“The Clearwaters” – Chasing Our Sound

We’re thrilled to have as today’s guest bloggers, the songwriting team of Sara Wordsworth and Russell Kaplan.  

Russ working with Oklahoma University Musical Theatre head Harold Mortimer and band

Musical Theatre writers – in spite of the challenges we face – are definitely lucky in the department of respect amongst our music-making peers. While good songcraft is certainly appreciated in the worlds of jazz, pop and elsewhere, no other musical circle in our experience focuses so much on the skills and voice of writers as the world of Musical Theatre. This philosophy is certainly flattering to the writer, and obviously beneficial to encouraging the development of good musicals. However, there can be an unexpected flipside to this focus on craft, and that’s the sacrifice of sound in a show’s early development.

In 2016, we opened our long-gestating a cappella musical In Transit on Broadway (with our two co-writers Kristen Anderson Lopez and James-Allen Ford). During the run we had the pleasure of reconnecting with our dear friend Shawn Churchman, the director of our a cappella group’s early 2000’s cabaret show Along The Way (which would evolve into In Transit many years later).  Shawn, a seasoned director and writer himself, has been on faculty at the University of Oklahoma Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre for several years (lucky them!), and asked if we had a new piece that would benefit from a workshop with his students.  We jumped at the opportunity, as we’d been working on a rock musical with playwright Daniel John Kelley that was ready for the next level.

And so off we went this past March for two weeks of “playwright fantasy camp.” Get up, write, eat breakfast, write, maybe remember to eat lunch, write, email new material to the cast at the last minute, eat dinner, and then try it all out at nightly rehearsals with unbelievably talented young performers. And do it again. This level of immersion sounds so obviously necessary to really get your show into shape, but the opportunities to do it are rarer than rare, especially in an environment with no final pressures other than the creative ones you put on yourself.

But there was one resource that the Oklahoma program provided which even some of the fanciest development programs normally can’t…a band. And WOW, what a difference it made. Our new show has a full-on rock guitar score, and while we thought we knew our material during our piano-only rehearsals, the difference once the band got into the room was like night and day. The common wisdom is that the “bones” of a song should be so sturdy that it can and should survive any sonic treatment.  But music – even theatre music – is not just about the writing (we know, blasphemy). Our new show is simply not a piano musical. For the first time we were able to fully experience the world we’d created through the full musical landscape we’d only had in our heads. And after seeing and hearing the piece with its true intended sound, our characters and story have become deeper, grittier, kind of sexier, and more specific.
Daniel, Sara & Russ with Harold Mortimer, Director Shawn Churchman, and the cast
Many shows are served wonderfully by solo piano, and if you have the option of workshopping that way, then please take it! But if you know from the onset that you have a different soundscape you’re going to be dealing with, if the sound and texture is a character in your piece, then you owe it to yourself to chase that sound as soon as you can. We know resources are often limited to do so…but it never hurts to ask!

Not all new musical-magic happens in a fancy studio at New42 or at a professional production’s sitzprobe.  Ours happened in a little classroom/rehearsal studio in Norman, Oklahoma. We’re so grateful to have had this opportunity to not only hone the words on the page, but also the full sonic experience of our show at this early stage.  And bonus- we somehow found time to play with bows and arrows at the Norman Medieval Faire, eat the best mac and cheese at Ray’s BBQ, drive what we called a “monster truck” (really an SUV but it was a monster to us), visit the American Banjo Museum, and consume large amounts of queso and the legendary OU beverage, “The Sooner Swirl” with our cast. They’re really yummy.

Russ & Sara with playwright Daniel John Kelley at Ray’s BBQ. The best.

Check out our new book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.


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