A few quick notes about my trip to California.
My show, The Things We Do For Love, I must honestly if immodestly report, thoroughly knocked out Angelinos. They bubbled over with enthusiasm, seemingly startled that an hour of songs in a boîte could be so entertaining. The cast was particularly “on” for both shows, putting across my lyrics and music with aplomb and intention. What I’m marveling over, this week after, is the frequency of the laughter. People had just recovered from their last paroxysm of mirth when the next joke rattled their being. And that went for whole songs, too. We’d launch into the next number on the next breath. No dialogue or scenery changes. And you may know I create shorter pieces than anybody. Listeners knew that if they didn’t care for one number, they’d merely need to wait two minutes for the next one. No falling down the rabbit hole of an interminable ballad. Plus, Justin Boccitto’s staging kept it all visually interesting.
Before the trip, I wondered how Tinseltown would respond to my material. As luck would have it, an old friend of mine posted some videos of an original revue he just did at a school there. I’m pretty sure it was meant to be funny, but there was so much time between chuckles you could drive a train through. Not that Californians know from trains. And I have a number set on a subway. How was anybody going to get that? Or the one mentioning Gansevoort Street and Noho! God, Noho has a completely different meaning in the City of Angels. And they don’t know the meaning of bodega and- Yes, I worked up a bit of anxiety prior.
The night before I’d been at a party of five watching the Tonys.
Tape-delay is a weird thing: “Live from New York, it’s something that happened three hours ago!” Even eerier was leaving the party and seeing nobody on the street. I mean, I know the results weren’t surprising, but you’d think neighbors would strike up conversations, like about how two of the runners-up for Lead Actress in a musical accepted marriage proposals from heartthrob Stephen Pasquale.
Theatre folk occupy a small and insular world. Just as political types value getting beyond the Beltway, it can be a refreshing respite to be around people who don’t breathe Broadway. A hotel room magazine described the tour of Cabaret as being the creation of two film directors, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall. They’d directed and choreographed before becoming film directors and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why someone would say a stage piece was birthed by moviemakers as if that were a good thing.
Forget it, Jake: it’s Hollywood. And Friday night I returned to the belly of the beast to see… actual theatre. Three short plays written by teenagers and performed by professionals. Astonishingly successful, fully realized, they shook off my cynicism like dust from a beaten rug. If you’re focused enough, and have your nose to the grindstone, you can conjure up marvelous material for the Fabulous Invalid anywhere you are.
I was told the author of the funny play is interested in writing musicals. My thoughts naturally shifted to what I’ll tell him when, inevitably, we sit down for a conversation about it. And, somehow, my thoughts didn’t shift to my adolescence as a theatre kid stuck in L.A. I’d write musicals and submit them to my high school drama teacher. I investigated the feasibility of renting a little theatre and mounting a revue. Not very. Naturally, what seemed like limited opportunity to do new work out west drew me home to New York. New work/New York: six out of seven letters are the same.
I’ve got some time until that prodigy comes east – he starts Yale in the fall – but here are some ideas about what I might say.
We are all storytellers. If you’re just the composer, and others are doing book and lyrics, you’re still a storyteller. Costume designers think of themselves as storytellers, and they’re right. Filmmakers are storytellers. And cavemen, around an open fire, listened to some raconteur.
Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms. That’s because so many specialists come together, trying to tell the same story. The orchestrator, the vocal arranger, the set designer: It’s a huge team.
I’m Ivy League-educated, too, and there I tried to be a sponge, sopping up as many unfamiliar ideas as possible. It’s great to be a prodigy, because nobody expects all that much of young people, and you can make a permanent positive impression as you exceed expectations. One of the greatest advantages of going to a really good school is that you can cultivate connections. Individuals don’t create musicals; groups do. And you’re going to want to align yourself with the finest fellow travelers. I visited a good friend in college at Wesleyan, which happens to be the place where, later, Lin-Manuel Miranda met director Thomas Kail.
It takes a lot of time to write a musical. Make sure the story you’re telling is one you’re willing to spend years on. I had a terrible time a few years ago: Working utterly alone, with no idea who to network with, I started telling a story I was rather unenthusiastic about telling. Abandoning that project was like being released from a ball and chain.
Some things you’ll get right almost by accident. Other times, you’ll do everything as you intended and find the audience isn’t interested in what you’re writing about or how you’ve approached it. One year, I saw two musicals about singing Siamese Twins. People laughed their heads off at both of them. But Side Show wasn’t meant to be funny; it was trying to exploit the pathos in people’s pity for freaks. From the Hip was closer to camp – broad comedy that sought laughs and thoroughly succeeded.
Finally, the best way to learn to write a musical is to write a musical. And then write another one. There’s no need to be depressed if your early efforts don’t set the world on fire. They’re just educational stepping stones on the path to doing this better.