Later this month, I’ll celebrate the centenaries of two of the greatest musical theatre writers. But, today, I celebrate myself. And I realize that’s quite a let-down. You know and love the songs and shows of the August birthday boys, and I’ll share some ideas about what makes them work. You’re less aware of my songs and shows, so if I detail what went into them, that lack of familiarity becomes a problem.
* This blog passed the 40,000-visitor mark.
I don’t know how meaningful that is. It’s just a number. And one never knows why people click to this blog. It could be to stare at a picture of Fantasia Barrino cleavage. Certain surfers search for specific images, and sometimes clicking on pics brings them here. I don’t kid myself that the forty-grand were all, or even mostly, musical writers.
* I successfully delivered my Subjective History of Musical Theatre to the general public for the first time.
Here’s why I make the distinction about the general public: For eighteen years or so, my one-man show has been put in front of theatre students. They paid tuition for two years, and get a lot of education in various forms. On some seemingly random days, they got my storytelling marathon, illustrated with songs and bad chalkboard drawings – a set of tall tales and jokes, tragedies and innovations that make up the long history of our genre.
The question in my mind was whether this thing would go over well with people who aren’t in a school setting. The audience I’m accustomed to already knew me as a musical director bursting with opinions about musicals. That engendered a built-in interest in what I might have to say about Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hart and all the rest. This month, a crowd ranging in age from 16 to 66 came, saw, had a great time, applauded. It’s amazing to me that so many took the leap of faith to come see.
And I got to be in my element, for eight hours, in a room with a piano, talking about theatre, interacting with folks who invested some time and money in what I had to say.
* Teaching song interpretation and song improvisation
In a spiffy theatre complex in Beverly Hills, I introduced some principles of musical theatre performance to differently-abled young people. This was a bit of an adventure, as I had no special training or preparation on how to deal with them all. But the room was full of helpers, skilled and experienced, ready to handle anything I couldn’t. And I’m smiling at that word, “helpers.” Were they there to help them or there to help me?
* Since the Fourth of July, I’ve written seven new songs for a musical my collaborator once declared “almost done.”
Is anything really “almost done?” To me, “almost done” is the final dress rehearsal before the paying public comes. Rewriting is constant and I’m plagued with questions like “Is this really better than what we had before?” Songs are such a powerful form of expression, every new song that goes in to a script is likely to require many adjustments to that script. One must keep an eye on how the audience is going to take it all in. It’s a common problem for something to be expressed in dialogue, and then a song is written to express that thing, and the first expression gets left in the script; so, the audience hears the same thing twice. Each of these seven songs carries a lot of narrative weight. My collaborator wanted them written, but they always lead to his doing more work.
And one of them has already been cut. While I’ve written seven new songs, only six of them are going to be in the new draft. (Really, I hope five, since one might replace a song I love.) But all I mean to acknowledge here is that it’s been a very productive period. That’s more than a song per week.
Summer tends to be a fecund time of year for me. So much of On the Brink was created in the months right before our first rehearsal that autumn. The bulk of Murder at the Savoy was written over summer vacation before my senior year at college. Not the title, though; it was then called Pulley of the Yard. On The Pirate Captains, I had a deadline. That was a commission where they didn’t need it good, they needed it fast. And so it was.
The sweat of actually writing these things isn’t my favorite part of the process. I prefer Having Written. I like an audience reacting to my songs and shows for the first time. These new songs, I feel, constitute a first draft, and from now until opening night, I’m beset with something akin to a low-level fever. It’s the urge to polish, to fix things through writing. If there’s a way to make this better, my pen is at the ready. The book writer may say he can make it all work wonderfully with adjustments to the script. The director will have staging ideas that, she thinks, can put each number across. The performers will give their all, and we’re reliant on them, the faces the audience sees. Looking at this list of recently-written numbers, I don’t feel any of them are ready for the public. But they’re ready to share with collaborators, and, together, we’ll fashion an effective entertainment.
Today, I’ll merely toast the accomplishment of getting so many first drafts done. One of four achievements this month, but here my glass is raised the highest of them all.