Another big anniversary to celebrate, and this one’s really big: a rather round number, the number of years since I completed my first musical.
I was in ninth grade, in Mrs. Steele’s Honors English class. I hadn’t started the year in Honors English, but when I heard that Mrs. Steele had let her students see topless pictures of herself on vacation, I knew this was the teacher for me. And it was, because before I knew it, we were all asked to write something in dramatic form. And my fellow Honors English students all turned in three-page sketches, or really short plays and I wrote a two-act musical. I think I was asked to perform this opus for the class, so I went to the piano and recorded accompaniment to all the songs on cassette. Then, in December of a year ending in “4,” I read the whole thing out loud to the class, pushing “play” and singing all the songs. I was a teenage boy who’d written a musical…about a teenage boy who’d written a musical. That succeeds on Broadway. And his producer’s efforts to get him over the sophomore slump so he could write another one. The name of the producer was Hal Prince.
Wipe that smile off your face! The important part of the story is that I impressed a lot of people with what I did, and some of these people helped me continue this pursuit. Plans were formed to perform the show at school, but they didn’t pan out. The would-be producer’s brother played trumpet, so I learned something about writing a trumpet part. And I decided to write another musical, basing it on an old George Abbott play that seemed to cry out for music. When this was done, my effort to get it produced at my high school involved me singing the entire score for the drama teacher, who listened attentively. My Roaring Twenties tale of gangsters and chorines didn’t strike him as the right thing to put on, but he left the door open to hear anything else I wrote. At this point, a librettist materialized, and we figured we had a better shot writing a musical based on a well-known children’s book. The drama teacher patiently listened to our adaptation, and again politely and encouragingly turned us down. My collaborator took a copy of the script with her to college, and was studying abroad her sophomore year when she got a chance to direct anything she wanted. This is how, at the age of 18, I joined the lucky throng of those who’ve had a musical produced. In jolly old England of all jolly old places.
The other prodigious accomplishment of my teens was playing piano for an improv troupe. Someone there, knowing I’d be heading to New York for college and had a passion for writing musicals, insisted I apply for Lehman Engel’s free musical writers’ workshop at BMI. Really, I thought I was a longshot to get in, but, at this point, I’d written three musicals, and my little cassette tape must have impressed somebody over there, for I was accepted, by far the youngest person in the workshop. My education there coincided with my education at Columbia, where I also impressed people enough to get more opportunities to get more shows produced. At the BMI workshop, I decided to adapt a play I thought was deeply flawed. Why? Well, at this point I’d learned that Oscar Hammerstein had challenged the teenaged Stephen Sondheim to teach himself about writing musicals by writing four shows:
- One based on a play you admire
- One based on a play whose flaws you think you can fix in your adaptation
- One based on something not yet in dramatic form
- One completely original
That fourth project completed the quartet. But let’s consider Hammerstein’s assignment, for a moment. He certainly told young Stephen a lot of helpful things about writing musicals (and, as you know, on this blog, I try to share helpful things I’ve gleaned about writing musicals). But the real education, of course, is going through the experience of writing those four shows. So, sure, read this blog and take in what I have to say. But, more importantly, write a musical, and then another, and then another, and then another.
Don’t worry if you don’t get these maiden efforts produced – I got one; Sondheim got none. I swear you’ll improve with each one and your fifth just might be worthy.
My senior year at Columbia I finally got to see a show I’d written produced on campus. It was then called Pulley of the Yard, but when British people discovered it, they took its alternative title, Murder at the Savoy, and produced it again and again, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival. Right after graduation I started collaborating with a guy whose faith in me was based, in part, on the Kurt Weill-like harmonies I’d used in the fourth “apprentice” project. Then Columbia called again, needing a songwriter for the Varsity Show, and the success of this led to the off-Broadway hit, On the Brink, which turned a profit when I was the ripe old age of 25. Next, that first show that had been produced got rewritten into something wholly other, and ran a long time when I was 27. And who should attend my next effort but the aforementioned Mr. Sondheim, who sent a note in response suggesting what I should focus on in my next musical.
“My Next Musical” – my how those words have a nice ring to them! You can never know whether it’s going to be a commercial success (as many of my shows have) or win you some awards (as three of my shows have) or multiple productions. The only thing you can be certain of is that you’ll learn from the experience. Exactly what it takes to get better at it.