Jack Lee: In Memoriam

March 3rd, 2016

Yesterday we lost a giant. Jack Lee, musical director, conductor, and arranger for literally more Broadway, Off-Broadway, and national tour shows than I can count. He was 86 years old.

I have so many stories to tell, but Jack himself would probably tell me not to yammer and get to the point. So I’ll try (and largely fail) not to go on too long.

I studied musical theater with Jack at NYU, and he’s been a mentor ever since. Jack’s living legacy in my own acting and teaching was the surprisingly rare notion that there is no “acting for musical theater.” There is only acting. And even that should be as natural as everyday life. I can still hear Jack’s voice, anytime any of us got too presentational: “Stop ACTING!!” My students will recognize this as a very Michael Bihovsky thing to say. Well, that’s because it was a very Jack thing to say.

A year after college, Jack asked to hear the album and read the script for Fresh! A New Musical. I was kind of terrified, because Jack tended to loathe any composer born after 1900. Two weeks later I got a call:

“You know what Michael? Most fuckers these days can’t even write a melody. So I gotta tell you, I did not expect the level of goodness in this show. There’s someone I need you to meet.” That someone was theatrical genius, director, and Buddha of our times Guy Stroman. Thanks to this connection, I was introduced to the best lessons in acting and writing that I’ve ever had, along with a new community which welcomed me with open arms. All thanks to Jack, who also continued to provide me with priceless feedback to improve my own compositions. Jack’s most profound influence in my music comes in the form of my musical underscoring for spoken scenes, and the hours of conversations we had about the ability of music not just to guide an emotional experience, but to actually tell the dialogue’s story and subtext via the music itself.

The last time I called Jack, I could hear someone singing in the background at his apartment, and Jack kept asking me to repeat myself until finally he yelled out, “Jesus Christ – Chita, can you STOP for a second?? I’m on the phone.” That, of course, was Chita Rivera, just one of Jack’s many casual houseguests.

To borrow a phrase from the Night’s Watch: “We will never see his like again.” The 86-year-old musical wizard who cursed like a sailor, played piano like he was in Tin Pan Alley, laughed without restraint, and treated his students as a combination of canvas, trophy, and friend.

Thanks for everything, Jack. If there’s a musical theater heaven, I hope you’re hanging out with Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Weill. Because Lord knows that if it’s any modern composer, they’re gonna get an earful.

Rare Disease Day 2016

February 29th, 2016

Today is Rare Disease Day (February 29! Get it?). By the very term “rare diseases,” it’s easy to think that this is a tragic but small issue affecting a small number of people. This is anything but true. For starters, a rare disease is defined as any illness which affects fewer than 200,000 Americans. That’s already a large number to cap off a disease as “rare.” Add on top of that that there are 6,500 rare diseases (and that’s just the known ones), and you begin to appreciate the scope of the problem. 25 million Americans suffer from at least one known “rare disease” – that’s 1 in 12 people, 8.5% of the entire population. And just like that, it doesn’t seem so rare anymore.

As you all know by now, I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a “rare” connective tissue disorder that has been, and will be, the greatest trial of my life. The irony about EDS is that most doctors who actually treat it do not think it is a rare disease, and even the official estimates of how many people are affected have doubled every ten years since 1970. But because EDS is considered a rare disease, that means potentially millions of people are going undiagnosed, and those of us who are diagnosed have access to very limited research or medical advances.

There are two things I would like to ask each of you to consider. First and most importantly, if you have been suffering from global joint pain, tendon/ligament injuries, and/or muscle spasms, please look up the “Beighton Scale” and see if you might actually have EDS. If you think you do, don’t be scared – nothing’s changed about you from yesterday to today. But then check with your doctors to confirm your diagnosis, so that you and your doctors can help make sure that you get more appropriate treatment and can stay away from potentially harmful interventions.

