Are We There Yet? or How Long Does it Take to Write a Musical? (Part I)

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com
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“What are you working on these days?”
“My musical about the octopus who falls in love with a sea lion.”
“You’re still working on that?”
(Long pause. Grinding of teeth. A sip of wine.)
“YES. I’M STILL WORKING ON THAT.”
 

This is the type of conversation I dread at dinner parties.  People who don’t write musicals (or plays, or books for that matter) – well-meaning though they may be – don’t understand what a long, arduous process it is to birth a new show.  You can’t blame them, really.  How could they?  And in a world where I can tell you the temperature in Barcelona in about 30 seconds, it can seem like musical theatre writers are artsy-fartsy dinosaurs who didn’t get the memo.  It’s more than a little insane what we do, ja?

My collaborator Tom Gualtieri and I met at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop over seven years ago.  Working with Tom has been, by far, my most fruitful collaboration.  We “get” each other and know how to make room for each other’s gifts.  We have similar literary tastes and truly enjoy writing together, a process that continues to evolve.

Ask me how many shows we’ve written.  Go ahead.

One full length four-character chamber musical entitled FALLING TO EARTH.  You can read about it here.

Yes, in our seven years of working together, we’ve only completed one musical.  And it hasn’t even been produced (though we had a wonderful five-week workshop at Syracuse University’s SU Play Workshop in January, 2009 and a subsequent reading at The York  Theatre the following fall).  Seven years, and not one produced musical to our credit.

Now, we’ve also written some incidental songs (most notably for the wonderful After The Storm Foundation – you can listen to the song here).  We started work on a musical adaptation of THE HEIRESS, but are still trying to obtain the stage rights.  We also began working on a musical entitled MY FIRST FIVE HUSBANDS with the luminous Rue McClanahan before her passing.  And we just started writing a new show we successfully negotiated the stage rights to called I’M AFRAID, YOU’RE AFRAID: 448 REASONS TO FEAR AND WHY.

We’ve done other things, too.  We perform opposite each other in my two one-act plays, BAIT n’ SWISH.  Tom is currently performing his highly entertaining (the NY Times’ words) and certifiably brilliant (my words) solo adaptation of MACBETH, entitled THAT PLAY.  We presented two sessions and performed at the MTNA/NATS Conference in March, 2011.  We’ve performed on Atlantis Events Cruises together.  We’re busy.

If it seems like I’m making some sort of case for ourselves, I am.  You see, this is what writers go through all the time.  We feel as if we have to explain why we don’t have a hit on Broadway yet.  What we do isn’t tangible, like building a house or making a business deal.  It’s not tangible, that is, until it’s in front of an audience and people buy the soundtrack (Excuse me. Download the soundtrack from iTunes or Amazon).  In the meantime, we bang our heads against a wall, try to explain why the process takes so long and pray someone (namely a producer) will see our little musical and tell us it’s worth something.

Is this all news to you?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But just to hit the point home, in the next several posts we’re going to feature writers and the production history of their show so you can get a better sense of how difficult it is to do what we do.

Masi Asare – SYMPATHY JONES

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Masi from the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop.  Tom, Masi and I were all accepted into the BMI Workshop the same year.  Her work is very worthy of attention.  Here’s her biography:

Masi Asare is a New York-based composer/lyricist. Her secret agent musical SYMPATHY JONES, book by Brooke Pierce) premiered at NYMF in 2007 and is published by Playscripts. Other projects: the rock show THE BEST with experimental collective Anonymous Ensemble, presented in NYC and internationally, and some sixty songs for Kidstock Theatre in the Boston area. She is a past Dramatists Guild Fellow, an alumna of the ASCAP, New Dramatists, and BMI workshops, and holds degrees from Harvard and NYU Tisch.

I asked Masi to give me a “just the facts” production history.  Here it is.

