The Show That Got Away: The Sometimes Insurmountable Forces Against a New Musical

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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It’s the bane of every writer: that moment when you’re asked what you’re working on at a cocktail party. Inevitably, a well-meaning but completely clueless acquaintance chimes in, “You’re still working on that??” as if to suggest that, instead of sculpting a new work that will entertain and hopefully provide some transcendence to those who see it, you’ve been home in front of the “boob tube” watching a marathon of Mad Men while double-fisting Pillsbury cookie dough and Doritos.

I swear that’s the image they have in their little pointed heads. “What a great life they must have,” they ponder before returning to their conversation on Obamacare or the whether or not global warming is a “real thing.”

So, if you don’t know what’s involved in writing a musical, I’m going to tell you more than you would ever want to know. Below is a written history of the musicals I’ve written with my collaborator, Tom Gualtieri. This is not shared with a side of sour grapes – it’s just the facts, ma’am. I hope it will show you a number of ways one can run into walls while trying to create a musical.  For those with a strong constitution, read on.

David Sisco (left), Tom Gualtieri (right)
David Sisco (left), Tom Gualtieri (right)

THE HEIRESS

Tom and I met at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in September, 2003. We immediately took a liking to each other’s work and sealed the deal as collaborators when we were paired to write the infamous Willy Lohman song assignment in our first year.

In the second year of the workshop, writers are asked to pair up and pick the a book or play to adapt into a musical. Tom introduced me to Ruth & Augustus Goetz’s stunning play THE HEIRESS, based on Henry James’ novel “Washington Square.” It was a perfect stylistic fit for us and it turned out one of our colleagues was friends with the Goetz family. Fantastic!

Tom and I diligently worked on the show for a year, mapping out both acts and tackling most the songs in the first act. We poured over books on the history of New York at the time, went to Washington Square to see where The Slopers might have lived and even read James’ book (I know that doesn’t sound impressive, but have you ever read James? He takes five pages to describe the clouds. And “Washington Square” is a breeze compared to his later works).

At the end of the year, each writing team presented twenty minutes of material from their show as an audition for entry into the Advanced workshop. We saw this as a perfect opportunity to connect with the Goetz estate and hopefully begin talking about negotiating the rights.

The good news: we were asked to be part of the Advanced Workshop. The bad news: we haven’t yet received the rights to adapt THE HEIRESS into a musical. The Goetz estate was very nice and we continue to pursue the rights.  In the meantime, we’ve moved onto other projects.

You can listen to a song from our adaptation of THE HEIRESS here.

FALLING TO EARTH

Our next project was FALLING TO EARTH, a contemporary adaptation of the Pygmalion myth, which we started in 2005. Tom had been working on the script and invited me to a reading of the first act. I loved it, and it seemed a smart project to work on from the standpoint there were no rights to obtain and the chamber musical boasted a cast of four, a producer’s dream.

I initially started working as the show’s composer with Tom as lyricist and bookwriter. Eventually we morphed to sharing the bookwriting credit, finding a wonderfully even distribution of work that fully engaged us. While THE HEIRESS solidified our collaboration, FALLING TO EARTH gave us a new voice. The show’s themes – which include the challenge of making art and the way human beings struggle to make room for each other in romantic relationships – spoke to us and we found a unique lyrical and musical sound for the show.

We had much more luck with FALLING TO EARTH. We received an Anna Sosenko grant to support our writing, did a five-week workshop of the show as part of Syracuse University’s stellar New Play Workshop and were part of the York Theatre’s Developmental Reading Series.

The good news: every reading made the piece stronger and we’re pleased with where the show is. The bad news: we couldn’t get producers to any of our public readings.

No matter how hard we tried to get “the right people” to come see our work, we struck out. After showing it to an agent, we were told the work wasn’t his kind of thing. Fair enough. But we heard that a lot. Things like: the music was too intricate, the lyrics were too poetic (even though we don’t agree with those criticisms, nor do those who believe in the show).  It was frustrating, especially knowing we found our voice through this piece.  Eventually, we decided to take a break from the show.  Recently, we went back and did some rewrites on the first act and hope to garner interest in the show this coming season.

You can listen to a song from FALLING TO EARTH here.

MY FIRST FIVE HUSBANDS

Picture it. Staples. 184th/Broadway. Me at the copy machine, trying to make a mad dash for a rehearsal. This guy comes up to me.  Below is a rough transcription of our conversation along with my thought process…

HIM: You’re a musician.
     [I look at him as I lick my finger to turn the page of the score I’m copying.]
ME: Yes.
HIM: What do you do?
ME: I sing, play piano and compose.
HIM: Great!  I’m a producer.
     [You’re a producer and you live in Washington Heights.  Yeah, OK.]
ME: That’s nice.
HIM: Do you know Rue McClanahan?
     [Who doesn’t know who Rue McClanahan?!]
ME: Yes, I’m familiar with her.
HIM: I’m producing a new musical based on her book.
     [And my name is Liza with a Z.]
ME: Interesting.
HIM: We’re looking for an arranger and orchestrator.  Would you be interested?
ME: Sure.  Here’s my card.
HIM: Great!  I’ll give you a ring.
ME: Nice to meet you.

