Is it OK if I share something? “NOOO!!!” I hear you bellow, reflexively. The last thing you want to hear is yet more personal revelation because we live in the Age of the Overshare. It’s easy to point a finger at those timesuck conduits, Facebook and Twitter but they are us. It’s human beings, in astounding quantities, who somehow feel compelled to reveal to the world all sorts of insignificant details, expecting that some reader out there will care.
How much to share has become a frequently asked question in those conversations I hold with myself. Of course, this blog can be a platform. I could jot down recollections of the times I met the recently departed Marni Nixon and some might be interested. I’ve tried to limit Facebook statuses to witty bits about my daughter, even though I’m a politics junkie and could bloviate for hours about the election. But the only medium for sharing it feels appropriate to discuss here is, as usual, musical theatre.
Writers can’t help sharing something of themselves in what they write, and the projects they choose to work on. For some, a musical is an autobiographical expression. Two of my favorite off-Broadway musicals told me a whole bunch about their creators. The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin didn’t state it was autobiography, allowing author Kirsten Childs to take more liberties for drama’s sake; The Big Voice: God Or Merman? presented itself as “a musical comedy in two lives” by and starring Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin and I embraced them like good friends after the show (it just felt like we were good friends, due to the warmth coming across the footlights).
So what’s going on there? Is it the old saw, “write what you know” or some egotistic impulse motivating the creation of whole shows? Or a third possibility: Certain musicals start out as cabaret acts, and cabaret is usually about a performer telling the audience about himself. It’s a fine, fine line that separates a revelatory boîte show from a theatre piece and I’ve known people who’ve helped innovate ways of transforming stuff that happens in people’s lives into solo shows they perform to great effect.
But what about you, Noel? Isn’t it true that you’ve worked on four different musicals that are about you?
Well, my most famous production, Our Wedding, was indeed a musical in which a guy named Noel got hitched to a goddess named Joy. It’s certainly long on true feelings and biographical details. But consider the parameters. Everyone in the audience knew the bride, groom, or both. The performance could only be given once, and it had to serve as an actual wedding ceremony. The idea of having our wedding take the form of a musical grew from Joy and my negative feelings about stuff you find in most weddings. That stuffing wedding cake in each other’s faces, for instance. “I love you and want to commit to keep loving you” seems, more naturally, to be a private expression between two people. But, if one has to be private in public, we felt the least we could do is make sure our assembled guest had a good time. And the best way we knew of doing that is to perform an original musical comedy.
And buy the CD, won’t you? I know nobody buys CDs anymore, but they’re cluttering up our basement. It’s a collector’s item. Remember those?
My first attempt at a musical, How To Be Happy, was a fantasy about a guy very much like me who’s written and starred in a hit Broadway show. I wasn’t particularly good inventing characters, in those days, but my task was made easier by having a protagonist who was so similar to me. None of the plot points are things that had happened to me, but I knew how it felt to deal with the ambitions and disappointments the show depicts. So, it had the virtue of verisimilitude.
Ten or twelve years ago, I had an experience that I thought could make an amusing personal essay. Writing that up, I thought, this thing could use a soundtrack. And so, friends of mine were treated to a bunch of pages with an accompanying CD. (Remember CDs? Oh – I already asked.) Practically everybody who read it said “You have to turn this into a musical comedy” thus pushing me down the rabbit hole that became Haven. In adapting, I felt that the story would work better with a female protagonist, and those viewing the finished product wouldn’t suspect that Dinah was based on me. But there never was a finished product: I got tired of telling that story. It wasn’t a subject that interested me, really, and it had taken its perfect form in that short story with CD combo.
But the experience of trying to transform the thing from my life into a fictional musical taught me much about inventing believable and relatable characters. Dinah wasn’t me, just as Robert of How To Be Happy wasn’t me. They were invented people who happened to feel and experience things I’d actually felt and experienced. This gave me a jumping off point, a key into the piece, which can be valuable.
So now I’m working on a show about a married couple trying to keep it together as they face the challenges of adjusting to being parents. Yes, Joy and I are live this situation every day. As such, I’m in touch with the delights and difficulties, the stuff that elates you, the frustrations and disappointments. The process transmogrifies our lives into a work of fiction: I have to view my characters objectively, put no one on a pedestal, heap no scorn; they can’t be villains or saints. At this point, I think of them as rather different from me and Joy. But the emotions I’m getting down on the page, well, there’s no denying I know them well.