Today’s my daughter’s fourth birthday. Don’t fret: I’m still going to talk about writing musicals. But there’s no denying my focus is split. In my childless days, I had the sole goal of changing the world through musical comedy. Now there’s the added ambition of being The Greatest Freakin’ Father In The History Of The Earth, as my song goes. That’s become my priority, although, in a way, it’s the same, as I’m grooming my daughter to change the world.
Whoa, that sounds lofty and high-minded. You know I recoil from shows that exhort us to be better people. This season, so far, has seen two musicals you couldn’t drag me to. Amazing Grace, based on a true story, showed a slave-trader apprehending the surprising truth, SLAVERY IS BAD and I’m sure it was such an effective piece of theatre, everyone in the audience went home and immediately freed their slaves.
More recently, Allegiance opened to remind us that, during World War Two, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps. When it opened, I was all set to ridicule the notion that anyone needed to be convinced that banishing an ethnic group is wrong.
Alas, some anti-Islam rhetoric in recent days proves that some people need to see this musical. Maybe they should run a “Know a bigot? Buy them a ticket!” promotion.
Both shows mark the debuts of their writers. I admit to some cynicism: Seems odd, to me, that crafting entertainments at this scale and ticket-price is given to first-timers. You gotta start somewhere, I guess. And we’re generally comfortable with the idea that people become parents with no previous experience being parents. Since my head is so full of show tunes, I like to think I’ve been guided by Camelot:
The way to handle a woman
Is to love her
Simply love her
Merely love her
We who know musical theatre literature – and God, I hope this season’s Broadway debutants are among us – converse in a language all our own. And I’m reminded that, back before my little one could talk, 90% of my Facebook statuses were quotes from show tunes. So, what follows is a bit of nostalgia, but also a pop quiz. Can you identify what shows they come from? (answers below)
Safe at home with our beautiful prize
A kind of neat and petite little tintype of her mother
Doesn’t faze me if you grow up to be pony or poodle or sheep.
You’re my own, whatever you are: Sleep, sleep, sleep
Mexican hills, Florida skies, tropical seas: here in your eyes
When I hold you, I hold the world right here in my arms
I’m feeling like a baby, alive with brand-new feeling, like life has just begun
Helpless. I don’t know what I am yet. I only know your arms are as warm as the sun
Shoot bullets through me, I love you
All my wildest dreams, multiplied by two
Beats me all to heck how I’ll ever tend the farm
Ever tend the farm when I want to keep my arm about you
Two months old, she looks up at you
How her smile melts your heart
You want to say, “Stop, time.
Don’t move on.”
Even as you watch that look is gone
On occasion it says “goo”
I must have been thinking of my split focus when I quoted regretful-happy. There are times when I long for the days I spent hours on end, concentrating on creating a musical. But there are a far greater number of times I’m delighted, startled and thoroughly entertained by something my daughter has said or done. She’ll burst out into song, all of a sudden. I’ll write dialogue where the passion increases until mere words won’t do it, and then the characters sing.
One could get jealous of the child: She doesn’t need a reason to sing; she just sings: long arias that sometimes express what she’s feeling, and sometimes morph into a medley that always includes Let It Go somewhere. That impulse to entertain – is it something we’re born with? Do we lose it somewhere as we grow? Long ago, I lost the desire to perform on stage, but writing musicals to entertain people comes from a spark I’ve never lost.
She entertains me; I entertain her. The life of a father of a pre-schooler is one that’s full of silliness. And I confront my script (whenever I get the chance) with an eye towards adding comedy, the madcap moments that will save it from being mundane. With The Music Playing, it’s an unusual process, because every marital spat, every disagreement about parenting, and every footfall on the road to raising our child is possible fodder for the show. So, we may have endured some awful episode, one that engenders awful feelings. Sooner or later I’ll be back to work on my script about the hardships new parents go through. And I’ve got to find what’s entertaining. It’s not enough to be just truthful; the scenes you depict have to amuse.
There’s a psychological concept called the Laughter of Recognition. When we see fictional bits that seem similar to what we’ve gone though, in life, we sometimes chuckle. The recognition that your life is up there on stage – that discovery – provokes a certain kind of laugh. It’s one of those Acting School principles that I’ve always applied to writing. Be truthful; reflect life as it is. The goal of verisimilitude, tied in with the childlike joy in entertaining – these are the elements that give me confidence I’m putting together a show people will love.
The baby in the play is played by dolls. This is an artificial element, and one that wouldn’t be used if I was writing for the screen. Dolls are immobile. They don’t suddenly jump on you, or run into your arms like lovers across a field: I’ve a daughter who is so remarkable that if I recorded exactly what she did and threw it up on stage, nobody would believe it. No pre-schooler says all those things, shows extraordinary empathy, acts like that, entertains all the time. Rewrite! – can’t possibly be true to life!