Six by nine

Since it’s my birthday, I get to think about presents. Anyone have a problem with that? And I recently had the experience of giving a present, an original song, And thereby hangs a tale.

With the immense task of settling in to the new house, it was one week before Christmas when I bought the last gift. To my horror, I discovered a few days later that it would take eleven business days for the thing to arrive. Christmas day, a special someone had nothing under the tree. But I’d been working on a song, for a few months, and it was just about done. When I was given an hour to myself, I rushed to the computer, flinging some notes at the final dozen bars, printed it out and put a ribbon on it. Now, I’d have to play and sing the song with no rehearsal, having never played and sung it before.

Somewhere in the middle of this world premiere, it hit me: This song is a dog. It starts promisingly, then fizzles. It accomplishes none of what I’d hoped it would. Underbaked; not “done.”

Now, you might think that mad dash to finish it did me in. But what I wanted to talk about is “When is a song truly finished?” In this case, Christmas arrived, and so the song-gift had to be done. Of course now I’ll rewrite it and try to fix it. But for that premiere, it was what it was. In my last post I talked about rewriting Such Good Friends until it was almost opening night; then I resumed rewriting it after the run. It’s been my experience, on several occasions, that the deadline of opening night imposes a date at which the whole show must freeze. Without the opening, one might rewrite forever. In 1989 – gee, do I really get to say “25 years ago” now? – I started work on the only musical I’ve completed as an adult that never got a full production, The Company of Women. Lacking that freeze-point, I rewrote it again and again, roughly ten drafts, until the characters and situations seemed too dated to continue with. Actually, the premiere of a popular television show covering some of the same themes spelled the project’s doom.

Putting down your pencil can be a dangerous act. When you say “I’m done” are you confessing you can’t possibly make the song or show any better? Are you just tired of writing that particular piece? And then there’s a danger when you start letting others hear it. Some listeners – the evil bastards – are going to like it. They’re going to tell you it’s good. And hearing something’s good can knock what you previously knew out of your head. Like when you knew there was a treading water going on, dramatically speaking. Or that there’s a lyrical pivot that requires a different understanding of the title that only you seem to get. Or that an accompaniment figure you planned to keep going failed to return after the bridge.

Your work must be unimpeachable because, somewhere, somehow, somebody’s going to try to impeach it. And I’m not talking about the theatre community’s nattering naysayers who flock to first previews just to find fault. The problem isn’t overly critical folk, it’s that these tiny imperfections tend to manifest themselves into audiences enjoying themselves less than they could have/should have. I guess I’m saying that, on some level, you need to trust your inner voice saying there are bits that need to be revised over those cheering voices, the roar of the crowd.

Now, you can drive yourself crazy with this sort of thing, but writing musicals is a crazy-making business. My career is full of examples of me digging in my heels when collaborators maintained some song of mine wasn’t up to snuff. I’m stubborn. I get defensive. And this sometimes leads me to defend something I’ve written rather than flipping down my hypercritical lens and start searching for a way to make something better. Some of my shows were written without collaborators, so I was free of such self-defeating debate. But the trick is to learn to be as hard on yourself as you possibly can.

If your collaborator isn’t being hard on you, that’s a problem. I worry about this all the time.

When I think about the low quality of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals over the past quarter century, I imagine a poisonous collaborative environment. Nobody’s sending Lord Andrew back to the drawing board, and it doesn’t seem to be his m.o. for him to send his collaborators back to the drawing board, to get the best texts, (many of them have done far superior work paired with others). Since I tend to be more experienced than most people I work with, it’s far too rare that my feet get held to the fire. Which leaves me with cold feet.

Well, I don’t think I’ve made myself clear, in this post, at all. This entry needs rethinking, revision. But it’s time I get it up and move on to other things. It is my birthday, you know.

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