SYMPATHY JONES

Development & Production History

  • June 2005: Reading (excerpts), BMI Workshop, NYC
  • June 2006: Act I Reading, The Dramatists Guild, NYC
  • December 2006: Act II Reading, Ripley-Grier Studios, NYC
  • May 2007: Reading (excerpts), BMI Master Class with Richard Maltby & David Shire, BMI Workshop, NYC
  • September 24 – October 4, 2007: Production (world premiere), New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), Julia Miles Theatre, NYC
  • August 2008: Table Read of Revised Draft, Ripley-Grier Studios, NYC
  • April 2009: Reading, Litehouse Series, Encore Theater Company, Dayton OH
  • November 2009: Production, State High Thespians, State College, PA
  • December 2009: Production, State High Thespians, Pennsylvania State Thespians Conference, York, PA
  • April 2010: Reading, ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, NYC, with Stephen Schwartz, Lynn Ahrens, Marcy Heisler
  • May 2010: Classroom Production, Springfield Township High School, Springfield Township, PA
  • June 2010: Production (mainstage), State High Thespians, National Thespians Conference, Lincoln, NE
  • September 2010: Concert (excerpts), ASCAP Songwriter Showcase, with Ted Chapin, New World Stages, New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), NYC
  • August 2011: Workshop and Reading, Dramatists Guild of America/Ripley-Grier Studios, NYC
  • January 2012: Production, Everett High School Drama Club, Everett, WA
  • February 2012: Recording Sessions, New York Studio Cast, Uptime Studios, New York, NY
  • June 2012: Publication of script and score with orchestrations, Playscripts, Inc.

Based on the above, I had a couple questions for Masi.

It looks like you’ve been steadily working on the show since June, 2005. What’s been the most difficult thing about seeing the show to it’s “completion?”

After a while, it can take a little effort to make sure you’re not getting bored with the project, since it can just take so long. Fortunately, my bookwriter collaborator Brooke and I never got tired of the idea for the show–we always thought that a secret agent musical was a fun and funny idea to work on, and we kept ourselves amused through the years of revisions because we loved the characters and the world of it so much. Because after a while it becomes a little mechanical, the things you have to fix are technical problems…how can we make this song do more dramatic work, how can we intercut this scene into the song so the flow is better, that kind of thing. I was always the one saying…ooh, what about an underwater scuba ballet (nixed, sadly)…let’s have a big fight scene here with all the evil agents (and so we do, late in Act II). The other thing is that this was really my first full-length show, and I think you have to get through that process before you even understand what it means to develop a show. I’m excited to work on my next show because I’ve learned so much…the next one has to be quicker, right?

Do you have any trunk songs from writing the show [trunk songs are songs that were written for the musical but later discarded]?  

Oh so many. One of my favorites was a song called “Pretend” where our heroine Sympathy gets ready to go out into the field as an undercover agent for the first time…it’s about how sometimes you don’t quite feel up to the job, but if you just pretend that you’re fabulous then you will be. A good, old-fashioned type of show tune, with the twist that it had a Brazilian samba feel. It worked really well in the high school performances that were part of our development process. But at the ASCAP workshop, Lynn Ahrens (rightly) pointed out that your lead can only have one I Want song…and Sympathy already has hers earlier in the show. Another song that survived many, many drafts was a song for the villainous Kitty Hawk and her henchman Tick Tock called “Serve the Orphans,” where they are hosting a benefit party on the pretense of raising money for orphans, when they really plan to use the cash for their own nefarious purposes. The song has been brilliantly and hilariously performed by many a villainess in our developmental process, but it was always a little confusing (who are the orphans? why are there orphans in the show? how are they going to be served? are we going to eat them? etc.). So just before we finalized the show I rewrote the number and I think it’s a much better villain number, called “Don’t Cross Kitty.”

Original book musicals (not based on preexisting material) are notoriously challenging to write.  What was the biggest dramaturgical challenge in writing the show?

