An Inspiring Artistic Manifesto, If Somewhat Naïve

Here’s the question that was asked on Quora, by Chris Mojo:

What is the process one goes through to develop and write a new, original musical production for the stage?

In other words, disregarding budgetary restrictions, etc – how would you explain and map out the process of bringing a story in someone’s head to life as a musical theater production? What thought processes does a playwright use to develop the initial idea into a working story, then develop and incorporate songs, and end up with a cohesive product suitable to be moved along for presentation? The questions leans more specifically towards the actual writing process one goes through prior to moving it to staging etc.
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Here’s my answer. It is, I hope, one for the ages rather than one for these times:
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Answers to this sort of question tend to be discouraging, along the lines of “Oh, darling, there are as many paths as there are travellers … (jaded sigh, sip from wine glass)”, so I’m going to be tremendously encouraging. Also, since playwrights should already know about developing characters, raising stakes, foreshadowing etc., I’m going to answer with musical-specific matters in mind.
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1. Have an idea, and then let it suggest its own form. This is really important. Ask yourself: “what kind of show would I like to see made from this idea? Is it a little, intimate thing in a tiny black box? Is it six short pieces, 10 mins each? Is it a mighty 20 000 seat spectacle? Does it run over three successive nights?” Most crucially, “Why does it need music? How is singing better than talking as a way to tell this tale?” Play with all your options, and be prepared for changes, later.

This very early stage is, I think, completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, it’s two hours long, and it plays in a 1000-seat theatre.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This might be something that fits in a Broadway house, or it might be a YouTube series. It might be a one-person show, or it might employ an entire town.

What you’re trying to avoid here is wasting years of your life on an idea you don’t love, written for the wrong reasons. For example, “‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’ Yes, family shows are hot right now, and all kids love cars, so that will work. I’ll be famous and rich.”

No, it won’t, and you won’t.

2. Plot the show. This process is also completely undervalued, because everyone tends to make the same decisions, based on commercial considerations. “Well, it’s in two acts, and the female gets an ‘I Want’ song in Act One, followed by a big ballad in Act Two. The guy’s a hunk.”

Maybe. Maybe not. What works for your story, and what have you never seen or heard before? Maybe there’s only one character who sings. Maybe all the characters sing, except for one. Maybe that song shouldn’t go in the obvious spot. Maybe entire scenes should be set to music. Maybe events should happen in real time. Maybe there’s no reason to sing after all, and it should be a play.

I think music is incredibly under-used in most musicals. Regardless of story, too many of them are cut from the same template: up-tempo numbers, ballads, 12-15 songs, 3-5 mins each. We can all be more inventive.

Also, here’s what musical writers tend to forget about writing: it’s virtually free. It costs nothing but time, if you don’t count electricity, bandwidth and printer ink. And here’s the other good news about writing: it’s incredibly easy to change. You can add three characters at this stage, without costing tens of thousands of dollars. You can cut three characters without making anyone cry. So make the writing as good, as fresh, as pleasantly surprising as you can possibly make it, right here, right now, and be prepared for it to change later.

Above all, don’t be one of those writers who says “Yeah, we’re doing ‘Pixar’s Cars – The Musical, On Broadway!’, and we’re just waiting for some funding before we start the writing process. We’ve booked a theatre, we’re sourcing cast, and the technical team are building a speedway, but we’re not firming up the music just yet. Maybe next month.”

This is how bad, under-written, over-produced shows happen.

3. Have a table read-through. I mean a sit-down, scripts-in-front-of-actors, piano-only read-through. No orchestrations, no costumes, no members of the public. Invite, if it’s appropriate to the show, a director, a designer, a choreographer, a producer. This may be one person. Pay your cast and crew, because these people are deserving professionals, and you can expect more from professionals whom you have treated as such.

Ask for feedback from performers. How does this character feel to play? How do these notes and words feel to sing? What do you enjoy? What do you not understand? Listen to them.

Ask for feedback from directors, designers, choreographers, producers. What parts would work better visually? Which characters matter? What parts might be made simpler, more elegant? Where might dance replace everything? Who might enjoy this show?

They will suggest cuts. Listen to them. Your show is almost certainly too long.

Record your read-through, with everyone’s permission and signed release forms. Listen to it after a few days, when the euphoria has worn off.

4. Re-write your show. Remember how cheap this part of the process is? So now, be dazzling. Move things. Overturn the cosmos. But keep all your old drafts.

5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4, until the show needs to be put on its feet.

6. Put it on its feet. Invite people.

Now, this may be as far as the show gets. It might be really good, and still go no further. But look at what you’re offering the world: a thoughtful, well-crafted, collaborative piece of musical theatre, telling its story in an engaging, provoking, watchable, musical way. There can be no shame in this.

Also, as a writer, you have almost no control over funding, or theatre availability, or marketing, or international trends. So ignore them. This is where you have control: a riveting story, with compelling characters and wonderful songs. So make them.

How to Avoid Writing a ‘Commodity Musical’

Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.

I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.

To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.

Commodity Musical flowchart

A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.

A must-have moment

Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.

Is it cinematic?

Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.

So, a whole fake orgasm number?

Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.

Can you top it?

Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Could you just leave it out?

Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?

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The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.

What differences are there between musical theater today and musical theater 20 years ago?

Answer by Peter J Casey:

If we look specifically at Broadway twenty years ago, we can see that a new stage version of a Disney animated film (Beauty and the Beast), with a score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, was enjoying good box office despite mixed reviews.

This year, a new stage version of a Disney animated film (Aladdin), with a score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, is enjoying good box office despite mixed reviews.

Twenty years ago, a musical with a lush, romantic score (Cyrano) closed after only 137 performances, but was still nominated for the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

This year, a musical with a lush, romantic score (The Bridges of Madison County) closed after only 137 performances, but was still nominated for the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Twenty years ago, Audra McDonald was Tony-nominated.

This year, Audra McDonald is Tony-nominated.

(OK, I cheated on that last one, because she’s in a play.)

View Answer on Quora

Southern Hemisphere Love

Posted on

Many years ago, I started writing a song.

It’s a song about how love is not, as songwriters would have you believe, a purely above-the-equator pursuit (“the lusty month of May”, “as cold as Christmas”, “the leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember, that September in the rain”, “Summer, you old Indian summer, you’re the tear that comes after June-time’s laughter” etc. etc.)

Last week, I finished it:

 

And by “finished it”, I mean I did up a nice shiny piano-vocal chart too. It’s here.

A New Song, Both Charming and Scurrilous

Like many of our mothers, mine thinks I’m cleverer than I am. So when she lent me the CD sets pictured below …

highly recommended

… it was with the words “You probably know everything on there anyway.”

I did not. And sometimes I knew things, but Professor Bill Messenger put them in a different light and made me slap my forehead for not seeing them that way myself.

For instance, he points out, while covering the period beginning in the 1890s, that “in Tin Pan Alley, mother songs fell to the earth like ivory snow”, but that “to my knowledge not one mother song has been written during the past fifty years”.

So I thought I’d write one. A modern one. Yes, I’m aware that my own mother’s generosity has led me to writing the following. Like many of our mothers, I think she’ll forgive me:

Oh, you want the sheet music? For piano and voice? Right here.

 

 

Dear Mr Croce ….

Many thanks for your submitted song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.

We feel the song has great promise musically, but we would like to see further work done on its characters and dramatic arc.

The setting is well established at the outset, and the character of Leroy is effectively drawn. However, many of his personal details are extraneous to what follows. You state that Leroy “stan’ about six foot four”, but his height doesn’t factor into the ensuing action. Is it possible that, in the conflict that follows, Leroy’s height might become pertinent? Perhaps there could be some amusing comedy involving a ceiling fan?

Similarly, Leroy is a gambler, and he likes his fancy clothes, and he likes to wave his diamond ring in front of everybody’s nose, but none of these is developed later. Perhaps Leroy’s later conflict with the “jealous man” might be over gambling and fashion, in addition to Doris, the girl who looked nice? This would considerably raise the dramatic stakes in what follows.

In much the same way, Leroy’s cars are mentioned, but not used again. Might there be a thrilling chase scene involving the custom Continental and the El Dorado? And could Leroy actually use the .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and the razor in his shoe? It seems odd that he is so heavily armed, but never uses his weapons in the song’s climactic fight.

This brings us to our greatest concern: Leroy, for all that he is badder than old King Kong, and meaner than a junkyard dog, is not the victor in this fight. The listener knows a great deal about him, including his basic desires, but we know nothing of the “jealous man”, who proves to be even badder and meaner than Leroy. Is the song, in fact, about the wrong person? Leroy demonstrates an appealing vulnerability by losing, and we wonder if he could be re-written as “Good, Good Leroy Brown”? Perhaps he was looking to rescue Doris, the girl who looked nice, because she was a prostitute who married her pimp, and he knew and loved her when they were younger? If the two characters had this kind of backstory, we could feel more invested in the fight, and Leroy’s eventual fate could spring from a powerful conflict with his image of himself.

Meanwhile, the “bad” character, the “jealous man”, needs more detail, so we can see him. Who is he, and what is his name? What does he want? What is his inner motivation, in contrast to his simple external desire to maintain status by holding on to his wife? Is there also something vulnerable about him, to offset the rage he feels when another men merely casts his eyes upon Doris?

Your details and imagery are excellent, and we’d like to see them retained. But, in order for you to enjoy the commercial hit that your talents warrant, we feel that more attention must be paid to these characters, and in particular their inner lives.

Regards, etc.

 

Feeling the Feels

Last New Year’s Eve, the family visited a local community event, where a fairly adept wind ensemble played many nice tunes, including “I See the Light”, from Tangled. I have complained about the impossible blandness of this song in the past.

Then it occurred to me that, with a little effort, one might craft a Disney lovers’ ballad so generic, so bereft of identifying features, that it might thenceforth serve as a suitable ballad in every Disney film yet to be made.

So here it is. You’re welcome, songwriters.

What’s that? You’d like a piano/vocal chart, complete with boy/girl harmonies? Oh, alright.

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