There’s something I do, with some regularity, in the world of musical comedy, that I do very badly. Demonstrably badly. With a success rate of zero percent.
The effort drives me crazy, too. It’s the process of applying for the various grants earmarked for musical theatre writers. They’re all funded by the estates of deceased musical theatre writers. As their shows are still performed, those estates all earn more than a million dollars a year. (None had children.) So, it’s really a marvelous thing that they’re giving away money to worthy musical theatre writers on a regular basis.
To demonstrate worthiness, writers submit samples of their best work, and it’s here where my madness begins. What are my eight best lyrics? Which are my four best songs (music and lyrics)? What script represents my best libretto-writing? A smarter writer might come up with the exact same sample year after year, but not me. I revisit the question, as if the contest were some puzzle that can be solved. Sometimes, I attempt to inveigle others into helping me with the choosing, because it’s very clear I’m no judge of my own work.
I get desperate for tips, strategies. A friend who won a few years ago thinks they like to see a bunch of songs from the same project. I tried that in 1998 and 2006: all the entries came from one score (different shows each year). Months and months go by, and then you receive a kindly-written notice in the mail, saying they’ve chosen someone else.
This year, I’ve done just the opposite. Eight songs from eight shows. I’m trying to demonstrate variety. There’s a big opening number, a song that defines a character, a comedy song, a very big act one finale, a love song, a comic duet, the prototypical penultimate gospel and a soft kinda pop-py finale. I don’t think it has much of a chance.
So why do I do it? Because the awards are so great, it makes no sense not to do it. I’m compelled. It’s somewhat like the lottery: you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. While the applications take a great deal more work that a lottery purchase at your local bodega, the odds are considerably better. Sometimes as few as 200 people enter in hopes of a $100,000 prize. New York’s Numbers can never beat those numbers.
I know a writer who cynically believes that one has to be connected to the BMI workshop to win one of these things. The lists of winners support his point. Or one can draw a different conclusion: the best writers today are the ones who’ve honed their skills at BMI. The entries are always read “blind.” The judges do not know the names of the authors.
A few years ago, though, a lot of writers were outraged that one lyric-writing prize went to David Lindsay-Abaire, a playwright who’d written exactly one musical, Shrek, which, at that point, was Broadway-bound. If the judges were aware of this, and the lyrics talked about what it’s like to be an ogre who’s friends with a donkey, it had to be obvious from reading them who the submitter was.
To me, though, the bestowal served as confirmation that the award was going to a good set of lyrics. After all, these were destined to be heard on Broadway. More commonly, the victor never makes it to The Street.
When winners are announced, I’ve one of three feelings. If it’s a songwriter I already admire, I’m glad the foundation has seen fit to reward their artistry. If it’s some hack whose work I don’t respect, I’m irked. But that happens very rarely. And I’m self-aware enough to question whether the deadly sin of envy is influencing my emotion. Frequently, though, it’s a “Who the hell is that?” reaction, and I must immediately satisfy my intense curiosity about the oeuvre of the unfamiliar name. I’m never surprised I didn’t win; it’s what I’m used to.
Just the other week, I woke up with a brainstorm: I should include the complex musical scene, Seeing Stars, from Area 51. The type of number I most enjoy writing is a large ensemble with lots going on, and this is one of those. Trouble is, this is for a lyric-writing award, and what’s most impressive about it is all the counterpoint. I’ll score no points for the score. As I put together the application, I realized I was including a bit of lyric I’ve long thought was a mistake. That is, after the show finished its run, it struck me that I’d used an image few in the audience can understand
In this part of a song, a sexy Vegas chanteuse has to convince a guy to look through a telescope. So, she has to make star-gazing sound incredibly enticing:
Makes you feel
There’s not anything you can’t do
I’m in the mood
Underneath a blanket of blue…
Want to feel like you’re somersaulting?
Check out nature’s barrel vaulting
See my mistake? I’ve long been a fan of architecture, and here I used an architectural term, “barrel vaulting” that wouldn’t be in the vocabulary of the character singing it, the character listening to her, or, worse still, 98% of the audience. (A previous post used a photo of some barrel vaulting, coincidentally.)
What to do? Follow my original instinct and include the song, or go with this smarter thought and replace it with another one? Today was the deadline, and, basically, I ran out of time. Couldn’t waste more energy searching for the replacement. I may have screwed myself. Won’t know until spring, when the winner is announced.