Does writing musicals seem hard to you?  If you’ve been reading this blog, now approaching 100 posts, with any regularity, you’ve learned of a passel of pitfalls, problems to avoid, mistakes that even multiple Tony-winners have made.  And achieving that dream of writing a really entertaining musical might seem well nigh impossible.

Many’s the time it’s seemed that way to me.  But then, from time to time, I remind myself that musical theatre can be created instantaneously and easily.  And that’s when I’m improvising a musical.

Making up a musical, on the spot, with an audience in front of you, at first blush, seems tremendously difficult.  But, over the past fifteen years, Larry Rosen and I have developed exercises and teaching methods that make the impossible not only possible, but reasonably easy.  And it’s exhilarating for all of our students.

An audience, it should be obvious, brings a completely different set of expectations to an improv show.  It’s never like that years-in-the-making painstakingly-crafted “finished product” on the Great White Way.  The audience isn’t going to have high standards when it comes to surprising plotting, or mellifluous singing, or heartfelt emotions.  They’re there for a shared experience, in which something that will only be seen once, only by them, is created using a dollop of their input – the suggestion the audience gives to start us off.

In a group of first-time musical improv students, there will invariably be a few misconceptions.  One is that you have to sing well.  Pardon me while I drop some names: Robin Williams, Amy Poehler, Casey Wilson, Kate Walsh and Todd Stashwick.  Have you bought any of their records to accompany any candlelit dinners?  These are people I’ve improvised songs with, and they all did it brilliantly.  While you can see them on television every week, they’re not stars because of their beautiful voices.

Another false notion is that you have to be funny, or even particularly quick on your feet.  And sure, Robin, Amy, Casey and Todd are known for being funny, but Kate?  Well, when we improvised together she was hysterical; it’s been a surprise to me that her fame derives from a dramatic role (Addison on Private Practice).

We teach improvisers to be truthful.  The best laughs come out of characters reacting as people really do, not performers standing up there and trying to crack jokes.  This distinction basically separates two worlds of improv: those who go for jokes and those who go for truth.

This dichotomy is sometimes said to define the schism between “game” improvisation and “long-form.”  I’ve had my heart in the latter camp since a field trip to Chicago in the mid-nineties.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t played a lot of “game” shows.  Some fine ones, too.  But here’s my beef:

Way too much improv resembles a bar trick.  One example is the Alphabet Game, in which each piece of dialogue must start with successive letters of the alphabet.  The audience may be impressed by this feat, but the game consists of nothing more than an artificial impediment to creating a good scene.

I don’t see a good reason for such impediments.  And there are always going to be certain difficulties to song improv.  One, you’d probably assume, is rhyme.  But I don’t feel rhyme is a necessary component of a good improvised song.  It makes made-up songs sound more like pre-written songs, sure; but I figure an audience looking to hear pre-written songs is better off at a concert.

And so are listeners seeking to hear good voices.  It’s hard to imagine someone leaving an improv show saying “Great show!  Loved the voices!” 

No, the hard part is structure.  The advanced song improviser can do a scene and suddenly break out into song, having come up with a good, workable title that sums up their character’s sentiment.  She’ll create a structure in which the title reappears at regular and expected intervals, just like written songs usually do.  (Actually, it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t use a title; The Beatles’ A Day in the Life is one.)

I worry that I’ve made song improv sound incredibly difficult.  Certainly, if a non-improviser walked into the third hour of one of our classes, they’d see every student doing incredibly impressive things.  But the students don’t think it’s hard.  I use an analogy: the medieval thumbscrew.  Larry and I start with easy exercises, and, as the class goes on, each new exercise is incrementally harder than the last one.  So it’s like turning a thumbscrew so slowly, you never feel the pain.

And, we do something that I don’t think anyone else has ever thought of doing: We let participants have the unique experience of improvising completely without form: no meter, no rhyme, no repeated motif in the vocal necessary.  This is particularly exhilarating, because it allows people to focus on being truthful.

If people are being real in an improvised musical, the show can be as poignant as West Side Story.  Audiences are delighted to discover that a full range of emotions are amplified in improv; it’s never just wags cracking wise.

Another unexpected pleasure is improvised harmony.  This is part of every class we teach, a clear example of the “group mind” at work.  I lay down a sequence of chords and play them over and over.  Different people find different notes, in different rhythms: right away we have glorious counterpoint.

But, you know, the more I describe this, the more I fear two things: that I’m giving away too many secrets, and that readers can’t possibly understand/appreciate what I’m talking about.  It’s simply something you have to experience for yourself.  Email to inquire about our next workshop.


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