A little bit of this; a little bit of that

My last post, WordPress tells me, was my 200th.  Now, normally I’d take this as a cue to celebrate, and reflect back.  But, as the third Blogaversary just passed, it seems like I was just doing that the other day.  When you catch yourself reflecting back on reflecting back, it’s a sure sign you’re doing too much of it.

But if I look to the future, I’m faced with this blog’s certain mortality.  I can’t go on writing this thing forever.  The day will come when I’ve said everything I know about writing musicals.  And the whole idea here is to share some of my thoughts based on the unusual amount of experience I have creating musicals – shows that have been produced. (It’s rare I talk about the one I wrote that was never produced, the one that seemed the most commercial idea of all when I started it.  Strangely, I still hold out hope it will find its way onto a stage someday.) I truly believe – and will be happy to learn I’m wrong – that this blog is the only place you can go to learn about what goes into writing a musical.

Blood, Sweat and Tears.  Nothing to do with the previous sentence; just the name of an old rock band that popped into my head.

In 2010, when Mark Sutton-Smith urged and enabled me to start this, I had a fear which has materialized: Writing about how you do something, sometimes, makes it harder to do it. It’s like trying to dance when you’re concentrating on the steps. And then, I often say things here that reflect a rather high standard for musical theatre writing, a standard I frequently can’t live up to. And my collaborators – sheesh! – forget about ‘em!

Which reminds me to mention something I’ve not previously said here, about standards. Have them. Hold them dear. Insist your collaborators do their very best. But there’s also a time for relaxing those standards, a time you’re going to need to compromise.

Time and again, in my career, there were these crisis points, in which I could steadfastly stick to my principles, or get another show produced. I’ve argued with people, sent collaborators running home in tears, but never let this jeopardize the show getting on. My malleable resolve has helped me get fourteen different shows produced, two industrials and a short musical film.

When you’re working on an industrial, there’s a client who is paying you, and he who pays the piper sometimes quite literally calls the tune.  I remember coming up with a trio about three different people who work in a business – a high executive, someone mid-level, and a graveyard shift word processor.  This led to considerable consternation from the fellow who’d hired me.  “No, you don’t understand!  Human Resources people are going to see this, and they can’t stand the notion that some people are higher than others in a hierarchy.  This will not do at all!”  I swear I was balled out for the better part of an hour.  But he was the boss; I, the underling.  (Wait: Should I have said that?)

You’ll notice I’m not naming anybody in these stories. Once, I worked with someone who went on to become extremely famous. He was the director as well as the author of our opus, and couldn’t stand my need for structured lyrics. “You think everything I do is a piece of shit!” he bellowed. I responded that, unless we wanted this thing to sound like a modern opera (which we didn’t), music requires a modicum of form. “Well, it’s obviously not going well between us. And, from now on, I think it will work better if you don’t think of us as collaborators, but rather the guy hired to do the music.” Hired? I wasn’t getting paid for this. “Take the weekend and decide whether you want to continue on these terms, because there’s still time for me to get another composer and I have people in mind.” Out of a thousand creators, 999 would have opted to walk away. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that this guy was a genius, that the script he’d come up with was powerful and interesting, and that I really wanted to see our musical – yes, damn it, our – on stage. And though he soon after barred me from rehearsals (unable to stand having someone who ever disagreed with him somewhere in the theatre), I think I made the right choice by proceeding.

A writer who’s also the producer or director is in a power position. As a practical matter, it’s no longer a collaboration among equals if one wears many hats and the other is “just” a writer. Once, I came up with a wacky idea for an opening number, and the producer who was also one of the writers wanted to add a sight gag – someone getting bonked on the head.  So, I wrote music for this in the style of the rest of the piece, driving rock. Now, although I was the sole composer, he started insisting the new section be written as a soft shoe. Meanwhile, the director got a brilliant idea about how the song should be staged. But the rock vs. soft shoe argument went on so long, the writer-producer wrote a completely new lyric and went to a different composer, all the while preserving the great staging idea. I ended up with just one song in that revue, although I certainly felt proud of that opening number. None of it was written by me, but I had written the draft that inspired the good idea. About a year later, the opportunity arose to collaborate with these same people again, and I jumped at it.

Again not naming names, but the guy who screwed me…went on to become one of my best friends in the world.


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