Last week, we discussed the challenges involved with writing a musical. Every show encounters its own unique issues. Here are two more teams of writers sharing their valuable experiences.HARMONY, KANSAS Music: Anna K. Jacobs Book & Lyrics: Bill Nelson
With a lively, soulful score, Harmony, Kansas tells the story of Heath, a gay farmer making his way in a rural community where it pays to blend in. When his city-born partner, Julian, talks him into joining a spirited group of gay guys who meet once a week to sing, Heath discovers a love for making music and a kinship he didn’t expect. But his world is turned upside down when the group considers performing in public, threatening everything that matters to him, including the life he’s made with the man he loves.
May, 2008 – We started talking about the idea of a show about a gay men’s chorus, and that we were going to put it in a rural setting. We began research on gay farmers in the Midwest.
August, 2008 – Anna, who grew up in Australia, went with Bill to the Midwest where we took a road trip around western Kansas so she could get a feel for the landscape and people to influence the music.
Fall, 2008–Summer, 2009 – We wrote three songs and a few scenes to explore possibilities for the sound/feel/themes of the show. Two of the songs, though morphed a lot, are still a part of it.
Fall, 2009 – Based on a story outline we created, Bill wrote an extremely rough pass of the whole book, so we could have something to look at, tear apart, put back together.
January & June, 2010 – We were part of CAP21’s Writer’s Residency, which allowed time and space to dissect the rough book together and go back to research. We examined themes, character profiles, story arc, etc.
June, 2010 – The resulting draft received a table read.
November, 2010 – We spent two weeks at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA (thanks to a NAMT Writers Residency Grant) implementing major changes required by changing who our protagonist was.
February 22, 2011 – Our first full reading by Singing Onstage Productions, NYC (directed by Richard Biever)
January 13, 2012 – A second reading at Goodspeed’s Festival of New Artists, East Haddam, CT (directed by James Vasquez)
June 14–July 22, 2012 – World premiere production: Diversionary Theatre, San Diego. Directed by James Vasquez (5 SCENIE Awards including Best World Premiere Musicals)
David: Can you talk about some of the changes you made between the reading at Singing Onstage and Goodspeed?
Bill: The Singing Onstage reading showed us that we had a story and characters people cared about. It also showed us that how we were telling the story—the theatrical devices being used, etc.—weren’t serving us as well as they could be. We merged two characters into one much more interesting character. We cut one character entirely. Anna saw that music had the potential to do much more of the story-telling work and devised a plan to create a more integrated piece.
Anna: The reading also helped us recognize that the most exciting and authentic aspect of our score was the ensemble singing. Not surprising really for a show titled “Harmony, Kansas,” still it took me a whole draft to realize that. So for Goodspeed we sought out more opportunities to feature the ensemble as a unit.
David: How involved were you with the rehearsal process at the Diversionary Theatre? Did you make any changes to the show during that time?
Bill: We were at every rehearsal and made huge changes while we were there—re-writing the entire subplot, writing a new song, giving one character’s song to someone else, re-structuring large sections, etc. Our focus was making the story as streamlined as possible and making sure it stayed buoyant. Every single page was reworked in some way.
Anna: It was a treat to be in the rehearsal room each day with our cast. For the first time, I was also able to take a magnifying glass to the vocal arrangements and find ways to make them work better for the stage. I’d go home and rearrange a song, then the very next day I’d get to hear it performed by seven glorious voices.
David: You wrote this show in a relatively short amount of time. Do you both tend to work fast, or did your passion for the material spur you both on?
Bill: Several things keep me energized about this project—definitely passion for the material, a sense of wanting to tell the tale of people who’s stories aren’t told, the positive feedback from audiences in all the steps along the way. And one of the many great things about Anna K. Jacobs is that when she sets out to accomplish something, she stays focused and motivated. Having a partner with relentless drive is very helpful on the days when nothing seems to be going right.
Anna: On occasion we’d take ourselves off to a friend’s farmhouse in Connecticut and write for a solid week or two. That kind of immersion is priceless; when you spend every day with your characters, they practically wind up writing themselves.
