Kate’s brother’s story

April 11, 2017

Twenty years ago, a book was published, and even though it’s specifically about screenwriting, it’s a good time to discuss it here. Story, by Robert McKee, is more famous for the influence it’s had – often mocked – than what it actually says. The author held costly seminars for many years, widely attended by a whole generation of Hollywood scribes. Critics sometimes claim he’s the main reason Hollywood output is so awful. But little of what McKee writes about film isn’t applicable to musicals. His title is apt. Don’t you want your musical to have an effective story?

Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps what draws you to musicals is the fact that many succeed without adhering to any particular structure or set of rules. I’m one who’s always been fascinated with departures from our traditions. An example leaps to mind. A bunch of improvisers developed characters who embodied the varying anxieties of kids at a Spelling Bee. Eventually, a songwriter and bookwriter were called in to shape the improvisation into a musical with a set script. And the next thing you know, the libretto wins a Tony Award.

That’s an unusual situation, to be sure. If you’re doing that traditional thing, of sitting down to a blank page and writing a narrative for the stage, at some point you better think about the art of storytelling. Regular readers of this blog know that the craft of how the tale gets told is an obsession of mine. Usually, when I see a show that’s failed to entertain me, there’s something out of kilter in this important area. So, stumbling on the information that Story got published in 1997, I think back to the time a smart musical-writing friend insisted I read what McKee had to say.

If I say this changed my life, or altered the course of my career, I’ll sound like a brainwashed McKee acolyte. In reality, I would never urge anybody to follow McKee’s prescriptions. But what I’d say, to anyone interested in narrative in dramatic form, is: read the book, because it will get you thinking about cause and effect in plot points.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I’ll use my own work to paint a little before-and-after picture. For many years, I’d toiled on an original musical. It was missing a certain something and I couldn’t tell what. I’d created characters, set down a sequence of amusing or entertaining events, resolved everything at the end. Individual moments were engaging people – various songs from the score had gotten big hands in many cabaret shows. But nobody wanted to produce the whole musical; it just didn’t seem exciting enough.

McKee defines an inciting incident that comes early on, propelling the hero into action, perhaps putting him on a quest. Now, without drinking the kool-aid – without buying in the notion that every musical needs a protagonist questing due to some incitement – I couldn’t help noticing my musical had none of that. There wasn’t a single hero. Nobody had any sort of a quest (unless you count an unemployed character who was looking for a job). And I merely had characters meet each other in lieu of any sort of incident. I put down my pen. And pondered.

Eventually, I fashioned a whole new original story, one in which every action had a consequence. Such Good Friends hardly McKee-ian. The hero has no greater goal than preserving a happy status quo. I wouldn’t claim there’s an inciting incident, as Story defines it. The first act includes a flashback to how the characters met, but only one. But the show was a gripping experience for the audience, to a certain extent, because McKee got my thinking about the elements of tale-telling. Events lead to other events, sometimes in unexpected ways. Characters always have motivations, but they evolve over time. When I compare Such Good Friends, with all its narrative thrust, to my unproduced musical, with its lack thereof, it’s hard to escape the notion that reading Story had something to do with my evolution.

In between those shows, though, I wrote a musical which, like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, uses a specific non-theatrical format as a model, and there’s no real narrative. This was Our Wedding: The Musical! Guests at a wedding know what they’re in for, and don’t require a story that goes somewhere. Similarly, there are successful movies that completely eschew the McKee paradigm. Your musical can be totally unconventional and do very well. But being exposed to his fairly rigorous and often amusing analysis will inspire you to concentrate more on narrative. And that’s something I wish many more new musicals would do.

 

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I’ve got my suspicions

January 17, 2017

Oh, boy! My birthday is here, and here’s my chance to say a few nice things about my shows. Because who’s going to stop me? (Actually, there’s self-restraint: I try to avoid bragging the other 364 days of the year.)

You meet new people, they wonder what you do, and, in my case, I often feel there’s no good way of explaining. I write musicals. If there isn’t one playing, then there really isn’t a good way of getting an inkling of what they’re like. (Plus, I see to it that no two of my shows resemble each other.) Sure, one could whip out an audio or video excerpt, but consider: All these songs were written in service of a story. If you’re just looking at one song, you’ve no idea how it propels the tale it’s attached to. I suppose I could set it up, laying out where we are in the story, but that’s me talking, not the show’s characters interacting, evolving.

