Stay as sweet as you are

Today, a progress report, rather than a celebration. It’s the one-year anniversary of the first time anyone saw The Music Playing. But The Music Playing wasn’t finished a year ago; it was just time to put a draft in front of an audience and see how it went over. The invited attendees loved it, laughed at all the jokes, and soaked the floor with a puddle of tears. Everything, it seemed, was going right. And I saw this success as a decent start, a first step.

And so began a year – and counting – of rewriting. Taking a cold, hard look at every moment in the piece, including those that had clearly enraptured the crowd, and figuring out ways to make it better. It’s easy to be seduced by a positive reaction into thinking something can be left as it is. There are reasons to distrust the cheers.

The main thing is that the September 10, 2014 reading played for a room full of friends. There’s a huge difference between entertaining strangers and putting on a show for those you know. On one rather important level, that night was a surprise birthday celebration for my wife. She didn’t know where I was taking her, and hadn’t an inkling she was about to see friends perform an original musical that, in many ways, was a reflection of our life. Now, the guests who filled the other seats did know what they were about to see. But a huge part of their emotional experience, watching the show, was watching Joy watch the show. How was the birthday girl reacting to pal Nadia Vinnytsky playing a wife-and-mother very much like her? The Music Playing is about a pair of new parents finding ways to keep and kindle the love in their marriage. As the audience thought about this, they could look to where Joy and I were sitting and think about this novel romantic gesture of mine.

That’s a very different experience than the one that will be had by assemblies of strangers. I’m reminded that one of the current century’s funniest musicals was written as a gift from husband to wife, too. If I tell you the recipient’s name is Janet van der Graaf, many of you will instantly recall The Drowsy Chaperone with a smile. And while you were enjoying it, it probably never crossed your mind that the bride who didn’t want to show off no more had the same name, and some character traits, of a real person.

Future audiences taking in The Music Playing must accept Lizzie and Chuck without any familiarity with my family. If written well, of course, we accept fictional characters as real, at least for the time we’re watching the piece. My family isn’t fictional, although my daughter keeps saying things that nobody would accept as real coming out of the mouth of a made-up three-year-old.

So – how can I avoid this? – another mention of that really long word I find I drop way too often: verisimilitude. What my daughter says actually comes out of her mouth, but no paying audience would ever believe it. Stuff that Abigail says in the show has to be accepted by the audience as plausible, can’t get them thinking “no one would say that.” And my actress pointed out to me that I’d ended a lyric with a fast string of words, including “shnook,” that, to her, didn’t sound like something Joy would say. She’s right. But I must now ask myself, will the audience feel the character of Lizzie could plausibly verbalize that way? It’s imperative that writers get into audience members’ heads, picturing how they’re going to take in every word they hear, every image they see.

More broadly, the main thing I’m obsessing about is my unmet audience’s feelings about Lizzie and Chuck, whom they’ll never think have anything to do with Joy and me. Is my fictional couple interesting enough, sympathetic enough, for a house full of strangers to make an emotional investment in? In last year’s premiere, I feel, the characters are a little too nice, a little too perfect for strangers to care about. It’s like I’m tasting some cooking-in-progress and saying it needs a little something, a little tartness, more acidity. And the thought crosses my mind that if Lizzie somehow gets rewritten into an unpleasant person, Joy will be insulted. Perish the thought! It’s all about the audience, and always must be.

For my money, Jason Robert Brown went a bit overboard in making a character based on himself too much of an asshole in the denouement of The Last Five Years. I remember watching that master-of-charm, Norbert Leo Butz, getting through this extremely long, slow waltz and thinking “Well, that’s it. I don’t care about this character at all. The two hours spent watching this romance seems a waste of time.”

But when I think about it today, I wonder if Brown was dealing with a similar problem. He, too, was writing book, music and lyrics based on a romantic relationship he’d lived through. The woman, legendarily, was not happy about his turning stuff they’d lived into a musical. I think he wanted to be fair, didn’t want the play to seem like an act of revenge. So, he doesn’t paint himself as the good guy.

Which, I guess, is a good argument for steering clear of autobiographical works. So, let me advocate for the devil: You’re living life, seeing real stuff happen. Sometimes, you can see that a certain time period makes up an interesting story. As you’re living your life, there are jokes. People joke about a situation, or you do, and you might even have a storehouse of funny things to say that you never actually said. And that’s enough quality material, perhaps, to make a good show out of. It just might take a little tweaking. Or a lot of tweaking. Until any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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