Anna K. Jacobs wrote the music for POP! (3 CT Critics Circle Awards; 7 Helen Hayes Award nominations), Harmony, Kansas (4 SCENIE Awards), and Stella and the Moon Man (Helpmann Award). Her songs have been showcased in concert at Uncharted: Anna K. Jacobs (Ars Nova, 2012) and Thank Goodness for Ramone: The Songs of Anna K. Jacobs (Darlinghurst Theatre, 2008). Her musicals have been produced by Yale Rep, Pittsburgh City Theatre, Studio Theatre, Diversionary Theatre, and the Sydney Theatre Company/Theatre of Image. 2010-11 Dramatists Guild Fellow; M.F.A. Musical Theatre Writing, NYU-Tisch. Anna is currently adapting the cult horror film, Teeth. www.annakjacobs.com
Bill Nelson wrote book and lyrics for Harmony, Kansas (5 SCENIE Awards) and Bill Nelson’s All-Male Revue—conceived by William Finn. His songs have been presented at cabarets around the world, including Finn’s Songs by Ridiculously Talented Composers and New York Theatre Barn’s The Oh, So Sexy Songs of Bill Nelson. In Kansas City, his theatre company produced his works. He’s penned scripts for Imagination Studio and Heartland Men’s Chorus. He’s a published lyricist, 2010/11 Dramatists Guild Fellow, and member of the BMI Worskshop. M.F.A. Musical Theatre Writing, NYU-Tisch. Bill is currently writing a new musical with Will Aronson. www.BillNelsonBillNelson.com
—————-SAINT-EX Music: Jenny Giering Book & Lyrics: Sean Barry
“Saint-Ex” is a musical journey through the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French author and aviator. In the 1920s, Saint-Exupéry was one of the pioneering members of the Aéropostale, the air-mail company that opened delivery from France to Dakar. Over the following decade, they would conquer the skies of South America and establish the first trans-Atlantic mail delivery service. Saint-Exupéry became famous in the 1930s for his books about this heroic era of flight. Yet his most famous book, The Little Prince, was written on Long Island, where Saint-Exupéry found himself in exile during the Nazi occupation of France. On July 31, 1944, only weeks before the end of the war in France, Saint-Exupéry flew from Sardinia on a mission to photograph the Nazi positions near Annecy and was never heard from again. Saint-Ex is an evocative exploration of the fierce intellect and profound sensitivity of a soul who gave his life fighting for his home and beliefs.
- 2008 Writers’ Retreat at TheatreWorks/Palo Alto
- 2008 Sundance Theatre Institute Program’s White Oak Residency
- 2009 Workshop at TheatreWorks/Palo Alto
- 2010 29-hour Reading & Presentation/NYC & Weston Playhouse, Weston, VT (2010 New Musical Award)
- 2012 Script development at the Collaborative Arts Project, New York, NY
- 2012 39-hour Reading & Presentation at The York Theater (upcoming, December 17)
- 2011 World Premiere Production at the Weston Playhouse, Weston, VT
Jenny: What it doesn’t tell you is that we began the project in 2005 when I was looking for a new project. Sean told me the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupery and although he’dnever written a word for the stage, I asked if he’d write it with me. We wrote one song,which was dreadful, and put the idea in a box for ﬁve years.
Sean: Jenny’s absolutely right: it was awful, at least from the standpoint of the lyrics and content. I tried to write the entire show in four stanzas. Not advisable, I’ve since learned. Musically, however, the theme that Jenny crafted for that ﬁrst song lingers in the piece as underscoring…Nothing’s for naught, I suppose!
David: What made you pick up the project again?
Sean: A couple of things made us pick up the project. The first was that Kent Nicholson, who was then the Director of New Works at TheatreWorks Palo Alto, was open to the idea of Jenny bringing me out along with her on the Writers’ Retreat. Jenny had already done some work at TheatreWorks on a couple of other pieces and had begun to forge a relationship there, so Kent was willing to take a chance on us and the piece, despite my lack of experience in musical theatre. That was the concrete reason for our resuming work.
The personal reason for our picking up the piece again was that something about this story really had a hold on us—its aspects of heroism and passion, its sweep and grandeur. There was so much to it, so much that hadn’t been told in this form, that it really begged for a full treatment. Thanks to Kent and the folks at TheatreWorks, we were afforded the opportunity to take a first crack at the work, and the rest, as they say, is theatre history.
