Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Imagine My Surprise

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.

Billy

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.

V’haer Eineinu

This piece got written when Rabbi Scott Weiner and I were looking for a melody for V’haer Eineinu that would work on Yom Kippur with his congregation, Tamid Westchester. There are some excellent tunes out there but not one we felt was right for this friendly, participatory community AND that fit the Yom Kippur mood.

So I sat down and worked up a melody that might be a fit. Not wanting to bias Scott’s choice, I presented mine among the other tunes without tipping him off as to its authorship. One by one, we listened to them and when we finished hearing this one, Scott exclaimed (and I quote), “Chicken dinner, we have a winner!” One of my very favorite reviews ever.

Here’s a video I put together …

V’haer Eineinu is part of Ahavah Rabbah, one of the morning prayers between Barechu and Shema. The theme of Ahavah Rabbah is the love of Torah. V’haer Eineinu asks God to open our eyes and our hearts to the teachings of Torah so that we might learn to live in such a way that we never stumble, never feel shame, and never need rebuke. It’s a tall order, to be sure, and I personally have missed the mark more than my share of the time. But a person has to have goals, right? In the musical, Merrily We Roll Along, Charley exclaims, “What’s the point of demands you can meet?” Perhaps it’s the same with lofty goals. In fact, I think it’s the point of God – a model for living that is perfection, impossible to match but commendable to try.

Living one’s life with honor and integrity seems to be a set of goals that are very much worth pursuing. That, I think, is the point of V’haer Eineinu.

Here’s a fairly literal translation of the passage. “Enlighten us with Your Teaching, help us to hold fast to Your mitzvot, and unite us in our hearts to love and revere Your Name. Then we will never feel shame, never deserve rebuke, and never stumble. Then we will put our trust in You, the great, holy and awesome One.”

While I wanted English lyrics to be included in the piece, I needed fewer of them and also wanted to convey the universal impact that loving God (if we do so carefully) can have on the world around us. I settled on: “By the light of Your Word that illumines our way, help us love and revere deeds of truth and justice, so that we’ll never fall. That’s the gift of heeding Your call. We thank You.”

I finished the song as Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Center, a bastion of justice work, was retiring. I dedicated V’haer Eineinu to her because she’s the kind of person I would point to as a Torah success story, learning and synthesizing the lessons of Jewish living into every fiber of her being and changing countless lives as a result.

I arranged “V’haer Eineinu” for two voices (duet or choral) and three horns (mostly because I was learning how to write for horns and wanted to use my newly acquired knowledge). The recording includes my and Ellen’s voices (sometimes 16 of them!), me on keyboard, plus a trumpet, a saxophone and a trombone. I admit that, while I love the horns, they may not be to others’ liking. I absolutely believe the piece can be accompanied by three gentler instruments like flute and clarinet. Or just use the piano.

Here’s a video of the two of us singing with just the piano …

By the way, while I may have composed V’haer Eineinu for the High Holy Days, it’s certainly useable on weekdays and Shabbat too.

Billy

The sheet music is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/vhaer-eineinu). 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.

Kaddish

The first music I ever wrote was due to the encouragement of my mentor and friend, Rabbi Joel Wittstein (z”l). As Educational Director in the mid-1970’s of Isaac Mayer Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH, Joel suggested I take a semester off from regular classes to study something in Hebrew and then try setting it to music. Why he saw ”the music thing” in me before I did, I’ll never know. But I’m forever grateful that he did.

That was eleventh grade. I’d spent two summers at a Jewish summer camp (URJ Goldman Camp in Zionsville, IN) and had learned lots of Hebrew prayers and songs but all in English letters. So when Joel asked me to choose something to learn in Hebrew, I settled on the Kaddish, our prayer of remembrance for those who have died. I’d learned to mimic the Hebrew pronunciations but, once given the opportunity, I knew that this was the prayer (and it’s a long one) that I wanted to study in its original language.

This, by the way, began a lifelong love affair with Hebrew that took me to rabbinical school, to Israel, and to studying and reading from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) many, many times throughout my life.

Yep. That’s me. 18 years old in 1975 and ready to take on the world.

This recording was made in 1975. The sound quality is pretty awful because all I had back then was a cheap cassette tape recorder. Amy Liebschutz, a friend from Kindergarten onward and now an extraordinary vocalist in New York City who goes by the stage name of Amy London, sang for me. The tape earned us a place that same year in the finals of Reform Judaism’s NFTY Song Competition to be held at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. Coming from Cincinnati where Amy and I were born and raised, traveling to New York for a North American competition was a big deal.

When we arrived at the airport, however, the organizers forgot to pick us up so Amy and I had to find a shuttle into New York City, a subway to Port Authority, and a bus to Warwick, no easy feat for two young and innocent midwesterners. We were so happy to still be alive by the time we got to Kutz!

Oh, we lost the competition. That was disappointing but it was still exciting to have been there. And guess who was sitting in the front row during the performances? A young lady named Ellen Siegel from Texas. I would meet Ellen two years further down the road when we landed at the same college, fell in love and, seven years after the song competition, got married.

The tune has never gotten much use. Folks don’t really want to sing Kaddish. We used it a few times at Goldman camp. I remember Ish Tov (Rabbi Steve Goodman) playing it on his violin, which was pretty awesome. But that’s about it. Which is okay. I’m still very proud of this first effort.

Life sure is fascinating. Hope you enjoy this first work of mine!

Billy

Addendum: I posted notice of this piece on Facebook (1/18/24) and was stunned (and delighted) at the response. So many people remember “Kaddish” from temple in Cincinnati and camp in Zionsville, Indiana. I remember it being played a few times at services, but to imprint itself in people’s memories deeply enough that they remember it even now? I just never thought it was that kind of tune. Now that I think about it though, I remember how proud we all were that a new piece of music had emerged from our temple and/or camp. After all, we had always loved and sung the songs that came from elsewhere. This (along with the Ian Silver/Julie Schorsch Sapper “Yihiyu L’ratzon,” which actually has seen real life after its 1970s summertime appearance) was one of our own. That was cool and I loved getting to share in that with everyone. All I can say is thank you for letting me know, and wait til you catch my next act!

The sheet music and mp3 are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). 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.