Certainly, there are times in which you can take a single tile out of a great big mosaic, and folks can appreciate that single tile for what it is. I think audiences appreciate my duet involving singers singing about how their vocal ranges make beautiful music together without knowing that they’re suspects in a backstage mystery, Murder at the Savoy. Yet there’s a bit of theatrical tension in the bridge that gets lost –

When their voices harmonize
Or sing in counterpoint
The listeners respond with sighs
And tremble in each joint

In the show, the audience sees that they’re being eavesdropped on. The over-hearers indeed sigh, and there’s a question of whether they’ll be discovered in their hiding place. Without that staging, the lyric’s not nearly as interesting.

The book to Murder at the Savoy is not very complicated – I can say that since I wrote it. The book to The Christmas Bride is MK Wolfe’s creation, and it’s filled with those twists and turns found in melodramas and old novels. Our source material, ironically, was an old Charles Dickens novella notably free of twists and turns. So, I greatly appreciated having all sorts of dramatic balls in the air when I wrote large musical scenes. Good Advice is a massive quodlibet with four or five different parts. (I truly can’t recall the number, because it was rewritten so many times, I’m not sure how many we ended up with.) There are twelve parts to Alone In the Night, the first act finale, and nearly as many pages in the act two opener. I swear, I don’t generally write long songs, but you’ll think me very verbose if I try to set up all the story you need to know to comprehend the tension inherent in The French Wheel. So I won’t.

Maybe I go overboard with my suspicion that “you had to be there” applies so often. But when I fondly remember how the audience at Area 51 howled with laughter at a tough-as-nails army general’s rather crass how-to-be-sexy lesson, Work Your Wiles, I tend to think only Gail Dennison and Mary Denmead could possibly make it so hysterical. Tom Carrozza and I had these two in mind when we wrote the show, and Tom created characters that played to their idiosyncratic strengths. We’d all been part of New York’s comedy scene in the 1990s, and I’d witnessed, more than once, Gail’s fulminating power and Mary’s wacky Ethel Merman impression. Somehow, I managed to utilize both in their duet, and the cascades of cackles throughout the Sanford Meisner Theatre were ignited, in part, by the joy inherent of two old friends performing together.

Over the holidays – and shouldn’t I consider my birthday one? – I’ve been cleaning out some old boxes and came across a treasure trove of DVDs I’d long thought lost. It was quite a treat to see Vanessa Dunleavy’s rendition of Inside of Me from Area 51 performed at the old Donnell Library. For that concert, knowing that I wouldn’t have the lunacy of Carrozza’s sci-fi spoof to set it up, I wrote her a monologue to speak over what I’d originally written as a dance break. The audience believed they were seeing a young lady who is rather turned on by meeting a molecular biologist, thus justifying the lyric, which is chock full of double entendres. In the actual musical, the character’s seduction is part of an evil Vegas-esque floor show: the character doesn’t really find the scientist attractive at all. Vanessa’s take, which she reprised in the 2011 cabaret retrospective, Things We Do For Love, is seriously sexy and wildly risible. At present, I don’t have the hardware to upload that video, so, instead, here’s something else I wrote in which a woman’s hot and bothered over someone in a different profession.

So, is this mining silliness out of lust something of a theme with me? Well, I can see how it looks that way. But there’s something else. When I started out writing this little piece of self-praise I didn’t intend to find a theme in what I’ve been writing all these years. But the common bond I now see is dramatic tension. Libido’s a kind of tension. So is the fellow who can’t resist the roulette wheel when we know the malevolent policeman is trying to ensnare him. Or that couple listening to the canoodling of a tenor and a soprano.

Everybody’s favorite writer on the subject of musical theatre, Peter Filichia, once praised my building up tension in Such Good Friends, for which I wrote book, music and lyrics. Now, I know how icky it is to go about quoting your own rave reviews, but, since that’s the sort of indulgence one is only allowed on one’s birthday, I’m going to give him the last word:

For a show that started out like a lark and lulled the audience into thinking this would be one long nostalgia trip, Such Good Friends offered astonishing tension in the second act, where Katz perfectly came to grips with his material, often in unexpected ways, and occasionally having its characters surprise and/or disappoint us. It’s one thing to write an apt, craft-filled, melodious score, which Katz did, but we all know the book is the hardest part, and his work there was just as accomplished. Never in the entire festival did I feel an audience so rapt with attention. Afterwards, someone said, “It’s not that you could hear a pin drop; you could hear a tear drop.” That person must have heard mine, for I wept – partly at the plight of the characters, but partly because I’m so moved when I encounter an all-too-rare work of quality. Thanks, Noel, and everyone else with Such Good Friends.