Musical, Musical – Let’s write a Musical!

In addition to teaching, working my day job, and directing/co-producing a new play fest, I am currently dramaturging a new musical.

It’s a musical that I’ve also been asked to direct.

It’s a musical which needed quite a hefty revision, but was wrapped in such an intensely messy process that even the title “Dramaturg” was unfamiliar to those drafting the darn thing.

I’d like to talk about what a wonder this little play is for surviving such a rapid conception and wild birth.

The play began as a book.  It was a sweet children’s book about animals clashing up against reckless humans.  The book has the most darling chapter titles, interesting characters,  an earnest quality that compels readers to turn the page – and it’s message is simple but important: We’re all part of this great big world, so we’d better take better care of it together.  

The book’s author was a first-time published author who had never written a play, yet he was asked to turn his book into one with the promise of a production if he did so.  He was paired up with a playwright to mentor him a little, and he set to work.

Meanwhile, the producer determined that the play should be a musical and invited a local composer to draft the music.

As the play moved along, the producer hired a director who then brought in and hired two local musicians (who had never worked on a musical before)  to draft music for the play – which created some obvious discord with the original composer.

At this point, there were a handful of passionate people up to their elbows in New Play Craziness, without a dramaturg on board or even the guidance of anyone who had created a new musical before.

And the calendar was looming heavy in the not-so-distance.

This band of determined creatives made it to production – they made it through actors jumping ship, the director adding her own rewrites to the script, and the never-before-playwright stepping into a pair of producer’s shoes even though he’d never done theatre before.

And yet, the play went up!  Audiences applauded – and everyone involved sat back after the final curtain and wiped their brows with relief – awash in the miraculous nature of the theatre.  For no matter the project, no matter the crunch, theatre (most of the time) happens.

Fast forward to this summer, where I’ve been tapped to remount the show and help fine-tune the play that no one had time to fine-tune last summer.

The artists are nervous – shell-shock from last summer’s Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am process, and the playwright is tired of getting feedback he doesn’t understand how to implement.

So I asked him for the original book.  I read the book.  And I found the play that he was trying to write was right there on its pages.

I’m working with him now to put more of his own book into the play.  I’m also working to correct the misconceptions he had been working under:

  • The playwright had been told that family theatre couldn’t be longer than an hour, because children can’t sit still longer than 60 minutes.    This is a fallacy – children can become engrossed in a compelling story and sit for hours.  I’ve seen children in audiences enraptured by the show on stage – shows that ran 90 minutes and longer.  The key is quality.  Kids don’t want to be talked down to or cheated – they’ll call you on the moments that aren’t gripping or genuinely funny/interesting, that don’t serve the play, or that are too wordy/not active enough. They’re honest thus the ultimate audience challenge, but if you write from a “What’s going to grab their attention?’ perspective, you don’t have to obsess about whether it’s 60 pages or 100.  And you certainly shouldn’t be excising parts of your successful book to meet page length “requirements”  instead of editing due to dramatic relevance.
  • The playwright was not in communication with the composers on the music, so he had no idea what the songs were going be like, nor how much time they would add to the play.  The musicians never got a copy of the book, so they were writing music based on the play’s skeleton – a skeleton intentionally lacking the meat of the book because of the above well-meaning, but inaccurate, advice on page length.  The playwright and musicians should have been working together.  And in an ideal situation, the playwright himself would have been the one to select his composer – not have them handed to him to know only from a distance.  Thankfully, everyone seems to have gotten along and to feel good about the partnership – but the holes in communication led to these first-time composers attempting to write music to a first-time playwright’s script without anyone on hand to help clarify the process/structure of writing a musical and to guide them all towards a solid and compelling script/score.
  • The Director does NOT get to rewrite your script.  Ever.  Unfortunately, the time constraints on the promised/scheduled performance last year led to a general surrender of the script to “the director’s vision”.  When I stepped on board this summer, I was dismayed to find out that the playwright felt a lack of ownership of his own material.  I understand that last summer’s director was trying to make the play work – a play that wasn’t ready for production but “had” to go on regardless – but it breaks my playwright heart to know he thought that last summer’s experience was the norm and that he did not want to put his playwright hat back on because of it.   I’m currently doing my best to give him the specific notes he asked for (this playwright admittedly doesn’t use the same playwright language I use, and has told me to be as specific as possible) with complete frankness that HE is the final say on any suggested script changes.  I’ve also made it very clear that the changes I’m suggesting are 90% straight out of his book – so that I’m mostly just asking him to bring over the delightful characterizations and dialogue present in the book.  My hope is that the nature of this summer’s revision process will leave him happier about the script and happier about being a playwright.
  • The composers were not given any lessons in musical theater or how to structure their songs.  They’ve created some lovely music for the play in spite of this, and it’s been wonderful to work with them on adding in some musical staples such as an “I want” song for our main character, a more thematically impactful closing number, and presenting the problems/world of our play in an opening number that gets our audience excited to be there.  I’ve ultimately asked them to draft 3 new numbers and to look at pairing down/tweaking some of the others, and they’re well on their way to making them all awesome.
  • Last summer’s show did not have a musical director.  The composers who were also the musicians were also the musical directors.  Yikes!  Talk about spread thin.  Actors need a dedicated musical director to help them understand the music and sing it to the best of their ability.   Musicians need a musical director to bridge the musician/actor divide.  The Musical Director is there to support the singers and the musicians – and having one on board now is making every musical step a little easier.  As I am dramaturging the play and music, our musical director is helping to do the same with the score and structure of that score.  It’s awesome.

I know that this may not be the most gripping of blog posts, but it’s a big part of what’s been on my creative plate lately and I’m sure it’s not the only project undergoing bumps due to a lack of dramaturgical support.   There is a lot of room for collaborative creationism in the larger circles of theatrical professionals, but in the smaller outer rings a few too many inexperienced chefs in the kitchen can lead to much heartburn and grief.

The people involved in this particular small-town-project really want to have a great show (and I’m confident they will)!  But it’s been frustrating to see how frustrating the process was for them last year, and the relevance of their experiences might impact someone else out there who is determinedly working on a new play sans dramaturgical support – in which case, I say this: Do yourself a favor and get the support!  Writing is one thing, but writing in a pressure cooker of impending production and too many cooks is entirely another.  Don’t let just anyone lead you along the road to production – passion and dedication are 50% of the equation, but know-how, skill, and time make up the rest.  If you’ve got the location and you’ve got the money, don’t short change yourself on the material or the people helping you to birth it.

And don’t lose sight of your role and rights as playwright, composer, or lyrcisist. If you have questions about what those rights are, visit the Dramatists Guild website.

~Tiffany Antone

2 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, June 8, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    Actually it WAS a pretty gripping blog post — thanks for posting it!!

  • By Robin Byrd, June 9, 2013 @ 8:40 am

    Lovely!

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