In the spring of 2013, I had an idea for a musical. Artificially giving myself a deadline, I thought I’d try to finish a draft in time to present it, in some form or other, as a gift for Joy on our tenth wedding anniversary. That gave me six months, but… I failed to meet the deadline. The following year, Joy would have a major birthday, so I pushed back the deadline till then. And was all set to unveil a staged reading of a new two-actor show on her birthday when Joy got sick and landed in the hospital.
The reason I thought it might make a good anniversary gift is that our wedding had been an original musical. Now, I wanted to write a show about a couple struggling to keep their romance alive while raising their first child. My characters experience something we went through as new parents. The happy ending – the rekindling of their passion – would play as a romantic expression, a sort of meta present.
As luck would have it, Joy was recovering at home, after another trip to the hospital, on her recent big birthday. It’s taken me some time to get to this particular essay because I’ve been attending to her needs. But September 10 marks the five year anniversary of The Music Playing, because we ended up doing it a week after her birthday, and it was a moving surprise.
Peter Filichia, a critic who caught a certain amount of controversy this summer, wrote up the reading in glowing terms (“may turn out to be the season’s best musical”) but today, I’m considering the journey the show’s been on in the past five years. It included a name change, to Baby Makes Three.
The people who poured into the rented space in 2014 knew a few things. They knew they were there to see a staged reading of the first draft of a new work, hardly a finished project. More importantly, they knew me and Joy, and many knew our child. So, as the show began, they had a reference point, and an emotional connection to the characters. My musical, that night, didn’t need to spend a lot of time saying who these two people were, or give the audience any reason to love them. All of that was a given. And that’s a key difference between The Music Playing, draft One, and subsequent drafts.
Because I didn’t have to introduce the characters and the qualities that make them appealing, I could launch straight into the drama. The Music Playing starts with a busy morning, and sets up the idea that the wife works, the husband stays home with the child, and there’s an issue with her trusting him with all the parental duties. That’s gripping enough if you already care for the characters. For an audience of strangers, I found, you can’t raise the curtain on fraught hysteria because it’s off-putting. Who are these people? They’re frenetic and stressed and therefore I don’t want to get to know them. The conflict seems a bit meh – a common problem parents have, but why should I be interested?
Reworking The Music Playing for strangers to enjoy meant taking a certain amount of time to get to that crisis point. I added a prologue in which the baby is born and the parents get to celebrate the new adventure they’re embarking on. It is my hope that this endears them to the viewer. Before long, the wife gets a big promotion and they get the idea that the husband should quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad. This might be termed an inciting incident; those watching should be wondering what will happen next. Then there’s a peaceful interlude
to transition from the prologue to the main body of the play. This begins with the energetic morning routine that originally began The Music Playing.
Does any of this work? I do not know. There needs to be another staged reading to answer questions like that. Performing this two-actor musical requires extraordinary commitment from the actors, who have to learn an unusually large quantity of songs. It’s not that Baby Makes Three is sung-through (it isn’t), it’s that most musicals have a larger number of people singing different numbers. On this point, it’s fair to compare Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander, The Last Five Years. Besides the great quantity of songs, there’s a need to hold the audience’s attention for half the running length. Twice I watched Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott negotiate scads of overlong songs, sans dialogue; two dislikable characters in an incoherent plot. And all I could think – on the positive side – was Wow, they’re talented. Takes a lot of incandescence to engage an audience for that amount of time.
Autobiographical musicals are alarmingly common, and often involve a strange sort of ego. Do you actually believe you’re so interesting that people who don’t know you are going to be interested? We live our lives and think the stuff that happens to us is notably dramatic. Being objective about this involves looking at your story as if it’s completely fictional and asking the hard dramaturgical questions to make sure those who watch are gripped at every turn. My hope is that Baby Makes Three plays as a made-up story about new parents facing situations many people face. The stay-at-home-father aspect seems a topic begging to be explored.
After the reading, someone pointed out that I’d done the Cole Porter thing by having a tall and handsome actor play the Noel role. Porter, perhaps as a joke, suggested Cary Grant play him in the biopic, Night and Day. The studio did just that, and Cole didn’t stop them: “If they wanted Cary Grant to play you in a movie, would you complain?”