The acting students looked a little stunned and the teacher realized her harangue had gone over the top, but consciously continued her banshee tone: “Do you hear my voice is rising because I’m passionate about this? Your résumés MUST be cut down to the size of your picture …” Then she softened: “…if you want to be taken seriously in this business.” I piped up, hoping to take us away from Awkwardville: “The problem is, with the mismatched pic and résumé, you’re outing yourself as an amateur.”
Later that day, a little old lady asked me some basic questions about a demo for her musical and I was hit with a sinking realization. Just as the different-size picture and résumé outs aspiring actors as amateurs, a musical writer’s demo could out you as inexperienced or un-serious.
What errors taint you thus?
Have I made these mistakes? All my life, I fear.
So let’s be clear: the most important thing is that your songs are clear. The listener should not wonder, for even a moment, what word’s been heard in a lyric. A demo singer should be acting the song as expressively as a 1940s radio drama, or the best book-on-tape. Accompaniment should never drown out the elocution.
If clarity’s so important, does that mean we all have to go out and book a professional studio with an awesome audio engineer? I wish I knew! One could spend a fortune, a prospect that always frightens me, or one can do something on the cheap, my personal path of least resistance. Some days, I think musical theatre writing has become exclusively the pursuit of the wealthy. As a man of modest means, it’s rare that I see the inside of a studio.
So, the alternative I’ve used most often in recent years, is sticking an old microphone in my computer, and convincing top talents to come over to my apartment. I do not have a home studio. There are no pieces of foam anywhere to block out street noise. And yet this frugal option sometimes yields gold:
A good argument can be made that it’s better to use live recordings of shows in production. After all, the performers have been rehearsing/performing for a substantial period of time. Assumedly, they’ve got a better idea of how the song should be played. But be careful: the art of the demo performer is distinctly different from the art of engaging a live audience. A stage performance involves other elements: dance, visuals, facial expressions, gestures, the focus of their eyes, projection, etc. And theatres aren’t wired for sound. Plus, the audience may react in a way that distracts the listener. One of my early recordings is more memorable for the guy sneezing during the introduction than the song itself.
Still, I like to write songs for large ensembles, and when they’re too many to fit in my apartment, what else can I do?
Another question that gets posed is, do these pieces need to be heard with orchestras (probably synthesized) or will “just” piano accompaniment do? Again, I wish I knew. Most show businesspeople say there’s not much point in orchestrating. On the other hand, I’ve a recurring nightmare that my demo is being listened to right after a fully orchestrated one and sounds particularly puny. Usually, I wake up in a cold sweat at that point, so I don’t know what happens next.
The little old lady (remember her?) wanted to know if it’s O.K. to use a performer of the wrong gender, and I’m reminded of an odd moment in the creation of the revue of my songs last May, The Things We Do For Love. We came up with the unusual idea of choosing songs from my trunk after casting the show, so material could be specifically geared to the talents of every performer. The producer, director and musical director listened to a huge number of my songs, including one that’s meant to be sung by six women. The only recording I had of that distaff sextet was one in which I sang all the parts. The creative team, taking in a huge amount of material, had made little notes to themselves, and wanted to do the song. But, along the way, they’d lost sight of the idea that it could only be sung by women.
The song lists a number of chores that they wish someone could do for them. Go to the gym, call mother, and so on, ending with the punch line “to visit the gynecologist for me.” On the day we met to pick the songs for the performers, it was suggested that the song be performed as a solo by Brad Siebeking. To which I asked “Why would Brad even have a gynecological appointment?” I wish I knew… Strike that: I’m glad I don’t.