My father is alive and kicking, turned 86 the other day, and I’m continuing to honor his request not to write about him. Instead, I’m going to write about someone else’s father, a man I met exactly once, and he left this world just the other day. But the story of our encounter, decades ago, and how he inadvertently ruined what I considered a golden opportunity – just by being nice! – is a tale worth telling. And I don’t think his daughter, Kate (not her real name), is likely to read this.
There are times in the life of a musical theatre writer when you surmise that what you really need, more than anything, is a staged reading of a show you’ve been developing, and plan to continue developing. This is a perfectly natural feeling. You’ve written a draft, think it’s possibly good, possibly not, but, for far too long, it’s been words-on-a-page. You need to hear those words read by actors, and for them to sing the songs. You need, most particularly, a live audience to react to what you’ve written.
My musical, The Company of Women had been languishing in a developmental limbo. A director who’d been instrumental in setting out the course of what it was to be had moved to California. A librettist and I had irreconcilable differences about what we wanted the show to be – she wanted to send the characters to outer space, literally, while I liked them earth-bound – so we broke it off. A replacement director/librettist made important improvements, then moved to Florida. What is it about proximity to fresh oranges with these people? I soldiered on, alone, and reached that point where I was dying for a reading.
Luckily, my compadres at The Third Step Theatre Company were assembling a festival of readings of new plays and musicals. At the perfect time, that golden opportunity came a-knocking. (Is that a mixed metaphor? I guess thinking about ladies in Florida and California has brought up thoughts of golden knockers.) I’d have the reading I’d need. And it was one of those where people stay afterwards for a moderated discussion of what they liked about the show, or were puzzled by, or felt didn’t land.
My reading would go on exactly once, but there was a substantial amount of preparation that was needed. The Company of Women is a score full of counterpoint. We had to get those interweaving melodies in perfect tune, and, naturally, the director wanted various acting beats worked out in advance. I’m not complaining about this – I live for this stuff – but want you to know what went into this.
Kate (not her real name) – remember her? – was in the cast and Kate’s father was in the audience. The theatre space was small and bright; I don’t recall the house lights being on dimmers. So, when it came time for the post-performance discussion, the moderator asked those in attendance for their honest reactions. First to speak was Kate’s father, grinning from ear to ear. “Well, I thought it was wonderful!” he fairly gushed.
“Is there any part of it you felt could benefit from any sort of revision?”
“No!” the broadly beaming gentlemen responded. “I thought it was wonderful!”
As I remember it, there was something positively infectious about his enthusiasm. The moderator tried to elicit other responses, but Kate’s father had set the tone. Nobody there seemed willing to utter anything even remotely negative: to do so would have rained on the most happy fella’s parade. And so we folded up the chairs and went home, having received not a shred of guidance as to what needed to be done next.
In marked contrast to the man I’d so entertained, I was depressed by what had transpired. This audience was saying that The Company of Women was unimpeachable, the most perfect musical since Fiddler on the Roof, and offered no ideas as to how it could be any better. Now what the hell was I supposed to do? All that work we put in seemed for naught.
The late dad-of-Kate wasn’t someone you could be mad at; he was charming and ingenuous. But, in my woebegone state, I couldn’t help focus on how he’d marred my moment. After a series of conversations with folks that were there, in which I never revealed my feelings, I discovered something: Kate had nothing on her resume. Now, it seemed to me I’d known Kate for quite some time, as I know a lot of people: young and constantly auditioning. It hadn’t occurred to me that she had struck out at every audition. This little reading of mine was her first time on stage in New York. And that uncritical response was a loving dad, struck inarticulate because he was beside himself with pride. Kate was performing, and that’s all he saw. He could find no flaw in The Company of Women because his perception was clouded by the pleasure of seeing his daughter perform.
Or maybe my perception is clouded by self-doubt, and The Company of Women is the greatest musical written in the past half-century. I went on, wallowing in the thought the whole enterprise had been a waste.
Someone with a large amount of experience developing musicals, who’d been there, but had to leave before the discussion, sent a letter. He made it clear he doesn’t usually type up notes and send them in a few days later, but The Company of Women had fascinated him, and stuck with him. At last, I got some views I could use, in glorious detail. The Third Step mucky mucks asked how I felt about the letter. I said “To my way of thinking there’ve been great documents over the years: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the five pages of notes on The Company of Women.”