Second, as I mentioned, there is very little research being done for rare diseases, which leaves me and so many of my friends with a rather bleak outlook. With 1 in 12 people having such a condition, surely you know and love at least one. Please look up organizations for any rare disease, and consider making a donation toward research for that condition. For me, it would be the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation’s Center for Clinical Care & Research. It’s very important to spread awareness of rare diseases, but academic, clinical, and pharmaceutical research are where life-changing treatments begin. Please take this day to not just acknowledge the trials of people with rare diseases, but also to help us work toward a better future, and in some cases, a future at all.

Lastly, I want to give a shoutout to all of you with chronic conditions, physical or psychological, rare or not. I’ve said this before, but I have found that the people whom society has deemed to be the weakest are inevitably the strongest. You all have my respect and my love.

I also want to acknowledge all the caretakers out there, the people who keep us healthy, keep us laughing, and keep us loved.

And an extra special shoutout to my fellow advocates out there from around the globe, from all different causes, many of whom I’ve had the great privilege to know and work with over the years. Your passion, commitment, and bravery is a constant inspiration to me, and has kept me going on many a day.

Thank you so much for reading this.

Love,
Michael

RENT’s 20th Anniversary

January 25th, 2016

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first preview of RENT at the New York Theatre Workshop off-Broadway – and also of the tragic and untimely death of the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, in the early hours of the morning due to an aortic aneurysm. He was one week shy of 36 years old.

For me personally, RENT represents the single piece of art with which I have had the longest and most prolific relationship, as singer, actor, composer, student, teacher, director – but most of all, as a human being. When I encountered RENT at age 15, two years before I would need it, RENT gave me the most critical tools I would use to understand and cope with my own experiences of sickness and the transformation of identity that accompanies it. It’s because of RENT that I write musicals, it’s because of RENT that I write pieces based in advocacy, and it’s honestly not a stretch to say that it’s because of RENT that I am basically a functional human being.

20 years ago on this night, when the original cast of RENT gathered to sing a memorial tribute concert as an unanticipated memorial tribute to Jonathan, the cast stayed seated for almost the entirety of Act One. But once La Vie Boheme rolled along, the cast could not help but surge with the energy and life of this unrivaled musical masterpiece. They jumped on the table and sang their hearts out, as casts across the world have continued to do ever since. It is in this spirit that I share this chronological album I’ve created, to celebrate my own transforming and transformative involvement with this piece over the years. I honestly don’t know who I’d be without it.

From the bottom of my heart – thank you, Jonathan Larson.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first preview of RENT at the New York Theatre Workshop off-Broadway – and also…

Posted by Michael Bihovsky on Monday, January 25, 2016

Thank You, Jon Stewart

August 7th, 2015

“It’s the end of an era.”

I usually hate that hyperbolic phrase, which is most often used to indicate distress that, say, McDonald’s will no longer be serving its vintage French Fry-flavored milkshake. And yet as Jon Stewart stepped down from his post last night as host of “The Daily Show,” I could not help but feel it: it’s the end of an era. And even my favorite milkshake can’t console me, because it was discontinued.

It’s difficult to say how much “The Daily Show” has meant to me in the last five years that I’ve been watching it. At the end of what has usually been a long and difficult day, Jon Stewart has consistently provided me with laughter and joy so that I can go to bed hopeful and start again tomorrow. That on its own has been a monumental gift that I have treasured dearly.

But my gratitude goes far beyond that. Jon Stewart has been a primary catalyst to bring me out of my previous apathy to current events, leading me not just to care deeply about the issues affecting our country and our planet, but also to believe that things can change for the better –and to take on the mantel myself as a political activist. Jon Stewart helped teach me that sure, you can win an argument by preaching moral and political truths; but if you can make people laugh while doing it, you can truly engage people’s hearts and minds. I am a better writer, a better performer, a better advocate, and a better and happier person because of Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart has brought a lot of people together; when two Daily Show enthusiasts meet, we have immediate ground for potentially hours of conversation. The show also brings people who are already close even closer. My parents and I always watch the daily show, and whether or not I am home to watch it with them, it still brings us together as a family, to laugh together and to think together. Although I’m sad that he is leaving, I cannot blame Jon for wanting to experience that same sense of togetherness with his own family more than he is currently able to do under the rigorous schedule of not just a daily show, but the Daily Show.

