Let’s raise a glass to the last five years. (No, not that Jason Robert Brown musical I twice suffered through.) Five years ago, this blog began. And this is my 300th post. So, a double celebration.
I’ve slacked off on the pace. Used to be, I’d post every five or six days, like clockwork. There was a belief that posting that regularly builds up a regular audience. Here in the clickbait era, habitual viewers are harder to find. People scroll Facebook feeds, clicking on what they find interesting from the title and picture. In essence, these musings of mine are 1000-word think-pieces on various aspects of musical theatre writing. They’re not designed as clickbait.
But, this summer, I experimented with writing for another blog, stepping up to the challenge of attracting readers through my titles alone. The powers-that-be at that blog would choose an accompanying picture, and excerpt a bit. Sometimes, these were phenomenally successful at getting clicks, likes and shares. The one listing songs I don’t mind hearing at auditions is, I believe, their most-shared article ever. I enjoyed the experience of going viral.
But having an eye on the audience means pressure to be interesting, clickable. Your thought process is inevitably colored by “What can I write that people will want to read?” You can set yourself on fire to attract attention, which is OUCH!
Now that I’ve slathered myself with balm, I must thank you for reading this blog in all its anything-but-clickbait glory. We realize, you and I, that this is wonky stuff, of interest to few. And there are days I wonder whether all of this applies to the musicals we write.
In the past year, you may have seen a number of “announcements” of new musicals that don’t really exist. They sound interesting: so interesting, in fact, that fans go on to read articles about them. The clickbait has succeeded. No actual show is ever written or produced. Anyone can write a press release; far fewer can write musicals. But the scary thing, here, is the mentality behind “That sounds like a good show.” Because you could write something absolutely brilliant that doesn’t sound like a good show, and it will get no traction. Or you could write something horrid that, at first glance, seems exciting. And then resources get squandered on dreck.
There’s some logic here, when producers decide to mount shows that ticket-buyers get excited about. To minimize risk, you want an idea for a show that leads to sales. What’s worrisome is that sometimes the seat-purchaser or the producer hasn’t investigated a musical’s quality enough. Things can sound good, but, on deeper reflection, turn out to be duds. As some lyricist, not having his finest hour, put it: “You can’t judge a book by how literate it look.”
Flipping that around, I wonder if I’m the sort of writer whose shows, from the “elevator pitch” descriptions, don’t rope in enough ticket buyers. A backstage murder mystery at a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Putting on TV comedy in the medium’s early days, three old friends get called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A cub reporter discovers an underground lab where the government secretly studies things dropped by extra-terrestials and it’s not far from Vegas in more ways than one. A Victorian country girl flees from marrying the boy next door for a mad adventure. Writing those half-sentences, they don’t sound any good to me, and I’ve vivid and fond memories of how audiences responded to them.
Some shows, it seems, are written with an eye towards making money, not because the creators have a compelling need to tell the story. One looks at Flaherty and Ahrens’ prodigious career, filled with unusual tales they clearly loved telling. But then there’s also Seussical and Rocky which both flopped on Broadway, and, to my ears, aren’t as good as Once On This Island or Ragtime. But maybe I’m making too big of an assumption here.
I remember thinking, as I came up with a show about the nature of female friendships, that I was writing something with, for a change, real commercial potential. And it went on to become my only show to fail to get produced. So what do I know?
Not much, perhaps, but I’ve been filling this blog with thoughts for so many years, if this was printed out in book form, it would be a mighty long book. 300 posts at roughly 1000 words each. Lehman Engel, who ran the workshop where I spent my formative years, published numerous books about musicals and how they’re written. But I’m not sure they add up to 300,000 words.
When I had that “viral” experience this summer, it was a dollop of notoriety. And I have to wonder whether I’ve become more famous for my essays on musicals than my musicals themselves. But this has to do with the nature of theatre. A run tends to be seen by a limited number of people, especially when presented in a house with a limited quantity of seats, and shows don’t get a lot of press coverage. But there’s no limit to the quantities of those who click, read and share. Now, of course what I’d most want is for all of you to see my shows. I have this hunch that the example of my writing conveys more than these composed musings do. But that’s not always possible, I don’t have anything playing now, and so many of you readers are all over the world. So, let’s toast to how it is, with me writing and you reading. I look forward to your comments, should you want to chime in, and I look forward to your continued clicks this way.