I’ve a friend with a good idea for a musical. But she keeps putting off writing it. And I think it’s because she’s worried it won’t be good.
Sound familiar? As I was contemplating what to write next, the wonderful pop song Try Everything came on. Seems like a magic message, with its acknowledgement that one might fail. But failure is only certainty if you don’t try. Nothing ventured, nothing win, as the Iolanthe trio trills.
Those writing prizes I apply for every year: The only certainty about them is if I don’t apply, I won’t win. Occasionally, a friend wins, giving me the mild frisson of thinking I’m sorta on the right track. But the friend mentioned above ain’t winning anything, since her idea sits there, unwritten.
Yet, writing a musical is a long-term extension of time and effort. I’ve certainly had ideas I didn’t bring to fruition. About 25 years ago, I thought the Anita Hill experience with Clarence Thomas might make a good opera. I threw that one out expecting my dramatization would have trouble finding acceptance since I’m neither black nor a woman. But if a female composer of color had illuminated the subject, audiences today might be particularly interested.
Similarly, I spent many years refining my musical comedy about female friendships, The Company of Women. Eventually, I concluded the world didn’t want to see such a show, and my time would be better spent working on something else. More recently, I toiled on something about a religious retreat until I decided the subject and milieu didn’t interest me enough to continue. So, those were my musicals that wouldn’t see productions.
Having the sinking feeling that what you’re writing isn’t going to be good: I’ve been there a lot. But when I’ve made the effort to see things through, the effort has been rewarded. The season being what it is, the example that comes to mind is A British Christmas. I needed to write a carol that might be sung at a holiday gathering in Victorian England. Research was done into what might happen at such a fête and we settled on the idea that a flaming plum pudding would come out of the kitchen, to oohs and aahs. In some sort of goofy mood, I wrote a verse about how this is the best part of a Yule party. (As opposed to the best part of a Yul party, which is dancing the polka with Yul.) The veil of silliness continued to hang over me as I wrote a bridge about how plum pudding was better than other puddings, such as rice and bread. Not really the sort of thing any actual Englishman would be likely to say, but at least I was making progress on the song. Once I had the form set for my A section and release, I came up with further stanzas. Now I had too much, to a rather dull tune. But when I played it for my collaborator MK Wolfe, she deemed it just what she needed to construct a wonderfully dramatic musical scene.
The plot is so fraught, the tension so heightened, it didn’t much matter how inert my carol was. Four A sections and one bridge is a bad balance. And I was called upon to add incidental underscoring and dance accompaniment that dressed the simplistic melody in various tempos and feels. I get tired of hearing it, but the crux here is that the audience was so fascinated by the libretto’s histrionics, nobody noticed my song’s insufficiencies.
When performed out of context, though, it lays there. When asked to name my least favorite Christmas song, A British Christmas is the first thing I thought of. I’m embarrassed by it. But I sure didn’t mind it in the middle of the Connecticut presentation of The Christmas Bride six months ago. Played like gangbusters – in context.
“Are you embarrassed easily?” asked a comedy album I heard as a kid. This business of making musicals might not be for you if you are. Which reminds me of the only sincere moment in Area 51. In creating a musical in which each scene and song is funny, I noticed, at one point, that the show was a little low on emotion. Librettist Tom Carrozza knew we’d want a triple wedding at the end, and of course this meant that the leads would need to decide to get married. Trouble is, Tom was playing the lead, and wasn’t confident that he could pull off a love song. So, he tried to arrange it so the leading lady would sing to him. The draft of the scene suddenly seemed convoluted, emotionally strange. I wrote a gentle, twinkly ballad, sort of a cross between Of Thee I Sing and Twilight Time.
Come with me to Dreamland
Dance the night away
All is quiet; all is cool
Tomorrow morning, there’s no school…
The earnestness of the moment gets quickly deflated when the character admits he’s talking about an Air Force base on a dry lake named Dreamland. He goes into such detail as to what goes on there, the audience believes it’s unromantic, despite what the music tells them. (Did I mention that aliens from outer space are repeating the tune in their other-worldly voices?) And the lady listening is so goofy, she responds “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you.”
The audience giggled throughout, partly because their expectations had been so thoroughly thrown. And Tom’s character, to his way of thinking, wasn’t being romantic, therefore the actor was comfortable with delivering this bit of lunacy. After all, he hadn’t intended to propose marriage; her acceptance of his unmade proposal led us to our ending.
So I guess that’s my suggestion for the New Year: Don’t let embarrassment stop you from creating, and you’ll come up with delightfully off-center funny business. Or, at the very least, a paean to plum pudding that only works with the rest of the show around it.