I will miss Jon very much, but I know that even though he has a unique place in the hearts of millions, his first loyalty is and should be to his own life and family. I am so grateful for every moment he has been a part of my life. And I’m pretty sure he’ll be popping up to say hello every so often – as he said in last night’s final taping, this isn’t goodbye; it’s a pause in the conversation. It may be a bit of an awkward pause, with so much fodder just sitting there for satirical taking – but it’s not forever.

Thank you, Jon Stewart – go have fun. You’ve earned it.

An Open Letter to My Beard

August 6th, 2015

Shaveolution

All right, beard. Here’s the deal.

I know that you’re supposed to make me look more sophisticated, and artistic.

I know that your presence sometimes gets me noticed on the street (“Hey, aren’t you the food allergy guy?”).

I even know that women say you make me look handsome, and that on very rare occasions, these women are younger than 60 years old.

But I’m going to level with you: you make me uncomfortable, physically and emotionally. You seriously exacerbate my longstanding Peter Pan complex, and for some weird-ass reason, you make the left side of my face go numb when I’m trying to fall asleep.

And so I’m going to have to let you go. No, don’t look at me like that – you will always have a place inside of me. But inside, beard. For now, it has to be inside.

I hope that you’ll understand. I hope you’ll appreciate that I talked this out with you ahead of time, instead of doing something rash. Speaking of which, did I mention you’re giving me a rash?

This is the way it has to be. Fine, go and tell your friends I abandoned you – I don’t need you. And I certainly don’t need to be saved.

I need to be shaved.

Go See “Inside Out”!

July 20th, 2015

If you have not yet seen “Inside Out” – go. I’ve seen it twice now, and I think I could easily see it another dozen times and continue to find new layers of nuance, wit, and beauty.

inside-out6

I’ve written extensively on the topic of chronic physical illness. This is an important topic to me for many reasons, one of which is that chronic physical illness is something of a taboo in our culture. And yet I find that mental illness is even more stigmatized, and the idea that people can just “snap out” of something like depression is horrifyingly pervasive.

“Inside Out” is a fantastic and endearingly nuanced way to introduce children to the concept of depression, which unfortunately so many of them will have to deal with later in life. Some of them may be going through it already, and they deserve the knowledge from day one that it isn’t trivial, and it isn’t their fault.

The kids in my life loved this movie, but if anything, adults appreciate it even more. Most of the people I’ve spoken to have received the gifts of this movie’s themes on an extremely personal and cathartic level.

I have much more I’d like to write about this movie, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. So perhaps a part two will follow sometime soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t already – go see “Inside Out”!!

A Tribute to James Horner

July 7th, 2015

Last week, I was devastated to learn of the untimely death of James Horner, an extraordinarily prolific film composer, and my personal favorite composer since I was twelve years old.

James Horner

Second only to John Williams, James Horner is likely the most well-known film composer of all time. And even if you do not know the name of James Horner, you are most certainly familiar with his music. “My Heart Will Go On” from his hauntingly beautiful Titanic score. “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. The scores to hundreds of films, including Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and Avatar. James Horner’s music blended the hauntingly ethereal with the emotionally available, creating scores that brought me and millions of others movie and music fans to another level, and often another world.

The goal of the film composer is to walk the delicate line between serving the visual story and existing independently – between guiding an emotional journey and not being noticed. I can’t think of a single composer who mastered this line better than James Horner. I have loved every single film that he composed – and yet in every case, I discovered the soundtrack months, and more often years later. Yet the themes were there, latent in my subconscious, so that when I listened to these albums for the first time, it was with a sense of blissful familiarity.

