began contributing songs too at this point).
Both “Waiting for the Feeling” and “Personals” were winners of the American College Theatre Festival, each musical earning a three-day showcase at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Producers from “the real world” of television and theatre had eyes there and, as a result, the following summer (immediately following my graduation), the cast and crew of “Personals” joined a six-week USO tour of American and NATO military bases in Germany and Italy. After that, we moved to New York City where work began for “Personals” to open in November 1985 at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village.
Here’s a really (really!) low-quality video of Dee Hoty singing “Imagine My Surprise” in the 1985 production. The sound is clear but the picture isn’t. Dee sounds great, but without a DNA sample you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it’s her. Press PLAY anyway and listen to her great work.
“Personals” ran for eight months. and featured an a-plus cast of seasoned (or soon-to-be-seasoned) actors: Laura Dean, Dee Hoty, Jeff Keller, Trey Wilson, Nancy Opel and Jason Alexander. Paul Lazarus directed. Michael Skloff (who would go on to write the theme song for “Friends”) was our Music Director.
Oh, did I forget to mention that additional music for the show was written by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken? Sheesh, what a couple of hangers-on, trying to advance their musical careers by attaching themselves to my coattails. Oh well, in New York everyone’s gotta try to make it however they can.
And then the fairy tale ended.
Well, not for them. My story took a left turn somewhere in Greenwich Village, with me ending up at Hebrew Union College (a few blocks east of the Minetta Lane Theatre) where I studied to become a rabbi.
It would be nearly 40 years before I returned to music. 2019, to be precise.
In 2019, I wrote a new arrangement for the song “Imagine My Surprise” from “Personals.” I was still working full-time but, after nearly 40 years, I was itching to write music again. Not only that, I was itching to write for instruments as well as voice. I’d never done that and while I was busy rabbi-ing through the years, I’d been listening to great instrumental arrangements along the way and I couldn’t wait to begin my newest journey.
I wanted to start with some music from “Personals” because, in 1998, fourteen years after the show’s run in the Big Apple, “Personals” ran to sell-out crowds at the New End Theatre in London and a cast recording was made. Having that recording has been, of course, incredibly exciting but , two of my songs were performed too slowly. I wanted to make a “composer’s cut” that would perform the songs the way I’d originally intended.
When I wrote this new arrangement, which included parts for cello, clarinet, flute, marimba and violin. I was beside myself with excitement. I knew it would only be a first step in writing good arrangements but I certainly had to start somewhere.
We recorded all the instrumental parts and then brought in veteran Broadway singer Angela DeCicco who graciously agreed to be my vocalist for “Imagine My Surprise.” The recording took place at Studio L in Congers, NY, where sound engineer Larry Alexander — quite the phenom himself for producing albums for Janis Ian (“Between the Lines”), Diana Ross (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”), Bruce Springsteen (“Greetings From Asbury Park”) and The Rolling Stones (“Still Life”) — took the helm and major responsibility for the final sound.
I’d like to think that, for Larry, his entire career had been leading him to this pinnacle moment. But frankly, I was just happy to sit in the room with him and hoped he wouldn’t come to his senses and throw me out.
“Imagine My Surprise” is a bittersweet ballad that tells the story of a soaring love which the singer had never thought was realistically possible. Turns out, she was right. Marta and David wrote this exquisite lyric back in 1980. The song came too late for any of our Brandeis productions, and also for our USO tour; it made its debut at the Minetta Lane.
I remember sitting in a practice room at Brandeis composing this music. Never really “the ballad guy,” this was really fun for me. I loved watching the song emerge as I played around on the piano. At times, Marta or David would be there with me and we’d work together to find just the right feel. In time, we were really pleased with what we created.
As it turns out, “Imagine My Surprise” may very well be my best known piece of music. It’s used frequently in auditions and cabarets (a lot of them on YouTube).
Here’s the final product. Angela was great. Larry the engineer was great. The song ain’t too shabby. I hope you like it.
The sheet music is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/imagine-my-surprise). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.