David: What’s been the most difficult part of writing this project from a craft point of view and a logistical point of view?
Sean: From a craft point of view, the most difficult part of the project has been whittling down the stuff of biography to the stuff of theatre. Biographical works face an inherent challenge, which is to reduce the vastness of a life into a shape and frame that’s suitable for the constraints of the theatre. Life simply isn’t clean & linear, with obvious arcs & struggles, & the challenge is to lose what’s inessential in the telling while retaining something essential about the life. When dealing with a life as rich & compelling as Saint-Exupéry’s, that challenge is all the more acute. We’re fond of saying that Saint-Exupéry was half moral philosopher & half Indiana Jones, which is about as concise a summary as one can provide of the life (& which is totally unhelpful from the standpoint of writing the play). Ultimately, we found a way to focus the show on the tension between Saint-Exupéry’s life as a pilot and his life as a lover—between the guys & the wife, in essence—a choice which afforded us the opportunity to portray much of the breadth & intensity of his life without getting lost along the way.
From a logistical point of view, the most difficult part has been rewriting. That’s always the case with any piece, I think—finding the will & wherewithal to cut things that you’ve worked incredibly hard on perfecting. If scenes or characters or songs don’t serve the interest of the piece, they need to go. I’m not sure that that’s the sort of logistical challenge you had in mind, but that’s what popped into my head. In terms of practical logistics, the hardest part has been finding that second production. Any ideas?
David: Tell us about your time at Theatre Works/Palo Alto and the White Oak Residency. How were those two experiences similar and different?
Jenny: Working with both of these organizations was an absolute joy. What they both provided us was unstructured developmental time with a bevy of actors and the full support of their staff. The difference lies in the uniquenesss of the White Oak experience. Even when you develop work out of town, the real world tends to creep in – whether it’s working around the schedules of local actors, or leaving the rehearsal space to have dinner in town, or having to return to your apartment to make a meal. At White Oak, you and everyone affiliated with your show is sequestered on a 72,000 acre plantation. And without a car, you can’t leave. And, really, you wouldn’t want to because it’s so exquisitely beautiful – kind of like Fantasy Island. The staff makes your bed, prepares your meals & pours you a much needed cocktail at the end of the day. White-attired attendants even brought me cappucinos when they thought I looked tired. It seems silly to say, but having the luxury not to think about all these day to day things really made a difference in our capacity to focus on the work. Sean & I regularly worked 14 hours at a stretch & rewrote the entire show several times during our two week stay.
David: How are you prepping for the forthcoming reading at the York Theatre in December?
Jenny: Really, we’ve been preparing for our next developmental step since we froze the show in Weston, VT last summer. Once we saw the show on its feet, we realized what we needed to fix and started making changes, even though we had no idea when we’d have an opportunity to see a new draft on its feet. Last fall, Frank & Eliza Ventura at Cap21 invited us to be writers-in-residence & afforded us several cold table readings of successive drafts. When the York opportunity materialized, we were prepared with a significantly revised draft and five new songs. At this point, we’ve frozen our current draft as we feel we can go no further without seeing the work on some actors. Luckily, our entire cast (except for one), director, and music director from the Weston Production will be with us for the York reading; so we will start with a tremendous leg up. Beyond that, we are cross-checking script & score, making sure they match up. I suppose the general wringing of hands & pacing around will begin in the next month or so as the reading looms closer and closer.
Sean Barry is a writer of fiction, poetry, and theatre. He wrote the book and lyrics for Saint-Ex, which was selected by the Sundance Institute for the 2008 Theatre Lab at White Oak, awarded the 2010 Weston Playhouse New Musical Award, and received a 2011 NEA grant and a NAMT New Musical Development award. Saint-Ex premiered in August, 2011 at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT.
Jenny Giering’s currrent projects include a commission for Playwrights Horizons, and a new musical based on the life of Maggie & Kate Fox with Sean Barry & Laura Eason. She wrote the score for Saint-Ex, which premiered at the Weston Playhouse in August 2011. Jenny’s awards include the Jonathan Larson Award, the Klinsky Prize from Second Stage and the National Art Song prize. Jenny’ s solo album, Look for Me, is available at www.jennygiering.com.
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