It’s funny, everyone always tells musical theatre writers that it’s so hard to write an original show–it’s probably smarter to stick with adaptations. But no one says that to playwrights! I sort of have a thing about original musicals. I think it’s important to think about stories that no one has ever told before, and how those stories can live as musicals. I also think it’s very important for songwriters to collaborate with playwrights. Playwrights never have a hard time thinking of interesting, unexpected situations and characters. But, in any case, I think one of the biggest challenges with this show was the fast pace of the spy genre and how to make that work in a musical theatre format. Suspenseful stories have a lot of forward motion, it’s not really the kind of thing where you want to sit back and listen to a song if the song feels static or in a place of “rest.” So figuring out how the songs would always be driving forward, doing dramatic work, moving the story along, as Lynn Ahrens put it: “telescoping through the plot”…that was one of the things I worked on the most.

Tell us about the work involved in getting SYMPATHY JONES licensed.

This was almost magically straightforward. I ran into one of the founders of Playscripts, Doug Rand, at a college reunion. I actually mistook him for an actor (embarrassing), but then we remembered that we had worked together in an off-off Broadway context a few years back. I told him about my show, and he was impressed that it was receiving a number of productions, especially that it had been selected as one of 10 shows nationally to be performed at the National Thespians Conference for thousands of high school students. He checked out the show’s website, we had lunch, he said “Playscripts would like to license your show.” I think it’s a draw for them that high schools are interested in the show. Playscripts has really great ties to the high school market, and they are just starting to put more musicals in their catalogue. I went to see a production of the show at a high school near Seattle last winter, and it’s amazing to see high school students pour the same amount of dedication into learning your show as one of the masterpieces like Guys and Dolls or The Sound of Music, or any other “spring musical.”It’s kind of humbling.

Oh, and as part of finalizing everything for publication, Jason Loffredo, who had music directed a couple of workshops for us, orchestrated the full revised score for a 6-piece band. That was so exciting, just to have everything fully orchestrated and beautifully laid out. I cried when I got my author’s copy in the mail from Playscripts. Not sure I should admit to that, but I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it looked.

How long did it take to put together the cast recording?

The cast recording feels like it took years of my life but we actually put it together in a matter of months. I am so grateful to the artists who performed so brilliantly on our little indie album, sort of a concept album for the show. Kate Shindle in particular is any songwriter’s dream performer. But there are so many actors whom we have loved working with…over 80 actors and other artists contributed to the development of the show, from Tony-nominated stars to actors who are still in college. I am so thankful to all of them. Everyone who ever performed material from the show in a developmental workshop or demo recording is listed on the “Glitterati” page of the Sympathy Jones website.

What else do you want to tell people about the process of writing a musical?

Pick something to write about that you actually, honestly care about. The songs you write are sort of like stars…they capture who you are in a certain moment in your life and how you think about things…It can take so long for the light to cross the galaxy and reach people that when they do hear your songs, it’s like they’re seeing the light from who you were several years ago. I feel that way about some of the songs in Sympathy Jones. “Maybe if I were writing that number now, I would write it a little differently.” But I believe that as long as you do your best to write for the character, and as long as you are honest about who you are and what you care about in the moment, your songs will always have something truthful to say. Even if it takes them a little time to reach other people.

So, there you have it.  Three writers.  Two shows.  Several years and many, many rewrites later.

Incidentally, the cast album for SYMPATHY JONES was recently released!  You can find it on iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby and www.sympathyjones.com.  Check it out!

Does this mean musical theatre writers are looking for special treatment?  No, not really (although we do appreciate a pat on the back once in a while).  We just want the world to understand that we’re not sitting back and eating bon-bons when we say we’re working on our musical.  We’re busy creating alternate realities.  Stories that will move you.  Characters that will teach you something about yourself you never knew before.  Our work isn’t done there, though.  Then we have to figure out how to get it in the hands of someone who’ll actually listen to it.  Oh, and did I mention it has to rhyme and come in under 2 hours and 45 minutes (max… preferably 80 minutes with no intermission)?

Stay tuned for more insights into how long it takes to write a musical.  In the meantime, reach out to a writer you know.  Tell them whatever they’re working on is of value.  And to take their time.  And that you’ll wait.

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