Sittin’ around

This is one of those days in which I was pretty disappointed in myself, in my productivity. I finally managed to scrape together six hours to get some work done. And there are three songs I’ve poked at, for months, like a not-hungry kid with a plate of unappealing food. And maybe they’re just not ready to be written.

This is not to justify my own slow progress. But I’m wondering if you’ve ever been at a point where it’s seemed that a key component is missing, and, without it, you can’t satisfactorily complete a song. Each of the three has something different that just wasn’t there, yet:

For the slow-tempo duet, which I started literally years ago, what’s lacking is an evolution. The lyric says something that should resound with audiences, that needs to be said. But the problem is that, at the end of the song, nothing’s happened. It’s just saying the same poignant thing. And that’s a problem with so many songs I know – and dislike.

Then there’s an up-tempo duet, a list song. On this, there was something strange in my approach: I decided to come up with the tune first. Now, like many a melody, it began with my setting the title, and then composing music that naturally led to that hook at the end. I’ve worried, too much, that the tune owes too much to some pop song and I don’t know which. But the omitted element here is a sense of what’s happening, in the play, after the song is over. I could end big and just black out the lights, but that seems like cheating. This couple’s in the middle of an argument; fidelity to the truth dictates that some sort of resolution be shown. Even if it’s characters slamming a door shut.

I think outlining might have helped with this. Right now, on my plate, there’s more than one musical contretemps, and I’m uncertain the show can bear that many. The audience needs to see how songs change the situation. You’ve heard me be highly critical of musicals that present a situation that doesn’t evolve in any way. I think that’s unsatisfying. So, I’m unwilling to do it, and this unwillingness may be stopping me from completing a song that has quite a few other elements already in place.

And then the heroine’s charm song. It’s serving its purpose, making the character lovable, but it’s not building to an effective ending, yet. I’ve no idea what that might be. As I write this paragraph, it occurs to me that I could transition into another song, and not play this one for applause. It seems a cheat, but if the second song leads to a big hand, the audience will subconsciously feel they’re acknowledging the two songs at once.

Wind just tipped one of my whiteboards forward, as if Mother Nature herself was saying “Don’t stop to blog about this. You’ve storyboarding to do!”

So, I did a little of that: My tiny office has no fewer than three dry-erase boards, and one of them’s filled with post-it notes from about fifteen months ago (yes, for this show). I fear redundancy. Let me say that again: I fear redundancy. O.K.: now I’m terrified.

This might explain why so many of my musicals are shorter than other people’s shows. I want a lean, mean, entertaining machine. I get so annoyed with pieces in which I can tell, in advance, what the next song is going to be about, what will be said in it. I know I’ve told this story before, about why the word, surprise, is so important to me.

Many years ago, Stephen Sondheim came to one of my shows, and I was convinced I should write him a letter asking his opinion of it. My letter to him referenced a callous character in his Merrily We Roll Along who tells young writers not to be so clever. In his response, Sondheim seemed not to get the reference! He hadn’t found my show particularly clever, and wrote: “Heavy rhyming is not cleverness. Cleverness consists of thought, surprise, and imagination.” And it struck me that whatever my musical’s qualities, surprise certainly wasn’t one of them. Surprise, I’ve thought from that day forward, is an essential element of what makes a work entertaining.

So, if I send my characters into one argument after another, as the Department of Redundancy Department would have me do, the show will be predictable. It will lack surprise – at least during the section with all the arguments.

So, there’s plenty of architecture that could use repairing. And those structural flaws are impeding my progress on a bunch of songs at present. One of my odd theories of creativity is that when enough elements are in place, things suddenly sort of write themselves. When it’s a struggle, conversely, it’s likely that too few elements are in place.

It takes a long time to write a musical. And seeing six hours elapse without getting much closer to finishing anything shouldn’t be viewed as a tragedy. Recently, near where I live, there were these Tibetan monks who were creating a piece of art made with colored sand. The grains of sand were put in place, one grain at a time. Multiple monks completed their picture within a week. Some of my shows were written over long periods of time, with tiny bits of daily progress over the course of months or years. Today, I placed a grain or two. It’s not as if I did nothing. And when the whole thing’s in performable form, this day I was given six hours and accomplished very little will be a tiny blip on a trajectory of accomplishment.


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