I left and didn’t give it a second thought.  A couple days later, I heard from the producer, and it turned out everything he said was true.

We had breakfast at our local diner and he shared with me the opening number for Rue’s forthcoming show, MY FIRST FIVE HUSBANDS, based on her wonderful autobiography of the same title.  I was given a small amount of money to create a fully realized arrangement and orchestration of the number, which I then performed in from of Blanche Devereaux herself (I hate to admit that somewhere there’s actually a video of that performance – it may someday be released as part of a documentary, God help me).

After the performance, Rue asked me what I thought of the opening number.  “Be honest,” she said.  I explained that the song struck me as not true to her personal voice.  She agreed and said, “Which is why we wanted to ask you if you’d be interested in auditioning for us to be the write the show.”

I ecstatically called Tom with the news.  He met the producer and we set out on writing a song on spec.  We met Rue’s hairdresser – who had a lovely tenor voice – and were given a list of celebrities they each had worked with over the years.  We were asked to create a song sharing some scintillating gossip about their colleagues.

Tom and I came to the conclusion that Rue wasn’t a gossip.  She was a flirt, yes, but not a gossip.  We decided to share tidbits about certain people she worked with, but never say who it was or, conversely, say who she worked with, but not tell the juicy story.  This seemed to perfectly fit her personality.

We performed “I’ll Never Tell” for Rue and the producer at her home and they adored it.  As a bonus, I also wrote a special arrangement of “Thank You for Being a Friend” for Rue to sing as an encore.  Tears flowed.  Hugs were exchanged.  This was it for Tom and I: our first big Broadway show!

We were in contract negotiations when we got the news: Rue suffered a major stroke.  The project halted.  Sadly, she never recovered and died the following June.

Rue McClanahan was quite possibly the warmest and most hospitable celebrity we’ve ever met.  As we got to know her, she invited Tom and I over for barbecue, introduced us to her friends, made us homemade cookies, let us hold her Emmy.  Please indulge me as I share my favorite Rue story:

We’re getting ready to leave after a lovely meal. I bend down to hug Rue (I’m 6’4”, she was… well, much shorter).  She asked me, “How much do you weight?”  I said, “About 174 pounds.  She said, “I weigh 175,” and I quipped, “Then I weigh 176!”  She smiled and said in that voice we all came to love, “I like you…”

We miss Rue.  We were excited about the project, but were more excited to get to know this stellar human being.

I’M AFRAID, YOU’RE AFRAID: 448 REASONS TO FEAR AND WHY

In Summer 2000, I was in the Strand Bookshop flipping through paperbacks while on a lunch break from my temp job at Moody’s Investors Service.  I found this quirky book entitled “I’m Afraid, You’re Afraid: 448 Things to Fear and Why.”  The book is an encyclopedia of things to fear with actual statistics to back it up, just to make the reader a little paranoid.  I thought it would make a fun subject for a revue at some point.

Fast forward about ten years: I showed the book to Tom and Laura Josepher, our director, when we were looking for a new project and they loved it.  Away we went!

The hard part was tracking down the author, Melinda Muse, and negotiating the stage rights.  By the time we decided to pursue the project, the book was out of print.  It took us awhile to figure out who Melinda’s agent was and to outline the rights agreement.  Thankfully, it was a completely amicable, if slow, process.  We signed the contract a little under two years ago.

After being interrupted by a couple of other projects, Tom and I recently sent a treatment of the material to Melinda for approval, and she was very pleased with it.  We are now moving forward with the show.  We have plans to finish a rough draft by the end of the summer.

So, that’s one writing team’s story.  Over the next several months, we hope to feature other writer’s stories of “the show that got away.”  We think it’s educational and possibly cathartic.  At the very least, it underscores what a challenging profession this is, and why resources that support contemporary writers and their work are vital to the continued success of this industry.

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One thought on “The Show That Got Away: The Sometimes Insurmountable Forces Against a New Musical

  1. What an exhilerating story on writing a musical and not yet (yet, the key word) getting it produced. As a fellow artist (sculptor/ poet) I completely relate: first of all I LOVE the creativity-passion of Tom and David, the constant flow of energy, desire to create, inspiration… Second off all, I share frustration in how hard it is to “get work out there.” In the visual arts I have the same story with different words. “It’s just not our tastes” was a favorite reject from galleries. And with poetry – when i enter a contast, my manuscript is one of a thousand being read (or not read, maybe the title got read and the first poem…?) however, I too am not speaking with sour grapes. Being an artist is what I am – I create, always have, always will – and fellow artists inspire me and sharing humor over defeat is fantastic. To laugh at the show ( the show being life) and cry in each other’s confidence has made the process amazing. Thank god for NYC which brings together a family of artists… Let’s keep growing together. HUGS

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