Sigh no more, ladies

I’ve another show anniversary to celebrate. But this time it’s not about a production I’m describing, it’s a process. And a rather unusual one at that.

The Company of Women was developed under the auspices of The Third Step Theatre Company. I’d previously created The Christmas Bride with them, a conventional musical developed with conventional methods. On that, my collaborator and I took a novella by Charles Dickens, came up with a different but not unrelated plot, outlined, drafted, held private readings and public readings, rewriting constantly until and beyond opening night.

The Company of Women started with an idea that there ought to be an original musical about contemporary female friendships. As many have observed before and after us, the talent pool of truly wonderful women is noticeably larger than the pool of talented men, and yet, in show after show, breakdown after breakdown, there’s a great deal more roles for males. So, initially, there was the notion that a show with seven great parts for women would be greeted by the theatre world with open arms.

But the subject of female-female friendships wasn’t one I knew about experientially, and we all put our minds to innovating a development technique that would compensate for this. We were aware of the unique road that led to the creation of A Chorus Line. Michael Bennett, with tape recorders running, held long “rap sessions” with Broadway dancers, asking questions about their lives, the individual roads that led them to The Main Stem. Writers then used the tapes as the basis for an excellent text with near-constant music. (That is, underscoring; there’s plenty of spoken material as well as the usual number of songs.) The result of this mad experiment, in my view, was more wonderful than anyone might have hoped.

Could we start with rap sessions, too? Well, in a word: no. We weren’t interested in sitting around talking. And chorus liners are a special and inherently interesting part of the population. Women are half the population, far more familiar than show dancers. At Third Step we shared an interest in developing characters and even plot lines improvisationally. So, we found a dozen female improvisors, and my librettist and I watched as they ad libbed scenes that were based on actual episodes from their lives. All the episodes were true, although nobody improvised their own story. The cast was diverse: straight and lesbian, black and white, younger and older. Early on I had a hypothesis that these differences might lead to some sort of dramatic conflict. But the experiment demonstrated that gal pals bond across racial, age and sexuality lines; the flash-point that recurred has to do with adultery. If a friend commits it, that can cause a rift.

So there was something: one of the characters would cheat. And that led me to ideas for songs for the beginning, middle and end of an affair. But, at this early stage, the Elevator Pitch for the show would be “There’s a bunch of female friends, but one sleeps with a married man, straining her relationship with the friends.” And that doesn’t sound very good. Certainly not a show I’d want to see. So, it became apparent that this was way too little to build a show around. We needed to see multiple plots, and keep coming back to ladies-around-a-booth-at-a-bar, showing how the group was a resource of support and comfort, or not, for each individual. My book writer and I would have to create a few things, hopefully just as plausible, right in line with the reality depicted in the improvs.

And then my librettist came up with the obvious suggestion that the friends should hop in a spaceship and travel off to a distant planet. Now, I’ve promised myself never to make this blog about ragging on my former collaborators, but I hope you can see how soon she became just that, a former collaborator. While I talked of the need to reflect contemporary reality, she talked of the need for them to receive invitations to their interstellar flight in shiny mylar envelopes.

Replacing her with a reality-based collaborator ate up some time. But I was very happy with the second book-writer. Unfortunately, she wasn’t very happy with life in New York and, after a time and a full draft, she skipped town for Florida, never to return. I like to imagine that her summons to head south arrived in a shiny mylar envelope.

Next, Third Step folded its tent to head for warmer climes. People have been complaining, a lot, about the cold winter of 2015. I can only think back to a time when Jack Frost robbed The Company of Women of two directors, a producer and a librettist.

And another temperature-related thing: With contemporary material, you have to strike while the iron is hot. Many of The Company of Women’s components may have once seemed cutting-edge, but as time went by they seemed notably passé. For instance, the show depicted a liaison between a bi-curious friend and a committed lesbian, with the various reactions, from supportive to shocked, of their buddies. Society evolved to a place where nobody would bat an eye at such a thing, and, if they did, they’d be roundly condemned.

There was also the oldest character, a new widow entering the work force for the first time, struggling to use a computer. With time, The Company of Women became as far from reality as its discarded idea of the space flight for female friends only.

Time can be a bastard, that way. But the true destroyer of its chances was a popular television show. Over the course of something like 100 half-hours, one laugh-light sitcom did just about everything The Company of Women did, and so, there were inevitable comparisons. My show never put love-life at the center of anyone’s ambitions; it rarely shows ladies discussing the gentlemen in their lives. And yet, it’s likely all the theatres considering mounting the show couldn’t shake the memory of the four upper class beauties they’d seen on cable the night before doing just that.

Or, maybe, the show just isn’t any good. It’s the only thing I’ve written that never got a full production, so that tells you something.


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