A little of the rocky road to the first presentation of my new musical, The Music Playing. It’s happening as I post this, but, as you know, I write these musings in advance. So I can only talk about the trouble getting here, not how it went.
I’d initially set myself a deadline, that the piece would be in some performable form eleven months ago. But if you ask me what the show’s about, you’ll understand a main reason I missed it by such a wide mark. It’s a two-performer musical about what it’s like to be first-time parents. While the work is entirely fictional, it can’t be denied that my duties as primary caregiver for my two-year-old daughter impeded my progress. And another odd thing is that I kept the project a secret – had no collaborator, told nobody about it, basically, until July. At that point, I contacted a director and hatched a scheme to present the show as a birthday surprise for my wife, a sort of surprise-party-with-reading-of-a-new-musical in the way our wedding was the premiere of a new Noel Katz musical in 2003.
Sounds crazy, no? Well, yes, this seems a necessity: there must be some touch of madness in any creation for the theatre. And my setting (actually, resetting) a deadline seemed just what I needed to get the writing going. My previous project, a show called Haven, had no self-set schedule, and I could never get my nose to the grindstone. Eventually, I lost all desire to complete it. But The Music Playing would be a Big Birthday Gift extraordinaire. And one of the ways there’s a bit of a release on the pressure valve is that, for this private party, there was no need for a truly finished draft. Something would be presented in early September, maybe just a handful of songs from an upcoming project. I’m proud to say a dozen numbers are done and a script that tells a story. It’s sort of a short-form telling of the tale I sought to tell. And many of the songs, at this early point, are a little bit of all right.
So, I think it must be terribly common among writers that time management is something of an issue. You hear of successful wordsmiths regularly devoting themselves to labor at all sorts of odd hours, keeping to a strict schedule, and that’s how they get things done. As the father of a rambunctious two-year-old, the only time I get to allocate towards creation is when she sleeps. And, many’s the day she utterly refuses to nap. Plus, since this is a musical, of course you’re picturing me pounding a piano for a certain number of hours. Except she’s asleep, so I can’t. Those occasions in which my wife takes our daughter out of the house – those become my only opportunities to compose at the spinet. I don’t tell you all these things as a complaint; just setting up the story.
Tasks that don’t require a piano, like coming up with dialogue for this show, of course are more doable. At some point, I looked at the list of songs I was confident I could finish by September, and, adjusting my outline on my dry-erase board, ordered them into a story I could tell. But I was long on ballads, short on comedy songs, and I’d always hoped for a higher percentage of duets. Now, I had what I thought were some pretty good ideas for energetic and funny songs for my pair of characters to sing together. Two appealing numbers were intended to end the show, one an emotional conclusion to the story, the other, a humorous and surprising epilogue. Late in the game I hit upon another idea for a piece involving one-upmanship that would play to my strengths in a Kander and Ebb mode. It’s fair to say I was fairly salivating to get to these pieces.
And there it was, on our family calendar, an early August mother-daughter business trip. It would be my time alone in the house, my time to bang the keys, all night long if need be. My assurance that my girls would be gone and I could get to it then were what kept me going all summer long: time specifically set aside for the wacky stuff the piece requires. So, the day I woke at 4:30 in the morning to take them to the airport was unusually gleeful. They made it on to their plane, and I was back in bed by 6, peacefully slumbering with the knowledge that I would have the rest of the day, and the four days following, to myself. I got up at 7:30, ready to start my pounding, and my wife texts that the flight’s been cancelled. US Air couldn’t get them to that night’s event. From a business perspective, it only made sense for her to go two days later, sans kid. I trudged back to the airport, face smeared with tears.
Soon the project picked up a producer, a co-host, a musical director, and, of course, a cast. These helpful souls led to a performance venue we’d get for free, right on Joy’s birthday. If the show couldn’t be the lyrical laugh riot I’d conceived of, at least I could stuff the libretto with gags, and now I had a good team toiling on a night with a lot of heart. The performers needed some scratch tapes from me, and my daughter stayed quiet enough as I recorded the rather brief score. All was right on track for a glorious surprise musical reading on September Third.
Six days before the main event, Joy experienced a headache so awful her doctor ordered up a trip to the Emergency Room. A team of doctors performed a wide variety of scary tests. They took some days to come up with a diagnosis, and, by the First still hadn’t come up with any real prognosis. So, as nurses entered the hospital room in an approximation of a hazmat suit, I had to call off the birthday surprise. Finding a new time to do it, that worked for the entire team, was very difficult, and two fine places who love Joy so much they were going to donate space, had none to give on the only day that worked for us all. There’s a moment in the film, All That Jazz when a beleaguered musical-maker looks to the Heavens and says “What’s the matter? Don’t you like musical comedy?”
Miraculously, by September 2, Joy recovered from all that had ailed her. She was good to go, too, but doctors wouldn’t release her until one last test result came in, from a lab that hadn’t been open Labor Day weekend. So she was finally sprung on her birthday, and perfectly energetic and non-contagious enough to see a show, but, by then, the postponement was on.
The course of true love never runs smooth, and that’s the inspiration for many a good musical. The course of getting this surprise musical on could barely have run rockier.