There is one notable instance where James Horner failed in maintaining this balance – a failure that led to the creation of what I believe to be the most beautiful piece of music ever written. When composing the score for Avatar, James Horner wrote a piece called “Night Iridescence” (have a listen below; note how he introduces the simple theme in an ethereal Dorian mode, and how this same theme re-enters with incomparable beauty, driven by the soaring melody and accompanying chimes, at 1:53.

If you watch Avatar, however, you will notice that the aforementioned segment is not in the movie. The story goes that this piece of music was so good that it needed to be taken out of the film, and replaced with something less noticeable. “Night Iridescence” was distracting from the visuals of Avatar; quite an accomplishment, as Avatar pioneered the use of visual mastery never before seen on film. And yet James Horner’s music was more powerful. The piece was taken out of the film, and moved to the menu of the DVD instead. And of course, it is on the soundtrack, where even now, on probably my 1,000th listen, I still get chills.

The world of film and music will be different without James Horner, and all the scores he was yet to write. But I am so grateful for the hours upon hours of musical legacy that he has left behind, for the inspiration I have received from his music, and fpr the countless times that his work has brought me comfort and calm. I would like to say that in his memory I will be setting my Pandora station to him, but honestly, I already do that more days than not. So if you feel so inclined, I would urge you to do so yourself, and experience firsthand the beauty of James Horner’s music.

Rest in peace, James Horner – and thank you for your many, many gifts.

New Parody Video: “Clorox Urine Remover: Fake Infomercial (Real Product!)

October 18th, 2014

I’m thrilled to announce the release of my new parody about…well, it’s pretty self explanatory.

This video is probably one of the crazier things I’ve ever done (which, between you and me, is saying something), and was written, directed, and scored by me. It also marks my first collaboration with Felicia D’Ascanio, a phenomenal photographer who co-directed this sketch with me. I am thrilled to add her to the team, and hope this will be the first of many exciting collaborations in the future!

Speaking of which: I’ve just set up a donate button on the front page of www.michaelbihovsky.com, specifically to help fund these videos, which do take a whole lot of time and expense. The ideas are endless – the sky (and our budget’s) the only limit. So if you’d like to see more videos, please help us out! And of course, don’t forget to share this new video with all your friends, family, and those CIA agents disguised as your neighbors.

A City of Light – September 11, 2014

September 11th, 2014

In a city of light, two narrow white beams pierce the night sky above the southern skyline – just as thirteen years ago, two columns of black smoke darkened the most beautiful blue sky I have ever seen.

There is no other day in my life that I remember so vividly as September 11th, 2001. Not just images, but videos play over in my mind. It was my second week of high school when the world as I knew it changed.

In the weeks that followed, I saw things that I had never seen before. My father took me to the World Trade Center, where a pile of dirt and rubble had replaced the iconic towers that had always marked our trips to New York. I saw grief, anger, and confusion. But I saw something else as well.

I saw a truly united nation. As my friends and I held a car wash to help raise money for the United Way, I proudly waved an American flag along Lancaster Avenue in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. The cars that passed rolled down their windows and cheered, and honked in triumph, in mourning, and in solidarity.

There were no Democrats. There were no Republicans. There were only Americans – and I was, and remain, so proud to be one of them.

Planes, Pains, and Minty Asphyxiation

August 25th, 2014

So here’s a fun horror story, presented to you by American Airlines:

Yesterday I was flying out of O’Hare Airport, on my way to Minnesota. I was on an American Airlines flight, but not really. It was one of those smaller airplanes that the major airlines use for flights where no one in their right minds would want to go. You know, like Minnesota.

Short of my model airplane hobby as a kid, this was the smallest plane I had ever seen. I was waiting for a dozen clowns to pop out of it. I literally could not have lay down horizontally on this plane (which eventually I would have been more than happy to do).

It all started at the gate, when the desk attendant told us to board the plane – or at least, that’s what I think she said. To quote, verbatim:

“Guf abdanun labesan gendle. We willnobordinz onen.”

