In November we moved and the November before that we moved. A couple of dry-erase boards I haven’t seen since 2012 have been recently unearthed. I wiped down one and let my toddler have her way with the other. Whatever I had on those boards went unseen for more than a year and I suffered no ill-effects.
But I thought you might want to know what was on them, since it’s a peek into a musical theatre writer’s life and process.
The larger board contained many things, but mostly it served as the storyboard for Such Good Friends. (I wrote about the storyboarding process a while ago.) Along with a list of songs and scenes using different colored pens, there were a couple of phrases about the general theme of the work. One was “Someday, we’ll look back at all this fondly, and chuckle.” There was a note to myself saying the flashback to how-they-met should be as revelatory as the one on The West Wing, where Josh sends a signal through a glass boardroom and Sam walks out of a lucrative career to join the presidential campaign. How I wish Such Good Friends’ flashback contained such an emotional moment! But comparing a less-than-two-hour musical to a TV series beyond its initial season is a fool’s errand. Aaron Sorkin had already built up our feelings for those characters over at least 26 one-hour episodes over the course of a year. My characters were in their first fifteen minutes of being in front of an audience, and suddenly Brad Oscar was wearing a toupee to look like how he’d looked 17 year prior. Pack an emotional wallop? Nah, but at least two of my better songs are part of the sequence.
The big board also had a list of possible songs for a project I’d hoped to steal. Once, I got wind that a new musical with a Tony-winning director was unhappy with its songwriter, a rock-and-roll legend with little theatrical experience. If I could demonstrate I could write better songs based on the same property, maybe, just maybe, they’d dump the rockstar for me. So, on the board went ideas for songs. I wrote most of these, slapped together a home recording with some top Broadway talent, and mailed it off to the producer. Now, you don’t often hear me making great claims for my songs, but these were real winners in comparison with the score they had. And kept. And lost millions of dollars with. The producer glumly told me how much money the show had lost at a post-show party in New York. (They’d already posted their closing notice.)
I guess staring at those song titles for years was a form of self-appreciation. It’s a really good album that I can’t share with the public. The dry-erase board, or this segment of it, served as a reminder that I’d written something I liked. And, I’ll always believe, the producer regretted not scooping up when he had the chance.
Similarly, that Such Good Friends storyboard memorializes a particular point in the show’s development. All sorts of songs and scenes that seemed the linchpins of the structure, then, never made it into the draft that was performed. There was this real-life incident I’d read about, in which the father of a twelve-year-old boy had been betrayed (named in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee) by his best friend, who had a son, age 12, that was his son’s best friend. He had to explain to the kid why they couldn’t be friends any more. And then, some time later, he named names himself. It was a story I was sure I wanted to include in Such Good Friends; I’d gone through countless drafts of the father-son scene. In preparing the show for its 2007 production, it was pointed out to me that the kids were superfluous, since, as the title indicates, the plot is about friendships and betrayals. I’ve never regretted losing those characters and their songs: it made for a leaner and more emotionally effective piece. But I never erased that storyboard, I guess, because I wanted to be reminded how far any list-of-events can get altered.
The smaller board, though, was a wall of shame. Here’s something about musical theatre writing that nobody ever tells you. When I got the smaller dry-erase board I decided to use a column to jot down the names of places I’d sent my shows. I could look up and see who was reading them, and, when they got back to me, I’d erase the name. My wife, seeing this board as I unpacked it, said “You’ve a dead man’s name on that list.” Good, I thought. Names’ existence on the board meant that they’d been sent scripts and had never responded. Very few of these were examples of me shoving materials under a locked door. The conversation usually goes something like this: “Hey, Noel, I’d absolutely love to take a look at that show of yours. Really sounds up my alley, the kind of thing I’m dying to produce. If you’ll do me the favor of sending it to me, I promise on my life I’ll get back to you within a week or two, yea or nay.” AND THEN I NEVER HEAR FROM THEM AGAIN. When that producer died, I thought, well, that’s a better excuse than most for not getting back to me. And he did swear ON HIS LIFE that he would. Karma, no?
That people and organizations are rude enough to not respond, all the time, when they’ve promised to do so, is the dirty little secret of our little corner of show business. If I add up the quantity of yes responses and no-we’re-not-interested responses they don’t nearly come up to the quantity of no responses at all. And this is not something I want to be reminded of any more, so I’m taking a sponge to the board, forgetting the names on the vanishing wall-of-shame. My new windows-on-all-sides office doesn’t have any walls that can accommodate these boards. So I’m starting over – and you just knew I was going to use this one – with a clean slate.