Percy, you’re too ill-prepared

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but most of my fellow musical theatre writers have something I barely have: a collection of videos of their songs, viewable on YouTube.  It’s a fact that bothers me quite a bit, a clear impediment to fame and perhaps even fortune.  In order to compete, I’m going to have to put samples of my work out there, viewable on computer or, God forbid, SmartPhone.

There are plenty of tunesmiths who’ve amassed considerable fame, calling themselves musical theatre writers, but somehow they’ve never had a musical produced.  They’ve never done that basic thing: moving a live audience in the context of a full-length story being told on a stage.  Some of them have dozens of songs on the internet, being listened to, or, more frequently, watched, every day.  I’ll admit it: I envy their success.  All I’ve ever done is entertained people on the boards, where performers and viewers breathe the same air.  My shows often play tiny houses – one had a four-week run in a 79-seat venue.  In stark contrast, whenever I see something on YouTube, there’s that “views” number – a quantity inevitably greater than the total audience for most of my shows.

I have no comment, here, about Friday, but it’s been seen, according to YouTube, a mere 86,806,194 times since its release about a month ago.  (Well over a million pressed the “dislike” button.)

It’s been pointed out I sound like a very old man whenever I begin a sentence with “Used to be…”  But, in this case, the used-to-be time I refer to is roughly five years ago.  I clearly remember telling various performers they should look into performing certain songs, like John Forster and Michael Leeds’ Cancun, and they’d somehow get a hold of the sheet music, play it through (perhaps with me) and make a decision about whether the tune would work for them.  These days, when I recommend a song, the performer immediately YouTubes it.  (Yes, that’s a verb.)  The videos give him a wholly false impression of the song, usually because the videos that exist are of awful amateurs doing the song very badly, and so they reject the number without really trying it on for size.

Of course, some songs have very good versions on the internet.  But, to my way of thinking, the video camera inevitably waters down the effectiveness of musical theatre material.  What makes theatre unique is the live connection between players and audience, an energy that flows back and forth across the footlights.  I was once so moved by a Bernadette Peters solo in a musical, my sniffles and snobs were audible.  A friend in the front row was sure she could hear me.  And ever since then I’ve pondered how hearing the audience react (more often with laughter) subtly alters what the performer is doing.  Watching a video of that same song, I’m barely moved at all.  I’m not in the space with her.  The camera makes the actor-audience connection impossible.

Another problem with videos has to do with the nature of an excerpt.  Good theatre writers these days write songs that propel a story forward.  Frequently, when a song is taken out of context, you can’t tell how effective it is.  Situational writing involves taking a character from a moment before, to a completely different emotional place afterward.  There’s a subtext, a backstory, there may be lying – and often none of these things come out when just the song is presented.

While the viewing is still free, the making of a good film costs a lot of money, and what we have on the internet is a lot of cheaply-made home-movies with poor sound quality.  (In fact, that’s a good way to describe most of my audio files: For one show, I placed a cheap cassette recorder on the floor, and the turning of its capstans added an odd rhythmic sound.  The cast assumed it was my heartbeat.) In order to get one’s work out there, nowadays, a considerable investment is required.  Call it “keeping up with the Spielbergs.” 

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