Finally kicking back with a beer 24 hours after the premiere reading of The Music Playing as I write this. And anyone would say I’ve earned this beer, what with all the stress that went into putting the show together, as outlined in my previous post. It was, I think, a wonderful night. Joy was truly surprised but more importantly everybody there was deeply moved by the musical I created, Joy in particular.
It was nothing but praise, nothing but positive reinforcement and so, quite naturally, I distrust it. That was a friendly crowd: the folks who were there were there because they were hand-picked, supportive people. If someone’s a friend of Joy, and she’s so clearly moved, well, they’re going to cheer the effect the piece had on her. Many have commented on what an extraordinary loving gesture it is, to write a musical for a spouse’s birthday, with close friends acting in it, and a close friend director. All of that involves a whole heap of feeling, and one could react to all the commitment and fondness for Joy and be moved by that, not the show itself.
I don’t think that’s it. But, at this point, I don’t know it’s not.
There’s a lot that must be sorted out. Without discounting, at all, the success of the September 10 reading, there’s a clear shift in focus. That night, the goal was to move Joy and a small number of our friends. Now the goal becomes moving an audience. The house the show played to, for instance, is aware that Joy’s a businesswoman, one who doesn’t spend the amount of time with her daughter that she’d like to. The heroine of The Music Playing, Lizzie, also works; husband Chuck is a stay-at-home-Dad. So one thing that’s unclear is how an audience of strangers will react to my fictional characters. People who know us and/or love us reacted to Lizzie and Chuck as if they were us, and so walked in with more than a little history with the characters. Most shows, of course, introduce us to people we’ve never met.
Another thing that may have gone on the other night is a certain fill-in-the-blank thinking. I introduced the show as a reading of an unfinished first draft. That meant the watchers accepted some untied loose ends. And I’m a little stuck on the metaphor of connective tissue. Five songs fly by before there’s any dialogue. Now, much as I admire the dialogue-free “Marvin” musicals of William Finn, my intention was always to write something closer to I Do, I Do, with a more traditional balance of spoken words and sung. I don’t think people were bothered by the presentation’s hopping from song to song, but it may be that they bought into a dialogue-free first quarter of the show because they knew they were attending a reading of something unfinished.
Generally, I love the sound of spoken words interspersed between songs. I hope to paint a picture of marital discord in which there are silences, and tense moments that do not prompt Lizzie and Chuck to sing. Instead, I depicted their spats in lyrics, the looks they exchange, the dissonances in the music. Plus, their squabbles are fairly petty: the smallness worked fine for a brief reading among friends, but a paying audience might require more conflict.
So I’m wondering about that, and it seems this is my personal most Frequently Asked Question: Who’s coming to see this show? With its cast of two and minimal set, the show’s not delivering the sort of big Broadway dazzle you’d expect in a Jerry Herman musical. The “draw” at a two-character musical often has to do with who the two performers are. It’s likely to be a pair that people really want to see. I recall, for instance, anticipating that The Last Five Years would let me get to know Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott really well, since they comprised the entire cast. And that was something positive about the experience. (Not the quantity of duets I was anticipating – they sang together just once – but that’s another matter.) One imagines the ticket-buyers for I Do, I Do eager to see stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston. It becomes incumbent on writers to utilize the aspects of the stars’ talents that the audience is most interesting in seeing.
Which makes it sound like I’ve painted myself into a corner. How can I finish this thing until I know who the players are? So here we have an example of an issue that, at this early stage, shouldn’t be on the writer’s mind. It’s up to me to create two characters that any actor would love to play, to flesh them out, and – I’ve already done this – to stop thinking of them as me and Joy. This musical needs to mirror the reality of many a marriage when partners become parents. The more specific I can get, the funnier, the more relatable, the more truthful it will be. Not every musical has to reflect reality, but that’s one of my many goals for The Music Playing. (Another one is: finding a better title. Sheesh!)