Everyone looked at each other blankly. The attendant got annoyed, and repeated, loudly:

“WE WILLNOBORDINZ ONEN!!”

“Did you catch that?” I asked a friendly looking elderly woman.

“If that woman is speaking English,” she replied in a delightful British accent, “then I’m a Dutchman.”

Uncertainly, we boarded the plane, the desk attendant giving us the evil eye. As it turned out, we probably should have stayed put, because shortly after we got on board the pilot announced that the air conditioning unit was broken, and that the cabin pressurization wouldn’t work without it, causing us to – you know – die. They needed to call maintenance. “The pilot says it should be about fifteen or twenty minutes,” the flight attendant told us, adding that it was her first day.

An hour later, maintenance showed up. Now seems like a good time to mention that during this hour, I had accidentally swallowed a sour cream and onion potato chip whole, and it had caught in my throat. My throat hardened and inflamed painfully, and remained that way while we sat in an unairconditioned plane in 84 degree weather.

But I digress. Maintenance finally arrived, and accessed the problem via the seat in front of me. It turned out that the blame lay with a metal spring, which, over the course of events, had ceased being a spring and apotheosized into a long piece of flacid metal.

“How the hell have they been flying?” one of the maintenance guys asked the other.

Nothing like a touch of confidence.

Maintenance went away to look for a replacement spring, and didn’t come back or return calls for about an hour. Finally, the pilot managed to get a hold of them, and he filled us in on the good news:

“Well,” he started (this is never a good start), “maintenance went back to their warehouse, and unfortunately they don’t have a spare part. But they think they might be able to come up with another temporary fix.”

‘Duct tape?’ I wondered.

The pilot continued. “There aren’t any spare planes, unfortunately. There might be one coming in about an hour, but we’re not sure. I think this temporary fix is our best bet, but then again, I’ve been wrong about everything else.” I swear to God, he said this.

Now some of you might be wondering: “Shouldn’t they have let you off the plane while they dealt with all this?” I would encourage anyone who wondered this to please go apply for a job at American Airlines. They could use minds like yours.

So back came maintenance – this is now two hours after we boarded – equipped with the ultimate power tool: an iPhone. They snapped a picture of the problem and sent it back to their office, to get their opinion on whether or not this fix would actually work. Apparently they got a “yes,” or at least a “maybe,” because whatever it was, they did it.

The pilot came back into the loudspeaker. “The maintenance guys are just filling out some paperwork,” he said. (“We hereby deny all liability for the forthcoming flight, or for that matter that we are even certified maintenance men.”) And then came the big moment:

“Welcome to American Airlines,” they said. Which is what finally pissed me off. What kind of a host welcomes you two and a half hours after you get there? Manners cost nothing.

We got treated to the usual: the weather (hot); the air time (roughly one third of the time we’d already been on the plane); the safety lecture (the first time in my life I gave it my undivided attention).

And then, like a majestic bird, we…stayed put.

“Well,” said the pilot. “Another plane just landed and parked behind us, and now we can’t get out.

…?

I used the additional time to text my mother what was going on. She totally flipped out, but I reassured her that there was probably only a 30% chance we’d asphyxiate.

And then, at last: we were off. And all seemed fine, until we reached our first cloud, and water started seeping through the ceiling, accompanied by an inexplicably minty smell. Fortunately, I love mint, and it struck me that it would probably be my first choice of odors to die to.

The flight attendant came rushing to fix the problem, bumping into all the seats on the way (it was her first day!). She carried a secret weapon: napkins!

‘Napkins?!’ I thought. ‘How about a parachute???’

But the rest of the trip went just fine, and I don’t appear to have suffered any lasting brain damageudnnsgsyxd. We landed in an airport with a grand total of two TSA guards, which is fine, because my feeling is that anyone who wants to blow up Minnesota is probably justified.

Hi Minnesota! It’s great to be back.