Sunday, January 23, 2011

Musical Month Musings

It’s no surprise that the annual musical theatre month is my favorite PlayGround assignment. I am a proud Musical Comedy Queen, and have frequently inserted songs (and even production numbers) into PlayGround Monday Night selections and submissions. My first full-length commission (which is on life support) was a musical, and most of the pool knows my proclivity for show-tunes. For me, the musical month is both freeing AND restrictive. Worse, my love of musicals raises the pressure more than usual. It’s killer. I’ve been nauseous since we got the topic.

This post will be about the process of writing a short musical. I’m not sure that anyone cares about that, but I feel compelled to write so . . . there you go.

Let me start by saying that when we got the guidelines last year, I nearly rebelled. I couldn’t believe that the page number had been shortened (from a paltry ten pages to a miniscule eight). Worse, I was furious that we were restricted to just one song of just one page. When I learned that the song had to be . . . double-spaced . . . I nearly quit the pool. (“What about opera? What about all-music-and-no-dialogue musicals? What about the dance number I wanted to slip in between pages two and three? What about the opening number, the middle number and the closing finale?”)

How the hell was I ever going to be able to comply with these rules?

As a rule – I hate rules. Rules – for me – are made to be broken. So, after I learned about the guidelines, I spent the first forty-eight hours fuming and plotting and having angry, one-sided, imaginary arguments with Jim about the totalitarian restrictions that PlayGround was imposing on its writers. (And don’t even get me going about last year’s topic: Fish Out of Water. Seriously? All I could think of was Esther Williams, but Berkeley Rep doesn’t have a back-stage Olympic-sized pool.)

As the great song says, I was “bewitched, bothered and bewildered.”

But, then . . . but then . . . the better musical angels of my nature took control. I had begged and cajoled for a musical theater month, and I couldn’t walk away from the opportunity just because I was having a Diva-Moment.

Beyond that, there was a (hateful) logic to the rules. Last year, one composer (J. Raul Brody) had only four days to writes six original songs (with multiple parts and harmony). And, reducing the page-count actually did make sense, because a good song does take longer than simple dialogue on the page.

Jim was right. Without some constraints, the night would be a failure.

Then something wonderful happened and it took me by surprise: the restrictions freed me. “Alright,” I said. “If they want eight pages, that’s what they’re gonna get. And, if they want a one-page song, they’re gonna get that, too.”

Suddenly, all of my prior writing problems evaporated. This would be short. (I normally write long.) This would be to-the-point. (I often meander.) This would be simple. (I sometimes write for casts of hundreds, including choruses, cosmic events, gunfire, special effects and intricate sound cues.)

For me, the inspiration came at the gym. It seemed to me that “Fish Out of Water” was a perfect opportunity to explore the first fish-out-of-water moment – when fish swam up on land, sprouted legs, and began the evolutionary conversion to mammals. It also seemed to me that such a moment – such a profound advancement in the development of life – was a perfect subject for a musical. The whole point of musicals, in my view, is to allow us to sing when words can no longer express what we feel. Darwin’s moment of evolutionary explosion was – and still is, in my view – a perfect ‘musical moment.’

From there, everything fell into place. A Wikipedia search taught me that one of the first primordial swamps was in the Catskills. (Perfect!) I also learned that one reason fish may have migrated to land was to escape predators. (Even more perfect! Now, I had an antagonist!) That’s all the research I needed.

And, that’s what I mean when I say that the restrictions can be freeing. When you know the goal is to get to the song (which, in this musical, occurs the moment the protagonist, a yearning, gay Tetrapod, flops on dry land), and when you know you need to do that quickly, writing is easy. You get rid of everything that’s extraneous, focus only on events, lead the characters through those events, and . . . you’re done.*

So – despite my anger and frustration, I found that the Musical Month was the easiest ‘write’ I’ve ever had. It helped me clarify my ideas, get focused, and write a decent (and complete) short musical, The Origin of the Species Showtune.

Thank you, PlayGround, for another gift. That one short play has completely transformed my view of writing musicals.

I can’t wait to get back to work on a full-length musical project.

Next up – what happened THIS year: the Agony and Ecstasy of PlayGround.

* It’s no surprise that the highlight of the evening was Evy Pine’s lovely three-person family play, Back To Earth. It’s a deceptively simple play, about a family, sitting in their living room. But, out of it springs a remarkable sense of questioning, wondering and yearning. Simple is better, especially for a short musical.

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