For two months, circumstances imposed a break from writing. Now I’m back assessing what needs to be done on my two-performer musical soon approaching completion of its second draft. For a short show, it’s currently got a whole lot of songs: twenty-five, which will be a lot for actors to learn. Half are duets, and the solos are divided evenly. I’m thinking about this, and it strikes me that fretting how difficult this will be for the players is neurotically premature.
But I’ll worry about almost anything. It’s what I do. It’s why I can’t sleep. I’m sketching out a ballet to cover a costume change. And that’s ridiculous. Because no designer has told me how long it will take to make this change. And there’s no choreographer giving input on what the dance will look like. Certainly, my second draft can say, in the script, “They dance.” And I could put any amount of music in the score, and the world will accept that as part of a second draft. Way down the road, when the choreographer and costumer and perhaps a dance arranger are on board, we’ll redo the moment.
I think I worry about such things because my mind desperately grasps for reasons not to write. A metaphor comes to mind – possibly based on the massive amount of swimming my daughter did this summer: You have to keep your head underwater to create. It requires a special sort of concentration. But your lungs need air, so there’s this pull towards the surface, and soon your arms and legs are flailing. I’m only here writing this because I jotted down a possible chorus for the twenty-fifth song and now I need the air.
I don’t even know where this new song goes. I know I just said I’ll do anything to take a break from writing songs; focusing on book is a greater problem. I know I’m supposed to sit down and come up with dialogue, but my brain keeps going to these little holes I see and I think the best way to plug them up is through songwriting. That comes easier to me. So, at some point, a few of the 25 numbers will seem superfluous. Which means cutting. Which means saying goodbye to your babies. It hurts, on some level, to cut a song.
Easiest to remember the process on this last one. It began as an idea for a ballad. But the last thing this show needs – any show needs? – is more ballads. So I figured out a way to express the same emotions in energetic rock, strings of eighth notes like you’d find in Billy Joel. (Now that I think of it, the current draft sounds like a cross between My Life and All For Leyna.)
Wondering where to place it, I stare at the storyboard. My eyes go to a section of six songs I’ve underlined and labeled “Ballads.” Could squeeze it in there.
About stepping back to look at the storyboard. It’s dangerous. You divide a massive project into little digestible bits. You can complete a bit by concentrating on it, but if you step back to look at the whole show, it seems gargantuan, unachievable. But that storyboard’s in bright colors, and my daughter’s drawn something on it. (Did I mention it’s a dry erase board festooned with different colored post-it notes?) At this late date, I find it hard to keep my eyes from the ginormous whole.
It’s evolved quite a bit over the past two years. People who saw the reading of the first draft probably won’t recognize it. You have to have faith that every change is an improvement. Somebody might come up and say “What happened to the quodlibet lullaby? I loved that.” and you have to remind yourself that you know best; it was slowing down the show. But then, you’re supposed to listen to your audience. Who’s the expert here, again?
The white post-its are for book scenes. Inexplicably, they all have “You bring the BBQ, I’ll bring the wine” printed on them. Ignore that. So many people write shows sans dialogue these days. Usually, the existence of two dozen songs clearly indicates a show without spoken words. My dialogue has to crackle. It has to be funny, seem real to the audience, and have building energy that will soon lead them back in to song. That’s a significant amount or pressure, right there.
Just as I was saying it’s premature to whip up a ballet without a choreographer, it’s daunting to me to write dialogue without actors on hand. These experts open their mouths, and things either sound natural or they sound stilted. In the first draft, I wrote a particularly unsayable sentence: “Somewhere we seem to have neglected our previous roles, as spouses.” Who talks like that?
Librettists working in a vacuum, that’s who. The sound of the dialogue is one of the many reasons musicals need to be workshopped, with good actors in front of a live audience, so often. As with anything, the more you do this the more you get a knack for how people actually talk. But, somewhere, I seem to have neglected my previous role, as a crafter of real-sounding dialogue. Oh, there I go again.